Sunrise from Signal Knob, taken in the early miles of the 2014 Reverse Ring.

Keith Knipling

No Swimming in the Reverse Ring!

by Johh Calabrese

The orange trail really looks at its best under some snow

I’ve DNFd many races before but never written a race report on those experiences. When I DNF’d The Reverse Ring last night I definitely thought I would not be reporting on it, but I feel like it is something good to write about for anyone who wants to do The Ring, for anyone struggling with running, and for anyone who just took a hard DNF. It’s only fair to explore and claim bad experiences along with the good.

The Plan
My plan for this race was to not go out too hard, but make each of the cutoffs with about an hour to spare. This would allow me plenty of time to make adjustments and not have to push myself too hard out there-especially on the difficult sections.

John with his Game Face on!

I’ve done just about all the training runs, races, etc. that VHTRC does at Massanutten, but I don’t consider myself a good or even decent runner there. It’s hard and I always struggle.

I don’t mess around up there. In 2021 I ran the Waterfall 50k in sandals being a hot dog. I technically got a finish but I went off course, caused people to stay late and put myself in danger.

Looking at the entrants list there were 3 people I really wanted to run with, just because we get along well and at other races have had similar goals: John Hord, Samantha Neakrase, Barry Hauptman

I’ve run with John and Barry at The Ring before. I messaged Sam a little about the race off-and-on; we both had similar goals.

The great thing with The Ring is even though the field is small you know everyone and more than likely you’ll find people to pair up with. You don’t need to pair up, of course, but it’s good, especially the last 26 miles because you get tired, it’s cold and bad things can happen.

Race Morning
Because of the 6am start time I had to leave my house at 3:40 am. I went to bed early but I was still tired from the early wake up. About 20 minutes into my drive I realized I left my dropbag at home so I had to turn around. I was stressed but I was able to get to the start area at 5:35 am. I was able to quickly go to the bathroom, get my gear together and get to the start. All things considered; it went perfectly, and I was fired up.

John in the early morning light at the top of Signal Knob

When the race began I was with Barry, Sam, and John. On the first climb Sam went ahead and I stayed with Barry. I hung out with Barry until we got to the fire roads, and he started going fast. I couldn’t hang but I caught up with Sam and hung out with her. Marty Fox caught up to us and I was really happy to see him out here. I didn’t know he was running and he’s a great person to pace off on mountain races. He knows what he’s doing and I’m a big fan. I went ahead of Sam and Marty and was alone for a bit until Charles Salsgiver passed me. I did not see him at the start so I asked him if he came late and he said he did. [Editor’s Note: Charles started several minutes after the bulk of the field]

I got to the aid station and adjusted my gear and took in nutrition etc. I find on races with these temps it’s very hard to gauge what to wear but I had guessed pretty well. I was comfortable in this stretch even with an unexpected surprise: Snow! The forecast had called for low chances but it happened for a couple hours. Marty caught up to me and went ahead. I tailed him a lot of this section. We got to aid station 2 [Edinburg Gap] and were joking around with Alex Papadopoulos and Charlene Howard. This was a fun aid station, but I was bummed out to learn that Carl Bligan got hurt.

Marty and Charles left ahead of me from aid station 2, then I caught up with Marty while Charles remained ahead. It snowed more, and Marty and I traded off through this section. Marty and I got to aid station 3 [Moreland Gap, 30 miles]. It was great to see everyone (Q, Bur, Charlene, Tracy Cooley and everyone). I got gloves from my drop bag, ate, and got half a pulled pork sandwich here. It was amazing - thank you, Jeff Best! Marty left the aid station first, then I did, and Charles was still there.

Running the Reverse Ring is FUN!

I caught up with Marty on the Jawbone climb and then I went ahead. Marty had to go to the bathroom so I went ahead. During this time alone I fell and busted my thumb. My legs were fine though so I just brushed it off and moved forward. Then I heard someone behind me and was like “dude, you’re done already??” But it was Charles. Charles and I talked a lot about races and stuff — it was cool. I know him from races and social media. I didn’t contact him initially when I saw him on the entrants list because he usually runs much faster than I do.

Marty caught up to us and we all got into the aid station before Waterfall together. Tony Taylor was there! I finished The Ring and Reverse Ring with him. He helped get me ready, and Jesse Fuller gave me some amazing food. Marty and Charles both took off. I stayed a little longer and ate. Jesse and Tony headed off with me for a minute and took my trash. They were super cool. I was ready for Waterfall. I was alone until I got to Waterfall. Charles was there and he was being very cautious. I almost slipped down a few times. All things considered, I was very lucky to this point, was on pace for what I was aiming for time-wise, and I only fell once with no damage; it was going great.

One should always watch ones footing on the Massanutten Trail

The Fall
Charles and I cleared Waterfall and got to a water crossing. It really wasn’t that big, but for some reason I felt like I needed to walk across the logs there. I said before attempting: “this is a bad idea — I always fall when I try this.” And sure enough, I fell completely into the water and was totally soaked head to toe. I was terrified. My initial thought was “okay, my shorts, base layer, and windbreaker are pretty quick drying material, but my gloves really concerned me. My gloves were totally soaked, but I was scared to take them off because my hands would freeze. The temp wasn’t extremely cold at the moment but my fear was that it was going to drop below 30 soon.

Wim Hof
Charles was with me initially — after he said “now that happened, you’re like Wim Hof and have powers.” It’s kind of hilarious, I basically did but not from being soaked head to toe in cold water out there, but from the fear of getting hypothermia. I went absolutely as fast as I could to stay warm. It wasn’t super-fast, of course, but as fast as I could. I caught up with Marty, told him what happened and went ahead of him. I had to pee really bad, but I did not want to stop under any conditions; but eventually I did. Marty went ahead and I could not catch him at this point. The last few miles to Roosevelt were bad. I was trying to go as fast as I could but I just didn’t have anything. I couldn’t in good conscience go on. I made the decision then before Roosevelt: I needed to get these clothes off and get fully warm.

Camp Roosevelt
I wanted to go on but I had 40-ish min to get dry clothes and get warm [prior to 10 pm cutoff]; it just wasn’t wise to push it at this point.

The frustrating part of this was that if I didn’t fall, I was setup perfectly to finish. Even if I got to Roosevelt slower all I had to do was put on some clothes and head back out.

I know if I would have been able to get right back out there and continue with the race it would have ended poorly. I thought a lot about that time I wore the sandals running Waterfall and I didn’t want to be that guy that causes issues on such a cool race.

The “Fishhook” version of the Reverse Ring, shown on the track of any runner who’s day ends at Camp Roosevelt

Charles and I talked later and we both wonder if I should have just turned around, went back up waterfall to the aid station to get help.

A couple things made me not do that in the moment. I was worried the aid station may have been already taken down and everyone would have left. I would have been so screwed getting there with no help, no drop bag, and a soaking wet cell phone. I kept moving to Roosevelt, 8-ish miles soaking wet, because I wanted to finish the race but also because I knew for a fact aid and my drop bag were there.

I basically did everything I could on this race. It’s frustrating as hell because again my plan was solid, I made the time I wanted to at Roosevelt, but I just couldn’t go on to the finish because I got soaked.

The beauty that can be seen in the rocky trails across Kerns Mountain

I don’t like to DNF but this definitely was my most epic one. As angry as it makes me, this was the sensible decision. I do a lot of races and try to do all the hardest ones out there. I know some would view this as soft, but so be it. I do a lot with my daughter, and I run with my girlfriend Denise. I have to stay healthy for them and the next race.

The Ring is by far one of the best ultras in Virginia and maybe stretching far beyond. The runners, volunteers and everyone associated with this race is die-hard about it. Thank you to everyone for putting this on and caring so much about the runners. It’s hard to find a race like this anywhere. I can’t wait to run The Ring with my girlfriend in September. I won’t let her fall in a stream, but if she does it’s totally okay because that race is hot as hell.

Last updated February 27, 2023