As I look back over the past year one thing sticks out - my long runs were longer. I ran my first ultra in 2011 and then another and then another. In fact, my first attempt at the 50K distance was so fun, challenging, and new that I jumped into another one less than a month later. It has been almost a year since my first 50K trail run at the Hagg Lake Trail Run and I am excited to do it again this year.
Last year, being my first ultra experience, I made a few rookie mistakes. But the more I think about it, I think that it was these mistakes that actually made the run so enjoyable. After several years of running and trying to increase my speed and endurance, the Hagg Lake Mud Run made me remember why I love running: the freedom, the natural beauty, the primal instincts, the friendships, the food, the feeling of being a kid again, the challenge, and the finish. The rookie mistakes had the potential to absolutely ruin my experience, but I didn't know any better so I just went with it and had fun.
The day started by me getting lost on the way to the course. I took a few wrong turns (or didn't take the right ones). I swallowed my pride and asked some of the local gas station attendants and they didn't have a clue what I was talking about - I must have been off the beaten path.
When I finally saw the signs and tried making my way to the parking area I began slipping off the road because they were icy and the cars ahead of me were driving rather slowly. I finally got to the start, checked in, got my number and went back to my car to get my bottles.
By the time I got my bottles and made my way back to the port-a-potties I had to choose between filling the bottles and getting in line. I got in line. I felt fortunate to have made my way into a port-a-pottie before the race started. That feeling quickly left me when I heard the gun go off.
I was still in the port-a-pottie taking care of business. My pants and jacket were still on. My bottles never got filled. I still had my drop bag with me. So by the time I finished the business at hand, ditched my bag with empty bottles and began racing toward the pack I figure I only lost a minute or two. I caught the leaders of the 50K by the end of the out and back about 3 miles into the race. Then I stopped, took off my shoes in order to remove my pants and jacket and ditch them. For good measure I decided to get a drink while I was at it.
As I stopped to shed the layers, I was passed by everyone I had passed. So I tried to run them down one by one. Wrong turn. I didn't know which way to go until I saw the a string of runners make the correct turn (note to readers - this had nothing to do with lack of markings - the RD did fine - I typically wear glasses, but don't like to race in contacts or glasses so I get to deal with the consequences).
Now, we were on single track and would be for most of the remaining 28 miles. Passing was not going to be as easy as before on the open gravel road. To make matters worse, it had been raining incessantly for the previous 2 weeks. Though the race was known for its mud, 2011 was said to be the muddiest yet.
I finally caught the leaders about 10 or 12K into the race and tried to run with them for a while. They were all experienced ultra trail runners. I felt like a fish out of water. It was apparent that I didn't have a clue what I was doing. They were all carrying fuel and liquids. I was running free of any bottles or gels (remember I didn't have time to fill mine). I figured it was too late to do anything about it, so I just made every effort possible to run fast enough that the three aid stations would be approximately 45 minutes apart. I figured that if I could get gels and liquid at every station I should be able to make it.
We chatted for a while, exchanged the usual info about ourselves. Some had won big races and posted some impressive marks. Some of them had shoe, apparel, and nutrition sponsors. Needless to say, I was intimidated, but I had spent so much time in chase mode that by the time I caught them I literally had to slow down to run with them. I figured that I should be patient and enjoy the company while it lasted, but my anxiety got the best of me and I decided to break away.
Long story short, I survived. Somehow, I still managed to take the same wrong turn, but remembered in time to finish my first attempt at a race over the marathon distance before getting run down. I was supported along the way with several gel packets and cups of water and was rewarded with a sick day pack and the best chicken noodle soup ever. I wanted to slurp it for days. The race directors, volunteers, and fellow competitors were very friendly and supportive. I instantly felt I was among kindred spirits and decided to change the direction of my running for the year and probably my life. I wanted to spend more time on the trails and figure out how to conquer this new challenge.
As I prepared for last year's race I didn't know what to expect. Honestly, all I really wanted to do was finish as soon as possible. I figured it would be nice to have some company on a long run and figured there was a higher likelihood of my drinks being there if I paid an entry fee rather than dropping them off the night before.
Now, as I prepare for this year I have a couple of things I'd like to improve upon:
1. Don't get lost on the way to the course. I plan to drive there the night before so that I know the turns and don't have to worry about getting to the start on time.
2. Give myself ample time to wait in line and take care of business before the start.
3. Wear the right clothes to begin with and don't worry about stopping to shed layers.
4. Wear the right shoes. Last year I was in some pretty stable trainers. This year I'd like to wear a bit more minimalist trail shoe like the Brooks Pure Grits.
5. Improve nutrition. While I like the convenience of having my hands and hips free, I plan to be a bit more prepared with gels, chews, and drinks along the way. Thanks to a new sponsorship with PowerBar I should be ready with all of the gels, chews, drinks, and bars I'll need.
6. If everything goes well and the course isn't any worse than last year I hope to go under 3:40.
7. Whether all of this works out or not, I still plan to have lots of fun, get really dirty, and drink lots of soup.