Mountain Masochist Trail Run

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I wrote in my last blog post about training leading up to MMTR and how I was feeling before the race, so this is strictly about MMTR weekend.. 

Super early Friday morning the day before the race, Jeff dropped me off at the airport. This was only my second time flying without Jeff in my entire life, it was the first race I've had to fly to, the first race I'd ever run without a crew or familiar face on the course, and I was the only runner from MA who was going to be there. I knew it was going to be quite the adventure but I was excited about it. Both of my flights out went smoothly, picked up my rental car at the Charlottesville airport with no problems, and then had the rest of the day to get food, drive to my hotel in Raphine, VA about an hour from Charlottesville, pick up my packet, then just relax. The drive to Raphine was beautiful. It reminded me so much of Vermont with the mountains and fall foliage. It was warmer than I would've liked, but I knew it was suppose to cool down overnight with a potential for rain on race day. Packet pick-up didn't start until 4:30pm, so I had some time to hangout at the hotel beforehand. Since MMTR is a point-to-point, all of the pre-race and post-race activities happened at the finish line in Camp Blue Ridge, Montebello, VA. The drive from the hotel over to the finish line was only about 20 minutes, but it felt much longer. Windy, narrow, steep mountain roads. No cell service. My stomach sank deeper the more I drove through the mountains. It made me wish that Jeff was there to keep me distracted. The finish area was about a 1/2 mile from where you had to park, great way to loosen up the legs before race morning. I grabbed my packet and immediately headed back to the hotel, skipping the 7:30pm pre-race briefing. I just wanted to relax as much as possible before the 3am wake-up call the next morning. Before every race, I get a much needed pep-talk from my coach. He always knows exactly what to say, even if it's stuff I already know, sometimes I need to hear it all again. He mentioned that I didn't sound as excited as I should be, and it wasn't lack of excitement, I was just really focused, probably more so than I've been before any other race. I knew what needed to be done and I was feeling anxious to get started. I felt better after the phone call, but then when I was trying to find the athlete tracking information I stumbled upon a "seeded entry list". I was about 50th female on that list. I have no idea what they base those numbers on or what it even really means, but it did not help with the nerves. I just tried to stay calm and focused, and get as much rest as possible. 

 Flat Samantha

Flat Samantha

Race morning I was up and out of the hotel by 3:30am. I had to catch a bus at the finish line by 4:15am to get over to the starting line, so that meant drinking my coffee and eating breakfast in the car. Needless to say I spilled coffee all over my BMW rental (I did not pick the BMW but it was fun!). Since there was no cell service, I left the phone in the car then walked the 1/2 mile to the bus. It was so quiet and the moonlight was calming. I felt a lot more relaxed than I did the night before. The bus ride over to the start was about an hour or so long. I chatted with a young women who was running her first 50 miler and it was such a great distraction. At the starting line, it was pretty warm, at least warmer than what I had pictured November in VA being like. I had a rain jacket on but no hat or gloves, and I was wearing shorts. The first hour would be in the dark, which I've never raced in the dark before so I was little nervous about it. I had on a new headlamp as well that I purchased the day before. I dropped off the one drop bag we were allowed and then got in line at the towards of the pack. Just as things were about to get started, I looked over to see Scott Jurek standing on the sidelines. His book "Eat & Run" is what introduced me to ultra-running and inspired me to start long distance running, so it was motivational to see him there. The race started right at 6:30am. The first couple miles were flat road and then you turn into the woods onto jeep trails. The miles to the first aid station were rolling, but very runnable. Some water crossings that got your feet nice and wet, and I tripped and fell once, but other than that, they were pretty uneventful. My headlamp worked perfectly and I just tried to focus on keeping my heart rate low. It was pretty humid so I took off my jacket and wrapped it around my waist (while running.. I'm talented!). There was a little bit of single track downhill with loose footing during which I twisted my ankle, cursed a bit, then slowed down so I could pay attention to footing better. And then almost immediately after that, the sun came up and I was at the first aid station. I grabbed water and left quickly. 

 The moon before the race.

The moon before the race.

Miles 8ish-20 were a mix of jeep trails and dirt roads. The jeep trails were kind of tough to run on because they were off-camper at times and had a lot loose rocks covered with leaves and overgrown grass, but they were better than the hard packed dirt roads. I ran up all the climbs the first 20 miles. None of them were very long or steep, and I felt comfortable running them. I knew there were a lot bigger climbs coming up that I'd have to power hike so I didn't want to waste time power hiking these smaller ones. I had to pee so bad the first 14 miles and there were no porta-potties at the aid stations. I actually asked someone at an aid station if there were any porta-potties on the course and they jokingly said "there's no porta-potties in the mountains". I pee in the woods all the time, but we were running on dirt roads with steep drop offs and I was surrounded by other runners. It wasn't easy to just duck behind a tree. I finally found a side trail and ran down a little bit to pee, then ran back onto the course. I felt like a million bucks after. After the 21.94 aid station, is where the real climbing begins. We hit the first big climb, and I settled into a rhythm of running a bit, then power hiking, then running, then power hiking. I got passed by a lot of runners who were cruising up this climb, but I didn't want to waste all of my energy running uphill, at least not so early in the race. One of the chicks who passed me had the most obnoxious watch. It would beep every 10 secs. I heard it at the beginning of the race and didn't know where it was coming from, and then I heard it again around mile 12 when I passed her, and now here it was again. "Beep..beep..beep" passing by me. I told myself "that obnoxious watch lady is going to eat my dust later". Even though we were on dirt roads, the scenery was stunning, I almost wished I had my phone on me to take a picture. After we made it to the top, there was long downhill. I was definitely starting to get tired of the dirt roads. The impact of the hard surface was doing a number on my body. I hadn't even made it to the halfway point yet and I was already feeling more sore than I had felt at mile 35 of my first 50-miler.  I dreamed of soft single-track. I also dreamed of making it to my drop bag at mile 26.49 (which is the halfway point of this "50 miler'). I always feel better during the second half of long distance races and so for me the first half of the race is just a countdown to when the race really begins. 

There was a lot of aid stations at MMTR, but not all of them had crew access. I loved running through the ones that did allow crew access, because even though I didn't have anyone there for me, people would cheer for me and it was a great pick me up. The halfway aid station was the biggest of all. I found my one drop bag quickly, shoved a bunch of food in my pack, then started running again. I also put on my TARC trucker hat because I knew the rain was coming soon. I still had my rain jacket with me and made a game time decision to keep it wrapped around my waist instead of dropping it, even though I hadn't needed it for awhile. After leaving the aid station, there was another really big climb. I was power hiking next to another runner for awhile so we eventually started chatting. He was the first and only runner I'd talk to the entire race. He had done MMTR numerous times so I got a lot of insight from him. I had heard that the course was actually 53 miles, and he reassured me that it'd be about 51.5 miles this year. I don't know why that was such a relief but it was. He also told me more about "the Loop". Although MMTR is a point-to-point, there is a small loop part of the course. The 5.33 mile "loop" is really an out-and-back up to Mt. Pleasant peak and back down. It's the only really rocky, technical single-track part of the course. Most runners consider it the hardest part of the course, so of course that made me look forward to it. During the next climb, he took off ahead and said "see ya again during the loop when you pass me!". I got to the next crewed aid station around mile 32 and it was by far my favorite one. There were people dressed in costumes, Christmas decorations, and everyone seem to be having a blast. Leaving the aid station there was a long flatish section of soft single-track trail which felt great, then it starts to climb again. Even though I was reduced to power hiking again, it felt amazing to be on single-track. I didn't realize I had entered "the Loop" until I started to see runners come at me from the opposite direction. At first I just thought they were going the wrong way. One women came flying by, then another and another. As I started counting the women ahead, I realized that I was nowhere near the front. This felt like a kick in the gut, but instead of feeling sorry for myself or discouraged, I made the decision to keep pushing hard and focus on my own race. There were still plenty of miles ahead and I was finally starting to pass runners. Obnoxious watch lady passed by me in the opposite direction, almost at the top of the turn around so I knew she wasn't that far ahead. Then the runner I chatted with earlier ran by and said "you must be loving this", and I was. I made it to the top and climbed over a couple of boulders to where the hole puncher was to punch your bib to show you ran the loop, then I started to head back down. No views at the top of Mt. Pleasant because of the fog and the rain had started to come down now, but I was feeling more alive than I had the whole race. I was flying by runners who looked strong on the dirt roads but were having a tough time with this section. Not going to lie, it actually made me laugh a little on the inside to see how terrible they were at navigating technical trails. I passed "my friend" and he said "go catch that pack up ahead!" speaking about obnoxious watch lady and couple of other female runners who were close to her. Sure enough within a couple of minutes, I passed obnoxious watch lady and a couple other female runners. It was such a big confidence booster and I felt like now, at mile 36, my race was just beginning. 

The last few miles of the loop were rolling single-track. The rain started to come down hard, but I couldn't stop smiling. Before I knew it, I was back at the costumes and Christmas Lights. I saw runners and volunteers huddled under the tent, and I was offered some warm food as I was refilling my water, but I declined and took off running again. I was back on rolling dirt roads and jeep trails. It was raining so much the puddles were unavoidable and water was just pouring off the lid of my hat. My hands were frozen which made opening gels and bloks difficult, and I gave up on using my Skratch Labs packets completely. I kept shaking and squeezing my hands, trying to pump blood through them to get them warm, which made me think of the children's song "Open, Shut Them". My nanny instincts were kicking in, not just with the children's songs, but I started to feel really bad for the back of the pack and worrying about the runner I chatted with on the bus, hoping she was doing ok. It was pretty cold now and if you weren't running hard, I don't know how you'd stay warm. 

 "Where's the porta-potties bro?"

"Where's the porta-potties bro?"

There was a female runner ahead whom I flip-flopped places quite a bit with. I passed her again and was in full-on race mode now. There was no way she was getting back in front of me. I worked really hard to run all the climbs at this point. There was no leaving anything in the tank today and with about 10 miles to go, I knew it was time to push. The final aid station was around mile 44. I grabbed some water and the volunteer said, "are you sure you don't want anything other than water, you still have 8 miles to go?". And I smiled and said, "I'm sure!". Knowing full well that I had 8 miles left and the last 3 miles were all downhill, that meant I just had 5 miles of rolling terrain to go. Soon after leaving the final aid station, there was the steepest climb of the course. It wasn't as long as the other climbs, but it was steep and it was all single-track. I didn't care that I was moving slow because it was so beautiful and peaceful. There was no one to be seen in front of me or behind me. I was alone in the foggy, dreary woods. The rain had slowed down a bit, but it was still really cold. As each mile clicked, I was one mile closer to the last downhill section. The trails was covered in leaves and I'd often kick a small branch or rock, which was extremely painful. I knew there were a couple of women not too far ahead, so I was pushing as hard as I possibly could. I passed a couple more men before hitting 3 miles to go. Leading up to the 3-mile mark, I had to go to the bathroom yet again, and I knew running downhill for 3 miles would be extremely uncomfortable with a full bladder, so again I went slightly off course to pee. As I was peeing a male runner started heading my way thinking that I was on course, and then apologized when he saw what I was doing. And then seconds later a female runner I hadn't seen before ran by. I quickly pulled my pants up and began the chase, but just as I was dropping the hammer, she was as well. Eventually we came upon a road and the downhill steepened. It was so painful to run as hard as I was running on this downhill paved section, but I just kept going, embracing the pain. I was running downhill so hard that I thought I was going to topple over (mile 51 was a 7:49 mile!). Knowing what the last 1/2 mile of the course looked like from seeing it the day before, I knew I was getting closer and some people standing by said "0.7 miles to go!". I was getting really close to the 9 hour 30 minute mark and now I was determined to make it in under that time. I finally hit the part of the course I knew and I was just few 100 feet away now. I was choking back tears, literally, as I finally saw the finish line. I crossed in 9:29:05. 13th female and a 27-minute PR... (52ish miles.. 9,500 feet of gain/7,900 feet of loss). I was such a MESS after crossing the finish line, crying and hyperventilating, that complete strangers were coming over to make sure I was ok. That was by far the hardest thing I had ever done and I had been so focused all day, that every emotion was coming out. I will actually be happy if there are no finsih line photos of my blubbering mess!

 Why it's called Mountain Masochist..

Why it's called Mountain Masochist..

My immediate reaction finishing the race was disappointment. I had really hoped for a top 3 finish or at least top 10. I feel like I gave a 110% effort, I paced myself really well, I had zero issues with my nutrition, I stayed positive and pushed really hard, even when everything hurt and the weather was miserable, and I passed a lot of runners in the second half, so I was really surprised that I had finished 13th. However, now that the fog has cleared, figuratively and literally, and the official results are up and I've thought things over more, I feel a lot better about Saturday. Even though I had placed 7th at Cayuga, I had a much stronger performance at MMTR. There were more runners there and I finished closer to the first 1st place female at MMTR than I did at Cayuga (also, my ultrasignup ranking is higher from MMTR than it was at Cayuga). A sub 9:30 time would've put me around 5-7th place any other year, so it shows how stacked this year's race was. I ended up placing 38th out of 247 starters, and 13th out of 74 female starters. I set almost a 30 minute PR on a course that was longer, had more elevation gain, and felt more difficult than my first 50-miler. I don't think there's anything I would change about my race but I do have a couple of takeaways..

First.

Dirt road running is not for me. I'm glad I challenged myself and got out of my comfort zone by choosing a net uphill race with a lot of road running, but I am much stronger running technical single-track. Not just stronger, but it's what makes me excited and happy. I felt so alive during that 5.33 mile loop and was grinning ear to ear. It made me realize that picking a course that makes you excited and happy should be priority.  Next year I am definitely going to focus on running more technical single-track races.

Second.

I NEED to stop comparing myself to other runners and beating myself up. I do this a lot before and after races. I have to remember that less that 5 years ago, I couldn't even run mile.. literally, a mile. Now here I am dropping a sub 9:30 on a mountain 50-miler with over 9,000 feet of gain. I have come so far in a short amount of time and am finishing races not far from women who have twice the amount of experience as I do. I may not be exactly where I want to be as an athlete yet, but I need to remember to enjoy the process. This is just the beginning for me!

 Behind the fog are beautiful mountains.. mountains I ran 50 miles across!

Behind the fog are beautiful mountains.. mountains I ran 50 miles across!

There's two very important people I need to thank. First off, my husband. I am a crazy person leading up to and following races, and he somehow manages to put up with me and keep me sane. Even though he wasn't there on race day, I felt is support from afar, and he is always so supportive during training, even while he is training for his own races. Secondly, huge thanks to my coach, Scott Traer. His training, guidance and support has helped me become a much stronger athlete, and sometimes I think he knows me better than I know myself, especially when it comes to race day. 

 I'm highly considering running Grindstone 100 next year as my first 100-miler. It's another Eco-X race and I thought MMTR was extremely well organized, well marked, and although I didn't really go near the tables at the aid stations because I just grabbed water, the volunteers at the aid stations were awesome, plus Virginia is beautiful and easy to travel to. Its a brutal race, but I think it's exactly what I'm looking for. I have a couple other races I'm thinking of for a Fall 100-miler, but for now I'm putting that all aside and just enjoying some time off before the Spring season!

Samantha Belanger2 Comments