“We drove that car as far as we could, abandoned it out west…” -Bob Dylan, Tangled up in Blue
I write race reports for two reasons. The first is because one day I want to look back and be reminded what it was like to be “in the arena”, as they say, as I am aware I won’t be in the arena forever. The pain, the joy, the failures, and the successes, they will all be sweet memories when these experiences are truly in the past. The second is because I feel like significant experiences should be shared. As someone who likes to read, there is relevant stuff everywhere, if you are willing to open your eyes. And 100-milers are always significant experiences.
The 2019 Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 was going to be a good race. I just had a feeling. Michelle even had a feeling. I had been as fit and healthy as I’ve ever been, and my running and life have been about as balanced as they get. And I was excited about this race. THE classic VHTRC event! And I’m local. And I’ve paced friends there four years in a row and ran the Old Dominion 100 last year which is at times a nice course preview of MMT. And I actually do love ridiculous rocks and running up waterfalls. I love the raw, old beauty of the Massanutten mountains and Fort Valley. This was going to be a significant race… And it was.
This would be my 6th100-mile race, and after some good ones and some tough ones, I felt like I was starting to learn the ropes a bit, although I’m still in awe of the real veterans out there…like Keith Knipling who somehow was going for his 20thMMT finish. Ok, I’m still a total noob at racing this distance..
Also, different from my prior 5 hundos, I signed up for MMTs “solo division”, where you essentially commit to running the entire race without a crew, pacer, or headphones. The volunteers and aid stations at MMT are so incredible that you hardly need a crew, but still, there is something pure about going all day with only yourself to count on. I had drop bags for mile 33 and mile 70, but otherwise told Michelle I would try to get her some on-course updates. Running “solo” proved to be a crucial point of my suffering on the day, but also crucial on how I actually finished.
So, for my tale of the day, I could certainly talk about…
…having my prerace meal with Keith, Nick Pedatella, and Jacob Curley Friday night..
…sleeping in my car…always the sleeping in cars before races..
…waking up at 2:00am, and having instant coffee with Nick, sitting on my bumper and watching the crazy moon rise over camp..
…singing happy birthday to Ed Cappuccino right before the start of the race. We lost Ed to pancreatic cancer this year..
…getting into a pack with Brian Rusiecki, Jason Lantz, and Nick right from the start and the four of us having way too much fun running together, chatting it up, and making jokes for the first 26 miles…
…how the four of us all live in different parts of the country, but have been bonded together by races, which makes it seem like old times, which is one of the best parts about this sport..
…how hot it would be that day, getting up to 90 degrees with high humidity, full sun, and no temperature relief up high on the ridges. How the heat was indeed the story of the day, causing 50% of the field to drop out of the race..
…how at mile 26, I was feeling great, and easy, and I pulled away from our group and into the lead of the 2019 MMT 100-miler..
…the emotions of running alone and in the lead for the next 60 miles. The “This is so awesome! I got this!” trading places regularly with the “I’m not sure if I can keep this up all day, man I hope no one runs me down, I don’t even know how far ahead I am and who’s behind me!”..
…the strategy I had all day of “keep cool and stay wet”. How I started pouring stream water on my head at 8:30am because it was so hot already. Of how I’m not proud of some of the creek water and even ditch water from the side of the road sections I was pouring on my head all day, but it was working to keep me as cool as possible..
…those two horribly tough and hot 9+ mile sections without aid after Veach and after Habron aid stations. How these sections took us “high and dry” up on mountain ridges, with roasting sun, maddening rocks, and no stream water to cool down with. How these were the sections that really did people in for the day..
…the analogy of us all being old cars whose temperature and gas gauges were riding right on the line between “barely ok” and “overheating/empty”. At times we would dip full into the red and at times we would feel a little in the clear. Cars were breaking down all over the place that day. I was gonna see how far I could drive mine..
…how bombed out Duncan Hollow is, recently having been burned and having all the heavy machinery up the trail with all the mud..
…the no less than two horseflies that were buzzing my head and having a party in my hair relentlessly, from sunup to sundown, every. single. minute. My angry-curse-filled-swat:injured-fly ratio was roughly 1 million:zero..
…how when I finally pulled into Gap Creek aid station, mile 70, amazing volunteers helped me get new shoes and socks on as I took in some fuel and took a much needed sit break for a few minutes..
…but where I really want to start is how just a few minutes after leaving Gap Creek, still in the lead and headed up the Jawbone climb, I was stopped in my tracks and suddenly starting puking my guts out..
Yes, lets pick up right there!
One cruel truth about being a successful ultrarunner, and in particular with the 100-mile distance, is that it doesn’t matter how fit you are if you can’t eat. All of the training and the mental toughness and the gear – none of it matters if you can’t keep calories down late in a race. Nausea, vomiting, and stomach issues are definitely a huge part of running hundreds and although some people are just more prone to this than others, the heat and an increased effort/intensity make it more likely to occur.
And so as I climbed up Jawbone, 70 miles and 13 ½ hours into the race, focusing on the things I needed to do to really win this race, out of nowhere a wave of nausea took over me, doubling me over and forcing me to hold onto a tree as all of the precious calories and fluid I had just consumed came out with about 8-10 miserable, painful retches. For a moment, I thought I was going to have to crawl back down to the aid station, I felt so acutely miserable and weak. But I really wanted this, and I knew sometimes you needed to just reset your system, so as soon as I could stand up straight again, I continued hiking onward up Jawbone and sure enough not one minute later I somehow felt incredibly normal again. Perhaps getting a post-violent-vomiting adrenaline spike combined with not having anything sloshing around in my stomach anymore, I suddenly felt completely back on track and even went so far as to pull out a gel and slowly sip on it (and finish it!) over the next 20 minutes. “Make them work for it” was my new mantra, wanting to make sure that if anyone did indeed catch me, they were going to have to earn it.
Despite the ongoing heat and humidity, I made fairly decent work across Kerns and ran the road section into the Visitors Center AS (mile 79) in what I thought was a winning pace, although I could feel that my gas gauge was definitely dipping into the red, having now essentially only taken in one gel over the past 2 ½ hours. Not great, but my legs felt great and I could drink soda at Visitors Center!
As I crossed the road into the aid station, I was surprised to see not only Michelle and my son Whit, but also our good friends Matt and Jo Thompson and their kids. That was just the emotional burst that I needed. I didn’t tell them that I had recently puked, but later they would tell me that I looked a bit yellow. Funny, I thought I looked awesome, like I was winning MMT! (note for the solo division purists, I received zero aid from them, just cheers, and they left to go back home after that brief glimpse at Visitors Center.)
I cooled down with some ice and cold water at the aid station and drank a few cups of coke, enough I thought to fuel me up the 3-mile climb up to Bird Knob aid station. I left the aid station feeling good, for 80 miles in, and continued to make good progress up the climb to Bird Knob, knowing that the race really started then. I still somehow had the calm and confidence that I could right the stomach ship and get this car out of the red and continue a winning pace. After the steeper part of the Bird Knob climb, there is about a mile of trail that although still uphill, is very runnable. The years I paced Thompson and Rusiecki each to victory here, we ran every bit of that section, and so I also ran every bit of that section, feeling more and more confident that I could still pull this off.
But then suddenly again without warning, an intense wave of nausea hit just about 50 feet before the aid station and I simply started dry heaving. The coke was long gone, but the dry heaving was miserable and I’m sure quite a weird way for Tom Simmonds and his Bird Knob crew to be alerted that the race leader was here. As I slunk into the aid station and apologized for my entry, Tom wisely suggested some warm broth, which I drank with another cup of soda and somehow all felt right again and I ran down the road feeling somehow relatively…great! After about a half mile, the course turns left, climbs steeply for a cruel 1/3rdmile, and then you get about 5 miles of the Browns Hollow Trail until the Picnic Aid Station. I knew again from my time pacing the two former winners here that you need to run this section well, as it is all runnable at a critical point in the race. And it was here that the car broke down.
A few miles in I could feel my gas gauge hitting empty and found myself having to walk even the smallest climbs. Add to that my heat gauge was still dipping into the red, even though it was now solidly dark and I had my headlamp on. I was still pouring creek water on my head, but it seemed futile as it was not perking me up like it did earlier, only putting me through fits of feeling cold, then hot again.
I knew I needed to get some calories in STAT, so I opened up another gel and tried to just take a little in. Unfortunately this was immediately met with more involuntary dry heaving which I was finally starting to believe was going to be the beginning of a very bad next 20 miles. My next and only hope was just trying to cruise on fumes a few more miles into the picnic aid station, sit down, and somehow get a reset. These next few miles were definitely not winning pace. The car was starting and stopping with smoke and steam pouring out from under the hood.
Only in a hundred miler can you go from still believing that you can win the race, to not really believing that you can even finish the race, all in about 5 minutes time. And that’s what happened to me as I was walking that last uphill towards the Picnic Area aid station. I tried sipping on some water which was also met with several terrible bouts of hold-onto-this-tree-while-you-puke-your-soul-out vomiting. And right at that moment as I stood there in the darkness holding onto a tree, I see a headlight coming up the trail towards me. Dang.
Eddie Pantoja, the eventual race winner, was extremely gracious in his passing. I laughed and told him that my puking must be music to his ears, but he would have none of it as he told me he was really struggling and tried his best to encourage me to come and run with him. I waved him on and continued my sputter into the aid station. I finally reached the Picnic aid station, mile 88, right as Eddie was getting ready to head out, found the nearest chair, and abandoned my broken down car in it.
The emotion of losing the lead after running alone with it for the past 13 hours was actually fine. I had given it my all, took care of my body the best I could, and really enjoyed leading MMT for those fleeting 60 miles. As I watched Eddie take off into the night and into the lead, I really didn’t care because I simply had no idea how I was going to ever get out of that aid station.
Worse than the extreme weakness and fatigue from running so far in the heat on so little food and water was the intense nausea that had overtaken me. I was immediately tended to by Jack Kurisky and Brad Hinton, two men I have raced a lot with and admire deeply. Ironically it was just two years ago that I had paced Brad the last 25 miles of MMT and it was right here in this aid station where he was puking HIS guts out. We finished, and he reminded me of this, but it did nothing to take away how bad I felt. Even thinking about taking a sip of water or ginger ale or a bite of a cracker would cause a terrible welling up of nausea to occur. I knew that by the minute, I was exponentially blowing up.
I sat in that chair, with the classic ultra “1000-mile stare”, readily accepting that my train had just become majorly derailed. I knew that there was no way I was going to head back out on the trail like this – no calories, probably dehydrated, and with a really tough 9 miles until the next aid station, including the infamous climb up Big Run to Scothorn Gap. I was not willing to risk being stuck on the side of that mountain in fetal position, puking, in the middle of the night. I would have to stay here until some semblance of hope came my way, or someone drove me home.
The minutes dragged on and I asked Jack if he could text Michelle and give her an update. Last I saw her I was in the lead, now I’m sitting in a chair blowing up. Crap. Admittedly, I was completely unprepared for this. I had never been in a situation in an ultra where I simply couldn’t go on. What do I do? Wait this out? Take a nap?
Text messages between Jack and Michelle:
Wait a minute Jack, are you sure you were giving her an honest view of what is going on here? I’m dying! Maybe she’s still nearby and can come and pick me up, or help me figure this out?...
Crap. They’ve all left. of course they did, its like 11:00pm now. Crap! Thanks Michelle for the pep talk, but we seem to have a situational disconnect right now. I feel so bad and these awesome aid station workers are being too awesome, I just need some space. As much as I appreciate their attempts to pump me up, they are completely in vain, this car is broken down and AAA roadside service isn’t enough. I need a tow truck.
More minutes went by, and Jason Lantz came in. It was good to see him, he was really hurting too and sat next to me for a few minutes and we laughed. He tried to get me to come with him but there was just no way. Too much nausea, too weak. Also now shivering and I put my jacket on. Not good.
Jack, can I have your phone?
Ugh, normally I would correct all of those spelling and grammar errors, but not tonight dammit!
At this point, I didn’t really know what my options were, but after about 30 minutes sitting in the chair, I figured I would try to get some sleep. Jack and Brad wrapped me up in some blankets and tried to give me some food, but my stomach would have none of it. I figured I would just go to sleep.
I spent a half hour or so sleeping in that chair, interrupted by fits of nausea, hot flashes, and chills. I woke up when another runner came through and learned that I had been in the aid station for about an hour. Crap. Brad and Jack were persistent in their efforts to get me out of that chair, but I victoriously stonewalled them, it just wasn’t possible. As I looked around and tried to assess my situation, it was clear that I now felt even worse. More nauseas, more hopeless. Wisely, Jack and Brad suggested that I just lay down in the cot for a while. Like caring for a sick grandparent, or a drunk college roommate, they helped me onto that cot and wrapped me back up in the blankets. I told them that I was pretty sure I wasnt going to be able to go on. That I think I need to drop. I didn’t care that I was just 12 miles from the finish. It might as well have been a thousand. They wouldn’t have it, not for one minute. Knowing they weren’t really listening to me, I had no choice but to just fall asleep.
I woke up about an hour later, probably to the sounds of more runners coming through, which was more amusing to me than it was sad. Still laying down, I reassessed and still felt terrible. Crap! I called Jack over and told him that I don’t think I can go on, and that I think I need to drop. He again wouldn’t have any of it. A few minutes later, when he wasn’t looking, I called Brad over, like asking the other parent and told him the same thing. Unfortunately they had their parent meeting and were on the same page, he also wouldn’t listen to me and told me to just get some more sleep.
And even if I did “drop”, what did that even mean? How did it help me? Its not like that meant some helicopter would come and magically take me away to my bed in Crozet! Crap! I was probably stuck here until morning, or worse stuck in some stranger’s car, crewing their runner through the rest of the course! Ugh! I wish I had crew, I would be home by now! I wish I had a pacer! I wish I had headphones!! Jack came by and told me that I could get a little more sleep, but that I needed to get out of here by 1:30 or 2am, because I did not want to be finishing tomorrow in the afternoon – it was going to be hot again! My brain couldn’t even process that and I passed out again.
Another hour later, I woke up, now three hours at the Picnic Area aid station, and suddenly…I felt ok! No nausea! I sat up and immediately felt somewhat cheerful that I didn’t feel like I was going to puke everywhere. They brought me some water and ginger ale and even a little bacon, and I was able to take bits of all of it.
Assessing my current situation one last time, I just needed to get the hell out of this aid station, and I figured that walking those last 12 miles was probably the quickest way back to my car. As I stood up, my legs were so stiff! 88 miles in the heat and then a three hour nap were not kind to my current state of affairs. As I stood up and shuffled over to the aid station table, and Jack and Brad worked on loosening my legs up, who comes strolling into the aid station but Nick Pedatella! “Nick! Where have you been?! I thought you had dropped!”
Turns out Nick was having a really rough day too, and had also been taking a long nap, but at the Visitors Center aid station. Talk about perfect timing. Now I was fired up. To walk. “Dude! Can we walk it in together?!”
Heading out of that aid station and making it to Gap Creek II, mile 97, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We were moving so slow, both of us simply wrecked by the day. We took some humor in it, but it was so miserable that for the most part, we just hiked in silence in single file up and over Scothorn Gap, at one point clocking in an impressive 30 minute mile. We literally looked like two 90 year olds moving through the woods in the middle of the night.
When we hit Crisman Hollow Road, with about 3 miles left to the last aid station, Nick wanted to run, but I just couldn’t and so I told him I would just see him at the finish. Alone on the road, I was so tired and it was taking FOREVER to get to the aid station. By the time I finally arrived there, I decided that since I was in no rush, I was going to take another nap! I saw Quatro who knew I was having a tough day and I asked him to wake me up in 15 minutes, which he did. They got me some broth and some soda and I sipped it down and was ready to close this crap show down for the day.
As if some final act from the gods of misery, as soon as I left the aid station, my stomach turned once more and forced out every bit of broth and soda I had just consumed. But just 3.8 miles more!
Those last miles were the longest in the history of ultrarunning. The race that would never end. Finally, just as light was starting to fill the eastern sky, I came around the corner at Caroline Furnace Youth Camp and ran into that finish line, getting that buckle in 25 hours and 47 minutes.
As always, I learned a few good lessons on the day:
Allow your friends to help you. When I sat in that chair and Jack and Brad (and many others – James Bascom and Lou Brooks, and the aid station dog…) were trying to help me, I really didn’t want any help, “you can’t help me!” I was too miserable to truly accept the help they were trying to offer and I felt like they just didn’t understand how I was feeling. Well, turns out I owe my finish to them and they did in fact understand exactly how I was feeling. And Jack keeping Michelle informed was another part of how we are like a big family. When your friends are trying to tell you something, sometimes you just have to get out of your own head and listen to them.
Don’t overborrow in your training. When you are neglecting things like your family, your health, your job, etc, for your training, you are borrowing time and favors from your life that you may not be able to pay back. When things go really well, maybe it was worth it. But when they don’t, which is often the case, you don’t want to be in debt. I learned this when I “overborrowed” for my Western States training with a lot of time away from my family, and then it didn’t go well and it wasn’t worth it. Since then, I’ve been careful about putting too much into any one race and therefore I wasn’t disappointed at all in how MMT went, and even more I was grateful for such an experience and learning opportunity.
Finish. I’m not so much talking about “finish at all costs” with broken legs and excruciating pain. But consider the cot as a metaphor for a really tough place in your life. Sometimes you are just hurting and no one can help you. You cant even help you. It can seem hopeless. But there is a finish. No one goes into a race expecting to take a 3 hour nap, but that may just be what is needed to get out of that aid station and finish. And as Nick said as we grandpa-walked out of that aid station “Don’t forget there are still a lot of people who are hours behind us. Not finishing would kind of be disrespecting their efforts.” That was good stuff Nick.
Final note. Why the heck do we do these things? When they hurt so bad and that memory is still fresh and honest, how in the world can we start to think about the next one? I don't have the perfect answer except to say that the more we experience, the more we have a deep down desire to experience more... We know we can do a little better and try a little harder the next time. We know that through the self-imposed hardships and sufferings, that we really do find meaning, purpose, and direction in our lives. We are better and stronger people for it.
Also, we are hopelessly addicted not to exercise or endurance, but to being outside. Not doing endurance events is like keeping a bird in a cage. When we stop doing these things, stop waking up early to train, stop trying, we are stepping out of the arena, and there are no guarantees that we will ever be able to make it back in. We cherish and value the arena.
Huge thanks to Kevin Sayers and the VHTRC crew for putting on such a great race, and for all of the amazing volunteers who took care of everyone just like they did me, all day long. I will be back!