"With apprehension that I am summoning a jinx, I have decided to unfurl the map and plot a course that leads towards running my first 50-mile event in late 2011, the Stone Mill 50 Mile Run."
I wrote those words here on the 20th of December and had pondered the jinx through Achilles issues, a gastric meltdown at Laurel Highlands, bee stings at Conestoga and month after month of mileage that fell short of what I'd intended to log in preparation for Stone Mill.
But, on the morning of November 19th, as I stood at the starting line outside of Watkins High School in Gaithersburg, I felt pretty darn good and, at least to start, there was no sign of the jinx. Of course, there was a lot of hours left in the day and many miles to cover, so the possibility of a sighting remained.
The weather was perfect, cold to start, but not so cold as to require excessive layering for comfort. I'd brought gloves but felt just warm enough to not need them. I remembered Kelly's advice to stay conservative at the start and decided to stick to it as headlamps bobbed ahead of me on the trail.
That lasted for about 10 minutes until I realized that I was going to go crazy tucked (and stuck) in formation on a beautiful section of wooded singletrack. I wanted to stay controlled but 11+ minute miles weren't going to hold my interest and were possibly going to put me in a hole I had no want to climb into as I alternated between what felt like running in place to walking so as not to literally bump into the person in front of me.
Managing to leapfrog past a number of other runners at a couple of strategic widenings of the trail, I was able to move along more swiftly while still remaining mindful of not going too fast. The course was really runnable with only gentle rises and falls and fairly non-technical footing. By the time I hit the aid station at mile 11, I'd settled into a very comfortable 10:00 minute mile pace and hoped that it wasn't too much too soon.
I had taken in some water and Gatorade from the handheld bottles I was carrying and had kept down one gel, but otherwise I hadn't refueled. I wasn't hungry yet, but, knowing that I was going to need more throughout the day, I ate a couple of bites of potato at the aid station. My stomach didn't fully protest but hinted that it would have preferred that I had left it alone. "Wait to worry", I vaguely remember telling myself.
The sun had finally crept high enough to cast a beautiful light on the meandering Seneca Creek Greenway Trail. I couldn't fathom that such sustained sections of unbroken trail were tucked inconspicuously into the wild cracks between the bustling sprawl of Washington D.C. and Montgomery County, Maryland.
I was having an absolute blast, cruising along, splashing through water crossings and waiting for my beard to thaw.
As I started to near 20 miles, I pulled the throttle back just a hair in hopes that I could settle into a pace I could hold all day long. I even power hiked a couple of the steeper hills to conserve energy even though there wasn't a single section that I couldn't and wouldn't have run in a shorter race.
My pace dropped even further after I decided to take a break. "Don't you have to go to the bathroom?", I've been asked on numerous occasions when talking about running long races. Yes is, of course, the answer and, if you're lucky, there's a port-a-potty handy when the need arises. Call me lucky.
I left the john behind me and felt better for it. Moments later I was on the towpath of the C&O canal and my "feeling better" went away. After miles of trail, the hard-packed towpath surface felt way too much like pavement.
The view, however, was lovely with the mighty Potomac perched on the left.
I snapped a bunch of photos along this stretch, partly because it was so beautiful and partly because it broke up the monotonous pounding of the towpath. On any random day, I would probably enjoy running on this surface and certainly surrounded by that landscape but, having already come a long way, this was the first time that my feet felt fatigued and the first time that my mind wandered to the many miles ahead. My resolve weakened and I realized that I hadn't put anything further in my stomach.
A few miles later, the course branched away from the towpath and the ruins of the race's namesake stone mill offered a welcome distraction.
I investigated for a momentbefore hitting up the aid station nestled just a few yards away. My drop bag was stocked with a change of shirts, a handful of gels, some GU Chomps, a couple of granola bars, some dried dates, salt capsules, some band-aids, a fresh wicking shirt and some ibuprofen.
I opened a gel packet but didn't manage to get much down before deciding that I just didn't want to tempt fate with my cranky gut. I slipped into the dry shirt and packed my wet shirt and remaining gels back into the drop bag. I knocked down two ibuprofen and tucked the Chomps and salt caps into my pocket. The crew at the aid station refilled my bottles and I gave the GPS a quick glance before heading back out onto the trail.
Despite all my dawdling, I was still at a sub-11 minute pace and just 7 tenths of a mile shy of halfway home. I wasn't feeling my best by any means, but was happy to have the towpath behind me, not suffering from any real physical issues and encouraged at being well ahead of the 12 hour cutoff.
After a short stretch of unpaved road, we were back on trail. I felt pretty good for a mile or two as the path wound through open, hilly farmland fringed by old, thinned out woods. Somewhere near mile 27 or 28, I hit a major lowpoint. Physically, nothing seemed out of order, but I just couldn't muster any enthusiasm. It was unignorable...I didn't want to be there, didn't want to run any further. I'd gone further in a number of other races and on other runs and I couldn't understand why I was feeling the way I was, but that just made me more frustrated. The miles between 27 and 30 seemed absolutely endless and while I wasn't really considering dropping when I reached the next aid station, I was dreading the miles and hours ahead.
For all the enthusiasm and support that lives in trail running aid stations, they can be really depressing places when your stomach isn't cooperating. I looked at the chips, pretzels, M&Ms, almonds and other snacks with disdain and borderline despair. I was sitting down, nursing a cup of Coke, staring at nothing and thinking about the same when I overheard a runner ask a volunteer for some chicken soup. Hearing that request brought on a craving for soup like I've never experienced. I jumped to my feet and said "make it two", feeling melodramatic but not caring in the least.
To say that that cup of soup saved my life would be...stupid, it would be stupid, but what it did do was give me calories I was sorely lacking and those calories translated into positivity that I'd been without for several miles. It wasn't the last soup (or cup of Coke) that I would have that day, but it was the one that got my fueling back on track and kept me from a total bonk. I wouldn't say that I went flying out of the aid station, but I did get back to running with purpose instead of letting pace get away from me entirely.
I kept plugging along, enjoying the babbling creeks, leaf-stripped woodlands and postcard-perfect old barns perched on distant hillsides. I discovered that I'd covered 40 miles and was creeping toward the possibility of sneaking up on the finish line at just under 11 hours. I wanted to go faster but also reminded myself to stay smart and forced myself to power-hike now and then to break up some of the repetition on my leg muscles. The strategy seemed to be working as the Garmin reported that I'd made it to 44 miles.
That's where I was when the gentleman at the next aid station welcomed me to "41 miles". I gave him a puzzled look as he explained that the next section was an out-and-back consisting of a 1.5 leg to a water stop and then an additional 3.5 miles to the turnaround. I'm no mathematician and was tired to boot, but that sure sounded like more remaining work than I'd expected. I mumbled something about the read-out on my wrist and he smiled when he told me that a lot of other runner's GPSs had said the same thing. Hmmm.
Off I went, but with an admitted deflation. Even though I felt pretty good, there was something about having thought I was so close only to learn that I wasn't that took a toll. I slowed noticeably and no longer needed to force myself to hike the "ups". Shortly after leaving the turnaround and recrossing an icy stream which may have been the motivation for the race directors to send us that way in the first place, the sun passed from low in the sky to gone. Luckily, I'd kept my headlamp in my pocket instead of throwing it in the drop bag back at the Stone Mill aid station.
A mile further, the light revealed Bobby approaching me on his way out to the turnaround. Stone Mill was his 11th ultra of 2011 and he'd lined up despite suffering from what he suspected was the start of plantar fasciatis. Bobby and I had suffered through Laurel Highlands together back in June and forged a fast friendship and an easy camaraderie. I wanted this to be a great day for him as much I did for myself, but I could tell he was having some difficulty. He confirmed that his plantar diagnosis was correct and told me of his day. He'd tried to modify his gait to offset the growing pain in his foot and brought on some knee issues in the process. He'd gutted things out for hours on end, but, in learning that the course was longer than advertised and not wanting to cause any further damage, he decided to turnaround here and come back with me. His race was over but he still had a few dark, cold miles ahead to get back to the start. I was sorry for how his day had gone but happy to again be sharing the trail with him.
With the sun down, the temperatures had dropped considerably and we looked forward to calling it a day. Having a friend to talk to made those last few miles slip by surprisingly quickly and before long the finish line loomed ahead at the top of one last grassy slope, the steepest of the day. I bounded up the hill, surprised to find that I still had a little leg, and crossed under the Stone Mill start/finish banner.
I'd finished my first 50-miler and was pleased to feel like I could have gone further. Well, to be fair, I had gone further. Four-and-a-half miles further. I hadn't managed to look down to see where I was at mile 50, but based on my final pace and the slogging that I did on that last out-and-back, I'm guessing it was something a little less than 11 hours. Maybe.
Despite the unexpected miles, I had a great time and loved the event. The weather was perfect and the course was totally manageable. I'd have been hard-pressed to pick a better day and race my first 50. There was a lot of grumbling about the extended distance and I'm still perplexed as to why the directors were comfortable overshooting by that much. Wayne, who I'd met the night before, was using Stone Mill as his qualifying race for entering the Western States 100 lottery. To get in without a 100-miler, he needed a sub-11 hour 50-mile race and, by running strategically throughout the day to hit that comfortably, he ended up just sneaking in under that time because of the extra miles. His frustration was understandable. For me, just wanting to get through the distance, I'm hoping that those extra miles will give me a psychological advantage the next time I attempt 50 miles. Time will tell.
My hope is that the organizers publicize the full distance next year or modify it to be something a little closer to 50 or even add on and make it a 100K. As cold as it got on Saturday, had there been rain or wind to further complicate things, runners could have found themselves in real danger of hypothermia or exposure. This, obviously, is always a possibility at any ultra, but with the course being so much longer than advertised, the directors would have had to field some uncomfortable questions that, thankfully, didn't need to be addressed this past weekend. Outside of that, I have no complaints or suggestions for improvement.
Thanks to all for putting on such a well-supported event with a great vibe. With a hard to believe $35 entry fee in an era where you're often asked to pay that for a 5K, Stone Mill didn't include a commemorative shirt, but the swag was still pretty sweet and included a nice imprinted drop bag, a mug (for first time Stone Mill runners) and a flashlight.
It probably goes without saying, but my favorite piece of swag was the finisher's medal.