By John Prohira
The Maryland dawn on Saturday March 29th brought with it the feel that spring was in the air and ready to burst forth and blossom. Almost. Almost described my mood that morning in Susquehanna State Park along the banks of the river near the head of the Chesapeake Bay. It was almost spring. It was almost raining. The sun almost came out a number of times. It was almost warm enough for a shorts and a singlet at the start of the Hinte-Anderson Trail Run or HAT 50K. The cloud cover looked at times like a blanket thrown about, almost completely covering the sky; but bits of blue peeked through. Hints of a sunnier day could be seen on the horizons. The buds on the trees and shrubs looked ready to open needing only the gentle coaxing a warmer day or two would provide. Precisely plowed and tilled fields and gardens of the area stood ready for planting. Over 300 trail runners not so neatly grouped and positioned also stood ready for their day Ė for a run in woods and across fields, almost slipping and falling while attempting to run the muddy uphill trails, almost ending up on their backsides on some of the steeper down hills. Almost described the feel of the day but not what I saw in the eyes of my fellow runner. There I recognized the conviction and assurance of knowing that they could and would run 31 miles that morning and afternoon and bring home stories to tell.
This was my 6th HAT run in as many years. A couple of my more resilient trail companions were running this race for the twelfth time. The 50K course is an interesting mix of road, dirt trail and meadow with small water crossings offered along the way should the runner need to wash his shoes or cool off his feet. The HAT is a class act with clearly marked trails and ample aid where needed. The many familiar faces I saw that morning made me smile. I enjoy surrounding myself with like-minded souls. It was great visiting with these people, some I see only at running events. There were others not in attendance and whose company I sorely missed, I carried memories of the many times they had been near and was comforted by those thoughts.
Again this year the race directors Jeff Hinte and Phil Anderson effectively spread out the field by having us run the first mile or so on road away from and then back onto the Steppingstone Museum grounds inside the park. We ran uphill and under the wooden picnic shelter serving as race headquarters and then out across a meadow and through an opening in a stonewall. From there it was into the woods and onto dirt trail, or mud; the result of a late winter snowfall that was slow to melt. Overall, it was a humid day but the combination of intermittent rain and refreshing breezes on the higher points of the course made for a comfortable day in terms of temperature.
The HAT course is a double loop of 15 miles each. Those plus the mile at the start make up the 50K distance. The first aid station came 6 miles into the first loop at the bottom of a muddy and rock-strewn downhill section of the course. We returned there at 11 miles after a mix of trail and road. Out from the aid station full of smiling and helpful volunteers it was 5 miles of up, up and down trail with the Susquehanna River as a backdrop on wooded climbs and over meadow as we returned to the shelter for a refueling opportunity before repeating the loop.
I hadnít planned on running the HAT this year but my schedule opened up and I made a short trip of it, leaving Friday evening after work and returning Saturday night after the race. A good decision had been made and I was so glad that I returned again to this park near the towns of Aberdeen and Havre de Grace. The drive to and from was more taxing than running 50 kilometer of trail. At raceís start 330 people lined up and 264 of them completed the distance complicated by slippery conditions. I fared well and almost ran even splits - coming past the 16-mile mark after two hours and 42 minutes and crossing the finishing line 2 hours and 47 minutes after that. Finishing times for the day ranged from just under four hours to almost ten.
There are always moments during a long run like this that I wish the finish would just come, wishing that the race were over. On this particular day I was surprised that when this thought surfaced I easily replaced it with the decision to instead live in the moment. I had after all driven over 400 miles to run here Ė why would I wish the experience away? What ultrarunners do has been called asinine; for me wishing the experience over and away just because of a bit of physical distress more aptly defines that adjective. Perhaps this is one small sign of my maturing; if not as a man then maybe as ultrarunner. Learning to live in the moment can be difficult. As time goes on I am finding it easier to understand that life lessons may be offered while on the trail. I have begun to value and sometimes even remember this instruction.
Appreciating all that surrounded me in the woods south of the Mason-Dixon Line did not mean that I should dawdle; I had to honestly give my best effort and remain aware. The labored breathing as I worked the hills was a sign of good effort. There was satisfaction gained at the crest of a hill. Itís fun running fast downhill, almost like flying with feet on the ground. It was a very cool the balancing act that was performed while moving on foot from here to there and I reveled in my ability to remain vertical. And if I had any doubts about the significance in what I was doing all I had to do was look around me at my fellow runners doing their own trail dance and watch their effort and results. They were testifying, men and woman from twenty-something in age to those approaching their 7th decade of life, running because they could, because they liked it. I welcome being near people who can go out and play in the woods and in the mud and in the rain. I understand them and believe many understand me.
Almost was close enough on Saturday. It did not have to be perfect to be fun and meaningful.
"Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in."
---- Leonard Cohen, "Anthem,"