May 20, 2019
Rocks. More rocks. Then mud. Trail-marking boss Kevin gave Brian and me our assignment, a section of the Massanutten 100-mile (MMT) trail-run course called Duncan Hollow that most of the time doubles as a stream bed. The flow moves north on the north-south trail, percolating and oozing, sucking at shoes and hiking poles. The entire trail extends for about six miles, with an intersection at roughly three miles with the east-west Gap Creek Trail, a steep, then steeper stretch of switchbacks up to the Duncan Hollow ridge. The trail then descends in two fast miles to the site of the Gap Creek aid station.
The trail-marking volunteer teams, generally two people, deployed Friday to hang bright plastic ribbons and luminescent reflectors from trees to show the way for the roughly 200 runners competing in the run, held this weekend on the Massanutten trail in Fort Valley, Va. The ribbons reinforce the tree-painted blazes, although most MMT veterans know the course. I think Kevin assigned us Duncan Hollow because the degree of ascent from the trailhead, near a place called Camp Roosevelt, is more benign than nearly all the others on the course and, this year, I’m the weak link on the team. Gap Creek is the 69-mile point on the 100-mile course.
From Roosevelt the trail weaves through thick forest for maybe a half-mile then, beyond a fast-moving stream, opens up through thinly wooded terrain for easy hiking. Brian and I move well, hanging our ribbons at longer intervals, since this stretch is well-established. Farther south the Duncan Hollow ridge rises sharply to the east, the summit lost in treetops. We see the results of a controlled burn conducted by the Park Service in recent weeks, singed stumps, charred underbrush, and blackened soil that reduces the spread of growth for just a while.
Farther along, the trail widens and suddenly gets rougher, because the Service used tracked earth-moving equipment, either a small bulldozer or a bobcat, to shear through the growth and tamp down the mud. The tracks left scars that send the stream sloshing towards us. We’re hanging the ribbons and reflectors, slogging at a more labored pace—me, anyway. This is the grim Duncan Hollow trail, the slimy, sticky sluice that runners remember, especially those with the bad luck to travel it at night. It was on this stretch on a 2016 training run that I stepped on a moss-covered rock and snapped my ankle, putting me in a plastic boot and physical therapy for five months. Now, thighs and hamstrings are aching as I lean forward clutching my package of ribbons. Brian is still moving well out in front. I’ve got ten years on him, but he’s the veteran.
At three miles, the turn onto Gap Creek takes us west, the trail veering sharply higher and out of the water and mud, across a patterned rock floor. It first winds in near-circles, then turns steep and north to the first switchback. As it ascends it narrows in places to no more than a foot wide, here and there, only several inches. To the east the valley falls away, we can’t see the bottom.
It’s been two years since I passed this way on my last attempt at MMT, at around 2:00 AM with my friend Alex, who met me at Roosevelt, mile 63 of the course, around midnight to support me as a pacer. He expected me earlier because I confidently said I’d be there—I wasn’t. That pushed us hard on the Gap Creek cutoff time of 3:45 AM. The cold water stiffened my feet and legs, every step became a struggle on that dark, narrow piece of trail. I crashed at Gap Creek.
Now, two years later, I’m back to MMT for marking. I’m struggling a bit, Brian is well ahead. I tie a ribbon here, a reflector there. Ahead is the deep green of the summit. Another switchback, then another, the trail obscured in the brush. The rocks, now boulders, unstable and loose, require trial-and-error steps to cross without cracking a shin or opening a kneecap.
We’re at the top. Then two miles of fast descent to the site of the aid station. From Gap Creek the runners face another one-mile climb, called Jawbone, then a five-mile tiptoe across Kern Mountain, a ridge of razor-sharp rocks. But Brian and I are finished. The Duncan Hollow and Gap Creek trails are ready for the race.
Two years. I was ready then, but didn’t finish. Well, maybe I wasn’t ready. The rocks, the cold, the water, the sharp switchbacks, overcame my conditioning, such as it was. So now today—two years older, conditioning shot—I find myself thinking: could I do this? With what I know now? After all, it’s a mind game, getting hydration and nutrition right. I got it right last year at the Cruel Jewel 100 in northeast Georgia, with twice the elevation gain as MMT. I didn’t finish there, but hey, no pressure. Guys older than me have mastered MMT.
Fun thoughts. Delusional, most likely. Lots of bigger challenges coming down the pike that have nothing to do with trail-running fitness: two more docs’ appointments and another scan next month. But the course is still here. It’s a spectacular late-May day, time to think big thoughts. Next training run: July.