By Jeffery S. Bryan
Masochist: A willingness or tendency to subject
oneself to unpleasant or trying experiences.
– Mountain Masochist 2004 T-Shirt
“No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.”
– Ulysses S. Grant’s message to Simon Bolivar Buckner under siege at Fort Donelson on February 16, 1862.
“General George Custer overtook General Robert E. Lee’s last train of much needed food and supplies at Appomattox Station on April 8, 1865. This was the final blow to an already ragged and starving army of Confederate men. Appomattox Station, which had been Lee’s last hope, became the site of events that hastened his defeat.”
“General Robert E. Lee determined to make one last attempt to escape the closing Union pincers and reach his supplies at Lynchburg. At dawn the Confederates advanced, initially gaining ground against Sheridan’s cavalry. The arrival of Union infantry, however, stopped the advance in its tracks. Lee’s army was now surrounded on three sides.”
“With his army surrounded, his men weak and exhausted, Robert E. Lee realized there was little choice but to consider the surrender of his Army to General Grant. After a series of notes between the two leaders, they agreed to meet on April 9, 1865, at the house of Wilmer McLean in the village of Appomattox Courthouse. The meeting lasted approximately two and one-half hours and at its conclusion the bloodliest conflict in the nation’s history neared its end.”
Being a slight Civil War buff, I ventured out to Appomattox Court House the day before the race to take in a little history. Two years ago when I came to Lynchburg I failed to do this as I had nothing but the race on my mind. I was a picture of perfect focus. This year things were going to be different. I would try to think of anything but the race. Appomattox Court House is a major place in the annals of American history that I had to visit and absorb its importance. I felt tremendously moved to be walking on the hallowed grounds where the issue of the continuation of this great union of states was to be moved towards resolution.
Appomattox Court House is not a building as most would suspect but is a small village. The village in its restored entirety is a National Park. The village consists of the Appomattox County Courthouse, the Appomattox County Jail, Clover Hill Tavern, several small law offices, and several farm houses. The McLean House was the site of the meeting between Generals Lee and Grant. While walking the grounds, I noticed a sign that stated: “Historic Trail. Distance 6 miles”. I must confess that the thought of a 12 mile out-and back run did cross my mind. But even I am smart enough to know that a hard 12 miler is not the best thing to do the day before a wicked 50 mile trail run. Thus, the opportunity was lost.
“People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”
– Abraham Lincoln
The Mountain Masochist 50+ Mile Trail Run (MMTR) is a punishing 50+ mile trail run from Lynchburg, Virginia to Montebello, Virginia. The course terrain consists of paved roads, dirt roads, and narrow footpaths in the Blue Ridge Mountains and is held during the fall’s peak colors. The race sports a 300-runner limit which was reached by mid September this year. The race itself has a 12 hour time limit with multiple cut-off time points on the course. Failure to make a cut-off time means that you are not allowed to proceed in the race. These are strictly enforced by event staff for the runners’ personal safety as there are areas along the course in which there are no access points from which to provide a rescue.
This year, Masochist was the Montrail Ultra Cup championship race. “The Montrail Ultra Cup (MUC) is a series of ultras with $12,000 of prize money given to the overall winners. Also runners were to receive 50% more points in the MMTR than the other races in the MUC. This guaranteed that many of the best ultra runners in the nation would be in Lynchburg, VA on October 16, 2004.” Dave Mackey and Nikki Kimball were the overall winners of the 2004 MMTR 50 Miler. They were also the overall winners of the Montrail Ultra Cup, which awarded them $3,000 each. The remainder of the cash was divided up among the other top runners in the MUC standings.
“If you don’t have my army supplied, and keep it supplied, we’ll eat your mules up, sir”
– William T. Sherman issued this warning to an army quartermaster prior to the departure of Sherman’s army from Chattanooga toward Atlanta
The pre-race pasta banquet was held on Friday evening at Heritage High School in Lynchburg. This provided a great time for fellowship and reunion with several familiar faces. Some of the people that I got a chance to visit with included David Jones, a two-time PENNAR winner, a Bad Water Winner, and not the lead singer of the Monkeys as speculated by my buddy Jack McDermott; Dink Taylor, the RD. of Mountain Mist in Huntsville, Alabama; and Dave and Nancy Drach. The Drachs were regulars of the Tallahassee Ultra Distance Classic prior to their move to North Carolina. Some may even remember Nancy’s incredible performance in the 50 miler at Wakulla Springs a couple of years ago. It still stands as the female course record. It was also great to talk to some of the first timers that were sitting at my table.
The amount food provided was massive. The word is that David Horton, the Race Director, had ordered 100 pizzas, 30 large pans of lasagna, 16 pounds of spaghetti (sauce choices of meat & vegetarian), salads, drinks, and 4 extra large sheet cakes depicting the MMTR mountains trails. There was even an original Masochist theme song that had been written and was performed at the dinner by Danny McDonnell. It was well performed and the lyrics were very appropriate. I enjoyed looking around the room at the amused looks of my fellow runners. It was real easy to tell during the performance of the song those of us who had run the race before and those who had not.
“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”
– Union General John Sedgwick spoke these words just moments before being shot dead by a confederate sniper at Spotsylvania
My Saturday started at 3:00 a.m. The race starts at the James River Visitor Center which is about a 40 minute drive north of Lynchburg. As the official race time was 6:00 a.m. sharp, you had to ensure that you were there early enough to secure a parking place, a place in line for the port-a-johns, make mandatory runner check in, and make any other pre-race adjustments. There is no such thing as a warm-up run for the saner participants of these types of events so this was of no concern of mine.
The weather for race day consisted of a multiple choice of conditions depending on where and when you were at various points on the mountains. To quote David Horton, “We got cool, sunny, rain, sunny, snow, sunny, sleet, sunny, hail, and then a cloudy day.” Overall it was very good for the runners, but a little cold and wet for crews, spectators, and the next of kin. I couldn’t have asked for better weather. This eliminated one of the variables that I would need to contend with. It was now down to limited training vs. 50+ mountainous miles. Sounds like an easy, familiar matchup to me!
At 5:50 a.m., David Horton bullhorned us onto the starting line for last minute instructions and the singing of our national anthem by fellow runner, Annette Bednosky. Annette rendered a most excellent rendition. I was starting to get excited. It may have been the performance or it may have been the cool mountain air. I didn’t care. I finally was ready to start and in the words of GWTC’s own Ray Hanlon: “my mind was right with the mountain”.
“It’s bad. It’s damned bad.”
– Abraham Lincoln’s first reaction to the Union Army’s rout at First Manassas
At the gun, we were off. The start consists of a 1 ½ mile out and back on a paved mountain road in pitch darkness. I have now run this twice and have no idea as to whether this is a flat road or not. You can’t even see your hand in front of your face. Surreal is the best word that I can choose to describe this portion of the course. I had to chuckle when I heard the comment of a fellow runner that she hoped that there were no speed bumps on this section of the road. This part of the race went by like it was only seconds long. We soon were retreating back the direction from which we had came and had the lights of the starting area in our sights. The road along the starting area was lined with cheering crew members, spectators, and next of kin.
The initial section of the coarse is 5.7 miles on paved roads which would be described in Floridian as “scenic”. But this was just a small taste of what was to come. I kept trying to remember the course but my memory kept failing me. I saw things that were familiar from 2 years ago but I just couldn’t recall what was ahead. I did know that it sure was harder than I recall from last time.
I eventually got to the rocky, single track section and then the fun began. At around 15 miles, I was cruising along with this girl from Boston and we were lamenting the deplorable play of our beloved Red Sox in ALCS Games 1 & 2 when I committed one of the most fundamental errors of running. I somehow allowed my feet to be geographically located above my head. I don’t know a lot of things but I do know that this is not an efficient running position. After performing a ¾ turn with a somersault, I was back on my feet and moving down the trail. Paul Hamm be damned. If only the Koreans could have seen my maneuver they would stop their bitching and allow me to have the Gold! For a brief moment I had aspirations of winning the more highly coveted and infamous “Best Blood Award” but these hopes were dashed when I was unable to spot any blood. What kind of runner do you have to be to hurl your body across a pile of rocks and come up bloodless? A guess a very lucky one. The small group that I was with then proceeded to drop me. I assume that they had seen enough of my pathetic attempts to DNF. No Blood, No Love.
Shortly thereafter, I was crossing a stream when I slipped off a rock and about started my own butterfly competition. Does Michael Phelps run? Hearing my burst of profanity, a fellow runner turned around and said to me: “I guess you got your feet wet?” This encounter would change my outlook for the rest of the day. This runner was Craig Glover, an Army Ranger from Maryland.
Before leaving Tallahassee, I had had grave doubts of my success at this year’s edition of Masochist. Two years ago, I had gone to Virginia in the best shape of my life and had placed high in the field. This year I was no where near the level of fitness and conditioning that I needed to have to be successful (i.e. finish and with a fast time). My main focus was survival and hopefully a sub-10 hour time. I had discussed this with Kate McFall. She stated that I would be fine and that maybe I would be ever so lucky to have a Guardian Angel helping me to successfully finish. Guardian Angel. Army Ranger. What’s the difference?
“Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can, and strike him as hard as you can. And keep moving on!”
– Ulysses S. Grant’s philosophy of war
Hooking up to run with Craig turned out to be a great development. It gave me someone who was my age and of similar ability to run with. At several points of the course, the terrain dictated power hiking to navigate the rocky, steep switchbacks. I immediately noticed that Craig was a very strong hiker and commented as such. He proceeded to tell me that he had recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan where he was hiking constantly with a large army pack on his back. The ability to hike fast while patrolling the mountains for terrorists is not only a life saving ability but a great form of cross training for ultras. I think that I now know Fred Johnson’s secret.
In all ultras you will experience a bad patch where you have about had it. Masochist was no exception for me. On our ascent up to the Buck Mountain Aid Station which is located at 29.5 miles and at 4000 feet elevation, I went into one of my rants. I had about had it. Why was I doing this? What the hell are we thinking? Sane people don’t do this kind of thing! I’m getting in the first vehicle that I see and I driving out of here! Yeah, I’ll figure out how to start that damn tractor! Who’s your Daddy? This freakin’ mountain is my daddy, that’s who!
“Hold on with a bull-dog whip and chew and choke as much as possible.”
– Abraham Lincoln offered Ulysses S. Grant this encouragement during the latter’s grueling Siege of Petersburg in 1864-65.
After what must have been 1 mile straight up, I ran out of breath and began to stew silently. “1 ½ miles to the next aide station, my ass. That’s altitude not distance.” Craig, who never said a word during my rant, looked over with a shit eating grin on his face and said: “You’ll be all right.” I had to laugh. We turned the corner of the switchback and the Aide Station volunteers were now in sight. The theme from “Rocky” was blaring for all the world to hear. I told Craig that there is no Pennsylvania born boy that can fail to be inspired by that song. I was going to finish this SOB under all circumstances. The fire was now stoked.
The next pile of miles went past fairly quickly. We continued to run and talk. During this stretch, I believe that I figured out the secret to calculating the distance between aide stations. “You take the distance that the aide station tells you it is on their sign and multiply it by pi and then divide by 2.” At about 40 miles, we caught up with a small group which had assumed the nickname, “The Pain Train”. Now these guys were definitely from a different side of the tracks! You could hear them in the woods making train noises and yelling: “Here comes the Pain Train”. Only in an Ultra. Where were the ghosts of the Union soldiers to overtake this train when you needed them? We eventually dropped back and let them go on with their insanity and resumed our own unlocomotive-like progression towards the finish line.
“It will be all right if it turns out all right.”
– General Ulysses S. Grant made this comment as he watched soldiers from his army storm Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga–without orders.
At this point I had settled in to a comfortable frame of mind knowing that any chance of sub 10 hours was over. The goal was now just finishing. There is no shame in finishing one of the hardest 50 milers in the Eastern United States. I realized that my complete comeback from my Achilles injury was getting close. Yes, I didn’t seem to have the speed as before quite yet but my legs felt strong and were experiencing only small amounts of fatigue.
After descending a punishing, 2 mile, downhill, gravel road, we had finally arrived on smooth, flat terrain. Now it was just a matter of running it in for ¾ of mile. Heading up the road to the finish line, the sun was shining brightly and the autumn crispness was in the air. All in all, it was a beautiful time to be alive. I crossed the line in 10:28:25. A full 1 hour and 7 minutes slower than two years ago. Slower but all the more the wiser.
“General, unless he offers us honorable terms, come back and let us fight it out!”
– James Longstreet said this to Robert E. Lee as he rode off to discuss terms for surrender with General Grant at Appomattox.
My comments at the end of the run aside, there is an understanding among ultra runners that anything said within 48 hours of finishing can be retracted. Will I choose to run another ultra? Absolutely! Would I choose to run Masochist again? Absolutely! The third time would have to be a charm. No Retreat. No Surrender. I have just now begun to train.
Jeffery S. Bryan
October 25, 2004