Gunpowder Keg Fat Ass 2007

(original map by Towson State University Dept. of Geology, from the K9 Trailblazers's discussion of Gunpowder Falls State Park; Gunpowder Keg FatAss approximate course by ^z)

A "fat ass" race has no entry fee, no prizes, no t-shirts, and a faux-strict "No Whining!" policy. It's a fun run, usually along trails, usually many miles, usually with at most a few dozen participants, usually with minimal support en route.

The 22 Sep 2007 Gunpowder Keg Fat Ass 50k fits the bill. It's hot, humid, hilly, hugely entertaining — and quite challenging. At 0615 Emaad Burki meets Mary Ewell and me to give us a ride to Gunpowder Falls State Park near Hereford, about 20 miles north of Baltimore. We arrive early, chat with several runner friends, listen to the pre-race briefing, and at 8am set off together at the back of the pack.

Big Gunpowder Falls is a river that runs through central Maryland. The park surrounding it features rugged terrain, reminiscent in many places of Northwest Branch Trail and Cabin John Stream Valley Trail in the Washington DC suburbs. Today's race starts at the Bunker Hill Road parking area and follows a series of footpaths through the woods. There are daunting hills, muddy seeps where water trickles through, rocky cliffs, plenty of roots and stones to trip over, one notably slippery tributary streambed to ford, a big bouncy wooden bridge over a gully, and above drainage ditches a couple of planks to walk. The course is narrow in many places with thick grass encroaching. It's well-marked with small orange flags placed temporarily for the event.

The race begins by following the Bunker Hill Trail and the Mingo Forks Trail. About 3.5 miles from the start we arrive at a parking lot and aid station on Masemore Road, where cheerful volunteers refill our water bottles and offer us pretzels, cookies, candy, etc. We continue upstream and inland on the Highland Trail, pass below high-tension power lines, climb more steep hills, and reach Falls Road which brings us down again to the river. Instead of crossing, however, we turn to follow the Gunpowder South Trail along the riverbank until we're back at the same aid station, now circa mile 6. We refuel, cross the bridge there, and head downstream on Gunpowder North Trail.

My big mistake happens before the start when I elect to carry only one 20 oz. water bottle. "With aid every 3-4 miles, why should I need more?" I ask myself. The answer becomes clear now, after half a dozen miles, when my shirt and shorts are thoroughly sweat-soaked and I'm starting to feel dehydrated. I take an electrolyte capsule and a high-sodium energy gel, along with water and handfuls of salty chips at the aid station. That helps, but the heat and humidity are still wearing me down.

The trail on the north side of the river winds past dramatic cliffs and old stoneworks. Mary feels strong and leads most of the way, with Emaad and I walking an increasing fraction of the time while keeping her in sight. Emaad has turned an ankle, one that he knows occasionally causes him grief, and at mile 6 he puts an elastic wrapping on it — but even with bracing the ankle rolls again on some tricky terrain. After crossing a side stream on treacherous wet stones and incurring further damage he decides wisely to finish the day with a single 10-mile lap. Mary has planned to do 20 today, as part of her training for the JFK 50 miler. I figure that I can accompany her if I slow my pace and focus on maintaining hydration and electrolyte balance. And if necessary, Mary and I can always skip a trail segment to shorten our journey. So after a brief discussion near mile 7.5 the trio continue.

Approaching mile 9 our route passes under Interstate Highway 83 and then climbs sharply toward York Road. When we arrive we discover an impromptu detour: the lead runners have disturbed a hornet's nest and, to avoid further insect attack, flags and traffic cones and a handwritten sign direct us up the embankment. With a helpful hand from a volunteer we clamber to the shoulder and then attempt to surmount a steel traffic barrier. ("This part of the course is male-unfriendly!" Emaad observes as he tries to avoid injury while straddling the fence.) The narrow shoulder of the street takes us across a small bridge and we turn upstream now, following the Gunpowder South Trail below I-83 and then over a steep ridge. At mile ~10 we're back at the start/finish area.

It's time now to regroup, refuel, and in my case try to remedy my initial error: I grab a second water bottle to carry during lap #2. Emaad wishes us well as he rests his ankle. He's coming down with a severe cold, another good reason to stop now.

Mary and I proceed onto the trail. After a few miles we're passed by the lead runner — he's on his third lap, 10 miles ahead of us and flying up the slopes. Mary continues to set a steady pace and I struggle to keep up with her. I drink almost 40 oz. of water every hour, and that keeps my dehydration from getting worse, but some damage has already been done. A pair of fast runners zip by us, and then another cruising alone. "Did you smell that?" Mary whispers to me when he's out of earshot. He's exuding a powerful stench of onions, or perhaps his metabolism is producing strange chemicals from all the exertion.

After our last visit to the aid station at mile ~16 I'm slowing significantly, so I send Mary on to keep her own pace. The remainder of the trek is uneventful. I stumble several times but tell myself to pick up my feet and watch where I put them, and so escape without falling. An annoying ache develops on the bottom of my left foot; it's something I've experienced before and it's manageable. (I later self-diagnose it as possible "metatarsalgia" — and now that I have a term for it, it's less worrisome! cf. TrueNames)

A few more people go by me, and I pass one gentleman who's suffering from bad blisters but who aims to finish anyway. As I begin to climb the final winding path from the river to the parking lot I check my watch. Thankfully, it's obvious that I can't finish in less than 4:45 but equally clear that I'll easily come in well under 5 hours. So there's no need to hurry! I greet my buddies at the top of the hill.

Rough results, from my watch:

split time mile location
0:490:49~3.5aid station (first time)
0:361:25~6aid station (looping back)
0:532:18~10start/finish (lap one)
1:003:18~13.5aid station
0:403:58~16aid station (again)
0:534:51~20start/finish (lap two)

Mary and Emaad have the same times as I do for the first 10 miles. Mary — Happy Birthday! — finishes the second lap several minutes ahead of me.

After I cross the finish line — a crack in the asphalt that Emaad points to when I ask — I find the list of runners and sign myself out. That's the most "official" part of any Fat Ass race: the organizers don't want to inadvertently abandon anybody in the woods. Maybe there will be a posting, some day, of finishers, times, and distances they covered. Maybe not. Who cares? Kudos to race director Chris Cucuzzella, the Baltimore Road Runners Club, the volunteers, and everyone else involved. It's All Good ...

TopicRunning - TopicPersonalHistory - 2007-09-24

(correlates: TwoDreams, 2008-09-20 - Gunpowder Keg Fat Ass 2008, Only a Little Has To Go Wrong, ...)