Sole-sucking muck tries to rip shoes off the feet of runners. Soul-sucking muck tries to rip out the will to continue. Neither quite succeeds — but the 50k HAT Run of 24 March 2007 is memorable for the muddy mires that punctuate every mile of the course. It's an exhausting ordeal and therefore (like the recent Seneca Creek Greenway Trail Marathon 2007) is excellent training for the upcoming Bull Run Run 50 miler. I crawl across the finish line in just under 8 hours, more than 20 minutes slower than last year's HAT.
Recent rains have lifted streams in Susquehanna State Park to near-flood stage, a foot higher than normal. My usual timid tactic, tip-toeing across on stones to keep socks dry, is clearly impossible. So I wade through icy waters like a real trail runner. That washes some of the mud off shoes and calves. At the end of the day a thin gray-brown coating remains, a five o'clock shadow of the goo from past hours of slogging. Plenty of grit is still inside the socks, however!
Jeff Hinte, founder and race director of the Hinte-Anderson Trail Run , greets me when I arrive at 8am to register and pick up the usual fine bag of HAT goodies. This year there's a cap, a technical shirt, and a tote sack. A triangular zippered backpack awaits those who finish the 31+ mile event. I capture a prime location for my midcourse drop-bag on a corner picnic table in the Start/Finish pavilion. Temperatures are in the low 50's and light rains have fallen for the past few days.
Comrade Caren has been waiting in the parking lot for an hour and meets me there. We take photos and mingle. Emaad Burki (whom I met at the JFK 50 Mile Run 2006) and his friend Mary Ewell are here, and so are Wayne and Paul (whom I last saw at Seneca Creek three weeks ago). Everyone anticipates mud, but our visions fall far short of the reality.
Just before 9am we form a mob at one end of a big field, and the race begins. Caren and I jog and walk comfortably. By the end of the first mile we're close to last place, precisely where we want to be. "Our plan is working!" I exclaim. The advantage of hanging back is that it lets the traffic jam dissipate on the narrow trail and at the first water crossing. The disadvantage is that our predecessors have churned the wet ground into a swampy mess. I recall the Welsh Bog Snorkeling competition that I heard about from friend Ruth, who ran the 2006 HAT with me.
Caren and I stick together for the first half dozen miles, but after she tells me for the tenth time to go on ahead I do so. Rough trail conditions have put us ~1 minute per mile behind last year's pace and I'm concerned about making a critical cutoff at mile 16. Maybe I would have done better by hanging back, however, and conserving energy for the later part of the race? But I'm carrying a small chart of my past times, and the comparison with it makes me nervous.
Onward and upward and downward I go. The HAT course is changed a bit from the past few years and enters the looping roads of a campground area. I get a final chance to shout encouragement at Caren as she begins the circle while I'm leaving. My progress is good on the gravel and pavement but I nevertheless arrive at the second Aid Station 12 minutes behind schedule. I tell myself not to worry. Perhaps the new course is a little longer than it used to be. Maybe I'm slower. Certainly I'm older. The hills are definitely steeper!
I pause for less than a minute to refill my bottles with Gatorade, eat a potato chunk dipped in salt, grab a handful of peanut M&M candies, and then plod away. The path to the unmanned aid station at mile 14 seems shorter than in the past, but it includes the scariest stream crossing and the longest climbs. I press onward through the next two miles of woods and sloughs, calculating that I might just barely make the first cutoff which is published on the web site as 3 hours 50 minutes. I arrive with a minute to spare by my watch.
"Please, Sir, can I try that again?" I ask Jeff Hinte, who is logging runners in. "Sure!" he replies, and tells me that this year the time limit is 4 hours. As in the past he's not strict about enforcing it, as long as a runner looks healthy. In fact, he tells me, anyone who wants extra time to enjoy the woods can start early, honor system. Hmmmm! Maybe next year I'll try that.
I tank up, greet Mary and Emaad who are changing socks and dropping off gear, and trot out of the pavilion. Caren arrives only 9 minutes behind me and could in theory start another loop, but she has family commitments and decides wisely to head for home early. A mile downcourse Mary catches up with me, but her stomach isn't feeling good and she's thinking about turning back to quit. I quote the ultra mantra, "It never always gets worse!", and offer her one of the Succeed! electrolyte capsules that I'm carrying. She washes it down with water, adds a sodium-rich energy gel chaser, and perseveres. "You can always stop at the next aid station and get a ride out," I tell her. "See how you feel then."
Five miles later a reborn Mary overtakes me! She's feeling fine now, so we chat as we walk and jog miles 21 through 27. As so often occurs during trail runs we discover a host of things to discuss: personal medical issues (of which we have a surprising number in common), fitness (Mary has done a couple of Ironman triathlons but this is her first ultramarathon), philosophy (we're both vegetarians for ethical reasons), school (Mary is working on her Ph.D. in physics), family, etc. Time glides pleasantly by as we begin to pass a few runners who went out too fast or suffered injury. We sympathize.
At our second loop through Aid Station #2 we get a splendid surprise: french fries, fresh out of the deep-fat fryer! They're almost too hot for us to eat, but we do anyway. At the suggestion of a volunteer I try one coated in peanut butter. It's excellent. "Next year you should cook some onion rings — and jalapeño poppers!" I request.
Mary and I thank the aid station crew and trek on with renewed energy. The flooded creek isn't so frightening this time around; we cross without incident. Mary is stronger than I am on level ground, but I have a small edge on the hills. At mile 28 as I study my watch and chart it seems remotely conceivable that I can finish in less than 8 hours. Illogical, pointless, purely symbolic — but nonetheless the thought energizes me. Mary, less driven, sends me on; I press hard as she and P.J., another lady we've met, climb the slopes toward the final aid station. A member of the Annapolis Striders whom I've seen in other races is ahead and helps pull me along for the final half hour. To the cheers of a few bystanders I break into a feeble jog for the home stretch. I high-five Jeff, Wayne, Phil, Eamon, and others who have made it there already.
Whew! The traditional description of the HAT Run, "... challenging but not daunting ...", is an understatement this year. I grab my camera and photograph Mary as she comes in a few minutes behind me. We're both signed up for the Bull Run Run; neither of us expects to make the cutoffs there, if conditions are anything like they were today. Nonetheless, we'll try.
The race this year is monitored at intervals by Park Service personnel, on horseback and on foot. I salute and thank them whenever I pass. Overall the runners do a great job of keeping the land clean; many of us pick up litter along the way. My day is a productive one as I spy:
|Aid Station #1||~5 mi||1:13||73 min||15 min/mi|
|Aid Station #2||~10||2:19||66||13|
|Unmanned Aid Sta.||~14||3:14||55||14|
|Aid Station #1||~20||5:01||72||18|
|Aid Station #2||~25||6:17||76||15|
|Unmanned Aid Sta.||~29||7:18||61||15|