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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Stone Mill 50 Miler Race Report

2012 Stone Mill 50 Miler Race Report
The week leading up to Stone Mill had been a stressful chaotic one.  The plan for the kiddos wasn't worked out until two days before the race and it would require me to drive an additional 3 hours and go to the race solo.  But the peace of mind knowing the kids were set for a great weekend with family helped set the stage for a less stressful race day. 
After a five and a half hour drive I was finally at my hotel which was a quick 15 minutes from the race start.  I made final decisions about race day gear and slipped into bed for what little rest I would get that evening, thanks to a nagging chest cold.
At dark o'thirty I found myself that the start and finish line of my repeat Stone Mill date.  I quickly got my race pack and returned to my car to put on my chip and pin my bib on.  With 30 minutes until the start time, I stayed warm in the car and ate some granola bar and sipped tea.  While I waited I took some cold medicine to hopefully keep my coughing under control.  This turned out to be one of the smarter things I did in preparing to be able to enjoy running 50 miles.
Being a looped race the start and finish were at the Watkins Mills High School.  Although the school wasn't open before the 6 a.m. start, the track bathroom facilities were...and they were heated.  It was nice to be able to chat with fellow runners after a final bathroom visit without my teeth chattering.
If there were final instructions, I missed them.  In fact I'm not sure what was said to actually start the race but a minute after snapping this photo, we were running around the school heading out into the dark and what would be an amazing day of running.
One of my favorite views during this race is this short stretch covered in frost
After the quick loop around the school we headed down that steep frost covered hill in front of the start/finish line and into the dark woods.  A single shining line of runners.  We weaved through the woods, along a short road section and back into the woods.  I passed the first aid station without really realizing it was there.  This year we did a short out and back early in the race instead of at the end of the race.  The course changes also included cutting out the deep creek crossing that I had enjoyed so much but I wouldn't have loved getting quite that wet so early in the day.

After about an hour of running we came out into an opening were we could see the rising sun and the frost on the ground.  It is one of my favorite views at Stone Mill.  It reminded me that I wanted to take photos along the way what else is new and send updates to my family who couldn't be there cheering me on.  So prepare yourself for photo overload.
Diane cheerfully greeting runners
Right on schedule I hit the Rt 355 aid station and ultra runner friend, Diane was there to cheer us all on.  Unfortunately she was nursing a sore foot back to health or we may have been cruising the trails together.  She and all the volunteers were super helpful even at the chilly early hour.  I drank a cup a gatorade, ate a quarter of a pbj and chatted a little but quickly got back on the move.
After Rt 355 aid station there is a short stretch across an over pass and then you hop the guard rails to return to the trails.  I was busy sending off text message updates when I came to the frost covered yellow and green ribbons.  Ahead of me two men had continued going straight.  I yelled that I thought we hopped the guard rail.  Of course being geographically challenged I didn't really argue with them when they disagreed and continued.  I just knew that this was the spot.  I hopped the guard rail and told the others coming behind me that they needed to do the same.  Funny how later in the race I would get off course three times but at that point, I was certain that we needed to hop the guard rail.  Luckily for the men who didn't heed my advice the group following me sent some men to get the others to double back.  Men simply don't take directions from women, do they?

About 12 miles in and still feeling strong
In my defense the dog was really big that was coming at us so of course our eyes were on the dog and not so much on the trail markings.  That was course edit number 1.  When the two ladies I was running slightly behind took a turn that we were not to take thanks to the distraction of a charging dog and an owner who did little to restrain the animal.  Luckily the dog turned out to be friendly.  Unfortunately we and another runner went off course.  Eventually backtracking and finding our error.  Edit number 2 was again with several others when we simply missed a ribbon and continued out of the trail onto a road.  After trying the trail across the road and both up and down the road we again backtracked only to find the then obvious ribbon.  Edit three I scored all alone.  I wish I could blame it on poor trail markings but this time it was simply being lost in my own thoughts on a beautiful trail.  I share my errors in hopes that they will remind me in the future to be more aware of finding my own trail and not following others.  But I also share it to hopefully help other trail runners to remember that same and to know that it doesn't ruin a race day to "lose" time taking a wrong turn.  It's just adds to the adventure.
Beautiful scenery
Ultra trail running really is about being part of a welcoming family of like minded, mildly obsessive brethren.  When you first enter it's a little like being that wet kitten a kind soul found along the road and took pity on.  They bring you in, clean you up and try to guide you as you grow.  But in no time at all you are a familiar face in the pack.  When I ran into the Quince Orchard aid station I hadn't been really watching my time or mileage so I honestly didn't know exactly where I was.  I was just having fun playing with my proverbial ball of yarn, when a cheering voice started yelling my name.  It was Larry.  You might remember that Larry tolerated my company this past spring when we ran the majority of a 50k together to secure my still standing sub-6 50k PR.  If you know Larry, you know he has just one of those smiles that is instantly contagious.  So of course that meant poor Larry got a sweaty hug and I got a boast to my energy levels.  But the fun wasn't over, Matt was there too.  Too bad I couldn't drag them along with me for a while.  But nothing beats having friends at aid stations to greet you. 

Quince Orchard Aid Station - Larry and Matt's smiling faces made this aid station

 At a little more than 4 hours in the course hit a slight road section.  The sun was out, my cold medicine wasn't working nearly well enough and my earlier surge of energy was waning.  I knew that I had been fueling at aid stations so I knew that it was merely mental fatigue.  I was bored.  I felt as though I had been running alone and needed much more chatter.  So I did what any one would do I checked FaceBook, I sent text messages, I played DrawSomething.  And it worked.  I was quickly off the boring road and back on trails and in no time my phone started to chirp with replies.  Every time my phone would chirp it helped me quicken my pace.  Those little tweets told me that someone was out there encouraging me even though they could be there with me. 

A short  struggle on a brief road section
Pennyfield Lock Aid station - half way
 For those looking into whether Stone Mill is the right 50 miler for you there are a few things you should know about the course.  No.  Not that it is the - surprise - 55 miler like last year.  What you need to know is that it is runnable.  What does that mean?  Well, in my experience that means that yes you are on single track a large portion of the distance but the length and grade of inclines and declines are not as challenging as a technical course.  It means that the amount of roots, rocks and creeks is minimal and you can run without having your eyes glued to the ground as you have to do on the Fire on the Mountain course.  This year I was much more aware of just how runnable the distance was and I paced myself so that I could run the distance.  I may have taken that "don't have to glue your eyes to the ground" point a little too far because I did set a new record at Stone Mill.  I set a PR in the number of times I fell.  My new falling in one race PR is now at 6.  Well that's when I stopped counting anyway.  I am also super excited that I did not utter a single curse word when I hit the ground either. 

Half way - about to start the tow path

Having made it to the halfway point at the Pennyfield Locks aid station I ate 4 olives, drank a cup of gatorade, a piece of something sweet kind of cake and a piece of pbj.  I had only gotten my pack topped off once throughout the entire race since I was drinking at most aid stations after the first two.  But then I was hit by a bit of dread.  I knew that the next section on the tow path had been incredibly hard for me last year.  But that was last year, this year I had come with a plan.  And the plan called for loving nearly every step of this race.  So I did something I rarely every do.  Something I've never done in a race.  I listened to music.  While for some runners listening to music is a no brainer to help "get them through" long miles, for me I don't want to "get through" a run I want to enjoy the running.  That is why I run because I like it.  Love it even.  But after 25 miles and  my history with the energy sucking sun baking tow path I was glad I brought some tunes.  And just like magic, they worked.  In fact I would run the majority of the second half with one ear bud in singing and dancing to the songs. 

Singing on the tow path
  If you read at least one other race report of mine, you will know that I suffer from trail brain. One of it's many symptoms includes the inability to string together distinct points along a trail. I can vividly remember sections of trail just not what order in which I ran those sections. So even though I ran Stone Mill last year and have ran the Seneca 50k three times does not imply that I "know" my way around these trails. Infact it is almost a perfect recipe for disaster. Since I did have such a feeling of familiarity with much of the course I kept having a feeling of Deja vu.  While that feeling might have contributed to me getting off course, it also had the positive benefit of filling me with great memories while running on the Seneca portions of the trail. 

This aid station was at the Stone Mill about mile 29 which is also the site of the finish line for the spring 50k.  Even though my family wasn't there I could clearly see my daughter running on that road just as she had done during my first visit to this trail.  It is amazing how different things can carry you through a run.  I quickly got a cup of gatorade, a couple chips and a piece of pbj and headed done a short gravel road section.

Loved the surge of energy being at the "finish" of the Seneca 50k course

The road section went quickly.  I ran off and on with several other runners chatting briefly but not finding a pace that fit with anyone else, I hit the trail ahead of the other runners and headed in alone.  I spent the majority of the race running alone.  Granted I ran briefly with Joe, Alan and Ed.  I shared several miles with trail brethren that I had only just met.   But for the most of the day I was alone with my thoughts.  The day was amazingly beautiful.  The quiet of running through the woods lost in my thoughts helps remind me why I do this.  Like the nut case that I am I prayed for loads of people while I was running.  It's amazing how the simple act of thinking of others can take your mind off your own temporary discomforts.  The woods was filled with inspiring views around every turn.

That "being home" feeling I have while running through the woods fills me with far more satisfaction than any road race PR has ever given me.  I know how blessed I am to be able to do these things.  Running trails reminds me to take time to focus on things that actually matter.  Its about more than just the distance.  It's about that connection with the simple things around me and how those things add joy to my life.  The sound of my feet on the fallen leaves, the smells of the forest, the frost on the morning trail as the sun rises and the lengthening shadows as the sun sets.  The ability to do this thing is not based solely on hours spent training, it stems from something inside each of us that carries us through and allow us to enjoy what others find difficult or seemly impossible. I am endless grateful that I am among those lucky few who get to be a part of this amazing journey.

Stone Mill has some of the very best aid stations.  While the goodies are fabulous and much appreciated and needed, it is really those faces and kind voices that make Stone Mill such a special event.  Every single aid station I went through someone was standing ready and asked me "what can I get for you?"  Seriously, I often was so caught off guard that I didn't know what to say.  Just the exchange of a few kind words sometimes was all I really needed.  But I also appreciated the cups of gatorade, one accidental cup of Mountain Dew, a cup of soda, a piece of banana, quarters of pbj, 4 olives, a handful of chips, 2 ginger cookies, a piece of cake, a cup of noodle soup, a cup of pasta veggie soup and 4 salt tabs.  There were so many more kinds of treats.  This year even bacon...some of it chocolate covered.  Saying thanks barely suffices to show my appreciation of the efforts volunteered by the over 70 volunteers. 

More hot soup, drop bags and wonderful volunteers.  Riffle Ford Rd Rocked!


Another highlight was running by the lake and remembering Sceneca 50k

One notable difference in my running of this year's Stone Mill 50 miler would be that nature never called.  During last year's extra long running as during most ultra length events I've done, nature always gives me a ring.  But this year, my cold symptoms aside, I felt great the entire time.  Every runner knows those "tummy" issues that can turn race day into a dash to find the nearest bathroom or large enough tree but Saturday I was the sitting by the proverbial phone because it never rang.

One of several deer that were sharing the trail with us

I ran into the Riffle Ford Road Aid station knowing that there now I only had a single digit count down to the finish, my drop bag was there, and there was again warm soup.  Two wonderful volunteers came up and offered to find my bag for me, while others offered me whatever fueling options I needed.  The mental boost was amazing to have the flood of interaction.  I only pulled my flashnight from my drop bag and then grabbed a cup of gatorade and a cup of soup.  Then I began the count down to the finsh.
I love all the different underpasses we run through

Before the race my mother was asking how long this race was. I told her it was 50 miles. She asked about how long to would take me to run. I started to attempt to explain how I really didn't know and speed wasn't really what I was doing it for when she said, wasn't the point to do it faster than the time before?  The conversation really got me thinking about what goals I really had for this race.  Frankly for nearly every ultra I run.  I'd love to go out and be able to run each 50k or 50 miler faster than the last one but there are just too many differences between courses, weather conditions, my own conditioning and my determination on any given day.  So although I had a plan to attempt to PR the distance and was on schedule to be within striking distance of that time goal at the halfway mark, course edits and two slow miles during the second half had pushed that goal out of sight. 

The look of a former road runner when they know their time goals won't happen

With strong miles to the RT 355 AS I arrived there with the sun up but knew that I still had 3 trail miles to go and would probably not make my "finish in day light" goal.  Diane was still there volunteering, she would end up putting in a 14 hour day.  Volunteers are the best!  We chatted briefing and she said all the right things to help encourage me to keep moving and stay positive.   

Thanks to everyone who stood in the cold just to document my day of fun

The last three miles went by so quickly as did the remaining daylight.  It felt at the time like I was pushing my pace but eventually I had to stop and pull out my light.  I ran alone with another runner close behind.  The day couldn't have gone much better.  It had been a reaffirming day on the trails.  And then with cheers filling my ears and a final push up one last hill, Stone Mill 2012 was done.

 Didn't quite beat that sunset
After chatting with friends briefly, I gathered my things and headed into the school to change and grab a bite to eat.  And share a few stories from my day on the trails and hear a few.  I was great to be able to clean up a bit and put on fresh clothes.  This really helps when you are running an ultra solo and have a long drive home after the race.  Many thanks to the RD, the many volunteers, MCRRC and sponsors for making Stone Mill a true ultra trail runners kind of event. 

2012 Stone Mill 50 Miler


  1. Shelly, what a beautiful report and I love reading all of yours as I feel I can experience your joy first hand. You are remarkable about seeing the blessings in each corner of life and congrats on a run well done!

  2. What a great recap. Sounds like a good race to do!

  3. Congrats on a great race, Shelly! Makes me want to jump over to an ultra. Love the recap, especially the trail descriptions. But what I especially love is your positive attitude. It's what running is all about, really.
    Cheers and awesome race!

    1. I wish I could remember a share everything that happens over such a distance but hopefully what I do share helps others looking into this race or into making the change from road racing to trails and ultras. Thanks!

  4. Fab race report! Made me feel as though I was running it with you!

  5. Nicely done! I was several hours behind you enjoying the race. I did not care for the road and tow path sections, but the rest was awesome. I thought the course was well marked out, then again, I'd run most of the course during training runs. I did go off path a few times after dark. Note to self, carry more than one light for night time races! This was a great first 50 miler for me. It's not too demanding, yet the rolling hills are enough to make it challenging. I can't wait until next year!

    1. James so glad you enjoyed it! I don't think I would have go off course as much as I did if I had been finding the trail myself. I fell into the old habit of "following" and that almost always leads to trouble. But it was kinda fun too. I also always make sure I have at least two lights. In my last spring race one of my headlamps won't turn on. I was so glad I had a back up!

  6. great report --- tnx, Shelly! --- I was there, but a couple of hours behind you (^_^) --- what a great day in the woods! ... ^z

  7. I'm so glad you had a great experience! Funny I hated those three miles or so on the C&O last year and then I did JFK which is 27 miles on the towpath, haha. I agree that SM is pretty runable! Especially compared to FOTM. Seeing the pictures brought back some memories and I am really sad I missed the chocolate covered bacon!