Another Huntsville State Park race in the books. I've run Hog's Hunt 50K for three years now and I keep returning again and again. I love Huntsville State Park - the organization of the various races that are run there - the volunteers. It's also close enough where I can get to the race in a few hours drive but just far enough where I don't run the trails unless there's a race - so it's familiar - yet unfamiliar territory. I like the change of scenery.
This time I didn't have a crew go with me so I went solo. I stopped along the way for work - then met a friend at Gattiland Pizza in College Station (my fav) and made it to Huntsville around 8pm. In years past I've had way, wayyyy too much gear that I shuffle through. Since I rarely use any of it - and my huge bag sits at the start/finish untouched I thought I'd go lite this year and save myself from having to lug things around. So - my gear was a shirt, compression shorts and shorts to put over, some gels, a headlamp, shoes, toe socks, a couple of hats, sunglasses, IPOD, hydration belt (to hold IPOD and gels), insulated handheld, headphones, clothes to change into afterwards, sandals - wait - did I say I packed lite this time? ;-)
I was up at 445am and headed out towards Huntsville State Park shortly after 5am. The weather was spectacular - somewhere around 50 and no wind - a huge difference from the super windy conditions from Friday. I made the dark drive towards the lodge where the start/finish is - I was there before most but there was already a good crowd in the parking lot. Oh yes - runners with all of their gear - instant friends - though I don't know any of them I enjoy their company. I picked up my race packet - number 71 - a cool tech shirt - and a chip so race organizes wouldn't have to keep up with numbers and time - I was ready to go. I put up my folding chair around the start/finish- my "lite" bag so I could re-supply at the mid-way point - put on the headlamp and I was ready to go.
The 50K was two loops of 15.5 miles each. Mentally - I like two loops - I can my mind around two loops even if they are 15.5 miles each. Shortly after 6am we were off. Unlike previous years where we've run the paved first mile til it veers off on the trail - this year started on the trail. Typically I love running in the dark with my headlamp - but for some reason I was really having a hard time seeing. I felt uneasy - like I was going to trip - like my leadlamp wasn't bright enough. I think I need more practice - been a while since I've run at night - I wasn't as comfy as I needed to be. Nevertheless I kept up with the pack - I was about 1/3 of the way back - the effort was, well, effortless - and despite being a little uncomfy in the dark I whipped through the first part of the trail in relative ease. Starting around mile 2.5 the trail empties onto a jeep road that is straight with some rollers every now and then. The long, straight section allows you to scope out the rest of the runners and see where you are. This is also a section that is relatively root-free where you can stretch out the legs and really pick up the pace. There's a good 2 - 3 miles of jeep road before you head back onto some nice single track. The first loop was relatively uneventful and I breezed into the start/finish in 2:33.
Pulling out of the start/finish on the 2nd loop I felt incredibly strong. The first section I had run in the dark a couple of hours earlier - it was nice to catch a glimpse of the trail in daylight. Woops, don't take your eyes off of the trail too long with this many roots without having a faceplant right into the ground. First the first five miles of loop 2 I really thought I was flying - just hammering the trail - not feeling fatigued at all. Past the long stretch of jeep road around mile 5 or so I started feeling the first tiny hints of fatigue. It was starting to warm up a bit - definitely still comfortable but warming up - and it was around that time where I typically have to become more mentally engaged and battle through the 20 mile mark. My legs still felt good - running all of the ups which was a good sign - keeping hydrated and eating gels I had stuffed in my waistpack. One thing I noticed after the jeep road and onto the single track was that I saw no other runners. I wasn't getting passed - but I also wasn't catching up and passing anyone. This went on for miles - no other runners - just day hikers probably wondering what the heck was going on with the folks with race bibs.
In my mind I really felt like I had a chance to run a negative split - I didn't have a watch so I had to go strictly off of how I felt and my perceived pace. With a mile to go I thought I'd pick up the pace and really hammer it home - which I did to a 5:15 finish - NOT a negative split and a little slower on the 2nd loop than I expected considering how good I felt through most of the race. My time last year was 5:26 so I shaved off a little over 10 minutes from last year which was great. What was encouraging was not only the time - but the relative ease that I ran. The whole day was smooth - just like clockwork through the aid stations which might be more a testament to how awesome the volunteers were than my actual skill at getting in and out quickly.
My typical 50K runs over the last few years consisted of running the first 20+ miles - and then hanging on and suffering through the final 10 or so miles. The last six months or so I've finally started shifting away from fading the last 1/3 of the course to keeping a more steady pace from start to finish. Part of this is increased experience as an endurance runner - I'm just better at longer distances than I was a year or more ago. Another component is focusing more on nutrition and hydration. As a new ultramarathoner I spent most of my mental energy battling and trying to overcome tired legs and a body that wanted to stop. When I hit a low point, I would implode and suffer til the end. With increased experience I've started to use my mental energy to think about the race - to keep my body dialed in to being property fueled and hydrated. I'm also better at listening to my body - rather than fold when my body starts barking at me - I listen to the barks and start figuring out how to get my mojo back. As an ultramarathoner I think this is a huge transition - or at least it was for me - because in many ways I would lose the physical battle as a result of losing the mental battle. By running a smarter race between the ears I've not only improved my times significantly - but I've also had a ton more fun during my races because I can actually enjoy my time out on the trails. I've also been able to tackle a lot tougher courses that demand that you run a smart race or risk failure.
I never pass up an opportunity to run Huntsville when the schedule allows. Whether it's Rocky, Hog's Hunt, Texas Trails - all of the races are directed well and have awesome volunteers. Over the last few years I've run in the heat and humidity, the snow and the cold, and fortunately this year dry and cool. Though you never know what the weather conditions are going to be, you can always guarantee a great experience from start to finish.