Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Race Report: Potomac Heritage Trail 50k

It's official - I am now an ultramarathon runner! This past Sunday I competed in the VHTRC's Potomac Heritage Trail 50k. I ran it as a training run for my upcoming JFK50 race in November. As could be expected at ultra events, it was quite a low key event, starting and ending at someone's house in DC, no registration fees, no t-shirts or medals, no chip timing (honor system!) and a field of about 100 runners. Nice and simple - my type of event! Not really knowing what to expect with it being my first ultra, I was quite overwhelmed by the hospitality and friendliness of everyone even before the race started. I was quickly welcomed into this group of fellow nutjob ultra trail runners, and it was a breath of fresh air to meet folks who shared a passion for something that has thus far been mostly a solo journey for me into the ultra world.

We all gathered outside of Kerry's house in Woodley Park for a chilly pre-race briefing. This consisted of Kerry telling us not to get lost, and if we got lost we could call her but she'd just tell us to find a cab. There was also one unnamed individual already peeing in the bushes during this pre-briefing, but this unnamed individual went on to set a new course record of 4:32, so I guess he is excused.

We set off promptly at 8am down Woodley Rd., and to everyone's surprise we had a police escort for a few blocks. As it turns out there was a local 5k starting at 8:30am, so we just considered ourselves to be slow 5k'ers that got off to an early start. After a quarter-mile or so we hit the trails of DC and were on our way. For more details see the course map below, taken from my Garmin.

It was really quite amazing how quickly you go from a somewhat busy DC neighborhood to quiet trails that could easily be mistaken for being in the middle of nowhere. As we neared the end of the DC trails (not sure if they have a name, sorry), we emerged, literally, through a tunnel and over a guard rail onto the C&O Canal towpath at Fletcher's Boathouse. From there we proceeded south on the towpath for about 2 miles, then crossed the Key Bridge into Virginia and down a quick turn onto the Potomac Heritage Trail. I've run the roads here on my XMP training runs and had no idea there was trail running so close. Next time I'll know better! Trails >> Roads.

View of Chain Bridge from the Potomac Heritage Trail (Photo: RnR)

Now at this point I had heard that the 10 miles of the Potomac Heritage Trail we were going to cover was going to be technical at sections, but wow did I receive a wake-up call! The trails I run apparently aren't all that technical. I loved it though, running on technical trails requires mental focus, the kind I'm used to using when setting myself up for a good swoop when skydiving. Maybe that's why I like trail running so much? (Side note: Bryon at iRunFar had a good blog post about these similarities.)

Stream Crossing (Photo: RnR)

As we ran through each aide station there were opportunities to earn time deductions off your final clock time. Aide station #1 offered 1min off for eating a donut, 2mins for an anchovy (ummm... no thanks), and 5mins off for spam. Yes, spam. Honestly I don't know what I was thinking and I jumped at the opportunity to down a small piece of spam for 5 minutes off my total time. Anything to win, right? I thought to myself "Hey, at least it's not scrapple", washed it down with a quick swig of water and was on my way. Aide station #2 offered a game of wits, or at least a test of 3rd grade geography skills, where we had to correctly identify as many countries as possible from a globe in 45 seconds. I got 10, thus getting another 10 minutes off my time. "I am so smart! S-M-R-T!"

Heading northwest on the Potomac Heritage Trail, we spent most of our time with a nice view of the Potomac River to our right.

Potomac River (Photo: RnR)

Aide station #3 offered 5mins off for hula-hooping for 5 seconds (too easy) and an additional 5 mins off for each liquor-filled piece of chocolate we ate. I was nervous about this one, not knowing how my stomach would like the liquor/chocolate combo, but did one for the sake of being a good sport. The guy next to me had two - what a brave soul. I was fine, but later on I heard this guy's stomach had started giving him problems. Guess you gotta learn when to say when!

As I headed out of Aide #3 I realized I was no longer following anyone and some point around here the trail markings were going to change, but I didn't know what they were changing to (white chalk, blue chalk, purple chalk, and blue blazes were all part of the course). I passed a hiker and asked if he had seen other runners. "Yeah but it was a while ago, looks like you're in second place!" Hmm, that wasn't very reassuring. I then found myself running practically on the shoulder of the George Washington Parkway... again, not reassuring.

G/W Parkway - this can't be right (Photo: RnR)

I hadn't seen anyone for about 20 minutes, I was following permanent trail markings and hadn't seen any chalk that I was previously following, and I was possibly getting myself much further off course. I swallowed my pride, stopped, and turned around. Bummer, guess I'm not so smart after all. After maybe a quarter-mile of backtracking I ran into another runner from the race who knew where she was going. Woohoo! I was on the right path! I lost some time by stopping and turning around, but what's a little extra mileage, right?

Natural stairs with some man-made assistance (Photo: RnR)

Further down the trail I came to these natural "steps" with a not-so-natural handrail to assist with the climb. My quads were starting to hurt, so I admit I used the handrail. I then came across Aide station #4 at Turkey Run Park that had a ring toss game. I failed miserably at it, but hey I tried. As it turns out, Justine Morrison, previous course record holder, was the only person to make a ring and earn some time off, but with her speed she didn't need it!

American Legion Bridge turnaround (Photo: VHTRC.org)

Ok, so I admit the photo above isn't from this year's event (last year's maybe?), but it's the only one I could find that shows the true beauty of the natural features we saw on our route. The turnaround point for the race was the American Legion Bridge, aka the Beltway. With all the time I spend sitting on that parking lot of a highway, I have to say this was the most pleasant experience I've ever had with it... because I was on foot and there was no traffic! I don't recall hearing much traffic above me as I passed under it, but it's entirely possible traffic was at a standstill at 11am on a Sunday morning (can you tell I'm not a fan of the Beltway?).

The turnaround point is nice on this race because usually a turnaround indicates you are halfway done. On this race the American Legion Bridge is mile 18 of 31, so you are well on your way to being home. Shortly after the turnaround, I was running with a guy named Andrew when out of nowhere, in a not-so technical section, Andrew BIT IT on a root and went flying, somehow sliding to a stop on his back! I helped him up, luckily he was uninjured and just laughing at what just happened, and we continued on our way. He thinks he got too into "the zone" as if he were in a road race, thus not paying attention to footing. Lesson learned - stay alert!

Flat trails - yay! (Photo: RnR)

For the remainder of the run Andrew and I ran together, mostly to have another person to look for purple chalk (we learned purple chalk marked the way home, so we sounded like two idiots running around yelling "purple purple purple!" whenever we found some). We headed back to Aide Station #4 at Turkey Run, which was now #5, I failed again at the ring toss, had some Dr. Pepper and some M&M's (man I love ultra food!) and quickly got back to the running.

Another stream crossing (Photo: RnR)

Headed back into Aide #3 (now #6 and the final aide station), did some hula-hooping for another 5 minute deduction and skipped the shot this time around (they may have all been gone but I didn't check). As I earned my 5 minute deduction someone grabbed a picture of me and I heard "You know gyrating like that was illegal back in the 50's!" Hmm, let's hope that picture doesn't resurface anytime soon.

We crossed over the guardrail into the tunnel and back onto the DC trails for the final leg. For being 20-some miles into it, I was feeling pretty well. My legs were sore as could be expected, but I had been walking all the hills and went out at an easy pace so I knew I had it in me to finish strong. Andrew and I chugged along, mustering the word "purple" every couple of seconds it seemed. Also commonly heard was "ugghhhh, more hills!" We eventually found ourselves back on the neighborhood streets of DC. We thought we lost the chalk markings leading us back to the finish, slowed down to a walk, looked around, then realized "oh hey, that house we just passed was the finish, we're done!"

We walked back into Kerry's house and there she was with a sheet of paper with everyone's names. She looked at her watch and marked both of us down finishing with a time of 5:18 (not including time deductions, those haven't been calculated yet). She wasn't sure of the exact standings but said we were probably the 6th or 7th ones in! What? Holy hell! This was my first ultramarathon! I guess I can attribute it to beginner's luck? Let's hope this luck carries on to my first 50-miler next month!

After a nice warm shower, I grabbed some food and a beer from the BBQ going on in the backyard and plopped my feet up on a nice comfy couch. You can't ask for a better finish line than that! Big thanks to the VHTRC and all the volunteers that put on this year's Potomac Heritage Trail 50k. I had an absolute blast, and sorry to say it guys, but you'll probably be seeing a lot more of me. I think I've found a new group of people to run with!


Bhanrah said...

Congrats, glad to see you have actually done an ultra to merit the name you have given yourself.

Kel said...

wow.. that was the most descriptive recall of a run i've ever read. I'm lucky if i remember what i felt on a swim of a triathlon, by the time i get to the finish line...

good job gill!

Donald said...

That's definitely an unconventional ultra! Congrats on finishing the 50K. I know that trail is barely runnable in sections, which makes it hard to keep any kind of momentum going. Nice job to keep plugging along.

Brian McNeill said...

Welcome to the fellowship of the black toenail. PHTR is my favourite club event of the year. Great trails inside the beltway. Shhh. it's a secret

Sophie Speidel said...

Welcome to the good times of the VHTRC! And you know what they say...when you finish your first trail ultra, you'll never go back to roads. Good luck at JFK!