Each knee drove forward, propelled by the fully extended leg on the other side. Even my toes extended, milking all the climb possible out of every stride. Horton’s advice for first time ultramarathoners: power walk the steep climbs. Buck Mountain in the middle of the Mountain Masochist 50 mile Trail Run counts as a steep climb. It starts at a reservoir about 24 miles in and climbs a couple thousand feet. When you hear the theme from Rocky thumping in the distance through the woods, you are getting close to a break in the climbing. If your legs weren’t completely wrecked, you could actually run along the double track as it contours around the mountain before a final, lung-busting, mile-long ascent up a steep gravel drive to “The Loop.” I am on this final climb, driving my legs for all they are worth, when I see the race leaders in front of me.
It makes me laugh now to read the names of the top five finishers at the 1998 Mountain Masochist. At the time the names were completely meaningless to me. Now I know them as icons of the sport – Courtney Campbell, Eric Clifton, Ian Torrence, Tom Possert, and Scott Jurek. I had recently completed a thru-hike along the Appalachian Trail. David Horton’s name, still echoing around the trail from his speed-hike record, was the only way I knew that there was any such thing as ultrarunning. I had a good running resume from varsity track and cross country, but near-zero knowledge of this fringe, but enticing, sport. I have a true love for the mountains of Appalachia, and for extreme exertion. Combining the two was an obvious choice. I looked up the information on Horton’s big 50 mile race, held in October along the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia. I had eased back into running after completing the AT in August. The event seemed like a perfect way to combine the trail fitness I had earned hiking with my college running background.
I might still have believed I was right after the first 32 miles. Much of the course, up to that point, is runnable forest service road. And save for the steep uphill sections, I had run it. Well past the middle of the race, at the end of the longest climb on the course, I was within striking distance of the leaders. My lesson was about to begin. Ultrarunning eats egos like tattered flesh in a school of piranhas.
The Loop is notorious in Mountain Masochist lore for several reasons. Like many sections of the course, it is longer than advertised. Horton will tell you it is four miles, course notes list it as five miles, but it is probably closer to six miles. It is relatively rocky single track – the most technical terrain on the course. The Loop, like many challenges at Masochist, is primarily difficult because of when it happens. The course, for example, is easy in the beginning, and gets more and more difficult as the runners are less able to deal with it. The aid stations come frequently at first, when the runners are fresh, and then in the final 20 miles, when the weather has turned hot and the runners fatigued, the aid is so spaced that participants are reduced to a desiccated crawl before they reach the next one. Finally, when runners legs have been completely battered by the first 50 miles of running (yes – the run is actually about 54 miles), the course descends a harrowing rock-strewn erosion gully down the side of the mountain into Montebello, where, if they have managed to stay upright, runners stumble across the finish. [note: the descent into Montebello has been tempered since 1998 – it now takes a more contoured, if longer, trail.]
The Loop occurs at 33 miles into the run, and after the biggest climb of the course. As soon as I got off that climb, I knew that I was in trouble. My calves went into spasm. I couldn’t use the front part of my feet to pick my way along the rocky trail. Every step tore like a dagger through the back of my calves. I was reduced to hobbling on my heels – tricky business on a technical trail. I hobbled helplessly as the leaders advanced and those behind me passed. There was nothing I could do. Put one foot in front of the other – try to stay above sensation, like a sponge completely saturated but still floating in a deep pool of pain.
In the final eight miles the course ascends to an old section of Appalachian Trail above Montebello. As I scooted along the ridge, Ed Kostak inched up alongside me, looking equally angst-filled. Each of us gave company to the other’s misery, so we stayed together through the finish, in eighth place for the race. I cared very little, having been reduced by the course to wanting only to complete what I had started.
I didn’t run again for 2 years. It’s probably an overstatement to say that the race caused my early (if temporary) retirement from running. I didn’t walk right for 2 weeks, though, and I prefer to avoid disabling damage to my body. The truth is I had met my future wife, and we soon got married. I worked on, and finished, my work on a doctorate. We started our family. I had other priorities, and running seemed superfluous, even silly. I remember seeing joggers on the road in front of our house and silently asking “why do that to yourself?”
Suffice it to say that I am now eating those words. More than 10 years and 50 ultras later, I have experienced a range of difficulties – and triumphs – only hinted at during those final 20 miles at the Mountain Masochist, my first ultra.