It wasn’t an easy choice – postponing a 50K trail run

GREEN RIDGE STATE FOREST, Saturday, Oct. 29, 12:45 p.m. — I’ve been directing footraces on and off for nearly a decade. There have been times a weather forecast caused me to consider moving or canceling an event, but I always lucked out. Until Saturday, I’ve never had to even delay the start of a race. That includes 2010, when I shoveled a half-mile of trail by myself in Rocky Gap State Park to clear the connect from the park to Allegany County roads — part of a 15K road run in early March. Still, the race went on as scheduled, and other than spots of ice (which one runner fell on, but still completed the run), it was a beautiful, if chilly, day for a run). 2-4 inches? Bring it on!

Then several inches of snow (2-4, then up to 8, then up to 12) were forecast to fall on Saturday, Oct. 29, only one day before the second annual Fire on the Mountain 50K presented by Sheetz. Jason Griffith and I hit the trails early Saturday morning to finish up marking. As of 8:30 a.m., snow was falling but I still planned to move forward with the race, if possible. Honestly, snow didn’t bother me much. And quite frankly, I had a blast on the trails Saturday. It was an amazing amount of fun. And there were about 120 runners from 9 states coming in. I knew folks from Ohio and Delaware already had left for the race site.

There were two primary hazards on the trail. First, the wet snow made for rather obvious, slippery conditions every step of the way. Yet, in my New Balance Minimus, I had no trouble climbing the ascents or maneuvering through the flat areas. And on the downhills, I simply slowed down.  The second issue, though, was something that really got my heart racing. As I finish up marking the green trail, I really began wondering if it was a good idea to put 120 runners on 24 miles of trails and 8 miles of logging roads — with each step a possible hazard. In general, I don’t consider myself an alarmist. One of my major pet peeves is when media outlets predict “the storm of the century” on any given week. Drives me nuts. But the heavy limbs cracking and falling all around — and on, as shown by the photo Jason took on the purple trail — were real. They were loud. And, quite possibly, they could be dangerous. Especially if some fool insisted on wearing headphones (another item on my list of pet peeves, but that’s enough on that for now).

I finished marking the green trail and headed to Green Ridge State Forest headquarters to consult with Bo Hopkins, trail master for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. I wanted to see about road conditions. On the way, I lucked out. Right in front of me was a plow truck with the Allegany County roads crew.  I stopped and talked with them. I told them the three primary roads I needed in decent condition on Sunday morning — Green Ridge Road, Mertens Avenue and Wallizer Road (the first two being mostly unimproved dirt logging roads). They told me I should wait a week.

I then talked with Bo, and he said hey, we’re ready. The trails are ready. We just agreed to modify the parking arrangements. I then talked with David Eberly, county administrator for Allegany County government. He was instrumental in getting me quick access to his road superintendents. Paul Goldsworthy, Dave said, seemed to indicate all would be well for Sunday morning. But Buck Stonestreet, in charge of the eastern end of the county which includes Green Ridge State Forest, was adamant. There was no way the roads were going to be ready.

Even that didn’t stop me. In the same 45-minute span from 12 to 12:45, I received yet another weather update. Snow was now expected to stop at 1 a.m. Sunday. It had originally been predicted it would stop by early to mid-afternoon Saturday which, in my opinion, would give road crews plenty of time to work their magic.

Then I talked with Calvin Davis, transportation director from where I was getting the buses. I asked him, “If tomorrow was a school day, would your buses be able to be on the road?”

His answer was, “Yes.” I thought – that’s it! The race is on. BUT. Yes, there was a hiccup. Mother Nature expected temps to dip into the mid-20s, which would freeze everything melting on the roads. Calvin said the buses wouldn’t be able to travel in icy conditions — which makes obvious sense. There’s no way I wanted to put anyone’s life in harm’s way.

So that was it. The race was postponed. Mark Beals, forest manager, had told me on Friday that Nov. 6 was OK to stage the event if Oct. 30 didn’t work out.

I feel awful for the folks who traveled to the race site in time for packet pick-up from 2-4 p.m. Saturday. Maybe the right thing to do would have been to stay there and talk with people. But Bo had told me he and fellow staff would be at headquarters until at least 4. And I was still in wet, cold clothing from my time on the trail that morning. And I hadn’t had anything to eat. And I had an hour drive home myself, with the snow still falling. So I went home. I understand that might upset some people, but that’s the series of events that took place.

As for staging this event. In hindsight, there are a few things we could do in the months before the 2012 edition of the race to be ready for something like this. One of them is rather simple, but something for which we were not prepared for.

* Delay the start. If the start time had been pushed back to, say, 10 a.m., the race might have been able to go on. Problem is, that set us up for a nighttime finish. And this year, at least, we were NOT prepared for that. And runners would have had to navigate the tree-fallen trails in the dark. How many would I be able to reach and remind them to bring headlamps on such short notice? Next year, we can put that in pre-race instructions from Day 1. Plus, it was pretty darn cold, and to expect our volunteers to unexpectedly be out later than expected … well, I have a feeling that wouldn’t have helped morale at all. But we can be prepared for something like this next year, even if a late-October snowstorm in eastern Allegany County is a rare event.

* Push it to Monday. Not possible, because hunting is permitted on Monday and GRSF is public land.

* Cancel it altogether. I really don’t like that idea. I believe the Metric Marathon in Columbia, Md., had to do that two years in a row, because of snow and ice.

OK, I’ve rambled on enough. Postponing the event wasn’t an easy decision. I know there are about — at least — half a dozen runners who can’t make it on Sunday, Nov. 6. Still, I appreciate everyone’s patience and understanding.

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