Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mountain Masochist Trail Run (sweeping the second half)

Mountain Masochist Trail Run - Saturday November 5th

This is an account of "working" the event. I was only covering the second half, picking up trash and taking down all course markings.

Read reports of people who actually ran it here:
Sophie @ Shining's Ultra blog
Jenn @ Freedom to Be

The Mountain Masochist Trail Run is a 50 mile, point A to point B (not a loop) course from the James River Visitor Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway (Mile Post 63.6) to Montebello, VA.

The event is put on by Eco-x. It is a part of the Lynchburg Ultra Series, and The Beast Series.

My experience here starts while I was at work one day checking my Facebook page. I notice am open request for someone needed to sweep the first half of the Mountain Masochist 50 miler! Immediately I send a response via FB, and another via email to the most likely address I have to get in touch with Dr. Clark Zealand, Race Director of the MMTR50. Soon he responds saying that someone beat me to it, believe it or not, but I could help with sweeping the second half with another person.

I thought the first half would be better than the last, for various reasons, but I was excited to be able to take part of this event in ANY way and I was glad to be a part of it.

For the next week or more emails were exchanged, I "met" Courtney the person whom I was to share the sweeping responsibilities with, and plane were being made.

So, this run goes where?
I spent a lot of time, and apparently Courtney did as well, studying maps. It was difficult using Google maps, Blue Ridge Parkway maps, the Eco-X website etc., to decipher where I would be. The most helpful information was a document that Dr. Zealand sent to she and I which detailed instructions for persons crewing for a runner. This gave instructions on how they could go from one aid station to another to support their runner with supplies or encouragement etc. most importantly is that this document had GPS coordinates! Because when told for example, a certain overlook or location (or down some random fire road) around the Parkway, I had to study some maps to locate it. I was thankful for the GPS coordinates it was very simple after that.

The plan
The plan which Courtney and I devised was to meet at the end of the race, leave one car there and take another to the mid-point of the race where we would start our trek. From the mid-point we would make a small attempt to find someone to drive our car back to the finish so it awaits us there. This all worked out perfectly.

I arrived at the finish just moments before her, and only moments after one of those working the race had started setting up the finish line. This race started at 6:30AM, I believe and it was 11:30 now. To think that 5 hours after the race starts you can comfortably begin to set up the finish should tell you that this is a long race!

Soon Courtney arrived, we exchanged hellos dressed, decided on what to bring and not bring, etc. Soon we were on the way to the Long Mountain Aid Station, the half-way point of the race. This AS closed at 12:35, and our goal was to arrive before then, which we did.

Long Mountain Aid Station
One item of concern here was to see if we could arrange a driver for my car back to the finish. Oddly enough it was quite simple. I started with race staff, to see if my Subaru wagon would be helpful in moving supplies, but of course arrangements were all ready in place. I decided to ask some hanging around who may have been crewing for another runner if they could drive it. The one person I approach is someone I was looking forward to meeting, and knew I could potentially meet this day. Craig Burns of e-Motion Constant Forward Motion blog, was there on a picnic table with friends, relishing in all the emotions of completing the first half of the race - cancer free I might add! (read his blogged race report on the MMTR once he writes it), and he was welcoming to help me out. I am quite thankful for his generosity, I am hoping that my timing wasn't bad.

At this time we acclimated ourselves to the event. Checked in with race officials. Gathered data on the last runner on course. Shook off and pre-race jitters of our own, and headed up the mountain. I knew we had a 5 mile 2000 vertical foot climb ahead of us to start so we loitered along, picking up course marking streamers and any trash we saw. We had checked with race officials and knew that the last runner was 20 mins ahead of us, and I thought for sure we'd catch up with them. Any other runners coming into the Long Mountain Aid Station at that point were pulled from the course and unable to continue, as the AS advertised it would close at 12:35. It wasn't long after this time that we hit the trail ourselves.

The climb was on a fire road, and we were even passed by a vehicle or two on this stretch. Once we got to the top, we realized we weren't at the top. The top was "marked" by the next AS (Wiggins Spring, I think) and thought the AS was closed by the time we arrived, there was evidence of cups and items from the AS, like an orange peel here and there. So I knew we got to the top of the climb, but it wasn't the top. It kept going on. More fire road.

Single Track
The trail was well marked with the streamers that we were taking down, but with so many cars which aligned the dirt / gravel road and "crew" members hustling to and from vehicles. I was building questions in my head. Yet I knew I was doing the task which was required of me, so I pressed on. Here we hit the first stretch of single track trail.

Soon I learned what all the attention was. Some cars remained as remnants of the AS that closed, while not far up ahead was an area where one could see their runner come by twice.

It was around this area that we finally got off forest road and onto single track. Courtney commented on how the changing of footing was nice, and I agreed. Intersections and areas where trails split proved to be time consuming. As the course was well marked, that meant there was a lot of markings to gather.

An aside about gathering the streamers
There is probably an essay that can be written about how to properly place and take down streamers for trail races. I'll try not to write that essay here, but there is something that can be said about it. Simple things which I learned quickly:
     How it's easier to remove a streamer when the knot is loose, rather than tied tightly.
     Branches with thorns should be avoided for placing streamers.
     Branches above head height (say 5ft) should be avoided.
     Tying streamers no more than one step off the trail (OK this was only done twice maybe).

I tried at first to untie all streamers, but soon I was breaking the branch to rip it off. If I were able, I'd grab the knot and pull, hoping to break the band around the branch. Perhaps this is essay enough about streamers, but it was proving to be rather time consuming stopping and playing with every single streamer. ...and then I eventually put on my gloves - that surely didn't help any. I can only imagine had I been doing this alone.

The loop
I think the 5 mile loop was a most interesting part of the course. A great 5 mile stretch of trail quite rocky with many roots, yet no significant climb that I recall. I really liked this portion of the trail. I was nicely set up with an AS as you enter the loop, and within 20 feet was the exit, with another AS. Kind of like "headquarters" a lot of crew, and a lot of staff. After being alone out there on the trail for a few miles, it would probably be refreshing to see all the commotion. I'll put in my vote for that being the nicest stretch of the trail. There is also an overlook just 0.5m off that loop... so tempting.

Here was encountered some day hikers as well, non race-affiliated humans, just out enjoying the day and much entertained by all the race festivities. "How far are they running?" they would ask, and I love being the one to tell them, "50 miles".

When we exited the 5 mile loop and the AS there was almost all cleaned up. the staff checked with us on our supplies, exchanged our full trash bag for an empty one etc. Courtney asked "You know what I'd like, is if you have a PB&J sandwich." We were presented with a jar of PB and a jar of jelly but a "I just don't have any bread"..... Oh! so close... yet here comes another race volunteer with 2 ziplocked wrapped PBJ sandwiches!!! He said it was what he packed for his lunch, but he never ate it, and he's headed home anyway. Beautiful timing, I needed that more than I knew and glad Courtney was in-tune with her body's needs enough to know and ask. It made a difference miles down the trail.

Getting slower by the AS
Much of the trail from this point on becomes a blur, as Courtney and I were soon learning that we were not gaining on the "last runner". Of course we considered that there were still runners dropping from the race at the aid stations. So the runner whom we thought we were closest to catching up with would drop, and then it was the person in front of them that we were then chasing. We learned by talking to race staff that at each AS we were becoming further behind the last runner.

We guessed that about 10-15 miles had passed and we had not run at all. Of course that climbing we started out with hindered running for us. When we started running we only were able to run in short bursts, as we had to stop for every streamer and other random items that didn't belong in nature, like someone's bottle of Advil. Random Cliff Shots, some opened, some not. Many gel pouch tops. (still need a better design for those things).

We developed a pattern of running while alternating who got the next streamer, and this worked until we came upon a group of streamers, then it was one after the other of gathering as much as we could.

Eventually the following aid stations were not only just closing, or just having closed but long closed and dust settled. I was thankful for the staff that hung around and made sure the sweepers were still coming through, checking to see if we needed anything, water food etc. Keep in mind we were carrying a trash bag this entire time that was progressively getting more full. Try running with a trash bag full of junk and beer cans/bottles sometime. (Of course I'm trying to cover all the excuses why we were moving so slow).

I love it when a plan comes together
Soon after heading back down the trail (fire road again) she commented on how awesome it was that 2 random runners planned to meet in a random location and it worked. Then we have to get to the mid-point AS and we easily find our way. Then I've got to find someone to drive my car back to the finish and I find someone, and we know each other, just hadn't met yet. Then when she's hoping she can get a PBJ out in the middle of the woods, she does... We started considering what we should ask for next.

The conversation
Topics in our conversation were quite varied. College and career. Diversity. Stupid people. Debt. Stereotypes. Training. Shoes. Charles Dickens and literary geniuses. Concerns of taking Ibuprofen when at risk of dehydration. Wildlife and bears. The important reasons of adopting a healthy lifestyle and diet. Our next race. Birth order and it's influence on your personality. Foot strike and shin splints. Running trails at night. Getting shaving cream in your eye. The list goes on.
This was taken early on in the second half

It was dark before you knew it.
Courtney confessed that she hadn't run trails at night with a head lamp before, but was excited and almost hoping today was the day. When we had that conversation I wasn't sure if we were going to be in the dark or not, but it ends up that our last 5 miles or so was all in the dark. To think that I wasn't going to bring gloves or a hat (Courtney convinced me otherwise). I probably should have put them on before now, but this is when we stopped for our lights, so I put on my hat and gloves here too.

I think we ran our fastest when it was totally dark. I believe the concern of all the smaller trash items became too difficult to track down with our head lamps and we focused on the streamers. I convinced myself that it was the last stretch of the race and it was less likely to have a lot of gel packs there.
It was cold enough that icicles were present 

We endured the long downhill and contemplated, as we did various times on the trail about how the runners would have felt at this point. I saw some chalk on the ground of the fire road which I believe would have been the message to runners stating that there is only one more mile to go. Once on the street again I knew it wasn't long. and we arrived at the finish in Montebello... No one awaiting us, but our cars. No person in sight, not even other vehicles, just us. It was kind of neat actually, in it's own little way.

It was dark and quiet
A lot of races and events are held with much fanfare. There are also many events that are simple and  have no frills. It was perfectly OK to not be welcomed or congratulated at the end of my day. I was pleased to have helped this year's classic event take place. I was happy to have helped the runners which I am looking up to and aspire to run with on a different year. I thought of the runners that started and didn't finish. I considered how they felt, the mix of emotions. I recall one runner saying "I just hate that I'll miss out on the finishers award" I reminded myself that my reward was this moment. Standing in the dark and quiet, knowing I was a part of something that didn't end until we were done. Our footsteps were the final foot steps on that trail. I was satisfied knowing that I assisted in leaving no trace. I sure hope that those trails are cleaner now than when the first runner ran through. It was a special opportunity to not only volunteer and share in part of the MMTR, but I also take some satisfaction in feeling like I went on a 25 mile cleaning spree through the woods. There were items that we removed from nature that didn't belong there and would have stayed if we didn't pick them up.

We took little to no time to wind down and soon realized just how cold it had become and made sure we had directions to get out of the middle of nowhere. (which is surely what it felt like) All I knew is that I was near the fish hatchery in Montebello, VA and I could point in the direction of Interstate 81.

Post race festivities were taking place an hour away in Lynchburg, VA. The excitement and stories of the day were being exchanged. I later learned that Eric Grossman came in first for his 3rd MMTR win. Sandi Nypaver Came in first for the women.

What I did and didn't do
First off, I underestimated many things. The time it would take to cover the course while removing course markings. The pace of the slowest runner vs my own. Those were the most obvious. Had I not been so relaxed about this journey, I would have diligently taken GU gels or Cliff Shots at certain intervals but I used none. I would have filled my hydrations pack's bladder completely and drank more diligently, but apparently 1.5L was more than enough. I would have carried and consumed electrolyte / salt caps, but I did not. I would have prepared food items to bring and carry, but I had none. I wasn't stressed with what I ate for breakfast and lunch before I hit the trail.  In fact, I decided as I pulled off I-81 that I should get lunch and got a fish sandwich and fries from Burger King. I would have never done that. Seeing that on the menu they have a veggie burger, I wish I had known that. So after the event... I got the veggie burger.

Overall I am excited and pleased with how I've felt afterward. I felt the most sore and tired that evening. I took one Salt Cap once I got home at Lydia's instruction, and I believe it helped. I've now put 25 more miles on my Montrail Masochist trail shoe. Which ironically shares the name of the race and some strong connections there. In the following days after I've felt great. Amazing what the body can do. Amazing what all those 250+ bodies that ran the MMTR did do!

There is a possibility that if my training goes well, I may be running this next year, and it will have helped greatly to have had this day.


  1. Thanks for the comment! Love reading all your race recaps- I'm always looking to read about the races in the area- and you have some great connections too! Any races coming up??

  2. Oh yes, I've got the Crooked Road 24 hour run (Dec 3 and 4) in under 3 weeks. and then the Frozen Toe 10k (Jan 7) put on by the Mountain Junkies. After that it is the Swinging Bridge 50k (Jan 14), which I may opt out for the 35k, depending on conditions, as it could be terribly cold that day. We'll see.
    If we run the same event sometime, be sure to say hello!

  3. Thank you James and Courtney for sweeping the second half of MMTR. It is a lot of work but at the same time so much fun!! I am happy that Craig Burns drove your car to the finish area and that at least you did not have to go back for it!! Good Luck to you if you run the race next year. It will be worth it!!

  4. I'm curious if you ran this race this year. I haven't checked out the rest of your blog. Just stumbled on this looking for tips on sweeping races since I will be sweeping The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship race in San Francisco, California tomorrow. Your post gave me some idea of what to expect. I'll only be doing about 17-18 miles of the course but I hadn't thought about how much time it might take me to pick up trash or remove markers in addition. Definitely bringing my headlamp and my gloves. Thanks for the post! It helped a lot!