Patapsco Valley 50K Race Report

As the weather cools off each year, my desire for a longer trail event grows. It’s a remnant of running cross country every fall. The Patapsco Valley 50K provided a perfect opportunity to race on new trails and enjoy some nice fall scenery. Although I favor more technical trails and longer climbs, the timing and location was hard to beat.

We arrived to the venue at Patapsco Valley State Park near Baltimore, MD a little prematurely, at 5:30 a.m. Although the prime parking spot did make the walk from the finish line to the car afterward much shorter. Packets included a sweet long-sleeve Brooks shirt and a toboggan. For those of unfamiliar with that term, it’s a winter beanie hat.

The wind was picking up as daylight approached. Although it was around 50 degrees, the wind made it so much more chilly. The start was at 7:00, slightly before sunrise, so we all began with headlamps. It was a novel touch but perhaps a little silly because the lights were no longer necessary within 25 minutes of the start.

I could tell from the elevation profiles and old race reports that the course began with a climb. What I didn't expect is how steep it was, which skyrocketed my effort way too early. My plan was to stay near the front, but I couldn't believe how hard these guys were going in the first mile. Especially for this climb being loose rock that was also covered in leaves.

The trails at the top of the climb were smooth but so leaf covered that I lost the path a couple times since the daylight hadn’t shown up yet. The thick cloud cover wasn’t helping.

As the first three to four miles passed, I tried, half-heartedly, to back off a bit, but it still wasn't slow enough to recover and it wasn’t fast enough to stay higher in the rankings. That intensity might have been fine for a mile or two, but the guys showing up this year were clearly maintaining a pace faster than the average in the prior two years. It was around this time that I somehow stopped my GPS recording for a couple minutes. Data lost to the wind. 

After working my way into a small group with two others, we stayed within view of each other for at least 10 miles. At one point we crossed a small field as the rain spit and a huge gust of wind blew a large, 4-inch diameter, 8-foot long tree branch down to the ground just five yards to my left. Up until that point I had been distracted from the danger of the winds. Adrenaline spike.

Nonetheless, I pushed on, because at that point we are in the middle of the woods and there are no other options. It was strange how much the trail conditions would fluctuate. You could go one or two miles on twisty, super smooth singletrack and then be suddenly bombarded with nasty rock-strewn river edges and crossings for a half-mile. Despite a little recent rain, the trails were largely dry.

My favorite section of the course was along what I assume was the Patapsco River. Perhaps it was the Ilchester Trail, but I am not certain. It was bizarre. It was as if someone had taken a paved, single lane road along the river, flooded it, rolled in a bunch of boulders, threw in a couple mud slides, and cut several trees down across it. The edge dropped straight off into the river yet there was pavement here at one time. Kind of post-apocalyptic.

I felt like I was flying through the technical sections after mile 10 until I rolled my left ankle a bit. Not quite as bad as in my recent trail 10k but I definitely had to hold back for a couple minutes.

And to make things worse, I began to have occasional calf cramps around mile 13. The crazy speed up until this point was way too fast for me and started to cause negative effects even sooner than I would have hoped. I particularly use the balls of my feet on the technical areas so my calves were getting hammered. With two guys behind me, my first thought was “don't change your technique or they will know something is wrong.”

The cramps would improve for 20-30 minutes right after a little pickle juice that I had packed but I eventually ran out by mile 22. No surprise the two guys passed me around that time, the three-hour mark. That and I was prematurely getting a bit of bonky tunnel vision. Again, the result of starting too hard in the first 10 miles.

It also didn’t help that I inadvertently blew right past the mile 20 aid station, not realizing it was grouped together with the drop bags at the start/finish area.

After climbing the initial climb yet again, all I could think about was cola. I knew it could save me. I wanted nothing more than cola for about 5-6 miles. We had run this same section in the dark and early daylight so it seemed familiar, but I actually think that made it worse. The problem was that I was no longer running 7:45-8:30 pace, instead it was a 10:00-11:00 pace. This makes the miles go by much slower. Math can shove it.

At a lonely water cooler in the woods around mile 24, I tried to take a few swigs, only to squirt water up my nose and cause a cycle of coughing that ultimately cramped my pelvic floor muscles. Who cramps their pelvic floor muscles? Apparently I have not done enough kegels lately. I have never experienced this before, nor would I like to experience it again. So if you are going to drink fluid in a long run, don’t get it up your nose.

The aid station around mile 27 came about 45 minutes later than I had hoped, but three cups of cola and two ginger ales helped tremendously to resolve the bonk once I arrived. I don’t recommend running in a state of bonk for 5 miles. I had been trying to eat energy chews but the temperatures were so cold that they were like gnawing on cold taffy and I had run out of water. Also, that is not recommended, but on the bright side my stomach felt great because I was hydrated.

I ended up walking more than I would have ever planned. Of course my body had to throw out another weird cramp of my outer lower leg muscles before we could call it a day. This time it was my extensor hallucis longus and peroneus longus muscles. So my right foot wanted to twist outward and my big toe wouldn’t come down. Can I just take a nap or something? Much to my disappointment, the leg muscles were not trustworthy enough to bomb the final miles of the course despite the overall elevation loss.

All of this foolishness was obviously happening because of the early hard pushing. I was prepared to run in the 4:20 range but who would have ever guessed that the winning time (3:57) this year was going to be over 32 minutes faster than last year! There is no doubt that by chasing for so long I buried myself further than I have in a long time. Therein lies the problem of trying to keep up with these young guns that train an extra 30-40 miles more per week than I do!

On a good day (running smarter) this course has the potential to be a very fast 50K. The only silver-lining was that I did have a 50K PR by 5 minutes. I muffled my whimpering at the finish line with a nice bowl of warm chili and a Poor Righteous IPA from local brewery Jailbreak. Happy I didn’t knock out yet another tooth like I heard one of the other runners did.

Overall, I would definitely recommend the race to any mid-Atlantic region trail and ultra runner. Part of Blair Witch Project was filmed at the park, which makes it automatically creepy, yet perfect for your Halloween time. Perhaps I will check it out again in another year or two to go after a faster 50K PR.