My good friends Micah and Kristen kindly allowed Jen and me to crash at their place in Newburyport, MA the night before. We rose at 4:30 a.m. and spent about an hour eating, dressing, toe lubing, Body Gliding, and making frequent visits to the bathroom, then zipped south the twenty minutes or so to the Doyon School adjacent to Willowdale State Forest in Ipswich. Registration was a breeze, and the bathroom lines weren’t too long, so without much ado and before I knew it I was out in the playing field behind the school watching the 50-milers take off at 6:15. The weather was incredibly nice: 60 degrees, light warm breeze, and not too humid.
At 6:30 we were off. I decided to start close to the front and go out strong to avoid getting stuck behind slower runners in the eventual pinch-down. The strategy worked well; we ran around the field once and people seemed to spread out sensibly according to their comfort level. Then we looped around the school and back into the woods on a narrow dirt lane. I didn’t feel boxed in at all.
Several new singletrack sections were introduced into the course this year, and it was run in the reverse direction as years past, so there wasn’t the big hill to climb in the early miles that veteran racers would have been used to. Instead, we mostly swooped around low hills on meandering mountain bike trails en route to the first aid station. It was very fun, and allowed for a decent pace. Except for a few wider sections, most of those miles were on that kind of singletrack. My Achilles was tight and my shoes felt like they might have been a bit snug (my right foot in particular felt disconcertingly close to numb), but for the most part it seemed like I was going to be OK.
general map of one loop of the course
Leaves weren’t super deep, but there were enough to obscure occasional roots and rocks that you absolutely had to keep a constant look out for. About 3 miles in I caught a shoe-tip on a small root and did that violent lurch-forward thing and let out a sound that must have sounded like I was hurling, but I managed to catch myself and not fall. We passed the first aid station around mile 5(-ish), after which the course followed a 50/50 mix of singletrack and doubletrack. By this point, I was more or less settled in with a loose group or marathoners, many of whom I would recognize throughout the rest of the race, but we also were starting to catch up with some of the slower 50-mile racers, who we generally caught and passed very quickly.
After the second aid station there’s a stretch where the trail crosses an open wetland on a narrow low dirt causeway, which was a nice visual break from the woods of the rest of the course. Just on the other side, I took a second to glance at my watch--the wrong second. I kicked something unseen and fell down hard, gouging a chunk out of my right hand and crashing on my left hip. Much to my relief, I was able to get up quick and keep running. I looked for what tripped me at that spot on the next lap, and sure enough there was one lone nasty double-knob root thingy down there looking all evil and mean.
After that the big hill began. It’s not really that high, but it does switch back and forth rather steeply for a bit. I'd run consistently 'til then, but allowed myself to walk that part. I was still passing 50-milers, but the catch and pass time was taking longer as our paces grew closer and closer to being the same. After some fun rising and falling along the side of the hill, the trail dropped steeply to the north and then rejoined the doubletrack trail that led back towards the start/finish. I pulled into the halfway mark back at the school right exactly at 2 hours, feeling good and strong.
After quickly switching out the GPS unit I'd carried on the first loop (I map trails obsessively) for a hand-held water bottle, I ran under the timing arch and headed back out. The second loop felt slightly slower, but in general it was easier running in terms of being able to go at exactly the pace I wanted since the pack had thinned out a lot. When I caught up to 50-milers I would usually keep pace with them briefly and then pass them as soon as we reached an uphill.
The distance between the first and second aid station felt interminable this time, with multiple déjà vu moments where forks in the rolling doubletrack felt exactly like forks I’d turned at mere minutes before. Just as my mind began to wander away from the trail to think about how nice it would feel to finish another marathon, I took a second fall, this time along a slight downhill on doubletrack. I must have toed another root or something, and I pitched forward hard. My arms splayed out and I landed on my right shoulder, then somersaulted around and, to my astonishment, sprang back up on my feet, mostly unscathed other than minor abrasions and some soreness. The guy right behind me said, "Impressive tumble."
There were no mile markers out on the course, and one nice thing about that is that I ran by feel rather than by strict pace. No obsessing about exact pace per mile, and no real sense of exactly when I reached mile 20. My second time over the big hill in the final miles went well, and I felt thankful to not experience any of the late-race hamstring cramps that I’ve so often been afflicted by in marathons. My Achilles gave me an occasional sharp pain, and every now and then my shoe would slide sideways on some leaves or something and cause me to wince with an unpleasant foot pain, but those moments were mostly few and brief.
I felt strong at the end, and was able to fly fast across the field to the finish. My final time was 4:01:53 (22nd place out of 206 finishers). Full results are posted here. I felt pretty pleased with my performance, all things considered. It was my 12th marathon, and my 8th fastest. Stone Cat featured rugged trail terrain and endless twists, turns, and short, steep hills. Plus I fell/crashed hard, twice. And there were no mile markers. And I went into it with a seriously compromised Achilles. It should have been my slowest marathon. Which makes me feel extra good that it wasn't.
photos that Jen took about 200 feet before the finish
As with most marathons, it felt extremely good to simply stop. I shuffled my way through the short chute, collected a Stone Cat vest (they ran very large and looked comically big on each runner I saw wearing one afterwards), grabbed a grilled cheese sandwich wedge, and sat down on a bench to just chat with Jen for a few minutes. But I felt remarkably good, considering. I’ve had one or two road marathons where everything worked and I felt great afterwards, but they’ve been exceptions. Except for my Achilles, this was one of the better ones in terms of how wrecked my body felt. I’m not saying I wasn’t beat, or walking stiffly and slowly, but for the most part this one left me relatively unscathed. I think most of the ache I felt was a result of the two big falls more than the cumulative effects of 26 miles. We hung around and watched finishers and 50-milers come through, then headed home to western Massachusetts and a 100% guilt-free dinner out on the town.
Shoes worn: ASICS Fuji Racers
Gels used: 3 chocolate Vi-Fuels
Salt tabs: 4 endurolyte tablets
Driver all the way to and from race from western MA in her new wagon that has HEATED SEATS: Jen