Race Report: 2015 Stone Cat 50 Miler

By the last half of the lap I have given up on thinking about my finish time and just focus on moving forward as quickly as I can. I know I’m going to be within a few minutes of an 8-hour finish and, if I can ignore the shooting leg pain, it will be on the faster side.

The finishers vest and race shirt from the 2015 Stone Cat 50 Miler

The finishers vest and race shirt from the 2015 Stone Cat 50 Miler

The Stone Cat 50 miler was a somewhat last-minute decision this year. In 2013 we went as a big group, and it was my first 50 miler. Finishing with a time of 9:10, I was thrilled. As my first ultra over 50 km, it was great to have it in the books.

Well, a lot can happen in two years. Between that first Stone Cat trip and this one, I ran my first 100 miler, another 50 miler, and a ton of 50K’s, shorter trail races and even some road races. I had a great training run this summer and fall, smashing several personal records and gaining more confidence every week. But with these successes came something unexpected – expectation.

For the most part, my running career up until this summer had been a whole bunch of firsts. My goal for Stone Cat 2013 was just to finish. The goal for the 2014 Vermont 100 was to finish. Most other smaller races came with the same expectation: finish, or just do as well as I can. But this race felt different. I had a baseline, I knew my training was solid and my fitness (and experience) had improved a ton from 2013.

Race Goals

My main goal for the 2015 Stone Cat was to beat my time from 2013. They changed the course up slightly this year, which should have made it a little bit tougher, but I figured I should definitely be able to roll under 9 hours without too much trouble.

My stretch goal, which I had been thinking about for a while, was to go under 8 hours. I had been going back and forth with this one for a few weeks. The course is fairly runnable, and Jodi and I had just done a 50 km a few weeks back at a 5:30min/km pace. Add an extra 30 km on to the end of that run, but let myself slow down 30 seconds per kilometer. I had no idea if 8 hours was achievable, but I kept it the back of my head anyway.

The Course

This year’s course was similar to that of 2013, except they replaced some wider double track with some single track, added a bit of elevation gain, and reversed the direction. The course was familiar once we started running, but different enough to keep it interesting.

The Stone Cat Trail Races are Set in the Willowdale State Forest in Ipswitch, Massachusetts. The course is a 20 km (12.5 mile) loop, consisting of entirely single and double track. Lots of leaves, rocks and roots can make it challenging and technical at times, but the lack of big climbs or elevation changes make it very runnable, and a reasonably quick course.

The Stone Cat course as seen on Google Maps.
The Stone Cat course as seen on Google Maps.

Lap 1

With the time change the weekend prior to the race, we are able to start without a headlamp. The temperature hovers around 10-15 degrees all day. Not a drop of rain in sight, and the course is bone dry. I couldn’t ask for better race conditions.

Start time is 6:15 am. The race director (and fellow Nova-Scotian) Marty gives his speech, and we’re off. It’s an open-field start with around 150 runners, so Jodi and I push through the crowd to hopefully avoid the logjam that happens where the trail starts. About 10-15 runners are ahead of us, but we’ve beat the crowd. Time to settle in and find our pace.

If I was going to get under 8 hours, it would need to be a consistent day. Going out hard and crashing on the last lap just wouldn’t work. Four consistent laps just under 2 hours was the goal; easier said than done. While Jodi and I weren’t necessarily planning to stick together all day, we had similar goals and similar strategies, so we stuck together for now.

We let several of runners pass us on lap one, and didn’t pass very many ourselves. The goal was two hours, and we didn’t want to lose sight of that. Patience!

Around the halfway point of the first lap we run into a friend from New Brunswick, Andrew Titus. He had gone out slightly in front of us, and we caught up to him as he stopped for a quick break. I finished the 2013 Stone Cat with Titus, meeting him on the final lap and crossing the line together. I think it was a first 50 mile finish for both of us.

We chat, tell jokes, talk about our year of running, and the time flies by. After around 45 minutes together, Jodi and I need a break of our own and Titus keeps moving.

We cross the finish at around 1:56, four minutes ahead of the goal. It is slightly faster than expected, but close enough. We each grab a quick water refill and are in and out in seconds, on the way to lap 2.

Lap 2

My heart rate reading tells me early on that I will have to have to let Jodi go this lap. He is moving really well, and although I feel fine, my heart rate is definitely higher than I want it to be. About 5 km into the lap I let him know, and start falling slightly back. He stays in sight for another kilometer or so, then he’s gone.

The aid stations are serving Tailwind, so ignoring the old adage of “never try anything new on race day”, I switch my diet to pretty much Tailwind only for the rest of the day. It doesn’t taste terrible (like a watered down lemon-lime Gatorade) and keeps me feeling relatively hunger free. I have a few cookies and a gel, but most of my salt, water and calories are coming from the Tailwind.

Despite letting Jodi go because of my high heart rate, I end up averaging an even higher heart rate for the rest of the lap, and end up a few seconds faster than lap one. Damn! I guess I’m not so good at pacing myself. My legs are hurting a lot more than expected after lap two so I’m into the Tylenol at the end of the lap. In and out of the aid station in just a few seconds again. The most important lesson I learned running this race in 2013 was not to stop after a lap. Don’t let yourself sit or rest, just grab what you need and walk for a few seconds if you have to. The temptation to quit on lapped ultras is there, don’t give in!

Lap 3

I know lap 3 would be the toughest mentally and physically. Lap 4 hurts, but at least you’re done afterwards. Lap three hurts and you still have another one left.

I run most of the lap alone, trying to ignore the pain in my legs. I kept feeling a slight tingle in my right knee when running uphill, so I decide to play it safe and hike a few more hilly sections than I want to. I just hoped it wouldn’t cost me in the end.

Despite slowing down a little and my legs hurting way more than expected, my pace is only slightly slower. I had an 8-minute buffer and fully expected to give a couple minutes back this lap. Lucky for me, my pace get a nice little boost when I catch up with another friend from New Brunswick, Bernie, halfway through the lap. Bernie has a bunch of (fast) 100 milers under his belt, and even has a coveted Western States 100 belt buckle.

Bernie has been sick for the past few days, and I can tell he isn’t feeling great. Still, I had never been anywhere near capable of keeping up with him before, so it was a huge confidence boost. I say hi, wish him well, and keep on moving.

The lap finishes without drama. I come almost exactly where I expected: 2 hours on the dot. Once again I grab a couple Tylenol (thanks Woodsy!), fill up with Tailwind, and run out of the aid station and on to the last lap.

Lap 4

As often happens to me on longer races, my brain function seems to slow down. It should have been simple math: I had an 8-minute buffer, which meant I needed to do lap 4 under 2:08 to reach the 8-hour goal. Easier said than done I guess, because I had no idea how close the finish was going to be as I set out on lap 4.

In 2013 I finished lap 4 faster than lap 3 and felt great. That wasn’t going to be the case this year. The legs are hurting, bad. I push, but the quick first 3 laps have really taken a toll on me. My heart heart rate has barely dipped below 150 all day, but this lap it’s a struggle to even get it up that high.

Graph of my heart rate during the race.
Graph of my heart rate during the race. The drop-off on lap 4 is easily spotted.

Still, I am running all the flats, downhills, and most of the small uphills. I am moving slower, but not by much. My watched shows me averaging around 10 seconds per kilometer slower this lap than the last, and as far as I can figure out that should still put me where I need to be.

By the last half of the lap I have given up on thinking about my finish time and just focus on moving forward as quickly as I can. I know I’m going to be within a few minutes of an 8-hour finish and, if I can ignore the shooting leg pain, it will be on the faster side.

The easiest distance milestone for me is the second aid station, Al Cat’s Lounge. It’s between 6 and 7 kilometers from the finish. I reach the aid station at about 1:10 into the lap. This math I can do. Playing it safe and aiming for a 2-hour lap, I only have to cover 7 km at a 7-minute pace. Considering I have barely dipped above 6 minutes kilometers all day, I feel pretty good. It’s going to be close!

Just before the final descent is a huge rock to the side of the trail, which I had assigned a remaining distance of about one kilometer earlier in the day. Seeing that rock on the final lap with my watch reading around 7:50, I know I am going to make it. I fly down the last descent, hit the 800 m of double track to the finish and put down my fastest kilometer of the day. I don’t want to leave any doubt!

Three shots of me crossing the finish line.
Three shots of me crossing the finish line. Photo by Jo Fraser.

The finish

Coming out of the woods into the field to the finish, I hear Jodi cheering. He still has his race gear on, which means he wasn’t that far ahead of me after all. I cross the line with an official time of 7:55:10. Jodi had come in about 6 minutes earlier, which was the first sub-8 hour 50 mile effort for each of us. Our efforts were good enough for 7th and 8th place respectively. I think the expectations may have been a motivator, after all.

Much like Cape Chignecto earlier this year, the whole group from Nova Scotia had personal bests and great days. Karine and Suzanne had their best 50 mile times, and Woodsy and Krista each finished their first 50 miler. Everyone was well under 10 hours, too!