Race Report – The Delmarva Ultra Challenge.

Race information

  • What? The Delmarva Ultra Challenge (The DUC)
  • When? February 7-8, 2020
  • How far? 100K
  • Where? Laurel, Delaware; Pocomoke, Maryland
  • Website: The ALQ Ultras and UltraSignup
  • Strava activity: Full run here
  • Finish time: 13:00:03 (unofficial time for the entire 100K)

Goals

GoalDescriptionCompleted?
AFinish both 50K legs within the time limitsYes
BAvoid injuriesYes
CDon’t QuitYes

Pictures

Splits

LapLap Time
1st 50K6:42:24
2nd 50K6:17:29

Background

The Delmarva Ultra Challenge, affectionally called the DUC, is actually two different 50K runs, and prides itself on being challenging and a bit mysterious. The featured race is The Algonquin 50k: which starts at 7:30 Saturday morning and runs through a flat, but often wet course, through Pocomoke City, Maryland. For those looking for a bigger challenge, there are 30 spots for the DUC runners which starts the night before, after the packet pickup. For the nighttime 50K they say the course is marked, but not advertised or known in advance to any of the runners. This is what was promised to the DUC runners:
“What you will get is an epic overnight adventure that is unknown, challenging, fun and worth tackling. What you will not get is… a huge cheering crowd, much/if any sleep, hand holding, much love or a lot of whistles and bells. This is a tight-lipped, crazy adventure. It is not set up for first time Ultra runners. No one you know knows anything about this race.”

I had run my first 100-miler 2 months before this race. I hadn’t planned on running another Ultra so soon, but on January 9th I joined a Strava Group called “Algonquin 50k” because I thought it sounded local. Through a weird series of events that most ultrarunners can probably relate to, a few hours later I ended up grabbing one of the last two spots for this overnight 100K trail run that prides itself on making itself hard. That gave me about a month to fine tune my training.

Training

After my early-December race, I took three weeks off for an injury. By the time I signed up for this 100K I was 9 days into an intense training month where I logged 336+ miles in January, so I was pretty confident I was still in good enough shape to finish respectably. I felt optimistic about this trail ultra, despite not running on trails in January, because it was reiterated that they weren’t very technical. That was a relief.

As far as any dedicated training, this race ended up just falling into the training plan I’m trying to organize for my new A-race in August. I feel like I have a lot flexibility and I think that’s important for both preventing injury and for me keeping my sanity. For now – my general plan until April is to keep to a 3-4-week/intense:1-week/rest schedule, going forward.
The biggest hole in my training plan is the lack of trails and elevation. I really need to work on that, and this impromptu 100K at least gave me a little trail work.

Race Strategy

I ran the Houston Marathon in January and had a very successful run, despite not coming up with a race strategy until I was at the start line.

For this race, my general thought process was that I would stick to the leaders the first 50K to finish in the top half of the field, then maximize the amount of time I can rest before the 50K’s start time of 7:30 a.m. the next morning. When we went out again Saturday morning, I had planned to start out with the second wave of leaders and hoped to keep up with them for the first half of that race and see what happens.

It all sounded good when I thought it out in my head.

Pre-race

Since I was doing the DUC, the instructions were pretty clear. We had to show up on Friday from 5pm-7pm for packet pickup. Then the 30 of us running the DUC had to drive ourselves to the following day’s 50K start-line, and be ready to be picked up, via buses, at 7:30 pm to be shuttled to the DUC start line that was kept a tight-secret. I live three hours away from the packet-pickup, and in the DC area that means the trip is closer to 5 hours in Friday afternoon traffic. That morning was a regular day of getting the wife out the door, the kids off to school, and it had the added bonus of being my scheduled day in traffic court, so Thursday night was the last time I slept. I left my home at 2:00 pm, and was able to make the hurdles in plenty of time.

The Delmarva Ultra Challenge Loop (50K)

Once we got on the bus Friday night, the driver typed the destination into his phone and someone in the front of our van asked out loud “Are we going to Delaware?” We all started to check our phones, and make assumptions about exactly where it was we were headed. We ended up in the van for a little less than an hour before the vans pulled up at an aircraft hangar at Laurel Airport in Laurel, Delaware. The relatively few runners and the skeleton race staff, all piled out and walked into a hangar to see a single plane on one end, and all the tell-tale signs of a fully-stocked aid station at the other end. After we all arrived, we got the race brief that ended up being pretty simple: We were to make three loops, each loop just a little over 10 miles. There is an aid station roughly half way that was well stocked and would also have a nice bonfire. We were also briefed that these trails had only been run by approximately 4 people, ever. We were running brand new, fresh trails.

It turns out that this trail was literally, at least partially, in the backyard of one of the race directors. The trails were freshly laid and I have to admit it was impressive. If you click on the Strava link above and zoom in on the northern path, you can see the intricacy of the route. So many switchbacks for such a flat trail. The trail was 99% clear of debris save for one downed tree, and a had gentle hill. Running along the outside perimeter of the airfield there was an area of packed sand, which was fairly wet and made for a subtle quick-sand feeling. The weather was cold, but not freezing, and being less than 48 hours from the next full moon, the visibility was good. In short, it was the best conditions possible for a 50K on trails no one had ever raced on before. Lastly about the trail, it was the most well-marked, and straight forward trail-system I’ve ever run. I’m not going to say it was impossible to get lost, but it might the first ultra-run where I didn’t get turned around at some point – and it was in the dark.

The race itself was pretty straight forward. The guy who started as the number one runner must have stayed the number one runner. He was light-years ahead of the next three of us by the end of the first mile. The 2nd through 5th position (which I was in the first lap, stayed pretty much together as a group the first loop as we sized up the course. By the second lap, a natural thinning had occurred, but I would say that our placements didn’t appear to have changed much after about half-way through the first half. I’m basing this mostly on the Strava fly-bys as there are no posted times as of Sunday evening, and to be honest, I’m not sure if there will be. After looking back through the web posts, the first 50K was really more of a personal challenge than an actual race. I really have no idea what I placed, but I didn’t ask because no one else was asking.

All the runners who started the DUC overnight challenge finished under the allotted 9 hours. Instead of taking one of the first two vans, I hung back to wait for a friend, and that ended up working in my favor as I had a solid 35 minutes of sleep in the back seat of the van which had to return back to the start line in Pocomoke, MD. I got to the start line of the 50K cold, but awake and in good spirits.

The Algonquin 50k

The 50K that started Saturday morning was a much more traditional ultra-trail run 50K. It was basically an out-and-back, with several parts of the outgoing path coinciding with the runners on the return path. The Race Director took great pride in saying this was a challenging course, and really played up the fact that the trails on this course are notoriously flooded, and because it’s Maryland in February, the water is pretty darn cold. The alternative to going for a brief swim is going off the path and dealing with the briars and the bushes. I treaded the cold water and the mud, and I battled the briars, but I’m still not sure which one was actually worse.

The support was fantastic on this route. Aid Stations were conveniently located in appropriate places and there was a drop bag possible at mile 15, which I was able to ditch my gloves and water-soaked over pants. There were so many acts of kindness and support that I can’t possibly list them all, but each aid station had wonderful people who served up cake, sweets, pickle juice and their own aid station’s special twist on snacks and treats. Special thanks to the gentleman who handed me a can of beer with nine miles to go. I didn’t get his name, but that guy was my hero.

Despite my strategy, I held back my effort for the first half of this race. I found a run club buddy at the start line and ran shoulder to shoulder with him for just about the first 25K. His plan was to get in some power-walking on the back half, and frankly, I was ready to just finish the day, so we departed ways just before the turn-around. My pace coming back was steady and naturally, one of the biggest bonuses of ultra-running is the conversations you have with so many amazing people along the way.

This was definitely a race that I will remember how awesome just about every aspect of the day was. I am already trying to encourage more run club buddies to keep it in mind for next year.

Post-Race

This is the craziest thing – if you sign up for The Algonquin 50k and don’t finish, they take your finish-line prize of a handcrafted mug, and they SMASH IT IN FRONT OF YOU! It’s so brutal to watch!

Luckily my mug was not smashed. I scored the finisher’s mug for the 50K and my wooden duck for having finished both races pictured here. I get chilled very quickly so I had a bit of food, waited for my drop bag to return, warmed up in the car, had some more caffeine and then started the 4+ hour drive back home.

The lesson that I learned, but would not have changed my mind at all, was that the DUC was the fun run. The only results recorded in UltraSignup were for the 50K. I placed 101st out of 235 finishers. This is, of course, a very respectable result, but I did have my moment where I kept thinking – What if I had gotten 8 hours of sleep and didn’t run a 50K overnight? Even on my best day I’m not positive I could have broken the top-ten finishers, so in retrospect, I am quite happy with the way this DUC performed.

Lastly, I can’t say enough good things about the Race Directors. Gabe ran the overnight 50K and Trent the RD for the ALQ50K are both the classiest guys a runner could ever hope for. So many supportive people everywhere this race really personifies the trail community and the awesomeness that surrounds these events. If you’re anywhere on the East coat and this race isn’t on your radar, it should be!

What’s next?

2-3 days of rest. Then I’m going back to 70 – 100-mile weeks, and find some more trails. My A-Race this year is Leadville, so everything else between now and then is just training. This race really encouraged me though because I do feel like I’m getting stronger on the trails, and of course, confidence is everything right?

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