Friday, June 4, 2021

Farm Park Challenge Marathon - May 1, 2021

Round and Round
The Farm Park Challenge has several events to choose from - 3 hour challenge, 6 hour challenge, 10 hour challenge, marathon and a Fun Run. All are held on the same approximately 5.1 mile course at the Agricultural History Farm Park in Derwood.  The challenge races all require that the runners complete the loop in less than an hour, and then begin the next loop at the start of the next hour.  The Fun Run is just show up any time during the day and run as much or as little as one wants. I figure I could do one or two loops of the challenge before not being able to keep up the necessary pace, so running the marathon, which has no such requirement (just start and run until finished) is for me.

Race Day
Emaad and I arrive at the Park in plenty of time to pick up our bibs and be ready to start in the second wave of marathoners at 6:55 a.m. The first wave goes out five minutes sooner. Since there are only 25 starters between the two waves, the COVID rules of wearing a mask and keeping social distance at the start are easy to follow. The masks come off as we cross the start line.
The course is a folded circle around the Agricultural Park, almost entirely on grass or generally broad trails.  The course undulates, but there are no significant hills.  One small stream crossing is on the course, but the lack of rain in the days preceeding the race means that one can easily hop across on two or three stones without wetting a shoe.

The 35 or 40 10- and 6-hour challengers start at 7 a.m. and it doesn't take long for the fast ones to catch and pass us. Throughout the loop more and more of the challenge runners pass us. In fact, since it takes me 1:00:47 to complete the first loop, they all need to pass me so they can start their second loop at 8 a.m.

Emaad on the course
I run much of the second loop in the company of Emaad and Tammy M., a veteran ultramarathoner with who has numerous 100-mile and 24 hour races to her credit, as well as the 2013 Badwater 135 (if you don't know what that is, watch the trailer for Running on the Sun.).  She gives us valuable advice about various races we are considering, as well as training tips.  Oh, her next race after the Farm Challenge Marathon is another marthon the next day.
He was a DNF.
Emaad's foot is bothering him, so as a cautionary move, he drops out after three loops.  I plod on, and finish in 5:42:24, good for 15 of 22 overall (there were 3 DNFs) and 13 of 15 males.  I was the oldest finisher.

Vingettes from the Day
Approaching the park road crossing in the first loop, I spy Mike E. acting as the course marshal.  "I have a cold Surrender Dorothy for you," he tells me. "Maybe on the last lap," I reply.  On the last loop, he isn't there, but the beverage is.  But I pass it up.

The course is pretty well marked and obvious, but it isn't a trail run unless you fall down or get lost.  On a long stretch about two thirds of the way through the loop a couple of runners are coming toward me.  They missed a turn (marked, but easy to miss) and are backtracking.  On a later loop, a couple of runners just ahead of me miss the turn.  "Stop! Left! Left!," I yell at them. They hit the brakes and make ther correct turn. Had they continued straight they would have rejoined the course in a few hundred yards.

To prove that I, too, lack navigational skills, or the powers of observation, I'm barely into the second loop when a buch of challenge runners overtake me running on a parallel trail. "Trail's down here," I conficently tell them. "You're going backwards on the trail to the finish," they reply. They are right, I quickly realize and cut thru to get onto the right trail.

Bacon! Or not.
"Bacon!," I yell at a pair to a pair of pigs at the barn in the middle of the farm. "They don't like that," a voice replies. She is a farm volunteer caring for the animals. "Not really," she says, "We used to name the pigs Bacon and Sausage because we would sell them at the end of the season. but we stopped doing that and now give them people names.  It's harder to eat them when they are named Alice and Bert."

On the fifth lap, a runner overtakes me wearing a mask. "I'm vaccinated," I say.  "Me too," she says, removing the mask. "We're outside and I'm fully vaccinated," I reply, "I don't get why people don't get vaccinated, so my slogan is 'Get vaccinated or die." "My husband has to intubate those people who don't get vaccinated and wind up in the hospital," she points out. "I'm sorry he has to," is my lame reply.  But I've changed my curse on anti-vaxxers to "Get vaccinated or get intubated." Less harsh, more alliteration.

Swag: Two Waredaca beers,
a glass, shirt and bib. 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon - March 13 2021

Training is Bunk - Or Is it? An Experiment.

It's been a year since I ran in a real race, and I'm anxious to do one.  Like everyone, life has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and thousands of races have been canceled or turned into virtual events.  In December I ran the Philadelphia Trail Marathon virtually, and while it was nice to get out for a day, it isn't the real thing.

And the lack of goal races means a lack of training focus.  A mystereous sore calf reduces my mileage in February to a paltry 28 miles, well below my monthly target of 100 miles.

But "training is bunk" is one of my mottoes. As is the corollary, "if you can go half the distance, you can go the entire distance."  So despite not having a single run of more than 7 miles since December 12, I watch the weather and the sign-up list for the Seneca Greenway Trail Marathon/50k, and by March 3 the weather for Saturday looks good and there are still slots available. I sign up.

An 8-mile run the next day passes for a long run.  I'm as ready as I'm going to be.

The Difference in a Year

There are pandemic rules for the race. Fewer runners allowed (200 rather than 400), mask wearing before and after the race, masks when passing or being passed, pre-packaged food at the aid stations, no post-race cook-out, no packet pickup morning-of, and most importantly, small group wave starts, with the fastest runners going out first to minimize passing.

While this last rule makes sense, it also unavoidably disadvantages the slower runners, who will have less time to make the cut-offs, particularly the one at the decision point at mile 27.7 to decide whether to go .3 miles to the finish or to go around the lake for an extra three miles and the 50K. (Yes, marathons are normally 26.2 miles, but this is a trail race and the founder of the race always said the distance was "at least a marathon." Runners who don't read the course information closely have been surprised to find that they have reached 26 miles and have two miles, not two-tenths of a mile still to go.)

The smaller field means the I can park closer to the start, since I am starting at 8:21 a.m. nearly an hour after the fast runners stepped out at 7:30.  A group of about six of us go off, and the few 8:24 runners are not far behind.

The fastest I ran all day; and then only for the photo op.
(Photo by B. Lemieux)

Equipment and Other Malfunctions

A mile into the race I notice a rubbing and burning of one of my toes. I stop and take off my shoe to adjust the sock that I think is the cause of the problem. Once the shoe is off I realize it isn't the sock. Instead, one toenail is rubbing against the adjacent toe.  No remedy for that and I have to bear the bit of irritation the rest of the day.  When I get home there is blood from where the toenail had scratched the other toe raw. This is partly a result of not running races in months. Trimming toenails is part of race preparation. 

A couple of  miles later, I grasp the hose of my hydration pack in my mouth and suck. Nothing. I twist the valve left and right and try again. Nothing.  I reach behind and feel for leaks. None. I squeeze the bladder and try again. Nothing.

I mention it to a nearby runner. She suggests that maybe I didn't get the end of the hose seated all the way on by the bladder.  A good idea, but I don't want to stop on the trail to check.  Instead I run the first seven miles to the Route 28 Aid Station without drinking.

When I get there I take the pack off and pull the bladder from the pack.  Sure enough, a push on the end of the hose gets it to seat properly with the bladder and fluids flow. Again, rustyness has meant forgetting to check raceday equipment.


"Hi again, lady with the dog paw gaiters," I greet a runner who I passed earlier and who returned the favor at Route 28 while I tended to my hydration equipment.  We are at about mile 9.

"Hi, runner with the checkerboard tights," she replies.

It's my opening to tell her that they are actualy harlequin tights, and proceed to tell her the story of how they were made for me by the legendary ultra-runner Eric Clifton (he had a streak of 19 years wining at least one ultramarathon).

Since St. Patrick's Day is coming I complement her on her green shirt. "And don't forget my leprecaun tights," she adds.

With Age Comes Wisdom Hesitation

I come to the always-wet Dry Seneca Creek (about mile 12).  I know from the weather the past week that it won't require wading across.  The stepping stones will be above the water.

I hop onto the large first stone and then onto the similarly sized second stone.

And stop.

The next stone is only big enough for one foot and is a bit sloped.  In year's past, this has never been a problem; I don't even recall that the one stone was much smaller than the others.  But now I'm frozen looking at it.

I'm having a crisis of confidence.  What if I jump and come up short, or slip and fall? I can't get both feet onto it, so it will have to be a dynamic crosssing - hit it with one foot and keep going to the next slab which is big enough to stand on. The two leading up to it allowed me to go one stone at a time.  The ones on the other side will also allow me to go one at a time.  But this one will require a dynamic move.

This is what getting old feels like, I think. It is looking at something you have done in the past, and now think you cannot do.  Worrying about the consequences of failure.

Nice dry trail
Or maybe how the cat thinks. I've watched our cats looking at things, calculating whether, and how, to attain their objective.  I've seen how the nearly 15-year old cat has abandoned doing things he once did, but also finding alternatives.

So I switch from old mode to cat mode, calculate how to make my leap and which foot to lead with, rock backward and spring forward. Success! I'm on the wide stone on the other side, and the remainder of the crossing of wide stones is easy.

Maybe next year I'll just wade the stream.

Birding Lesson

"See anything?" I ask the woman looking up into the trees around mile 13.

"Shh," she replies, "Hear that?"


"That's a pine warbler," she replies. "The live in pine trees."

Which makes sense, since we are in a grove of pine trees.

But the small bird escapes our eyes, and I move on.


After crossing Seneca Creek at River Road to head north on the east side of the creek I wonder if the unofficial aid station will be there. Last year, with the seriousness of the pandemic starting to change behavior it had a light-hearted approach, serving Corona beer, and with some volunteers wearing PPE. This year pandemic restrictions suggest that it might not be there.

Special refreshments

But it is! And still serving whiskey and beer - but in individual single-serve cups. The Corona has been replaced with 7 Locks Brewing Surrender Dorothy IPA, but there is still hot grilled cheese being served (in individual cups as well).  And as a bonus there is a mostly decomposed and partly dismembered deer carcass to provide inspiration.

I get a picture with the remains, and have a second cup of the IPA. Mike urges, "have another." 

"I already had another," I reply,

"Have another," he repeats.

One of us will finish; the other is finished.

I think about it for a second. "I'm stupid," I say in declining the offer, "but not dumb."

Bad Karma

"I don't really like this next section," I tell Glenn and Michele, who are course marshals at Black Rock Mill (about mile 21) where the runners have to get on the six miles of the Seneca Ridge Trail for the return to Riffle Ford Road.

You'll like it better than the runner ahead of you," they cryptically reply.

I spot the runner in a bit and soon overtake him.

"Bad karma," I say as I come up behnd him, "to wear the race shirt before you have finished the race."

As I draw even, I notice that his knees are scraped, and his hands are, too. And there is a patch of dirt on his right shoulder.

"I've fallen about 18 times," he replies, "even into the water."

And then I notice the dried blood on the ridge of his nose.

"Want some ibuprofen?" I offer lamely. It's the best I can do for someone who angered the running gods, and then had to listen to me say the equivalent of  "you should have known better."

These cinco amigos are an annual sighting.

Know Your Limitations

As Dirty Harry said in Magnum Force, "A man's got to know his limitations." 

Coming off the Seneca Ridge section of the course and approaching the Riffle Ford Road aid station (mile 27) I look at my watch to judge whether I will make the  decision point-cut off a little less than a mile ahead.  It seems unlikely, but to enhance my chances of missing it, and thereby taking the decision out of my hand, I linger a bit at the aid station.

I get the the cut-off at 3:47 p.m., seven minutes over the cut-off.  But the volunteer there signals that I can go ahead and do the 50K.

"No," I say, "I'm strictly enforcing the cut-off on myself." I turn left, and go the remaining three-tenths of a mile to the finish.

There are several reasons I make the decision. Mainly, I'm feeling somewhat tired, and given my lack of training, Harry Callahan is whispering in my ear. Last year I got to the decision point in almost the same elapsed time, and went on to do the 50K. But that was with a start at 8 a.m., rather than 8:21, so I was commfortably ahead of the cutoff. Somehow it doesn't quite seem right to go the longer distance and keep the volunteers waiting longer, since I know that there are not many people behind me, and I might have been the last, or close to the last one, who would get to go around the lake.  And I don't particularly like the lakeside trail so it would be a bit of an unjoyable slog by myself.


I cross the finish line and offer to return my chip, but chips are not returned during pandemics.  It will pass as a finisher's medal on my medal racks.

I finish in 7:31:17, good for 49 of 59 overall, 37/41 males, and 2/2 in my new (70+) age group.

I pick up the pre-packaged post-race food (bottle of water, banana, couple of pieces of prepackaged candy) and walk back to the car for the drive home.  It's been a good day in the woods.

Oh, yeah, training IS bunk. 

Swag: shirt, bib, chip.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Philadelphia Trail Marathon (virtual) - December 12, 2020

Despite Covid indeed.

Prelude to Change
On February 29, Emaad and I sign up for the Philly Trail Marathon scheduled for Saturday, April 18, 2020.  Little do we suspect that it will be 34 weeks, not seven weeks, before we run it, and in Gaithersburg, Maryland, not Philadelphia.

A Pandemic Changes Everything
At the end of February talk of a pandemic has begun, but how bad things will get are not clear.  I ran the George Washington Birthday Marathon two weeks earlier and there was no mention of the corona virus. Emaad and I register for the race on the last day of February before entry fees increase.

But it doesn't take much longer for virus concerns to surface.  On March 7 I run the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50K, and rules at the aid stations are in effect due to the virus. Later that week my wife and I drive to Florida to spend a week, but we return home after only four days. Many public facitities are closed and supermarkets are sold out of essentials. We become concerned that may not be able to return home if we wait any longer. On the drive home on March 18, fast food restaurants have closed their indoor dining and are only doing take out or drive-thru sales.

Dos Amigos (post race).
On March 20, we get emails that the race has been postponed until September 27, assuming that Philadelphia will issue the necessary permits. On July 14 comes the news that the race will go virtual. Runners will have until December 31 to run it virtually.  Shortly thereafter, a package arrives from Uberendurance Sports containing a bib, a medal and the race premium shirt.  I do not open it, since I have not yet run the race, and the runner's code is that you cannot display a medal you did not earn, and you cannot wear a shirt from a race you did not run or volunteer at. And who needs a bib in a virtual race?

No Training? No Worries!
Because of a serious automoble accident on July 10 that left my wife confined to a wheelchair for months, I cannot be away from the house for any significant duration.  That largely means that I have to run on the streets in my neighborhood, frequently doubling back to the house to check on her, initially as frequently as every 15 minutes.  Long runs are not possible.
As the summer turns to fall, and she can start to use a walker, my runs lengthen, but not into double digits.  Frequent daily 3-5 mile runs enable me to hit 100 miles per month, but just barely.

As she strengthens and begins to use a walker and the days get shorter into November, I suggest to Emaad that we aim to run the virtual Philly Marathon on December 12.  He agrees, but insists that we need to get a couple of long runs in.  Two weeks prior we run 13.1 miles in the neighborhood, coming back to the house once to check in.  The next weekend we do a 10-miler from the house, again looping back to the house in the middle of the run.

A Plan
I arrange for our two children to spend time with their mother for significant parts of the eight hours that I figure I need to get to and from where we will run and the time for the run.

Seneca Creek north of Route 355.
We decide that the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail offers the best opportunity for the marathon.  It is only about a 15 minute drive from home and we can park at Route 355 in Gaithersburg, Right next to the trail. We plan to run north about 4 miles to Brink Road, go back to the cars to reload our Camelbacks, then go south about 5 miles to Riffle Ford Road, return to the cars for a second refueling, then north about 3 miles to Watkins Mill Road and return for our 26.2 mile marathon. Moreover, we are familiar with the trail and figure that there will be fewer people on it than other trails closer to home.

No Plan Survives First Contact with the Enemy
Trail food?
We meet and at 8:33 a.m. we are off and headed north. The forecast is for an unseasonaly warm day, partly sunny with a high close to 60 degrees.  But as we start out, the temperature is in the upper 30s and there is a significant amount of fog.  I'm wearing tights, two shirts and gloves, along with a buff (for both neck warmth and to use as a face covering when encountering other trail users).

It is a pleasant day for a run and early on there are not too many other people on the single track trail.  We move along unhurredly, as there is no cutoff that we need to beat, nor other runners to overtake. Familiarity with the trail makes reminiscing about races we ran, and people we ran with, on that section of the trial easy.  We get to Brink Road and decide to go on to Huntmaster Road, maybe another mile further. At Huntmaster we figure to go another 1.5 miles, to get to 6.55, so that wene we return, we'll have have the race done.  But the day is nice, the trail is easy, the scent of horses (never seen) is in the air and we keep going.  Only when we reach the spot at mile 7.1 where we would have to ford Seneca Creek to keep going on the trail that we decide to turn around.

We retrace our steps in good spirits.  I take a picture of my Garmin when we reach 13.1 miles (at 2:59) and SMS it to my wife and children so they can see my progress.

The CSX bridge
Back at the cars, I decide to shed my tights and gloves, and change my two shirts for one longsleeved one.  I refill the Camelback, eat a Wild Mesquite Huppybar, and pack a few gels. It takes almost ten unhurried minutes to do all this, and Emaad is starting to get stiff waiting so he heads off.  

Emaad crosses the feeder stream
approaching Riffle Ford Road.
I catch up to him in a couple of minutes as we take the sidewalk next to Route 355 to get to the other side of Seneca Creek, then get on the trail to go under the road.  There are even fewer people on this stretch of trail, which alternates between runable stretches and some rocky, twisty, up and downs as it passes under I-270 and the 1906 stone arch bridge for the CSX tracks. And as we approach the bridge, so does a CSX train, with a consist of half a dozen locomotives heading a long string of autorack cars and tankers.

We pass thru Seneca Creek State Park on Long Draught Trail, catching a whiff of a cigar from someone sitting on the bank of the creek, then pass under Great Seneca Highway with the scent of sewage from vents of the WSSC sewage pipes in the area. We pass the disc golf course and the players on the course.  Then an easy hop over the stones across a small tributary to Seneca Creek and we shortly arrive at Riffle Ford Road. I touch a symbolic toe on the pavement and we retrace our steps northward.  Even before we reach Great Seneca Highway, the Garmin reads 20 miles (and 5:03) and I take another picture to send home announcing my progress. 
Grafitti under 355.

The northbound journey is not particularly hurried.  We ask a couple of fisherman have they have been faring ("nothing" and "a few small ones") and have to dodge some family groups, particularly in the park or near roads that provide parking for trail access.  

Back at the 355 parking lot we only need less than 2 miles.  To avoid retracing our steps we decide to try to go south on the side of the creek opposite the trail. But what looks like a trail quickly peters out and we give up trying to be creative and simply head north.  Peculiarly, my arithmetic ability is still functioning after 25 miles, and go just far enough out so that the return gives us 26.24 miles in 6:46:26.

The results.

The rewards.

The Best Present
 I eagerly tear open the bag from Uberendurance Sports, don my newly earned shirt and proudly hold up the medal and the bib.

Happy Birthday, Trail Marathoner!

Oh, December 12 is my birthday. And December 12, 2020 was my 70th birthday.  Who could ask for a better 70th birthday present than running a trail marathon with a friend, and getting a medal for doing so? (Although my age goes in the offical records as 69, the age I was had the race occured on the originally scheduled date.)

Swag: shirt, medal, bib.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50K - March 7, 2020

I write this on March 24, seventeen days after the race.  A lot has changed in that period as a result of the corona virus pandemic. It has changed what I was going to write. I had started this a couple of days after the race, but what I was writing then no longer seems right.  The race seems like it was held in a different time that that we are in today.

Fair Weather
The weather leading up to race day is pretty much near perfect. No rain for a week, and after the mudfest and high water of 2019 I obsessively check the stream gauge on Seneca Creek at Route 28. Last year it ran at 440 cubic feet per second. This year it is less than a quarter of that and below the median for the date. A good omen promising a dry course, and even better, a dry crossing of Dry Seneca Creek.

Waiting to start
Fair Warning
The coronavirus is in the news, but there are no restrictions on gatherings such as the race.  At the start, the organizers announce that because of the coronavirus, the rules at the aid stations are changed. Runners are not to take their own food at the aid stations. Instead, volunteers will hand them food or the runners may take food, such as M&Ms, potato chips or pretzels, already parceled out into small disposable cups.

Fermat's Last Theorem and Other Topics
The nearly 300 runners start off down the park road to the entry to the trail under partly sunny skies, temperatures in the 40s and just a bit of breeze.  I run with Don and as usual on such runs the topics bounce around randomly.  For some reason (other than Don's training as a mathematician) we discuss Fermat's Last Theorem and the efforts to prove it. This leads to a discussion of the four color theorem and its applicability to objects with more than two dimensions.

Old farm equipment along the trail
In the meantime we enjoy the near perfect conditions. South of Riffle Ford Road the trail has been rerouted to higher ground to avoid an almost-always stretch next to Seneca Creek.  At one point I'm running point for a group of about ten runners.  I go down a path and in about ten yards realize I've gone astray. I stop yell back for everyone to stop following me and cut uphill to the proper trail.  "I'm no shepherd," I tell them,"but you are sheep for following me astray."

After about five miles Don picks up the pace and I cannot follow.  I'll see him again at the food pavilion at the end of the race where he finished 58 minutes ahead of me.

Not lost
A runner compliments me on my harlequin tights (made for me by legendary ultrarunner Eric Clifton) and I return the complement on her InknBurn gear. It is an opportunity to tell about running Marathon du Medoc in an InknBurn shirt.

South and North
The Route 28 aid station  (mile 7.5) has small cups loaded with snacks and runners are careful in selecting food. I take a cup of pastel peanut M&Ms and eat them while walking alongside Route 28 to cross over to the Seneca Bluffs Trail.  Finishing the snack, I ask the course marshal guiding runners onto the trail if I can leave the empty cup with her and she takes it.

About a mile along a runner ahead of me stumbles and falls. Remarkably his shoe comes off and rolls a short way down the slope on the left side of the trail.  He is unhurt and retrieves the wayward footwear.

Dry feet at Dry Seneca Creek
Further along I join my pace with a fellow runner. When I mention my obsession with the stream gauge, she perks right up, and agrees that last year's reading of 450 ft3/sec. is indeed high. She knows this because she kayaks on Seneca Creek and monitors the gauge before setting out to paddle on the stream.  She plans to drop after 15 miles and just south of the crossing at Dry Seneca Creek her two children meet her to run her with her for awhile.

Speaking of Dry Seneca Creek (it is never dry, although perhaps in the 19th century it occasionally  might have been), this year it is possible to cross it on the concrete stepping stones without wetting a foot; a welcome change from last year's thigh-high torrent with the stones submerged and unseen in the turbid water.

Playing the air guitar flag
Soon enough the course reaches River Road and we cross back over Seneca Creek to return to the north, but not before passing the course marshal playing air guitar with his flag to the tunes of his boom box. 

Just up Seneca Road, before where the course get on the dirt of the Seneca Greenway Trail is a semi-unofficial aid station (mile 14) serving distinctly adult beverages. It is a week or ten days before the seriousness of the coronavirus really will hit home and the workers treat it with some levity, with one in personal protection equipment and another pouring Corona beer for the runners.  At the same time, the aid station workers are wearing gloves to avoid food contamination.

It is only a mile to the Berryville Road aid station (mile 15) where our drop bags await.  I don't get anything from mine but instead dispose of the shirt I had taken off a mile into the race, as well as my gloves and hat.

It was cold and good
It is 4.5 miles back to the Route 28 aid station (mile 19.5) on the east side of the creek. I run with a number of different runners, and each is an opportunity to tell stories of races I've run.  Over the course of the day I tell the Medoc Marathon story three times, the mildly risque Hell Hath No Hurry story a couple of times and several other stories.

Heading for a Decision
I reach the Route 28 aid station in company with another runner. She is contemplating dropping out, and I've been trying to buck up her spirits with two tales of the toughness of Jennifer (and the second).  When she gets there she plops down on a chair and is greeted by a friend who is dropping out.  I go on, feeling bad that I didn't try harder to convince her to go on.

But after getting on the Seneca Ridge Trail beyond Black Rock Mill, I'm pleased to hear her overtake me.  She gives me credit for encouraging her to go on.

It was funny then
I let her go on and stay with Mary, who has fallen earlier and banged her knee.  She is toughing it out and can't run too much. Then she falls again on the same knee.  She pronounces her running for the day over but says she can walk it in.  She urges me to go on.  After assuring myself that she is OK, I do.

I go on and after a bit fall myself.  No harm done, I've fallen so many times on trail runs that most times muscle memory takes over: rotate left, tuck the right shoulder in, roll to the right, try to spread out the landing.  I do well this time, and my hydration pack absorbs some of the impact. A nearly 360 degree roll and I'm on my feet.

Five More Miles to Go
I arrive at the Riffle Ford Road aid station (mile 26.8) and check my watch. The decison point for going to the finish for the marathon (closer to 29 rather than 26.2 miles) or the 50K (more like 32 than 31.1 miles) lies a bit ahead and I know that unlike last year I'm comfortably ahead of the cut-off.

I go on to the Mink Hollow Trail and as I cross the park road in a little while, Edwin Starr's 1969 hit Twenty Five Miles pops into my head.  I sing part of it (I got a five more miles to go/Now over the hill just around the bend/Huh although my feet are tired I can't lose my stride) for the course marshals at the road but they are too young to recognize it - or perhaps I just don't sing well.

Another couple of different runners join me.  I get to tell my stories again. One tells us she just got back from a visit to Iceland.  The other runner and I jokingly move further away from her.  Little do we know that is soon to become the rule.

With around a half a mile left she says she is going to go on. I urge her to finish strong as it is her first ultra.  Another runner passes me.  I don't fret. I mostly walk. No hurry.

 I cross the line in 8:33:28, good (?) for 159/166 overall and  8/8 in my age group. On the other hand, I'm the oldest 50K finisher - by six years.  Two older runners finish the marathon, including the remarkable Gretchen Bolton at 74.

Finisher's pint
I sit a bit and go to the pavilion for food and beer.  I'm not very hungry and pass on the chili but get a cookie and fill my finisher's pint glass with beer.  Don is still there and gives me a ride the quarter mile to my car.

Swag: Bib, pint glass, two bananas, candy

Thursday, February 20, 2020

George Washington Birthday Marathon - February 16, 2020

Don't lose your confidence if you slip
Be grateful for a pleasant trip
And pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again
-  (Lyrics: Dorothy Fields / Music: Jerome Kern) Pick Yourself Up (1936)

Pick Yourself Up
The DNF from Elephant Mountain 50K gnaws at me.  I had no regrets at the time I stopped, but like living with a slowly growing cancer, I can't quite shake the doubts and regrets it has planted. Only one way to deal with it - confront the demon. 

The DC Road Runners George Washington Birthday Marathon is just two weeks later. It is near by (20 minutes), reasonably priced ($50 - $120 depending on when one signs up), low-key, small (about 200 entrants plus 35 relay teams) and does not sell out.  I haven't run a road marathon since the 2018 Marine Corps Marathon, but The only question is the weather, which in February in Washington can be notoriously unpredictable. I know that - having run it in the cold and wind in 2013, being signed up for the canceled 2014 race, and having run one loop in a snowstorm in 2015 before the race as called off.  So I wait until the Wednesday before the race to sign-up, with the forecast looking increasingly promising.

Start All Over Again
Double Agent Barry goes game face early on
Barry is signed up for it  after doing another Dopey Challenge (he is both a Marathon Maniac and a Double Agent) and I offer to pick him up on the way to the race.  He asks to get there a bit early so he can take part in the Marathon Maniac photo, and I agree, as the race starts at 10 a.m., so early isn't really early. I get him at 8:45, we park, near the Greenbelt Recreation Center, collect our bibs and shirts, take some pictures and relax before walking the couple of minutes to the start.

The Dunkin' Donuts truck is parked on the way and is giving out coffee samples. Barry gets a cup. Not a coffee drinker, I pass.

The race starts promptly at 10 a.m. and we go off at an easy pace toward the back of the pack. We listen in as a couple of women runners discuss the marriage proposal one had received ("I was expecting him to ask, so I had already thought it over") and accepted.

We go along on the familiar route with temperatures comfortable in the upper 30s and little wind.  Having looked at the expected temperature climb into the 50s later in the day, Barry has opted for shorts, while I've gone with tights.

Except for about 2.4 miles on the way out and 1.9 on the way back, the course consists of three loops of a rough triangle: Beaver Dam Road on the grounds of the USDA Agricultural Research Center, Springfield Road and Powder Mill Road, with the first and last connected by the short Log Lodge Road, where the relay exchange is located.

Beaver Dam Road with runners
I joke that it is a Goldlocks course: the first loop is too long (9.7 miles) , the second too short (7.3 miles) but the third just right (9.2 miles). It does have rolling hills, and my device reports just over 1000 feet of climbing (and descending). Barry's device claims 1400 feet.

Barry and I run together from the start. He says it takes about four miles for his hip to loosen up, and several times I say that I'm going on, but I don't. 

Found Objects
I spy a capsule containing a white powder on the ground and pick it up.  It is probably a salt cap, and I twist it open and pretend to inhale from it. Or maybe I do inhale from it. And maybe it isn't salt, for soon afterward I pull away from Barry and don't see him again until we meet up at the Community Center for the post-race food. Later in the day I pick up a small plastic bag with two white capsules and an off-white tablet.  This time I don't try any chemical experiments. I carry them for awhile but finally discard them in the trash at an aid station.

Approaching the halfway point
(Photo by Bidong Liu)
Speaking of discards, during the day I pick up at least a half dozen of the small tabs torn from the top of gels.  I realize they are easy to drop but it does annoy me a bit that runners can't be more careful not to litter.

Speaking of litter, since the race is along public roads, it is an opportunity to survey the amount of trash that afflicts our public spaces.  All sorts of food containers, fast food containers, snack wrappers and beverage containers have been tossed out of cars (I suspect). Approaching the aid station at mile 19 on the other side of Soil Conservation Road, I pick up a pair of beer bottles.  As I cross the intersection past the police officer guiding traffic, I assure him that I'm not running while drinking.

Casualties of corduroy roads
Speaking of traffic, Powder Mill Road has a fair volume of traffic that travels at a good clip.  To slow it down (or may to provide additional traction on downhills) the USDA has corduroyed the road in a number of spots.  It doesn't seem to result in lower speeds, but it does appear to have separated some cars from their hubcaps.

Odds and Ends
This is my seventh year running GWB Marathon, so the course itself holds no surprises. There is a mix of the familiar and the occasional new experience. Here are some of them.

I have new glasses with transition lenses, so they automatically darken when out in the sun.  I generally like them, but the morning is overcast but the lens darken anyway.  This makes it a bit darker than I prefer, so I take them off. The downside of that is the loss of visual acuity - I generally can't make out the big E on the traditional Snellen eye chart, so my uncorrected vision is worse than 20/200.  Fortunately this is a road course without rocks and roots and I can see the cars coming at me, so it isn't too much of a disadvantage.  Later the day turns sunny and I put my glasses back on.

Boom box and air guitar for encouragement
At the top of a hill on Powder Mill Road (about miles 8.5, 16 and 23.5) a solitary figure with a boom box provides music for the runners.  He has been there every time I have run the race and I greet and thank him.  The third loop he plays air guitar to accompany the music.

A bit into the second loop, just past a one-lane bridge on Beaver Dam Road, a 16-passenger bus being used to shuttle runners to the relay point is perpendicular to the road and blocking one and a half of the two lanes.  Its tandem rear wheels are over the pavement and in the mud, and it is clearly stuck.  It likely took a wrong turn on its shuttle, tried to turn around and got stuck. Fortunately it is gone by the time I get there on the third lap.

Part of the audio soundtrack of the race is the report of guns from the Prince George's Trap and Skeet Center south of the portions of the Ag Center south of Beaver Dam Road.  The firing is especially heavy during the first loop and it does not take an expert to recognize a variety of arms and ammunition in use.  In past years, the sound usually fades by the turn onto Springfield Road, but this year it can be heard for at least a mile a beyond the turn. The intensity of firing is less on the second and third loops, but is still pretty heavy.

Reaching the aid station at the corner of Beaver Dam and Springfield Roads during second loop (mile 13.1) I spy pizza on the table.  "Mmmm, pizza," I say, knowing that it was brought out for the volunteers.  Asked if I want some, I decline, but add, "Maybe on the third loop."

When I reach the aid station at Soil Conservation Road on the third loop (mile 19) they offer pizza - pepperoni or vegetable topping.  I choose a slice of pepperoni, despite already having a few peanut butter-filled pretzels in my hand. The slice sustains me for the mile and a half to the Springfield corner aid station where I decline pizza, but grab a donut hole. 

At the start I told Barry that my goal was to finish in 5:30.  He aims for 5:45.  At mile 19 I look at my watch and calculate that a 12 minute a mile pace will let me attain my goal.  Since I'm running at a bit below that I think I have a shot at it.  I maintain that for another mile.  By mile 21 I feel that I'm running just as hard, but the pace has slipped to 13 minutes per mile.  By mile 22, it's slower yet. I revise the goal to 5:40.  The last half mile is downhill then flat and a push allows me to cross the line in 5:39:22, good for 174/196 overall, 126/142 male, and 7/10 in my age group.  Barry finishes in 5:47.
Finished (and redemption)
(Photo by Noah Eisenberg)

We meet up in the Community Center, where the runners get a post-race meal of pasta, pizza and birthday cake for the 288th Birthday of the Father of Our County, the namesake of the race.

The first President congratulates Barry and me on our finish

Swag: Quarter zip shirt, bag, medal, bib
(not pictured: confidence and reassurance)

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Elephant Mountain 50K - DNF - February 1, 2020

There are times, when explanations, no matter how reasonable, just don't seem to help.
- Fred Rogers, Life's Journeys According to Mister Rogers (2005)

The End

"Emaad!" I yell a second time.

He finally hears me, stops, and turns around.  He is about 30 yards ahead of me on the long uphill about a mile from where we left the Start/Finish area to start our final 8 mile loop.

"Go on," I say, "I'm done. I'm going back." After 24.7 miles and 6:45:48, my day at the Elephant Mountain 50K is over.

He doesn't try to talk me out of it. A wave of the hand, an "OK" and he goes on and I stop. I trudge the mile back to the Start/Finish.  I pass a few more 50K runners headed out for that final loop. They don't try to talk me into continuing either.

At the finish I report my DNF and get a handshake for my effort. No finisher's pint glass for me.

The Beginning
In the days leading up to the race I obsess over the two cutoffs posted on the website - one for when we return to the Start/Finish line at about mile 23 (7 hours) and the second at the finish (9 hours).  It seems generous enough, but the course has some climbs, the weather can be hot, and the footing is unknown.  And results for previous years do not show any finishers over 9 hours, so I take it that the race organizers are serious about the cutoffs.  I prepare a pace card so we can see how we are doing.

The day before the race Emaad and I visit the Desert Botanical Garden with friend Cathy, an ultrarunner who relocated to the Valley of the Sun about ten years ago.  She has honed her gardening skills with classes at the Gardens that she uses in her own yard and to instruct us about the various plants we will see during our run.

Final instructions at the start
Saturday morning we get a parking spot about 30 yards from the start line. We put together drop bags for the turnaround at the Spur Cross Aid Station (mile 11) and I do one for the start/finish.  They are pretty minimal - a shirt, some gels, maybe a handkerchief.

Promptly (nearly on the second) the 61 50K runners are off at 7 a.m. Fourteen 50 mile runners started an hour earlier (ten will finish).  The sun is still below the horizon, but there is enough light to run by.  Still to come are runners in the 35K, 22K, 12K and 6K distances. We'll see (and get passed by) 35K runners later, but the others will be well done before we are anywhere near overlapping with them.
It is a long climb up at the start, but the golden glow of the impending sunrise behind the hills and mountains to our right is inspiring.

In less than three miles we reach the Go John Aid Station (named for a runner named John who always implored others to "Go!").  A quick drink, a check of the pace card and off we go.

Looking back to the start/finish
It doesn't take long for the field to spread out, but we have a couple of runners following us.  We head up a ridge and hear howling ahead.  To my untrained ear it sounds like a a bunch of runners goofing off at an aid station, but one of the local runners with us, says it is from a pack of coyotes.  We scan ahead as we head down a gentle slope with good views but don't see anything.

Speaking of which, we haven't seen any of the polka-dotted ribbons that mark the trail either.  We have gone awhile without seeing any, but we are clearly on a trail, and we can see a couple of runners ahead.

But one of them heads back towards us and expresses concern about not seeing any ribbons.  Emaad consults the GPX track of the course that he had downloaded on his phone and confirms that we are indeed off the course.  On the other hand, we are headed on a trail that will intersect with the course at the next aid station..  Meanwhile, another pair of runners catches up with us.  The eight or so of us give a collective shrug and decide that all we can do is press on.

Avoid the pointy plants
Gravity Never Takes A Holiday
In parting at the Botanical Garden, Cathy told us to avoid plants with points, especially cholla cactus, which have small but nasty barbed spines. We assure her that will be do our best to look but not touch.

The trails are generally firm dirt, but with plenty of rocks that require attention.  Unfortunately, I catch a toe on one during our off-course section and gravity tugs me earthward.  I'm an experienced faller, so I tuck my right shoulder in and go into a roll when I hit the ground.  The maneuver helps spread out the impact, but I nearly take out one of the runners with us, bumping up against her shin.  But I stop just short of a prickly pear cactus.

A few miles later, on another flat section, I go down again.  Again, no significant damage and no encounter with pointy plants. Later that night I catalog scrapes on my right shin, knee, hand, elbow and shoulder. At least the wounds show that I was able to spread the impacts.
Typical trail (with rocks to trip on)
I'll fall again around mile 13, on a rockier stretch of downhill, but without serious damage.  I quip to hikers heading in the opposite direction, "Go on. Nothing to see here."

But the falls do take a bit of a toll - my lower back is sore, probably from being twisted or wrenched in the falling.  A couple of ibuprofen help for a bit, but the pain returns later in the day.

Friend Sara, running the 22K didn't get the warning from Cathy.  She falls on a downhill - "like I was sliding into home plate" - right into a cactus, maybe a cholla.  At the finish she goes to the medical tent to have the spines removed from her leg.

Back on Course
Emaad crossing Cave Creek about mile 12
We rejoin the course at the Rodger Creek Aid Station (mile 5.9).  The aid station workers are not surprised to seeing us come from the wrong direction, as others have preceded us. They suggest that we cross the timing mat and we do.  We have shaved about 0.9 mile from the course. We are not going to win any awards anyway, so it is unfortunate but not such as thing that would require us to disqualify ourselves.  Because of my concern about making the cutoffs, I'm secretly pleased that we have saved a few more minutes.

With the exception of the fall on the way out, the run to the Spur Cross Aid Station (mile 11) is uneventful, but is filled with great scenery. At one point we can see the aid station below and seemingly near, but we have to run away from it while headed down, and then cross Cave Creek on a small improvised two-board bridge before reaching it.

At the aid station I change from the long sleeve shirt to a short sleeve one, get my handkerchief, refill my bottle and use the Porta-potty, entirely forgetting to get anything to eat at the station.

The view on the Spur Cross Trail
The day is getting warm (temperature will reach 79) and the sun is high and bright. I have gels and salt tabs with me and I am taking them, but at irregular intervals.

You Think You are Tough
On the way back to Rodgers Creek, we fall in with a woman runner. As usual during an ultra, we chat.  We are walking a fair amount now, I I mention my concern about the cutoffs (although we were 35 minutes to the good at Spur Cross.  She too, has a pace card, and suggests that we need to pick it up a bit if we wish to maintain our cushion.  He says that she cannot run the rocky stretches because she is legally blind.  She also tells us that she has MS.  Neither affliction prevents her from running away from us, although we briefly catch up to her approaching Rodgers Creek before she goes ahead for good.

Emaad circling Elephant Mountain
At Rodgers Creek Aid station (mile 16) I soak my handkerchief and hat to provide some cooling, and this time we get on the right part of the course that we missed outbound.  The first stretch is an old road, flat but particularly rocky. The next stretch is a short bit of paved road. Neither is pleasant, but we are soon enough back on the trail, and into the Go John Aid station with our time cushion undiminished.
We work on the section around Elephant Mountain toward the Start/Finish.  It gets rocky and uphill.  The sun beats down on us, and our pace flags. A mountain biker comes flying down one particularly steep and rocky stretch, telling us not to worry about him.  Finally the trail levels out and then heads down to where we started (mile 24).  We beat not only the official cutoff, but my unofficial cutoff, but we have given back time.  The 35 minute cushion is down to 17 minutes.

The Abruptness of the End
I change shirts again, re-soak my hat and handkerchief and we head out. It is the long uphill that we started on and we are mostly walking, even the more level stretches.  I tell Emaad that we need to pick it up if we are to make the 9 hour finishing cutoff.

We reach a stretch on one of the uphill switchbacks that is level and he urges me to run.  We do.  He gets ahead of me.  We both keep walking uphill.

I look up and see not only him but that the stretch of trail further along - and uphill.

It's a gut punch. No, a knockout punch.  I don't even agonize over whether I can go on. At the time I feel no shame, no regret, no sadness, about it.

I call out to Emaad and quit.

Another runner comes along and I get an ibuprofen from her. She goes onward and I turn around to go down.

Emaad goes on to finish in 8:42, 18 minutes under the offical 9-hour cutoff.  But because of the addition of the 50 mile race there are four runners who finish over that time. The cutoff wasn't a cutoff.

Reasonable Explanations?
The heat.
The falls and back pain.
The failure to manage electrolytes and nutrition.
Misapprehension of the cutoff.
Not taking time to regroup.
Lack of mental toughness.
Failing to realize that I only had 100 feet of the 500 feet of climbing to go.
My age.

Mister Rogers was right. Explanations don't help.

Swag: Shirt, bib (but no finisher's glass)