Running his first-ever ultra trail race, Aaron completed this 50K to cross Maryland off the state marathon list.
The Frozen Heart 50K Ultra Trail Marathon was a race that almost did not happen for Team Running Riddles. Back in November I had registered for the George Washington Birthday Marathon in hopes of crossing Maryland off the list of the 50 Marathons in 50 States challenge. Originally thinking it was held in Washington, D.C., I realized after the fact it was officially a Maryland location, which didn’t matter much to me as I had yet to run a marathon in Maryland.
Flash forward to a week before the marathon when I learned Caitlin’s basketball team, The Storm (8-9 Year Old Girls, Frederick County Parks and Recreation League) would be playing in one of their final games of the season on the same day of the George Washington Birthday Marathon (Sunday, February 17, 2019). Honestly I was completely torn. I really was looking forward to running the marathon as it was very close to home (roughly 1.5 hours), but the thought of missing Caitlin’s basketball game caused my heart to ache. What was I to do?
Christie to the Rescue
Ultimately I made the decision to not run the marathon, but I wasn’t happy about it. In retrospect I could have handled it better, as I moped around for a couple of days. Christie however was looking on the bright side and trying to figure out an alternative solution. That’s when she stumbled upon the Frozen Heart 50K ultra marathon to be held in Callaway, MD on Saturday, February 16, 2019.
A three-loop race run on a local park trail around a lake in the woods, this type of marathon was definitely up my alley…more so than a traditional road marathon. The best part is that it would take place on Saturday…which would allow me to run the race AND see Caitlin’s basketball game on Sunday. Christie was able to shift around some of her business appointments on Saturday and then gave me the green light to register for the race. I registered on Tuesday evening and the race filled up that Thursday, so it was a close call.
The only negative would be that Corinne would be unable to be there as she was scheduled to have ballet rehearsal on Saturday morning. However she was okay with that given it was Maryland (a state she has been in before) and only a one-night trip.
The Frozen Heart website does a great job of what to expect for the course. In their words:
The course consists of 3 loops around St. Mary’s River Park. Runners have the option of completing one loop (17K), two loops (34K), or three loops for the full 50K distance. Distances are approximate and not officially certified. Due to erosion, plate tectonics, and global warming, the course may not measure exactly 50K. In fact, we may have even measured it with a rubber tape measure….
The surface of the trail is mostly packed dirt, but there are a few sandy sections and a few areas of crushed stone. Water crossings have bridges, but weather conditions may provide additional challenges on the trail like snow, water, mud – oh my!
Having done one trail marathon previously almost a year ago (The New South Trail Marathon), I felt prepared based on that course description. However the main difference between that race and Frozen Heart would be mud! The New South Trail marathon was very dry when I ran it, so this time around I would face the challenge of getting my feet wet. Throughout my years of running I’ve done many long runs in the rain, but never 31 or so miles. I made a mental note to prep my feet with a little more care than usual this time around to ensure no blisters.
The Trip and a Sickness
With Callaway, MD only being roughly 3 hours from Winchester, VA, the trip went smooth. After saying goodbye to Corinne, we grabbed some lunch at Sheetz and drove straight to the packet pickup location at Dick’s Sporting Goods only 15 minutes from the race start area. The Frozen Heart crew had a table set up right in the middle of the store and I was in and out with my bib in under 5 minutes.
We decided to have dinner at a local diner / café which had good reviews, but was known for slow service. The service was indeed slow, but the strangest thing about the café was that to get to the only bathroom in the building, you had to walk back THROUGH the kitchen and down a stairwell. Odd. That said, the servers were extremely friendly and the food was quite good (chicken, collard greens, and sweet potato fries for me for my pre-race meal).
As we checked into our hotel, the trip took a sour turn as Caitlin came down with the stomach bug. She did not eat much during dinner and seemed very tired, and now we knew why. Thankfully she had her own bed to rest and recover in and I made a quick trip out to the local Rite Aid to get some medicine to help. Christie and I discussed our plan for the next morning and agreed that I would attempt to get an Uber ride to the race starting area to allow Caitlin to rest and sleep as much as possible. We saw that there were several Uber drivers around the area at that moment, but I was unsure if any Uber drivers would be around at 6:30 a.m. the next morning to give me a ride over for a 7:30 a.m. race start.
Needless to say I tossed and turned quite a bit that night and didn’t sleep the best.
Race Day Morning
My marathon routine is pretty much set in stone on race day morning. Get up at 4:30 a.m. (three hours prior to the race start), have my pre-race breakfast (whole wheat bagel with almond butter, a banana, and one cup of coffee), read some news, and then start getting dressed and ready. While having breakfast I checked the Uber app for available drivers. None were around.
I kept checking and refreshing the app as I got dressed. My plan was to wear my usual pair of warm running socks, and keep an extra dry pair in my hydration pack just incase my feet got too wet from the mud. I made sure to slather some extra Vaseline on my feet, and even on the outside of my socks, to ensure there would be no blisters during the race.
Right after I finished dressing I told Christie it looked like I would need to drive our vehicle over to the race start line when I checked the Uber app one last time…and low and behold there was one Uber driver 18 minutes away. I sent a request and he surprisingly accepted! I messaged him that he would be taking me to a park entrance for a trail race…just in case he was suspicious about some guy wanting to be dropped off at a park on a Saturday morning at the crack of dawn.
The Uber driver, Keith, was awesome. He had a super clean car and I sat up front and talked with him for the 15 minute drive. I learned he was a dump truck driver, married, had four kids, and his one daughter was interested in running. I told him having four kids at home explains why he does Uber part time (to get out the house haha). When he asked how long the race I was doing would be (expecting a 5 or 10K) and I told him it was roughly a 31 mile race, his reply was “SWEET JESUS”. Keith drove me right up to the race parking area and dropped me off. I couldn’t have asked for a better driver.
I arrived to the race starting area with roughly 30 minutes to spare before go time. While doing some warmups, I walked down to the lakeside area to take in the view and also took a quick glance at the area of the trail where we would finish each loop. It was a bit breezy by the lakeside so I was glad I had worn my windbreaker rain jacket (if I got too warm I could always take it off and toss it in my hydration pack).
The race director gathered us around the starting area and gave a quick overview of the course, warning us it would be muddy, and to take the first quarter mile slow as it was the narrowest part of the trail. A local high school student played a beautiful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner on the trumpet before we set off.
My plan for the race was to take it slow and run by feel. I learned with my first trail marathon that you are going to be running much slower on the trail thanks to all the twists, turns, rocks, roots, mud, and falls (yes, you will fall…it’s a matter of when not if). It was my hope to come in around the 6 hour mark, mostly because I didn’t want Christie and poor sick Caitlin waiting around too much for me to finish (they would be at the hotel until after Noon when they would have to checkout).
Around mile 2 things started to get interesting. The trail started to get wet and muddy at certain spots, yet I was able to avoid the large puddles by balancing along the side of the trail. Prior to the mid-loop aid station mile 5, I and the other runners around me encountered the first unavoidable puddle and we all sloshed through it getting our feet soaked. I passed the aid station this first time around since I had my own hydration and gel packets and quickly encountered the muddiest part of the trail. Again most of it was unavoidable and some of it was so thick it almost sucked my shoe right off of my foot. After this section the trail became a little bit drier which allowed my shoes to drain out the water and air out a bit. The last third of the loop included a “Pine Tree Trail” section which took us through a batch of pretty pine trees, and then into the woods which was the most difficult part of the loop in my opinion.
Here the trails resembled back home on the Appalachian Trail, where the path went up and down with many roots and rocks to keep an eye out for. Around this time the runners in front of me had moved ahead, and those in back of me had fallen behind so I was all alone. I started to wonder how Caitlin and Christie were doing when all of sudden my foot caught a root and I tumbled to the ground sliding into some muck.
A Bad Fall, But a Quick Recovery
Fearing I might have been seen taking a fall, I jumped right up and started running right again to avoid embarassment. I had scraped my knee a bit and my foot was aching pretty bad. A brief thought that I might not be able to finish another two loops entered my mind, but I quickly pushed that aside to focus on what was happening in the present time. I kept moving gingerly and felt the aches and pains from the fall slowly subsiding. By the time I reached the end of the first loop I felt good aside from some a few scrapes and cuts. I checked in with the race volunteers to check me off for loop one and I set out to complete loop two.
For loop two I was pretty much alone for the whole portion until the mid-way aid station. It had started to get colder and some sleet had started falling from the sky. I thought to myself, “Here I am in the woods…cold, alone, running through the dreary weather…and I love it.”
I caught up to another runner just before there and we talked a bit about the race. He was training for a 50 miler later this year. As we arrived at the aid station, the volunteers told us to get our photo at the make-shift photo booth, so I hopped in with him for a quick photo, and then headed back out. I also grabbed a cup of what I thought was Gatorade, but turned out to be Mountain Dew. Not normally one for soda, I figured I could use the extra calories and sipped on it a bit before tossing the rest and putting the cup in my pocket (no littering!).
Again I was by myself for the second half of loop two and this time made sure I was extra careful not to fall where I did last time. As I made my way along the trail I played the mental game of trying to find where I fell the first time (looking for a large body-shaped marking in the muddy areas), but I never was able to pin-point the exact spot. Before I knew it I was at the end of loop two and told the volunteers I was heading back out for a final loop (one yelled “you’re a glutton for punishment”). At this point I was getting a little sick and tired of the energy gels for fuel, so I grabbed some peanut butter and jelly sandwich quarters for a quick bite while easing into the third lap.
The Final Loop
This third time along the trail I was more nonchalant about going through the puddles of mud. My feet were holding up very well for being soaking wet and realizing my shoes drained of water very quickly I took a little more risk through the mud this last time around. Heading into my last visit at the mid-point aid station, I stepped over to the photo booth and said “Hand me that loop 3 sign.” for a quick commemorative photo of the third lap. I grabbed some more PB&J slices to get me through the last 5 or so miles and slogged through the muddy portion of the trail one last time.
For the final miles of the trail I felt good and was in great spirits. For whatever reason I had some Frank Zappa songs playing through my head as I watched for roots and rocks to avoid a last minute spill. Passing a few runners who seemed to be struggling a bit, I made sure they were ok, even offering the rest of my energy gels to anyone who wanted them (I had no takers). I started a text message countdown with Christie using my watch at mile 5 to keep her updated of when I would be arriving at the finish. It was also more of a strategy for myself so I could keep my mind occupied on counting down the last miles. It wasn’t long before I made the final turn off of the trail into the parking lot where I saw Christie cheering me on for the last few meters. I crossed the finish line completing my first-ever ultra trail race with a 50K time of 6:13:09.
Poor sick Caitlin was asleep in the car so I did not waste much time hanging around. I grabbed a bunch of yummy, home-made treats from the finishers tent, quickly changed, and got in the car so we could get Caitlin home to rest up with slim hopes that she would feel good enough to play in her basketball game the next day.
Post Race Reflections and Lessons Learned
I give Christie all the credit for making this race happen. While I may have been the one to run the trail and complete the 50K to cross Maryland off my state list, none of it would have happened without Christie. It’s great to have support doing what you love, from the one you love.
This race also gave me confidence that my feet can handle muddy and wet conditions for the long haul. I hope to attempt a 50 mile race sometime in 2020, so this was a good taste of what a little over half of a race like that will be like.
Finally, I am happy to report that Caitlin mustered enough strength to play in her basketball game the next day, and helped lead her team to a 20-11 victory (6 pts, several steals and blocks) to remain undefeated in their league. The toughness award goes not to me, but to Caitlin who dealt with a sickness the whole trip, and sucked it up to be there for her team when they needed her the most.
Official Race Results
Overall: 25 out of 57
Photos from Race Day
This race is part of Aaron’s 50 Marathons in 50 States Challenge:
Click on a state to see a recap of that marathon.