Classic U.S. Ultras: The Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile

AJW's Taproom[Author’s Note: This is the third article in a six-part monthly series on classic American ultramarathons. Once a month from March through August, I profile a race and share a bit of its lore and history. Here is part one on the Way Too Cool 50k and part two on the Zane Grey 50 Mile. I hope you enjoy them!]

In an age of high-profile, heavily sponsored, internationally promoted ultramarathons, Virginia’s Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile (MMT), which takes place each year in May, stands on the other side of the spectrum as a throwback to a bygone era of simple, old-school, homespun ultramarathons. From its first running in 1995, MMT has remained true to its roots as an ultra by ultrarunners for ultrarunners. Produced and hosted by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC), MMT is, first and foremost, a “club event.” There are no sponsors, no inflatable start/finish line arches, and no frills.

Bird Knob, located at around mile 79 on the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile course, photographed in 2001. Photo: Keith Knipling

In exchange for all that, what the runner encounters at MMT is rocks–lots and lots of rocks. As 20-time finisher, Keith Knipling says, “MMT’s signature feature is its rocks which constantly nag you, literally challenging every single foot placement, twisting ankles, stubbing toes, commanding your gaze, and dictating the rhythm of your stride and race. Like Chinese water torture, it slowly and unwittingly beats you down.”

Many describe the MMT course as tedious. There are no long climbs or descents, all but a few decent views, and the ever-present threat of stifling humidity and drenching afternoon thunderstorms. And yet, MMT has an incredible number of repeat customers with over 86 people having completed it five or more times and 10 people completing it more than a dozen times. Keith Knipling notes, “While very tough, MMT is extraordinarily accessible. With a liberal 35-hour cutoff, if you keep moving you will finish. Every year this is proven true. From this standpoint, and with the excellent aid stations run by veteran volunteers from a 650-person strong running club, MMT is not a bad first 100 miler.”

Joe Kulak (left) and Keith Knipling during the 2010 MMT. Photo: Britt Zale

The running club, the VHTRC, provides the foundation for the race. From the first-class aid stations, to the popular pre- and post-race events, VHTRC knows how to put on a show, and to do it on their terms. Race founders Anstr Davidson and Ed Demoney believed that community comes first and that virtue lives on today. John Andersen, owner of Crozet Running in Crozet, Virginia and a frequent participant at MMT had this to say, “MMT is palpably no frills. I’ve paced the race winners in two separate years and there was no grand celebration for first place. You could almost tell that they were just there waiting for the real runners in the middle and the back of the pack to finish before the party really got started.” Andersen, who in recent years has raced in ultras around the U.S. goes on to say, “The Appalachian Trail and the rest of Virginia will make any West Coaster cry, but the Massanutten [mountain]s, they are something else altogether. Maddening. Beautiful. Rhythm-killing.”

Pictured before the 2001 MMT (l-to-r) are race founder and then race director Ed Demoney, volunteer Bill Sublett, and race founder Anstr Davidson. Photo: Keith Knipling

Sophie Speidel, a veteran ultrarunner and a longtime VHTRC member, notes that MMT is more than just a one-day-a-year event, “The fact that it is a club race makes it a true community event, complete with fully supported training runs hosted by the VHTRC in the months leading up to the race that are totally free, and cover every inch of the course.” Scotty Mills, also a VHTRC member and ultra legend, echos the down-home hospitality and affordability theme, “When I think of MMT, I think of great aid stations, awesome course markings, nice awards, and one of the best entry-fee values across the board for modern ultramarathons.”

Sophie Speidel pacing Gary Knipling at the 2010 MMT 100 Mile. Photo: Caroline Hill

Veteran ultraunner Kevin Sayers has served as the MMT race director since 2011. The third RD in the history of the race after Ed Demoney and Stan Duobinis, Sayers notes, “We have never wanted the race to be beholden to corporate interests, so there is no need for sponsorship.” And, with respect to the modest $205 entry fee, Sayers says, “We work hard to keep expenses down. The club has always held the position that we will never charge more for the race even though we can.”

MMT race director Kevin Sayers, pictured in 2013. Photo: Keith Knipling

Sayers, who is a project manager by profession, has depended on a small group of loyal volunteers to carry the bulk of the race-week responsibilities. From Kevin Bligan who is the trail captain, to Bill Sublette who has done just about everything for the race over the past 18 years, Sayers says, “without some of these guys the race might just go to hell.” MMT has no formal trail-work requirements for runners but the club has maintained informal relationships with the forest service and other permitting agencies to keep the trails functional. When asked what the most special component of the race was, Sayers doesn’t hesitate, “It’s the strong sense of community. I’ve worked hard to build the community and create an event that people want to come back to year after year. We cook them breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and bring in kegs of beer. These are the kinds of things that make people want to stick around for the final finisher.”

This year, of course, MMT is taking a one-year hiatus due to COVID-19. However, you can rest assured, once things return to normal, the good folks at the VHTRC will once again be back at it, doing their thing, and producing one of the best and most challenging 100-mile foot races in the country.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Woodstock Brew House in Woodstock, Virginia. A classic microbrewery, Woodstock Brew House offers a nice variety of beers that are characteristic of the burgeoning Shenandoah Valley beer scene. Beckford Parish, their Extra Pale Ale, is a citrusy, easy-drinking beer with a tart finish. It’s a great humid-weather beer that pairs well with burgers and barbecue.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you raced the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile?
  • Have you paced, crewed, or volunteered at it?
  • Leave a comment to share your stories!

MMT’s rocks, taken in 2010 during race-course marking. Photo: Keith Knipling

There are 23 comments

  1. Jon Nyce

    I grew up and still live about 15 minutes from the Massanutten Mountains and went most of my 31 years having never known this race existed. Since learning of it I’ve helped at aid stations and finish-line food stations for the last few years and I can agree this is a no-frills event that people locally and otherwise just can’t seem to get enough of. The friendliest, happiest people at this event are the ones who have spent 25-35 hours trudging through the humidity, swarms of bugs and ankle-biter rocks. I have nothing but fond memories of the past and great hope for the future of this race!

  2. Steve Pero

    After running the 2000 MMT, Deb and I became members of the VHTRC and still are. We’ve run it several times and now 20 years later were on the entrants list again and will be there next year.
    We consider the Virginia mountains our 2nd home and VHTRC as family.
    MMT is certainly on my top 3 list of enjoyment and difficulty.
    Also not mentioned is the Ring and Reverse Ring, which We have run several times and what we call Massanutten without the road segments…just orange blazes and rocks.
    Can’t say enough about these events and the VHTRC!

  3. Rick

    i’ve have a few friends who ran this as their first 100 miler. hoping to run this in the near future, an east coast classic for sure!

  4. Jason Griffith

    I’ve paced my wife and a friend at MMT. My good friends Rande and Kari Brown have run it several times. It’s a beautiful course with great aid stations and volunteers, sorry it isn’t being held this year!

  5. Andy Brooks

    I took a trip over from England in 2003 to do MMT as my first 100, as they weren’t yet a thing in the UK. Thoroughly enjoyed the race and great hospitality to a visiting Brit (a novelty in those days) from the VHTRC community. RD Ed Demony even put me up at his house on my arrival and took me on a tour of DC. Great race, great community.

  6. Jeff

    Ran/Finished this in 2009. It’s a great race and extremely challenging. Agree with AJW that it will make a westerner (Like myself) nearly cry. It’s early in the season, the hills are solid, and the rocks are relentless. Humidity was stifling for a mountain west guy like myself. Also ran through the worst thunder and lightning storm I’ve seen before or since. The idea of not taking a rock home with me was a real motivation for finishing. Perhaps I’ll be back some day for a second time.

  7. Harry

    MMT is a great race! I did it in the pouring rain & heat of 2018. Wow! Took a couple weeks for the skin on my feet to grow back after that one.

  8. Don Knight

    Ran in 2018 and it was an incredible experience. VHTRC puts on a world class event and does so with the utmost integrity. The training runs are also an incredible value. Chocolate Bunny was almost as fun as the actual race and I think I paid for it in Oreos. I still look back on it fondly and will definitely return.

  9. Samantha Neakrase

    Volunteered in 2013 (my first introduction to ultras) and fell in love. Vowed to do it one day. I crewed in 2016, crewed/paced in 2017, ran it in 2018, and crewed in 2019. Was planning to run again in 2020, but will have to wait until next year. I love those trails and I love the training runs.

  10. Jordan Chang

    MMT in 2014 was the first 100 miler that I volunteered at an aid station for. A couple buddies and I showed up to help at the mile 85 aid station and ended up staying there from 6:00 p.m. on Saturday till 12pm Sunday. It was a quite an experience seeing all the runners stumbling into the aid station throughout the night and experiencing how the VHTRC crew does such an expert job at keeping runners motivated fed and taken care of.

  11. Fegy

    I’m really fortunate to have been able to tackle this beast once back in 2012. The hype was real….the course was brutal. I still remember as I slowly pecked away at the miles in the dark, after hitting the 90-mile mark thinking, “it’s almost over!”….only to realize the course was almost 105 miles. I can recall falling asleep on an old mattress on the ground during the awards ceremony. I almost missed my name being called.

    Incidentally, as I write this…I’m quite literally drinking some iced tea out of my MMT Solo finisher glass from that year.

  12. John Peabody

    After 5 finishes and one DNF I can still say this is my favorite race. I even met my now wife Lisa during my 2nd race here. She also loves it and has 4 finishes. We are both back for the next one.

  13. Guy Towler

    Ran MMT in 2016, crewed friends in 2018 & 2019. Have volunteered at many of the MMT training runs, and now direct the annual training run in February.

  14. Bob Combs

    decent article(I would have mentioned the old and new courses, short mtn, kerns, etc), MMT and VHTRC are most excellent. MMT was my first 100, sure love the area and people associated with it. I have finished the old and new courses and love the MMT rings too

    Stan Duobinis is the correct spelling of the former RD, he was instrumental in moving the course to the current location I believe. Essentially same trail but different start/finish locations, smart move for a number of reasons IMO

    Thanks for the Happy Trails………….

    Bob in Colorado

  15. Jonathan Gardner

    I paced a runner through the last 20 miles of the 2019 edition, and even as a pacer still mentally and physically sharp the rocks on this course were, as John Andersen put it, “maddening.” I haven’t raced over 50 miles since 2015, and I don’t think this would be my first hundy if/when I return to such a distance. Beautiful, but … just tough.

  16. kase orgeron

    MMT = orange trail magic. The May verdant course recharges the soul and reminds us how big the world is. The VHTRC is an incredible group of people dedicated to making the finish line a reality even if you may not think it’s possible. Rocks? Sure, there are rocks. Consider the rocks your friends. You have a lot of friends out there ! Come for a dance on orange trail magic and you won’t be disappointed. :)

  17. Bill Turrentine

    I remember my last finish where I concentrated on stepping on the ground between the rocks wherever possible and found that it was the only time at the finish where my feet did not hurt a lot :-) For the last few years, I have found that marking trail and doing sweep is a lot more fun (and less pressure). Also enjoy the volunteer house and Bob’s cooking.

  18. Brian McNeill

    I ran MMT just once, and told long-time VHTRC Club Ambassador Quatro Hubbard at the finish, “That God I finished. I never have to do THAT again!” I’ve done some of the much revered western hundreds, but I consider MMT to be a harder challenge than most of them. The rocks, the humidity, the rocks, and did I mention the rocks? all make for a difficult race.

    Having said that, I’ve been part of the VHTRC community for over 20 years. I’ve marked trails, worked aid stations, served as course marshal (we call it “the Grim Reaper,” whose job it is to keep track of the runners on the course), paced runners, and co-captained with Tom Corris the first MMT Training Academy starting back in 2002.

    While the race is all about the runners, the weekend as a whole is about the entire VHTRC community, as old friends are seen and ties are renewed and strengthened. Something we could all use these days.

  19. Erik P.

    MMT is the ultimate. Its the one to run on the East Coast! There may be bigger 100s, “harder”, with more vert; there may be bigger views or “bucketlist” climbs out west. There may be faster courses, with oodles of runnable downhills and buttery smooth singletrack. But Massanutten is the most complete, classic 100 miler I have ever run and its not hard to see why people return year after year, whether to run, pace, crew, or volunteer. Its designed to be “hard” without being impossible. Its an every-person’s race, that doesn’t require flying and driving to a super remote area, and appeals to anyone on a budget with cheap accommodations nearby and resupply spots in local towns. All this under 2 hours from Washington D.C., but it feels like a world away. The entire weekend is a special event to take part in. Its like Christmas in May!

    I’ve only run it once, but volunteered 3 times, paced, and even just hung out. Plan to return many more times!

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