This story begins months ago. Back in July, I ran the Golden Gate Trail Marathon. It was a difficult race, but one I thoroughly enjoyed. There I was, hours, if not minutes after completing the race, and a thought crossed my mind, “It’s over already?” I recall thinking of this statement for much of the flight home, and over the next couple of weeks. I’d completed my second marathon, first trail marathon, and now where should I go from there? I stewed over this for several weeks, then, at the end of July, I made a trek out to Harpers Ferry where I ran into a couple of fellow trail runners. In discussing it with them, I made the decision to go for a 50 miler. I’d been thinking of a 50K, but I thought “What the hell, go for it!” After I got home that evening, I began searching for 50 milers in the area. I knew of JFK, but the entry system was daunting. Then I came across the web page for the Stone Mill 50 Miler. Within a couple of days, I was ready to go. As soon as the registration opened up. I was in.
Training for this race did not go quite as planned. I was doing well, but then a knee issue sidelined much of my training. I continued to get in long runs, but for the last two months, I’ve not gotten in more than a couple of runs per week. Still, I felt I was up to the challenge, especially after the Halloweeny Fat Ass 50K. Needless to say, I was prepared, but only the bare minimum.
I woke up Friday morning with horrible allergies. My eyes and nose were watering like crazy, and I didn’t feel too well. It was my short day at work, and after work I had to drive about an hour to pick up the race packet, then another 1.5 hours home, stopping for dinner along the way. I ended up having some Mexican food at a place I’ve been to a few times. Good food, but not the traditional Olive Garden, the family and I typically have before a race. Then it was home to bed. I believe I was asleep before 8pm!
Ring-a-ling-a-ling. The alarm went off at 3:45 am. I was already dressed in my running clothes, and had everything packed and ready to go. A couple of bananas and apples, and I was out the door. It took me a little over an hour to get to the race, leaving almost an hour to spare. I promptly set my alarm, and chilled for the next 20 minutes, trying to rest as much as possible before the long day began.
After that alarm went off, I prepped my gear and got ready to go. I headed to the bathroom with about 15 minutes to spare…. a long line out the men’s room! Damn! Oh wait, that was for the stalls, and I only needed to pee. Whew! Disaster averted. I returned to the car and was finalizing all my gear when Nick called, wondering where I was. We found each other, I met his Dad, and we headed to the starting line. A quick check in, a couple of words form the race director, and we were off!
The first leg of this race started with a loop around the school, down a hill, and through the woods to grandmother’s house we…. wait, that’s not right. lol. After entering the woods, we headed North for a short out and back. Dark as can be, we were all wearing lights to shine the way. It was crowded, and slow going for awhile. My feet were frozen solid, as was my hydration pack’s mouth piece. Nick and I ran this section together. I enjoyed the company, but knew it wouldn’t last. Nick is quite a bit faster than I am, and I didn’t want to hold him back. Very quickly, much quicker than I was anticipating, we came across the front runners on the return. “Damn they much be flying!” I thought, and I kept on running. Then, shortly after the 2 mile mark, we hit the turn around. Wait a minute, we were supposed to do a three mile out, not two. I found out later that the course was cut short the night before to make it closer to 50 miles. Before it was somewhere over 51 miles. The return was cool, seeing all the runners lights that were behind me, but quicker than I expected, the sun arose and it was light enough to turn off our head gear. At roughly mile 4, when we were back by the school, we hit the first aid station. Nick grabbed something from his Dad, who was crewing for him the entire race, and I decided to stop for a walk and eat something. We parted ways at this point, and Nick took off.
After splitting with Nick, the course remained fairly crowded until the next aid station at about mile 8. Nothing too memorable about this section, until after the aid station. A quick refueling, and I was off again, passing underneath several busy roads/high ways, and through a moderately technical section with a stream passing that required some steady legs. Soon, I was heading into the next aid station about mile 12, where the “Lollipop” split was. I hit the aid station strong, more fueling (I’d been steadily eating in between aid stations as well), and off I went.
This section was new to me. I’d not run it before, and the novelty of the course was refreshing. This section took me through a narrow section between some residential areas, and there was a couple of crossings before we hit the main road. I’d started running with a guy that I could tell was struggling already. He was running with a friend that had been pushing him too hard, and his calves were getting to him. We ran a good half mile, talking about our previous races and such, before we hit the main road. Here was my first meeting with the family, in a parking lot, so I told him I’d probably see him later, then I headed towards the fam. The kids stayed in the car, and I had a short conversation with them, before realizing my race tag came off my shoe, the plastic ties broke. Thank goodness I saw that! I retied my shoelaces with the tag held in place, said my goodbyes, and headed down the road.
I had a good 1.5 miles of pavement that I was not looking forward to. I was in need of a bathroom, and my knee was starting to annoy me, every since hitting the pavement. So… I ditched into a local McDonalds for a quick potty break. Ah relief. Other than another quick pee break or two on the trails, that was it for bathroom breaks. Feeling refreshed, I hit the pavement again with about a mile to the turn off. My knee was quietly telling me it did not like this harder surface, and to get back on the trail, I was anxious to return to the soft dirt as well. Shortly after getting back on the trail, and I was at the next aid station. I was starting to recognize some of my fellow runners that were on pace with me.
Miles 14- 25
To be honest, I don’t recall much from the section of the course, other than some of the people I was running with. I’d run with a person here, a group there, chatting as we felt like it. At some point, I came across the guy that was struggling earlier. My family and bathroom breaks let him get ahead, but not for long. I asked how his legs were holding up, and he said they were feeling a bit better. We chatted a bit, then I pushed on. Very soon, I could not see him anywhere.
One thing about this section I didn’t care for was the lack of aid stations. There was a minor station about mile 18, but it wasn’t fully stocked and felt more like just a water drop. Still another 6-7 miles to the next aid station. Grr. Around mile 24, I came across some people on horseback and had a few piles to dodge, but otherwise, it was strictly business.
I hit the last hill that let me know I was almost to Pennyfield Lock, where the family was waiting for me. I crossed a small bridge and hit the pavement to the lock. Quickly, I found Jen’s car, headed over to hit for a short visit, and some snack replenishing. Always nice to see the family, it gives me a motivational boast and mental break. After saying bye, I ran the 1/4 mile or so down the road to the next aid station. Grilled cheese sandwiches! Each aid station seemed to get better than the previous one! This one had, of all things, chocolate covered bacon!! I did not partake, but it sure sounded interesting!
This section was 100% along the C&O Canal Tow Path, a flat, crushed-granite trail, very similar to the NCR Trail I used to run often. I was not looking forward to the entirely flat section, as I knew it would aggravate my knee, and of course it did.
After leaving the last aid station, I was running with a guy and found out he not only was running this race, but he started the night before and had already ran one loop. That’s right, he was going for a 100 miler! Man, did he seem crazy, interesting, but crazy! We got about 1/4 mile down the trail, when I told him I needed to walk, the knee was starting to bark. He decided to walk too. We ended up walking the entire tow path left, about 3 1/4 miles. Yeah, my times suffered somewhat, but really not that bad. Since it was flat and straight, my walk time was much faster than walking on the trails. Still, quite a few people passed us along the way. I wanted to just go easy with the knee, and recover some energy before the long trek back up to the school, and I’m sure he was in desperate need of a rest as well.
Coming off the tow path, we hit the next aid station. This was one of the big ones. The drop bags were here. I didn’t use a drop bag, but I did spend longer than I wanted here. After talking with Mike, the guy doing the 100 miles, I decided it was a good time to change my socks. Man, that was one good suggestion. A fresh pair of socks made my feet feel less achy and more refreshed, plus the new socks felt much more cushiony. Also, this aid station had soup! Yummy, hot soup!! Yeah, I took too long at this station, but it was well worth it!
Leaving the aid station, we had roughly a 1/4 mile run along a road before hitting the trail. I don’t recall my knee giving me any issues here, but there were quite a few runners I was chatting with, and may have just not noticed it. After what seemed like a half marathon, we were finally back in the soft trails. I took off. Passing quite a few people, and making some solid ground through one of the hillier sections of the course. Coming out of the hilly section, I had a small stream to cross. Nothing difficult, but my clumsy ass stepped right into the water with my left foot. Dammit! I’d only changed socks about 3-4 miles back!
At some point, I met back up with Mike, and a lady that had stepped on a nail earlier in the race. We did some more extended walking, as I was worn out from the hills, and headed into the next aid station, and my final visit from the family before the end of the race. It was through this section when I realized, I’d now run further than I ever had before. In comparing it to the Halloweeny 50K, I was in much better shape. Thanks to my heavier food intake, and mental preparedness, I’m sure. Shortly before the aid station, there was a fairly flat section, which I could have used to make up some ground, but I decided not to. I just kept a steady pace as I headed in. Jen and the kids got out of the car, and I opted for more hot soup! Plus another change of socks, This seemed a bit early, as I only had one pair left, but I didn’t want to risk running in wet feet any longer than I had to. I spent far longer than I should here, but it was the last visit with the family, so worth the investment.
One word can sum this section up. Walking. Very shortly after leaving the aid station, the outer side of my left knee started bothering me. This is not the same part of the knee I’ve been dealing with for the last few months, nor earlier in the race. This section is also probably the hilliest section of the race. Lots of ups and downs, and plenty of stream crossings. I hit the only dark spot, mentally, of the entire race here. I was low on energy, still waiting for the aid station soup to kick in, and combined with the new knee issue, I was feeling down. What did I do, I pulled out my handy-dandy laminated list of motivational quotes, and set about reading some. It definitely helped my mentality. The food started to kick in, and my mind was back to normal, but my knee kept me down to mostly walking. I’d get in some running here and there, but not what I wanted, and the clock was quickly running up. Still, I pushed on. I was starting to worry about being timed out. I knew there was a cut-off at one of the next two aid stations, but wasn’t exactly sure which one, and was getting conflicting answers from other runners. At mile 38 there was a small water station, and I asked the volunteer. Her answer was that we had to be to the next station, 5 miles away, by 6pm. No problem!! This gave me a boost of motivation. I' got this!
A good five miles, and I would be golden to finish the race. I pushed on. Still unable to run as much as I wanted, I was walking stronger and faster than before. Those five miles, although similar to the last section, felt easier. My mental toughness just jumped up a notch. Coming into the mile 43 aid station, I’d completed the “Lollipop”, I’d beaten the cut-off, and I was feeling good, minus the knee. I didn’t spend very long here. Downing some food, and grabbing some to go, it was time to turn on the head lamp. Darkness had snuck up on us, and I still have 7 miles to go. This was going to be fun. Right before I headed out, I heard a biker say there were about 15 people between us and the sweeper. The fight to not be timed out had begun, and I was head of the game. Time to bring it!
This section had some difficult terrain. Not so hilly, but quite a bit rockier than the rest of the course. Navigation at night was going to be tricky. I’d been flip flopping with several different groups and solo runners since leaving the tow path at mile 28. It was time to put them out to pasture and push on. From this point on, I wasn’t passed by anyone, and I passed about 12 people. My knee was still aching, but when I wasn’t able to run, I was power walking faster than Bryan Cranston in Malcolm in the Middle. I did meet up with one of the ladies I’d joked with on the race’s group forum about being the last to finish. I could have sworn she was behind me. She must have passed me while dealing with the family, or my McDonalds pit stop. We can together for awhile, but eventually I pressed forward and with a mile or so left before the final aid station, I was getting my running back. no, my knee wasn’t any better, but I was pushing it harder, knowing I didn’t have much further to go.
It was getting exceedingly more difficult to see the trail. Sunlight was completely gone, and my puny little headlamp was not doing the job I needed it to do. I had several times I got off path, but thankfully I realized it quickly and got back on track. I finally made it to the last overpass, signifying I was too the last aid station. A short trek up hill, cross the guard rail, and a 100 yard jaunt along the highway and I’d made it to the last aid station. I was worn out, but feeling the excitement. Only about 3 miles to go! I quickly took in some goodies, then set off down the path. It was do or die time, and I was ready to be done!
I had no idea how far behind me the next runner was. Everyone I’d passed in the last few miles was steadily walking, from what I could tell, but I was giving it my all to run as much as possible. The darkness through this section made navigation even more difficult. It was dark, I was alone, and I was exhausted. I pushed on. I was frequently checking my phones GPS track to see how much I had left. Within roughly a mile to go, I sent word to the family. It was go time. Then I saw it, a headlamp in front of me. Wait, make that two headlamps! I was determined to catch them! I pushed on. My this point, both knees were bothering me. The same place, on the outside of the knee, but I pushed it. Soon, I passed the two guys. I asked how they were holding up, but I didn’t let up. I moved passed them fast, and before I knew it, I’d hit pavement. The last section to go,and I had pavement, of all things, to run on. I didn’t care by this point, all I wanted to do was make sure those two guy’s didn’t catch me. I power-walked along the pavement until reaching the tree line where it was a straight shot up a big ass hill to the finish line. I headed into the darkness, I could see the stadium above me, but somehow I got off course, again, and ended up adjacent to a baseball field, I think it was. Doing a double take, I was even with the finish line, and the big ass hill was to my right. I was about to head back down and find the right path, but the few people remaining at the finish hollered for me to come on, so I ran. I felt like I was flying, but I was probably running at a snails pace. And finally, the finish line!!! I’d made it. I’d survived my first 50 miler! I was exhausted, but not nearly as much as I should have been. Damn knee! Oh well, there’s always next year!
After a few photos, I got my official time. 13:51:28! Quite a bit slower than I was hoping for but for a first time finish, I’m proud of that slow time! With about 15 miles of knee pain, I’m just happy I finished. I was starving for something hot. The soup I’d had at several stations, was all the warm food I’d had all day, and with the sun going down, it was near freezing again, if not below freezing. Thankfully, there was some pasta in the school cafeteria. I had a couple of plates fool, as did Paige, then her and I hit the road home as Jen and Connor headed to the grocery store. Paige was supposed to keep me awake, but she was out in 15 minutes, leaving me with about 1:15 drive home. Thankfully, the adrenaline was there to keep me awake. Making it home, I did a quick Facebook update, then went to bed.
Thoughts on the run.
It was tough, very tough, but doable. Mental preparedness and frequent eating was the right move. I felt much better than after the Halloweeny Fat Ass 50K. Socks, bring plenty of spares, and change them often. Hot food at aid stations, a must! One headlamp is not enough. For next year, I strong knee training program is in order! Will I do it again, you betcha!