Still a Runner

A Blog by Mary Lou Harris

Dipping my Toe into the Ultra World

Taking on a 50K trail race is something I have pondered over time, years of time actually since I am now solidly in the 65-69 AG. After canvassing opinions from experienced ultra running friends, I chose May as the month and the Dirty German Endurance Fest as the event.

The Dirty German has 25K, 50K and 50-Mile options through Pennypack Park in Philadelphia. It was billed as suitable for beginners yet offering enough challenge for more experienced trail runners. I found the description accurate. A more experienced trail runner could run this entire course. I chose to walk in some areas, staying conservative to ensure I could finish uninjured.

Entertainment at the Dirty German Endurance Fest

Entertainment at the Dirty German Endurance Fest

To test my trail legs, a couple of friends were kind enough to do a 21-mile run/hike with me on the Appalachian Trail prior to the race. With 2/3 of that 50K trail distance completed and still feeling strong, I was ready for the 50K.

Race morning dawned with high humidity and temperatures climbing early. Within the first mile, I could see shirts ahead of me already sweat-soaked. My ponytail provided a personal air conditioning system, sprinkling cool drops of water down my back.

The shade from huge trees and the bubbling of the creek offered physical and mental barriers to help ignore the mugginess of the day. The paths were soft underfoot with the expected rocks and tree roots mixed in here and there.

The toughest areas to run were 2 miles of paved bike path as well as a short section of rough dried earth that looked like leftovers of a tractor track, jarring enough that I walked the grass section beside that hard earth.

The course includes two creek crossings. I made it across the rocks, barely getting a toe wet. Making way through a flat single track switchback section I could hear the accordion and the start/finish activity. Beginning the second loop, it felt like luxury to run on those soft trail surfaces and listen to the creek bubble. There were enough other runners out there  to feel comfortable but also enough personal space to listen and watch nature unimpeded as my feet took me on this beautiful second loop tour.

The Dirty German was my first experience with a different type of aid station. For road marathons, I keep my food intake to a few energy beans and maybe a bite of an energy bar in the last few miles. Adding 6 miles on trail required more substantial intake.

At each aid station, a volunteer quickly filled my hand-carry nearly-empty water bottle. I reached for a chunk of potato, dipped it in salt and chased it with a glass of Coke. Fortunately, my stomach didn’t rebel & I was good to the next aid station.

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Post race with running friend and 1st 50K Women Masters, Becky.

My loose goal was to complete the 50K course in 8 hours. As it turned out, my finish time was 7:05:58. I saw my friends Becky and Jeremy  (you can read about Jeremy’s ultra running exploits on his blog The Road to Trails). Becky had finished much earlier, placing 1st in the women’s masters category for the 50K and garnering a wonderful award – a cuckoo clock – for her efforts.

I took a short walk to Pennypack Creek where other runners and families with children were wading in the cool water. I washed the top layer of dust and sweat off legs and arms, did a quick change into a dry shirt, and made my way to the barbecue area for a sausage and German potato salad. We took a moment to thank Race Director Stephan Weiss for a great event and were on our way home.

Post-race, I was surprised that with the exception of some minor stiffness, my body was none the worse for wear. The softness of the trails and the changes of pace and stride seemed easier than the pounding on asphalt and cement road running hands out. That may account for some of the longevity of trail runners who have been at this for years and continue to run trails far into their senior years. A New York Times article titled Why Older Runners are Ultrarunners reached the conclusion that older runners are no more likely to be injured during trail running that younger runners.

Granted, they were not referring to women in their 60’s who decide for the first time to take up ultras (example #1 behind this keyboard). No, most of the runners in the cited study are men who have had decades of experience running distance on trail.

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Long sleeve tech shirt and finisher hat.

After a first positive experience, I will be incorporating more distance trail runs and trail hiking. I’m not abandoning the roads, but they will be sharing my running time with the trails.

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17 Comments»

  Mind Margins wrote @

Congrats to you! I did my first 50K two years ago and loved it. I trained on trails every weekend and was amazed at how much kinder those runs were on my legs than the roads. Don’t you love the trail race aid stations? I discovered I loved boiled potatoes and Coke as mid-race fuel. And I love the laid back feeling at trail races.

  Still a Runner wrote @

I recall reading your post about your 50K and was motivated but didn’t get around to doing one then. The aid stations were great. I didn’t eat much of the variety they had – pbj, cookies, pancakes – but yes – the coke and boiled potatoes were just what I needed. I also like that unless you are in the really competitive field, folks just hang out at the station chatting for a few minutes before they move on. A very different world of running.

  Mind Margins wrote @

I agree! And I love that it’s no big deal for runners to walk up the hills, or whenever they feel they need to take a break. So very different from road marathons.

  Joe Church wrote @

Very nice article and excellent job on your ultra!

  Still a Runner wrote @

Thanks, Joe. Maybe we will both be signed up at one in the future.

  runsonsyrup wrote @

Congratulations!!! The ultra world is just that — its own world. Welcome to it 🙂

  Still a Runner wrote @

Thanks. I’d like to stay a while. See you out there.

  Jim Brennan wrote @

Mary Lou, you are incredibly awesome. I wish I would have known you were running, Pennypack is my old stomping ground. I trained for many a marathon there, including Boston. And, I did the Dirty German half-marathon many years ago. How ironic. Also, I recently trekked 70 miles on the AT. No, I’m not stalking you, just a coincidence. Congratulations, Mary Lou. I am happy for you and really proud of you.
PS, thanks for sharing the article about older ultra runners. Very cool.

  Still a Runner wrote @

Thanks, Jim. We may run across you yet in that area. We may bring a few more friends along to run if it fits our schedule next year.

  Jim Brennan wrote @

Let me know and I’ll be sure to register. In the mean time, I plan to write about the NYT article about older runners and ultras in an upcoming post and will give Still A Runner a shout out as the reference. Be well, Mary Lou.

  Just a Running Chick wrote @

Wow I’m impressed! I don’t think I could ever do that! 🙂 E.

  Still a Runner wrote @

You would be surprised what you can do. Just look at your run distances since you began posting.

  Patty wrote @

Great Job MaryLou! I told you before you are my idol. What an accomplishment. I hope you have many more happy trails.

  Still a Runner wrote @

Thanks, Patty. I hope so as well and hope one day to match your 5K time.

  paigesato wrote @

Great recap–the more I read about ultras, the more tempted I become.

  Still a Runner wrote @

Yes, I gave in to that temptation and happy I did. I think you would be a natural for the trails.

  Long May You Run | Write & Run wrote @

[…] some years now and was excited to read she recently finished her first ultra-marathon. In her blog Still A Runner, Mary Lou shares an interesting New York Times article by John Hanc about Why Older Runners Are […]


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