What the Blue Blazes? A Guide for Navigating the Catoctin 50K Trail Run

By: Phil Hesser

Kevin Sayers, Race Director for the Catoctin 50K Trail Run, has calculated that approximately 60% of the ultrarunners who attempt the race get lost at some point on the trail. This is a rough estimate, since a good number of racers are unaccounted for. It is not entirely clear whether these AWOLs are still heading toward Gettysburg or Hagerstown, or whether they were so embarrassed at their times - lengthened by several wrong turns - that they returned to the race start in camouflage so they would not be seen skulking back to their cars.

Having been a bit lost myself and having finished at the back of the back, I can say without hesitation that there is nothing to be embarrassed about. (As a charter member of the Boppers or "back of packers," perhaps I am beyond embarrassment.) I have also given the matter some research and thought, which may be of consolation to those who have emerged from Gambrill State Park to read this and even those of you who may wish to attempt the race in the future.

You may be interested to know that the park is in the dead center of what is known to geophysicists as the Thurmont Triangle. Apparently, the massive amounts of shale in the area - most of which is found by unsuspecting toes on the Catoctin Trail - disrupts the magnetic fields of the earth, frustrating the best efforts of orienters, GPS enthusiasts, and migrating moose. This unique feature, perhaps, suggests the origin of the first name of High Knob, Wheadahekawi. Subsequently, the name Catoctin was adopted by the people of the area with the best of intentions, believing that people would not stray to an area if they could neither pronounce nor spell it.

Those of you who are Civil War buffs may already know that the Cacoctin Trail played an important role in saving Washington, D.C., from invasion by the Confederacy. As it happened, General Lew Wallace of the Union Army endeavored to slow down the advance of the army of General Jubal Early of the CSA by erasing the blue blazes of the trail at critical turning points. History records that the delay suffered by Early's men gave the Union Army the precious time needed to defend the northern ramparts of the capital before the ragtag army of the South managed to shuffle into Silver Spring - hot exhausted, thirsty, and with nothing to show for their forced march but a Catoctin 50K finishers' card. Lew Wallace went on to even greater fame by writing Ben-Hur, a novel that takes about as long to read as it seems to take finishing the Catoctin 50K, and allegedly designing the Interstate system for the District of Columbia. Early - despondent at all of his fellow generals chiding him for being "not so early" when he advanced on the District of Columbia - went on to become a recluse inventor most noted for developing the snooze button on alarm clocks.

In recent years, several efforts have been made to mark the trail with less ambiguity, but with less than successful results. U.S. forester Gilford Pinchot marked every tree on the trail with blazes with an experimental, but ultimately unacceptable, paint that subsequently was marketed by the inventor as disappearing ink. In the first years of the Catoctin 50K, the Hamiltons attempted to mark the trail with red ribbons, but despaired of this practice when it was learned that the dye in the ribbons attracted legions of horse flies and provoked the occasional male badger. Since that time, the trail has endured with its markings untouched from the days of Barbara Fritchie - give or take the blazes erased by Lew Wallace as he dreamed of retiring from war and writing a really good chariot racing scene for Charleton Heston.

So those of us who choose to run the Catoctin 50K have no choice but to run in the footsteps of the Confederate Army and being Early only in name. Still, for those of you who wish to complete the course before the first snows of winter, here are a few tried and true suggestions on how to keep your wits and maybe even stay on the trail:

  • Rule One: When you come to a fork in the trail and cannot see any blazes, choose the trail that runs uphill and avoid any trail branch that looks "cushy." We all know that no decent trail on an ultramarathon would ever take the easiest alternative.

  • Corollary to Rule One: Do not choose the most difficult alternative if it involves: 1) bushwhacking, 2) vertical drops of over 40 feet, or 3) crossing more than four lanes of Interstate highway.

  • Corollary to the Corollary to Rule One: Disregard this exception in any 100 mile race.

  • Rule Two: Look for two vertical blazes on selected trees, since this is intended to pass along very important information: Climb up this tree to try to see where the heck the trail goes.

  • Rule Three: Do not follow any golf carts marked "Property of Camp David" or emblazoned with the presidential seal, since these are routinely driven by U.S. and foreign leaders who have been hopelessly lost for most of their public lives.

  • Rule Four: Dust off your pathfinding skills and follow the trace left by the runners ahead of you. This works fine except when:
    1. you are in first place,
    2. a recent rain or wind storm has obliterated all evidence of civilization,
    3. a runner has left the trail to do his/her "business," or
    4. you have stumbled upon a path used by rutting bears.

  • Rule Five: When in doubt, stay where you are with a dorky look on your face and wait for another runner to come along. Whatever you both agree on is sure to be the wrong way.

    The above rules may not necessarily keep you on course, but they will ensure that you experience the suffering and mayhem that make ultrarunning so much fun.

    In sum, if you get lost on the Catoctin 50K, do not despair, become angry, or panic. Instead, consider yourself part of a venerable Catoctin tradition going back to the first time a person barked a toe on a shale outcrop and cursed the mountain and his/her folly for attempting to cross it. Prepare yourself, too, for a less-than-stellar 50K time, remembering that the Thurmont Triangle is also known for several warps in time that carry you anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes into an uncertain future. And finally, keep a head on your shoulders, remembering the old saw of Daniel Boone that he "was never lost; only a mite confounded for a bit." He may not have completed the Catoctin 50K, but he did blaze a new trail into Kentucky and Tennessee, where he pioneered the Barkley Fun Run and started a tradition of "reckonin'" that ultrarunners have no choice but to employ to this day.