Tough — that's the adjective that everybody uses to describe this year's ultra-icy, ultra-muddy Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon & 50k. An almost-full moon plays peek-a-boo between tree trunks at 5:30am as I drive out River Road and park on Seneca Road at mile 27 of the course, near a rotting deer carcass. (Perhaps it portends the state of my carcass at that point of today's race?!)
I wait in my car for a few minutes, then gather up my gear and commence the hike to Riley's Lock, the endpoint of the event, where Seneca Creek flows into the Potomac River. I'm passed by Jim Farkas, crew for Team Oz at the JFK 50 Mile Run 2006, who kindly gives me a ride. Good friend Caren Jew, also a JFK Team Oz member, is waiting. Last year Caren and I ran the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon together; this time she's a volunteer course marshal.
Caren and I chat, and I give her a bag to hold for me at mile 20 where she will be guarding a road crossing — extra energy gels, a bottle of electrolyte drink, and a change of shoes & socks. Then Caren fills her minivan with runners and drives us to the start in Damascus Regional Park. As always, Ed Schultze and his MCRRC http://mcrrc.org helpers are doing a superb job of organizing and supporting the race. Registration is quick and efficient, so I talk with other competitors and dither over whether or not to wear an outer windshirt. Wayne Carson advises against it, and given the forecast of temperatures rising from early-morning freezing into the 50's I take his counsel.
Just before 8am we line up for Ed's traditional briefing. A cheer from the crowd greets his announcement of ice and mud along the route. (What fools these mortals be!) The paved bike path down to Magruder Branch Trail is treacherous in the extreme, and most of us are reduced to walking on the crunchy surfaces to its sides. Others slip and fall. I meet Christine Papadopoulos, an experienced marathoner who ran 50+ miles during a local 24-hour endurance race last year and who next month is going to be one of the event managers http://www.athletic-equation.com/24HourATR2.htm. We chat about today's run and I express optimism that conditions will improve once we're on the real trail. At first they appear to, so I wish Christine luck and jog ahead.
Soon it's obvious that the ice isn't going away, it's getting worse. I catch up with a group of runners and tag along as they gingerly pick their way across, along, and around slick surfaces. The official rules forbid trekking poles, but I see somebody else walking with a stick and experiment with one for a while, then hand it to a shaky person who appears to need it more than I. We joke about Gandalf's staff and my beard. I tell the story of BurntNjal and his son's on-the-ice battle, but nobody else seems interested. One might think that walking would use less energy than running, but in fact everyone quickly becomes exhausted by the effort to remain upright on the ice.
I manage to keep my balance for several miles and am patting myself on the back until the first major water crossing. The creek is unusually high and before I can grab the guide rope I slip and fall into water up to my knees. My left hand scrapes on the rocks as I catch myself. Fortunately there's no major damage, and from now on I'm not afraid of wading through the water at the fords. My socks are soaked but the trail shoes I'm wearing drain well and my feet warm up within another mile or two.
Where the trail crosses Huntmaster Road the ice is even more dangerous, polished to a glaze where previous runners have trod. A woman ahead of me looks like a giant spider when she sits down and uses all four limbs plus rump to traverse the mini-glacier. (Is she therefore "on all fives"?!) Others walk along the road, trying to find a safer way up the slope. A barbed wire fence beside the trail reminds one lady near me of a course where the runners had to step over such a fence — and the challenge that it presented to a friend of hers who was under five feet tall. "Whoa — don't visualize that!" I warn the woman in front of me. She groans and informs us all that it's too late. Ouch!
I reach the aid station at Brink Road, mile ~7, after 97 minutes. My pace today is ~1 min/mi slower than it was with Caren last year, and I anticipate trouble making the cutoffs ahead. I refill my bottle, grab a handful of chocolate candies, and trek onward. Now surfaces have evolved to a mix of icy mud and muddy ice. Small lakes appear, tops frozen into a thin clear layer. I tap a toe on one and watch the cracks spread. Approaching the Route 355 crossing, mile ~11, I look at my watch and start to push myself to run harder. The time limit here is 11am, and I crawl in at 10:58. Probably the officials won't enforce rigid deadlines today, given course conditions, but just in case I figure I should try to squeak by them. Another bottle refill, a handful of pretzels, and I'm off.
As the stream enters gentler terrain the mud deepens, and I discover that my shoulders are now starting to ache. Apparently when I slip and flail to recover my balance, I'm stressing my arms and associated joints. Ugh! My big fear now is not so much of falling, as of doing a sudden split and straining groin or hamstring muscles, tendons, etc. I take another tumble on an icy patch under the old stone railroad bridge. Here the only safe walkway is along the wooden border of the trail, but my balance isn't good enough to do that reliably at any speed.
Now the course enters Seneca Creek State Park, and as the minutes pass I again hurry to make the symbolic noon deadline at mile ~15, Clopper Lake. I'm obviously too late to qualify for the 3+ mile lake loop option that makes the course into a 50k — even if I weren't already too exhausted to contemplate it. At 11:55am I hobble up to the aid station, check in, tank up, and dip a chunk of boiled potato into a bowl of salt. That hits the spot. Fortified with a handful of candy, I proceed.
The cutoffs from here onward are less daunting, and I calculate that I can walk more now without risking the dreaded DNF, "Did Not Finish". Thus far I have never DNF'd in any race that I've started, and barring sudden mishap my streak seems safe today. A couple of miles farther downstream at Riffleford Road I get a chance to thank race director Ed in person. Then I enter what generally is one of the easier sections of the trail — but today, recent rains have flooded much of the lowlands and the mix of mud and slush continues to challenge.
Comrade Caren welcomes me at the Route 118 crossing, ~20 miles into my pilgrimage. She and another volunteer are armed with flags to help runners cross safely here. I arrive at 1pm, hands too weak to open the Gatorade in my drop bag. So Caren refills my bottle for me as I reload my fanny pack with four more Clif Shots. I've been trying to eat a 100-calorie energy gel every hour, to avoid the bonk that I suffered a fortnight ago at the Washington Birthday Marathon 2007. The wind has picked up and at intervals I feel chilly, so I tie a windshirt around my waist in case of need. At the JFK '06 I failed to do so, and regretted it; today, as it turns out, it's not required.
With words of good advice, soon forgotten, and a final encouraging hug, long remembered, Caren sends me on my way. Annapolis Strider member Ron Bowman plays hopscotch with me as we talk about recent and near-future races that we both plan to attempt. Then he slows and I catch up to a woman who's suffering from ITB pain. I offer her ibuprofen from my cache but she has some of her own. Signs begin to appear along the course, joking about tofu delights awaiting at the Route 28 aid station of Don Libes and company. I arrive at 1:52pm, well in front of any hypothetical 2:30pm cutoff. A sliver of tofu, a salted potato, a fistful of M&Ms, and I'm outta there. Onward and downward: only seven miles to go!
The bogginess (bogosity?!) of the course increases as Seneca Creek meanders through wetlands, swampy even during normal times, semi-submerged today. 50k runners pass me frequently now, as do marathoners who are less fatigued than I. Passenger jets cruise overhead on final approach down the Potomac to National Airport. A massive bonfire burns in a nearby field and noisy farm machinery moves earth to no obvious purpose. At 3:04pm I reach Berryville Road where volunteers inform me that my estimate of ~4 more miles is wrong; there are only ~2.5 miles remaining. "I love you!" I tell them, "Say that again please!"
The waters are high at the next stream crossing but unlike prior years I waste no time searching for rocks to tiptoe across on: there clearly aren't any. I grab the guide rope and wade. Excelsior! The big hill is strangely pleasant as I pass a couple of young fellows who are slowing. Then I'm on the road, trot past the decaying deer skeleton, and leave my bottle on the roof of my parked car as I go by. I manage to run the majority of the final mile and cross the finish line in 7:38:32 official time (or a few seconds faster by my watch since I started at the back of the pack). I'm 18 minutes slower than last year, and a lot more tired.
Running friend Betty Smith congratulates me, as does Christine Papadopoulis whom I met at the beginning of the day. She introduces me to her husband and tells me that she decided, wisely, to stop after the first several miles of ice. I walk along the canal and cross the bridge to join the small party on the other shore. Alas, all the veggie dogs have already been cooked. I snag a bagel and drink a soda, then give 50k men Wayne Carson and Paul Crickard a ride back to Damascus where they left their cars near the starting line.
Yet again, countless thanks to Ed Schultze and his merry band of volunteers, and special kudos to Caren Jew for her cheerful encouragement and help at a critical stage of today's race — brava, C-C!