Rite of SpringTraditions run deep at Maryland’s HAT 50K
Photo by Geoffrey Baker
This article appeared in our August 2008 issue.
To mid-Atlantic ultrarunners, March Madness isn’t about beer, chips and college hoops. We gladly forego the comfort of sofas and barstools and head for northeastern Maryland, to a park that’s spitting distance from where the Susquehanna River dumps into Chesapeake Bay. We conduct personal rituals, lubricate body parts and layer according to the latest forecast. We hit the trail en masse to give our legs and lungs the first real test of the year: the HAT 50K.
The race’s 20th anniversary last March was my 15th time toeing the line. As I glance around in the brisk morning air, my mind fills with the usual abstractions and thoughts. If only I’d had one more long run. I see many repeat offenders, familiar faces I haven’t seen since the fall. Are you running with gloves? And there are more starters, more new faces than ever before. Yo, what’s the skinny on the course change? Far too many people look lean, fierce and overly fit.
Jeff Hinte (the “H” in HAT) gives the start signal and Phil Anderson (the “A”) heads out across the field on his mountain bike, leading participants onto a short out-and-back road section that acts as a prelude to the trails (the “T”). Within minutes, we pass the turn-of-the-century buildings that comprise the Steppingstone Museum, run through the Pavilion-turned-aid-station and disappear into the woods.
For Runners, By Runners
Hinte, of Aberdeen, Maryland, and Anderson, of nearby Bel Air, first ventured into ultrarunning in the fall of 1987 at Maryland’s famous JFK 50 Mile, and as they extended the length of their training runs in preparation for a second attempt, they thought about staging a race of their own. “We had a great 7.5-mile loop in the Susquehanna State Park,” recalls Hinte, “and figured four laps was 3.8 miles longer than a marathon. That’s an ultra by any standard, so we gave it a shot.” Of the 46 who started the inaugural HAT run, 17 finished. The race doubled in size the following year and was led by its first international entrant, a Russian ultrarunner named Nail Bairmgalin on his first visit to the United States. Six of the 48 finishers were female.
Today, the field reaches its 450-person limit well in advance, due largely to the co-director’s focus on making the experience about the runners. “We have strived to improve the quality of the event every year,” says Hinte, “and our incredible volunteers are the main reason we have been able to succeed.” Though the course has changed many times over the years (it currently consists of a short starting loop followed by two repeats of a long loop), the aid stations are well placed and liberally stocked with everything from soup to nuts.
And then there’s the schwag. “My philosophy is that if I wouldn’t use it, I won’t give it to runners,” says Hinte. There’s always a technical running shirt, goodie bag and bonus finisher’s reward. The awards have evolved over the years, with hydration packs or courier bags replacing medals and plaques. “If you finish the race, you get everything you paid and then some back in good, useful gear.” With a number of top-10 finishes at the Wasatch and Vermont 100s and a victory at the original Old Dominion 100-miler, Hinte has used his own HAT caps, coolers, jackets and vests with impressive results.
The Games Begin
Two miles into the race this year, the trash talk has already begun. “Do you know who that is?” asks an unfamiliar voice from behind me, pointing to a red-shirted runner who is already building a lead.
“Nope,” someone responds, toying with the dangling bait.
“That’s Redpath. He won last year. Had a pretty good time.”
“Do you know who we are?” asks 42-year-old Ian Schouten, of Lititz, Pennsylvania, nudging my arm and flashing a wink. Schouten, a fixture at the top of Pennsylvania’s trail-running scene for years and two-time HAT winner, is accompanied by 35-year-old Alex Barth of Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. Barth is another scary-good talent who has been winning everything in sight in recent years—including the Seneca Creek Trail Marathon, Nipmuck Marathon and Long Island Greenbelt Trail 50K—and his best still lies ahead.
The three of us are running side by side, reminiscing about a winter training weekend that saw us fastpacking through snow-filled woods from dawn until dusk. “Redpath might be good,” adds Schouten, “but he’ll be looking like that coyote we saw out there hiking by the end of the race. Dead meat is all I can say.” We burst into laughter at the words of bravado, but I for one, have nothing to say. The HAT course punished Barth last year, and, despite his victories, it has taken its toll on Schouten as often as not.