They don’t call it the pain cave for nothing.
Finishing this year meant a lot to me. Last year I DNF’d at the turnaround. I had plenty of explanations but at the end of the day that DNF meant that I just wasn’t tough enough to handle the course. I was okay with that decision for about three months. Even swore off trail running entirely. But when the fall came and I started thinking about the year of running 2016 – a year decorated with so many accomplishments and high points – that one red mark at Catoctin started to bother me and when I thought about my goals for 2017 I knew that completing this course before the time cut off was going to be one of them whether I liked it or not.
Just me and my tumor
As I wrote last time, I discovered in early May that I have a large benign tumor on my pituitary gland. As you can imagine that month was a bit of an emotional roller coaster and it affected my running significantly and I clocked only 100 miles that month. June was a little better but I missed a lot of long weekend efforts. I could have been in better condition for this race.
I am on hormone replacement therapy for the consequences of the tumor, which may be a rest-of-life situation depending on how well, if at all, my pituitary gland decides to resume normal function after the tumor’s out. In about 40% of cases everything returns to normal.
One of the hormones I have to replace is cortisol which plays a really important role in fat burning and the adrenal cycle. During long events, it’s just one more thing I have to manage manually, on top of nutrition, hydration, and salt balance. Bring it on, I say. Ultras are too easy. It’s just a 50k right?
I am having surgery to remove this tumor in ten days. My surgeon is a Boston qualifying marathoner and ultra runner himself with an amazing JFK 50 time of 7:26. In fact, we delayed the surgery specifically so I wouldn’t miss Catoctin, a detail which helped me tough it out on the course. I knew my highly talented and successful neurosurgeon to whom I am trusting my very life would ask me how my race went and the last thing I was going to tell him was “thanks for delaying my surgery so I could DNF again.”
Last year, I spent a huge amount of time up on the mountain – every weekend and some week nights for almost two straight months. I needed to do that to learn the course and to learn trail running. By the time race day had come along I was so sick of being up there that it wasn’t fun – or even a beautiful forest anymore. I had a photographic memory of every rock on that trail and tripped on most of them.
This year I decided that my mountain training would be limited. I only did three long runs in the watershed this year and one short trek up the TV trail, which isn’t part of the course. I did other trail running on the AT, Little Bennett, and Worthington Farm to get some trail practice but I made sure not to spend too much time on the course itself lest I suffer the same burnout I felt last year.
Two weeks prior to race day, I ran the first full half of the trail with my friends Ruth, Art, and Bill from the Tea Room to Manor, and I ran strong. The medication I’m taking for the tumor is really helping me stay energized over distance, something that has eluded me for the last couple of years. I ran the runnable uphills and hit PRs on almost every section of the northbound trail. I needed a confidence run and I got one.
I started tapering through July, running only around 50 miles in two weeks and came into race day feeling fresh and rested.
We lucked out with the weather this year. It stayed in 80s all day and we had a southerly, gentle wind to cool us off in both directions. I only felt genuinely hot once, during an shadeless climb toward the end.
I ran a strong first half, earning a couple of PRs in that direction. I made it to Manor at around 11:20 AM, about 10 minutes ahead of my ideal goal. In hindsight, I hit the first half too aggressively. The aid station cutoffs were to me a sword of Damocles and I knew that any risk of missing them would demoralize me, so I wanted to make sure I banked a lot of time.
Too much time, as it developed. I began to feel the first stirrings of cramps between Fishing creek and Manor, so I downed as much salt as I could and kept trucking downhill.
Unfortunately the salt didn’t work, even though I would guess I took at least 20 salt caps in eight hours. I was never able to get my leg cramping under control for the remainder of the day, so although I did run periodically I did a lot of hiking back to the Tea Room. For large stretches of the race I could barely straighten my legs. When I tried to raise my calves to avoid tripping hazards, they cramped. When I used one leg for the tough inclines too much, I developed a shooting pain in the inside of my thighs. Even my feet and hamstrings cramped occasionally.
And I fell, a lot. I had prided myself on not falling on the trails at all this entire training season, but because high feet were cramping my calves, I kept my feet low, caught a lot of rocks, and stumbled quite a bit. On four or five occasions I took a bad spill which left me on the ground with cramped legs. I had to grab the nearest tree and pull myself up to get my legs straight. Fortunately with fewer than 200 runners on the trails over such a vast distance my shame went mostly unobserved. An innocent bystander helped me up once whose name I regret taking (but if you’re reading this, thanks a bunch!)
Despite this debilitating muscle failure my spirits were generally high. I tried not thinking much about the cutoffs. I did the mental math a few times and computed that were I to do 20 minute miles from here until Tea Room would I make it and the answer was always yes. That made it easy to keep moving forward.
A couple of years ago, one of the HURT guys at the C&O aid station said something that stuck with me: on these long mountain ultras, it’s not about how fast you run, it’s about how fast you walk. I tried to keep this in my head and maintain a brisk pace, and I think I did that successfully. In each mile I tried to run at least a little and I kept my pace below 16:00 except on climbs. It’s hard for me to even type that out because it seems so absurd; my 3 year old runs faster than that for our quarter mile runs around the neighborhood, but 16:00 is much better than 22:00, a fact which I reminded myself every time my watch clocked the last mile.
When I got to the final aid station at Hamburg road at around mile 26, Jenny reminded me that if I could make the southbound valley in 1:45 I’d finish under 8 hours. That would be a phenomenal time for me and way beyond my expectations. The valley is six miles and though there are some gnarly climbs there are also some gnarly descents so I thought that if I could capitalize on the descents – one of the few grades I could still adequately run without cramping (much) – I might be able to sneak it in. I’d have to do each mile in around 18 minutes. That seemed doable.
On the way coming down the steepest part of the valley, I took a nasty spill. I had to grab a tree to stop my fall and I took rocks to both knees, hard. I had massive bruises on both, a gash on my left, and somehow hit my left hip as well. This crash stole the wind out of my sails, and I realized that going for sub-8 was reckless. I was letting the nickel hold up the dollar. One more nasty fall like that and I might not be able to get up again.
So I resigned myself to walk it in. That descent is shouldered by one of the hardest climbs in the course. It’s long, it’s steep, and it’s at mile 29. That was the emotional low point for me. I was hurt and barely cogent. I kept moving and only stopped when my legs cramped so badly that I couldn’t keep walking. A few people passed me in this section but I didn’t let it bother me. I knew that this race was mine to fail now.
When I got to the lower parking lot, Paul and Telly were there taking pictures and beating the cowbell like it owed them money. Paul mentioned that we only had half a mile to go and relief washed over me like an awesome wave. I thought I still had a full mile to go. That last Tea Room climb was tough but knowing how close I was to finishing gave me all the strength I needed.
I crossed the finish line in 8:13. I went into the day thinking that if I everything went perfectly I might squeak in a little under 8, but I knew I’d be happy with anything under 8:45. Considering how badly my legs were cramping all day, this is a slam dunk as far as I’m concerned.
Catoctin is a special event for the local community because so many of us are either running the race, working aid stations, cheering, or moving around the course taking pictures. Conservatively, I would guess that I am on a first name basis with at least 50 people out on the trails. Everything is a little less painful when you’re in the pain cave with your friends.
I ran almost 10 miles with Bill who went on to go sub-8 for his first Catoctin at the tender age of … well, I won’t say but he’s a couple of decades older than I am. Incredible athlete and incredible running partner.
I ran at least three or four miles with the long lost Jan, the person who is more responsible for instilling both passion for and success in running than anyone else. She’s since moved to California and actually bought a plane ticket just for this race… and people say I’m crazy.
Jan got me into trail running initially (i..e, declared “we’re training for Catoctin now, meet at Hamburg Rd. 8am Saturday”). She introduced me to this race. She taught me the blue trail. Running with her was just like old times. When she casually mentioned that she and I were running “faster than last year” I should have wised up and slowed down!
I saw Jenny at almost every aid station. Her energy, enthusiasm, and encouragement helped me and so many others throughout the day.
But I think what I will remember most about this race was encountering Crys at the Delauter aid station. Crys is a truly talented ultra runner with a long successful career in front of her. She’s been training with a local legend with the goal of a top 10, if not podium finish. The first time I saw her was on her way back up from the manor as I was going back down and she was either in second or third place at that time.
But things change during a race, as I experienced and so did she. One minute I’m running a banner day and the next my legs are cramping so badly I can hardly walk. And I guess something changed for her, because when I ran into her there, she was in the process of DNF’ing.
I was advised not to ask her questions by her aid station honor guard but I knew what needed to be done. I asked her one question: “do your legs work?” Good, they do. That’s a start. At that point, my legs barely worked and I had full intention on walking every inch between Delauter to Hamburg which is historically my least favorite and emotionally lowest part of the course. I suggested to her that as long as she can still walk she might as well walk with me to Hamburg road. At least she’d be 3 miles closer to the finish line.
So we talked a little bit and I heard her recite all of the thoughts that were in my mind when I quit the race last year. It wasn’t enough for me to just finish Catoctin, I had to finish really well. In 2016, I was killing all of my races. Two months before I had shaved 27 minutes off of my half marathon time. Catoctin was going to be no different. And so when I came to Manor and realized that I was not going to finish well, I remember thinking, “I can walk, but what’s the point?” Since my wife and kids were there, I turned in my number and walked off the course. And I had 12 months to think about it and regret it. There are worse things, I told her, than walking it in. You could always just give up and quit.
We talked a little about Western States. So many amazingly talented runners ran such amazing races for 70 miles and then lost it. When you go for it, when you’re running in the red, you might burn out. It’s a risk you take when you’ve got the pedal to the metal. You’re never going to know what your potential is if you don’t run that way, but you’re also guaranteed to have days like this when you do. You just can’t win them all.
I was so happy to see her get moving again. “Let’s run a bit!” Okay. I look down at my watch. 11:30. 11:00. 10:30… 9:00… 8:20…. we’re doing 8 minute miles here and I’m dying. She wasn’t happy to lose me but I promised that if I found her sitting on a log I’d get her moving again. I didn’t see her for the rest of the race. She didn’t hit her goal time but she won’t have the regret of quitting.
Learning how to rally in an ultra race is something that Javier has really emphasized to me and I kept hopeful the whole race. 30+ miles is a long time to be out there. Sometimes you have to walk for five miles before you can run again. Maybe you never can. You won’t know until you find out.
As it turns out, Javier had also helped her rally earlier in the day and had said almost exactly the same things that I said to her, even including referencing this year’s Western States race. We joked that we had a pre-game conference and went over our talking points for “words of encouragement.”
We met up post-race at Tea Room and she expressed some regret that perhaps if she had just kept going she could have hit her goal anyway. I reminded her that we learn more from our failures than our victories and the next time she’s on a course and she’s in that dark place and thinking about quitting she’s going to remember today and she will be able to draw on that thought. Maybe if I had just kept going I would have hit my goal.
She also confided in me that when she saw me plodding along through Delauter she had thought to herself, “well if this guy has a brain tumor and is getting brain surgery in 10 days and he is going to finish, then what’s my excuse.” I’m glad my little tumor actually did a little good in the world before being savagely murdered ten days hence.
My second goal for the year is now complete, and I can safely choose to close the book on Catoctin but I have a feeling that I won’t. This event is an expression not so much of physical fitness but of sheer will. That I found the mental strength to push through this masochistic suffer-fest will be a feather in my cap for the rest of my life. Whether I am running it next year or paying it forward as a course volunteer I will be back on that mountain next July with a couple hundred of my closest friends.