Summary: The HUFF was tough in 2016. 7" of light, powdery snow made footing tough for the entire 31+ miles. It was a slow, long day in the Indiana woods. And it was remarkably joyful.
As I've written before, the HUFF 50K Trail Race holds a special, unique place in my running. I first participated on December 16, 2004, running a single 10 mile loop just seven months after the start of this era of running. Until that day, I had never run trails at all. I'd never run farther than 8 miles before that day. So, it's funny to read now my race report of that day. Dan Quayle, where are you now??
I've written about all five prior HUFFs since the organizers had to move the race to its current location at Chain O' Lakes State Park. Weather conditions in late December in Indiana give each year its own character .
2011: The Deep Water Year. ( 7:33:44) The most philosophical I've ever been on my blog. The lessons of that wet, cold, muddy day still hold, remarkably. link The 2011 race and the "aura" surrounding it has grown over the years. When I meet anyone who also ran that day there is an instant bond.
2012: A very runnable race day: (6:26:45) link
2013: Another nice HUFF race with more snow pack, but I ran in shorts anyway: (6:32:01) link
2014: A good day and a 50K PR at the time (6:19:28) link
2015: The most runnable of the series, leading to my current PR of 5:59:51 link
Which then brings us to the 2016 race.
Experience showed it key to watch the weather in the week leading into HUFF. The temperatures looked favorable, with mild, mid-30s in the offing. There was no rain in the week before, giving us hope we would not be flooded again.
Local running pal Jon and I decided to drive up the morning of the race, which meant being out of my door just past 4:00am. As I backed the car out of the garage onto what appeared to be a wet driveway I got my first surprise of the day. Hmmmmm, not just wet...it was a glaze of ice. I locked the brakes and my car still slid slowly and safely down to the empty street. I crept out of our neighborhood, finding the busier streets more clear. Jon had to walk on the grass next to his driveway to get safely to my car. The 2 hour drive to the race site went well, though we saw a lot of cars in the ditch. We arrived a bit later than planned, yet still scored a good parking spot. We walked down to packet pick up, which was smooth, went back to the car to get set with layers, then back to the start/finish line. Kudos to Race Director Mitch and his merry band of soup-loving volunteers, though...they started the race on time. So much so that Jon and I were just done leaving our drop bags when the gun went off. We saw the pack leaving, chuckled, noted our thankfulness for chip timing, worked out where we would meet post race and began the race.
At the back of the pack, we immediately grasped what the day would hold. In the micro-climate around Chain O Lakes State Park, we've often seen weather different from the areas near it. For this race, this meant 7" of powdery, dry snow. We didn't see such snow driving to the race site from the south. But it was very evident, as you can see in these photos.
The trails are wide on this course but the snow effectively turned them into single tracks. An ATV had driven over the snow ahead of us in an attempt to pack it somewhat. However, the temperatures didn't let the snow pack; instead there were a pair of "depressions" where the the ATV tires had been. Jon and I chuckled afterwards at the day-long toggling, trying to find which rut was more runnable. It was funny, because we never found a better track...both were tough.
The snow was so soft and powdery, running was difficult. At every foot plant, my foot would schooch or turn or slide; there was never a firm launch to the next step. It most closely resembled running on soft sand at a beach. Only without the nice warm sea breeze.
Between miles 2 and 4 (the first aid station), I reset expectations for the day. Self, I told myself, this is gonna be a long slow day in the woods. Drop any expectations other than finishing, keep moving and enjoy any treats which may come your way.
And so it went.
The HUFF this year simply became a steady slow run. As this is my sixth year on this two-loop course, I've been around the loop now twelve times. Familiarity does help, as I always knew were I was, the distance to the two aid stations or start/finish line and what was ahead. The day was quietly beautiful. With no wind, the woods were silent save the crunch of footfalls. The hills and trees were beautiful with the new snow; the views of the eponymous chains of lakes in the park were terrific. I had the right number of layers on to stay comfortable...I just kept going.
One of the day's treats was to see so many folks I know. After you've been running a while, you start to see other similarly crazy people who run long distances too. Above are two recent friends, Bethany and Michelle from eastern Indiana who both finished their first ultra at HUFF. Longtime buddies Walter (Go, Cubs, Go) Evans and Jen Savage ran too. Our local club president Kate also persevered to finish. Others were friendly and chatty, as is often the case in trail races. The few folks who had also run in the Deep Water 2011 race became instant buddies. A tough part of the day was that the deep snow and bad footing exacerbated a recurring injury for Jon and caused him to have to drop out early. We've done so many races together, though, we've figured out how to alter plans. He had an extra set of keys to my car, so was able to keep warm, find a book and wait for me.
I finished the first loop in 3:27:25, which made me laugh. Nearly a half hour slower than last year's very open course, it confirmed this day would be long. I reloaded my water bottles, stuffed a couple of chocolate chip cookies in my pocket, wolfed down some PB&J and headed back out.
The second lap at the HUFF is always quite different than the first, in that the field thins and you are really by yourself. For an introvert like me, this was perfect. As I told Jon on the drive up, I was looking forward to this time alone. It had been an exceedingly difficult prior week at work, as we had lost a valued colleague to a sudden, unexpected stroke. It was sad, hard and tiring. A long run allows one to work through much; it's one of the things I like so much about running.
The aid stations at HUFF are wonderful. I got back to the first station and loaded up on more cookies and some salty chips. By the time I got to the second station at mile 23, however, the difficult footing was taking a toll. Ah, I said, remembering the 2014 race...two years ago I got a magical half-hamburger at this exact point in the race. Would they have burgers again?? YES!! I asked and the volunteer put it together for me in a flash. A heavy coat of ketchup sent me on my way, happy. I ate it over the next mile and it gave me a nice bump.
The final 8 miles were more of the same...up, down, tough footing. My right leg, particularly, was hurting from ankle to hip, discomfort the burger couldn't cure. Downhills were particularly tough. Yet, each mile marker brought a smile to my face. I was enjoying the run, despite the difficulty. As I got into the final miles, my pace quickened. The final lap, 23 minutes slower than the first lap, was over, with an official time of 7:23:12.
It was terrific to finish, yet not just because a tough run was over. More on that below. I got my finishers belt buckle and headed to the finish tent to find Jon. He filled me in on his day; that was tough news to get. Yet, he was very congratulatory to me for finishing, having first-hand experience on trail conditions. He had moved my car near the finish line; I got into some dry clothes, grabbed some salty snacks and we headed home. While roads were still slick, we made it home safely after a long day. I slept very well that night!
|With Jon at the finish area...note the piles of snow!|
I reflected over the next couple of days on my feeling of elation at the end of the race. It was more than a sense of relief; it was a genuine positive feeling. My Garmin's data showed the final two miles were the fastest (least slow??) individual miles of the whole day. Yet, this race was hard, very hard; it rivaled only the 2011 High Water year in difficulty. When I finished that 2011 race, though, I wanted nothing more to do with the event. While I obviously got over that short-term emotion, it was totally different this year. I was set to do it again. But why?
I think it came down to joy vs happiness.
Philosophers, linguists, theologians, all a lot smarter than me, have debated if or what the difference is between these two words. I'll not get into that debate, as most agree happiness is a somewhat more short-term condition than joy. Happiness depends more on circumstances, where joy is a longer-term settledness of spirit. Perhaps that's why the Christmas carol is not titled "Happiness To The World"?
The difficulty of the day did not bring happiness. It was hard, slow running. Yet, as I've matured in understanding myself and my running, I've grown to understand the simple joy of being outdoors, moving, grateful for health and fitness. The finish time doesn't matter; the age-group placing doesn't matter; moving and friendships matter.
That brought joy.
And that's enough.
Persevere. And find your joy.