If you have to put the word “tough” as in “tough mudder” in the name of your race, your race by definition is not tough. If you’re looking for tough, go with something that has a name that is the name of the location plus the distance; preferrably a distance in the double or triple digits.
Torrential rains were coming down on Saturday, the morning of the Hagg Lake 50K. I was planning to run the race with Tony, but he had bailed on me because he got sick a few days before. To be fair, he had never really agreed to go on the race in the first place. I had signed him up and bought him a ticket while he was out of the country. I’m pretty sure he was faking his illness. Thankfully, I got a substitute – Zach Buchanan, to make an appearance with one day’s notice.
I didn’t want to run the whole thing alone, but transferring the ticket was illegal, so I warned Zach beforehand that if anyone asked, he was Tony. I didn’t warn him that much beforehand, because Zach had overslept, so we got there about 5 minutes after the actual start. This wasn’t a huge deal in a race that takes 4-9 hours.
It was pouring so hard that I didn’t even want to get out of the car, and I had visions of driving back to Portland and spending a relaxing weekend in bed. But then I thought of the carb loading I had done the night before and decided to get out of the car.
I hurried to pin the number to my pants and Zach and I raced after the distant crowd. The first lap was up a nice, gravel hill. We sped up it, passing tons of people. On the way down, Zach told me that the furthest he had ever run was 8 miles. He also described his brutal training regime which consisted of a standing desk and an exercise ball that he bounced on while training (there may have been some basketball, climbing, a 22 mile bicycle commute every day, and various century rides mixed in there somewhere as well). My training regime had not been very running heavy either. It mostly consisted of doing Yoga X every other day and running 4-5 miles on the weekend.
After the brief up and dowhill came the race around the lake. This is where the mud comes in. The website mentions mud, but the race itself isn’t really billed as a mud run. The pictures from last year show smiling runners running on dry paths under sunny skies. The torrential rains this year changed all that. Zach was sliding around like a kid learning to skate.
One of our fellow runners noticed. “Nike Frees, huh? That might not have been the best choice today.” It turns out that this guy worked for a shoe store and was wearing some practical trail running shoes. “You’re going to have a tough time in those, son.” He left this parting advice as he sped past us at the aid station.
As we continued past the second aid station, I started to notice that Zach was talking less and less. I asked him what he recommended doing in Portland for the weekend. “Can we talk about this another time? I need to concentrate on not falling down.” I turned around and realized that he was covered in mud and not looking too good. “Did you run the whole way when you did 50 miler?” “No, I walked a lot.” “Ok, because maybe we should walk soon.”
Hint taken. It was getting harder and harder for me to lift my legs too. We were no longer in ankle deep mud – this was more like the mire that John Bunyan speaks of in Pilgrim’s Progress. “Why did you tell me these shoes would be ok?” Zach asked. I had told him the shoes would be ok mostly because I was in a hurry and half asleep. I thought of the greek myth of Atalanta and began to wonder if running was an externalization of my misandry. “Do I run because I hate men and I want to see them fail?” I wondered. “Or am I more like Hippomenes, sabotaging my opponents so that they can’t beat me?”
So far it was two for two. Brad had dropped out at mile 17 of the 50 miler after I fed him the 4Loko (to be fair, I had drunk half the can myself and then gotten lost and run a bit extra on that race).
Zach declared that he was dropping out just past the third aid station. He wanted to finish at least the 25K though, and he did.
The worst thing about the Hagg Lake 50K is that it’s two 25K laps. So the first lap is a little bit muddy, but the second lap has already been trampled twice so it is REALLY muddy. The rains kept pouring and the day was getting colder, not warmer. My shirt was soaked. My shoes were soaked but I no longer felt them. All I cared about now was passing as many people as possible to get the highest place possible. This wasn’t hard. By the second lap, many people were run-walking. As I passed each one, I smiled and said “Great job! keep it up!” In my head I was thinking “See ya later sucker!”
On ultramarathons, I realize that you play a lot of mind games with yourself to keep running. Most of the ones I play are fairly evil and reveal a sadistic tendency. Often, other runners comment on my nice smile. “Still smiling at mile 21! Keep it up!” They yell. But I’m not necessarily smiling because I’m happy. Instead it’s because I want to win, and I feel less pain when I’m smiling. I also like to let out a little happy sigh, as if I’m having the best time of my life. This is to discourage the runners around me. I imagine them thinking “if there are other runners that are still enjoying this, I am f#$cked.” Whenever I pass another runner, I try to put as much distance between them and me as possible. This is because there is nothing worse than being passed by someone who you just passed.
My mantra for the Hagg Lake run was “I’ve had periods that hurt worse than this.” Everytime I passed a male runner I thought this and laughed maniacally in my head.
The last 4 miles were the worst. I passed the aid station at 26.8 and thought “I’ve already run over a marathon. What’s left is nothing.” But it wasn’t nothing. As I passed a runner at mile 26.81, I smiled at him and said “Nice work! Almost there!” I heard him grunt behind me. I found myself paying attention to the scenery during this last bit. I remembered landmarks from the first lap, but now it seemed as if everything had been stretched, so what took 5 minutes on the first lap now took 20 minutes. At mile 29.5 I passed one last runner. I could hear him behind me, jogging, then walking. By now there was a lot of walking going on. Whenever I walked up a hill, I worried that he would pass me, but he never did. When I slowed, he slowed.
Just before the finish was the parking lot where Zach and my friend Deborah were waiting in the car. They rolled down the window as I hobbled up to them. “Cheer for me!” I begged them “I need it!” They did cheer and Zach honked the horn. I staggered past them and through the last bit of mud to the finish line. There it was. The other runner was still behind me. We ran through the finish line, high fived and hugged. Now the race was over and we were friends. We jogged straight down the hill from the finish line into the lake. Ahhh! Ice bath. We stood up to our waists in the freezing lake with four other runners, smiling and laughing at the surrealness of it all.
The other runners had run the 50K before and they both agreed that this had been the toughest race ever because of the absurdly muddy conditions.
When I exited the lake I was given a medal and a foil blanket. The fast shoe store guy who had passed us earlier saw me in the tent and congratulated me. I had somehow managed to pass him and he had finished just after me. I ate some soup and stood by the space heaters but I couldn’t stop shivering. I hadn’t thought to bring towels or warm clothes and I dreaded the quarter mile walk back to the car. Next year though, I will be prepared. Zach had better be also.