The 26th Mountain Masochist Trail Run. I like to call it the legend of the fall. I first heard about this race in 2004. I was a 22 year old kid, fresh and proud of completing my first ultra marathon. In a search for other unique ultra events, my jaw dropped when I stumbled upon an article about a race called the Mountain Masochist. A 50+ mile trail race, run entirely through the mountains of Lynchburg, and boasting over 9,000 ft of elevation gain. The race director I read was a combination of tall tale legend, and mad man. It made me realize that the 50 miler I had just run was one of the “easy”ones. I thought to myself “I barely finished an easy ultra. There’s no way on earth I could ever complete this one.”
I have waited three years to run this race. In 2006 and 2007 the race had filled up before I could get in. The reality is that even if I had gotten in, I probably would not have made the time cut offs. This year the race was the day after Halloween, which I thought was perfectly fitting. Runners will either be tricked or treated at MMTR, and they will certainly be eating pain like candy.
2008. I filled out the race application in May, and made sure I was running MMTR. Game on!
Race Day: 4am I get up and make sure that I have everything I need for a good run. The buses start loading at 5am for the long drive to the James River visitor center and start of the race. One glance out of the bus window reveals a starry night sky, a perfect beginning to a full day of adventure. It is about 40 degrees at the start and the air is crisp with the chill of autumn. A last minute trip to the little boy’s room makes me almost late for the official start. At exactly 6:30 new Mountain Masochist race director Clark Zealand signals the start of the race.
MMTR was my first race as a member of the Brooks Inspire Daily running team, so when the race began I was a little too pumped. I had in mind a realistic goal time of less than 9 hours, but during the first 3 road miles, I blasted out into the dark morning with the elites. The only problem is that I am NOT an elite, I am a middle of the pack runner who is has clearly let his curiosity get the best of him. I looked around and recognized some of the faces in the dark. Wow, it’s Eric Grossman, look Zach Miller, Lon Freeman, and there’s Sean Andrish! Hey that’s a lot of Innov8 and team Montrail shirts. I felt more like a goofy fan than a runner. Anyway, that all lasted about 15 minutes as the real fast guys dropped the pace to 6 minute miles, and left my 7 minute pace poking around in the dark. A 7 minute pace to start a 50 miler? What was I thinking? Then again, what was I thinking running a marathon, or 50k on 5 straight weekends? Maybe I just love running that freaking much, that I wasn’t thinking. We’ll find out later in the race if this was a fatal error.
Aid 1(5.7…err 7miles?) So, the elites came through the first aid station anywhere between 42 and 47 minutes. I cruised in around 53, still a 7:47 pace, and again too fast too early. But, feeling frisky I kept running fast, although I did back off a bit on the early climbs. Through the first 25k I was in the top 25, and passed through the 14.9+ aid point in a relatively brisk 2:30. At some point around here the eventual female winner Justine Morrison came running by. This was another clear indicator that mid pack Mike had gone out too fast.
16-20 miles- The race was still pretty easy at this point, as no serious climbs had really occurred yet. I was switching running and walking some of the early ascents, but I knew we would be earning those 9200 ft pretty soon. I ran into Jared Hesse and Jonathan Basham and had fun chatting with those guys for a bit. I was very surprised that Basham was behind me that long, but after a few miles of socializing he clearly decided to kick into a higher gear leaving me and Jared behind. The fact that I was ahead of JB was sign #3 I had gone out too fast.
At this point you are wondering what the result of going out too fast did. Well, at around mile 22 it did a lot. My long climb up Buck Mountain was slow and slower. In this stretch I found myself walking even flat fast sections, and when I did try to run my legs felt like petrified logs. I remembered what Clark had said at the dinner the night before. “If you’re having a rough time, just enjoy being out there. Enjoy God’s creation, enjoy the mountains, and enjoy the fall colors.” I kept reminding myself that there was no other place that I’d rather be than in the mountains, and experiencing creation in 3-D. That mantra stuck, even though my sub 9 hour finish had gone out the window, and even when I was being passed by a number of runners. My only reprieve came at what I call the “Rocky” aid station. I have heard stories about the Rocky music echoing through the mountains, and the Bible scripture written on posters along the trail. After what seemed like an endless climb up Buck Mountain, the summit was in site. I kept reading the inspirational Bible verses, and admit that I got a little emotional as I got closer to the aid station. I felt spiritually recharged, and gained a little bounce back in my stride.
The Loop: I was feeling good until this section. I had heard plenty about the infamous loop, but also some good things. I was told to try and complete it in under an hour. Going into the first flat section, I felt great. I figured I could do the loop in 45 minutes at that pace. Wrong. The loop gets a little more fun, and a little more gnarly. It’s not necessarily difficult, but I found myself dragging trying to get through it. Again, I got passed by a few more runners, including the talented Heather Fisher whom I saw back and forth for much of the day. The loop took me over an hour, and the next few miles after the loop would prove to still be a struggle. I remember getting passed by my buddy Marc Griffin, who ran a very strong race, and set a new MMTR PR for himself. At this point, I was questioning whether a 10 hour finish would be still be realistic.
40 miles to the Finish: I managed to get my groove back and made a strong push to make up for lost time. I ended up passing the likes of Krista Meisch, Jenny Anderson, Byron Backer, and Drew Ponder. All are very fast runners who had been experiencing some rough moments. Right after leaving the final aid station, I took the worst fall of the day. Head first down the trail (he’s safe!). No Blood. Crap! Looks like I won’t be getting best blood. I got back on my feet, and finished off the last 3.5 miles in 30 minutes. With the finish area in site, I picked up some steam, breezed by and gave Clark Zealand a big high five. I finished in 9:31. On a day so many runners struggled (very high drop rate, even for MMTR), I am more than happy with my rookie MMTR performance. It gives me all the more reason to be back next year and do better.
Post Race: Right after the run, I take a chilly dip in the pond near the finish. It oddly feels amazing and horrible at the same time. Either way, I never expected my legs to feel so good after this race. I also decide to try the bench press contest. I figured the worst that could happen was either injury or embarrassment. So, I put my 155 lb frame under the barbell, and managed 14 reps. Man does running 50 miles drastically decrease your ability to bench press! Who knew?
Final Thoughts: This race lives up to everything you will ever read about it. It is clearly not for everyone, so if you are a middle of the pack runner, training is essential. Do not show up thinking that you can just complete this on a whim, or because you have a number of ultra finishes. You won’t, and this is not just another ultra. It is a rare treasure that I suggest most trail runners attempt at least once. The volunteers at MMTR are as vital, if not more, as your training. THEY are what help you and me finish this race. Also, Clark Zealand did a tremendous job keeping MMTR alive and well. He had some big shoes to fill, but he filled those shoes like fat man in a phone booth. I think we have many more years to come of this legendary autumn event. And I use the word event, because it is not just a race, it is an experience.
Thanks for everything,