Sunrise from Signal Knob, taken in the early miles of the 2014 Reverse Ring.
February 23, 2013 • Fort Valley, VA
28 starters, 18 finishers
Shhh. We really don’t want to rile up the Weather Gods, so this shouldn’t be said out loud. But once again, for an event that is held on the last weekend in February in the mountains of northwestern Virginia, we dodged the Winter Weather Bullet. This year was similar to 2008. In that year, the forecast coming in to Reverse Ring Saturday was dire, direr and direst. Ice storms were forecast both in 2008 and in 2013. In 2008, this led to a paring of the starting field down to 10 hardy souls. The storms did not materialize and we had an outstanding race that year, with all 10 starters finishing the full 71 mile course. In 2013, the forecast was not as bad, but with a 70-80% chance of some sort of wintery mix of sleet, snow and ice, it was hard to imagine we could get away with another completely dry weekend as we had in 2008. But somehow we did – and then some! It was surprisingly mild at the pre-dawn start in the Signal Knob parking lot near the northern entrance to the Fort Valley, and at the trailhead for the Massanutten trail. It remained cloudy but dry through the morning, and with no winds. By the afternoon, as the race made its way down to the southern end of the valley, runners and volunteers alike were basking in sunshine and temps in the low 50s. Once evening settled in over us, so had a solid cloud cover, but again, there were no winds and the temps stayed in the upper 30s – very pleasant winter running weather in the mountains. A dense fog developed for the runners late in the race, however, which did lead to some navigational issues for a number of the runners who ran the whole enchilada – many of them had some bonus miles in those overnight hours on the eastern ridge of the Massanuttens. The fog remained into the early morning, with visibility on the Fort Valley Road down to about 150-200 feet. That cleared soon enough, and the final runners finished bathed in glorious sunshine. It was a great year to run the Reverse Ring.
It was also a record year. At one time in the week leading up to the race we had 35 entrants. There are only 107 members of the Fellowship of The Ring, so only 107 were eligible to run the Reverse Ring as a result. By the middle of the week preceding the race, a few runners had to pull out due to other commitments, but of the 29 runners who remained on the entrants list, 28 actually toed the line and started on race day (what the hell happened to you, Sniper?!). This was by far our largest starting field – breaking the record of 21 set in 2009. We may have to consider a lottery in the future?! Once everyone finally came down off the eastern ridge of the mountain and that evil, rocky orange trail on Sunday, we had 18 finishers – again a record (previously the high was 13 finishers in 2009).
The course records did not appear to be in serious jeopardy this year. Dan Rose set the Reverse Ring record in 2012 with his run of 14:57. The women’s course record is still held by Kerry Owens, who last lowered it in 2009 when she toured the orange trail in 20:37. The early runners this year were slowed by black ice on the rocks. And as the race starts on the notorious rocks of Signal Knob, it was amazing there wasn’t more carnage amongst the runners in those early morning hours.
The road to Woodstock Tower, the Reverse Ring’s first aid station at 14 miles in, was closed by VDOT due to the bad weather forecast, so aid was hiked in by volunteers Brian Schmidt and Hillary Peabody. The runners’ times coming in to that aid station were a bit slower than usual, and many of the runners who checked in there reported having taken a spill or three on the slick rocks. But other than a few bruised body parts, there were no serious injuries, and no contestants for any “Best Blood” competition. Ken Wolters, who had flown in from Oregon for the race, held a lead over Gray Weaver and Keith Knipling at this stage.
By the time that the runners arrived at the next aid station, 22 miles in at Edinburg Gap, it was pretty clear that the ice and rain were not coming. The runners were clearly thriving in those dry conditions. Many of them took advantage of the mini-bar at this aid station in addition to Hillary’s homemade cookies and the other aid station fare. Next year we may have to turn this into a cash bar to prevent runner abuse. Ken was still holding a lead here, but he also was clearly suffering from stomach issues. Despite this he had increased his advantage over Gray and Keith from about 7 minutes to nearly 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Kari Brown, dressed in singlet and shorts as if this was the summer Ring rather than the winter Reverse, was opening up a substantial lead over the other women in the race, with over a half hour lead on Yukiko Nishide of New York and Kim (“Kimba”) Love*Ottobre of Ohio.
Tom Simonds was doling out his now traditional pirogues and soup at the Moreland Gap aid station. This is about the 50km mark in the race, and generally the first point where runners who are not having their best days will start to make decisions about cutting the race short. Ken Wolters continued to build on his lead, having scampered over the rocks of Short Mountain in less than 2 hours. Keith Knipling was at this point solidly in second place, but still losing ground, while Rande Brown of Pennsylvania was now within five minutes of Gray Weaver and third place. This aid station proved to be quite the magnet for volunteers, crews and dogs, as the early to mid-afternoon sunshine here just made it the garden spot of the course. The five runners at the back of this year’s pack all chose alternate routes from Moreland Gap to get to the final full aid station at Camp Roosevelt, as the initial pack of 28 was now starting to thin out.
Alex Papadopoulos, Jack Kurisky, and Kent Gallup of North Carolina were in an essential tie for fifth at the 50km point. Alex’s time should be noted with an asterisk of sorts. He had started with everyone else at 6:01 AM, but returned to the Signal Knob parking lot after 10 minutes in search of two hand-helds. After a 10 minute search the bottles were located in his car, and off he went in pursuit of the field. It was impressive to see how quickly he made up that 20 minute handicap and made his way into the mix towards the front of the pack.
Stephanie Wilson once again hiked aid in to the Crisman Hollow Road Crossing aid station, which is the southernmost point on the course, and essentially the half-way point in the race. Here the lead finally changed hands, and Keith passed Ken at the aid station itself. And as the runners made their way to Camp Roosevelt, the final full aid station at mile 46, there were 10 runners who were on track to get in and out of that aid station before dark. In the past, only one or two runners would accomplish this feat – the field this year was really taking full advantage of the great trail conditions. It is at Camp Roosevelt that runners make the biggest decision of the race (aside from choosing to enter, that is) – whether or not to head up to the east ridge of the Massanuttens, and traverse its full 25 mile length to the finish, with the only aid available being an unmanned stop at Veach Gap, about 8 miles from the end. Bob Fabia and his wife Kathy had a feast awaiting the runners at Camp Rosey – hopefully this fully fueled all the runners, and encouraged more runners to go on to finish.
When all was said and done, 10 of the 28 starters had dropped by Camp Roosevelt, and the remaining 18 went on to finish. Keith Knipling cruised to a comfortable win in just under 16 ½ hours. Cam Baker caught Rande Brown for second around Veach Gap. Rande got turned around after retrieving aid from the unmanned tent station that volunteers Bill Wandel and Brian Schmidt had hiked in there. Rande ran back up the trail the wrong way, and eventually ran into Cam, who then turned him back around the correct way. Both put on a strong push late to finish JUST before midnight, and thus under 18 hours – Cam in an incredible sprint finish at 17:57, while Rande’s 3rd place time should officially be 17:59:59.9. Kent Gallup closed strong to take fourth, with early leader Ken Wolters and Alex Papadopoulos finishing in a tie for fifth. Kari Brown was the first woman to finish, completing her run in a tie for 9th overall with Jeff Best, in a time of 21:47.
Caroline Williams volunteered this year to take the Third Shift in the Signal Knob parking lot, and welcomed all of the finishers as they finally completed their loop. Of those 18 finishers, 10 are newly inducted Masters of The Ring, as they completed the cycle and finished their first Reverse Ring. The other eight reprobates are recidivists, having finished the Reverse Ring previously. Some folks never learn. There are now 41 Masters. If you want to join them and run the Reverse Ring in 2014, then make sure you take the one and only prerequisite course: complete The Ring on Labor Day weekend in 2013. And each year at the Reverse Ring, we get more evidence to confirm the wisdom of requiring successful completion of The Ring as the requirement to enter the Reverse, as even multiple Ring and MMT veterans manage to get off the orange trail for varying amounts of time, particularly in the night section of the race.
All but one of the new (2012) members of the Fellowship of The Ring signed up to run the Reverse Ring (though a couple had to drop out before race day), so the opportunity to participate in the Reverse Ring clearly has been an incentive for Ring finishers. As it should be – the Reverse is the “correct” direction, easier and more fun to run. Mike Bur and I look forward to a healthy mix of newcomers and veterans at the next running of The Ring at the end of August, when we once again will show the beautiful, runnable Massanutten Trail off in all of its glory to another batch of victims. And meanwhile, let’s hope the Weather Gods don’t notice us again next year …