It’s been a few years since I’ve run Hagg Lake, but the lack of mud in my life in arid Colorado finally got to me. Unfortunately, the weather gods decided to give Oregon a week of sunshine without rain and, tragically, the course was relatively dry. No mud-slicked hills, no careening around corners, just a few muddy, wet spots here and there. Most sane people would say that’s great, but really, this course and race is the best when it’s a slog-fest the whole way.
I also love Hagg Lake because it’s one of those early-season races that brings out good competition every year. This year I toed the line with the likes of Tom Brooks, Jeff Browning, Jason Lemon, and Neil Olsen, and for the first time got to experience the race way up front.
It all starts with a 3 mile out-and-back up a 1,000 foot hill on a muddy gravel road. As always, the pace was enthusiastic, but it was a good way to feel out who was in the running. I stuck with a lead pack of 6 guys on the hill and then tucked into formation as we started the first lap around the lake. The first section after the out-and-back is always a bit of whiplash as you’re thrust onto the steep rolling hills and hairpin corners of the trail as it hugs the rugged coastline of Hagg Lake. The mud was conspicuously absent, with wet leaves and wooden bridges proving more of a challenge for footing.
First lap around the lake, photo by ORRC's official photographer.
At the 8 mile Dam aid station, Jeff and Jason made a fast break down the hill and I gave chase, with Tom Brooks close behind. This was the definitive move that split this lead pack from the rest of the racers. It got pretty conversational here as we navigated through mossy forests, green meadows, and the occasional drainage creek that had washed over the trail. Shortly after the 13 mile aid station at Tanner Creek, things got a little less conversational as everyone sized each other up and thought about making a push into the second lap. Instead of a tight formation, we were becoming more elastic, with Tom Brooks leading the charge and absolutely floating over each hill. It was already clear he was going to have a good day and we weren’t even halfway through.
Jeff and I were first through the start/finish to kick off the second lap, and he pushed hard to pull into the lead. Tom passed me not a few minutes later and disappeared into the twisty singletrack. I kept stealing glimpses of both of them ahead, but I knew I needed to hold my pace steady or else I’d crash. Jason and I kept within a close distance of each other until the Dam aid station, where he pulled ahead. From here on out, we’d stay separated by about a minute.
Lead pack, yikes.
The last two sections, from the Dam at mile 21 to Tanner at mile 26, and from Tanner to the finish at mile 31, were lonely and really, really hurt. I got a little bit dizzy and realized I hadn’t been super diligent with water or gel. I was toying with a bonk and it felt awful, but I did what you have to do and just pushed through it. Of course, when you have to scramble up steep 100 foot hills and immediately run back down over wet leaves and mud, arms flailing wildly, the extra effort doesn’t get you much in the pace department.
As I neared Tanner I could see Jason just ahead and Neil closing the gap behind me. This was a panicked stretch of trail as we all realized that 3rd-5th were up in the air. I ate an extra gel at Tanner and got the heck out of there as fast as I could, and pushed really hard up until the last mile, trying my best to make up time on Jason and hold Neil off.
But not all goes to plan. If I had fueled better over the previous section I might’ve been able to push harder, but trying to make up a calorie deficit while simultaneously kicking it in doesn’t work forever. I hit the sloppy mud along the lake in that last mile and really started to get sluggish. The mud had started to dry out in the now warm morning sun and every step was like trying to pull my foot out of thick molasses. Soon I was running with an extra couple of pounds caked on each shoe. In my totally trashed state I had serious trouble producing any sort of forward momentum as I careened to and fro through the mud. Neil worked his way past me and we exchanged some words about that darn mud, and how ridiculous this last stretch always feels, but as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t hang on to him.
There was in fact some mud out there, photo by ORRC's official photographer.
I finally mustered a little kick through the dry, twist singletrack into the finish and gave myself a soft landing on the grass hill just feet past the finish line. My feet and ankles were so toasted that I could barely stand up. It’s not often that a race so short can leave you so destroyed, but such is Hagg Lake.
At any rate, this was a good way to start the year. For a while I tried to just race the longer stuff but I’ve realized that 50K’s are one of the most valuable distances to throw in the race schedule. I feel like I’ve relearned pacing and nutrition (hey, no stomach problems or bathroom issues this time) and I got to run with some really cool folks.
The finish times tell a story: 3:47:21, 3:51:29, 3:56:22, 3:56:43, 3:57:04, 3:58:21, 4:09:43…Tom and Jeff took first and second with decent margins, and 3-6th were within 2 minutes of each other and a full 11 minutes ahead of 7th, which was another 7 minutes ahead of 8th. Seriously unreal in a trail 50K to have that intense of a lead pack.
Pace for the first 17 miles: 7:11
Pace for the last 13 miles: 7:35
Elevation gain: 4000ft