Posted by: Joe English | March 5, 2007

Hagg Lake 50K Part I: What is that beat? A tango?

[Part one of a four part series on Coach Joe’s experiences at the Hagg Lake 50K Ultra-marathon]

It’s 11:30PM and I’m sitting in the bathroom thinking “great.” I already have diarrhea. This is going to be fun. I have to be up in about four and half hours and my body is not cooperating. Not only is my digestive system revolting against something that I have done to it – I’m guessing the deep-fried bananas from PF Chang’s – but my mind is running wild and agitating me as well.

I always imagined that pre-race anxiety would go away at some point, but I guess I was wrong about this. The more races I do, the more experience I have, nothing seems to quell that excitable feeling that I have in the days before a big race.

The debatable part here is the word “big” in this “big race”. My friends and I had only been training for the Hagg Lake Trail Ultra-marathon for about a month. It wasn’t the Olympic trials, or Boston, nor would anything be riding on it. But it felt like a big race. I’d never run this far off-road. I’d never run for this many hours. I’d never run a race in mud up above my ankles.

One of the pieces of advice that I give to my runners is to use their nervous energy to their benefit. Instead of wracking yourself with worry, I usually say, think about all of the things that you’ve done to prepare and just get yourself psyched to have a good performance.

Good advice. But just like a first-time road runner, I felt like there were so many variables out there that I couldn’t predict. This 50K foot-race would take two laps around Hagg Lake. The farthest that I’d ever run was one lap. How would I summon the energy, the desire, the drive to start a second lap? This was on my mind as I finally got in bed about 12:30AM and lay there rolling around thinking about the day to come. There was a beat drumming alternately in my head and stomach. I thought, ‘what is that beat? A tango?’ Yes, a tango indeed.

When the alarm broke the silence before 5:00AM, I was remember thinking to myself “I hate this sport,” but I don’t really hate the sport. I love it. I’m just grumpy when I get up super early in the morning. I was particularly grumpy for about five minutes and then I settled into my pre-race routine. I sat down on my couch and taped my ankles – just one small benefit of being your own coach is that you get to perform your own treatments on yourself. I was worried about the strength of my right ankle, especially with 6+ hours of trail running coming at it. The added stability of the tape felt good as I plodded across the living room to the large pile of gear that I had assembled.

Picking out my clothes that morning was not going to be a challenge. The weather forecast was calling for one to two inches of rain with temperatures in the 40s. A quick glance outside at the pouring rain confirmed that this was going to be a cold, wet day and that layering as much clothing on as possible was going to be a good idea. I had an extra set of everything that I would wear to put in my gear bag so that I could do a complete change of clothes after the first lap of the lake. Again, not much debate in these horrendous conditions.

I ate my breakfast and found myself all ready to go about 20 minutes before my friends Karl and Andy were due to arrive, so I lay back down on the couch next to the window and waited for them. Despite the nervous energy, I knew I had a long day in store, so I settled down, staying off my feet for a little bit while I to waited. Right at 6:00AM, Karl’s black car pulled up in front of my house and we greeted each other in the rainy darkness. After piling into my Subaru with our three sets of gear, we were off, quite literally, to the races.

On the way out to the lake, we watched as the rain poured down through the darkness.

The Hagg Lake Trail Run is also referred to as the Hagg Lake Mud Run ( ). The 31 mile trek around the lake is about 80% on a single-track trail that is mostly used for mountain biking. The trail is a big circle with lots of ins and outs where streams bring water gently down into the lake basin. Each time the trail approaches one of these streams, it climbs up toward the road, crosses a bridge and then descends back down toward the lake. The hills are not very large, but there is a cadence to the course provided by these sections, broken up by the climbs and descents. Much of the trail runs through forest, but large sections of it come out of the trees into grassy marshes and even some open fields. The whole trail is muddy much of the time in the Winter, but it is especially muddy in the marshes and open areas. One area is so bad that the organizers have comically dubbed it the “Abandon All Hope Mud Zone”. The name is not an understatement.

The trail would be muddy just about any time during the Winter, except perhaps when it is cold enough that it might be frozen. But it had been raining for several days before the race and it was forecast to continue raining heavily all day. That would mean that we were in for some very, very muddy conditions. We talked about this on the way out, but I don’t think any of us really knew just how muddy it was going to get.

We pulled in to the parking area and we’re glad to spy a whole bunch of new PortaPotties brought in for the event. That was good news. Who knew with these trail runners, we had thought they might just make us go in the woods. The start area was set up much like any smaller road-race. There was a check-in area, places to drop your stuff, and people milling about getting ready for the race. After we had checked in, we watched the “Early Start” for the 50K, which gave slower runners an extra-hour to finish the event. Then we had an hour to kill until the start of our own event.

After making several more trips to the PortaPotties, the starting hour was quickly approaching. I put on my waist-pack, filled with Gluekos drink mix, sandwiches, chips and gels, and even an extra-pair of socks. I zipped up my yellow GoreTex jacket and fired up my Garmin Forerunner. I listened to the quick pre-race instructions and watched as five men were heralded as contestants in the “Men in Skirts” division to the cheers of the fellow runners. And just like that, we moved a few feet forward to the line for the start.

“Ready. Set. Go,” said the started with no bull-horn or microphone. There was no need, since we were all within 50 feet of her. There were a few cheers, but mostly just a surge of motion forward as the 100 or so runners took off across the parking lot back toward the road.

The race started out a little like most other road races. The race starts out with a 3 mile out and back on a hilly forest road. It is paved for a short distance and then turns to hard-packed dirt and gravel. The road starts out with a 1 ½ mile long hill that is by far the steepest and longest climb on the whole course. This is a particularly brutal way to start a race of this distance. You’re not warmed up; you’re running on trail shoes (which feel terrible on the road); and you’re challenged with a big hill right from the get go. But the people were poised and didn’t overdo it. The pace was quick, perhaps too quick for a 50K, but was restrained. These folks clearly had done some running before.

I remember wondering aloud to my friends about who these people were. There probably wouldn’t be a lot of beginner runners out here, even if some were beginner ultra-runners. I wondered what type of people ended up in this little niche of the sport. These are clearly people that have a capability to run a long way, but how fast were they? How serious? How experienced? This I didn’t know. I was about to find out.

As we started to climb the first hill I spotted a woman in a bright orange jacket that I recognized from the parking lot. I had over-heard her talking about running in the California International Marathon that previous December. I had also run the race, so the conversation caught my interest. She was telling someone that she had “qualified” for something there, but I hadn’t heard for what. I assumed that she meant that she qualified for the Boston marathon. I ran over next to hear and asked her about California International. She said that it was a great race and we briefly shared some comments about it. Then I asked about her “qualifying” comment in the parking lot and she excitedly told me that she had qualified for the Olympic Trials there. ‘Oh my!’ I thought to myself. Perhaps I should be letting this person run on ahead of me?

We made it to the top of the hill and turned back around to head back down again. Another woman runner was next to me and I overheard her was talking to someone about her experiences in a 50 miler last Summer and the person answering back that this was his “last long training run” for 56K race coming up in Cape Town, South Africa. Double ‘oh my’. Perhaps they should be somewhere ahead of me too?

I was ten minutes in to this journey and I was quickly discovering that I was surrounded by some seriously talented, awesome runners.

Just like that we were back at the parking lot, we made a right turn at the starting line and we were on the trail. Three miles down. 28 miles of muddy trail to go.

Continue the story by clicking here.

Find out what happened! Did Joe finish? Did he meet any of the men in skirts? Did he fall down in the mud? All those questions will be answered and more!

This is the first in a four part series about the Hagg Lake 50K Trail Ultra-marathon:
Part I: pre-race impressions
Part II: the race unfolds
Part II: 10 things I learned in the Ultra-marathon
Part IV: a special head-to-head trail shoe comparison



  1. […] adventure at the Hagg Lake Ultra that turns out to have been the rainest day all Winter this year! Click here for Part 1 of that series.] Filed under: Marathon Running Motivation, Running […]

  2. […] We’ve had some nasty weather this year in races, including the torrential rain and wind that made Boston so memorable. While running in bad weather is less comfortable than we’d probably like, it can be manageable – and it make for great stories. If you’d like to read one of my very wet adventure stories, click here. […]

  3. […] and Reviews, Marathon Running Motivation, Running, Running Motivation, Ultrarunning « Hagg Lake 50K Part I: What is that beat? A tango? Hagg Lake Part III: That’s deep man! […]

  4. […] Hagg Lake Part III: That’s deep man! Posted on March 7, 2007 by coachjoeenglish [Part three of a four part series on Coach Joe’s experiences at the Hagg Lake 50K Ultra-marathon, For part II, click here. To start at the beginning, click here.] […]

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