2018 Massanutten 100 - “Always Be Closing” (and mud)
In his nasty, profane Glengarry Glen Ross monologue, Alec Baldwin berates a group of real estate salesmen. “A: Always, B: Be, C; Closing” he demands as he implores them to sell.
Casey Neistat expands on this idea, that “you can never let your desire for perfection prevent you from finishing something that is good. To finish something, even imperfectly, is to learn from it and then you can move on and get closer to perfection… It’s the last 4 miles of a marathon that are 80% of the work”
“Perfection” is a strange concept in general, and even stranger to apply to a 100 miler. Stay healthy, have fun most of the time, and finish. Is everything else just gravy?
I have no idea how Always Be Closing became my mantra during the Massanutten Mountain Trails (MMT) 100. Maybe it was mentioned on a Lewis Howes or Rich Roll podcast? My wife recalls our watching some or all of the movie back when we were getting Netflix DVDs in the mail.
The last race I finished was the Charles River Marathon last September. The first half was great. Calf pain made the 2nd half slow and painful. I had hopes of qualifying for the Boston Marathon at the Baystate Marathon last October and the Hyannis Marathon in February, but I ran neither of them because of the calf problems in the fall and then my arthritic right hip flared up over the winter.
Back in January I got into the Massanutten 100 lottery. It sounded like a well-run event on a tough course, relatively easy to get to from Boston and good challenge after my experience last year on the flatter, smoother course at Rocky Raccoon.
As winter became spring, my hip was getting better. Physical therapy seemed to be helping and I was progressing from flat 4 mile walks with Cocoa the dog, to climbing small stairs at Harvard Stadium, to climbing big stairs at Harvard Stadium. Based on the advice of Andrew Skurka and Kyle Pietari, I began using poles. I found the poles to be essential during my power hiking hill repeats (hiking, not running) though there definitely was an acclimation period as my arms, shoulders, and back muscles strengthened.
May 19 was still on my calendar. Would I be ready? What does “ready” even mean? David Roche suggests that doing a 100 mile race with 40 miles of running per week “you will be stepping into the deep, dark abyss of the unknown”. Taking a time-based approach, David advises 8-16 hours a week of running for at least a month in the training for a 100. But I was hiking, not running, because my hip just didn’t feel right when I tried to run. There was a 0% chance that I could have a set-back in my training and be ready for Massanutten. So the most “running” that I did was light jogging down the grassy slope at Larz Anderson park in Brookline.
To the extent that I would be “racing” against anything at MMT it was:
- The 7:50am cutoff at Aid Station #2 (12.1 miles in 3 hours, 50 minutes)
- The reality that people who get to Aid Station #2 after 7:30am are highly unlikely to finish the race, even though they are 20 minutes ahead of the cutoff
- The 36 hour limit to finish the 103.7 mile course
- 3 hours, 40 minutes (11:00 min/mile)
- 3:55 (“maybe I can finish in under 20 hours!”, I thought)
- 4:17 (12:51 / mile)
- 4:58 (“no way I am finishing in under 20 hours”, I decided)
- 5:38 (16:54 / mile, "yea! I finished in less than 24 hours!")
Friday evening I got to the race site at 6:30 after delays with my flight, rental car, and traffic. Fortunately there was still time to drop off my 3 drop bags and the nice volunteers who cooked dinner found spaghetti, salad, and bread for me even though they were almost done cleaning up when I arrived. I slept in an on-site cabin bunk - it was nice to have just a 5 minute walk to the starting line, but why did one of my cabin-mates set a 2:30am alarm for the 4am race start? Ear plugs and an eye mask are recommended.
It rained all night on Friday night, and it rained 2.8 inches during the week of the race.
In “Minimizing the effects and aftermath of wet feet”, Andrew Skurka recommends pre-treating your feet with Bonnie's Balm Climber's Salve, a wax- and oil-based topical treatment that will reduce maceration and prevent cracking. I had an old tub of Mad Alchemy Embrocation at home and hoped its combination of oils and waxes would work too. I tried it on my dry feet during training and, if nothing else, it didn’t do any damage.
Leaving the start at 4am, we splashed through the grassy field on our way to the road. We crossed a small bridge that was flooded by rushing water going over the roadway because the culvert under the bridge was way over capacity.
The first miles of the course were fine - steady uphill on paved roads then getting onto the wet rocky trails. I didn’t bring a GPS watch, just an ancient Timex on countdown-repeat mode to beep every 30 minutes as a reminder to eat some gu and drink some tailwind.
Somewhere around mile 8 I slipped on a rock, fell to the side, slightly scraped my left shin, and broke my left pole just below the hand grip. This was bad. Hiking with just one pole doesn’t work very well, I quickly learned, and the race was just getting started. I got to Aid Station #2 at 7:12am, relieved to be under both the 7:50am cutoff and the 7:30am deadline to have some chance to finish the whole thing before the 36 hour limit. But I should have stopped to ask for help fixing my pole. Instead I quickly filled my water bottles, grabbed some gummy bears, and continued on.
During the 8 miles to the next aid station, I realized that I needed to take the time there to ask for help fixing my pole. I was carrying a role of Leukotape for my feet, and thought that a splint could be made with the tape and anything rigid. I picked up two sticks off the ground at the Woodstock Tower aid station and the wonderful volunteers used Gorilla Tape to wrap them onto the pole and the base of the hand grip. Problem solved.
I stayed somewhere towards the back of the pack, passing people on the uphills and then having them pass me when it was flatter. Went back and forth like this several times and shared some good camaraderie and humor as the pattern became clear.
At 7pm, 15 hours after starting, I was at the Indian Grave Trailhead aid station. 50.1 miles done. 53.6 miles in 21 hours should be fine, right?. But soon it would be getting dark. There was a lot more climbing yet to come. I didn’t know it at the time, but there were only 6 people still behind me that would finish the race.
My hip that had been bothering me for many months felt real good. My feet were more of a concern. They had carried me through ankle-deep mud, through knee-deep streams, and had sand constantly grinding into the skin all day. But I had a sense that cut-offs would start to loom closer, there was a lot of big climbs still to come, and now was the time to gently test if I could pick up the pace. I jogged the relatively flat and paved few miles to the next aid station.
Running at night is awesome. Seeing the lights of runners ahead and working hard to try to catch and pass them is invigorating. “Always be closing” I kept telling myself, thinking about eliminating the gap to the runner ahead, not about selling real estate. The temperature remained near-constant overnight - warm and humid with a moderate breeze at the top of the mountain. I knew that getting cold at night causes a lot of problems, but I felt that I needed only to carry my light rain jacket and left my long shirt and pants in the drop bag. A slight risk, but it turned out to be the right call. I didn’t even think about wearing the rain jacket that night.
At mile 70-something, maybe at 2am, I found myself alone at the top of a ridge in thickening fog. The trail seemed harder to follow and I was slowing down. Here I caught another big break. A runner and his pacer, who I passed earlier while he was stopping to apply lube, passed me. “You have a new best friend” I told them, and I stayed on their heels through miles of twisty single-track trail. When they stopped to tie a shoelace, eat, or drink, I stopped with them. We passed another runner and he joined our little caravan. We stuck together until the next aid station and I am so grateful to them for keeping us moving and on course.
I had never run during the sunrise, but many people say it can bring a surge of energy. Turned off my light, the birds started chirping, and I was passing more people as I continued hard hiking on the hills and easy jogging most everything else.
Everything was going so well that I started telling myself to stay in control and not get overconfident. It would be easy to slip in the mud, get injured, or stumble into some other mistake. I left the Visitor Center aid station where the course description (which I had printed out on a folded sheet of paper that I was carrying in a ziploc bag) says:
AS #13 - AS #14 - Leave AS #13 on orange trail (Big Mountain Road) for 1.0 miles to intersection with purple Roaring Run trail. (The post marking the intersection has both a purple and pink blaze on it.)I left on Big Mountain Road (a 2-lane paved road) and picked up my pace on the right side of the road for the nice downhill. After a while I noticed the lack of yellow course marking ribbons and hoped to see one just around the corner. But I didn’t. My ability to estimate mileage at this point was minimal at best, but standing at the bottom of the hill reading the course description over and over, I was more sure than not that I had gone more than a mile. So it was time to turn around, hike back up the hill, and get back on course.
My detour was 20 minutes or more and when I got back on course it was clear that many people had passed me. It was time to try and activate “beast mode” to catch them back if I could. The steep, hard climb up Bird Knob was the perfect place to do it. Getting back into the position I had at the aid station helped going off course feel more like part of the journey and less of a blunder.
As Sunday morning progressed, the sun came out with a vengeance and the temperature climbed steadily into the 80s. The climb after the Picnic Area aid station was a long one, and going down the yellow trail seemed to take forever. Thankfully I stayed on course but I had my doubts at the time.
The race’s last climb out of Gap Creek was tough. Looking up at the top of the hill was too much for me to handle, so I kept my eyes down at my feet, reminded myself to Always Be Closing, and that each step was progress.
It would have been nice to be able to run (jog) the last couple downhill miles on the paved road to the finish. But the pain in my feet was brutal. I wouldn’t know until I took off my shoes after the finish that there were big blisters on the bottom of both little toes, a huge blood blister on my right big toe, and that my left big toenail would soon fall off too. Knowing that I would finish well under the 36 hour limit was all I wanted, and I was at peace as a couple people passed me in that last mile and I was happy for them to be finishers too.
I didn't even-split the race, but I was much more steady than at Rocky Raccoon. Starting slower, being more steady, and trying to "slow down the least" will be my strategy next time. Maybe I will carry a spare hiking pole too.
- First 50.1 miles: 17:58 / mile
- Last 53.6 miles: 20:19 / mile
On the Wednesday before the race, I had gone to the 5:30am November Project workout at Harvard Stadium. Experts may say that stairs do not belong in a taper but the NP vibe is one of my favorite things in my life and I did onlyn40 minutes of very relaxed climbing. I had told very few people about my upcoming adventure but many friends at NP knew that I did Rocky Raccoon last year. As NP was ending, I gave my friend John a sweaty good morning hug, because that’s what we do at NP. Like me, he is a middle aged guy with teenage kids, trying to stay in good shape for our age and situation in life. Out of the blue, he told me that he had been talking about me recently with some of his other friends. That he knows this regular guy (me) who does inspiring things like running 100 miles. He didn’t know that I’d be trying to do it again in 3 days and I didn’t mention it.
There are lots of people who workout at NP that inspire me with their positivity, dedication, and athleticism. I thought of many of them during the hard climbs at Massanutten. Thank you John for sharing with me that did something that inspired you.
MMT is a great race. The course is, as advertised, a challenge. The volunteers are wonderful. 14/10 would recommend.
- UltrAspire Lumen 600 waist belt (Highly recommended! I carried, but didn’t need, a spare battery as I got 11+ hours on a single charge)
- Ultimate Direction hydration pack with 2 front bottle (put gear in the back, not the bladder)
- 3 15-serving packs of GU Energy Gel - started the race carrying one, had the others in drop bags at mile 33 and 54.
- Hoka One One Stinson ATR 4
- Injini socks
- Nike compression shorts (no liner, no chafing!)
- The North Face short sleeve shirt
- Body Glide
- Headsweat hat with neck flap (would have worn it more if it was sunny)
- Mavic arm sleeves (for sun protection, not needed)
- Glacier Glove Abaco Sun Glove (not needed for sun protection, but feels good to wear while using the poles)
- Arc’teryx Norvan SL rain jacket - nice lightweight fabric and design, but the zipper is not waterproof. I’m sure there are better jackets out there