I remember finishing my first half marathon in Baltimore in 2009 thinking to myself, “Damn, I can’t imagine running that twice”. The following year, I was again on the starting line in Baltimore, except this time for the full 26.2 miles. Like the year before, I finished thinking, “I can’t imagine running another step!” The pattern continued, as I then entered a half Ironman and finished that one thinking to myself (you guessed it) “who would ever put themselves through a full Ironman? Bunch of crazies”. Well, needless to say I ended up training for and finishing Ironman Lake Placid the following year. That Thanksgiving, after an overnight shift at the hospital and my mind a little foggy, I somehow convinced myself running an ultra marathon would be a good idea. I signed up for the HAT Run 50K – a trail run through the hills of Susquehanna State Park in my home town. From the website,
“The course is mostly single track trail with a mix of open fields, dirt road and some paved road. The course features nearly 9,800 feet of climbing. There is a starting loop of 3.6 miles followed by two identical loops of 13.7 miles. There are 4 stream crossings that can be challenging depending on the water level – there is alway the chance of getting wet feet.”
Fast forward 5 months and here I am, an ultra marathon finisher!
The training for the HAT Run was a rough one. With this ridiculous winter, most of my runs were forced indoors on the treadmill and only once was I able to make it out on the trails to get a good feel for the course. I’m very thankful that Jeff was able to take me out to the course a few weeks prior to at least run one loop. It turned out to be very helpful in knowing where the major climbs were, which just happen to be all in the last 5 miles of each loop. Regardless, I was able to squeeze in one 20 miler before race day and a decent amount of tempo runs and hard bike workouts on the trainer to get my legs in gear and my body in shape.
Race day quickly snuck up on us this year. I felt somewhat unprepared, but knew that most people were just as unprepared as I was. I never realized how popular the race was. I thought of it mainly as a local race, but I quickly met people from Virginia, Boston, New York, Ohio, and Michigan. I loved the laid back feel of the start and the laid back, relaxed attitude of everyone running. Ultra marathoners and trail runners are a different breed, I guess. The morning of the race I met up with Kat and her husband and family friends at her house which is situated just outside of the state park. We got our gear together and headed over to the race site where I met up with many of the RASAC runners and CCR crew. I hit the bathrooms, got in some last minute calories, and headed over to the start. The race was limited to 500 people, so we were all able to line up in about 3 or 4 rows of 75-100 people in a vast, open field. The weather was a perfect 50 degrees at the start so I opted for a sleeveless shirt, arm warmers, shorts, and my calf sleeves. I also used a fuel belt with two water bottles and 4 cliff shot block packets. At 0900, the alarm went off and we were off – at much too quick of a pace.
The starting loop of the HAT run is a 3.6 mile loop that is more of just a warm up loop. There aren’t any major hills and the first half covers open field, while the second half is on the trails. I felt good and settled in at what I thought was an easy pace of 8:30/mile. I think my favorite part of the day was seeing a young man start hobbling with a calf cramp at mile 2. I don’t know why, but instead of giving him support or making sure he was okay, I said, “Cramping already? You’re in for a long day, brotha”. Whoops. The first loop went by pretty quick and coming in to start the first of my 2 – 13.7 mile loops I got some cheers from Kat, Courtney, and some RASAC and Harford Multi Sport people. The support on this course was phenomenal. Within the first mile of the big loop you hit your first stream crossing. With all the snow melting, the water levels were pretty high. Not wanting to get my shoes and socks wet with another 12 miles before I could switch them out I performed my best balancing act I could conjure up and safely made it across. I caught up with a small group of runners after the stream crossing and saw a guy wearing an Ironman Florida shirt. Turns out all three of the guys had raced Ironman Florida and Lake Placid so it made the miles click by pretty fast as we talked about the training and the latest carbon fiber bike frames that none of us could afford.
The first 8 or so miles of the big loop is pretty mellow. There are no major climbs that are too difficult and there is a nice two mile stretch of open field that makes for a nice place to see where everyone else. After going back into the wooded trails, you get a nice downhill that takes you to the first aid station, right before a shallow but long climb. Finally, you hit a paved section of road that you run for about two miles to the next aid station. These last 5 miles are cruel (especially on the second loop), but the scenery is beautiful. You literally can look to your left and see the Susquehanna river and the tree tops. As you run down the mountain you can look across and see the town across the river, boats, boardwalks, and light houses. The birds, deer, and wildlife also add to the beauty of trail running. It definitely made me appreciate running a lot more than road running does.
Like I said, the last 5 miles of each loop are brutal. There are three major hills. The first one is immediately after the second aid station, which is located about about mile 8 of the loop. The hill is about a quarter mile long, but you gain about 350 feet in that short stretch. Luckily the view makes it a bit more bearable. After running up, you get a very steep downhill where you pretty much descend the entire elevation and at the bottom you’re treated to another stream crossing, this one a bit more trickier than the first. On the first loop, I managed to get across pretty swiftly without getting wet. Even if you should fall in, which happened on loop 2, you only have about 3 miles to go. After crossing the stream, you take a little dirt path that wraps you around to the second of three major hills in the last five miles. I’d say this hill was the worst. 1.5 miles in length and close to 500 feet in elevation gain. At one point I was holding on to trees to keep myself from slipping in the muddy areas. I averaged about 18 minutes to get through this stretch. At the top, the terrain levels out and the farm land comes back into view. A quick section of open field and road take you to your last climb of the day within the last 2 miles of the loop, known as Phil’s Forest. This hill is short. It’s only about a quarter mile in length. What makes it tough is the fact that in the little quarter mile, you gain approximately 100 feet. Also, you just ran two pretty tough hills, you’re feet are probably wet, you’re coming off of a mile downhill on road, and mentally you’re pretty drained. After making it to the top, you come to an open field and run across to the finish area. Except you have to do the loop again. It was at this point that I caught up with Jeff. I was pretty happy when he said he was hurting, because I felt as shitty as shitty could be. My calves were cramping and my stomach was starting to hurt. The temperature at this point was hovering in the mid-60’s and I knew I was a little dehydrated. I ran past Jeff just before the start of the second lap, but he eventually caught up and re-passed me later on.
The second loop was all about getting through both physically and mentally. I decided to break the race up into 3 sections. Section one would be from the start of the loop to the first aid station, which was about 4.5 miles. The second section was to the second aid station, which was about another 4.5 miles. The last section would be the last 4-5 miles on the three killer hills. The first section went pretty well and I managed to keep running throughout this section. I made it across the stream and stayed dry and eventually caught up to and passed a group of 4 runners who looked as bad as I felt. My legs and ankles were starting to get sore and I had a couple close calls with nearly twisted ankles. I made it to the aid station and took in as much fluid as I could – 2 cups of coke, 2 waters, and a gatorade. This was a major mistake, as I spent the next 5 minutes vomiting up everything I just took in as it just sat and rocked in my stomach. At least I felt better. I ended up doing a walk/run from this point on. I ran the downhills and tried to run as far up the hill as I could before I cramped. Then I would walk. This worked pretty well. Eventually a runner caught up to me and I had the pleasure of running with him for the next three miles. Apparently, this guy has ran the HAT run 13 times and knows the course pretty well. He kept a steady pace and he pushed me to keep on going. He offered me some good advice on pacing and not giving up and it was just the motivation I needed this far into the race. At this point, I was 27 miles in – the furthest I’ve ever ran. I ran with him to the second aid station where I bid him farewell. He ran up the mountain like a mountain man as I was holding huffing and puffing for dear life. Jeff caught me and passed me and he looked better than ever. He finished four minutes ahead of me and actually took off 15 minutes from his time last year. Amazing. As Jeff ran by me with my slow waddling gate, I decided it was time to start running again. I made it up and over the mountain to the second stream passing. I took the same route as before by skipping across the rocks. Only this time I managed to fall in on my second step and just said screw it and waded in shin deep water across the stream. The cool water was actually pretty refreshing, but then I was squish squashing for the last 3 miles with rocks and dirt in my shoes. Good thing I was wearing my SwiftWicks! I crossed the stream and walked up the second major hill – the entire thing. The 1.5 mile walk cost me 20 minutes. Up and over and onto “Phil’s Forrest”. It was here I managed to pass another racer and eventually caught up to Rob from Harford Multi Sport. We were both hurting pretty bad, but pushed each other through the final mile. Out of the forrest and across the fields and finally the finish line. What a glorious feeling.
I finished the 31 mile run in 4:36:50. My goal was 4:40 – 4:45. I managed to beat my time by 4 minutes and placed 2nd in my age group, 15th overall. I was stoked with the results. The overall winner finished in 4:10 and the 1st place in my age group finished in the top 10 with a 4:22. Not too far off. After the finish, I got a pint glass and a towel and made my way to get some food and water. I couldn’t really stomach the food, but the water was the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted. The heat definitely took its toll on everyone and everyone that managed to finish pushed through a pretty tough day (Finishing rate was about 88% – not too bad!!).
I got to sit out in the sun with Kat and some of her family friends and watched her husband cross the line. Afterwards, we all met up for some delicious home cooked pulled pork and delicious food and got to loosen up my muscles in her hot tub. A great way to end a great day.
With my first 50K and second trail run in the books, I’m definitely racing this race again next year. It’s local, the course is challenging and scenic, and the people that put on the race and the runners are all amazing. I pushed through and actually thought the race was more physically demanding than my Ironman. All I can think is how crazy those runners are that do the 50 and 100 mile races…
Next up – the Boston Marathon.