Saturday was my third running of the Cat50K. 2019 (aka HellCat) was the last year in the old direction. Last year (aka CovidCat) was the first year starting from Manor Parking Area in Cunningham Falls State Park. The course is an out-and-back to the High Knob area in Gambrill State Park. My Garmin has measured this as 32.6, 32.9, and 33.2 miles so don’t be surprised when it takes you 16.5 miles to reach the halfway point. There are 2 intermediate aid stations that I had right at miles 7 and 10 heading out.

Catoctin 50K elevation profile. 5600 feet total elevation gain with 3200 outbound and 2400 on the way back.

As the race is typically held the second Saturday of July, you had best have a solid strategy to deal with the heat. We were lucky that the temperatures started in the mid-60s and only got up into the mid-80s during the afternoon. The trails are almost completely shaded and there is normally a nice breeze up along the ridge so the course feels cooler than the stated temperatures. You only really feel it at the lower elevations.

The trails can get a little technical in places.

The pre-race briefing started about 7:15am with a group picture by the RD. He then gave a couple comments, highlighted a couple runners that have finished 14 or 15 times, and then as his tradition shouted “go” before anyone knew what was coming. Unlike in prior years, there was no beginning loop around the parking lot. Just a mass of runners elbowing their way up the 100 foot drive to the trailhead. There’s no passing on the first quarter to half mile, but then the trail opens up a little and you can work your way around people.

There are a couple short “road” sections along the course.

As you can see from the course profile above, the first five miles are pretty much a steady climb. The first 2 miles are the worst at about 400 feet gain each, but the trail isn’t too steep. The temperatures were also cooler than we’ve experienced recently and I’m sure that contributed to my solid start.

There are plenty of runnable sections along the course.

I was still good on fluids so blew through the first aid station without slowing down much as it was only a short 3 miles till the next one. I stopped at that one though to top up my fluids and grabbed some ice for my buff, hat, and bottles. It was starting to get a little warm and I wanted to stay ahead of the heat as much as possible.

The next section was full of 2-way traffic as the Half Cat runners were heading in the opposite direction. The narrow trails made for some tight passing, but it was good to offer and receive encouragement from other runners. And while I wasn’t blazing along by any stretch of the imagination, I was able to pass a couple people heading into the turnaround as I was climbing much better than I normally do.

I love a fern forest floor.

At the High Knob aid station, I took a couple extra minutes to get myself situated as I knew the next section was going to be the hardest. There are many times in races where I blow through aid stations way too fast and end up forgetting something important. I didn’t want that to happen not so much because I was worried about time (I was already 30 minutes ahead of prior year splits), but because I wanted to enjoy the last half of the run. I was a little fearful of a being reduced to a death march and wanted to avoid that if at all possible.

Some more smooth running.

I started counting down the miles to Hamburg aid station not too long after getting back out onto the trail. This is typically not a good sign for me, but there weren’t many other runners around by this point so it gave me something to do.

I spent some extra time at both the Hamburg and Delauter aid stations. My brain basically shut off for a spell at the latter as I couldn’t decide what I wanted or needed. Then I heard the magical word (“popsicle”) and I got a nice mental reset. I grabbed one, iced up for the last time, and shuffled back onto the trail for the last section.

All downhill from here.

I’m always amazed how my definition of runnable changes as I progress through an ultra. The drop down into the finish at Manor isn’t too steep nor is it too technical. Yet in my next to last mile, which had zero feet of elevation gain, I managed to only knock out a 13 minute mile. I wasn’t walking too much, but my pace just slowed way down. I guess all the miles and heat had finally taken their toll on me.

And then I was across the stream, back into the parking lot, and up to the pavilion for the finish line and my Cat Card. There were a bunch of people hanging out with a nice spread of food. I can’t say enough good things about this race. Kevin Sayers and his volunteers put on an amazing, low key event that probably hasn’t changed much in the almost 30 years that it’s been held. This is a hard course with always hot weather, but is definitely worth the effort. I know I’ll be back again.

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