I did the Seneca Creek 50K last week. This was the 2nd year I had done it. Last time, conditions were ideal. This year, not so much.
This year, it had snowed a week earlier so I considered using screwshoes or yaktrax. My friends speculated that several afternoons above freezing would leave the surface snow-free in which case trail shoes alone would be fine and anything additional would be annoying. I followed their advice.
In the first mile, I realized I had made a huge error. The snow had not melted from the last few days above freezing. And so began the start of miles of sliding around and hunting for secure footing. Tiny muscles throughout my entire lower body told me that they had not been trained for this.
People using yaktrax were having a better experience. But they complained that their yaks didn't work in the center of the trail - mostly ice or compacted snow - so they were running to the side on uncompacted snow. I stuck to the center where it was icier but had divot-like contours - my trail shoes gripped better. I still slipped a lot though.
Although I'm a natural heel-striker, my gait changed unconsciously to forefoot-striker. (On ice, you cannot land securely on your heels!) What's that they say about never doing anything new on race day?
What's Even Worse Than Ice
Things slowed down when, after an hour or so, snow/ice began to alternate with areas where the snow had melted entirely turning the ground muddy. I was partly prepared for this. But not for giant expanses of mud!
Imagine pillows of mud! The mud rose to the top of my shoe. I passed a runner who had stopped to clean the mud out from under his arch. After the race, I finally understood when I removed my shoes and found a sculpted bed of mud under each of my own feet. No wonder my shoes were so comfortable - a mud-bed orthotic!
Back to the race: At first, we were delicately picking our way through mudfields as we looked for solid footing. But swinging far to the side of the trail often put us in brambles or a tree. Everyone eventually did the same mental calculation - that running right through the middle, the deepest mud - made little difference.
I became an expert in mud running. I'm not saying it was easy. But there were times when I actually had a stride. I began to realize that I could make up time on the steepest downhills - each stride ended with a pleasant slide as I oozed my way even further down. Alas, due to roots and other obstacles, some of the downhills were not safe and I still had to gingerly step my way down. And the flats and uphills remained a shoe-sucking slog.
I felt sorry for runners doing this trail or distance for the first time. Trail races are rarely like this. And during good conditions, this was a particularly lovely trail. This was not a good way to experience it.
Around mile 20, I was thinking this was no longer any fun and having trouble remembering if I had experienced any fun that morning. I recall walking some of the flats at this point. And my feet were getting cold. Not a good sign. I stopped at an aid station to put a bandaid over a hot spot. Peeling my sock and shoe off was disgusting. Putting them back on was even less appealing. My white socks had turned brown. A pic of my tights taken afterward:
Time to talk about food! In my report from last year, I obsessed mostly about the food. www.sparkpeople.com/mypa
This year, I didn't worry about food. I was confident I was not going to bonk. Despite working harder due to the tricky footing and shoe-sucking mud, I figured I was still fat-burning my way through the course.
So I didn't try to eat as many calories as last year. I just kept picking up handfuls of salty things from the aid stations to keep me interested in drinking fluids. Drank a lot of gatorade with occasional water for variety and some caffeinated coke at mile 24. I probably should have imbibed coke earlier because when the caffeine kicked in, it was very apparent and I felt doing the last 10 miles than the middle 10.
Didn't bother with gels. I occasionally picked up cookies and M&Ms out of boredom. (Why do all aid stations have M&Ms? It's not as if anyone trains on M&Ms!) At mile 28, I remember coming to a very tiny aid station - a woman standing next to a chair with a two bags of open food. She handed me a single fig newton. It had been sitting in the sun for awhile so it was soft and I recall thinking it was the best tasting fig newton I had ever had. Admittedly my standard for trail highlights had gone way down by that point.
The worst patch was at mile 14. The promised aid station wasn't there. What? I had just run 8 miles - the biggest gap in the race - and needed to eat. I saw a friend standing there and burst out "Where the f*** is the aid station?" He said he was wondering the same thing. Fortunately, he was driving from spot to spot as he tracked his wife on the course and so he had a stash of her favorite foods. He let me indulge and I owe him big time! Can't imagine what other runners did at this point. Chew on twigs? The race director has gotta take some heat on this.
Enough with the Food
I ran with many different people. Swapping stories was fun although I heard more than I wanted to about injuries and undertraining. Example: One runner apologized for not running faster - explaining she had had a concussion two days earlier! And I came upon a runner puking. Asked him if he was okay, he said the gatorade wasn't mixed to the proper proportion. That made me feel a bit queasy until about 2 minutes later when my concentration (zapped by the miles) made it impossible to remember what he had just said to me! On the plus side, my stomach felt fine after forgetting his story.
The course was several miles longer than promised. Instead of 50K, it was 53K (33 miles). But trail courses are notorious for this and this race has a history of being long, so I didn't dwell on it. I made the aid station cutoffs - whew - and finished in 8Ĺ hours. Frankly, I was relieved to finish at all. Of the 450 registered, 290 finished.
Another friend of mine got lost and finished last in 10 hours. DFL as we say. I hear many new runners say they need big races so they don't finish last. But my friend was ecstatic. We had a great time congratulating her on her hard-earned DFL title. She loved it! A popular running quote: DFL is always better than DNS.
This was a no-bling, no-t-shirt race. No one needs a medal to remember this race.