The Seneca Creek 50k: The Day I Didn’t Get Eaten by Suburban Mountain Lions

(Written for and published in Tri-DC Magazine)
In high school I set a personal goal for myself never to run a marathon. For years I successfully accomplished this goal, but it wasn’t easy. On four occasions I had planned on doing a marathon, and then found a reason not to. Injuries, lack of motivation, and disinterest all helped me stick to my goal of never running a marathon. I didn’t run the Myrtle Beach Marathon twice. Impressive isn’t it? However, this past March I began my fifth attempt and came my closest yet to running a marathon. I actually started the race this time, but at the very last minute I decided that the marathon was not for me and ran a 50K instead.
As I stood around and waited for the start of the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon and 50K I looked at the other runners milling around. Everyone looked pretty casual, like how your neighbor might look just heading out the door for an easy run. Sizing up the competition, they didn’t look so tough. But then I remembered that the short option for this trail race was a marathon, and that most of the people here would be doing a 50K. I’m not sure what I pictured ultra-runners to look like, but I guess it was somehow more than skinny people in t-shirts and shorts with simple waist packs and fuel belts. They looked so unintimidating and casual that I had to remind myself that many of these people had completed 50 and 100 mile races, and despite my grand confidence in my running abilities, that maybe I should perhaps be a little intimidated, or at least maybe a little nervous. Up until this point, the longest race I had ever run was a half-marathon.
However, somehow I was not nervous or intimidated. The culture of a trail run vs. a road race is a little like when the skeptic east coast city person is shocked by a stranger on the street saying hello while visiting a small southern town. “Do you know that person? Why did they say hi to us? Are you sure that you don’t know them?” Similarly, the trail runners are a more laid back friendly bunch. At road races, most people seem to keep to themselves, and at triathlons people seem to be literally flexing their muscles trying to look tough. People push around bikes with wheels that cost more than my mortgage and water bottle cages that cost more than my groceries for two weeks. Clothes with more technology than my eight year old laptop adorn the bodies of most, while at a trail run you probably don’t want to wear your best gear because there is a pretty good chance that your favorite shirt will come back mud covered and possibly with holes in it. Maybe even bloody. Maybe it won’t even make it back at all. You really can never be sure what might happen.
Soon after the start of the race I began pacing off of two guys. After a few miles I figured that I should say something rather than be that weird girl staying right behind them and obviously within earshot of their conversations that consisted of topics ranging from the terrible hotel they stayed in last year, to teaching sex education to 5th graders. We chatted for a bit, and it turned out that we had been to several of the same trail runs in Pennsylvania over the past few years, including some of my all time favorites such as the Mt. Penn Mudfest and the Half-wit Half-Marathon. I am learning that the trail running world is a small one.
I was at this particular trail run because training to run 26.2 miles of paved roads around in a circle at a pace of about eight minutes and twenty two seconds per mile seemed awfully boring. Instead I was opting to run a bit farther point to point through the woods from Damascus Regional Park to Riley’s Lock in Maryland at the mercy of trail conditions and weather. This really sounded much more fun to me. I pictured big hills, rocks, creek crossings, and possibly even wild animals (I had heard a story about a deer from the year before). In previous trail races I have had interesting experiences such as navigating trails in the dark, sections of trail that required climbing or sliding rather than running, knee deep creek crossings, interesting weather, and a runner wearing a pig hat and singing songs about Pennsylvania. My road race experiences pale in comparison in the category of “interesting.”
Surprisingly however, running 31 miles actually turned out to be a little boring. No monstrous hills to exaggerate later, all of the creek crossings could successfully be done without even getting my feet wet, minimal amounts of mud, perfect weather, and no wild animals. Well, almost no wild animals. There was an unexplained group of muddy people wearing deer antlers who looked like they had been in the woods all night. They obviously were not expecting us.
I went through the first rest stop about 10 minutes earlier than my very conservative estimate, shocking my friend Diane who barely had time to find her camera. The trail was pretty tame, which contributed to my faster than expected pace. However, if the trail was as difficult as I am used to doing over the steep hills and technical trails of Pennsylvania, I would probably still be out there. So really, the “easy” trail was a good thing. Still, I must admit that I am a little disappointed that I can’t report trail conditions such as steep hills, covered in roots, covered in rocks, covered in wet leaves, with icy rain and piercing wind. Instead, it was more of a “beautiful spring day with birds chirping along a peaceful wooded trail” type experience. Not as dramatic, but a little more pleasant for a long day of running.

Perhaps I should go back to how I succeeded in not running a marathon on this fine spring day. Leading up to the race I constantly fluctuated between the marathon and the 50K option. In the weeks leading to the race I may have told someone I was doing a 50K or a marathon, depending on which mood they happened to catch me in. That morning, I was the mood for the marathon. However, talking to my new running buddies swayed me back to the 50K once again. I don’t exactly recommend this race strategy. At mile 15 I had to make the final decision on if I wanted to take the trip around the lake that added the extra few miles for the difference between the marathon and the 50K. When I arrived at the aid station and decision point, a volunteer told me that one woman was ahead of me for the marathon but I would be the first to start the 50K. How could I resist being in the lead? So I turned left instead of right and went for 31 miles instead of 27. Shortly after making the decision, I turned back around and grabbed a handful of cookies. I was going to need more food.

This decision slightly messed up my friends who were there to watch the race. When I showed up to mile 20 later than planned, I causally informed my friend that “Oh, I decided to do the 50K,” like it was no big surprise. I wasn’t that surprised. He may not have known about my personal vendetta with the marathon.
Shortly after the decision point I caught sight of Dan, one of the guys from earlier. I had lost the two of them around mile 11. I expected that in a race of this size and length I would be running alone a lot. However that was not the case. Instead, I probably ran with Dan for about 20 miles. It certainly helped to have someone to entertain me. Also, as I started to get tired, it was comforting to know that he was tired too, because 50 and 100 milers were really more his thing apparently. I stuck with him until at least mile 26. I just remember him saying that he thought I had run my first marathon by now, and me grumbling something about how I could have been finished by now.
As walking started to hurt just as much as running, I began to question my sanity. And when I wanted to lay down on the trail and to be left to the mountain lions (which may or may not exist in that part of Maryland) I thought about how not a day went by in high school cross country that I would question what I was doing, and then think that I would quit the team immediately following my run, or that I would not mind getting hit by a car because that would mean that I could stop running. But I never did stop running and, thankfully, I still have yet to be hit by a car. And even more thankfully, my bones are not being chewed up by mountain lions somewhere along a 31 mile stretch of trail in Maryland.
I eventually slipped from first to fourth for the women to finish with a time of 5:43. I emerged from the woods in slight disbelief that such a race would ever really end. As I neared the finish I was pretty sure I heard more than the two people I came to the race with cheering me in. Those friendly trail runners at it again! After crossing the finish line, I promptly declared my potential need for therapy to my friends. But surely I wasn’t totally crazy if over 200 other people were out there with me. Why would all these people come to run about 27 or 31 miles on trails through the woods at a race that gives out nothing but a race number at a time of year where the weather could be anything from 70 degrees and sunny to inches of snow (which both occurred in that week) along the outskirts of the D.C. metro area in Maryland? Because these people just really love running, and for some reason so do I. They weren’t there for medals or t-shirts, just for a good run.
So I may not have had a medal to grab at the end, but I am not sure that a medal really could have summarized the experience anyway. A muddy pile of leaves and some sticks may have been more appropriate, but I don’t really have a good place to display such a thing anyway. And I may not have a t-shirt that is probably too big for me to proudly wear to bed, but that t-shirt’s eventual fate would likely have been to clean my bike, ending its life chopped up and covered in black grime. Which now that I think about it, could be a similar fate if worn trail running.
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