The start of MMTR is on the Blue Ridge Parkway at James River Visitor Center in the darkness. It was just below freezing at the start and we huddled around each other for warmth. As the race director called for people to form up the starting block, I give my down jacket to Jade and lined up near the back of the pack. I knew coming into this race that I would be one of the slowest runners, and I certainly didn’t want to get trampled over.
We took off at 6:30am sharp and I settle into an easy effort at around 10 min/m pace. Soon we made the spur turn around and I started to warm up. By the time we got back to the start, I was warm enough to not need my fleece vest anymore. Fortunately Jade is still hanging around the start area taking pictures of us coming through so I handed her my vest and went off. We turned onto highway 501 heading north along the James River and soon I catch up to Joey Anderson. Joey has done this race three times so I hang around with him a bit and try to suck in every bit of race knowledge from him. Along this stretch of 501 there is one significant hill. It’s significant enough that if it was in Raleigh, it would have a name and everyone would talk about it. Here at MMTR, it’s hardly a noticeable bump on the elevation chart. Still I walk the majority of it.
By mile 7 (Horton mile 5.7) we reach the first aid station at Cashaw Creek trail head. I asked for the cut off time and was told that I had a 5 minute cushion! I decided to keep my headlamp with me instead of dumping it in the drop box since I knew I can hand it to Jade in 4 miles. From here we head up Cashaw Creek trail, and up and up it went, climbing 500ft in the first mile and just over 1,300ft in the three miles. Ouch ouch ouch. I ate some pretzels and brownies at Peavine Mountain aid station with a 8 minute cushion and continued the walk up the trail. Finally the trail summited at just over 10 miles and then a fast and furious descent of 600ft over the next mile to Dancing Creek aid station. I fully expected to see Jade here but to my surprise she wasn’t around. I thought maybe she’d gotten lost so I asked one of the volunteers to let her know that I had already came through if she sees Jade later. I grabbed some more junk food, refilled my bottle, and discovered my cushion is now up to 16 minutes!!!
The next section is rolling hills, though much bigger than any rolling hills similar to Umstead. I noticed my heart rate started to creep and creep even though my pace wasn’t any faster than earlier. Also my body in general starts to feel tired. Very ominous signs this early in the race. I thought perhaps I hadn’t eaten enough, and combined with the harder than planned effort to build up a bigger cushion is taking a toll on my body and that is very bad news at mile 12. I slowed down and start thinking about what to do. Soon I was running/walking with a group of three runners. I recognized one of them. Tom Green has the most finishes at MMTR at 27. I then learned one of the other two runners is John Price with 25 MMTR finishes, and the third runner Matt used to be a 2:48 marathoner. All three are in their golden years and here I was doing everything possible to keep up with them. Soon we climb up to Parkway Gate aid station and I found Jade waiting for me.
She had miss read the aid station time table early and missed me at the previous aid station by a few minutes. My cushion is down a bit to 13 minutes at this point. Jade reloads my goodie bag and fill my water bottle and rushes me out of the aid station.
The trail descents for another half mile then popped out onto a smooth crushed gravel road at mile 17. I do my best to hang with the veterans here and they fill my ears with advices and race knowledge. 1.7 miles and 600ft up on this smooth road and we made to Robinson Gap aid station and I discovered the cushion is now down to 7 minutes. Hmmm…… fortunately the trail descents at this point for the next 4.5 miles which made excellent running and I felt my body starting to respond again. I ran the next 2 mile in just over 18 minutes, made to Irish Creek aid station with cushion back up at 12 minutes, then another 2.3 miles in 25 minutes to the Reservoir aid station with the cushion still at 12 minutes. Tom and John informs me the fun is over and the real work starts here. The next leg climbs over 1,000ft in just over 3 miles to the plateau of Long Mountain followed by another mile along the plateau to Long Mountain aid station, the half way point of the course. Our pack has grown to 7 runners strong as we left the Reservoir aid station, all following the excellent leadership of Tom, John and Matt. The climb is long, steady, and long. The veterans shared war stories and rest of shared grunts between huffing and puffing. When we summited on the plateau, we saw the most amazing view, like a painting in front of us, of an entire mountain side in beautiful falls colors and a meadow with cows grazing. It was so tempting to sit down and rest the tired legs watching this amazing view, but the race must go on.
I made to the Long Mountain aid station at 12:23pm. The cut off here is 12:35pm so my cushion is steady at 12 minutes. Jade is the perfect crew, having the cooler, my bag of gear and clothes, my alternate trail shoes and two pair of socks all laid out in case I need them. I had gotten both shoes and socks soaked at mile 12 when crossing the tunnel under the Blue Ridge Parkway but they all had dried out by now so I elected to stay with the Nike Free. However the Frappuccino in the cooler is impossible to ignore so I chuck one along with some bites. Waving goodbye to Jade, I head up the trail alone leaving the pack behind. Buck Mountain aid station awaits, 2.85 miles distant and 1,300ft above me.
Passing through the prime fall color elevation into the next zone, the trail is covered by a layer of fresh fallen leaves, making it feel like walking on a golden carpet. My body feels fresh, the 14 miles with the veterans had let my body recover, and the caffeine and sugar from the Frappuccino fueling the power to push on. I pass quite a few runners on this stretch, which is extremely abnormal for me since climbing is my one of my weakest areas. When I round a bend along an exposed ridge, I was greeted by the sound of Rocky Theme song from across the mountain. The music was already unidirectional, like coming down from the heaven. It also somehow made me think of my old dog Enzo and made me really wish he is still around and running on the trail in front me wagging his tail and waiting for me to catch up to him. I shared the next ten minutes alone with him until I climbed up to the aid station at the summit of Buck Mountain.
To my astonishment, the volunteers informed me that I have 21 minutes cushion. How the heck did I gain 9 minutes doing nothing but walking? But complain I shall not. Another slug of mountain dew, a bit of brownie and ham cheese sandwich, I head off the summit and start actually running down some very runnable gentle downhill stretches. The next 2.5 miles is simply the most enjoyable trail running. Beautiful smooth trail, not too covered by leaves, gorgeous views through the woods, occasional runners, simply fantastic. Time flew and before long I made to Wiggins Spring aid station with Jade cheering me on. Cushion had grown to 27 minutes by now to my sheer amazement. I don’t need anything since it’s only a mile and half to the Loop so I told her to meet me there. The first mile on the smooth dirt road climbs 500ft and I end up climbing along with Jay and Anita. I discovered Jay has nine finishes and there is a 10 finisher jacket waiting for him in Lynchburg, and Anita is going for her eight finish after surviving cancer! Simply an amazing persistent pair of ultra runners.
At the entrance of the Loop, my cushion is steady at 28 minutes and I told Jade to have my running jacket ready when I finish the loop, since that’ll be the last time I see her before the finish. I eat a giant piece of brownies chased down with some mountain dew before going in. The first mile of the Loop is soft pine needle covered smooth trail gently descending, superb for running which I cover in about 10 minutes. Then the trail abruptly changes in character, pinching into extremely tight and boulder strewn single track that heads straight up toward the ridgeline. I found my Nike Free not only provide zero protections from the rock, they also provide zero tractions with loose leaves. I carefully climb up the next mile and hit the ridge at a snaily 17 min/m pace. My assumption was the trail atop the ridge would be runnable. I was very wrong. Instead, the trail follows the ridge descending back toward the east but the descent is extremely steep, with giant rocks and boulders and loose leaves making it treacherous to walk in the Nike Free, much less running. Here a bunch more sure footed runners pass me while I gingerly tiptoe my way down the mountain. By the time I existed the loop at the Loop aid station, I was sick of rocks under loose leaves, and my cushion had shrank by 3 minutes.
Low spirit was immediately raised by sight of Jade and also by the smell of BBQ pork sandwich. I snatch a sandwich from a volunteer’s hand and Jade hands me my running jacket and wishing me good luck.
From here on, I will not have the sight of her beautiful face and warm smiles to look forward to until the finish line. After digesting the yummy sandwich, the next few miles provides easy downhill running on smooth trails. I seesaw with another runner for awhile and made it into Salt Log Gap aid station and was shocked to discover my cushion shrank from 25 minutes to 17 minutes! How could it be? Then I remembered what Charles said about the disappearing cushion on this stretch and it’s another one of those “Horton” magic. The cushion is still large enough that I feel safe about the race and the volunteer tells me the next aid station is only 1.5 mile away so I choose to not refill and instead push on without stopping.
That “1.5” mile turned out to be only 1 mile or so but more than makes up the shortage by the elevation gain of 450ft. The fresh climbing power I felt back at Buck Mountain is gone from the legs. The climb became a torture to be endured. Once on top, the volunteer at Forest Valley aid station claimed I had gained a minute back. Really? Sure, not going to argue with that one. I shove a bunch food in my goodie bag for the long haul coming up. The next section starts out innocently enough, totally covered by leaves making sure footing a wild guessing game. A few hundred yards later, the streamer points to an extremely narrow trail on the left, signaling the start of what I now known as “AT Hell”.
This section follows the blue blazed AT and start climbing steeply right away. Soon it climbs to an open area where three sides are surrounded by very steep hills. My first thought was where could the trail possibly go? The answer is “up”. I fall in step with two other runners and we silently suffer our way up the trail where it manages to gain another 400ft in only 0.5 miles. My Nike Free once again dances the slip and slide routine on leaves. Once on the ridge the AT descents in the same slippery fashion into a valley. It was the most welcoming sight after that stupid climb. Not even a half mile later, I look up and the only thing I see in front of me is a wall and the trail heads straight toward it. No way, I thought to myself. Then I scan the wall carefully and see two green dots that barely move. It was so steep that each of my step overlaps the previous step and yet my heart rate is still sky rocketing. For the first time during the race, I had to pause in the middle of a climb to rest. The climb was mercifully short, only about 0.2 miles but gains over 240ft. However it completely demoralized me.
One of the runners that suffered the climb with me tells me there are no more climbs left on the course. Do I dare to believe him? The next two miles had a few small gentle rises however the leafy nature of the trail continues making is difficult to pick up pace even on the downhill sections. Finally after what seems an eternity, we pop into the final aid station at Porters Ridge. The temperature has dropped enough that I’m cold, so I put my running jacket back. My cushion is now back up to 20 minutes. Yeehaw!!! The volunteer tells me it’s 3.8 honest miles, as opposed to the 2.9 Horton miles indicated on the race chart, to the finish. And to top it off, it’s all downhill from here. The trail opens back to more reasonable shape for running, though I still have to carefully pick out landing spots for each step. I pass quite a few runners here and after 2 miles the trail angles down and turns to more smooth dirt trail. The down angle and increasing speed made my legs, ankles and feet very sore but I refuse to slow down for anything at this point. Soon the course comes out to a paved road, and from the beta I received from the veterans, I knew it is 1 mile to the finish. I pick up the pace to what I feel like tempo pace (only to discover later it’s only about 9:30 min/m) and rocket my way down the road. Soon I see the finish and there is Jade yelling for me like a crazy supportive wife that she is! We run side by side, holding hands and sprint across the finish! It was sheer exhilaration! I finished MOUNTAIN MASOCHIST!