John Prohira Article


"Are we having fun yet? something overheard about 9:30AM on Saturday,

October 20th just after turning off pavement onto a rough jeep trail and the start of a 1200 ft climb on a section of Dr. David Horton's infamous Mountain Masochist 50 Mile Trail Race. 242 men and women had come to Lynchburg, Va. last weekend to run the good Dr.s course. They would start at the James River Visitor Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway and continue to Grant's Store in Montebello. I was one of the crowd and yes, having fun.  As I attempt to describe that to you please remember this is the alternate universe of ultrarunning of which I write, where words often have relative and different meaning than in the real world. I was having the time of my life running and flirting.

The fun began with the 520-mile trip by car from western N.Y. to Virginia the day before the Mountain Masochist (MMTR). Our region's southern tier can to lay claim to some of the best fall foliage on the east coast. All day I enjoyed views of the changing countryside from behind my windshield. Moving south through N.Y. and Pa. it appeared as if the hills were ablaze in red, yellow and orange, the evergreen of the pine stands nestled amongst maples trees completed the patchwork. It was as if a multicolored blanket had been laid upon these old mountains. Miles clicked off on the odometer; around the Gettysburg area the feel of the South began to prevail. Unharvested fields of corn and grain lined the highways, wildflowers still bloomed and leafy greens like mustard, collards and lettuces could still be seen in well-tended family gardens. Noon found me crossing the Potomac near Harper's Ferry and into West Virginia where 70 mph is the suggested speed limit. Good travel time was made there and soon after I entered the home state of many of our nation's Founding Fathers. Lynchburg lay 180 miles diagonally south and west of Washington D.C.

There was the traditional fun of the pre race meal on Friday evening, the trail briefing and chances to visit with friends not seen since the last long run. The next day at 5AM the runners converged upon Heritage High School and then onto 4 yellow school buses to be taken 30 miles away to race check-in and the start. Some of these ultra-folk lived as far away as Washington state and Alaska, that's some commute! It was a chilly morning and I dressed in a polypro long sleeved shirt, wore a hat and green handkerchief around my neck, donned my bright yellow and orange shorts, wore gloves (side note: I've grown accustomed to these long distances, they don't frighten me as much as they used to. . . what did scare me a bit were the looks I received from the early morning customers in the coffee shop I visited in Lynchburg at 4:30AM that morning. What does a Yankee say? How does one explain the outfit to the workingman beginning his day before dawn or worse yet to those ending their Friday night carousing?). It was OK; I survived the glares, stares, smiles and snickers. What I chose to wear proved to be perfect for the entire day.

At 6:30 the race began by running 1- miles north on the Parkway then turning around retracing our steps crossing the James River where we began.  It was still very dark but many runners had brought illumination and shared, often I am dependant on the kindness of others to light my way and guide me. It was cold enough that our breaths were visible; as the lead runners came back towards us, huge bellows of mist from their exhalations enveloped their heads. I was reminded of wild horses galloping fast and free, magical condensate surrounding and encompassing them. I'd not see these runners again until race's end.

David's MMTR is billed as 50+  miles of a mixed terrain that includes hard surface, dirt and gravel roads, Jeep trails, footpaths and creeks. Your price of admission includes a meal, a beautifully crafted shirt, the kind support and encouragement of folks working well-stocked aid stations and 8040 ft of total altitude gain with 6260 ft of loss. On the steeper climbs my forward motion was accomplished by placing my hands on my knees and pushing off. On close single-track trail sometimes I'd grasp small trees lining the course and pull myself along. Then many of the climbs were on roads up and up with the crest seemingly always hidden around the bend. But whether on dirt or pavement, in the open or in the forest those around me seemed of one mindset, to continue moving and trying to understand the concept of a course measured in Horton miles.

I knew I was among friends, as day dawned I recognized many met before, these people bring out the best in me and that's reason enough to join them, but there is more. It was the start of a beautiful day, morning's chill lifted along with the fog in the lower valleys and bright autumn sunlight filled the visible world. Yes I was enjoying myself because and in spite of the little aches and pains and huffs and puffs that accompany this type of endeavor. And I was flirting big time! But this was the MMTR and it wasn't pretty women I dallied with that morning and throughout the rest of the day. Instead I flirted with the course's cutoff times. In younger and wilder days I've been asked to remove myself or to put it bluntly been "thrown-out" of establishments (usually those serving adult beverages) but never have I been asked to leave a race in progress. Never have I been told to "halt" in the middle of a 10K or marathon or even during other long trail runs but here on this day on these trails and in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains that just might happen. I understand the why's of the cutoff times, it's important to get runners out of the woods before dusk, a safety issue. In an effort to accomplish this strict time and distance requirements are set. The runner must maintain a pace of approximately 4- mph from start to finish if he wants to continue. There were 16 aid stations on the course with the same number of cutoff opportunities. For example we were given 35 minutes to cover those first 3.3 miles, 6 hours to reach the 26.9 mile mark considered to be the halfway point (remember Horton miles? 50/2 = 26.9? There should have been a hint there for me), ten hours for 43 miles and twelve for the finish. I was never more than 30 minutes ahead of cutoff, as close as 14 minutes. This added an edge to our fun and effort, no dawdling, no time for flirting in the real world sense, just moving forward in relentless fashion.

The MMTR takes place on a beautiful course, in and out of the Virginian woods at the perfect time of year. The day's sunny temperatures ranged from 35 to 70ish with subtle breezes at the top of the ridges. I love the smells of freshly cut wood and Saturday afternoon watched young men labor at chopping and splitting tree trunks, filling the forest with sawdust's aroma. Smoke from wood fires in camps and from homes wafted the air around us. These sights and fragrances helped distract me from the difficulty I was having navigating much of the gravel road and Jeep trail. I'm a trail runner who usually makes up time by running downhills hard. But here the gravel road was littered with large loose rocks and unsure of my footing I moved more conservatively. Something on this course I'd never seen before were "tank traps". These are stone and dirt walls pushed and molded across the trail acting as barriers to wheeled traffic. Some of these were four foot tall and had to be climbed over. These "speed bumps" also tended to break up any running rhythm I might establish. But they were only a concern early on in the race. At mile 14 we ran under the Parkway via a dark and damp tunnel that seemed to have just been dropped in the middle of the forest.  The forest was brown for the most part, peaceful and ready for approaching winter's slumber. Around 33 miles at Hog Camp Gap we entered a 5-mile loop that I considered one of the prettiest parts of the day. There were significant climbs here (what else?) the first couple of miles was on dirt footpath, here hikers were met and words of encouragement passed back and forth between us. Once out of the loop only 11+ mountain miles remained. Occasionally I'd overhear an aid worker use that term to describe the distance to the next station. I was beginning to understand how long a Horton or mountain mile was.

Dave Horton teaches at Liberty University, evidently not math or even arithmetic. Not only is Horton one of our country's finest long distance runners he is a gentleman in the strictest sense of the word so many forgive him his lack of knowing how to perform addition. Coming into the 43 mile mark after a significant climb on road the trail marker directed us into the woods with the words 4.1 miles to next station. OK, getting pretty close to home. This was a beautiful piece of the mountain and we were treated to running an old section of the Appalachian Trail, much of it single track, narrow enough to have the forest hug my legs as I passed through. Much of this part of the MMTR is up, a lot of it up without benefit of switchbacks, its attention getting terrain. The technical yet gorgeous path ran along the mountain ridge. This is my kind of terrain even if it comes late in the day. Here the fun seem to blossom and mature, the flirting with cutoff times was over. I and those around me would finish. Runners in who's company I now ran with or near seemed to relax a little, take in the sights, chat, laugh and talk of the finish and food, of drink and of loved ones waiting. Coming out of the woods and into the last aid station filled with bright-eyed Liberty students we were treated to a final example of Horton math or his odd sense of humor. Someone just had to ask, I don't know why but they did. "How far to the finish?" I did the math and could have answered,

"50- (43 + 4.1) = 2.9 miles left to go".

Wrong! The correct answer was "4 miles to the finish, but they are all downhill."

 I come to these runs for many reasons. Recognizing the value of humility being one, if I don't have it when I start an ultramarathon the trail usually beats it into me before I leave. Acceptance is another. I heard no complaining about what lay ahead or what was expected of us in order to finish. Those with me at that last station had 47 or more Horton miles on their feet already yet they smiled when hearing of the last miles ahead. And what I saw was quiet acceptance. The people I meet in these woods at these events are like that. These people remind me of what I can be. I will remember.