Catoctin 50k 2008

Caren Jew and Mark Zimmermann at the midpoint of the 2008 Catoctin 50kLeft: Caren Jew and Mark Zimmermann mug for the camera at the midway aid station. Note the fashionable dirt-repellant gaiters on our shoes, with patterns selected by Caren's daughters, Ashley and Jenna. ^z's hands are full with potato chips and watermelon. He's cradling two water bottles and has another one strapped to his waist. (photo by Anstr Davidson and Mark McKennett)

Below: Electrocardiogram of ^z at ... uh, no, that's the approximate elevation profile of the Catoctin 50k race course — vertical scale 500-1800 feet, horizontal scale 0-35 miles. (GPS data by Jesse Leitner)

Catoctin 50k elevation profile

(click for larger images)


Good news: Caren and I cross the finish line of the Catoctin 50k half an hour after the ultimate cutoff, so although we complete the course, officially we Did Not Finish. My streak of never-a-DNF is broken at last — what a relief! As ultrarunning legend Tom Green told me at Bull Run Run 2008, if you never DNF then you're not trying hard enough.

Or maybe it's like the straight-A student in school: after a while, the pressure to perform becomes counterproductive. Once you get that first "B", you can relax. Whew!

The Trail You Hate to (Admit that You) Love

The Catoctin Trail is arguably one of the toughest in Maryland. It features hills far too long to climb anaerobically and their flip-side, quad-crunching descents. Rock gardens and root gnarls are poised to trip the unwary. Stream crossings cool the toes, if you don't slip and take a sudden plunge. And then there are the embarrassingly-runnable stretches that taunt you after you're too exhausted to enjoy them.

It sounds like a trail you'd love to hate, but in fact it's just the opposite. The varied terrain underfoot is a constant delight, as are the flora, the fauna, the dramatic overlooks, and the ponds that magically appear pathside every few miles. Caren ventures here frequently, and together we've done a fistful of long training runs (cf. 21 Oct 2006, 24 Dec 2006, 18 May 2008, 22 July 2008, and 27 July 2008).

We Are Not Worthy

But the Catoctin 50k Race is another matter entirely. It's a rough-and-tumble rumble on the Cat Trail, held in the furnace of late summer starting in Gambrill State Park and proceeding over the ridges of the Frederick Municipal Watershed to descend to a midpoint turnaround in Cunningham Falls State Park. The time limits are daunting to pedestrian runners like us. In all our excursions we're 2-4 minutes/mile too slow to make the cutoffs.

Caren has been training hard, built up her mileage, and thus far avoided serious injury. I'm likewise improving (albeit slowly), increasing my temperature tolerance, and attempting to prepare myself to attack long hills. But still, we both anticipate missing an early cutoff. "Maybe we've earned the first one or two," I suggest, "but everything after that will be a gift!"

I estimate our chances of finishing the race as perhaps 20%. The only factor that can help us significantly is unseasonably cold weather. I suggest begging the race director for permission to start an hour early. Caren categorically rejects the notion.

"Obviously, the main thing is to just enjoy being out there," she reassures me in an email three days before the big event. "Great trail, great company, happy to be alive."

Obviously, Caren's right!

Musical Score

Every race needs a theme song. For unknown reasons during the past few weeks "Roam" by the B-52s has been on heavy rotation inside my head:

I hear a wind
Whistling air
Whispering in my ear

Boy mercury shooting through every degree
Oh girl dancing down those dirty and dusty trails
Take it hip to hip rocking through the wilderness
Around the world, the trip begins with a kiss

Roam if you want to, roam around the world
Roam if you want to, without wings, without wheels ...

That's trail-running-related enough for me! And since literary necessity sometimes trumps chance, early Saturday morning Caren and I are careful to kiss our respective sleeping spouses before setting off to face Catoctin. Shameless setup? You bet! "Around the world, the trip begins with a kiss."

But as it turns out, my tricks are unnecessary: by chance as we approach the starting line Caren's car radio picks up the perfectly apropos "Living on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi:

She says: We've got to hold on to what we've got
It doesn't make a difference
If we make it or not.
We've got each other and that's a lot for love —
We'll give it a shot!

Oh, we're half way there
Whoa, living on a prayer

Take my hand and we'll make it, I swear ...

Absolutely! It doesn't make a difference if we make it or not. Our chances to squeeze past the cutoffs? Next to nil; we're just living on a prayer. So let's give it a shot, eh?

Begin at the Beginning

And then, more undeserved luck: race day dawns with showers while a cold front approaches the region. At 0619 on the morning of 2 August Caren and I arrive near-simultaneously at our traditional I-270 parking lot rendezvous. My old car's transmission is starting to make ominous noise so Ms. C-C drives the ~40 miles north past Frederick.

At the Tea Room starting area we marvel at the splendid view of the valley below, pick up our race numbers and t-shirts, and greet friends. Jim Cavanaugh is there, still glowing happy from his first 100 miler a fortnight ago. Mark McKennett and Angelo Witten say "Hi!" — they ran 25 kilometers from the turnaround to here starting at 2:45am this morning.

Shortly before 8am a cool drizzle begins. Runners joke with one another about putting on more layers of clothing. Race Director Kevin Sayers gives the pre-event briefing from under an umbrella. His instructions are simple:

Kevin mentions that his wife Mary passed away a few months ago from metastasized breast cancer. Today's race is dedicated to her; there's a moment of silence. Then Caren and I move to the back of the assembled 131 starters, and ...

We're Off!

After a quick quarter-mile loop around the parking lot the runners head down a black-blazed trail below the Tea Room's south side. The erosion barrier logs are wet and my foot slips on one of them; a runner behind me compliments me on my "root surfing" skill when I narrowly avoid falling. We pass a playground and zig-zag steeply downward for about a dozen minutes until we cross Gambrill Park Rd at the Catoctin Trailhead parking lot, where Caren and I usually begin our training runs.

Now the speedier folk are out of sight and we can settle in to the work of the day: relentless forward progress. We push our pace on the descents, increasing the risk of a fall in exchange for extra speed that we know we'll need. Fortunately drainage on the trail is good and the rocks here aren't too slippery.

Soon we get to know a few other runners in our vicinity. Marilyn Ludwick of Libertytown sets a near-perfect pace for us, aggressive on the hills but not impossible to keep up with. She's finished the Cat 50k before, and we chat about how it was in hot conditions. Marilyn has a 7-year streak going in the JFK 50 miler, which she runs with her daughter. And then we see Kari Anderson, who met Caren at the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon and other MCRRC races.

We play leap-frog with Phil Hesser, veteran ultrarunner. Phil tells us anecdotes about the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 miler, which he began eight years and successfully finished four times. It's an incredible challenge, and Phil encourages Caren and me to consider it, perhaps as pacers for other runners along segments of the course. (In my dreams!)

Make My Day

Onward, downward, and then upward we trek. The sun hides behind morning clouds so temperatures stay merely warm, not crushingly hot. Suddenly we see a lake, one that Caren and I remember from our latest training run. It's only about 10 minutes from the Hamburg Rd aid station. Wow! Energized, I trot ahead until I see the road, then wait and join Caren to check in. "We are the champions, my friend!" I sing tunelessly.

Amazingly, we arrive at Mile 6 several minutes ahead of the time limit. In a two-minute whirlwind of activity cheerful volunteers refill our water bottles, make sure we've grabbed chips and watermelon and whatever else we want, then send us onward with their best wishes. I click my stopwatch as we exit, still 3 minutes to the good. Zounds!

The next aid station at Delauter Rd is only 3 miles ahead, with slightly less stressful terrain along the way. Caren and I are cruising now, but we're still pleasantly surprised to get there more than half a dozen minutes ahead of the cutoff. Another rapid-fire refueling, and we're outta there.

We climb to the scenic overlook marked "View" on Caren's PATC map of the Cat Trail. We're walking more, now that we've been blessed with actually surviving the first two time hacks. I remind Caren that her training schedule only shows her doing 24 miles today. Should we turn around at the crest here, mile ~12, and head back? "Let's see how we feel," is her answer.

Leaders begin to appear on their return trip, a few miles ahead of us: a few good men, then First Lady Amy Sproston. We cheer en passant and I offer anything they might need from my pouch — gel? salt? candy? — but all are happily self-sufficient as they zip by. Caren's friend Mike Acuña announces he's "having a blast!" as he finishes the mega-climb up; Joe Kilcoyne likewise looks fresh. We're about to descend the thousand feet to the turnaround at mile 15.5 now (see elevation chart above) and I ask Caren again whether we shouldn't turn around early and make it a trail marathon instead of a 50k. "Let's see how we feel," she replies.

Pink Flamingos and Wet Feet

So down down down (did I say down?) we go, past the denuded blackberry bush that we feasted on a fortnight ago. Approaching the midway aid station we see pink flamingo lawn decorations beside the path down to the Manor area, along with blue ribbon race course markers. My feet get soaked for the first time today as I wade the stream rather than risk slipping on the wobbly stepping-stones.

Comrades Lorrin Harvey, Mark McKennett, Anstr Davidson, and others are lounging here, taking photos and offering help to all. Cruel 100-mile man Jim Cavanaugh sternly rejects my request for a ride back to the start/finish Tea Room. Other volunteers check our status and make sure we've got everything we need. At my request Lorrin takes a picture of my ugly leg. During the past few days I've applied enough hydorcortisone ointment to fail a steroid test at ten paces. the halfway point aid station I show off poison ivy blisters to all who will look; Caren describes the rash as "Angry!" I was exposed a week earlier, when pulling up weeds in my own front yard. Fortunately the oozing sores don't trouble me significantly today.

(photo by Lorrin Harvey)

Caren and I are now in a state of total amazement: we've reached the third cutoff with five minutes to spare! It truly is Our Day, and we're simply, deeply, profoundly grateful. With handfuls of munchies and replenished bottles we commence the long long long (did I say long?) climb back out of the valley.

Thunderstorms Three

Our return trip is a slow but happy one. We give ourselves permission to walk as often as we feel like, especially on rocky hills (and every hill is rocky!). As we approach each aid station I remind Caren that she's already "Overfulfilled The Plan", Stakhanovite-fashion, and has gone far beyond her pace and distance goals. I point out that I'm perfectly happy to hitch a ride back to her car with one of the volunteers. "Let's see how we feel," is still her reply.

At Delauter Rd my watch says we've missed the official cutoff by four minutes. I point this out to the timekeeper with the clipboard, but he just smiles and says, "Keep going!" We fuel up, take strawberry popsicles that have been chilled on dry ice, and carry them cautiously until they're warm enough not to freeze our tongues. The delightful cool weather continues. Clouds begin to thicken.

What do we talk about on the trail? At one point Caren and I debate SpongeBob SquarePants versus Hello Kitty: which one is gentler? Like the pirates vs. ninjas controversy, there are good points on both sides. Caren's fingers are getting swollen and I examine them, which leads me into a lecture on J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and what happened to one of Frodo's fingers at a climactic moment. We reminisce about playing contract bridge, Scrabble, and other board/card games. We compare notes on classic-rock music and recent movies. I pontificate on kinetic energy vs. potential energy. And we walk.

Rick Burnett and Brian O'Connor, the designated Cat50k Sweepers catch up with us but refuse to push us to go any faster. We're looking healthy and making steady progress, so they're happy to be out walking the trail today, making sure that nobody gets left behind in the wilderness. We chat with them, then accelerate a bit to leave them behind for a few miles.

Near mile 24 Comrades Phil Hesser and Kari Anderson appear suddenly from a side path. What happened? They took a wrong turn — even though Phil is the author of a humorous essay titled "What the Blue Blazes? A Guide for Navigating the Catoctin 50k Trail Run". He and Kari have lost half an hour or more. Now they risk missing the cutoffs. We wish them well as they rush ahead.

Rumbles of thunder interrupt our musings as a line of storms approach. The rain begins as a barely perceptible patter on the leafy canopy above, then a few drops of wetness, and then: "Is that hail?" we ask one another? It is, baby-pea-sized pellets that rattle down on us. This is fun! It's also cool and pleasant as our dried sweat washes away.

At Hamburg Rd we're more than 10 minutes behind the penultimate cutoff and a veritable deluge has begun. A big white rental truck pulls up as we approach. Volunteers stop stowing leftovers and instead huddle under awnings to stay dry. As lightning flashes nearby and thunder booms I take a square of Reynolds Wrap and fashion myself an aluminum foil helmet; alas, no one has a camera handy, so it goes unrecorded except in memory.

Six miles to go: standing in the aid station Caren and I commence a mini-argument re riding back in the truck. It's our last chance to withdraw from the race. I insist that I'm ready to punt. Caren obstinately refuses to believe me and insists that we keep on keeping on. I salute her. We laugh together, grab some finger foods, and walk on down the trail.

Finish, Finishing, Finished

Jolly Sweepers Rick and Brian catch up with Caren and me again, and we join another Rick (from Baltimore) who's suffering and walking the final miles. I pick up trash as we go along, minor detritus such as gel pack tabs, dropped candy wrappers, etc. Brian carries a bright orange t-shirt that someone discarded trailside. We discuss theories of why fingers sometimes swell up: too much salt, or too little? It could be either, according to some medical sources.

Caren and I jog ahead of our escorts once more. Another line of thunderstorms passes by. Bright sunlight shines as rain falls, but there are too many nearby trees for us to see a rainbow. In compensation, I offer a brief lecture on reflection, refraction, and other optical phenomena. Infinitely patient Caren smiles. I force her to take our last energy gel as we enter the final hour of the race. We see a huge tree fallen beside the path which wasn't there on our outbound journey. It must have been a victim of the storm.

Caren points out my tendency, when tired, to say a staccato "yeah-yeah" instead of simply "yes". I start paying attention and discover that indeed I say that, and the related phrase "good-good", about once every mile without even realizing it. It's good-good to learn something about myself!

We catch up with another Rick, a runner from Baltimore who's walking the final miles, and chat with him as we climb out of the last big valley. The sweepers rejoin us and we discover that they've served as sweepers for the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon/50k which both Caren and I have repeatedly enjoyed running. At 5:15pm we hear a loud air-horn blast. "That's the final cutoff," one says. "At least we're close enough to hear it!"

Based on his experience in many ultramarathons Brian encourages us, "When you feel you've got absolutely nothing left in the tank, you can still go 30 miles!" I ask if that means that, for a 50k like today's, once you get past the first mile are you guaranteed to finish? Nobody answers. We run (loosely speaking) down the slight descent to the Gambrill Park Rd parking lot, and then trudge up the final black-blazed trail segment to the Tea House. Tall spikey mullen plants grow below the balcony (but I only learn their name the following day when I ask a gardener-friend). Caren calls "DFL!" and when I ask she explains that the abbreviation means she claims the right to be "Dead F*ing Last!" When we reach the finish line just before 5:45pm, however, we cross together; Rick of Baltimore is just behind us. The cheerful sweepers have turned aside to remove blue course-guide ribbons.

Homeward Bound

Everything's shutting down now; the post-race party is disbanded and the white box truck is almost all loaded. There's one veggie burger left in the Tea Room, and I grab it. Caren gets a hot dog and a volunteer in the truck opens the cooler and gives us cans of Dr. Pepper. Raindrops start to fall and more thunder growls. We limp back to Caren's car as buckets of water descend upon us. The drive in the deluge down the narrow park road is more than a little scary, but not nearly as bad as the ice-covered Massanutten Mountain training run of January this year.

Once we reach the main highway the storm passes and our ride home is uneventful. On the way Caren and I muse together, as we sometimes do, about nature, religion, and the meaning of life. I'm reminded of our Easter morning conversation on the trail many months ago. Today has been a glorious, delightful day. We know we're both going to ache tomorrow.

We finish the course but not the race. We do the distance, and we overdo the time. And it's All Good!

Data Dump

The 2008 Catoctin 50k overall victor, Angus Repper, comes in a hair under 5 hours. (Caren and I achieve the double victory of reaching the halfway point before the first finisher, and of reaching the finish line within twice the time of the winner.) Amy Sproston is First Lady at 5:54. Friend Mike Acuña is strong at 6:52 and Joe Kilcoyne likewise in 7:10. Marilyn Ludwick, our super-nice "pacer" for the first segment of the course, arrives 32 seconds before the 9:15 cutoff — hooray for her! Alas, neither Phil Hesser nor Kari Anderson appear on the list; presumably they can't make up for going off-course and doing an extra mile or two before we meet them returning to the trail.

Catoctin 50k 2008 —Timing Information for Caren Jew & Mark Zimmermann

split time cutoff dist.pace location
1:421:421:45617Hamburg Rd
0:462:282:35915Delauter Rd
0:373:05---Fishing Creek Rd
0:333:37---Gambrill Park Rd
0:324:104:1515.516Cunningham Falls State Park "Manor area"
0:545:04---Gambrill Park Rd
0:395:43---Fishing Creek Rd
0:416:246:202221Delauter Rd
1:037:277:152521Hamburg Rd
2:189:459:153123Tea Room finish line

In the table distances are given in miles and paces in minutes/mile.

Our overall average pace is ~19 min/mi: outbound ~16 min/mi, inbound ~22 min/mi. Caren and I take ~13 minutes to reach Gambrill Park Rd from the starting line, following the pack in its initial loop around the parking lot and then the steep descent down the black-blazed trail. The final return climb demands ~13 minutes to the finish line; it does not require a parking-lot circumnavigation. We spend 2-3 minutes at each aid station.

^z - 2008-08-10

(correlates: Ninjas vs. Pirates, Comments on RebelliousHair, 2008-07-22 - Catoctin Overture, ...)