In the four years that I’ve been running ultramarathons, there is only one race that I’ve managed to fit into my ever-expanding calendar year after year: The HAT Run 50K.
I’d be hard pressed to pick a single race as my all-time favorite, but the HAT Run would definitely be in my Top 5.
There’s no one thing that makes it an obvious choice, but the combination of a lot of little things make it a race that I eagerly anticipate each spring. I love the familial vibe, the Braveheart-style mob start, the cool finisher swag, the always-freezing creek crossings, the combination of short-but-steep hills and runnable field sections that caters to my preferred running style. All of the above, really.
This fourth running of HAT was particularly special because it fell on a noteworthy day — my friend Sara’s birthday. (It also gave us the chance to belatedly celebrate Tom’s birthday, which had passed earlier in the month, on a weekend when he was out of town.)
This year, it was a Birthday HAT Run and we decided to do it in style.
Chocolate cake, pink champagne cupcakes, champagne to drink out of red Solo keg cups and, of course, birthday hats for everyone.
Oh, and there was this 31-mile race beforehand, too.
Slip slidin’ away
The day got off to a bumpy start, thanks to a wrong turn on the drive up to Maryland’s Susquehanna State Park that had us rushing to pick up our race bibs and get prepped for the run amid a hard rain that seemed as if it wouldn’t let up any time soon. We huddled under the starting-area pavilion and tried to make light of the foul weather.
“Mud fest? Hell yeah! Bring it!”
“I wonder how high the creeks will be. Maybe above the knee? That’ll be awesome.”
I didn’t have the usual benefit of a baseball cap to keep the rain out of my eyes, as the 10 of us who were celebrating Sara’s birthday by running 31 miles opted for multicolored bandanas as birthday hats, each embroidered with the same turtle that’s been sort of a running icon for Sara these past few years since she started running ultras.
The race started just as we wandered over to the starting line, so with a quick “Yikes! See you guys later!” I dashed off across the field to get a good spot toward the front in hopes of not getting jammed up amid the main pack — with 450 runners on the trails, things were likely to be crowded well into the race.
With an initial loop of 3.6 miles and two identical loops of 13.7 miles, the HAT Run course feels like it flies by pretty quickly. I’d lost track of my buddy Tom in the rush off the starting line, but he caught up with me early in the first loop. We chatted briefly and then he powered on down the trail, leaving me in his wake.
Another race with Tom out front early. That meant good incentive for me to set a fast pace in hopes of catching him at some point later in the race. I wasn’t sure whether that would happen, given that I’d run a road marathon the Saturday prior, but I felt like I at least had a sub-6:00 run in me, if not a new personal best.
For that first loop, though, I knew I needed to let Tom go on ahead and run my own race.
The trails started getting soupy as the rains continued over the first five miles or so and many new-to-trails runners were taking the downhills tentatively, so I spent much of those first two loops yelling “On your left!” as I bombed the descents, kicking up mud and having a blast. I was wet and muddy, I had great tunes on the iPod and I felt totally in my element.
I ignored my watch for much of the first half of the race, running by feel and enjoying the miles as they clicked by. But as I cleared the start/finish aid station at the end of the second loop, I checked my time as I passed the 17.3-mile mark. I cleared the aid station at roughly 3:12, which I knew was on par with how I’d done last year, when I set a new personal best on the course.
(Turns out I was three minutes faster this year, I learned later. Tom had cleared the aid station about five minutes ahead of me, but I didn’t know that at the time either.)
The rain had stopped by then, but the temperatures were still cool and the skies overcast — perfect conditions for a hard run on the third loop, if it weren’t for the muddy trails, which were sure to be slippery as hell.
41 seconds faster
I left the aid station feeling rock star strong and I knew I had a sub-6:00 finish locked down, even if the trails were a muddy hellhole for the third loop. But did I have a new personal best? Maybe. That one wasn’t quite so clear.
If I could keep my pace in the low 11s, I knew it’d be close, so I decided to go for it.
One of the things I love about the HAT Run is that the first two loops blend together mentally, so that by the time you’re hitting the final loop you’ve only got 13 miles and change left. If you’re feeling good at 17 and have got something left in the tank, you can really open it up on the last lap without too much worry about a potential death march over the last few miles.
As expected, the mud did provide a bit of a curve ball — the uphills aren’t normally too tough at HAT, as the climbs top out at about 300 feet, but those short-and-steep ascents are a bit tougher when you’re losing your footing in the mud. Still, I was happy with both my pace and how I was feeling, so I kept rolling up runners throughout the loop.
Over miles 25 and 26, I picked up the pace on a really runnable flat section and was surprised to see that I’d clicked off two back-to-back sub-10:00 miles. I still hadn’t seen Tom, but figured he’d probably finish about five to 10 minutes ahead of me if he’d kept up the kind of pace he was setting at the start.
I hammered through the remaining miles and started doing some rough math in the last half-mile before the finish. If I sprinted a good bit of those last few hundred yards, I’d be on pace to at least match my previous best on the course, if not clear it by a few seconds. So I got my foot into it and took my pace up to 7:30/mile, eyeing the finish line clock the whole way up the last incline to the finish.
As I cleared the line, the clock read 5:51:28. 41 seconds better than my previous course best. A cheap PR, but I’ll take it.
Stumbling along with my finisher’s premiums in hand — a shockingly-bright-orange ball cap and an emergency “space blanket,” each emblazoned with the HAT Run logo — I bumped into Tom.
“How long you been done?”
“Dude, I just finished.”
Turned out that he’d come in about 37 seconds ahead of me in his first running of the HAT course. He’s gonna crush this one next year when he’s got the benefit of some course knowledge under his belt.
Of cupcakes and champagne
With the rest of the gang still out on the course, Tom and I wandered over to the pavilion to wolf down some food. One of the best parts of the HAT Run is the post-race food spread and this year was no different. There was plenty of hot food, including hot dogs, jambalaya, ramen noodles and other assorted goodies.
I can cheerfully report that ramen noodles and jambalaya go together just fine in the same bowl. That might only be true if you’ve run 31 miles before doing so, admittedly, but that mix was just fine by me thank you very much. And a hot dog on the side? Yes please.
After a quick change into warm and dry clothes, Tom and I met up with Kelley’s husband, Jay, and Stan’s wife, Helen, to watch the rest of the crew roll in. Once everyone was finished, fed and warmed up, we headed back to the cars to kick off the birthday celebrating.
Between Tom and Denise, we had a full spread of birthday dessert goodness, including pink champagne cupcakes and chocolate bundt cake, with champagne to drink — out of red Solo cups. We are a classy operation, after all.
The rain was still coming down in fits and starts, and the temperatures were hovering in the low 50s, but that didn’t stop our celebrating. (Sara spent the celebration wrapped in a military poncho liner retrieved from my trunk and a paper birthday crown — I’m not including a photo of that here because she’d probably have me killed if I did.)
We got a few odd looks from folks leaving the race, but a couple other good friends, Gary and Jeff, showed up to join the festivities. As we sat around goofing and telling trail stories, I thought about why I love the HAT Run enough to keep coming back year after year.
Like I said, I think the course is ideally suited to how I like to run races and my improving times each year are a reward all their own. But what I really enjoy most is that sense of community and camaraderie that the race organizers have somehow managed to preserve even as the field has grown to around 500 runners.
It’s one of those races that just feels like home.