Catoctin 50k Trail Run Race Reports From The Runners


Bill Bates,

John Dodds ,

Tom Midlam ,

John Dodds (2001)

Muggy Mountain: The Catoctin 50K Trail Run

A couple days after last Saturday's race, I re-read Kevin's course description. I am most fond of this part: "Along with the heat is the humidity. It gets 'cut it with a knife humid.'" Liar! It was so bad, you couldn't cut it with a knife. It was brutal. Or if you think that word is overused, it was wicked. If this sounds like whining, it is. I know Kevin has a prohibition on whining, but that is only whining during the race. And, since I'm writing from Virginia, his prohibition has no extra-territorial effect. Besides, post-race whining is an inalienable right of ultrarunners. I'm sure Thomas Jefferson would have written that into the Declaration of Independence had we been invented at the time.

First-timers. What surprised me most about the race is the number of people who actually admitted to being first-time ultrarunners. On a tough course under tough conditions, they should be truly proud of what they accomplished. There was the woman who fell down 9 times, yet finished. Although it might be somewhat sexist to say a woman has shapely legs, she did. In fact, her legs had all kinds of shapes. There were bumps, knots, gouges, nicks, scrapes, etc. And then there are the people who, shall we say, "inspired" them to run; although you won't hear them say they "inspired" someone. They use other descriptive terms. I talked to one person who said he got his friend "turned on" to ultrarunning and now he's "hooked." I thought at the time that he should have turned his friend on to drugs instead-at least he'd be having a better time than we had. Or take the case of Karl Knipling, another first-timer and finisher. His uncle Gary told me before the race that he "suckered" Karl into entering so there would be more money for the post-race food. It worked-the food was great! I would like to know if Karl has any brothers or sisters. But: why can't we use more noble terms when we say we have gotten someone to do his/her first ultra?

Getting there. One of my favorite pre-race activities is actually trying to find the race. I decided I would not follow Kevin's directions but would avoid Route 15 and most of US 40. To do that you stay on I-70 a little longer and hopefully save some time. I saw an exit for the Bob Evans restaurant (this was one of Kevin's landmarks), but reading my trusty atlas at 70 MPH, I thought I could get closer at exit 48. Which would have worked had there been an exit 48 going westbound. But it is only an eastbound exit, so I continued on up and over the mountain. As I was coming down the other side, I instantly recognized where I was: I was on my way to Pittsburgh! After making a U-turn of doubtful legality, I made my way back to exit 48 (since I'm now heading eastbound) and eventually made it to the start. I was hoping I'd do better during the race.

Goals. I had read Michele Burr's account of last year's race, so I had a couple goals in mind. I would pay attention so I wouldn't get lost. And I would try to avoid a weird finish. I accomplished neither one. In addition, I usually have some kind of idea of how much time it would take me to do a race, and for this one, I thought a reasonable goal, considering the humidity, would be about a 6:45, maybe 7:00. I talked to Keith Knipling before the race, and he thought we could do 6:15. I knew Keith had run at Hardrock, but that was almost a month ago, and I was surprised that he was still lightheaded from the lack of oxygen. I told him what my goals were. I caught up to Keith on the big descent into the halfway point, and the humidity must have cleared his mind because he then admitted to having a goal of about 7 hours. Which is about when we finished.

Sonny and Cher. Having set a reasonable time goal, I was ready to start the race. Until Amy and Steve, whom I had sort of met at Catherine's two weeks before (you may remember them if you read my account of that race), came up to me and said their sole mission for this run was to pass me and hand me a beer. These are the two who ran behind me at Catherine's for almost the whole way chattering incessantly, singing songs, etc. I couldn't go through that again. Somewhere early on, I let them pass me, so I would have some peace and quiet. They went ahead of me, and I didn't see them again until the turnaround point. They left that aid station before me. But this was my psychological ploy; they now knew I was still close and I knew they knew I was close. They couldn't let up because I might catch them. I imagined them singing-in two-part harmony-"I Got You, Babe" with one interrupting to say, "I bet he's right behind us." Which Amy later told me is what they did say several times. It's very rewarding knowing that you can annoy others without even being present.

Getting lost. I don't know why so many people get lost during this race. The trail and the intersections are very well marked. Even the intersection where I went the wrong way. It happened like this. It was on the way back, and it had been raining pretty hard. I caught up to the legendary Tom Green. I had run with him briefly earlier in the race, and he was doing well. I thought maybe the humidity had taken its toll by now as I caught up to him. I asked him how he was doing. He said the rain made it hard to see with his glasses, so he had to run slower. I said something like, "Gee, too bad, Tom." But I was thinking, "Rain, don't let up now." So, I went on ahead and soon stopped at a very well marked intersection in the woods to go to the bathroom (my guess is that we were 4 miles from the finish). Although I had seen the blue blaze on the tree up the hill, when I got done I turned around and promptly started up the wrong hill. Just at that time, Tom came by and said, "Uh, John, I think we go this way." I'm sure I would have realized my mistake soon. Anyway, we continued on, and I was wondering if I should try to pass him at some point. "Did I deserve to pass him?" I asked myself. If it hadn't been for him, who knows where I'd be? Fortunately, I didn't have to resolve this ethical dilemma because the rain had stopped by then and he just ran faster and disappeared.

A finish to remember. So the goal of not getting lost wasn't met. But it didn't turn out too bad. I was now hoping for that uneventful finish. As I made the climb up to the finish, I was thinking back on Michele's finish of last year. I had paid extra careful attention at the start so I wouldn't get mixed up at the end like she did. As I came up near the top, I was pretty confident of having that uneventful finish. Until I turned around and saw Wes Finnemore. I had seen Wes several hours ago; I was inbound when he was still outbound. Very unusual. Me in front of Wes is like the game, "What's wrong in this picture?" Usually, Wes finishes at least an hour ahead of me. I had truly thought he showed up late for the race and even asked him that when I saw him earlier. But he said no. I knew it would just be a matter of time before he caught up to me. And so here we were near the finish. It never occurred me to try to outrun him at that point. Especially since I was walking. I moved aside so he could pass. He asked me how I felt, and I said ok. When he was about five feet in front of me, he stopped and threw up. I paused to watch the little drops of liquid bouncing off the rocks and then I walked by him. I thought about asking him how he felt, but I thought the answer was kind of obvious. There are times when you shouldn't say anything. Like at mile 25 in the Boston Marathon this year when I came up behind a woman I recognized from my starting corral. I was about to say, "How's it going, Vicky?" when I noticed a brown liquid running down the backs of her legs. I passed her without a word and did the same with Wes. Undeterred, Wes started up again and again said he wanted to pass me. It is amazing how wide of a berth you can give a runner on a single-track trail, especially when the odds are pretty good that he just might throw up on you. So much for my uneventful finish.

Race conditions. It was a tough race. The most difficult factor was the humidity. The pouring rain started, as I recall, about 12:30. Some said that really cooled them down, but I didn't get that much of a boost from the rain. I do have to admit though that it was fun running through the small ponds formed where the logs crossed the trails and through the streams now that the stepping stones were submerged. But when the rain stopped, the humidity was still unbearable. When I came up to the parking lot at the finish, there was steam rising from the pavement. I told Kevin it was a nice effect. The course was rockier than I expected. I would have to say it is just about as difficult as Massanutten. I wish we had a geologist among us who could explain why it always seems to be that the pointy ends of the rocks stick out of the ground.

Food/drink. Gary's plan worked well because the food at the end was plentiful and good: hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, potatoes, popsicles, and ice cream sandwiches. The potatoes were great. They are similar to the potatoes we get at the grill at our athletic club. The chef's secret is pouring the bacon grease on the potatoes. Exquisite! I had a second helping with my ice cream sandwich.

Ever since I joined the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, I continue to be amazed by a trailrunner's fascination with food. I saw this on my first VHTRC training run (and wrote about it some time ago). I saw it again at Catoctin. It happened in the Tea Room. One runner had a physical problem after the race and was taken to the hospital by ambulance. While a number of us were sitting at the tables in the Tea Room, Charlotte Streitoff explained to us all what had happened to the runner: "Early in the race, she aspirated some Gatorade. It collected and spread in her lungs. She actually had pulmonary edema. You can't take a chance with it; it needs to be treated." We all listened with rapt attention (one of the reasons I'm writing this race report is because I've never used the word "rapt" before and now here's my chance). You could tell by our silence that we thought this was pretty serious stuff. One guy was so moved, he walked up to Charlotte and asked, "Do you have any more hamburgers?" What a misguided soul. Had it been me, I would have been more concerned about whether there were any more potatoes. If you need a reason to do Catoctin, do it for the food.

Kevin wrote that the Park Service allows the consumption of "beer" so you can bring your own "beer" to the Tea Room "for part of your post-race recovery plan." The reason I'm putting the word in quotes is to emphasize that it is beer that is allowed and not a form of distilled beverage, say, something like whiskey. Now, maybe Gary didn't read this part of the web site because I'm sure he would have brought beer instead had he known.

Timber! Having gotten lost on the way to the race and once during the race and having endured a miserable, humid, difficult trail run, I was glad to head on home. Nearing my house, I waved to my neighbor who was standing on the sidewalk. Just after I had passed him, a large tree branch (about a foot in diameter) came crashing down on the road. Had I been twenty seconds later, I might not be writing this now.

Finally: I'm sure memories will fade and months later most of us will convince ourselves that we actually had a good time last Saturday. And, of course, we will sign up for next year's race. Until then-

Happy Trails!

Tom Midlam (2000)

My goal this year was a PR at a November road marathon. I put ultras out of my mind early on because proper ultra training is too time-consuming given extra personal stuff going on this year. But then in May I thought it would be fun to run a summer trail 50k, the Catoctin 50k Trail Run in Frederick, Maryland. Doing a tough trail run wouldn't preclude a fast fall marathon and wouldn't take huge amounts of training. Plus it's close to home so I could train on the course.

The Catoctin 50k is not to be taken lightly. During the 11 weeks prior to the race I logged 400 training miles, about 36 miles per week. While not optimum, this proved satisfactory for the Catoctin 50k, especially since a couple long runs (4-6 hrs) took place on the course itself. After not completing an ultra in nearly two years, I had visions of updating my Bio with something other than a new favorite shoe.

Race Directors Kevin & Mary Sayers put on a great race. For $15 you get all you need: a well organized race, well-stocked aid stations with incredibly helpful and jovial volunteers, and access to trails with serious attitude. For an extra fee you can buy a t-shirt of legendary quality, style, and humor. Time passed, race day arrived, and the weather was picnic perfect. I loaded up the pack with 100 oz of water, some electrolytes, three Clif bars, a change of socks, and some pouches of Clip. After a light-hearted but long-winded pre-race briefing we embarked on the Paved Trail, a new 300-yard section of parking lot added in to get the course up to 31 miles and spread out the runners before the single track trail began. We would see no more pavement until the finish line.

You have mixed emotions about the first two miles of the course. On the one hand, it's downhill and effortless, if a little rocky. On the other hand, this being an out and back course you've got to climb this merciless hill at the end. So I cruise through my favorite section, Spud Run, and I'm chugging along about an hour into the race, all by myself. Suddenly I hear someone making up serious ground on me. Then he passes me like I'm standing still. Is he foolishly sprinting mile 5 of a 50k or what? Then another fast guy passes me, and another. Ah-ha! The lead pack got off trail somewhere and found their way back to the course.

This is a course that really punishes the heads-down runner. Every intersection is a crap shoot in terms of which branch to take. In fact, the better looking trail is usually wrong. You simply must evaluate and find the blue blaze every time there is a decision, and often the blazes are faint or hidden by leaves. But watch your step when searching for those blazes or you'll dirt dive, and you don't want to do that on those downhill sections of embedded sideways razor rock. Survival on the Catoctin Trail is a delicate balance between route-finding and rock-finding.

I reach Hamburg Road, the first aid station, in 1:25, five minutes ahead of schedule. [I had worked this aid station in the 1999 race. Let me just echo what others have pointed out, that spending a day working a race is longer and harder than running the race, and about equally rewarding.] Six miles into the race and my 100 oz of water is almost gone. I'm a sweat hog. I quickly tank up and go. Run three miles through the Pond District to Delauter aid station in a smoking 35 minutes. Nine miles down and six to go til the turnaround. This is a long six miles with plenty of chances to get off trail, notably the choice of going right on Frog Lane or left on Toad Stretch. RD Kevin Sayers demands runners know their amphibians. After Toad Stretch comes Rick's Overlook, showcasing North Frederick from above. Kevin was there with camera and a poster that said "This is a great race" and wanted us to remember that always. The final two miles of the out section are downhill on Slug Hill, pounding your quads and again psyching you out for the return trip.

If you're planning to run Catoctin as your first trail ultra, a good way to predict how long you'll be out there is to double your most recent road marathon time. This might be a slight exaggeration but not by much; I bet a lot of first timers are surprised by the time-on-the-feet factor of a rocky hilly trail 50k. The prestigious finishers award, a superbly hand-crafted, laminated, tri-color, wallet-size card states: "Proud survivor of the hilly, rocky, gnarly, no frills, rough n tumble Catoctin 50K." This is a fairly accurate description of the race; however, a slogan can't capture the fact that even though it is an out and back course with the same starting and ending point and identical trails each way, the return trip is much farther! In fact, at the halfway point, runners must read a poster and recite it to an aid station captain to prove having gone the full distance. The poster said, "Half the distance to go; two-thirds the effort to go." Amen.

The turnaround area is fun. You wade 25 feet across a rushing stream where you might as well forget trying to keep the feet dry. Just stomp through the cool clear water, rinse the mud off your shoes, and don't worry about wet feet. In fact, dry rock hopping is much slower and more dangerous.

I reach the turnaround in 3:30, realizing I have a pretty good shot at beating my Plan B goal of 8 hours. My best case scenario was a 7:45 and Plan C was an arbitrary 8:23. It's now 11:30am. As the sun creeps higher in the sky the temperature climbs to the low 80s but the humidity stays tolerable. This would have been an entirely different race if normal mid-Atlantic August weather had materialized -- 90' with high humidity takes away the will to move.

I find that I can run all but the steepest hills on the way back. Eight hours is looking really good. In fact, 7:45 isn't out of the question. I'm cruising along in a good rhythm, hurdling blowdowns, spotting blue trail blazes and reveling in those mini triumphs ("still on course!"). I might have even made 7:45 but for three things. First, a two-minute pit stop to commune with nature. Second, a tumbling spill downhill that got me good and dirty, but not bloody. Third, confronted by an ambiguous course marking I guessed wrong and lost about four minutes. But that's the nature of the beast - if you want orange traffic cones and police manning intersections, this is not the race. Take heart anyway - most everyone loses their way at least once so it's fair.

I ran, walked, hiked, surveyed, climbed, and ran some more, way past my training-run threshold of pain to cross the finish line in 7:47. It was one of those special days where everything went my way and I don't second-guess anything. My wife and baby showed up just before I arrived and greeted me. The RD, who knows how slow I am, was pleasantly surprised at my decent finish.

I slept 12 straight hours after the race and awoke with very sore quads and the crazy notion that I might parlay this little personal victory into a strong showing at JFK 50 in November instead of concentrating on a marathon PR. The ultra bug doesn't stop with just one bite.