Monday, September 8, 2008

The Massanutten Trail Ring

Background of The Ring
For those who don't know, the Massanutten Trail is a 71.1 loop trail in the Shenandoah Valley. It travels 35 miles south, and then returns 36 miles back north. Most hikers will break up the trail into a 4-6 day event. The trail contains some of the steepest climbs, and possibly the rockiest surface of any race in the US. In 2002 a couple members of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club decided that this set up was perfect for a race. The race was aptly named The Ring for the fact that the trail and mountains create a geographic ring around Fort Valley. There is a 100 mile race called Massanutten Mountain Trails that covers much of this trail, however in The Ring, all easy sections have been removed, and a few tougher climbs added.
I will not lie. This race will test your manhood, and it will take it from you. But, only if you let it. Few people sign up to run the Ring every year, and even fewer people finish it.
Unlike "normal" races this event is a Fat Ass style run. That means you don't pay to enter, the aid you do receive will be limited, no silly t-shirts, no medals, no buckles, and no prizes. This run is simply about being up to the task of finishing. It's all about your personal goals, and no fanfare. The first and last finishers get the same amount of nothing. Just a huge sense of personal achievement, which is priceless.
The 2008 Ring Race Report
7:00am- The race begins. It is an overcast and humid morning of September 6th. Hurricane Hanna has moved up the east coast, and threatens to drop massive amounts of rain on the mid-atlantic states today. It's about 70 degrees outside, and the rain is starting to come down.
Of the 26 runners signed up, a couple decide not to show because of the looming forcast. Still, 24 runners are ready to tackle one of the toughest races east of the Rockies.
Start to 13 miles: The trails are pretty tame so far. Only a few climbs, and very runnable surface. With only one aid station in the first 25 miles, the biggest challenge is carrying all your food and water. With a 70 ounce camel back, 20 oz hand bottle, and food, I was lugging about 8 lbs on my back. Not alot if your hiking, but it took a little getting used to at running speed.
Rain and Wind- it rained for about four hours between 8am-12noon. I recall pretty heavy rain and wind on the ridge tops around 10am. This was about as bad as the weather got, which wasn't nearly the all day drenching we expected. For the most part the rain kept temperatures cool, and the wind didn't effect too much aside from knocking some trees onto the trail. I figured I'd be running in wet clothes and shoes for most of the race, so it didn't bother me at all. The 1.5 inches of rain did create many puddles, and some slippery trails. Think wet leaves on wet loose rocks. A good recipe for disaster.
13-25 miles: I ran this section pretty fast, although I took a wrong turn and ended up running a half mile further than everyone else. I had wondered how other guys had caught up, when I had tried to push the pace. I was 3rd overall into the first aid station at 25 miles, with a group of three just seconds behind. At about 25 miles in, the weather cleared up and remained nice for the rest of the day.
34 miles and Waterfall mountain: This is where the fun really begins. The first 50k are like any other trail race. Some of the rocks are hard to run on, but no there are no really tough climbs. Waterfall mountain changes all that. 900 feet of vertical climb in 0.6 miles makes this one of the steepest climbs anywhere. My heart rate redlined on this section, as it probably took every bit of 20 minutes to do on fresh legs. About 2/3 of the way up, the trail flattens, and you think you're done. No. You still have a few hundred more feet to go. This part will either make you cry for mommy, or laugh to keep from crying. I mostly thought " holy crap, you've got to be kidding me?" It never seemed to end, but ironically it is a pretty short climb, just steep as hell.
When you finally finish climbing lovely Waterfall mountain, you are only halfway done! Some folks tend to drop out of the race at this point, since they realize it is no longer fun. The next 36 miles are tougher than the first 35, and that just doesn't sit well with some people. The truth is you have 5 more peaks to summit, which is around 7,000 more feet of climbing. The downhills also really suck after a while too. Oh, and the sun is going to set soon, so you get to do it all in the dark.

35-40 Miles: I jog into the 35 mile aid station at Crisman Hollow rd. Until now I've been breezing through the aid stations in a couple minutes. I decide to take about 10-12 minutes to sit down and take some weight of my feet for a bit. I change socks, eventhough my shoes are still soaked. I'm making sure to take in alot of calories at the aid stations from here on out. Next I get to climb Short Mountain, which is not short. The trails along this ridge are runnable, but after rolling my ankle 101 times on the previous ridge, I decide to go slow. The frustrating part of this run is that even on the flat sections, you still can't go fast. You want to run, but it won't help by trying. It took me about 2.5 hours to cover each 8 mile section between aid stations. You really don't realize why it takes people that long until you actually do it yourself.

48-56miles: The night time settled in. I turn on my headlamp, which helps, but I still can't spot every rock out there. My biggest fear at night is that I will take the wrong trail and end up in the middle of nowhere. From here to the finish I will spend 8 more hours in the middle of the mountains alone. By now a couple more runners drop, and some decide they don't want to run in the dark. As far as the trails, it was actually easier to do the climbs at night since you couldn't really tell how steep the trail was, or how much further you had to go. I decided to have my mp3 player on to prevent me from feeling too isolated. The back side of the mountain was very still. No wind, no noise, no views. Only, thorns and some ghetto looking trail. Upon reaching the ridgeline, I was greeted by what looked like Christmas lights. It was lights from the valley, glittering hues of gold and yellow. It was a pleasant sight, and rather enchanting in the cool night. Above me was a crescent moon and the clearest night sky I have seen in some time.

56-62.5 miles:I arrive at the Woodstock Tower aid station. As I looked at my watch, I noticed that the miles seemed to feel longer and longer. I kept saying to myself "it seems like the next aid station should be getting close?". More and more darkness. More rocks, more thorns, more climbing. It was around 56 miles into the race I started getting sore. My left ankle was starting to swell from rubbing against my shoes. My quads were still good, but my hip flexors were pretty stiff from the climbs. This made lifting my legs kinda tough. I actually had no blisters. Very surprising considering the rocky course, and wet feet. I honestly did not feel like going back out into the dark for another 6 hours. However, I made it this far, and I really wanted to tackle the Ring.

62.5 miles and Signal Knob- leaving the final aid at 63 miles I felt very sore and beat up. I knew that I would have another whole mountain to climb, and a brutal descent down. 8.6 more miles meant atleast 3 hours at my current pace. Gotta keep slugging at it. The climb up to Signal Knob is actually on a fire road. It starts at a rather pedestrian grade, but then decides to kick it up a notch as you near the summit. The last half mile or so are rather steep, but then again it was hard to tell at 2am in the morning. At the summit I took a moment to take in the view of the valley. I turned off my headlamp to soak in the natural ambience. Again, it seemed magical. Thousands of golden lights. For a second you could almost forget the 66 miles it took to get you to that point. But, that's the last enjoyable moment of the race.......

66.6 miles to the Finish- yes 66.6 miles is the exact point where the hellish decent down Signal Knob begins. Coincidence with the numbers? I think not. After the beautiful overlook, the trails decides to become a bunch of jagged rocks again. And then the rocks get bigger,more jagged, and more loose. Lets be honest, almost everyone's feet hurt like heck at this point, and these rocks add insult to injury. The trail is not steep, but it taunts you. I wondered "why the hell did they make THIS part of the official trail?". It wouldn't be fun to even hike on. It was like someone took a truck full of big stupid rocks and decided to dump then directly on the trail. I managed a very entertaining balancing act, trying not to snap an ankle for fall on my face. Every time you thought the trail was clearing up into something managable, it was like....nope,not yet, we still got a few more miles of these rocks you need to do. It felt like it would never end, it was so monotonous. Finally, the trail eased up for the last dowhill mile or so. On this last mile, I strongly debated if I actually enjoyed the race. That notorious final 5 miles, which is heavily documented in the lore of Ring runners, lived up to the hype. Although probably not that bad by itself, it does suck a bit after 67 miles.

71.1 Miles- 4:45 am. technically 72 miles for me since I strayed off the trail several times.

....Well, I must say that I am proud to be the 56th person inducted to the "Fellowship of The Ring". Only 15 of the 24 starters finished, and the last guys came in 28 hours after they started. I am also one of the youngest runners to finish, and had a very respectable finish time of 21 hours 45 minutes. This was easily the toughest run I have completed to date. Technically much harder than my 100 mile finish. A day after the run I feel pretty good. The ankle is still a little tender, no blisters, some sore hip flexors, and stiff quads. Going up and down steps isn't quite a cake walk yet, but noticebly better than yesterday. The Ring is everything I hoped it would be. The Ring is a memorable run, a physical test, very mentally challenging, and as rewarding as they get. Great volunteers, event coordinators, and fond new memories.

Mike Bailey- The Ring, inductee Class of 2008