Massanutten Mountain Trails | Virginia | May 7, 2005
Where Bad People Go When They Die
By Gary Dudney
A finish at the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile doesn’t come easy. The obstacles you’ll face are legion. First, prepare for endless references to the race as “Mass of Nothing” by your annoying friends. Steel yourself for the loud Hawaiian shirt Race Director Stan Duobinis inflicts on the prerace briefing. Be ready to face down the logistical complications brought on by a Killdeer nesting in the middle of the parking lot. (A bird by the way which is said to exhibit “a distinctive run: a burst of speed, walking very quickly, then a complete halt, and then off again.” Killdeers must be ultrarunners!)
Some of your problems are foreshadowed at the briefing. Forest Service rep Don Sawyer warns that locals like “to take their half of the narrow two lane roads out of the middle.” Duobinis reminds us to check in race morning because “invariably someone will go to the motel, get scared, and not show up in the morning.” The trail over Short Mountain, a recent addition to the race, is described as “where bad people go when they die.” Hmmm. And there’s a lot of talk about rocks. (Race motto: “Massanutten Rocks!”) The contour map of the course looks like someone telling a string of whoppers to a lie detector. Oh, and don’t forget the 36 hour time limit. What could possibly take so long here in lovely Fort Valley and this pretty George Washington National Forest?
Well, the rocks for starters. After a couple of warm up miles on blacktop, the trail and the rocks begin. Higher up on the ridges it’s like a radio station: “All Rock, all the time!” Approximately three out of every four steps you take in this race will involve a weighty decision: step on the edge of this rock and trust my balance, step on this loose rock and risk it shifting, step here in this narrow spot between rocks and risk wedging my foot in there permanently, step on these dead leaves that are concealing rocks, step on this slippery spot, step in the mud, or jump over this jumble of rocks onto the next jumble of rocks. Up on the crest of the ridges, it’s like running over the back of a stegosaurus. The south fork of the Shenandoah River loops picturesquely below but some people never see it they’re so focused on where they’re going to trip next.
Despite sixteen truly outstanding aid stations, manned ably by very knowledgeable members of the sponsoring Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, the 18,500 feet of elevation gain and the omnipresent rocks make this a tough, tough course. It was easy to trip and fall, easy to get behind your energy demands, easy to grow nauseous, easy to bonk, and easy to find a thousand reasons to quit. The distances between aid stations seemed to stretch into eternities, especially the trip over Short Mountain in the dead of the night, the snaky downhill to Elizabeth Furnace, and the final climbs over the ridges to reach the finish at the Skyline Ranch Resort.
My natural tendency to start seeing things in the dark and in the rising morning light, coupled with filmy contacts lenses, left me stumbling through a bizarro world of constantly shifting oddities. As I approached, a jumble of branches would morph from a girl holding a guitar into a shaggy dog into a sea otter, all sharp and real as life. I’d see two kids in bicycle helmets sitting on a log, and then a robot with a blank face buried up to his shoulders in the forest floor…whoops, no just a tree stump. Every smooth surface, such as a striped log off in the distance, would look like a parking lot, the top of a truck, a road, a low building, or something else giving me hope aid was near. It usually wasn’t.
But as if to balance the hardships, the race offers up some delicate beauty: the dogwood and redbud blossoms hanging mysteriously in the air among the trees like magic clouds, the pink lady slippers and mountain irises growing along the trail, the Shenandoah meandering gracefully through the valley below, and the noble, infinitely changing gray-green rock formations underfoot. I also imagined Civil War era scouts or even young boys and girls standing on these ridges some hundred and fifty years ago watching the armies maneuvering below as “Stonewall” Jackson outfoxed the Union Army and made his reputation as a military genius.
Talented ultrarunners were in abundance, including Ian Torrence, Karl Metzler, Joe Kulak, and Sue Johnston but it was a relative newcomer, Matthew Estes who astonished the crowd with a new course record, eclipsing even the old record set on a less difficult version of the race. The young and fast runners seemed to relish the toughness of this course. But being ultrarunners, I think all of us appreciated the challenge, even while cursing our way through it. If you failed, at least you failed greatly. If you succeeded, well then, boy howdy, you really done somethun’.