Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Massanutten Pacing

I'm beat today. I got home about 1:00 a.m. from my trip to Virginia for the Massanutten Mountain 100 miler. I was pacing a friend from Ohio named Joe.

Joe was making his second attempt at 100 miles, with both of them at MMT. A number of his friends love this race and he trains in the area on occasion, so it's a natural fit for him. But, it's also a very tough course for the most experienced runners, much less a runner who has yet to finish a 100 miler.

Joe's e-mails this spring have sounded very confident. His running has been going well and he proclaimed himself fitter and leaner than last year. I really thought this was going to be his year, but it was not to be.

Right after the start on Saturday morning, I went back to bed for a bit and slept until about 7:00 a.m. I was going to ride along with the wife of another runner until it was time for me to pace. Andrea was crewing for her husband; her husband and Joe were close enough together that we saw both of them at most crew points. I was also able to check in with some friends from New England at many points as they crewed for and prepared to pace Sherpa John.

Joe was right on schedule at the 24+ mile aid station. He was there just at 6 hours, as planned. His feet were really muddy, and the mud was really the story of this race. Last year, when I attempted MMT, the trails were mostly dry. I was shocked at the mud I saw while pacing this year. I talked to one runner on Sunday who was 8 for 8 in prior MMT attempts, and he quit this year, proclaiming the worst conditions he'd ever seen.

At the 33 mile aid station, Joe complained that he was hot. I thought the day felt pretty cool and it was breezy, but Joe found it to be hot. I'm sure it was cooler than last year, but Joe is a big guy and he does best in cool conditions where he can keep his core temperature down. But, Joe's time was OK and I kept reminding him to just take it easy and have fun. There was no reason to hurry in the heat of the day when he had 36 total hours to complete the race.

We missed Joe at mile 38, making sure we had time to get some food and meet Andrea's husband by the time he got to mile 48. Andrea's husband wasn't in good spirits at mile 48 and he was having a tough day. He has five prior MMT finishes, but he would call it a day just a few miles later.

About 7:15 or so, Joe showed up at the mile 48 aid station. He seemed to be feeling fine and he was an hour ahead of the cut-offs. He was slightly behind his time from last year, but with the tougher course conditions, I wasn't too worried.

We got him fed and hydrated and I started pacing on the long climb to Bird Knob. Almost immediately, I noted that Joe's stride seemed a bit imbalanced. He was also leaning a bit to the right. I hoped this was his normal stride, but I still don't know the answer to that. But, what alarmed me the most was that Joe seemed a bit sloppy with his foot placements and he was kicking lots of rocks.

The climb to Bird Knob takes runners to the highest point on the MMT course, and the ascent portion of this out-and-back stretch is particularly tough. I was wearing my altimeter and watching our ascent rate. I noticed that when Joe was ascending at a rate of more than 30 vertical feet per minute, he'd get winded very quickly. I kept reminding him to back off and just go nice and steady on the tough climbs. Because this was an out-and-back stretch, we had lots of runners coming towards us on the trail, which slowed things down a bit. The trail was muddy early on, but less so high on the ridge. We hit the turnaround in 1:51 - 111 minutes for a tough 5.1 miles. This pace was just fine at this point in the race and Joe still seemed to be doing well.

I was surprised that we didn't go much faster on the return trip, and we made it back to the aid station at mile 58 still only an hour ahead of the cut-offs. It rained on us for a couple minutes just before the aid station, but shortly, the nearly full moon was visible again.

The next stretch is a tough almost-7 miles, with a deceptively large amount of climbing. This stretch was also very muddy, especially on the descent. On this climb, I kept reminding Joe to be nice and steady and not force the climbs. Regretfully, the mud on the descent made things really nasty on the way down to the mile 65 aid station. We were also wet from a sustained rain shower on the ascent. For me, the worst part of the ascent was probably the whipporwills. I am sure some people love their song, but I found them amazingly annoying. Don't they ever sleep?

We found one runner in rough shape about a mile before the aid station. He was off the trail and confused. I got him back on the trail and he immediately fell. He was planning to drop at the aid station, but I was a bit concerned about leaving him behind. When we got to the aid station, I immediately notified the team there that they had a runner in trouble on the trail. The runner hadn't made it to the station by the time we left.

At mile 65, I was a bit concerned. We had lost 20 minutes on the cut-off time on the last stretch. But, it had been in tough shape, and I hoped we would do better on some of the rockier terrain coming up, hoping that it would be less muddy.

The next aid station was Moreland Gap, only 3 miles away, but we had a long climb and then a moderate descent to this station. Joe really struggled on this climb and I had to keep forcing him to get some calories into his body. His foot placements were really starting to concern me. He'd taken one minor fall, but I was worried that he was going to take a hard fall on the downhill into Moreland Gap.

He didn't fall, but regretfully, I think it was because his pace became so slow. He was kicking rocks frequently, uttering expletives repeatedly, and clearly in trouble. He made one comment about the next stretch of trail and I knew what he was thinking. But, I cut him off and told him to focus on getting to the next aid station and nothing more. It took us almost 90 minutes to go 3 miles. This was the first time Joe had dropped below the average 2.5 mph pace we needed to average to finish the race.

At the aid station, our margin over the cut-off was down to 20 minutes. Joe was in pain; his feet were killing him. He started talking openly about quitting. I got him to find some socks in his drop bag. I figured his feet were trashed from the mud and dirt in his shoes, and I wanted him to clean his feet and put on dry socks. He got his socks off and got his feet cleaned, but he just didn't want to put the new socks on. He was going through the math in his head, knowing that we were losing time. We were also looking at a brutal climb in the next 8 mile stretch - a section of trail that would take us at least 3.5 hours and probably more in Joe's condition. Joe said he wanted to drop.

I told him he couldn't drop out. He had to sit there and at least think about it. I was hoping that he would change his mind before the cut-off time. But, that wasn't a lot of time. When we got to within 5 minutes of the cut-off, it was clear that Joe wasn't going back out there. At the time limit, he removed his race number and called it a night.

Luckily, we got a ride to a prior aid station, where a pacer had stashed a vehicle that he needed returned to the starting area. I got us back to the start/finish area right about sunrise. We each got a quick shower and then fell asleep.

We spent the afternoon watching people finish and enjoying a few beers. Even the finishers could only talk about the mud on the course. A fellow New Englander, who had broken her foot two days before this race last year, finished as second female and first masters female, earning a silver buckle. Sherpa John fought through foot problems and a delirious pacer to finish around 32 hours.

Unlike last year, no one finished in the last five minutes and the trail sweeps showed up with about 10 minutes left in the race. The race was over.

I'm disappointed for Joe, because I know he worked hard to get ready for this event. I think he is now thinking about trying an easier 100 to get more experience before trying MMT again.

Before the race, I had warned Joe that no matter how much help I provided, and no matter how much encouragement I could provide, he would reach a point in the race where he would have to find the desire to finish inside himself. I've hit that point myself many times. Sometimes, I've given in to the pain of the moment and sometimes I haven't. Regretfully, even if you continue at one low point, you have to find the will to continue over and over again. But, you only have to give in once and you're done. Joe had reached a point where pain in his feet made the decision easy for him, at least at the time.

To me, that decision point or series of decision points is the essence of ultra running. Can you find a way to continue and a way to care when your body is screaming at you to stop this silliness?

Joe didn't finish this time, but he learned a lot. He'll use the experience in the future and I'm sure he'll eventually get his 100 mile finish.

1 comment:

David Ray said...

Excellent report! I found this very informative as to the thought processes during the run.

And whippoorwills are only worse when you're actually trying to sleep in a tent with 2 or 3 in the vicinity.