|"NO! This is WRONG! We have to turn back RIGHT NOW! We must find the BLUE Trail!" I shout at the three runners following me as we approach a chain across the gravel path, when suddenly I realize we're a quarter mile off course. Such language is extremely uncharacteristic of me. Ordinarily I'm Mr. Nuance and Sir Diffident, always trying to be non-judgmental. But at mile 30, with what I estimate is only a 10 minute margin of safety to make the final Catoctin 50k cutoff, it's time for decisive action. Commander Mark makes a brief appearance.|
Backtrack, running hard. Find the corner where we mistakenly branched onto the Yellow-blazed Trail, and turn onto Blue. Power-walk up the hills. Dance across rocks and risk a game-ending fall. Pause briefly to check and offer aid when a follower pukes. As soon as he says he's ok, race ahead. Shout back, "Push hard! We've only got a few minutes to spare now!"
It's a day of chasing cutoffs, perhaps the roughest Catoctin 50k I've experienced. 2014 breaks the even-numbered-year jinx of DNFs (I failed to finish in 2008 and 2010, and skipped 2012), but falls short of a 2009 PR (7:53, on a shorter and slightly easier course), a 2011 hot and humid result (9:04), and a 2013 feel-good trek that included pauses to take photos and hang out (8:35). Official result this year: 141st place of 144, time 9:10:25.
A mountain bike gear found on the trail at mile ~20 fits with the post-grunge song "Machinehead" that's stuck in my brain much of the day — esp. the lyrics:
|After Taiji before the start, the first dozen+ miles today are full of scary stumbles and negative thinking. I ponder dropping mid-course. I squeak under the first two time limits by only a few minutes. At mile ~10 there's almost a bad fall, but luckily I grab a sapling with my left hand and swing 180 degrees around it to make a miraculous save, suffering only minor scrapes to arms and legs. Then it's miles of go-slow on rocky slopes, as a deathly fear of falling grows. I compute that I'm likely to be too late at mile 16 to be allowed to continue.|
But just a few miles later, for reasons unknown, the old brain perks up and start to feel better. The ~1,000 foot descent to the Manor House aid station is a jolly trot. Maybe it's today's mantras: "Notice the Music" (esp. the sound of toes stubbing rocks and roots) and "Soften into Experience" (as I envision not-falling). Maybe it's the encouraging runners I meet, far ahead of me on their return trips, shouting "Looking good!" and "Keep going!", plus the ultra-helpful aid station crews. Maybe it's thinking of my friends working the finish line, whom I would be embarrassed to call and beg a ride back from. Maybe it's the fuel and electrolytes finally kicking in. Today's dietary staples: Pringles, Oreos, and Watermelon. Their initials = "POW!"
So at Little Hunting Creek I wade briskly across ankle-deep water, greet race officials cheerfully, and ask permission to go on. By my watch I'm a few minutes past the 12:15 cutoff, but they are merciful (or sadistic?) and just say, "Hurry up!" So I grab three grapes and head out. The sweeper sits by the brook putting on her backpack. I tell her, "If you see me ahead of you, please just scream at me!"
Then the ancient legs start to feel good. I catch up with and pass fellow sufferers as we climb back up the 1,000 foot hill to the ridge line. A few slower folk are still making the descent, victims of falls, bad cramping, blisters, or other woes. I offer sympathies.
|The return trip is actually rather fun. I hang for a while with Paul Sherlock, another Cat veteran with 10 finishes who has fallen and is taking every further step today as a pure gift. Bib #1 bearer, 70-year-old legend Gary Knipling, then catches up with us. Somehow in his 16th Catoctin race he went off course and lost half an hour. We tease that he must have been following some young ladies. He pleads innocent, then runs on ahead. I text-message friends, "5 miles to go!"|
Jon Busey, a young German-linguist-computer-scientist, introduces himself. We talk about Hadoop and modern parallel processing. The initials of his four kids' names spell out L.O.V.E. He guesses which of my children's names belongs to the girl on the second try. I send him ahead on rocky slopes, where he skips along like a mountain goat, but catch up and pass him on the ascents. He comes in with nanoseconds to spare before the air horn goes off.
At the finish line I get a cold wet washcloth on the head and a victory hug from dear friend Stephanie Fonda, who is a volunteer chef with daughter Haven and ultrarunner comrade Marshall Porterfield. Haven gets the prize of the day: the One Ring, which I discover on the trail at mile 25. It doesn't make me invisible, but perhaps it will work for her? Or maybe it's a dime-store plastic replica. No matter!
Team MITRE triumphs: office buddy Michael Hart and I come in within minutes of one another. Wendy Neupauer of Minnesota, whom I run with for a few miles, crosses the line ahead of us and adds another state to her ultra-log. Far in front is Sonya Bingham, whom I met here last year. She gets her revenge for that DNF. We fist-bump in celebration.
I bring home my fourth Cat Card, the only award for finishers. If I get one more I'll earn a free entry. Is that a masochist's dream or what?!
^z - 2014-08-13