50 Miles! It’s a lot to run and now that my first 50-mile ultra is behind me here’s a recap of the race, my training, and what I learned.
For a first-attempt at 50 miles, the Stone Mill 50 mile race is a perfect course. Tucked into the forested nooks and crannies of suburban Washington, D.C. the trail snakes its way along both the Seneca Greenway and Muddy Branch trails in Montgomery County, Maryland. Several small stream crossings keep it interesting as the single track dirt (and roots and rocks!) trail traverses mile upon mile of rolling terrain through hardwood forests. November is the ideal time of year for this race when fall colors are at peak and the temperatures are ideal. And you can’t get too lost because you’re never far from a suburban backyard.
For 2021, race day was Saturday, 13 November and the forecast was favorable with temps ranging from 41 to 51 and occasional rain for a few hours. I arrived early to get a parking spot at Stedwick Middle School (a short walk across a field to the start line) and to give me enough time to check-in, get my bib and attach my timing chip to my shoes. Newbie lesson: make sure to secure the timing chip to the FRONT of your shoe, not on the side. If the chip is on the side the timing system doesn’t always read your time (as I found out when crossing the finish line).
Starting promptly at 6am with headlamps blazing, we spilled into the street and pushed for the trail entrance 1.25 miles ahead. During this stretch I slurped down a gel and kept a modest pace and low heart rate. Before long we reached the trail and quickly fell in line on the single track. I downed another shot of fuel and kept moving with the group, enjoying the conversation and camaraderie. At one point the trail descended around a hairpin turn and I caught a glimpse of the long column of runners behind and ahead of me while dots of light flowed from hundreds of headlamps like a ribbon and bathed the trail in a surreal and serene glow.
From here on out the rolling hills provided multiple opportunities to pass or be passed depending on your strategy. I chose to speed walk up most hills and only passed when other racers had a much slower walking pace. This strategy served me well and I had gas in the tank for a sprint at the end to the finish line.
In a nutshell, that’s Stone Mill — 50 miles of rolling hills through hardwood forests and multiple stream crossings. For the unfamiliar it might sound monotonous, but in reality it’s quite incredible. The word I use when describing the experience is “euphoric”! The rich fall color, forested single track, rolling hills, stream crossings, high-powered aid stations, camaraderie of fellow racers, and joy of being in the forest made for a quick day.
- Camaraderie. After 6 months and 1200 training miles, it was exhilarating to finally be on the trail connecting with fellow racers and sharing the experience.
- The scenery especially Lake Clopper at mile 7. Beautiful forest and lake views as the trail flows along the edge of the lake for several miles.
- Pennyfield Lock aid station at mile 24. In addition to the first drop bag of food and gear, a large crew of enthusiastic volunteers was ready to keep me racing. At least three or four volunteers were helping retrieve my drop bag, fill my water bottles, tell me my food choices, and stash my gear. And all of it with huge smiles!
- All eleven aid stations and the volunteers were amazing and each is an experience. One early aid station blasted me with horns and DJ beats that jolted my senses, got me smiling, and propelled me forward faster. Volunteers at each aid station bring energy like a super-fuel. Speaking of fuel, most of the aid stations offered all sorts of fuel including avocado toast, quesadillas, soup, pickle juice and even Fireball in addition to copious amounts of candy, cookies, and soda. Enticing, but risky. I stuck to my plan of eating only the foods I used in training because training is when I figured out that some foods (like protein bars!) are not great running food. Bleagh!!
- Finishing!! Eventually (and after so many uphills!) the trail spits you out onto the pavement for the last push (uphill!) to the finish line and beer. Pizza! Relief! The most obvious highlight, made better by a surprise appearance from my family to cheer me on for the final push!
… and some lowlights
- Flats! The hardest segment for me was between miles 24 – 28 right after the Pennyfield Lock aid station. This segment is a straight, flat slog along the C&O towpath for 3+ miles. It’s sorta scenic and the lack of roots and rocks means you can let down your guard and open your stride a bit, but it’s tedious and unending. Until it ends near mile 28 with a quick jaunt through an old stone mill, the namesake of the race, and another aid station.
- Hills! After Stone Mill at mile 28, the remainder of the course has a net elevation gain of about 300’ (1,800’ ascent, 1,500’ descent) over 23 miles with predominantly rolling hills. It doesn’t seem like much elevation gain but the the constant rolling hills take a toll!
My training plan was 24 weeks with a typical 3-week build, 1-week recovery cycle and a peak mileage of 71 miles including several back-to-back long runs of 20-26 miles and the longest run of 50k done 4 weeks before race day.
The first twelve weeks included speed and hill training; the final twelve were all about piling on big miles. In total the plan had 114 training runs and about 1,200 training miles. Most of my miles were road miles until the final 5 weeks before the race where I shifted to trail miles. I didn’t follow a prescribed training plan but instead merged a few plans that I found online to create something that seemed achievable given my own context and commitments.
Prior race experience
Leading up to this effort, I previously finished one marathon (Lewa Safari Marathon), one 50k (Seneca Creek Greenway 50k) and have been running regularly since 2017.
What I learned
- Be patient and composed. 50M is a long race and it’s ok to be conservative for the first 15M or so. Especially on this course where the return is a net uphill and with a lot of rolling hills. Many people passed me at the start and I passed a lot of those people later on.
- Run your race even at the finish. In the final .2 mile I caught up to a guy that was struggling. I had gas in the tank and joked with him about how it’s a jacka** move to pass someone this close to the end and he’s like nah man go get it. Turns out he started further behind me in the pack so his net was still way ahead of mine — perhaps he knew he was ahead anyway!
- Walking the hills is a smart plan at this distance.
- Fueling: I started fueling early and regularly, but took care to not overdo it. A rule of thumb I use is that the body can handle about 250 calories / hour and I’ve learned that for me it gets harder and harder to eat as the miles accumulate, so I started fueling within the first mile and kept it up until about mile 40 when my body was done with food.
- Stick to my foods — don’t eat anything from the aid stations that weren’t part of my training menu. Cliff blocks were great, same for Huma. The thick / gooey GU was gross. SIS is also good b/c it’s more drinkable.
- HYDRATE. Tailwind to start then water or gatorade-water mix.
- Aid stations can be a little overwhelming with so many people wanting to help you so have a plan, stay focused, get fuel/liquid and get out. I don’t think I spent more than a minute at the aid stations other than drop bag 1 where I spend about 5 minutes changing gear.
- Arriving early on race day is smart in order to get a decent place to park.
- Tapering doesn’t feel good but it’s necessary.
- The listed race distance is often SHORT…Stone Mill is nearly 52M according to my Garmin GPS! OMG that matters so much when your GPS tells you you’re at mile 50 but the finish is nowhere in sight.
- Drop bags: mile 24ish (Pennyfield lock) and mile 42ish (Riffleford Rd).
- Aid stations: Approximately miles: 4, 11.7, 15, 17.4, 24.3, 27.8, 34.3, 37.2, 42, and 46.
- Elevation: 3845 ft
- Stone Mill 50-mile course as a downloadable GPX
- Weather: Broken clouds, 41°F – 51°F, spotty rain from 11am – 1pm. Occasional sun.
- Gear: long sleeve tech shirt over long sleeve base layer, gloves, shorts; La Sportiva Bushido II shoes / Injinji socks