This race came about because of a tip from a fellow Stone Mill 50 Mile runner. We’d chatted on a forum about training together, and she mentioned that she was planning to run this race for a final long run. I looked it up. A free race, tough terrain, and right when I was planning to get in another 30 miler. I could do 30 miles before, on the NCR Trail, alone and unsupported, or I could run this and have aid stations and fellow runners. What would you do? I, of course, choose to run my first 50K three weeks before my first 50 miler. Can you say nutso!
I, in turn, mentioned this race to another fellow SM50 runner, Nick, who I ran with several weeks back. He was interested, but on the fence due to other potential obligations. As race day got closer, he decided to go for it, only to be told by the race director that they were over capacity. He decided to run a similar route, on the same day, unassisted. It’s not like the course was the sole property of the race directors right? A smart move on his part, because quite a few runners didn’t show up, and many more did not run the full 50K. Being that it was a “Fat Ass”, that’s totally acceptable. From what I can gather, a Fat Ass race is far from formal. It’s kind of a cross between a race and a fun run. No official clocks, no medals, or t-shirts. Just strong support, a good group of runners, and a long day of grueling running ending typically with a cookout or such.
Friday Night – Solo Camping
The original internet flyer for the race mentioned camping the night before, and I was interested, so I emailed the race director, but he was unaware of anyone else planning to camp. I could NOT miss out on an opportunity to camp in the “Blair Witch woods”, this course takes place about 3 miles from Burkittsville, MD, where the three film makers entered the fictitious “Black Hills Woods” Yeah, technically not the same woods, but who cares. I chose to camp alone.
Was it particularly scary, no. Nothing any different than camping somewhere else. My biggest concern was having a state park employee come by and tell me I have to move because I wasn’t in a designated camping location. It didn’t happen. In fact, the only thing of any significance was one two occasions, a car pulled into the parking area, and it looked like people were smoking something. Maybe it’s a good place for teens to come smoke a joint. Other than that, it was pretty cold and I woke up several times to pee and/or cover myself up more.
Start to First Aid Station
I awoke the next morning and quickly packed up the camping gear, changed into my running clothes, and ate some breakfast. Nick left a drop bag near the first aid station, then headed towards the start. Since he wasn’t officially registered for the race, he held back from the race start and met up with my about a mile into the race, but before it started he came over and we chatted a bit. Shortly before the start, I dropped my contributions to the aid stations, and checked in. No bib, but we were tracked with a sharpie marked number. The Race Director gathered us all around, made some announcements, and unceremoniously told us to “go”.
We were off. The race started with a short 1 mile loop North of the start, before heading south for about 5 miles along the Appalachian Trail on what is called South Mountain to Weverton Cliffs. This first mile was decently hilly and I chatted along with a few people as we traversed the terrain. Looping back through the start area, I met up with Nick and we took of towards Weverton Cliffs. The trail was relatively flat, with some ups and downs, but the biggest concern were the wet leaves and hidden rocks. We were moving along at a decent pace. I wasn’t wanting to go very fast, given that this was supposed to be only a training run. Soon, we hit the Weverton Cliffs area. There was a short descent to the overlook which had an outstanding view of the Potomac River. A few minutes of picture taking, then we were descending the switchbacks to the first aid station. I knew this section was going to come back and haunt me, little did I know just how much.
It didn’t take too long to get down the cliffs, and we were back on flat ground. Crossing a road, and short jaunt later, we made it to the first aid station (Mile 8.2). There was plenty of food to be had. Gatorade, sodas, candy, PBJ, and more. I loaded up while Nick grabbed stuff from his drop bag. Only a few minutes were spent here, then we hit the trail down towards the C&O Canal.
Aid Station One to Aid Station Two
This was a short section, mostly along the C&O Canal. The was a short 1/2 mile section down to the C&O Canal tow path, and from there we had roughly 3.5 miles of flat, crushed granite before reaching the next aid station. I was running fine. Just enjoying the day, no need to rush it. I think Nick had other ideas though. Once we hit the tow path, he decided he wanted to kick it up a bit, and make up the mile he missed. He told me he was going to run down awhile, then backtrack, trying to make up that mile. No problem, I didn’t want to hold him back at all. So I hoofed it solo for a bit. There were several other runners near me, and I hooked up with a nice older guy dressed as Batman. Not the dark knight, Christian Bale version; but the campy Adam West version. I held back with him for awhile, but eventually sped back up some. Shortly after that, Nick met back up with me. We compared distances, and were more or less equal now. He must have been flying to catch up nearly a mile on me!
With about 1/2 mile to go before the next aid station, we ran together. This section had beautiful scenery of Harper’s Ferry, the convergence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, and the cliffs of Maryland Heights, the next section of our race. To get to the aid station, we had to pass the MD Heights trail head, and go an additional 1/4 mile to the aid station. As before, there was plenty to be had. The volunteers were awesome, refilling water packs and getting us anything we needed.
Maryland Heights Trail
After leaving the second aid station we had to run back about 1/4 mile to the Maryland Heights Trailhead. I”ve run Maryland Heights before (link), it’s one tough cookie! The terrain is mostly better than the AT trail section from the beginning of the race, but the incline is a killer! We ascended 1200 feet in less than 2 miles. As we began ascending, we hooked up with several other people. It was tough going, especially for me. The steep incline was getting my back. I fell behind somewhat but was able to catch up with the group by the end of the ascension… except for Nick. He was kicking butt and was nowhere to be found by the time the rest of the group reached the top. While they took a break, I took a quick stop for a few pictures, the I hit the road.
Running along the top ridge was difficult. The terrain became very rocky for quite awhile, further slowing me down. After a mile or so, I hit the short trail down to the Maryland Heights Overlook, and shortly ran into Nick, on his way back up from the overlook. He was going strong, and said he was going to continue at that pace. It was the last I saw of him until I finished. By the time I made it down to the Overlook and got some pictures, the rest of the group caught me and A few of us descended the rest of the trail together. I was a bit slower than them and ended up having some laughs because of it. Two girls were dressed as "runaway brides”. I heard quite a few comments about them getting married and running in their wedding “dresses”. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I heard it. After the descent, we were to return to the second aid station before crossing the river to Harper’s Ferry. I made it back feeling tired, but otherwise in good shape. Loading up on goodies and water, they were offering some pizza, but I declined having a piece for fear it might upset my stomach. In hind sight, I wonder if I’d have faired better with that boast of carbs in my belly for the last part of the race.
I left the aid station shortly after “The Brides” and stayed about 100 yards behind them until the bridge across the Potomac River. It was very crowded, and by the time I crossed, I’d lost them. Alone again, I hit a restroom for a much needed potty break, then began the difficult task of following guided directions through town. It was sort of like a scavenger hunt without scavenging anything. Directions such as “Ascend the irregular 'Bloody Steps' - stone steps carved into the rock.” or “Turn left and follow the .2 mile blue-blazed AT side-trail along the wide brick, then concrete sidewalks.” Yeah, it was a challenge. I ascended those “Bloody Steps”, passed Jefferson’s Rock, and headed towards the cemetery. I came across two fellow runners, separately, about 2 minutes apart. Both got lost and were headed back to cross the bridge and return to the finish. I kept going. Soon, I entered the cemetery. This would have been quite creepy, had it been at night, but in the bright light of day, it was unimpressive. If I’d had time, I would have explored it some more. I pushed on, running towards an old college, then searching for some old stone steps that lead me down to the AT Trail again. There was some construction in the area, making the directions impassable. Then…. off in the distance…. I saw a blue-blaze, which I was sure was the path I needed. Between it and me, a small construction zone. I jumped the fence, passed through the construction area, and jumped the other side reaching my target.
Coming down these steps, I saw two fellow races about 100 feet ahead of me. I pressed on, catching them just as we were to cross a road. Then, as luck would have it, there were “The Brides” coming from the wrong direction. They must have left the AT in the wrong spot, turned the wrong way, and run a little while before turning around and crossing out paths.
And then there were five of us. We somehow found our way back to Harper’s Ferry proper, and headed across the bridge. All we had left was to follow the C&O Canal back to the first aid station, ascend South Mountain at Weverton Cliffs, and run the five miles back to the finish. No big deal right? Wrong!
Running with this group was quite fun. We were joking around, enjoying the run. Shortly after getting onto the C&O we came to a family, and a little girl handed one of “The Brides” a bouquet of flowers she had been collecting. It was clear, the family thought “The Brides” had actually gotten married, and the little girl was so happy to give them the flowers, so we ran with it. After a few pictures and thank you’s, we were off again. The impending climb began to weigh on my mind, and I ended up stopping to walk…Big mistake.
The four of them soon left me in the dust, and it was solo going the rest of the race. About a mile left on the C&O and my mind hit a bad place. I had intended to get some walking in to build my energy back up for the climb, but instead, I became disheartened and struggled to make it to the aid station. Hopeful that some refreshments would, well, refresh me, I pushed on just in time to see the four leaving the aid station as I approached it. I learned that I was the final runner to come through, loaded up, and began the my ascent of South Mountain.
South Mountain to the Finish
1,000 feet over the next two miles, that’s what I was facing. Then after that a roughly 4.75 mile trek along the ridge to the finish. This section did not go well. About 100 yards after the last aid station and I was headed up the mountain. Slow… dead slow. My back was getting to me again, similar to Maryland Heights. The big difference, this was rocky switchbacks, not a slow steady fire road. Not to mention, about 11 miles later too, and I was solo this time. Needless to say, I was struggling big time. “If only I can make it to the top, the rest will be cake.”, I kept telling myself. It was slow going, quite a few stops to catch my breath, and I finally made the top ridge.
I was dead in the water. My legs felt good, surprisingly, but I had ZERO energy to run. Even walking was tasking me. I really needed some motivation, so I broke out the music. I’m not much for listening to music, but “It's times like these you learn to live again”. This helped… some. At some point, I felt like my stomach was getting upset, maybe something at the last aid station didn’t agree with me. It must have been that green tea ginger ale. Typically, if my stomach bothers me, I’ll feel much better if I puke, knowing this, I stopped, leaned over and induced vomiting.
Sure enough, after catching my composure, drinking some water, and nibbling on a granola bar, I was feeing better. Good enough to break out some running. I was going fairly well, for about 1/2 mile. Then my energy waned again and I was back to struggling. This continued on until I was about 1/2 a mile out. The end was in sight, almost literally, and I pushed through. I was determined to not only finish, but finish running and not dejectedly walking to the finish. I pulled out every reserve but of energy I had and finished that last 1/2 a mile at a relatively speedy 14 minute pace! As I approached the pavilion where the post-race cookout was, I heard a lot of people cheering me on. It wasn’t like a standing ovation or anything, but it felt great to have a handful of people I’d only met 10 hours before, congratulating me on the finish. I didn’t catch the exact time, so I’m rounding it to the minute, making my first ultramarathon completion in 9 hours 33 minutes flat. Slow yes, but who cares! I completed my first ultramarathon.
Cookout, and Reflection
After stopping, I was ravenous. I grabbed a big plate of goodies, including a burger and a few hot dogs. I’m not much of a meat eater, but boy did they taste good! I met up with Nick, and found out that he not only finished strong, but decided to tack on nearly 5 more miles after he finished!! Overachiever! J/K. A big congrats to him for having an awesome day. I sat around chatting with several people, all of them reassuring me that Stone Mill 50 Miler would be easy compared to the hills today. Yeah, it’s 20 miles longer, but on much tamer terrain and elevation. Soon, we packed up, and I made the trek home. Ending a very challenging, but very rewarding day, only to come home to Hurricane Sandy…
Reflecting back on this race, a number of things contributed to my paltry finish. One, I ate at aid stations, but didn’t gorge myself, and between aid stations, I didn’t do a great job of fueling up. Two, my hydration was fine, but I was drinking only water. I tried to eat lots of salty items at the aid stations, but I should rethink adding some electrolytes to my hydration. Maybe I should carry a handheld bottle for an electrolyte mix. Three, I really need to work on my mental toughness. I fully expect to hit that mental low point again at Stone Mill 50. Until race day, my biggest goal is to focus on ways to beat the mental games my mind uses against me. I’m physically ready, but mentally, I need work. Four, my knee really did not give me any trouble at all. A couple of minor twinges in the first half, but the second half, there was nothing. Not a peep out of my knee. I wouldn’t say it’s recovered, but if it can take the physical abuse of those hills, and not give me any trouble or soreness the next day, it’s time I quite worrying about it so much!
Stone Mill 50…. you’re next…. bring it!!!