Having had friends stay with us one of whom is an ultra runner it got me thinking about the West Highland Way Race (96 miles through the Scottish Highlands along the West Highland Way every June). Having supported him on it, I know it’s tough but would make an interesting challenge. After all the road training I needed to get back onto the trail.
My wife was back in the UK with work so I was looking for something to do on my birthday weekend. It just so happened there is a low key trail race less than an hour drive away, an out and back along the Catoctin Trail north of Frederick, North West of DC.
After reading the race website and race reports, it sounded a fun challenge. Hills, heat, more hills, getting lost (and adding more hills) all with a group of like minded people on a summer Saturday.
I knew I had the road miles in my legs so figured it would be a bit of (hard) fun and get me back out on the trails. I managed a couple of long trail runs in Rock Creek Park in the run up, but not as many as I would have liked, and not as rocky / rough as the reports of the race route suggested!
I had a cold in the week running up to the race. (pattern here – maybe I shouldn’t taper!). I managed a short run on the Thursday but didn’t feel great and contemplated pulling out but decided to give it a go and just take it easy if I needed to.
On race morning, I was up early and feeling ok, but was still determined to start slow and see how I got on.
Everyone gathered at the start for pre-race briefing. Lots from local running scene and a few from further afield. There was no gun to start the race, just a ‘Go’ at the end of the race briefing. Having read several race reports, I was expecting this, but there were a few surprised faces!
The race began with a lap round the car park to start to spread out field before the trails. Not wanting to push I ended up in the middle of the pack which meant I was walking the next mile or so, as the trails weren’t wide enough. The large group of people scared a young deer which careered round in the undergrowth before running at the path and almost tripping a guy two back from me.
Not tripping and falling became the order of the day once the trail widened and spread out. I started to pick people off but then got carried away with open trail and had my first fall of the day inside mile 3.
The route is lovely, mostly under the trees which provide shade and a good mix of single track and wider trails. There are some long steep ascents, the worst of which is after the turn around. I managed to run most of the first half, just stopping at each of the well stocked and enthusiastically staffed aid stations to take on proper food and fill up my camelback. It’s amazing how good a PB&J sandwich can taste after 6 miles on top of a hill.
There is a long steep descent to the turnaround, where I fell a second time and the leaders started to come past me on their return. I stopped at the turn around to take on food and top up my water, then started the long walk back up. I was feeling ok but not wanting to push to hard. Some runners coming the other way were shouting out positions and I was surprised to hear I was in 17th. The field was spread out so mostly running on my own, passing people on the way out and occasionally catching people. I started to tick off the aid stations and some struggling runners on the return leg. I decided against superstition at one when I was told I’d be in 13th place if I carried on! There was only one fall on the way back but a big one, luckily just scrapes and grazes. Another long tough climb near the finish meant another long walk, and it was very hot by now, but lovely woodland. I felt good and able to run the last couple of miles (where there weren’t steep up hills) and cross the low key finish line (2 cones in the car park) in 6:30:12, finishing in 12th place.
I was very happy with my performance given I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it, or how well my body would hold up after the cold and lack of specific training. It demonstrated that I had the fitness for long trail runs despite all the road training so I felt confident in entering a 50 mile race in November to meet the entry criteria for the West Highland Way entry application.
Afterwards there was food and drink and a great atmosphere to kick back in. Also Frederick down the road for food and drink options.
The Catoctin 50k is a great event, and very well organized. A lovely day out in the hills. A very fun and friendly race, but very hard. You’d have to be very hardcore to want to tackle this as a first ultra. I ran it in 6:30 and completed JFK 50 mile in 7:50 back in November.
Never switch off on a trail run