Thursday, March 26, 2015

Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50K - March 21, 2015

Rain and snow on Friday promise to bring challenging conditions to the already once-postponed Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50K and Marathon. But there isn't too much of either; just enough to assure that SCGT will stay true to its reputation for having early spring mud or worse.

Don has warned us that the ironically named Dry Seneca Creek will not be dry and that the water may be high enough to cover the rocks that would otherwise allow one to cross it with feet. The night before I recall a trick that Gayatri once mentioned to keep feet dry.  I pack the secret supplies for it in case it is necessary.

The morning of the race is cool - in the 30s - but the forecast calls for highs to reach the 50s with partial sunshine and no precipitation. Pretty good weather conditions for a day of trail running.

For the first time in the history of the race there is no need to drive to the finish to be bused to the start as the race will start and end in Seneca Creek State Park, greatly simplifying logistics. With the completion of the Seneca Bluffs trail the course now can run outbound on the west side of the creek and inbound on the east side with a minimum amount of overlap, particularly for the 50K runners.

There are fewer runners at the start than in previous years, probably due to the race's postponement as it is on the same day as the HAT50K. In fact, participation is significantly depressed and there will only be a total of 173 finishers in both distances (106 50K; 67 marathon) down 40 percent from last year's 289 (206/83) finishers. Although the website said transfers were not permitted, the postponement led to a little-announced change of the policy.  I get a transfer from Barry who is running HAT.

Early in the day with Monika just behind.
(Photo by Conroy Zien )
Running Versus Racing
Milling about at the start I greet Jim and Monika.  Both are planning to do the marathon distance.  Monika is coming off running a 100K last week in Charlottesville so today is a bit of a recovery run for her.  For me on the other hand, it is a chance to begin some earnest training for Bull Run Run 50 miler on April 11. Since Potomac Heritage 50K in November my longest run has been 14 miles, so I need some serious long runs. 

Monika and I start out together. The race starts with a bit of a loop on the park road to spread out the runners before heading onto the single track of the Greenway Trail.  In some spots the road is slick with ice from previous day's rain and footing is better on the light coating of crunchy snow at the side of the road.

Billabong Bob's Tiki Bar and Aid Station at Riffle Ford Road.
(Photo by Conroy Zien )
As is usual for trail runners, or at least for those who are running and not racing, we chat about myriad topics.  Monika won the 2006 SCGT Marathon but now she says she just runs rather than races and finds it is less stressful and allows her to enjoy the day more.

The trail is in generally in very good shape. There is no snow on it - at least for those of us towards the back of the pack - and the previous day's precipitation has made the ground soft.  That's the case on the higher portions of the trail, but there is still plenty of mud in low-lying areas and where water drains across the trail.

Through Tiki Bar-themed aid station at Riffle Ford Road, across the road and onto the trail.  It has been several years that I have run on this part of the Greenway Trail but the memory of it comes back with every step on what seems like an old friend (were one to run on an old friend). It is mostly flat to Germantown Road where we have to wait for several cars to pass on the two-lane road before the course marshals allow us to go on.  Then some up and down and we reach Black Rock Mill, which will be the decision point on the way back for choosing between the two distances.

On Seneca Bluffs trail just south of Route 28.
In a bit over a mile we reach the Route 28 aid station (about mile 8).  I refill my water pack and grab so potato chips, M&Ms, trail mix and cookies. One of the great things about trail running is eating junk food without guilt all day.  It isn't even 9 a.m. and I'm gorging on snack foods for the second time today - I did likewise earlier at the Tiki Bar when the time was barely past 7:30 a.m.  I  look around for Monika, but she is already gone. Crossing Route 28 to get to the Seneca Bluffs trailhead on the other side of the creek I see her back in the distance. That's the last that I see her.  For someone running and not racing she still manages to be fourth in her age group in the marathon.

Poole's General Store at Old River Road.
It's all northbound from here.
This is my first time on Seneca Bluffs Trail, which was built by bikers who are not permitted to ride on the Greenway Trail on the other side of the creek.  It is nice to run on a new trail. Without having run on the trail and without mile posts as on the Greenway Trail it is a nice timeless, distance-free run. Just run. Don't worry about where you are, how far you have gone, how far you have to go.  Live in the present.

Finally I reach the inaccurately named Dry Seneca Creek,.  There are large rocks in the stream but the water is up to them and one is under water.  I briefly consider employing Gayatri's trick, but fear the water may be moving too swiftly and the rocks too slippery to be effective.  Instead I resign myself to cold wet feet for awhile.

Soon enough I reach Old River Road, turn left, pass Poole's General Store, cross the bridge over Seneca Creek and head north.  Race Director Paul drives next to me and inquires about course conditions and offers a ride on his roof.  I decline the offer.

Paul drives on and stops to chat with the course marshal directing runners back into the woods and onto the trail.  Catching up to him I ask if he would like me to carry the car.  We both chuckle.

"One Amazing Trick for Crossing Streams!"  
I'm now back on the familiar Greenway Trail. Some up and down, then past a sign marking mile 15, then up and a steep down to a stream tributary.  No way to get across dry-foot, so now it is time for the "One Amazing Trick for Crossing Streams!"  I reach into my pocket and pull out two newspaper delivery plastic bags.  But I can't find the rubber bands that were going to secure the tops and I neglected to try pulling them on over my running shoes at home.  I struggle and finally get them over the shoes and the trick works! I get across with dry feet!  The Berryville aid station (about mile 16) is on the other side of the crossing and I discard the bags.

Route 28 in the background and
the AS just beyond
The trail on the way back to Route 28 has some muddy but also has some runnable sections.  About five or six of us form a convoy and keep each other company along this stretch with subgroups occasionally leapfrogging one another.  Soon enough we can spot the Route 28 bridge ahead just past the 20 mile sign.  By now most of the light coating of snow that lay on the grass and leaves is gone.

At the aid station on the other side of Route 28 I grab a handful of the usual snacks and walk the trail while eating.  It's still not noon and I've been eating junk food all morning without the slightest sense of guilt or remorse.  That freedom from self-nagging is reason enough to run these races.

In a little over a mile I approach Black Rock Mill, where runners get to choose whether to run the marathon or the 50K. I'm with a woman runner and I ask her which way she is going. She says wants to think that she hasn't made a final decision yet. I press her a bit and she admits that she came to run the 50K and that is what she is going to do, but like the idea that she can pretend that she has not really decided to go the longer distance.

Looking back toward Black Rock Mill and heading onto the 50K course. 
Reaching the mill we both head right onto the Seneca Ridge Trail rather than left where would retrace our steps on the Greenway Trail.  Like Seneca Bluffs Trail the Seneca Ridge Trail was built by bikers. Oddly enough I don't see any bikers or either trail all day.

The trail is hillier and longer than the Greenway trail, but is nearly devoid of mud. I leapfrog a younger man who has a woman running with him. He tells that it is her first 50K and she says that he talked her into it at the mill.

" Did he tell you this is more like 55K?" I ask.

Mile 25 somewhere on Seneca Ridge Trail.
"No," she replies, casting a glance at her companion.

"No worry," I say, "the marathon is closer to 29 miles anyway."

We cross Germantown Road and after a few more miles return to Billabong Bob's Tiki Bar aid station. After exchanging mildly ribald exchanges with coconut-bra wearing Bob and some other volunteers I'm on my way with a green plastic lei.

A Mom, A Son and A Dog
I come across a woman carrying an SLR camera together with a young teenage boy and a large friendly dog.

"Get any good pictures?" I inquire.

"Some," she says.

"Any interesting birds?"

"I've been taking pictures of my son and our dog," she admits.

Trying to stay dry north of Riffle Ford Road.
(Photo by Conroy Zien )
"So based on your picture taking, who do you love more?" I tease.

The son points to the dog.

The End Is Not in Sight
The 30 mile sign looms nearly a half mile before the final aid station where the trail intersects the park road.  Motown provides the musical background for more snack food and a topping up of the Nathan as I head to the right to run around Clopper Lake on the 50K course.

Mile 30, wearing a lei, and not even to the park to
start the 3 mile Clopper Lake loop.
It's about a three mile loop around the lake to the finish. From the south side of the lake, which one runs around first, one can see the boat center on the opposite shore. Frustratingly, it seems like one is making no progress in coming abreast of it. The lake has a heavily indented shoreline, and running around the inlets and coves take time without make much forward progress.  Once the boat center is finally passed another frustration arises - trying to spot the end of the lake.  Again, the meandering trail and the geography of the lake create frustration and impatience.  But finally, finally! the end of the lake is reached, and transited and I'm on the side where the finish lies.

Two women have been leapfrogging me around the lake.  One had a device in her pack playing - moderately loudly - a Pandora-selected set of running music. She senses that it isn't my style- could our three decades of age difference have anything to do with that? - and offers to turn it off even though I have not said anything about it. I tell her no, that if it works for her keep it going.

The view from the far end of Clopper Lake. Finally!
Finally we crest the final rise and the boat center is not only in sight again but we are running past it. A little more trail, a couple of right turns and across the finish.

The Stats
As is the tradition of SCGT the 50K is "at least 31.1 miles." This year it is about 33 by my estimates.  Maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less, but definitely well more than 50K.

I finish in 8:09:47, good for 94/106 overall, 2 of 3 in my AG. My official pace is 14:51 per mile. It is my seventh, all consecutive, SCGT 50K.

Training is Bunk
On November 2, 2014 I ran the Potomac Heritage 50k. That was about 20 weeks prior to SCGT. During that period I ran ten or more miles exactly seven times and no run single run longer than 14 miles. I'm not fast and I don't try to be. But if you think you need to do incredible numbers of long runs in order to do a trail ultra, think again. As Nike advertises, just do it. Training is bunk.
Swag: bib, lei (from the Tiki Bar), snood and optional shirt.

Friday, March 6, 2015

George Washington Birthday Marathon (truncated) - February 21, 2015

Have a Plan B
Some things are not meant to be. Last year's George Washington Birthday Marathon was canceled due to a snowstorm.  With no make-up date, the DC Road Runners did the best they could, mailing runners their shirts, medals (for the race that wasn't) and a partial refund of the entry fee. It was only the third time since the February marathon began in 1962 that it was canceled.

Learning from experience, DCRRC had a make-up date for this year's edition of the race should it be necessary.  By Thursday, February 12, it was clear that cold and windy conditions on Sunday, February 15, were going to be beyond challenging and bordering on dangerous, so the race was postponed six days to Saturday, February 21.  It was the right call, as temperatures on the 15th bottoming out at 10 degrees with northwest winds of 20-31 miles per hour and gusts to 46 miles per hour.

Modeling the game face and taped shoes pre-race
Mother Nature decided to keep things challenging.  The forecast for the 21st called for temperatures in the upper teens rising into the twenties with calm winds, but with a near certainty of snow.  But to make things interesting both the amount, rate and timing of the snow was somewhat uncertain.

A 10 a.m. start for the race assured that the cold would not be too bad, but it also pushed the race closer to the timing of the oncoming snow.

Be Prepared
I was pretty much resigned to the likelihood that the later part of the race would be in the snow.  Running in the snow is not particularly bad - if it is not blowing in your face it is even peaceful.  But being wet is unpleasant, especially cold and wet.  In addition to wearing three shirts for warmth (one too many can be removed, one too few dooms you to cold), I tied a windbreaker around my waist for additional protection in shedding snow.  And I adopted an innovation from Don L. by putting duct tape on the front of my shoes, figuring that it would not only help retain heat from my Little Hotties toe warmers, but would retard moisture from getting in my shoes.  Thusly attired, with hat, buff, gloves and extra Hotties for my hands should the need arise, I headed out to the start with the rest of the optimist-runners

What sort of fool would run a marathon facing a snow storm?
These sorts especially - those wearing shorts and earmuffs.
The Audacity of Hope
There may be one hundred or so runners at the start line, including relay runners preparing to run the first loop of the three loop course (there's an additional 2.4 mile 'out' and a 1.9 mile 'back' on the first and third of the 7.3 mile loops).

It's a bit cold at the 10 a.m. start but no snow. If  the snow can hold off  until noon or 1 p.m., and not come down too heavy, we can get this done!

Within about a mile I fall in with Meenah and Sarah. Our paces match, and not only do I now have new friends to run with today, but runners who have never heard my stories before!  No need to worry that this is the fourth time I'm repeating an oft-told tale!

This is their first time running the GWB Marathon so I fill them in on the course.  I give them my opinion of the HAT 50K which they are signed up to do.  I'm sufficiently warmed up that I shed one of my three layers and tie the shirt around my waist.

When they ask what is my favorite marathon, I preface my remarks by saying that it isn't just a marathon, it is a costume party and one that is great fun.  When I say "Marathon du Medoc" a voice right behind us chimes in. "As soon as you said costume party I knew you were going to say Medoc," a woman comments.  "I ran it in 2008 and I agree with you."

Snow-encrusted at the end,
wearing the shirt from the 2014 non-marathon.
As we approach mile marker 4, a snowflake appears, then more.  It isn't even 11 a.m. and the snow has started. Unfortunately it isn't just spitting snow. In a short time it is snowing at a decent rate. The ground, frozen for over a week welcomes the flakes without melting them and soon the roads and shoulders of the roads are coated white.  Headed up the slight incline on Powder Mill Road near mile marker 9, the lane and shoulder lines have disappeared under a coating of white.  Cars coming down the hill are traveling slowly and we runners try to stay as far left as possible.

Game Over
A left turn off of the road brings us into the parking lot and relay exchange area.  I duck into a Porta Potty. When I come out race officials are telling runners that the race is canceled and we should either wait for the shuttle back to the Greenbelt Youth Center or run back.

I elect to run back.  The snow has picked up and as I'm now headed south, the snow is directly in my face. I've got my buff over my chin and around my cheeks but even at that I have to alternate looking up to see where I am going and down to keep from having snow in my face.  My glasses not only begin to fog up but begin to ice up.

I cross the finish line, or what would have been the finish line, but there is no clock and no volunteers. They are a bit further along loading equipment into a truck.  I run the three tenths of a mile back to the Youth Center where I enjoy the post race pizza, chili, cookies, candy (the National Confectioners Association is an official sponsor) and hot and cold beverages.

Volunteers urge the returning runners to take additional shirts from this year and last year, as well as other DCRRC shirts and even some Army Ten-Miler shirts someone brought.

The drive home is a nightmare on the Beltway.  Even creeping along there are places with no traction and vehicles slide sideways. Each driver gives all others a wide berth as downhills and banked roads allow gravity to play a far-too-large role in determining direction. What should have been a 20 minute drive (and was going to the start) takes well over 90 minutes to get home.

I finished my abbreviated 11.9 mile 'marathon' in a leisurely 2:04:37.  There are no official, - or unofficial - results. Runners on the course when the race was cancelled were either picked up or told to run back to the finish or the relay exchange area.

Despite an announced policy of no refunds, and runners knowing that the race could have been cancelled in its entirety, the DCRRC work a deal with the Reston Runners providing free entry into that group's Runners Marathon on March 29 for GWB Marathon runners.  In addition, runners will get a $15 credit toward the 2016 GWB marathon. Good people, those DCRRCs.  Maybe that's why I'm a member!