This was my third year in a row of running the Hagg Lake 50K. And for the third year, we had nice weather. Bright, sunny and cloudless. It was chilly before the start — right around freezing — but things warmed up quickly once we were moving.
In 2008, this was my first ultramarathon and my first trail race, and my main goal was just to finish. (Though breaking six hours became an important goal by the end of the race that year.) In 2009, I had run a six-hour race just two weeks before, and I was dealing with some behind-the-knee tendonitis or something, so once again… my main goal was just to finish. This year was the first time I’ve come into it mentally and physically prepared, and I had a time goal: beat 10 minutes per mile, 5:10:00.
Just for some perspective on what a middle-of-the pack runner this makes me, let’s look at what yesterday’s winners did. Max King won the men’s side. He’s ridiculously great — he’s won multiple trail running national and world championships. He ran a 3:26:54 yesterday. A 17-minute course record. Frickin’ 6:40 per mile! That might not sound that amazing to you if you are used to flat roads, but I can’t even get a mental picture of how you would begin to keep up that pace over 31 miles of those hilly twisty slippery trails. Salem’s Pam Smith won the women’s competition in 4:18:34, placing 8th overall. Pam is an amazing runner who really needs to change the name of her blog.
As planned, I took the first seven or eight miles — whatever the distance is up to the first aid station — pretty easy. I was still out a little faster than I wanted to be, according to the Garmin, but it’s hard to say for sure. The Garmin’s not of much use at a race like this. Its accuracy in hilly terrain with switchbacks isn’t great. Later on in the race, I accidentally hit the stop button, probably when I stumbled and nearly fell. So I don’t have any even-close-to-reliable split data for this run. That’s OK.
The race had new organizers this year — Kelly, Todd and Fuzz — and they did a great job. Things seemed to run just as smoothly as ever, plus they did an amazing job of pre-race communication via email and facebook updates. Nothing seemed left to chance. As always, all the volunteers out on the course were awesome. And I can’t forget to mention — this year we not only got shirts, but we got finisher’s socks. Look for me to be sporting my swanky new Hagg Lake socks soon.
I picked up the pace after that first aid station, and started running all the uphills as well. My goal was to push myself during a full loop around the lake — in other words, for the approximately 14 miles back to that same spot. Except for the two aid stations along the way, I ran every step of those 14 miles. My training this year allowed me to pull that off… in previous years it would have been impossible. I passed a lot of people, and got passed by very few.
The mud conditions this year were, of course, pretty good compared to how they could have been if it were rainy. But the consensus seems to be that the mud was worse than last year. I agree. There was one section that some construction work has apparently turned into a giant 100 yard long pure mud field. Most of the trail isn’t like that, of course, but on average things seemed a little more slippery and a little more wet than in 2009.
After my 14 miles of pushing it, I had two-thirds of the lake to get around before I was done: less than ten miles. It is impossible to express how long those ten miles take. During those ten miles, you think to yourself “why do I do this?” and “how could I have ever looked forward to this” about six thousand times. Then you remind yourself that negative thoughts don’t help. Then you try to breathe and try to move and wonder if just stopping would be so bad. And your quads hurt and your hands are covered in mud from catching yourself when you almost fell and worse yet you also got mud on your water bottle and even though you wiped it on your shirt you can still taste some of the mud that got into the nozzle and you know you shouldn’t be tasting stuff that smells that bad but you have no choice, just like you have no choice but to keep moving forward.
When I got to the last aid station, I asked if anyone had an elapsed course time, since I had by then noticed that I had accidentally stopped my Garmin. They reminded me that the race had started at eight, so I could go by time of day. They also claimed I only had 4.5 miles left to go. Having run those particular “4.5” miles five times before in my life, I put no stock in this obviously fraudulent claim: it’s really about six hundred miles between the last aid station and the finish. But just for fun I sized up what the situation would be if I were in a parallel universe where this “4.5” miles business were true, and it looked like I had a good shot at 5:10:00 and maybe some chance at five hours flat.
This last part has road, hills, and the worst mud. The road portion is nice. The less said about the other bits, the better. Walking up some of the inclines, I was astounded that I had been able to run them 14 miles earlier. The good news was that nobody was passing me. One guy did, back with about six miles to go, but he was the last one to do so. (Of course, we do get pretty spread out in a 31-mile race with only 127 runners, so this hey-look-ma-I-didn’t-get-passed business may not be worth much.)
With about a half mile to go, I passed someone (probably a 50K early starter) and told him that “there’s a good chance we won’t die.” I had 5:10 in the bag and no shot at all for 5:00, so I hadn’t pushed the last two miles hard. Just the normal baseline agony.
Official Results: 5:06:41. (9:54/mile average pace.) 43/127 finishers, 37/86 men, 9/18 men 35-39. Here’s the year-by-year:
Relatively speaking, I was in good shape after finishing. No blisters. No tendon- or joint-type pain. My legs were painful but less so than after previous races. System-wise I was a little shakier. I was completely exhausted and I got head rushes rising from a seated position. My right arm tingled a bit as my blood flow readjusted out of workout mode. I needed a nap but I’d had too many caffeinated gels during the course of the race to let sleep come. In other words, I was on top of the world! You can laugh at anything when you don’t have to run another “4.5” miles.