Sorry that you feel that way
The only thing there is to say
Every silver lining's got a
Touch of grey.
I will get by,
I will get by,
I will get by,
I will survive.
(no worries! — the blood is only cosmetic, damage soon to heal: ugly ^z legs at the Turkey Run aid station, mile ~17 of the 2007 PHT50k)
The Grateful Dead song "Touch of Grey" is playing on the car radio as I drive to the start of the Potomac Heritage Trail 50k on 27 October 2007, and throughout the race the lyrical refrain "I will survive!" cycles intermittently through my head. After days of heavy rain the creeks are flooding, the river is high, and the fallen leaves are slippery. I feel considerable trepidation, since I've never ventured onto most segments of the PHT and I'm concerned about making the time cutoffs. But as it turns out, it's All Good — even during a couple of exciting moments along the way. The mud is less daunting than it was at the 2007 Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon or the 2007 HAT Run, the scenery is beautiful, and (as usual in ultramarathons) along the way I meet some wonderful, helpful people.
The PHT50k begins in the middle of Washington DC near the National Zoo, at Race Director Kerry Owen's lovely home in the Woodley Park area of town. I'm a bit spacey before the start, but I eventually figure out that it's because my "breakfast" today consisted of a cup of strong coffee. After a few blocks along city streets I'm fine, however, as we enter Rock Creek Park and I settle into my customary position at the back of the pack.
The rain has tapered to a light drizzle and soon stops entirely. Young US Army officer Mary Campbell jogs with me. She's running the Marine Corps Marathon tomorrow and plans to do "only" 19 miles today as a warm-up. I salute her chutzpah.
My first fall occurs near mile 3, when I don't pick up my feet enough and trip on a surveyor's string in a construction zone on Foxhall Rd. Ooopsies! Mary is concerned but all's well; I've only scraped my knees slightly. Our route here is marked with blue flour splashed on the tree trunks, plus yellow blazes signifying established pathways. We wind along various ridges and streams via woodsy urban neighborhood trails, past Dumbarton Oaks to the Glover-Archibald Trail and then the Wesley Heights Trail. After Aid Station #1 we descend through Battery Kemble Park downstream to a rocky crossing, then stoop to traverse a scary tunnel under Canal Rd beside racing waters. Even scarier to short males, we next must clamber over a high wooden railing. ("Ouch!", I say in a falsetto voice).
Thus we arrive at Fletchers Boathouse to join the C&O canal towpath, from which our course runs smooth for a couple of miles to Georgetown. Mary takes the lead as I slow and enjoy some walk breaks. I catch up with her at the Key Bridge crossing of the Potomac River and we go slightly astray in Rosslyn before finding the bikepath toward Roosevelt Island and the beginning of the Potomac Heritage Trail. At Aid Station #2 we eat, drink, and prepare for the real trail to begin. But Mary is already experiencing knee pain, so after a few hundred yards I persuade her to return to the Aid Station and "Save the next 12 miles for the MCM!" (She finishes that marathon the next day in a splendid 4:42:32 — brava, Mary!)
Now I'm all alone, following blue PHT blazes and occasional blue flour marks. Some months ago comrade Tracy Wilson told me of his training run along the PHT here, which he described as rugged and technical in places. What an understatement! The four miles to the next aid station include some of the steepest, rockiest terrain I've encountered. I almost catch up to a group of four runners who witness my second fall when I slip on the rocks approaching a stream crossing and sit down far too abruptly. Ow! The damage is thankfully slight, I tell my fellow travelers, and they trot onward while I walk a bit to regroup.
Climbing up the cliffside to Chain Bridge I cling to a steel handrail bolted to the stone outcropping and thank whoever installed it there. After some heavy breathing I'm at the top and follow the line of Halloween jack o' lanterns to Aid Station #3, arriving a comfortable 25 minutes ahead of the mile 12.5 cutoff with a false sense of confidence that the toughest part of the race is over. The volunteers here notice fresh blood on my legs and express concern, but I reassure them. They refill my bottles with Gatorade, I scarf down a handful of M&Ms and potato chips, and trot off.
A few dozen yards downhill I suddenly realize that my hands are empty: I've left half of my electrolyte supply behind. Whoops! I dither momentarily, then recollect my experience of dehydration during the Gunpowder Keg Fat Ass a month ago. "One bottle bad; two bottles good!" I tell myself, and climb back up the hill to the Aid Station to retrieve my forgotten bottle. I re-greet the volunteers, laugh with them, and head out once more.
The PHT here becomes easier to navigate, with longer but gentler hills though deep pine forests. The waters of Pimmit Run are in violent flood today, so rather than lose runners the course marshals re-route us up the embankment to the George Washington Memorial Parkway where we can cross on the shoulder of the automobile bridge. The woodsy trail resumes at Ft Marcy and now I'm on a segment that I've traversed once before in the opposite direction (cf. "Home Run Meltdown", OperationAcclimation on 25 May 2007). Crossing the Hwy 123 access ramps I'm spotted by my boss René who happens to be driving along the Parkway this Saturday. Small world!
The leading racers begin to meet me during their inbound run. Michele Harmon shouts greetings and encouragement. (She will finish first of the women, more than 3 hours ahead of me.) After some nervousness about losing the trail I follow the white flour markings to Aid Station #4 at Turkey Run Park, mile 17. Here I discover that what seemed a too-good-to-be-true 5.25 hour cutoff is actually too good to be true: it applies not to entering the Aid Station here but to leaving it on the return journey. Whoa!
Race Official Jaret Seiberg logs my arrival on his clipboard and tells me that because the permit from the Park Service requires runners to clear out on time, I've gotta really hustle. He encourages me to try, however, so after a quick refueling (and a pause for a volunteer to take photos of my bloody legs with my cellphone's camera) I blast, relatively speaking, down to the river. I have one hour to make it to the turnaround and back in order to do the full 50k. Officially it's only 3 miles, but I think in reality it's a bit farther. After I leave the aid station I discover I've forgotten my gloves, but there's no time to get them now.
I push hard, scrambling up and down the rocks, rushing the stream crossings, and meeting large numbers of returning runners. "Large" in this tiny race means perhaps a dozen. After 26 minutes I reach the American Legion Bridge — Excelsior! I wipe my hands against my legs and leave proof of my presence: bloody palm prints among the graffiti on the pillar that supports the highway over the Potomac River.
Then it's dash back to Turkey Run, where I arrive to the cheers of the volunteers. I'm a whole two minutes ahead of the final cutoff — hooray! Newly-married, currently-retired ultrarunner friend Rayna Matsuno (Weise) gives me a joyous hug. (Thank you, Ma'am!) I grab my gloves and join another racer on the way out of the aid station. We miss the trail and loop back until a race official leads us to the return path.
Slow and steady, I make my way through the woods to Chain Bridge. My paper map is soggy to the point of disintegration. Fortuitously I spy a small white object beside the trail. I venture to bend over — not a trivial act in the later stages of a long race — and pick it up, thinking it's just litter. But it's a laminated set of race directions, dropped by a fast runner. Woot!
After a quick snack at the last Aid Station I follow the course across the Potomac and back into Washington DC. On the C&O Canal towpath I catch up with Jim Simpson. We settle down to walk and jog the last half dozen miles together, and I discover that Jim has quite a résumé: he has run 50 marathons in 50 states, not once, not twice, but six times in succession, and is most of the way through set number seven. Jim is retired and does two marathons or ultras most weekends. I ask him for his advice on training, nutrition, injury avoidance, and a host of other topics.
We miss a turn and get slightly lost together in the urban park system, but turn around and eventually find our way back to the orange flour blazes, thanks to the plastic card of directions I picked up plus helpful advice from a young lady jogger who tells us she had planned to do the PHT50k today but had to cancel due to injury. Jim is signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon tomorrow, so we slow down and have a good time during the final miles. (He finishes the MCM in 5:24:48 — bravo!)
At RD Kerry Owens's house where we started Jim and I stop our watches and sign the log with our times. This free fat-ass race is run on the honor system! We eat and drink, and I thank Kerry in person as I leave for home. There are no t-shirts, no medals, no prizes. None are needed. We all know what we did.
The shoe is on the hand it fits
There's really nothing much to it
Whistle through your teeth and spit, 'cause
It's all right.
Oh well, a touch of grey
Kind of suits you anyway
That was all I had to say
It's all right.
I will get by,
I will get by,
I will get by,
I will survive.
^z timing information at various points along the Potomac Heritage 50k of 2007:
Time Split Pace Location 1:01 1:01 ~13 min/mi Aid Station #1 ( ~4.7 mi) - in NW DC 1:52 0:51 ~13 Aid Station #2 ( ~8.6 mi) - near Teddy Roosevelt Island 3:04 1:12 ~18 Aid Station #3 (~12.5 mi) - Chain Bridge 4:19 1:15 ~17 Aid Station #4 (~17.0 mi) - Turkey Run 4:45 0:26 ~17 American Legion Bridge (~18.5 mi) 5:13 0:28 ~19 Aid Station #4 (~20.0 mi) inbound 6:32 1:19 ~18 Aid Station #3 (~24.5 mi) inbound 8:27 1:55 ~18 Finish ( ~31.1 mi + half a mile or so off course in final part)
("Touch of Grey" lyrics by Robert Hunter, music by Jerry Garcia; cf. http://www.vhtrc.org/events/pot-h50.htm , http://www.vhtrc.org/results/pht07.htm , RileysRumble2007 (30 Jul 2007), PiedBeauty (27 Aug 2007), Phone It In (21 Sep 2007), GunpowderKegFatAss2007 (24 Sep 2007), MatherGorge (9 Oct 2007), JFK 2007 Preparation (26 Oct 2007), ...)