Monday, May 18, 2020

The Massanutten Ring Full Pull

Blaze and I ready to tackle The Ring

As I look at my battered, aching body, and beginning to record this journey on "paper," I am overwhelmed with emotion.  I have finished many brutally epic one day challenges/races, but this one may just top them all.  To accomplish this full pull took fitness, mad rock skills,a bit of luck, but most of all, grit, gristle, and gumption.

The Massanutten Ring is 70 miles, 13,000+ feet of elevation gain, and 95% single track, located in the George Washington National Forest near Strasburg, Virginia.  Historically, this is where George Washington was going to hole up as a possible winter retreat and last stand if his army were to be defeated by the British.  Originally the Ring was a foot race, as The Massanutten Trail was originally built/linked together as a hiking trail.  In 2012, Kyle Lawrence and Mike Carpenter, two mountain bikers successfully completed the first full pull.

Better bring your goat legs.

I cannot exactly remember how I first discovered this "underground" race, but I suppose I will lay part of the blame on Sue Haywood, the first woman to complete the full pull in 2017.  In 2015, she was my guide when we completed The Ring over a 2 day period.

Ever since that two day adventure, I knew I wanted to give it a go.  For 5 years, I patiently waited for my chance.  Every spring, I would start planning for a May attempt, but for whatever reason (work, health, weather, family, life in general), the cards just did not fall right.  But then the Covid-19 pandemic happened and with all the races being cancelled/postponed, here was my chance!

Almost thought about adding a spare derailleur to my carry on.

So I started watching the weather forcast for May.  I let David Jolin and Scott Morman know that I was going for it on May 15.  David was game; Scott unfortunately was nursing a running injury and had to pass.  And then on May 5, I got this text:

Muhahaha! Sucker!

Lisa Randall was also on board for this Type 2 Fun.  Having two hardened veterans of "doing epic shit," I felt better about my safety, knowing I would not be alone.  Although there are plenty of bail out options, this is still a back country trail, where an emergency extraction would be difficult.

On Friday morning at 2:45 am, I awoke to my alarm.  Christopher Bean Coffee and a slice of homemade strawberry bread warmed my belly.  We were out the door at 3:30, on our way to the Signal Knob Trailhead parking lot.  I was using both my Garmin Etrex 30x (for navigation) and Garmin Edge 830 (for recording).  I went with a back up, to ensure that I would have a file to upload at the end for verification.  While the Edge 830 has an awesome battery life, up to 20 hours even with navigation, I would be cutting it close. In the midst of turning them on, as I was about ready to roll, I heard David say, "I think I forgot my backpack."  Fortunately our AirBNB was only a 15 minute drive away, so we loaded back up and sure nuff, his hydration pack was sitting on the kitchen table.  We eventuslly got on the trail at 4:30 am.

This guy ... 💗 him !

This lady ... 💗 her!

On the climb up to Shawl Gap, I listened to my body.  The beating of my heart, the exhalation of each breath of air, the feeling in my legs as I turned the pedals.  All systems were a go; I was feeling good.  I took it easy up the climb, getting off and pushing was the more sensible thing when the trail got steeper and more technical.  I did not need to burn any matches this early and had nothing to prove by cleaning some of the more difficult sections.  I brought up the rear, letting my team mates go at their own pace.  I opted for a 28T chain ring on my Eagle drive train.  On the climb up, I was greeted with the cooing of the whipporwills and babbling brooks.  

Once at the top, the day came alive with a spectacular sunrise.  This first climb wasn't over as we continued on to Veach Gap. No rhythm here as I was off the bike quite a bit, but just for short stretches. David and I made short work of the descent off of Veach.  There was a lot of water flowing down the trail, but with such a rocky base, the mud was minimal.  Once at the bottom, we regrouped and began the double track climb back up to the ridge. I had a sense that Lisa was not feeling the love.  Back home, there are plenty of steeps like this at Pine Log and she would always out ride me.  I didn't say anything, but I was worried.

The ridge then rolled pretty well over to Kennedy Peak.  There was more dirt single track than I remembered from 2015; probably because it was easy, as I only seem to remember the painful parts.  I was finally feeling the flow.  I let David set the pace.  We stopped a few times to regroup, take photos, and eat.

Yes, rideable, just gotta keep your momentum.

I do remember one section along this ridge where the trail split.  Our track led off the ridge, onto a side cut trail.  Jesus!  It started off nice enough, but then became so narrow and steep, I had to get off my bike.  Pushing my bike was almost impossible, as the tread was not wide enough for both my bike and I.  I got so many pedal strikes to the calf, I lost count after 20.  I do believe I saw Jeremiah Bishop's tire tracks in the leaves a few times, as only those sections would be rideable by the locals who had "cut their teeth" on this gnar.

There is a trail somewhere in that mess.

After about 1 1/2 - 2 miles, it rejoined again with the probably much more rideable trail on top of the ridge .. of course.  As we continued to Kennedy Peak, Lisa began to fall behind.  During one of our waits, I told Dave I was concerned.  Sure enough, when Lisa approached us, her face said it all.  Unfortunately, the hike a bike was wreaking havoc on the aggravated nerve in her foot.  Not wanting to cause further damage and hinder our progress, she told us to go on.  At this point we were about 5 miles from our first resupply where Chris was waiting.  Dave and I were disappointed but also knew that had we been in her shoes, we would do the same.  In order to have any chance of completing The Ring, we had to keep motoring along.  

More rocks than dirt

Descending off of Kennedy was pretty darn fun!  A couple of sketchy rock gardens to carefully pick through, but otherwise a nice reward of speed.  We did have to dismount and walk our bikes around a group of horse riders; I was just thankful we didn't meet up with them at one of the high speed sections.  The last part of the descent after Edith Gap was chewed up by the horses.  And, of course, plenty of horse poo to motor through.  Thank God for my mud/shit fender!

Upon reaching Chris at the intersection of the trail and Camp Roosevelt Road, I told Chris about Lisa as we refueled.  This first 24 miles had taken 6 hours 25 minutes.  I drank my hydration bladder and bottle dry (90 ounces), so I made sure that this time I had a full bladder and bottle which would be a total of 120 ounces.  I enjoyed a couple rice cakes and an ice cold Coke.  I also made sure to slather more Chamois Butt'r on the important bits, after emptying my other bladder.  I calculated I had taken in about 800 calories on the trail and another 400 calories at the "aid station."

Crossing the road we entered the next section, which included some nice flowy and swoopy single track which led to the Duncan Hollow climb, a 5 mile 1300 foot climb up to the top of Middle Mountain.  I remember this being pretty trashed 5 years ago when Sue and I rode it, but today it was in relatively good shape, save for a few soft areas where water was flowing down the trail.  It was beginning to get hot and Duncan Hollow is exposed due to a wild fire that occurred many years ago.  I told Dave I was going to keep it chill up this climb to allow my food to digest and not have my head explode from the heat.

Top of Duncan Hollow

Working our way over to Waterfall Mountain, we both had our first crash.  Dave was descending a wide loose rocky section when he hit a baby head that washed out his front wheel.  He hit pretty hard banging his shoulder and leaving a shiner on his glute.  I had a spectacular slow speed fall crossing a creek, right in front of a hiker.  I was fortunate enough to have two saplings to grab onto to stop my fall.  Had it not been for my cat-like reflexes, I would probably have bounced down the ravine and that would have ended my ride.  I told the hiker that now she had a story to tell at dinner tonight.

Oh Waterfall, how I hate you.  Climbing 800 feet in 3/4 mile, with an average grade of 20%, I felt like Sisyphus pushing my 25 pound bike up towards the heavens.  It was two steps forward, one step back as I approached the top.  Dave was right behind me; I could hear his labored breathing over the bzzzz'ing of my I-9's.  We took a short break at the top and ate. Dave was looking pretty haggard.

Kern Mountain started out with an easy climb up.  I was still trying to recover from Waterfall and when we slowly passed a family out for a hike and the little kid said to his Mom, "Look Mom, we are walking as fast as they are riding," I felt a part of my soul die.  That was NOT what I wanted to hear. Once on the ridge, we had a short respite of easy riding.  I quietly passed by the spot where I had flatted in 2015, not wanting to wake the Gods of punctures.  Then the fun began.  I tried channeling the mad rock skilz of Preston Stempler, but all I got was crickets.  It was a constant battle of pinballing through the rock gardens, lifting the bike up on boulders, hopping back on, getting bounced off, butt slide down a rock slab, repeating this sequence a million times.  Midway through my wheel found a 29 inch hole covered by leaves.  I went OTB (over the bars), landing on my right side.  Upon getting up, I immediately felt warmth running down my forearm and leg.  Blood was flowing freely out of two nice wounds.  Fortunately only flesh was involved and I was able to continue, although my wrist throbbed, which made braking difficult for awhile.

Four miles later, of which it felt like I walked two, we were out of that minefield.  Stopping at Jawbone Gap for a pee break, Dave lay down in the middle of the trail.  Uh oh, not good, I thought.

10.5 hours and 38 miles in

I let him chill for a bit, while I tended to myself: eating and tending to my bits with a little more Chamois Butt'r.  I noticed that my kit was covered in salt.  Man, it was getting hot!  Garmin said 84 degrees.  The Jawbone descent helped to cool us off and recover a bit. Coming upon the Moreland Gap Road crossing, Dave asked if this was our next resupply.  I told him Edinburg Gap, which was another 10 miles.  He didn't say anything, but I could tell he was a hurtin' buckaroo and probably almost out of water.  Fortunately on the next gradual, smooth single track climb, we came across a creek.  We stopped and he grabbed his filter.  I was getting low myself so filled my bottle up and dropped in a chlorine tab.  Dave was moving very slow and not saying much.  I could see that he had that hundred yard stare. Damn!  I am about to lose another team mate.  Hoping that this water would revive him, we spent quite some time at the creek resting.

After a bit, we started riding again.  I was feeling surprisingly good.  Not trying to, I began pulling away from him.  I waited for him in the shade just beyond the FS 374 road crossing.  When he finally rode up to me, he asked if that sign said 8 miles to Edinburg Gap.  

This sign put the final nail in Dave's coffin.

I could tell he really did not want to pull the plug.  He said he felt like he was disappointing me.  I told him that he needed to listen to his body.  As much as I wanted him to continue, I did not want him to get into a bad situation.  8 miles of Short Mountain lay between here and our next resupply and although I could not remember how difficult it was, I could only assume it would be.  He told me to go on; he would sit here for a minute (or two) and contemplate.  I told him the gravel road we had just crossed would take him to our resupply should he decide to bail.  I left him alone in thought as I began the gnarly climb up to the ridge.

Yep, memories of just how difficult Short was came flooding back once I hit the first technical section.  Of the eight miles, I figured I rode 5 and walked 3.  I hoped that Dave had decided to take the gravel, as this section was a real test of how bad did I want it.

Brutally beautiful Short Mountain

It was here that I felt the first signs of fatigue.  Little efforts came with an increased PE (perceived exertion).  It was harder to swing a leg over the bike and I began dropping my seat as I dismounted so that it would be easier to remount.  Even though I was drinking, drinking, drinking, my mouth was still parched.  I was losing my appetite and forcing myself to take in calories.  Thank God I had packed some baby food (applesauce) at the last resupply.  That went down easy enough. It took over 2 hours to finish Short.  I did at least enjoy that last mile down to the gap; exposed side cut single track with expansive views.  No pictures, as I was focused on getting to get to my resupply.

That half mile gravel descent down to Edinburg Gap felt soooo good.  Chris, Lisa, and Dave were all there to greet me.  They seemed to be in good spirits, but I felt certain there was some sense of regret in their decision to quit.  As I ate more rice cakes and drank another Coke, they were all by my side helping me get ready for the final push.  Chris took my phone and turned on my Google location sharing so that they would know exactly where I was along the final 23 miles.  As I loaded more food into my CamelBak, I made sure to include another pouch of baby food.  I also grabbed my big battery for what could be a long night.  This second section, 23 miles, had taken 7 hours 20 minutes. Including what I ate at this stop, I had consumed 1100 calories.

Feeling renewed by cold fluids and the camaraderie of my Rescue Racing team, I KNEW I would finish.  Waonaze was first on my agenda: 1 1/2 miles (1000 feet of gain) straight the f*ck up!  I took it on like Donkey Kong!  I rode most and when I couldn't ride any more, I pushed.  Once on top, I had some more rock gardens to negotiate, but then there was a stretch of heaven.  Eleven miles at an average grade of -2%.  I felt like I was flying!  There was still sections of tricky rock crawling, but by far it was the easiest part of the course.  

The sun was setting and somewhere along this section, I stopped for one last nature break and then put my light back on my helmet.  As I hopped back on my bike, my bits were no longer happy.  No amount of Chamois Butt'r was going to soothe her. What with the constant off/on the saddle, heavy sweating, multiple pee breaks, the chafing was no longer bearable.  Oh, she let me know for the remainder of the ride, this experience was NOT the kind of pleasure she was used to. At the very least, it was enough to make me forget about how painful my feet, calves, and bruised/bloodied forearm felt.  

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The Mudhole Gap descent was forearm and brake finger fatiguing.  I had to stop once for I began to have twinges of cramping in my calves and forearms.  I have never had upper body cramps before!  Finally down onto the 3 mile FLAT section of gravel.  All but hoo-ha were happy.  Able to finally give my mind a break off the intense focus I had on the trail.  Spinning along, I spooked a sleeping turkey.  He shot off his roost, bouncing off trees and breaking branches; how he did not break a wing amazed me!  Then a huge white tail bounded across the road and up the mountain in front of me.  What's next -- Sasquatch?  

My happiness was short-lived as I saw my glowing track on my Etrex directing me off the buttery smooth road onto more single track.  I let out a cacophony of cuss words that would embarass a sailor as I remembered the wet muddy, rooty ass trail that led up and around the Strasburg Reservoir.  While the perfectly good gravel road paralled on the opposite side.  

Finally off that sum bitch, I mustered what little energy I had left to crawl up the last 3/4 mile steep bit of road to Signal Knob.  You know, those steep gravel roads that give access for utility trucks to radio towers and such.  

Although I rode the section to Meneka Peak back in 2015, the fatigue had built up to such a level that I stumble-bummed my way over to the final descent.  Finally, I had reached the final 4 mile descent back to the parking lot where I had started my journey over 19 hours ago.  All downhill to the finish ... except this is Signal Knob, the MOST heinous, rock slide loaded descent I have ever seen.  To add salt to wounds, bugs by the hundreds were drawn to my light and began bombarding me.  Pinging off my helmet, crawling on my glasses, and finding their way into my ears!  I felt like I was in the middle of the locust plague!  The sections that were rideable, I was so fatigued that after 100-200 yards I had to stop, walk, and recover.  But then the fatigue of so much pushing throughout the day would cause my ankles to roll.  Fortunately I was holding my bike, which I was now using as my trekking pole, and that would prevent me from going down.  I was getting frustrated; I couldn't walk and I couldn't ride.  I felt tears well up in my eyes.  I couldn't quit had I wanted to.  There was no other way off this damn mountain.  

Focus, focus, keep your eye on the prize, said a little voice in my head.  The pain will eventually stop and victory will be yours. Only 4 women have completed this journey and you will soon be number 5!  All these positive thoughts came flooding into my brain about halfway down the Knob.  All the years I had readied myself to do this and here I was 2 miles away from the finish.  I WILL PERSEVERE!

And then laying across the gnarliest rock slide was the biggest damn downed tree.  No room to crawl under, no where to go around, I had to lift my bike like a cross fitter doing a clean and jerk in order to get my bike over this monster tree.  I actually had to take a moment and really think about it, I was so damn tired I didn't know if I could.

Once I got Blaze up and over, I had to, without letting her go, crawl up onto the tree in order to let her down one wheel at a time.  And then, barely keeping a hold on her saddle so she wouldn't go sailing down into the ravine, I managed to inch my way up and over the tree like a snake, finally positioning myself where I could safely crawl down the other side.  All this time, I was thinking about Aron Ralston who got his arm pinned under a boulder in Utah and had to cut it off in order to save his life.  And then the Alanis Morissette song "Ironic" started playing in my head.  Two miles from the finish, the rocks shift, I get pinned, and I don't get to finish The Ring.  Man O Man, I was drunk on delirium by this point!

I managed to avoid disaster and safely get my ass off that first rock slide section.  There were a few more of these to maneuver through, but I came through unscathed.  The trail finally opened up towards the end and I was able to shake the gas tank and get enough fumes to fuel the final mile.  

Pulling into the parking lot at 1:30 am, I was greeted by Chris, Lisa, and David.  They were hootin' and hollerin'. I was so glad to be done.  I slumped over my bike, making sure to save the ride on both Garmins. 

After that, I don't remember much, other than handing my bike to Dave and getting one final picture.


21:02, with a moving time of 18:02 was the final tally.  With an average speed of 3.3mph (4mph if you take out the stopped time), that just goes to show you how difficult of a trail The Massanutten Ring is.

When we say we left it all out on the trail today, do we really?  I can attest to the fact that I did. No sooner had I gotten back to the AirBNB and showered, I passed out in the kitchen while talking to Dave.  One minute I was savoring my last bite of pizza, and the next thing I knew, I was on the floor with a pillow under my head, and Dave staring down at me asking if I was o.k.  This was a first in my book

A fitting ending to this kick ass trail.  There are so many things that could have gone wrong.  So many others have tried and not succeeded on their first attempt.  So although it wasn't fast or pretty, Triple G managed to pull out another finish (which in my book is a win) outta my ass!  

Although my number one goal was to finish, I thought that I could do it in 18.  Boy, was I way off the mark!  Now I could probably list a half dozen excuses, but I won't.  I will happily take my 21:02 to the grave with me.  Right now, I cannot envision trying this EVER again.  This was the most physically demanding one day course I have ever done.  Today, as I write this, my whole body aches.  Well, all but my hoo-ha ... she good now!  I've got cankles and my calves and quads have disappeared in a sea of inflammatory fluid.  I am sure I will see them again, but it may take a few days, with some rest and clean eating.

A huge thanks to Chris for ensuring my caches would not get raided by the Virginia critters and to Lisa and Dave, who, despite having bad days themselves, kept up their positivity, ensuring that I could and would finish.

And to those in the Fellowship, here's to your tenacity, perseverance, fortitude, and grit.  I am humbled to be in your company.