There are several races that I have scheduled this year where I have set a goal to achieve. The 2016 HAT Run 50k was one of them. My goal was to run this course in under 7 hours. Specifically, I wanted to do it in 6 hours 50 minutes. I had PRd this course last year when the course was in one of it’s worst conditions by 47 minutes from 7:59:29 in 2014 to 7:04:52 in 2015. Surely I was ready break 7 hours.
Up until this training season, my main focus was going the distance. Since I started running, I was always chasing the next distance race. In fact, before I completed my first marathon, I was already Googling ultras. Reading and hearing about runners going as far as 100-miles…200 miles was just fascinating. How could they do that? How is that humanly possible? Well I found out with the completion of my first 100-miler back in September at Run Woodstock.
Now what? I needed another challenge. Speed. My worst enemy. I’ve had friends and acquaintances say to me, “why not just run for fun?” “why do this to yourself?” Frankly, for me, having a goal is part of the fun. Pushing my boundaries and enduring the suffering is, in a crazy sense, fun for me.
I’d been riding the waves of ultra training for a few months and I admit, working on speed is harder than I expected. Like a surfer trying to catch the pipeline rolling onto the shore, I’m either riding the next big wave or I’m drowning in the depths of the deep blue ocean. There are more peaks and valleys when you’re pushing your body harder than before. And while I’m always aware of the unpredictability of what the next week brings, sometimes I find that a bad run can be utterly crushing. Working my way up to HAT had those crushing weeks. But it had some fantastic ones too and when the time came, I felt ready.
The weather for HAT started out colder than I expected. I admit, I hadn’t paid attention to the weather during the week until a friend of mine said the day before, “the weather looks crappy.” Oh….ummm…I guess I need to look it up. We were expecting rain, sleet, and snow and the temperatures were going to hover in the low 40’s. With the exception of the precipitation, I didn’t think anything of it. It surely couldn’t be the mud-fest-shit-show that it was last year. I got this. No problem.
I met up with my fellow four-musketeers (as we dubbed ourselves) to carpool to the race and we were full of excitement. Each of us had a goal. Mine was sub-7, Tim was to finish his first ultra, Deneen to finish sub-8, and Alex, who had just finished a marathon the week before, to practice his photography and give us his undying support.
When the race started I planted myself near the back of the mid pack. I knew from previous experience that I had a stupid habit of going out too fast. I don’t know how I fell into this habit because I didn’t do this during my first year of running, but it is habit nonetheless. The course consists of a short what I call a warm-up 4-mile loop, followed by two identical 13.5-mile loops with four river crossings and about 7,200 ft of climb.
I did well keeping a relaxed pace during the warm up loop and as we passed through the pavilion for the first time, I decided to just keep on going. My pace needed to be 13:11 in order for me to run a 6:50 race and I was feeling great, so I pushed on. For the next 10 miles, I was averaging about a 12:00 pace hitting the 10’s and sometimes 9’s during the open fields and roads. I took the climbs slow and I thought I was doing a good job of keeping a strong steady pace until about mile 15 when I realized while my energy level was good, my muscles were starting to get fatigued. Damn. I did it again. I was running too fast.
During that first large loop I came upon a runner who would not let me pass. I said “left” and he didn’t budge. I looked for earbuds and saw none, so I said “left” again a little louder. Nothing. We were on a downhill and this is where I make up my time. While it was single track, there was room for a runner to pass if you allowed them. I wasn’t expecting him to get completely off of the trail and all I wanted was a little room so that I could get around him without completely being in the bushes. He refused to budge, keeping his stance right in the middle of the track. As I tripped past him I said, all I needed was just a little bit of space, and his response to me was “I’m not moving to risk me tripping off the trail.”
Okay folks, I totally get this. There is a time to pass and a time when you need to be patient and wait for the opportunity for a wider opening to pass. In fact, not too long before this incident I had a female runner come up behind me asking to pass. I let her know I’d move over as soon as I could and that there was space coming up ahead. Yet she shoved passed me. I was a little annoyed, but I get it. Whatever goal she had she was determined to get it. But any time a runner comes up behind me, I’d yell back to them, “let me know when you want to pass.” And I’d move over for them. It’s just polite trail etiquette. When it came time for me to move past this guy, I waited for the opportunity where there was enough room for the both of us and he refused to budge. I can’t say how annoyed I was about this. I gave him a “peace out” and continued on. For a few miles I wondered if I was an ass for doing so, but after replaying it over and over again, I decided, he was the ass.
As I was coming into the pavilion after the first loop (mile 17.5), I was still feeling good, but my legs were feeling heavy. The temperature started to drop and I was wishing I had my fleece tights. I don’t know how people were running in shorts or a skirt. They must have bigger balls than I. I decided to change my shoes and socks, something I didn’t do the year before, but did the the year prior to that and it felt good to have warm dry feet, even if only for a few miles.
When the rain and snow started, my body reacted. I had a muscle cramp in my calf while I was changing my shoes at the pavilion which I was able to shake off, but later down the trail I noticed that my quads were started to tighten. And there it was. For the first time, I experienced muscle cramping during my run. Could it be that I didn’t hydrate enough during the weeks prior? (I know I didn’t.) Could it be because I was just too cold? (I’m sure that had a big part of it.) But it’s not something that I ever had to deal with before and it was quite unnerving.
I slowly watched my pace drop. It got down to 13:30 and I was panicked. When I got to the road, I pushed as hard as I could. At one point I got my overall pace back up to 13:00 flat, but I couldn’t hold it steady. Each climb tore me down and with each climb I realized that I had to kiss my sub-7 goodbye. By mile 27.5 My asthma started to kick in, something that hadn’t bothered me all winter because of indoor training, and I was losing my shit (not literally…this time). I reached out to my followers on Facebook to summon up some good vibes. I was desperate, I was giving up, and for the first time in my life, I knew for a fact I was not going to reach a goal I set for myself. As the tears started to well up in my eyes, I contemplated on what to do. Do I give up trying at all? Should I just call it a day and just finish the race as is? I knew I was going to finish even if I gimp-walked the rest of the way in but what I didn’t know was how hard I wanted to push myself. My quads were cramping up and the arches of my feet were joining in. I hurt and I hurt bad. I tried to reflect on the Les Brown motivational clip that I posted that morning, Be Hungry (Fight for it)…
“If you want a thing bad enough to go out and fight for it. To work day and night for it. To give up your time, your peace, and your sleep for it. If all that your dream and scheme is about it. And life seems useless and worthless without it. And if you’ll gladly sweat for it and fret for it and plan for it and lose all your terror of the opposition for it. And if you’ll simply go after that thing that you want, with all of your capacity, strength, and sagacity, faith, hope, and confidence, and stern pertinacity… With the help of God… You’ll get it….”
…and I gave it the middle finger. Fuck you Mr. Brown. Nothing but Lies. I am fighting for it and I’m failing! I have worked my ass off and I’m failing! I had fallen into an internal battle of fighting for it and giving up. I’d run as hard as my legs would allow and when the cramping became unbearable, I’d walk. Back and forth, back and forth. Do I fight for it or do I quit and just finish? How hungry was I?
As a runner came up from behind me with less than two miles left, I told him I was done. I’m not going to reach my goal and there was no reason to push on any harder. He said to me, “don’t sell yourself short. This is an accomplishment. Don’t take that away from yourself.” I knew he was right, but I knew he didn’t know how bad I wanted this. I asked him if he wanted to pass me on several occasions and he said no. As we were climbing the last monster of a hill before hitting the clearing to the finish line, I bitched and moaned. When will this hill end?? I don’t know why he stuck behind me. Perhaps he knew that if he passed me I would’ve not pushed at all. And I don’t know where it came from, but I was still moving and I was still fighting. And even though I hurt, I was still trying to run up that last hill. I guess I was still hungry after all. As we made it to the field a quarter of a mile before the finish he said something along the lines of “see? you got this” as he moved on passed me. I don’t know who he was except he wore a yellow top. But I do know once again, out of the blue, when I needed it the most, there was an angel of a runner who gave me just enough of a push to get me through and help me find my strength when I thought I had none left. He forced me to dig deep and continue to fight. Just like that last minute phantom pacer from Hallucination 100, I’m adding this yellow runner guy to my list of running Angels.
When I finally saw the finish line I squinted to see the clock. What. Wait? Is that a six or an eight? Six or an eight?! Holy shit…I think it’s a six. Six what? SIX WHAT??? I typically like to sprint to the finish, and I tried. I really tried. Instead it was just a gimpy saunter. And there it was. I couldn’t believe it. 6:47:33.
My Garmin was off. My pace was on point and I did it. This is the second time I was fooled by my Garmin and there I was losing my shit and all this time, I was right on time. I broke down and cried…just a little. The relief of finishing in the time that I wanted so badly was overwhelming. I did it. I FREAKING DID IT!
As I watched each of my friends cross the finish line, I couldn’t have been more filled with love, gratitude, and happiness. Every single one of us had a goal to reach and every single one of us met them. We worked hard all season, damned hard, and it paid off.
My next race is the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler in DC next month. At the start of the season I set a goal of running that race in under 11 hours (my PR is 11:12:22), and as I soaked in my hot Epsom salt bath after HAT, I decided that I’m going to run that race free. Free of goals, free of my Garmin, free of worry. I’m calling it my Freedom Run. I have harder races coming up, both with goals that I must reach (Laurel Highlands in 20 hours to qualify for Western States, and Mountain Lakes 100 as close to 24 hrs as possible) and I need to allow myself a freedom run. So, on April 9th, I will toe the start without a care in the world. I know that I will make the cutoffs without a problem and I know the course well enough to train for it. I will send my mind on vacation and I will give this race to my heart and let it run wild and free as it once did like a child in the woods. Freedom run…I’m tearing up already at the thought of how beautiful it’s going to be. I can’t wait.