This time of year winter fights so hard to stay as spring struggles to get some traction. It reminds me to dig deeper when things get tough. No matter how long it takes, eventually just as winter will turn to spring, I will see each of my challenges through. I kept this thought in mind as I walked to pick up my race bib the morning of the 2014 HAT Run 50k. It was a thought more of my challenges to come than the HAT 50k I was about to run. It seems as though I have been preparing for a race that never comes for such a long time. And it has been a long time, nearing two years now since I first started to train for the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100. Every race has been in preparation for that one event and day in the woods has been to train myself for the conditions I would face over that day and a half. The downside to all that focused training was a bit of a loss of my joy for simply running. But today as I parked my truck and walked to pick up my bib greeted by some many friendly faces I was determined to simply run for the fun of it.
I focused on gathering with trail friends and being surrounded by so trail legends who frequent the HAT Run each year. Quickly I found D and we dropped our bags at the pavilion aid station. The pavilion station would be our start, finish and aid station twice as we passed through it four times This year I head my own advice and leave my hydration pack in the aid station for the first small loop.
In classic HAT fashion roughly 450 runners gather in an open field and are given our last instructions before starting our first out and back and then hitting the tree line for a small loop. I line up with P and D but lose P in front of me and D behind. With tight single track and a large field of runners, pace is quickly set by those in front. I relax into an easy pace and work on passing runners when possible and necessary but I'm focused on simply enjoying this first short loop. The day is quickly warming and trail conditions are great.
I pass through the pavilion aid station and pause only to grab my hydration pack and head out for the first of two 14 mile loops. It doesn't take long to hit the first creek crossing. The course is a nice roller coaster of hills, descents and flats. Runners around me are mostly quiet so I focus on just finding a steady pace and enjoying the scenery.
Having been fortunate enough to run this race before I was nice to be familiar with the course but that didn't take away my urge to pause to snap photos of some of the interesting spots along the way.
The quick photos I snap do not do justice to the beautiful of the trails and trees I am running through. I wonder if I am lucky enough to still be running as the decades pass if I will always find these things so amazingly beautiful.
It is beginning to get warm and I have had little time to adjust to the warmer temperatures. It is early in the day and I am already covered with salt. I make a quick stop at the aid station to grab some salty fries which the HAT Run is famous for. Not my typical race day fueling option but a fun staple while running the HAT. I continue on knowing the gravel road section is coming quickly. The trail section goes by quickly. I am still running with other runners, moving through groups as I pass and get passed. While on the road I chat with a few runners but mostly run alone since my pace is faster than it should be. But thanks to a quick pace I am entering the aid station in no time and limbo under the hitching post just for the fun of it. I grab some fluids and salty calories and even sample a fresh perogie. Yum!
It really does go beyond aid stations, it's really a need to thank all the volunteers who helped make my day of playing in the woods possible. The race directors who deal with all the permits and politics necessary to put on an event at this level really do much more than work on race day and I know they are not alone. Dozens and dozens of volunteers give their time long before race day to make this all happen for 500 lucky runners. So thank you all, 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 time to be out cheering not only for their runners but for every runner who passed.
THE NEXT 5 MILES
Every year I forget the next 5 miles. I only remember the giddiness of the trail and tuck those less then favorable memories deep in a corner of my mind. But as I leave the aid station that sense of déjà vu sweeps over me and I know that the most challenging miles of the race are in front of me.
I focus on enjoying the views and keeping my effort consistent. The chatter is mostly mine and I remember not to linger too long with any one runner and get stick running their pace. It's great to see faces I remember as I move along the trail. Including Phil Anderson (the A in HAT) who is sitting at the bottom of our last climb as we enter Phil's Forest. He greets everyone with a smile and a handshake. The final section goes quickly as I enter the final open hay field that leads to the pavilion aid station and the final loop.
As I top the hay field I see Tim Gavin and ask if I can use my poles on the second loop since the runners will be more spread out. He gives me an "are you crazy look" but says yeah, just don't stab anyone. I grab some fluids, some calories and my poles and head out again. I run over an open field lengthening my poles. Although the HAT course is not really one where you would need poles, I need the practice of holding them, adjusting them, and using them so that my mind and arms are ready to use them during MMT. Today will be practice for running with them when I don't really want them in my hands.
This loop goes much like the first with the exception that there are fewer runners to alter my pace. Somewhere along the loop Natalie and I start running together. We have mutual friends. This is her first ultra distance event and she is making it look easy. I most likely talk more than she does and she is kind enough to listen to my chatter. This loop I do not pause for photos. I am simply enjoying the moments like when the trail falls silent and all I hear is the sound of my feet and the birds in the air. I notice the rising sound of water each time the trail draws near a creek and the smell that says the water is getting closer. I eavesdrop on fellow runners as the trail winds higher. I can hear their distant voice raising. I see the wind stir the leaves along the trail and watch the sun cut it's way through the branches that lay bare. I breath it all in. I think back to the thoughts I had this morning, that I had lost some the joy in my running and realize that I couldn't have been farther from the truth.
As I saw that small opening in an old field row that leads to an open hay field, I remembered how lucky I am. Lucky not only to be able to be doing this but to do this for all the reasons that matter. I simply love to run through the trails, across the creeks and around the next turn to see just how far my body will take me.
My fourth HAT Run 50k done.