tl;dr version – I ran a long race the weekend of Feb 25-26 and finished in 21:53.

This past weekend was Race #2 on the docket for me. After completing the Waterfall Trail 50k in January, the Reverse Ring was the next big challenge. It is a 71 mile circuit run of the orange blazed Massanutten trails run in the counter clockwise direction. To be eligible, you have to be a member of the “Fellowship” by completing the Fall version known as The Ring, which is run in the clockwise direction. I joined the Fellowship when I completed The Ring in 2008 and the Reverse Ring in 2009. I attempted The Ring again in 2009, but dropped out at mile 56.9. I attempted The Reverse Ring a second time in 2012, but dropped out at mile 46. This year, I was determined to finish.

Part I

Lights were needed at 6AM when the 38 runners started the race, but about 25 minutes later the sun started to break and lights weren’t needed anymore. I kept it on until Woodstock (mile 14.2) when I could put it in my drop bag.

There’s a lot of climbing up to Signal Knob Overlook. Here is a picture from a training run a few weeks ago when it was rainy and foggy out. And there are a lot of rocks, too.

I stayed behind a few runners who held a good pace. With a long day ahead of me there was no need to go out too fast.

(Signal Knob Overlook)

There’s a nice run down a fire road after the Overlook that takes you to Powells Fort Camp. This is the last aid station in The Ring and an aid station in MMT, but the access road is closed this time of year, so we have another 8 miles to go to Woodstock

(pic from a training run)

Another long climb greets you as you pass through Powells Fort.

(Halfway to Woodstock)

I was able to keep a few runners ahead of me in sight and sort of keep pace with them. This method comes in handy later. After the nearly 2 mile climb I started to pick off the runners on the the winding, runable section. I enjoy this stretch of trail in either direction since it is one I’m able to run.

I reached aid at Woodstock Tower at 9:20, having covered 14.2 miles in under 3.5 hours. I grabbed a few chips and grapes, added water to my pack, and took off to cover the next 8 miles.

(Woodstock Tower)

The next 6 miles are fairly runable with a final mile climb then mile descent to aid at Edinburg. I was able to latch onto a couple guys again, keeping them about 200m ahead of me, or at least in sight, which helps to keep me moving.

(Looking across to the Eastern Ridge, which I’ll be on in around 12 hours from this point)

That mile climb at the end of this section seemed to take forever, and I felt like I’d gone out too fast. I was trying to stick to a decent eating/drinking routine, but I still felt lethargic. The climb just felt tougher than it should’ve, and I was happy to finally reach the descent with some good trails to run.

(Last bit of trail before the aid station)

I reached aid at Edinburg Gap, mile 22.4, at 11:30am – 5.5 hours into the race. I was at a low point here. But the volunteers were great. I got plenty to eat, water, and some words of encouragement that included some ribbing of “What are you doing up here with the big dogs?” I said the wheels would come off soon and I’d return to the back of the pack soon.

I grabbed some food and started the long trek (walk) up the road to the trailhead that would lead me along Short Mountain to the next aid station at Moreland Gap. I have some history with this stretch of trail, which I normally run in the opposite direction in MMT and other training runs. Before the course change in 2010, Short Mountain was miles 68 to 75 and most people ran it at night. The rocks are never ending and it was so bad that people said it was ‘where bad people go to die’. In 2008, my second attempt at MMT, I did not finish (DNF) as I didn’t cover this stretch from Moreland to Ediburg before the cutoff. I feel like I had left a bit of my soul up on Short Mountain that year. However, at that moment I was feeling rejuvenated. Again, I was able to keep a couple runners in sight and settle into a great pace. I feel like I had collected that piece of me I had left up there back in 2008; that I had finally paid my penance years after that DNF.

(A deceivingly ‘runable’ section of Short Mountain – and my unofficial pacer)

At the point of the above picture, it was 12:30 and the sky to my right (west) was not looking pretty. The temps were still pleasant, but the winds were picking up and you could see rain in the distant. It did start to sprinkle a little, and the runner in the previous picture stopped to put on his running shell to protect from the wind. I had grabbed my arm warmers at Edinburg, which I started with and took off at Woodstock, and that was enough to keep me warm.

At the point of this picture it is 1:30 and the temps are definitely dropping and we hear thunder in the distance. This descent is about 1.5 miles and takes us to Moreland Gap aid. I had run out of water in my pack and realize that the puddle I saw near my pack at Edinburg was from where I’d stepped on my bite valve and drained my pack of an undisclosed amount of water. I reached Moreland at 1:50pm and I was thirsty. I just wanted cup after cup of Coke. But I felt great. Mood had improved, legs and feet felt great. I grabbed some food for the road, my headlamp, and headed out.

After a brief bathroom break, I started the steep climb out of Moreland Gap to the ridgeline that would take me across Kerns Mountain to aid at Crisman Hollow Road, which I’d covered in the opposite direction in the Waterfall Trail 50k. I’ll run it in this direction for MMT, so it’s good practice. I had 3 gentlemen in front of me that helped get me to the top. I continued to follow them along the ridgeline. I don’t think any of us felt intimidated by the presence of the others as we were all on a mission to move as quickly as possible from one point to the next, and we did it in shared determination and silence. If one had to pull off to use the restroom, the others continued on and they joined back in at the end of the line. It made the crossing seem less horrible since Kerns is now considered the ‘new Short Mountain’ as it’s covered by most people at night in MMT. So it’s great to see it now during the day to get a sense of all the twists and turns and rocks.

(Q’s View. An unofficial lookout point on Kerns Mountain)

As you can see in the above picture, the weather has cleared up. Whatever storm was coming stayed north, sparing us from any rain. Here I team up with another runner and we chat the next couple of miles to aid at Crisman Hollow Road, mile 36.8. There is no vehicular access to this point, so a limited amount of aid is hiked in. I grab some soup, PBJ squares, and bacon, but hold off on adding more water as they don’t have much and I figure I can make it the next 9 miles with what I have in my pack. I’ve been fairly conservative up until that point, but will discover later that I’ve been way too conservative.

I leave the aid station ahead of my running companion. One thing I realize at this point is how light it is outside. I was shocked at how light it was when I arrived because in my past 2 attempts it was nearing dusk when I got to CHR and I had to turn my headlamp on not long after leaving. But it was incredibly light out. What was finally registering was what one of the Race Directors (RDs) said as I was leaving Moreland – “you have about 4 hours until sundown”.

And looking at my watch, I’m making some pretty damn good time.

Aside from crossing Kerns in the daylight, I like to get down Waterfall with as much daylight as possible.

I had to climb up this TWICE during Waterfall 50k, and the descent is almost worse. I’m not a strong downhill runner, so I spent a lot of time with the breaks on. The picture doesn’t do the steepness any justice – it’s STEEP! But I hustle. I move as quickly as possible to hook up with the Duncan Hollow Trail. The trail has been dry most of the course, which makes this section especially nice as it’s basically a small river. Luckily it is dry as well and makes the short climb up it a little quicker.

The thing I like about this picture is how light it is out. In the past I’d still be on Kerns somewhere. At this point of the race it’s a little after 5pm. Since leaving Crisman Hollow Road, I kept repeating the word ‘baffled’ to myself. It motivated me to be this far into the race and have it be so bright out. I was baffled to be doing so well. I wanted to do well, so I kept moving as quickly as possible. This is a very runable section and I took advantage of it. I was alone at this point and tried to run within my means – not too fast, not too slow.

It was getting closer to dusk and I had a couple runners catch up and pass me. One stayed far enough in front that I could keep him in sight all the way to Camp Roosevelt. He turned a headlamp on, but I kept mine off. It wasn’t too dark that I couldn’t see, but I wanted to be able to say that I made it 46 miles with no lights – a feat I’m not sure I’ll ever repeat. I had drained my pack of water a couple miles back and was ready to start the second half of the race.

Part II

This is where the wheels legitimately came off. I went to the bathroom before entering the camp and started to think about what I needed to do to prepare myself for the next 25 miles. There was talks of cold weather, gusty winds, and temps below freezing overnight. I learned of this at 530am when I stopped to get gas on the way to the start, so I put a pair of calf compression sleeves and knit gloves that I had in my post-race bag into my drop bag. I also was deciding between pants or shorts. Going into the TMI category, the shorts I was wearing were chafing in not-so-good ways, but I liked the length for the additional leg coverage. The capris I brought I had never worn with shorts underneath in training, only underwear, so I wasn’t sure if any additional chafing would go on. I decided on underwear plus new shorts and the calf sleeves. What didn’t help was when my obliques cramped as I was trying to change my bottoms behind a car (classy, I know) and it felt like my diaphragm was coming out of my chest. Once I got that put back in place (legit had to push a lump back in somewhere), I went back to the fire at the camp to eat, finish changing everything else, and prepare my pack.

I was a mess. I couldn’t find anything in my bag I kept losing the socks I had set out. It was frustrating and I felt like I was wasting time. I grabbed a spare headlamp to put in my pack and I couldn’t figure out how to turn it on/off. Little things were going wrong, adding stress were I didn’t need stress.

I finally got on a fresh pair of socks, new tshirt, kept the arm warmers, put on a long sleeve Tshirt, a light Patagonia Houdini jacket, hat over my hat with a visor, and gloves. I thanked the volunteers as I walked out of the aid station fiddling with my iPod. I spent way too much time on it, adding to the stress. I couldn’t get it untangled, couldn’t get the earpiece figured out.. just couldn’t. I finally just stopped and left it as it was. At this point I caught up with another runner, the one I had run with into Crisman Hollow Road aid station, and we stayed together the next 20 of 25 miles.

Soon after joining forces, we found a clearing, covered our headlamps and looked up. With all the light pollution in DC it’s hard to get a good look at the stars. But at 8pm, they were magnificent. It was nice to take a few seconds to enjoy the beauty, to enjoy the opportunity to be out there no matter the elements.

With that said, we got down to business and made our way to the next aid station at Milford Gap – halfway to the end. I lead the way, but felt very clumsy. I couldn’t see the trail well even with a headlamp and handheld, but I think part of that was due to the visor of my hat blocking the beam. But I didn’t want to take my hat off as it was keeping my head warm, so I made the best of it. And I just kept slipping on leaves and rocks. And short, steep climbs seemed more difficult than they should’ve, leaving me very winded at the top. But I kept plugging along until we reached mile 57.5 where there was a nice fire waiting for us.

I refilled my pack as I’d nearly drained it again, and grabbed a couple cups of miso soup, passing on the flatbread pizza that was being served (no joke). We warmed up by the fire before taking off as one other running came into the aid station. Trudging along behind another runner – who had inadvertently gone down the wrong trail – we all realized we hadn’t seen an orange blaze in awhile. After a brief discussion and being joined by another runner, we all turned around until we found the correct trail. Having all been on the course before we had an idea of what we should be looking for, but we got complacent, running with our heads down to stay out of the cold, that we missed it. Luckily we we didn’t lose too much time and the four of us righted ourselves.

I let them take the lead as I told my running companion that I preferred to have someone up front, preferred to have a light to chase as it aided me across Short Mountain and Kerns. They carried us down to Veach Gap where we started the final climb. My running companion took the lead and I dropped back to use the bathroom, eventually catching up to one of the lead runners with us into Veach who was having a bit of a down moment. At this point it was about 5-6 miles until the end. I was cold chafed and ready to be done. You’re exposed when on the eastern ridge, so you really feel the cold and the winds, which dip the temps into the 20s. Every beep of my watch, noting another completed mile, just meant one more mile closer to the end. I was sluggish and sleepy. At the top of the climb I busted my knees up pretty good on a fall. It was a bit of a wake up call to stay focused. Yes, I wanted to be done, but I wanted to get there in one piece as well. I didn’t recognize much of this section of trail and knew at some point it would meet up with the Sherman Gap trail, which I’d run the week before, so I knew it was about 2 miles to Shawl and 2 miles down to Signal Knob parking lot – the finish. And I felt more confident having run it the week before, even though it was in the opposite direction, since I had visual cues to go off of to know when I was close to the next trail. I also knew the descent was winding, very deceiving as you think you’re close to the bottom until you wind around the mountain some more, away from where you think you should be going.

I gave myself 45 minutes from when I reached the start of Shawl Gap trail, but it took me about 1:10 to get to Elizabeth’s Furnace Camp ground before crossing Fort Valley Road and the final 3/4 mile of trail to the parking lot.

Final time – 21:53, 3:53am.

The finish at this hour is very unceremonious. My running companion, Andrew, was waiting by the small fire and there was a ‘cafe’ set up in the parking lot. I grabbed a blanket and chair, was handed a cup of delicious soup, and sat with Andrew as two other runners came in. We shivered and chatted before retiring to our vehicles to warm up.

Part III – carnage and lessons learned

That picture is of my bloated hand as I sat in my car not long after leaving the fire. I have had issues with hydration/salt intake in the past and the symptoms of too much salt/not enough salt, too much water/not enough water are the same (or so I’ve been told). During the last 25 miles I had plenty of time to think about the first 46 miles. Specifically, I thought about the drive to the start of the race where I only drank 22oz of coconut water and maybe 4oz from a bottle of bottled water. After stopping at the gas station at 5:30am on Saturday, I didn’t pee again until about 8 hours into the race when I was leaving Moreland Gap aid station. No wonder I was so thirsty at each aid station. Additionally, when I left Camp Roosevelt I had a volunteer help me with my pack. He was getting my drop bag together and asked if I needed the food that was on the ground between my pack and bag. I said no, thinking it was extra GUs I’d put in my drop bag. Well, halfway up the climb out of Roosevelt when I was fiddling with my iPod I realized that was actually my fuel for the next 25 miles that I’d left back at the Camp. So I took in 2 cups of salty miso soup when I was already dehydrated, and only ate one Fuel for Fire packet and one stick of beef. No more that 400 calories for 25 miles.

I did find in my pack afterwards a Honey Stinger packet smooshed down by my phone, half a package of Clif Shot Bloks in a pouch I don’t remember putting it in, and Quest bar that I couldn’t grab because my hands were so puffy and I could hardly close my hands. Still not enough for that distance, but it might explain why I was sluggish and not very coherent. Dumb.

It’s amazing I finished at all, but it goes to show how bullheaded and stubborn I can be. Good qualities to have as an endurance athlete. I will learn from my mistakes and look forward to testing out new nutrition and hydration strategies in future races.

I made sure to grab some good grub at the Cafe after a couple hours of sleep in the car, stayed to chat with other finishers, and cheer on those runners still coming in. A total of 28 runners of 37 starters completed the Reverse Ring and earned the title of Master of the Ring. For a no thrills, fast-ass race, the Reverse Ring has become one of my favorite races. The volunteers are always amazing especially those at the more remote locations. I look forward to returning in the future.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far.