Backing up a bit, the first thing every runner needs to mention when talking about the Reverse Ring (and its Fall sister-race, The Ring) is the amazing efforts of co-RDs Mike Bur and Quatro Hubbard, and their army of awesome volunteers. Particularly laudable for the Reverse Ring is the effort they make to "hike in" aid station supplies to key spots on the course whose access roads are closed to vehicles in the winter. More on that, and the answer to why I owe Dave Snipes a beer (or three), later.
After an insane amount of snow ruined last year's Reverse Ring, I was excited for the chance to finally run this counter-clockwise loop of the 71 mile Massanutten Trail in the George Washington National Forest. It seemed like a lifetime ago that I ran the clockwise Ring in the Fall of 2009, thereby earning the invitation to run this winter version of the race. As much as I hate waking up at 5am to run in sub-freezing temps, the promise of a snow-free course and a high of 45 degrees had me pretty happy as I dozed off in the back of the XTerra Inn the night before.
|A few of us just before the start. Keith is on the right (with legs just a wee bit stronger than mine!), and my friend Kim (center, in red) came out from OH and proved she's tough-as-nails by finishing in 26:12. Way to go, Kimba!|
I didn't make a conscious effort to speed up and catch Keith (I figured it might take 10 or 15 miles to reel him in, if I caught him at all), but my legs were feeling surprisingly light and I ended up pulling in behind him after just a mile or two. He let me take the lead (considering he's such an expert on these rocky trails, this was akin to Richard Petty flipping me the keys and saying "Why don't you drive in front of me for a while..."), and we chatted for a bit as I mentioned above. After realizing Keith was no longer behind me, I continued my comfortable rhythm on the rest of the climb to the Signal Knob overlook. Never one to disappoint, Mr. Sun was just starting to creep over the horizon when I reached the top, and I forced myself to pause for a few seconds to take in the spectacular view.
|Not a sunrise photo, but you get the idea. It's pretty up there! (Jim Harris Photo)|
|Can't complain about having to clear a few branches when the fine chainsaw work of trail crews took care of this section of blow-downs! (Zsuzsanna Carlson photo)|
Thanks to the sights and sounds of the Massanuttens, however, it wasn't always a struggle to keep my brain occupied. There are many times when you're bombing down a trail like this and your focus on every rock and leaf you fly over is razor sharp...
|(Zsuzsanna Carlson Photo)|
|(Jim Harris Photo)|
|RD Quatro Hubbard makes sure Jim Harris has all the essential trans fats he needs at Edinburg Gap - Mile 22.4 (Mike Bur Photo)|
|Dave Snipes and Doug Sullivan help Tom Corris mix the precise amounts of chemical motivation into his Camelbak at Moreland Gap - Mile 30.4 (Mike Bur Photo)|
|Eventual 3rd place finisher Cam Baker wonders why his feet hurt so much at Moreland Gap. 'Forget it, Cam, it's Massanuttentown'. (Mike Bur, Photo)|
I quickly mixed a 350 calorie recovery drink and chatted with RD Mike Bur who let me know Keith was about 20 mins back. While I spent no more than 2 or 3 minutes at any of the previous Aid Stations, I took my time here (about 15 mins) to prepare my supplies for the final 25 mile stretch to the finish without another formal aid station. Mike mentioned he was sending a volunteer to hike up the trail to Veach Gap (about 8 miles from the finish) to set up an emergency tent in case anyone needed to seek shelter in the overnight hours. He also mentioned there would be "some water and maybe some cookies" as well. This fact will become very important in just a bit...
After thanking Mike for all of his (and the volunteers') efforts, I headed up the climb to the eastern ridge of the course. I forced myself to walk the first 10 minutes to let my recently-chugged recovery drink settle in my stomach, and as soon as it was time to start running again, my legs felt refueled and ready for more fun. I was also encouraged by the fact that I still had a couple hours of daylight to work with on the ridge before needing to strap on the headlamp again. With beautiful views to both the west and east on the ridge, all was well in my mountain running world.
Right about the time the sun finally ducked behind the western ridge, I pulled my headlamp out of my pack and realized I made a stupid rookie mistake back at the Roosevelt Aid station: I forgot my extra gel flask. This meant I would soon be 500 calories behind my plan. By my calculations I had 6 or 7 more miles to go before the "emergency" tent at Veach Gap, and then another 8 miles to the finish from there. As my engine started to sputter on the way to Veach, echoes of Mike's casual comment about the emergency tent's possible contents, "...and maybe some cookies too...", repeated over and over in my head. Man, oh, Man did I need some of those precious cookie calories!
As my running form on the rocky ridge devolved from "efficient and smooth" to "all knees and elbows", visions of the big chocolate chip cookies they have at Costco flooded my mind. Granted, I knew the cookies in that tent wouldn't be of such high quality, but I would have been happy with even a stack of stale Hydrox at that point. I employed every trick in my bag to fend off the reality of my situation as I shuffled down the trail: I turned up the volume on my headphones to overpower my rumbling stomach. To no one in particular I yelled out, "...and where the hell is Keith already?! I bet he has an extra Snickers bar to share!". The wheels were hanging on by a single lug for a couple miles when, mercifully, I started the mile-long descent down to Veach Gap. Over that blessed mile I embodied the form of a kid heading home after the last day of school: Legs over-striding, arms flailing, empty lunch box (or Camelbak, in my case) flapping in the wind behind me...all with the promise of happy times ahead.
A few minutes later my light revealed the glorious sight of the emergency tent. I plopped myself down on all fours and eagerly prepared for the feast my brain had convinced myself would be waiting as I looked inside...
It was like coming home and seeing a note on the counter from your parents that says Summer School starts on Monday. I stretched my legs out on the dirt in front of the tent let out the most sincerely disappointed "Argghhhh!" any man has ever uttered, pirates included.
The news wasn't all bad, however, as awesome volunteer Dave Snipes did haul up some food/liquid with the tent. The complete inventory: two bananas, potato chips, water, Pepsi, and a bottle of Gatorade. Not what I was envisioning, but before I even had time to think about my next move, I noticed I had already shoved a four-inch stack of Pringles into my mouth. Actually, rather than Pringles, they were the Lays' brand of "tubed potato chips". I mention this only because I scratched both sides of my hand on the lip of the tube while pulling out the chips too fast, sort of like a lame, junk-food version of an Aesop Fable. Chip connoisseurs such as myself know the smart folks at Pringles keep the rim of their packaging rounded to spare some of its more ravenous customers, such as myself, from any collateral damage. ...and yes, these are the things one has time to reflect upon when running alone all day in the mountains.
After washing down the chips with some solid sugar calories from the Pepsi, I ate one of the bananas in 2.5 seconds, and added a little Gatorade to my Camelbak for a few extra calories as well. Shortly after this tornado of eating, I paused for the first time all day and thought about what my finishing time might be. I had about 2 hours to go roughly 8 miles to the finish line and break the course record. Sure, anyone can cover 4 miles an hour, but when you mix in 90 million rocks on a dark and twisting mountain trail, it's no guarantee at all...especially since it would take a mile or two before my body processed those emergency calories and started to wake up again.
Thankfully the combination of the food and my iPod worked to get the gears spinning one last time before too long, and I knew I had the energy to make a final push at the record. When I passed a trail sign that said I had 3 miles to the road (plus about 1/4 of a mile after that to the actual finish line), I knew it was after-burner time. I had 28 minutes to cover those 3+ miles, and with the way I was moving, I figured I'd have it beat by 4 or 5 minutes. Not a bad finish to a crazy final 20 miles or so...
Then, as if the Massanutten rocks were conspiring to protect their own, my path to the finish suddenly became riddled with obstacles. See, Keith and his dad Gary Knipling have a combined twenty-four finishes at the Massanutten 100 miler, not to mention dozens of other races on these trails such as the Ring. Simply put, they are the Massanutten mountains...and I don't think those mountains were too happy with a flat-lander 24-hour runner like me invading their turf! First and foremost amongst the obstacles was the sudden appearance of approximately 300 trail crossings, some of which were questionably marked, and down seemingly all of which I ran 50 to 200 yards in the the wrong direction before realizing my mistake and turning around. With the first couple, I thought "Oh well, I still have a cushion of time", but after a few seconds of confusion in the last mile near the Pig Iron trail intersection, I looked at my watch and realized it was going to be a photo finish.
After finally reaching the parking lot across the street from the finish line, I knew I just had the annoying 1/4 mile loop up-over-and-around the Signal Knob parking lot to get back to the official finish line on the northern side of the lot. Mind you, during this section of the trail you can basically see and hear the activity from the finish line parking lot, but you have to follow the trail all the way around it before officially finishing. When I started this final stretch, I saw I had regained a little buffer on my time and figured I'd finish with 3 or 4 minutes to spare. ....and then I tripped (first time all day!) and whacked both of my knees. Ouch! Undeterred, I stood back up and started hobbling/shuffling and pretending like Phil Mickelson didn't just take a swing at my kneecaps with a 5-wood. Then, less than a minute later, I tripped again. Come on! This was too much. With finish line about 100 yards away, I saw I had 90 seconds to go and let the panicked rush of adrenaline mask my knee pain enough to cruise across the line in 14:57:02 - one minute under the old course record. Woohoo! The craziness of those final few miles really made this one extra-enjoyable.
Keith came rumbling out of the woods like a pro just 15 minutes later in another stellar finish time of 15:12, and Dave Snipes was there for me to properly laud for his volunteering exploits all day long, most specifically for dragging the tent and food up to Veach. You the man, Dave!!
After the 90 minute drive back home to DC, my legs had enough time to stiffen up quite nicely. ...and just to give the running gods one more chance to laugh at my expense, when I gingerly waddled my way out of the car, I noticed a shiny quarter laying on the ground at my feet. All I could do was look down, say "Nope!", and go inside to find the shower. Twenty-five cents can't buy any Costco cookies anyway.