The perfect first 50-miler?? Yes and no.
I was naive enough to run MMTR as my first ultra, not just my
first 50-miler. I'd never gone
beyond 26.2 miles in a race or 30 miles in training. Some runners
thought I was nuts for considering MMTR.
Of course, some people thought I was nuts for considering anything over
the marathon distance, even a 50K, but that's another story.
There's the goal: the finish area of the MMTR in Montebello, VA
It was 1992. I was living in Atlanta at the time and knew some ultra
runners around the Southeast who loved the event. I'd been getting
UltraRunning magazine for a couple years, easing mentally into ultra
distances before doing the mileage (I feared losing speed more than
being able to run that far). I was intrigued after
reading MMTR race reports. I also admired David
Horton's running accomplishments to that point in time, including his record 1991
Appalachian Trail run. Not only was David an elite-level ultra runner,
he was also the nutty race director of this nutty race in the Blue Ridge
Mountains west of Lynchburg, VA.
So I decided to sign up for the 10th edition of the Mountain
Masochist Trail Run. I was 43 years old and totally burned out
on road racing. I was a mad-woman for three years after turning
40, competing nearly every weekend in a series of road races in
Georgia from 5K to marathon distance. I did well in Masters competition but lacked motivation
to continue the requisite speed work to stay at the top of my
game. I was finally ready to get into the more laid-back sport
of trail ultra races (I'd already been running trails since
1980, just not trail races).
It's one of the best decisions I've made as a runner -- not just
getting into ultras, but running MMTR as my first one.
I was still young enough and fast enough then to finish the
doggone thing, something I haven't been able to do since 1998. I
ran my best time on the course that first attempt, a 10:30
hour finish that landed me second female overall. There were
only seven female finishers that year. I was 80th out of 155
finishers (181 starters).
Sue's first ultra finish at the 10th annual
MMTR; RD David Horton on the right
(photo by Leland Gammon on 10-24-92)
Times have certainly changed. A 10:30 time in the 2007
MMTR placed a woman 29th out of 58 female finishers -- and 226
total finishers. You can see that there are many more women
running this race now!
After the 1992 race
David Horton wrote a long report that was
published with the results in the December issue of
UltraRunning magazine. This quote is interesting to me for
"This year we had only 11 women entered versus 31 women in
1991. Where are all our women runners? There were 32 men and no
women older than 50 years of age entered. Why are there so few
"older" women ultra runners?"
It appears that I chose a very good year to run MMTR as my first
ultra! Jo May's winning time of 9:34 hours may have been the slowest winning
time in the 25 years this race has been run, and my 2nd place
time was probably the slowest 2nd place time in race history.
But, by gosh, we were both "in the arena." (See Teddy
Roosevelt quote in
Six miles into the 1992 MMTR (official race
photo I purchased)
I don't even know where to begin to answer David's question
about why there were so few "older" female ultra runners who
chose to run this race . . . I honestly don't think most
elite runners can relate very well to folks in the back half of
MMTR is a tough course. Yes, there are some very runnable paved and dirt
road miles, but the rugged single-track trails are challenging
for many runners. As an added treat,
the sections with rocks and roots are covered in newly-fallen
leaves. (Horton has "Best Blood" awards in all his races!)
The course has 9,200 feet of elevation gain and 7,200
feet of loss. There are several very long uphill sections. The
course is three or four miles longer than advertised,
with a 12-hour time limit that is tight for slower runners for a
miles on a less rugged course. There are usually a lot of DNFs.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
I got curious enough this week to look up some
finisher statistics from previous
races -- age group records, female finishers over age 50,
the typical percentage of DNFs, and such.
And one thing jumped out at me, just as it does when I've waited
at the finish line for Jim: there sure are a lot of runners coming in
between 11 and 12 hours. Although I've
always thought this race had tight cut-offs, even *I* was a bit
astonished at the high percentage of runners
who finish in the last hour! It's as bad (from my perspective) as the
Leadville 100-miler, a race notorious for its mad scramble during
the last hour.
L: David poses with Tom Green at the end of
the 2007 race. Tom finished his 25th consecutive MMTR in 11:52,
only a few minutes before the cut-off. R: our friend
Bedford Boyce, who finished in 11:23. Good job, guys!
Here are some
stats from the last four years:
2004: unknown # starters and DNFs, 214 finishers under 12
hours, 78 between 11-12 hours = 36.4% in the last hour
2005: 251 starters, 57 DNFs = 22.7% didn't finish; 194 finishers
under 12 hours, 68
between 11-12 hours = 35% in last hour
2006: 284 starters, 64 DNFs = 22.5% didn't finish; 220
finishers under 12 hours, 92 between 11-12 hours = a whopping
41.8% in the last hour! (12 of the DNFs finished, but they were
over 12 hours)
2007: unknown # of starters and DNFs, 221 finishers under
12 hours, 80 between 11-12 hours, = 36.2% in last hour
I couldn't find any stats on
web sites prior to 1996 (the race began in 1983). The
number of starters is probably in David's annual race reports in
UltraRunning magazine but I'm not going to search for all
of those. There are age group records from 1983-2004 but I don't
see updated records. The only course records noted are men’s:
Dave Mackey, 2003, 6:48:31 and women’s: Nikki
Kimball, 2006, 7:47:05.
Nikki with David at the end of the race in
Her 8:31:42 was well off her 2006 record
but enough to win the female division.
Let's get real: most female ultra runners over "a certain
age" know the odds are stacked so high against them in this race
that they either don't consider it in the first place or they decide
after one or more DNFs that it's futile to try again. There
aren't very many different women over 50 who have finished this
race, and I don't believe any women over 60 have ever completed
it under 12 hours. I think Barb Isom is the oldest finisher at 59 (2006
race). I don't have all the race results since 1983; you
results since 1996 at this
Ask Anne Huntzinger about this race and how tough it is for an
older woman to finish it. She's in her 60s now and has been
trying for the last six years to finish her tenth MMTR so she can
get the award (a nice jacket) that is given to the ten-time finishers!
Anne had eight finishes by 1997 but suffered a broken collarbone
and fractured back after being struck by a car six weeks before
the 1998 race. She was back in 2000 and 2001 but was unable to
make the cut-offs in the second half of the race both years.
Did she give up? Absolutely not! In 2002, at age 58, Anne
returned and finished the race despite a nasty fall about a mile
from the end that fractured her shoulder in four places!
Although she was almost 18 minutes past the final cut-off the
race counted as her ninth finish toward the 10-year jacket. (As
long as a runner makes the last intermediate cut-off several
miles from the finish, runners' times beyond 12 hours are
counted as finishes. They just don't get the under-12 hour
Anne Huntzicker and volunteer Leland Gammon
on Sunday morning after the 1992 race
I respect Anne's tenacity, especially since she flies from the
West almost every year for the race. She's registered again this
year at age 64 and there's nothing more I'd love than to see her
finish in under 12 hours! She'd finally get her jacket and would
probably be the oldest female finisher in the race's 26-year
This is what I meant at the beginning when I said "yes and
no" regarding whether MMTR is a the perfect first 50-miler. It
all depends on whether you can average a bit over a 13-minute
pace on a mountainous course like this, especially if you've
never run the distance before. It's a challenge for 50-mile
veterans, let alone newbies.
Happy Top 5 Females after the 2007 race:
L-R: Nikki Kimball, Annette Bednosky,
Sabrina Moran, Monica Ochs, and Krissy Moehl. You can see lots
more 2007 MMTR photos
In 1992 I was still fast enough to pull it off. Ditto in 1998
(age 49). I DNF'd in 2000 and have saved my money ever since!
(Even if I was fast enough to run it now, I can't because of my
bad knees.) It's more fun now for me to crew for Jim, volunteer, celebrate with the
happy finishers, and commiserate with the frustrated folks who
had to bail out or were pulled for missing a cut-off.
MASOCHIST GONE MODERN
I highly recommend this race for those who are fast enough -- or
almost fast enough. MMTR is a well-organized event that covers
absolutely gorgeous mountain terrain during peak fall foliage color in
the George Washington National Forest in
Virginia. Just be careful if you take your eyes off the trail!
There are probably as many veteran volunteers as
runners who make this an annual event. Everything about race
weekend is first-class. David Horton, his long-suffering wife
Nancy, and everyone associated with the race through the years
has done a superlative job.
After twenty-five years of directing the race, David has turned
over the reins to one of his protégés, Clark Zealand (next
photo), to direct
the 26th edition of the event this year. David is seeded #1 in
the race this time. He ran and won the inaugural event in 1983
but has been too busy directing the race to run it since then.
He's psyched this year to be competing again. Wouldn't it be
cool if he ran faster than he did 26 years ago???
Clark Zealand and Krissy Moehl at the
Clark was one of David's students at Liberty University and is
now an assistant professor in his mentor's sports management
department (David is an exercise physiology prof).
Clark is continuing most of the race's traditions and adding
some new higher-tech twists to the event: audio on his
live splits during the race,
Twitter Feed with updates,
Flickr Photo Stream, and
You can see where the field of sports management is heading --
increasing technology. Here's another race where folks across
the country and world can follow the progress of their friends
in real time via the internet. Very cool. Jim is #84. Check the link above this Saturday
morning or afternoon to see how he's doing. The race starts at 6:30
AM and finishes at 6:30 PM Eastern Time (and don't forget
to "fall back" Saturday night/Sunday morning).
JIM'S LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH MMTR
Jim has as many ambivalent feelings about this race as I do.
Although I've given up on ever entering it again, he's still out
there trying to beat that doggone 12-hour time limit. Here's a
summary of his history on this course:
Less than a year after I moved to Montana to marry Jim, I talked
him into running MMTR for the first time. It had been one of my
favorite races and I wanted to share it with him. We flew from
Montana to Virginia for the race; Jim was still working then (2000)
and we didn't have time to drive across the country like we are
able to do now. Jim finished MMTR that year, on his first
attempt, in 11:27. He was 114th out of 150 finishers (146
under 12 hours) and very happy to have completed the course.
(Unfortunately, I was one of about 42 runners who DNF'd that
year and I haven't re-entered since.)
Jim's next attempt at MMTR was in 2004, the year we moved to
Virginia. We live only an hour away from the course -- how could
he not run it? That year he got to the aid station at
Salt Log Gap (41.5 miles) in 9:30 hours, missing
the cut-off by a few minutes. He wasn't real surprised because
it was a strange year in our lives. He retired, we lived in our
camper for five months, and we made several out-and-back cross-country trips:
from Montana to the Southeast to look for a new home, from
Virginia to Billings for our household goods, from Virginia to California for
the Western States 100-miler, and from Virginia to Colorado for the Leadville 100.
was exhausted by the time MMTR came along.
Jim (L) and Roanoke buddies Jay and Anita
Finkle just before the half-way mark in the 2004 MMTR
In 2005 Jim was occupied most of the time from the end of April
30 to the end of September crewing for me on the Appalachian
Trail. His training was spotty at best, but he signed up for
MMTR again. Lo and behold, he got in 45 Horton miles that year
-- but missed the cut-off again at Forest Valley.
Jim registered in both 2006 and 2007 but did not start (DNS)
either race. He just didn't feel prepared either time and didn't
want two more DNFs. I can't blame him. We still attended the
pre-race dinners and volunteered so we could see lots of
friends. Last year Jim swept the last half of the race.
Now here we are again, two days before the race, and Jim is
psyched to break that DNF streak!
JIM'S TRAINING FOR MMTR
I've mentioned previously about Jim's running conundrum this
summer and fall -- how to effectively train for relatively flat
fixed-time 24- and 48-hour races (Hinson Lake, Ultracentric, and
Across the Years) AND for the rougher, much hillier Mountain
Masochist 54-miler that falls smack dab in the middle.
It hasn't been easy for him, but he told me this week that he
feels better trained for MMTR than he has in recent years. That
was good to hear.
His weekly mileage since the end of September looks like this:
72 miles (including Hinson Lake 24-hour run), 23 miles (rest
week), 35, 48, and 9 miles. He's done a variety of flat,
rolling, hilly, and mountainous training runs at different paces
In addition to all the long runs up to 30 miles that Jim ran
before and after Hinson Lake, he has done numerous
middle-distance hilly runs in the Roanoke area on trails at
Explore Park, Mill Mountain, Chestnut Ridge, and Roanoke
Mountain. He's also done three long training runs of four to
five hours (from 18.4 to 22.8 miles long) on the
second half of the MMTR course.
One of the more difficult time cut-offs during the race is at
Long Mountain Wayside on Hwy. 60. The Appalachian Trail
also crosses the road here, but MMTR doesn't follow it (good
thing, as it's steeper and rockier than the race course). A lot of
runners either choose to drop out at this aid station or are
pulled for missing the cut-off. Several buses await their
arrival, and it it the only drop bag location. Crews are allowed
at several other aid stations, but this is the only one where
I've crewed Jim.
Some of the drop bags at Long Mountain
Wayside aid station (2007 MMTR)
Why would someone want to drop out by choice, i.e., not from
being required to stop, at this aid station at 26.9
(official) miles into the race? Half the work is done already,
HA!! Check out this
link for the elevation profile,
and you'll see why those buses are so enticing half way through
this race! David always warns runners that "the race begins
By the time runners reach Long Mountain Wayside they are already
part of the way up Buck Mountain but it's still an intimidating
climb to the next aid station -- and beyond. There is good
reason the aid station at the top often plays the theme from "Rocky"
to encourage the runners. So Jim decided to
focus his three long training runs on the course to the second
Runs #1 and #2 were at the end of August and the beginning of
September -- several weeks before Hinson Lake. Jim parked at the
wayside on Hwy. 60 each time and did approximately 19
miles out-and-back on the course: up Buck Mountain on
forest service roads to the infamous single-track "Five-Mile
Loop" on Mts. Pleasant and Pompey, highest point on the course,
and back down to the wayside.
The first time he got some bonus single-track when he missed a
turn, but he knew the area well enough to avoid getting lost.
The second time he was completely on the race course. Neither
time was easy, but both runs were easier than doing the slog to
the high points after running half the race first.
Jim did both of those training runs alone. Cody isn't trained
for 4-5 hour runs right now, and I can't run terrain like that
anymore. Even if I could, I probably couldn't keep up with Jim
David and Clark scheduled a training run on the second part of
the course on October 18. Jim knows from prior experience with
these training runs that the predominantly Liberty University
students who participate are all much faster than he is, so he's
opted out of those runs ever since. He didn't know all the turns
but he really, really wanted to run all or most of the second
half two weeks before the race.
Entrance to the Loop (10-19-08)
So Jim contacted one of our local friends, Steve Bowles, who is
registered for the race again this year. Jim and Steve run about
the same pace. Steve promised Jim that he knew all the turns so
they could run from Long Mountain Wayside to the finish line in
Montebello without getting lost. Just to be sure, they chose the
day after the young studs' group training run in hopes
that David would leave some markers at critical turns. He did!
Jim wrote to thank him later.
The guys were originally planning to drive separately and spot
their vehicles at each end. Then Jim got a great idea that
helped all three of us (four if you count Cody): he asked
if I'd crew for them. He knew I'd been in a funk since the New
River Trail race and would mellow out in the beautiful mountains
and Blue Ridge Parkway. We got to spend more time talking to
Steve on the drive up and back. It also saved the boys from
having to carry so much fluids and allowed Cody to get in a nice
long run. I'm glad
I went; it was a lot more fun than running on the
greenway by myself yet again.
After I dropped Jim, Steve, and Cody off at Long Mountain Wayside
several miles on scenic, narrow,
winding roads to the Mount Pleasant trailhead at the beginning of the infamous "Loop."
I remember the Loop well, even though the last time I ran it was
ten years ago. It's one of those seemingly-endless trail segments with
"Horton miles" that are longer than advertised. (It's
over five miles by everyone's estimates and GPS
read-outs.) Clark is maintaining David's legacy in his first
year as RD, including
all the bonus miles.
Cody was running with Jim and Steve for the first eight miles so I took
off alone down the nice grassy trail in the loop the same
direction, CCW, as runners go in the race. I had at least an
hour to kill before the fellas would be coming into their own
personal aid station -- our van. This is the site of a
most-welcome real aid station
during MMTR. Runners hit it at 33+ and 38+ miles into the race:
This will be the location of aid station at
the entrance to the Loop (10-19-08)
I made good use of that hour, walking and running down the
smooth trail until it turned left and went abruptly up rocky
Pompey Mountain. That
Sunday was one of those perfect autumn days that is made for trail
running: crisp enough to see our breaths in the morning, sunny enough to
quickly warm up in the sub-40 degree F. temperatures, and
colorful enough to wish October would last forever. The
leaves at the upper elevations in these mountains, over 4,000
feet, were nearing their peak. Lower down, they should peak about
the time of the race on November 1.
The downside to this beauty is all the leaves covering rocks
and roots on the course on race day. There were already a lot of
leaves on the ground two weeks ago. That day Jim and Steve were
mostly on forest service roads and old logging roads where they
didn't have to worry about face plants.
Trail in first mile of the Loop
I returned to the car only a few minutes before Jim and Steve
appeared. They were moving along faster than predicted, which
was good. I was reading the paper when something caught my eye:
it was Cody racing around a corner toward me. He couldn't see
me but he knew I was there! He's a great tracking dog. I
thought he'd be pooped out but he had tons of energy and kept me
amused after Jim and Steve continued on toward Montebello.
Jim and Steve spent a few minutes at the car to replenish their
supplies of fluids and calories, then headed back out to the
nearby forest service road toward Salt Log Gap, Forest Valley,
Porter's Ridge, and the finish.
After they left Cody
and I hiked backwards (CW) for a few minutes on the loop
up Pompey Mountain; that side
is fairly steep and rocky. That wasn't a smart move, although it
was fun at the time. The next day when I was running a steady
10-minute pace on the Wolf Creek Greenway my left hamstring began to
"pull" after four miles and I cut the run short to avoid further
trauma. It's been a problem ever since.
Cody checks out the Loop about 1/2 mile
from the end (10-19-08)
I drove back out to Hwy. 60 and connected with the Blue Ridge
I always love those parkway miles north to Route 56 to reach Montebello. I planned to ride my
bike 15-20 miles on the parkway but there were too many
leaf-peepers on the road that Sunday to make that any fun. This is
the most-visited national park, after all, and I'm happy so many
people enjoy it.
Although the leaves weren't quite at their peak yet, many trees
just glowed bright red, orange, and yellow against the bright
I killed some time taking photos along the parkway, then dropped
down the hilly road to the finish of the race at Montebello.
This sign cracks me up:
The only things in "downtown Montebello" are a campground and
newly-expanded country store! I was hoping for some hot chicken
or vegetable soup inside, which is often served post-race to
runners, crews, and volunteers, but chili was their only
offering on Sunday. Jim enjoyed some after he got done
with his training run.
Montebello Country Store on right, entrance
to campground (finish line) on the left. (10-19-08)
Looking at the finish area from the country
I still had time to kill before Jim and Steve would be getting
to the finish, so I visited the Fish Hatchery for a few minutes.
The race passes through here about a mile from the finish:
I got some points by parking the car past the fish hatchery at
the junction with busy Hay. 56, which runners must negotiate to
the finish. It's safer during the race, however, because there
are cones and signs warning drivers of runners on the road. It
would have been more dangerous for Jim and Steve to run it
during their training run. They had had enough fun by the time
they reached the van that they were happy to not have to run
more pavement and play dodge-the-cars. They finished their
almost-23 miles in five hours and felt good about the effort.
Since the run described above, Jim's been tapering for MMTR. He feels more
confident that he can finish the race this year. He's worked as
hard as he can for it this time and I know he'll give it
everything he's got.
He'd better -- folks will be
tracking his progress this time!
Also look for Steve Bowles (Roanoke friend) and Steve Michael,
my running buddy from Atlanta. All three men should have about
the same finish time between 11 and 12 hours. Steve Michael is
going for his 10th finish this time; that's good
motivation to finish.
Our Atlanta friend Steve Michael at Long
aid station during the 2004 MMTR
Next entry: post-race report some time next week
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
Tater (in spirit)
© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil