February 27, 2023
The runners arriving at the Milford Gap aid station were exhausted, cold, bleary-eyed. Sarah, the station team lead, had prepared tasty, wood-fired pizza, they devoured it and guzzled water. It was a crystal-clear early morning, but really still the middle of the night. The stars and a quarter moon glowed in the mountain sky. We let the runners sit for a few minutes, checked their condition, then sent them north on the Massanutten Trail.
The team arrived at the station site mid-afternoon the previous day. Sarah picked up Stephanie, Mike, and Keith, all Milford Gap veterans, in Washington. She then stopped for me at a post office on Fort Valley Road, which runs through the eastern and western ridges of Virginia’s Massanutten range from Strasburg to Luray. We took a side road due east towards the ridge for maybe three miles. She found the trail intersection, pulled forward, and backed up the trail for a couple of hundred yards, nestling the car against the hillside on the passenger’s side. I shimmied out on the driver’s side.
We hauled the folding table, portable stove, utensils, food, water, and bottles of Sarah’s choice of wines a steep half-mile up the Milford Gap trail. Larry, a team member who lives nearby, had erected a canopy and cut a couple of cords of firewood. We set up, Mike got the fire going.
This was for the Reverse Ring, a strange, 71-mile trail run held the last weekend of February by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club. Milford Gap is an obscure place among many obscure places in the George Washington National Forest along the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail. Sarah had established the Milford station at the site eight years ago, roughly equidistant from the 45-mile aid-station at Camp Roosevelt and the finish at Signal Knob mountain, the northernmost point in the Massanuttens.
About 15 runners started the race at 6:00 AM Saturday. Ten stepped back on the trail that evening at Roosevelt for the 12 miles to Milford. We waited. Hours passed, the temperature dropped into the thirties, maybe twenties. Sitting near the fire we could see our breath. Sarah cooked the pizzas on the hot coals and passed them around. It was my birthday, she handed me the first slices. “Happy birthday,” everyone said with a smile.
We talked about trailrunning, family, work, health, got to know each other better. I recalled my last Reverse Ring in 2018, when I arrived at Milford around 2:00 AM, out of water and close to dehydration. The team refueled me and pointed me at the trail. “Stay on orange,” Sarah said, or something like that. The trail forks just below the station, a wrong turn would take the runner on a dangerous down-mountain trek into oblivion. I stumbled but got the turn right and finished in daylight.
Back in the moment I looked up and down the trail and recognized the gradual dip from the north into the station, the slight bend to the south. I trekked south out of camp a few hundred yards, feeling the strain on my out-of-shape lungs and legs. The trail climbed gently and curled west, then east, just as I remembered it. The forest was silent. We still were hours from seeing runners.
Around 10:00 PM we saw the gleam of a headlamp in the darkness. Our first runner arrived in good shape. We fed and refueled him, he thanked us and trotted down the trail. Close to an hour passed, a second customer showed up. More time passed, we fed the fire and looked up the dark trail. Two more showed up and stayed longer.
The Reverse Ring wears on the human body. The cold, the rocks, the wilderness solitude, the relentless climbing can break the spirit. Sarah kept making her pizzas. We shivered, nodded, closed our eyes. Sketchy data showed up on Mike’s cellphone. Runners Kathleen, Barry and his pacer, and Marty still were out there.
We stared at the dark trail. A light appeared, veteran trailrunner Kathleen glided in. She ate a bit, refueled, closed her eyes for a moment, then rose and headed out. An hour passed, we saw two lights moving slowly and heard voices. Barry and his pacer strolled in and took seats. They visited a while, thanked us, and disappeared.
“Marty!” we called. Where’s Marty? I didn’t pick up on the reference. Around 3:30 AM he appeared out of the night, striding softly. He was an old friend whom I had known for years with the club, had run with many times, until we packed up and moved away. He grinned and sprawled in a chair. “Give my best to Sandy,” he whispered. We talked a bit. He didn’t want food, but took water and stumbled into the darkness.
Things rush back. My birthday, once again on Reverse Ring weekend, the fifth anniversary of my last day and night in this place: the immortal, unchanging rock-choked trail, the dark ridges, the bright sky, the night lights against the Shenandoahs in the distance.
The hardness of the Massanutten range in winter settles in the mind and the heart. I turned away from staring into the forest. The team was breaking camp. We put out the fire, packed the gear, the lighting, the odds and ends. It was 4:00 AM. We snapped on our headlamps and slogged down the Milford trail.