Julian Vicente's 2012 Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 Race Report
"My mind took over and my body just came along for the ride"
There have been lots of miles and training leading up to this race. I included technical races, night running on the AT, and my daily routine. My body told me that I was ready for this!
I woke up at 2:30am in the campground at Elizabeth Furnace on May 12th, 2012. The Massanutten Mountain 100 is held in Fort Valley, Virginia, a rural town tucked between two mountain ranges. When driving to the start of the race I entered the area in which I would be racing the Massanutten Trail & Edinburg Gap I couldn’t resist pulling over to the side of the road to run a bit of the single track, getting a brief taste of what I was in for and it sure felt good.
There were two different scenarios crossing my mind. Go out fast and be chased for 100 miles or take this one slow, it's going to be difficult and you're going to need your legs for miles 70-100. A few days before the race I received a message from a previous course winner. His message gave me hope not to hold back, this course evens out the lead guys and do not be timid. Soon after that I received an email from a teammate and previous course pacer stating how difficult this 100 was going to be and that I should take things slow and conserve my energy so I wouldn’t bonk near the end. I had a bad experience running my first 100 miler in Vermont last year. I ran the 1st 50 miles around 8 hours and burnt my engine by the time my pacer joined me at 70, I learned some valuable lessons from that race.
Nutrition and hydration are as important as the shoes on your feet during these ultras. This time was going to be different for me, you see I chose to run this event solo. They call it the Stone Wall Jackson Division (no music, no crew and no pacer), just me, my drop bags and my water bottle on the 103.7 mile journey through the Massanutten mountains.
The MMT 100 is considered one of the toughest 100 milers on the east coast. Typically, only the top 10-15 runners are able to finish sub 24 hours. The MMT 100 drop rate is around 40% and there were 196 starters this year. The terrain is treacherous consisting of loose rocks everywhere ranging from baseball size up to huge boulders packed together, as well as lot of single track. These are not your typical Jersey rocks, they are all mostly pointy and sharp which adds a bit of nasty to the mix. All of this while back home my wife, friends and family were all concerned. I asked them to support me and knew it would be difficult for some to understand what it was like to run 100 miles solo and unfortunately I had no cell service to keep them posted on my well being.
The morning of the race was cold, only 40 degrees in the month of May, a bit chilly, but I knew it would warm up quick. At 4 am I found myself standing first in line and ran miles 1 - 4 just behind the lead runner in a state of bliss. It felt so good running in the front pack I decided to stay. My breathing was relaxed and the road climbs felt as if they were flat. I was ready to tackle these trails and was feeling no hesitation or fear inside. Soon we reached the trailhead and into the dark woods we ran. The trails were marked with yellow ribbons really well so that every minute or so you would see one. Two ribbons hanging indicated a turn was coming up and at important turns there were white flour arrows on the ground showing which way to turn.
The course seemed like it was going to be easy to follow so that eased my mind. I started the race carrying only one handheld and didn’t want to lose position or time @ Moreland Gap so I ran past the water station and continued into the dark woods. Within a mile of the aid station, the runner in front of me went down. I asked if he was okay and he just shook it off and continuing on. The climbs were pretty steep but not very long so I decide to power hiked the steepparts so I wouldn’t burn my legs out. Once we hit the top of Short Mountain, I caught a glimpse of the views as the sky was beginning to lighten up & they were spectacular!
Not before long some lead runners were fast approaching from behind and forced me to pick up my pace a bit past my comfort zone. The sunrise was popping up at this point and every chance I had to look at the views I would take. Every step required careful calculations, finding that sweet spot to land was do or die. Not having music was fine with me because of all the attention needed to run this terrain. After some miles passed on the ridge the first descent began and it felt great knowing that this part would be fast. From behind I could hear an aggressive runner approaching as he yelled out “to your left” and passed the guy who was on my tail. I felt the urge to speed things up and I bombed down the section. Once we hit the road my legs kicked into another gear and I ran past another runner. I then felt a great rush from the first spectators as they screamed as if the finish line was 100’ away.
At mile 12.1, I entered Edinburg Gap aid station. The volunteers were perfect as they read my bib, grabbed my bag and did their best to assist. At this station I handed over my bottle for a refill & quickly grabbed some pre-planned food from my drop bag and a second handheld bottle to carry. Since I was running the self supported division, I felt it was best to choose different foods that would not spoil over 3 days. My main source of fuel was from mini-bananas & medjool dates. I figured that the bananas were already packed by nature and would keep well if just peeled before eating. They were small enough to carry and tasty enough to eat all day. Each of my eleven drop bags contained (4) bananas and (8) dates. The first aid station I spent about 30 seconds peeling and I realized that this would be a problem. Although running 100 miles with a 35 hour time limit seems like a lot of time, it’s a bit different when you’re racing since every second counts. If you think about stopping at 11 aid stations and spending 5 minutes at each one, this would add an hour to the finish time and there was no way I would be taking that route.
As I ran into Powells Fort at 26 miles, I decided to ask an aid station worker if he would help me peel the bananas, he gladly assisted as I tended to re-filling my bottles and sorted through my bag. It was surprisingly nice to see Kevin Sayers (the race director) at this station cheering on the runners. Once I re-entered the woods I found myself running effortlessly. My mind was starting to take over the task at hand and my legs switched into auto pilot. I made sure to focus on my breathing at all times and when I felt out of breath I would just relax myself and take deeper breaths. One wrong step could end the race in a second.
When heading out of Powells fort Aid station, last years female winner Eva was coming in. I took off and yelled to her that she was doing great and pushed my pace a little bit in hopes that I could stay ahead for a while. I caught up to another runner and ran some dirt road with him for a while. Once we hit the trail he dropped back and I continued on. A few miles ticked away and I ran into a few other runners, chatted briefly but stuck within our own races and pace. Not before long, Eva caught me. We ran the next several miles of single track together and it was quite apparent how much she loved the woods. My body was not feeling tired at this point, but my feet were starting to feel hot and blisters were beginning to form on my forefoot. Though I felt little fear about the distance which lay ahead, I was becoming concerned about the blisters. Eventually I stopped at the aid station to change my socks and Eva kept going. Unfortunately, I did not pack my socks in this bag, they were packed @Veach Gap. Luckily, Veach Gap was only 5 miles away.
By this time the morning was coming to an end and it started heating up. The next few sections involved some pretty steep climbs and several miles of ridge running. I enjoyed the ridge but became frustrated during the sections that I could not run. Some of the trails were leaning towards the drop-off and were totally covered with leaves. There were sections which were only a few feet wide which required some more cautious footwork to avoid disaster. The downs were fast and several long road sections came after this.
Gaining on the eleven climbs totaling 16,200 feet of ascent, the hills were beginning to take their toll. My mind was beginning to drift towards my wife at home and I felt the urgency to let her know I was ok. As I rushed into Camp Roosevelt (mile 63.9), I yelled asking if anyone had a cell phone. The response was that there was no cell service. I jokingly replied that I need to let her know I would be a little late in coming home tonight.
Six more miles of steep exposed climbing and a rocky descent had passed and I made it to Gap creek / Jawbone 1. An aid station worker jotted down my message to Tracy and he said he would drive down the road and give her a call (what a great guy!) This was such a relief for me and gave me the peace of mind I needed to push on into the night. My headlamp was packed in this bag so I threw it on my head. As I left this station, I knew from other runners' reports that there were some tough climbs ahead. The climb up Jaw Bone then to Kearns was grueling and it felt as if it went on forever. I pushed on my quads with my hands, assisting them to move quickly as I concentrated on keeping a short, efficient pace. The reward was a nice section of runnable terrain at the top of each mountain where I made sure to push through to make up for lost time.
My Garmin noted that my average pace was in the 12 minute mile range earlier in the day, now it was in the 13's... I started thinking that it may be possible to break 24 if I can just keep my average pace below 15 from here on in. Soon after I flicked on my headlamp I came across a lone mountain biker on the trail who mentioned that I was in the top ten. He mentioned that there was a water station about a mile down a long road section. When he introduced himself as "Dave Horton" I was blown away. This inspired me to push on and I soon felt determined to hold my place to the finish.
Once the dark set in, it was a whole different game. The trails were pitch black and the sounds of Whippoorwills echoed throughout the forest and kept me feeling as if I was not alone. A few more climbs came and went, some more technical trails, and then came the millipedes! These night crawling worms were out in the 1000's and covered the rocks to the point where you were bound to smush one if you touched a rock. I struggled and fought on to "not" get slimed through these sections carefully balancing and hopping from rock to rock.
Next was the Visitors aid Station @ mile 78.1. This station had so much energy it was fantastic! Not remembering if I texted my wife or not, another helpful volunteer gladly typed my message into her phone and sent another text back home.. At this point I was pretty delirious but the energy from this station gave me a new charge. I was in a great rush and didn't want to lose any time. As I ran off into the dark the workers were cheering. No less than a minute after I left the aid station I heard some more yelling in the distance, I knew that the runner on my tail was not far behind. I was determined to widen the gap so I dug deep and ran most of the climbs. Picking up the pace at this point in the race was a new challenge to focus on and kept my mind occupied. For some reason my mind was telling my body that I was being chased! This is when I felt as if I was running for my life. The temps were dropping and another aid station had passed... My legs were burning out, how much longer could I hold onto this push? Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a headlamp behind me... I suddenly decided I would need to push stronger, run faster, how bad did I want this?
On my way up Jawbone 2 (mile 96.8), I passed 4 runners who were on their 1st Jawbone Climb. My Garmin was dead at this point so I asked another runner for the time. From what I remember, he said it was 4am minus 2.5 hrs. I had no idea what this meant and just assumed that it was 4am. Here I knew that I lost my shot at finishing under 24 hours and bringing home the silver buckle! Feeling kind of devastated it was hard to push on. But then I was out of the woods and past my least favorite section of trail. This last descent was a mind twister for me. I wanted to finish the race and had 99 miles on my legs but the trail was barely runnable. This last part of trail was so technical, it had to be walked. I managed to make it over all the rocks while looking over my shoulder a dozen times wondering when the real “chase” would start.
The road back to camp went on forever. My headlamp batteries were dim at this point and it was hard to see. I used my secondary handheld to guide me along from here. Marker after marker had passed and finally I came upon some white arrows in the road pointing to the left!!! Where they were pointing was no trail but was a road going to the left. As I was ready to turn left I saw another yellow marker straight down past the street I was turning onto?? My eyes filled with tears, this decision was do or die! After standing there for a minute, trying to get my brain to work, I decided to run straight and follow the markers still confused as to why there were two arrows pointing to the left.
My legs were spent, my mind even worse as I managed to push on a fast shuffle down the road for about 5 minutes. Without seeing any more markers I felt as if I should have followed the arrows! Quickly turning around and heading back up the hill I finally came to the street, turned up it and ran as if I was on track. Suddenly as I ran up the street, I heard from behind "is that the way?”. I screamed out, “I don't know, I went straight already and there are no markersdude!" I continued on up the road of darkness for a few minutes frantically looking for a marker to no avail. At this point I decided to walk. My hopes were gone. All that work was for nothing. I wanted to crawl into the culvert and go to sleep. Then I realized that the runner must have went the right way since he hasn't come back. My feet shuffled again and I ran as hard as I could down the road to the finish, soon to find some more arrows and ribbons at the bottom of the hill. Constantly looking over my shoulder in fear that another runner would pass I sprinted into camp and ran for the finish line. To my amazement, the clock read 23:17:53. I placed 10th overall and was the 3rd male finisher of the solo division and went home with a nice silver buckle!!
I am so grateful for all the hard working volunteers and those who made the MMT 100 such an outstanding race! A special thanks to my family and the MPF/Campmor Trail Running Team back at home for cheering me on. Also, thank you to the volunteer at the finish who drove me back to those arrows to find that the arrows were spray painted town markings and not part of the race!