Last weekend was my second running of the Catoctin 50K or what I’m sure will become known as the COVID CAT50K. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the race was quite a bit different than last year’s race. Here a just a couple of the changes:

  • No official start time. You could start whenever you wanted though the aid stations were only open certain times.
  • No official start line. You could start anywhere on the out-in-back course as long as you finished where you started.
  • No tracking of runners. We submitted our times online after we were done but needed to finish inside 9 hours 15 minutes to be official finishers.
  • Face mask (or buff) must be used in aid stations.
  • Hand sanitizer must be carried and shown to RD during the run.
  • Aid stations had strict protocols to maintain social distancing.
  • No post race BBQ or t-shirts.
  • No bibs. We needed to mark ourselves

Oh and the course changed directions this year running from Manor Parking Area in Cunningham Falls State Park to High Knob.

The Start

With no official start time, I got to the Manor Parking Area a little after 6am with the thought of starting early. I was far from the only one with this idea as the lot was mostly full when I pulled in. After a quick trip to the restroom, I checked in with the lady near the trail head. I then grabbed my gear and walked up to what I assumed was the start since there wasn’t a line or anything.

Catoctin Blue Trail, here I come.

A little ways up the trail, I ducked under a tree with a blue ribbon tied around it and continued following the blue trail up. It T-ed into a another trail with a sign noting blue trail “N” to the left. I paused as I thought we were supposed to be heading south, but race description was extra long this year with the changes and I wasn’t completely sure. There were a couple girls right behind me and I asked if we were going the right direction. They said we’re to take the blue trail so I let them pass and followed along after them.

Trail up Bob’s Hill. It’s much steeper than it looks.

A mile or so further along I passed another runner who was slowly making his way up this monstrous climb. There was a sign at the top noting this was Bob’s Hill and remembered that from the website as something new we were doing this year. Another mile or so further and Tim came up behind me so now there was 4 of us within eyesight of each other.

And soon there was five. Unfortunately, Andrew was coming towards us saying he thought we were off course. He had downloaded the course onto his watch and it was telling him we were 2.5 miles off course. Tim pulled out a paper map he had printed out and we tried to decide what to do. There was road right ahead that might cut over. Or maybe we should backtrack to where we went off course. I was very hesitant to cut the course and we all decided to turn around.

Andrew took off up the trail like a bat out of hell and was out of site within several minutes. One of the girls had a phone and was trying to text/call her crew who was supposed to be following along after them. I started pushing the pace a bit as the trail math I was doing looked pretty sketchy for a finish. Let’s see. Last year I had a 45 minute buffer on the 9 hour 15 minute cutoffs or about 3 miles at the pace I ran it. I’ve just added 5 miles to my day, which means I need to be at least 30 minutes faster. The weather was expected to be marginally cooler (90 degrees vs. 95 degrees) and maybe I’m in a little better shape. Maybe being the key word here.

We all hit six miles and started looking for the missing turnoff. Seven miles came and went and still no side trail. Now I’m thinking I may as well just go back to the beginning and start again as there’s no way I can do an extra 8 miles within the allotted time. Tim and I turned right at the “N” sign and headed back to the parking lot. And there it was. The turnoff heading south. Fifty stinking yards from where we started. I kid you not. I felt great at this point so was able to laugh it off and joke about what a great story this would make.

The missed turn. If only there was a sign. Or some course markings. Sigh.

Warm-up: 8.84 miles – 1:59:21 time – 13:30 pace – 1,818 feet of elevation gain

The Start: Part II

Tim went back to his car to top up his fluids. My bottles were still half full so I decided to turn right around and start again. I made the left after crossing under the fallen tree and noticed about a hundred ribbons marking the trail leading up to the first stream crossing. Sigh. At this point, I still thought the bonus miles were more humorous than not though all those markings would have been taunting me if that wasn’t the case.

You hit your first stream crossing within the first quarter mile.

The 2 girls caught up and passed me early on the first climb. The grade isn’t too bad, but it’s pretty consistent for the first three miles or so. The nice thing about the new course direction is that you get most of your elevation gain in during the first half. My Garmin measured total elevation gain at 5587 feet with 3200+ feet on the outbound section.

Catoctin 50K elevation profile. Manor to High Knob to Manor.

Even though my legs were starting to feel a little tired, I was able to move well over this first section. The first aid station at Delauter Rd is really more like 7 miles than 6 though and I ended up running out of fluids a little before I came in. It wasn’t too bad though and I knew I had only a short 3 mile section until the next aid station. It looks like they’ve recently created a new trail section out of the woods here where before you used to start on a fire road.

Heading into the first aid station.

It was definitely starting to heat up by the time I rolled into the Hamburg Rd. aid station so I made sure to get ice in both my bottles. A volunteer was nice enough to put some in my buff as well. None of the food looked appetizing so passed on adding more calories here outside the soda in my bottles. Probably a mistake, but that’s how these things go.

Most of the blazes are more faded than this so it’s sometimes a game of Where’s Waldo.

The next section is probably the hardest on the course. It has the steepest climbs and they just seem relentless after you’ve been going at it for a couple hours. Or even a couple hours more than that as was the case for me.

The trail is pretty well blazed, but there are a couple turns that are a little spotty. the worst one is a mile or 2 out from High Knob. On a straight section, the trail angles off to the left, but you have to look around the corner before you can see a blaze. Luckily, I remembered this section from last year so didn’t add any more bonus mileage to my day.

I was really worked over by the time I got up to the turnaround. I drank to thirst over this section and almost went through 48oz before I got to the turnaround. I took a couple extra minutes there chatting with the nice aid station volunteers. The breeze coming through the trees felt absolutely wonderful and I really, really, really wanted to just stay and hang out.

As I was heading out, one of the volunteers asked if I wanted a popsicle. It sounded like the best thing in the world right then and ended up being twice that good. I grabbed one at each of the next aid stations and they did a great job of cooling me down.

Heading down off High Knob.

The other change I made on the second half was to up my electrolyte intake. I started popping an S!cap every mile or so and my legs really loosened up for me. I went from an almost shuffle to a decent approximation of a running stride. This helped keep me from tripping so much. I must have caught a toe 8-10 times before the halfway point including once where I hit the dirt. The return trip only had a couple stumbles. The RD says you can’t run head down meaning you’ll miss course markings. But if you run it heads up you’ll end up tripping and falling so you just have to pick your poison and deal with it.

I passed a couple people in each section heading back. My group of five were probably the last ones to start out that morning from Manor and I was flying along. I caught up to one last runner crossing the stream at the end and it turns out to be Andrew who saved me from even more bonus mileage at the start. We finished together and chatted a bit walking over to the pavilion where Kevin, the RD, was finishing packing things up. The aid station was completely put away, but he as he handed us our Cat Cards he mentioned there was still a bunch of popsicles left over. The perfect end to a great day of running.

Actual race: 32.64 miles – 8:25:47 time – 15:30 pace – 5,587 feet of elevation gain

For those that are interested in signing up for Catoctin, my advice is to treat this as an adventure run and not a race. You will not be setting any land speed records on this course. I now have ten 50K finishes to my credit. Eight of them have been in the 5:45-6:45 range and the 2 Cats have both been at 8.5 hours plus or minus. So if you’re up for a challenge, this race is definitely that. Plus it has that old school ultra vibe, which I love about this community. I’ll definitely be back for another go in the future.

tl;dr 9 mile warm-up; got hot; popsicles rule; strong finish; volunteers were great.

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