The Stone Cat 50 Miler is a really cool little race on Massachusetts’ North Shore, in a sleepy little burg called Ipswich. The home base for the race is the Doyon Elementary School which borders Willowdale State Forest, a 2,500 acre state park with a decent mix of single-track and fire roads. It meanders around swamps, woods and meadows.
Here’s a little story about the 2016 edition of the race.
September: so I was desperately searching for an early to mid-November 50-miler to end my ultra season and this seemed to be the only one in New England. So, easy choice. Oh, but it’s a multiple loop race, oh no. Well, these surely are true tests of one’s mental stamina- I can do four 12.5-mile loops. Wait, can I do four 12.5-mile loops? Guess I’ll have to find out. Oh and it’s about to sell out so… Ultrasignup does not issue refunds, guys. Looks like I have to do it now.
October: training is going well, autumn is awesome in New England. I still haven’t had a pumpkin spice latte. I almost bought one but the kid at Starbucks told me it tasted “perfumey”. Then he asked me what I usually drink. Black coffee. “Yeah, you definitely won’t like it.” I feel like that kid jumped in front of a bullet for me. I’ll never forget you, “Chad”.
November: fresh off of a fun 50k deep in the CT woods, I really didn’t taper much for the 50 miler. Seriously though, who tapers? I’m joking, I tapered. Kind of. Anyway, day before the race I loaded up the CRV and drove up to Ipswich. My plan was to put the seats down and inflate the air mattress and crawl into my sleeping bag and dirtbag it in the parking lot of the school. Great idea- I got it from a few guys I ran a bunch of miles with at Miwok a few years ago, they were like, “yeah we just slept in the Stinson Beach parking lot in our cars last night.” I’ve always wanted to be an ultra dirtbag.
Everything was going awesome until a cop rolled up at 1:41 AM, woke me up and shone the brightest light in my face. After figuring out that I was here for the race, and running my plates to make sure the car wasn’t stolen, and then running my ID to make sure I wasn’t a fugitive from justice, he let me be. He probably thought better than to write me a fine, I mean- if I didn’t have $70 for a motel room, I sure wasn’t going to have $200 for a vagrancy ticket.
It was cold as hell so I started up the engine and ran the heat and drifted off back to sleep. Then I woke up an hour later covered in sweat, it was probably 108 degrees in the car. It said 33 outside. So I shut her down and went back to sleep. Apparently this was not smart because people with leaky exhaust systems could give themselves carbon monoxide poisoning and die. Luckily I was in a two-month old car, and it’s a Honda, and they are reliable.
Finally I woke up to the iPhone alarm at 4:30, fresh as a daisy. I can’t believe I managed to get seven hours of sleep, albeit somewhat interrupted, but dammit I got a great night’s sleep. That never happens the night before a 50-miler. Today might be a good day!
I had my camp cook stove so I heated up some water, made coffee, ate breakfast- rice balls cooked with coconut oil and some sugar, so damn good. High carb, low fiber- makes my tummy happy. Around this time the volunteers started showing up, slowly waving in the first few cars. Damn, it was cold. I made small talk with some of my new neighbors, explaining how I dirtbagged it here last night. They thought that was cool and I was relieved they weren’t judging me (to my face) for being a cheap ass.
Yadda yadda: Bib pick up, bathroom line, 6:15 AM and we’re off.
It’s pitch black still so we make our way across the field and onto this wide fire road, my plan was to take it really conservative the first 3-5 miles then start finding a comfortable rhythm and work towards a pace that I could sustain all day.
We’re already getting kind of log-jammed here in the early going so I make a few quick little pushes to clear some room and as we funnel on to the first single-track of the day… I’m walking. And everyone is walking. I see a line of headlights stretching into the woods, and they’re all walking.
Like I said, I wanted to take it easy but not this easy.
First of all, it’s cold, so I need to move to generate body heat. Secondly, I think most of the runners this morning have maybe not-so-great headlamps, so they might be taking it easy because they literally can not see. I’ve got this bad ass 370 lumen Petzl MYO that just lights up the night, my suggestion to you if you plan on running in the dark is to get something that will stun a deer. 110 lumens is cool and all, but that sort of headlamp is for looking for stuff in your garage.
Anyway, it took about three miles to finally break into a clearing where I could actually run. This would be my biggest (and only) mistake of the day, not starting more towards the front. It cost me about 5-6 minutes.
I always second guess myself, thinking I don’t belong towards the front of the race before we start, like I haven’t earned that right by now. In my three other east coast races I’ve run I’ve finished somewhere in the top 20, I really should be right around there a mile into the race. Oh well, mental note for next time.
So my nutrition plan on the day was primarily to just sip on Coke and water all day. Hey, it worked at Bimblers, it might work here. I also had a bunch of those delicious Huma gels, they’re like real fruit puree with chia seeds, super tasty. I also made a bunch of rice balls and had a few packets of Tailwind on hand. I bought a liter of Coke and let it go flat in my fridge the days before the race, and kept it back at my drop bag.
We got freezing rain-slash-hailed on for a few minutes (I’m telling you, it was cold) somewhere in the early going, that was unexpected.
I spent a few miles running with a woman named Lauren through the first aid station, then was on my own to watch the sun rise, a little over an hour in. A really cool mist hung over the swamp, giving it an eerie effect among the pinkish glow of the sunrise. Alright, Massachusetts, you’re pretty cool.
The first loop came and went, it was still pretty cold. I wanted to do each loop in about two hours to have a reasonable shot at going under eight hours and I came through in 2:07, so I’m going to chalk up those seven minutes to being stuck in that conga line at the beginning, and I just let it go, nothing to do about it now.
I’ll just churn out loop #2 in 2:00 and see what I have for loops 3 and 4. There’s still a lot of race to go and I feel really good, so let’s not get all sucked in to racing just yet. Loop two was still pretty cold, but slowly warming up. I had on a short-sleeve tech shirt underneath a long sleeve tech shirt, a faux wool winter hat (H&M, $7, I jam econo), REI winter running gloves and a neck buff. The sun still wasn’t out and that was good.
Again, a pretty uneventful loop, finished that one in exactly two hours. 25 miles in 4:07 and feeling very, very good. I took a long time at the drop bags here, got rid of the long sleeve and hat and grabbed a trucker cap, finished the rest of the flat Coke, grazed the aid station feed table and was out. I thought I’d be able to replicate another 2-hour loop for #3, so I just tried to keep the effort as even as possible.
I also grabbed my iPod since the field had really thinned out by now and I had been running alone for a while. I knew that loop three was where I needed to be smart- if I ran it too hard, the 40s would be a sufferfest. Looking back at my GPS data, this loop had the most consistent splits of the day. I was both actively engaged in deep concentration AND kind of zoning out to the music. I knew the pain cave usually shows up for me somewhere around mile 35.
Luckily the pain didn’t show up until the 4th loop, somewhere around mile 41-ish. I’m going to credit my “five days per week core and stretching routine” to that, usually my hips and glutes are absolutely blasted after 50-milers, but they didn’t hurt at all. Especially on a rolling course like this, there weren’t any huge climbs or descents so I was able to have a pretty even gait. I usually don’t do well in races that have a lot of running, I like to power hike the ups, it sort of recharges my battery. I literally charged every hill in the race until the end. That was weird.
Anyway, back to loop #3- I just kept drinking Coke as my main fuel source, I can’t believe this stuff works as well as it does for me right now. Maybe because I never drink soda outside of races- I mean, one 16-oz bottle of Coke has something like 12 teaspoons of sugar in it, that’s insane. That’s about two gels per one bottle of Coke- I usually take 2 gels per hour so I was drinking about 12-16 ounces of Coke per hour supplemented with shots of Gatorade here and there.
After overloading my stomach at Bighorn on “real” food earlier this summer, I learned that I’m pretty much a liquid calorie kind of bro. I used to do Vitargo but even that stuff was too “heavy”, I even tried doing really watered-down solutions, it never really sat right. I tried Ucan, it’s okay, but same thing as Vitargo, just didn’t sit well. I think my body needs just straight up crappy junk food when I’m racing. Or watermelon. Basically, liquid calories with water.
Then that thing happened again, where I had to pee a lot. Started around mile 33 or so, right before the two “big” climbs (about 125 and 95 feet, respectively). I also was passing a ton of the marathoners here, they were close to finishing their second loop (we had a 15-minute head start on them) and a trail angel (whose name I forget, sorry!) gave me a salted caramel Gu, totally got me going strong through the end of the loop. I got that one done in 2:05, having lost maybe 3 minutes to all the extra pee stops in the last 40 minutes (maybe 4?), seriously it was like every ten minutes.
Okay, 37.5 miles done. One more loop. I knew I was probably over-hydrated and under-salted. I grabbed a bunch of salt pills from my drop bag, did 50% Coke, 25% ginger ale and 25% water in my handheld and was off.
I saw 6:12 on the clock and thought, “can I do this last loop in 1:48?” If I could stop peeing every ten minutes I’d be cutting it close, I thought that the amount of fatigue I had accumulated was adding up and that a 1:55 was totally doable- I had that feeling in my legs that’s sort of just between a dull ache and a full-blown pain cave. I was wishing I was already in the cave so I knew exactly what I’d be working with for the next 2 hours.
I felt like I was at mile 20 of a road marathon; the wheels were readying themselves to come off. I welcome this moment in every race, this is where I learn about what I’m made of. Gut check time.
So the next maybe hour or so I was stopping to pee every 10-15 minutes, maybe 5-6 times and then I was suddenly okay- I wouldn’t pee again until my drive home on the Mass Turnpike. I was just drinking too much water. I had to find the line to where I’d be just hydrated enough, so at the next aid station I again did a mix of 3-to-1 Coke to water. I think I forgot about salt and electrolytes because food, salty or otherwise, was just so unappealing to me all day. I usually can do salty potatoes or chips or even bacon but today I wanted no parts of the actual chewing of food. Gels, de-fizzed Coke, un-naturally colored Gatorade- was my jam for the duration. I had these rice balls made up but never touched them.
Anyway, last loop was carnage time. I passed a few runners that were just running out of steam. I entered that pain cave at around mile 42, had a few minutes where it was just really rough- got passed by a guy that looked as fresh as a daisy. I tried to latch on to him but that wasn’t going to happen, I just had to go it alone. I looked at my watch: 7:15. Seven hours and fifteen minutes. Probably wasn’t going to cover the last 8-ish miles in 45 minutes, but I could really make myself hurt trying.
So that’s what I did.
Almost every runner I came up on from behind would turn their heads when they heard me grunting and yelping. It wasn’t a “hey I’m coming for you” battle cry, it was more of a “oh this hurts so fucking bad right now” and “dude, sorry, I might actually die on or near you”. Yeah.
When I passed them I said “good job, bro” but probably sounded like “gahut jaharb bahrooh”. I basically felt how Richard Nixon looked. I did straight Coke (no water) at the last aid station and was basically chugging it while burping and spilling it all over myself the last 4 miles.
I hammered those last two little climbs, still passing runners, I probably looked like hell. At the top of the first climb eight hours came and went, I would not go under. I had about 2 miles to go and figured, hey- if I can go under 8:20 that’s faster than 10 minute miles. I was gonna PR by a lot so I really tried to enjoy these last two miles, fighting back tears as I usually do at the end of 50-milers and longer, because dammit- these are hard.
They just break you down physically and emotionally and sometimes the only thing that fixes that is to just finish- it’s a raw and visceral experience that is really hard to explain. It’s like eating psilocybin mushrooms, you just gotta try it to understand it. I’m not suggesting taking mind-altering drugs (or am I?) but I am suggesting finding your limit, whether it’s something that scares the shit out of you or trying something you thought you’d never do and pushing past that into unknown territory.
The greatest thing about being broken down physically and emotionally is it leaves you just vulnerable enough to get filled up spiritually. That’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to god; yes, with a little “g” for me, sorry- I’m not a believer (yet). But that’s also the reason I do these sorts of adventures. Maybe that’s what I’m searching for out there.
I also really like myself when I’m running long and I really like other people- the part-time curmudgeon and sometimes road rager we all descend into just doesn’t work out there. I’ll try to offer gels and electrolytes to other runners and always thank the volunteers. I mean, you kind of have to like yourself because that’s a long time to spend with just you. It’s also a good idea to like other people because they’re there to help- they’ve always enhanced my experience somehow. There’s been times when I’ve rolled into an aid station and have literally had all five people there attending to me. That’s gotta be what a rockstar feels like.
So we’re all out there, running, sort of orbiting around each other, passing in and out of the peripherals- but an ultra is ultimately going to be you, alone, preferably in the woods, for a very long time. I had a long time in the Massachusetts woods to think about things, to think about why I do this sort of thing.
Chances are if you’ve read this far you’re a runner of long distances as well, and you’ve had some time to ponder this.
If not, keep searching, keep trying. Hopefully I’ll meet you out there.