Saturday, November 23, 2013

Washington, DC Area Ultramarathon Reviews

This year, I have run three ultramarathons in the Washington, DC area: the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile (June 1, 2013); the Athletic Equation 12-hour Adventure Trail Run (September 21, 2013); and the Stone Mill 50 Mile (November 16, 2013).

Rather than writing up a blow-by-blow of each race in its entirety, I thought I'd suggest some of the pros and cons of each race for those who are looking to run 50 miles (or so) in the DC area next year.

The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile

  • Big Name.  The North Face Endurance Challenge is a big name race, as far as 50-milers go.  While local favorite Michael Wardian won the 2013 race, top competitors come from all over the country.  In addition to rubbing shoulders with the greats, you'll get treated to a lively sendoff and a serious finish line festival. 
  • Scenery.  Every other photograph of race is of the short section that requires rock hopping high above the Potomac gorge, but frankly, the entire course is beautiful, which runs along the wide Potomac and then in the hills of Great Falls national park, is amazing.
  • Swag.  The race costs $90 if you register on time, but it comes with some serious swag, including a high quality silkscreened technical shirt, socks, and a water bottle.  And, yes, a medal if you finish.
  • Spectator Friendly.  There aren't many ultras that pass four times by a big grassy picnic area where your family and friends can chill out and have a good time.  This is one of them.  
  • Course.  The first fifteen miles of this race is mostly flat, luring many runners into a marathon like pace.  They pay for it when they hit 20 miles of steep hills and gravelly fire roads and the aforementioned rock hopping.  The fact that three repetitive loops are required doesn't help.  Then, its 15 more miles to get back to the finish line.
  • Weather.  To make sure that the Endurance Challenge lives up to its name, schedulers put it in early June, when the weather in Washington, DC is anything but great for running.  The weather can be above 90 degrees and humid, as it was in 2013, or it can be very rainy, creating a mud-fest like in 2012.  Don't be hoping to set any PRs.

The Athletic Equation 12-hour Adventure Trail Run

  • Flexibility.  This could be a fifty mile race, but it doesn't have to be.  The goal is to run as many 6.5 mile loops as you can, in under 12 hours.  Some runners are here to rack up the miles, while others are happy to knock out a fast 20 mile and be home before noon.  So, decide what you want to do, and don't worry about anyone else.
  • Ideal Weather.  While late September can occasionally get a little warm, this generally is the perfect time of the year to be running in a T-shirt and shorts.  
  • Aid Stations.  The beginning/end of the 6.5 mile loop is a rollicking loop with music blaring and an ever changing array of food throughout the day.  (The pierogis, in particular, were awesome.)  If you have your own supplies, this means you can also hit your drop bag every 6.5 miles.  Midway through the course is a self-serve water stop, so you can run all day carrying just a single water bottle.  
  • Spectator Friendly.  Your friends and family will basically end up tailgating in the parking lot, but they do get to see you come by every 6.5 miles.
  • Value.  For $85, you get a pretty low-quality t-shirt.  You'll also get a pint beer glass if you finish.  I wouldn't call this race a bargain.
  • Repetitive.  There's a lot to like about a 6.5 mile loop - the aid station, seeing your family and friends - but by the end of the day, they get pretty boring.  A couple miles of long straight fire in the middle of the loop don't help.

The Stone Mill 50 Mile

  • Price.  Only $35 for a 50-miler?  That's unheard of.  I don't care that there's no swag.  At this price, sign me up.
  • Course.  The course is essentially a lollipop, with 20 total miles of out-and-back, and a large 30-mile loop in the middle.  While you're not exactly out in the wilds, there is plenty of scenic natural beauty, and something new to see around every bend.  And if you want to set a PR, this is the place to do it.  The course is 99% non-technical, and mostly soft underfoot (except for a mile or two of suburban sidewalk.)  Lots of soft rolling hills (and one brutal hill at the end!) to keep different muscle groups engaged, while giving others a rest. 
  • Aid Stations.  With 11 aid stations, you'll have a place to stop, on average, every 4.5 miles.  Sure, some are better stocked than others (and those that are well stocked are amazing with everything from hot soup to quesadillas to Knob Creek whisky), but regardless its nice to know there's always a friendly face and fresh water around the corner.  And the volunteers here were uniformly the best and most supportive of those at any of the three races.   
  • Camaraderie.  Maybe its the low key nature of the race, but I just met a lot more cool, friendly runners here than during any other race.  
  • The Basics.  Sure, the price is great.  But having only a single toilet for men at the start of the race meant a lot of runners were late to start.  Similarly, not having access to drop bags until mile 29 meant really loading up my pockets and hoping that I didn't need a change of socks.  This is a race that demands self-sufficiency.  
  • Late Year.  Running late in November makes for cool weather, which is great, but legs can be tired from other races.  It also makes for icy streams (and I lost count of the number stream crossings.)  It also means that many of the runners had to finish in the dark.     
Of course, there are other 50-mile races in the area that I haven't yet run, most notably the Bull Run Run 50-miler, in April, and the JFK 50-Mile in November, which is the granddaddy of them all.  I hope to report back on some of these next year!

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