Saturday, August 17, 2019

Oven Running - My MD H.E.A.T. Race 50k Race Report

Start of a long day.

Having run the Allegheny Trail Runners 12 Hour Ultra in July, I thought I had experienced the heat and humidity of a life time and no summer time ultra would compare. I was so wrong. I had run the MD H.E.A.T. Race a couple of times before and sure it's August on the East Coast so yeah it's hot. This year Mother nature pulled out all the stops and provided enough heat and humidity to shrivel even the strongest runner.

In 2018, a year I didn't run it, its course was changed due to extensive flood damage. The Patapsco River flows right through the park and is prone to flash flooding. Deadly flash flooding that is. I hadn't seen this new version of the course, but I knew there was plenty of hill side throughout the park that Nick Yeates the Race Creator/Director would not deliver a course without significant climbing.

I got checked in and chilled out waiting for the sun to come up the rest of the way. Janice was there with me and she had her bicycle along so she could get from aid station to aid station and not contribute to the traffic jam this popular park sees on hot summer days. Nick greeted us at the start line and after informing us that the race almost didn't happen due to a last minute insurance snafu, he said "go". Nick's a different kind of Race Director, dressed in a grass skirt and Hawaiian leis he lead the pack out of the start area and didn't peal off until we entered the first forested section.

So far so good, the course not only looked familiar to me from past years, it seemed identical. Soon we were through the race's trade mark tunnel and headed up a paved park road on a slight incline which lead us to the first real climb of the day. The race started at 7:00 AM, but the humidity and heat was already building and reaching the top of the relentless hill had me drenched. I was carrying two bottles of Tailwind and was sure to be diligent about taking in Pickle Juice as it was obvious that all day was going to be serious fluid dump.

To run 50K two laps are required and this new course was in more of a lopsided Figure 8 than the 2 loops of the past. Along with the neat little tunnel near the start of the course, there is the real unique feature of the race in the form of a huge rock wall requiring runners to climb onto it and then run along it's top and descend down the other end. On the old course configuration, this wall climb appeared just before the finish of each lap and now you needed to climb it after your first/shorter  loop of the figure 8.  After the first short loop the course returned to the start finish area and heads to the wall. Coming at the wall early in the race also meant you were facing the opposite way as in the past, climbing the sloping end that meets the river and hopping off the other end that meets the retaining wall holding up the road that's above.

While the opening/short loop was basically a mammoth climb and then return to the start line, the second/larger loop was loaded with more diverse trail and didn't disappoint in the area of climbing. One neat feature missing from the past was a swinging bridge, on this new course we saw it, but we didn't cross it.
Hiking Only
Swinging Bridge Aid Station

Ice Bath

There was a fun aid station located there just before probably the longest climb on that second loop.  The Patapsco River State Park lies on the hills surrounding the Patapsco River and is extremely popular at this time of year. The wide part of the river right at the start/finish area is jammed with picnickers splashing in the cool water while the trails on the hillsides are full of day hikers and mountain bikers. The course also scrambles through a boulder pile next to a beautiful little water fall.

Nearing the end of the first lap I was running with a man and woman who knew each other. We were high on a hillside scooting a long the top of a steep drop. I jokingly mentioned to the guy in front of me how this would be a bad place to fall. Not a quarter mile later I caught a toe and down the steep drop I went, grabbing a tree root to stop my slide. I heard the runner in front of me ask if I was ok, I replied I was and then he asked where the heck I was. I had fallen not only down the hill I was obscured by a small tree. I let him know I was ok as I climbed back onto the trail. Considering I was soaked with sweat and now covered in dirt, I was muddy and now also bleeding from a couple of spots.

It was even blistering hot in the shade.

This race allows runners to call it quits after 1 lap and take the 25k finish.  I now felt like absolute crap, the heat had definitely taken its toll and now the nasty fall had convinced me I'd be done when I reached the finish line. To make it even easier to quit, thunder storm brought a down pour that made the climate even more like  a rain forest. Of course I came into the start finish a little rattled, I saw ribbons every where and couldn't even figure out where the chute was. Then I saw Janice and announced I was done and she wasn't agreeing at all. Nick gives a pretty generous cut off for the 50K, but after some quick math I knew I was looking at  9+ hour finish time. Janice said, "so what, keep going".

Loving Life

I'm not at all sure what happened, I was so certain coming into 25k that I was done and now here I was feeling like complete crap and starting another lap. The down pour was at its height and I saw Paul Encarnacion coming in to start his last bigger loop. He attempted to High 5 me and I missed. My day was going so well I couldn't even accomplish a high five with a friend. I could only hope that he'd be done and gone and not see the end of my day.

Heading to the big climb on that initial short loop, I was on the road and a guy drove up next to me, rolled his window down and asked me if I knew where number 26 was, referring to a picnic shelter. It's pouring sheets of rain and I must've looked at him like he was nuts and I told I didn't have a clue and the guy lost it on me, Cursing and claiming that I knew and wouldn't tell him because I was a racist. At this point I was certain I was hallucinating. I was never happier to see the course disappear back onto the trail and back into the forest where he couldn't pursue me. What the heck had just happened?

These climbs at the beginning of the second lap were this time familiar and briefly I felt ok about my condition. The down pour had stopped and the sun came out and now we were really cooking. I saw a runner off in the brush on his hands and knees as if he was looking for something. I was striding p the steep and asked him if he was ok and he nodded and said he was fine. He didn't look fine so I asked if he needed anything and he just looked away and said nothing..It was hot as hell, who knows, maybe I was hallucinating. At the top of the climb, I popped out onto a road that I didn't remember from the first lap and after just a few steps I knew I had missed a turn. Returning to the forest from where I exited I saw a young couple I had passed earlier on the ascent and the man said he thought my course went down that way and he pointed. Downhill sounded good to me, but there were no course markers. I didn't care at this point, I knew that downhill was going to feel good and I could figure out the course later. I passed numerous day hikers and things just weren't looking familiar. My first time through here I was with other runners and I could've sworn that there were course markers everywhere.  I got to a trail junction that required a decision and flipped a coin and followed a drainage-like trail which eventually dumped onto a park road. The road looked familiar and I even saw a sign for the Soapstone Trail that I had remembered, but still there were no markers or arrows and I couldn't figure which way to turn on this road. I ran to left at first passing various groups of folks out enjoying picnics all looking at me like I was an alien. I wondered if one of these picnic areas could've been #26. I soon found myself back at the base of the big climb and I knew right away I had gone the wrong way. Running back past the picnics I decided I'd follow the road and hope I recognized something. As I past that trail sign, I noticed all the course markers and directional arrows in a nice neat pile. I found out later that some over zealous volunteers had gone out a little too early to take down course markings. Soon I saw the tunnel that I recognized and now I knew how to get back to the start finish.

I had wasted so much time while I was lost, I was now certain that I was done and there was no way Janice was talking me out of it. As I approached the bridge just before the start area, I saw Janice on her bicycle. I was wearing a GPS tracker provided by the race and she had been concerned because it was showing me not moving for a while. I explained that I had been lost because there were no course markers. I told her I was done and of course she said keep running and I'll see you at the start area. I got to the start line and this time there was no one at the aid station there. I guess those volunteers were like the crew who took down the markers and assumed everyone was done. That kind of pissed me off and when Janice found me and told me I needed to keep moving, I did it out of frustration/anger.

I downed a Pickle Juice and Janice topped off my bottles with tailwind and I headed to climb the wall again. It seemed to keep getting hotter and the climb onto the wall and the subsequent climb onto the road took a lot out of me. Janice caught me on camera there and I look next to death.

Feeling like Hell...

Eventually I reached the aid station by the swinging bridge and they had ice water in a bucket which felt great dumped over my head. Janice was there too and she doused my visor and a bandanna in the ice water, it all felt so good.

I made it to the finish line eventually, finishing the slowest 50k I've ever run. I guess my accomplishment on the day was not quitting in the heat. And really, that was all Janice, it was her insistence that made me continue.

Casual Applause For The Survivors

I crossed the line and saw Paul standing with Janice and I was embarrassed to realize he was witnessing the end of my glacial run. If you know Paul though, he was of course his incredibly gracious self and reminded me that a finish is a finish. He recommended an IPA and Janice grabbed me some food and it felt great to sit down.
Yes I was done at this point, but this isn't a photo of my finish.
It's shortly after I finished.
I'm actually shrugging my shoulders, basically wondering what had just happened.

I then started to hear the stories around me. Arguments about what the high temperature was, a guy needed medical attention due to the heat and I heard many folks say they dropped at 25k. The 25k saw 141 folks reach the finish line while the 50k only had 59 finishers. I'm not sure how that compared to other years, but I feel that 25k number included a lot of 50k folks who had better sense than me.

This is a fun event in a beautiful park and the party afterward is off the hook. I highly recommend it.