(photo by Mark Schadly)
|"Don't ask me to run the last mile in 8:17!" declares Stephanie Fonda after 11+ hours of trekking. (She's alluding to our blitz last month along the Metropolitan Branch Trail.) We're in the final stretch of the 2012 Stone Mill 50 miler, Stephanie's first ultramarathon.|
As it turns out we "only" do ~47 miles, a bit over 75 km. This year's official course is a couple of miles shorter than planned, and at a temporarily unmanned aid station I inadvertently lead Stephanie along the wrong side of Seneca Creek for the segment between Germantown Rd and Riffleford Rd. That path saves ~1 mile but requires considerable scrambling across wash-outs, through muddy ditches, over massive deadfalls, and across wildly tipping wooden bridges, one canted funhouse-like 30° off horizontal. "I've got bark rash on my butt!" Stephanie complains after we sit and swivel over the trunks of ancient trees taken down by Hurricane Sandy just three weeks ago.
The day before the event Gayatri Datta picks up race packets for Stephanie and me. On Saturday morning I rise at 3am, pick up Stephanie at 4:30, get her coffee at the Giant on the way to Gayatri's home at 4:50, and arrive at Watkins Mill HIgh School at 5:15, comfortably early. We register, deposit our drop bags, and then retreat to the car to stay warm. The thermometer reads 28°F. Venus gleams bright in the eastern sky.
At the back of the pack where we begin conversation is light-hearted. We circle the school building and slant down the trail. Ultrarunner comrade Caroline Williams is with us and we chat about her Vermont 100 plans. Soon — too soon, I think — returning runners start to meet us. The course marshalls turn us around at Brink Rd instead of Huntmaster Rd, cutting off a couple of miles from the initial out-and-back. I argue with them briefly, then acquiesce.
Downstream we jog. About mile 6 a couple of Delaware Trail Dawgs join us for a while. Stumpy, director of Stumpy's Marathon, makes me promise to do his race some day. The Dawgs run on and Mike Edwards falls in with Stephanie and Gayatri and me. Last year Mike kindly drove me to and from this race (see 2011-11-19 - Stone Mill 50 Miler DNF). But just last month he had knee surgery and today says he "only" plans to do 20 or 30 miles. He's wearing a cute kilt, but confesses to having more than socks on under it.
At about mile 9 in Seneca Creek State Park Mike stops the group and asks if we could have missed a turn some distance back. I argue not, and fortunately am able to summon up the course map on the iPhone. We proceed onward but with some trepidation. Happily, however, another mile downstream we encounter cheery volunteers directing us away from Seneca Creek and toward Muddy Branch, the proper outbound route.
|The Stone Mill race is relatively uneventful this year, an excellent thing in an ultra. None of us fall down or get wet feet, though there are several scary stumbles that make adrenaline spike. Minor mishaps, however, abound. I forget Gayatri's hat and gloves at the C&O Canal entry aid station (mile ~23) while getting my water pouch refilled; I was carrying them for her stuffed into my backpack. A helpful volunteer hurls the gear across the canal to me after I scramble down the slope on opposite side. When I can't climb back up Gayatri gives me a hand and manages not to fall down herself. I'm reminded of the slip-slides that she and I experienced during the 2012-11-03 - Mike Broderick Memorial Run a fortnight ago.|
The aid stations are universally well-stocked. One of them features beer, pumpkin Rice Krispy treats, and chocolate-coated bacon. Hot grilled cheese sandwiches are über-tasty at miles 27 and 33, as is the tongue-burning vegetarian soup. And there are "special brownies" that a volunteer wearing a pink curly fright-wig offers me. "Will I think that you have pink hair if I eat one?" I ask him. "No, they're not that special." he replies. Too late!
Other memorable sights along the way include frost-covered meadows at dawn, mid-day sunbeams glittering off the Potomac River, cool pine-needle-cushioned forest paths, and lovely vistas of Seneca Creek. We spy at least four live deer and one dead one. Passing cars on Route 28, a major highway, witness me pulling Stephanie's pants down — but no worries, I'm just helping her remove an outer shell that has become too warm. My iPhone battery dies after ~32 miles; the wrist Garmin GPS runs out of juice at mile ~37. Stephanie's newer-model Garmin makes it the whole way. On the trail we meet another runner who did the entire course solo the night before, and who is running the race today as the second half of a personal 100 miler.
(photo by ^z of Mike Edwards, Gayatri Datta, and Stephanie Fonda)
|The ^z reputation for fame (or infamy) is amusingly enhanced when, at a tiny country road crossing at mile ~20, we pause to let three cyclists zoom by. Stephanie claims that one shouts to the others, "Hey, I know that guy! I see him running! That is Mark Zimmermann!" I'm slightly skeptical that she heard him correctly. But I do have a distinctive appearance and I have been running around the county here for a decade now, so perhaps it's not that improbable a coincidence.|
Elite ultrarunner Kerry Owens is ubiquitous, magically appearing at every aid station we visit and again at race's end. I dawdle at some of the rest stops for several minutes, and although Kerry doesn't violently throw Stephanie and me out from our lengthy Route 28 break she does taunt me with a sharp "Are you still here?" and appropriately prods us to get moving.
The biggest challenges Stephanie Fonda must overcome today, besides my interminable monologues, are blisters. A particularly bad set forms on the fourth toe of her right foot. Before, during, and after the C&O Canal segment she stops to treat them. Gayatri, at our insistence, trots on ahead to join other runners. At the mile 27 aid station a thoughtful volunteer suggests applying massive amounts of grease instead of bandages. That doesn't do much good, but at least it's different! After seriously painful walking for over an hour, at mile ~30 suddenly the biggest of the blisters breaks. (Stephanie shouts out a Bad Word to commemorate the occasion.) After that she can run again, so we begin to make good time. She gives me miniature Heath Bars that she's carrying; I share Atomic Fireballs.
(photo by Ken Trombatore)
|After a longish pause at mile ~33 to rest, regroup, and ponder the pro's and con's of continuing, Stephanie decides to soldier on. I promise her that she can drop at any aid station and easily get a ride back. She attacks each segment as a separate event, and as we progress her speed continues to improve. In contrast, alas, I slow down as the sun begins to set and the sky fades through deep pinks and oranges. In Seneca Creek State Park (mile ~41) winter holiday lights are turned on for automobile drive-through, part of the Gaithersburg town festival. They're lovely and bright.|
But past that point the gloom deepens, as do my spirits. Specters of being lost in the woods or falling down crowd around me. Pink's song "Please Don't Leave Me" plays in my head as Stephanie trots comfortably onward in the dark. At last I catch up with her at Clopper Rd, where she takes a slight wrong turn and I shout her back on course. Ms. S generously stays with me thereafter, mostly walking since I can't run safely in the dark. Her 90-lumen LED headlamp is brilliant, much stronger than mine. I resolve to get a similar one before further dark expeditions.
A fingernail-clip moon sets low in the west. Flashbacks sprint through my mind from past night journeys, especially the 2010-04-03 - Chocolate Bunny and the 2010-08-27 - Cheat Mountain Moonshine Madness where I had so much trouble. A headlamp plus LED flashlights in each hand aren't nearly enough for my old eyes.
Then near mile ~44 Stephanie and I meet Hank Savedge and his wife Michelle. They're picking their way along without any artificial illumination — the lamp that they had planned to pick up wasn't in their drop bag at the prior aid station. No deep thinking required: I hand them one of my flashlights. After they finish the race Hank seeks me out to return it. "It saved our lives!" he says in thanks.
"No big deal," I reply. Ultrarunners always do that sort of thing for each other. Another couple of miles down the trail Stephanie and I pass two guys walking along together, one supporting the weight of the other who has a badly-sprained ankle. They finish a little behind us. People help people. That's part of why we're out here.
(photo by Ken Trombatore)
Before the race buddy Ken Swab expresses doubts about my ability to stay quiet for half a mile. I succeed — but only during a segment early on when nobody else is within earshot. The rest of the race I'm havering as usual, with the bonus addition of some silly jokes I've recently memorized to atone for my inability to offer any humor during the 2012-10-28 - Marine Corps Marathon 2012, when Stephanie's ITB pain needed distraction. Today during the final miles Mr. Know-It-All subjects Stephanie to:
Somehow, Stephanie survives all that, and more. I mercifully refrain from expounding upon the physics of the spectra of mercury-vapor lamps versus low- and high-pressure sodium, even though I'm tempted as we arrive back at Watkins Mill Rd and see the glow of street lights ahead.
|At the very end of our run Stephanie and I can't find the path through the woods as we approach the high school where the race began. Volunteers shout at us from the finish line area, but we can't make out what they are saying. Finally Race Director Doug Stevens laughs and says, "Just come on in!" rather than making us go the proper roundabout cross-country route. Officially Stephanie finishes 13:28:59 and I'm 13:29:01. Mayra Fairbairn takes photos of us. We stagger to the school cafeteria and nibble on pasta.|
And now I'm befuddled: Gayatri Datta was far ahead of me, but the race officials say that she hasn't finished yet. Did Stephanie and I somehow pass her, perhaps during our off-course short-cut, perhaps elsewhere? Apparently yes: Gayatri finishes her second fifty miler safely, phones her son and husband to report the success, and tells me that she feels no need to do it again. I drive her home.
(photos by Mayra Fairbairn)
Stephanie proposes some "Life Lessons" from her first ultramarathon:
My Bottom Line: like St Crispin's Day in Henry V, the 2012 Stone Mill is a day of feats and memories, fellowship and pride. It's all good. (But given the short course and my digressions, guess I'd better try it again next year!)