Day486 Catoctin 50K

Races are like a feast to me. What do I mean? While driving down on an Interstate on my way to my next running event for this weekend, there is a bubling joy inside me. An excitement.

I thought back to last year when I made a similar trip, and many previous trips too, they all overlapped. Driving on a dark night, late hours, kind of rushing to get to the place I would stay for the night, and this had me think back in biblical time, when the people of God would go to Jerusalem for their yearly feast, and they would sing or recite the songs of ascend. It must be how they were like, I am full of anticipation of what the day will bring.

Feast! My mind wandered. Yes we are on feast. I haven’t been to a banquet lately nor do I want to because they are expensive. Only kind of banquets I experienced was wedding. A few of my friends and cousins got married. You know it takes the bride and groom months to plan their wedding feast. But for us showing up as guests, usually it does not take me that much of preparation. Of course the RSVP is sent in a few months ahead.

I think what so special about such big events is that I will remember it for a long time (if not for a life time). I felt indeed some of my bigger races, I probably will never forget.

These might be just mumble jumble to my readers, but to me races such as the Rocky Raccoon, Great Southern Endurance Run, Rim to River, Devil Dog, and Massanutten, were a time that means so much to me. I can even remember the smell or the trees and the sound, the food at the aid stations, and every single thing. It is like the time slow down for me and I can see and relive the moment in slow motion.

I race for the experience. At least that what I realized recently. I had a couple bad races and a couple good races and they made me to ask why and what was I seeking. And why is a race so good and some others are so bad, I think is all in the mind of how we receive it.

I’ve done the Grandmas Marathon. I’ve done MMT. I didn’t run Worlds End but I was there. And the Devil Dog. I wrote up on them. (I know I should put links here so readers could easily jump to the reports). Each of those was an unique experience.

I realized recently, especially for races I already done, that I expect a certain experience on a second go-around to recreate what and how I felt the first time I did it. Of course, it is not always possible and sometimes (as at Worlds End) ended up disappointing.

On the flip side, you could take a (supposingly) bad race and turn it to good.

Summary, I ran the Catoctin 50k and had a good time if not one of the best races in my recent racing history. It is actually a redo from a goofed up of last year.

I signed up to run the Catoctin 50k last year (if I am not too lazy, I will link my last year report here, Day428). And it ended up to be a kind of bad day (last year) for me because I over worked myself by trying to do two ultra races in two places (in two different states separated by few hundred of miles) taken place on the same day at the same time, and I really thought and hoped I could successfully do both. It became downhill early on when I realized a mixed up and I only ended up only doing half the distance of the Catoctin 50k. And by the time I rushed to and arrived at the second race, everyone had already left and had gone home. I ended up doing neither of them in a way that I like. Note that all were last year. I think the reason I did not enjoy it as I should was because I put much energy into it and received only a little result.

I signed up to run the Catoctin again early this year, hoping to actually be able to do the whole distance (50K) this time. This race was hard, or supposedly hard. I trained for a full month last year, going out every weekend for a training run. This was before I ran MMT. Somehow I had conjured up Catoctin 50k as something on a level as strenuous as a 50 mile race or a 100 mile race. Indeed, if it were my first 50k, Catoctin would have been hard. The signup page warns don’t do it as their first 50k. It should not be a training run for another race, or they will come away hating ultras.

For me, I love the race, every moment of it.

My shirt from the race has a slogan on the back compares the race being a “love/hate thing.” To me, it was all love.

I came off after doing the MMT being beat up by it two months ago. I went to Duluth to do the Grandmas for a bit of R&R. Don’t get me wrong, I had a good time at Duluth. It was quite fun and indeed it was a rest I needed. Since then, I was still in a funky mood having this drag of not being motivated enough to run. I haven’t run much. I missed all the training runs for the Catoctin even though I had intended to go to do them. Before I knew it the race weekend arrived. I wanted it to be my pick-me-upper.

The forecast was not good for the race day. We also had rain the night before and we would have rain during the race. It is not just a little rain but a lot (2.4 inches at times). There were warnings of flooding in many areas. It was going to be a wet one. Indeed, it was. As long as there is no lightning the race would go on.

I woke up early like for any other races. I had very little sleep the night prior, maybe 2 or 3 hours. I was late in doing my laundry and packing. The drive to the race was not far but I planned for it to be a 2 hour trip. The park where the race was held opened at 6 am, and so I planned to leave my house by 4 at the latest, meaning a 3 AM early rise. I arrived as expected early around 5:30. I decided to wait at a nearby McDonalds since I did not want to be a “bad” guest by showing up too early. Still exactly 6, I went back to the race course. I apologize that I did not know the bib pickup table was not open until 6:30 (I didn’t read), the volunteer jokingly told me to come back in 15 minutes. I was really early. I got my bib and went back to my car to sleep since the race was not going to start until closer to 8 o clock. There were 2 hours of precious time to catch up on my sleep. The reason I wanted to arrived early so that I could get a parking spot, since they say they don’t have enough spot for everyone. Last year I had to park in a farther lot. This year, I was the second car arriving there and I chose just some feet away from the start line.

There were a lot of runners. Many had done this race before, and some many times. It is a local favorite. I saw the friends I made from MMT were also there. I met up with Ram and Iris and Gretchen (whom I mistakenly remembered as Geselle). It was Ram first time doing the Catoctin. Ram said he will stick with me and I replied he is going to get a DNF if he does since I am slow, but nothing makes me happier than to run with friends. Gretchen was also there. She is one of the oldest runners I met, around 80 years old. I met her last year during one of the training runs. Ever since, she was a cheerful support to me at many of my races. There are not many elderly trail runners out there.

We started off slow at an easy pace. I knew I won’t be that fast because I had not trained much for the last two months. I naturally stayed toward the back. I was like the last 20 people or so out of 200, no I think I was the final two people to leave the start. Ram was joking around with other people, so it ended up that we were the last few to cross the starting line. The 25k people were cheering us as we cross the start. Their race won’t start for another hour. I knew the trail is narrow and we did not have much room to spread out beforehand. We were piling up once we turned onto the trail. I know I should not rush otherwise, it was just ruin my day to be sitting/standing in traffic in the woods.

Ram already disappeared once we entered the trail though I was able to catch up to him later before the turn around point, that was a few hours later. I was deprieved of a good companion. I was going very easy, at a walking pace. The first couple miles are hills. I walked like many did. In fact, I felt there was nothing I could do but to walk because we had so many people and I was at the very back. I did not like hustling people and I know it would not have helped.

Rather, if I could I prefer having some conversation with my fellow runners. I met Dwight on the way up a hill. He and his partner has done this race 5 times. The best part is if we finish it within 9 hours (5 pm), we would receive the Catoctin Card for our wallet, which we could flex (show off) to other runners. It is kind of a joke (white elephant prize). By the way, I lost mine already. He told me, it usually takes about 4 hours going out and 5 hours coming back (for him). He said that is because it is easier one direction than the other. I listened and putting it in my head. To me since the course is out and back, the time should be about the same either direction. I sure wanted to beat the time he mentioned. Note that I didn’t have time to study the race course beforehand. Any info would be helpful at this point. We have a total of 9 hours to finish. I had to be back be 5 pm. It was an out-and-back course. I was sure I could be back around 3-4 pm since usually I could run a 50k under 7 hours.

Dwight is fast, at least faster than me. He seems to be in his 60s. He told me of his experience of his last race there when he made the cutoff by 3 minutes and (because) he was pacing his wife, he slows down his pace for her sake. I ran with him for maybe quarter mile or half a mile and we were catching up to other people before he stopped. He said he is going wait for his partner to catch up.

It was uneventful for the rest of the race. I got back to Delauter aid station. There were very little I could remember. The trail was flooded. I was by myself. I had a big cramp in my left leg. I shoke it off. At the aid station, I took a Gatorade protein bar with me. A few were struggling at the aid station. I ignored them. I did not stop for long. My spirit was lifted as I set out because I knew there were only 6 miles left.

I kept running until I met “Alex”, who later told me his name is Aref. Aref did not talk much but he is a big guy. He ran on all the flat portions and walked all the hills. I did not mind. I was sure I can climb hills better than Aref, but I did not mind to stay behind. I was so out of shape myself, a little of walking did not bother me. Aref slowly picking up the pace more and more as time went by. Soon he was passing people and was out of sight.

I did not mind and did not chase. Usually I like chasing people.

Next person was a lady in front, unfortunately, we did not talk and I did not get her name. She did laugh at my one of my jokes later on. I followed behind her for a few miles because she had a steady pace. She was the longest time I stayed with, all the way to the first aid station (6 miles out). We caught up to a group of four or five infront of us. Then the lady took off. I was stuck behind another guy for a long while. He didn’t let me pass (and I didn’t specially ask him to let me). His pacing was annoying to me but I felt I didn’t had it in me to pass him. For me, if I pass someone, I would try to make sure to be able to stay ahead for a while, like at least a mile or longer. I don’t like leapfrogging one another every few hundred feet because that is exhausting way to run (and dangerous) in a trail race. However, some people are just annoying or did not know the trail etiquette. And usually when you are about to pass someone, I felt like you naturally lead someone to run faster, causing a chase. So for me, if I pass someone, I got to make sure, I can really run and withstand the resulting chase. From experience, some people are willingly slow down and some don’t. As I could tell, this guy in front wouldn’t slow down for me. It would be a pyrrhic effort to pass him and it was just too early in the race to do this kind of friendly battle. Only option was to hang back until an opportunity to pass. Later, I was able to find an opportunity when the guy was struggling on some technical section and I passed and I caught up to Aref and together we caught up to the lady I was following earlier just before we arrived at the first aid station (Delauter).

For me, I carried a full pack of 2L of water so I did not need to stop for too long. I picked a few pieces of fruits from the table and went out. Aref and the lady stayed behind at the station. They seemed to be done (exhausted). I could tell because they lit up during like mile 3 or 4 but as we near the station, their speed crashed. This is the reason, I rather hold back myself, no need to battle out for position so early on. I did not see them again for the remainder of the race (even after at the turn-around).

I then found someone going about my pace. The dude was from New Zealand. He commented how it was like back home with all the ferns. Indeed, he opened my eyes of how magical and beautiful this trail is. I ran it last year and all the training runs but I did not appreciate it back then because I was too focused on the run back then to see. Today, we had heavy downpour around this time and it was so pretty. I was soaked to the bone but was happy, so were everyone around me. We were children again playing in the rain. We rather run in the rain than in 100 degrees heat. The temperature that day was 72F, maybe 20 degrees cooler than normal. I don’t remember much but I probably arrived at the 2nd aid station, Hamburg, feeling a bit tired but well. The New Zealand guy pulled me at a much faster pace than I planned to run.

At the aid station, the aid staff said they have salt for me. Good, thinking to myself. I replied hold that off, I might need them on the way back. We had maybe another 6 miles to go before the turn around and another 6 to be back at this aid station. I still had plenty of water in my pack. I left the station just as quickly as before. No need to stay there forever. I believe I took a cookie or something on the way out.

Pretty soon I caught up to Ram, a friend I met at the MMT. Ram is in his 50s but he runs quite well, better than me at least. He was trying to run with sandals that day. I think he is crazy but he does his. I think the trail is too rocky for that. And at one point, he almost tripped on a rock or root, but nicely recovered. We stopped so he could adjust the laces or straps. I was glad that I finally have someone to talk to. Ram was witty and poked jokes at me. We both did Devil Dog (and DNFed) and we plan to redo it this year. I tried to get him to pace for me in future races. He is set with his because he had several people pacing him on his last 100 mile attempt. The talk helped passing time on the trail. We then passed Iris. Iris and her husband were doing the 25k so they started an hour later from the other direction. Gretchen was them. It was uplifting to see them. I didn’t tell them, but I was secretly hoping to make the turn around quickly and catch up to Iris since I know Iris is slow. This is like lapping a runner.

Ram and I headed together to the turn around point. The last couple miles before the turn around, I lost Ram. I was much better at uphill and so I left Ram. Maybe it was the residual from MMT. I could run up a hill. He was not too far behind me, for he finished 5 minutes after me, but I did not see him again till at the very end after I came in.

As the turn-around (High Knob), a few people dropped out. I was surprised by that. To me it was unbelievable. This was only halfway. 13-15 miles. There were a few runners I passed, and when I looked closely at them, they were as if they already ran a marathon. They were struggling. The couple guys that called quit were much younger than me, maybe college age. They were all so fit. I arrived there around 12:15, so it was taking me 4.5 hours on the outbound. I was hoping to do the same if not faster on the return portion of the race, since I still set my mind to finish before 4 pm. Dwight had tipped me that the return wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t believe him.

The return portion was rather lonely. Some runners already dropped. There were only 10 or so runners behind. Those who were ahead, will continue to get farther away. We had a steep descend from High Knob and then a long hard climb. This knocked out a lot of people. I followed a guy and I knew I don’t have what it takes to pass him. I am stronger on uphills but the guy has a better burst on the flat. I think he could handle 9 min pace easily. Fatigue was getting to me. By now I had used most of my gels and might be only one or two gels package left. Out of courtesy, he later stopped for me and stepped aside to let me pass, but we were together for a couple miles or more.

For the first time, I felt the trail finally opened up for me. There was no one blocking me in front. All I know was there were runners behind. It was mostly like this until the finish.

The challenge of running alone is having to make sure I was on the right trail and two, run fast enough to stay ahead. The race was not marked (or flagged with the usual race ribbons). This whole race is on the Catoctin Trail and it was up to runners to look for the blue trail blazes to stay on the right trail. The thing is there were a few places that were iffy because the trail light blue color blaze looks at times white. This drove me nut because I started questioning am I on the right trail. There are trails blaze with white in the area too. I think they also have done trail rerouting this year (several other people gps trackers showed the trail is 2-5 miles longer) and some they might have repainted with either black, gray or white blazes over them. It could be confusing. I was wondering am I following on the old trail or the new trail? At a few turns, I was not sure if I had it correct. Luckily I did not get lost, but I felt I ran a total of 36 miles instead of 31 miles and a few people confirmed this.

I got back to Hamburg aid station. Was I glad! They refilled my pack with full water and I took the salt tabletes. I was revitalized. This is smart running. I learned to use salt from MMT. Not just salty chips but real salt helps. I saw a couple people were cramping there. I had a bit of a cramp myself, but I hoped the salt will get me through. We had about 9 miles left in the race.

My goal was first to get to White Rock. I imagined it was going to be a long rough climb up. However, in fact, it was mostly downhills. At times I thought someone was on my heels. I chose not to look back. At one of the switch backs, I was able to catch sight of the person behind, maybe about 25 feet away. I kind of said hi, the other did not respond back.

I concentrated on staying on my pace. Actually, now I felt it is a race. I divided my protein bar into third and told myself to eat a third every 15-20 minutes. My goal was to get back to the finish by 4 pm but I saw the time been slipping by 2 pm, then 3 pm, and then 4 pm. We passed a sign that says 4 miles to Manor. By now, I just wanted to finish. I don’t fear DNF and I was confident I could get in before 5 pm. I knew we were close. Based on my long distance pace this means an hour more to go. Then I saw White Rock. The rest of the race if I recalled correctly was downhill (in a good way). I have been running the whole time, but now I tried running my fastest (MMT came to mind).

My strategy then was to at least catch up the guy in front. At the time I had no clue who was ahead because for the past couple hours I had not seen anyone. I was alone. Only occasionally I heard footsteps from behind to confirm I was on the right trail. So the chase began.

I caught the first guy. He would not let me pass, but eventually, there came a wider path, and I easily passed him. You know instinctively if somone would let up and let you or if someone would gun it. He was gunning it, but I saw he was in pain too. He was in no shape to race me. Now was the time to battle for position and duke it out. Not long I was out of his range. I restarted the game to catch the next guy. Not long another runner came into view. I repeated this game all the way to the end. Though the last guy was pretty fast and he scurried up the last hill to avoid me catching him (normally most (slow) people don’t run up a hill in ultras, especially at the very end). He was one that got away.

I finished at just before the 9th hour (probably around 4:45 pm). My race time was 8:54 (eight hours and 54 minutes). Ram came in a little bit after me at 9:05, he said. We had good bbq food. I stayed for an hour or so chatting with Ram and then helped with the cleanup. It was a good race. I got a shirt and a magnet.

In a race for me, either I finish or I don’t. Having a finishing time is good only for comparison from year to year. This is my first time running the full 50k cat. (the race short form, people call it a cat). Out of 200 people, I was like the final 10 to come in. There were also about 30 did not finish. Many did not start.

I enjoyed the run. It took a lot out of me. Still it was a short run not like a 100 mile. I would give anything to have this kind of runs every weekend.

Aftermath, I was sore. I had rub burn on my thighs. It was painful taking shower. I had blisters on my feet. I was cold and miserable. I could not walk for a couple days. It was because I am in a poor shape. What I enjoy out of it the most was I laughed all the way back. Normally I don’t have the strength in the end, but in this race I was chasing down people. It does not mean much, but it was fun chasing people.

Lesson/recap. Running I think is a mental thing. Sometimes I am miserable even doing a mile. This race, even though the extetnal elements were bad, but my mind turned it into a fun experience. A bit of note to self, I was singing Rebecca Black Friday song over and over again during the run because it made me so happy. I was also wanted to get back by around 3 pm so I could catch a streamer stream (Wakalaka4eva on Twitch) but I wasn’t able to make it. It helped me run fast nonetheless. Otherwise, it might have been a different blog post (a L instead of a W).

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