Tuesday, April 30, 2019

C & O Canal 100 - There's Music on the Trail

Not since Candlelight 12 hour have I felt this kind of joy in a race.

C&O Canal 100 – April 27, 1019.  My goal for this race was 1) the female win, and 2) a sub 20 hour 100 mile finish.  The former is all about who shows up…  the latter – well, that is all about the training.  My previous best trail 100 time was a 21:42 at Tunnel Hill (where I also went in with a sub 20 goal), and my best track 100 mile split was 21:08 at D3 in 2017.  So, in reality, anything lower than 21:08 would be a PR.  Still, there’s something lyrical about “sub 20”…

I was first introduced to C&O 2 years ago, pacing my friend Aubrey Blanda.  I had met Aubrey at about 9pm and paced her overnight.  The trail was dark, beautiful and haunting.  We had met Peter Wai, running his first hundred, with whom I became Facebook friends, and I went back last year to pace Peter.  My second time at C&O made me want to run it even more, so this year I came back to race.

Speed has never been my forte.  I got into ultra running because it is the first time I’ve ever had any relative “success” as a moderately slow runner.  I’ve never qualified for Boston, and the only time I’ve ever won a 5K my friend snorted and said “how big was the 5 K”?  It was a reasonable question.  I’m not fast.  But…  having qualified for Spartathlon which has aggressive cut-offs, I’ve started working more on speed.  Probably the best thing for my speed lately is my 1-3 runs per week with my fast friend Katie. 

It was due to the recent speed work and some monster weekly mileage that I thought I might have a shot at the win.  And… possibly… a sub-20.  Maybe.

Aubrey had booked a cabin for her family, Pete’s family, and BJ and I.  We all arrived shortly after 5 on Friday, checked in, and headed to the pre-race dinner.  Dinner was great and I was pleased that I didn’t overdo it (which has been known to happen).  We all spent a bit of time after dinner getting our gear ready, and were all in bed by 9.  

The 3 Musketeers - Pete, Aubrey and I
It is a testament to both my recent mileage and some of the huge mile races I’ve been running (recently a few 3 days and a 6 over New Years) that I was going into this 100 with just mild pleasant anticipation of a nice, not too long day – rather than the big post race jitters I’ve previously gotten.  My thought was… “it’s just 100”.  It was predicted to be windy but nice otherwise – not too warm, not too cold.

Sleep was light and restless – probably because I had to pee for about half the night, but didn’t want to climb down from my bunk and walk outside to do it.  We saw the benefits of staying on site on race morning when we didn’t have to get up until almost 6 for a 7am race.  Breakfast was provided by Aubrey - real NJ bagels.  Yum!!

As I geared up, I decided last minute to put my headphones in my pack rather than in my ears.  Though I usually run with music, I didn’t want my battery to run out due to data streaming, and I wanted to talk to other runners.  I was a little concerned about the 25mph predicted winds, but after the first little grassy loop before we got on the trail, I knew I wouldn’t need my windbreaker and I tossed it to BJ as I ran through Camp Manidoken and down through the cabins toward the single track.

Me, BJ and Laurie Matecki

Pre race

Me and Dave Blanchard

One of the daunting features of this race is the single track leading from Camp Manidoken down to the C&O.  It is a short stretch – probably no more than .3 of a mile, but it is utterly un-runnable.  Steep steps lead down through the woods, and there is a little path where you have to step over branches and cross a stream before heading along another little trail patch, over the road, up and down a gully and then on to the towpath.  The towpath itself, though, is eminently runnable.

My first miles are smooth, easy, and in the tens.  This makes me happy as up until recently, my slow easy has been 11 and change. The weather is in the 50’s, the breeze is crisp and cool.  I can tell pretty early that this is going to be a good run.  And then… the trail begins to sing to me.

Early morning, there is just the sound of footfalls and the rushing breeze.  Some runner chatter if I pass them or they pass me.  A few miles down, there is the lazy flow of the canal, water sparkling like diamonds through the trees, almost finished with the early leafing out of spring in Maryland.  A few miles more, and then a crescendo…  I’d reached the rapids, and the sound is powerful…  rushing, roaring, mid spring, electric. 

The trail dips under the bridge to Harper’s ferry, where a train is clattering overhead.  I run under the bridge as the train rushed by above me.  It is deafening and rumbling and I feel intensely alive.  I pass by a section of algae covered water where loads of turtles are lounging and mating on logs.

Action shot - courtesy of Laurie Matecki
The song changed genres to a soothing acoustic…  background music to the musings of my soul.  There is, so far, nothing that isn’t perfect about this run.  Footfalls, smooth and steady.  Pace faster than my wildest imagining.  Sun on my face, breeze whipping around me, this is where I am home.  The first stop back up to Camp Manidoken at 40 miles is a super quick pitstop – that mile including the brutal up, stop, and back down is only 16 minutes and change.  I am thrilled.

I hit 50 at 8 hours 41 minutes… a PR by almost a half hour.  I am astounded and humbly grateful.  At this point I’m on track for a 20 hour race if I can keep the second half at 13 minute miles… which seems more than doable.  For another mile or two.  When the sound of my unhappy stomach starts to add some troubling minor tones to the music.  It is OK when I trot, but any time I slow down to a walk or hit an aid station, I am woozy and nauseous. I am thirsty but anything I take in makes me want to retch.   They offer me warm flat ginger ale and I have to spit it out and move on.  I feel badly – they all want to help.  One aid station volunteer says with concern “what is your food plan for the next 25 miles?”  “Nothing.”  I replied.  “My plan is to eat nothing”.  He does not like that plan so much.

I feel better moving again, and make it to the next aid station where once again I stop, feel sick, and this time have to sit down.  I text BJ “nauseous”.  He replies “what need?”  “Selzer.”  My love goes out and gets me my bubbly water – the only thing that sounds remotely appealing in my woozy overheatedness.

At the 70 mile Camp Manidoken stop, the climb is near unbearable.  I have to stop multiple times – I feel faint and nauseous and exhausted.  I trudge up to the hill shouting out my number, saying “Liquid… I need liquid”.  This stop is not speedy.  I need gear…  I change my shoes.  I am sick and they apply a cool cloth to my inner elbows, wrists and forehead.  I need to get back out there if I’m going to do this thing.  I head down the hill, feeling discouraged.

But… there are only 30 miles to go, and I’ve found a run walk pattern that keeps me moving and keeps me from retching.  The shoe change eases the pressure of my only hot spot, and the seltzer is helping.  At mile 80 BJ makes the treacherous trek down the dark single track to bring me more seltzer.  He walks with me for a few minutes and I am calmed by his presence.  At my new slower pace, with my stomach churning on the decline, the trail once again starts to sing – this time a Nocturne.

I have travelled this trail in the dark twice now – once with Aubrey and once with Peter and Carter.  I have come to love the haunting solitude, the occasional CSX train whistle, the rushing of the rapids, and sometimes just my lonely footfalls in the dark.  On those trips I saw the sunrise and it was magical.  I will not see that sunrise today.  Even with the sub-20 out of reach, I know I will finish in the dark.

The last 10 miles come blissfully easy.  I probably could have pushed my pace beyond the safe run walk ratio with which I had become comfortable, but I don’t want to risk getting sick again and, at this point, have adjusted my goal to a sub 21.  It would, no matter what, be a PR.

This time, the 3rd loop, I know all the landmarks.  The blinking light of the cone to head back up to Manidoken no longer seems to take forever – I know exactly where it’s going to be.  I don’t risk a single running step on the single track.  I am almost home and I don’t want to mess with that.  This last climb up the stairs is stronger by far than my last.  I don’t run up the hill, but still, I am strong.  My love is waiting for me at the top of the hill, where I walk in my PR at 20 hours 31 minutes.  Female leader, and trail PR by 71 minutes. 
There are some races that just inspire joy, and this is one.  It is one I knew, last year, that I wanted to race - and I made the right choice.  The scenery is stunning; the trail is pleasant and flat.  The race directors are organized, nice and accommodating, and I can't say enough good things about the volunteers.  This is truly a special race, and you can bet I'll be coming back.