Race report: Catoctin 50K
Finishing time: 9:05 hr
Weather: Low 70s at start and low 80’s at end, low humidity
I’m writing this report to help other runners that are interested in running the Cat50K since other race reports helped me out while planning. The link to my strava data is here: https://www.strava.com/activities/1702842105/embed/c71f09ddc263c55341e52328bdd323bee219caf5
I had only run one previous 50K (Cloudland Canyon 50K) prior to running the Cat50K. My first 50K had been somewhat of a nutrition disaster so I was looking for some local events where I could seek redemption. I think there may be something wrong with my mind because I eagerly signed up after reading the numerous warning statements in the Cat50K description about the slow technical trail and being hosted on the hottest day of the year. As the race director, Kevin Sayers, states “It has been known to make grown men weep and woman to curse the day race management was born. Once the race starts sympathy is not displayed to anyone regardless of the circumstance. This is an ultra event and it will be conducted accordingly.” Surely, the description was meant to be humorous but what if it wasn’t? After all, this isn’t a west coast race—it’s on the beast coast. I had to find out for myself.
There was limited parking at the Tea room, so I decided to get there when the gates open (6:00 AM) and enjoy the cool morning temperatures before the day ahead of me. The temperature was actually very cool for this time of year and was in the 60’s with low humidity and it made me regret not bring a pullover while I waited.
I checked in with the volunteers with my required hydration system (at least two bottles and I had a hydration vest + hand held) and my head-shot was taken by the photographer. I have yet to see this photo…not sure what it is used for–maybe it is used for the search and rescue crews.
A little about the course: it is an out-and-back (16.5 mi both ways) and was much more difficult on the return trip. The elevation gain and loss is almost equal at about ~5,600ft. The terrain varied throughout but in general is very rocky/technical trail. There were only a handful of times when I was able to open my stride on some smooth single track.
After getting situated the runners grouped up for pre-race announcement where the race director quietly and very nonchalantly he said “ok 3,2,1—go”.
At the start all the runners start pretty bunched up and are funneled into the single track trail after a loop around the parking lot. The race starts downhill so you must pace yourself out of the gate and it gradually increases in technicality for the first 6 miles. The first 6 miles were down, up, down, and up again (like a W, see the elevation profile) and then the first aid station. I tried to go as easy as I could for the first downhill section and loads of people were passing me. I’m pretty used to flat and non-technical trails and I felt the increase in difficulty from the terrain since the downhill sections were covered in roots and rocks. We descended into the first lowest point and ran through several creeks decreased the temperature noticeably. It was a relatively cool day for the time of year and it was fantastic. The uphills were not too difficult within this section. I was consciously taking the first uphill section at a very conservative pace but for the most part I was stuck in a conga-line of people, so it didn’t really matter. Once I hit the second climb, I paced myself as much as I could but I really wanted to get out of the conga-line so I was able to break out of the line near the top of the second climb and get a nice lead. It was at this point when I almost took a wrong turn but luckily a fellow runner he helped me out. I ran into the first aid station at mile 6 and I stuffed my face with Pringles and ginger ale. The volunteers were fantastic, almost professional, and filled my water bottles ASAP—not to mention their supportive comments really boosted my morale. This was my first aid station at the Cat50K and from the description on Ultrasignup.com I had expected mean glares and grunting when asking for water at the aid stations. However, it was the complete opposite and the volunteers were amazing.
After mile 6 I felt that my energy expenditure was very conservative at around a 12 min/mile pace on the relatively flat sections and 15-20 min/mile pace on uphills. The single-track trail turned into a dirt road suffering from a lot of erosion—a welcome change to the rocky, technical terrain. The next aid station was only 3 miles ahead of me and I was feeling good. At some point, I even stretched my stride to the normal running stride and started to cramp so I stopped that immediately—no need for that with 27 miles ahead. The next aid station at mile ~9 came up quick and I got some more water and some watermelon/cantaloupe/pringles. I had been drinking my calories from my EndurElite drink formula but I knew I would need some solid food. They even had towels soaked in ice water that for runners which I graciously accepted and wrapped around my neck.
After mile 9, the elevation began to creep up again through some pretty rocky terrain—not terrible but still rocky. I began running with another runner and we chatted a bit about the course and what not—until the leader of the half cat passed us (going the opposite direction) and yelled “Huge rattlesnake in 100 yards!” and kept trucking. My running compatriot picked up the nearest stick and forged ahead while I slowed my pace and scanned every bit of the rocky, rooty, and technical terrain in front of me for a huge rattlesnake. It slowed me down quite a bit and I eagerly let a few of the local runners ahead and eventually they pointed out the rattlesnake den. Luckily, we didn’t see any snakes and afterwards we made some good time around mile 12-13 which was downhill and smooth single-track. The trail eventually flatten out and reached a sort of unofficial aid station where they had “unofficial water”. That unofficial water was tasty. After the unofficial aid station around mile 14 we began the descent the Manor which would be our turnaround point. The trail here was quite nice but as I would find out, it would take quite a toll on my quads. By the time I reached the turnaround point my quads were gone (The last quarter mile was about -23% grade). The total distance on my watch was 16.5 miles. I had to ford a creek to get to the aid station and it felt good. If it was hotter I would have sat in it for a while. Once across I refilled my bottles, drank two servings of coke, ate two grilled cheese sandwiches. The ice water was delicious. I sat down for a minute to change my socks on a log. I made OK time to the halfway point at about 3:54:13 according to Strava.
This was when the real race began. My quads were shot and I was physically fatigued. I was warned that this race was going to be hard and it definitely was living up to the description. My only goal was to do well on nutrition and hopefully finish because, gosh darn it, I wanted that Cat card. I was able to get enough sweat off of my phone screen to text my buddies who were watching my Strava beacon:
I began walking back to the trail and realized I should have changed my socks after fording the stream. Tiredness does things to the mind. I skipped over some rocks and made it injury free to the other side. I began the up the steep incline back towards the finishing line. I only saw a few runners on my way up from the turn around and I think that they may have been skirting the cut off by the time they arrive at the Manor. Before starting, I really had no concept of how close the cut-offs are at this race. Anyways, I kept trekking for 2 miles upward and jogging any flat sections that I could. No one passed me on this section and it was quiet without any other runners. Once I reached the top I took a wrong turn and jogged down some trail until I heard voices from the other direction and quickly corrected my mistake. I found the unofficial aid station and the unofficial water, or as I referred to as rocket fuel. I stretched my hamstrings as the wonderful volunteer filled my small cup with rocket full and remember him saying “how much do you want? …oh I think you’ll need it all the way to the top!” Haha! I thanked him and started walking. I scarfed down a chocolate vegan cookie and finished my rocket fuel and started jogging. I think this is where I realized that my level of mental fatigue was much more than I thought it would be. For the next few miles, I struggled to keep a constant pace and found myself power hiking the uphill and flat sections. I had to make a conscious effort to run when I realized that I wasn’t running the flat and non-technical sections. I think the technical trails in the first half of the trail really drained me mentally and here I was about to traverse most of it again.
I eventually climbed to the highest point of the course (~22 mi, where the rattlesnake den was) and got excited that the next aid station was at the end of the descent. That surge of energy was all that I needed and I bolted off downhill on a pretty rocky section. The trail began winding a lot and eventually caught up with three runners near the base of the descent. One of the runners was having GI distress and he said he was going to drop at the aid station. I wished him well and slugged along. Eventually, I jogged into Delauter rd aid station with an older gentleman and ate watermelon, cantaloupe, coke, and pringles while the wonderful volunteers filled my water bottles. They gave me a new towel soaked in ice water and I started trekking along. Only 3 miles until the next aid station. Then only 6 miles until the finish.
The stretch of trail between Delauter and Hamburg was when I began feeling the pain from downhill running. Fortunately there was only a small section of down hill and I was able to average a solid jog on the flats and hills. I was so happy to see the next aid station and fill up my water get some solid food. I had been on the trails for 7 hours and traversed 27 miles through some pretty gnarly terrain. I asked a volunteer if they had ice towels and she shook her head. My face must have morphed into the most sad expression ever seen on planet earth because she then told me to “wait one sec” and took my old ice towel. She filled the towel with ice, wrapped it up and put it behind my neck and tied it into my hydration vest. I was speechless while another volunteered filled up my water bottles and very seriously said “This is a hard restart, you got this!”. Just like a NASCAR driver, my pit crew tuned me up and I was off. Kudos to the volunteers at Cat50K. Just 6 miles to go and 2:15 hr before cut off.
From Hamburg rd, the course was gradually downhill which I could jog until the abrupt downhill section. I had to hike down that section very carefully, using trees as supports and near the bottom the descent my calves started cramping. I took this time to drink as much water as possible and embrace the pain because everything was hurting. The saving grace on this section was the ice towel on the back of my neck. It was basically an ice head rest that really helped numb the pain in my upper back/neck. At the bottom of the valley I began to rally and the uphill was much easier on my legs. I was also feeling the pressure of missing the cutoff time and I wanted to finish. At the top of the climb I had caught up with three runners and I turned it on. I latched onto their pace and hit the entire next downhill at 12-15 min/mile pace. Every stride downhill hurt but somehow my mind became numb to the pain. I managed to stay with those runners all the way to the valley floor and all I had to do was hike 1.5 miles with ~550 ft of elevation gain with 35 minutes to go. I felt like I was climbing strong but about halfway up this climb, my HR spiked and I remember just sitting down on the trail (which was almost a staircase at this point) just when my Garmin beeps for 32nd time of the day. 1 mile to go in 25 mins, I better run. Luckily in a few hundred feet a flatter section appeared and I was able to jog for a solid quarter mile until the final ascent to the tea room. I ended up finishing in 9:04 hr with two other runners. Kevin Sayers handed me my Cat card and I quickly found the nearest rocket fuel dispenser and sat down.
After sitting down to write this and to reflect on the experience, I feel that I’ve learned a lot about myself after spending 9 hours on the blue trail. It was definitely the most technical trail race that I’ve run and I was very unprepared for the downhill sections. It was a beautiful shaded trail and the weather was amazing for this year. Although the terrain is fairly technical, it wasn’t terrible and I never came close to rolling an ankle (although I did stub my toes quite a bit).
I’m still beaming that I finished the race before the cutoff–but most importantly that my nutrition plan worked throughout the race. As my second race, I probably should have picked an easier 50K–but where’s the challenge in that?
Hydration: Ultimate Direction 3.0 Jurek (two 500mL hydration bottles, one 2L hydration bladder in the back –all filled with EndurElite drink mix w/ total of ~1200 calories) & 12 oz Camelbak handheld for water only
Shoes: Altra Lone peaks 3.0
Socks: Drymax Trail-lite
Misc: ziplock bags of MORE EndurElite that I never used
Glad you enjoyed this race. It is my all time favorite race… ever! It was my first 50K and it will be my last! I moved to California 3 yrs ago; I make an annual trip back to Maryland and build my vacation around this race! 2019 will be my 7th running of the CAT50K!