Today's long run teaches three big lessons:
Ed Schultze, Race Director, designed a superb course and pulled together a high-energy group of volunteers for his 5 March 2005 "close to a marathon" event. (Actual distance is estimated by several people to be ~28 miles.) The route begins at the Damascus Regional Park and proceeds down the Magruder Branch Trail to Seneca Creek, which flows thence 20-some-odd miles to enter the Potomac River at Riley's Lock on the C&O Canal. The Greenway Trail  meanders generally along the creek, with occasional digressions over ridgelines and around major obstructions. It's fairly new, and has only been extended to its current length since 2003.
The day dawns partly cloudy, temperatures a bit above freezing, no significant wind, no precipitation. The game plan is to drive to near the race's finish line, park, and get a ride to the starting point. I arrive at 0645, barely in time to park, put on my shoes, and clamber on board the bus. Then I discover that I've forgotten my belt-pouch; fortunately, the bus driver is willing to wait for me to trot back to my car and get it.
I sit in the back and immediately the friendly spirit of trail running is obvious: people are exchanging anecdotes, advice, and encouragement, as well as offering each other gear and supplies if needed. During the trip I eat a Clif Bar and drink some Gatorade from my bottle. Then in the starting area we register and mill around. Wayne Carson ("Way-no") and Ron Ely ("Tarzan Boy") chat with me. It's cold here; there's a layer of snow and ice on the ground in shaded areas. I notice a runner snapping photos and offer to take pictures of him with his camera; he's pleased to have that done. (I see him again at an aid station after ~10 miles and do him the same small favor there.)
Ed Schultze gives a quick race pre-brief, and at 0757 we're off! I attempt to capture last place, but after two miles relinquish it to a young lady who wants to go a little slower. Alas, I feel a bit too good and proceed at a somewhat brisk (for me) pace --- a decision which I come to regret for the latter half of the race. As usual, my engine runs hot: about mile 5 I need to take off my hat and long-sleeved outer windshirt. (I discover that I've pinned my race number through it and onto the inner nylon mesh shirt, so I spend a frustrating time walking along and struggling to undo safety pins with my clumsy gloved fingers.) A helpful woman following me picks up my cap, which I've somehow dropped, and returns it to me.
All this time I've been struggling to hold a 32-ounce Gatorade bottle, slightly too big to be grasped comfortably. At the first aid station I pour its contents into a half-empty 20 oz. bottle --- in the process mixing blue and red liquids. "That could explode, you know!" jokes a volunteer.
Today I perform another chemistry experiment on my favorite subject (myself). I've brought along three "Succeed" electrolyte capsules. They're a buffered mixture of sodium and potassium compounds, designed to replace losses due to sweating. Several ultrarunners I've met have recommended them in the strongest terms. I take one pill after an hour and a half, another at the three hour mark, and the last one an hour after that. They seem to help; leg cramps, my bête noir, stay away. As part of the hydration and electrolyte replacement strategy I'm also drinking a lot of sports drinks, and whenever an aid station offers the opportunity I eat a boiled potato dipped in salt as well as a handful of tortilla chips or similar munchies.
After ~10 miles the spring has definitely left my step, and I find myself walking significantly more than I'm running. Clearly my pace thus far has been too fast for the trail conditions and my (pitiful lack of) fitness and ability. I remind myself that this is really a training run (preparation for a 50k and a 50 miler in weeks to come). And I remember the words of Dave Olney (see TaoistState, 12 Nov 2004) and decide that if I have to walk the entire remainder of the distance, that's perfectly acceptable.
Unfortunately for me, a song now begins to run through my brain's fatigue-befuddled circuitry. It's the Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" (by Donald Roeser). But the lyrics are changed to say "Don't Fear the Sweeper" ... the "Sweeper" being the race official designated to go along the trail at a predesignated pace and disqualify runners who are going too slow. I'm somewhat concerned about the Sweeper, given my slow rate of progress at this point.
Thankfully my fears prove unfounded: I arrive at the ~15 mile station, near Clopper Lake in Seneca Creek State Park, after 3 hours 15 minutes --- well ahead of the 4 hour cut-off time for the trail marathon, and in fact eligible by a quarter hour to do an extra loop around the lake and convert the race into a 50+ km ultra. Fortunately I'm sensible enough not to do that. I try not to dawdle and manage to leave the aid station after ~3 minutes. Onward!
Circa mile 18 I meet Rayna Matsuno, a young lady who kindly gives me one of her Succeed capsules --- by this point I've already taken all of mine and still feel a craving for electrolytes. We chat as we walk and jog along, and I learn that she has only been doing long races for a year or so (and she finished the 2004 Marine Corps Marathon more than an hour ahead of me!). When we go astray from the trail a bit, we backtrack to the last marker and, with the help of another lady runner, get back on course. Then Rayna decides she has lollygagged enough with me and runs on ahead.
Several more folks zip by now. Most have done the extra 3.7 mile lake circuit for the 50k ultra option, but there are also some mere marathoners who have paced themselves better than I have. At the next major aid station, just past the 5 hour mark, I discover that my distance estimates have been in error: the volunteer tells me that instead of ~4 miles to go, in actuality ~6 miles remain. "Thank you!" I reply, "I had been fantasizing about finishing in under 6 hours, but now that I know that's impossible I can take my time." I pause to eat another salt-dipped boiled potato, refill my bottle, and hike on.
There seemed to be a lot of mud in the earlier parts of the course, but now I realize that was nothing compared to the bogs between miles 22 and 28. Instead of running with occasional walk breaks, I'm now basically walking with occasional run breaks. The trail makes some major stream crossings here, including a scary one of Seneca Creek itself. Helpful volunteers have strung ropes across, and I cling to one as I step from rock to rock and try not to fall into the roiling waters. I continue my cautious tread on the other side: I've slipped several times thus far and have almost tripped over tree roots, but haven't yet gone down or twisted an ankle. I would prefer not to start now.
The final mile is dirt road, a cakewalk compared to the steep segments hitherto. I manage to trot for most of it and finish in a not-too-disrespectable 6:50:37, sans blisters but with a slightly sunburned pate.
At the journey's end there's coffee, hot vegetarian soup, and a wide variety of munchies. There are also nice gifts for all the finishers, including commemorative jogging shorts donated by REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc. --- a co-op which I've been a member of since the mid-1970s). I meet several more nice people, including Megan Carroll who talks with me about her plans to do the 50k HAT Run in a couple of weeks. Rayna has finished well ahead of me; she spots me in the small crowd and we congratulate each other.
The lessons learned today thus include:
(see also IceFangs (6 Feb 2005), ...)