The path leading up to this race was an incredible roller coaster ride. After the Javelina 100 in October 2022, I encountered significant challenges with my right Achilles and calf. Thus, between January and March 2023, my focus shifted to addressing these issues head-on.
My training for this involved extensive rehab for my calf and Achilles, coupled with mobility exercises and strength training to strengthen my hamstrings, glutes, and hips. The strength work has proved super useful. Unfortunately, because I was coming back from injury for this training block I wasn't able to log very much volume before the race.
It wasn't until late March that I managed to start getting in long runs. To kick off my 5-6 week training block, I decided to participate in the inaugural Heartbreaker 55k, a mountain race in western North Carolina, spanning 35 miles. Given that my longest run prior to this event was a mere 15 miles, the race turned into a sufferfest in the later miles. I felt awesome until mile 20, after which each step became quite challenging. Nonetheless, I secured 3rd place, and my body held up to a longer race, confirming my readiness to train for the Massanutten 100.
My preparation for the Massanutten 100 revolved around the subsequent 5 weeks after the Heartbreaker 55k. During this period, my mileage gradually increased, ranging from 60 to 75 miles per week. Additionally, I incorporated weekly long runs spanning distances of 18 to 25 miles, complemented by weekly tempo workouts.
Throughout this intense training phase, I witnessed a steady improvement in my fitness levels, until the final tempo run. After completing that run, I took a day off before doing my final 20-mile long run. Unfortunately, around the last 8 miles of that run, my right ankle began to throb with intense pain. The discomfort persisted during the car ride home, leaving me disheartened. Nevertheless, I tried to maintain a positive mindset.
In retrospect, the 4-mile last tempo run may have pushed my limits beyond what was feasible at the time, and then it was only exacerbated during the long run. Consequently, I had to cut my training block by a week, allowing for a more extended taper leading up to the race.
Undoubtedly, the weeks preceding the race were mentally demanding. Uncertainty loomed over how my ankle would fare during the event, coupled with the realization that I wasn't in peak physical condition. Nevertheless, I remained determined in my commitment to participate, embracing whatever outcome my body could deliver.
Here's how I prepared my mind for the race, focusing on three key aspects:
1) I wholeheartedly accepted my physical condition. This acceptance was crucial. I acknowledged that I wasn't at my absolute best, yet resolved to give it my all with the resources available. No longer would I wallow in self-pity regarding my training or injuries—I fully embraced my current state.
2) I embraced the notion that although I might not contend at the forefront of the race, I could still remain competitive and run the best race within my capabilities. Elite-level performance isn't a constant, and it's essential to compete and give my best, regardless of my position in the race.
3) Lastly, I centered my focus on the experience I had accumulated throughout my previous hundred-mile races and time spent in the mountains. This being my seventh hundred-mile race, I have gathered a wealth of wisdom and knowledge. I reminded myself that this wisdom held great significance in a race like the Massanutten 100—an unforgiving course traversing the rocky peaks of Virginia's Massanutten Mountains in the George Washington National Forest, within the enchanting Shenandoah Valley.
Here is how the course’ website described the course: "A challenging, rocky 100 miler on the trails of the Massanutten Mountains in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The course includes short but rugged mountain climbs with more than 18,000 feet of total ascent. There is a 36-hour cutoff. After running it, we think you'll agree: Massanutten Rocks!" (Check out the course website here: https://new.vhtrc.org/races/mmt)
Despite my less-than-ideal fitness level and the persistent ankle concern, my goal was to complete the race within 20 hours and secure a top 3 finish. As you'll soon discover, perhaps my optimism was slightly misplaced, but hey, that's all part of the journey!
How did the race unfold?
Part 1: The Initial Stretch
The race commenced promptly at 5 am. The initial 4-5 miles followed a gradual climb on a forest service road, leading away from the camp where the race began. Typically, I would strive to position myself near the front of the pack, but on this occasion, I adopted a cautious approach. My primary focus for the first 20 miles was to assess the condition of my ankle.
Given the ankle pain leading up to the race, I opted to wear a soft ankle support brace. It was a risk, as I had never run with such a brace before, and there was a chance it could aggravate my foot or ankle further. Once we transitioned to the mountain single track around mile 5, I found myself running alongside a group of individuals, roughly in 15th place.
Together, we navigated the rocky and rugged terrain for the next few hours. Initially, my ankle felt relatively good, but it wasn't long before I noticed the brace rubbing against my Achilles tendon, resulting in a blister that still lingered even a week later. Who knows what would have transpired over the course of 100 miles with that brace on! Around the 15-mile mark, I made the decision to remove the brace.
For the most part, my ankle and right calf held up well throughout the race. I could feel the strain in my calf and a hint of instability in my ankle, but overall, they endured. The first third of the race focused on finding my rhythm. I aimed to minimize time spent at aid stations, maintain hydration and adhere to my nutrition plan, all while running strategically.
This race was unique for me, as every step on the course was unfamiliar. I had never traversed these trails or explored this particular area before. The course presented challenges in establishing a consistent rhythm, with frequent transitions between ascents and descents that weren't particularly long. Moreover, much of the terrain was characterized by rugged rocks.
During the initial third of the race, I felt relatively okay. I never experienced a significant downturn, but I also didn't experience any remarkable surges of energy. Sometimes, after training and tapering for a race, you feel invincible during the early miles. Unfortunately, I didn't have that sensation. At this point in the race, I estimated my position to be between 10th and 15th place.
Part 2: The Mid-Race Stretch
In the second part of the race, I started to feel quite good. I didn't consciously push harder, but it seemed like I was gradually closing the gap on those ahead of me. This section involved some longer climbs, and I found myself making up ground during these ascents. Despite the increasing heat, I love running in such conditions, so I was enjoying myself during this segment.
I wasn't overly concerned about my position, assuming that I would make up significant ground later in the race. As I progressed toward the halfway point, I overtook several runners on both the trail and road sections. Approaching the middle of the course, there was a mountain descent followed by around 3-4 miles of rolling downhill road leading to the aid station at mile 54.
Around mile 50, as I reached this aid station, I was feeling exceptionally good, and suddenly I found myself among a group of 3-4 runners. Capitalizing on my positive state, I quickly grabbed some food from the aid station and continued on the gravel road. I reached the halfway mark of the race in approximately 9 hours and 45 minutes, anticipating a finishing time of around 20-21 hours.
Between this aid station and the previous gravel road section, I passed roughly 3-4 individuals. In retrospect, I may have pushed a bit harder than I should have at this stage. I felt fantastic for a few miles, but with about 2 miles remaining on the gravel road, fatigue set in, and I experienced significant tightness in my right calf and ankle.
Upon reaching the mile 54 aid station, I found myself right behind John Anderson, who would eventually secure third place in the race. My hope was to stay close to him, but unfortunately, that was the last time I would see him. While he performed awesome in the second half of the race, I encountered a lot difficulties and struggled. The second half took me nearly 13 hours, compared to the sub-10 hours of the first half.
Leaving the mile 54 aid station, I embarked on the longest climb of the race. To be honest, I didn't feel particularly great during this ascent. Fatigue and the day's heat seemed to accumulate. However, I persisted, urging myself to keep going and grind through the climb. This section took me approximately 2.5 hours, but I was thrilled to enter the next segment because my son Eli would join me as a pacer from around mile 63 for a stretch of 6 miles.
Upon reaching Eli, I felt similar to how I felt when leaving mile 54—slightly overheated, somewhat tired, and starting to have a diminished taste for food. Nevertheless, I was incredibly excited to have my son pacing me. It was the first time my sons would be able to accompany me in a race, and it felt like the culmination of years of training them in the mountains to reach this point.
Eli and I left the aid station, embarking on the next section, which included plenty of mud and a significant climb. One thing worth noting is that not having run the course beforehand played out to be a major disadvantage in the last 40 miles of the race. Especially as I started feeling worse, some sections of the course became more challenging. Mentally, it was tough not knowing what lay ahead and how to gauge my energy output. While running new trails can be exhilarating, it became more of a struggle when feeling down without anticipating what awaited me.
Eli and I had a fantastic time running together. There were uphill parts where I would typically run, but unfortunately, I couldn't manage it at this point. Fatigue was really settling in. Nonetheless, I remained overall content and eagerly looked forward to the final third of the race. I dropped off Eli at mile 71 and continued on for the last third of the race. This is where things started to get interesting, haha.
Part 3: The Final Stretch of the Race
In the final third of the race, everything seemed to unravel. I'm still not entirely sure why, but I'll try to make sense of some of the issues I faced. It all started when I dropped off Eli around mile 70. Naively, I thought the course would ease up in the upcoming section since I had never run it before. Oh, how wrong I was. Instead, the next 10 miles turned out to be the most challenging part of the entire course.
Within a short time, this section became incredibly rocky. And just as darkness was about to set in, a storm rolled in. And I don't mean just a light rain shower—this was a torrential downpour. I found myself running along a rugged, rocky ridge, expecting the course to get easier any moment. But instead, I was faced with a 10-mile stretch that took me three grueling hours to conquer due to the rain, treacherous rocks, and technical terrain.
It felt like this section would never end. I kept hoping for some relief or easier terrain, but even when it flattened out or went downhill, the rocks and technicality prevented me from running. Instead, I was reduced to hiking at a pace of 15-17 minutes per mile. By the time I reached the next aid station with approximately 20 miles remaining, I was in terrible shape.
It was as if my entire race had been turned upside down within those 10 miles. Even now, looking back, I can't quite pinpoint the exact issue. It could have been a calorie deficiency leading to a severe bonk, or perhaps my fitness had reached its limits. An hour before reaching this aid station, I made the mistake of going without calories for that duration (BIG mistake #1).
When I arrived at the aid station, my entire family was there, and for the first time in a race, I felt fear. I was afraid to venture into the next section alone, knowing I would be out there for a long time, feeling the way I did. I pleaded with my family for someone to join and pace me, and thankfully, Eli volunteered without hesitation.
This became one of the most special moments of the race for me. Eli hadn't anticipated pacing this section, yet he quickly changed into appropriate clothing and prepared to accompany me for 10 miles in the dark. Emotionally, I was deeply touched by his willingness to step in and support me. I think because of my deteriorating mental state, I had left all my calories behind at the aid station with my family.
So not only had I gone without eating for over an hour, but now I had no calories and was about to tackle another 2-3 hour section. As we began the next climb, I experienced a bonk of epic proportions. My heart rate, which should have been rising, dropped from 135 to 110 by the time we reached the top of this steep climb. This was not normal. Thankfully, the aid station atop the mountain provided some relief, even though my family couldn't assist there.
At the aid station, I chugged some coffee and took some caffeine pills. I'm still not sure if this was a mistake or not, but for the next mile, it seemed like it might have saved my race. However, after about 15-20 minutes, I returned to feeling terrible. It wasn't long before we descended and reunited with my family. At this point, I hadn't eaten anything in about 3-4 hours.
Everett was able to hop in and run with me for a few downhill miles before we hit a road where he would get back in the van and I would make the final big climb of the race. At this point I knew I had to try to eat something or I wouldn’t even be finishing this race. So I told Everett “hey buddy I am going to try to eat this gel but I think I may throw up” haha. As I thought… the second the gel touched my lips I started throwing up. I immediately threw up 3 times as I was still trying to move forward. This actually made me feel better for about 5 minutes but then I felt even worse.
Soon I dropped Everett back off and started the last big climb of the race. I was pretty miserable because I was nauseous, was about the get passed by the guy behind me, and I couldn’t even run the downhills at this point because of how bad I felt. I just needed to get to mile 96. After that I couldn’t pick up Everett again and just had a flat-ish gravel road to run to the finish.
I must say, this was the most I had ever suffered in a race and managed to keep moving forward. My pace was far from fast, but I was still making progress. I attribute this to the experience I've gained from running numerous ultramarathons. Even though I was in considerable pain, I was only passed by one person in the last 10 miles, and I even overtook someone at the final aid station.
After conquering the last major climb and descent, I reached the gravel road. I was disappointed because normally, during the descent and final stretch on the gravel road, I would have run with such strength and determination. However, I felt absolutely terrible. Before reaching the final aid station, there was a slight uphill section on the gravel road that I attempted to run. As soon as I started running uphill, I began throwing up. I ended up vomiting about seven times during the last two to three hours of the race.
I was immensely relieved when I finally reached the last aid station. From there, it was only a four-mile stretch on a rolling gravel road to the finish. I was also grateful to have Everett join me again to pace the final part of the race. He provided constant encouragement and support, even though he had left his headlamp behind at the aid station without mentioning it until after the race.
During those last four miles, I felt horrible every step of the way. Usually, even in the toughest races, the final miles are filled with joy and a sense of relief as the pain temporarily subsides. But not this time! I felt awful throughout, unable to hold a conversation with Everett as I was focused on preventing myself from throwing up. Even the slight uphill sections of the road had to be hiked to avoid further nausea.
Finally, we turned off the road and navigated a small trail towards the finish line. It was around 2:30 am when I crossed the finish line. I had been out on the course for approximately 22 hours and 30 minutes. The race director, my family, and a few others, including Max, who finished a few places ahead of me, were there at the finish line. I secured 7th place overall. Despite not performing competitively, I am incredibly proud of my finish and proud to show my sons the importance of perseverance and pushing through suffering.
This race taught me valuable lessons that will stay with me for a long time!