Monday, December 8, 2014

Potomac Heritage Trail 50K - November 1, 2014

I hadn't planned on running a 50K six days after Marine Corps Marathon.  The plan was to run Rosaryville Veterans Day 50K on November 8, but that date is Medals Day for the Baltimore City Fire Department and son Andrew is being awarded an Exemplary Performance Award, Distinguished Unit Citation and a CPR Save Award for his role on March 6 in saving three persons from a house fire and restoring the pulse and respiration of one of those persons in cardiac arrest. Obsessive runner that I may be, I'm a prouder parent, so Rosaryville gets scratched and I sign up for the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club low key Potomac Heritage Trail 50K  race on November 1.

Although separated by only six days, MCM and PHT are worlds apart.  MCM has 19,000 runners and thousands of spectators against 100 runners signed-up for PHT and no spectators.  Entry fee for MCM is around $100, while PHT is free.  MCM is chip-timed; PHT is self-timed. And MCM is 26.2 miles on pavement while PHT is 31.1 miles on dirt.

Follow the purple chalk
Woodley Park to the Potomac Heritage Trail
Gayatri offers to drive us to the start which is at Kerry and Doug's house in Woodley Park.  Although the official start is at 8 a.m. we have arranged to start early, about 7 a.m. Mark meets us there, and we meet Delia and Maureen from Annapolis who have also decided to start early. (We are not the earliest starters. Seventy-nine year old Eugene started at 3:30 a.m.) I present Kerry with a 12-pack of beer for the after party as she checks us in. We cross the street and decide which crack in the sidewalk should be the start line, start our watches together and head off to follow the purple chalk marks through DC.

We go down 29th Street and Woodland Drive where we pick up the Normanstone Trail to Rock Creek trail. We follow a variety of small, connected trails behind Dumbarton Oaks, Whitehaven Street, through Glover Archibald Park to the Battery Kemble Trail.  These are all new trails to me and it is remarkable that there are so many hidden trails in the heart of the city.

Starting out: me, Gayatri, Mark, Maureen and Delia (l. to r.)
While the course is well marked and we have both a map and turn-by-turn directions the five of us have to stop occasionally to determine the correct way.

In 1:16 we reach the first aid station (mile 4.7).  The two volunteers jump out of the car where they were sitting and tell us that we are the first runners to arrive - not surprising given our hour headstart on the rest of the field.  We are offered the first chance to score bonus minutes to deduct from out time - eat dried shrimp.  I pass up the shrimp but do eat some of the other 'delicacies' - Spam, cajun-flavored sardines and anchovies.

Blue heron fishing in the canal in Georgetown
We continue down Battery Kemble Trail and cross MacArthur Blvd.  Soon the trail turns into a scramble over some rocks alongside a stream that leads us into a tunnel under Canal Road and brings us to the C&O Towpath.  We turn left toward Georgetown with Gayatri and I in the lead.  A deer bounds out of the nearly dry canal and crosses the towpath before paralleling our course on the adjacent Capital Crescent Trail, then finally dashing into the woods leading to the Potomac.  Nearly in Georgetown we spot a Great Blue Heron fishing in the canal.  We take a footbridge over the canal to Key Bridge to cross into Virginia. Gusts of wind buffet us.

Welcome to the PHT
Mark jumps rope at AS #2 for 3 bonus minutes
The Potomac Heritage Trail actually begins across from Roosevelt Island near Key Bridge.  The second aid station (mile 8.6) is located there and bonus time is awarded to anyone who jumps rope, or at least attempts to, as the jump rope is a child's jump rope making it more difficult for taller persons. We are there in about 2:11 from our start

After we all take turns we head upstream.  Under Key Bridge I spot a geocache. Unfortunately none of us have anything to leave and we didn't use GPS to find it so we go on.

Trekking along the PHT near Spout Run
After being overtaken and passed by the actual lead runners, stopping to take pictures and um, for other purposes, I decide to take off from my colleagues.

Quarrying machinery remnants by the Potomac
I jog off along the trail. It is only about four miles to the third aid station at Chain Bridge (mile 12.5) but the trail is surprisingly rocky and the going is slow. I pass what appear to be the remains of rusted steam boilers and gears.  A walker on the trail tells me that they were used in the 19th century for quarrying operations.

At Gulf Branch I'm a bit confused as to which way the trail goes, but a couple of runners come along and we all realize that we need to climb up a precipitous 50-foot rock face.  There are some handrails to assist the climb but a vertical one has pulled out of its moorings and is wedged in the rocks.  The next one is mostly horizontal and I keep a firm grip as the path is narrow and there is a steep drop-off to rocks and the run on the left.  It takes about 1:19 to go the four miles between AS2 and AS3.

The trail improves after leaving the Chain Bridge aid station as it drifts away from the river.  It is hillier but is mostly dirt, leaving the rocks behind.  I keep alert for the right turn across Pimmit Run and spot it easily enough.  Fortunately there has been no rain in the days before the race and the streams are down allowing the runners to keep their feet dry at all the stream crossings.

The trail passes through Fort Marcy Park, and gets close to the GW Parkway.  Close enough in fact, that one comes within feet of it while passing under the overpass at Chain Bridge Road.  Even with a crosswalk, caution is necessary in crossing the parkway off-ramp on the other side of the overpass.

There's a trail over those rocks - somewhere.
See if you can spot the blue blaze.
The next section of the trail follows a narrow stretch of park between the Parkway on the left and multi-million homes of McLean on the right.  Soon the houses end and the trail starts a descent back down to the river's edge, bringing with it a return to the rocks.

But a turn to the left, away from the river, trades rocks for climbing and i enter the Turkey Run Park area.  A woman runner comes up behind me as we near some buildings. We start looking for either chalk marks or the blue blazes of PHT and only see yellow blazes.  As we start to backtrack several more runners come along.  One is a veteran of the race and assures us that we are headed in the proper direction, and sure enough, we finally see purple chalk. In a few minutes we arrive at the Turkey Run aid station (mile 17: elapsed time, 4:45).

Touching the bridge at the turnaround
From there it is only a couple of miles to the supports of the American Legion Bridge where we stop to pose for pictures touching the bridge (about mile 19?). The feet stay dry crossing Turkey Run in both directions.

Headed Back
I see Mark, Gayatri and Maureen on the way back.  Delia dropped at Chain Bridge. After seeing them I'm concentrating on my footing after crossing the run and don't see the low branch that smacks me on the head. I yelp and a walker ahead asks if I want him to take a look at it.  I've already felt the spot and while there is an already-rising lump there is no blood.

"I know the date and the president," I tell him, "so I don't have a concussion. Today is 11-1-14 and the President is Woodrow Wilson."  He enjoys the joke, and I pass him and go up the switchbacks to the Turkey Run aid station (about mile 20-21?)

"Did you get your bonus on the way out?' one of the volunteers asks. Then she tells me that there is a bonus for break-dancing at the aid station.  I tell her I won't get down on the ground and am told that anything that I call break dancing will earn the bonus.  I flail about and do other maneuvers while someone takes pictures and the volunteers all laugh. "You are one of the best dancers we've had," I'm told - a sorry commentary on the ability of trail runners to bust a move.

Wind-driven ripples on the Potomac
Backtracking toward Chain Bridge I allow my mind to wander.  The trail runs so close to the Parkway at one point that there is a low stone wall that separates the trail from the roadway.  A moment's inattention and I fall.  It is just dirt and no harm is done, but I realize that I came within inches of hitting my head on the wall when I went down.

Entering the area of Fort Marcy Park I'm startled by the largest buck I've ever seen in the DMV that bursts from the woods on my right and bounds up the ridge on the left.  Shortly he is joined by a doe and a fawn.

Picking up the trail on the other side of the parking lot at the Park I slam on the brakes. A doe is standing in the trail looking at me.  Normally deer run off but she does not look like she is interested in going anywhere and isn't the least bit afraid. Then I see the fawn to the right. Rather than retreating I do what any modern person would do - I pull out my device to try to get a picture.  That seems to accomplish my goal and she and the fawn trot off.

Arriving at the Chain Bridge aid station (mile 24.5; elapsed time 7:02) I chat with the volunteers and enjoy a glass of red wine (not as good as that served at Marathon du Medoc, but appreciated anyway).  I accept the final bonus challenge of the day - carry a raw egg to the finish.  Since I had picked up a baggie with white capsules off the trail earlier in the day I figured the risk was low in case of an accident.  I swallowed one of the capsules on the assumption that it was a Succeed or other form of electrolyte, put the rest in my pill container, put the egg in the baggie and placed the baggie in one of the front pockets of my hydration pack. (Note: this was not the first time I picked up and consumed unidentified capsules during a race.  See my report on the 2013 TNF50K.)

Climb over the fence and go thru the tunnel
near Fletcher's Boathouse
The return to Woodley Park is mostly uneventful.  I cross Chain Bridge to the C&O Canal towpath, go down to Fletcher's Boathouse and through the tunnel we used outbound and mostly retrace the outbound route, although it is a bit shorter without the short segment to where the first aid station was.

I'm a bit uncertain as to the location of the turn-off for the Normanstone Trail, but after a bit of back and forth and spotting a couple of runners headed in the right direction I figure it out.  It's almost entirely uphill to the finish and so I end the day with a nice walk.

I sign in at Kerry's house with a time of 8:40 and present her with the unbroken egg.  That's worth a 25 minute bonus, the beer earns a 10 minute bonus, and jumping rope is worth 3 minutes.  But the big surprise is that I get 15 minutes for my dance routine, second only to Ed's 20 minute award.  All the other dancers only get 3 minutes.  So my net time is 7:47. And that is worth what everyone else's performance is worth - a fabulous party with two kinds of chili, pasta, vegetables, salad, beer and soft drinks and plenty of desserts (cake and cookie contributors got a 15 minute bonus).  Pretty dang good for a run with no entry fee, no bib, no timing, no spectators, no shirt and no swag, but great volunteers, a nice and sometimes challenging course and a wonderful post-party.

Mark, Gayatri and Maureen finish together in 9:54. Gayatri got 3 jump rope points, Mark got 5 dried shrimp and 3 jumprope points and Maureen got 3 break-dance points.  One runner dropped and called a taxi to return to party central the finish At Kerry's. Two runners became the first PHT runners to ever use Uber upon dropping. And four runners were assessed a 10 minute penalty for following the blue blazes of the PHT all the way to the American Legion bridge, missing the yellow trail to the Turkey Run Aid station.