Running 50 miles @ Stone Mill

Stone Mill 50 Mile 2021 – Photo by Dan Reichmann, MCRRC

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). 

Runners, go!

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. 

Highlights … 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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!! 
  5. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

Training plan

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. Walking the hills is a smart plan at this distance.  
  4. 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.
  5. 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. 
  6. HYDRATE. Tailwind to start then water or gatorade-water mix.
  7. 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. 
  8. Arriving early on race day is smart in order to get a decent place to park. 
  9. Tapering doesn’t feel good but it’s necessary. 
  10. 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. 

Course stats

Day of

  • 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

Living Smarter on the Planet

Convincing people to care about nature is a cornerstone of the modern conservation movement. In theory, if enough people care about nature then businesses and governments will respond with products and policies that create a better world while bending our behavior towards greener options.

But caring isn’t enough. We cannot ‘care’ our way out of losing the spaces and species that sustain life. Nor can we expect policy alone to carry us to a better future. Policy is fickle and policy positions swing wildly with election cycles and the ebb and flow of public support. The public can rally at key moments to exert influence and tip the scales. But without steady pressure our world resets to the current and unsustainable state.

It’s time to think differently about how to live smarter on the planet. There is a better future that balances the needs of people and planet but we won’t get there with the same systems and thinking that created our current situation. What if we could make the planet better without people needing to care?

This is where biomimicry comes in. Biomimicry is a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve our design challenges by drawing on nature’s 3.8BN years of research and development. Unfortunately the biomimicry mindset isn’t commonly understood. To close this gap, “The New Darwins” was conceived as a mini-series to raise awareness of biomimicry and how biomimcs are designing a more resilient world. This series elevates and celebrates stories of well-adapted species that have perfected strategies for life on earth and forward-thinking people translating nature’s genius into products, systems, and processes that solve real-world challenges and create a sustainable future now. 

Biomimicry holds the answers to a future that balances the needs of people and planet. As more and more companies embrace this philosophy, climate and biodiversity issues resolve themselves through virtue of thriving economies and communities that are part of nature rather than apart from it. 

Driving Innovation at United Way

As the world’s largest nonprofit, United Way is a trusted partner by more than 400 of the Fortune 500. These corporate partnerships flourish because United Way is highly effective at  stewarding corporate philanthropy towards meaningful results. But internal reporting indicated United Way’s corporate partners were looking for more from the partnership — they needed a trusted philanthropic adviser and solution provider in employee engagement, reputation, and impact.

From the premise of ‘How might we become a trusted philanthropic adviser and solution provider to our corporate partners?’ we identified the SDGs as a promising idea.

The global goals are the greatest opportunity of our lifetime but they cannot succeed without business leadership. Yet many US corporations don’t see a clear path of how to deliver global impact while upholding their CSR commitments. United Way is already managing the complexity of delivering impact on a global scale.

With that in mind I applied to the +Acumen Earned Income Accelerator program. We were accepted into the program and I conducted an open-call across the organization to find new allies beyond the usual high-performers. After completing 20 interviews I formed the project team and guided us through the 6 week program. We continually tested our idea for desirability (is this a real need in the market), feasibility (can we implement it) and viability (can we sustain the idea financially).

Leveraging United Way’s connections we conducted interviews with the CEO of Honest Tea, the VP of CSR at Kellogg’s, the VP of Sustainability for CBRE, and the VP of Impact for Turner Broadcasting. In each case we honed our vision. 

The outcome was consulting service designed to accelerate business outcomes through the sustainable development goals. The SDGs represent how the world measures impact on a global scale, but they are also complex at the measures level. From interviews with CSR leaders at global corporations we learned that because of this complexity many corporations are uncertain about how to map the goals to their activities. 

Sustainability is in United Way’s DNA. For 130 years, United Way has strengthened communities around the world. The organization builds stronger communities at an unmatched scale, impacting millions of lives every year through early childhood success, youth opportunity, economic mobility and access to health. Annually, United Way invests $5B dollars through 1800 local United Ways located in 40 countries working with 60,000 corporate partners, 280 Fortune 500 companies, 8 million donors and 3 million volunteers.  

When it comes to delivering impact in local communities at scale, no other organization has the expertise and success of United Way. The SDG Accelerator consulting service is designed to bring that same expertise to corporate partners.

SDG Accelerator 2018 Pitch Deck

The Agile Family

We recently started an experiment to bring about order in our house and improve the daily routine with two young kids under 8 years and  two working parents. Given my experience in agile software development, product management, and Kanban I am wired to think of my work in terms of a prioritized backlog with a visual flow of the work process.

As my family grew and aged we needed new tools to better manage everything. I tried to use online calendars and checklists but these always had the critical point of failure of not working well with young kids  We needed an information radiator that would help us manage the chaotic and stressful morning and evening routines. It needed to be flexible, colorful, fun and instantly understandable.

Inspiration came one day after visiting a cousin with similarly-aged children and a suggestion to check out Bruce Feiler’s TED talk on managing the chaos of family life.

Equipped with fresh inspiration and deep toolbox from agile facilitation I set to work. This version of the board is basic and effective — clipart pictures make it easy to understand at glance. And the limited set of priorities clearly defines what matters most while allowing each kid agency on what to tackle when so long as the board is clear each day.

Visualizing work helps me and my family manage what needs to be done, connect authentically as a family and minimize nagging.

Blue Media Lab: Experiments in Storytelling

In 2015, and again in 2016, the World Economic Forum declared the water crisis to be the number one threat facing the world today. Despite this, most of us are completely unaware that the water crisis even exists.

It’s time to wake up to the water crisis and to create the demand for a better future. Blue Media Lab believes the best way to do this is through powerful stories delivered across mass media.

Blue Media Lab will surface the most effective narratives for telling this story and driving change. The purpose is to inspire and then activate large global audiences to the dangers of — and solutions for — the global water crisis.

In 2020, two ideas incubated by Blue Media Lab have since become PBS miniseries (The Age of NatureThe Molecule That Made Us).

 Blue Media Lab Story  |  Blue Media Lab Videos

Minimizing ivory poaching in Tanzania’s National Parks

In December of 2014, The Nature Conservancy sent me to Tanzania on a fellowship to collaborate with Tanzania National Parks Authority and establish  a business case for maximizing TANAPA’s use of existing GIS investments to minimize elephant ivory poaching. I applied my Swahili-language skills and knowledge of Tanzanian culture and customs to build productive relationships and define a theory of change in collaboration with TANAPA colleagues.

Subsequently TNC and Esri implemented a pilot solution in Tarangire National Park that tested the capacity for managing ranger patrol data in near real time,  centralizing data at TANAPA HQ, and then summarizing data via dashboards for park managers.

We also coordinated with Wildlife Conservation Society on plans for a nationwide rollout of SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) across 16 national parks in Tanzania.

Theory of Change model

Source of You: Life is a Blue Line

Life cannot exist without water. But in many places water is in scarce supply. Or is too contaminated to use. Or is unpredictably abundant, eroding livelihoods and scouring landscapes through incomprehensible floods. We protect what we value. And though water is essential to survival, for most of us water lacks value; few know the source of their water beyond the tap. Source of You changes that.

Source of you educates, inspires, and moves new audiences to understand where their water comes from through media, storytelling, and sharable content as a vital step toward valuing water and fresh water conservation.
Find your source

Innovating with JPMorgan Chase on solutions that benefit nature and people

In 2012 The Nature Conservancy formed an experimental partnership with JPMorgan Chase & Co. through their Technology for Social Good program. This program partners JPMorgan Chase staff with non-profits using technology to explore innovative solutions to business challenges. In this case, we partnered with them to explore innovative opportunities for leveraging technology to reconnect urban populations to nature.

In November 2012 I joined a weekend-long Code for Good hackathon at the London JPMorgan Chase headquarters. Nearly 100 students from leading technical colleges around the U.K. competed on solutions that would broaden our constituency for conservation through technology. The winning solution used augmented reality and gamification concepts to enable stewardship and promote green living via mobile devices.

We built on this concept by aligning with TNC’s Healthy Urban Trees initiative to prototype a tighter concept that focused on getting people out into nature within cities by encouraging them to run, walk, meditate, relax and connect with others.

Prototype | Visual mockups

Passion & Purpose: Inspiring Change Through Media

We relate to our world through stories, and storytelling is a powerful tool for communicating science in a relatable way that ultimately changes hearts and minds. As part of the Global Water Summit, The Nature Conservancy’s Global Water Team hosted a 1-day workshop called Passion and Purpose: Inspiring Change Through Media. We convened industry-leading minds and creative talent to show through concrete examples and lively discussions how to achieve organizational goals using storytelling and meaningful activations that lead to real change.
Watch recorded sessions