Friday, February 28, 2014

2014 Reverse Ring

After Labor Day and my running of the Ring, I had no plans to run the Reverse Ring. In fact, I had been pretty sure that if I didn't get into Hardrock, my entire winter and spring season would be devoted exclusively to cycling. However, about a week later someone said "Hey, you finished the Ring? So we'll see you at the Reverse Ring in February!" and I said "OK!". Huh.

I did the typical pack-up-the-night-before-and-then-get-up-ridiculously-early routine. The weather forecast was mild, with highs in the mid-60's on Saturday and mid-30's Saturday night.  I planned on wearing shorts and a T-shirt Saturday, and brought a couple of long-sleeve options for Saturday night. For shoes, I went with the combo that served me well at Hellgate - Smartwool socks, Body Glide, and my Salomon Speedcross 3 shoes.

Packing my drop bag and pack the night before
I managed to fall asleep around 9:30, a little later than I'd hoped for a 2:30AM wake-up call. Nevertheless, a nice cup of coffee and 5 hours of sleep had me feeling perky enough on the drive to the Signal Knob parking lot. I got there a little earlier than expected, despite stopping for gas and snacks, so I had plenty of time to re-check my pack and to carefully don my footwear.
Map G? Check. Ginger? Check. "Oh Shit" kit? Check. 2,000 calories worth of snacks? Check.

The small group of runners gathered around as Bur gave a quick pre-race briefing and snapped a photo of the 18 starters. The field of runners was about the same size as the field of volunteers! It's this kind of support that makes VHTRC such an amazing group. This crew of intrepid volunteers would provide much needed moral support, as well as vast amounts of delicious food (more on that later).
Grandmasters Bur and Q deliver the "Hello, Good Morning" talk
 As Quatro shouted out "20 seconds left!" I realized that I'd left my gloves in my car and that my hands were a bit chilly in the 39-degree air. I ran over to my car, unlocked it, grabbed my gloves, and ran back over to the starting line just in time to latch on to the back of the pack. We started off up the climb to Signal Knob in the pre-dawn darkness. My heart was racing thanks to my caffeinated and mildly sleep-deprived state, and I kept stopping to snap photos of the train of headlamps.

First of many stream crossings

Hiking up into the darkness
Dawn broke as we neared the top of Signal Knob, about 1,600 feet of straight climbing. It was a great sunrise, promising a day of beautiful weather to come. There was a little bit of crusty snow and ice on the ground, but nothing that posed a significant obstacle. Overall, this section was orders of magnitude easier going up at the beginning of the day than it was going down at the end of the Ring. Did those rocks get smaller? Because I barely noticed them! This descent at the end of the Ring is pure misery.

Dawn towards the summit of Signal Knob

Some really pretty alpineglow greeted us

Ernesto at the top of the hill

The next section of the Massanutten Mountain Trail is a few miles of steep descent on a fire road (muddy!) followed by some rolling flat-ish sections on a nice smooth dirt road. I settled in and tried to enjoy the easy jogging that this terrain provided while I still could.
The descent from Signal Knob
Orange-blazed dirt road near Powell's Fort

The first aid station was at Woodstock Tower, about 14 miles in to the run. 14 miles is a long way, but on fresh legs with blue skies, it didn't feel that long at all. In fact, it felt kind of like a warm-up, as I took time to adjust my pack, fiddle with my headlamp, and make some other adjustments to get ready for the adventure to come.

After the dirt road section comes a sharp right-hand turn up a steep hill. After you climb to the top of the hill, it's a long section of ridge running with some phenomenal views through the bare tree limbs. I knew I was getting close to the aid station when I came across the hang-glider launch ramp.

This familiar view of the Allegheny Plateau greeted me as I approached the first aid station at Woodstock Tower
An even more prominent sign of iminent aid-stationness was this:
I don't know where these banners came from; I've never seen them before, but they were a welcome sight every time I spotted one!

At Woodstock Tower, the volunteers were serving up some delicious chow. I took two chorizo, egg, and cheese soft tacos. I had seen a guy with a beard leaving the aid station when I came in, and asked if it was Danny, who had crushed the Ring last August. I was told that no, it wasn't Danny, but Alex, and he and Cam were just in front of me.

I took off on the trail after thanking the volunteers. I wasn't really trying to chase anyone down or be in a hurry, as I'd only run twice (literally) since Hellgate more than two months earlier. I would be happy just to finish, with a goal time of under 24 hours.

I came across a tinfoil package laying on the trail, containing a still-warm breakfast taco. I picked it up and somehow found a place for it in my pack, which was already full almost to bursting with snacks. If I found the taco's owner, I'd return it to them; if not, I'd save it for my own enjoyment later on. Mwhahahaha.

A few minutes later, I caught up with Alex and Cam, who I'd run on-and-off with all the way to Camp Roosevelt. Turns out the taco belonged to Alex.

Somewhere on the ridge after Woodstock Tower with Alex
The views on this section of trail were quite good; we could see the ATV trail on the other side of the small valley, and could also see how saturated the ground looked at lower elevations. To get to the next aid station, we traversed over Waonaze Peak, whose name I would later spend several hours trying to pronounce to myself. The good company made the time fly by, and before I knew it we were at Edinburg Gap.

Sniper & Friends at Edinburg Gap, Aid No. 2, Mile 22
At Edinburg, I put on some sunscreen, ate some delicious grilled cheese, and ditched my gloves in my drop bag. On the way out, Quatro introduced me to something called Biscoff, which is a spreadable topping that's sort of like nutella (sweet) but even better! A couple of Oreos with big dollops of Biscoff on them later and I was out the proverbial door, trekking up the road with Alex. Cam was a few hundred feet ahead, stomping out big footprints in the wet road surface.

The next section of trail began the ascent up the notoriously rocky Short Mountain. The beginning part of this section has you traversing around the northern end of the ridge before you climb to the top, and is always sunny and warm. We caught up to Cam and were treated to an excellent view of the path which we had just traveled. Cam and I discussed how it felt to come this way during the Ring and see how much you had left to go. (answer: disheartening)

Looking back at Waonaze Peak on the right, and the 20-odd miles of ridgeline that we had just covered since dawn.
Short Mountain was over quickly and painlessly. Just like the section of trail between Signal Knob and the parking lot, this portion is much easier going when it's daylight and your legs are relatively fresh. At about 25 miles in, my legs weren't feeling super peppy, but they weren't nearly as exhausted as they were at this point in the Ring. Before we knew it, we popped out at Moreland Gap and were greeted by this cheery bunch:

Tom and Cohorts at Moreland Gap

I grabbed a turkey wrap to go, and set off on the trek across Kearn's Mountain. Cam and Alex had left the aid station a few moments ahead of me, so for this section I was largely on my own. Kearn's is always "interesting", but at just 6.2 miles, it's a 10k that you eventually realize is best to just grind out at the fastest walk/hike pace you can manage. At this point, my legs were not feeling their freshest - some tiredness was starting to set in. I took this picture to prove how much fun I was having.

Kearn's! Yay!
I caught up with Cam just before the next aid station at Crisman Hollow. We were jogging down the trail when we came across a spread of party favors - birthday hats and those little kazoo-whistles that have a paper tube attached to them. Several large signs informed us that this was Stephanie's birthday, and that said party favors were in service thereof. We each took a hat and a whistle, and jogged the last hundred yards or so to the aid station. When we popped out on the road, it just so happened that Stephanie was walking up. We wished her a happy birthday, and with Cam acting as the official conductor sang a robust Happy Birthday along with the aid station crew.
Cam and I decked out in party gear. Photo: Stephanie Wilson

After chowing down on some delicious chicken salad, and taking a couple of super tasty raisin/chocolate chip cookies to go, I set off down the flat path to the descent down waterfall. These few hundred meters were extraordinarily beautiful; it was about 3:00PM, the sunlight was just starting to get colorful, the sky was perfectly clear, and I was on a flat and smooth trail at the top of a mountain. 10 minutes later, I was applying the engine brakes as the trail dropped about 850 feet over 0.75 miles down Waterfall Mountain.

Cam caught up to me partway down Waterfall (he'd gone back to fill up his water at the aid station). When we got to the bottom, Alex caught up with us, and we all started the long trudge up Big Run. This is a pretty messy stretch of trail in good conditions, but with all the snowmelt it was literally like hiking up a creek. Luckily, it was a rocky creek, so I was able to keep my feet mostly dry in an effort to stave off the inevitable blisters.

Cam and I trudge up Big Run
 We continued on up to the intersection with the Scothorn Gap trail, then took a right turn at the intersection to go up and over Strickler Knob. In The Race (MMT 100), you would take a left here and follow the yellow-blazed Scothorn Gap trail back down to Crisman Hollow Road on your way to Gap Creek II aid station. I love understanding where I am in relation to where I've been before and where I'm going! It gives you a great sense of timing, which really helps break down the overall task into manageable chunks. Cam was a great help in this, as he knows the area backwards and forwards (get it?? ha!).

After cresting the ridge, the three of us dropped down the epoch-long descent through Duncan Hollow on the way to Camp Roosevelt.

Alex descending Duncan Hollow

My legs were starting to feel the "real" fatigue set in, and i found it difficult to keep up with Cam and Alex. The 5-mile long descent is gentle, but the trail surface was muddy and challenging to keep my feet dry. At the very bottom, there was a knee-deep stream crossing that didn't have an easy "keep your feet dry" option. Since Camp Roosevelt and a dry pair of shoes was just ahead, I decided to just forge ahead. Man, that water was brisk! But it felt good on my aching and sore feet.

Soon after that I reached the road.


Fire and chairs at Camp Roosevelt
I worked off my shoes and did a bit of quick damage assessment. The hot spots that I'd been feeling on my heels were small but legitimate blisters. I decided that they needed some fixing, and pulled out my blister kit to get them addressed. I'll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that it really doesn't pay to develop calluses on your feet. All in all, my feet really were in pretty good condition. 46 miles through mud and extremely rocky technical terrain, and all I had to show for it were a couple of little pea-sized blisters? Considering how much of a catastrophe my feet were at this point in the Ring, 25 miles in, I considered myself fortunate.

I taped up my feet with some K-tape and put on fresh shoes and socks, then head out after partaking of the aid station bounty - hot chicken and rice soup (thanks Dave!) and Bur's masterful grilled cheese. After a short hike up the trail, I popped out at the scenic overlook on Edith gap. The setting sun was lighting the Shenandoah up like fireworks and I couldn't resist jogging over to take a photo.

Shenandoah mountains in the setting sun.
The next stretch was long, unforgiving, and mentally grueling. A moderate, runnable section of jeep trail lead into 15 miles of rocky ridgeline, where it wasn't possible on my tired legs to manage anything much faster than a trudging hike. In the dark by myself, it took about 6 hours to cover this stretch, with the wind chilling me rapidly if I stopped to tripod or sit down for a 30 second rest. I was thankful for the extra long sleeve and gloves that I'd picked up at Roosevelt.

Lots and lots of this
Every time I did stop, I'd turn off my headlamp and get a great view of the stars in the crystal clear sky. I tried to limit my rest breaks, telling myself that the miles wouldn't hike themselves. I broke down the 16 mile section into chunks, taking the first 8 miles mile-by-mile. The intersecting trails gave small indications of how far I'd come - "OK, just 1 mile till Kennedy Peak!".

I also kept on the backburner a mental log of how many miles to the finish - it was close enough that I could do that without being overwhelmed. "OK, 7 more miles to the aid, 15 to the finish".

After an interminably long time had passed, I finally made the sweeping left-hand turn that led down the side of the ridge towards Veech Gap. Near the bottom, the temperate ridgeline air gave way to a frigid and frosty microclimate. Finally through the trees I spotted a small light - it was a lantern that they'd hung up next to the aid station. Picking my way across one final creek, I shambled into Mario's camp and sat down next to a blessedly hot fire.
Grilled cheese roasting by an open fire...
Mario's manned camp gave me respite and solace. He had everything a tired and cold runner could want and more - hot soup, grilled cheese, blonde brownies, even the incredibly luxurious stimulant of hot cocoa mixed with instant coffee. Usually this aid station is an unmanned water drop with a tent set up - I can't even imagine what it would be like to cover those 25 miles by yourself in the dark, without a human to talk to or something besides your own metabolism to warm you up. I probably would have curled up inside the tent and slept for an hour or two.

After profusely thanking Mario for hiking all the aid out there, I got up and set out on the last leg of the journey. This was definitely a "beware the chair" type scenario - I didn't want to get TOO warm and comfortable there by the fire.

It was cold enough when I left that I started jogging uphill just to warm up. I passed a group of people camped out and must have flashed enough perplexed looks in their direction with my headlamp that they shouted a greeting at me as I ran by.

The last 8 miles were neverending. I remembered from the Elizabeth Furnace 50k that the ridge ahead was not easy; it was going to be very rocky and technical with lots of short steep climbs and descents. I kept looking at my Garmin, knowing that if I could just keep a 20:00min/mile pace I had a good shot at coming in around the same time that I had for the Ring - 19:33. This was very much on my mind as I pushed through these last miles. However, some of the trail was very dangerous, and I slowed way down on these sections. Traversing a very narrow off-camber trail covered in ice above a precipitous drop-off in the dark by yourself at midnight? Yeah...

Once I got to the descent down Shawl Gap, I was very much smelling the barn. I started jogging, slowly at first but then faster and faster as I neared the bottom and the trail smoothed out. My headlamp ran out of batteries, I stopped and changed them as fast as I could.

I took a wrong turn at the bottom, heading down an abandoned carriage road. This became obvious when several massive blowdowns obstructed the trail. I hiked back up about 50 yards and got back on track. By the time I reached the old furnace, I was running as fast as my fatigued legs and blistered feet would let me; obsessively checking my pace and time. I was so close! I knew that once I crossed the road, I'd just have a short jog into the finish.

However, once I crossed the road, it turned out that my memory had betrayed me - I'd been picturing the short spur from the group camping area to the Signal Knob parking lot, which is about a 10th of a mile, not the spur trail from the Elizabeth's Furnace area to the Signal Knob parking lot, which is about 3/4 of a mile. At this point, my Garmin had died and I didn't have anything to obsess over, so I just put everything I had into power hiking up and over the small hill that presented itself, and then ran as fast as I could down the back. My legs felt fresh and strong, and the pain in my feet had been liberally doused in endorphins.

I made it to the parking lot running hard. I ran about 2/3 of the way across, only to hear Bur gently remind me that in order to officially finish, I would have to go back and follow the orange trail as it circumnavigated the parking lot to come out by the tent that was set up there. D'oh! I didn't mind the extra distance; compared to what I'd just done it was completely trivial. However, I knew I was really close to making that 19:33 time, so I sprinted back across the parking lot and through the trail around to the finish. I popped out of the woods, and was told that my time was 01:32 - one minute faster than my Ring time! I was ecstatic, and plunked right down in a chair that was sitting there. Someone put a nice warm horse blanket on me, and I was immediately fed all sorts of amazingly delicious things - chicken tortilla soup, hot chocolate with whipped cream and Kahlua, and a decadent chocolate chip cookie. Cam, who'd finished about an hour earlier, came over and congratulated me. After sitting there soaking up some calories for a while, I thanked everyone and hobbled off to my car to curl up and die for a little while.

View from my car in the Signal Knob parking lot after finishing

In my car, I turned the engine on and changed clothes, then slept fitfully hour-by-hour for a while. Every so often a runner would come by, and I'd open up my window and whistle at them. I felt a little bad for not getting out of my car to greet them at the finish, but I was so stiff that leaving the confines of my car would have been a herculean task. Around 5AM Quatro came over to give me my drop bag, and we chatted for a little bit. I sat and enjoyed the heater in my car for another hour or so, then dragged myself out when I saw Sniper and a few other runners come in. I went over to the tent and congratulated them (it was Steve Cooper and Charlie Joyce), and enjoyed some of the delicious breakfast that the chefs were offering up (chilaquiles, coffee, and white chocolate cherry scones, yum!).

After hanging out for a bit chatting, I dragged myself back to my car for the drive home. It was a very challenging and rewarding experience. The volunteers were amazing, the camaraderie on the trail was great, the weather was perfect, and the Massanutten Trail as usual was wild, beautiful, and rugged. It was definitely a little easier than the Ring, but by no means would I call this an "easy" run. I hadn't planned on running the Ring again, but after this... I might need to reconsider!


  1. Nice recap. Hoping to do this someday...

  2. congratulations, Jack! Great story. I'm sure others will find your detailed descriptions helpful and inspiring.

  3. Jack: Great write up! Definitely a great weekend in the woods. Had a great time sharing trail with you. Hope to do it again soon. -Cam