Saturday July 26th was a very special day for me. I won the Catoctin 50K and my wife and 8-year-old son were there to see me finish. I also learned a lot about myself, about my limits, and about racing.
Ultramarathon running is very special to me. Though I am a relative newcomer to the sport, I have quickly embraced, and have been embraced by, the incredible family that is the ultra and trail running community. In that same moment of community, each race is an incredibly deep, exposing, and probing journey into one’s true self. Not some lame philosophical journey, but a REAL journey involving painfully pushing into your physical, emotional, and intellectual limits. A journey that you cannot really express to another person in tangible words. As someone who is admittedly overextended in my work, family, and extracurricular life, ultramarathon running has provided me with a unique peace in the wonderful storm of life.
My race weekend started in chaos like most of my race weekends. My wife was meeting me promptly at 5pm at my veterinary office, and we would leave from there with our son and two dogs to stay with some family 30 minutes from the race. Naturally, a dog comes in on emergency at 4:45pm after being hit by a car. I text Michelle and tell her to hang tight and order some x-rays for the limping dog. A bit beat up, but no broken bones, the young dog will be ok. Holy foreshadowing!
I jump into the car, and start eating my prerace meat lover’s pizza as I drive us up to Maryland, sausage falling on my lap. Arriving in Maryland, our son was supposed to “camp out” in their playroom with my 6-year-old niece, but my son bailed, crashing in our bed instead – sideways. This relegated me to the only open bed in the house – my niece’s pretty pink princess bedroom. Yep, this was gonna be a special weekend. (note to self, sleep in a princess bedroom before EVERY race!)
I woke up early, had a cup of coffee, a banana, and two mini CLIF bars, hit the head, and was off to Gambrill State Park.
I’ll admit, I did not believe I would or could win Catoctin. I am certainly not the fastest runner around and my previous race results have never even had me in the top 10. However, I’ve been running well this summer, am healthy, and for some reason I love really technical trail and excel on that type of surface. And, I’m pretty scrappy. Seemed like a good race for a scrappy guy from Crozet, but still, there are a lot of fast people in the world!
During the week leading up to the race, my best friend Dan (#DANton!) and my wife were doing their best telling me that I could actually win this and that I needed to go for it. Don’t let this sound emo, but they certainly believed in me more than I did. I pretty much told them “okay, okay, I’ll try my best!” to get them to leave me alone about it, but still knew that I could only do what I could do, and thus far I was not a top-5 kind of runner
When I reached the park and started mulling about, I made sure to say hello to three great people. The first was Kevin Sayers, the race director (also the race director for MMT100). I introduced myself and thanked him for putting on the race, and he just picked right up in conversation with me like we’ve been friends for years. The next was Tom Green, who I had never met but admire deeply. Tom Green is a living legend and has run over 250 ultramarathons. He makes Meb Keflezighi look like a middle school cross-country runner. I introduced myself and wished him luck on his current Grand Slam attempt. He asked me all sorts of questions about myself and was just a really nice guy. Meeting Tom Green was a highlight for sure. The last was Gary Knipling. Besides most likely being the only other veterinarian on the course, Gary certainly embodies the positive community aspect of ultrarunning… well I guess just like the other fellas I just mentioned. Not sure I could’ve had a better pre-race briefing than what I just got. The true legends in ultrarunning are not the fastest people, but the people who have been doing it the longest.
As the prerace briefing started, I looked around, intimidated. I was still newbie nobody and here were all these fast looking people wearing fancy singlets, tattoos, and calf panties. But I still found the minutes before the race start a peaceful calm before the storm, knowing I may as well relax because I was just about to beat the hell out of myself.
Gear check: Altra Lone Peaks with Balega socks, my new Patagonia Strider CAT shorts, no shirt, a BUFF head bandana, and two 20oz handhelds loaded with Tailwind Nutrition and then every pocket stuffed with more Tailwind mix and a few gels.
“123 Go!” Kevin yells immediately following some cutoff time remarks that half of us weren’t even listening to. I laughed as I didn’t even have my handhelds on yet but lurched to make sure I was running with the front pack as we circled the Gambrill State Park Road for a bit to thin out before heading down the rocky trail.
As we turned down the trail, I was about 7th or 8th and just hung there for the first quarter mile as everybody tried to get into a feel for the single track that immediately told us how rocky the next 31 miles were going to be.
I usually try to start my races out slow with some easy breathing, like 5 or 6 steps per breath cycle. At the same time, I kept hearing Dan’s voice in my head telling me to keep up with the front 3-4 guys and don’t worry about blowing up. I anxiously leapfrogged a few spots and soon found myself breathing pretty heavy (3-4 steps /breath cycle) before I had even run a half-mile. I grinned and decided to just enjoy the day and see what happened.
After about a mile, I was running in third place and the three of us in front were putting a pretty decent gap on the rest of the field. I was predictably enjoying the rock hoppin’ and was remarking to myself how pretty these trails were. But boy, were they rocky. There was just not two steps you could take on smooth dirt – just constant sharp rocks poking out from the ground, seemingly perfectly timed to interrupt any chance of a natural running flow. It was more of a hop/skip/run, but again I love it. I truly felt like a kid running on the trail and that’s a great feeling to have during a race.
I soon fell right behind #2, Chris McIntosh, and we began having some great conversation. Another great thing about any ultra race is you tend to have at least one meaningful new relationship that is built on the trail. We chatted for several miles about races, work, life, etc. and it definitely helped ease the early race tension. I looked back a few times and didn’t see anyone behind us and soon started getting a feeling that “Hey, maybe I do belong up here!”
At the first aid station (6 miles in), I made sure to fill up my bottles and started in on a gel. I knew it was going to be hot and humid so one of my key race strategies today was to stay on top of my fluids and nutrition, but also to keep cool. The handheld in my right hand was exclusively for my Tailwind mix, while the handheld in my left hand was exclusively for squirting water on my head and body throughout the race. I was not afraid to let runners 1 and 2 get out of sight while I took a few extra seconds at the aid station topping off. This attention to taking care of myself would pay off big today.
I ran all of miles 6 through 15 in third place, about a minute behind first and second and far enough ahead of fourth that I never heard or saw anyone. Running easy, but solidly in third place for the next 9 miles gave me a peaceful confidence about the day. I remember running through a beautiful section of trail where there were just thick ferns covering every inch of the forest floor all around me and suddenly just feeling overwhelming gratitude for that moment. I had a family that was supporting this time away from them. I had my health and fitness allowing me to do this. And trail running is just really, really peaceful and beautiful. I was just really grateful for that moment. This gratitude filled me the entire race and I can say that I never once had a bad patch or negative patch the entire 32 miles.
The last three miles before the turnaround (it is an out and back course) were all downhill, descending 1100 ft. over the same ridiculously rocky terrain. I started turning it on a bit here and running confidently – too confidently – downhill when suddenly I caught a toe running full speed downhill and had a spectacular crash down on my left arm and shoulder. I cried out some awful Braveheart bawl and lay there on the trail with both my handhelds thrown off the trail. A yardsale. I quickly got up and started on again with all sorts of bad things going on in my left shoulder for a few minutes. But besides some wounds and an awesome painting of dirt over my torso, I was ok and still feeling the gratitude.
I hadn’t seen runners 1 and 2 for a while and was wondering when they were going to pass by me. I was pleased to find that they only had about a 2-minute lead on me as I approached the turnaround aid station. My new ultra friend Ryan Cooper was there cheering me on which really gave me a boost to see a friendly face. I had the volunteers fill my bottles while I jumped into the river and took a few seconds to cool my head and clean my wounds. Fill the bottles, cool down, time to chase.
Heading out of the aid station, I was now heading back where I had just been and was ready to make the three-mile climb up the mountain. Living in Crozet and running Jarmans Gap Rd more than I care to admit, I had great confidence in my ability to make some gains up this hill. I also now had the ability to see who was behind me and who might also be making a charge. I passed the 4th place runner and could quickly see he was done as he struggled on the rocks. Passing the 5th place runner though I could tell he was just getting warmed up and had a lot of pep in his step. I’d have to watch out for him.
I took down another gel as I started the climb up and was surprised to catch up to both first and second within just a few minutes of the climb. Here is where I knew I had a great chance to actually win this thing. I saw Bethany Patterson zooming down the hill somewhere around 10th place and we could both quickly tell that the other was quietly having a very good day. I then passed Keith Knipling who got all excited when he saw me and told me I looked great and that the guy in first didn’t look good. That was all I needed to hear to put my head down and start grinding.
The runner who was in first the first half faded first. I felt bad for him because I could tell he was pretty much done. “Keep it up!” was all I could come up with as I passed him and took over second. Chris was now in first but I could see him walking some of the sections I was running and I knew it was just a matter of time before I caught him. Sure enough, about two miles from the turnaround I passed him on a steep uphill section, but we encouraged each other to keep up the pace. I told him about the guy with pep in his step behind us.
At the 18-mile aid station, I again stopped to fill my bottles, mix my Tailwind mix, and grab some watermelon and I was surprised to see Chris just fly through the aid station. There wasn’t another one for about 4 miles and it was starting to get hot out. I kept a steady grind up the hills and once again caught up with Chris. We had some more good conversation, though a bit more winded and tense, before I finally decided I needed to push it a little harder to keep the gap on the peppy guy behind us.
Suddenly I found myself alone on this beautiful trail in the lead. I had another mile of seeing runners on their way out, and said hi to Denise, Gary, and Tom. And then, I was alone. These next 11 miles were incredibly enjoyable, yet complex. First, I was in the lead of an ultra. Woo Hoo! I was going to enjoy every minute of this. However, I had no idea how far ahead of second place I was. I kept thinking of that young peppy guy, but quickly decided that I was not going to run scared. I was running this rocky trail hard, running every climb. No one was going to make up any time on me on this trail.
But running that trail hard has its consequences, and thus began my epic series of falls. Full falls. With about 10 miles to go I took another full speed fall and both of the lids on my handhelds blew off. I got into the 9-mile-to-go aid station and was cheered on by Ryan again and this time Kevin Sayers was there congratulating me on a strong run so far. He laughed when he saw how covered in dirt I was and my arm scrapes and asked if he could take a picture. That was great and I was having a good time with them. Bottles filled, I grabbed some watermelon and charged down the trail, even more fired up to keep pushing for the win.
9 miles to go for the win. Just a 9 mile tempo run. I felt hydrated, my legs felt great, and mentally I was in a good place. So THIS is racing I thought to myself. Can I keep it up for 9 more miles? How crappy would it be to get passed now?! Wait, I can’t think like that! Stay positive and just keep tearing it up! I just kept attacking those rocks and grinding the climbs. And then another yardsale fall. “Expletives!!” “Dammit Andersen! How many more times are you gonna fall! They’re starting to hurt!” I kept blowing the lids off my bottles but at this point there were some streams I could refill them in. I was constantly dousing myself in this water, trying to keep my body cool. At every significant stream I would stop for a few seconds, open my bottle and just pour the cold stream water over my head and body. That was incredibly refreshing and well worth the time spent.
At the last aid station, 6 miles to go, I was again cheered on by Ryan and Kevin and the volunteers. At this point I was out of fuel. No more gels or Tailwind, and 6 miles to go. I grabbed a few more pieces of watermelon and again charged down the trail. Only seconds later, I turned my head around to shout something to Kevin and caught a root – down again! Right in front of everyone at the aid station! And my bottle cap blew off again! I had to run back to the aid station and refill and like a dog who’d been hit by a car, and ask Kevin how many more times I was gonna fall down again today.
Those last 6 miles actually blew by. I was gaining confidence with each mile as I was able to keep my body cool and was still hydrated. Despite my numerous falls and achy arms I kept charging the downhills and grinding all the climbs. I started to think about my 8 year old son who was more than likely waiting for me at the finish. How great it would be for him to see his daddy win this race.
With about ½ mile to go, I had to start walking the climbs. I was now approaching the ends of my ability. I was chuckling to myself that if someone came up on my now, we’d have an epic power hike battle as the last half mile was ridiculously steep uphill. My left calf suddenly cramped and paralyzed me for about 20 seconds, then miraculously allowed me to continue hiking. I laughed thinking that Andy Jones-Wilkins would probably hear about this but then call me a boy because I’ve never run a 100. And I laughed thinking that Horton would probably call this a sissy race, just because it wasn’t one of his. Lets face it, this wasn’t Western States or Promise Land, but it was the rough and tumble Catoctin 50K and I was just a few hundred yards from winning it!
As I turned the corner by the tea room, the first person I saw was my son who yelled “Daddy!” and grabbed my hand as we ran towards the finish together. I crossed the finish line and got my handshake from Kevin and my CAT card, then got a hug and kiss from my wife. I was exhausted, exhilarated, and hot, but I was DONE!
I stayed at the race for hours after finishing, strengthening relationships with old friends and making plenty of new friends as we ate the great post race food and shared stories. It was kind of fitting that I won the race where there are no special finishers awards – my finish was no more celebrated than 100th place. But that’s the community and I hope I can one day be like Gary or Tom, still part of it after all these years.
Many thanks to Kevin Sayers and all the great volunteers who fed us and filled our bottles. And congrats to all my friends who were also Rockin’ at Catoctin – it was a great race; I’m sure to be back.