It has been said that the Hellgate 100K is a "special" race, for a number of reasons. It was certainly a "special" race for me this year. And here's why . . .
As you may know, I've dedicated this past fall to "redemption" in races that I've failed in falls past. First The Ring, where I still didn't finish, but made it further than my previous attempt. Then, North Coast, where the story was the same, except that I did it in spite of a dry respiratory system as a result of pacing at the Wasatch 100 the week prior. Then the Grindstone 100, which I finished in 27-and-a-half hours, in spite of pretty much coming straight off a plane from Israel to go to the race. But the crown jewel this fall was Hellgate. Reference my 2009 race rehash on this blog () and you'll see that "things didn't go well" was an understatement. So, out of all the "redemption races" that I had planned for this fall, Hellgate was the one where I wanted to put in my best effort and my strongest finish.
To that end, all of my crazy running-related adventures this fall (Richmond Marathon finish-to-start, then start-to-finish, Stone Mill 50+ miler and Philadelphia Marathon on back-to-back days, etc.) had been geared towards preparing for Hellgate. Cold weather, late nights, lots of running in the dark, lots of consecutive miles on little rest. To top it all off, from the Sunday prior to Hellgate to the previous Monday, I put in a 130-mile running week, one of my highest-mileage weeks this year. I felt strong after that week, and with some strategic tapering before the race, I knew I had a good shot at achieving my goal: primarily, to finish, but ideally, to finish in the 12-13 hour range (going one better than Sniper's prediction of a 14-hour race for me, and spiting my unseeded #70 bib), and hopefully, with a time in that range, finish in the top 10 men. Regardless, I came into the race confident that, although some may be faster, nobody was going to be tougher than I was. I was fully prepared and unafraid to risk life and limb to finish this silly race.
This time, I wasn't going to go it alone. A Baltimore local, Henry, contacted me before the race, and we worked out a plan to travel down together, and to use his white crew-cab Ford F150 as the crew vehicle for my two crew members/pacers, Hope and Mark, both relatively new to the ultrarunning world, but sufficiently excited about this race from all the talking-up I had given it in the prior months, on this blog and otherwise. So after going to my little sister's chemistry thesis presentation at Goucher (aww, she's growing up!), congratulating her, and getting the requisite good luck wishes from her and from my parents, we loaded up the truck, and at a little after 2 p.m., we were on our way down to Camp Bethel.
We arrived just after 6 p.m., a drive that was thankfully without incident, in plenty of time to eat the pre-race dinner of pasta and lasagna (meat and vegetarian, and, I hate to say it, but the vegetarian lasagna was better), chat with the other runners, and make ourselves at home in the cabins. At around 8 p.m., the pre-race meeting started, and after a little over half an hour of Horton's usual horsing around, and the typical questions about how much snow/ice/water was on the course (none, a little, and a lot, respectively), we went back to lounging around in the cabin, laughing, joking, and pretty much acting like we weren't about to start running in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night in a few hours.
At 10:50 p.m., the caravan left the camp, and we began the half-hour drive to the starting line, all still in good spirits. The amount of "dead time" before Hellgate is a blessing and a curse. It's nice to have all that time to relax and do what you need to do . . . but only if you can really relax. And, for me, the nerves had somewhat set in the whole time, but became really apparent on the drive out there. It's hard to see those same sights by the side of the road that I saw in 2009, and not think about how badly that went. I kept telling myself that this time, although it looked the same, would be different. Between that, Hope and Mark's threat to abandon me for the "Monster Maze" that we saw advertised on billboards along the way, and our riotous laughter over Henry's bottle of Boost and a Starbucks coffee drink mixed together, which looked like, well, liquid poop, I started the race with those negative thoughts at least relegated to the back of my mind. (For me, Natural Vitality's Energy 28 and their liquid multivitamin would be my stay-alert boost of choice.)
(The above begs the questions of how much caffiene is required to make one's heart explode, and what would such an explosion look like - topics discussed at length prior to our little run.)
At midnight, we were off, and the first section, arguably one of the fastest sections of the course, went by without incident. In stark contrast to 2009, when I went out a little bit hard, and felt exhausted immediately, I stayed within myself, and found that I was still up near the front of the pack, without killing myself. I decided not to push to run with the lead pack, as they were clearly racing hard from the beginning, and considering that I didn't want another DNF, it was an unecessarily risky strategy. The famed creek crossing came and went without incident (after several shallower impostors, which would be the order of the entire race), although being nearly up to my knees, I nearly took a cold, wet spill. Before I knew it, I was at the first aid station, Forest Service Road 35, and already feeling better about this year.
We began the first climb up the gravel road, and I found that, again, in contrast to 2009, I felt strong, and this felt doable. I passed a few more people going up the climb on my way to the second aid station, Petite's Gap, where I saw my crew for the first time, and was proud to come in looking strong (and, as I would find out later, in 15th place). Although I didn't want to jinx things, I began to think that this would be a very special race . . .
(Apparently ready to attack the Petite's Gap aid station . . .)
(. . . and then guzzing something gross)
But of course, we all have to have our low points, and about a mile out of the Petite's Gap aid station, I suddenly started feeling weak and exhausted. Maybe this was because it was around 3 a.m., or because I hadn't eaten enough, or that I realized that it would be a relatively long time before I saw my crew again (no crew access again until the fourth aid station, at this point, 13-15 miles away). Whatever the cause, I struggled in the next gravel road section, and on the trail downhill, where the leaf-covered jagged rocks were making rapid progress very difficult for me. A lot of people passed me. I started having flashbacks to 2009, as I was feeling very much at this point the way I did in 2009. I kept telling myself that this was different. I ate a banana, drank some water, downed a gel, and kept pushing forward, and by the time I reached the third aid station, Camping Gap, I was starting to feel in control again. Unfortuately, I had dropped plenty of places, and perhaps at the rate I was going, my aspirational goals were out of reach.
But still, I had an obligation to myself, and to my crew, to give it everything I had, and to run a respectable race, regardless of how long it took me to finish. So as soon as I started feeling better, I started pushing a little, a la Badwater this past summer after Panamint Springs. I turned on the "grind" gear and began cranking out 8-9 minute miles over the thankfully wide and runnable (but rolling) grassy trail. And slowly and steadily, I was passing people. I reached the rocky downhill trail, and here it occurred to me that I should turn on the headlamp that I had around my waist, to supplement the one on my head. This was the first time I had ever used this light setup, and, as it turns out, this is the correct light setup. The waist light covered the near-field, and the headlamp covered the far-field, so I had a full 3 feet of visibility in front of me. It may as well have been daylight. So now I ran down the rocky trail with far less incident, and passed a few other runners. After what seemed like a long time (and probably was, considering that this was possibly the longest section of the race between aid stations), I reached the fourth aid station, Headforemost Mountain, and my crew - a huge mental boost. I was now in 20th place (again, as I would later learn), but making a comeback, in stark contrast to 2009 - in 2009, I nearly dropped at this aid station, and only continued because Sniper came through and urged me to come along with him. Far better circumstances this time . . .
And so it went into the fifth aid station, Jennings Creek. The next section was about six miles, half of which was wide, runnable downhill, and I was really able to pick up the pace on that section, especially with my new headlamp setup. I passed some more people, reaching the Jennings Creek aid station in about a hour - encouraging. As I crossed over the bridge to the aid station, running strong, I remembered in 2009, when Sniper had dragged me to this one, and I was really messed up, and a woman at the aid station was giving me some sort of pressure-point massage to try to improve my situation. Strange, the things you remember . . .
I began the big long climb up a gravel road towards the sixth aid station, the moon full and bright, but still no eclipse (it was apparently not visible where we were). I distinctly recalled the suffering in this section in 2009 - my legs hurt terribly, and every step was more difficult than the last. This time, though, I kept putting one foot in front of the other on the gravel road climb, then down the trail, then back up the gravel road to the sixth aid station, Little Cove Mountain, where I had given up the ghost in 2009. As I neared the aid station, besides noticing that the climb did not seem nearly as steep and awful as it had in 2009, I saw two of my friends, Jeremy and Patrick, walking to the aid station. As I realized when I was leaving the aid station, Patrick was about to drop - I definitely felt for him, since he looked much like I must have at that point in the race in 2009. Jeremy jogged up the hill with me for a bit, and told me that I looked strong, and was on pace for a mid-13-hour finish - also encouraging, considering that earlier in the race, I thought that all hope of that was gone.
I continued down the trail to the seventh aid station, Bearwallow Gap, now in early daylight, feeling confident about the progress I was making and the finish that I was shooting for. This section took some of the wind out of my sails, with some really rocky, ragged single-track that slowed me significantly. But I persisted forward, and made it to the Bearwallow Gap aid station to find David Horton sitting there, waiting to check me in, and Mark ready to pace me through the next section. Mark told me that somebody had just come through a couple of minutes ago, looking to be in bad shape. More encouragement . . .
Mark and I braved some steep uphill, as he regaled me with tales of skinned bear carcasses in the vicinity of the perhaps aptly-named previous aid station, and how Horton had made Hope sing an "Oh Holy Night" (his second favorite hymn, next to "Amazing Grace") duet with one of his Liberty students. Eventually we neared the ridge, where the trail flattened a bit, and we started picking up the pace. The last part of this section, a gradually-rising gravel road into the eighth aid station, Bobblet's Gap, was frustrating - I felt with the grade as shallow as it was, I should try running, but at the same time, there was still too much race left to risk blowing up now. When I reached the Bobblet's Gap aid station, Hope was ready to take her turn as pacer, and the aid station volunteer told me, surprisingly, that tenth place was just ahead of me. With a fresh pacer and a place to chase, we set off down the gravel road.
We rolled easily down the road, at a little better than 7-minute mile pace, passing not one, but two runners ahead of me. Unfortunately, in the one part of the course where the markings were tricky, we ran right past the turn-off onto the "forever" trail. Fortunately, another person who was out running the course on his own had made the same mistake, and was just up ahead to tell us that he hadn't seen a course marking. We figured out our mistake and got back on track, but in the meantime, about ten minutes and the two people that I had passed had passed me back. Oh well, time to pass them again . . . but it wasn't going to be easy. The trail in this part of the course was the rockiest, raggedest trail yet, and being as tired as I was at this point, footing was becoming a more significant issue. I could hear Horton's voice drawling in my mind, taunting me: "Come on, boy! You're weak! You're soft!" as I picked my way through the rocks as quickly as I could. Hope tripped, but didn't fall, and about thirty seconds after that, I tripped and hit my right knee - hard. Good thing I had been wearing tights - otherwise, that knee would have been really bloodied. I walked for a couple of minutes to make sure that I hadn't done any serious damage, and once I was satisfied that things were okay, I resumed running again, having passed Aaron, who was in tenth place, and rolled into the ninth aid station, Day Creek, with a little over 6 miles to go, and Mark ready to pace me through the last section of the course. Shaun, who had been up near the front of the pack, but gotten lost a couple of times, was also at this aid station, ready to drop (a situation that I could sympathize with), so Hope got the job of driving him back to the finish line.
The last section of the race was an uphill grunt, much akin to the climb up Mount Whitney at the end of Badwater (except only about half an hour of fast-walking to the top), followed by a very fast downhill on a wide trail/road back to camp. Walking briskly (but not easily), I passed the other runner that I had passed on the downhill in the previous section before getting lost, and, once we reached the top, all I had to do was hold on for dear life down the hill, and I would finish in ninth. I told Mark that we would jog and ease into it, but within a minute, we were running sub-7-minute miles downhill, 63+ miles into this race, and I could feel the emotional floodgates opening. I thought about all of the disappointment and hurt and anger that surrounded my attempt at this race in 2009, and how I had turned it all around to run the way I had today. I thought about how awesome my crew had been, and how thankful I was for them, and I also dredged up a memory that I hadn't thought about, or talked about, until then . . .
After my DNF in 2009, and hours sleeping in cars at Little Cove Mountain and then at Day Creek, when I returned to Camp Bethel, I threw what could be most kindly described as a temper tantrum (which involved some literal throwing of things). I was frustrated and angry, not just about the race, but about a lot of other things in my life, and it caused something of a scene, enough that David Horton took me aside and gave me a stern lecture about my behavior, at which point I started crying, unable to keep it inside. Horton said a prayer over me, that the Lord would help me find peace with whatever was troubling me. As the finish line came into sight, tears welled up, and I realized that I had found that peace in the race. Nothing can change what happened in 2009, but having crossed the line in 13 hours, 11 minutes, to be welcomed back with a congratulatory hug and kiss on the top of the head from Horton as tears streamed down my face, 9th male finisher, achieving my top-10 goal, I felt that things were back on the right path again.
(This is what finishing Hellgate looks like.)
After getting all of the tears out, I took my shoes off, to find that my toes were bloodied, from being wet and going sockless, and wearing shoes that were just a little bit too big for my feet. My crew called Horton over, and he agreed that, so far, it was the best blood he had seen today (although he threatened to deduct points for my orange toenail polish, despite my argument that it matched the color of the course markings). Considering that the blood went through my shoe, and was foaming out of the side, I'd say I deserved plenty of points for creativity - certainly more interesting than the run-of-the-mill skinned knee. My lead in the best blood category would stand, so not only did I walk away with a sweet top-10 Patagonia hooded shirt (the only men's small that he had in the bunch, as if it were planned . . .), but also a red fleece Hellgate blanket and a very fitting "Best Blood" award (especially considering the figurative blood, sweat, and tears, that had gone into making this race what it turned out to be).
(Bloody foot, left)
(Bloody foot, right . . . regrettably, I don't have a picture of the blood froth through the shoe, but trust me, it was gross . . .)
As redemption goes, this one was particularly sweet. Following the progression from The Ring to Hellgate, I steadily improved and grew stronger this fall, and each race built to the next - especially Grindstone, since my finish at Grindstone was what gave me the right to enter Hellgate. I feel good about having turned things around, over the course of this past fall, and during this race. This was perhaps the first fall in a long time during which I actually got stronger, as opposed to burning out. Looking ahead, I can't say for sure which races will be on my schedule for 2012. But in the meantime, I will be out there, training harder than ever, because making any race as awesome and memorable as this Hellgate will be a lofty goal for years to come.
(Top-10 men in the top-10 finisher award, doing our clumsy best speed-skater impression - also, in the bottom right, my shoes - if you zoom in really far, you can sort of see the blood on the left one near the pinkie toe area)
(. . . and me and my crew/pacers, mid-race, proving that sometimes, the someday when this, too, will seem pleasant, is the same day.)