Monday, May 20, 2013

The Comeback Kid: A Massanutten 100 Story

(photo courtesy of MoutainPeakFitness)

There were three comebacks that happened on Sunday May 18th, 2013. The first being a comeback from months of injury and doubt to finish one of the toughest foot races in the country. The second being a comeback back from a recent back strain that got reaggrevated at mile 70. It nearly caused me to drop out at mile 78. The third and final comeback was avenging my DNF from 2009.

It was May 7th, 2013. All morning I had been stairing at my computer deciding whether or not to click the submit button. I was on the VHTRC's Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 "remove from event" page. I had eveything filled out and all I had to do was click a little button and I would be removed from the entrants list. Afterall, it was just two days earlier I had strained my back again from sleeping awkwardly on it. Those pesky lower back problems. Sigh. On and off since I was 14 years old, and now was a pretty crappy time for them to revisit. On a scale from 1 to 10 (10 being so painful I can't tie my shoes, or get out of bed), my body was around an 8 or 9. Not the place to be two weeks away from attempting such a grueling event. May 7th was also the last day to withdraw and receive a refund, and thus, removing myself from the entrants list seemed logical.

However, as May 7th came to an end and midnight arrived, I never allowed myself to click the submit button. So many thoughts had been lingering throughout my mind. I had waited so long to get back to Massanutten. Four long years, in fact. Though injured the entire fall and winter, I had forced myself to reinvent my running so I could squeeze in five weeks of quality training. 20 mile running weeks turned into 40 miles, and then 60, 80, and eventually 110 by May. Simply put, I had worked too damn hard to be ready, and I owed it to myself to at least make it to the starting line.

The race itself really isn't as important as what happened before, or even after. I chose to run a smart race and not risk gunning for a sub 24 hour time. Five weeks of training, for what it's worth, wasn't enough to make a sub 24 hour finish plausible. Why chance it? Instead, I opted to run a smooth and casual 26-27 hour projected finish pace through the first 70 miles. I didn't feel tired, and every time I arrived at an aid station I looked fresh as a daisy. A lot of folks commented on how, even after 60+ miles, I looked like I hadn't even been running. Then, in the blink of an eye my worst fears became a reality. On the steep climb up Jawbone my lower back completely seized up. Everything I had worried about happening in the previous weeks was coming to an ugly fruition. Over the next three hours I spent significant time stopping to stretch, rest my back, and figure out how to minimize the sharp pain running down my back with every step.

So many doubts afflicted my consciousness. "I should have just removed myself from that damn entrants list!". "Mike, why the hell did you come out here? You knew this would happen." "Your race is over". "Drop at the next aid station. Afterall, 78 miles on this course is still something to be proud of". "Mike, you have suffered for over three hours now, the next 34 miles will take you 12-13 more. You don't need this." "Be safe Mike. Just drop and don't hurt yourself. It's not worth it". "Two starts at Massanutten. Two drops.". "You just flushed that $185 entry fee down the drain."

Crossing over Kern mountain in the black of night was a dark journey through my mind. I was slowly beginning to lose the battle of wills. I just wanted to be done. Crisman Hollow road might has well have been the road to perdition. I slowly walked down the winding pavement to route 211 and the visitor's center aid station. I took my time in order to reflect a bit, because I knew my race was going to end in just a few short miles. Pretty soon this silly notion of running 100+ miles will be over and I will be in a warm car headed back to a haven a sleep and rest. Oh the irony. Such a difficult race, and yet the one thing to take me out was an injury that had nothing to do with this race, or even running.

When I arrived at mile 78, I told the volunteers I was dropping. I met my friends Tabitha, Ryan, and Emily and told them what had happened. I received no pitty as they urged me to keep going. But, they didn't get it. My back was jacked up, and another 26 miles of notoriously rocky mountain trails was not in the cards. 26 miles in my current condition meant at least another 10, or more hours on the trail. I was going to drop. Again, no pitty. I wrapped myself up in warm clothes and a sleeping bag, and laid on a cot to loosen up my back. I staired at the night sky, then at my friends, and listened to their encouragement to just keep going. I thought about what would happen if I dropped. What did I even have to go home to? My empty apartment? My job that is getting the axe in six weeks? All I would be bringing back with me would be dirty clothes and sense of longing for not acheiving what I ultimately set out to do. That's what makes me an ultrarunner. But, I just continued to lay there. Thinking. Pondering. The clock continued to tick. A lot of time was passing.

"Ok Mike, it's time to go." Those were the simple words my friends gave me. Like a boxer getting up on the count of nine, I made my way back to my feet. Sometimes it just comes down to how much you can take and keep moving forward. Albeit slow, we soldiered on through the dense foggy night as I fought off sleep deprivation. I had been up since 2:30am the day before, and was now nearing 28 hours without sleep. For most of my 100 mile races, I have finished near midnight, but this was an entirely different beast. My back was now a fleeting thought as lack of sleep had become my new nemesis. Eventually, I stopped along the trail for a five minute nap. Five minutes of bliss. When I got back up, I was recharged as if I had slept for several hours. As the sun came up I was a new man. Though most of the final 26 miles were incredibly slow, I closed out the final seven miles with the heart of a lion. It wasn't fast, it wasn't pretty, but I'll be damned it WAS a finish.

I will add, the one good part about having such a slow race is that I felt remarkably good post race. Considering the challenging nature of the course and terrain, I was quite pleased to come away with no blisters, no sore feet, and only minimal residual soreness in my legs. I actually looked so fresh at the finish that a lot of people (especially the ones who heard me say I was dropping at mile 78) thought I had dropped and had come back to cheer on the runners. Another friend even thought I had dropped and come back to pace a runner in. He didn't realize that I was still in the race and the runner who was with me was actually my pacer.

Closing thoughts: When I DNF'ed Massanutten in 2009, the only souvenir I got was a car accident, shards of window glass, and two bloody legs. This time I got a buckle, and from experience I will say getting the buckle is better. Big thank yous to Ryan Quinnelly and Emily Warner who paced/crewed me for the final 26 miles. A special thank you to my friend Tabitha who crewed for me most of the day and helped make my back feel better at mile 78. Tabitha had the epic task of crewing two runners, both of which had rough days, but eventually finished because she is a badass crew person. There's no doubt that without their encouragement during the race, and specifically at the crucial moment at mile 78, I was 99% going to drop. I am humbled by the amount of time and energy all of you put into this weekend to make things happen. You are amazing! Thanks also to all the volunteers who were out there from the early morning and the wee hours of the night to see us through.

Massanutten in 2014? We will see........ ;-)

-Mike Bailey

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Road to the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 and Race Predictions

(Courtesy of the VHTRC)

It's been a very long road back to the VHTRC's notorious Massanutten Mountain Trails 100. Times have changed quite a bit since my only attempt back in 2009. That year, as a novice 100 mile runner, Bryan Powell's popular iRunFar page predicted me for a top 10 finish. The whole article can be seen at this address

However, it is safe to say that the 2009 MMT went horribly wrong, and ended up turning into a day and night of chaos. The race itself was a logistical disaster, and fortelling of the real pain to come. By mile 35 I was already extremely dehydrated, and by the halfway point I was 3 hours slower than my projected pace time. I ran uncrewed, and because my pacing so was much slower than expected my night gear and cool weather clothing were several hours away from the point I needed them. The 2009 event saw two storms roll through, and the second being a dangerous cold front that dropped the daytime temperatures from the upper 80's to below 60. I got caught on the highest point of the course (Bird Knob) in the worst part of the storm. Lightning was scattered along the ridgeline and I was getting pelted with stinging hail and driving rains. Needless to say, within minutes I was soaked to the bone, freezing, and now in the dark without night gear. After an hour of walking, mild hypothermia started setting in, and I was forced to drop considering my only change of clothes was still over 15 miles away.

As tough as the race was, the real suffering had yet to happen. At 1:00am a volunteer was driving myself and another runner who dropped back to the start/finish area. Minutes later on the wet winding roads of Fort Valley our driver momentarily fell asleep and the vehicle ran off the road. We slammed into a tree at 40 mph leaving the vehicle in a precarious position hanging off the side of the road. The headlights pointed aimlessesly into the canopy of trees while the horn continuously echoed into the darkness. The second passenger, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the backseat and smashed into the front windshield and landed on top of me (I was in the passenger seat). The car was filled with airbag fumes, and my legs were a bloody mess from where the crushed dash board had sliced off all my skin. As I collected myself and assessed I had no major broken bones, I forced myself out of the car. My door was pinned closed by a rock, so I crawled at a 45 degree angle out of the driver's side. Once out, the driver helped flag down help, and I pulled the other injured passenger out of the vehicle. Within an hour EMS arrived and I was being treated for major lacerations, and the other passenger for internal bleeding and head trauma.

That was how my 2009 MMT happened, and I still have the scars to remember it by. It's now been a four year wait to get back and reunite with a place I have such hauntingly vivid memories. In 2010, for obvious reasons, I had no desire to run MMT, but chose to volunteer at the route 211 and picnic area aid stations. In 2011 I actually got into MMT on the lottery, but because I also got selected in the Western States lottery, I opted not to run MMT. That year I ended up pacing the 3rd place female, Kathleen Cusick. In 2012, I was nearly dead last in the lottery, and withdrew my name and opted to run Old Dominion as a last second run. As a pleasant surprise Old Dominion ended up being one of my best 100 mile runs to date. And now the 2013 MMT is less than 10 days away. I am coming off nearly six months of injuries, but managed to squeek in five strong weeks of training. Needless to say, my only goal is to finish and to finally redeem my 2009 DNF.

Race Preview


Kathleen Cusick- Fresh off a breakthrough win at the Vermont 100, Kathleen is due at MMT. She's always strong and always a contender for a top three. Sheryl has gotten the best of her at every meeting thus far, but I think this year will be different. Predict 25:30 for the win.

Sheryl Wheeler- The 2010 MMT women's champ is back again. Sheryl is known for going out conservative, but closes out the final 35 miles of MMT as strong as anyone I know. Predict 26:18

Jordan Wirfs-Brock- From Colorado, I think she will surprise some of us East coasters. Predict 26:45 for 3rd.

Megan McGrath- Ran 7:26 at Tussey Mountainback. Has the speed, but not the experience of the other women. Predict 4th in 27:10

Sheila Rao- Has had some really impressive runs this year and last, including a solid BRR. I could see her near 27 hours, if not better, and a top five.

Robin Watkins- Has yet to run 100 miles, but I think she will have a solid debut. Predict 27:40 for 6th.

Jess Mullen- From WA, she has pretty good experience and speed at 100 miles. Possibly sub 28 hours, but they don't have our kind of rocks in WA. Predict 28:15

Kerry Owens- Sometimes experience pays, and Kerry has a ton. I suspect a finish around 28 hours and a top eight.

Courtney Nestor- I was impressed with her running during the MMT 2 training run. Easily a sub 30 candidate and rounding out the top ten women. Predict 29:35


James Blandford- Simply put, James has been taking it to a whole new level in the past two years, and somehow stayed under the radar. Ran 20:31 last year, but his 6:39 at Bull Run Run shows he's more fit than ever. Predict 19:44 for the win.

Mike Mason- Mike is one of the most experienced contenders in the field, and he has done well at MMT. Predict 20:50 for 2nd.

Patrick McGlade- Ran an impressive, albeit unofficial 57.4 miles in 8:04 at the Icy 8 Hour. His speed has taken off recently, and he's had success at 100 miles. Not sure how he will fair on the rocks. Predict 21:30 for third.

Brad Hinton- Brad was already fast, but has gotten even faster in the last couple years. Still only has one 100 mile finish. Predict 21:40

Jason Lantz- Doesn't look to be in the same shape as last year, but since he's the defending champ, I got to think he's capable of a top 3. Predict 21:45

Denis Mikhaylov- Darkhorse pick. Won the rugged Virgil Crest 100 in 21:34. Predict 22:40

Evan Cestari- Ran 21:32 in 2011 and 19:33 at Oil Creek. Definitely going to be near the top 5. Predict 22:10

Keith Knipling- A perennial favorite at MMT, I think we'll see Keith come in around 23 hours and top 6. Predict 22:58

Ryan Henry- Always runs well at MMT and has gone under 24 hours several times. Predict 23:15

Jim Harris- The quiet guy that always crushes tough 100's. I think Jim will be in the top 8, and perhaps close to 23 hours. Predict 23:23

John Dove- Lots of experience, and he has won Pinhoti and Georgia Jewell 100 milers. Predict 23:30

Other's guys to pay attention to and potential sub 24 hours:

Barry Lass- fast and relatively unknown. Broke 24 hours at Grindstone. Might just sneek under 24. Predict 23:50

Joe Dudak- Ran 23:16 at Grindstone, and 12:24 at Hellgate 100k. The longer the race, the better he seems to run. Predict 24:30

Rande Brown- Rande surprised a lot of folks with his 22:11 last year. Will lightning strike twice? Predict 25 hours and a top 15

Matt Bugin- One of the fastest guys, but with no 100 mile experience. Predict 26:30, but obviously capable of much faster.

Ryan Nebel- He's been training hard, and has a great mix of speed and endurance. He's run some solid races this spring. Potentially a sub 24 hour finisher. Predict 25:15

AJ Cillo- He's a strong runner that I wouldn't be surprised to also see near 24 hours. Predict 24:45

Ryan O'dell- Has run sub 17 hours for 100, but on roads. Predict 24:40

David Ploskonka- Dave crushed the ultra scene last year, but has not had the same intensity this year. He has run sub 18 at Old Dominion, 8th at Badwater, and sub 24 last year at MMT. Predict 26:10

Ryan Meulemans- Ran 24:08 last year and was the first runner over 24 hours. It's tough to get that close. I think he'll be gunning for sub 24 for sure. Let's hope he gets it. Predict 23:59 just to give the nod for sub 24.

Padraig Mullins- Little known guy from MA. Ran 9:22 for 100k. Who knows?

Julian Vicente- Ran under 24 hours last year, and his experience will only make him wiser this year. Probably another sub 24

Good luck everyone. See you on May 18th