The Catoctin 50K is not for your average marathoner.
This local race, which started back in 1994, has been elevated to legendary status. That might be because of the 6,000 feet of elevation changes.
Or maybe it's the heat, the humidity, the blisters or the cramps. I could go on. The list is long and painful.
Somewhere in the early spring of last year, I got the idea to run this race, which is a staple of Frederick's running scene. Having run the JFK 50 Mile, and being happy with my finishing time of just over 10 hours, the Catoctin 50K was never on my radar. That is until one day last year, when I thought I should try it.
Trails don't scare me. I've hiked many miles on the Appalachian and other trails. I've done a bit of mountain biking. I run on trails to get a break from the roads. But this is a trail like few other.
The Catoctin Trail is considered one of the toughest around. The steep ascents and descents make for difficult walking, much less running, conditions. The sharp, softball sized rocks bite into your shoes. The trail is so rocky and steep that running is often not possible. It becomes a challenge to stay upright.
In late July, when the race takes place, the air is often thick with humidity. The trail does offer shade from the relentless sun, but searing heat sucks the life out of many a runner.
I trained on the course, as race director Kevin Sayers advises. I did training runs of up to 20 miles, covering every inch of the course, some of it three or four times. Other training runs were on trails in Greenbrier State Park. My only goal was to finish the 32.5 mile course (it's a little longer than 50K) in less than the time limit of nine hours, 15 minutes.
It's a beautiful course, with tall oaks, poplar and beech trees. Creeks snake through the wooded, rocky landscape. Moss grows on boulders. Rhododendrons bloomed pink and white during our training runs. A thick carpet of leaves covers the ground, making it slippery when wet. The plaintive call of the wood thrush can often be heard.
Despite the course's beauty, my doubts abounded. The summer of 2012 was one of the hottest on record, with temperatures sometimes approaching 100 degrees, and humidity nearly equivalent. I made a pact with my running companions. If the temperature was forecast to be 100, we were going to forego the race, and consider our $25 entry fee a donation.
The day of the race dawned, with the low temperature a very muggy 70 degrees. It topped out at near 90 along the trail, or so I was told. All I know is it was hot and muggy. I carried plenty of water and Gatorade, granola bars, gels and other snacks. I wasn't worried about having enough food; the race has a generous amount of food and drink along the course.
I started at a leisurely pace; after all, I would be running all day. I hoped to make it to the turnaround at the Manor Area of Cunningham Falls State Park in about four hours and 15 minutes. As the day wore on, the heat intensified, and the air grew heavier. Drenched in sweat, I pressed on with my companions. We jogged on the straightaways and downhills, and fast-walked the uphills to conserve energy.
One of my companions dropped out after about nine miles because she had trouble breathing in the muggy air. Another turned her foot on the rocks. Carla and I continued to the halfway point, stepping gingerly past a rattlesnake that was having his normally quiet habitat ruined by 175 runners.
No other snakes greeted us that day, but the humidity refused to relent. I started to feel leg cramps, the runner's enemy, especially in heat and humidity. When I arrived at Fishing Creek, just before the halfway point, I sat in the cold, rushing creek to still the cramps.
At the food table, I happily gobbled potato chips and boiled potatoes rolled in salt. I can't remember ever being so happy to eat something that would normally seem a bit repugnant, but those potatoes were wonderful. As we started back toward the finish, Carla ran off ahead. I wouldn't see her the rest of the day.
Sayers claims that one of the race's difficulties is staying on the trail. That was the easiest part of the day. I thought the trail was quite well marked, with double blazes warning of any upcoming turn. All you need to do is pay attention. The stories of runners getting lost at the Catoctin 50K, however, are legendary. Apparently, there was a time when the trail was not so well marked.
I continued on, chatting a bit with other runners. I made it through the aid stations with plenty of time to spare. A few miles before the finish, however, the cramps became worse. At three miles to go, I still had about an hour and 15 minutes until the cutoff. I walked and ran with a guy who was also running the race for the first time.
A mile and a half before the finish, the cramps intensified, and I waved him on. I still hoped to walk in. I had covered 31 miles, the actual distance of a 50K, and had about 40 minutes to go a mile and a half. But at that point, my feet rebelled. I felt like I was walking on glass. I can normally push through pain, but I lost any ability to push. I had to stop every few steps to catch my breath. I arrived at the mountain biker's parking lot, a quarter of a mile shy of the finish, when I heard the horn signaling the race was over.
My car was in Gambrill's High Knob parking lot, however, so I continued up the race trail. One of my companions had showered and returned to the race. She coaxed me up the last quarter mile, patiently waiting while I repeatedly sat down. I could have crawled faster. I crossed the finish line 11 minutes after the cutoff, but my time didn't count. As my husband puts it, it was a DNF.
I realized that while I enjoy trail running, I may not be cut out to be a trail racer. I also know better than to do long races in the heat. Oh, and the guy I ran with toward the end? He made it with about a minute to spare.
Although I was a DNF, I was hoping to indulge in some of the finish line food the race is known for. But sadly, there was none left. You need to finish well before the deadline to take advantage of the post-race meal. Although I'm not a soda drinker, I desperately wanted something cold and sweet. Alas, there were no sodas left, either. But another runner thankfully had some Cokes in the car, so I was able to replenish.
My experience was not unusual. Many local Catoctin 50K veterans have at least one DNF. Unlike many, however, I'm not sure I'll return.