Rite of Spring - Page 2
Photo by Geoffrey Baker
To Run or Not to Run?
Described by Hinte as an event that is “both accessible to first-time ultrarunners and a challenging early season training run for veterans,” the HAT course seems deceptively runable early on. There are no huge climbs, no massive descents, no super-technical sections. With the exception of a two-mile stretch of bitumen/gravel road in the middle of the big loop, though, there’s always something going on. The winding singletrack is some of Maryland’s most popular for mountain bikers, and it serves up challenging roller-coaster-like running, with continuous one- to three-hundred-foot losses and gains.
Today, the singletrack offers solid footing as it twists and turns through the deciduous forest. Running by an ancient hemlock, Schouten contemplates what the valley must have looked like before the 17th century settlers started timbering, farming and pulling coal from the earth. “Imagine this whole area covered in trees of that size,” he marvels as we swing around the several-hundred-year-old sentinel and peer into its six-foot diameter trunk.
“Go ahead, Ian,” Barth jokes, “give us the natural history lesson. We’re all ears.” We round a corner and spook a trio of whitetail deer. They crash off through the woods and soon blend into the landscape. Though there are stretches of green and the odd stand of emergent flowers when we hit the open fields, the predominant color is brown.
On any given year, the open stretches of field could be mucky or frozen, sun-baked or buffeted by bone-chilling wind. The weather might be sub-freezing with snow squalls or provide a spike of unseasonable heat. When wet, the HAT course gets like slick clay, and the pair of creek crossings can be waist deep or worse. When dry like today, careful rock hopping keeps the feet dry, but the conditions encourage foolhardiness. Speedsters beware.
No single element of the course is especially daunting when viewed in isolation, but when combined, they can brew up a Perfect Storm and lead to disaster for even the most experienced racer. Schouten knows that well. HAT 2001 was our introductory meeting and laid the foundation for an intensely competitive, mutually supportive friendship that will last until we’re both long in the tooth.
Accustomed to the shorter, more technical races put on by Ron Horn of Pretzel City Sports fame in the rough trails near Reading, Pennsylvania, Schouten had become familiar with the HAT course while supervising a job site nearby. “I don’t know about you,” he said as we ran together in the opening miles, “but I’m thinking this pace is a little bit slow.”
“Pretty typical for me,” I said. “I’m more tortoise than hare. Don’t let me hold you back though.” At the five-mile mark, Schouten took off, dragging several others with him. Perfect, I thought to myself. It’s going according to plan.
Paying the Price
This year, as I hit the series of climbs where I eventually overtook Schouten in 2001 (he held on in two of our next three meetings), I am alone with my thoughts. I have just passed the Rock Run Grist Mill, erected in 1794 by a prosperous businessman from Baltimore, and am once again high above the Susquehanna, looking down toward Chesapeake Bay. Distant sailboats on the blue water look like bright kites offset by the sky. Schouten and Barth have broken away in pursuit of Redpath and another runner. I hear footsteps behind me, but dismiss them immediately. This is only the first lap and there’s still a long way to go. Thoughts shift to the depth of competitors that have taken on HAT over the years.
“We’ve had international runners, top ultrarunners, National Team members and great local runners,” says Hinte. “U.S. Cross Country Team member Terry Croyle won the sixth HAT. Leadville regular Christine Gibbons won the women’s division twice in a row in the late 1990s. Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifier Jacquie Merritt won in 2000, taking third place overall and becoming the only woman to break the four-hour mark.”
In 2001, Philadelphia meteorologist Cecily Tynan won the race with an inspiring performance. “It was very difficult for me,” said the 32-year-old who had graced the cover of Runner’s World magazine the previous month, “because I’m not used to the trails.” I learned that Tynan was a nationally ranked duathlete with several marathon wins under her belt and wondered aloud if this was the start of an ultra career. “I don’t think so. This was my first and my last.”
U.S. National Team member and sub-four-minute miler Andy Downin was even more strident. Upon finishing the 2006 HAT in third place, he uttered four simple words: “You people are nuts!”
Suffering Has Its Rewards
These are not the sentiments of most newcomers. Whether it’s the trail, the competition, the camaraderie or the people who put on the event, when you complete the HAT, chances are you’ll finish with a smile on your face. You’ll forget the pain as soon as you dig into the veggie chili and chase it with a homemade cookie or 12. You’ll be hooked—and welcomed into the fold.
“There’s just something special about this race compared to others I attend,” says Lou Shaffer, a perennial volunteer from Anderson’s hometown. Shaffer’s wife Bonnie finished her sixth HAT this year. “I always look forward to the event.”
Perhaps Lauren Zuidema, this year’s female winner, captured the HAT spirit the best: “The whole day embodied the laid-back, happy-go-lucky personality of most trail runners. With all the great aspects of a small race, I was surprised to find out that it’s one of the largest in the country. I had a fantastic time.”
“You bet,” said 63-year-old Anderson at the start of the race when I asked him if he was running this year. “Once an ultrarunner, always an ultrarunner.” Despite suffering a stroke 11 months earlier, he hopped off the lead bike and joined the rest of us in celebrating the Equinox out on the trail. Seven hours and 34 minutes later, he was back at the finish area, greeting those who were still coming in.
Barry Lewis is a Philadelphia-based writer with five HAT wins to his credit.