Last weekend I laced up my trail shoes, slung on my hydration pack, tightened my headlamp and headed out on the trails. This was what I’ve been training for, for the past 5 months. This is what I had given up most Saturday’s for. This is what I had woken up before the sun for, day in and day out. This was my redemption race, the moment I proved to myself that I was healed, that I was whole again.
I am so happy. This race was my everything, it was exactly what I needed and it went as well as I could have ever expected.
Time on the Trail
As I headed up the first big climb of the race, conveniently within the first half mile of the start line, I couldn’t help but look around and smile. All around me were fellow runners, like-minded athletes that were out there to test their bodies and their minds.
Bright white lights dotted the trail as far ahead and as far behind me as I could see. I settled in to a nice pack of about 6 runners at the top of the hill, and we took off at a steady pace. Not too fast, not too slow – just enough to warm up the legs and settle in for the hours that lay ahead.
The folks around me were chatting about races they’ve run, upcoming races, and their experience with previous years efforts on these exact trails. It was nice to hear their perspectives, but at around mile 5, and after a constant stream of two folks in particular just talking non-stop, I was starting to feel drained and annoyed, so I let the chatty folks get ahead of me, and cruised on along behind them.
The first 7 miles of the race were great – slow undulating single track that took me through forests and fields, weaving nauseatingly around u-loop bike trails, and through small stream crossings. I hit the aid station, which was well stocked and well manned, grabbed some m&ms (my guilty ultra pleasure) and headed out quickly.
Miles 7 through 9 were nice – and featured a beautiful waterfall backdrop followed shortly thereafter by some steeper climbing. That climbing then dumped us down at the Patapsco River. My first real river crossing in a race.
And boy was it cold!
I’m a wimp when it comes to the cold, so I knew to expect chilly waters. I closed my mind to the cold, a cruised through the water as quickly as I could. Halfway across the river there was a little island of rocks that took us out of the water for a brief respite before dunking back in, this time with water getting up to my knees (or maybe a little lower, but it felt high). This was a ton of fun, and I hope there are many more river crossings in my future!
At this point it was getting warm, so I stripped off my outer layer, secured it to my pack, and got back to the run. Heading up to the second aid station, I took my time cruising along by myself. A quick fill-up of water and another handful of m&ms (with some pretzels this time), and I was off again.
We now were entering the very hilly and rocky section of the course that stretched until mile 20. I spend some time running on my own and some time running with a few guys who were quite nice and appreciated my penchant for quite running. We all collectively agonized over the STEEP hills in this section of the course, begging out loud for them to be over, for the next one to hopefully have a switch back on it (they never did!), and praising the top of the hill and the upcoming downhill.
Around mile 17.5 one of the guys in front of me let out a loud gasp as he hopped over one of the zillion mountain bike obstacles on the course. I ran up, and asked what was wrong. He was perched on a log, with a plank stuck to his shoe. Peeling it back, a 3-inch screw revealed itself, lodged into the rubber of his shoe, but thankfully missing his foot. To those sick people who think its ok to place traps on the bike trails in hopes of popping tires, you are not just putting bikers at risk, you are putting everyone at risk.
At mile 20.5, I got to see my parents! Mom and dad, my constant cheer squad, were waiting for me at the aid station. I said hello (I was pretty tired and kind of dreading the next 12 or so miles), handed them my jacket and gloves, grabbed some Gatorade, shouted ‘see you in 2.5 hours’ and got back on my way.
The final 12+ miles of the course were essentially a repeat of the first 12 miles. We ran up until the waterfall again, then turned right instead of left, and headed towards the finish. Around mile 30, I got a second wind out of nowhere. I was feeling pretty rough, and desperately wanted to be done. My pace slowed significantly from the first time I ran this section, and the thought of being done became an unwitting motivator to ignore the pain and push through
This motivation survived until about mile 31.7, when I was still on single-track trail and not heading downhill for the finish line. Where was it, I kept thinking. So too was a girl right infront of me, who turned back to me, asking ‘where is the finish line, I’m at mile 32.5!’ I noted my GPS was slightly different than hers, but that we had already passed what I expected the finish to be at. My mind began to lose conifidence, and all I wanted was for the next valley to lead me to the finish. I said to myself ‘if after this uphill climb, the downhill to the finish isn’t here, than I don’t know if we’ll ever get there’. I said that about 4 times before it actually became reality.
Heading towards the finish, I started to get emotional.
I reflected on what it took to get me here. The months of agony and depression associated with my injury. The months of thinking that I would never run again, that I would be injured forever. I reflected on the more recent months of digging deep, being patient, relearning how to run long-distances and how to ignore the pace and just enjoy the trail.
The finish line appeared in my sights, and I put on as much of a smile as I could.
I did it. I finished. And I finished strong.
The Overall Experience
Location: Very convenient for Maryland, DC and even northern Virginia runners
Packet Pickup: Very simple, morning of pickup. I got to the race really early (anyone who knows me would not be surprised by this) so I did not have to wait in any line at all. Later in the morning, the line to get bibs and check-in were much longer.
Aid stations: Amazing! Very friendly volunteers, who were willing to fill up your water bottles, get you any food you wanted, and more. Well stoked with my favorites (m&ms and pretzels). I only wish we had some tailwind instead of Gatorade, but that is me being a bit bougie.
Course markings: very good. There were only a few moments along the entire 32+ mile course where I wasn’t quite sure where to go. I would suggest the race directors focus on the downhill stream channel section after aid station 2 next year for additional markings. The trail is very rocky, hard to identify, and winding. Easy to get off course here.
Course: AWESOME! A great course with nearly 100% trail, 4000 feet of gain, and beautiful scenery. River crossings, stream crossings, big hills, flat and fast sections, winding sections and long-straight aways. There is truly something for everyone
Post-Race Food: Perfect. After my first 50K I was heartbroken to find most of the food was meat based. As a vegetarian, I was pretty frustrated. I don’t want to make assumptions for the trail running community, but I’d say the vegetarians and vegans in our bunch are a much higher proportion than the average population. Which is why my heart and soul were warmed by VEGAN chili as the post-race food. Thank you to the Race Directors and Cooks for this wonderful option that could sustain all runners.
Swag: I’m in love with my mug. Enough said.
I would run this race again in a heartbeat. It was so much fun, well organized, local and convenient. It was challenging, and I think I would have fun trying to beat my time next year. Anyone looking to get into ultras, this is a good local race!