Monday, May 17, 2010

Pacing at MMT100, May 15, 2010

It's 1:40 a.m. on Sunday morning and I'm trying to sleep in the car at the Visitor Center Aid Station at mile 77.1 of the Massanutten Mountain 100 Mile race when my phone beeps that I have a text message. It is from cousin Peter K., who is somewhere out in the darkness on the rocky trail. "Get comfy and take a nap if u want," he writes, "not yet to AS11." That means he's likely nine miles away so I try to get some sleep. But I have trouble sleeping, partly because of the large cup of tea I had a midnight on the drive out and partly because I'm afraid that if I fall asleep I'll miss him.

The weather, which had been warm at 2 a.m., turns cool and rain begins to fall about 3:30. By 4:15 the rain ends, but still no Peter. At 5:35 the sky begins to lighten, but no sign of Peter and I'm getting a little worried, but I note in a tweet that he still has three hours to go before the cutoff at the aid station.

Finally, at 5:54 a.m., Peter arrives at the aid station along with his Pittsburgh friend, Phil W. They plop down in chairs while aid station workers bring them soup and refreshments, and I help fill Peter's camelback with water.

After about ten minutes of resting, they are ready to go and we head off down the trail. They are 'running' the downhill, but after going 77 miles on the brutally rocky and hilly course, their running is little more than my walking pace. But because this is Massanutten, and every downhill leads to an uphill and within a quarter of a mile, we all are walking climbing up the steep side of Bird Knob. Finally we reach to top for a photo op, then walk and run the level top of the Knob to the aid station of the same name at mile 80.5. They offer us delicious corn chowder for breakfast as well as the usual aid station assortment of cookies, bananas and other carbohydrate/sugar rich food.

A women runner comes in to the aid station and passes on the chowder. She tells us that her stomach had bothered her during the night, so she found a log, crawled under it and took a nap for a couple of hours.

Our stop at this station is not as long as at the Visitor Center station and we head down a gravel road. The woman rolls past us and tells us that her legs feel fine, and it was only her stomach that had slowed her down. "My legs only get tired during the second day of 160 or 170 mile multi-day runs," she explains as she passes. Even for Phil, who is running is fourth hundred miler, that is extreme.

The downhill leads as you would suspect to another uphill and like many MMT uphills, it is rocky and steep. Phil strides away from Peter and I, but waits for us at the top. But on the downhill he moves out and by the time we are headed up the next hill, his green shirt is receeding into the distance.

Peter is starting to feel and look a bit tired. He takes a call from wife Jenny and tells her that we are about 45 minutes from the next aid station where she plans to meet us. I gently suggest that me is underestimating the time that it will take us, but he is unconcerned.

This is my first time pacing, and further, I've never been to a 100 mile race, so I'm not sure what my role is, or what is the best way to help Peter. I know that chattering away helps the time pass, and so I babble away about all sorts of things. Peter works in metallurgy, so I tell about the use of platinum as shotgun pellets in 19th century Russia, the change to copper-plated zinc cents in 1982 and the current quandary of the Mint, where it costs more than face value to make cents and five-cent coins. I ask Phil and Peter the eternal question facing all ultrarunners, 'why?' Phil and I discover that we both have experienced the runner's high, or that zone of running where all is perfect and timeless and trouble-free.

Peter is starting to look tired and he says that he needs to sit down on a log and get some caffeine into his body. He pulls out a can of Starbucks double-shot espresso drink and downs it. It perks him up and off we go, reaching Aid Station 14, the Picnic Area, at mile 86.9 where Phil is relaxing in a chair being tended to by wife Beth, and Jenny is there to meet Peter. And best of all, Beth has brought Egg McMuffins for the two runners. We spend 14 minutes at the aid station, as the two runners eat, refill water bottles and camelbacks and rest a bit.

Finally we move out headed to the last aid station before the 'dash' to the finish. MMT dishes out more of its rocky paths, gravel fire roads, and hills. The path is not without some beauty, and at one point, Peter calls for a rest and the three of us sit down on some logs. The only sounds we hear are birds and the water in a stream. In addition, there are small flowers on the forest floor as well as flowering shrubs.

At one point we come to a tree that has fallen across the trail about thigh high. Peter and Phil stare at it. They both say that they cannot lift their legs high enough to get over it. They look left and right, but make no move to try to figure a way around it. Finally, in what may be a breach of the pacer's code to render no assistance other than companionship, but having no interest in standing in the woods until the buzzards begin to circle overhead, I suggest that they crawl under it. They do, I step over it, and we move on.

We come to a part of the trail that is flat and smooth and devoid of rocks. I suggest to Peter that this may be a good place to run, as we have been mostly walking since since I met up with them. Peter is in the lead and he begins to run. That is, he moves his arms like a runner and lifts his feet, but after more than 90 miles and 30 hours I have no trouble walking behind him. But psychologically, he feels strong enough to run and that is beneficial to his psyche, if not his time.

Peter is carrying the course description with him, and the stretch between aid stations 14 and 15 is 8.5 miles long. The last 1.5 miles is described as being on a road, and as we are on a wide gravel path, it seems to be a road. But no, it finally comes out on what is actually the road and the two runners are a bit disappointed. Peter asks about his chances of finishing in under 34 hours, and I tell him that if he doesn't spend too much time at the last aid station and gets on his way by 1:00 p.m., he has a good shot at it. The road is all downhill but we don't run. Finally, we turn off the road onto a short path to the Gap Creek Aid Station at mile 95.4, and now Peter runs in a way that requires me to run to keep up with him. He and Phil enter the aid station at 12:53 p.m.

My job is done as Jenny will pace him for the last 6.3 miles to the finish. I've gone 18.3 miles in 6:42, a pace of 21:58 minutes per mile. I have tremendous respect for Peter and Phil for taking on MMT, not just because it is 100 miles (it is actually 101.7) but because it is an extremely difficult one. In fact, of the 170 runners who started the race at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, only two-thirds will finish in the alloted 36 hours.

Peter and Phil take their accustomed positions in chairs at the aid station. But they know that they have to be out of there by 1:00 p.m. if they want a chance to finish in under 34 hours. And Jenny is pacing them. Right at 1:00 she tells Peter that it is time to get moving. He and Phil get up, I say my goodbyes and wish them luck.

Jenny is a better pacer than me. She pushes them at a 19:12 minutes per mile pace, and they finish in 33:54:39.

I find this out later. Having left them, I drive to Sonny's Place on Route 211 for pulled pork barbecue, cole slaw, baked beans and sweet tea. Delicious!


  1. Great report and photos! Thanks for coming out to help Phil and I get it done. It was a tremendous help!

  2. Thank you for pacing him! Mom and I were thinking about him all day Saturday and Sunday!