The 70-mile ultra-rocky Massanutten Trail, also known as “The Ring”, circumnavigates the high mountain ridge that surrounds historic Fort Valley in Northern Virginia. This trail has slowly become the stuff of legends. Year after year riders make their attempts and often fail to complete The Ring because of fatigue, mechanicals, and all types of other conditions.
Less often, a few intrepid souls succeed. Because of the rocky and unrelentingly technical nature of the trail, over the years the fastest known time (FKT) of The Ring has only crept toward the 20+year foot running race record held by Paul Jacobs of 13:29. It was not until October of 2019 that mark was breached by rock riding legend and trail builder Sam “Skids” Skidmore. He became the first mountain biker to surpass the running record with a time of 12:22.
My Early Attempts
My first round in The Ring came after a busy race season. In those days, autumn seemed to be the only time that would for work for this type of endeavor; the risks are season-ending level dangerous. That year, my friend Sam Koerber and I encountered rain and pain, crashes and fatigue. I remember fumbling on some rocks and dismounting. I put my foot between two rocks at shin level and fell. I could imagine my bone sticking out when I looked down, but it was just a cut. My sock being filled with blood was just one of many distractions. November’s short days and terrible conditions made a strategic retreat for more favorable days seem logical, even though demoralizing.
It took a few years before the call of The Ring once again beckoned. I got older and wiser. I had moved on from World Cup XC racing to ultra-endurance and stage racing. My love of rocky riding stayed with me. Thoughts of the whispering wind on pine strewn ridge tops, near-perfect sandstone, and raw magical riding enchanted my imagination. I told myself I’d head back to The Ring after a busy round-the-world race season with Canyon-Topeak. The eventful season wound down. Full of confidence from major race wins, I thought I was ready. Then just 5 hours into my effort I found myself struggling. I caught a stump with my rear derailleur. The mishap destroyed my derailleur hanger and took some spokes with it. That attempt was over.
The spring of 2019 looked like the next promising time to come back to The Ring, until the combination of a late-fall back injury and an early-spring knee injury proved to make the Cross Fit-type efforts I would need to produce impossible. I had to face the fact that at 43-years-old my window to complete The Ring seemed to be closing. At times I had thoughts like ‘I’m getting too old for this shit.’ My body might not be able to do this extreme of an effort anymore. Do I want to take the risks needed to nail this one at race pace?
2020: An Unexpected Opportunity
This is it, I thought. Through the winter, I trained relentlessly. I had a good build up; hitting the gym, running, doing plyometrics, and all-day hammer rides. And a return to rocks.
In February I summited Mauna Kea in the first ascent of The Impossible Route. 'Nothing can stop me this time,' I thought.
Then the world changed. News headlines turned into life-altering realities. “Lockdown... Schools Closed... Unprecedented Modern Pandemic... COVID-19 Death Toll Set to Reach Hundreds of Thousands.”
My plans froze in their tracks, as did most. Everything shifted into emergency mode. We prepared. We stayed home. My Ring plan seemed doomed yet again.
Then, after 3 weeks of training at home in the new bizarre quarantine world, there was a bit of calm and I realized this is the time. No one in our immediate family fell ill thankfully and I sensed this was the time. I decided the coronavirus pandemic was not in my way unless I let it distract me. I could focus on the pure effort of The Ring without the normal routine of the race-travel season. The call of adventure was strong and the need to do it while my body could was the overwhelming decider. My goal was to minimize risk and focus on a smooth run. I planned to make an attempt the second week of May.
In the weeks that followed, I did what many cyclists in the U.S. were doing – virtual training rides from home and solo training rides outdoors. My neighbor Abe Kaufman and I traded Strava times on the local training route known as “The Mini Ring.” I sharpened my rock game and I got my rock groove back a bit as we traded leads. I was not as good as I used to be, but very close.
Then one day as I was preparing my gear, a notification came through on Strava - likely informing me that I’d lost some random KOM segment. I opened the notification to see that Abe had set a new all-time FKT on The Ring! I almost spit my coffee out! What?! Abe had just pushed the record deeper into the end-zone: an astonishing 11:52! This jab to the chin helped me push aside the fears of what if. The trepidation of going that hard for a full cycle of the wall clock was going to hurt a bit, but I just said I’m going to enjoy it and drive it.
In the following days, I chatted with Abe and congratulated him on a stellar mark. He gave me minimal advice but stated flatly, “Remember: slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” This was a riddle that had my mind in a loop, but I took it to mean: don’t crash or wreck your bike, because it will save you an hour or just allow you to finish the damn thing for once.
I decided I was going to drill it smooth and steady; see what happens. I wrote the phrase on my stem as if the mantra might protect me from evil spirits. “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
My Day Had Come
The weather forecast showed an unusually cold front was approaching that would bring perfect dry cool conditions mid week. “This is it,” I thought. I was gifted a cool dry day with a lot of daylight. My new Canyon Neuron had me more confident than ever on the slabs of steep serpentine trail.
May 13th I set off on the Massanutten Trail just after dawn.
Checkpoint #1: Kennedys Peak
Thus far, my rock game was a C+ at best, but I was able to press hard on the rhythm sections and fought to gain back time I’d lost on the super-technical stuff. I refueled and dropped my pack. I looked at the clock. I was actually 20 minutes ahead of pace somehow with an average speed of 6.5 mph. I needed to do the whole thing faster than 6.4mph to break the mark.
Checkpoint #2: Waterfall Trail
Legs cramping, I hiked for 30 minutes on this brutal wall of a pitch. I slipped walking and smashed my anklebone so hard on the rear skewer it made a "whack!" sound. Nerve pain shot up my leg. I gasped. It felt like everything was trying to stop me. I was suffering now. Sweat burned my eyes and my arms were so tired it took both hands to hoist the bike up only for me to fall to the ground more than once. But this is what I came for, I reminded myself. I was losing time fast. Now even with the record speed of 6.4mph, I was worried.
Checkpoint #3: Jawbone
This is the most brutal and rhythm-challenging section with ample hike-a-bikes, sketchy rock piles, and relentless chances to crash and land on jagged rocks shaped like broken pieces of concrete. I went over the bars on one steep drop-in, smashing my thumb into a crevasse between the rocks. Bike was ok, but I thought my thumb could be fractured. I assessed the damage as acceptable and kept moving. After taking that hit, I was below pace now; 6.2mph and dropping.
Checkpoint #4: Short Mountain
This segment demands the biggest rock moves of the route and I consider it the crux of The Ring. Here you will either fall apart or make up time. Up to this point, you’ll have faced many exhausting hours of wrestling to burst up steep staircases of rock and dropping in hard, fully braced for each obstacle. If you get this far, you get here just crushed. I was coming apart. My hands raw, my neck tight, and my quads weakening, I started running into trees and rode clean off the trial at one point. Something’s wrong, I thought. My speed was now off pace. ‘No FKT today,’ I resigned, but I just have to finish. I will finish. I stopped for a refuel and tried to compensate for the dehydration that was sabotaging my focus and my energy.
I stared down the nasty hiking ascent of Wonazi Peak with a “can do” attitude. I was getting my hydration under control and was actually feeling some strength coming back. Then I stuffed my front wheel into a brick-shaped rock; it stopping my bike. This sent my knee full-force into the stem. I cursed for the first time of the day. I looked at my stem and took a deep breath. “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
I went back to foot-mode for the 300th time. I was slipping on the rocks now as I walked, rubber almost gone from my shoes. I was about 20 minutes off pace.
Checkpoint #5: Woodstock Tower
West Ridge is the fastest section of The Ring. It’s a little bit downhill and drops 500 feet gradually. ‘Maybe I can make up some time,’ I thought. I will try one last time to
get on terms with record pace. I pushed into cross-country mode. I was driving turns and pushing out of the saddle. Focus. Focus. Finding a rhythm to the rocks, I was coming back on line. Goose bumps. I might still have a chance.
At Woodstock Tower I was only 12 minutes behind pace. Now my effort was showing gains. I pushed harder into the red. Food was mostly gone; I expected to run out with about 1 hour left. My energy was holding at 70-percent, but was steady.
On a steep climb I miss-shifted and stopped to see the problem: one 1/4th of a ring of the cassette was broken off. I gasped, ‘no, no, NO!’ I came this far I can’t lose it now. I turned off the Black Eyed Peas music in my earbuds. Riding super technical rocks and counting what gear I was in took 100% concentration; one mistake and I would shear the rear derailleur off or break the chain.
Checkpoint #6: Mud Hole Gap
Within a couple minutes of record pace I ripped the descent in a flash. I was now tied with record pace, but hydration was still a struggle - too much sports drink plus food left me so thirsty! I saw a small trickle of a steam draining cold water down the side of a ditch. I stopped. I had to drink it even though this would cost me time. Bright green moss from where the trickle started from a big rock seemed like a good spot. I dug a small hole in the sandy dirt with my hand to scoop up a half bottle of cold clear water. It tasted amazing and was invigorating. ‘If it makes me sick, it wouldn’t hit me until after the ride,’ I thought and I moved on. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.
I hit the technical ridge top of Signal Knob. It was more technical than I remembered, but also I was riding sections of it I had not cleared 12 years ago and on a lesser bike. Now the Canyon Neuron and my body found some equilibrium and balance. I was in a good mode, and really enjoy the low light playing through the trees, only half- dressed in their spring leaves. I walked a couple nasty spots and was smooth and efficient, knowing any high-risk mistake now would be just greedy and foolish. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.
I arrived at the finish of Signal Knob Parking Lot, forearms pumped and barely able to hold the bars from the final 20 minutes of descending. I was reluctant to look, but the clock stopped at 11 hours, 36 minutes. ‘Got it.’ I just fell over into the gravel and took a deep breath. Relief is all I felt.
It was like being up all night \ighting a bear that had been stalking me. It would reemerge from the dark again and again. Finally I killed the bear. I was super happy, just glad I survived, and I cracked a smile for the camera...
Making Sense of It
The day afterward I could barley walk, my hands ground-beef red. I was bruised, scratched by briers. I felt like I was in a car wreck and aching all over.
Two days later I did a Technicolor spin through the countryside on my Grail. That’s when it really started to sink in. I felt like I’d eaten a pound of Skittles! ‘YEAH! I did it,’ I screamed out at the top of my lungs! How in the hell did I do that, I thought? That was freaking awesome! I nailed it down and overcame the doubts; anything in the world seems possible now.
I am not just the FKT owner of The Ring, rather I now also own the freedom from the burden of unfinished business. The Ring no longer owns me. Now I can just enjoy riding those rocks.