Race Report: Catoctin 50K

I’m not sure how I first heard about the Catoctin 50K.  It could have been in February, when I went trail-running with the Frederick Steeplechasers for the first time.  Or maybe it was during my spring recovery — I couldn’t run, so tortured myself with the internet.

It sounded intriguing.  A summer 50K would fit nicely into JFK training.  It’s held right outside of Frederick, on trails that I’ve run before.  The girls could stay with my parents, and I could have a day in the woods.

I started asking my running friends about it.  “Great race, fantastic!  Oh, except there are a lot of rocks”.  “Awesome time, really – you should do it.  Oh – but its really, really hot and humid most years”.   “So much fun – watch out for the rattlesnakes”

Of course, I signed up.

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The course is an out-and-back, starting at the Tea Room at Gambrill State Park and going to the Manor area of Cunningham Falls State Park.  It’s entirely trail – about 95% of it single track.  It’s famous for its rocks and technical elements.   People often quote that Catoctin is harder than the nearby JFK 50 miler.

By design, the event is held in the middle of the summer – so much the better to take advantage of the local heat and humidity.  It’s “only” a 50K, so there is are no frills, no whining tolerated, no sympathy, no awards.  Finishing earns a hand shake and the “Cat Card”

When I arrived at the Tea Room around 6:45, there was still plenty of parking.  I went over to the registration table and got my number.  On the way, I passed a line of T-shirts from prior years – all with witty sayings related to rocks, snakes, trails, dirt, etc.

After checking in, I had about an hour to chat with the other runners.  I saw Ronni, Rupert, and Eddy (who I had run with earlier in the month).  I also met up with Brian and Loretta (who had come up from Richmond).  Kevin Sayers, the RD, gave a briefing shortly before 8, and we were off!

The first six miles to the Hamburg Road aid station went down into the valley, and back up again.  This would be a tough stretch, but I still went out a bit too fast.  I knew the one female in front of me was a really strong runner (she would finish 10th overall, first woman), so I let her go and settled into a more manageable pace.  I fell into conversation with a couple of Grindstone veterans and made it to the first aid station in about 70 minutes.  I quickly grabbed a fig newton, but since I still had plenty of water I kept going without pause.

The next 10 miles were so-so.  I was starting to tire mentally, knowing that I still had so much effort to go.  My pace stayed steady – I’d be passed on the downhills, only to take over again on the ascents.  At about mile 10 or 11, a group that included two women passed me like I was standing still.  I watched them go, content that I was running my own race and knowing that I would need to conserve my strength for the return.

But even though my brain told me I was tired (“can’t we just stop running at the turn-around….why are we out here anyway?”), when I went through my physical checklist, everything was still working.  My legs felt good, I was eating enough, I wasn’t dehydrated (HAH!).  I kept going, and going, and going, until I was on the final downhill, splashing through the creek and coming into the Manor aid station.  Someone told me I was third female (one of the girls who passed me decided to drop at Manor).

A very nice volunteer topped off my water, I grabbed a sandwich and watermelon, and headed back out (2.5 minutes total).  As I started the two-mile slog back up the mountain, I saw the smiling faces of my friends and the other runners behind me. As the crowd thinned, two things went wrong.  First, my water pack had been overfilled, and was a) too heavy for my comfort and b) slowly leaking.  I had to stop, empty it a bit, and reseal the closure before I could continue.  I’d just gotten started again when my right foot seized with the worst cramp.  I couldn’t run, so I sat down and massaged it for 3-4 minutes.  Finally, a runner came by and gave me a S! cap, which helped tremendously.

I set out again, trying not to be discouraged by the few girls that had passed me (“this is NOT a race, Annie…this is a training run…this is a learning experience….”).  I knew what I needed to do – one foot in front of the other – all the way back to my car.

I ran the eternity to the Delauter Aid Station (mile 23) and then had fun running with a couple of Maryland guys.  Their sarcasm and jokes made the next three miles pass quickly.  It was a huge mental boost coming back to Hamburg (mile 26), for I knew the next stop was home.  I also knew that the next six miles would be the most difficult.

And they were.  My legs were always on the edge of cramping.  I was tired.  But again, I just shut out those thoughts and kept moving forward.

With 4 miles to go, I finally took a wrong turn.  Following the runner in front of me (bad Annie), we ran 3-4 minutes downhill before realizing that we’d lost the trail.  It took us another 5-6 minutes to get back on track.

I ran the final miles with the same group of people – leap-frogging each other, making jokes about the day.  I caught up to a super-nice lady from DC, who diagnosed my dehydration and gave lots advice.  It turned out that she had taken a wrong turn as well, which added three extra miles to her run.

We came to the lower parking area, and I knew there was less than 1/2 mile.  Scrambling up the hill, someone told me I’d be done in 2 minutes if I ran hard.  That’s all I needed to hear.  A flat trail around the Tea Room, a few more steps, and I was across the line.  Kevin slipped the Cat Card into my pack, and I sat down in the softest patch of grass ever!

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The post race BBQ was great, though I had no appetite.  I was really dehydrated.  I’d peed at 7:30, ingested somewhere north of 100 oz of liquid, and didn’t pee again until 5:30 that evening.  I think the cramps were a direct result of that, and I’ll admit that the hydration pack makes it hard for me to judge how much I’m drinking.  Next time I plan to rely on bottles instead.

Catoctin was by far the most physically demanding race I’ve run, but I was happy with my  performance.  I was able to squelch the demons, carry on, and finish.  Where the trail permitted running, I kept a consistent pace throughout.  I really need to work on my technical skills – specifically descent.  Without the detour, I would have finished in 5th place.  To get any higher, I need to build the strength to run those hills and the experience to better manage my hydration.

Mentally, I didn’t experience the high that Holiday Lake provided.  But I think that is a good thing.  My body and mind are learning that this is what we do.  No big deal.

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