Sunday, February 24, 2008

Hagg Lake 50K: The Report
Last fall I ran a 50-mile race, and that’s an ultra. But yesterday’s 50K at Hagg Lake, though shorter by 19 miles, felt more like the real thing. The difference: We ran on narrow dirt trails, not asphalt, and trails are the soul of ultra running.

Henry Hagg Lake is in Washington County, maybe 25 miles as the crows flies southwest of downtown Portland. The lake was formed by the damming of Scoggins Creek, a Bureau of Reclamation project completed in 1978. Traditionally, the Hagg Lake Ultra, which circumnavigates the lake twice, is a mudfest – last year the muck was legendary, as it rained leading up to and on the event. This year, we couldn’t have asked for better conditions. It was dry all week, pretty much, and while race day dawned around freezing, with patchy fog, by 9 a.m. skies were blue, sunshine was bright and temperatures were heading to 50 and beyond.

Originally, I had signed up for the concurrent 25K, thinking 50K would be too much with Boston less than two months away. But hanging around ultra people has changed (warped?) my perspective on how far and often I can run. Yeah, it took me six weeks to recover from the Autumn Leaves 50-miler, but I wasn’t prepared for that run. With a lot more miles under my belt now, I began to believe that going 31 not only wouldn’t hurt me, but would help build muscle endurance.

So there I was at the line at 8 a.m. I guess there were about 150 of us, including four or five guys in skirts, a tradition for the race. By the way, it seems that skirts are becoming the norm for ultra women, a trend to which I’ll raise no objections.

Looking back now, what strikes me most about the race is how quickly it seemed to go by. When I first started running long races – marathons – the greatest challenge was psychological. I would constantly be assessing and coming to terms with the distance that remained. That thinking never entered my mind at Hagg Lake. I just ran, and enjoyed the running, the entire time. I have three theories on why, and I’ll work my way up from least important to most important:

1. As with my thinking on training and racing volume, Autumn Leaves recalibrated my view as to what is a long race. Having run for nearly 10 hours, a race not much more than half that time doesn’t seem nearly so daunting.

2. I ran with music (see previous post), which was a revelation. My playlist wasn’t perfect – I threw it together the night before while fretting that I should already have been in bed sleeping – but it was more than good enough and I loved being able to leave the running and sink into the music.

3. It was a trail run. Though veterans agreed it was the driest Hagg ever, there were still some stretches with slick inclines and mud puddles to negotiate – and always there were twists and turns, short inclines and declines, ruts, rocks, tree limbs and branches to occupy the mind. There was no space for consideration of how far I’d gone and how much I had to do. My focus to an overwhelming degree was on the several yards in front of me. Should I step there or there; should I walk this pitch or jog it; woops, watch that switchback on the downhill!

I ran a pretty steady race. I went out thinking I’d try to hit a pace between 10 and 11 minutes per mile and maintain it throughout, if I could. But early on that pace settled right at 10, and there I stayed for the first two-thirds of the race. Over the final 10 miles, fatigue began to hold me back – not on climbs or flats, but on descents. My muscles and joints were tired and I lost my confidence that I could plunge down hill without risking a bad fall. So the pace slipped a bit, but not too much. My official time was 5:13:33, a 10:07 pace for the 31 miles. That put me 48th out of 123 finishers, 43rd out of 95 men.

All in, it was a great day. Running in shorts and just two layers of light technical shirts in February can’t be beat. The terrain was beautiful: we went through forests and meadows and almost always had the lake, surrounded by hills, in view. Fellow runners were totally cool; they stopped to let me by and gently alerted me that they were coming up, and they chatted amiably and delivered encouragement, but never in a cloying way. The aid stations were well-stocked with sweet things, salty things and various forms of liquid refreshment. The vibe was all good. As always, profound and heartfelt thanks to the volunteers and organizers!

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