Friday, July 4, 2014

MDLD 2014: The Journey of a TrailDawg Pup

The Mason Dixon Longest Day Challenge. I have been wanting to do this race for the past 4 years, ever since moving to Delaware and reading about it on the TrailDawg website. It’s a very small low-key “invitation only” event held by the TrailDawgs, with the 62 mile trail challenge traveling from Susquehanna state park in Maryland up to end at Lock Haven PA, paralleling the river for most of the way. No entry fee, no course markings, little aid, no whining, no pity. This race sounded really awesome.  But every year something always came up preventing me from running it (traveling to England, injuries, PT school…) And training on the course only increased my desire to one day finish the entire thing. I had originally hoped to be the first woman to complete the 62 mile challenge within the “challenge” time cut-off from sunrise to sunset. But a couple of women beat me to it, and Meg Harnett was the first woman to complete the challenge in 2012 setting the stellar female CR of 12:57 and another woman also finished the challenge in 2013. 

Of course I was disappointed that I could not be the first woman to complete the challenge when Meg finished a couple years ago when I was sidelined at the time with an injury, and going into my first attempt at MDLD this year I was determined to at least run as well as I could. I had (half) secretly wanted to set a new course record and to beat Meg’s time. I knew the course and I knew it would be hard. It generally takes me 3.5 hours on fresh legs to run the last and hardest 12 miles of the course from Otter Creek! Meg is a good runner who has bested me in a couple of races, and she was running strong at the time she won MDLD in 2012. But when I learned that the entire course would be almost 2 miles longer this year due to trail re-routings, I considered Meg’s time would likely be untouchable. I knew the trail well, or at least the last killer 12 miles of it, but I had no idea what running the entire thing in one running would be like. Additionally, Kathleen Cusick, a talented and reputable VHTRC runner jumped into the race this year about a week prior. Kathleen won Bull Run Run 50mile this past April, beating me by 13 minutes. She is a strong runner, seemingly on both flats and in the mountains and she was going to be some tough competition. I knew I was much stronger now than I had been back in April, but there was no doubt that I was not running uncontested anymore.  There was a lot of unknown in how this year’s MDLD would play out! 
MDLD Starters at 5:38am
My MDLD race morning started off in a bit of panic as I set my alarm for 3am and woke up from a deep slumber at 3:40. Arghhhh!!! I had just twenty minutes to get myself together and grab breakfast and coffee on my way out the door to meet Bridgette, who I was carpooling with to the start, at her house by 4:15am. Nothing like getting your heart racing before the start of the race. (Apparently I had set my phone alarm for next Thursday morning at 3am).  Despite my panic when I finally woke up, I did wake feeling generally well rested. 

Picture of the sunrise I captured right before the start along the Susquehanna River.
We arrived to the start in plenty of time and at 5:37am sharp, Hunt gave a signal (I think?) and we were off. There were 11 starters this year, with 3 who had started two hours before we had at 3:37am (ugh!). It was a better day than anyone could have asked for, with overcast skies, chance of rain and the temperatures supposed to reach a high in the low 70s. I run much better in the cold, and at the start Kathleen had said she really loved the heat, so I considered this the #2 lucky thing that had played out for me already today.
Ready for the epic adventure

Less than a quarter mile in and we came to a creek crossing and my feet were already wet (rock jumping never works out to well for me). We immediately started climbing up some steep single track trail and Kathleen was right infront of me, the two of us were leading the race. I expected Jason Lantz and male course record holder Jim Rayburn to pass us any minute, but they hung back a little while we took some cobwebs to the face. A few minutes later I found myself in the front with Kathleen right behind me, just in time to hang a hard unmarked right-hand turn, that Steve Bunville had just showed me when we ran the first few miles of the course the previous Sunday. I think Kathleen must have stopped, asking if I was sure of the turn. I hear Henry Peck and a couple others stopping at the turn too, questioning while I took off down the single track hill, calling behind me “This way!” 

The trail dumped out on the road where I hung a right, again very grateful to Steve Bunville for all my navigational skills I would have on this day on this trail. I was running out front by myself now and a couple minutes later I heard Kathleen and saw her with Jason about 50 yards behind me. I hung a left to hop back on the single track paralleling the river, to begin our journey north and heard them chatting (or at least heard Kathleen) behind me for a little while, until Jason must have pulled ahead and was running right beside me. Jason and I hung together for a few miles, which was probably good for him since he wasn’t too familiar with the trail. On the 2-3 miles of flat gravel road section, I saw Jim Rayburn a little ways behind us. I was running comfortably with Jason, but a little quicker than I would have if running alone. Oh well, in order to beat Kathleen this might be my best strategy, as I was not confident I could outkick her through all the rocky stuff in the end (if MMT is one of her best races, I had no chance). When we started on our road climb, I ran up the whole thing with Jason and Jim right behind us. Jim knew the trail way better than I did too, and when Jason and I missed a partly hidden right turn in the trail and quickly landed ourselves in a deadend, Jim caught us and led us down the correct path. Oh boy, missed turn #1 for the day.

We came into the first water station around mile 7 (although I think it’s really more like 6). I ran through it not needing anything, but it felt good to mentally check off an aid station on the list. I knew I would be seeing Matt Wilson at the next one, who would run with me to Lock 12 where Jeff would pick up pacing duties. At this point Jason pulled ahead of us both and I ran behind Jim for a couple miles. When I asked him what the secret to this race was, I expected him to say something like “Don’t get lost” but he told me to save plenty of energy for the last 8 miles. Gulp. Maybe I better slow down? I slowed a bit, let him pull ahead of me but kept him in sight for a little while. Jim predicted where the blue blazes would pop up way before they even did and seemed to be on autopilot with his course navigating, so it was definitely helpful to follow him. 

Matt was waiting for me beside Hunt at the 2nd water stop around mile 9. Another aid station checked off the list and now I was looking forward to seeing my dad, my solo crew for the day, at AS 3. We ran along a gravel road for a bit, then entered some really back-ass partly overgrown trails, where the trail was not always easy to follow and there was the occasional downed tree that you had to (not always easily) trouble shoot your way through. Still, Matt and I had not run together in a while and it was fun. I was still waiting for something in my legs to click though, as they had not really felt great all day. 

Then, somewhere in those woods we missed a turn. We were running through some long-grass and partly overgrown section with tricky markings and not paying as much attention as we should have been. Suddenly the trail dumped us out on a road, one that I was completely unfamiliar with despite having just run this segment of the course 2 weeks ago. There were no blue blazes to be seen anywhere. We looked back at the trail. No blazes. I ran a little ways up the road, but still no blazes. Matt said he would run back looking for more blazes from where we came from and so we split up here and I continued up the road, my eyes desperately scanning the woods beside me for anything blue. Crap. Panic immediately struck me. I had been so paranoid about getting lost and now here I was. Suddenly I saw it-blue blazes on the rocks in the ditch off the road beside me. Little weird place for some blazes, but a blaze was a blaze.  I happily called back to Matt and kept running but when he caught up to me he said he thought we should turn back. What? I listened to him though, and running back I realized that my “blaze” was a blue plastic bag half covered in dirt. Wow. Glad Matt was there to save me from that one! We ran back less than half a mile and saw the scarcely marked turn in the woods we had missed, the blaze covered by the tall grass. We had lost a few minutes time but it was good to be back on course again. Plus the missed turn definitely got me paying more close attention!
We found my dad at Aid station 3 and I refilled my hydration pack and popped a couple S-caps with ginger. My stomach had been a bit uneasy in those first 14 miles I had had to stop once before I picked up Matt. I hoped things would improve with my stomach but it seemed questionable at this time. My dad had everything I could need spread out in the bed of his truck. I took my first sip of Coke for the day, which would turn out to be the saving component of my nutrition for the rest of the day. Just as we were taking off again, Kathleen and Henry Peck rolled into the aid station, which gave me a little kick in the butt to start moving!
Follow the blue. Always.

We were coming up to Peach Bottom power plant , which we had to run through as part of the trail. We ran through some more partly over grown sections and saw my dad again right before entering the Power plant and I gulped down another cup of Coke before jumping the “Private Property-Do Not Enter” gates to follow the blue blazes into the power plant. The Power plant section was actually much more well marked than it had been in the past with new bright blue blazes that were easy to follow (minus the one hard left turn right before the hill leading up to the power plant, which I knew about). We passed Roxanne, the trail angel who had cut down the stinging nettle of the majorly overgrown section after the power plant. I called out a thank-you as we ran past. We saw Jim Rayburn just ahead still, so maybe we had not lost as much time as I had thought with our missed turn before AS 3. 

Passing through the Power plant around mile 20sih meant that the first major check point, the Picnic Area, around mile 25, was coming up soon. It also meant the first road segment was coming, which I was kind of dreading. Soon enough, we hit the road. My legs had not felt great all day. A bit flat and achy for only 22 miles so far. I told myself I might be able to run through it, but the road brought out the worst of it. I credited some of the dead legs to the heavy Spring packed with races that I just had, and Cayuga to top it off. I considered the Cayuga 50 miler 3 weeks pior to be good training for MDLD, but I really thrown everything I had out there that day and left me feeling way more beat up than if I had raced it like a training run.  And the stomach today was not making things better.

I pushed on, grateful to have Matt there to distract me from my legs and feelings of discouragement of how crappy I was feeling less than four hours into this day. And I knew I still had the longest 4 mile stretch of road still to come. We came into Cold Cabin where the first major aid station was and Angus and some other Trail Dawgs helped me refill my hydration pack, my dad got me some more ginger chews, and I headed to the bathroom. In total, I took a few minutes at this aid station to regroup, because I knew I needed it, especially with the longest road section to come on the next section. 
Coming into Cold Cabin with Matt - Photo courtesy TrailDawgs

The section after Cold Cabin I had actually never run before, but it was quite a beautiful one. We started off running along the river on a gravel road, where I passed Gary Bowman, one of Jeff’s trail running friends who has started at 3:37 this morning. We hit some single track where we hiked off and on for a while up some steep climbs. Then after a while we were running down some smooth gradual trail, and this seemed to bring some life back to my legs. Then we hit this smooth rolling part right beside the river again, with dense forest on the left side, with majestic views of the river on the right. Matt raved about how amazing this little trail was and I had to agree. 

The bad part was that after this lovely little trail was over, it dumped us out on the road were we began our 4 mile asphalt journey towards Lock 12. Normally I am a pretty strong road runner (or at least from within the ultrarunning community). I am not normally the one who complains about road segments in trail races. But with my legs feeling the way they were, I was really dreading that road, where I knew there would be plenty of hills. I had passed Jim Rayburn who was stopped along the trail right before hitting the road. My dad was waiting for us on his bike. He gave me a water bottle with iced Gatorade and it was good to get some more sugar in me. I had not been eating solid food yet this race as I didn’t want to risk it with my stomach, although knew I should probably try at some point soon if I wanted to survive the rest of the day. 

The road section had more than rolling hills. It had hills that really slammed me and with the steepness combined with the crappy legs. However much I hate doing this on the road, I partially hiked up some of those hills, including one that my dad had to walk his bike up. So I grinded out the miles on the road, with Matt and my dad serving as a pleasant distraction. At the end of the road section came a steep downhill asphalt leg-beating right before finally hopping back on some rock covered single track next to the river. Things were very slick here from the morning’s rain. There was a steep downhill section that looked more like a collapsed rock monument than a trail that I stopped for and skidded down sideways. But his meant we had less than a mile to reach Lock 12.

We finally rolled into Lock 12 and I stopped in the bathroom to deal with what I hoped would be the last of the stomach issues of the day. When I got up to the Aid station, my dad and the Angus where there with someother TrailDawgs to help me get myself together again. I took a few minutes here again to rejuvenate myself before the start of the journey to Otter Creek before the final hellacious escarpment. My dad told me that I had about a 13 minute gap on Kathleen here, which gave me a bit of encouragement. However I tried not to get my hopes up here because I knew the rocks were coming, and she was a mountain goat. After chugging another cup of Coke and munching a couple potato chips, I was off again, this time with Jeff beside me. 

After leaving Lock 12, I felt much better. Maybe it was knowing that the road sections were over, maybe it was me starting to feel the finish at my fingertips for the first time all day, maybe it was the stomach issues finally starting to resolve, maybe knowing I had gapped Kathleen even while feeling so crappy, or maybe running with Jeff after looking forward to it for so long, but I just felt better in general. My legs still felt a bit flat and achy, but they had felt pretty much the same for the last 20 miles and had never actually gotten worse so I considered it was not a good thing. Legs are supposed to feel bad after running 40 miles! So all seemed good in the day again.

The section from Lock 12 to Otter Creek is a very beautiful and remote one, running through the woods beside creeks, through creeks and well-marked for the most part, though Jeff and I did stop once or twice for a couple minutes when blazes were scarce to ensure our path was correct. The trail did get pretty rocky and technical at times and every once in a while I would steal a glance over my shoulder half expecting Kathleen to be coming barreling towards us through the rocks. Running a bit scared also motivated me to run the sections that I could run. Hard. Or at least as hard as I safely thought I could without blowing up. 

And I started having the most fun that I had all day, pushing up climbs, cruising the flats, flying the downs, just following the blue. It was here where I realized that my watch was broken. It looked water-logged under the screen from the day’s humidity and the time must have been frozen on the time of 6:47 since I didn’t even know how long. I asked Jeff what time it was, but he only had his clock running since he picked me up, so it was no longer easy to tell how long I had been out there. In hindsight maybe it was for the best (as knowing you have been running for 7-8 hours can be exhausting just to think about sometimes!), but at that time, I had to make myself say goodbye to time. From that point forward there was only one thing I could worry about and that was getting to Shanks Mare as fast as I possibly could. 

We were running through some single track up a hill in some fairly dense forest when we saw a creepy stuffed scarecrow looking-like thing chained to a tree right beside the trail. It came out of nowhere and was quite frightening (I might have shrieked a little?) but then we saw the trailers immediately following and realized that we had arrived at Otter Creek. It had actually come sooner than I thought! And there was my dad and the TrailDawg crew waiting for us. I checked the last “unofficial” aid station off my list. Yay! I took a few minutes at Otter Creek to perform my adopted routine of the day… fill up my pack again, gulp down some Coke and munch on a couple potato chips to test my stomach. I had actually tried to take a few bites of Cliff Bar on the last section, but my stomach was not having it, so I had resorted to fluids, gels, ginger chews and block shots as my sole source of calories. My dad informed me that I had about half an hour on Kathleen now, which gave me encouragement, but I knew that that was as of Lock 12, and she would have been good at running the rocky stuff of the last section. When I asked how much time had passed in the race, no one could give me a direct answer, but my dad said I was well under 9 hours, leaving me over 4 hours to do the last section to make it under the course record time. Wowza! This was the first time I really had any idea of how close I would be to the course record and I knew that if I held it together it was possible!

So Jeff and I were off again out from Otter Creek. I made Jeff do some more mental math in the first mile of this section on the first climb just to be sure that I had the kind of time the aid station had told me I would. Yes, I would have about 4.5 hours to run the section and still make it under the CR. Two weekends ago Jeff and I ran this section on fresh legs in 3:35. I knew what was coming and it wasn’t going to be an easy home stretch. This was the section of the 3 (or 4?) infamous “RBs” that the TrailDawgs rave about. And I had training on all those RBs. They were tough.

Jeff took the lead up the first climb out from Otter Creek and stayed in front for a few miles. I stopped worrying out the time, people chasing me and the rocks, just focusing on Jeff several yards infront of me, maintaining my distance, not letting it gap. I have no idea how fast we were actually running, but guessed we were taking the downhills pretty aggressively (mostly because I don’t think Jeff is capable of NOT taking downhills like this). The running felt less difficult when the burden of the mental effort of self-pacing was eliminated and all my brain had to think about was staying on Jeff. 
Trail view on this section along the river I took during a much colder training run in the winter.

We hit those RBs and they hit hard. Sometimes it was hard to follow the blazes up the climbs because of the steep rocky switchbacks. We got a little mixed up one time and missed our turn going across a small creek at the bottom of one of the RBs but realized it right away and set ourselves on track again. After crossing the creek we were clawing our way straight up the side of a steep cliff. My feet slid backwards in the dirt as I tried to climb and I had to use my fingernails to dig into whatever I could infront of me. Yep, I said, we’re on the right trail! It all felt familiar to me, except probably a bit worse considering the 55ish miles on my legs at this point. Then there were the rocks, but at least then you had something to grip onto and your legs could do whatever deep lunging they had in them. The climbs were hard. I pushed and pulled my way up those things in whatever way that I could. I think the real advantage here was that even though the climbs were intense, I knew exactly what was coming next. Each time we ascended another RB, I would check that one off the list in my head, and I was on the final countdown into the finish line. 
Loving rocks today...

Even though I was hiking more portions of the climbs than in our training run, for anything that I was able to run, I ran as hard as I could. I thought about all the times I had run this part of the course and on every single run I imagined how I might feel on this section at the end of the MDLD. Now this was finally it! I had to finish strong. Jeff remarked that we were running faster now than we had been on our training run, which only encouraged me to push the pace more. Suddenly, before I had anticipated it would come, we came out onto a gravel road where my dad was there waiting for us, with a cup of Coke in hand for me. I didn’t want to stop, so grabbed the Coke and gulped it down while still moving down the road. Jeff stopped to fill his pack saying he would catch up to me. This road supposedly marked mile 61. Two miles to go. 

Jeff caught up to me right before taking the hard right turn down to the boat ramp that led us back onto the trail again. I could tell that he was putting in a good bit of effort here too, and it gave me a boost of confidence to know that I could still push him with 60 miles on my legs. Here, Jeff and I switched leads. I took off up the climb, running this time, and soon enough, after that last RB, I realized that Jeff was not behind me anymore. I called out a trail hoot and he answered from somewhere below me out of sight on that climb, so I knew he was ok. I kept moving. I had an idea I had some wiggle room between me and the CR, but really had no other idea the time on the clock. I knew there was one last bouldering section over a very rocky ridgeline along the river that was going to be challenging. When I hit it, I hit it a little too hard, and realized my legs were more dysfunctional than I thought as I tripped over a rock and took my first and only fall of the day. Without stopping, I pulled myself up and started using a lot of arms to crawl and pull my way over all the big rocks and boulders. I heard someone coming up behind me. Kathleen?? Noooo…
Final descent before the road into Shanks Mare (taken in winter). Waiting to see that all day!
I whipped my head around to see Jeff climbing over all the rocks towards me. I was incredibly happy to see him. He asked me how long we had before the finish line. I don’t exactly know…why? Because if we finished in the next 7 minutes he thought I might come in under 12 hours. What??!!! So we started hauling ass through the rest of those rocks and bombed down the last switchbacks that dumped out to the final road section. So many emotions were whirling through my head at this point. I had been thinking about finishing this race for so long and now I was finally doing it. I screamed and hooted at every passerby on the road into Shanks Mare. They definitely thought I was completely crazy. When I saw the Shanks Mare store and everyone waiting there I wanted to cry, but couldn’t. It all had been so amazing. 

Jeff and I in the distance coming into the finish- Photo courtesy Steve B.

Finish time 12:01.
I came into the finish at the Shanks Mare store 2nd overall and in a new female course record time of 12:01. Yep, we had been pretty close to that 12 hour mark and darnit for not having my watch! I had beaten the old CR by 56 minutes, even with the course 1-2(?) miles longer this year. Jason finished less than an hour before me (which I consider pretty good!) and Jim Rayburn, the (still) current male CR holder, finished about half an hour after me and Kathleen came into finish in 12:57. So the day was not as close as I had imagined, but knowing she was behind me the whole way definitely lit a good fire under me! And apparently I had even run the last section a few minutes faster than we had in our training run! 
With the man who started it all, TrailDawg Hunt.

Finishers award from the RD's.

Where would I be without my dad in this one...probably still out in those rocks somewhere!
For the stat geeks out there, my final Stats (credit to my dad )

Actual Time







#2-Glen Cove


#3-Boy Scout Camp

Power Plant



#4-Cold Cabin Rd

#5-551 Slab Rd/McKinley

#6-Lock 12

#7-Bamboo Grove

#8-Otter Creek

#9-Shenks Ferry Rd

#10-Greenbranch Rd




I owe the success to a number of factors… to my dad for being an amazing solo crew all day long, giving me everything I needed when I needed it most, even if all I really needed was to come out of the woods after a few hours and see him there…to Matt and Jeff for the company and keeping my mental sanity and pace honest when I was feeling crappy and pushing me in the end…and of course the TrailDawgs for putting on this spectacular low-key event and providing more smiling faces and aid along the course than I was ever anticipating.  It was a very happy day :-) 

Being the new woman's CR holder is an honor, but CRs are only made to be broken! I am sure there is some chick out there eying the new time (as I was with Meg!) and making a goal to get under it. Do I think I could run this faster? Definitely :-) I am in good shape at this point in the season, and we had spectacular running weather for a late June day, but I think if I came in the my current physical condition, just a little more well-rested next time, there is at least 20 minutes in there I could cut (and also not missing any turns at all would certainly help). We will see what the Summer Solstices to come will bring!

What’s next…I am looking to take a couple of down weeks for some fun running and cross training. Then it’s time to initiate 100 mile training again after the 4th of July to train myself for another attempt at Grindstone in early October (and I hope the government won’t shut down again so I can actually make it to the start this year!) Training races leading up to that one include Catoctin 50K (which is sounding more and more like the race from hell), Waldo 100K (during Jeff and my trip out to Oregon in August) and possibly Labor pains 12 hour race (which is just 2 weeks out from the 100K, but we’ll see what happens). 

List of the MDLD 2014 finishers ("unofficial" results from the TrailDawgs):

2014 Finishers
1. Jason Lantz 11:11:00 (Dixon) 
2. Jackie Palmer 12:01:00 (Mason) 
3. James Rayburn 12:35:00 (Dixon) 
4. Kathleen Cusick 12:57:00 (Dixon) 
5. Henry Peck 13:35:00 (Mason) 
6. Ryan Vandenberg 14:35:00 (Mason) 
7. Gary Bowman 17:18:00 (Mason)

Mason = supported run with crew and/or pacer(s)
Dixon = unsupported run, no crew or pacer

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