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15 May 2012

Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 – Attempt #1

Fair Warning -- This post is fairly long and ended up being more about me, and less about the course, sorry about that. Let me know what you think..

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Even though I dropped at mile 87.9, this was unquestionably, the best run I’ve ever had, so let’s start with that. At 4 a.m. on Saturday, I was the most nervous I’ve ever been at a starting line, because after taking a week off from running, you start to wonder strange things, like what if your legs suddenly don’t feel right 10 or 15 minutes into the run? Not to mention the fact that you know you’re going to be out here for a long time, and you’re starting on only 4 hours of sleep and.. the list goes on.

But my legs felt fine, and after the slog up the dirt road that begins the race, when we finally hit the single track trail, I felt great! I’ve never done any pre-dawn headlamp running before, and it’s a challenge – especially on hilly and rocky single track. It forces you to keep your pace down, which always comes up as a blessing later. It was awesome though, and one of the coolest things about MMT is hearing the whippoorwills announce the dawn, the dusk, and the next dawn – they seem to be silent the rest of the time.

I was a little worried about how the cut off times were going to be, but by the time I hit the Woodstock Tower aid station at mile 20, I knew I was going to be fine, since we’d probably already had 3,000 feet of elevation gain by then, plus, the breakfast of French Toast and bacon at this point gave me an extra boost!

My stomach was feeling really confident at that point (and I was starting to pass people on a pretty consistent basis between aid stations), so I really didn’t even think about it five miles later when I chugged two cups of Gatorade and chased them with an entire can of Yoo-hoo. Great idea, right? My stomach spent the next 30 minutes or so trying to decide if it wanted to send that one right back up to me, but in the end, I kept it down.

When I got to just about the 50k mark, right before Elizabeth Furnace, after a monster downhill, I got to my first drop bag and completely hit the wall. Miles 33 through 41 were probably the roughest mentally, also, by this point my IT band was acting up a little, and the only way I can really get it to loosen up for some reason is to lie flat on my back and pull my knee up. Needless to say, the only thing more awkward than taking off my pack and lying on the ground to stretch it was trying to find a spot on the course that was flat enough to let me! At one point I had to stop in the middle of a descent because I finally found a rock that was big enough to fit my back on it, so here I am, lying on the ground, stretching out my IT band, when another runner comes by. He (Paul) stops to look at me and asks if I’m alright (I’m not sure if he meant physically or mentally). I assure him I’m fine, and every point I see him from then on he makes sure to tell everyone (including his wife and children at mile 54) – “When I first saw this guy today, he was lying flat on his back on the trail – Look at him now!” Paul was a great buddy to have on the trail.

By mile 41, I had blisters on both feet and BOTH IT bands were acting up, plus, my right foot was becoming irritated whenever it flexed up and down, so downhills were becoming increasingly difficult. I had the blisters lanced and taped at the aid station and realized that the lacing system on the Salomons was not working too well on the rocks. Whenever a rock would give me a slight “flat tire,” the lacing would loosen up just a little and let my foot rub, causing the blisters. I decided to just push on and change into my (aptly named) Montrail Mountain Masochists, which were in my drop bag at mile 54.

Miles 41 through 50 were touch and go, and when I reached Indian Grave at 50.1, I stopped and had a delicious cheese quesadilla with some olives and some cheese and injected my insulin. (Since I was running solo, I had to keep my basal insulin with me, because I need to inject this every 24 hours – anything shorter than that, I don’t carry anything. The only downside is that the heat can break down the insulin, but since I had it in my hydration pack between the water bladder and the outside, I assumed it was keeping it cool enough). The stretch between 50 and 54 is straight down a farm road, where I saw the only wildlife I saw during the entire race, a rattlesnake curled up in the middle of the road. When I got to Habron Gap, I changed my shoes and socks (the IT band and blister issues immediately went away, but the pain in flexing my right foot only slightly subsided) had a hot dog and an ice cream sandwich and began yet another crazy climb, trying to put as much of the ascent behind me as possible before dusk.

I loved this section! 9.8 miles starting with a monster climb, then a gradual downhill, then on a nice trail beside a river, then another monster uphill to Camp Roosevelt – the aid station full of music and lights that just exploded out of the dark forest like something out of Apocalypse Now. Truly bizarre, it was. The night really plays with your mind in the mountains, too, because since I didn’t know the terrain, sometimes I would see a headlamp ahead of me that looked like it was about 20,000 feet above me, and I’d start dreading the climb, but eventually I realized that trying to judge elevation and distance by the appearance of a headlamp was completely impossible and often disheartening. The whippoorwills were already silent, and the only company on this section of the trail was the deer scat on the ground (first I tried to avoid stepping in it, but eventually I realized that it was only the best ways to avoid twisting on a sudden rock – aim for the scat!).

At Camp Roosevelt, I had a couple of cups of soup, stretched my IT band a bit, popped a No-Doz and swapped Garmins. My 310XT had just died at 18:30 – short of the 20 hours I wanted, but I had the audible mile alert on for the first 50 miles, which probably took some power. The data from the 310XT reads – 63.23 miles, 18:30, Average pace 17:33, average moving pace 14:59, elevation gain/loss 10,800 feet. At this point in the race, in order to have a sub-30 hour finish, all I had to do was run the next 37 miles in less than 11 hours and 30 minutes, I was more than confident I could do it – it wouldn’t even have to be a negative split!

All that changed at about mile 68. After another crazy run through a couple of really muddy sections, followed by another hellish climb, I was ready to tear down the hill for the last mile to the aid station. This is where the wheels came off. On the downhill my right foot decided it couldn’t flex downwards without shooting a debilitating pain through my entire foot and shin, just as I was beginning a steep decline. The pain was so bad I sat down three times just to try to figure out an alternate way to get down the hill. I ended up taking steps that were smaller than baby steps with shooting pain each time my right foot hit the ground. The last ¼ mile must have taken me at least 20 minutes. I limped into the aid station, popped three advil and dropped into a chair near the fire pit while a volunteer tried to figure out what was causing the pain and iced it up. At this point I was also shivering under the blanket they gave me, because stopping to ice something in shorts and a t-shirt on a cold night is not usually a good plan.

After about a half hour on ice, I came to realize it was not going to feel any better than it already did by that point, so I set back out, heading up Jawbone for the first time with a runner from Fredrick, VA and his pacer. They were great company, and kept my spirits up. The next four miles were tough going, as my foot was only a little better, but still do-able. However, I was doing them at a 34 minute pace average, which is not where I wanted to be. It was around the end of this section when I ended up picking up a walking stick that I was using to take some pressure off my right foot. I kept that stick with me until I dropped, and as funny as it seems, I walked with it AND ran with it (I did manage to put in a couple of sub-20 minute miles during this death crawl). When we got to the unmanned water station, I refilled and drank a ton. This is when the other wheel came off. About an hour before I reached Visitor Center at mile 78, I suddenly realized that I had urinated about 8 or 9 times in one hour – not normal, and DEFINITELY not normal during an ultra. (Sorry if this is TMI!) Unfortunately, for a type-1 diabetic, this can only mean one thing. I was hyperglycemic.

My blood sugar was high, and because I didn’t have enough insulin to turn it into anything useful (energy), my body was trying to get rid of it through urination. The only possible reason for this was that the insulin I had carried with me in my pack for the first 14 hours of the race had gotten to hot and broken down, losing much of it’s potency. Once I realized what was going on, I was terrified to take in any more carbs, because things only get worse from there, and my body couldn’t turn it into energy anyway, so it would have been futile. I ran nearly the last 20 miles of my race on nothing but water. When I reached Visitor Center, I realized how slow my pace had become and I was terrified that I wasn’t going to make it to the finish line before the 36 cut-off. Plus, since I wasn’t taking in any carbs, there wasn’t any reason to stick around, so I just refilled my water turned away my drop bag and headed up on the next climb. The initial climb went fine (I could still push a decent pace on the climbs all the way until the end, because my leg muscles were fine, and you don’t really use much foot/shin muscles on really steep rock climbs), but when it evened out at the top, the going got tough again. (This was also where the exhaustion/exertion hallucinations got really fun – I would think I saw something in the distance – a full size Winnebago and an old man at a picnic table feeding birds were my favorite – and although I knew they were just rock formations, I would continue to see the apparitions until I was standing right in front of them. Keep in mind, this was way out in the middle of the forest, so these things could not possibly have been real). I was really getting annoyed by this point, because I knew I should be making great time on these flat surfaces and downhills, especially when it opened up wide, but I couldn’t even move at a normal walking pace.

By the time I got to Bird Knob, I knew I was done, but decided I still had so much time to make the cutoff that I wouldn’t let myself drop before Picnic Area, 6.4 miles away. That last section was the most painful time I’ve ever spent on my feet after the first climb, my left foot suddenly began to feel just like my right, and I could barely move forward. Every step was agony, but it was an amazing personal and spiritual journey. That was the most emotional part of the entire run. When I dropped out at mile 87.9, I still had over six hours to finish the last 16 miles, but the three previous miles had taken over 40 minutes each. There was no possible way I could make it, and at this point I was still hyper-conscious of being hyperglycemic, and legitimately afraid of pushing myself into a serious injury, or I would have forced myself to crawl across the finish line.

Overall, it was easily the best race I’ve ever run, despite the fact that it was my first ever DNF. While it may sound odd to some, dropping from a race at mile 88 doesn’t make me wonder whether I can finish 100 miles, it did the opposite. I’m positive I can finish 100 miles (and this is “the toughest 100 miler east of the Rockies” we’re talking about here.)

Two days later, and I can still barely walk. My feet are the size of balloons, and I’m still not sure if the hyperglycemia had anything to do with it – I could have been taking too much salt and retaining water. I did notice that my hands were swollen during the race, and afterwards there is bruise under my wedding ring from where my hand must have been swelling. I’m thinking that if my shoes were tied tight and my feet were swelling, it could have been pushing against the nerve where the foot meets the calf, cutting off blood flow to the tendon that controls the foot flexing up and down.

Anyway, that’s how it went! I’ll be back next year, but as for now, I’m just hoping the swelling in my feet goes down before the 50k at Pineland Farms in two weeks! If anyone has any specific questions about my experiences, the course specifics, or anything else, please reach out to me!

06 May 2012

A fundraising plea before my first 100 miler!


As some of you know, I’m a runner, running almost exclusively on trails, and mainly in races of 50k (31 miles) and longer. As some others of you know, I was also diagnosed, to my surprise, as a type-1 (insulin dependent) diabetic just over two years ago. Surprisingly (to me), those two things ended up coming together to partially define who I am today. Even though I have to take insulin shots 4 times every day, and monitor my glucose levels to adjust the dosage on those shots, it hasn’t slowed my down. In fact, since my diagnosis I’ve set personal bests in every distance I’ve run.

That being said, the reason I’m bringing all this up now is that I’m running my first 100 mile race (Massanutten Mountain Trails, in Virginia) on May 12th. At this point, my goal is simply to finish the race before the time cut-off, but based on the training I’ve put in over the last 5 months, I’m also hoping to feel good doing it.

Now, I’ve never really been good at fundraising, but here I go! To coincide with my first 100 miler, I’ve set up a fundraising page for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). You don’t have to give now, you actually don’t have to give ever (see why I’m not a great fundraiser?) That being said, if you do have any funds that you’ve targeted towards donating for a good cause, this is a great cause, and one that I strongly believe in. Type-1 diabetes is hereditary, it cannot be controlled or eliminated through a change of diet or any other environmental factors – the body simply stops producing insulin, and without injections of synthetic insulin, sugars just build up in the body, causing all sorts of problems. While I’m fortunate enough to have a lifestyle that helps me keep my blood sugar levels low, many type-1 diabetics don’t have that opportunity and – as they say – insulin is NOT a cure.

  As for type-1 diabetics who have run 100 mile races, I still can’t find a figure, but I can’t imagine more than 100 have ever done it, and I’d guess the number is actually much lower than that. Maybe 25 people? Ever? So help me raise awareness for this great cause, and thank you very much.

My fundraising website is located at http://jdrfevents.donordrive.com/campaign/dfgray

I promise I’ll post a race report on my blog after the race – whatever happens!

Thanks!
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