In February for my 40th birthday, my brother (hopefully) and I will be doing the Hagg Lake Mud Run. It has both a 25k or 50k option. I'm leaning towards the 50k - which would make it an "ultramarathon" (barely).
The following is the experience that my Coach (Joe) who coached me in my Team in Training marathon had at Hagg Lake earlier this year~
It’s 11:30PM and I’m sitting in the bathroom thinking “great.” I already have diarrhea. This is going to be fun. I have to be up in about four and half hours and my body is not cooperating. Not only is my digestive system revolting against something that I have done to it – I’m guessing the deep-fried bananas from PF Chang’s – but my mind is running wild and agitating me as well.
I always imagined that pre-race anxiety would go away at some point, but I guess I was wrong about this. The more races I do, the more experience I have, nothing seems to quell that excitable feeling that I have in the days before a big race.
The debatable part here is the word “big” in this “big race”. My friends and I had only been training for the Hagg Lake Trail Ultra-marathon for about a month. It wasn’t the Olympic trials, or Boston, nor would anything be riding on it. But it felt like a big race. I’d never run this far off-road. I’d never run for this many hours. I’d never run a race in mud up above my ankles.
One of the pieces of advice that I give to my runners is to use their nervous energy to their benefit. Instead of wracking yourself with worry, I usually say, think about all of the things that you’ve done to prepare and just get yourself psyched to have a good performance.
Good advice. But just like a first-time road runner, I felt like there were so many variables out there that I couldn’t predict. This 50K foot-race would take two laps around Hagg Lake. The farthest that I’d ever run was one lap. How would I summon the energy, the desire, the drive to start a second lap? This was on my mind as I finally got in bed about 12:30AM and lay there rolling around thinking about the day to come. There was a beat drumming alternately in my head and stomach. I thought, ‘what is that beat? A tango?’ Yes, a tango indeed.
When the alarm broke the silence before 5:00AM, I was remember thinking to myself “I hate this sport,” but I don’t really hate the sport. I love it. I’m just grumpy when I get up super early in the morning. I was particularly grumpy for about five minutes and then I settled into my pre-race routine. I sat down on my couch and taped my ankles – just one small benefit of being your own coach is that you get to perform your own treatments on yourself. I was worried about the strength of my right ankle, especially with 6+ hours of trail running coming at it. The added stability of the tape felt good as I plodded across the living room to the large pile of gear that I had assembled.
Picking out my clothes that morning was not going to be a challenge. The weather forecast was calling for one to two inches of rain with temperatures in the 40s. A quick glance outside at the pouring rain confirmed that this was going to be a cold, wet day and that layering as much clothing on as possible was going to be a good idea. I had an extra set of everything that I would wear to put in my gear bag so that I could do a complete change of clothes after the first lap of the lake. Again, not much debate in these horrendous conditions.
I ate my breakfast and found myself all ready to go about 20 minutes before my friends Karl and Andy were due to arrive, so I lay back down on the couch next to the window and waited for them. Despite the nervous energy, I knew I had a long day in store, so I settled down, staying off my feet for a little bit while I to waited. Right at 6:00AM, Karl’s black car pulled up in front of my house and we greeted each other in the rainy darkness. After piling into my Subaru with our three sets of gear, we were off, quite literally, to the races.
On the way out to the lake, we watched as the rain poured down through the darkness.
The Hagg Lake Trail Run is also referred to as the Hagg Lake Mud Run (www.haggmud.com ). The 31 mile trek around the lake is about 80% on a single-track trail that is mostly used for mountain biking. The trail is a big circle with lots of ins and outs where streams bring water gently down into the lake basin. Each time the trail approaches one of these streams, it climbs up toward the road, crosses a bridge and then descends back down toward the lake. The hills are not very large, but there is a cadence to the course provided by these sections, broken up by the climbs and descents. Much of the trail runs through forest, but large sections of it come out of the trees into grassy marshes and even some open fields. The whole trail is muddy much of the time in the Winter, but it is especially muddy in the marshes and open areas. One area is so bad that the organizers have comically dubbed it the “Abandon All Hope Mud Zone”. The name is not an understatement.
The trail would be muddy just about any time during the Winter, except perhaps when it is cold enough that it might be frozen. But it had been raining for several days before the race and it was forecast to continue raining heavily all day. That would mean that we were in for some very, very muddy conditions. We talked about this on the way out, but I don’t think any of us really knew just how muddy it was going to get.
We pulled in to the parking area and we’re glad to spy a whole bunch of new PortaPotties brought in for the event. That was good news. Who knew with these trail runners, we had thought they might just make us go in the woods. The start area was set up much like any smaller road-race. There was a check-in area, places to drop your stuff, and people milling about getting ready for the race. After we had checked in, we watched the “Early Start” for the 50K, which gave slower runners an extra-hour to finish the event. Then we had an hour to kill until the start of our own event.
After making several more trips to the PortaPotties, the starting hour was quickly approaching. I put on my waist-pack, filled with Gluekos drink mix, sandwiches, chips and gels, and even an extra-pair of socks. I zipped up my yellow GoreTex jacket and fired up my Garmin Forerunner. I listened to the quick pre-race instructions and watched as five men were heralded as contestants in the “Men in Skirts” division to the cheers of the fellow runners. And just like that, we moved a few feet forward to the line for the start.
“Ready. Set. Go,” said the started with no bull-horn or microphone. There was no need, since we were all within 50 feet of her. There were a few cheers, but mostly just a surge of motion forward as the 100 or so runners took off across the parking lot back toward the road.
The race started out a little like most other road races. The race starts out with a 3 mile out and back on a hilly forest road. It is paved for a short distance and then turns to hard-packed dirt and gravel. The road starts out with a 1 ½ mile long hill that is by far the steepest and longest climb on the whole course. This is a particularly brutal way to start a race of this distance. You’re not warmed up; you’re running on trail shoes (which feel terrible on the road); and you’re challenged with a big hill right from the get go. But the people were poised and didn’t overdo it. The pace was quick, perhaps too quick for a 50K, but was restrained. These folks clearly had done some running before.
I remember wondering aloud to my friends about who these people were. There probably wouldn’t be a lot of beginner runners out here, even if some were beginner ultra-runners. I wondered what type of people ended up in this little niche of the sport. These are clearly people that have a capability to run a long way, but how fast were they? How serious? How experienced? This I didn’t know. I was about to find out.
As we started to climb the first hill I spotted a woman in a bright orange jacket that I recognized from the parking lot. I had over-heard her talking about running in the California International Marathon that previous December. I had also run the race, so the conversation caught my interest. She was telling someone that she had “qualified” for something there, but I hadn’t heard for what. I assumed that she meant that she qualified for the Boston marathon. I ran over next to hear and asked her about California International. She said that it was a great race and we briefly shared some comments about it. Then I asked about her “qualifying” comment in the parking lot and she excitedly told me that she had qualified for the Olympic Trials there. ‘Oh my!’ I thought to myself. Perhaps I should be letting this person run on ahead of me?
We made it to the top of the hill and turned back around to head back down again. Another woman runner was next to me and I overheard her was talking to someone about her experiences in a 50 miler last Summer and the person answering back that this was his “last long training run” for 56K race coming up in Cape Town, South Africa. Double ‘oh my’. Perhaps they should be somewhere ahead of me too?
I was ten minutes in to this journey and I was quickly discovering that I was surrounded by some seriously talented, awesome runners.
Just like that we were back at the parking lot, we made a right turn at the starting line and we were on the trail. Three miles down. 28 miles of muddy trail to go.
[To be continued]
Find out what happened! Did Joe finish? Did he meet any of the men in skirts? Did he fall down in the mud? All those questions will be answered and more!
We’ve already covered the first three miles of the race and now we’re just hitting the trail. After running down hill for the past mile and a half, the pace was considerably quicker than it should have been. Once we hit the trail, things started to slow a bit, but not as much as I would have liked. My heart was beating hard as we hit the trail and formed into a single-file line. There were three or four people just behind me and a couple of people ahead of me.
The rain had been coming down steadily all night, so the trail was really wet and muddy. The first portion of the trail was actually paved for a bit and then transitioned to a nice single-track trail that was in pretty good condition. It was only about ¼ mile up the trail when I stepped deeply into the first puddle of the day, drenching my right foot. I had a sad feeling for a moment as the cold water soaked through my sock, but then I had the realization that both feet were going to be soaking wet in a matter of minutes.
In the first few miles, people were right on each other. It had the feeling of an auto race with lots of passing and back-and-forth changes in position going on. When we hit the first significant ascent on the trail, I decided it was time to implement my race strategy: walking the up-hills. This had always been my plan, but being only a few miles into the race I was feeling really fresh and didn’t really want to slow down to walk. But deep inside I knew that there were many miles ahead. I knew that a good race strategy starts right at the start of the race, not when you’re out of gas at mile 20 or 25.
I slowed to a walk. A number of runners cruised past me, but something else happened. A couple of other runners walked up the hill with me too. ‘Interesting’, I thought to myself. When we reached the top of the hill, the runners that had passed us were only a few yards ahead and seemed to be barely moving. They were panting and jogging slowly to recover from the big effort of the hill. I starting running again and passed a bunch of them. This process repeated itself for awhile and I felt OK with the fact that I was executing my race plan and I was feeling good. The short walk breaks were helping me control the pace overall and I actually was feeling better about the pace at mile 6 or 7 than I was at mile 4. This was a manageable pace that I could sustain for a long time.
I came up behind a runner wearing something bright pink. It looked like it might be a skirt. . . with matching pink paisley gaiters. I called out to him, “Is that a skirt?” and he answered back not only that it was a skirt, but that by wearing it he was a “dirty girl.” I loved it. We started talking and it turned out that he was the race director for another ultra-marathon. We had a nice chat about his race, ultra-runners and all sorts of things. Actually, I just asked him questions and he answered them and he was a great sport to answer so many of them. We would end up running together on and off for the next 10 miles or so, until the end of the first lap around the lake.
I crossed over the dam, the one flat part of the race, and came to a small hill. Imagine about a 10 foot embankment covered in moss going up from the edge of the road into the woods. There was a big white arrow pointing up the hill. I started up it and slid right back down. I tried again, but I couldn’t get any traction whatsoever in the mud that was underneath the moss. It took about three tries, but I finally got myself up to the top of the hill, quite a bit dirtier for the effort. I was now covered in mud from the waist down, soaked to the skin, and had mud all over my gloves from clawing up the hill. This just added to the excitement.
I came upon the first aid station and was surprised that they were so well stocked. All of my favorite racing foods were on a table under a small tent. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pretzels, Gu, bananas, and a new found friend: soda. Caffeinated and sugar laden, soda tasted good going down and gave a nice boost. It did result in some major burping a few minutes later, but it was worth it. The volunteers were just amazing, filling my bottles and cheering me on as I shoved Fritos in my mouth.
The middle third of the first lap around the lake was fairly uneventful. I drank a lot and kept on running. It was the last third where things got really interesting, because that’s where the really serious mud was to be found. There were a number of places where the trail led us along the side of fallow fields that were unbelievably muddy. Just imagine trying to go down (or up) a hill covered with slippery, wet, potter’s clay. It was so slippery in places that you could slide down the hill like you were skiing. And the mud would cake itself onto your shoes, gunking up the lugs on the bottom, so that you had even less traction. Running through this was not only treacherous, but extremely tiring. My pace would drop to 15 or 18 minutes per mile as I slipped down these sections, with my 15 pound mud covered shoes on my feet.
Then the trail came into an area that was more like marsh-land. Reedy grasses stood up next to the trail, which was just a brown band of deep mud and puddles of brown water. There was a section so bad that the organizers had put up a sign that simply said, “Abandon All Hope”. They weren’t kidding. There were points when my foot would sink down into the mud half-way up to my knee. I would pull my foot out to a great sucking sound and hope that my shoe was still attached.
Then there was a whole section of trail that had literally just become a stream. Water was running down it toward the lake and there was nothing to do but run through the water. Splash, splash, splash. I found that trail races sound really different than road races. The gentle plodding of running shoes on pavement is replaced by the squishing, sucking and splashing of travel through unthinkable mud and water.
And all of this is tiring, by the way. As you navigate the potter’s clay, the deep mud, the streams, you are bouncing back and forth trying to find the most stable surface. I found that at times you would start to slide forward and to avoid falling on your face, you had to do this move where you basically flexed the quad in your forward leg and then pulled your shoulders back to get yourself upright. I call this the “One Legged Shoulder Retraction”. This move works pretty well. I also found that if you were sliding side-ways you could attempt a similar “One Legged Shoulder Retraction with a Half Twist” but that didn’t work so well and you basically were going to be on the way toward the ground.
Just before the end of the first lap there was sign that said “1 mile to go, PUSH it.” I only mention this sign, because it lodged itself in my memory and I would be looking for it at the end of the second lap. I didn’t really “push it” as the sign suggested, but I did have a sort of happy feeling as I came up toward the end of the first lap and realized that I was over half-way finished with the race.
One of my friends said to me later that he had really struggled with the decision whether to continue on or not. He had been thinking about how tough the first lap was and whether he could go around again. I have to say that it never crossed my mind not to continue on. I was just so happy to be half-way through that I was sort of looking forward to getting started on the second half of the race. I knew that once I started the second half, every step would take me one step closer to the finish line and this would be all that I needed to carry me forward in that second part of the day.
When I reached the 25K mark, I went into the changing area and did a complete change of my equipment. I changed everything except my running tights: new shoes, socks, tops, hat, gloves. I dropped my fanny pack and replaced it with a single-bottle carrier, because the aid stations were so well stocked. After ten minutes, I headed back out into the rain for the second lap, feeling much drier and much refreshed. I vividly remember the feeling of my dry feet in fresh shoes. The second pair of shoes was more of a “speed hiking” shoe than a running shoe and it felt good at the slower pace that I was running. I knew that my feet were going to be wet again soon, but for those few minutes until I hit the first deep mud, I felt wonderful.
This second time onto the trail, I noticed two things. First, the trail was in much worse condition. 300 people had already covered this ground today and it was continuing to rain. The mud was deeper, the puddles broader, and the trailer was even slipperier than before.
Second, the rain was also falling much harder now. I kept thinking to myself, in a very challenging way, “is that all you’ve got” and it would rain harder. About the time that I hit the dam for the second time, I had given up. I looked up at the sky as I crossed the lake in a gale and downpour and said aloud, “OK, you win. You can make it rain.” My newfound attitude calmed me. And the rain started to slow for the first time as well.
As I started into the second third of the lake again, I noticed that I was still walking the up-hills, but now more of the flats were starting to get walked as well. I was running the downhills, cruising for awhile on the flats and then walking a bit. I was definitely running more than walking, but it was getting harder to run anything that wasn’t downhill. When I made it into the mud zones, things just got silly. I was literally bouncing from foot to foot trying to stay upright, with my quads quivering with every step. This was like taking the longest run of your life. . . on a beach in deep sand.
I was mostly running alone, except for an occasional person here and there. Someone would pass me and then I would pass someone. I knew that the 50K early start runners had started an hour ahead of me, so I was passing a lot of them. When I came into the last aid station, I was shaking but I got myself to a good run as soon as the aid station came into view and the volunteers remarked that I looked really good. I thanked them for saying so, even though I knew that I was putting on an act for their benefit. I felt terrible and I wanted to lay down on the side of the trail and go to sleep. Yet I headed out of that last aid station thinking that I had only 4.3 mile to go. It was an inch, yet it was a dozen miles.
The last part of the trail was particularly muddy. The rain had stopped and the sun was even peaking out. The day was toying with me. I unzipped my yellow Goretex jacket to let some air in, as I alternately walked and jogged through the slippery mud. I was still running the down-hills, but I had taken to speed walking the flat parts of the trail. My friend Coach Sue Ritchey had taught me to use my arms when I walked and I found that on the flat trail I could keep up 12:00 minute miles walking. That wasn’t much slower than I was running, so I went with it for awhile.
With about two miles to go I remember seeing that 5 hours and 20 minutes had elapsed since the start. That meant that I had 40 minutes to cover the last two miles. For some reason this spurred me into action. Somewhere in my mind I wanted to break six hours. I kept thinking to myself that I needed to maintain a 20 minute pace to get in before that arbitrary six hour mark. I was still running much faster than this, but that was the only math that my brain could handle, so it made me go faster.
I was looking and looking for the “1 mile to go” sign and it just didn’t seem to appear. I was thinking, ‘come on!’ where are you. Finally the sign came and then I had the simultaneous elation of “ONE mile to go” and the incredible disappointment of “one MILE to go” all at the same time.
About ½ mile before the finish there is a parking lot that you have to run across. As I crossed it, I kept looking behind me. There were runners back there and I didn’t want them to catch me. My coach Dean Hebert’s motto was “nobody, but nobody, beats us in the last mile.” I was not going to be beat in the last mile. Onto the last stretch of trail and I started to pick up the pace. There was a runner ahead of me. I picked it up some more, but the trail got extremely muddy. With 50 yards to go, I passed her and then, just as I got ahead of her, tripped on a mud covered root and feel flat forward onto all fours. I picked myself up and took off running that last glorious 50 yards. As I came out of the woods, I saw the finish line. There it was. No applause or cheering. No ChampionChip timing mat. Just a simple clock and finish line to greet me.
When I crossed the line, I was tired, elated, devastated, happy, destroyed, overjoyed and humbled at the same time.
I’m shocked at how much of the 50,000M that I actually ran. I would guess that I ran at least 85% of it. That’s a lot. Especially in the mud. It was an amazing feat, but not amazing at all. The body does what we will it to do. Keep on willing your body and you can do something like this too. For me, I’ll be back. The lure of going farther is calling me.
I hope that we learn things from everything we do. My first Ultra was an astonishing experience in many ways. For one thing, I’m sure there will be other ultras around the corner for me. Just doing something for the first time does not necessarily mean that you’ll do it again. But there are things that you do, things that give you a certain feeling, that you just know that you’ll want to do them again. This was one of those experiences for me.
In that spirit, I present to you my top ten things that I learned while running in the mud at Hagg Lake in a rain-storm.
1) The expression “that was deep man” has another meaning: it can also refer to stepping in mud up to your calf.
2) Just when you think you can’t get any wetter, I promise you that you can.
3) I can actually eat two hot dogs, a bowl of chicken soup and a hamburger within an hour without getting sick.
4) Although they say that black is a slimming color, white is slimming color too, but only after you’ve run an Ultra marathon.
5) If you think that the weather is really, really bad, it can always get worse.
6) Dry shoes feel great in the middle a soaking wet run, even if they are only going to be dry for 5 minutes.
7) Falling in the mud is sort of fun when you’re 50 yards from the finish of a race (and no one sees you because you’re in the trees).
If you never consider quitting an option, it won’t even cross your mind.
9) Running downhill is still easier than running uphill after 30 miles or so.
10) Sore lasts for a few days, but no one can take away your memories of a grand adventure.