(stone railroad bridge above Seneca Creek, built in the early 1900's; photo by Caren Jew, 4 Mar 2006)
As we sprint toward the finish line a sunbeam slips through the trees and glints off C-C's diamond earring with a flash of startling colors. We've come full circle: nine hours earlier Venus twinkled brilliant against the predawn sky when we drove to Riley's Lock on the Potomac River. The Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon and 50k ends here. It begins here too, as volunteers in the darkness direct cars into the parking lot and then shepherd entrants into the vehicles that will take them to the starting line more than 28 miles upstream. Minutes earlier, as I left home and cruised down the highway at what I thought was a brisk pace, trucks and autos blitzed past me left and right — a forecast of what I experience along the trail.
Pace Control is the watchword for the long training run that Comrade Caren, aka "C-C", and I undertake along Seneca Creek in the guise of participating in today's marathon. Our goals are to enjoy the scenery, gauge our fitness level, and put some hoof-time and mileage into the bank for future use. C-C is parked and pacing the frozen grounds at 5:45am. She greets me as I arrive about 6:15 and we take pre-race photos of each other looking chilly. The temperature is in the 20's (°F) with intermittent northwest winds gusting up to 30 mi/hr. Brrrrrrrr!
Five of us carpool to Damascus Regional Park, Karen-with-a-K driving, Caren-with-a-C in the front seat, and me sandwiched in back between Tim and Brian, experienced ultrarunners who entertain us with tales of their adventures. The staff at the registration tables are well-insulated against the cold but the runners aren't; our garments are layered to allow the escape of internally-generated heat. As soon as we have our bib numbers we retreat to the shelter of Karen's car and await race time. When Director Ed Schultze summons us to the pre-event briefing we abandon all concept of personal space to huddle together like a colony of penguins fighting the frigid breezes for survival.
A few minutes after 8 o'clock we're off. C-C and I coast down the paved path and soon assume our proper station at the back of the pack, a pack which rapidly proceeds over the hills and beyond our line-of-sight. We stick to our game plan and take walk breaks early and often, traversing a mile every 15 minutes or so. Caren has recent speedwork under her belt but hasn't had much opportunity to go long for the past several months as she recovers from a shin fracture, so this is near her optimal pace. It's comfortable for me too, and good preparation for the 50k Hinte Anderson Trail Run (the HAT Run) that I hope to do in three weeks.
After a few miles several fast racers blast by us. They went off course earlier, did an extra mile or more, and now must work a bit harder. No problem; this is a trail run, not a road race. We wish them all well and carry on slowly — "Relentless Forward Progress" is our motto — down Magruder Branch Trail and across the stream to where it joins Seneca Creek.
The first major aid station is at Brink Road (~7 miles, 1:30 into the run). We're greeted with cheers: Caren's husband Walter and the family's two lovely daughters, Ashley and Jenna, hug their Mum and shake my hand. After a few minutes to refuel we're on our way again. The next stop is on Route 355 (~11 miles, 2:45 elapsed), where I'm saluted by friend Meredith and her six-year-old son Toby who have been waiting almost an hour for me to appear. We trek onward and downward and upward to Clopper Lake, the checkpoint at roughly the center of the race (~15 miles, 3:45). We arrive precisely as planned, a quarter of an hour ahead of the most stringent time cutoff on the course. After this we have no worries about being disqualified, barring an injury that prevents us from walking. We lollygag for several minutes, eating and drinking and applauding the 50k contestants who are finishing the bonus-distance circuit around the lake and rejoining the marathon course here.
This year my club race number is 333 — my nom de trail, "Half Beast". At Route 28 (~22 miles, 5:45) when the volunteers need to see my bib in order to check me on their list I pull up my outer windshirt and offer to flash the number at them in exchange for Mardi Gras beads. (Weak humor, sure, but during a long run that's the best I can generate.) Caren chats with friends, we chug soda and snarf Girl Scout cookies, thank the patient helpers there, and amble on. We cross tributary streams, meadows, and an increasing number of muddy sloughs as the day warms up. When the wind pauses we doff caps and gloves, but a few minutes later it blows and we're forced to don the extra garments once more. A few 50k-ers catch up with and pass us, including Jenny whom we've met at past runs. Now we walk a bit more than we jog, converse, point out jet planes on their final approaches downriver, and successfully cross a big creek while maintaining dry feet thanks to well-placed steppingstones and guide ropes. Then it's time to tackle an intimidating Capital-H Hill, steep and high; we succeed by shifting to ultra-low gear.
When we see the road to the parking lot we know the end is near. We've saved enough energy to dash (relatively speaking) to the wire. The official clock says 7:20:37 for Caren and 7:20:38 for me. We're each dead last in our respective categories. At the picnic pavilion we eat, drink, congratulate one another, pick up our finisher's commemorative running shorts, and proceed home to our families — a little tired and a lot happy. Full circle.
Caren writes the day after the race:
I haven't seen the official results yet, but I'm sure zhurnal and I came in last yesterday in my first Greenway Trail Marathon, his second. I was seriously unprepared for this with only 12 miles as my longest training run since October, but I figured what the hell. For whatever reason, a trail marathon is so much less daunting to me than a road marathon, and I never felt like I wouldn't finish. It helped to have such an upbeat companion with a great attitude. The trail is awesome, and there were only a couple of sections I'm not in love with. Specifically the 355 crossing and the section before, under and after 270. I'd have to say my favorite part of the trail is right before the 28 crossing and the whole rest of it til Poole's. The start was pretty dicey with what seemed like 25mph winds up in the open area of the Damascus park. We got really lucky by catching a ride with Karen and she let us sit in her car while she worked the registration table. In the car with us was Tim and Brian — Brian is running the HAT as well.
At about 7:55 we begrudgingly get out of the car and head to the start where Ed hollers out last minute instructions. We're packed together and for once you don't mind the violating of personal space ... it is freaking freezing. My feet go numb from the cold and I don't feel them for the first mile. Zhurnal tells me not to fret, they'll come back and they do. We run the first hill and I state it's the only hill I'll gladly run up today. We settle into a nice easy pace and finally find the trail after being on asphalt for about 1/2 mile. After a bit a couple of fast guys come up behind us ... we figure they must have missed the turn for the trail, or else were late at the start. It was pretty uneventful for most of the trail til Brink where my husband and girls were waiting. It was nice to see them and I wish I could spend more time but on we go. This is the first of three crossings where we see Megan ... that girl was everywhere yesterday — what an awesome volunteer. Karen too. We get to 355 about 15:00 before the 11:00 cut-off, although it appears they're breaking down the aid station. This is the part of the trail I've not seen before and we cross under 355 (ick) then up and down some dicey big stones and under 270.
Zhurnal tells me about a really cool railroad bridge and when we get there we take pictures of each other on my cell phone. Then we head into a better part of the trail around Rte. 117 and into Seneca Creek Park. At the Clopper Road aid station we see Megan and I inquire how Michelle is doing and she comes through the lake portion just then looking great. They have lots of good things at this aide station: coke, girl scout cookies, chocolate, cheese crackers. I'm starting to feel pretty sore but still mentally happy. The wind finally starts to slow down, although we're still putting our hats on, taking them off, etc. One of the things I love best about this trail is the variety of scenery. One minute you're in the woods, another and you're in a field with tall grass, then again a soft pine forest. I like the part after the 118 crossing too, even though the hills and switchbacks are pretty tiring. So pretty.
I'm still feeling pretty OK and oddly enough it's more painful to walk than run. Occasionally we're still getting passed by those doing the 50k, but we're pretty sure we're last. As long as we're well-ahead of the sweepers I manage to stay relaxed. We get a nice downhill into the 28 aid station and again there's Megan and a few more people and I compare stress fracture talk with Tim and they tell us of a few people who have dropped out. I think it was shortly before this stop that I took a couple of Ibuprofen that zhurnal offers, and I notice a big difference in my soreness thereafter. It's a beautiful day out with the sun in full force and the wind is still quiet.
At this point along comes Jen who is doing the 50k. She walks with us a bit then carries on although we catch her at the next stop ... is that Tschiffley or something like that? We only have a couple miles after that although we still have that big hill, and whew, what a hill. It's a killer, but I don't mind since it's probably our last. Finally we see cars glinting ahead at Poole's and we know we're just about done. We cross River, turn right and then jog to the finish. That's about the most I sweated — the last .9 miles. I dressed just right for the conditions in two shirts and regular weight tights. And for being out there for 7 hours I got a slight sunburn on my face.
A great day, a great trail, and I will definitely do this again next year and will schedule training accordingly. Screw road marathons, I relish the thought of training for this next year. Ed did an amazing job; incredible volunteer support, awesome aide stations, plus the trail was in great shape. Now if only someone could hold that wind at bay ...