I don't know how others feel about this, but for me there is something very special about beginning an ultra early in the morning, before the sun comes up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. At 6:30 a.m. on November 5th it was cold and the sky was clear, stars shining.... nearly 300 of us congregated at the St. James Visitor Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. One final prayer from Horton and we were off for a day long adventure. It's hard to describe the emotions I was feeling as the day began to brighten and you could see the outline of ridges in the distance on all sides of us. I was running with the lead group of women as the sun rose and we darted from the road onto our first trails just as day was breaking.
I had 3 goals coming into the 2011 MMTR... first- win the grand masters division and win a Patagonia Down Jacket; second- break 9 hours (which would mean a 56 minute improvement over last year) and third- set the all time 53 yr old record (which was and still is 8:51). If things went well I knew I would improve significantly on 2010. I was better prepared both physically and mentally. I put in the work so now it was time to get down to business and get it done.
Some of my goals were a stretch but I felt I was capable of getting down around 9 hours. I had a super stressful day on Friday, Masochist Eve... unexpected water in my basement from heavy overnight rains, family scheduling problems, last minute critical tasks, but 4 hours after my planned departure I was on the way to Lynchburg (w/ wife Sara and 13 yr old son Patrick).
As my race unfolded along the Blue Ridge Parkway I settled into running in a small group which included all the top seeded women, first Alyssa Wildeboer and Dacia Reed...soon to joined by top seed Sandi Nypaver. Also in the group was David Kirby who I ran with side by side for much of the New River 50k. I knew we were running fairly fast but also knew that the top women would be likely going sub 9 hrs so I was right where I wanted to be.
As we headed up the first trail Sandi gapped the other women a bit and we had a small group of us running together. All was going well, the trail wasn't as muddy as I expected and we could go around many of the flooded sections. The streams had more water then last year so my feet stayed wet and cold during this early section. When crossing Dancing Creek I "almost" kept my feet dry but my dancing wasn't up to par and got one foot ankle deep just as Clark Zealand called out my name and Horton yelled out good job "Rob Spanish." [I wonder how many times I have heard something similar... Horton needs to work on some more original/creative material]. Somewhere in the 12-15 mi point in the race I stopped to urinate and I lost my small group which included the women's leader. I pretty much ran by myself from that point until the ~1/2 way point at Long Mtn Wayside. My legs began to go south on me really early. I'd say at about the 17.5 mi Aid Station my legs began to feel dead and shortly after began to ache/hurt. I didn't worry a whole lot as sometimes this happens and you bounce back. It wasn't to be this time. I tried to fuel up but that didn't seem to help much. After one of the deeper river/stream crossing I ran very steady up the fairly gentle 2 mi climb. I seemed to feel better on the climbing then I did on flat and downhills.
I got to the Long Mtn Crew Access point and met Sara and Patrick and they had my drop bag. Refueled with gels and a new hand held and I was off. I let them know that my legs were dead and maybe it just wasn't my day but I'd continue on. They informed me that Eric Grossman was in the lead and Sandi Nypaver was the only female ahead of me (of course Patrick informed me that she was WAY ahead of me). I reached Long Mtn in 4:15, about 30 minutes faster then 2010. On the long climb up Buck Mtn I leap frogged a bit with Dacia and Alyssa and a couple of other guys. Alyssa took a spill in front of me but seemed to be okay. After I crested Buck I tried to make good time on the way to the Loop. Remembering last year, I knew I needed to make good time when I was able.
Sara and Patrick met me at "The Loop In" Aid Station which was nice. Wasn't sure they'd make it up the gravel road but nice to get some encouragement and a gel. I only saw one other runner during the 6 mi loop portion. He came up behind me and we ran together for a bit before he moved on ahead. He had just graduated from Liberty and ran 8:50 ish last year so I felt like maybe I was on pace even though I was feeling so bad. He just shook his head when I said I was 53 yrs old and trying to break 9 hours. For me, and many others, the Loop is a favorite section of the MMTR course. It's a tough section, the most technical, and is slow going, but beautiful and authentic.
Coming out of the loop I tried to pick up the pace as the next several miles was rolling Forest Service road terrain. My legs were feeling awful but I remember Beth Minick sending me a message wishing me well and I repeated in my head what we told eachother "all business." I got to Salt Log Gap Aid Station and knew there was a tough section up to the final Aid Station... the next 4 miles took us through very rough trail, hard to follow, ankle deep leaves. At Salt Log Gap my watch said 7:30 but I knew it might take an hour to get up to the top of the ridge before the 4 miles or so down to Montebello. By the time I reached the last Aid Station I indeed had only 30 minutes to get a sub 9 hr time and I knew that was unlikely. My legs were completely shot but I pushed on. Only one runner passed me as I hobbled my way down the mountain and on into the finish. I crossed the finish line in 9:09:31. Happy to be done and really feeling more satisfaction then I expected. Looking back.... this was my toughest race (felt bad so early and could never shake it), yet my most grafifying race by pushing myself when I could have easily packed it in. I got the usual handshake from Race Director, Clark Zealand. Then a "good job" from Dr. Horton. Horty asked me how old I was and when I replied 53, he shouted Grand Masters. I told him I think a few "old guys" were ahead of me but he just looked at his clipboard and said I don't know... I think you may have "won." Nice to have my family (but missed Kane, my oldest son) with me. They were excited that Eric G. won and that I had survived what was a very tough day. I think the temps were a little warmer then last year and we sat soaking up the sun on the porch of the Montebello Country Store. I got really emotional as we baked in the sun and I saw Jenny Nichols come striding across the line in 9:45. I was yelling, "holy @$%* that's Jenny under 10 hours!" My buddy Rick Gray was not far behind a little over his 10 hour goal.
On Monday, I got back to the work routine and our usual "morning huddle" meeting at the hospital. To put this in context... I work at a Geriatric Behavioral Health unit. A psychiatric unit for old folks. Our Program Director told my co-workers that I ran a big and long trail race and that I won my age division. He said Rob didn't tell you what prize he won and I was about to brag about the Patagonia jacket when he said yeah Rob wins a personal psychiatric evaluation. We all laughed and I told the nurses and social workers to be careful when walking in the hallways and not to knock me over as I would be moving slow. Our Nurse Manager asked if I should wear "yellow socks".... we give yellow socks to all the geriatric patients that are fall risks. I for sure needed some yellow socks for a few days after a very rough but successful 2011 MMTR.