“2 minutes!!!,” David Horton told us as we ran downhill past him as he mountain biked uphill from the mile 11 Dancing Creek aid station. “Two minutes to what?” I thought to myself, maybe 2 minutes downhill to the aid station, that’s not too bad. The only problem was we were way more than 2 minutes out from the aid station. Hmmmmm…I looked over to my running companions, 2-time MMTR 50 winner and defending champ Brian Rusiecki and Anthony Wind from the NYC, and conjectured about what David could possibly be talking about. Soon enough the aid station was upon us and upon departure heard someone say, “3 minutes.” Hmmmmmm…is there someone in first place in front of us? Only time would tell. The 3 of us motored on down the trail, eventually encountering a mud-slinging Jeep Rubicon for which we wisely stepped off the trail and let by us. At the next aid station, mile 15 Parkway Gate, we got the confirmation that the couple minute splits we had received were for the first place runner, Californian Gary Gellin! Somehow he had gotten out in front of us, maybe under the cover of darkness with the 6:30am start, a sneaky move by the wiley veteran whether intentional of not!
Fortunately, this news provided us with a nice sense of mission and patient purpose to gradually reel him in. This was my 3rd time running MMTR 50 and Brian’s 4th time, so both of us have a healthy respect for the masochistic course profile, 9200’ of climbing and 7200’ of descent, the bulk of which occurs in the 2nd half of the course. Time is your ally out here so we kept the pace honest while appreciating the dissipating light drizzle, brief glimpse of a sunrise, and generally crisp fall morning in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Over the course of the next 3 aid stations, Robinson Gap at mile 17, Irish Creek at mile 20, and Reservoir at mile 22 (which might not have been set up yet when we got there), we widdled Gary’s lead to 90 seconds and every now and then caught a glimpse of his royal blue race kit and black knickers. Halfway up the steady 5-mile climb to Long Mountain (mile 27), we methodically motored past Gary who was obviously slowing after his quick start.
Coming into Long Mountain, I quickly found my drop bag holding a pre-filled handheld bottle and a fresh supply of gels for the 2nd and arguably harder half of the race, which starts with another 3 miles of climbing up to Buck Mountain (mile 30). Brian, Anthony, and I paced ourselves well, yet Anthony soon was off the back. (after the race I learned that he had strained a hip flexor and ended up dropping). From then on, Brian and I ran virtually step for step for the next 20 or so miles. I enjoyed hearing about his Vermont 100 win and UTMB experience earlier this year before wrapping things up for the season here in Virginia. Brian and his wife Amy are from Amherst, Massachusetts so they normally dial the running back during the winter, whereas I’m starting to wind things back up after a post Run Rabbit Run 100 break. Two friends hitting the trails hard, running through the wind, over the wet rocks and leaves, and through the occasional snow flurries up top. Hard to ask for more. At one point Race Director Clark Zealand did chide us to stop “holding hands” and “start racing already!” We got a good chuckle out of that.
Far from being on autopilot, Brian remained alert at all times and kept us on trail and moving really well, him more so than me. In between Forest Valley (mile 42) and Porter’s Ridge (mile 47) I let me concentration lag just for just a couple of seconds and BAMMMM, down I went having clipped my toe on a leaf-obscured rock. UGH, that stung. Fortunately, I got upright lickety split and resumed running with Brian. Within a couple of minutes, the white course markings were nowhere to be seen and the snow flurries weren’t helping visibility any. The route we were heading FELT right, but smartly we backtracked a couple of minutes until we caught sight of the last white ribbon, looked around to see if we missed a turn off, realized we had not, and resumed down towards Porter’s Ridge. A couple of miles later, who else but David Horton again comes riding up the trail on his trusty mountain bike asking us if the course was marked properly!!! We informed him that the last mile and a half or so was void of ribbons and thanked him for confirming we were right about to the last aid station, which is where things finally start to get interesting…
I’m totally out of fuel at this point having taken my last GU gel shortly after my fall. No gels at the aid station so I opt to half fill my bottle with water. Meanwhile Brian is getting a splash of cola in his handheld, whoa good call, so I quickly take a mouthful of cola myself and give chase. We are running HARD and I’m doing my best to stay on Brian’s wheel while not taking another tumble, clearly envious of Brian’s bottle of “GO” juice!!!! Metering my effort is really my only realistic option at this point. (Flashback to this race last year: 2008 winner and MMTR veteran Eric Grossman catches me with 2.5 miles to go and I am holding on for dear life trying to preserve a 3rd place finish. Flashback to 2011 and Brian catches Eric at Salt Log Gap mile 41 before relinquishing the win to him by a mere 72 seconds!) Relax, breathe, and store whatever remaining energy you have for the last 1.5 miles: a steep smooth descent followed by a ¾ mile drag race on asphalt to the finish line. You can do this.
We’re here; exiting the rough Jeep trail Brian mutters something to the effect of, “well here we go…” My stride happily opens up and we’re moving FAST. Turnover is great and my eyes are fixated on nothing but the trail ahead. Orange spray-painted line marks 1 mile to go. 5 minutes of work, you can do this. Just like last year…I keep pressing forward until there’s no more acceleration to be had…
Pavement, yes this feels good, push off the toes and drive the elbows back, ¾ of a mile. A quick glance back and Brian is still running hard, “quit” is just not in his vocabulary despite the small gap. I know better than to lay off the throttle at this point and keep it pegged wide open. I’m out of the shaded trees now and Meredith spots me from the finish line and cheers me in like she has so many other times. After a pair of 3rd places here in 2011 and 2013 it’s sweet to finally win!!!
Thanks for reading y’all. None of this was possible without all my amazing sponsors, supporters, friends and family!!!!! -Paul
Pre and post-race beer, Sweet Baby Jesus peanut butter chocolate porter from DuClaw Brewing in Baltimore, WOW!!!