My First Trail Race: Seneca Creek 50K
I don’t usually write long posts; but 50 kilometers (actually 35 miles) is a long time, so here we go!
The day began just like any other, with wudhu (ablution), prayer, and a few moments of solitude to remember God. Next, I layered up mechanically in the running clothes set atop my dresser from the night before; warmed up with a honey-sweetened mug of mint tea; fueled up with seven small dates; and thought while eying my pink duffel at the door, have I forgotten anything? I checked the weather in Damascus, Maryland one last time–it could be anything from 20’s and windy to 40’s and sunny, so I stashed a few extra layers into my bag. Then, I decided to be ready.
When Amy knocked at 5:35 a.m., I felt pure egggcitement with a “g.” When I get really excited, the word itself changes and lengthens. As the sun came out, and rural scenes replaced city streets, I began to feel the 50K coming true. Then, we were there, at the finish, following ushers into a parking space, and deciding which gloves to wear; whether or not to layer on an extra shirt and use gator-like pant-holders; how much fuel to bring; whether there is time to visit the porta potty before leaving; and all the other options that present themselves at the last minute. At 6:45 a.m. we sprinted to catch the last in line for a ride to the start on a school bus painted blue. Several rows were already packed 3 to a seat. So we sat in the aisle and prepared for a half-hour backwards road version of the upcoming several-hour trail race. Although I felt content with my space in between the seats, when someone announced that a volunteer would drive the last 4 people to the start, I jumped at the opportunity for a luxurious ride.
35 backwards miles later, cut short by streets and propelled by gasoline, we found ourselves in Damascus, where we traded registration forms and checks for bib numbers and timing chips. With one minute to spare, I blew into my frozen fingers in attempt to gain enough motor control to attach the number to my clothing. With one safety pin to go, someone called “GO,” and a mass of colors strode into the woods.
After a few miles of running with friends as we warmed up, blood reached my fingers and toes, and the trails became more sparse. Nevertheless, for the first few hours, I always saw several runners ahead, especially as hills, streams, and technical terrain approached, and pairs of legs formed into waves that automatically calibrated to the challenge. As the hours passed and the miles grew longer, we saw less and less people. Our goal became to make it to Clopper Lake by 11:30 a.m., before the 50K cut-off. At 11:12 a.m., someone announced that we were 2 miles away, so we ran fast, including up hills. With no gadgets to measure distance or speed, I decided to try my best and hope to arrive on time. Alhamdullillah we reached the lake with one minute to spare.
At Clopper Lake, with 16 miles on my legs, I suddenly realized that I was hungry–not sure if it was because I had been awake for 6 hours and running for more than 3, or simply the sight of food in the woods. I could not have imagined a better equipped aid station! I tried a couple junk foods, and also copied Amy when I saw her dip a chunk of potato in salt.
After running around the lake, and acquiring 4 more miles, I refueled again. The wind picked up at this point, and my fingers also froze again. I tried to unscrew the reservoir in my Gregory Hydration Pack; and, when the volunteers saw me struggle, they kindly gave me a hand.
When we made our way back to the trail, I felt like we were starting fresh. For the first time in the day, I even saw a sign naming the trail. I smiled at noticing such a sign at mile 20, more than halfway through. For the next 5 miles, I basked in the reality that we were actually running the 50K. Before that, there was a chance of not making the cut-off, and being gently ushered towards the marathon path instead.
Once the joy of running 50 kilometers hit, it became a challenge. Then it became a struggle. I realized that my legs were tired. I felt something like pain in parts of my legs that don’t ordinarily seem to contribute to running. I tried to distract myself by paying attention to the changing terrains, and the cute little foot paths that sometimes randomly appeared.
I wondered when the little paths were built. How did they decide to put it here and not there? Some paths were buried, and I thought about how long it must take to clear and keep the trails open.
After awhile, I thought about nothing and everything began to look the same: tall leafless trees. Then I remembered something Amy said earlier in the day, that “trail running is a thinking man’s sport.” So, I thought!
I thought about how blessed I am to be on the trail. I thought about the tiny snowflakes that sometimes landed on my face. I thought about the rare green patches of fern that forced their way through the winter ground. I thought about the crushed layers of leaves decayed against the dirt. I thought about the once green pine needles now brown and becoming like mud. I thought about this cycle–from life to death that plants display season after season year upon year. I thought about the Creator of this all.
God is free from imperfection and I begin with His praise, as many times as the number of His creatures, in accordance with His Good Pleasure, equal to the ink that may be used in recording the words for His Praise.
Although my legs were carrying me in running form at a walking pace, and I wanted to be done, I felt grateful for where I was at each moment. Soon, we reached a water crossing! Technically, one could strategically hop from one rock to the next to cross with minimal wetness. However, practically, such rock-hoping could put one at risk for slipping and falling. Plus, where is the fun if you don’t get wet? So, I sloshed through the stream. Afterwards my heavy, cold, and wet feet felt more motivated than before to pick up the pace, at least to dry out!
The stream crossing was one of my favorite parts of the course. The remaining few miles is a blur. I don’t remember much besides the estranged deer leg in the middle of our path. The course ran long by about 4 extra miles, which took me an hour to complete. The last half mile, we ran on a country road, also mostly uphill. Because we were on a road, I kept thinking that we were almost done. When the finish actually neared, the course switched onto a grassy stretch, and I almost ran right past it! Amy helped me get back on track, and we finished with big smiles and our families and friends waiting to greet us.
After introducing my running family to my biological family, we all chowed down a feast of mujadara (lentils and rice) and tabouleh, in a faster than usual fashion because everyone was freezing! We celebrated all who helped us accomplish the feat, including those who were present and those who were not.
Nya: Thank you for your security services through the streets of Baltimore in the dark. You are tough to all the right people!
Rosie: Thank you for your never-ending energy. Somehow, you remind me of both an elegant queen, and a silly 3-year old, at the same time.
My running family: Thank you to the Baltimore Pacemakers, and my newly found trail runner friends, for all the runs, rides, support, and miles of fun!
My biological family: JazakumAllahuKhayr. Thank you for supporting me in running, life, and all goodness now and forever.
Coach Amy: You are an excellent role model in running, food, and the faith to question the status quo. I’m grateful for the many miles I logged with you, and looking forward to many more!
Thank you to all the Seneca Creek volunteers, working in the woods to make the event a success!