Massanuttens Revenge 100 Race Report

by Tracy Cooley (with lots of help from her friends)

I heard about the Massanuttens Revenge 100 on the fourth of July and knew Race Director Mike Bur had someone like me in mind when he envisioned this race. I have had two 90+ mile DNFs at MMT and needed some revenge in those mountains.

Tracy Cooley

Almost instantly after submitting my name, I got a text from Quatro Hubbard indicating that he was going to try sweet-talking Bur into letting me in because he knew I was a long shot for finishing a race like this… and he was right. I struggle at the back of the pack in mountain races, but I’m always up for a good challenge and I’ve had a lot of experience on these trails.

Little did Quatro know that Bur had already emailed me letting me know I got in. I told him that I’m always up for some long hours on the trails and thought the inaugural race could use a miracle story to kick it off right, and I wanted to be that miracle.

As a first-time race, not many people knew about it and registration opened somewhat late for a 100-miler, so not many registrants were expected. But as race day approached, there were only five runners registered… and I was the only female.

The field included an elite runner who had run across the U.S. this summer (Mike Wardian), a runner who typically wins or places in every race he signs up for (Dan Fogg), a North Face-sponsored runner (Ali Mohammed), and a strong mountain runner with more experience in the Massanuttens than probably all of us combined (John Hord).


Ready to start: Crew Charlene with runners John and Tracy

The race start was planned for 10:00am Friday morning. (Let that sink in.) This meant, I could wake up at a leisurely time, drop my dog off at boarding in Strasbourg and still get to the start line with 30-minutes to spare.

My trail buddies John Hord and Charlene Howard rushed over to say hello and load me up with Zagnut and a pee rag because they know how I roll. It was a lovely surprise to see Eddie Leno had volunteered, and he would throughout the day be running out to meet us from trailheads to share some positive vibes that served as good pick-me-ups.

My main motivation was to represent for the ladies since this would probably be the only race in which I am the first-place female runner (Recall: I was the only female runner on the course). I gave Bur a big fist bump and told him that I was ready to be his first-place female.

After our quick obligatory starting line photo, we were off.

Race Strategy

My weather app was a big downer as I knew that we’d be feeling the effects of Hurricane Ian all weekend, but I’ve run through rain, lightning storms, ice storms, snowstorms all in the Massanuttens… and did not waste any energy on worrying about what would lie ahead.

But I did carefully pack four drop bags with lots of clothes, socks and sports nutrition and one crew bag with a complete change of clothes, shoes, aid and some rain gear. Later I would learn that I was seriously under-prepared for this race in terms of clothing, gear, and really all the things.

Going into this race, I was familiar with the trails and knew that in early fall there would more than likely be a lot of overgrowth. Because this was a 100+ mile fat-ass run, I didn’t expect any trail maintenance so assumed there would be more than a few downed trees or random blowdown blocking the trail… and I was right. Thankfully, I brought my poles and was ready for some serious bushwhacking. I knew it was also likely that we’d have near perfect temps for running in the valleys and lower trails, but the ridgelines would be freezing with high-winds and rain pelting us along the way… and I was right.

A fish-eye view of Tracy getting the dog-eye view from Oscar

Clothing and gear choices were critical. At the slightest feeling of warmth, I layered down to avoid sweating (and possible hypothermic conditions if I then got wet and cold). If I got the slightest chill, I layered back up. There were times that I came into aid stations shivering, but warm food and clothing changes solved the issue every time.

Staying dry was a challenge since it rained all weekend, beginning Friday afternoon. I learned that not all waterproof gear is waterproof and not all windproof gear is windproof. I brought rain gear that fairly quickly felt damp and stayed that way pretty much all weekend, and plenty of ponchos. Ponchos are great in a pinch, but I needed a better solution or may have run into real issues with the temperatures up on the ridgelines.

Crew gave me rain jackets that we switched out in between aid stations so that they could dry out. At times, I wore as many as 3-4 layers and de-layered when necessary by wrapping layers around my waist to avoid sweating. Gloves were also an issue, I used probably 5-6 gloves during the race that were all supposed to be waterproof – From lightweight running gloves to military-grade no messing around waterproof – and all of them got either damp or soaked. And then Jeff Pence put dry gloves on and then latex gloves over those gloves. Problem solved… although I felt like Minnie Mouse with giant white mouse hands. Clearly, this would not be a glamour weekend for me.

Wet feet were another issue. While the trails were wet, we were doing a lot of climbing so there weren’t too many water crossings and my feet were only submerged once in the short section between Route 211 parking lot and Picnic, and this was by choice to avoid slipping on a wet rock.

Tracy allowing Jeff Pence to work on her feet, while luxuriating in his warm van aid station

By mile 60+, I had trench foot setting in but I was about to cross paths with the best foot guy in Virginia – Jeff Pence. He politely asked if he could treat my feet, and I asked him if that was a serious question. He took off my soaked shoes and socks and inspected, they were macerated but skin had not yet started to peel so there was still hope for my poor little dawgs.

He first dried my feet with a towel, then got a healthy gob of Bag Balm and gently rubbed it on my feet. Then he asked if he could massage my feet (I wasn’t sure if that was a serious question). He gave me an intense foot massage that got the blood flowing. He put lightweight Injinji toe socks on me then a thin layer Wigwam sock over top, explaining that the outer layer sock will shift while I’m running on uneven surfaces but the inner layer would stay in place. He was right, my feet were back to pre-race normal within a few aid station stops.

Another important decision was my trail shoes. I knew my Salomon Speedcross 5 were the only shoes appropriate for a course like this, and I only took them off for one section so that they could dry out. I needed traction and grip on slippery rocks and the lugs on my Speedcross served me well, in addition to providing a lot of support and structure in the upper shoe.

Loading up on the calories at Veach West

I knew food and fluids would be critical, and my running partner for the first third of the race – John Hord – taught me a great trick early on to stop and eat, even if it’s brief, to avoid any gut distress. Since I’m usually hustling to make time cutoffs, the generous cutoffs in this race meant that I could focus on fueling properly. This strategy paid off big time because I never had any stomach issues whatsoever, and I got high marks from crew for my ability to eat and drink from beginning to end.

My first pacer – Rob Tidwell – proved to be a trail angel by not only navigating the most difficult sections of the race (more on this later) but also helping me get my head straight. (John Hord later pointed out to me the Jack Sparrow rule of ultrarunning: Your problem is not the problem. Your problem is your attitude about the problem.) Even though I was focused on representing for the ladies in this race, these men served as my spiritual guides out there.

Rob reminded me that the reason we do this is to go deep inside our head and find flow. I found a way to do this while I was with him by shutting off my brain and only focusing on the necessities (gear choices/staying dry, nutrition/hydration, etc.). I asked everyone not to tell me mileage since I was overwhelmed that I wasn’t further along and the hours kept slipping through my fingers, but not knowing my mileage and going on auto-pilot in a flow state served me well.

We were out there a long time, and yet it flashed by quickly. Time lost all meaning since I was on a cosmic high and the universe was speaking through me. It may sound dramatic, but how else can I explain how running all day and all night, then another day and another night, then a third day and then preparing myself to start a third night can feel like it flashed by in an instant?

Early Miles

Energized and ready to climb back to Orange from Veach West

Since there were few runners in this race, it was exciting to track everyone’s progress. We had a sense of how the other runners were doing on a couple of early out-and-backs, but after Buzzard Rock we were clueless (in more ways than one). We passed Mike Wardian and Ali Mohammed coming out of Buzzard Rock and since the section was only a few miles, we were impressed that we were so close to them… then we realized that Buzzard Rock would be extremely difficult and slow.

In fact, I slid off a rock and bumped my bottom pretty hard but was relieved that it wasn’t a real fall. It ended up being a wake-up call because I was much more cautious for the remainder of the race. I had Charlene Howard inspect the wound at the Buzzard Rock stop and she said it looked like there would be a bruise (nothing to worry about), and then I put Valtorin on the spot and it instantly took away the soreness.

The up and back out of Buzzard Rock was somewhat challenging because it was difficult to find the trail at times with blazes being few and far between, and somewhat faded. But this was only the beginning of the fun with blazes (Recall: Unmarked course). And then there were the trees that had special affections for me and molested my person many times – from branches snapping back to trees blocking trails that didn’t want to let go of me – it gave a whole new meaning to “tree hugger.”

Coming into Elizabeth Furnace, my running partner John Hord decided to drop because he broke his toe kicking a rock on Shawl Gap and found Buzzard Rock ‘shockingly bad’ and said that the unfamiliarity of it made it harder than it should have been. In fact, he suggested calling it the “Bur-kley” given the difficulty level (wink: Barkley) but there are so many names that would be appropriate, Bur’s Revenge, Ian’s Revenge, Cooley’s Revenge. I can think of a few other names, but I’ll behave.

Reconning some of the more challenging sections is highly recommended if you aren’t familiar. But I also believe that the rain, darkness and fog contributed and hopefully those conditions won’t be as bad in the future.

Picking Up My First Pacer

I carried on with Rob Tidwell after Elizabeth Furnace, but not before checking out the magnificent forest bathroom at Elizabeth Furnace, I don’t want to raise expectations too high but after 37.5 miles it’s special.

My time with Rob was productive. First, we got to play with the overgrowth on Three Top Mountain. In fact, I found myself in a bush that was about my height at one point and realized I was surrounded by bushes and had no idea how to navigate out of the bushes. But lucky for me there were also loads of briars mixed in to distract me from the frustration of not knowing how to escape. (Pro tip: Wear something on your lower legs to prevent being thrashed by briars.)

There were a lot of challenges navigating the trail, the wet / dark / foggy conditions did not help and recall: faded blazes that were few and far between. Rob apologized for getting us lost several times, but I only noticed a few breaks in which he told me to wait while he found the trail and got us back on track.

When the sun started coming up after the first night, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t even reached Woodstock yet (mile 51). I felt like I had run 75+ miles and even though I wanted to expedite matters I knew that my main goal (as Rob kept pointing out) was to stay vertical.

I took a short nap once I finally reached Woodstock but it was cut short because I was shivering like crazy… a problem that we’d all get used to fixing on the regular and since my brain was not working all that great, my makeshift crew became the real experts.

The Secret

I tried to crank it up a notch after Woodstock and hustled to get to Edinburg (mile 58.3) and this is where things took a strange turn. I was busy de-funkifying in Sarah Smith’s van of heavenly bliss when she said ‘does she know that all the other runners have dropped?’ and Quatro interjected, ‘Mike Wardian is actually still out there.’

The oasis that was Sarah Smith’s van

I was out of it at this point… eyes were rolling to the back of my head as I was pounding the coffee and mushroom soup and in the midst of my madness overheard a conversation between Mike Bur (RD) and Jesse Fuller that seemed very intense. Bur was going to Mike, and then they were going to meet at the aid station. I believed the whole thing and then went back to eating bacon.

I was filled with all the magical serotonin / endorphin juices at this point as I realized that it would be me and an elite runner as the only finishers… my name with only one other name on a race results roster. That got me moving faster for a bit, plus it was a somewhat easier section coming out of Edinburg compared to most sections.

I believe it was right about this time that Larry Tumblin took all my wet, disgusting clothing home and dried them for me. (Recall: Crewing Dream Team.) Then when I saw him, he pointed out that he didn’t wash my clothes so they may still smell. This was such a moot point since I smelled like a homeless person and anything that came near me immediately got my stench on it, so it would not have mattered anyway.

My 16-year-old daughter Josie met me out on the trail just as I was coming into the next aid station at Moreland Gap and I was overjoyed to see her. Backtrack: Rob and I had already discussed how this would be a great learning opportunity for her, and he emphasized the importance of making sure she experiences all of it (the good, the bad, and the downright awful). And oh boy, did she ever. I picked up my next pacer, Homer Komthirath, at Moreland and we were off.

I should also point out here that Rob told me I should not look at social media because I might see something that would distract me from the race and make my head go in a bad direction. I had no idea where my phone was, so this wasn’t an issue at all.

Then at mile 60++, Quatro asked me if I’d checked my phone and I said ‘what happened now?’ thinking there must be some storm / school shooting / celebrity death. He chuckled and explained that he’d been posting updates to the VHTRC Facebook page and pointed out to me that my tribe has spoken. In typical Tracy fashion, I wondered what he was talking about and went right back to eating bacon (notice a trend here?).

Going Deep

Coming down (or up?) Jawbone was scary at times because of wet rocks / steep drop-offs but I got down on the ground and crawled when I felt nervous about the situation and there didn’t seem to be any good foot placement options.

In Sarah’s van at Woodstock Tower on the morning of Day 2

I had been focusing on all the positives up to this point in the race and one big positive was no bugs! Until we hit Duncan Hollow (of course), and a cluster of about 10 moths fluttered in front of me for longer than I would have liked (this means a very long time). But we saw a large possum with pink eyes and an excessively long tail right in front of us crossing the trail… that was magical.

Going into the second night, I made a few mistakes. I left Gap Creek 1 (68.9) fully stocked with food and fluids, and the unattended water drop at 76.8 seemed so close that I didn’t think I needed anything. It ended up being attended, and I was having way too much fun at this point to think clearly. So, I set off for Jawbone and my first ascent up Waterfall with not enough food or water, wearing not enough layers because I was too distracted to make the good decisions.
I did have lots of caffeine chews, so I loaded up on those as we reached Waterfall, which is by far the hardest climb of the race. Since I was all too familiar (unfortunately), I had prepared for the absolute most miserable climb up and Waterfall never disappoints. By the time we got to the top and flat ground I was so relieved, but it was fleeting.

The next half mile was extremely bone chilling as my body temperature plummeted just as we reached high ground / high winds and my poles brushed the overgrowth, pelting me with rain water. I always think that section is short but every turn looks like the last and it never seems to end even though it is only a half mile.

I came into the unscheduled Crisman Hollow aid station delirious, my nervous system was going hay wire and I was (yet again) shivering. The crewing dream team fixed me up, and I was on my way. I thought the hike down Waterfall was going to be horrific, but it actually wasn’t that bad and I had pretty good traction in my Speedcross so it ended up being a mood lifter in the end. Homer talked me through it and helped me with the trickier sections, earning his pacer gold stars for the weekend.

This cycle of running in miserably horrible conditions with relentless rain and then coming into aid stations to get new feet and patched up in all the ways continued for a very long time until things got weird (yes, again).

Hallucinations Phase

On the second night, I had my first real hallucination… or actually it could have been real, I still don’t know. My reaction time was slow as I watched a very large spider crawl across my face and thought it was “neat” at first, then realized it may be real because I could feel it. I brushed it off and saw it hit the ground and move away quickly. I still don’t know if that was real.

As sunrise approached, I started having issues with my vision and just general spaciness. My brain wasn’t right. It was good timing though because I was coming into the 211 parking lot and Quatro and Josie were waiting in a warm car (his Q-Baru). He told me to close my eyes and get some rest and I didn’t think it would work, but it did and I was outer limits for 20 minutes and it was amazing.

I ran/hustled through the next section thinking Bur was definitely going to cut me, I was moving so slow and my brain was so foggy. When I came into Picnic, they said everyone was asleep because they didn’t expect me so soon (I can’t explain how this is possible). My daughter Josie was helping me with my pack and she finally told me The Secret – I was the only runner on the course and I would be the only runner who had a chance to finish.

Of course, I cried because I wouldn’t be Tracy unless I cry in every ultra… but I knew why they didn’t want me to know. If they’d told me too early I would have felt a lot of pressure. But now, since the finish line was in sight (I was at mile 81.4), it made sense and added some giddy-up to my gallop down the trail as I set off for the Bird Knob loop.

I had been mighty curious as to why the other runners dropped and soon found out that the first-place runner – Dan Fogg – came into Woodstock (mile 51) cold and in need of warm food, but he was so fast that no one had arrived to prepare warm food yet. Mike Wardian dropped because he said the conditions were awful and his mind and body were not prepared for the difficulty of the course. Ali Mohammed dropped because he had been tagging along with Wardian and didn’t believe that he could navigate the unmarked trail on his own.

I’m glad that I didn’t know any of this because I just focused on doing my thing on the trails that I know and love with no real big surprises catching me off guard – After all, these are the Massanuttens in the early fall on a fat-ass course that was designed to be as hard as Bur could possibly come up with and then some timely weather conditions just thrown in for fun.

Bird Knob proved to be somewhat challenging because my knees started giving me problems coming down to the Wildflower trail. I guess all the downhills finally caught up with me. I’d suggest coming down the downhills alternating on the right side and the left side from the very beginning to switch it up and alleviate some of the pressure on the knees.

I had hallucinations nearly all day on Sunday – seeing faces and animals in the distance mainly. And everything was moving when I looked out into the forest, so much so that it made me dizzy and nauseous at times. But I kept reminding myself, this is all normal for an ultra that goes on for days.

My Very Best Pacer

I picked up my very best pacer at Picnic – my daughter Josie. She was so excited to do Waterfall with me and I was so proud that she was excited about literally the hardest section of trail in an extremely rugged range of mountains. As we approached the 211 parking lot, my best friend and trail sister Karen Wille came to meet us with fist bumps and gum (heavenly), just before she took off to pick up my dog from boarding (yes, I am spoiled by my friends).

I spent the next few miles preparing Josie for how tough Waterfall was going to be, and she was thrilled at the thought of climbing straight up into the sky (apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). Then as we approached Waterfall, I told her about our customary rituals. First, we load up on food/water/electrolytes. Then, we say a short prayer or observe a moment of silence. Next, we wish each other all the best and fist bump. Finally, we go get it and start climbing.

Since she’s Josie, she ended up hiking half of it backwards (while telling me jokes and stories) and even sprinted up a short section. My favorite story was about her best friend reaching out to her Saturday night asking what she was up to, and Josie replied, ‘I’m in a van on the side of the road in Fort Valley eating pizza with three strange men.’ That girl.

We counted down the switchbacks until we finally reached the top and then posed for a staged photo of me sitting on a rock with my face in my hands completely distraught as she stood behind me giving the big happy thumbs up sign. That’ll be one to show the grandkids.

This one is for the grandkids …

The second climb up Waterfall wasn’t as bad, we were prepared and I had my favorite pacer… and it was daylight. When we reached Crisman Hollow, Bur was alone. I knew I was getting pulled but not for the typical time cutoff issue, but rather because he knew that the next section (Kerns) was going to be very dangerous as the conditions hadn’t improved and I was going into my third night of running.

I had been out there on that mountain for more than 55 hours and my pacers, crew and support had chased me all weekend amped up on the adrenaline of this amazing and truly twisted sport.

I can’t even explain why it took so long, the course runs painfully slow at times and my aid station stops became longer and more luxurious as the race went on. I recognized that this was a once in a lifetime experience to have this level of support, and I fully took advantage and appreciated every foot rub and slice of warm pizza more than words can express.

I had gotten three punches in my “passport” – Three Top Mountain, Waterfall, Bird Knob – only missing Duncan Knob [editor’s note: that punch had not been put in place, anyway]. Based on the mileage recorded collectively in my running partner and pacers’ watches, I had covered over 100 miles and exceeded 20k of elevation gain. (I have a Suunto that ran out of battery life around 40 miles in and I no longer cared about charging or tracking mileage.)

Despite all the crazy business out on that mountain, I stayed vertical once I set my mind on staying vertical.

After the other runners all dropped, it became my race essentially and aid stations were more like a high-end luxury concierge service rather than typical aid stations. At one point, Jeff Pence was rubbing my feet and Quatro was rubbing my shoulders and I was eating bacon. Jesse Fuller is a maestro on the camp stove and I was happy to be his muse this weekend.

Since I am mostly a vegetarian and eat very little meat, ramping up slightly only for races so that I can take in a lot of calories while eating only a little bit of food here and there – bacon was a special treat that I don’t get to indulge in too often.

I was initially told that this was a race that Bur had been dreaming about for more than a decade, and when he told me about the course I wondered about his mental health [editor’s note: join the club!]. Then I started to dream about the course and made it my mission to do all that I could out there, and that’s what I did.

But it is not something I could have ever done on my own, and that’s what I love most about this sport. I needed everyone out there, and everyone in virtual world cheering me on and following me from afar… to know that I was doing something that truly mattered to the people who understand. Although it was odd to consider how many people were calling me a bad ass when I was down on my bottom crawling across wet rocks in order to avoid slipping and going head first down a drop off at full speed. But in the end, I enjoyed every foot fall and every rock in my own special way.

This may seem odd, but I’ve learned to focus on the people who share my passion rather than worry about explaining something that is genuinely unexplainable to people who will never understand.

Most people would focus on all the reasons not to do something like this, while our tribe is focused on all the reasons to do it because we may only live once and if you get this, then you are my people… and you people are my tribe.

We had an epic adventure out there together. I doubt that future years will hold the same drawbacks and benefits that I experienced at this race, but it will inspire other runners to get out and make miracles happen. And I’ll be there to support them… and I have a feeling I won’t be alone.

[Editor’s note on the photo below: Tracy’s feet one day after the race! Dr. Jeff Pence’s Bag Balm can have no better advertising than this picture, taken after those feet had covered 100 rocky Massanutten miles during the remnants of a hurricane.]

Last updated October 7, 2022