Sunday morning at 0-dark-thirty the bride and I were on our way to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. It’s a 95 mile drive from our home, which we had left at 3:15 AM for a 6:50 AM flight.
About halfway on the drive east we crossed over South Mountain, along which the Appalachian Trail runs. Here in the Appalachian Mountains of southern PA and central MD, what passes for a mountain is perhaps 2000 feet in elevation—not a major uphill for a runner, but significant nonetheless.
After crossing the AT, Interstate 70 runs across the Middletown Valley, then makes one more climb up another ridge, this being the Catoctin Mountain, just prior to Frederick, MD. In the pre-dawn darkness off to the left I could see the lights of the cluster of communications towers on the ridge, and my mind immediately went back to the Catoctin 50K trail race that is held every August. The towers are along the early part of the run.
If you have read about or experienced (I have) the legendary rocks at the Massanutten 100, they have nothing on the rocks of Catoctin. It’s a 50K that runs like a longer race. It’s largely single track, with some jeep trail thrown in, but by and large it’s a rock fest.
And it was my first trail race, back in 1996. At that time they had a 35K option as well as the 50K. and being a rookie, I opted for the 35K. It went so well that I should have gone for the 50K but I lacked experience and confidence, so I stayed low and succeeded, whetting my appetite for more. So while officially it was not an ultra (that would come later in the year with a real 50K and my first JFK 50 Miler), in hindsight, that 35K trail run at Catoctin set the tone for my love of ultras.
This initial run at Catoctin was held in March, and that day it was some 12 degrees, and the stream crossing was, shall we say, fun. But soon afterwards my feet were dry enough and warm enough, so I learned a valuable lesson about winter running and water—no need to fear it provided you keep moving steadily afterwards.
I ran Catoctin another 4 or 5 times, this time at the full 50K distance, after the race came under the able race directorship of Kevin Sayers, and was moved to the summer.
Although I have great memories of the Catoctin runs, I won’t run it again as long as it’s in the summer. Why? Nope, it’s not the heat. It’s the bees. I am quite allergic—I carry a bee kit with me at all times—and the last 2 runs at Catoctin I happened to be in the lead of a small pack of runners and passed over a nest of ground bees right on the trail. I’m unsure of the correct identification (hornets vs yellow jackets?), but while I passed over the nest and stirred up the bees--personally escaping getting stung--the runners behind me got nailed.
And that was on the outward leg of the out-n-back course, so I was quite leery of returning over the same path. Fortunately I remembered within about a quarter mile where the attack had come. I picked my way gingerly thru that section until I was past the nest (although I never did see another bee). Plus by that time everyone was strung out and I was running alone deliberately so that I wouldn’t have to contend with other runners stirring up any bees.
With ultras as with other major events in life, you never forget your first time. And I still love Catoctin. Maybe I should run there again on my own in the winter.