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It was in late-July after I forgot about the pain I endured at Laurel Highlands  when I began to think about my next challenge: another 50k or a 50-mile ultra. I looked at the race calendar. First I needed to decide when yet there were some runs prior to the “big one” that I wanted to do. Dam Scramble… Dam Full… and I also had to do some race directing duties for Rock N The Knob. I estimated I would need at least two months of intense training after the Dam Full before I am  ready. That puts me into Mid-November to late-December. I had a few options: There is the JFK 50 but I was already too late to register since it was filled. Perhaps I should travel for a race? I have friends across the country so perhaps I should pay a friend a visit and make a vacation out of it. I looked west toward southern California. I have a friend who lives in LA. One race looked very attractive to me — The Santa Monica Mountains 50k above Malibu. Even though I had no clue on how to train for the different terrain that I could expect out west, something about going west and exploring new and exciting territory was enticing.
I called my friend in Los Angeles only to discover she was planning to move to Dallas in late-October. Bummer. 😦
I decided then that I was prepared to travel, anywhere and alone, and get my race in before the end of the year. I looked at races up and down the California coast and the central and southern mountains of the Appalachians from Virginia to Georgia.
Then in the days prior to the Dam Scramble I was talking to several trailrunning friends about their plans for the rest of the year. John Notte told me about the Stone Mill 50 Mile. The Stone Mill 50 is in its third year and is held around Gaithersburg, MD. Despite being in the heart of suburbia sprawl, it is almost entirely single track as it winds from park to park along Seneca Creek and Muddy Branch waterways and makes a large lollipop route. The race was created as an “overflow alternative” to the nearby JFK 50 further up the Potomac Valley. On the same weekend as the JFK 50, the race directors also created the Stone Mill 50 feeling that the JFK had become too crowded and too expensive. At $35, the registration fee for the Stone Mill is a incredible deal. Plus, unlike the JFK, the course is almost entirely rolling single track.

Check out the Stone Mill Website

In mid-August, a few days before the Dam Scramble, I penciled the race my running calendar. Looking at most training programs for ultras, I could easily adjust my current  at the time which was to do the RB Winter Trail Challenge Marathon and extend it into an ultra training program. After reviewing some plans, I went with a combination of several plans. One plan I found was from a recent issue of Trail Running UK, another plan from the race director for the Mountain Masochist and two other plans. All of these plans had several things in common: They all require me to run 5 days a week with runs on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. All the plans ramp up to about 60 miles per week. They all have either two or three ‘hard’ training weeks followed by an easy week. All the plans have a moderately long mid-week run. And finally both Saturday and Sunday runs are long runs back to back. The idea is to get your body used to running when tired.

Training on the John Wert Path – Rothrock State Forest

I read so many times that the biggest challenge for any ultra marathoner is to remain healthy and injury-free. This became my first big challenge. After a great summer season of running and my longest streak of running without injury, I injured my achilles at the Dam Scramble in late-August. I missed a week of running and it would be not until the RB Winter Trail Marathon that I would feel better. On September 9th, a week before RB Winter, I sent in my registration for Stone Mill. Still a little leery about how long it will take my achilles to fully heal, I figured I could easy part with $35 in the event I can not make it.
On September 16th, I ran in the RB Winter Trail Marathon. I took it conservatively, worried that my achilles will again freeze up like it did in the Dam Scramble. Fortunately I felt fine for the majority of the race. Now with the trail marathon behind me, I can focus entirely on the big race.
From mid-September to late-October, I ran… and ran… and ran. This was probably one of the best running periods I started running. Tuesday I would run around 5-6 miles mostly around town. Wednesday would be a moderate run between 9 and 14 miles. With the sun setting earlier each week, I often would be running under the stars either to the west beyond Duncansville or to the east deep into the rural countryside called The Loop. Thursday was a 6 to 8 miler and then came the weekend — on hard weeks I would run about 20-24 miles and 10-16 on Sunday. Under a backdrop of the autumn leaves and spending long hours exploring new trails, it was one of the best times I had running… period. There was the Saturday when I did 19 miles on the Allegrippas Trails near Lake Raystown only to do another 6 miles with the Altoona Beirlauf Runners later in the afternoon. There was the six-hour run at Rothrock State Forest, tracing a figure-eight route through what Runners World called one of the top trail running destinations in the country. Then there was the 22 mile sojourn with John Notte as we did the Allegheny Front Trail’s northwestern quadrant. The Rothrock and Allegheny Front Trail runs were two very scenic runs which I will write more about later this winter.

Allegheny Front Trail with John Notte

But as I got deeper into October, conflicts started to appear. The major one was my race director duties for Rock N The Knob. I was still able to get my Saturday run in. But I allocated my Sundays toward trail clean up and course marking for the race. To compensate, I would get a short run in prior to trail clean up and then incorporate trail marking as part of my routine. Many ultra-marathoners say it is not the mileage that is important — it is the time you spend on your feet. That said, I tried to spend as much time on my feet as possible. With intermediate running and trail prep, I was clocking in anywhere from 5 to 8-hours on my feet. Everything was going according to plan until Wednesday prior to Rock N The Knob when thinking I would be once again on my feet a lot over the next few days, I took a shorter run than the 12 miles I had planned. Then on Thursday and Friday, even though I was on my feet all day around Blue Knob marking trails and putting up arrow signs, I wondered if I was giving myself the proper workout. Then on the weekend of Rock N The Knob, (October 27-28) I figured I would be doing a tremendous amount of running like checking on the trails prior to the race and sweeping afterward. It turned out that I did neither. On the morning of the race, I wore my Salomon Speedcross shoes. During the race, there was a point midway that I had to run about a quarter-mile down a paved road to a Girl Scout Camp Site. Wearing trail shoes on that hard pavement without any stretching was not the best idea. My shins and left ankle hurt as I ran down that road, literally pounding the pavement. When I woke up the next day on Sunday, my ankles and shins were in dire pain. My initial plan for that day was to switch my long run from Saturday to Sunday and hopefully crank out a 24-mile trail run at Allegrippas. But my shins didn’t want to do anything near that that morning. Right then I decided to put on my road shoes and run a few miles around town before I dared to make the hour drive to Lake Raystown. I ventured out of my apartment (it was a raw day with light rain/heavy drizzle as Hurricane Sandy brewed offshore) and I could not even make it around the block without my shins screaming in protest. I was forced to take a rest day… and the next day as well.
By Tuesday, October 30, my shin pain mostly disappeared and I was able to continue running that week. It was the first week of my taper. It was a cold and clammy week with me doing 6 miles on Tuesday, 10 on Wednesday and 8 on Thursday. I had another temporary ailment after my 8-mile Thursday run. Experimenting with lower drop shoes, I ran a little too far in them on Thursday and my achilles had a weird sensation like they were compressed after the run. That weird tenderness continued on Friday. But I was able to pull through a 8.5 mile run up a State Game Lands Road on Saturday, October 3rd, still not a 100%. The next week, I lowered my mileage as I tampered and recovered. During my last long run on November 11, I ran 10 miles experimenting with a run/walk intervals.

I read that there is a rule of thumb that your expected finish time for a first 50-miler is four times your marathon finishing time. That would put me at 11 hours and 30 minutes. Even though I hope to do better than that, I think it is best to only think about making to the cut-offs in time: 8 hours and 30 minutes at mile 29 and 12 hours at mile 43. From what I have been able to glean from race reports, topo maps, course descriptions, videos, blogs, etc., the singletrack looks to me like it is similar to what you find at the mountain bike trails at Allegrippas – only a bit more rolling and with less hills. In most ultras it is advised that you walk the hills. Even at these distances, elite runners walk the hills. But with the lack of major climbs, I might need to change my strategy. (Even though the trail is in the Maryland Piedmont, it still offers a respectable 3700 feet of elevation climb over the 50 miles.)

GoPro Video of a mountain biker on a section of the Seneca Ridge Trail

Therefore I am planning a ‘run-walk’ strategy. This plan calls for a set ratio of running time versus walking. Walking, not surprisingly, uses a different set of muscles and allows you to recover one set of muscles when using another. In fact, often running slower can allow you to finish sooner. Running the entire distance might cause to to run out of gas and making the last dozen or so mile very slow and miserable, and losing more time than the 10 minutes per hour by walking.

Runners from last year’s Stone Mill 50 at Quince Orchard

After giving this a lot of thought and running one test run, (I should have tried more than one test run but I had a hard time finding the same type of elevation climbs I would see in Maryland than the ridges of the Alleghenies) I decided to do a 25/5 walk/run ratio: that is 25 minutes of running and 5 minutes of walking in rotation. Other ratios like 50/10 seem too much time running and 5/1 seems like too little time running and even less time resting. Also the 25 minute and 5 will remind me to eat something every 30 minutes.
As for nutrition, I plan to take some Powerbars and mini-Cliff bars, Hammer Perpetuem and Accelerade in baggies as well as some Endurolyte capsules to prevent cramping. I will have a flask of Hammer Gel and gel packets too. Plus I am going to take advantage of the aid stations as much as I can. I hope the aid stations are as well stocked as I have read on the website and race reports. Unlike the Laurel Highlands Ultra 50k I did, there are a lot more aid stations — an aid station about every 5 miles or less. We are allowed drop bags on mile 29 and 43. At this time I will only use a drop bag for mile 29. In addition to more nutrition, I plan on packing a fresh pair of shoes, shocks and clothes. As for shoes, I will be running in my stiffer Salomon Crossmax at the beginning then switch to my lighter and more nimble Salomon Speedcross later in the race. The Crossmax shoes will help me with the section of concrete from mile 14.5 to 16 and the C&O Canal from mile 25-29. The Speedcross should be a welcome change at mile 29 and I have read that it might be a little more muddier on the trail back toward the finish.
The weather has changed several times over the past ten days anywhere from a 35 degree temperature change from dawn to mid-day, to a cloudy, clammy all day. As I write this, just days before the race, it looks like it will be sunny and cool with a temperature of 32 at sunrise and climbing to the lower 50’s by afternoon — perfect running weather. In the morning, I plan on wearing a thin windbreaker (Salomon FastWing) and underneath a short shelve tech shirt with arm warmers that I can shed if I get too hot. I will have a long sleeve shirt in my running pack. Now that I think about, almost all of my apparel is Salomon. Perhaps I should get a sponsorship deal from them.

Map and elevation profile

I am not really nervous – yet – right now I am looking forward to it but that might change as I get closer to the race. There is still a lot of unknowns. This will be the longest distance that I’ve ran by an additional 20 miles. That is a big deal!!! Also I am perplexed from what I saw on the website. I saw a lot of pictures of runners from previous races. I think I and John Notte will be the only two people with a running pack. Also in the pics I see very few people wearing true trail shoes. Perhaps my experience living here in Central PA and having so many trails here will prepare me a lot better than most. I also amazed that out of about 300 runners last year, only 50% finished. That can’t be right.. or is it? Perhaps I should be much more worried than I am?