Sunday, July 27, 2014

Clawed by the Cat: 2014 Catoctin 50K Race Report

John Steinbeck said of trips that we don't take them so much as they take us.   Every trip, every journey is its own character, a distinct personality with its own its own wants and its own agenda--"and all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless."

I already knew from two previous finishes that Maryland's Catoctin 50K is an ornery character, a diabolically rock-littered roller-coaster of an ultramarathon--held, just for good measure, in the soggy heat of late July.   It doesn't even respect the 50K distance, growing a bit each year through erosion and trail changes to its current 33-point-something length.

This time I would also learn that the Cat is entirely unimpressed by any "experience" I might have gained in two previous finishes.   Or with my careful planning and strategizing.   Cats have their own prerogatives and don't care about yours.

Old stones

The race starts where it ends, at Gambrill Park in front at the "Tea Room," a magnificently solid little structure of local stone and timber built in the 1930s by the "boys" of the Civilian Conservation Corps.  (In so many ways, and to our collective loss, they don't do it like that anymore.)

The views from the Tea Room and other points on High Knob are spectacular.  But don't be fooled.  These will be virtually the only scenic views available from this course, which takes you deep into the stony, foliage-enwrapped heart of Catoctin, and doesn't let go of you until however many hours later you stagger back to the Tea Room in a state of melting, grateful collapse.

So it's worth taking some time to soak in the views before the race begins.  

What you'll see looking south/southwest from High Knob are two green, craggy spines cutting across a flat plain, rolling towards more distant, dim mountains at the horizon.   The spine on which you are standing on is the Catoctin mountain.  Off to your right (West) will be South Mountain, whose ridge line marks the course of the Appalacian Trail in Maryland.   

These mirror-image ridges running in parallel give the impression they must be connected in some way.  Turns out they are.  With your mind's eye, imagine each ridge line as one side of what would have to be a truly enormous mountain range.  That imagined monster, the geologists tell us, was once a reality.

The great mountain is gone, but the South Mountain and Catoctin ridge lines have endured because they were formed out of the toughest, hardest stone.  Old stones.   The stuff you will running on for the rest of the day.   

If you are to have any hope of making it over these old stones, you will need to absorb some of their tough resilience--preferably not as I did, in painfully literal fashion.  

Into the heart of Catoctin

The first several miles of the race descended steeply under dense foliage, deep into the heart of the park. I saw bright glints of white quartzite near the bottom.   While the course already felt "technical" to me, by the end of the race I would find myself thinking of this as the most runnable section of trail.  

As the elevation chart suggests, beginning around 6 miles, I entered a less vertically challenging section of the course.  But the temporary break came at a price.  It was the rockiest, and for me the toughest part of the course.   My strength as a runner is still on smooth, predictable footing, whether on hills or flat--and this was the opposite, still way out my comfort zone even after years of practice.

In this section, you don't even contend with just one kind of rocky trail, but with a whole compendium of types.   There are the honest fell fields in which you are essentially running across a pile of rocks.   At least you know what you are dealing with.   Worst are the deceptively "smooth" stretches of single track that stealthily conceal jagged stones, sticking out of the ground like the broken teeth of a superannuated but still dangerous carnivore.

Which is to say, the Cat never lets you get into any sort of rhythm.  The moment you feel comfortable, one way or another, this course will slap you back into awareness.

The Cat strikes

Somewhere after the second aid station but before the long 4-mile descent into Cunningham Falls, my foot caught on one of those hidden rocks.  I hit the ground in a flying skid, holding out both hands to stop myself.   I lay there stupidly for a few moments, spitting out dirt and doing a mental check for major damage.   Nothing broken.  I pushed myself up, dirty but seemingly unscathed.

Staggering on a few feet, I was surprised to see bright red streams of blood running, almost gushing, down my thigh.   It may have been a superficial injury, but it was a spectacular one.   Stick them, and thighs can really bleed.

I resisted the ridiculous urge to take a "selfie."  That, in any case, would have been unnecessary.  I don't think I have ever been as photographed as I was on this day.  A bloody leg gives you a sort of temporary celebrity in an ultra.   Perhaps all the more so in a course like this, an out and back on a narrow trail, in which you meet every runner in the field at close quarters at least once.

It was amusing to see the different ways men and women reacted.   Women tended to look concerned, to ask me whether I was ok, even offer help or aid.   In general, men would almost congratulate me with a cry of "that's awesome!" or "good blood."  Have to admit it: I enjoyed both reactions.

The best and most memorable moment for me was a fist pump and a knowing wink from Gary Knipling as we passed each other in opposite directions.   If there is a living embodiment of the Cat 50K, it is Gary, who by his own admission can't remember how many times he has completed the course. 

Halfway done and two-thirds to go

Race director Kevin Sayers told us, very truly, that the first half of the race is just one third of the effort involved.  The return trip from the turnaround to the fourth aid station is the toughest stretch. See that monster dip in the elevation chart?  Now you ascend rather than descend some 1300 feet over 3 or 4 miles.

I didn't feel too bad during this section, but by the time I reached aid station 4, the wheels were coming off.   I slowly and painfully made my back over the "flat" section, trying not to become discouraged by the several people who passed me.  

The final 6 miles of the course were run mostly alone, as the field had become strung out by that stage.  Approaching the Tea Room was a slow, agonizing process.   The course loops you within sight of the finish line--then takes you away for one last run around the building and up the steep steps to the parking circle.  I came in at 6:55, more than half hour slower than my first finish on this course, but all things considered, a satisfying end to the day.


At home the next day, the wounds in my thigh look for all the world as if I had been raked by the claws of a cat.  My wife shakes her head.  I do this to myself for what reason?

Two deep scratches--two parallel raised ridges, like Catoctin and South Mountain.   I think of Gary's wink and fist pump.   I feel as if the Cat 50K has put its mark on me, a kind of recognition that after three finishes, I have now covered 100 miles of some of the toughest landscape in the area. 

Homemade energy gels

Ala Scott Jureck, I'll conclude with a recipe for the homemade energy gels I took with me on this run.   They worked out fairly well, and seemed to me more palatable and longer-lasting than the commercial stuff.

This particular concoction is a variation on the recipe from Brendan Brazier's Thrive. 

5 dates
2 tbsp coconut oil
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp dulse flakes (a kind of seaweed)
1 tbsp yerba mate (a green tea)
1 tbsp cacoa nibs

Put everything in a food processor and blend until smooth.  Makes about 8 small balls of gel, each packing a good 70 calories or so.  The dates provide a quickly metabolized source of sugars.

Coconut oil is a medium-chained triglyceride (MCT), which has some unusual characteristics for a fat; MCT is  metabolized directly by the liver, rather than taken through the small intestine.  In a sense, it acts like a carbohydrate, although with twice the calorie content per ounce.  

There are some unusual ingredients, which you should feel free to leave out.  Dulse is a bit of an acquired taste, but blends in here and provides sodium and other electrolytes.   Yerba mate and cacoa nibs provide a mild caffeine kick.

My only modification in the future will be to store the gel in a flask, rather than wrapping each bite-size piece separately in cellophane.   That technique works fine at room temperature but becomes messy 4 hours into a hot race. 

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