On Sunday, November 3rd I ran my first trail race in nearly six years. Despite having a background in cross country, I was never a big trail runner. I loved it, but I didn’t do it often as the majority of XC courses are buffed (you won’t find technical scrambling or climbing on them). Moving to NYC has only further distanced me from the trail running community, but with the Scotland race looming I figured it was time to see where I was at.
I went looking for a benchmark race that would be tough, but doable. A challenge, but not cause an injury or training setback. I settled on Fire on the Mountain 50K. It looked tough, but at the 50k distance didn’t look insane and I figured it would be a good benchmark to see where I was at in training. As mentioned, NYC has removed a lot of my vert and technical training and admittedly I’ve been a little lazy about making the time to add it in through trips up to Van Cortlandt Park.
FotM was an out and back style race, running through Green Ridge State Forest in Allegany County, Maryland. If you’d like to replicate, we started at Point Lookout, ran a mile down Oldtown Orleans Rd, cut into the Red Trail and ran that to the Green Trail, turned around and doubled back, Green to Red to road to finish. Overall the course was an estimated 32 miles (51.5 km), a touch over 50K however I ended up tossing in a couple extra miles (we’ll get there) making it a nice 34 miles for myself 😅.
I didn’t get the pre-race morning of my dreams, but it wasn’t too bad. I was up at 3 am to leave by 3:30 am and drive 2.5 hours to the start line. I was a little tired, but by the time I got there didn’t notice it too much. I had hydrated effectively for days, fueled well the night before, and earlier that morning with both food and pre-race gels which gave me a small mental foothold at the start.
It was incredibly cold standing at the start. 30 degrees, windy, on an exposed ridgeline. There wasn’t a whole lot to do in the way of stretching considering the only thing that would warm me up enough to stretch would be to run a little, which I was not planning on doing before running another 30-something miles. I settled for a little joint mobility and dynamic stretches to try and stay loose.
The first mile was a pretty easy blur. All road, all downhill. Stepping into the woods I was quickly informed of how under prepped I was for trail running. The first descent wasn’t super steep, but was technical and had a significant amount of post-storm leaf-cover. (In the days leading up to the race a storm and tornado watch had swept through the area leaving the trails and streams pretty bogged down and covered in leaves). I really loved the first 5K of the race, we were running on crunchy frost-covered leaves, the sky was incredibly clear and blue. I did take one fall early on, around mile 2.5 and split my knee open. But, with how cold it was I barely noticed the swelling 👍.
First climb was a wake-up call to the vert that I was in for. If I haven’t mentioned it enough, let me reiterate: I have almost *no* hill training under my belt. I managed a solid powerhike getting up the first peak and figured that if I could maintain a strong powerhike uphill, gun it on the descents, and keep steady through the flats that I would have a good race. What I didn’t expect was that the descents would be more gnarley than the climbs. They were loose dirt and scree, covered in leaves.
As this is not a running blog and many of you might not have a strong background in anatomy, let me explain why by mile 4 my mental game was getting a little rocked. Walking or powerhiking uphill primarily uses your quads (think like walking upstairs). Running uphill keeps you on your toes, primarily using your calves. When running downhill your body’s braking system (hamstrings and glutes) comes into play. There are two main ways to run downhill. The first way would be on steep or rocky terrain where you lift your knees higher to jog down, ledge to ledge, similar to a mountain goat. The second way is a little bit like controlled falling, with the hammies, glutes, and quads acting as stabilizers so you can get the most speed from the littlest work.
The problem with this situation is that there wasn’t enough solid ground to hop down mountain goat style and it was too steep for controlled falling – I would end up fall running straight off a mountain. So instead it was this modified lean back braking that put more pressure on my lower back and hip flexors, plus didn’t allow my quads adequate rest as we scree skied down. In less than one mile we did about 1,000 ft of ascent and descent on some of the steepest terrains I’ve ever run.
Not completely insane for an ultra, but when you are not expecting a lot of vert and when this race was described to you as “chill” and when you have little to no hill training? It blew. It was really cool and super fun, but it blew and we had more than a marathon to go and I had no idea how many more climbs were coming so I dialed back my flat running pace to keep a little in the tank for potential future climbs. Getting onto the Green Trail we were weaving along a riverbed with two large hills (500+ ft of elevation) on either side for about six miles. I was just waiting for the trail to veer off and hand us another climb. But it didn’t. The Green Trail stayed flat and boggy with several river crossings until just before the turnaround at 17.5 miles.
Going into the turnaround checkpoint we had another climb, but after the first one, it didn’t feel nearly as tough. Funny enough we actually climbed higher during those miles than we had with the first climb (about 500 ft of gain compared to 800 ft of gain).
The final steps to the turnaround checkpoint (the ‘Oasis’) had their own pop of 100 ft of gain which was mild cruelty after 17 miles.
Ah, but at the top was every food you could think of. I ate more pretzel sticks and Uncrustables at that stop than I have in the past two years. In general, I didn’t linger too long at any of the stops, taking less than six minutes at the Oasis and less than 10 minutes at all the checkpoints combined. I didn’t want to get sucked into the comfort of not moving or worse sit down.
The second half had a few curveballs of its own.
1 / After leaving the Oasis I started back on the trails and took an unplanned detour. After 19 miles I had a bit of runner’s brain and wasn’t thinking my sharpest and when I saw a rock with a green arrow (on the Green Trail, mind you) I followed it. For a mile. Until, after getting eaten up by greenbriers and other thorny vines I decided to double back to where I had left the trail and recheck. I got back on trail after 25 minutes, two miles, and 200 extra ft of climbing. I was less than enthused.
2 / Running the trail backward was a completely different experience (as the RD promised us). All the downhill scrambles became savage climbs with dead legs and all the uphill hikes became sweeping downhills that were … fun (?)
3 / After 20+ miles I got incredibly clumsy. My legs weren’t super tired, my knees and hips felt fine, but mentally I stopped being so sharp. I tend to be a light-on-my-feet runner and pretty agile with the ‘bob and weave’ needed for road racing. But we weren’t on roads, we were on trails, and I took a rough misstep that almost fractured my tibia. Coming around a turn along the riverbed I stepped where I thought was solid ground. What it was was an area where, during flooding, the river had undercut the shoreline, leaving a thin and deceptive patch of ground overhanging between the actual shoreline and a protruding tree root. When I stepped there, landing with 3x my body weight, I went through up to knee and my body weight fell toward the river while my leg was caught between the root and shoreline. Thankfully there were seemingly no injuries, but it didn’t feel like a kiss and considering I was already worried about some issues in that part of my leg it didn’t help the mental game.
4 / After gorging at the Oasis (rookie mistake, Moll) I was worried about putting gels in my body and ended up under fueling. Typically, I would take a gel every 30-45 minutes (starting one hour into the run). After leaving the Oasis I didn’t eat for 90 minutes, which is a long time after four hours and 20-something miles. I didn’t feel like it was hurting me until the last three miles. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so emotional about hunger before. On a post-race call, I even said: “I don’t think I’ve ever been that hungry before, and I had an eating disorder!” Which sounds comical, but I was actually tearing up thinking about pasta. I had another gel with me and I probably should have taken it, but historically taking gels on an empty stomach is a recipe for disaster for me so I decided to tough it out knowing I would be finished in 30 minutes.
The Finish Line
The final mile (being a reverse of that “all downhill” start) was another cruel climb. I gotta give the RD props for making us work so hard for a midpoint food stop and for the finish line. I wasn’t sure if I would make it halfway, I wasn’t sure if I would leave the Oasis or if I would drop, I wasn’t sure if I would finish. That race was a battle to the end. I later learned the names of some of the climbs/descents we did were all aptly named: Buttslide Descent, Steep Kicker Home, and Dig In Climb.
Crossing the line, throwing my log on the fire (the action to officially stop your time) and being told I finished top 10 for women was 🤯. Completely, completely unexpected. I remember a few people shaking my hand, saying/getting a few good jobs and crushed its, but mostly I remember the picnic table of food. I have never drank coke (much less three cokes) so fast in my life. I was eating everything that was in front of me.
I didn’t linger at the finish line too long, knowing I had a 2.5 hour drive home in the dark. I don’t remember a lot of that drive, except that I was incredibly tired (at this point I had been up for 16 hours, running for over nine of them) and using my radio as a karaoke machine to keep me alert. A few miles from my house I stopped off to pick up the healthiest of dinner options: Royal Farms chicken. If you don’t live in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania or New Jersey you may not know what I’m talking about, but there is something so good about Royal Farms. And something about running 34 miles makes it even better.
I tend to be fairly productive post-race so after getting home and eating a pint of mashed potatoes, I showered, did some laundry, walked the dog, answered tons of texts from friends and family asking about the race, watched a little of the Ravens game and did a lot of stretching. By 10:15 pm I was out cold, but I woke up hungry at 3:30 am and ended up eating another pint of mashed potatoes (truly divine).
Over the next few days I had some soreness, but nothing extreme. I plan to take time off running until my body feel good again and then taking a few more days just to be sure any micro injuries I caused have time to heal up. In the meantime, I’ll be doing a lot of biking or walking to keep my body moving.
To sum up that race up in one word: Brutal. It was a stellar course overall, super scenic with cool climbs, but I was remarkably unprepared for it. Squeaking by with a top 10 finish for women blew my mind. I was shocked to have finished at all.
Going into the race I was pretty mentally drained. The day prior to the race my family had received some tough medical news, I didn’t sleep well, and my anxiety was pretty high. Going to sleep on Saturday night I knew I would consider this race a ‘win’ if I started it. Mentally I wasn’t in it. I spent the whole race questioning myself, the sport, and I kept asking myself “Why am I out here at all? I could be spending time with my family. I should be with my family.” The answer I kept coming back to was “Because you can.” Not in an ego-inflated ‘I-do-what-I-want’ kind of way, but in an honest ‘The ability to do this is a gift, don’t waste it’ kind of way. On Monday night I went to see Pop (my maternal grandfather) who is battling stage 4 esophageal cancer, to tell him about my race. I don’t know what to say more than, sharing that with him made the miles worth it. Sharing a beer and hearing him cheers me with a Slovenian “Na zdravje!” made the miles worth it.
That race was tough. I was underprepared, thrown into the deep end. But I think my mom summed up my attitude about the race pretty perfectly when she said “Very proud of my strong stubborn daughter, who was definitely channeling her grandfather today. Finish what you start and always do your best.”