Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Cat Card: it's just not worth it.

I think I originally got myself into Catoctin because it was one of those races that I heard nightmare stories about over and over again…the heat, the rocks, the hills, the getting lost. And each time I would just think to’s a 50K. It can’t be THAT bad. Wrong. So wrong.  

I came into Catoctin this year feeling prepared. This was one of Jeff’s favorite races, and so was Hyner. And I loved Hyner. So even though Jeff told me I would probably hate it, I ignored him and thought it would be fun. Plus it was right where I grew up, an extra bonus, right? I had not really tapered for the event, but I felt like I was training pretty solidly and in pretty good shape overall so should not be an issue. Jeff and I camped out the night before with Gary Bowman and Cassandra, all of us running the race the next morning.

Prep on race morning seemed to go well enough. I treated myself to a black coffee from Starbucks in Frederick and I could feel that pleasantly buzzing through my bloodstream during the pre-race meeting. I decided to play the hydration for the day a little risky,  just taking a single 20oz handheld with me, as Jeff had recommended but naturally against every other sane person’s advice for this race. 

The race started at the top of a small Middletown mountain just 3 miles down the road from my dad’s business. Despite this, I had never actually run on this trail before (and I was about to find out why) And before anyone even know the pre race briefing from the RD was over, we were off.
The first part of the race, after running around the parking lot once, goes straight down the rocky decent of the mountain. The course is an out and back, so I took note that it would end with a climb up a mountain. The grade of the first decent was actually nice for running and not too steep, but the rocks made it difficult to move too fast. Still this was nothing I couldn’t handle and I started passing a number of people getting hung up on the rocks, blazing my path down the trail. Maybe it helped that I stuck with Jeff, the expert rocky downhill trail blazer, for the first few miles along with Henry Peck’s daughter, Kaylyn, who I was meeting for the first time, but who sprained her ankle within the first 20 minutes and dropped back. 

As the trail went on though, the rocks got worse. Soon, we could no longer blaze our way around the rocks in the trail because entire sections of the trail were nothing but rocks. So this turned into a rock hopping game of who could jump and hop through rocks the fastest. As it turns out, if the name of the game is flat or downhill bouldering, I am not the greatest. But soon we came to a pretty long climb that was steep in some sections and I made up some distance on those who left me behind before (including Jeff!). 
Of course they would put the camera man on the only 1/10th of a mile section of the course without rocks.

I made sure that I was very attentive in looking for the light blue blazes (almost looking white at times) marking the trees of the course. None of the course is marked and you have to follow the not-always-easy-to-follow blue blazes to stay on course, which is how a lot of people get lost in this race. And running it I could see why. You had to constantly be looking down at the trail with all the rocks and each time you looked up, you risked taking a face plant into rocks. But if you didn’t look up you could easily go off course. Somehow I was managing to multi-task this though and even called back a couple guys I saw ahead of me running who missed turns a couple of times.

After the one climb I had pulled away from Jeff and I started running with a girl named Bethany who had been close by the whole time. I think we were 3rd and 4th woman at the time. She was in VHTRC and a really strong runner, and way better than me at handling the sections of rock hopping. Nonetheless, we hung together for a couple miles until I had to stop for a minute to pee and she skipped ahead. When I was back on the trail Jeff had caught up with me again and we ran together again for a mile or so, into the next aid station. The downside to carrying a single handheld on a hot day was that I had to stop at every aid station to fill up (which I normally don’t do in a 50K). But still I just have been in and out of there pretty quickly because Jeff was still hanging out at the aid station when I left. 

I ran the next few miles solo until I called another guy back to the course who I saw miss a turn. We ran together for a mile or so until the course finally got to a point where the rocks seemed to disperse a bit for the first time all day. Here I actually felt like I could open up and run fast, so I picked up the pace a little bit. Apparently I let down my guard a bit too much because just minutes after I had settled into a rhythm for the first time all day, my left ankle suddenly gave-way from under me, snapped inwards and I felt a really unsettling pop quickly followed by a lightning bolt of pain that shot from the outside of my ankle through my entire lower leg. Didn’t feel good. My immediate reaction (after quickly considering if I had broken a bone) was to keep running. Spraining my ankle is nothing new to me and actually it probably happens every few weeks or so, so the popping and pain feeling is sadly familiar, though this particular one felt a bit worse than usual. But when I tried to continue on, running didn’t work this time and for the next few minutes I was forced to limp and hobble over more rocks along the trail. Ugh. Being forced to walk bothered me more than the pain. Numerous people passed me here but after a few minutes though I was finally able to run again with just some soreness in the ankle that gradually dwindled with every step. Yay, the race was still on!
I actually thought that Jeff was going to pass me when I was walking, but he never caught up so I was on my own again. Luckily for me and my freshly twisted ankle (HAH!) the next section got pretty rocky again. Needless to say, was forced to take things pretty conservatively here. I met another trail friend and ran with him until the turn around. “Man, you are moving!” he told me. I had to think that this guy couldn’t be serious because with all this rock hopping I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere fast today. We hit the last aid station together and it was two miles downhill into the turn around. This part was rocky, but less so than other parts of the course, so I still felt like I could safely get a little speed going down here. 

Those two miles of downhill were pretty fun. I anticipated seeing the leading guys coming back towards me a lot sooner than I did, but towards the bottom of the mountain I saw them charging back up it. I also took note that there were 3 women ahead of me, with Bethany in the lead now and only a couple minutes ahead of me. We actually ran into each other going through the creek crossing just before the aid station at the bottom.

Dad being crew at the halfway point.

I saw my parent’s for the first and only time on the course all day (crews were not allowed anyplace else in this one). They refilled my bottle while I gulped down some Coke and quickly headed back out again up the mountain. The climb was not nearly as bad as it was talked up to me. Actually, I found I could essentially run the entire thing, as the grade was long and constant, but relatively shallow, with a level of rockiness that still allowed for running. I felt really strong going up that climb and thought I was ready to start kicking up a few gears for the day. I passed one girl within a few minutes.  I saw Jeff coming back towards me too, still looking good, and some other friends who cheered words of encouragement to me. People started telling me that I was 2nd female, which was a little perplexing as I had only remembered passing one girl and I thought there were three ahead of me. Maybe the other one fell and got buried in all the rocks? A few minutes later, I started seeing Bethany up ahead around every corner and at the crest of every long stretch of climb. I knew she couldn’t be more than a minute ahead of me. 

Just after reaching the top of the climb and going through the next aid station the trail leveled off again and I started picking up some speed. I felt great and was pushing the pace strongly.  Then, out of nowhere, a bee flew out of into the corner of my right eye and before I could react, a felt the sting that ripped through my eye and soon the entire right side of my face. GAHHHHHH!!! I swatted it away but not soon enough. Well that was a first. It hurt like hell but I kept running, maybe even faster, pretty much just squinting to see out of one eye (which was also not very conducive to rock running) The sting was lingering and I desperately wanted something cold to put on it and since the only thing I had was a waterbottle full of Gatorade, I started squirting that into my eye. Desparate times….but despite my seemingly horrific appearance, my friends running back towards me on the trail were still cheering for me, saying something about being right behind first woman, and this really encouraged me to get over myself and push on.

So I had gotten over the ankle, I had gotten over the bee, and I was doing just fine with the occasional spray of Gatorade into my eye. Ten minutes later my eyes were getting a little sticky and it was kind of hard to see while I was squirting the Gatorade, so I will partly attribute ankle sprain #2 to this (hah!). Honestly I don’t even remember how it happened, but I was rock hopping some awful section when there it was, ankle snapping in and that bolt of pain. So I was forced to walk again for a few minutes, though this time was not as bad as the first one and I was able to run again a little quicker.
So, after all this happening, people running towards me were STILL telling me that I was less than two minutes behind. Now I don’t know how accurate this was, but it seemed legit at the time coming from multiple people and it gave me encouragement to keep things up. So I got through those obstacles, but what came next would be totally debilitating. 

I was negotiating a long stretch of particularly rock section when I felt the tightness in my left quad near my knee start of come on that was quickly followed by intense pain. It came on without any type of warning and on first instinct I had no idea what it could be. What IS that?!? But I quickly realized (thanks to my amazing doctor of PT skills!!) that this pain and tightness must be a muscle cramp. But I have NEVER had a muscle cramp in my life! Why would I be suddenly getting one now?? Because it’s Catoctin. I kept running on it and it only got worse and fast. Soon the sharp pain that started in my quad near my knee was searing up the entire front of my thigh and into my hip. I had lost full range of motion of my leg and even though I was still “running” my gait must have looked pretty ugly. My quad became so tight I couldn’t bend my knee all the way, which made running and lunging over rocks particularly difficult. Soon I had to do everything with just the working leg. I stopped a couple times to try and stretch it, to palpate and massage the muscle. (I even thought it could be referred pain from my hip, but in some quick self hip testing, nothing I could do to my hip could further provoke or alleviate my leg symptoms). Stretching seemed to provide some relief during the actual stretch, but stopping and starting running again hurt even worse so soon I just nixed the whole idea. When I felt my quad, the entire thing felt seized up in a knot so tight I had to forcibly stretch my leg back using both arms. Still, I ran (limped?) on. Muscle cramps go away with time, right??? Wrong again.

In all this I still managed to stay very diligent about following the trail blazes, which was a miracle because it gets increasingly difficult to pay attention to the trail when your entire leg feels like it’s about to fall off. I did pass a couple of signs, one that indicated that the park we started in was 9 miles away. If I had to run another 9 miles on this leg, there was no way I could finish this race. Meanwhile, the rocks kept coming. And coming. And coming. Each time a nasty patch came, which was probably 3 times per minute I would silently (and then not so silently) curse those rocks as I painfully hobbled over with one working leg. 

Somehow I made it to the next aid and last aid station alive. Over the past couple miles I felt like I was been moving at a sloths pace and my leg cramp had gotten so bad that I was seriously considering dropping at this point. But when I jogged into that aid station I was greeting with cheers from the volunteers and my friend Gray, who was working the aid station ran up to me and told me that I was just 2 minutes behind Bethany. How is that even possible??? I just plain didn’t believe it. Besides, I no longer cared about my pace in the race or my finishing time. But I just didn’t have the heart to drop out. Ok, and I also didn’t have a ride or a phone. So after giving Gray what must have been the saddest hopeless look of desperation, I left the aid station and “jogged” (aka hobbled over rocks) it in for the next 6-7 miles. 

That last stretch was pretty painful and miserable. Despite still moving at the sloth’s pace, I still managed to pass a few guys (although having one working leg looked like that would be the least of their issues…). The trail went down a particularly steep rocky decent and in my rock hopping, at one point I apparently felt too confident and hopped onto my left leg, expecting it to support the weight of my body as it has done my entire life, only to have it completely give out underneath me and slam me straight into a tree. Ouch. I had to pause for a few seconds and just laugh at just how well this race was going for me.

I think the only reason I actually ran up most of that last climb was because every time I slowed down the midday horse flies that had started coming out would start biting me. I finished the last climb and thought I might not have ever been more happy to see a piece of duct tape slapped on some hot asphalt parking lot that signified the finish line in my life.

Somehow I still managed to finish in 5:53, which was still under my pre-set goal time of sub 6 hours and also still managed to hold on my 2nd place (though only because it was pretty much uncontested). The post-race finish line party was a great time and I had a great time, minus the last 3 hours of the race. But I am confident that I can say that Catoctin 50K was probably the worst race of my running career to date and I hope it stays that way. Therefore, if I do come back to this rock fest next year it will be to SPECTATE (and drink beer at the finish line) ONLY and make fun of Jeff while he is having so much fun in all his misery at his “favorite” race.  Some people like running over piles of rocks for 6 hours. I do not. 

Jeff had a great time at Catoctin, by the way. 
The Cat Card. NOT WORTH IT.
 Of course the whole thing was worth it because I got this awesome envied laminated Cat-Card for finishing! Hmmmmm...

Ok so not EVERYTHING went wrong.  There were a few things that went right
1.  Stomach. No issues all day. For me, that is pretty amazing. And I will be keeping Trader Joe’s ginger people chews in business for the rest of my days. 
2.  Fitness. I felt great coming up and down every climb and downhill (pre-quad spasm).
3.  Post race party. Double IPAs never tasted so good.




  1. You had the ultimate Catoctin experience. What's not to love?!?

  2. Oh I dont know...the heat, the rocks, the bugs the snakes, THE ROCKS!! :-P