On Saturday, November 16th, I ran the Stone Mill 50 miler in Gaithersburg, Maryland. It represented a culmination of about five months of training, but it really meant so much more to me than that. The past five years of running have all given me the strength, confidence, and endurance that helped me to cross that finish line on Saturday evening.
I felt surprisingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when my alarm went off at 3:45 AM on Saturday morning. I quickly dressed, made coffee, and ate my bagel and spent the remainder of my time doing my usual pre-race ritual of browsing Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for inspiration from friends, family, and Oiselle teammates.
Luckily we stayed very close to the start of the race, and only had a 5 minute drive from our hotel to the start. We arrived at Watkins Mill High School at about 5:20. After dropping off my drop bag and checking in, I headed up the hill to meet up with some online friends from the RunningAhead forum that I post in frequently.
The RA crew, sponsored by Wegmans and Oiselle
After intros and our group photo, it was time to go!
Start to Mile 5
The start was uneventful, which is something I've come to expect from most ultras. There was little fanfare, just simply the race director shouting "GO!" and about 300 runners were off. We circled the school once, and then headed down a very steep hill into the woods. After crossing a road, we headed onto the Seneca Greenway Trail which we would stay on for a large portion of the race.
This was my first time trail running in the dark. As it turns out, the "conga line" would stay together for this entire section, which I didn't mind since it was lighter with more headlamps and it helped me slow my pace.
Runners heading down the hill from the school.
At mile 5, the sun was up, and runners were encouraged to drop off their headlamps if they didn't need it for later that evening. Since I didn't have a second headlamp and I knew I'd be running into the evening, I threw my lamp into my hydration pack for later.
Mile 5 to Mile 8 (Route 355)
Most of this section was fun and chatty. I spent time getting to know other runners and just enjoying the brisk autumn day. The trails were pretty single track, which we would double back on later in the dark.
It turns out the first two aid stations had almost no food, but since I had water in my pack, I skipped the mile 5 aid station and just grabbed some Gatorade at mile 8. I started fueling with Honey Stinger Chews and/or margarita Clif Bloks at mile 5, and tried to eat 100 calories every half hour from mile 5 on.
We were all confused by the aid station mileages advertised on the website versus the actual milage some folks with GPS watches were getting (they were a couple miles off) but I didn't care much as long it all worked out in the end.
This section was similar to the previous section, with a lot of single track trail, but it also included more roads.
During one major intersection crossing, a huge deer actually bounded out of the woods, narrowly missing runners and hurdled right over an SUV! It took us all off guard and certainly added a little bit of adrenaline to my day. I ran with a nice guy named Ari during this section, who was running his second 50 miler. We chatted about beer and ultrarunning, obviously some of my favorite things.
The intersection where I witnessed the miraculous deer crossing
I don't remember much from the first stop at Riffleford, but I'm sure I grabbed some Gatorade.
This whole section flew by, and soon enough I was at mile 15.7, the Route 28 East aid station. I was happy to see some salty snacks, and grabbed a few handfuls of Cheez-Its and a cup of Gatorade while I chatted with Josh. He was able to see me at about every other aid station, and he ended up being a life saver for me later on. He is also responsible for about half of the photos in this report.
Route 28 East was probably the "high" of my race, when I felt strong, well hydrated, and fast. In fact, I was running a bit too fast (under 12 minute miles.) I was shooting for a 14 minute average pace) so I took advantage of the next section to slow down and conserve energy.
Route 28 East (mile 15.7) to Quincy Orchard (mile 18) to Pennyfield Lock (mile 25)
During this 10 mile stretch of the race, I started running with an impromptu pace group led by a runner named Rupa, who was running her second Stone Mill 50. This section went by quickly as we all chatted and grew to enjoy each other's company. The pace was slow and steady, and I was impressed by Rupa's ability to keep such a steady pace. There was about 7 of us in the group, including Jody from RunningAhead.
I don't remember too much from Quincy Orchard, except a nice volunteer helped me fill up my water bladder. However, I distinctly remember coming into Pennyfield lock, because I had some surprise visitors!
I was shocked to see Josh's cousin Michelle, her husband Gary, and their little kids Daphne and Spencer, who all drove down from Baltimore. Josh's cousin-in-law Kyle was also there, and I was genuinely surprised to see everyone.
After numerous hugs and kisses, I immediately rushed to the port-a-potty that I'd been waiting for all day. Unfortunately the pasta I ate the night before was not sitting well and I was sure happy to see a restroom for the first time in 5.5 hours.
I grabbed some food and Gatorade at the aid station, and after saying my goodbyes and apologizing for such a brief visit, I was on my way.
Pennyfield Lock (mile 25) to Stone Mill (mile 29)
After leaving Pennyfield Lock, the course headed out onto the C&O Canal path for about 4 miles. This was the section I had dreaded the most, because it was a totally flat, wide path with no distractions except for the Potomac River to our left. We did, however, see a lot of cyclists, joggers, and walkers on the path who often gave us cheers and hellos.
The C&O Canal Path
The Potomac River
My stomach was still unsettled during this flat stretch, but I tried to keep up conversation with my little pace group who was still steadily jogging along. About half way down the path I was looking for another port-a-potty, which I eventually found as we approached the Stone Mill aid station.
After a quick stop, I got back on the C&O path and headed into the Stone Mill AS (mile 29). I had been looking forward to this stop for awhile, as I had a drop bag waiting for me here. In the first half of the race, I got my feet wet more than once in various streams, and was dying to put on some fresh socks.
While I found my drop bag and spent an eternity putting on my fresh Injinji toe socks, one of the volunteers asked if I needed anything, and he kindly brought me the last 2 potatoes and salt at my request. I also grabbed a delicious, homemade brownie and sadly, turned down some whiskey. Finally, I took the rest of the Clif Bloks and Honey Stinger chews out of my drop bag and got on my way.
Stone Mill (mile 29) to Route 28 West (mile 35)
I caught up to my little pace group again during this section, and eventually passed them because I was anxious to run as little as possible in the dark, knowing I did not have much experience running trails at night. For the most part, I still felt strong but was feeling the effects of mental fatigue.
I saw Josh again at the mile 35 aid station, which helped reinvigorate me. After refilling my water bladder and grabbing some snacks, I gave him a kiss and said I would see him in 8 miles. These would prove to be some of the hardest 8 miles of my life.
Route 28 West (mile 35) to Riffleford (Mile 43)
I found myself running alone again as I left mile 35, and at this point I really could have used some company. I started getting seriously nauseous, and negative thoughts began to creep in for the first time of the day. I stopped for a ginger chew at the mile 38 water stop, but wished they had salty foods instead. I began dry heaving at one point, though I never threw up. I'm pretty sure I was overhydrated and sodium deficient which I knew could lead to hyponatremia, so I just stopped drinking and eating all together and trudged on.
At one point later in this section, I emerged out of the woods into a meadow all "Sound of Music" style, and just started crying. I had been holding back tears for the last few miles, and I just sobbed, letting it all out. It actually helped me feel a lot better and within a few minutes I came out of the woods onto a road and was elated to see Riffleford aid station
When I saw Josh waiting for me at the aid station, I threw my arms around him and the started crying again. At that point, an angelic aid station volunteer came up to me and asked if I wanted some soup. Through my tears, I said "yes" and inhaled the salty ramen noodles. The salt immediately helped me feel better. The man then brought me some crystallized ginger which helped settle my stomach. I will be forever grateful to the volunteer and his magical ramen noodles.
Riffleford (mile 43) To Finish
Josh walked with me out of the aid station and gave me a good pep talk which helped me feel much better. I began running slowly and felt about a hundred times better compared to how felt just 10 minutes earlier. At that moment, I knew I would finish this race.
The sun set around 4:45 and I got my headlamp out for the last 5 miles. Once I got to the mile 47 aid station, I knew my "secret" goal of finishing under 12 hours was not attainable unless I was running 9-10 minute miles, which I was definitely not. I accepted that fact and knew I would still finish well under the 13 hour cutoff, which was good enough for me.
While running through the dark in the last few miles, I came up on a woman who let me pass her in the dark. As I passed by, she said, "are you Danielle?" As it turns out, it was Janet, a reader of my blog! It was really nice to meet her, and as I ran on, we gave each other encouragement to finish strong.
I finally heard cheers coming from the high school about a mile before the finish, which was encouraging, though frustrating at the same time. Still, I kept running. As I came out of the woods and climbed the long hill up to the school, I no longer felt any pain. All I felt was happiness, pride, and relief.
I officially finished the Stone Mill 50 in 12:11:16. I was ecstatic as I crossed the finish line and threw my arms around Josh. I was so grateful for his love and support throughout the entire race and could not have finished without his encouragement, especially at mile 43. Of course, Josh also fulfilled the most important crew duty of bringing a chair and an IPA for me at the finish.
Overall, the Stone Mill 50 was a fantastic race. While it had a few hiccups including no food at early aid stations and incorrect/unmarked mileage at aid stations, these issues did not matter much to me overall. Ultimately, I had one of the most fun and hardest days of my life running this race. The trails were gorgeous, the people were friendly, and the weather was perfect. Plus, the race fee was only $35! This is definitely a "no frills" race, so if you're looking for a jacket, shirt, medal, or buckle, look elsewhere. Nonetheless, I would definitely run this race again.
- Finish under the 13 hour cutoff.
- Finish under 12 hours.
So I accomplished 2 out of my 3 goals. Would I have loved to finish under 12 hours? Definitely. Was I disappointed that I didn't? Yes. However, given this was my first 50 miler I tried not to put any restrictions or expectations on myself, and I genuinely went out to have fun and finish the race. Maybe if I didn't have so many stomach issues I would have finished faster. But I will never know that for sure.
What I do know is that one day I will be back to conquer this race and set a PR in the 50 mile distance. I know I can run faster, because I still had some gas in my legs at the end. In fact, I felt much better at the end of the race than at mile 42.
Overall, I am really proud of myself for sticking through even though I had a few doubts during my training and the race. I am definitely ready for a break from long racing and training, but I know I'll be back to run another 50 within the next couple of years.