Wednesday, May 20, 2015

MMT100 2015 Race Report - Fueled by Crickets

Many cultures share the belief that an animal’s traits can be absorbed in some fashion by eating its flesh. With this in mind, I gave careful consideration to my choice of animal to provide protein, fat and maybe a little something extra for the MMT100. I settled on the cricket. Why?
1) Let’s start with the obvious - hopping ability. Not such a big deal for ultrarunning, but it could come in somewhat handy considering the famous Massanutten rocks.
2) Endurance. Everybody knows crickets can chirp all night. What does this have to do with running endurance, you ask? Well, it turns out that the high pulse rate mating call of the common cricket requires about the same power output as vigorous walking. So, in addition to their evident fast-twitch hopping skills, crickets must be decent ultra-endurance athletes.
3) Thermoregulation. Well, I actually don’t know if crickets have any special abilities in this regard – but many insects have evolved extremely efficient mechanisms for dissipating internal heat without sweating (as described by ultrarunner and biologist Bernd Heinrich - who did some of the original experimental work on this topic - in his book Why We Run). This kind of insect talent would amount to a superpower during a hot race like this was going to be.
4) Toughness. Crickets can drop a leg and keep on running. Enough said.
My Exo bars, made with cricket flour, arrived in the mail a few days before the race. I tasted one (yum), packed half a dozen and hit the road on Friday morning with Mark Tichinel, who would pace me for the last 40 miles.
We arrived just in time for the pre-race briefing. I picked up my race bib and immediately lost it, not realizing this until 5 minutes later when the race director called out my name to the crowd. After the briefing, I collected my bib a bit sheepishly, passing on the chance to become possibly the earliest DNF in the history of the race (assuming it’s not a DNS if you’ve actually picked up your bib…).
After dinner and a few hours of sleep at the hotel we were back at the starting line for the 4 am start. The first short section of the race is a gradual incline on roads. As usual, I settled into the middle of the pack, planning to move up as the race went on. I can see an argument for taking this section more quickly, to avoid the conga lines that form on the subsequent single-track, and to take advantage of the pre-dawn temperatures. But I like to start slowly, letting my body know from the outset that it’s going to be burning fat all day, not ripping through its meager glycogen stores.
The next section was the most technical I’d ever run. (This wouldn’t last long – there were even rockier sections later in the course.) It was mile after mile of jagged quartzite boulder fields, with rocks jutting out every which way and not a square foot of horizontal terrain to be seen. My pace dropped precipitously, and there was no way I could do anything about it. By the end of the section I was already 15 minutes off my goal time.  
Over the next 30 miles, though, I adapted to the rough terrain and gradually regained a few minutes of lost time. One issue over this stretch, and throughout the entire day, was flies – the large, biting kind. They were a constant presence, buzzing around my head. I managed to kill four, but decided not to eat them. One, I wasn’t convinced of their endurance ability. Sure, they could fly along behind me for dozens of miles, but how would they fare if they weren’t drafting? Two, I didn’t want to become an annoyance to the other runners.
Horseflies aside, the major issue to deal with now was thermal regulation. The morning hours had been fairly benign, but the forecast was for a high around 85F with high humidity. At every aid station I asked for ice, and I think it was either Woodstock (20.3 mi) or Powell’s Fort (25.8 mi) that began carrying it. From there on I filled my cap with ice at every aid station.
On the ridge between Veach Gap and Indian Grave
The ice-in-the-hat strategy proved sufficient until I reached the long (9 mi), rugged stretch of trail between Veach Gap and Indian Grave. The Veach aid station, which I arrived at around noon, had a limited supply of ice, and I was only able to beg a small handful of cubes for my hat. This melted well before I reached the top of the initial 3 mile climb. Fluids were also a concern, even with two 26 oz bottles in my vest. I rationed water over the first 5 miles but was nevertheless running low when an oasis suddenly appeared to the right of the trail. A couple dozen water jugs were lined up neatly on a rock in the shade. I refilled my bottles and carried on for another four miles, managing to stay hydrated but feeling increasingly overheated. I wasn’t alone, passing several other runners who looked to be in similar shape.
At Indian Grave, I sat down in a chair and let the volunteers take care of me. They were amazing. Ice in the hat, ice down the shirt, cold wet towels across my shoulders and thighs, ice water poured over my head. Five minutes later I felt well enough to continue, but still more than a little concerned about what lay ahead. I’d blown up in the heat before, and wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to finish the race, much less meet my time goal. The next section was an easy 4-mile stretch of road, but the heat was brutal and the shade was very spotty. After a mile, though, some clouds rolled in, and then I heard a low rumble. Thunderstorm? It wasn’t clear that it would hit us, but the thunder gave me a glimmer of hope, and the clouds on the horizon provided a little shade.
At Habron Gap I unexpectedly met Mark Tichinel. He told me I was right on pace and needed to slow down. I replied that I had every intention of taking it slowly on the next ~10 mile section to avoid overheating. I took a few minutes to cool off and take on some calories (by this point I’d consumed 2-3 cricket bars, which had settled in the stomach quite comfortably) and Mark said he’d meet me at Camp Roosevelt.
After the thunderstorm, above Habron Gap.
Halfway up the climb out of Habron, the thunderstorm arrived. The raindrops were big and cool, and they drove the flies away. It was heavenly. This long section wasn’t easy, but the rain saved it from turning into a death march and I met Mark at Camp Roosevelt right on schedule, feeling OK.
With company, the next 15 miles went by pretty easily, occasional showers keeping the air from becoming too oppressive. A downpour hit just as we were leaving the Visitor Center aid station for the steep climb up to Bird Knob, around 9:20 pm. I was still warm enough to welcome the cold rain, even though it did leave the lichen-covered rocks slick and treacherous. We moved pretty well up to Bird Knob and through the next section, staying on pace.
And then the wheels started to come off. I hadn’t studied the course well enough to remember the long (9 mile) section between Picnic Area and Gap Creek, or the big climb within it. At this point I was pretty tired, and the climb seemed to go on forever. Every time I thought we must be at the ridge the climb continued, only steeper and rockier. I was exhausted by the time we really did reach the top, and found it difficult to run during the descent, even on the highly runnable sections. By the time we hit the road that led to Gap Creek my stomach was sour, my energy was low, and I was worried about blowing up. Even though the road was on a gentle downslope, I was reduced to a power-hike, hoping to get myself back together at the aid station. A runner we had been leapfrogging for the past few aid stations went by, worrying aloud that we wouldn’t make it in under 24 hours. Mark told him we still had a shot and I wished him well, but my own hopes were starting to fade, and at this point I just didn’t care. I’d given this course everything I had.
Somehow we missed the turn into the aid station and wandered back and forth for 5 to 10 minutes until we found it. My energy was low, and losing time trying to find the aid station entrance didn’t help lift my spirits. I munched on some salty junk food (Pringles, I think), refilled my bottles, and we marched on.
By the time we reached the final ~4 mile section of gently down-sloping road to the finish I knew the silver buckle was no longer in play and just wanted to be done. We hiked and jogged it out, only slightly worried that we weren’t seeing any course-marking streamers. We had started on this same stretch of road and I was pretty sure it was right, but it was a little disconcerting not to see any markings. Eventually, a couple of miles down, we saw one and breathed a little more easily.
Shortly after, Mark turned his head back and then said, “Hmm…I hope that’s a car headlight behind us. It’s moving pretty fast.” I looked back and saw a headlamp barreling down the road toward us. Instantly I felt a surge of energy and said, “Let’s go!” The power-hike we’d been doing turned into a full on run. After half a mile Mark told me we’d dropped the runner, but we kept on running a bit longer until we saw arrows on the road pointing us to the left, where there was a trailhead. We went up the trail – and saw no streamers anywhere. Eventually, after half a mile or so, I figured this couldn’t be right – we were going off into the darkness, and I knew the finish was very close by. So we turned around (curses ringing in the air) and headed back to the road – where we saw that the turn was actually meant to be up a dirt road just beyond the trailhead. By this time I assumed (correctly) that the runner we’d dropped was long past us, and we power-hiked it in to the finish. I ran down the chute, finishing in 24:38 – which turned out to be 8th overall. No silver buckle, but a better placing than I had thought was possible.
So, did eating crickets make any difference in my race? It certainly didn’t endow me with any magical powers. The bars tasted good, and I didn’t have any trouble eating them for the first 60-70 miles of the race. Beyond that, I typically have difficulty eating solid food of any kind, and this race was no different. My gastric system performed a little better than usual, and I suspect this was due to having some fats and protein along with the usual carbs (of course, there are lots of ways to get fats and protein that don’t involve crickets…). I think the biggest key to this race, for me at least, was staying cool. Without access to insect heat-shedding mechanisms, ice did the trick for me quite well, and the only problem was on long (2+ hour) sections where ice wasn’t available frequently enough.
Final thoughts: I knew the course would be tough, but there was no way I could have prepared adequately for all those rocks. It was an extremely well-run race, with outstanding volunteers, highly experienced ultra runners who know what you need and go the extra mile to help.


  1. I don't have time right now to read everything you wrote, but i read parts of it. Beautiful photos and cool belt buckle to add to your collection!

  2. I read this in utter amazement! Still can't wrap my head around how you do this. Long distance running is such a metaphor for life. This is a feeling I definitely understand…"At this point I was pretty tired, and the climb seemed to go on forever. Every time I thought we must be at the ridge the climb continued, only steeper and rockier." Maybe I should try crickets. Kudos to you for pushing through and pulling off a very respectable finish!

  3. Jim: Outstanding! Congrats on such an amazing experience!

  4. We've always said it's a 3 water bottle carry out of Veach to Indian Grave, you will need all that fluid.
    Picnic Area to Gap-is a serious tedious section. You do get those little stretches of actual unrocky singletrack, but then you get to climb Big Run. At least it was dry this year, sometimes it is just a creekbed.

    Congrats on a very good finishing time! Lots of carnage on the course this year!