So yup, it was going to be three muddy 50K's in a row. The streak continues! While I knew the mud would probably slow the race down a bit, I was still really excited to race as hard as I could.
Everything about the HAT Run was fantastic. After 24 years of putting on a top-notch event, Mr. H and Mr. A and their cohort definitely know what they're doing. Starting about a week before the race, the HAT Run facebook page began showing updates of course and race preparations. I know this happens at most races, but it was a cool behind-the-scenes look at all the hours of work that go into making everything just right on race day.
Ten minutes before the start, as many of the 512 entrants as possible were packed under the pavilion trying to stay out of the rain, buzzing with excitement. At the last possible minute, everyone made their way out to the field for the start.
|the start! (Photo: Mom)|
I didn't really know much about the other runners in the race, but I knew there was at least a handful of fast guys. I thought a top 10 finish would be a pretty reasonable goal, with a reach goal of top 5. So my plan was to go out toward the front and watch the beginning miles as the leaders settled in. A guy I had met about two years ago at a group run that he leads (although I was the only one that showed up that particular day) ran up beside me in the first mile. Ginn and I caught up and chatted while a small bunch spread out up ahead. We stayed comfortable and got a feel for the muddy trails. They weren't too bad right now, but we knew the conditions would get a little worse as the day went on, especially since every part of the course was passed over at least twice by all the runners.
|finishing the small loop, mile 3.6 (Keith in red, Ginn in Orange) (Photo: Mom)|
Everyone running around me was super cool. A very good group of folks who were very enjoyable to run with. Soon enough, I settled in with guy named Keith. It's kind of scary how many times Keith and I have not only been at the same race, but finished very close to each other. But here, at mile 6 or so of the HAT Run, was the first time we ever met. After several miles, I had learned that he was the winner of the Mid-Maryland 50K, where I was 4th, and the Rosaryville Veteran's Day 50K, where I was volunteering. I then learned of his 2:38 marathon PR and Leadville run, and began thinking I was still going a little too fast. But it was a lot of fun running with him. We stayed together for the majority of the first big (13-14 mile) loop and made it go by very quickly and easily.
|Me, Keith at mile 12 (Photo: Mom)|
I tried to be consistent with fueling for this race, basically taking a gel every other aid station when I would grab one from Dad. I kept a handheld filled with Gatorade, too, which I would replace with a new one from Dad whenever it got low. That was awesome, because I never even really slowed down at the aid stations - just grabbed a gel and/or bottle from my dad on the run and dropped my old stuff. I don't think I've ever run an ultra before without stopping for at least a quick fueling. Apparently I missed some really good food from the volunteers at the aid stations though!
|First of two times through this stream (Photo: Trent)|
So there was all this uncertainty. Were the guys up ahead going to maintain? How many of them would fall back again? And who was still behind me waiting for a moment to surge, like Keith. The fellas that went blowing by us on the paved downhill were going extremely fast, but I got the impression that they were under control and knew what they were doing. I think only one of them ended up coming back.
There were a few things that were certain, though: 1) Trent was going to run up one of the bigger hills with me at the end of the first loop, and then the last few miles of the race, 2) I was going to see my parents every 4-6 miles - I remembered at JFK how I tried to focus on feeling/looking okay each time I saw my parents on the towpath, and it worked well keeping me honest there. 3) The course was very difficult, but after the first big loop, I'd seen it all and knew exactly what to expect for the last 13-14 miles.
|finishing the first big loop (Photo: Mom)|
Once I got ahead of him, though, I felt a bulls-eye burning into the back of my shirt. He and I were probably rounding out the top 10-ish, and I remembered what he said about the other runners, waiting until the later miles to reel them in, and I knew what kind of speed and endurance he had. This made it tons of fun, though. Running in front of him, I was definitely out of my comfort zone and had no idea what was going to happen, but I was running at my sustainable maximum.
After the lower aid station, the course takes the green trail up a long steep hill. It's about two miles of mostly up until we reach the road, which we take for about a mile of downhill and a mile of flat back to the aid station. At the very top of the green trail, I saw a guy walking. As I passed him, he began jogging with me on to the road and we chatted a bit. Turned out I know his brother and he knows my brother, but he and I had never met. He graduated from the same high school 4 years earlier than I did, and I remembered hearing his name a lot as a cross country stand out. He had crashed pretty hard after the first big loop, and was pretty much done racing.
As I went through the lower aid station for the final time, with about 5 miles to go, Keith was 50 yards or less behind me. I was expecting it much earlier, but he was finally about to pass me again. Trent was joining me at this point, and I was feeling pretty good.
At this point, the course heads back up a pretty big hill on the red trail, then down the steep other side to the river crossing. Keith pulled ahead of me on the uphill, which is when my legs really started cramping up - especially my hips. I kept breathing and pushed through it, and then caught back up and crossed the stream with Keith a mile later. After that though, he was gone. Next was what is probably the biggest hill of the course. It was a lot of power-hiking and forcing a run on the less steep or flat parts.
A recurring mantra throughout the day was, "If you can walk, you can shuffle, and if you can shuffle, you can jog." I told myself this at some point early on in the race going up a hill, and it actually did turn in to kind of a mantra which I repeated to myself many times. It actually worked, too - it kept me from walking a lot more than I maybe normally would have.
Anyways, I trucked up the hill as best I could, with Trent behind me encouraging me along. We finally emerged out into the field with about 2 miles to go, a moment I had been envisioning for weeks. Keith was nowhere to be seen up ahead of me in the open field, or on the long downhill road leading to the last mile and a half. I kept pushing, though. I reminded myself that my goal for the day was to race all out and leave everything out on the course, and I wasn't going to let myself down by not honoring that goal.
|After one of the hardest hills (Photo: Trent)|
That paved downhill hurt but I got down it pretty quickly. Then it was a sharp turn back on to the trail for one last tough climb before breaking out on to the final half mile section in the field. Getting toward the top of this climb on the yellow trail, I looked up and saw...who else, but Keith. We'd become so acquainted throughout the race, constantly running together or yo-yo-ing back and forth. "Damn it," I thought, "now there is no excuse not to try and beat him." I couldn't see him through the next little windy-curvy section of trail, but when we popped out of the woods, he was right there, maybe 50-70 yards in front of me. The finish line was maybe a quarter- or half-mile away. Go time.
I sprinted as hard as I could, pretending I was doing an interval on a track. The gap was closing noticeably, but only gradually. I gave it absolutely everything I had and, when it was clear that it wasn't enough, shouted "Damn it, Keith!!" before crossing the line 6 seconds after him.
|DAMN IT, KEITH!!! (Photo: Mom)|
It really felt good to race. Mentally and physically, it was a real challenge and loads of fun. It was a bit of a rough winter, but I feel like I'm fully back into the swing of things now and really looking forward to whatever comes in the future. I'm delighted to be typing this report without any ice on my leg and after having had a couple of good runs since the race. I'm also delighted to have been a part of such a spectacular event basically in my hometown, and a bit sorry that this was the first year I made it out there.