Wednesday, March 26, 2014

HAT Run 50k - My (D)DNF Race Report

(D)DNF - dēˈ·dēˈ·en·ef
1. the act of not DNF'ing [DNF - abbrev. 'Did Not Finish']
2. to continue to the finish when you think you shouldn't
3. the opposite of DNF'ing 

It's been a challenging winter here in Central PA with weather tougher than we've seen in years. We had very cold temperatures which aren't a real big deal, but the frigid temps allowed the snow to stick around for what seemed like forever. Trails were clogged with snow and ice and road running was difficult and dangerous too. Those challenges weren't enough for me so two weeks prior to the HAT Run, I came down with a nasty cold which seemed to cycle from my head to my chest and back ,over and over again.  It might've been Bronchitis, I don't know, never went to the doc. What I do know is the accompanying coughing fits were unrelenting and nearly impossible to run through. So with all that said, it should be funny to note that a few years ago when a friend told me about the HAT Run, he said, "yeah, the thing about The HAT Run is that you have to be sure to stay in shape through the winter" (thanks Kyle). Considering the crappy preparation I had, I stepped up to the start line with a few hundred others with congested lungs and the absolute bare minimum winter training miles in my legs.

The HAT Run is one of those events where the venue doesn't have enough trail mileage so runners are required to do a couple laps to complete the 50k distance. No, that isn't my favorite format, but I needed a tune up event so I entered. This was the 26th running of the event and it's extremely popular. If you didn't sign up the day registration opened, you missed it. The race filled to capacity in no time. So because I registered that meant someone else didn't get in. I wasn't going to let a chest cold make me miss the start and waste a spot in the race. 

Janice and I had never been to Susquehanna State Park before. It's quite the pretty place, just north of Havre de Grace Maryland along The Susquehanna River near the mouth of The Chesapeake Bay. Coming down from Harrisburg Pennsylvania we entered Maryland via Lancaster County and crossed the river on The Conowingo Dam which is something else neither of us had ever seen. The park is full of hiking trails and seems a popular spot for mountain and road biking. Considering its position along the river, I'm sure it's a good spot for fishing and boating as well. There's some cool historical stuff there too, the Rock Run Historic Area with a working grist mill, the Carter-Archer Mansion, Jersey Toll House and the curious ruins of the Susquehanna Tidewater Canal. The start/finish was located adjacent to the Steppingstone Museum. Janice captured some great photos while waiting for me to appear out of the woods.

Those stairs are part of the course.
Grist Mill

Remnants Of The Abandoned Susquehanna Tidewater Canal
Ruins of The Port Deposit Bridge Piers

It was chilly in the 30's when we arrived with a steady breeze that made it feel a good bit cooler. With the promise that the temperature would climb above 60, dressing in layers was key. The start format was interesting, set up like the typical cross country start with runners basically standing shoulder to shoulder and running to a chute to funnel everyone onto the course.

Fun Start
There's a short 3.6 mile starting lap using a park road then into an open field and eventually leading into the forest on single track. After that parade lap we returned back to the start/finish area to begin the first of two 13.7 mile laps. The course was mostly single track through the woods, but we also broke out into some wide open fields and I was surprised by the amount of actual paved park road that we used(one stretch was 2 miles).
Plenty of climbing, the course description said 9800';
my watch recorded 7128', but who's arguing?

A 200 Year Old Wall & A Wide Open Field Of Runners

After the wet winter, the water crossings were flowing strong and one of them was about knee deep. My feet were wet most of the day. Each lap had two well stocked aid stations which were essentially at the same location making it very easy for Janice to intercept me.

I started the race with a long sleeve shirt over a sleeveless shirt with arm warmers and light weight gloves. After the first out and back on the road, I tossed the long sleeve and later in the day the temperature came up so I ditched the arm warmers and gloves as well. I was carrying a single handheld Nathan bottle with GU Gels and GU Chomps in the pouch and I had salt tablets and GU Roctane Electrolyte Capsules in the pockets of my shorts. I started the race drinking GU Brew and switched to GU Roctane for the later mileage. Janice swapped out my empty bottle each time she saw me and had a supply of replacement gels as needed. I ate peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and drank Coke and Mountain Dew from the aid stations.

Still Smiling With The Susquehanna River In The Distance

Arriving At The Second Aid Station

Heading into the second aid station on the first lap, I was feeling good and I was holding my mile time just under 12 minutes (comfortable for me for this distance and terrain). Things seemed to be going well in spite of my occasional coughing spells. I left that aid station eating peanut butter & jelly and everything seemed fine until I got about 200' around the corner and I started to cough. This coughing fit was over the top, it was aggravating my gag reflex and I couldn't get it under control so I pulled off the trail out of the way. Unfortunately it didn't end till I barfed and now I felt like hell and the next mileage had some considerable climbs waiting for me and I couldn't stop coughing and gagging. I had now slowed to a crawl and now heading into the start/finish area to start lap #2 I knew I needed to drop out. I was honestly afraid that attempting a second lap would do some damage. I got to the chute and told Janice I couldn't keep going and the timers told me I needed to speak to the guy in the red jacket. I started to unpin my number and Janice said, "no, you can finish, you're beyond half way". I know my face had to show a look of horror. This wasn't just some, "I'm feeling sorry for myself" pity-party act, I sincerely felt like death. Just then the "guy in the red coat" asked, "are you sure? you know it's mostly down hill to the next aid station, why don't you run there and rethink this?" I had heard those, "it's all down hill from here" jokes before. At the Laurel Highlands there's a sign that says "You've reached the highest point of The Laurel Highlands HikingTrail, it's all down hill from here". He wasn't joking though, I could tell his encouragement was genuine. I guess he had seen runners who really needed to drop and somehow didn't class me in that same group. For some reason, his advice and Janice's loving encouragement was enough for me to pin my number back on and give it a shot. Janice also handed me my next bottle, which now had GU Roctane in it versus the mellower GU Brew I had been carrying.

It wasn't a lie, a lot of the mileage to the next aid station was downhill and I did start to feel better. I reached the aid station and I sat down a minute and ate an orange and it stayed down. I got another bottle from Janice and continued on. The pain and discomfort caused by all that coughing and the irritation it brought seemed to be gone or at least at a manageable minimum. There was a mellow two mile stretch of trail across open fields and two more easy miles of park road through the family camping area that seemed to allow me to really regroup. I was beginning to actually believe I could finish. I was actually believing that I was about to (D)DNF! Aside from the fear that those guys may have written down my number as having dropped, I was feeling ok.
A Run In The Woods

The opening lap was intended to string us out, but the event allows 500 runners and much of the early mileage was like running in a conga line at a crowded shopping mall. It was nice that now that I was officially a straggler, my last miles were run mostly alone. That's my preference, especially when I'm struggling. I made a climb with a couple others and I felt like I had to continually apologize for my constant hacking and coughing. I was a real snot machine and now alone I could hack, cough and spit without encouraging anyone else's gag reflex.

I got to the last aid station and managed/survived the climbing after that and reached the fields leading to the finish with regained confidence. Janice of course was waiting for me and I met up with the "guy in the red coat" again who turned out to be Co-Race Director Tim Gavin. I'm forever thankful for their words that kept me going. Whether I had done damage or not, I had finished and it was because of the chemistry they created when trying to talk me out of sitting down and quitting. 
Now I Can Stop...

I had come to the HAT Run with two goals:
1. To finish
2. To not get lapped by the winners/leaders

While I'm not a huge fan of running laps, this is a top notch event bolstered by a rich community of area trail runners. I'm not fast so I'm used to finishing after awards ceremonies when most everyone has already packed up and gone. Sure I missed the awards this time too, but the party was still buzzing. Plenty of runners still mingled and the post race food and live music was killer. Crossing the finish line got you a sweet Hat Run running cap, pint glass, bottle opener and a cool embroidered towel. All that on top of the long sleeved Under Armour race shirt you got with your registration. If race stuff is your thing, these guys don't disappoint. I'll take a pint glass over another useless medal any day.

If you're looking for a tough little 50k, in an absolute beautiful place, run by true professionals, then this race is for you! 
The Muscle Milk Jeep

Our Jeep

Love This Photo


***Along with all the stuff listed below, I also ran with:
- Zensah Ankle Support (for my useless left ankle)
- A favorite old pair of Asics running shorts (with pockets)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Running With My Best Friends

Those who know me well know that running is about solitude and meeting challenges on my own terms and by myself. It's about being able to look back over a boulder pile I just scrambled over or down a vista of a steep power-line cut or simply looking at my watch after a lunch hour 10k. Those are moments that are valuable to me and I don't typically share them with anyone. It's not that I'm selfish, it's about me being self conscious of my running. Running with someone else means they'll see how awkward a runner I am, they'll see that I don't even look like a runner and the worse thing ever, they'll hear my labored breathing(my worst fear). With others, I constantly feel like I'm running too slowly or I'm in the way or I'm running too fast or that the others will think it's a race. At races I avoid running in packs and if runners are carrying on a conversation, I'll avoid them by slowing or speeding up. At The Stone Mill 50 last November I simply stopped and let a couple of shirtless chatter-boxes pass me by. I ate a gel and gave them time to gain some ground on me before I proceeded. I love to run and that's the sole reason I do it, but I'm not very good at it and I need to concentrate on what I'm doing. You'll excuse me if I avoid your conversation about your wife and kids, the seltzer water machine you just got at Target, the car you're restoring, the fabulous Tri-bike you just bought or all your wonderful PR's. I've blabbered on about why I prefer to run alone, so why would I be writing about running with my best friends?

A year and a half ago Janice told me about a puppy she saw for adoption on Facebook. It was an adorable Black Lab and she wanted to go meet her at the rescue agency's event held at a nearby Pet Smart. We hadn't had a dog for seven years and I thought we would never be a dog household again.  I was quite surprised by the idea, but I loved it. Long story short, we went to the pet store and met Jezebel or Jessie as they were calling her and she of course was a sweetheart. Then we also met Mike, a scrawny little Border Collie mix who seemed to want nothing, but to be all over me. When he wasn't playing with me, he was wrestling with Jezebel. The two dogs played like they were puppies from the same litter.

The New Puppies - Mojo Is No Longer Scrawny & Little

She was six months and he was five months. A couple weeks later the nice lady from The Compassionate Hearts Animal Rescue was delivering our two new family members. We went to look at one and adopted two. They're now known as Mojo and Mollie and they love to run. Suddenly I have someone I enjoy running with.

We run on the nearby trails on Blue Mountain, usually looping into the network of trails at Boyd Big Tree Preserve. They've been to the WHP/WITF Tower Site, they've climbed and descended the power line, through mud, across rocks and blow downs and the snow and ice of winter. I keep them on leashes to keep them safe and it keeps us together. Mollie is a brute, she gets her harness and leash on and she wants to bolt. For the first mile it's all about keeping my feet as Mollie drags Mojo and I across the rough terrain. Falling is part of trail running, you catch a toe on something and you become one with the ground. Falling with the dogs is funny, no sooner do I  realize I've tumbled into a heap and the two of them are licking my face. It's like having two loving four legged medics checking on me and hoping I'll get up.  Mojo is quite methodical about running, pacing himself and even looking at me funny if I'm running up hill faster than he is. He's a wise dog. After Mollie settles down, she tucks in next to Mojo and then it's like running behind a team of horses. The two actually run shoulder to shoulder. Once when running down a steep hill, a hiker stepped aside to let us pass. As we skidded on our way down the hill, she yelled "do they always run side by side like that?"

Shoulder To Shoulder - Mojo On My Right & Mollie On My Left

Most times when I go for a run, I have a workout in mind. When I take the dogs, it's not about a workout, it's about having a blast in the forest with my dogs. I read an article about running with your dog that said to stay in charge and keep it known that this is your run and not their time to play, sniff and explore. That's not my approach at all, we're out there for fun together. Sure we mostly run, but we may walk and if Mojo wants to stop and sniff, and as long as it's ok with Mollie it's ok with me. Our runs are never steady. Like I said we start off with the Mollie-Sprint/Drag. Then there's Mojo, sometimes he'll decide he's just done and he'll sit down on the trail usually requiring I leap over him, often causing him to come out of his harness. After replacing his harness and a pep talk we get back to running. I've gotten good at leaping these two. They'll literally skid to a stop to pee and with only a six foot leash, that's not enough space for me to stop so up and over I go. The longest we've run together is nine miles. We typically start at the top of Blue Mountain Parkway, so that means we usually return to the ridge via a rocky climb I call the rocky steps. On that route when we reach the intersection with the main trail we pass between a set of cairns and turn left. The dogs recognize this point and know the Jeep is only a mile away and the pace hastens immediately. That's kind of neat and really not a problem unless we start at The Boyd Big Tree parking lot at the bottom of the mountain. Then when we pass through those same rock cairns we need to turn right to return to the Jeep. Mojo sees those rock piles and thinks the Jeep is only a mile away so he protests and insists we go left. After some strong convincing to continue we eventually get on our way. It's pretty cool just how well they know the routes. If we get to a trail intersection where we may have a choice, they'll both look over their shoulders for guidance. If we're approaching an intersection where we always go the same way, they don't even bother, it's heads down and they charge on down the trail. Seeing other people is kind of funny. The most common result is cowering hikers and Mollie and Mojo ignore them and just power on by. Wildlife however is another story. Last summer we descended into Unger's Gap and I saw Momma Bear and her two cubs. Luckily they saw us and scurried before the dogs saw them. I haven't been so lucky with Turkeys, Squirrels and last week a Possum (in daylight). If Mollie sees an animal she thinks she can catch and play with it's off to the races and of course Mojo and I are attached. One night we entered a trail off the power line cut and my headlamp picked up numerous sets of Deer eyes on both sides of the trail and the dogs saw them too. Their pace slowed briefly and I wondered what would happen. It seemed when they were happy these Deer were just like the ones in our backyard, we were back to running again without incident.

Mollie & Mojo After Our First Ever Trail Run (Ignoring The Water Bowl)

When we get back to the Jeep, oddly they never want to drink, they're done and just want to go home. Mojo leaps into the back seat and Mollie insists I pick her up and put her in. The Jeep interior is hardly fit for humans unless you're the driver, currently it's covered in muddy paw prints and slobber(theirs). I wouldn't have it any other way. I love to run, but I care so little about being a "runner"; heck I can't even spell PR and guess what, neither can Mojo or Mollie.