BEFORE THE RACE
“Cruise control is a wonderful thing” I thought as I drove to Maryland the day before the race. In the days prior to the Stone Mill, whether I was at work sitting at my desk or laying on the couch late in the evening, there was a low-intensity but chronic pain in my ankles. I am not sure if it was from an injury, overuse or maybe my road shoes were wearing down but I had an ankle issue for a couple of weeks and it had me worried. Cranky ankles nearly spelled doom for me last year. At mile 18, I T-boned a stick and pulled something in my left ankle. By mile 35, both ankles were swollen and by mile 41, I was in great pain as a hobbled to the finish like a wounded antelope. Prior to mile 18, everything was going well at last years race and I even had a 50k PR time that remained unbroken. But things got ugly. My last 25 miles took TWICE as long as the first 25 miles. The last 7 miles would be the hardest three and a half hours of my life. That is right, THREE hours and 30 minutes! (Last year’s post)

The Stone Mill Logo

The Stone Mill Logo

I was seeking retribution. A do-over. Since hobbling across the finish line a year ago, I vowed to return and do much better.
But as I drove toward Maryland, my ankle protested again and I used every opportunity to use my cruise control so I could lay my feet flat on the floor.
I had the greatest of ambitions all summer. With some rest and recovery after Laurel Highlands, I wanted to hit the trails as often as possible with 40-plus mile weekends being the planned norm. But as the leaves changed and the snap of chill began to fill the air, life got in the way. I had my share of races, The Megatransect and then the Sinnemahone 50k, but I did not have the back-to-back long weekend training runs I wanted to prepare for this event. On the last week of October, I turned over the calendar page to realize that I only had two weekends left in November until Stone Mill. I mistakenly thought I had one more weekend to do a 50-mile weekend only to realize I should be beginning my taper by now. I decided to increase my normal mileage on my weekday runs and shorten my taper by several days.
There were a few things that gave me some solace. Looking at my running logs, I managed to get in many more training miles than I did last year. My base was much higher. And lastly after Laurel Highlands and Sinnemahone, I realized I was feeling better after each race and that my recovery was faster. Unlike my first 50k or last year at Stone Mill, my first 50 miler, I no longer felt like I had been hit by a truck and left for dead leaving behind an oily smudge on the interstate. Even at Megatransect, despite the cramping, I recovered surprisingly fast.
With Joel Noal and his cousin Brian in Joel’s car behind me, we made a beeline for suburban D.C. and got off I-270 near Gaithersburg and picked up our bibs and packets at Fleet Feet Sports in the Kentlands. It was just before 4pm and we had made great time getting there. While at Fleet Feet Sports, I also pick up bibs, packets and a sweet Patagonia jacket for Todd and Adam, who would not arrive until later that day. It was last year’s jacket and I already had one from last year. The jacket was $20!
“Boy, these jackets are selling like hotcakes” a volunteer said to the race director.
“These jackets retail at $80 to $100. $20 is a steal” said the race director.
The Stone Mill 50 is a no-frills race. At only $35, it costs me more in gasoline to get there than it did the race fee. There are no trophies, no awards, no giveaways and little schwag (although there was a Stone Mill 50 car decal that is perfect for making any marathon runner feel inadequate). All the race proceeds goes toward the aid stations and park fees.
After getting our bibs and packets, Joel, Brian and I had a lot of time so I suggested to do some scouting so Joel would have a better idea about the course and Brian, who would be crewing for Joel, knows his way around. I left my car at the Kentlands as we went to our first stop along Riffle Road in Joel’s vehicle.
On the way there, we passed a section of the course at the corner of Darnestown Road and Quince Orchard Road.
“Right here, the trail ends next to this bank and crosses the road here” I said. I could see the look of confusion on Joel’s face. Even though Joel and the others attended my pre-race briefing about the race a week prior, Joel didn’t expect the course to cross here at a busy intersection amid the epitome of suburbia with its gas stations, shopping malls, chain restaurants, a Starbucks, and apartment complexes.
“Where?” as Joel rubbernecked to look back toward the bank.
“Beside the bank” I reiterated.
Joel had a sour look on his face. I could tell he was wondering about what kind of trail race would traverse the middle of this suburban sprawl.
To answer that question, Stone Mill follows two watersheds. At the onset, it follows Seneca Creek toward Riffle Ford until it crosses over a hill above Quince Orchard Park (here), then down to the another watershed called Muddy Branch to the Potomac River. After a short section on the C&O Canal towpath, the course then follows Seneca Creek back to the starting line. Years ago, some county planners decided wisely to have a half-mile to a mile wide “greenway” corridor along these waterways that shall remain untouched by any development.
At Riffle Road I showed Joel and Brian the area that the aid station at mile 43 would be and then we walked up the trail for a quarter of a mile. Joel began to change his perceptions once again. Here we walked on singletrack, with all the roots and rocks one would expect when running trails. We came to a hill and Joel was surprised to see any hills. I guess being from Central Pennsylvania, we highlanders assume that there are no hills beyond the lands east of South Mountain. Not so…
We then traveled to Quince Orchard Road aid station at mile 15, then Pennylocks at mile 25, and lastly Darnestown Road East at mile 35. It was right after sunset before we headed back to the Kentlands for my car and then to the hotel. We opted for cheap accommodations and got a last minute deal from Hotwire.com. It was the same hotel I stayed at last year – a Red Roof Inn. We decided to go with “cheap” rather than “nice” since we were there to a race. Todd and I had one room while Joel, Brian, Adam and his wife Kelly would stay in another room.
Joel, Brian and I got to the hotel around 5:45pm. I didn’t expect the others until 6:30 or so. Before they arrived, I set out my clothes and nutrition for the race. I have a tendency to pack too much food for a race. Despite this habit I packed about 12-hours of food even though I planned to be out there at just under 11 hours and there would be plenty of aid stations along the route. I used this formula: 1 unit is 100 calories. Eat two units an hour. This had worked well for me in the past even though I usually don’t include liquid calories nor foods I ate at the aid stations into my totals.
In the weeks and days before the race, I haven’t thought too much about my goal other than to finish earlier than last year. But the more I thought about that the more I knew I would be letting myself off too easy if I didn’t set myself a more precise goal. I remembered Adam saying he wanted to PR his 50-time. Since his best 50-miler was a much more intense Mountain Masochist, I thought that was a gimme. The man with the plan was Todd Lewis. He had set himself with a goal pace of 11:50 per mile with estimated arrival times to the various aid stations. I mentioned prior to the race that 11:50 seemed too slow for the first half and too fast for the second half but I wasn’t going to argue. His estimated finish time was 3:30 PM. A mid-afternoon finish sounded a little too aggressive but again I am not Todd and I have no idea what he can or can’t do. As for me and after giving it some thought, I decided that my goal was to make it before dark. With “dark” being a very vague standard of measurement, I had to come up with something more precise. So I decided to set my goal for 4:56pm — nautical sunset.
Todd, Adam and Kelly made it to the hotel close to 7pm. After getting settled, I checked out Urbanspoon for a place to eat that was within walking distance. We found an Italian place called Zio’s that was close by. The restaurant was filled with noisy pre-teen boys getting riled up for a Pee Wee football game in the morning. It was as if Don Vito Corleone had opened a Chucky Cheese. The place was literally insane. It was loud and chaotic and the wait staff was exasperated. Adam had flashbacks when he saw a kid with a giant head laying behind a table trying to eat his sweater. It reminded him too much of his own childhood. The best (or worst) moment came when they gave their group chant:
“What do we eat?” yelled coach.
“Raw meat!” screamed the kids.
“What was that?” egged the coach.
“RAW MEAT!”
Yelling “raw meat” is not the best thing to scream in a crowded restaurant. I looked over to see other patrons looking on with disgust and dropping their forks on their entrees unable to eat. Our table was undaunted and we continued to eat. Todd shrugged his shoulders – unfazed. Luckily as the evening went by, the kids had left, leaving a wake of disaster for the bus boys. I had a plate of Putenesca that was too “olive-y” and Kelly ordered an Italian doughnut which turned out to be fried yet uncooked pizza dough ball. Nevertheless, everyone else was satisfied with their entrees and we all had a good time spending a pre-race meal together. To me, the race experience is just more than race itself, it also includes such times as these.
We got back to the hotel at around 9pm. I haven’t had much luck lately with sleeping before a race. Though it took awhile to fall asleep, I did fall asleep around 11 only to wake up at 2:30am from a commotion outside the door.
“Hey, this room is 272, not 292!” said a drunk woman outside our door as she tried to get into our room.
Even though my plan was to wake up at 4:30am, Todd, who by habit, normally wakes up at 3:30am, is up and at ‘dem at half past three and takes a shower.
Who takes a shower before an ultra, seriously?! “What are you trying to do, make yourself feel pretty?” I joked.
Anyhow, while Todd was in the shower, the TV stared blaring in the room adjacent to ours. “Who turns on the TV that loud at 4am?” I said to myself.
Then underneath the sound of a TV promo claiming that TNT was the place for drama, a faint yet distinctive sound became louder – the sound of slapping of flesh.
I clutched my pillow over my head.
Now, I have no problem with two consenting adults going at it in a hotel room but what I couldn’t wrap my head around was that the TV was on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” I think that would instantly kill the mood. Adam and Kelly knocked on the door later at a few minutes before five and they too heard the TV and the couple next door. Adam joked about what if the TV show they watched was “Law and Order: SVU” not knowing that that was what was on the TV! “The jury fines you guilty for raping the hooker!” Adam mocked a judge then added that that would be a major turn off. Indeed, Adam!
It had rained most of the night but the end of the precipitation shield was just passing through at 5am. This upper-level disturbance wasn’t predicted until a couple days prior to the race. Rain during the race would have made things a bit more challenging. Luckily the forecast was spot-on, and the rain ended when they said it would in the early hours just before dawn. The remaining forecast called for clearing skies and temperatures climbing from the mid-40’s to the mid-60’s by afternoon. The 20-degree difference made deciding what to wear a critical part of the race strategy. Last year when I ran the race, the temperature was cooler and I wore a non-venting jacket that got too warm throughout the day. By the time I took the jacket off, I was wet with sweat. When it got cold later in the afternoon, I put on my still soaked jacket from my pack and it chilled me to the bone. I am positive that last year I was experiencing hypothermia when I finished – shaking like a crack addict and laying in a bathtub hoping to die. This year I still wore a jacket but it was more breathable. Also I promised myself to take the jacket off before I got too warm. Finally I would have another dry jacket waiting for me at the drop bag aid station. It turned out that it never got too warm that day and the clouds never broke as promised, keeping the temps rather low all day.
We left the hotel in a caravan of three vehicles. Our first stop was a 7-Eleven for coffee. The customers did a double take at us in our running attire and bibs on the front of our shorts before getting back to their doughnuts and coffee. We reached Watkins Mills High School to find out that the parking lot was already full. Unlike last year when the racers had the entire lot to ourselves, a school activity late that afternoon had reserved much of the lot. We ended up walking from Watkins Mills Road, about a third of a mile from the start. This had totally thrown me for a loop. Instead of parking in the lot, checking in and then staying warm in the car and getting ready in a casual pace, we had to hussle and make sure we had everything we needed for the run before walking to the start at the high school.
Only several hundred feet from the car, I realized that I had forgot my iPhone. As I got to my car, I noticed Todd’s interior light in his Jeep was on and the jeep was locked. I called Adam then Joel to tell Todd that the light was on. When I got to the top of the hill, Todd passed me as he ran back toward the jeep. As I made my way closer to the starting line across the lot, I realized that my green Salomon belt punch fell off my front pack strap. Inside was some of my nutrition, but more importantly, all of my Endurolyte tablets for the first half of the race! It somehow worked its way off my pack straps. Suddenly, this race was turning into a clusterfuck even before it started.
“Shit, piss, fuck” I thought. I looked at my watch and it was only 15 minutes from race time. “What do I do?”
I decided to drop off my drop bag for mile 29, checked in with the race officials, and then ran back to the car to see if it slid off my pack when I unbuckled the pack straps to get to my car keys inside my pack. I got back to the car and found nothing in or around it. I started to walk briskly back to the high school until I was stopped by someone saying my name.
“Ben!” he said.
“Hey there!” I said not being able to focus my eyes in the pre-dawn light.
“How’s it going?” he said.
It took me several seconds before it clicked in. It was Danny Mowers. He talked about his girlfriend running the race today, about my blog post on last years race, and that how it was just an hour drive from the Chambersburg, PA area to the race. I was only half listening since I was more worried about my lost Endurolytes and nutrition. I quietly nudged myself away, signaling that I had get to the starting line. I jogged back to the start with only a few minutes to spare before the 6am start. I found my drop bag, grabbed a couple of bars and my bottle of Endurolytes. I didn’t have a means to store nor I had the time to divide up my tablets so I grabbed the entire bottle despite its bulk and weight in my shorts. As the race director made the usual pre-race announcements, I found Adam and Todd.
“Don’t you think we are too far ahead in the pack?” Todd said.
I looked around shrugged my shoulders. “I think we are fine.”

startmap

Map of the first few miles.

ACT 1: THE FAST HALF
Within the crowd of racers, I stood with Adam and Todd while being joined by Nicole Claar and Shelly Cable. Unceremoniously, with me not even hearing the race director say “go” to the crowd, we pushed ahead and we were on our way.
First was a lap around the high school. Four runners, who obviously haven’t read the course description, bounded down the hill toward the trailhead. As we made the first turn around the school, I joked to Adam and Todd and said that the race was 100 laps around the school. That joke bombed like the four racers that went down the hill who had now sheepishly rejoined the pack.
Soon we took the third and final turn around the school and ran past the spot we started and then down the hill to the trailhead. I never look back when I am racing but as we approached the first hill I could not resist the temptation to look back at the bouncing headlamps down the hill and runners funneling into a single-file as they approached the woods. To me this was a breathtaking sight.
The first section is a 2.5 mile out-and-back with the first mile being a little bit hilly until a long-stretch of lowlands to the turn around. Even before the race, I knew with the darkness and narrow singletrack, I had to run the same pace as everyone else. With Todd then Adam ahead of me at the first mile, I thought to myself “I am running too close to Adam. I can’t see what I am stepping on.” As soon as I thought that an exposed root halted my left foot and I went down like a dropped cinder block. I immediately got up and kept running. There is nothing more embarrassing than to trip and fall at mile 1 of a 50 mile race. I did self-diagnosis to determine if I went through the fall unscathed. Even the smallest muscle pull can haunt you 30 miles later. But this time I got lucky since I felt fine. (I did discover later that I bruised my back with a five-inch black and blue mark on my right side.)
Todd, Adam and I talked and joked a lot. In fact, another runner who we happened to play leapfrog with at Laurel Highlands was just ahead of Todd. Perry Ligon wrote in his blog:

Heading out to the 2.? mile turn around I heard guys talking behind me, put 2 and 2 together and soon realized I was somehow running in front of a Western PA contingent, Ben Mazur, Adam McGinnis and Todd Lewis – runners I spent the day leap frogging with during Laurel Highlands. A three man freight train. It was dark so I wasn’t looking at my watch, but I kept hearing comments about our average pace and although I felt fine, I knew I was going too fast. I think Todd was immediately behind me and I felt like I was running from a speeding car – these guys were going good, too good for me to maintain.

Perry didn’t know this but Adam was looking at his watch noting that we were running much faster than we wanted. As we approached the turnaround, the lead runners were approaching us from the turnaround. I wasn’t counting but somewhere within the top ten was Joel with the look of sheer determination in his face. It was the same focused expression he had since leaving the hotel earlier that morning. Joel was all business.

Mile 8 - A Foggy Morning on the Trail

Mile 8 – A Foggy Morning on the Trail

As the runners went by, we said things like “good job” and “nice work” to almost everyone we passed going toward the turnaround – and almost everyone we said that to said “thanks” or “you too” in return. I know I mentioned this a dozen times before but trailrunners in general are a bunch of great people who support each other regardless of who we are and your abilities.
As we headed back toward Watkins Mills, Adam and I continued to talk and make light of things and it seemed like we had also gained an audience. Behind me a group of runners that were pacing behind us laughed at everyone one of our jokes. With the rain the night before and the trail threaded by 300 runners, it was a bit muddy and I hoped that would change as soon as we got past Watkins Mills Road and onto fresher trail. I hoped that by the end of the race I wouldn’t be regretting for not wearing more aggressive shoes.
Passing Watkins Mills Road and daylight slowly upon us, I began to wonder why Todd was running so fast and I started to wonder if I should be running that fast myself. At mile 6 and 7, we were doing 9:24 and 9:00 minute miles – much faster than the 11:50 pace that Todd wanted.
“But I feel good” said Todd as Adam noted the pace from his watch.

Mile 8 - Reverse Angle

Mile 8 – Reverse Angle

At this point Todd was ahead by about 50 yards. In front of him was a thin brunette wearing a yellow vest, orange sleeves, blue hat, green shorts and every other day-glow color manufactured. She was setting the pace. Behind Todd was Adam and between Adam and I was a woman named Brigit who also ran the Laurel Highland Ultra this past year. Adam, Bridgit and I talked about races past and races future. As we made it to the first aid station at Route 355, Todd almost did a double take when he realized he was 30 minutes ahead of his plan.
Todd and Adam left the aid station before I had time to refill a water bottle but I managed to catch up to Adam not too far as we ran under the interstate, railroad and other highways. A year ago at this race, when my ankles had enough, I had lost track as to which overpass was which and my mileage estimates to the finish were off. This year I told Adam to start counting bridges and to measure the distances so on the return trip he had a good bearing on how far it was to the finish. I made mental notes of the milestones along the course; like going under the I-270, the railroad overpass, Clopper Lake; the power line; etc.
“How is your ankle doing?” said Adam somewhere in this section.
“There is already a little bit of pain in my left ankle” I said with concern.
I wasn’t happy that only 10 miles into the race my ankle already hurts. On a scale of 1 to 10, it was a 2, but I knew I had a very long way to go. I immediately made adjustments to my running. I decided to shorten my strides and land on my forefoot as much as possible instead of jarring my ankles with heel strikes. With the help of my iSmoothRun’s cadence tracker, I increased my cadence to as close as 90 steps per minute as possible. I also tried to perfect my form and posture as best I could. One of my theories as to why my wheels came off at last year’s Stone Mill and at Laurel was that as soon as I got tired, my form became shot and everything else went down the toilet with it. So consciously I wanted to keep my form as good for as long as possible. Another strategy I had coming into this race was deciding when to run and when to walk. In the past I used a run/walk ratio. In ultras prior I would run for 25 minutes and then walk for five minutes and repeat. This had worked out for me in the past but I wanted to do something more aggressive and reactive for this years race. For this years’ Stone Mill, I decided run as much of it as possible yet force myself to power walk the hills – on hills that I normally would run – so I would not run out of gas by the end of the race. Here in the Piedmont there are just a few hills, with the rolling terrain it is tempting to just run up and over them. I had to force myself to briskly walk the hills just to give myself a few moments to switch muscle groups and rest my running legs.

Darnestown - East Section

Darnestown – East Section

When we got to Riffle Road Aid Station at mile 13, I had caught up to Todd while Adam continued to chase the girl in the day-glow colors. Again, I took more time at the aid station as Todd had already set off ahead on the course. Over a slight hill and down the other side toward Quince Orchard Valley Park, I had caught up to Todd. Here the course climbs up a hallow as houses slowly closed in on both sides. I saw about a half dozen deer in this section alone. Todd began to complain about a pain at the top of his stomach and diaphragm. He suspected that it might be from drinking carbonated soda too quickly at the last aid station. I went on ahead but Todd caught up soon after saying that he let out one of the biggest burps ever heard on this side of the Potomac.
We crested the hill and suddenly we were now near the intersection of Quince Orchard Road and Darnestown Road – the very same spot that I had Joel second guessing the course the day before. We crossed the intersection and I was tempted to either run into the Pizza Hut for carbs or get a coffee in the Starbucks. (I later read that many runners did indeed went into the Starbucks for coffee.) Immediately my legs showed symptoms of “Surface Confusion Disorder” or the SCDs. My legs felt odd running on the sidewalk. I assumed Todd’s legs felt worse since he slowed down markedly in this section. Here, the course had to take an “overland pass” from Seneca Creek to the Muddy Run watershed. It was on the sidewalk along Darnestown Road, as it slowly crested a ridge, that we had caught up to Adam who was along the side of the sidewalk, his foot on top a fire hydrant, re-tying his shoes. “I got my shoes too tight! They’re choking my tendons” said Adam.
Together the three of us ran to the bottom of the hill toward Muddy Branch and ran under the highway to the other side and the aid station. Here, Todd is almost 40 minutes ahead of this target timetable and was feeling great. I said that that cushion will begin to eat away in the second half of the race so being ahead is a good thing. It was also here – mile 15.7 – where the aid station snacks and food turned from the usual fare to “awesome sauce”. I recalled having a thick and juicy extra-wide piece of bacon.
We left the aid station together as we got back onto singletrack along the Muddy Branch. Adam called his wife who was crewing with Bryan to ask if Joel was among the lead group of runners. Joel was in the top 15. Both Todd and Adam put on their headphones while I admitted that I never listen to music when I run. Not too far from the aid station I saw a race photographer about 20 yards from the trail.

Looking at the photographer just after Quince Orchard Road Aid Station

Looking at the photographer just after Quince Orchard Road Aid Station

“What are you doing back there?” I said.
“I am getting a little more artistic this year” said the photographer.
“Very good” I said as I continued ahead on the trail.
I was running along when I started a conversation with a guy who had his jacket wrapped around his waist. I talked about last years race since this was his first 50-miler and he wanted to know what to expect. Climbing a hill, I saw a horse farm beyond the woods that I did not recognize from last year before making a sharp right along a stream and then to the left of the farm.
Another thing I did not recall from last year was the number of stream crossings. Perhaps it was drier last year and the overnight rains created some runoff but there were enough tributaries and little streams to cross that I lost count.

Muddy Branch section toward the river.

Muddy Branch section toward the river.

ACT II: THE DRAG
Only a few miles from Darnestown Aid Station was the Quince Road Aid Station at mile 18.3. I stopped for a moment since the previous aid station was just a few miles ago. Todd, who was behind me for much of this section since Darnestown Road, had caught up to me while Adam was ahead of Todd and I and was out of sight.
We began the 7 mile section toward Pennylock along the Potomac. I climbed a small ridge with a glade of pines until I realized I was running through the section that I pulled my ankle last year. I never had this happen on a run before but I actually had an uneasy feeling as I ran through the pines. It felt like walking into a haunted house – I know I shouldn’t be afraid but I couldn’t help to be a little unnerved. Once out of the woods, figuratively, I couldn’t help to do another “self-diagnosis” on my run thus far to compare this year from last. My legs felt a little more tired than I wanted. My ankles felt fine. I did have some discomfort in my left forefoot between my toes and arch and wondered if it wasn’t from trying to land too much on it with each step. In fact, it felt like my shoes where arched up and my toes curled off the ground. My energy levels where good. In fact, it seemed like there wasn’t a moment where I wasn’t eating or drinking during the entire race. I disciplined myself to eat 100 calories every 30 minutes, drink 20 ounces of water or Perpetuem each hour and take two to three Eurolytes an hour or so. It was a little overkill but it seemed to be working out since I felt good but didn’t feel full, bloated or had “slosh stomach”. I was sure my carbo-loading over the last few days stretched out my stomach. I was an eating machine. “Super-stomach form bottomless pit!”
With the stream crossings and generally damp conditions, my feet were getting waterlogged. I could feel the edge of my middle toe overlapping my other toe, stretching the skin under the toe and creating a pressure blister. I needed to look at it at the next aid station.
We finally made it to Esworthy Road where the course follows the road up a hill before dropping back into the valley. I saw far in the distance Adam and his searing bright orange Fox Trot shirt. I chose to walk the hill as well as Todd who was several meters behind me. At the top I readjusted my laces until Todd had caught up and then embarked on the singletrack once again. Within a quarter of a mile we reached a stream crossing and there was no choice of getting our feet wet with no rocks to hop.

At the top of the hill before River Road.

At the top of the hill before River Road.

“Just go already” said someone behind us as Todd and I surveyed the situation. Normally I would splash through with reckless abandon but with my oncoming blister, I was seeking a drier crossing. Yet all within a split second there was no option except to cross and get our shoes soaked. After Esworthy and the stream crossing, it is a long downhill until one last uphill before the river – the longest and steepest with the race – just before the trail crosses River Road. Todd powered up the hill as I decided to hang back and power hike. At the top of the hill, another photographer took my picture before I crossed River Road and toward the final desent toward the Potomac. Near the top, an older gentlemen, in his 60’s, falls like a ton of bricks. Here the trail was covered with huge oak leaves and obscured some of the stumps and roots underneath. I and about a half dozen runners stopped to make sure he was okay, which he insisted he was, and we continued down the hill toward the river. Todd and I made it to the parking lot at the same time and we ran two abreast toward the Pennylock aid station at mile 26. As we ran along the dirt road, cars parked to our right, Danny Mowers said hello as we ran by.
“Who was that?” asked Todd.
I was surprised he asked and he didn’t know Danny. “Danny Mowers, I think?” now unsure since I swore they had met before and were friends.
We rolled into the station. Adam was there had waited for us. I got refueled and attend to my foot. The aid station, like all the other volunteers out that day, were on top of their game. Telling him about my blister, he immediately got me a chair, got a towel to dry my feet and a small strip of duct tape and I rolled it around my toe. He also got both of my hydration bottles filled as I put my shoes back on. He and all the volunteers from Montgomery County Road Runners Club that I encountered on the race were true Johnny on the Spots. It was like having an army of John Weavers at the ready. They were also very encouraging throughout the course.
Adam and Todd waited as I got patched up before we ventured onto the C&O Canal Towpath – a four mile section to the next aid station.
“This is where things start to breakdown for a lot of people” I said telling Todd and Adam about last year and seeing the guy with the Laurel Highlands jacket with the death gaze and the woman having an emotional breakdown crying alongside the trail.
We yelled to Danny from across the canal. Adam quietly muttered to Danny to take him with him. Everybody has their low points during the race and Adam had his from mile 18 to River Road but now he was hoping he was past his slump.
“I am not running this. I need to save myself” said Todd not enjoying this section of the race.
Here on the canal, I began to crop dust.
“My word! Ben! Is that you?” said Adam.
Having the King of Flatulence, Adam McGinnis call me out on this meant that I must have really stunk.
After awhile Adam grew impatient and said he had to run. I hung back with Todd but only for a few minutes until I too grew impatient. Even though he said he wasn’t going to run, I guess Todd didn’t want to be left behind and picked up the pace.

Canal section and then up Seneca Creek trail.

Canal section and then up Seneca Creek trail. The bio-hazard are evacuated areas from my excessive methane emissions.

We leapfrogged with other runners, ran and walk, and finally made it to the remains of an old lock and then turned right to Stone Mill aid station at mile 29. Here too was a drop bag location as I took a seat, changed socks, and changed into a dry half-zip jacket. I also attended to my toe, replacing the duct tape for a bandage. Adam fetched me a cup of beer from the aid station. Beer tastes very different during a race. Hops tastes extra bitter. Adam should have gave me a shot of Knob Creek bourbon, which they had at the aid station. I would have tasted the same.
After I changed, I got a slice of peanut butter and jelly sandwich and I was off. Todd and Adam had already left and I had doubts I would catch up to them.
Todd didn’t have a drop bag from what I recall and Adam had switched into a pair of running sandals in trade for his shoes.

Typical Aid Station

Typical Aid Station

Adam later said that changing into sandals was the best idea he had and required him to be more mindful and efficient in his running.
Leaving the aid station, I had to make an additional stop to readjust my shoes and socks as it seemed the bandage I put around my toe was slipping off. It took me awhile to get myself together. I figured that Adam and Todd would be long gone by now.
I crossed River Road on the “run back home” toward the finish still 24 miles away. At first this section was hilly then it was miles and miles of flat single track along Seneca Creek toward the next aid station at Darnestown Road at mile 35. I got behind the guy in a race jersey with the words “pasta” imprinted below his running pack. For the next 5 miles, I was right behind Pasta Guy as he set the pace while behind me was another runner with a thick Central African accent. Together, we crunched through the miles. I felt bad for the guy behind me since I was still crop dusting.

I discovered later that Pasta Guy has a blog. Here was his description:

Miles 29 -32 were a struggle as I could not find the consistency I had for most of the race. I settled in a bit and tried to just stay at one pace even if it was slow. Around mile 32 I remember hearing two runners behind me. Most of the time I veer to the right slightly and give the runners a chance to pass. But I noticed they were not trying to pass. I assumed they just wanted to stay on me and stay at my pace even though I felt like I was going so slow. I was a bit annoyed at first but after a few minutes I realized what they were doing and why. So for three quiet miles the two of them stayed with me to the next AS. When we got there the one runner thanked me for the pace. I simply thanked him back for pushing me. To be honest I probably would not have kept pace if they were not pushing me. It was a win-win.

The flatness of the trail made it a grind as the three of us pressed on except for the occasional gully that we had to cross. At that distance switching working muscle groups to climb out of the gullies required a few grunts to push yourself through. About a half a mile before the next aid station I had caught up to Todd. He said he had a bad section, saying that he had to walk the majority of the last three miles. He said he was now 10 minutes behind his target pace – losing as much as forty-five minutes since Pennylock. Stone Mill had no big mountains to climb. No grand elevation to conquer. But the rolling singletrack was taking its toll.

Seneca Ridge Trail

Seneca Ridge Trail

ACT III: RIDGE RUNNER
We rolled into the aid station at mile 35. A year ago, I looked at my ankle to find it swollen and sat out for 15 minutes as I treated it with ice. Today, I was felling pretty good. My ankles seemed fine. My forefoot was a bit bashed since it seemed my shoes lacked cushion right in front of the arch. My legs were very tired and fatigued but pretty much what I expected at this point.
Just about leaving Darnestown, I saw Danny once again.
“How is your girlfriend doing?” I said. I didn’t see that she was beside him and wrapped in a blanket.
She said that she had to drop out at Pennylock. She said she started to experience dizziness and vertigo. What I didn’t know until a couple weeks later was that she just had LASIK surgery days before the race. The doctors, of course not know she was going to run an ultra, would have told her not to run. When she began to get dizzy, she was smart and self aware enough to know it was best to drop.
After Darnestown, the course gets more hilly as Seneca Creek makes a sharp turn to the east as it cuts through a wide ridge called Seneca Ridge. Adam, Todd, Joel and I each had moments when the going got real tough. For Joel, it was right at the end of the race. For Todd, it was at the between miles 32 and 35. Adam said he hit his rough patch from miles 18 through 24 and later at around 39. For me it was from mile 35 to 38. There were several open fields and I would hit each one and start walking. I don’t know if it was the lumpy surface of the trail or the open area but I would slow to walk even though there was nothing that should have slowed me down. Luckily, these lows were very brief – maybe 30 seconds or so until I snapped myself out of it. I soldiered on.

Pumping my arms at mile 37

Pumping my arms at mile 39

At mile 38 was the Germantown Road aid station. It was not a full aid station and it only had some gels and water so I spent a minute here before moving on. I rounded a corner to see a photographer ahead at the apex of a curve. I pumped my arms with a wide smile on my face.
“Let this picture be the official picture for the website” I said.
The photographer laughed.
“Now this is how I really feel” as I drooped my face and shuffled along looking more like a zombie.
The photographer laughed even harder. From the race photos, the photographer did not take my zombie pic – perhaps he was laughing too hard.
The section from Germantown Road (37.5) to Riffleford (42) is perhaps the most rolling section with a lot of twists and turns. Also it is the largest net gain over the entire course. Since leaving Stone Mill, it is a gradual climb up to the finish. Past Germantown Road was a vast horseshoe curve. It was perhaps 75 yards across yet it was just over a half mile run to get from one end to another. Entering the curve, I saw Adam on the other side rounding the final curve. Not far behind was Todd.
I yelled across “Todd! Adam is about 100 yards ahead!”
Todd nods yet doesn’t say anything but he gets the message since I saw him speed up.
Over one hill then another, then another, small creek crossing after small creek crossing, I wind through the countryside. Somewhere in this section, Todd, running down the trail, saw an archery hunter walking on the trail ahead of him. As he got closer, he and the hunter could not believe their eyes. It was his cousin that he had not seen in 4 years. “What are you doing here,” they asked each other.
Finally I emerged from the woods and arrived at Riffle Ford aid station.

Todd and Adam were there once again as I ate some food like Zoidberg at a free buffet. We were about to leave together when I realized that I still not had taken a shit and that there were porta-johns at the aid station. I turned around and did my business. It seemed like it took forever. That said, you can understand my surprise when about several hundred feet after leaving the aid station, I had caught up with Adam.
“I’d thought you’d be long gone by now” I said.
“I had to lay down for awhile” said Adam.

Map of the final leg.

Map of the final leg.

We were on the next to the last section leaving the Riffle Ford aid station at mile 43. I began to count the landmarks that signaled that the finish was getting closer. First was the underpass for Seneca Highway then the dam breast of Clopper Lake and then the powerline. Here Adam and I passed a woman who had a red jacket tied around her waist. She kept announcing every obstacle on the course in front of her.
“Log. Rock. Rock. Root. Root. Rock…”
This was amusing for about 30 seconds until we decided to pass.
As I ran to the bottom of the hill at the powerline, I heard the loudest scream behind me. I looked behind me to see the woman still upright and running so I assumed she was okay.
“Who was that who screamed bloody murder” asked Adam.
“I don’t know but she must be okay. She is still running” I answered.
Several hundred yards later, she screamed again but like the ‘girl’ who cried wolf, I did not turn to look back.
Exhausted, I still kept going and my pace was pretty fast for me (in the 12-minute mile area) for being at the tail end of a 50 mile race. Slowly, Adam pulled further and further away that by the time I hit the underpass at I-270, he was out of sight. During this entire section from the aid station, I picked up another runner, Shmuel, who helped push me along. I kept looking at my watch every 60 seconds or so wondering if I was going to the finish at 4:56pm – at sunset. At times I thought I was going to make it then I would go through a tough section and second guess that there was no way I was going to arrive on time. We ran under the Rockville Pike underpass and up and out of the valley onto the bridge over top Seneca Creek. To my right there was a small parking lot that accessed the trail and the final aid station at mile 47. From this vantage point as I approached the aid station, I saw Todd and Adam leave. I only had less than 4 miles left to go. (The race was closer to 51 miles which, many hours before, threw Joel for a loop when he thought he only had about 2 miles to go from this aid station.)
Though I had doubts I would catch up to Todd and Adam, my race was against the setting sun. It was several minutes past 4pm. I decided to top off my water bottle and get a gel for the last couple miles. Though I didn’t need it, and I shouldn’t have done it, but I could not resist leaving without a cup of hot ramen. I ran out of the station with a hot cup of ramen on in hands.
About a mile onto the trail, I saw Todd duck-walking up a hill. This didn’t look good.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I was climbing that hill when something popped in my calf. I can’t run” Todd said.
Even though Adam probably knew, adhering to the motto that its every man for themselves, and for not using the part of my brain that forms compassion, I said something like “I will go on ahead and tell Adam.”
I shot ahead and ran up to Adam telling him that Todd was injured. Adam nodded his head. Then came an incline and Adam had more in him than I and he started to take off again.
Running behind me the entire time, Shmuel said “I thought you had him.”
“I thought I had him too. But its okay.”
I then told Shmuel that my goal was to finish before sunset. At this point, I think I was looking at my watch every 20 seconds, sometimes elated that I was going to make it and other times cursing that I would not get there in time. A year ago, with my gimmpy ankle, it took me more than 90 minutes of limping in the dark for me to get through this section from the last aid station to the finish. This year, running much faster and it still being daylight, I was in good spirits yet I had no bearing on how far it was to the finish.
“Don’t let me hold you back” said Shmuel. “Go for it! You can do this!”
I said thanks and bolted ahead. The last full mile I increased my pace into the low 11’s. Then things become familiar as the woods gave way to a clearing and ahead was Watkins Mill Road. “I am going to make it!” I thought! From the road, there is a short 1/3 of a mile dart back into the woods that threw me off since I forgot about it, and then a steep let short climb up to the finish beside the high school. Crossing the finish line, I paid more attention to my watch than the large digital display with my overall time. It was 4:54 PM, two minutes before my goal!

10 hours; 53 minutes and 29 seconds. Pace of 13:05. 130th to finish which was mid-pack.

Elevation Profile

Elevation Profile

POST-RACE:
I crossed the finish and walked only a couple dozen of yards to find Adam sitting on a curb with his wife. Adam looked so relaxed that I thought he finished a long time ago but he finished just 2 minutes and 30 seconds ahead of me. (10:51:59). Adam’s wife grabbed me a water as I decided to walk around, afraid about cramping if I stopped. I shook Shmuel’s hand as he came through the finish.
I then stopped the girl who yelled back at the powerline.
“Why did you scream?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing. I am just like that. I yell at everything. I am a screamer” she said.
I looked at her wondering if it is just on the trail or if she literally screams at everything.
I positioned myself next to the finish line at the top of the hill, looking at my watch again but this time wondering when Todd will show up. And soon enough, Todd began the climb up to the high school and I called out to Adam and Kelly that Todd was making the final ascent. He finished at 11:01:57.
I think if you told Todd before the race about finishing in 11 hours, he would be disappointed. But about halfway through the race he realized his mid-afternoon finish was out of the question. I think he was using Tussey Mountainback’s dirt roads as his analog and knew that finishing before dark was a very good performance.
Within 15 minutes of finishing, Todd had to leave. He had a family obligation back at home and Adam and Kelly had to leave as well since Todd was their ride. To me, nothing sounds more miserable after a 11 hour run was to lock yourself in a car for 2 1/2 hour drive home. I had already booked the extra night back at the hotel.
Adam said he was pleased to have finished before nightfall. Joel, who finished at 8 hours and 6 minutes and in the top 20, wanted to stay and watch us finish, had to go home when his cousin Brian started to vomit violently post-race and he continued to do so for the entire trip home. Todd, Adam, and Joel, all three had said that they loved the course and will be back again.
I went to the high school cafeteria for some hot soup to got myself warmed up and then left. It wasn’t until I started to walk the quarter mile or so to my car that my ankles started to protest in pain. Still, I was glad this happened after the race and I slowly hobbled to the car. Despite running 50 miles and my ankles hurting during that short walk, my muscles felt pretty good considering I ran so far for so long. I was very sore but not to the point where I was uncomfortable and I wasn’t cramping. I kept up with my nutrition and popped electrolyte tablets like Tic Tacs. Plus this ultrarunning thing must be getting easier. In the days after the race, I recovered very fast and was running a few days after the race.
I drove back to the hotel, got a shower, then drove to the Dogfish Brewery Restaurant in Gaithersburg about 10 minutes from the hotel. The ankle pain had disappeared completely when I walked into the restaurant but I still hobbled along like a old man. I had been looking forward to this beer for over a year. Last year at this race, I was so tired, sore and exhausted, I went straight to bed. At the restaurant, with a Burton Barton in hand, I just about I was to take a sip when I hesitated. In my head, I gave a silent moment of reflection to my running mates, who according to my watch were just approaching home. I also thought about other instant running companions like Pasta Guy and Shmuel who pushed or pulled me along. And to the army of wonderful volunteers who were on top of their game. They made this into remarkable day. For some reason that I don’t know why, but my tastes buds become more acute and sensitive after a long run. Despite the bitter hops of the beer I chose, nothing else could have tasted so sweet. Cheers!