Whether it's an grand inflatable surrounded by cheering crowded and an energetic band or an intimate gathering of trail brethren in an open meadow and a simple go, every start line begins another opportunity to go places in nature and within one's self that few people dare to venture. This Saturday I again had that opportunity.
The start line wasn't even a distant thought as I drove the 4 hours toward it. Being a farm girl from rural Pennsylvania the concept of the need for 8 lane highways is simply lost on me. As is the need to drive 90 mph while chasing your fellow law breakers via weaving erratically through traffic sans turn signals. I did arrive safely and felt as though the hardest part of the journey was now behind me. Tomorrow morning I would only have to run. Easy.
I was able to get a great night's sleep thanks to a 9 a.m. start time. The sun was shining and I was eager for the day to begin. After a quick drive to the Stepping Stone Farm Museum where the race was held, I quickly got my bib picked up and spent time visiting with fellow trail runners. My ultra running parents were there as usual. The ones who birthed me into this crazy world of ultra trail running by simply saying they thought I could do it. I needed to hear their thoughts for Massanutten. They somehow always make my impossible seem possible. It is a true blessing to be able to call them my friends. With my confidence soaring I gathered my gear and walked to the aid station pavilion which we would run through three times during the race, once after about 4 miles again at a bit over 17 and finally finish there. I chatted with several other runners as we made our way to the open meadow with the other 422 runners who would begin the journey together.
The course consists of a short 4 +/- mile loop followed by two 13.5 mile loops. During these early miles the pack spreads out over a short road section before running over open meadows before entering the woods. In no time at all I was warm and wanting to drop my gloves and arm sleeves. If I am lucky enough to get into the HAT for a fourth running next year I will leave my pack in the start pavilion for those first miles. Because in no time at all we were through the start/finish pavilion where I dropped my gloves and arm sleeves and headed out for the first of two long loops.
As I left the pavillion and made my way back into the woods there was still a steady stream of runners. Although we were moving at a strong pace I felt like I had to play follow the lead while I decided if I really wanted to pass. Shortly after entering the trails came our first creek crossing. This year although there was plenty of water there were also plenty of rocks to cross. So early in the race I failed to do what I had wanted to do, run only this race today. With the rocky, night Chocolate Bunny training run in mind I sissied across most of the creeks to keep my feet from getting too beat up.
WHAT GOES IN
After the first creek crossing there was a short climb that helped remind me just how hilly the HAT course actually is. I focused on simply running and tired to ignore my increasingly upset stomach. Early on I thought my issue was simply nerves but after attempting to take my first GU reality hit and I got to get closer to nature that I really wanted to. Another side note about the course, there are many sections in which a nature call is really not convenient. For the course of the first loop I would lose time dealing with yet another nature call and then run to "catch up" with the group of runners I had fallen into running with. As we got to the upper picnic area aid station I quickly cut through to visit the potty. Losing a lot of time at this stop I ended up catching a new group of runners as I was making up some time cruising down the gravel road section. One of them was actually from the same home town as the super secret spy. Small world. We enjoyed chatting and the distance flew. I was able to ignore an further nature calls until we got to the lower picnic aid station...and again lost time at the potty. This was not encouraging. I felt as though I was losing my fluids then I was taking in. My fingers were swollen and I was sick to my stomach. I took a piece of banana and a few chips and walked out of the aid station.
MY LEAST FAV PART
Feeling a bit discouraged about how my fueling was failing after it had went so well on the last training run, I was not happy to find that the next section included more hills than I really had the push to handle. My energy had bottomed out and over the next 5 miles I put in two of the slowest of the entire race. Conversations with fellow runners, the beautiful scenery and knowing that I still had time to get my things figured out all helped pull me through that first loop.
aka I've freakin got this
When I got to the aid station I took off my pack, sipped on some Gatorade and grabbed some pretzels. The wonderful volunteers tried to encourage me to get moving saying that lingering I would only get cold. I dug through my pack looking for what I hoped I had left in my pack. I did! Pepto tablets! I quickly chewed them drank some water and armed with some pretzels headed out for the final loop hopeful.
The second time around was simply amazing. Yeah my stomach took some time to settle down but not having to get friendly with a tree or duck behind some brush helped to allow me to settle into a groove. Once my stomach had settled I started drinking more and chewing on pretzels. Before I knew it I was catching back up with runners I had lost during the first loop. I ran a new ultra runner, Kate who was on her way to finishing her first ultra. She way running strong and looked great. We chatted as we would fell into running together and then drift apart. This time around when we made it to the upper picnic area aid station I indulged in the famous french fires. Maybe not the smartest fueling option but simply a right of passage during the HAT. On the gravel road section I pushed my pace to make up some time. At the lower aid station I grabbed a piece of banana, pretzels and drank ginger ale and water.
TRAIL RUNNING MAKES ME GIDDY
I often forget in my irritating giddy trail chatter that not everyone who runs trail ultras is out there because they are secretly in love with all things nature. I forget that not all ultra runners agree that smaller is better or that over coming a wickedly challenging trail is better than any bling in the world. My giddiness became apparent to me when I was talking with Kate along the trails. I was cheerfully recommending little trail races with awesome trails and unbelievable support, meaning pbjs and warm broth when she told me that she had already signed up for a NorthFace Challenge. Don't misunderstand. NorthFace puts on amazing events. And there are many reasons runners are drawn to ultra trail running. All great reasons. I just act like a child with a brand new box of crayons when I get to be out in the woods all day.
DID I SAY THANK YOU ENOUGH?
This is one of the "bigger" races that I like to do. I have yet to take part in any run that hasn't been really well run but the HAT Run with all it's history may be a step above some of the smaller races. I can only imagine the level of work that goes into making the day seem as flawless as it appeared to me. Thank you to the race directors, Phil, Tim, Mike and Jeff, the countless volunteers, Maryland DNR, the State Park, the rangers and the families who gave of their day to be out cheering not only for their runners but for every runner who passed.
Third HAT Run - 6:42:31
THE FINAL AID STATION
aka the finish line
I had stopped looking at my watch after the first loop knowing that any time goals had probably gone out the window when I had finished the first loop at 3:33 I was simply enjoying making up whatever time I could in the last few miles and was zipping along when I caught up to a trail friend who I had lost during the first loop at the upper picnic area aid station. I knew where was only about two miles left and I wanted to give it everything I had. I passed runners and tried to encourage everyone to push those final twisty trail miles when I found myself with Kate again. We left the tree line and headed across that final meadow and up the last hill to the finish and we crossed the finish line together.
IT'S NOT OVER YET
I still had that very unsettling long drive home so I didn't linger long after the race was over for me. I thanked a few people, chatted with trail brethren I had shared the trail with, grabbed a bite of warm food. Speaking of food. There was warm soup, jambalaya (regular and veggie) and a buffet of tasty treats. Not only was there food but there was music too. Thanks to the amazing UnderArmor sweatshirts we received with our annual HAT finishers hat we were all warm enough to enjoy a little trail bragging before heading home. But I couldn't linger for long, I quickly changed out of my wet clothes and headed home. Stopped along my way as this train passed, I thought how like this train, my journey had many parts to it. Some parts were not as pretty as others but they were all needed to get me to the finish.