A Tale of Three Races- a short story
Working title: 33 miles is an awfully long way to walk
When a race is in its 29th year and has a shoe named after it, you know it is a classic. With that in mind, I eagerly registered for the Mountain Masochist Trail Race 50+. It’s a classic Horton race, with 9200 ft climbing, 7200 drop, and a few extra “Horton miles” included. I had heard nothing but good things about it.
While UROC was my focus race of the fall, I still wanted to do well at MMTR, though a few niggles and a slow recovery from UROC somewhat tempered my expectations. Nonetheless, I felt a 7:15-ish time was doable. Unfortunately, that changed when my daughters kindly shared some kind of flu bug with me a few days pre-race. I felt moderately achy and fatigued, mainly in my legs (a first), though I hoped it was either just a taper phantom pain or would pass quickly. However, I felt sick enough during the drive up Friday that I seriously considered turning around, but chose to see how I felt Sat morning. The already-long pre-race briefing and dinner felt even longer with my throbbing head, though I enjoyed some good conversations with a group of Raleigh runners. After, we headed to JB’s (Jonathan Basham) in-law’s house, where they were kind enough to give me a bed. There were 5 of us, and I was the only one of the group who hadn’t done or seen the race at least 5 times. One was Alyssa Wildeboer, the second-seeded woman with bib 102. Seeing as I was bib 2, we joked that hopefully the “2’s” would kick some butt (more on that later).
Race morning came early and cold, but I felt just good enough to give the race a serious go. There was some stiff competition, including a few guys I met earlier this year (Eric Grossman, Jeremy Ramsey, JB, amongst others). I was eager to start.
Part 1: The Race
The first 3 road miles were enjoyable, with a bit of chatting. I found myself in 7th, at the back of the lead pack, though I decided to let them go after 4 miles due to concerns about my health. They were a minute or two ahead at aid 1 (7 miles, 49 minutes), though a long stop due to bottle issues backed me to 10th. I had heard MMTR had lots of dirt road, but was pleasantly surprised to find that much of it was actually more like doubletrack or closed ATV trails that were at least somewhat technical and very fun, rather than passenger-car gravel roads. The next few miles passed quickly and I felt reasonably good as we ran up and down trails. I really enjoyed the trail, the cool temps, and being outdoors. After a few creek crossings and Aid 4, a long, gradual uphill found me in 6th place with three guys just behind. I was pleased to find myself slowly pulling away and was climbing strong. I reached Aid 5, mile 19, in 2:35. Unfortunately, my day was about to change.
Part 2: 33 Miles is an Awfully Long Way to Walk
Reaching the top of the hill at mile 19, we started a 3 mile decent to Irish Creek aid. However, it quickly became apparent that my body had just taken a turn for the worse. Interestingly, the first thing to fail when things turn south is my downhill legs (a la Logan Peak 2010 at mile 24), not my uphill legs. JB and the two other runners behind me passed and steadily pulled away as my pace uncontrollably slowed from 6:30 to 8:30 per mile over the course of a few miles. I knew I was toast, and my first thought was, “Egads, 33 miles is an awfully long way to walk.” My body told me my race was over and shifted into slow, long run pace, with a lot of walking interspersed. Two more runners passed me. A bit of humor did arrive in the form of David Horton, who came sliding up in his truck, waving me over. He pointed at me and loudly exclaimed, “Hey! Hey! You’re 11th place. Do you know what that means?!? You’re the First Loser! Now go catch someone to get top 10!” I just shook my head, muttered a low, “Okay,” and plodded onwards as he screeched away. I was shocked how long it took for anyone to appear behind me, despite my laborious pace. When I was finally passed, I mentioned to the runner that he was now in 11th spot and only needed one pass to be top 10. I was surprised when he gave me a couldn’t-care-less” look and just said, “It’s a long race.” Truly, there was a steep dropoff- outside the top 10 runners that day, none of the remaining guys seemed to particularly care about specific times or places, just wanting to finish. It was a different mindset than the competitive, push hard and beat the other guy mentality at the front.
I had a few conversations with myself regarding if I would drop at Long Mtn, the halfway mark. I am glad to say that, partly shamed by my OD DNF, partly cause I needed a qualifier for Western, and partly cause I just wanted to keep going, I resolved to finish as long as I could walk. And walk I could. If I was stubborn enough to start the race regardless of how my body felt, then I was going to be stubborn enough to finish the race regardless of how my body felt. It served me right and seemed fitting. My mantra the rest of the day was simply, “Onwards.” I repeated this to myself time and again.
I leisurely changed shoes and swapped gear at Long Mtn (mile 28.3, 4:05), then teamed up with law student David Kirby to finish the climb up Buck Mtn. Although I felt I could essentially run the whole mountain on a good day, I was content to relax and see if my body could recover at all. David and I chatted, which certainly made the climb pass quickly. Before I knew it, we reached the top with the Rocky soundtrack blaring from some jeep speakers (I can’t imagine how the aid station workers can endure the same song for 4+ hrs). The next 12 miles were a physical roller coaster of small ups and big downs, though it appeared my struggles were common to all the racers in my vicinity. I reached the loop, downed some delicious ramen noodles, and joined a twosome of runners to venture around and over the mountain. The leaf-strewn trail, surrounded by bare trees and with no wildlife in sight, gave a bit of a surreal, desolate, and forlorn feel to this portion of the course. I was surprised at how technical some of the trail was, and unsurprisingly struggled with some of the very technical descents, walking sections. The loop eventually ended (mile 40, 6:34), though, and I paused briefly for my only star of the day.
Part 3: Pseudo-pacer
Returning to the road, I found Alyssa bounding past me, looking strong but a bit tired as the second place woman. Feeling marginally better and moving at similar paces, I decided to try to stick with her and maybe even assist if possible, acting as a pacer of sorts. We settled into a routine, amiably talking as we ran. I was again reminded how much easier things seem when you have someone to talk to and distract you from your misery. There were a few times I struggled to keep up with Alyssa, and a few times I easily could have pulled away, but we were generally even. Across the gravel roads, up and over more technical, very leaf-covered singletrack, we pushed as we tried to reel-in her unseen foe, somewhere ahead of us. She listened to all my ramblings and both of my corny jokes and I picked her brain for knowledge of the course. We even decided that the race should be a team competition, seeing as we were numbers 2 and 102. If Eric (bib 1) didn’t finish with Sandi (bib 101), then we would win! Up and over one last 4000 ft mtn, then to the last aid station, where we learned first woman was 28 min ahead. With little chance of winning, Alyssa still wanted to beat her husband’s fastest time ever of 8:41. Running strong on the long downhill, the finish line finally appeared after a long 51.5 miles. She finished in 8:33:58, with me right behind. I finished 16th overall, 14th male- it was my first chicking since the Rocky Raccoon, and a double chicking at that. Horton shook my hand and immediately told me to come back to see what I could do when I wasn’t sick.
Eric won the race, clocking a sub-7 hr time. JB and Jeremy were 5th and 6th. I had a good time at the finish line, eating and talking with Clark, Horton, and all the racers. The post-race dinner/awards was likewise enjoyable, and I was intrigued by the fact that 30% of The Barkley Marathons finishers were present, with JB, Andrew Thompson, and David Horton all within 10 feet of me. Now that’s a crazy race- if you don’t know about it, google it. A few hours sleep courtesy of JB and Hillary’s parent, and I drove home early Sunday morning.
Physically, it probably would have been wise to not run. But, I wanted to experience the race and knew beforehand that it would likely be a slogfest. I gave it my best, but just didn’t physically have it to compete that day the way I am used to. I attribute my sub-par performance to 30% lack of UROC recovery/undertraining, and 70% sickness. I still believe I could run a 7:15-ish or faster. The race has lots of history, though it may change routes next year due to Forest Service issues. That would be a real shame. It’s a great course and well-run race with lots of great runners and volunteers.
Personally, I had fun and I’m very glad I did MMTR. Now, I also had many hours of suffering, but there is something enjoyable and rewarding about pushing yourself and completing a daunting task when it is definitely an off-day. It’s hard to beat a day running and walking trails in the beautiful mountains. And I also enjoyed trying to help Alyssa meet her goals- nothing forces you to get over your own bad day like trying to help someone. It was a hard, fun day, and I finished what I started, even if it took me a little extra time.
I have to thank my wife, Marci, and 3 kids for providing the best support a guy could ask for from a family. And for my parents and friends for caring. There are a lot of races on the East Coast I want to run, and likely won’t be repeating any races for a while, but this would definitely be one of the first that would draw me in again. Good times.