Stone Mill 50 mile race brings a close to my fall training season. It has been fun and a lot of grinding the past 10 weeks to get here. I know there are still four more weeks of fall, but weather is getter too cold for me to see that as fall. The fun of fall running is over after this race.
Recap, after my attempted of the Iron Monutain 50 mile run on Labor Day weekend, I had a bunch of training runs and couple races to prepare me for the Stone Mill 50. Readers have been bearing with me from one training run after another. This year, I avoided the dreaded slump of doing too much.
Stone Mill 50 was not a hard race in itself, due to it being held in the city (meaning lack of real technical trails and also closer to home) and a generous cut off time given (14-15 hours, 15 for those who started at 5:00 AM). I think it is doable and accessible to many first time ultra runners.
This race attracts both the seasoned and new runners. For a repeated runner like me, this race was like a reunion. I started to recognize faces of runners from other races such as my friend Ram was there, also, Coach Phil who hosted the Stone Mill training runs recognized me, and Dan who refilled up my water pack. I met a couple runners on the course who have done this 4-5 times. One person, this was his 13th time.
Iron Mountain, the race I did before this one, on the otherhand was much harder. As I wrote previously, I did not officially finished that race because I came in after 12 hours. That race challenged me to run Stone Mill 50 under 12 hours. 12 hour became a new bar for me to reach. You would think if I could run a marathon in 5 hours, doing in 12 hours should be easy for a 50 mile run. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Doubling the distance doesn’t mean doubling the time. Previous years, my times at Stone Mill were all over 12 hours. I really did not know how doable for me to aim for it.
This year was my third time running. Here is a Report from 2021. It’s gotten easier, I admit. And third time the charm as they say. Fast-forward, I did get it under 12 hours, finished it at 11:16:48. It was a PR (personal record or personal best), beating my previous fastest 50 mile run by 15 minutes set at JFK50.
This race is significant to me because the first year I ran this my grandmother passed away. Whenever I run this again, I remember her.
In a marathon, especially in our area, often there are runners who run their race for a fallen soldier. It could be quite sober moment when I come across them. During Stone Mill, I passed one runner who had a photo of a soldier on the back of his hydration pack. It dawned on me, I was also running for someone.
This year, I was excited to do again. Amazingly, two of my friends from my running club decided to join me. This always get me so excited.
The first year (SM2020) when I ran Stone Mill, the race was like a Mt Everlast for me. It was tough. I have not done a 50 mile on the trail before then. I still don’t remember how I got through.
Contrasting the first year, this year was much easier. A series of training run I did helped and so too were my prior years’ experiences. The number one thing was I did not get lost. My two other friends did like I did on my first year. They said the flagging was bad. I believe they were not used to the flagging system. Many Other races I did, the course usually flagged with streamers hanging from trees. The turns on this course were indicated by small rectagular flags on the ground. Two or more flags placed together means to turn. If they are on the left side of the trail it means to turn left and if they are placed on the right, to the right. However, flags could be easily missed if they are bended (or trampled) down or covered by leaves. I think that was a reason people got lost. I was used to seeing ribbons too but now I learned about flags, I began to like it too. I believe they are more predictable and you could run with your eyes down on the ground instead of constantly scanning the trees.
Another factor standing out was I was quick in my passing through at the aid stations. Drawing from my MMT experience (a race I did not finish), I learned to be as quick at the aid stations as possible. This stems from a change of philosophy that I have to keep moving. I skipped some aid stations when I didn’t need to stop. My longest stop was at near the midway at mile 24, I stopped there for 7 minutes to change socks and shirt. It was a bit too long I know, but I was almost a magnitude faster than last year. I might have used about 3 minutes at the food table and 4 minutes for changing my shirt and socks. Wet socks were hard to remove. The overall result was still a quick in-and-out, much quicker than previous years.
Now about the race, we arrived early at the race site at around 5 am, an hour before the race start. My friend David had just gotten back from his vacation in India a couple days before and so probably was suffering from a bit of jetlag. He almost couldn’t make it due to some complication with his travel. My other friend Alex hasn’t run for over a whole month and likely has not done any long training runs. Alex has done a 100K before, so this 50 mile distance was not much to fear. But I was worried for these two being out there and doing a 50 miler with me, having very little preparation, especially toward the end, as the time approaching cutoff.
The first few miles were uneventful. The sun was about to rise when we started at 6 am. I was surprised how early the sunrise was. I had expected that we would be running an hour in the dark but it was like 10-15 minutes after the start it got lighted. I had just entered the woods. We held a steady pace. We had 14 hours to finish (by 8 pm). The first mile was on the road. We ran down Watkins Mill Road to the Seneca Creek Trail. By 6:30, the sun was completely up. We had a beautiful sunrise. The temperature was unusually warm. I think the temp in the morning was around 60 degrees (15 C). And it would continue to climb to 70s. I like it hot but many other runners prefer it to be a bit cooler. For me it was perfect. I got a feeling I would do well on this run.
The trail was a bit muddy since much weakened Tropical storm Nicole that caused major devastation in Florida passed through our area just the day before.
My two friends were trying to keep their shoes clean and dry and they tried to go around mud puddles and such. For me, I ran through them. Mud is part of ultra runner life. I expected to have a lot of it. Fortunately, only a brief portion of the trail was muddy. Most of the trail in the later portion was on a ridge, so the trail drains well.
I stayed with my friends for the first 9 miles or so. We all skipped the first Aid Station at Rt 355 (mile 4), but they stopped at the second one at mile 9. I did not stop but went on ahead. They were quick though, by the time I left the third Station (mile 11), they had caught back up. I only grabbed a cup of soda at the third aid station, so I was out less than a minute. After that, I did not see them again until at the finish. I was hoping they could catch back up by the time I reached mile 24, but I was probably going too fast for them. Normally, they would be much stronger runners than me.
My goal always had been to get to mile 24 in 5 hours. This year I arrived at 5:03 elapsed time (11:03 am in real time). Compare to two other years, I was here around 11:45 am. So I was already 40 mins ahead the game. In a previous year, I stayed between 20 to 30 minutes at this aid station. This time I only stayed for about 7 minutes.
As I arrived, a volunteer found my dropbag where I have clean clothes and other things I want, such as an energy drink. I then instead of changing out stuff, took care of my fluid needs first. I might have grabbed some sodas and fruits and various of sweets and crackers on the aid table, just stuffing myself. Another volunteer was so kind to take my hydration bag and refilling the water for me while I ate. I also grabbed a cup of chicken broth. The salty soup was refreshing.
The ordering how I did is something I learned from MMT. Basically Water, food, then your feet, and everything else. It is the order of importance. At MMT, I did this in reverse, and so ended up did not drink or eat enough before leaving the stations and later low energy derailed my race. Stone Mill is a much smaller scale than MMT, and I know I could skip food if needed, but I still tried to perfect it, by taking care of my body. Water is the most important. I don’t need to drink it at the aid station, but I need to make sure my bag is full.
Lastly, I then went to change. I couldn’t let my body cool down too much. In my mind, I still have a marathon distance to run (26 mile), I couldn’t afford bonking now so I got to get moving as fast as I could. A volunteer I knew called out “Antin, you have stayed too long, get back out there!” I left the station in full agreement, first by walking and then started to do a slow jog, then slowly got back into my pace in a mile or so. The key to ultra running is don’t stop (this is my current philosophy). The moment you stop, you don’t want to start back up again.
In a previous year, this section was when I passed a lot of people because most people usually have hard time getting over the 26 mile hump because we usually trained to run a marathon and many runners, this is there first 50 mile run. They don’t have the ability to push much beyond their low moments yet at this point in time.
This section to me was always the most boring section. We were on the C&O canal towpath. The view is nice but because everything is far away, you don’t like you are moving at all. It was 4.5 miles to the next station. This year I did great by focusing and kept a good pace through the canal portion. I had help.
I ran with a runner (I think Jamie) and I recognized her from a few of previous races – such as at the MMT. She is a beast at ultras. She has done MMT like 4-5 times. And Stone Mill mutiple times. Same too for the Devil Dog. Plus she did Grindstone. She has seen it all. All these are races in my area and they are tough races. I wrote about these all the time. She is definitely my hero.
With Jamie pacing me, I got to Stone Mill Aid Station without a problem (mile 28). She didn’t mean to pace me, but we were going at the same pace. It helped to pass away the boredom. The next Station Rt 28 was about 6.5 mile away. This was my toughest section this year. In the previous year, this was the section I became alive and passed a lot of people because I had someone who held me to a good pace. Not this time. I was bonking and people were passing me instead.
I felt bloated from the food and drinks I had at mile 24. Those were not digested yet. In this section I could not find my pace. I had to walk a lot. My time was slipping. Runners from the rear were catching up. Then Jamie caught up again to me about two miles out, but I latched onto her, she and another runner got me back on pace. I also had to do a restroom break behind a tree and that relieved the pressure/bloatedness I was feeling. After that I was able to run again.
Jamie paused at the RT 28. There were a lot people hovering at the RT 28 station, so I decided to skip it. It was a good chance to get ahead of them. I grabbed a piece of bread as I came through and headed out and I did not lose any time stopping. I was able to catch back up to people who passed me earlier. I remembered what Jamie said, that she normally finished Stone Mill in 11:30:00. It kind of giving me an idea of what my finishing time would be. I was definitely wanted to finish under 12 hours.
We were on the Seneca Ridge Trail now, a part I was familiar with and liked it a lot. I was able to catch up with a few more runners. These (strong) runners were bonking here. They were big guys with long legs. They were walking and doing everything in slow motion. It was a common sight. It was a good opportunity to pass them. I swallowed some gummies and pressed ahead. Everyone was kind enough to let me pass. I said I tried to get it under 5 o clock and they cheered and encouraged me to go for it. I got to the next station where I refilled my water bag one last time. I might have used a minute or two off the clock. We had only 13 miles left to the end (in reality I think it was more like 15 miles). I wanted to be optimistic. I made good time to the next aid at Riffleford (9 miles left to the end. My goal was to pass Riffleford as quickly as possible since I already made a stop earlier.
I was quick with my stop at the station here too. My goal was to reach here by 3:00 pm, but I arrived at Riffleford at 3:15. My goal now was to finish the race by 5:00 pm. With 8.5 miles left I believed it was possible. They offerred me broth, but it seemed they had to heat it first, so I did not stay for it. I chugged some cups of soda and off I went along with a few runners. Here I met a fast runner. He beated me up the hill I wouldn’t see him again (he was like spiderman, with a few strides he disappeared up the hill). I was able to catch other four or five other runners on the hill, until I got to Meg, who was leading the pack. She was too fast for me to overtake. I asked if she allowed me to follow her. She did not mind. It was her first time doing Stone Mill. I tacked onto her leaving the rest of the group as we ran up another hill.
No others were in front of us. We had 8 remaining miles. This was long 8 miles. We were able to catch up to one more runner. In my mind it was like only 2 miles to Rt 355, however, Meg and I ran maybe another 4 miles before we got there. My goal was to get to Rt 355 by 4 pm so that I could have a good shot at finish by 5. 4 pm went by and were still not there yet. 4:15 passed. If I had any chance left, it would be now. We were still maybe half mile from the station.
I don’t know when we arrived at Rt 355, maybe around 4:20-4:25 pm. Meg did not stop at the station and I praised her for that but I was pretty much drained. I stopped at the station and said goodbye to Meg. She seemed too strong and likely could finish by 5 pm. After maybe a minute or so breather at Rt 355, I left knowing only 4 more miles to finish the race. I knew I could finish and I had to finish before darkness because my headlamp was not bright enough and I don’t want to be on the trail in the dark (I forgot to check the batteries before the race and so they were about to die and at the time I did not know if I had any spares — I only know I did have spares later on after the race).
Maybe about a mile later, I caught back up to Meg. She was walking. The two guys who left the station with her were nowhere in sight. So I was happy to pace with her again, hoping we might have a shot to catch up to them again. I assumed we might catch other runners when we reached the road. I could possibly pass her now and could finish with an earlier time (though 5 pm finish was no longer a realistic goal) but I like to remain with Meg. Meg’s goal was to finish by 5:30 pm. We had about an hour so I settled on 5:30 as well. I said to her we have only 3 miles left. We could run a 5K in normal condition under 30 minutes. So I told her, we don’t have to fast, we just have to keep going. She listened and responded. By 30 minutes later, (5 pm) we reached the wooden bridge where I knew we would be at the road junction soon, from there it was just a final hill climb up to Watkins Mill Rd. We got on the road by 5:06 pm. Meg was definitely tired. She was breathing heavily and walking from time to time even though the road portion was supposed to be easier.
To me, we had to finish strong. Here I believed I could run all the way to the finish. I told her, it was just a mile left. For trail runners, running on the road is not fun. We just had to endure it for 10 minutes max, and we would be back at school (our starting/finish location). I walked with her whenever she paused to walk but I said if she sees the school, we got to run to the finish. What thrilling to me was whenever I spoke, Meg was able to draw strength and she was pressing harder. I felt I was fulfilling my job as a pacer. It couldn’t be more than quarter mile away. We did it. She ran up the hill. We finished at 5:16, way ahead of our 5:30 goal!
It was a good finish. For me my goal was complete it under 12 hours. I was way ahead of that, coming in at 11:16. I still had what it takes to run fast. It gave me a boost of morale to attempt the Iron Mountain again next Labor Day where I will have to do that under 12 hours.
My other friends finished too. One came 12:45 and the other about twenty minutes later. I was happy none were cut. I was happy for them. It was a tough run and they did it. They almost got me worry when we were near 13 hours.
conclusion. I stayed till almost to the last runner. They say the sweeper is coming. There was a woman waiting for her husband. We watched him on the map on the phone and saw him going down the wrong road. He did realize and backtracked and made it to the finish. Unfortunately, the official time already expired so his time was not counted. He was happy nonetheless. I was happy to celebrate his finish. It made my day. I found out later, he was one of the people I talked to earlier on the course, Jared. It was so cool to make the connection.