Thursday, June 7, 2007

Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50k Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 2; 2nd Edition
57.2 miles raced
Race: Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50k
Place: Damascus, MD
Miles from home: 25.45
Course Difficulty: 10 out of 10
Course Enjoyability: 0 out of 10
Weather: 40s. Intermittent sun, some wind
Finishers' Medal: None
Donations To Date For Fiddy2: ~40k

I am glad the first half-mile was ice-free.

With a rare 6 inches of snow falling in just a few hours on the Sunday before the race, followed by warm temps throughout the week, coupled with a rainy downpour a few days prior to race time, I knew the conditions of this trail were not going to be ideal.

Unfortunately, "not ideal" would soon be replaced with "one of the most difficult races I have ever run" once the race started. I actually waited a day to write this recap because Grouchy McBitchersons would not have been the person I would have suggested to write it yesterday, and that is who would have. Enjoy!

The Course:

To be absolutely clear, my low rankings reflect yesterday's weather conditions and should not be representative of the course itself. I am pretty sure on a dry, cool day this course would be a 6 on difficulty and a solid 6 or more on enjoyability. But I have never run there before and the conditions were so atrocious that I can honestly say I enjoyed not 10 feet of it.

Beginning in Damascus, MD, this point to point course starts off on a paved road. Soon runners enter a trail and that is where the fun begins. For a more in-depth course description than I could possibly hope to give go HERE. I honestly spent so much time trying not to fall down I could not tell you all that much about where we turned or where we went. Kudos to the race directors for writing such an in-depth description

My race: First 7 miles

I met my friend Bryon Powell (a supremely talented ultra runner who last year did the Western States 100 miler then ONE WEEK LATER came and raced the Leadville Marathon and beat me by some 40 minutes or so) before the race. He planned on running this race decently slow for him and that was the pace I wanted to do as well. With a possible attempt at a new PR in a marathon next weekend, I was determined to just go and enjoy a 31-mile run through the woods. I knew Bryon was a heck of a pacer (helps he has a cool GPS thing) and would stay with him to accomplish my desired goal time. In tow, he had his sister (Gretchen) and another friend (Amy). Gretchen was attempting her first marathon and we kept telling her since the marathon is long (hence it not being certified) she might as well do the 50k. I am so glad it ends up she did not.

There were plenty of runners on-hand, milling around on this pretty, sunny morning. We received a plethora of instructions before the race started and everything was rather low-key.. I have run plenty of laid-back races before but when the instructions end like this: "So, be careful and have fun. *2 second pause*. All right, get going", I knew I was in for a different race.

As I stated above, the ice started very soon. A comedy of errors of Keystone Kops proportions commenced soon thereafter. I will be the first to say that I was not prepared for this race, equipment-wise. Without a doubt, better footwear would have made this race extremely, momentously, easier for me or anyone else where regular running shoes. The street-running shoes I was wearing were absolutely no match for the hard-as-concrete, slimy-as-a-snail ice that covered the trail. And only the trail. Given the running surface was in a divot, the melted ice and snow had settled in to form the most slippery surface I had ever run on.

Situated near a creek, the trail often left us wondering who would be the first to take a swim. A few miles in, it was almost me. My feet went out from underneath me and down on my ass I went. I began a quick slide down the side of the trail flying out of control. Grabbing a tree about 3 feet from taking a dip, I received some hearty cheers from the other runners who had witnessed my descent. Feeling charmed, I was able to get back on the trail (I have no idea how) and soldiered on.

Amy, I could quickly tell, was a heckuva runner. With me stride-for-stride and often leading the way, I knew I would be running with her for most of the race (if I were lucky). Bryon fell back but I knew it would not be long before he caught us.

At the first aid station at approximately seven miles, I was far from pleased to see it had already taken an hour and six minutes to traverse this distance. And this is where I was still fresh! Energy-wise, it felt like I had already run 10 miles and as the rest of the race would show, if you could jump off the trail to run around mud, ice, or shin-deep water, you would. This, of course, only lengthened the race. I am pretty sure I ran an extra mile just by doing this maneuver alone as I caromed off of trees like a pinball over and over again.

Mile 16:

With every slip on the ice and knee-cracking direct hit to its surface that I took, my desire to run lessened. A couple of times I was pretty sure I had broken something and honestly, I am unsure how I did not. My shoes were sorely unfit for this type of running but there was nothing I could do about it. If someone had offered me screws and a screwdriver I would have stopped right there and put them onto the bottom of my soles. But John Madden and his painfully obvious observations (worth $5 million a year from Monday Night Football alone; excuse me, I just vomited in my mouth) were not enough to bring ACE Hardware to my rescue.

Every step was an adventure and if I was not sliding uncontrollably on my ass (unfortunately, my second trip down the hill towards a creek left me with a dead tree in one hand and me knee deep in freezing cold water), I was doing my best to make sure my shoes did not get sucked in by the quicksand ice-mud.

Hitting my tailbone as my feet went out from underneath me Three-Stooges-style completely, must have made a horrific noise as runners actually stopped to make sure I was fine. Most runners would care enough anyway to help a fallen runner but I here competitors actually stopped and came back to assist. Rolling over to the side of the trail just to get out of the way of anyone who might be coming by, I waived them off. But already the falls were beginning to take their toll on my psyche. With over half the course to go, I knew I could not tempt the broken-bone-fates that much longer if more falls were what laid ahead for me. And the problem was I had no idea what was ahead of me, either running conditions-wise or trail-wise difficulty.

Slogging along after making sure I did not have a dislodged coccyx, I was able to catch up with Amy and Bryon (who had finally joined us) and a nice guy named Gene. Gen and I ran a marathon together last year and he was kind enough to ask how Fiddy2 went. ("The marathons are over but the fundraising ain't", should be my new slogan). We all proceeded to run along, working as a group, changing places when someone would hit the dirt or ice and do our best to provide camaraderie to each other..

After one more fall, I was seriously considering making the right turn at the 16-mile-point (which would turn the race into a marathon) rather than taking the left turn to complete the 50k. The cool thing about this race was runners could decide at this point to do either race. You paid the same for either and only the decision here determined which race you were running. Now, I knew the marathon was longer that 26.2 miles but it seemed so much more appealing.

However, I got to the aid station and made the second hardest possible decision: I turned left to do the 50k.

Why was it the second hardest? Because I could not live with myself if I had done the shorter course. At this point, the thought of doing the marathon I had planned for the next week was rapidly flying out the window. I was hoping to PR in that marathon but could tell I had done too much damage to myself already for that to be a realistic possibility and figured I might as well tough out the original plan. So, left I turned.

Mile 20:

The first 2 plus miles of the loop around the lake after the turn were pure bliss. Dry, non-icy trail made me feel I had made the right decision. I had filled my water bottle on my fuel belt (a necessity since the aid stations were not supposed to have cups. However, showing how nice the volunteers were, cups were nevertheless still available in small amounts) felt refreshed and was running strong.

Of course, the other side of the lake coming back ended up being iciest, worst conditions. We all fell a few times. I got angry. Same old story.

Finally, we hit a road for about 200 yards and back to the aid station where the decision to continue had been made.. It took me 3 hours to get to mile 20. In my marathon PR, I hit mile 20 at 2:15. So, I was currently 45 minutes behind. Given the circumstances, I wasn't really all that displeased with my 9 minute mile pace.

I paused to fill my water bottle again and in that time Bryon and Amy were gone. I spent the next 2 miles trying to catch up with them during which I took my first complete fall in the mud. Trying to pass someone, both of our feet hit the same patch and got tangled. Down we went. It ends up my fallen runner was actually the guy who was my seatmate on the bus to the starting line. Small world. I apologized profusely and was on my way. This section looked a lot less free of ice and I inwardly rejoiced. Too soon.

Catching Bryon and Amy was a short-lived victory. While the ice was gone, the mud was thickening and they soon pulled away while I was mired in the sludge. Every step had me slipping or sliding on the trail, as this part had already been run in by both the 50kers in front of me, as well as the marathoners too. My ankles and hip flexors were getting a greater workout than my quads! It was all I could do to keep Bryon and Amy in sight until finally, the twisting and turning trail made them disappear altogether. I would only see them once more when traffic kept them from crossing a road until I had made up some ground. As I chugged water directly from a jug, one of the volunteers eyes got wide when she looked at my bloody legs. This would not be the last time this happened.

Mile 25.75:
Stopping at an aid station to again fill my bottle (which I was going through like it was my job; a bathroom break earlier revealed I was dehydrated as heck as I was peeing nuclear yellow) the race photographer was directed to my legs by one of the volunteers. Even after running through streams and splashing water and mud up on me, let alone falling down, they were still covered in rivulets of blood from the wounds I had sustained so far. As the photographer snapped a few shots of my legs, I looked at my watch: 4:08.

It took me 68 minutes to 5.75 miles?! 11 and 49 seconds per mile?! I knew I had walked some sections but dear god. I had to average just 10 minutes a mile for the last 5 miles (give or take) to get under 5 hours. I had very little hope I could do that but grabbed some more Ultima energy drink for its electrolytes and took off

One more titanic fall for good measure a mile or so later as my foot hit a root and sent me sprawling. Normally, without fatigue and therefore better motor skills, I would have been fine and righted myself, but instead this time I was down hard, right on my chest, knocking the wind out of me. I apologize here to all the deer, turkey, geese I saw and anyone with a small child nearby as when I regained my wind, I let out a loud curse word…or eight.

Drinking Ultima from the aid stations left me a little queasy (I had no choice and even though I think the stuff tastes awful, I needed the fluid) and this last fall left me with little choice. When I stood up, I walked to the side of the trail and emptied my belly of its contents. This, of course, left me severely thirsty and all I could think about was getting to the final aid station.

During the next few miles, a string of four or five of us would changes places as one gained energy from some unknown store and the other used his up Soon, I was running with a nice guy named Claude who was doing "just" the marathon and we intermittently passed and got passed by the other.

Hitting the final aid station I asked if we had perhaps either a mile or a mile and half to go. With a look like "Should we really tell him?" the one chap answered: "Closer to 2.5". I silently filled my water bottle and began shuffling again. There was no way I was breaking five hours, so just getting up the highest and steepest hill of the whole course (no exaggeration) is where I turned my focus.

As I climbed this hill, I got to experience something I never did in a race before: seized-quads. My quadriceps muscles are, without a doubt, my engine. Not magazine picture quality or anything like that, they are nonetheless the one thing that powers me on when I am exhausted. I have never gotten a cramp in them during a race before until now. Yay! New things!

Down the other side of the hill, I caught up to Claude again only to have him pull away from me every time we hit an uphill and I was reduced to a walk. At almost the same time, this one guy came from behind me and goes flying by. It ends up that he will, in about 1.5 miles, beat me by two minutes and be the only one in my age group to beat me. Damn it.

Off the trail, the rest of the course is road. I turn on the reserve juices I have and feel clumps of mud hit my back as it is finally lodged loose from my shoes. Passing Claude with about half a mile to go I finish kick in feeling like I am running for the first time since the first half-mile. Greeted by a man with a speaker who tells me to go through the 50k chute, I pass the finish line in 5:20:29.

Some final stats:
I finished 14th overall out of 67 finishers. The only female who beat me was Amy (and she and Bryon finished seconds apart around the 5:06 mark). The last 5.25 miles took me an hour and 12 minutes. That is 13 minutes and 43 seconds per mile. Almost a walk for me.

The wining time was 4:25 or not even an hour faster than me. The second place finisher, and the holder of the course record of 4:06 (set last year), was 26 minutes slower this year in 4:32.

I would love to know how many people switched their plans from the 50k to the marathon and how many people dropped out. The 67th finishers were some hard-nosed people and my hat goes off to them all. As the last person finished in 8:25 minutes or 16 minutes and 17 seconds per mile this guy gets an unbelievably "waytogo" from me. That type of strength takes a set of stones I do not have in order to be out there that long and still finish, Especially since the cut-off was 8 hours (which the final 6 women JUST beat) So kudos to you, Carl Shaia.

Also, a congrats goes out to Gretchen in her first marathon ever. Finishing 8th overall is amazing and I want her to know they only get easier!

As a result of this race, I will have to withdraw from my race next weekend. I am in absolutely no shape to run a marathon and hope to do well, given the current state of my body.

Finally, while this recap might have a negative tone, I want to give TONS of positive feedback to the volunteers on the course. There were places where river crossings were so treacherous that without the assistance of a person standing on the edge to give you a hand up, I do not know if runners could have gotten out. At every aid station, the volunteers asking you if you needed first aid, presented candy and food and drinks galore. In particular, I remember a place where we were on the road for like 100 feet and then entered back onto the trail. A snow plow had pushed a massive wall of snow in our way. Some young teen, obviously still in the midst of clearing the path, stood there with sweat on his brow and a shovel in his hand. He had cleared a path through the mound to the trail where we would have otherwise had to climb a four-foot wall if icy snow. At the time you say "thanks" between breaths but now you give those people their due. Thank you.

In addition, while I was lucky enough to always have another runner in sight, the volunteers had spent time adding yellow and green ribbons to branches of trees to keep you on path in case you missed the trail (easy to do yesterday) or the blue "blazes" which marked the trail at eye level on the trees. A couple of times I got off path briefly and was only saved from turning the 50k into a 55k because of catching one of those ribbons out of the corner of my eye.

While there was no t-shirt (who cares), and no medals (I like medals) on a good weather day, I see this is a race that would be fun to run. At $20 for a registration fee, they could bump it to $35, give us a medal and it would still be a steal. Even a small medal would be nice. The scars and cuts on my legs are nice proof of the effort I put forth but other than the picture Bryon took at the end I would like a little more to commemorate my time. Just a little something that I will be able to look back upon and shake my head at what was one of the hardest races I have ever done. Hopefully this will be a consideration in the future.

But, in the meantime, I guess I will have to just use the hairless football-sized patch on my butt and upper leg which I used as my personal Slip n Slide into the creek as my reminder.

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