By LAURA CLARK
Published: November 14, 2008
A tranquil starry sky belied a bitter wind as the first bobbing headlamps signaled runners crossing the James River into Amherst County.
The 26th Mountain Masochist Trail Run began before dawn on Nov. 1. A 50-mile race, the distance necessitated a 12-hour time limit and an early start. On the north side of the bridge, family members and friends who were “crewing” scanned the runners.
Jasper, Tenn. native Harry Evans, 70, was waiting for his son. Evans joked he and his son were both just getting into long distance adventures. Evans hiked the Appalachian Trail this year for the first time, and his son, Mark, 42, was running his longest trail race yet.
“I think it’s a ‘just get done,’” Evans said between cheering and clapping.
Morning broke before Mark ran by, handing his father the blue jacket he wore the first six miles. He was focused and smiling. A quick “How’s it going?” and Mark ran on while Evans hopped in his car to drive to another aid station and wait again.
Some 16 aide stations pepper the course. At each, volunteers fill runners’ water bottles, while the competitors stuff gummy bears and saltines into their mouths. People with clipboards and walkie-talkies check off runners and make sure all is well between stations.
The race, part of two regional ultra marathon series: the Lynchburg Ultra Series and the Beast Series, brought a range of runners from 30 states and Canada to Central Virginia. Of 229 starting runners, 186 would finish the race. The course traverses the back woods of Amherst and Nelson counties, taking runners up and down gravel roads, dirt roads and single track for more than 50 miles, as race founder David Horton is infamous for his own version of measurements.
In all, the race climbs 9,200 feet and falls 7,200 feet from the start at the James River Visitor Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway to the finish in Montebello. The extreme elevation couldn’t top the distance, according to Madison Height’s runner Leslie McPhatter. She trained on part of the course, but said nothing prepares you for really being out there. She described the first half of the race as tons of climbing while the second half was increasingly technical.
“I went from a 50k to 50 miles. That’s a big leap,” said McPhatter, 45. “It’s humbling. I haven’t mastered the racing-downhill-like-a-bandit. I’m hanging onto trees. I really never had a point that I felt like I’d made a mistake. Most of it, I was having a grand old time.”
McPhatter completed the race in 11:39.18. She said it made all the difference to run much of the last half with friends Nancy Ferris and Scott Carson. It was also a gorgeous day to be in the mountains. The leaves were popping, and the cool morning gave way to a sunny day in the 60s.
The jump in temperature initially worried first-time race director Clark Zealand. At mile 33, Mt. Pleasant, Zealand ran the 5-mile loop to make sure all the white streamers were in place. Not only does it keep people from getting lost, he said, but it gives them the peace of mind to focus on the running. After the event, he said the warm weather affected the front runners more than anybody, as they started out running 6:50 mile splits.
One leader to drop out was Michigan’s Zach Miller, who stopped at the 26.9 mark. Miller won the race last year. This year, though, his body was telling him running a race every three weeks was too much.
“My muscles felt miserable. The first half of the race you’re excited to be out there. The second half of the race it’s really happening,” Miller said.
He didn’t seem too disappointed, and was content to hang out near the Mt. Pleasant loop with other crews, including the family of eventual winner Eric Grossman, from Emory, Va. Miller and Grossman ran close last year, but this time Grossman crested a hill all by himself.
Grossman ran from Hwy. 60 to Montebello on his own, having left Miller and another runner on the steep climb from the Lynchburg Reservoir, which he said was the toughest part of the course.
“It comes at a time when you’ve already run 20 miles. It’s a huge climb, like 3,000 feet,” Grossman said. “And when you get to the top, you run a very technical, rocky single track trail. Zach has a way of pushing some sections that maybe I wouldn’t. I was thinking about that when I was going through the loop. He tends to push through that. It does require a different motivation when you’re by yourself.”
When Grossman finished the race in 7:08.48, he stuck his legs in a murky pond at the Montebello Campground. Joined by other top finishers and Miller, the guys hashed over some of the race. Grossman ran the Masochist for the first time in 1998. He took two years off running after his first ultra to get married, have a baby and finish his dissertation.
“But I still say it was because it hurt so bad to run that first Mountain Masochist ten years ago, that I didn’t have the heart to run for a while,” Grossman said.
Grossman said the Mountain Masochist is the center of Horton’s ultra-running institution. During the race, he said he did question why he was out there.
“Especially 35 miles in,” Grossman said. “But that feeling goes away pretty quickly because you’re basically demonstrating something that surprises most people that is humanly possible to do, which is to get out and run for eight hours or seven hours hard through the mountains and not just keel over and die when you’re done.”
Running the Masochist takes incredible will for elite runners and mortals alike. Running in his backyard, Elon’s Kelly Golden, 41, finished for the second year in row with a time of 11:03.34. It was the little things that got him through the race, including seeing his wife, Wendy, several times on the course. And Mt. Horeb Baptist Church put up little bible verses along a few sections for inspiration.
“You’re just at your lowest of low when you see these,” Golden said. “It’s a very spiritual experience. You talk to God a lot, begging for help.”
He laughed when saying he fully plans on competing again next year, and the next and the next, so he can earn the embroidered jacket awarded to 5-time finishers. Like many runners, he’s pulled by the race’s tradition and beauty, although he said he was often too tired to enjoy the views.
Zealand said the race draws people as part of two year-long series, and because the series are concentrated to draw people from the mid-Atlantic region.
He runs the race through his Lynchburg-based event management company, Eco-x, which emphasizes ecological experiences through competitive events. Zealand is sharing the load of running ultra marathons with Horton, who was able to run the Masochist for the first time since the founding and winning the race in 1983.
“If I remember right, he said, ‘That was tough,’” Zealand said of Horton crossing the finish line in 9:56.07.
Fourth-time finisher and female champion Justine Morrison ran it in 8:27.38. Morrison, 28, sat near the finish line and said the extra four miles feel more like 20. Her ankles looked bruised but were just caked in layers of dirt from 54 miles in the woods.
“I try not to run fast enough to where it’s mentally challenging until at least halfway through,” said the Washington, D.C. native.
“I don’t know why I keep coming back. As of right now, I’m never doing it again. But I’ll probably be back next year.”