Abby's Run — that's what today's 50 kilometer ramble through the woods of Susquehanna State Park is for Ruth Martin and me. It's Saturday morning, we've gone a few miles down the trail, and the crowd has now spread out so we can jog freely. Then the Spirit of Ultrarunning, personified by a fit blonde woman, appears beside us and introduces herself.
We're attempting my friend Ruth's first ultramarathon, and we're a little nervous about our chances to finish. The lady next to us is Abby, a veteran with half a dozen or more prior races here under her belt-pack. She tells us that today she's only planning to do the first 16 miles of the 31-mile journey. Then she tells us why. Last month Abby had several major medical procedures — "female" surgeries, to be euphemistic.
Abby, however, is the absolute antithesis of euphemism! She describes her recent operations and her ongoing reconstructive program in complete and cheerful detail. We're fellow trail runners; there's no need for reticence. The body is the runner's machine, and Abby is as close to her machine as you can get. She's undergoing these treatments so that she can live to see her twin daughters, now age 11, grow up.
Abby's enthusiasm is instantly contagious. We applaud as she confesses that neither her doctor nor her husband knows that she's out today. We talk about politics, our families, the weather, and the downside of marathon fund-raising training programs. Ruth hails from Wales, and as we cross a meadow Abby and Ruth chat about the Welsh farm book I Bought a Mountain by Thomas Firbank. Abby and Ruth soon discover that they even have some friends in common. Long trail, small world.
It's a total joy to be with Abby. She tells us that she ran the first organized race here here back in 1989 and took second place among all the women. "Of course, there were only two women in the event that year!" she laughs. When Abby complains of being warm and wishes aloud that she could take off her tights, I offer her the outer of my two pairs of shorts. "But people might talk," I caution, "if we came out of the woods wearing each other's clothes."
Ten miles later our angel Abby starts to slow on a steep hill. She sends Ruth and me onward with her blessings, but cautions us to keep energy in reserve for the final segments of the course. We'll never see her thereafter. We'll never forget her either.
|Now I can say "only a marathon" and smile!|
Fast-forward to the drive home, as newly-minted ultrarunner Ruth makes that remark with justifiable pride. The 2006 HAT Run is in the rear-view mirror. "HAT" is an acronym for "Hinte Anderson Trail"; this year is the 18th annual event organized by and named for Jeff Hinte and Phil Anderson. Ruth and I cross the finish line together in 7 hours 34 minutes, tied for 328th place among 397 starters and 354 finishers.
The weather on 25 March 2006 is a near-optimal compromise: a little too warm for me, a little too cool for Ruth. The forecast includes a chance of rain and maybe thundershowers, but the only precipitation we experience is a momentary sprinkle so light that rather than feel it we only hear it, as droplets tickle dry leaves that blanket the forest floor.
I've done two previous HAT Runs, so this year's finish gives me a "HAT Trick". As we prepare to race Ruth and I are both a little concerned that the official time cutoffs may abruptly truncate our experience. We have to make it back to the start/finish Pavilion, mile 16, by 3 hours and 50 minutes according to the rules. That's a wee bit edgy since both of us are practitioners of what I like to call an "ultra-low-mileage ultra training regime", only ~20 miles/week over the past few months.
Our goals in descending order are to have fun, to avoid injury, to finish, and to cover the distance in less than eight hours. I have one additional mission: to get home in time to visit the hardware store and buy a replacement "J"-shaped grease trap for the kitchen sink. On Friday evening as I attempted to clear a clog I managed to poke the plumber's snake through the existing trap; it was corroded to paper-thinness. A minor flood ensued. It was too late in the evening to buy any hardware to fix it, so the project awaits my return.
|Out-and-back||~1 mile||0:10||10 min||10 min/mi|
|Aid Station #1||~5||1:05||55||14|
|Aid Station #2||~10||2:07||62||12|
|Unmanned Aid Sta.||~14||3:04||57||14|
|Aid Station #1||~20||4:45||68||17|
|Aid Station #2||~25||5:59||74||15|
|Unmanned Aid Sta.||~29||7:01||62||16|
Rewind to early Saturday morning, when Ruth arrives at my house a little after 6am. I load two bags of gear into her car, we buy gas, then head north. We arrive at Susquehanna State Park more than an hour early and are registered within a few seconds. The HAT Run is the fifth-largest ultra in the USA, but long-distance trail running is far from the mass-of-humanity phenomenon that marathoning has become. So Ruth and I relax, take a few photos, then huddle in her car to avoid chills. As 9am approaches we emerge, stand in line at the restroom, and take our place at the back of the pack for the initial on-road scamper.
As we trot along a man ahead of us comments to his companions, "I realized I was a runner one day when I went out jogging, looked at my watch, saw that an hour and a half had passed, and thought, 'Gee, I guess I better turn back soon!' " A little later I meet Keith, who to my astonishment has participated in the legendary Barkley Marathons and is going back to run it again this year. The Barkley consists of five 20-mile loops through almost-impassable terrain. In a typical year no one finishes the race; since it began in 1986 only six people have succeeded at it. In 2005 Keith covered about 8 miles, he tells us, during blizzard conditions. "You don't have to be fast to run Barkley," he explains, "just stupid!"
As for our race today, predictably Ruth and I start off too fast. Once the first (paved) mile is behind us, however, the single-file dirt-and-rock trail is both steep enough and crowded enough to slow us to a more sensible pace. Angel Abby joins us and offers reassurances, but we're still slightly worried. As we pass the unmanned aid station Ruth's GPS says we've only gone ~12 miles — and are far behind schedule — but now I'm pretty sure the real distance is ~14 and we're comfortably under the time limit.
As it turns out, I'm right: we make the major cutoff with 13 minutes to spare. After that we're more than an hour ahead of any looming deadlines. When Ruth and I reach the Pavilion at mile 16 we chat with the HAT's "H" man himself, Jeff Hinte, who reveals that the 3:50 cutoff there is more symbolic than solid. "If it's 4:10 and somebody is looking good, we let them keep going," he tells us. The key concept is to keep folks from hurting themselves through exhaustion, to avoid losing a runner in the woods after dark, and to give the volunteers time to clean up the trail and aid stations.
|"The Washington's Birthday Marathon was just a training run for the HAT. The HAT is just a recovery run for the Washington's Birthday!"|
Ruth offers that comforting observation as we climb the last hills before the Pavilion. At mid-race we pause to eat, drink, and re-tie loose shoelaces. A helpful volunteer warns us that sitting down can be hazardous during a long run. He cites the ultramarathoner's proverb, "Beware the chair!" — but we dare, and survive, a six-minute sedentary session.
Then Ruth and I gather up what scraps of energy we have left, take banana fragment in hand, and reenter the woods for the final 15-mile lap of the HAT Run. Our brisk first circuit has taken most of the starch out of our collars, but we downshift and persevere at a pace 2-3 minutes/mile slower than when we were last here. Between miles 20 and 25 I start to feel sensations of significant intestinal disquiet. I speculate that my Friday evening dinner may have been suboptimal. It consisted of leftovers found in the 'fridge: Chinese carry-out (spicy green vegetables) plus Mexican carry-out (half of a bean and cheese burrito). I hammered shut my coffin with a dessert of popcorn.
In "The Cremation of Sam McGee" Robert Service observes: "There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold; / The Arctic trails have their secret tales / That would make your blood run cold; ...". Likewise the trails of Susquehanna State Park during a long sylvan scramble. Although Ruth claims near-exhaustion, at mile 23 she breaks out in song:
|Little arrows in your clothing|
Little arrows in your hair
When you're in love you'll find
Those little arrows everywhere,
Little arrows that will hit you once
And hit you once again
Little arrows that hit everybody
Every now and then.
It's the chorus from "Little Arrows" by Leapy Lee, a popular ditty of 1968. Maybe Ruth sings it to drown out the noise of my churning guts. Or perhaps she's trying to preempt my threat to deliver the much-dreaded ^z Cosmology Lecture — a legendary presentation that has reduced strong men to tears and caused my comrade Steve to punch out after sticking by my side for more than 40 miles of the Tussey Mountainback 50 miler.
For whatever reason, however, Ruth's solo recital heartens us both. Soon we find ourselves at the Aid Station with less than 10k to go. Now we know we're going to make it. It's a perfect day.
Set aside the sweat, the scenery, and the silly jokes: for us this year's Hinte-Anderson Trail 50k will simply be Abby's Run — a reflection of a lady's love of family, and nature, and life. Many thanks, to her as well as to all the other HAT runners and organizers and volunteers, for a superb experience.
(see http://hatrun.com/ ; cf. HAT Run 2004 (2 Apr 2004), HAT Run 2005 (20 Mar 2005), CloserToTheMachine (4 Aug 2005), Washington Birthday Marathon 2006 (20 Feb 2006), SenecaCreekGreenwayTrailMarathon2006 (5 Mar 2006), ...)