Friday, April 4, 2014

Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50K - March 8, 2014

Miles and Miles of Mud
 A Tale of True Grit or Epic Stubbornness
We admire perseverance. The epic quest; the strength of will to go on in the face of insurmountable odds; the struggle to succeed when the odds of success are approaching zero. We also admire adaptability. The realization that conditions are not what we expected and react accordingly; to stop doing what is not working and live to fight another day; the change of plan that averts disaster. Both are admirable but mutually exclusive. We are selective in our praise, choosing the label that suits the successful outcome. George Mallory was foolish; Edmund Hillary was adaptable. Custer was dashing at Gettysburg and reckless at Little Big Horn. The frontal assaults at Fredericksburg were a tragic and futile loss of Union lives; Thomas' assault at Missionary Ridge a brilliant matter of perseverance by the Union troops. The story of the 2014 Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50K is a story of either admirable perseverance or a lack of adaptability. I'll tell what happened, or at least as I saw it and leave it to you to judge.

No mud early on
Starting Out
I pick Jennifer up and we drive up to Damascus Regional Park, where the race ends.  On the way she tells me about her misadventures two days earlier when she took took of her children to Whitetail for a day of skiing and snowboarding.  Although she had never done either she first attempted snowboarding and wound up falling backward.  Even wearing a helmet, she said, she had never hit her head so hard. Also, her back was hurting from the fall.  Having decided that snowboarding was too difficult she switched over to skiing and promptly managed to fly over a berm on the side of the course, get airborne and wind up in some bushes.She tells me she waited until Friday to let me know that she was going to run.

We park, meet up with friends and board the bus that takes us to the start at Poole's Store, where River Road crosses Seneca Creek.  It seems like a long ride. But then again, it is a long ride.

Starting at Poole's Store makes the course about 0.6 mile shorter than in the previous year, when the race began at the old stone mill down Tschiffley Mill Road.  That's a nice concession, as the course is notoriously long, and even shortened still exceeds 50K.

The day is nearly perfect for running, a bit cool, partly sunny and no precipitation in the forecast. But snow earlier in the week, followed by some rising temperatures promises to make for some tricky footing.

But things go smoothly on the trail at the start. It's single track and Jennifer and I are toward the rear where there is plenty of walking as runners gradually sort themselves out by pace.  We pass some folks when we can and make way for others.

The trail is a bit snow covered but the footing is generally decent.  The steep slope at the crossing over the creek at Berryville Road is slick but we manage it without incident. From there we move along nicely.  While the trial has some snow on it and is chewed up a bit by the runners ahead of us, it is in surprisingly good shape.  Even the section south of Route 28 which is a bit low-lying does not have the mud that many of us feared.

Arriving at the Route 28 Aid Station I take off my outer shirt.  I've already shed my hat and gloves.  Spotting Meghan C. who is crewing for Michelle P. I ask her if she would be willing to take them so that I don't have to carry them.  She graciously agrees.

Approaching Black Rock Mill
(Photo by Dan DiFonzo)
Jennifer Runs at Black Rock Mill
 (Photo by Dan DiFonzo)
The stretch between Route 28 and Black Rock Mill goes up and down hill and the snow is now getting slushy and slippery.  Footing is getting tricky and one has to be careful especially on the downhills to not get out of control.

At Black Rock Mill we are directed onto the Seneca Ridge Trail.  It will take us up the hills to the west of Seneca Creek, promising drier footing than if we stay on the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail to the next aid station at Riffle Ford Road. On the other hand, it is a bit longer than the alternative.

As we go along we fall in with Tom G. an extraordinary runner with more than 170 ultras to his credit.  He and Jennifer trot along as I stop to use the, uh, facilities available to all ultrarunners, then to take some pictures.

They chat about home improvements as Tom does that kind of work and Jennifer is a one-woman work crew at her house.  She even took and passed the City of Rockville electrical test to do her own wiring.
Holiday skulls

Tom goes on and Jennifer and I settle into a pattern of running and walking but she is going slower than usual.  As we climb up a steep bank following a stream crossing she gives a yelp from pain emanating from her back.

Time for Drugs
She gives up more of the story how on Friday she had back pain, nausea and was "just not feeling right." Friday night she rummaged around in the medicine cabinet, and took some prescription medications (not her own) that relieved the pain and helped her sleep.  She tells me that her back has pain radiating from her posterior and that she is feeling not herself.  With that she reaches into her pocket and takes a Tylenol 3 for the pain.

After 20 minutes or so she asks me for a gel.  The Tylenol 3 is giving her stomach pains and she hope that the gel, something that she usually avoids, will settle it down.  Fortunately it does.

When we get to Riffle Ford Road there is no aid station even though there was supposed to be one.  I didn't fill my water bottle at the Route 28 aid station or even at the unofficial one at Black Rock Mill and now I'm out of water; never a good situation. Post-race inquires lead to no explanation as to why it wasn't there or why runners were not told that it would not be there.

Jennifer has a snack approaching Clopper Lake
The Tylenol 3 is starting to work as Jennifer is able to clown around to pretend to gnaw at a tree. But our pace is definitely slowing and I'm concerned that we won't make it to Clopper Lake by the cutoff to start the loop around the lake for the 50K.  It is announced as 11:30 a.m. and I get there right about then or a minute or two later with Jennifer a minute or two behind.

It is clear to me that Jennifer is suffering.  Normally she is excellent on uphills, but today she trudges up the hill to the lake.  Given the time I ask her if she wants to just do the marathon (in actuality, about 29 miles rather than 26.2).  But she insists that she has to do the 50K, both because she has arranged childcare for the day and for training for our upcoming 50 milers and the Black Hills 100K that we are doing on June 28.

So into the loop we go even though it is after 11:30.  The race has traditionally been fairly liberal with its rules and later we learn that because of the adverse footing, the cutoff has been extended to 12 noon.  By now the snow on the trail is pretty much gone and has been replaced with thick mud that alternately grabs at one's shoes or causes one to slip and slide.

Clopper Lake from the Dam after Circumnavigating it
Done with the loop we head toward the next aid station at Route 355.  Jennifer is pretty much plodding on, running some and walking a lot.  I am able to stop in order to send a tweet ("Done with Clopper and headed toward 355, mud, runoff and occasional ice making my hip a bit sore.") and easily catch up to her.

At the 355 aid station (mile 21), Rebecca and Gayatri are waiting.  They have decided to drop out and An is there to gather them up.  Despite her deteriorating condition there is no hesitation from Jennifer about going on.

By now the course is all mud. It is wet mud when the trail is near the creek, and wet mud when going uphill or downhill.  I embrace the day, tweeting at 1:36 p.m., "Past 355 at 21 miles. No longer bothered by the slop. Its kinda fun in a kids way."  In fact, given that the mud is unavoidable there really isn't anything to do about it.  Might as well enjoy it.
Sock adjustment

But Jennifer is beyond enjoyment.  She is pretty much reduced to walked.  Any attempt to run causes back pain. At one point I ask her how she is doing and her eyes well up.  I've never seen her lose her composure like that and it is frightening.

Furthermore, I'm convinced that she suffered a concussion two days earlier.  She said that when she fell it felt like someone hit her in the head with a baseball bat.  While she claims that she never passed out, she admits that she has no recollection of the fall. And she has been feeling nauseous and 'funny' Friday and now today.

Dirty Girl
A woman passes us with her back covered in mud.  She tell me that she has fallen twice.  She is not the only person we see who has had a close encounter with the ground. The lucky ones only have mud on them.  On others there is mud and blood.

We press on. Just past Watkins Mill Road she stops to get the mud out of her shoe.  A few miles further I will do likewise as even wearing gaiters the mud has worked its way into the shoes and made a ball under the arch of my foot.
Don poses in the mud before passing us
 for the final time

In a few hundred yards with both veer off the course in opposite directions to use the natural facilities.  Don, who has been leapfrogging with us, passes me and asks in surprise, "Why am I catching up with you again?"

Relentless forward progress
On we go and surprisingly, we somehow catch up with Don.  But it isn't for long and he passes us for a final time.

Death March
We clear the aid station at Brink Road.  We have about six miles to go.  By now Jennifer has given up any pretense of trying to run. It is a matter of perseverance now for her.  She says how she tells her children that just because something is hard you can't quit.  But this is different, I argue. You are in pain and taking drugs (by now she has taken another Tylenol 3).  There is nothing wrong with stopping when you are in pain and probably have a concussion I argue.  It is no use.  She is intent on going on.

In a couple of miles we come to the crossing of Seneca Creek. There are rocks to cross on, but the creek is up from the runoff and they are mostly at or below the surface.  There is a robe to hold onto to steady oneself, but it is generally slack.  We gingerly climb and slide down the slick bank to the crossing and I start across.  After a few steps the rope flops away from me, I lose my balance and both knees whack against the rocks. Cold water reaches tights, shorts and part of my shirt.

By now our pace has deteriorated that we are regularly being passed.  Appropriately, somewhere south of Watkins Road we smell death.  Somewhere nearby there is a decomposing carcass.  We don't see it but our noses pick up the unmistakable scent.  Since she is already nauseous it must be even worse for her.

The sun is getting low and the temperature is starting to fall.  I'm starting to get cold and my shirt and shorts have not fully dried.  

We cross Watkins Road and the volunteers there tell us how much further to the final aid station at Log House Road.  By now Jennifer's voice has changed.  When she talks it is in a disturbing monotone, devoid of any inflection. A little while later she says that her shoulders are getting hot.

And then she tells me that her eyes are pulling to the left.

Approaching Log Cabin Road with
less than 2 miles to go 
I spend the quarter mile before the Log House Road aid station trying to convince her to drop out there. I know that she won't but I've got to make the effort.  In her flat, affectless voice she insists that since she has gone this far she will go the remain 1.6 miles.  I can only tell her that I 'll continue to stay with her and that I have my phone if I need to dial 911.

On we walk. Finally the trail ends and we come out on the paved path in Damascus Recreational Park.  It is mostly uphill but at least the mud is over. Incredibly, as the finish line comes in sight, Jennifer insists that we run to it.  And so we do, crossing the line in 9:14. Astonishingly we are not DFL. Two runners finish 36 minutes behind us.

Jennifer tries the run the following week but her back continues to hurt. After another week she goes to the doctor.  He tells her no running for 4-6 weeks - she has a broken tailbone as a result of her snowboarding fall.

Later she admits to me that her memory was foggy in the days following her fall. "My boss told me he sent me emails to do things, but I had no recollection that I got them and opened them so I hadn't done what he asked," she said.

You decide: is this a tale of perseverance and true grit, or stubbornness and lack of adaptability?


  1. Quite an adventure! Make sure she stays healthy going into Black Hills!

  2. For some reason I enjoyed reliving that day.