The race came the week after the Rim to River 100 mile. Initially, I was not going to run it since it was too close to the big race, but after finish the 100 mile, I felt why not, I feel fine, let try it.
I was not running for time and in most ultras I did this year, I was at the tail end group. I am usually not fast, but I finish. On average people usually finish around 10 hours. At Stone Mill, thanks to their extended time (2 hours) I was not the very last, but I did finished near the 12.5 hours, which is my average time for this distance.
In the past, I did not race in the winter, because I don’t like being in the cold. Not that Rim to River changed my mind on cold weather running, but sometimes you have to suck it up and do it. I ran Stone Mill last year, (SM-Report1). It gives me an edge for this year because a lot uncertainties were already known. I felt it was a minor race or a long run and there was no pressure in finishing.
As for what motivate to do it? I wanted to be out in the woods again. Last year it was cabin fever, and this year, there was that same desire, maybe was cabin fever too, but I was outside all the time! Also, I felt ready. Just a feeling if I don’t do it, I would be missing out. The race registration cost was cheap too.
I ran plenty of races this year. Mainly for trainings and experiences that I thought I needed for doing the 100. 100 itself was not the end goal. I wanted to be a stronger, and more durable runner and run farther. People who could run long distances capture my fancy. I never thought I could do it myself back then or even a year ago. A little baby step here and there got me to where I am today. 100 distance is still daunting but it has become a little less so. I was afraid of the 50 mile distance a year ago, but now it is just a longer run.
I enjoyed especially Stone Mill not for any special reasons. Given it is close to where I live is a plus. It is on trail. I saw a lot of local friends. Top of all, I did not expect this, but Stone Mill was my recovery run to destress the whole year of anxiety in preparing for the Rim to River Race.
Recently, due to my mom’s poor health, I was faced with a decision to run or care for her. Of course, it is not one or the other, but it affected my recent trainings, though did not derail the 100 mile. With any race, being on the course is a miracle. I am more grateful because it is not just me but others who make it possible even if indirectly.
I arrived early to the course and the lot was nearly full (because there were the early starters)! I stayed in the car to keep warm until near the start time before walking with the rest to the real starting place.
You can signed up for an earlier start (it was not widely announced but was offerred in an email sent near the race date – the race is friendly to older runners who might need 15 hours, not a typo). The race director gathered us together. He made some announcement, I did not hear what he said (he did not use a bullhorn) since I was in the very back. It was probably about the course markings.
Right on cue, he sent us off. He said he gave us five extra minutes at the end for some weird reason for he held up a few people from crossing the starting mat (I think to straighten the mat that was covering the timing device or wires) but I knew based on last year, he would give us an hour extra (unofficially/unnounced). Sorry for ratting on the race org. here.
I know the cutoff time was not a concern. Still I wanted to finish within the 13 hour limit.
Last year, it felt forever to get to the first aid station, this year, I was there in no time. It was pretty much the same sensation for most of the race. There was no point where it felt draging. I was mostly running by myself this time. The trail was empty but me – I figured, I am like a mile back from the bulk of the crowd. There was no pressure trying to keep up with anyone. Normally, I don’t want to be the last one, not because of embarrassment but you do not have a heads-up if a turn is coming, unless you are super good at finding your own way or being attentive to the trail. I don’t like looking for my way. I am one of those head down runners.p
By the time I got to the first Aid Station (Rt 355), the morning has dawned. A fellow runner tripped. I felt sorry for her because I remembered her passing. Even the best of us fall. She had the image of an experienced runner unlike those around me. I forgot her name or number now. She was anxious or undecided whether she should stay in or quit. She did stay in because later she caught back to me. She did not say much and passed me.
I started to catch up to people. I might have passed 20 or so runners by now. Quite a few. I know the race was still too early to be passing people but I would not want to be in the back. Some of these runners were a bit chatting loudly. I didn’t like that, so I wanted to pass them.
We ran around Seneca Lake. Then we went to the 3rd Aid Station. Last year, I made a longer stop at the second Aid Station and took some pictures. Not this year. Last year I was freezing, but this year, we had warmer temperature, though later it got colder. I took some candies from Aid Station #2 at Long Draught. When we arrived at Aid Station #3 (Riffleford Rd), I refilled my hydration bladder and took more food/snacks. I was as efficient as I could be.
The signage for this year improved. Last year was already good but this year was at another level. They were so much clearer. There were tapes on the ground marking the wrong way / do not enter and there were plates with clear arrows on trees at tricky turns (portion of this course is out and back, especially at Seneca Lake, couple three-way turns can be confusing for the new runners). This year, they were consistently marked the same way with the same material. The plates on the trees stood out. It was not that I need markings to know which way to run, just want to praise the race org for good course marking.
I had no problem at all the first 15 miles. I ran through Muddy Branch just like during training. Mile 24-25 would be our first dropbag location and also the race halfway point. By now, I reached a group of stronger runners. They ran around the 10-12 min pace maybe, but I felt comfortable following them. For a while, there was a dude blocking the trail. He was a slower runner, but no one told him to step aside for us nor anyone was willing to pass him. About 10 of us were following him, and I was in the last position. We followed him at least over half an hour for two to three miles. Our group eventually passed him when he took a break. I was a bit annoyed by this, but our actually time lost at most was 5 minutes.
As we got near Pennyfield Aid Station (the race halfway point), I felt stronger and surged on ahead, leading a new pack of runners, but unfortunately I rolled my ankle at that time as we were about half mile from the aid station. I am usually shy in leading anyone and when I lead, things like this tends to happen. They probably think I was showing off. It rained a bit during that time (11 am – 12). The rain came as forecasted. Light rain. The rain made me cold. I limped into the station.
It might have taken me way more time than I wanted, I stayed for maybe 15 minutes. Yes, way too long. The fast people I was with left and even the slower people arrived. But I took time to change out my wet clothes and socks. My fellow friends (don’t know their names but seen them before) got me hot food and drinks, etc. It was a VIP treatment. I did not ask them but they came to me asking what they could get for me. I was busy with changing. I then had my lunch of the food they brought to me. Giselle, she is in her 80 and she still runs! I ran with her during one of Stone Mill trainings, she was glad to see me at Pennyfield. She was attending her friend who was sitting next to me. Yes we had chairs and might cause me to overstayed! She said, I come out to their every races now. Indeed! It was maybe my 5-6th time at their events.
The pain on my ankle subsided. I warmed up after a mile or two of walking. I did walk-run. I was familiar with this method of running by now (recalled I learned how to do walk-run last year here). We were on the canal portion. Though it was not long, it was boring to run on. I don’t know why. The scenery was beautiful but just plain flat easy trail put me to sleep. I saw many others walking as well, but now we should have done 26 miles. I remember starting my watch (I knew I did not have enough charge for the whole 50 miles, so I only recorded the final 26 miles – Watch recorded it being longer; it should be maybe 24 miles). I felt like Rocky, with some heroric music playing in my head. Off I went. The next few miles were on the roads before we got back to the trail. As I started running again, I finally caught back a lot of people, because all of them were walking. I saw a fellow runner (Dan), whom I have seen earlier and I considered him one of the fast people that I wanted to keep up with, we later kept the same pace and were together for the rest of the day. We were running uphill, when most would walk.
I reached Stone Mill ruins, like at mile 27-28, the namesake of the race. Dan seemed a bit low in energy and I encouraged him to keep up and he did. If he keeps at it, he would see a lot of people bonking – those who reach the proverbial wall, where they become super slow. He was checking his phone, but as I called to him, he got back on pace. Indeed, we passed a lot of people. I believe this section was what separated the normal marathon runners from the ultra runners.
Soon a few others, a newer group of runners joined us. Dan (my newly made friend) led us for six miles to the next aid station at Rt 28 at an amazingly steady pace. This was the longest run without a station and also the toughest physically and mentally.
After reaching Rt 28 aid station (don’t remember the mile, maybe around 32-34?), Dan was clearly showing fatigue – I think the faster pace finally got to him. He did not eat at the station. I hardly remebered him taking anything. I only remembered him asking for gatorade mixed with 50% water for his hydration – that was all the calories he was getting. I felt sorry, like I had used him to urge him to pace the group at 10-12 min pace (with no breaks!). I felt I had caused him to run harder than he should. Just my observation, not a critique. He waited for me while I got my food.
The next section was longer (Seneca Greenway/Seneca Ridge), maybe about 8-10 miles, but we were back in residential areas, which means there were more sights to relieve boredom from the run. And there was an aid station midway, something I usually forget, because I set my mind on reaching Riffleford, but it was there at one of the road crossings. We took turns leading. Dan was doggedly keeping close. I did not discount him then. He was still in it but our pace was definitely slower.
There was a guy called Jeremy. He did not introduced himself to us but other support crew called out his name. Maybe he is famous or a lot people know him. He was a quiet guy. He was normally in front of us and quite a strong persistent runner, sometimes our gap was wide, like quarter mile but we tried to keep up to him, keeping him in our sight as much as possible. We first saw him a long distance away, gradually we came up behind him. It was just me and Dan at the time. My eventual goal was to pass him. Everyone here would not easily give up like those we saw earlier. If we were able to pass them, they would remain strong. Jeremy and Dan were exactly that – everyone was resilient. There was an older woman too. She was always on the next hill (mountain) over far in the distance in front of Jeremy. Jeremy, Dan and I eventually caught up to her. Yet she would stay on our heels.
We reached back to Riffleford. I saw more familiar faces. The Virginia Happy Trail People managed this station. I know some of them. Dan changed out for warmer clothes because evening was approaching and temperature would drop. I did not pack a drogbag for this location but carried my jacket on me, so theoretically I didn’t need to stop for too long. He had his headlamp back on his head and so I did too. We had maybe an hour of daylight. We have 8 miles left and we were 1 hour ahead of the cut off (2.5h to the final cut), there was no way for us not finish unless a freak accident occurred. I was still kind of holding that I could finish by around 6 pm. Because I was talking with Dan and self-absorbed at times, I missed a turn after leaving Riffleford, but luckily, I noticed it soon, either thanks to being more observant or the spider sense or just normal running ultra experience to notice when something is out of place. We backtracked.
Jeremy was probably half a mile out in front. We were kind of slow at getting out the aid station. Jeremy later asked me what was taking us so long when I finally caught up to him like an hour later. He said he thought we were behind him. Getting lost did not help. Jeremy talked to me, but unfortunately, I was unable to understand his accent. Was it southern, country, west virginian, or maybe a combination? Not sure. I had to guess at his meaning every time he spoke. It was like I could almost understand but couldn’t. It could be I had runner haze too, now so late in the race. We were buddy buddy because I was gone for a long time and finally showed back up. However, now my concerntration was to press with all speed to the finish, leaving both Jeremy and Dan behind.
I did not stop at the final aid station at Rt 355 Aid Station but immediately went out after reported my bib (we had to sign in/out).
Everyone else stopped. I passed 5-6 people before the Aid Station and maybe another 5-6 at the station. I felt I had an edge.
Night came. The final four mile section, though did not take me long to run earlier, but at night took me longer due to darkness. I had my light on at the brightest setting (recalling in West Virginia where I tripped and fell so many times, I did not want a repeat). There was no one immediately in front of me but a lot were behind me as I could see their headlamps bobbing behind. I did not get a chance to pass anyone else.
The hill was alive with runners with their lights and sounds. It was all uphill. Behind were people who previously stopped at the Aid Station. Probably 10-15 people were behind me. I had to tell myself keep calm and keep a steady pace, but the adrenaline was pumping hard. I felt I was leading for the first time. I know we were near the end. I imagined being the fox and they were the hounds. Everyone was straining to reach the finish.
I beat last year time by 20 mins. Jeremy came in about five minutes after me. Dan came in maybe 8 minutes a bit later after me. Good job! In ultras that is very close. A guy who said he almost beat me, he was like 30 seconds behind (a friendly competitor). It was very cold then. We grabbed our food and said our goodbyes. Dan wanted to go home immediately. He talked about his wife being away. I kind of wanted to celebrate it with him. I stayed a bit before going home. It was a good day.
I ran it almost like last year except better (or maybe the course was shorter this time). Last year I was unsure of my ability and this year, I went in like I could not lose. I like having friendly companions such as Dan. Last year, I had two army guys, and I was the reluctant third camper. Giselle warmed my heart too. I only first met her this summer, but she remembered my name. Unlike her, I can’t recall her companion’s name. We all ran together before. I saw her couple times during the race. She was not running in it but was out on the course supporting her friend. She cheered and waved at me.
My evaluation – it is a city race but also on trail. It is probably the hardest trail you could do in my area (oh, I forgot Devil Dog, we leave that alone). We had some entitled city runners, who littered on the trail. I was annoyed by that.
Seriously, it was a good introduction to trail racing – like it was to me last year. After I have done some tougher trail runs, coming back to this race was a bit overkill, but then it is like visiting your high school reunion. I am proud to be a big boy now. I still might do it again, maybe quest for a daylight finish. It is a local race for me and I enjoyed seeing familiar faces as well helping new ultra runners.
Indeed, after stressing out about the 100 mile race for a whole year, entering into Stone Mill was easy. It was still a cold, long, and kind-of-hard run, but overall it was relaxing. I can’t imagine myself saying that a year ago. It was a low key – truly a way to de-stress after a crazy hard race I did at Rim to River.
TL;DR good race, nice day, nice people