I ran the Stone Mill 50. There are reports out on the internet about this race, so I won’t go too much into it. Yes there were swamp pits and stream crossings. Most trails are dry and runable (smooth). It is enjoyable if you like trail. Not for clean road runner people though.
This year is their 10 or 11 years. There are couple runners who did every single race. The race course at least has changed couple times. The rough year was 2016/17 when they added the lake segment. Due to lack of volunteers or lack of flags, some runners got lost or miss a turn. We this year, as I can tell, benefitted from prior years oopses, and it was near perfection. There is usually a volunteer or two at each major turn. I spent the last few weekends learning the trail, so almost everything went off without problem. I don’t think this is necessary to run this race but always good to know where to go beforehand.
I had couple lucky breaks through even with ample of flags and volunteers. There is this hardly noticeable connector trail between Long Draught Trail and the road (about one to two miles ish) and I have wandered around few weeks before looking for it. I thought I got it when a local resident who had ran this race showed it to me. Unknown to me the trail splitted in half, and there is a place to cross to the other side of the stream. There is no path showing to cross at that section (because no one uses this connector trail). Luckily a runner behind me called out saying we have to run on the other side. That saved us from deviating from the course. We did not see a course flag or ribbon telling us to cross over. The runner behind us probably had done the race before and knew.
I have done couple trail races out in the country side. I am good with trail finding trail and following the blazes and reading map since I have been hiking in the wild. I usually don’t get lost. You kind of develop that 6th sense. I have done hiking without light (not recommended) and your feet can tell where trail is by feeling. I ran at Signal Knob without flashlight couple weekend ago!
I got to say though the blazes for this race was good but they could improve some more. I have seen RDs in other races have a system in flagging the course. This race though seemed to flag thing haphazardly (as mentioned in other’s people reports). The flag only was there to confirm you are on the right path and often times, it lacked indicator if you should turn or not. Here how I see other RDs have done it. They should only flag at one side, say on the right side. As long as you have the flag on the right, you are on course and heading in the right direction. Also They should use double ribbons to indicate a turn. There would be a third flag to indicate/confirm you have made the correct turn. Somehow this race they don’t make it obvious that a turn is coming and you should pay attention.
This year Stone Mill 50 usually had sufficient flags/ribbons. However, their flags gave mixed-signal. They flagged everywhere and they mixed it all together. What I mean is sometimes their flags were on the left and sometimes they were on the right. You had to pay attention to both sides. They also had small flags on the ground and ribbons on trees but they all were used for the same thing. So sometimes you had to pay attention to trees or posts and sometimes the ground. Sometimes you see flags and sometimes you see ribbons, so you got to look out for both. It was just annoying. Flags are small but have reflectors, which is good for night time. Ribbons/streamers are good during the day time, because they are long and easy to spot. One thing that bothered me is there was no turn indicator. They just put a single ribbon and you never know if you should turn or go straight because it means the same thing! I found this super annoying. I was familar with the trail so even if they did not have any flag or ribbon I would know where to turn at most places. For example, there was a three way split (like a Y intersection) and our course ran one branch of the Y the first part of the day and the second branch on the later part when we looped back. I was familar with this intersection so I know where to go, but the two runners before me were from out of town and they were clueless since the course is flagged on all three sides, which is insane! I helped them of course. These kind of tricky intersections should be mentioned in the director’s briefing. How do you know which way to turn at such intersection? Lucky though usually there is a volunteer nearby or a runner nearby who knows the way. Usually there is another flag within a tenth of a mile so you can get a confirmation. Their flag system lack turn indicator.
That was a mouthful. I did not get too lost in the race. The course had about 4 trails (Greenway, Seneca Clopper Lake area, Muddy Branch (not muddy at all), C&O, and Greenway again, and Seneca Ridge). They are all public trails and are blazed by the county so just follow them if needed if flags/ribbons are not available. My race prep helped. Another thing the race director could have done is give out a turn direction sheet and trail/mileage ahead of time (most races I did have a turn by turn sheet except for this race). They provided us a low resolution course map but that was not very helpful. They also provided a Strava link. Strava was good for most part except there were certain places I don’t think was correct because it was not actually real Strava data, but hand drawn in. Unless you are local residents, you might be in trouble (there was no trail there). The race is not friendly to out-of-area runners.
In most races there would be a pre race briefing that the director would point out some gotchas and things like that. We did not have one due to Covid measures. I doubt in previous years RD would brief runners on problemtic sections of the trail (otherwise the RD would have some kind of announcement on the website for this). One Gothas was you have to run in through a building (Stone Mill ruins). I wish the RD would have pointed this out. It was just a cute thing to do to run through it. I missed it and went back for it when the volunteers mentioned. Not a big deal. I lost maybe a tenth of a mile to walk back and run through the ruins. Yes it was flagged but again I thought the flag was to indicate going straight instead of a turn… When you saw the flag and the aid station in a tenth of a mile, who thought it was a turn away from the Aid Station? Things like that are just annoying.
I don’t mean to hammer the RD too much. Flags might not have been done by the same person, so you get all kind of crazy stuffs. They are probably done by volunteers. I still give it a 9/10. They were usually not an issue, just a few places I mis-interpreted the flag meaning and went farther than I should.
The course is probably exactly 50 miles as measured by a GPS device. I added 2 extra miles to my pace chart before the race thinking the course will be long. It was good thing I did. The final miles from my Garmin was 51.5 miles (understand that my GPS might not be accurate either – none ever is). Those extra 1.5 miles were on me though. Some were from walking around at the Aid Stations. Some extra miles were from not making the right turns.
A big oops for me was looking (or fail to look) for Seneca Greenway from the C&O portion. It was not hard. But a volunteer told me there would be someone there telling me where to turn. So I was not paying attention much to the flagging. They were flagged every quarter mile anyway. So I missed the last flag on the Rd. We were running on the road at that time. It was hard to pay attention to both sides of the road. I was running on the right side. The correct turn was on the left and they flagged the left side. I was only paying attention to the right because I saw the county trail blazes on the right. So I went probably quarter mile off course till reaching the end of the road and was wondering where were the flags. So I went back and saw the course ribbon and also other runners. I say that was my lucky break. I pulled up maps and stuffs and a passerby pointed to some other directions. My six sense was telling me something else too. Lucky, out of pure luck I ignored all those false leads, and decided to head back to look for the last flag. That was a lucky break. I only lost at most half an hour! That was the only place that could easily have gotten me 1 hr or two off course and I would have DNF. I take that 30 mins lost time happily.
Now I got that off my chest. I knew always what can mess me up in a race is wayfinding after learning my hard lesson in Atlanta over the summer. For this race I paid unusual extra attention to map studying and when I couldn’t do it from the map, I went to the course in person (being tipped off from other people’s reports). The place where I got lost, was one I did not do a map study or have gone in person (It was the week, I went to Signal Knob instead of to the course, else I could have caught it). I also felt that section was a low priority since I probably has ran it during Spring when I did the Seneca Greekway 50K. Nope it was not the same section. So I made my mistake.
Let start back from the top. I love this race. I first learned of it last year in 2019 when they made a call for volunteers for their spring 50k. I volunteered. I never done trail races before then. Well I did a 5K/10K the previous October (2018). I have fallen in love with it since. There was also my ultra at First Landing in December 2018, but that was not a serious trail race (not as challenging as this one). This one was a real in the woods trail and a long one. So This year, I ran the Seneca Greenway 50K in the spring just at the time Coronavirus broke out in our region. We got the race done before the shutdown. This time again for Stone Mill, we got the race done, just as a second wave is breaking out, and a possible shutdown in our area in near future.
Earlier in the year, I did not intend to do the Fall edition of the MCRRC races, Stone Mill 50, reason being it is too cold to run in November. I read about the freezing stream crossing. No way for me. I hate being wet and cold. 50 miles are lot of miles. People said this year we had one of the best weather in the race history. I would run it anyway.
So how come I ended up running it? Cabin fever I’m telling you. Being stuck inside since spring due to the corona and with all races canceled, when I first learned there is a live person racing (as oppose to virtual racing), I signed up. Remember about a month ago I snucked out to PA to run the Gettysburg Marathon, even though it was cold that day 32F. And before that in July/August I did Rocking the Knob in PA and Camp Anderson (was a virtual race but we ended up meeting unofficially in person with a bunch of people). It was also very cold for this weekend. The wooden bridges we crossed during the race were iced over.
Yet I was all thrilled. In person racing! Yay! I signed up a month ago after they posted online that they got the permit from the county to host the race. Since then, they were fighting with the State Transportation department to get the road permit. They got it about couple weeks ago on an appeal! This week, just two days before the race, Governor Hogan went on a press conference – talking about measures due to the spike of corona cases in our region (a second shutdown is likely). We caught a lucky break that our permits were not revoke. So the race was on.
I scrambled to buy my race day food. I needed a new watch. I wish I got a new pair of shoes but it was too near to the race to try new thing. I ordered socks from Amazon. I tried out those toes socks, ended up did not wear them. Got a new headlamp. Kind of OK. Not a big fan of the model I got, but it was functional, and helped me through the race.
I packed on Thursday night. Repacked again on Friday …because I was debating whether to get a hotel near the race site to reduce the travel time on race morning, otherwise I would have to be up by 3 AM to get ready. I wanted to be on the course by 5 (first wave started at 5 – we had wave start, which was every 5 mins with 10-20 people would start). Looking back, I should have gotten the hotel.
With all the planning, I ended sleeping at home. I got home late on Friday after going to MD to pick up my bib after work. I knew it too, to fight against traffic coming back to Virginia. It was 8pm by the time I reached home. I had to do some last minutes shopping for race day food. After that was done…still I have not really eaten dinner. It was 10. I knew I had to be in bed by 8 to have 8 hr of sleep. Couldn’t really fall asleep at all, maybe I was too excited and maybe was not used to going to bed this early. I overslept of course. I set alarm for 3:30 but I snoozed it till 4. Then o Sh*t I need to be out the house by 4. I knew but still wanted that extra mins of eye closed. Staying at the hotel might have been a wiser choice from racing perspective (but I was not willing to spend money, and also covid concern, and the hotel I wanted was sold out).
I got up. Repacked again for the third time. We were given two dropbags. I hadn’t planned what to put in them. One would be returned to us and the other would not. By now I just tossed things into my car, what ever I saw I grabbed and tossed them in. My truck was full of clothes – it was like a closet. Three pairs of shoes. A pair of sandals. Probably 10 pairs of shirts – long sleeves, short sleeves, shirts for changing mid way, shirts for the end. couple jackets. A bunch of supplies, med/emergency kits. Bandaids and wraps. sissors. tapes. pens. Just tons of stuffs. Some are in their poaches some not. Two – three flashlights. Tons of food, water, drinks. I had my breakfast, left over from dinner the night before. I was not very efficient or organized. I got to the course around 5:15. It was cold. I had two layers on. a shorts and a long pants. I had two jackets (both were fleece). I spent maybe half hour at the course organizing, repacking for the fourth time. This time for real. The goal was to lighten my race bag.
Funny story. I decided to take my phone charger with me to charge my watch midway through. My watch usually dies around 10 hours. So I need a charger if I want to keep my watch alive. This charger is big and heavy. I thought of getting those lipstick charger but forgot to order. So in order to carry the charger, I had leave behind my med kit. Guess what! The med kit was needed about an hour into the race. The guy in front of me rolled his ankle and it was a bad roll. We think he later dropped from the race. I really wished I had my kit with me. Later on, another runner came by, she had hers and so helped the dude out. She was probably worked in medical field. She asked the guy a series of questions, like a doctor. If he has taken this or that med, if he is allergic to this or that med. She was extremely careful. She mentioned a dozen of different medicines, some generic versions and she would say so. I think she is a pharmacist. Not that she wouldn’t share her meds but she really cares about the dude as a pharmacist or one of those health professionals. For me and friends when we go camping and hurt, we just say you want Aleve? Here take it and that would be all. It is up to the patient to know what to take or not. So a lesson learned – Don’t go into the woods without a first aid kit!
The race started on time for me. Rumors were flying that not all showed up for the early waves. We had 250 signed up but only 119 finished. Not sure how many no-shows or DQ/DNF or dropped. 119 included many who went over the 13 hr limit. They were not DQ. I am proud that I ended with 12:37. That was my goal to finish under 13. I felt I needed 14 hours.
The race started strong for me. We were in our group of 7 for the first few miles. Then they all left me except the dude who rolled his ankle. I had trouble of seeing. My glasses fogged up. They were bouncing around too much anyway. I had to take them off. I am literally blind without them. I got through the first four miles without problem though. Night training without flashlight helped but I don’t recommend this for everyone. The dude in front of me was kind enough to call out branches and stumps for me so I could avoid them. Ironically he was the one got hurt from a tree root not long later. I felt very sorry for him. It was his first time running a 50. He told me to leave him. I waited until another runner passed by who helped him. I probably lost 5-10 mins there.
With the sun up, it was easier to wayfind. I had no more incident for the rest of the race. I was stronger than I anticipated. Even though people of my wavestart left me, they went out way too strong, and the later I was able to catch 5 out of 6 (I’m the 7th person). A few people in groups (only two groups) behind me caught up, I was not fazed. I do know I needed to get away from people in my group and those after me because by way we are seeded, it is not likely they would be able to finish based on last year stats. I checked the names, not many of the last group finished (three in my group and 3 in the last group – that is like 70% failure rate, note this included those who finished beyond 13 hr limit, if not including 13 hr limit I think the failure rate is at 90% or higher). I didn’t want to ended up with them, knowing they wouldn’t have much a chance in finishing. At the time, I did not know how strict the RD would in enforcing the 13 hr limit. The RD was all barks but no bite. We only know this after the fact. Still even if we know, we never would test and RD patience.
So I need to run faster than my group to assure that I would finish within the time limit. Those who caught up to me were either seeded further up but arrived late and so started late or misseeded (some registered late). You can tell whether they are a strong runner or not. Strong runners don’t breathe heavily. They don’t get tired and they run efficiently and effortlessly – like a gazelle. And they are fast! But most slow runners are the opposite. Their form is ugly and graceless. They run like a wheel falling off. You know when you watch. When they passed me, I know, they don’t belong in our waves. They should be in two or three or more waves ahead.
So a few passed me (one actually, the pharmacist) but I ran at my own pace. Because of the wave start, there were not a lot of exchanging place in the race since we were artificially spreaded out. Everyone were spreaded along the course. By the time I started, the first runner was probably 5-6 miles away and the distance only lengthened as race progressed. There were not much as hope of catching anyone unless they were mis-seeded by the RD (RD attempted to put the fast people to start first and slow people in the rear based on prior race results). So those few that passed me, I did not see them again. Of the 6 other people in my wave, one was injured so probably dropped. another slowed down after a mile – she did not want me to follow her and she never caught back up. I finished with two other army people. We had a good time. Of the leading two runners in my wave, I caught the lady about five miles in. Her pacer who started with her though was no where in sight. In all I think I did pretty well.
About the two army guys, I did not catch them until near 20-ish miles. They were fast but not what you think as fast. They did weird 30 sec run and 30 sec walk. It was extremely annoying. But their 30 secs run was super fast. I couldn’t catch them. For me I needed a long time to ramp up speed. So they were always ‘blocking’ me. Most people would step away and let you pass. They seemed to oblivious to people behind. Usually by the time I caught up to them I am out of breath. Any way, I always ended up behind them. A few times they let me passed but at the aid station they caught back up and they were so quick at the aid station and off they went while I was still readjusting my pack and eating. They were super efficient. It took me like 10 mins to get my headlamp out but for them, they had them in their pockets and only took them a second to have them on. So I lost to them in efficiency. We finished together. My hiker buddy would say, Antin, you need to put essential things in easily accessible place.
In the final 8 miles, I did not bother to pass them again. We were leapfrogging throughout the race. I was pretty tired by then. The lead guy was pacing. He has been doing so the whole race. They were just chitchating nonestop. Never had I seen a guy talk so much and they were not telling any story, they just went back and forth with nonconsequential stuffs — like women, sorry ladies. To me was meaningless chattering. I guess they are good friends. They were really into their conversation – and I was behind them for hours but I was ignored until near the end of the race. There was no break with their back and forth. It was like a slow jog around the neighborhood, and the two dudes just enjoying a nice walk. Yet I learned their pace was spot on at 15 min per mile with no diviation all while doing 20-30 sec walk/run. Amazing. They were not tired. I discovered it was like a pace for running a 100 mile and not 50 mile. The lead guy has done this race 7-8 times. I think this was his 9th. He was experienced. The other guy was his first 50. Last 8 miles, I learned to be patience with them and tried to immitate their pace (not mastered it, but at least I saw it in action and know it might help me with my 100 miler if I spend time to work on it). The pacer was a natural! He ran without a watch. He probably could run the course so much faster, but he was pacing his friend. From this dude, I learned about being efficient at aid station, and being efficient in pacing. Don’t rush but always swift (isn’t it opposite of each other?) Just amazing to watch. A few times I snoozed just a bit and fell so far beind them and it would take me 30 mins to an hour to catch back up – that is how fast they were moving. It is because they walked a lot, that I could catch them up. I can ramp up my speed but only over a long distance and I suck at stop and go.
Me and these two army dudes, we did not run fast but we caught ‘a lot’ of those who started strong but faltered later. I think we passed about 20 people through out this race (noted we had wave start, so in theory, we should not able to catch anyone). We ended skipping 4 waves ahead (maybe caught up to the 5:30-5:35 starting wave group), we were the 5:50 wave group.
That is pretty much the outtake. Be efficient. I enjoyed the race tremendously. Previous reports about this race were spot on. People were not that friendly. Most of them I think have defense backgroup – a lot grunts so they are not that welcoming to strangers. I think pretty much reflect the DC area. It was a no-nonsense approach to running. Everyone kept to themselves. There is not much of a runner community atmosphere. You only catch the running excitement at a large running events when a lot of out of towners mixed in. Or smaller races like 5k types then you can feel the energy. Still a race is a race.
A final word, always Aid stations and volunteers are the best. We had good aid stations – even ones that were previously announced as water only, had full aid station things, meaning food and all kinds of drinks. I think volunteers supplied them on their own accord. I like fruits at many of the stations. I had a beer! Love the soups. I didn’t expect real food due to Covid measures. Best to have them on a cold day. My heart was warm.