I step out of the whirlpool, shower, and dress. I walk up the flight of stairs. At the landing, a thought occurs to me, and a shiver of anticipation runs up my spine. I turn and take a step down. Then another. Then another. An image of Inspector Clouseau crosses my mind: "You can do it, Inspector! You can walk!" My face breaks into a smile as I reach the bottom. I can walk down stairs.
Briefly, the lesson is:
Trail running is not road running.
Of course, I know this. You know this. Everyone knows this. However, there are different kinds of knowledge: "common knowledge", "book knowledge", "passing knowledge", and so on. My current variety might best be described as "knowledge through pain". I have just walked down my first flight of stairs in three days. My first flight since completing the Catoctin 50k trail run. It wasn't the 50k. It was the trail, an endless serpent of jumbled rocks and roots winding its way up, and, unfortunately, down the ridge of Catoctin Mountain. Down, down, down: the nemesis of quadriceps. My quadriceps pay for my lack of trail training.
I pick Catoctin as my first official ultra. I originally thought the 45 mile Andiamo Trail Run, sponsored by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, would be my first ultra, but the next running is in October 2000, and I won't wait. Obviously, I am not prepared for a trail race. But as race director Kevin Sayers notes in the application, "It's only a 50k". A paltry 5 miles past a marathon. How hard could it be? My desire to be ultraman trumps other considerations. I send in my application.
The first order of business is finding out where I am going. The race report from the last Catoctin indicates that the group of runners veered off trail at the very first turn, and that navigation improved only marginally after that. 50k sounds like plenty of distance to me; no need to turn it into 55 or 60k. I stop by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, conveniently headquartered a few blocks from my house, and pick up an excellent topographic map. I consider slicing out the section that I need, but after surveying parts of the course firsthand, I conclude that a map is not necessary, or even helpful - a correct conclusion, as it turns out. All I need to do is follow the blue blazes.
I construct an elevation profile from the PATC map. Although I am not extremely careful with this job, it appears that cummulative ascent of the trail works out to about 4000 feet over the 50k. The course is an out and back, so the net change is zero. This implies 4000 feet of quad-killing descent. Ouch!
My plan is a water bottle in my left hand and Karl King's Succeed! electrolyte caps in my key pocket. The electrolyte caps turn out to be a clear winner; hyponatremia fails to make its customary appearance in the race. I am definitely sold on the product. After several falls, I wish I had two water bottles; not only do I need more water, but the bottle makes a nice cushion. All of the scrapes and bruises from falling accummulate in my right hand.
Jeff picks me up just after 6AM. He plans on spending a meditative day walking in the woods. He brings his camera to record what I look like at the finish. Who knows: the pictures might be amusing, not to mention the cash value of the negatives.
Race director Kevin Sayers reviews the cutoff times: "If you make it to Hamburg Road by 4PM, we will wait for you at the finish. Unless, of course, it gets dark, in which case we will go home." He is joking, of course. Race directors are quite serious about the job of making sure no one is left lying out in the woods. Kevin mentions the sport drink, the blue "flavor" of Powerade, "If you get to an aid station, and the sports drink is not blue, you are off trail and at the wrong race". I opt for plain water. Finally, to much giggling, Kevin explains in precise detail that "trail wagging" is forbidden on this particular ultra. It seems my vocabulary is in for a bit of an expansion.
The downhills are steep and rocky. Actually, everything is rocky. I work hard just to keep my balance. My quadriceps are not used to this, and they definitely do not like it. During post-race recovery, I even go so far as to put two bags of ice into the bath tub, add water, and chill my legs. Matt thinks this treatment is great fun, even if I do not.
I crash about the 20 mile mark. Part of the problem is water; my 20 oz bottle is inadequate given the spacing of the aid stations. I actually begin to feel cold, a clear sign of trouble. I slow dramatically, and stumbles begin to turn into falls. Fortunately, the falls leave me with nothing worse than a few scratches and bruises.
I have bonked out on many occasions. I am rather good at it. However, until this race, I have never bonked out and subsequently recovered while the race is still going on. Ultrarunners talk about "bad patches" that come and go. Experiencing one is considerably different than reading about them.
I take a full five minutes at the Hamburg Road aid station to eat and drink. I graze on whatever looks appetizing: potato chips, pretzels, Mountain Dew. Amazingly enough, this works. I begin to recover. Although downhills remain sheer agony, uphills resume their appeal. Fortunately, the end of the course features a long steep uphill stretch. I cross the finish line knowing that I could easily keep going. I am ultraman!
I send in my application to the JFK 50 miler the day I reacquire the ability to descend stairs. Except for an early 1/2 marathon on the Appalachian Trail, the race is on flat to rolling terrain, familiar territory for me. Even so, I decide to work some trail running into my training. It is abundantly clear that the horse trail component of the W&OD trail does not qualify as a "trail" for this purpose. I need rocks, roots, and, mostly, steep descents.
I invite Bert to race with me; he too wants to be ultraman. He is hesitant to commit to 50 miles, so I lure him in slowly. I start with the PATC map; I extol its virtues in an email message and casually mention how to get one. Bert buys the map. I complement this with judiciously spaced phone calls and further email messages describing my training. I alter the agenda by seriously discussing 100 mile races, thereby reducing the status of the JFK race to "only a 50 miler". Eventually, he succumbs and signs up. We plan on having a great time.
Overall: 31/72 Men: 30/65
You may wish to visit the home page for the Catoctin 50k Trail Run.