April 1, 2019
Dave picked me up at 3:00 AM and we headed for the Massanutten Mountains in western Virginia. We jumped on Prince William Parkway to I-66, then at Front Royal turned west on U.S. 55 to Fort Valley Road, which descends south through a vaguely bordered region called Fort Valley. We talked a bit. I nodded off until I heard a screech of brakes as Dave swerved to avoid hitting three deer on that dark, winding mountain road.
Dave was acting as race director or, as he says, “run manager” for the third training run (35 miles) intended to help prepare trail runners for the Massanutten Mountain 100-mile run (MMT) in May. Dave, himself a hardcore trail runner, arranges three of the training events, which he insists are noncompetitive runs, not races. We kept the times to keep track of the runners.
We reached the start, at a horse-parking lot at Camp Roosevelt, 25 miles south of Front Royal about 5:00. About 20 cars already had arrived, the runners mostly asleep. We waited a bit, then Dave and Tom, a longtime friend and a tough-as-nails veteran of these things, took charge of moving about 20 more cars into the tight parking space. Dave checked in the 55 runners. They wandered forward, a sea of headlamps. He barked some directions. In the darkness they flowed out of the lot and up the Massanutten Trail.
The northern segment of the Massanuttens, although only about 90 miles west of D.C., is an alien place. Casual hikers and picnickers mostly stick to nearby Shenandoah National Park, with its well-kept trails and comfortable picnic areas along the popular Skyline Drive. You don’t see families out for a fun woodland experience on the Massanutten trails—occasionally a few campers and hikers, maybe.
The northern segment consists of two 100-mile-long ridges over which winds the thickly forested 71-mile Massanutten Trail, an oval-shaped north-south loop marked by orange blazes on trees, blocked in places by boulders and tree falls, and carpeted with razor-sharp rocks that tear skin and break bones. A southern extension loops 10 miles south of U.S. 211.
The Trail is the primary course for the MMT and other trail-running events, when these unique people, trail runners, slog up high ridges at remote places called Duncan Hollow, Kern Mountain, and Bird Knob.
Three years ago I snapped my ankle three miles out on this same event. Stepped on a wet rock and heard it crack as I went down. A big guy, another Dave, gave up his place in the run and in two hours hauled me back to the start. I drove home, then headed to the ER for X-rays.
The Virginia Happy Trails group has its greyhounds who can cover 100 miles in 18 hours. But most of the people in this late March event are not elite athletes. They’re men and women who resolve, for their own reasons, to attack these brutal trails, tramp over the endless rocks, climb thousands of feet of elevation, fall, get up, and move forward. Why? Desire for physical fitness doesn’t capture it. Closer: the determination, somewhere in their hearts, to confront a forbidding, unique, dangerous challenge, and succeed.
Dave, Tom, and another volunteer, Larry, and I stopped in Luray for breakfast, then headed to the Massanutten Visitor’s Center to set up the first of two aid stations, at roughly the 13-mile point. Trail-running guru Quatro joined us to work the station. Around 9:00 the fast guys came through, paused briefly for Gatorade and cookies, then headed up to Bird Knob, the highest point on the MMT course. Over the next 90 minutes the rest of the pack arrived, glad to see the aid station. A few dropped and cut the course short, most headed out to start climbing.
They’re all “trail runners,” although much of the trail is too steep and rocky for running. The climbs up Bird Knob, Waterfall, Kern, and others: Habron, Signal Knob, and Short Mountain, take short step after short step in “granny gear,” making for 15- to 20-minute miles. Thighs, hamstrings, calves throb. Shoulders and backs ache from bending forward, water and mud leak into shoes where rushing creeks threaten runners’ balance. Hunger and exhaustion creep in, miles from aid stations. Limbs chafe where straps meet skin. Perception and brain function get fuzzy. The thought of one more banana or energy bar prompts nausea.
It’s possible to get seriously lost in the thick Massanutten forest. The trail is marked only by the tree blazes, which are easy to miss. Runners sometimes take crossing trails and disappear for hours, in the winter risking howling winds and temperatures in the 20s or below. Cellphones don’t work for most of the trail.
At around 11:00 we broke down the aid station and set up another, at the 24-mile point, at the junction of the toughest part of the course. Another volunteer, Tim, brought his gas grill and made quesadillas. The fast people came and went. Then it got slow. The temperature rose into the seventies and beat runners down. Intervals between runners got longer, most showed the strain as they slogged in, some bent with exhaustion. They plodded on, ten miles to go. Then another long gap. Three runners out. When they showed up they were done, happy to take a lift to the finish.
There, back at Roosevelt—victory. Arriving runners shed their packs, sat, savored the achievement. This 35-mile stretch is MMT’s toughest. They had overcome it. They trickled in from the road, walking, then breaking into jogs when they saw the crowd. Time for refreshments, maybe a cocktail, time for stories, plans, first aid applied to cuts and bruises. For most, another bad one in the books. Dave’s “Chocolate Bunny” all-night run is coming up next month.