one bad hat.

I turned the key, opened the driver's side door and eased into the seat.

In my peripheral vision I could see other runners approaching the finishing chute of the 24th annual The HAT Run 50K in Havre de Grace, Maryland.  The torrential rain of earlier in the day had tapered to a fine drizzle but everything remained gray, gray, gray.  Instinctively, I grabbed the Nathan vest that I'd just plopped down in the passenger seat and stepped back out of the car.  As soon as my weight shifted onto my left foot, I felt the stabbing pain that had brought me there in the first place.

I collapsed back into the seat, pulled the door shut behind me, lowered my head to the steering wheel and sobbed.

The HAT consists of three laps, one short  3.6 starting loop, followed by two consecutive 13.7 mile loops.  At the end of each loop, you pass through the finishing area and directly beneath a pavilion just beyond the actual finishing line.  It's a neat feature and guarantees contact with friends and family should they choose to hang around and wait for your return trips.

Anyone at the pavilion at that moment had just completed the first of the two final loops and had another 13.7 miles to go before collecting a finisher's medal and the satisfaction of having completed one of the oldest, most esteemed 50K events.

I'd been in that very spot about 15 minutes earlier.  The preceding 7 miles had been, to be blunt, miserable.  As my four loyal readers are well aware, I struggle in the mud.  My flat feet hold up for a bit but end up failing to give me any lift and the more tired they get and/or the muddier the course becomes, my shoes begin slipping out from beneath me and "tired" begins to give way to pain.

Such was certainly the case today and though I moved along comfortably for the first 7-8 miles, by that point I could feel things starting to break down.  I vaguely remember mentioning something to Todd, in one of the moments that I caught him from behind as (and only because) he slowed to fuel, about recognizing that this was going to become a matter of "course management" which is my idiot code for picking my spots as my body (and perhaps my mind) begins to go.

The next mile to a mile-and-a-half was mostly downhill which is not my strong suit to begin with but especially on singletrack that has gone to mush.  I'd begun daydreaming of Ibuprofen as we hit a sustained stretch of paved road.


I prayed for dirt as that road seemed to go on forever.   It didn't.  We probably weren't on that surface for much more than a mile, but I got beat up.

By the time we were back on the trail, even after downing a couple of those dreams-answered pills, I was having trouble maintaining my footing even when power hiking and staying on my feet meant waves of pain in the instep of my left foot and across the top of my right foot that were making me run with my eyes closed on the road and on non-technical trail sections that I thought I could manage without breaking an ankle.

Cardio was never an issue and I actually enjoyed all of the climbs when the ground didn't give way beneath my feet.  There are a ton of ascents, supposedly 9,800 feet (if you finish the whole thing) of climb, but they aren't long, few of them are very steep and, compared to back home, they aren't technical.  Of course, feeling pretty fresh otherwise only made the arch troubles more irritating.

And, if you can't stay upright, you've got problems.

And I certainly had problems.

There were two more road sections before we hit the end of the loop, including one long (to me) downhill section that was just torture.  The long climb on muddy singletrack that waited at the bottom of that road was a welcome transition in my book.

Except it meant more mud.

When we reached the pavilion, I was pretty done in, but spent a good 5-10 minutes regrouping.  Fueling hadn't been an issue.  I'd eaten and downed fluids at every aid station and my stomach gave me no complaints.  I consumed more of both and thought about more Ibuprofen but knew I was pushing my luck, having taken some just a few miles back.

As much as I was hurting, I stuck there long enough to convince myself that I was going to grit my teeth and finish the race.  I gave my usual thanks to anyone within earshot for being there to help us runners out and started on my way.

About 30-40 yards out from the pavilion, there is a short jumble of rough-hewn rock steps.  This spot had served as a bottleneck earlier in the day and I was relieved to see that it was unclogged at the moment.  I stepped from the grass onto the first rock and got a shockwave of pain in my left arch that made me purposely drop onto my rear end.  I didn't stay there long but in climbing back up onto my feet and feeling that same sensation with the next step, I was pretty sure my day was over and I'd just rung up another DNF.

So, I sobbed. 

Like I haven't in a long, long time.

Like an I-can't-even-begin-to-imagine-when-I-last kinda long time.

I sobbed because I'd failed.  Again.  Because I was weak and wanted to be strong.  As strong as I thought I should be.  As strong as I know other people are and maybe, just maybe, think that I am.

I sobbed because I'd become an athlete who can't be counted on to finish what he's started.  A quitter.  There's already enough doubt to deal with in long-distance running.  I didn't need a growing list of drops to shake my confidence any further in low moments on long races.

And then I really sobbed because I was sobbing in the first place about a race.  About a run in the woods.  A voluntary, arguably meaningless bit of semi-reality in an otherwise all too real world.

I sobbed because I have a lovely, precious wife who possesses shoulders that can't help but hoist the whole world upon them even though they aren't built (as if any shoulders are) to carry such a weight.  I sobbed because she suffers inescapable physical pain on a daily basis, not because she choose an activity that unnecessarily subjects her to it, but because her eye is threatening to quit, to stop delivering visual signals to her brain and, as if that alone isn't bad enough, does bother to deliver ample amounts of pain and discomfort.

I sobbed because my children were going to have to watch me hobble around the house and refrain from our usual rough-housing because I choose to spend my free time beating the living shit out of myself.

What a selfish son-of-a-bitch (just an expression, Mother).

And somewhere right about then, as though I'd been deaf up until that moment, my ears picked up the actual sound of my sobbing (last time I use the word, I promise).  And somewhere right about then, I began laughing hysterically.

The sound issuing from my throat was absolutely, undeniably ridiculous.

The idea of someone passing by my car, seeing me crying and hearing THAT sound that was coming out of me was even more undeniably ridiculous.

And the sound of my laughter reminded me of the laughs I'd shared earlier in the  day with old, dear friends.  Dear friends who I would not even know without my little hobby.  I'd had warm, felt-like-old-times conversations with new folks too, strangers up until that very second, and each and every one of those conversations included laughter.

Finishers medal or not, I'd just experienced another day of, yes, failures, but also shared moments.  Trail runs, even those with several hundred participants, serve up quiet, open corridors of openness and sharing that continue to amaze me and, obviously, keep me coming back.

Frankly, the sound of my laughter was a bit ridiculous too and I suppose I wouldn't have looked any less crazy sitting in my car laughing than I would have crying.  But, laughing sure felt better, at least after the purge of crying.

My wife would be waiting at home.  In our way, a way that I expect all happy couples do, we would relieve each other of at least a bit of the weight of existence.  I knew, at least, that she would me.

Lily and Piper would be there too and, regardless of whether my feet were wrapped in ice (and they would be), they would be thrilled to see me and full of stories from the night at Memma and Pop-Pops and the bouncy-house birthday party that had filled their day.  My finishing or not finishing wasn't going to mean much to them one way or the other, so, on that front, I'd done no damage.

How much can one bad HAT hurt?  Bad enough to try again next year, I bet...

...IF it doesn't rain.


  1. HATS off to you brother- Stay strong! I wish you a speedy and full recovery!

  2. Sorry brother-man. Happens to the worst and best of us. Thanks for sharing the best of yourself.