Exploring along Dead Run, the last stream crossing before reaching the Beltway.

Keith Knipling

Potomac Heritage 50k Race report

by John Calabrese

The Prelude

Bob Coyne on the Potomac Heritage course

Potomac Heritage is not like any other ultra out there. Everything about it is extremely unique. Most trail runners I know do not want to drive to DC to do a race because the thought just seems perverse, but what many people also do not know is that DC actually has many really cool trails and a challenging terrain. In addition, the Potomac Heritage event incorporates specific challenges at aid stations throughout the run that make it silly and keep you in good spirits and laughing throughout the race.

Last year when I did this race I did not do any of the aid station challenges. I ended up thinking about my lack of participation during the year leading up to Potomac Heritage. Why would I not join in on something fun? Was it programmed into my head that if you are running you have to be all serious and don’t have time for cool stuff? This legitimately bothered me because I like to have fun in races, and although I do try to do well (sometimes), what I find to be most important is making friends and having a great time.

I set out at the beginning of the race wanting to not only do every challenge, but to do the very best I could at them, and to make the volunteers laugh. That’s the least I could do for everyone that comes out to help with the race, and for the race director, White House Tom McNulty, who puts on such a cool race.

Our esteemed Potomac Heritage 50k RD, White House Tom McNulty

I arrived at the start at Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park around 7:10 am. I immediately was having fun with the runners laughing and talking sh#t. Charlene Howard was helping me put on spray lube around my pack and sprayed some directly in my mouth! I knew it was going to be a great day! I talked to Q, Stewart Jollymore, Bruce Martin, John Hord, and Charlene a lot while waiting. It started raining, so we all went to the pavilion where we did the race brief and picture, and then off we went!

I went out way too fast. Bruce and Stewart went far ahead, I wasn’t even going to try to attempt to hang with them, so I dropped back some. I was looking for someone to hang with but the course was really well marked so I kind of did my own thing for awhile. I think it was about 4 miles in when I missed a turn. Normally this would upset me, but this is Potomac Heritage so I didn’t care! It actually worked well because I started running with a group of runners who had also missed the turn and we found the right way together. I didn’t catch the name of one of them (we ended up not running that far together, but he was super nice and I am definitely going to look him up when the results come out); the other was Ellienne Noonan.

The first aid station challenge: throwing down pancakes and tater tots.

The First Challenge:

When we rolled up on the first aid station at Battery Kemble, the first runner challenge was given. Eat pancakes and hash browns. Sarah Smith was giving them out. The pancakes went down easy! I had lots of syrup; but the hash browns were a little rough. Didn’t matter though, got done with the first challenge, thanked them, and moved on. So now my band of adventurers are talking about races and stuff we had coming up, and the subject came up about the fun place the trail was going to spit us out at. I told Ellie that you are going to feel extremely underdressed when you see where it takes us. We get on the C&O canal then trot up the steps into the city and are now in the Georgetown area. It’s so hilarious that a trail ultra would take you to such a place! Again, this is part of the uniqueness of this race. We press on and find ourselves in a big time challenge at the second aid station at Roosevelt Island.

Challenge 2:

The onion. I not only ate the required onion, but I washed that thing down with a gawd dang YooHoo. The disgusted looks I received from the volunteers….I loved it. I turned to a little kid and I asked him “why do I do these things??”

Eating onions for the challenge time bonus

We moved on and headed to my least favorite part of this race. It’s fun but I get really slow on it. Near the water is the fun rocky part where you have to use a rail on the side to climb up. I feel like I did this part better than last year but it still really kicked my ass. I was extremely happy when this part of the race was over, I mean it’s beautiful views on the water there, but it just beats me up.

We get to the next aid station under Chain Bridge, and unfortunately there is no challenge, but they do reveal that when we come back you have to take a raw egg to the finish. I was sad I couldn’t do a challenge at this aid station, but I definitely was excited for the egg challenge later in the race.

At this point I was running with Ellie and we bumped into Carol Cohen. We all worked well together! Carol got into trouble on the first water crossing. When you see the picture below, this was the scene right before “the tragedy.”

Carol Cohen about to take a total immersion dip, with Ellie Noonan close behind

We made some minor wrong turns but nothing significant. We had great conversations talking about Boyers Furnace (Carol directs this race), triathlons, marathons, and ultras. At this point, Carol left Ellie and I, and we pressed towards the next challenge at the fourth aid station, Turkey Run.

Challenge 3:

Guess the chip flavor! This was probably my favorite challenge. There were 5 flavors of Pringles chips from Asia. The 1st I tried was avocado with wasabi. I got that right. 2nd was spicy crawdad. Got that right. 3rd was tomato — got that one, also. I could not get the last 2. It was hurting my head so I bailed. Trying 5 chips and getting 3 right, I felt like that was above and beyond. [Editor’s note: braised pork and cucumber were those final two flavors.]

I spent a lot of time at this challenge, so Ellie was now far ahead of me. I was solo for a bit and something bad happened …..

The Turkey Run aid station volunteers

The Fall

I was running and I don’t know what happened — but I was airborne. Most of the time I can get out of these situations without falling, but I was not lucky this time. I fell very hard on my knee and wrist. I got up slowly and didn’t feel any pain so I pressed on. I caught up with Ellie at the big stream crossing on the way to the turnaround bridge (the Beltway). We made a slight mistake and almost went the wrong way, but figured it out fast and moved on. We were almost at the bridge and who do we see coming from there? Marty Fox! I’m so happy to see him, and he tells us not to forget to pee on the bridge for extra points. I tell him definitely!

Marty Fox

Ellie and I get to the bridge and turn around. We are headed back and we see Carol! I figure, you know what? I better pass down Marty’s advice. I tell her not to forget to pee on the bridge for bonus (later I would find out this created some confusion ….).

At this point, Ellie drops a bomb and says she wants to drop. I tell her don’t, you will regret it, and that you did all the hard stuff! The rest is easy. Don’t do it!! Ellie says she won’t. We press on and catch Marty! We run with him back to the Turkey Run aid station where we did the chip challenge.

Headed back

This is the best part of the race for me. Yeah, we have the annoying part to do over again along the GW Parkway, but there’s not much left to go at that point. And I knew the egg challenge was coming, and I couldn’t wait!

John Calabrese is ready to accept the final challenge: deliver this raw egg to the finish!

So I’m with Ellie and Marty and we’re running together. We’re not talking too much, we are all business. Ellie hasn’t mentioned anything about dropping, but when we get to the egg challenge aid station she mentions she doesn’t want to do the remainder. I tell her not to drop, that its her call, but she might regret dropping because its only 7 miles to finish.

Marty goes first I eat some food, refill my bottle and head out. Ellie is not coming. I felt sad. I met up with Marty and told him, and he was upset, too. He said he would have walked with her the whole way. Marty is a good dude. I run ahead of Marty on the C&O Canal path and get to a turn and have to enter the tunnel. I worry about my poor egg here, because if I was going to drop it anywhere, this would be the spot.

Somehow I climb into the tunnel with my egg, and guess who I see?? Ellie! I was so happy to see her. Marty was right behind her so we ran awhile up some graffiti rocks, going up after the tunnel and pressing on. Ellie and I pull ahead. I tell her if she’s feeling good go ahead, and remind her everything is marked so no fear of getting lost now. She goes ahead and I run alone for awhile.

Ellie Noonan running through the scenic graffiti tunnel

I meet back up with Ellie and I run in front, we both just want to be done at this point so not much chatting. We caught up to two runners; it was nice to see others and we started running faster. I kept trying to catch a runner ahead of me and he started going crazy fast, but him doing that helped me move faster to the end.

I could smell the curry at this point and kept running. I see the finish! I run past and give White House Tom my egg. Ellie comes in shortly after. I go and get that curry and a huge cup of coke. It is amazing. I keep saying that over and over, and people are laughing at me. Josh Howe came over to me while I was eating and we talked local sports; he’s a cool guy, I like talking sports with him. I told Ellie that I was so glad she finished, and she said thank you for motivating her. I also cheered for Marty coming in as I was straight up grubbin.

Charlene Howard and John Calabrese, closely following the course markings.

I love this race because with so many expensive, lottery, and intense races out there, this one just stands out as the opposite of all those others. Its free, goes above and beyond to be fun and silly, and it offers something that I’ve never seen in races: the challenges. And again, the course is extremely unique. I would have never, ever thought DC had this kind of stuff. I would like to seek out more urban trail adventures.

Thomas McNulty is a great RD and I hope to do this race many more times and maybe, just maybe, next year I’ll guess all the Pringle flavors correctly.

The End

Last updated November 7, 2022