MMT 2014 Report: Looking Forward to 2015
By Ed Walsh
MMT 2014 for the Walshes got off to a less-than auspicious beginning. My daughter, Laura, who had offered to help my son Michael as my “crew” became ill on Thursday, just before we left for Caroline Furnace, and had to bow out. My wife Sandy picked me up at work in Arlington around 11:30 Friday and we jumped on I-66. Within a few minutes, we heard the reports of the shutdown ahead but, not knowing any other way to get to Front Royal, hoped for the best. We got the worst: two hours-plus of gridlock, which added to the mix of excitement and tension we both were feeling.
Finally getting to Front Royal, we turned onto U.S. 678 into Fort Valley and almost immediately saw the thundering rapids of Passage Creek; at one scary point, the water was washing up over the road. I drove through as carefully as I could, with local folks in pickups pushing me from behind. The water was spectacular the rest of the way—as all the MMT runners and staff recall.
On arriving at Caroline Furnace we followed directions into the parking area—but our heavy minivan, loaded with camping gear, the six gallons of veggie chili Sandy had prepared for the Gap Creek aid station, along with pots, pans, and other aid-station gear, became stuck in the quagmire. I tried backing out, then inching forward, the tires spinning futilely, and I only sank deeper until the van wouldn’t budge. Fortunately, three or four runners, passing by, put their shoulders to the back of the van and extricated me, and I pulled slowly forward and parked, the van coated in Fort Valley mud. A nerve-racking start.
Luckily, things then calmed down and I signed in, picked up my shirt, and met Tom Corris and Dave Woll from Lake Ridge, and we chatted with the growing crowd of runners. With the sun shining beautifully, everyone was in high spirits, although the starting area still felt like a giant sponge underfoot. Fortunately also, Michael cruised in, his GPS guiding him down from Philadelphia right to the camp. After listening to the pre-race briefing and getting some dinner we headed for the camping area, set up our tents, and turned in. Because of the wet grounds, the start was moved to the campground, which worked out nicely for the campers.
Awakening at 3:00 AM, I was surprised that I had slept soundly and comfortably. Within minutes the entire camp was awake, with headlamps blazing in every direction. The weather was cool but comfortable for a short-sleeve teeshirt. More or less promptly at 4:00 AM we were off, the crowd of friends and well-wishers fading into the darkness behind us as we headed up Morland Gap Road. Very quickly we were reminded that it would be a wet day, as we slogged through a cold six-inch-deep stream across the road. That woke everyone up!
Turning onto the orange-blazed Massanutten trail we were very quickly in the mud, but then, climbing Short Mountain single file, everyone was full of energy and excitement. On top, we ran briskly, happy to see daybreak. Headlamps came off and we watched a spectacular sunrise over the peaks to the east—forest-covered, silent, majestic.
I got to Edinburg just before 7:00 AM, when I had told Sandy and Michael, somewhat optimistically, I expected to arrive. I felt strong after the long downhill to the aid station; I think they were a bit relieved to see me get there that soon. I grabbed some diced potatoes and cherries and guzzled some Gatorade (carrying just water in my Camelbak), and headed up Waonaze Mountain, slowing to a hike, like almost everyone else. With the climb behind us, the stretch on to Woodstock is relatively level and invigorating—Gary Knipling and Paul Crickard passed me effortlessly, as they always do. The run to Powell’s Fort started as easy and dry, and I leapfrogged with Chuck Wilson, who was easy to see ahead through the trees in his blazing bright orange shirt.
The orange trail then turned downhill and had us again tapdancing through the mud until we reached the dirt road to the Powell’s Fort aid station. After Powell’s the trail was soggy through to the turn onto the blue-blazed Tuscarora trail, always a long slow climb—for me—but we recoup on the fast four-mile stretch down to Elizabeth Furnace. Sandy and Michael had been there for a couple of hours, since I couldn’t project with any accuracy when I’d arrive. I was very happy to see them, and they were again relieved to see I was still upright. It was about 1 PM.
They sat me down and helped me change shoes, socks, and shirt, which helped me feel much better. I could feel a blister rising on my inner right ankle, probably from the irritation of the mud rubbing against it. Tom Corris stopped by with some words of encouragement, as he always does. “You’re looking good,” he said.
The sun was warm and lovely as I headed to Shawl Gap. That was a tough stretch—I recalled doing it during the training run in February—but then it was at the start, not after 33 miles of running. The climb took something out of me, but the downhill into Shawl, though swampy, was fast and easy. Sandy and Michael again met me, but I didn’t stay long, after grabbing a delicious bean burrito from the aid station team. The three-mile road run to Veach Gap was monotonous, but you get there. The field had stretched out considerably, and a few runners trucked on past me, which never bothers me.
I enjoyed some watermelon at Veach then moved up the trail, a long, slow uphill slog until it turns very steep. I passed one runner, who had been well ahead of me, sitting and resting, discouraged by the relentless climbing--although we both knew the toughest climbing was still ahead. At the top, I chugged along at lower speed. I felt OK, but knew I had lost something as I was edging close to 45 miles, more than I had ever run on any section of the course. On a level stretch Dave Woll sped by me, looking very strong. We encouraged each other, and he handed me an energy bar and barreled on ahead, out of sight within minutes.
My legs still felt strong, but I was feeling tired. I wondered whether I had gone out too fast that morning—maybe getting to Edinburg before seven was not a good sign. My stomach felt a bit queasy, but I didn’t have anything else to eat—although I had no appetite for food and didn’t want anything, I wondered whether I had taken in enough calories at Veach to get through this stretch. Finally I turned down the purple-blazed Indian Grave trail with its steep, tricky, waterlogged downgrade, where the trail was in stretches an open running stream. I’m not a graceful runner and my legs felt stiff as I tried to stay out of the deepest spots, but still often felt my shoe sink ankle-deep, causing me to stumble and grab at tree branches for balance. I whispered a few Hail Marys, which always helps. I’ve run this trail twice and it’s usually a fast sprint to Indian Grave, but I couldn’t muster much speed.
It was getting cooler and dusk was settling in when I got to Indian Grave, and Joe Clapper and Michelle Harmon and their team were starting to pack up. I knew I was at the rear of the field. I sat for a few minutes and ate some fruit and a sandwich, then set out on the four-mile road run to Habron. I knew I had lost time, but Michelle encouraged me and walked a bit with me, pointing out that I still had 90 minutes to the cutoff at Habron.
The road was tranquil and deserted and I jogged a bit and walked a bit past the picturesque, thickly grown pastures, with cows staring at me through the fence, then loping away, startled, as I came near. Soon I found myself dodging giant SUVs and pickups and got my headlamp out and chugged along, completely alone. I picked up my pace, arriving at Habron about 8:40 in near-darkness. I was heartened to see Michael—who knows how long he’d been there? He had driven for nearly an hour from Shawl, taking several wrong turns in and around Luray to get there. I recalled that years ago, when he was in high school, the two of us had driven out there on a Sunday morning and rented a canoe and paddled for several miles down the Shenandoah, which flowed rapidly past Habron, still at near-flood stage. So much has changed, I thought—he’s married and living in Philadelphia, I’m 65, trying to run ultras in the mountains.
Michael sat me down and took my Camelbak off, and a young woman volunteer brought me a sandwich. I gulped down a couple of them. “How do you feel?” Michael asked. “Ten miles to Roosevelt.”
I felt very tired, but still had more than three hours to the Camp Roosevelt cutoff. I stood up and headed up the trail. Not much running on this stretch—Habron is an extremely tough climb, maybe the toughest on the course—it starts off steep and gets steeper and then steeper, and fools you, at several points, into thinking you’re close to the summit, when you’re nowhere near it. Soon I was high enough to see the twinkling night lights of Front Royal in the distance. Or maybe it was Strasberg. I had no idea which—probably both, at different points.
Although I had changed into a dry long-sleeve shirt, it was chilly and windy as I approached the top. One runner passed me, using walking poles. “Are you getting enough electrolytes?” he asked. I nodded, but really wasn’t sure I had had enough. Nutrition for trail runners is complicated, because everyone has different preferences and needs. I still haven’t figured it out.
It seemed to take forever to get to the top, and my legs had stiffened. Even walking was difficult, let alone dodging the sharp rocks embedded in the trail and climbing over the boulders. It did not get easier for the two miles from the crest of Habron to the yellow-blazed Stevens Trail. It felt good to get to the turn, but I knew I was running out of steam. I kept losing my balance and sinking into the heavy mud as I tried to avoid the streams running down the trails. In the darkness, even with my headlamp, it was difficult to distinguish between water and dry trail. A few times I stopped, puzzling out where the trail went; fortunately and many thanks to Kevin Bligan’s trail-marking team, I could always see a luminescent glowstick showing the way. But I knew I was getting slower. Eventually, I knew I would miss the cutoff into Roosevelt. And I did miss it, by about 15 minutes. I arrived at 1:30 AM.
I was very glad to see Michael—we both knew my race was over. I handed my bib to the volunteer who was recording runners’ times. Carter Wieckling, the light-hearted and gracious “grim reaper,” handed me the black rose and gave me a hug. Her kind words meant a great deal to me. Michael gave me my sweats—he and the entire aid-station team were feeling the night chill—and we headed to the Gap Creek aid station to pick up Sandy. She was disappointed for me, but glad I was OK. It was close to 2 AM when we got back to camp. I limped into the shower and cleaned up, then back to the tent and fell asleep.
I knew that the leaders already had finished and dozens of runners were still out on the trial in the darkness, seeking to complete 103.5 miles, doing what I had hoped to do. My 63.9 miles was enough for me for MMT 2014. Why am I doing this? I asked myself. Then I recalled the deep sense of satisfaction one gets from finishing a difficult run—or from meeting any difficult challenge. We confront hardship in order to overcome it. We seek to succeed at tasks that to others seem impossible. And when we fall short, as I did at MMT early that morning, we promise ourselves we will try again.