Bur-kley Race Report

by John Hord

Mike Bur and I have worked at the same US Govt agency for over 25 years, and know each other pretty well. I’ve been listening to his stories about Massanutten (MMT100 and The Ring) and the Barkley and the Last Great Race for some years now. One thing he’s chattered about for over a decade has been his planned masterpiece, the Massanutten 100 race that is harder than MMT100. So when I finally saw “Massanutten’s Revenge” as an actual scheduled event on the VHTRC website, I knew I had to be one of the first idiots to attempt the race.

I was a bit perplexed that less than a dozen fearless runners signed up for the event. Were folks not into it? Were they scared? Bur had not yet revealed the course, however, other than to say that it was based on “the old MMT100 course” without any of the easy road sections and SURPRISE! we’d be going up Waterfall twice! I spent a few weeks trying to figure out how we’d do that without either going across Kerns twice or spending at least some time on Crisman Hollow Road. Little did I suspect that dastardly Bur would initially have us go up Waterfall, get a bib punch, and then scamper back down on our way to Route 211 and a Bird Knob loop!

Anyway — 2022 was already a weird year for me. It started off really great. I was coming off a really strong 2021 where I had my first sub-6hr 50K since 2013 and my second Ring finish in a row! (the first of which was the girlfriend-supported COVID Ring) — I ran the Pistol 100 early in the year and PR’d on that course. But then things slipped a bit with disappointing showings at MMT100, VT100, and Barkley Fall Classic.

Still — we had a very generous 48 hour cutoff at Massanutten’s Revenge and I knew that area really well, having gone there every other week for 2 years during COVID and a fair number of times prior to that. Once I saw the course, I knew what was in store for me. There were a couple of unfamiliar sections like the Buzzard Rock Trail (we’ll come back to that one later) and the Rock Scramble up to Duncan Knob, where we’d be getting a bib punch. Even though I wasn’t in my best shape, I was confident my prior experience would go a long way to getting me to a finish.

John and Tracy prepare to take on Massanutten Revenge

Early in September, I had a tough day at The Ring and was thinking I might skip MR… but Tracy Cooley insisted I needed to show up, because people were already dropping out and she wanted some friends out there. The field shrunk from 8 to 5. Michael Wardian, Dan Fogg, Ali Mohammed, Tracy Cooley, and me. Tracy and I were the only ones over 50 and we really couldn’t hang with the other runners so we agreed we would try to stick together out there.

Going into race weekend, I had my primary trail partner Charlene Howard and Oscar the legendary Border Collie on hand as my crew. This was vitally important because I knew I would need some personalized care and feeding. I’d spent some hours chatting with Bur about the event and the course and felt I was ready to tackle it.

Race morning, as we all gathered, there was definitely a lot of excitement about getting started. But there was also some trepidation as the weather forecast was pretty ominous. Hurricane Ian had been raging south of us and we would be seeing a ton of rain starting sometime on Friday afternoon and continuing well past Sunday morning. We took pictures and talked some smack and at 10am, Bur yelled, “Go!” .. and off we went.

As expected, Dan Fogg bounded ahead, followed by Ali, then Tracy and I, and then Michael Wardian, who was taking his time getting himself together before passing us and continuing ahead with Ali.

I had a printout of the turnsheet folded up in a freezer bag in my shorts pocket. But I knew what the course was and only took the turnsheet out of my pocket once: to check the mileage of the Buzzard Rock Trail section, from the Shawl Gap trail crossing to the trail head down at Mountain Road. The layout of the course was familiar and made sense to me.

Our initial plan was to stay in front of 36 hour pace as long as we could and that seemed right for the first several miles. Running with Tracy, I had taken the role of navigating the course and setting pace, and was checking in with her often. One thing that I knew would be important was keeping on top of our hydration, electrolytes, and nutrition right off the bat. The rule was: if we’re hungry or thirsty, we stop RIGHT NOW and take care of that. We don’t wait until we get to the aid station.

We made good time on the Stephen’s Trail and the first section of the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail (408) to the blue-blazed Habron Gap trail and got to the first aid station in 2 1/2 hours, which was exactly what we were shooting for. The posted cutoff was 5 hours (60 hour pace) so we felt super good about our performance so far. We’d seen Dan Fogg just as we got on the blue trail and then Michael and Ali closer to the bottom, which gave us a sense of how fast they were moving compared to us. We determined we probably wouldn’t see them again as we got farther along.

John is greeted by Oscar and other crew at Veach West

The climb up the blue trail back to the orange (MMT 408) trail was slowish, but fine. We’d planned on that. We continued “Reverse Ring” direction on orange past Milford and into Veach with no real issues. Tracy and I were working well together and looking out for each other and moving well. During this section, the rain had started and it was getting progressively harder as we went.

We passed the Little Crease shelter on orange, letting us know that we were a mile out from Veach and saw Ed Leno coming up the trail to meet us. I ran ahead to the Veach aid station to see my crew (Charlene and Oscar!) for the first time since the start. Charlene had my rain jacket, gloves, California rolls (which I kinda had to share with Oscar) and a liter of lemon Polar seltzer, which was EXACTLY what I needed most! She also had some hot dogs from Sheetz, because she knows I’m a critter and I eat like I’m 5 most of the time.

Tracy and I got all the aid we needed and set out for the next section… more MMT 408 until we got to the Shawl trail crossing, where we would venture down an unfamiliar trail — the white-blazed Buzzard Rock Trail! (how bad could it be?). By now, it was raining for real and super foggy/misty up on the ridges, and visibility was getting worse and worse. We passed Ali and soon after, Michael Wardian, in the initial section of the trail. Which was a bit surprising. We didn’t think we’d see them again during the race… as he went by, Wardian mentioned, “it’s a really long, really technical descent…” and it became evident that it was going to be really slow going… and it was.

I was still navigating and keeping us on the trail. There was one spot where we reached a clearing and took a turn down some rocks and Tracy fell and hit her caboose wicked hard. It took her a minute to get back up. I asked if she wanted to wait a while to recover and she said she wanted to keep going. But maybe have Charlene look at her butt when we reached bottom.

We got to aid station #3, and the aid station was pretty much gone. But Charlene was there for me and Q was there for Tracy. Also Tracy’s first pacer Rob Tidwell was there and ready to join us. At this point, I needed some serious nutrition, so I had a can of cold Beefaroni sitting on the back bumper of Charlene’s Forester while Oscar supervised. At this point, I was a little beat up and not looking forward to climbing back up the Buzzard Rock Trail. But that was our route and that’s where we had to go.

So we did.

John and Tracy heading back out on the trail after a visit to the Veach West Aid Station

It was on this section that I started having a hard time. Between the miles already on my legs, the difficultly of the trail, the unfamiliarity of the section, and the abysmal weather, my focus started to wane. Rather than navigating, I was following the headlamps in front of me. I was bringing up the rear because Rob was way out in front and I didn’t want Tracy falling behind. So I was no longer navigating and no longer listening to my own inner metronome. and I let it get to me. My attitude was deteriorating, even though I knew this part of the course wasn’t any harder than other difficult sections of this course or others. At one point, we’d gone off trail and spent some time just trying to figure out where we’d lost the trail. It turned out to be the U-turn we followed coming down the trail. We just missed it. After 20-30 minutes, we figured it out and got back to where we needed to be. But I was really losing my focus.

The most beautiful sight of the night was the trail-crossing sign that let us know we’d made our way back to MMT 408 where we’d descend into Elizabeth Furnace (aid station #4) and would have some hot food and dry clothes waiting for us.

I perked up a bit and picked up my pace to try to keep up with Rob (why the hell was he running???) — he had us moving well on a familiar section and we were, at most, 30 minutes from aid.

Then, it happened… as it almost always happens at least once. I kicked a big rock. Unfortunately, it broke my left big toe. The same big toe that I break once or twice a year. The toenail hasn’t been right since 2013. And I broke it again. And I lost my cool and my focus was WAY out the window. By the time we made it down to Elizabeth Furnace, I had already made up my mind that I didn’t want to be on the course any more.

We got down there and Charlene (and Oscar) was there with the stove making hot stuff and Q and Eddie were there to take care of Tracy. I didn’t say much for a while. Just asked for some instant mashed potatoes while I tried to get myself to simmer down. But I couldn’t in the moment. I was done. I didn’t know yet that Dan Fogg had already quit at Woodstock and had no idea that Wardian and Ali would also drop in the next hour.

I went over to Tracy and tried to hand her my turnsheet with notes written on it. I went to Rob and said there was a bib punch on the next section and that they needed to stay on Blue across Three Top Mountain to get to it. It became evident that I was quitting.

Tracy tried to tell me that I could “catch up” with them — but I really didn’t want to go back out there.

It happens like this sometimes. Once we make up our minds that we want to quit, we experience some relief and it’s super hard to turn it around and go back out there. I may have been able to get to Woodstock or even Edinburg in the rain with the busted toe. But I didn’t want to anymore.

After Tracy got out of there, I put on some dry clothes and sauntered to the Forester. Feeling a bit defeated.

Fortunately, over the next two days, I was able to experience the true gift of Massanutten’s Revenge. I got to follow Tracy’s progress via Q’s posts on FB (and a few text messages) along with everyone else and marvel at her tremendous determination and spirit. She has the heart of a Lion and showed it for all to see all weekend long. There were four guys on the course who were “supposed to finish” and she was out there for twice as many miles well past the 48hr mark and into the late afternoon on Sunday where Bur finally pulled her at Crisman Hollow Road, because it just wouldn’t have been safe for Tracy to experience another overnight.

They hugged it out at the trailhead leading to Kerns Mountain and we all got to breathe a sigh of relief that this year’s MR adventure was finally over and we could celebrate Tracy and everything else there was to celebrate about this special event.

I am super thankful to Bur, Q, Eddie, Charlene, Oscar, Tracy, Ali, Michael, and Dan. We are bonded by the experience and I look forward to new shared insights and experiences as we continue to move through the adventure(s) that is an ultra life.

Last updated October 7, 2022