"Hey, I see a couple of new victims up ahead," Amanda says quietly to me.
"Can we take them before the next aid station?"
"Sure," she replies, "let's reel 'em in!"
That doesn't sound like the usual spirit of trail running, where friendly cooperation is the watchword. But we're only doing it to fool ourselves: it's a silly mindgame, invented on-the-fly to motivate me into moving a wee bit faster during our 31 mile trek. "We're lions," I tell Amanda, "culling the laggards from the herd."
But in actuality we're quite unleoninely beasts: whenever we pass people we give them a smile, offer them encouraging words, and ask how they're doing. Then we mush on ...
It's the last day of winter, 19 March 2005. My colleague Amanda Mitchell and I are attempting the 17th annual 50k HAT Run . HAT means "Hinte Anderson Trail", a meandering double-loop route in Susquehanna State Park devised by Jeff Hinte and Phil Anderson. A few hundred hardy souls are running, jogging, and walking 50 kilometers today, through the woods and across the streams of northern Maryland.
We're locomoting --- with the emphasis on loco. The official HAT write-up characterizes the course as "challenging but not daunting". Mysteriously, however, the hills grow ever steeper and the creek crossings ever slipperier during the second circuit. I tell myself "Don't trip now!" and almost stumble on the next gnarly tree root.
The big problem for me today, alas, is that there are no serious problems:
I thus have absolutely no excuses for not doing well today (other than my pitiful lack of talent, lack of training, and lack of mental toughness) ...
This is Amanda's first ultra. It's an ambitious undertaking for somebody who has only done one marathon, who has minimal trail experience, and who hasn't had much opportunity to train for the past few months. But Ms. Mitchell is young and strong, and I persuade her to try on the HAT with me. My promise is that if things aren't going well then she can bail with honor at the 16 mile point, where the course returns to the start/finish pavillion. As it turns out there's no need to even consider that escape hatch.
Shortly after 6am we rendezvous at my house and cruise north to the sound of Indian movie music (Bollywood show tunes) in my wife's MINI Cooper. As we climb out of the car Amanda spies a pair of deer feeding in the meadow in front of us. A few moments later we're greeted by friendly fellow runners, some of whom remember me from last year's HAT Run. Others thank me for my write-up of that experience and say that they've studied it for guidance on this year's event. I find the nano-celebrity status a wee bit embarrassing, and hope that I don't lead anybody too badly astray.
We register, pick up our numbers, and return to the car to stash gear, put on shoes, eat, drink, and make other nervous last-minute preparations ... even though there's more than an hour to go until starting time. Rayna Matsuno (whom I met at the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon 2005 earlier this month) joyously hugs us and reports that she returned less than 48 hours ago, after a blitz visit to Japan. Her jet-lag trumps mine by at least four time zones; I likewise got back Thursday from a too-long business trip.
On our way again to the start/finish pavillion Mike Acuna says hello; he's "T-bone" on a DC-area running blog. At the picnic tables I meet one Keith (last name unknown, sorry!) and in line for the restroom I'm behind another, Keith Straw, a fast marathoner who visited with me after the Washington Birthday Marathon 2005 last month. Ari Solow introduces himself, and Kari Brown renews our acquaintance that began at the Seneca Creek event. Comrades-ultra veteran "Mighty Mark" Bloomfield arrives to try on a HAT again; last year we ran part of the route together. (See  for his 2005 report.) Nearby I spy a pair of adorably cute twin baby girls in a double stroller. They're five months old and well-bundled against the morning chill. I tickle a tiny pink hand and talk with their Mom as Dad gets ready for the run.
Then it's time for Amanda and me to claim our rightful position at the back of the pack and await the signal to begin. In contrast to the slow ordeal of mega-event starts, within a few seconds we've crossed the line and are on our way, trotting happily together on the one-mile out-and-back that spreads the field before the narrow trail begins.
Our strategy? Simplicity itself:
We follow the game plan with dogged determination. I attempt to capture Dead Last Place and seemingly succeed within the first hour, when a look backwards across a huge grassy field reveals not a single person behind us. It's then that we devise the "HAT Game" (see above) and commence pursuing our prey.
The remainder of the race is a happy blur of hill and valley, trail and road, tree and stream, rock and sky, food and drink ...
(To the tune of Twelve Days of Christmas, with apologies:)
Twelve spectators cheering, Eleven big geese honking, Ten hundred paper plates, Nine volunteers cooking, Eight electrolyte capsules, Seven ibuprofens, Six pints of Gatorade, Five ... wet ... stream ... fords! Four humongous hills, Three packs of energy-goo, Two fancy trail caps, ... And a cool //"**HAT Run**"// commemorative shirt!
OK, since the course is a double-loop the hill count and the stream crossing count should each be multipled by two ... 1,000 paper plates is a slight exaggeration of the number of course markers, cheery bright yellow with their arrows pointing the way ... there might have been more than a dozen folks applauding on the final cruel climb to the finish line ... I can't testify to the precise population of geese or cooks ... and the words don't scan at all well. So sue me!
I did take exactly 8 "SUCCEED" 1 gram buffered sodium-potassium pills along the way, to ward off calf cramps ... I distinctly remember swallowing 3 ibuprofen tablets at mile 16 and 4 more at mile 25, as I felt knee pains looming ... and I definitely drank the better part of a gallon of sports-drink, along with several cups of Coke and Mountain Dew at the aid stations ...
"What happens on the trail, stays on the trail!" could well be the Code of the Wild. Here, therefore, are merely a few shadowy snapshots, heavily bowdlerized for family audiences. True trail runners can fill in the missing details.
We'll see how adult I feel in three weeks ...
The final hill taunts me into making a strong sprint for the finish line (ok, it was more like a wobbly jog, but that's a lot better than my limping stagger at that point in 2004). My official time is 7:13, more than 20 minutes faster than last year. I experience no blisters, no falls, no twisted ankles, minimal chafing, slight sunburn, scarcely any muscle or joint soreness, and only one briefly wet sock circa mile 15 when a stepping stone slithers out from underfoot at a small stream crossing. My main complaint? A tiny twig somehow took up lodging in my shoe around mile 30. It really bugged me for a spell there.
Amanda triumphs, feeling great and blazing through the final four miles. (We dissolve our Fellowship of the HAT at the top of the last big hill, where I send her onwards with my blessing.) She arrives ten minutes in front of me, a smidgen after the 7 hour mark --- a superb accomplishment for her first ultramarathon. In the car on the way back to DC she first calls her parents (wise daughter!) and then text-messages a bunch of friends with the good news. Now she is truly Ultramanda!
At the finish line Jeff Hinte takes a photo of me and asks what I'll write this year about the race.
"I don't know," I reply. I consider:
Sorry, none of the above dare I attempt. Instead, there's only this idiosyncratic and impressionistic aide memoire. Perhaps some other participant-observers can append their comments to the Wiki edition at HAT Run 2005.
Or maybe better would be to just don some HAT paraphernalia and go out for a long run in the woods ...