First off, a huge thank you to my wife. We’re expecting our first baby in July so I was hesitant to commit so much time away from home to train for this race. She not only gave her full blessing but nearly forced me to sign up for this. I really do owe this race to her support. And an even bigger thank you for coming out to the race as support crew. She was at every aid station, allowing me to speed through without stopping, providing encouragement and updates along the way and kept me going strong. And I owe my coach a huge thank you as well. Despite my fears that I wasn’t doing enough mileage in the early part of the training, I decided to trust her and stick to the plan she designed. Come race day, I felt better prepared going into this race than I have for just about any other. And based on how I wanted to finish (under 5:30, with energy to spare and a smile on my face), I think we nailed this one.
So a bit about the race. This would be my first ultra and the 21st edition of the HAT 50K, taking us through 31 miles of hilly single track and paved roads in Susquehanna State Park, near Harve de Grace, MD. It starts with a 3.6 mile loop, followed by two big loops of 17.3 miles, covering nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain along the way. Other than a few stream crossings, the single track sections aren’t that technical, but are on almost constantly rolling hills. There are a few miles that take you through open meadows as well as a few miles on paved road, mostly downhill, where you can pick up the pace. I loved the course and found it to be challenging but doable if you trained correctly.
With sunny skies and cool temps the weather was perfect at the 9:00 start. 445 racers spread out along the starting line and broke into an easy jog as the siren went off. My plan was to take the first loop really easy, not letting my heart rate get above 130. While this was great for easing into the race, it put me much further back into the pack than I am used to and made it all but impossible to pass once we got to the single track. I decided to stick to my plan and hoped that my patience would pay off later. Coming back through the start/finish area at the end of the small loop the clock read 40 minutes, about 5 minutes more than I had wanted. My strategy for the first big loop was to keep my heart rate under 150, walk the big hills and pick it on the flats and downhills. Executing that strategy was still hard because of all the people in front of me. The single track sections were not only very narrow, but also lined with thorn bushes, making passing difficult. As I came through the first aid station, and all the others throughout the day, Amy had a bottle and Clif bar ready and I sped straight through, passing a bunch of people who stopped to refuel. I decided to wear my fuel belt that holds two 20 oz bottles and carry all my own nutrition, which turned out to be a great decision. Other that slipping on a rock and getting one foot wet at the first stream crossing the first big lap went well. After getting stuck behind a group of 20 people who were content to walk up even the minor hills, I decided to pass them all on one extended uphill. My heart rate shot way up, but it turned out to be a good decision as it was right before a nice flat section through a meadow and got me past the last of big groups. I came through the start finish area at 3:05 and felt great. I decided it was time to pick up the pace and try to make up some time. My new heart rate ceiling was 160, and I was only going to walk when I absolutely had to. In contrast to the first big loop, there were very few people in sight. As soon as I would pass one person I’d see another further ahead which kept me motivated to keep the pace up. Instead of one wet foot at the stream crossing I slipped on two rocks and both feet got soaked. Turns out my shoes and socks dried really quickly and it was never an issue. I couldn’t believe how good I still felt at the four hour mark and how many people I was still passing. With about an hour to go I took a pretty good digger after tripping on a tree root and barely got my hands/arms in front to cushion the fall. Due to my typical lack of grace I’m pretty used to failing and bounced right back up. Other than a few bruises and minor scrapes I was fine. I still felt good and decided it was time to go for broke, not paying any attention to my heart rate. I powered up almost every remaining hill and kept passing people all the way to the finish, crossing the line 5:25. I was really surprised at how good I felt and how much I still had in the tank. If I hadn’t got stuck behind so many people through the first big loop I think I could have taken at least 5 and maybe 10 minutes off my time. Even so, I had a great race, beating my goal of 5:30. I ended up 17th out of 68 in my age group and 56th out of 385 overall. More importantly, I learned a lot about long distance racing and plan to do more of it. The race was very well organized, easy to get to and the post race amenities were great, including a canvas folding chair for all finishers as well as a ton of food.
I highly recommend this race to anyone interested in doing an ultra, just be ready for a lot of hills.
Very cool. How do you make running 30 miles of trails sound easy? Congrats on such a great race!
Congrats, Greg. Great to hear that you did this race and enjoyed it so much. It's a great intro race to ultras and was the first real ultra for me and I've been addicted ever since. This was the first time in 5-6 yrs that I didn't do this race. I think it would be much better with a smaller # of people to spread things out on the trail a little more. I hope you do more ultras and feel free to email Jen or me if you have any questions about ultras in the area.