“Was it fun?” asked race director Todd Hacker a few hours after I had completed my first 50 miler, Mountain Masochist Trail Run (MMTR). I paused, not quite sure how to respond. During my three hour solo drive home, I had plenty of time to contemplate my response.
The race was not what I would call fun, but that is not what I was after. What I was after was my first 50 mile finish. I knew going into the race that I would need to be prepared for a very long day of relentless forward progress through the mountains, up and down gravel roads, and through 14 aid stations. The race was an exercise in patience, curiosity, stick-to-it-tedness, and embracing the 4 C’s of trail running. On my drive home post race, I listened to the Finding Mastery podcast with Michael Gervais in which he interviewed Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and seven other books, including Better than Before and The Four Tendencies (these are now on my reading list). Her formula for happiness requires you to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. I keyed in on what she said about growth, “a sense of learning, of betterment, of advancement, of contributing to the growth of others” (from her blog). While MMTR wasn’t about having fun, it was about growth. Here are some things I learned or relearned during my race day which began at 3:30 am and included 11 hours and 26 minutes of moving through the mountains.
Expect the unexpected.
After checking the clock nearly every hour between 10 pm and 3 am, it was finally time to get up at 3:30 am in order to make final preparations and be on the bus at 4 am to depart to the race start. I randomly picked one of the four buses waiting for runners at Camp Blue Ridge where pre and post-race activities occurred. I tried to settle in for the hour drive and get some rest, but found that I was surprisingly alert and enjoyed talking to the fellow behind me whose approach to the race and training were very different than mine. He didn’t wear a watch, doesn’t log his miles, and didn’t really have a race plan other than to go out and enjoy the day…as compared to my logging nearly every mile of the year in Strava as part of my Run the Year challenge and posting Hal Koerner’s 50 mile training plan on my office wall as a daily reminder of my goal.
It wasn’t long before we realized that our adventures for the day were going to begin sooner than expected. About twenty minutes into the dark bus ride, our driver stopped the bus and began backing up a gravel road. He wasn’t sure where we were and he had somehow lost the buses he had been following. Fortunately, there was another bus behind ours, so we regrouped and got moving again. Somehow we lost that bus too and 45 minutes into our trip, we were back near where we started. With the aid of two runners at the front of the bus (Thanks, Mundy!), we got back on track and eventually arrived at the race start at 6:15 am, a mere 15 minutes before the race started. On a positive note, this meant we had no time to stand around getting cold. The late arrivers and I made a quick trip to the port-a-potties and then we were off into the darkness.
I knew better than to bring a headlamp that was no good, but somehow that’s what I did. I brought a cheap headlamp that was dim and in no time and I ended up trying to run close behind anyone ahead of me to poach their light as we ran until the sun rose.
I was first introduced to the ultra-running world in the fall of 1998, when I met Eric Grossman. That year he ran Mountain Masochist for the first time following his completion of the Appalachian Trail where he had several 50 mile hiking days. MMTR marked the beginning of Eric’s stellar ultra-running career. It also marked the beginning of our time together and countless road trips traveling to his races and crewing for him. I have loved this time together seeing new places, being in the mountains, and appreciating the joy and striving of seeing Eric and other trail runners push their limits. Somewhere along the way, I got curious to know if and how I could test my mettle in the mountains. In October 2016 at the age of 42, I ran my first ultra, the Cloudsplitter 50K. This year’s MMTR marked my ninth ultra and first 50 miler. I was curious to see how I would manage 50 miles. Had I trained my body and my mind well enough to achieve my goal of finishing?
I stayed curious throughout the race. Having only seen the race from the perspective of the aid stations during my time crewing for Eric, I was curious to see what the actual course was like. The course was beautiful, made even more so by peak fall foliage. Weather was perfect for running, staying in the 50’s, sunny and cool. Having never gone more than 42 miles in a single day’s outing, I was curious to see how my body would hold up over 50 miles. My right knee started getting a little wonky after about 40 miles, prompting me to take two ibuprofen and spend a considerable time power hiking. Considering all the physical ailments I could have had over 50 miles, a wonky knee was pretty minor.
I was curious to see how my mind would traverse the invariable highs and lows, the race distance, the negative chatter when it arose. There were definitely highs and lows. The first 17 miles flew by and I felt great running, making quick time through aid stations, passing some people on the downhills. Something happened between mile 18 and 23 that I haven’t quite pinpointed, but I began slowing down and walking more. When I got to the Long Way Mountainside aid station at mile 23, I was still about an hour ahead of cut-off, but I was feeling rather discouraged to know that I wasn’t even halfway and the race was already getting tough in between my ears. I sat down to take off a shoe and get some of the mud and grit off my sock (so many creek crossings!) when the runner sitting next to me offered encouragement that we had plenty of time and we just needed to keep moving. Alright, let’s continue on. I picked up my resupply and headed on up, up, up the mountain. I was curious to meet new people and struck up conversations with Oscar from Costa Rica, Kate, Mike, and many others. Those conversations definitely helped the miles go by. I was curious to know if my year-long training had prepared me well enough to finish. I would say I was fairly well prepared though I think I could improve my fitness to allow me to push through to be able to continue to run when I felt like and gave in to many miles of hiking.
I live with a husband who is the ultimate example of a stick-to-it-tedness individual. Eric is able to initiate a challenging task, physical or mental, and stick to it until its completion. I, on the other hand, am easily distracted, bouncing from one task to another. While I know that you really and truly can only do one thing at a time, I find it very easy to think of all the things I need to be doing while I’m doing something else. A 50 mile race definitely hones your focus and forces you to stick to the task at hand. I had more than 11 hours to remind myself to bring my attention back to the present, back to the autumn leaves, the chilly wind, the cheerful conversations of the two twenty something year old gals who were happily coming up behind me, the feel of my wet feet as I crossed another creek, the surprise of seeing what it was like to run to an aid station rather than just being there waiting for Eric. I’m happy to say that I did it. I stuck to the task at hand! When my attention wavered, I brought myself back to the present and kept putting one foot in front of the other.
Somewhere around 22 miles, it dawned on me that I had a very long way to go. The easy miles were gone and it just might start to look like work. Looking at my watch and realizing I was a little over four hours into a race with at least seven hours of constant moving ahead of me felt a little, or perhaps a lot, daunting. As I was approaching the “Loop in” at mile 29, I heard my name and was grateful to find friends, Jenny Nichols and Rebekah Trittipoe, there to greet me and offer a plan to keep my head in the game. I may have whined to Jenny that I still had more than 20 miles to go and I was getting slower. They both hugged and loved on me and I just melted into them and let them give me some of their positive energy. Rebekah offered that I just needed to focus on the Loop, the next five miles. She brought me back to the present task. Jenny quickly asked what I needed and made some great recommendations. I drank some broth and grabbed some cheese quesadillas for the trail. I set back out on the next little five mile adventure so grateful for the love Jenny and Rebekah had given me, but also aware that I didn’t hug them back. It occurred to me that perhaps it was ok to be on the receiving end in that moment and not be giving back. I had heard many tales about the Loop and expected it to be never ending, but it was actually quite pleasant and I just kept plugging along.
Mike Dunlop’s 4 C’s: Conversation, caffeine, counting, and what was the other one?
I first ran Holiday Lake 50K in February 2017. It was only my second ultra as a runner as compared to my 15+ years of crewing and attending ultras with Eric. Of the now 9 ultras I’ve run, my mind found its way to the gutter in the biggest way during the 2017 Holiday Lake. I was frustrated with my pace, with slowing down, with being passed, with not being able to maintain a pace for the second half that I had during the first. At one point, I was moping along when this tall, friendly happy fellow came upon me and I fell into conversation with him. It was Mike Dunlop, a doctor and veteran ultrarunner who I’m now certain has helped countless people over the years as he has now helped me during two crucial times.
During Holiday Lake, Mike helped me with my head, and during MMTR, he helped me with my gut. When I saw Mike at MMTR, I had just been thinking about the 4 C’s he had taught me during Holiday Lake: conversation, caffeine, counting, and . . . . I couldn’t remember the other one. I called out to Mike and asked him what the fourth “C” was. “Calories,” he replied. We then carried on for a while together and I shared that my stomach was feeling upset, that I didn’t want to eat any more of the food I brought, and that my Heed sport drink didn’t taste appealing any longer. The next aid station was just a few minutes away and once we got there, he took off his pack, gave me two Tums and some anti-nausea medicine, and encouraged me to drink some tomato soup. I stood at the aid station and drank that awesome, warm, salty soup, refilled my bottle with plain water, and put the Tums and anti-nausea tablet in my pack in case I really needed them. Voilà! It was like magic, my stomach settled and I was moving along again pretty soon.
I saw Mike again at the loop and he checked on me to make sure I was feeling better. Mike taught me that these races are about so much more than just completing the miles, running a personal best, or spending a day in a beautiful setting; they’re about making connections with others, supporting others, and being supported by others. I’m beginning to see why people keep coming back to run again even when an individual race may take you to physical and mental lows you wouldn’t be likely to choose on the regular.
Bring out the big guns when you need them.
For me, the big guns on race day were tunes. I had planned to wait until about 40 miles to begin listening to music, but found myself needing that boost around 35 miles. Fortunately, friend and office DJ Cassandra Caffee Morelock put together a rockin’ playlist for me. Her selection was interspersed with my tunes which shook things up a bit and made me curious to hear what was coming next. One of my favorite moments of the race occurred during the final two mile descent to the finish. Beyonce’s song, “Run the World,” (which I had never heard before) came on and it was just the absolute best, most upbeat song to get me running again into the finish. And so it goes. After 11 hours and 26 minutes, my day in the mountains was complete. I crossed the finish line with greetings from dear friends Jenny, Brock, Rebekah, and David. I crossed the finish line pretty darn happy.
So, was it fun? Not so much. Was it a rich and rewarding experience? Absolutely.
Will I be back to see if I can do better than before during the MMTR 2019? 48 hours post race, I think my answer is now an unequivocal yes, body and mind willing.