Stone Mill 50-miler

by Pat Mills

On one of the fine closing days of what has been a beautiful fall, I received my requested glass of milk. One can’t avoid the wise sequential logic of the children’s book, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, He’ll Want a Glass of Milk.” Earlier this fall I began plotting the season’s race calendar. As I typically enjoy doing, I searched out both a road marathon and a trail ultra, with the ultra to precede the marathon by about a month. This allows me to enjoy both types of competitions and to incorporate the ultra as my longest training run before tapering for the marathon. What better way to avoid yet another 20+-mile training run around the streets of Champaign-Urbana? With 49 marathons and 30 ultras (excluding the many full Riddle Runs and KRR Fat Asses) over the past 20 years, the local roads have become far too familiar.

The search of events first led me to the Baton Rouge Beach (Louisiana) Marathon in early December. This allowed me to satisfy a continuing objective of my long-distance race scheduling — the addition of a new state to my growing list (28 and counting). With that settled, I then needed to identify a 50K in early November that hopefully satisfied an even more important scheduling objective — the opportunity of visiting and running a bit with one of my “flownthe- coop” children. Unexpectedly, the search lead me down the rabbit hole of a 50-miler instead of the intended 50K. Seems I was off to the suburban D.C. community of Gaithersburg, MD, for the November 14th running of the Stone Mill 50. Having not run a race distance greater than 50K since 2008, and a bit nervous about the prospects, the “cookie” now required a “glass of milk.” I decided I now needed to train for and run a 50K in preparation for the 50-miler. That led me to the Farmdale (East Peoria) 30-miler in early October.  

In addition, my training plan needed to include more than my typical one to two weekday runs followed by the usual long run, which became progressively longer as marathon or ultra race day approached (you might now get a glimpse of the basis of my “Buffalo” moniker—Injury Prone). To survive the series of races, I would need to up my training to three to four weekday runs and plan on using all the allotted time for the 50K (9 hours) and 50-miler (13 hours). A good plan for a 64-year-old runner! If my own internal, but sometimes failing, sense of survival wasn’t enough, I had the iron hand of my “coach” – wife Julie/aka Edison Middle School cross country coach – bearing down on me. “You will run more during the week or you WILL get injured—again.”  

Fast forward two months and it seems common sense (sort of) and Coach Mills’ iron oversight certainly paid dividends. Despite the best of intentions, my competitive instincts took control once I crossed the starting line of the timed trail events. So much for the long, slow trail races that were to be my insurance policy for getting to the starting line of December’s marathon healthy. I found this old (and forever) “fart” finishing fifth overall in 6:24 (also first in age group) At mile 27, with a moment’s rest at the namesake Seneca Quarry facility (1868-1901) along the banks of the Potomac River and C&O canal. at Farmdale. This was followed by 76th out of 452 runners in 9:57 at Stone Mill (also first in age group and RRCA State 50 Mile Senior Grandmaster Champion). However, as fate would have it, I tweaked my back the week following Stone Mill in a simple case of stupid lifting practice at work (OK Coach, next time I’ll add “core” work to my training plan). This required a week-plus of super tapering (no running) and other therapeutic activities in the effort to toe the starting line of the marathon healthy and ready to race.  

With its encompassing heavily urbanized setting, the Stone Mill course was much more rural than one ever would have expected. This diverse nature of the course, along with the heartfelt sponsorship and support of two large D.C.-area RRCA clubs (Montgomery County Road Runners and Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, which puts on the Massanutten Mountain 100) and the overly cheap entry fee of $45, made this truly a run to remember and herald. The course started along a four-lane parkway at a suburban elementary school but ducked onto a singletrack trail in woods for most of its remaining 48 miles. Miles 1 to 10 continued along the wooded Seneca Creek Greenway Trail, where a combination of connecting trails and a 2-mile route along a commercial strip of highway led to the Muddy Creek Trail. The commercial route was surprisingly fun because of the great early Saturday morning stares by drivers at the streams of trail runners with hydrapacks, water bottles and such. Muddy Creek Trail continued its downstream trajectory to its juncture with the C&O Canal and the Potomac River at mile 24. Runners then followed the flat towpath for three miles between the scenic river and canal. At mile 27, the long upstream (but almost imperceptible) climb back to the finish line proceeded along the Seneca Greenway Trail. Along both the Seneca and Muddy Creek Trails, the wooded pathway fluctuated from sections where you felt fully immersed in woods to sections where $500,000 homes hugged the parkway boundary within about a quartermile of the runners.  

For the duration of the run, I maintained a generally consistent pace that allowed miles-long conversations with a number of different runners. While I didn’t meet any Midwest runners and only noted a few from the Chicago area in the registration listing, I did manage to enjoy great running chats with a fellow geologist whose wife was from Hoopeston and another that spent some time at Rantoul’s Chanute Air Force Base before it closed. Better yet, my daughter met me at several spots along the course – and included separate runs of about 3 and 4 miles (this against her doctor’s orders following recent surgery — Injury Prone Jr.?). I also stumbled upon her two ultrarunning friends and enjoyed getting to know them from about mile 17 to 24.  

My run turned into a race at mile 47. If I had a chance of remaining in any self-perceived contention for an age group award and of finishing under 10 hours, I needed to RUN the remaining miles and all of its contained hills. Heck of a time for that! Upon arrival at the mile 47 aid station, Maggie was there to insist I move quickly on, while I tried to obtain the necessary fluids and snacks for the effort. Shortly down the trail, I identified another graying runner several hundred yards ahead. Great. I’d rather throw Grabbing a quick bite of bacon and grilled cheese at mile 27. Pat with daughter Maggie (left) at mile 17, along with her running friends from D.C., Al and Betsy Campos. in the towel than have a head-to-head race for the final two miles of a 50-mile run. Fortunately I was moving along a bit faster than he was, so I caught him at mile 48. However, as I passed him I fell at his feet (the sixth, as is my MO). He graciously helped me to my feet as I lay on my back staring up at him. Getting up and thanking him for his graciousness, I scampered off down the trail feeling quite guilty. Thankfully he assuaged some of that guilt by later informing me that he walked much of the remaining course (finishing 7 minutes behind me).

This story originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of In Passing.