Thursday, December 29, 2011

Running Recap: December 2011 (and the rest of 2011)

As the month is almost over, time for one of those really boring "list all your miles" posts . . .

27 November: 1 mile (10 minutes)

28 November: 8 miles at lunch (56 minutes), 14 miles to the Fed Hill run and back (100 minutes)

29 November: 10 miles at lunch (70 minutes), including some faster stuff (5x1 minute at 5-ish-minute-mile pace), 8 miles in the evening (56 minutes)

30 November: 10 miles at lunch (70 minutes), 10 miles in the evening (70 minutes, Canton Square run)

1 December: 10 miles at lunch (70 minutes)

2 December: 1 mile (10 minutes)

3 December: 14 miles, hiking, prepping the Balled Eagle 100 course (315 minutes), then 6 miles easy back in Baltimore (45 surreal urban minutes)

Minutes: 772
Miles: 92

4 December: 13 miles in the morning (90 minutes), 15 miles in the evening (105 minutes), all around the city

5 December: 10 miles at lunch (70 minutes)

6 December: 2 miles easy (20 minutes)

7 December: 9 miles (60 minutes)

8 December: 9 miles (60 minutes)

9 December: 2 miles easy (20 minutes)

10 December: Hellgate "100K" - 66.6 miles, 790 minutes

Minutes: 1215
Miles: 126.6

11 December: 2 miles easy (20 minutes)

12 December: 1 mile easy (10 minutes)

13 December: 5 miles (35 minutes)

14 December: 9 miles, at APG (60 minutes)

15 December: 17 miles (120 minutes), at Susquehanna State Park (wish the intermittent rain hadn't prevented photography of this - it was beautiful)

16 December: 6 miles (40 minutes), around Baltimore - ouch, for some reason. Yoga after.

17 December: 52 miles (1000 minutes), Balled Eagle 100-Mile attempt

Minutes: 1285
Miles: 92

18 December: 14 miles (100 minutes), all over parts of the Balled Eagle course that I didn't get to run during the actual race.

19 December: 1 mile easy (10 minutes)

20 December: 10 miles at APG (65 minutes), yoga later

21 December: 10 miles at APG (70 minutes), 12 miles with the Wednesday Night Run crew (85 minutes)

22 December: 10 miles at APG (70 minutes), 11 miles in Baltimore (80 minutes)

23 December: 10 miles at APG (70 minutes), yoga later

24 December: 15 miles in Baltimore (105 minutes), partially around Ravens Stadium during marching band practice

Minutes: 655
Miles: 93

And, finally, this week:

25 December: 13 miles (90 minutes) around Baltimore

26 December: 15 miles (105 minutes) around the old haunts in Churchville (Campus Hills Shopping Center to the house in 4:25 . . .)

27 December: A rainy 15 miles (105 minutes) at APG; hot yoga later

28 December: A windy 10 miles (70 minutes) at APG; a cold 5 miles (35 minutes) around Baltimore

29 December: A relatively pleasant 14 miles at APG (100 minutes)

30 December: 15 miles around Baltimore (105 minutes), then another 4 miles (30 minutes) to yoga and back

31 December: 15 miles around Baltimore, in the morning, with a sunrise so beautiful over the Hopkins Bayview campus that I almost turned around to get the camera (almost - 105 minutes)

Minutes: 745
Miles: 106

So, if you've been keeping track (and I hadn't, so I had to go back through my blog and count), that makes, by my count, 4,045 miles that I ran this past year, a figure which may be a little low, since, as I went back, I found some weeks that I hadn't recorded, so I put in a "low" mileage estimate for those weeks. (Yes, I really can remember what I probably ran during certain weeks, given enough prompting about the dates and races that happened during those weeks.) That's an average of a little over 11 miles per day, which is kind of a neat (and totally an unintentional) number, since this was 2011 - maybe I can bump the average up to 12 this year, in honor of 2012 (if the world doesn't end on December 21st and screw that up . . .)

Since this blog is pretty thorough about every race I ran this year (other than the Kentucky Derby Marathon post that I still need to put up here at some point - maybe before the 2012 edition of the race), I won't belabor the recap. The short summary is that I started 2011 with a stress fracture, but still running at least 1 mile a day and keeping the faith that things would improve, and, lo and behold, after an awful 50K Holiday Lake return-from-injury race, I went on to set PRs in the marathon, the 50K (twice), 50 miles, 100K, 6-hour, and Badwater, not to mention getting a few giant, nasty monkeys off my back (namely, Grindstone and Hellgate). I ran a lot, met a lot of cool people, climbed some trash piles, had some bad days, had some worse days, and had some absolutely spectacular days.

But I think what I'll remember the most about this "year of the rabbit" is that in spite of some rough patches, both in individual races and in life in general, on every day, in every race, I pushed through, got it done, and left very little (but not nothing) to regret. And I think that's ideal - enough success to feel as though the effort was worth it, but not so successful that I'm tempted to rest on any laurels in 2012.

So, in that spirit, I'll be taking on the Bandera 100K this coming Saturday. I feel fit, strong, and excited about this opportunity. But, more importantly, I feel excited about another year of running . . . which is a good thing, because I have many miles to run, and promises to keep . . .

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Balled Eagle" "100-Mile" "Race Report"

Never before have I used so many quotation marks in the title of one of these things. That's because while this past weekend's little adventure could be called many things, none of the "official" names for it really do it justice. The closest I can come are the following pictures, videos, and words . . .

First, the background. The "Balled Eagle 100" (also known simply as the "Eagle 100," prior to race morning) was Dave Snipes's (aka "Sniper's") brainchild, as a way to give his friend Mark one more chance to run a 100-mile race before his wife had a baby and sidelined his ultramarathon expeditions for a while. Mark had done some races in the Massanutten Mountains, and Sniper is no stranger to the Massanuttens, having completed numerous ultras there, so this was an opportunity for Sniper to design a diabolical course, integrating the toughest parts of other mountain ultras in the area into one monster race.

As this was a "trial run," we would be sticking together for the entire race - we would either all finish, or all quit. At this point, I'd post the course map, but since it probably won't mean much to most people reading this, and, as it turned out, we didn't run the entire course anyway, it's perhaps a moot point. But if you'd like to see the map, feel free to e-harass me, and I'll be more than willing to share. So, on with the story of the race . . .

Mark, Jim, and Mike (aka "The New York Boys"), and Sniper and me, all had a "last meal" the night before this ordeal, at a little place in Front Royal called "The Royal Oak Tavern." Normally, I wouldn't talk about this, except for three amusing things that happened during dinner:

1. Sniper threatens to administer "a drug test" (as he purchased only one, to detect marijuana usage only, from the Dollar Tree)

2. Sniper gives us our "ultrarunner survival kits," mostly courtesy of the Dollar Tree

3. This guy plays solo acoustic covers of everything the whole time

At this point, we were down to just five people starting the race, as opposed to nine expected - four had backed out before we even met in the Signal Knob parking lot. So, with a minimum number of participants, we bravely met at a little before 5:30 a.m. on December 17th, and after a speech in which Sniper revealed the "real" name of the race (the "Balled Eagle," for reasons beyond a "PG" rating that shall not be discussed here) and encouraged us not to drop out when we reached the parking lot again at around 70 miles, we were off . . .

And onto our first horrible obstacle, Sherman's Gap. In the Old Dominion 100, this climb, a rocky, nasty, steep, awful thing that happens a little after 75 miles into the race, has ruined many a race. Some have even been known to call 911 from the top of the climb, but that's a funny story for another day . . .

Oh brother, here we go . . .

This trail is legendary enough to have this monument associated with it.

Although it was in the mid-20s, and still dark, by the time we power-hiked to the top, we were sweating profusely. Mike, who had been deathly ill the night before, and didn't look any better on race morning, was the palest, sweatiest, dead-eye-est of us all. He almost gave us a legitimate reason to call 911. But since there was no way for anybody to get up there, except on foot, we had no choice but to continue down the trail, and on to the first aid station. As the sun came up, and the temperatures climbed, running became a bit more comfortable, but because it remained cloudy, we never saw anything warmer than the mid-30s.

Other than Adam (a friend who would be running the first 27 miles with us) having a run-in with a sawbriar branch that got him both coming into the first aid station, and leaving the first aid station, as he cut himself on it again trying to throw it off to the side of the trail, and me getting my right foot and makeshift sock-gloves wet in a flooded section of trail, the trek to the first aid station, at Veach West, from the top of Sherman's Gap, was pretty uneventful. The aid station, on the other hand . . .

. . . was downright awesome.

Sniper had clearly spared no expense (and since these were all volunteers, "no expense" was definitely the operative phrase) in setting up top-notch aid stations, with awesome volunteers, plenty of sandwiches, and even a very official-looking table. Perhaps this was detrimental to our overall progress, as we spent 15-20 minutes at each aid station . . .

But eventually, we were off on our relatively short trek to the second aid station at Milford Gap. Mike was looking a lot better, for unknown reasons, especially since the trail had gotten no easier . . .

Grunting up the trail from Veach West

Without particular incident, we made it to the second aid station, at Milford Gap, and spent some time tanking up, since the next section would be around 13 miles, including a climb up to Kennedy Peak. Some highlights from this section:

Sniper finds a coin on a carin; or "Sniper, no swiping!"

God blesses our otherwise cursed run.

We climb some more, while Mike (in the rear) gamely hangs on.

A powerline cut that we don't have to run magically appears just before we reach Camp Roosevelt (Aid Station 3); note that the colorful "ants" on the ridge are the other runners . . .

We reached Aid Station 3 without sign of our allegedly beloved Seth, one of the friends of the "New York Boys" who was supposed to have been at Aid Station 2. In between watching YouTube videos on my iPhone of old commercials (in particular, the commercial for "Pizza Party"), and almost accidentally stabbing Mike in the face with a tree I ripped out of the ground, after Snipes goaded me into illustrating my "Gerta" strength (see: Halloweeny 50K, where I dressed up as a decidedly manly-looking girl), and, because I had been distracted by said YouTube video, was paying absolutely no attention to where anybody else was standing (prompting jokes about the East German nearly stabbing the Jew), I had been sending distressed emails to Seth, at the behest of the other runners, asking him where he was, telling him to bring money in unmarked, non-sequential bills, and so on. He had responded once, so he was probably still alive, but that didn't stop me from carrying on with a round of "Sethy Boy" as we trudged up the Duncan Hollow Trail.

It was also in this section of the course that:

We found this dog (he eventually ran down the trail to his owner)
Skunk incident occurred (Mark's video, so I'm linking this.)

After the above trials and tribulations, we made it to Aid Station 4, Gap Creek, and found Seth, who, with his girlfriend, had allegedly driven some 70 miles in the wrong direction, causing him to miss us at Aid Station 3. It later turned out that he thought that he was supposed to show up for Crew Shift 2, not Aid Station 2, hence the late arrival. At any rate, Seth took a bunch of probably embarassing pictures of us, since we were all a little beaten up at this point, and then we continued onward to Aid Station 5, as nightfall drew near.

This is mainly just a cool picture of Jim, thanks to the lighting, and also proves that the trail isn't always completely ragged and unrunnable.

On our way to our next Aid Station, at Crisman Hollow Road, the sky got darker, the temperatures dropped, and things generally got a lot creepier.

First this . . .

Then this.

I bombed down the comfortable, runnable trail to Waterfall Mountain, then grunted with everybody else as we climbed about 900 feet in 0.6 miles. About 20 minutes later, we were at the top, it was almost totally dark, and we still had about 0.4 miles to go to reach the aid station. At this point, the cold and the stoppage time at the aid stations were beginning to take their toll on me. While we were running, I was feeling okay. When we stopped, I quickly started to get cold, and the darkness was making this more uncomfortable. Mark hadn't been eating much, Jim was having trouble with his knees on the steep, rocky downhills, and Mike was hanging on by a thread.

And then came Kerns Mountain.

The trail along the Kerns Mountain ridge, on paper, does not seem too awful. What the paper doesn't show is that the trail actually crosses over the ridge a number of times, meaning that you are subjected to a number of steep, rocky climbs and descents . . . so many that apparently, it took us 2.5 hours to "run" the next 5.5 mile section along Kerns Mountain. Our conversation got goofier at this point, mainly as a means of masking the sheer torture. As we were moving as a group, we could only move as fast as the slowest person, which meant that one person's stumble was everybody's stumble. But we eventually pushed through, and, now at about 15.5 hours into this ordeal, we had "run" about 45.5 miles, which was not at all putting us on pace to finish within Sniper's conservative estimate of 36 (LONG) hours.

So we made a slight course correction from Aid Station 6, Moreland Gap. Rather than take the orange trail up to Short Mountain, along the ridge, and back down, we simply ran down the gravel road (Edinburg Road) to the next aid station, as we would have during the Old Dominion 100. This route was about 2.5 miles shorter, and probably at least an hour faster, than the original route, given our current pace. The run-walking in this section, which was much more vigorous than the stumble-hiking in the previous section, was keeping me awake . . . but so was an unexpected wetness in my rear end, which turned out to be the bladder in my pack leaking water. The hose had frozen hours ago, so not only was the bladder useless, it was making me wet and cold. For practical reasons, and out of frustration, I opened the pack, unscrewed the cap, and dumped the entire bladder. That didn't make my pants any dryer, but it sure made things a lot lighter and easier all the way to the aid station.

We reached Aid Station 7, Edinburg Gap, at about 16 hours, 45 minutes into the race, a little longer than my fastest 100-mile race time, and here was where things really fell apart. Mark, who hadn't been eating much, was shivering uncontrollably at this point - in temperatures this cold, most of what you eat goes to warming your body, and if you're not eating, you're not going to be able to warm yourself. Mark got into a heated van to try to warm up, but he wasn't getting any warmer. Since we were just standing around the aid station doing nothing, and that's how you freeze in this sort of weather, I got in the van too, and then Mike got in. So now a majority of runners were in the heated van, and Mark, who Sniper was doing the race for, was in no condition to continue. Eventually, Sniper got in the van and talked to Mark, and when it became clear that it was not safe for Mark to continue, we decided to stop the run, at about 52 miles. In Sniper's opinion, only he and I would have made it the rest of the way (assuming I could have gotten over my wet butt, which, if we had kept moving at a brisk pace, probably would have happened), and it was silly to keep all of those volunteers out all night for just two runners, while the other three runners went back to the hotel and then back home without saying a proper goodbye. So we all went back to the Signal Knob parking lot, then spent another night at the Hampton Inn, in its blissfully soft beds, and then said our proper goodbyes at a decent hour on Sunday morning, after a hearty breakfast.


Since my legs were in decent shape, and I had some time, and I had driven almost three hours to get to the race, I thought it might be "fun" to go out and run up the last devilish climb that Sniper had thrown into the race, a powerline cut less than a mile from the finish, in Woodstock Tower. The powerline cut looks like this:

After a 5-minute warmup jog, I ran/power-hiked the climb, pausing briefly to take pictures of parts of it. The "worst" part (in my opinion) looked something like this:

It took me almost exactly 10 minutes to reach the top. As I took in this view:

. . . my cell phone re-connected to the network, and I received a text message with a link to this video:

And as I sat at the top, quads burning, heart pounding, gasping for breath, I laughed hysterically, especally at the part where "Santa" falls and bangs his head on the rear bumper of a parked car.

And I wouldn't include this detail, except that it reminds me of something that Dakota Jones posted after finishing second in the North Face 50-Mile Championship Run in San Francisco a few weeks ago. He said that, at the end of the day, we're not superhumans - we're just guys that like to run. But we like other things, too. And while we all could have hung our heads in shame because we failed to finish the "Balled Eagle" course, we also had a lot of awesome experiences in the process, none of which would have been possible if we weren't out there exploring and pushing ourselves to our limits.

Plus, 52 miles rounds up to 100, which was good enough for all of us to receive ridiculous "finisher" buckles:

In its original wrapping, shown pretty close to actual size (except sideways, because stupid blogger wanted it that way . . .)

So as I close out the write-up for the last of my running-related adventures for 2011, mostly what comes to mind is how thankful I am for the many people I've met, run with, influenced, inspired, or otherwise impacted with my running this past year. I don't primarily do this for my health (although good health is a positive byproduct of this endeavor), and I definitely wouldn't do it at this level if I didn't feel like it was somehow making a difference in other people's lives. So thanks for being there, thanks for reading, and I'm looking forward to raising the bar in 2012. :)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Eagle Has Landed: Eagle 100-Mile Endurance Run Preview

For what will probably be my last major "adventure" of 2011, this Saturday (December 17th), starting at 5 a.m., I'll be running an all-new 100-mile race, mapped, organized, and directed by Dave Snipes, with a modest amount of input from me. This course takes parts of The Ring, the Old Dominion 100-Mile Endurance Run, the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100-Mile Run, and some fun new surprises (some of which I am forbidden from posting pictures of here), and remixes them all at the very end of the year, far away from all of those races, to present what will hopefully be an exciting new challenge for runners and the foolhardy alike.

This will be a limited-entry pilot test of this course, and if it turns out awesome, who knows how high this eagle will fly next year. But for now, here are a few preview pictures from the course-marking expedition that I participated in a couple of weeks ago . . . Enjoy!

The first image in this blog entry because it's arguably the coolest, but in the race, it's the last thing you'll see . . .

Rocks coming down . . .

Rocks going up.

If you can't see the course markings, you probably shouldn't run this race.

Look familiar?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

2011 Hellgate 100K Race Report

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.)