Subject: HAT 50, the LONG report
I caught myself with my nose about half an inch from the mud. This is
a trail race. So here I am around the 24th kilometer of a 50 kilometer
trail race inspecting the mud. In spite of the fact that I'm especially
close to this patch of mud we haven't had much on the course even with
two days of rain earlier in the week.
"Are you ok" a sincere voice asks me. "Yes" I say, as I do my first
pushup in months, and get back to running/stepping through the
countryside. For all that this is one of the flatter stretches of the
course, it is very broken ground. Plenty of tree roots, rocks from hand
to head size, streamlets, downed trees. The path, such as it is, is
very narrow. From the looks of it, the path could easily just be
whatever had been beaten down by the runners ahead of me. At this point
that's probably only half or so of the 350 who started. I was moving
Make a mental note of this stretch. We'll be back here on the second
loop of the course. The minor oops in falling is nothing of concern,
call it a 3 pointer on a scale of 10. The fellow who asked if I was ok,
once I was running along behind him, continued that he'd done something
similar the week before but his required 11 stitches. I'd earned just a
minor scrape to one knee and a little bruise. But it is a serious
reminder and forewarning to me. This was the first loop. When I
come back through I'll be another 2-3 hours more fatigued and my
balance, which is not good to begin with, will be that much worse.
This is a _trail_ race. Even on the flatter sections, you are not
necessarily going to be moving along easily. Remind self of this, and
to toss that pre-race plan of picking up the pace from here in on the
second time around. I had done all preparation before the race that I
could think of. The race directors had established a nice web site
which included both the route map, and notes on where the snack bars and
hills (and HILLS) would be. I'd noticed that the third third of each
loop was both the longest (call it 9 km) and hilliest, with about half
the hills of the course. But I'd also seen that the last 3-4 km were
relatively flat. So I'd figured on picking up the pace here. (Yes, at
km 47 of a 50 km race, I was going to pick up the pace. Well, the
effort. I wasn't quite so delusional as to think I'd really accelerate.)
Some things were going better than I'd expected. Although I knew I'd
be walking in the race, and in conventional circumstances I'm a very
quick walker, I had no idea how I'd do in a race with people who were
trained for it. I got a quick sign on this point in the first few km as
we hit a rise that in my training runs I'd have run up. Not the time
for a stupid beginner trick and try to repeat my training run ideas. I
had also practiced walking during the training runs, so went in to a
good hard-driving walk now. And I passed people (!). Ok, policy to
carry out: Do _not_ pass people while running, as they all look very
strong in the running and they know what they're doing by way of pacing.
But while walking, anyone is fair game. More surprising, I held to the
walking until the people in front of me who had turned to running were
actually moving faster than me. This turned out to be a while. Second
note: walking is a serious tactical option when you can pass people who
are running. Take it.
There are no mile marks on a trail race (fancy that) but again, with
the information from the race directors, I knew that the first snack bar
was 5.2 miles in to the race. The first segment was also the flattest
according to the map and turned out to be the easiest in practice. In
doing my pre-race planning, I'd looked at plausible, and im-plausible,
finishing times and established a minimum time for reaching the first
snack bar. That was the time that if I got there faster than this, I
had blasted out way the heck too fast, so much so that I had pre-planned
I'd walk the next 5 minutes to recover because otherwise I'd be in deep
trouble. No serious problem, as I got in about two and a half minutes
back of that. Still in the 'this is seriously fast' range of my hopes,
but given that it was the easy stretch of the course, not something
This was the easy section of a trail race. A few weeks earlier, I had
raced in a 10 mile road race as part of my training for this. The road
10 miler was a notoriously difficult -- meaning hilly -- course. If
every rise were stacked on end, followed by every fall, it might come
close to one of the hills on the trail. We'd already had two hills in
these 5.2 miles, and no HILLS. Also in the back of my mind was the fact
that as trail races go, this one is supposed to be relatively easy. A
good course for a beginner on trail ultras. That was part of what I was
doing on the course, running my first trail ultra.
There's more to it than that of course. What was I doing running an
ultra of any kind, much less a trail ultra? The folks who have been
around here longer may remember my routine comments that I had no
intention of running a marathon, or even over a half marathon. My
longest race prior to this one was only 10 miles. That seemed quite
long enough as a race. I ran track in high school, and 'distance' was
half to two miles. In terms of racing I might take that up to 5k, but
anything longer was definitely for PR rather than racing. Doing this
race was not a matter of racing, or even running.
People can and do run for reasons other than the running. That was
what started me. I do enjoy the trails, having been introduced to that
last summer. But that wasn't the reason either. The thing is, I have a
situation in the rest of my life. Last fall, I started looking for
something to look forward to in the coming spring as I realized I didn't
have anything more than a few days to a couple weeks ahead to look for.
Doug Freese, by fortunate coincidence, mentioned the HAT 50 km trail
race. Although not something for me to race, it fit my non-running
needs well. It was in the spring, something to look forward to, and
something that would require me to spend a significant amount of time
constructively between then and the spring. In that respect, the purpose
would have been served without me even showing up for the race.
Getting from there, 10 miles on the road as my longest race, to here,
running a 50 km trail race took some doing. Part of it was the physical
training, which many people here were very helpful with. More of it was
the mental focus. One way of providing yourself some mental support is
to tell someone what you're trying to do. They needn't do anything
special themselves, just the fact that you know the other person knows
your plan is sufficient to butress yourself. So I told folks here,
people I was running with, coworkers, friends and family. The reality
was beyond wildest dreams, as everyone took an interest in my Big Race
and there was a great outpouring of support as the day drew near. So
definitely I was going to run the race, even though the purpose had long
since been served, and I was going to finish barring only injury.
Injury wasn't on my mind at all as I was running the second segment of
the loop. As expected, it was hillier than the first. But the footing
was good and I was moving easily. I did kick a tree root, which was a
reminder that I wasn't on a track. I passed a few people on the
walking, tried to hold good form in the running. Many of the people I
was passing in the walking were people I'd passed earlier. My stops at
the snack bars proved to be significantly longer than almost everyone
took and I was the only person who stopped to drink. So be it. I knew
that I needed the calories and fluids. That was one point of knowledge
and confidence from the physical training. My training was very low
mileage for running an ultra, even a 'baby' ultra. I averaged about 35
miles per week for only a bit over two months. This is on the extreme
low end, particularly as I was not doing a lot of cross training. I was
doing no cross training. The one solid part of my training was that I
got out for some lengthy long runs. In some of the references on
training for an ultra, it seems that 3 hours is considered long enough
even for much longer races. Others disagree, which left me with the
decision. I looked at the fact that I was more than tripling my longest
race in doing this one, and went for the confidence I knew I'd derive
from having gotten out for long runs up to 4 hours.
The second segment also provided me with some points of optimism.
Although it was indeed hillier than the first, it also had an extended
slightly downhill road stretch. On the road, I relaxed and let gravity
take the work. After all, I'm a 'road runner', and here was some road.
(It was also the stretch that makes a certain sticker a bit of a fib.
Sticker says "Dirt water Mud & Rocks But No Asphalt TRAIL RUNNER! 50k
HAT RUN". Well, we had asphalt for a bit, and well-packed dirt for the
rest of that stretch.) On the more predictable footing, I was able to
relax rather than fight for my foot placement. Gained some ground on
people, but nothing outrageous. After I finished, a person I'd passed on
this stretch commented on what good form I'd done the downhill in. Made
a mental note for later that this would be the place to pick up the pace
on the second loop, where it would be between snack bars 4 and 5. This
time around, just try to keep relaxed and in good form, as we weren't
even to two hours yet.
Good form abounded. I had been looking for some way of typifying the
ultra runners since packet pickup the night before and not finding any.
We're talking about folks who were wearing shirts, etc. from 50 k to 100
mile races, and not a thing to distinguish them from any other random
batch of vaguely fit folks. If anything, the group looked a bit heavy.
I (6'1", 155 -- 185 cm, 70 kg) earned a comment about having to put some
meat on my bones. Not something that happens at a road race, where I've
got a fair amount of company. But once moving, there was that difference
in form. When I'm in a road race or on the track, the folks around me
have a great range in form. Some are almost certainly overstriding,
many are running pretty wildly, some are quite elegant to watch. On the
trail even with the uneven and variable footing there was not a person
who failed to have a smooth, compact stride. No wasted motion, no
overstride. Poster children for quick cadence. Or at least they all
had comparable stride rates, which again doesn't happen around me at a
We came out of the woods near the end of the third segment, after my
wake up face plant, and I got my first intimation that the rest of the
race was not going to be so easy. The good news was that I was still
running well, not feeling like I was working any more than I had at a
similar time in to my training runs, and was even dead on time for my
optimistic thought regarding a finish time. My friend who had driven up
snapped a photo of me as I came up the mini-rise before the start/finish
Much was well in hand. I'd now completed a full loop of the course and
knew where the difficult parts were. The first segment is my easy one.
The second segment would have more hills, but I would finally start
thinking about racing -- it was in this segment that I'd start exceeding
my longest training run. Although it was hillier, I'd start taking
ground on people in walking the hills and get more serious about taking
ground on that longish road stretch. That'd be between miles 22-25 (km
35-40) or so. Then we'd have the third segment of the loop and again
I'd go for gaining ground on the walking segments and holding it in the
running. There'd be no chance to gain ground in the last few km of the
third segment because of all the broken ground. That would be a matter
of avoiding falling and injury, letting the mountain goats who could
deal with the footing pass as needed.
But I had that intimation. The signal was that when we came out of
the wooded/'flat'/challenging footing section in to the open area for
the last half mile or so of the loop, I got hit with a blast of cold air
and felt some muscles in my legs try to cramp. This was where I got
first warning that I had already made A Mistake, and where I misread it
for another. I was reasonably sure that the thing to do for the
cramping was to get fluids and salt. I had already been downing more
fluids than I had on my training runs, and was not sloshing. In other
words, what fluid I was drinking was being absorbed and I was already
taking well over a liter per hour. Ok, so maybe we've (my legs and I)
somehow gotten a salt deficiency. I drank 3-4 cups of water, strongly
salting one of them from the dipping salt for potatoes, and refilled the
Gatorade bottle I was carrying. Also took another PBJ sandwich and kept
That was the compounding mistake, I think. The thing was, the morning
temperature locally was a little over 40 F with the high expected to be
in the mid 50's. That is my cut off for not wearing my leggings, so I
didn't. During all my long training runs the temperatures were below 40
for at least an hour or two after I started, and I had just left them on
even after the temperature had risen over 40. I figured that although I
had in fact left them on and been reasonably comfortable in the earlier
runs, I would have been even more comfortable if I had taken them off.
So with the day starting above my cutoff and expected to warm even
further, I didn't put them on at all. The second major weather feature
was that although we weren't forecast for being particularly windy, I
had not allowed for the microclimate of the area. A hilly exposed area
is going to be much windier than the surroundings. Of course that is where
the course was. When we were in the woods the trees broke the wind so I
didn't have many problems with the temperature or wind. When we came in
to the open, I experienced the wind chill which felt like about 0 F.
Doubtless it wasn't, but it was sufficient to catch the attention of my
leg muscles and they were not amused.
So I pulled in to the resupply area in 2:42 for 16 miles, on pace for
that pretty agressive goal (5:11, 10 minute miles average), and allowing
for expected slowing on the second loop, ok for the 5:30 time I'd
considered a more or less reasonable goal. So pretty happy, with that
asterisk about being sure to get the salt and fluids. This was,
however, about the last time I thought about times. I pulled out of the
snack bar having taken, as usual, much more time than the rest of 'my'
cohort, and in to another blast of wind. And again the leg muscles
cramped. This was not encouraging. The only thing that was going to
keep me from finishing was medical, and sufficiently bad leg cramps
could do that. They weren't that bad, but I was noticing them. I
continued and shortly entered woods again, which took the wind out of
the picture and I could move pretty easily again. Not quite as easy to
power up the hills in walking, but I was still moving well enough to
edge back in to the group(s) I'd been with on the first loop.
Coming in to snack bar 4, though, we had another open area and my legs
were seriously upset. I was still running when folks around me were
running, keeping pace, and still keeping form in my running. But the
legs were getting quite irritated with me. I just kept reminding them
that we were approaching another snack bar and we hadn't yet gone even
as far or as long as they had done in practice. Fortunately the legs
weren't quite smart enough to remember that we hadn't climbed hills
anywhere near what was on this course in our practices. I had as a
mental point been telling myself in practice whenever I encountered a
hill there'd be a longer/steeper one on the race day. It may have been
a good thing that I didn't realize how true that was.
I asked the angel of mercy, mundanely known as a race volunteer, at
snack bar 4 what the treatment was for cramping. He said "Salty
potatoes. The more salt the better." "Is there anything else I can
do?", I said. "Well, you _could_ stop here." he replied. "Begone foul
demon of 'did not finish'!" I said. "No, really that's about it. The
salt helps your body absorb the water, and you really need the salt." he
said. "You're still running strong and in the thick of the pack", he
added. So I did as the angel of mercy advised, took even more salt and
water than I had at the previous stop, snarfed a PBJ, and headed onward.
I didn't discover until after the race why it was so obvious that I
needed salt. My face was totally and thickly caked in salt. I could
have served as a salt lick for deer.
Per usual I'd fallen behind folks I'd earlier been running with as I
took my snack bar break. As before, I caught up to a few after getting
out of the snack bar. Not long after, they sighted some real deer on the
hillside. I sometimes run past deer in my usual runs, but there's
always the feeling that they are somehow in my territory. Here, we were
definitely the visitors. Not long after that, though, we entered
another open stretch and the cramping was worse. Things got pretty
nasty from here and for another several miles. Although I had cramped a
little and slowed down a little between miles 16 and 20 (km 24-32, snack
bars 3-4) I had been able to run when I wanted to and in good form.
From here to snack bar 5, it was significant cramps that interfered
with my pace, form, and even took me out of running at all. Remember
that stretch of road I had hoped to make some gains on? That was the
dead, absolute, worst this time around. I just could not get the leg
muscles to behave. The form was shot, and almost the whole stretch was
at least partly open. It was in here that I decided that the problem
was more one of the leggings than the salt/fluid. I still think so.
The reason being that in walking, the muscles would again try to cramp.
What they were really trying to do, I finally decided, was to _shiver_.
In walking, I didn't generate as much heat as running, so the muscles
got cold and complained for that. When I was in open country the cold
wind was free to add insult and heat loss. Windchill was a serious
In here, the thoughts of time burned away. Not as a matter of
quitting or giving up. Just as a matter that time never was the purpose
here, even though I had thought about what kinds of times might be
plausible. Ok, I'd kept a finger crossed and been a little wishful
about some. That 5:11 to 5:30 would have been _nice_.
Finishing was the purpose, and I had finally realized just what a
statement that was. I was running my first ultra, doing it on trails,
and had made a significant mistake. Whether anyone else could
appreciate the jog/walk/jog I was now reduced to, if I could finish it
off, _I_ would know. I had said before the race that the race began at
snack bar 4, and said it while at snack bar 4. That was a distance
I'd trained to before the race. I'd also said that I would finish from
snack bar 4 to the end by walking the whole thing if I had to. It was
looking like I might have to. But having said it, I would do it. In
deciding that my problem was losing heat, I pulled on my gloves. That
did seem to help, whether it was physical or mental didn't matter.
The mental is what kept me going, and the group here and folks in the
rest of life are a big part of that. I said in the brief note that you
were all with me on the course. This is where you were. As a group and
individually, you were on the course between 32 and 41 km, where I was
running a bit, walking a bit, and managing a pace that ordinarily I'd
have a hard time slowing down to. Open country, not the hills, was the
challenge. Nice, easy footing that earlier I'd breezed down was now
devestating. At one point I went to stretch my legs and nearly had to
stop there as the left hamstring spasmed. It relaxed, so I kept going.
Also summoned to mind was Mike Tennent's description of his experience
in the Great Floridian his first time there. He had the demons offering
comfy chairs regularly. I didn't have them regularly but snack bar 5 was
ahead. I remembered his success against the demons. I also remembered
my suggestion that each time one of us defeats one of the demons, they
get weaker. He took them down a notch and it was now my turn.
I came again to snack bar 5 and again hit the salt, water, and salted
my Gatorade. Having decided calories were the problem, I also snarfed a
lot right there and packed up plenty in my windbreaker. Side note: I
say came in again -- the same place was snack bars 1,2,4,5. (Two loops
on the course). As I was there for snack bar 4, the lead woman came in
for snack bar 5. Looked great, no surprise. In calling them snack
bars, I was again engaging in some mental gaming. They were, of course,
the aid stations. Nevertheless, I know that the mental images matter,
and snack bars are inviting, friendly, welcoming places that are nice to
visit. Aid stations do not bring that to my mind.
A young guy I'd run part of the course with was there so we talked a
little, and I mentioned that we were now starting the easy part. "What
do you mean easy?!" he said, knowing as well as I did that the stretch
we were starting was the longest, hilliest, and included those 3 km of
very difficult even if not hilly ground. "From here on, the finish line
pulls us in." I said. And meant it. Time was irrelevant, the hills and
difficulty were irrelevant. The finish line was ahead and it _would_ be
reached. His girlfriend/wife wished us onward, and the angel of mercy
asked me about the legs. I told him they weren't cramping much now.
They weren't, I just didn't have much energy, will, or coordination to
drive them often in my good running stride any more. But I ran when the
body and course permitted, and walked as fast as possible when they
didn't. By this point I was feeling better. I was past snack bar 5, had
refueled, and wasn't cramping every time a gust of wind reached me.
If you understand this kind of running you don't need me to mention
it, and if you don't, I'm not sure I can communicate it. But I was
enjoying myself. I can think of a lot of things I'd rather do than have
those cramps/shivers and been as low on energy as I was. But here I
was, running _in_ nature, on a spring day. The people had been
unfailingly wonderful, whether the angels of mercy (to whom no praise is
sufficient as they were standing exposed to the wind for hours taking
care of the well-being and safety of the runners) or my fellow runners.
From start to finish, people would _ask_ if you wanted to pass them and
gladly step aside for you to do so. Not something I've seen routinely
at road or even 5k cross-country races. But here, universal. Even
there, it's one thing when someone does it in the first hour of the
race. After well over 5 hours and slogging is all you're capable of,
people were still doing it.
You are not racing the people, you are not conquering the hills, you
are certainly not running X-minute miles (what's a 'mile'?!). You are
just _there_, covering ground, enjoying the scenery, and participating.
A person I was running with a few weeks ago said he hated hills.
Another in the group said "Why hate the hill? The hill doesn't hate
you." That is much of it. The hill is part of the course. It is not
fighting you, it is just there. You have decided to run up and down it.
It makes no difference to the hill. The challenge is inside you.
Similarly for passing a person. He isn't the challenge. You aren't
'beating' him. You are reaching inside yourself to see if you can
summon ... something .... that will permit you to pick up your pace
enough to pass the other person. Maybe you can, maybe you cannot. But
the challenge is inside you, not with him. He, like the hill, is just
Around 5.5 hours, where my pre-race thoughts had me perhaps finishing,
I reached the 47 km 'unmanned' aid station. There were fluids and M+M's
available, and I stopped for both. Yes, only 3 km from the finish and I
stopped. Well, you have some idea of why by now. The other reason
being that I'd discovered in my training runs that being low on
calories, even for only a few km, cost me more time than the stop to
eat. So I stopped, knowing also that this was also shortly before the
difficult stretch where I'd earlier done a minor faceplant. Earlier was
3 hours earlier, before cramping, before the temperature had dropped
(!), when my legs and balance were relatively good. Not a matter of the
time, or of 'beating' anyone (a concept that seems very strange now,
even though I know I've talked of doing it or failing to in kicks at
ends of other races), but I held up the challenge of covering the
remaining two miles in half an hour, to finish in under 6 hours. 15
minutes per mile. On the road, I'd walk that fast easily (on a flat
road, I might even have managed it then). On this ground, after the
previous 29 miles, a challenge.
Onward. We runners had long since been thoroughly strung out. I was
typically 100 m or more away from any other runner. I re-entered the
forested area of broken ground. The same plate was inside, mile 14+ on
the first trip, 29+ on the second: "Having fun yet?". First time
through I had laughed and clapped. This time, I didn't quite spare that
much energy, but at least raised a smile and clapped a little bit.
No, the ground hadn't gotten easier to cover. I was walking a lot of
stretches I'd run the first time, not trusting my balance and trying to
ensure that I'd finish. The only thing to stop me now would be a real
fall. So I picked my way through as best I could. Sometimes that
included stepping aside for someone to pass me. And sometimes it was
they who stepped aside for me.
As I was nearing the end of the wooded area, a couple came jogging
easily past, which took me aback. As fast as they were moving, they
couldn't possibly still be on their first loop, and as fast as they were
moving they couldn't possibly be on their second either. "Don't mind
us", they said, "we're not part of the race." Ahh. That made sense.
Once I neared the edge of the woods, I looked at my watch, and saw
5:55:43 (a road-runner reflex got me), knew that the rest of the
distance was open field and road, and it was "_only_ half a mile".
I don't know what the distance really was. But ever since I got to
the point of being able to run more than half a mile, 5 years ago, I had
gotten in to the habit of saying that I could _always_ run half a mile,
or that it was _only_ half a mile to go. I dare say the distance was
less than half a mile, but no matter. It was road runner ground, it was
_only_ 'half a mile', and I could 'always' run half a mile. So I
lumbered up to a run, passed (!) the joggers who weren't part of my race
and lurched up the small rise I'd earlier been photographed on by my
friend. He was at the finish line this time, but some other people
were at the rise 'ordering' me to "charge the hill and put on a real
finishing kick". Got me grinning, and was my plan anyhow (concept of
'real kick' being different at this point than on the track!).
Then I almost fell over as the gust I was leaning in to stopped.
Oops. Charged towards the finish, with the clock reading 5:59:55, 56,
... In crossing the line, another of the angels of mercy, in the
person of a young boy, handed me my finisher's cap. The shirt you got
with registration. The cap, you cross the finish line for. I'm wearing
the cap now, and warned my friend that he'd probably see a lot of it.
I truly don't know what the clock said when I crossed the finish line
and only stopped my watch out of reflex. At least I assume I did. I
still haven't looked at my watch. I will eventually, of course, numbers
having the relation they do to me. But vastly more important was that I
CROSSED THE FINISH LINE!
Return to main running page
Send message to Robert Grumbine