No matter how you look at it, there is something fundamentally unfair about starting a race at one minute past midnight. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that the starting time was the kindest part of this race.
The Road to Hell
... is generally portrayed as pretty daunting. For me, it began with my first visit to the Blue Ridge Mountains for the 2007 Promise Land 50K. I was joined by my good friend Kami for what was our second 50K adventure (the first being Moab 50K+ a month earlier). We had the pleasure of running with Dorothy Hunter during that race and got to hear all about the Lynchburg series of races. I already knew about Mountain Masochist as I’d hoped that would be my first 50M (it was, in November 2007) but I hadn’t gotten as far as thinking of anything beyond that... and when I heard the descriptions of Hellgate I decided I didn’t need to. A few years of ultra experience later, including my first 100 miler in September 2008 (Sawtooth) and I figured I could tackle it. A month after entering I gave myself a shin injury that I stupidly continued to run with so that I finally had to pull out a few weeks before the race. Fast forward a year and the road had taken a few more twists and turns. The annual shin injury hit a little earlier this year and resulted in many changes of plan... I missed out on Grindstone, which I’d entered after AC-100 was cancelled, and decided to abandon other races, volunteer at a few, and focus on Hellgate. And so it was that I found myself on a flight from Minneapolis to DC Friday morning, reading Aaron Schwartzbard’s course description that I’d printed from the website (if I knew anything it was to not believe a word of the description provided by Horton!). It had been a busy month of traveling, a long weekend in Vegas the previous weekend and before that a trip back to Ireland, with long work hours in between. But the training had gone pretty well. I’d had a really good summer of running and racing, and after taking three weeks off in September with the shin I’d built it back up and made the most of the unusually pleasant November weather. I didn’t feel like I had enough hill training given the climbs I’d become familiar with in these mountains, but it was too late to worry about that now.
I arrived at Camp Bethel a little before 6pm. The daylight had mostly faded and made me wonder how I might be feeling come sunrise the following morning. I was hoping to be halfway done. Though “halfway” in this race was a little hard to predict. I had picked up a turkey sandwich at Subway having forgotten about the pre-race dinner. I was thinking I’d check in, get my stuff organized, and get a few hours sleep. I went inside to be greeted by a lovely warm fire - a very cosy setting to perfectly contrast what lay ahead, got my number, and chatted to David for a few minutes. I told him how thrilled I was to be here and he assured me I was about to take part in a very special event. I wasn’t going to argue with that.
Having been reminded of dinner I headed back out to the car to get organized, still thinking I would get my sleep time later. Considering this was my second longest ultra I surprised myself by not being terribly organized coming up to it. Mostly due to lack of time, but I wasn’t real worried about it either. Not that I take any race for granted but I think the more races I do the simpler I try to keep things. Especially when traveling to races. Having said that I still ended up with enough supplies for a two week expedition to Antarctica. I turned up the heat in the car and set about the task of dividing up my food between my Nathan pack and drop bag - which would be at AS4 and again at AS7. I put my second set of gloves/mitts/neck gaiter in the drop bag and also my spare shoes. I decided to stick with my regular Montrail Masochist shoes and put the Gortex version in the drop bag - I started to wear the Masochists earlier this year and absolutely love them. I picked up a pair of the GTX ones a month ago and while they feel good I think they are a little stiffer and I knew that despite the waterproof claim there’d be no keeping my feet dry at the creek crossing. I headed back inside around 6:45PM for dinner - the air was chilly. Not as bad as the 4F I’d left behind in Minnesota, but definitely not ideal running temperatures. I spotted Dorothy immediately and chatted with her and Todd before joining fellow Midwesterners Robert Wehner and Brad Birkholz at the next table. I knew both these guys had run the race several times though I wasn’t sure than a few hours before race start was the time to be looking for advice from veterans! The spaghetti dinner was good and after hanging out for a bit we all headed over to the building where the race briefing would be. Another comfy setting - a main gathering area with bunk rooms off to each side and best of all - hot showers! I would be dreaming about that later. The finish line was right outside the door.
At dinner, David had interrupted proceedings to ask if anyone had spare shoes as one of the girls had left hers behind - size 10? Montrails? Masochists? - I did a quick size check on the pair I was wearing which I had in addition to the ones I planned to run in and the GTX pair (most of my running shoes are 10.5 but I remembered these being different) - and told Beth I had a pair for her. The poor thing, she had packed 3 pairs in a bag but had left it behind, 3hrs drive away! I caught up with her before the race briefing and gave her the choice of my “old” regular ones, which had about 200+ miles, or the GTX ones which are pretty new. She opted for the regular version. So I repacked the drop bag and was all set.
I don’t remember too much about the race briefing other than the suggestion that we might hit a record low. I think Horton said that meant single digits but I am not sure. I had mentally prepared myself that the race would be colder than anything I had done before so I figured I wasn’t going to worry about it now. The good news was that there was much less ice than some years. A few questions here and there and then it was time to ensure everyone had a ride to the start about 15 miles away (amazing how one finds a way to run 100KM when you can drive it in 15 miles). I secured a seat in JJ’s jeep with a departure time of 11PM. It was now approaching 9PM. When was I going to get my few hours sleep? I chatted to a few people and headed back to the car. A few final checks and set my alarm for 10:50. I figured I got about 40 minutes kip. Good enough.
That Midnight Start
The drive to the start was eerily quiet. Funnily enough I was riding in the same car as Aaron so that was neat that I got to thank him for his postings. But we were waiting for another girl who must have taken a ride with someone else and ended up leaving a few minutes after everyone else. And since no one was entirely sure of the start location we were just a little nervous. As much as I was afraid of what was to come I really didn't want to miss the race start! Thankfully between JJ and Aaron we made it there after just one wrong turn. Still, I only had enough time for a quick bio break, check-in, and walk over to the start line. In the car over I realized I had forgotten my iPod. It didn’t bother me too much – I hadn’t planned to use it during the night but thought it might be nice later on. In hindsight it was definitely a blessing that I forgot it. Considering the number of spills I took due to lack of concentration I can only imagine the mess I’d be in if I was listening to music too. I had also forgot to put any Nuun tabs in my hydration pack – as in, into the water - I was carrying a full tube of tabs. I figured I’d do it at the first AS. At the start line I chatted briefly to Sean Andrish whom I’d met at the Wild Duluth 100K in October. It didn’t feel terribly cold at the start though I shivered when I saw a few guys in shorts. A few reports I’ve read say 10-15F. Either way I felt like I had the right amount of clothing – a Smartwool layer, longsleeve hooded top, thin vest, thin wind shirt; tights; gloves and mitts – with handwarmers (a.k.a lifesavers) in between.
11:59PM – National Anthem; 12:00AM – David leads us all with a short prayer for a safe journey in the woods; 12:01AM – we’re off... 100K in the Jefferson National Forest, Virginia.
Start to AS1 Forest Service Road 35 (3.5 miles)
I was wearing a watch but had decided not to look at it for several hours. I wanted to take the first few sections relatively easy and not get caught up with times. I knew this section was among the shortest but was more concerned about the creek than the distance. My goals going into this race were to finish in under 14 hours and to place in the top 5 women. Not terribly scientific I just know that I usually run better with a goal in mind and from a review of the results and a look through Horton’s seedings that seemed to make sense. I figured Donna Utakis (2008 winner and 2009 Grindstone winner) and Justine Morrison (previous winner and many great races in her resume) would be vying for the top spot and I knew Jenny Anderson’s name from other races and had just read in UR mag about a 50K she’d recently won.
We did some climbing through the woods on wide trails but it was pretty gentle. As we approached the creek a group were coming in the opposite direction having missed the turn off. They didn’t seem too concerned so I expect they hadn’t gone far. The creek was deeper than I had envisioned but I didn’t take any time to think about it as I ploughed ahead. I remembered reading Aaron’s advice to not try to use the rocks as they’d be icy. I suppose I still could have actually taken a moment to assess the depth. Water up to my knees wasn’t so bad but almost falling forward so that I had to put my hands down on a rock was so not a good idea. My mitts got soaked half way up. They froze instantly. Oh dear. This was going to be a long night. Thank goodness for those handwarmers. I let the mitts slip down a bit and had the handwarmers in each palm. Not perfect but it’ll work. AS1 came a few minutes later. I don’t remember stopping. It was too cold.
According to Keith Knipling’s records this section is actually 4 miles long. No surprise there.
AS1 to AS2 Petites Gap (4.0 miles)
Overall, this was probably my favorite section of the race. Most of it was a steady climb on a gravel road. I was glad for the climb as it got me warmed up quickly after the creek crossing. My feet didn’t actually feel that bad at all. And apart from my wet mitts I was sort of glad that I’d gotten quite wet – just to, you know, see how bad it might really be. I had on a pair of Teko wool socks that worked great - they seemed to dry out pretty well. And they had to – several times. With so much talk about the creek crossing you’d be forgiven for thinking there was just the one. Ha! If only. That was just the one where you were 100% guaranteed to get wet. For all the others, it was merely a 99.9% chance. About half way up the climb I was completely alone as the field had spread out nicely. No moon was visible at this point but the stars were so bright. I shut off my headlamp for a few hundred yards and once my eyes adjusted it was so beautiful. My legs felt fresh, the air was cool but not awful. There was no wind along this stretch. I felt so lucky to be able to do this. It has been a great year of running for me and what better way to bring it to a close than running in the mountains under a starlit sky. Unfortunately, a few of those stars were not stars at all but headlamps. High, high above me. Holy crap, this really is a mountain. There was quite a bit of ice towards the top of the climb where it got steeper but for the most part it was possible to find dirt tracts to follow. I hiked alongside a guy for several minutes. Neither of us speaking a word but nice to have company to keep the pace steady. About 50 yards from AS2 I slipped and went down on my right knee. I didn’t even look down so I am not sure if the eventual damage was done at that point but several falls later and the knee didn’t look so pretty. The tube to my hydration pack had frozen solid somewhere along this section so I was a bit worried about that but got it going at the aid station and then tucked it into my shirt. I had planned to wear the wind jacket outside my pack but it proved too much of a squeeze so the tube had been exposed. Silly me. A cup of coke and I was off again. I had not taken any food at this point but I was doing fine. I’d ended up eating the turkey sandwich around 9pm so I knew I wasn’t short on calories. No fear.
3.9 miles according to Keith. A short one?
AS2 to AS3 Camping Gap (5.6 miles)
I left the aid station feeling pretty good. But knowing it was still very early. We encountered the first significant stretch of downhill in the next few miles – first on a rocky trail and then a few miles on a wider grassy trail where it felt good to stretch out a little. This was followed by the first of my ‘nightmare’ sections... rocks and more rocks. It was no fun. But eventually we hit another dirt road and despite the upward slope it felt good to be on secure ground again. Don’t get me wrong, I love technical trail but loose icy rocks combined with sloping ground, in the dark, nah... Back out on the road it was a l-o-n-g climb to Camping Gap. I decided it was time for a gel. I had several gels and other good stuff in my pack though I didn’t use half of it. Along here I saw that the moon had come out. It was beautiful. Not a full moon like other years but a golden crescent low in the sky. Looking at the profile* this really was a long climb so it’s no wonder I was thrilled to hear the girls at AS3 had HOT COFFEE. Nice! These ladies were awesome and I would later see them at AS 6 and 9 – if that were me there wouldn’t have been any coffee left for the runners. I took some coke also and a few quarters of grilled cheese sandwiches. I am not sure but I don’t think I refilled my water here which meant I was still running on my original 70oz or so. I was well hydrated going into the race but knew I should have been drinking more.
* It’s very unusual for me but I am just looking at the elevation profile for the first time now (13,500ft of climbing!) – stealing it from Keith’s blog. I don’t think I’ve ever run an ultra where I hadn’t studied the profile, the course, the distance between aid stations etc in great detail... all I can say is, it was definitely fear and not complacency!
Copied (w/o permission) from Keith Knipling's blog
AS3 to AS4 Headforemost Mountain (8.8 miles)
I left the AS just ahead of a few guys that had arrived around the same time as me. The girls at the aid station had warned us this next section was a tough one. 8.8 miles though I only remember hearing the first 8. Either way, after a few hours of running, and heading into that cold, windy section, I was quickly reminded that easy was never mentioned in any of the reports I’d read. But I had my drop bag to look forward to... and nice dry gloves and mitts. My hands weren’t cold but the frozen mitts were a bit of a pain all the same. The first mile or so was very runnable though at one point I got worried I had missed a turn as I hadn’t seen a glow stick for a while. A guy came along behind me and we continued for a bit and then spotted one in the distance. Phew. At no point in this race did I want to have to backtrack. The course was very well marked but there were stretches every so often where the markings were spread out as there were no turns – which induced a mild panic attack thinking I’d missed a turn. After the road stretch we turned onto grassy trail which was pretty runnable and I think mostly downhill. I am pretty sure this is where we encountered the snow. I was not expecting it as I’d read in one of David’s emails that they’d been marking part of the course on Wednesday and it was clear. I guess he didn’t mean the entire course was clear. Along here I took my first bio break. It would be the first of many. I think between falls and bio breaks I set a few new records in this race. Somewhere along here you could see across the valley to the highest section of the course – it was fun to see headlights bobbing in the distance – at this stage I was not bitter about how far I had to go versus the leaders. That would come later. About 2 miles later.
We hit a section of single track – which I later recognized as the Promise Land course. It was technical and quite rocky. I rolled my left ankle at one point and very nearly went careening off the trail which would not have been a good idea given the steep grade. There was a little ice along here also which made things interesting. I slipped at one point and went down awkwardly but just about managed to avoid smashing my right knee on a rock. At this point the fun was all but gone. I was very jealous of those headlamps in the distance that had no doubt danced through this section. And here I was clunking along. Not even at mile 20 and I feel wrecked. My last race had been 3 months earlier. And it was a trail marathon. I hadn’t run 50 miles since August. I wasn’t ready for this race. WHAT was I thinking? AS4 could not arrive soon enough. Out onto road again and up we went. It was steep but I didn’t mind. I felt like we had to be close. Finally, after what seemed like altogether too many miles I could see the AS lights ahead.
I was not a happy camper. I found my drop bag and changed my gloves, mitts, neck gaiter. Got a new pack of handwarmers. I checked my watch for the first time and was hugely disappointed to see 4:49AM. I don’t know what I was expecting but I thought for 20 miles I should be closer to 4 hours. Of course if I had looked at the sign I would have seen that it read mile 21.9 – and in reality was probably closer to 24 miles – but at that moment I was not thinking so clearly. I drank the can of red bull from my drop bag, got my water filled and added a few Nuun tabs. I had some chicken and rice soup which tasted good. Clark Zealand was there and he said the next section was pretty nice with lots of downhill. He was trying to help but so far the downhill experience had been far too rocky for my liking so I wasn’t at all appreciative of his kindness! But I did hear him tell someone that 24 runners had come through. I knew that at least 100 had started. Suddenly the world was a better place! I didn’t even care how many were women. I just knew I need to get out of there and on the road again.
9.8 miles according to Keith. Wow – that’s rough even by Horton’s standards!
AS4 to AS5 Jennings Creek (5.7 miles)
I was F R E E Z I N G. Especially my hands. I knew they would warm up soon but trudging along that dirt road I needed to get myself focused again. Well, let me tell you, there’s nothing like a face plant in frozen dirt to do the job. Whatever I was doing with my hands I didn’t get them down quickly enough and my nose hit at exactly the same time as my hands. Crunch! The noise of the impact registered before the pain - holy crap, I thought, I’ve broken my nose. Immediately followed by, maybe I can drop? Because quite honestly, at that point in the race – a broken nose would have been a welcome alternative to another 40 miles. I quickly got up, thinking I might have to go back to the aid station but remembering I’d just passed a car 20 yards back – I am sure I gave the guy quite a fright. I am not sure how he was connected to the race as he was a ways down from the AS but I did see him later at the finish line - but did not get over to thank him before he had disappeared again. So thank you whoever you are! He took a look, gave me some tissue to clean up the blood and told me I’d be fine. Damn.
Off I went, still sobbing a little – the shock I am sure!! Feeling COMPLETELY sorry for myself. But also thinking that if I have to fall in a race I may as well have a few scars to show for it... not to mention a few photos. More on that later. First, I had to run some. The next section was all a bit of a blur. On balance, the fall was a great thing as the adrenaline instantly heated my body and the pain in my nose caused me to forget all the other aching body parts. Clark was right though, there was significant downhill in the next section. As first, I was thinking it couldn’t all be downhill but then I remembered the name of the aid station was Jennings Creek so I figured if there was a creek it would be low down. The middle section where we climbed an icy road was a bit tricky though – and even the cars had trouble as we came across a guy being pulled out by a truck. I think I passed one guy along here but for the most part was running by myself. Towards the end of this section we wound our way down the mountain through pretty runnable trail and into AS 5 where I was greeted by... the paparazzi! Horton was sitting over by the fire and upon hearing shouts of “Best Blood Award” wanted evidence... no, he didn’t rush over to check was I ok – in fact I don’t recall anyone asking if I was hurt or offering to clean me up. I loved it! Honestly, this aid station cheered me up no end. These people are nuts I thought as I was leaving. And I’m one of them!
I did get offered some bacon and eggs though – this being the Breakfast aid station – but decided it was time to get going again. With a handful of pretzels for breakfast. I forgot to ask how long to the next AS.
6.4 miles according to Keith. But not the worst of the “Horton miles”
AS5 to AS6 Little Cove Mountain (6.9 miles)
Not having done very well with studying the course pre-race I had a vague recollection that Aaron had said AS6 was at 35 miles – and according to him the “halfway” point, with 31 miles remaining. I didn’t know if that meant it was officially marked as mile 35 or not. But then again I didn’t know what mile I had just passed at AS5. Despite this, and having looked at my watch at the aid station to see 6:10AM, I still told myself I would get to Little Cove Mountain by sunrise. Now, one would think that the fact that I was leaving a “creek” and heading to a “mountain” and knowing that after the first two sections all the others were over 5 miles (I remembered that at least), would cause me to be a little less ambitious. I did start to recalculate as the road crept up and up and up. This section in summary: big climb, big descent, big climb. It was on the second big climb that I started to wonder (again) what on earth I was doing here. It was daylight now but rather than take in the amazing views of the valleys below and mountains in the distance, I just trundled along muttering to myself. This is probably one of the few places where the iPod might have helped as the terrain was very runnable. But instead I spotted two guys up ahead... ah yes, nothing like a few “targets” to get Helen going again. Heading up the gravel road that would eventually lead to the aid station, I realized I was moving relatively well as I chatted a little to one of the guys before continuing on. A mix of running and hiking here. And lots of cars going by which was a pain as it was so dusty. I didn’t look at my watch in this section. I didn’t need to. I knew it was long past 7AM. 7:49 to be exact when I finally asked the volunteer recording the times how far behind the other women I was. But I learned that the next girl was only 2 minutes ahead of me. And the “two Canadians” had gone through at 7:25AM. Ok, so my original goal for the first half had been way ambitious. I didn’t feel so bad. I was pleased to be in 4th. And just like that, things were looking up again...
Especially since this was the aid station where my coffee ladies were again! And despite the warning that the next 8 miles were “Horton miles” – aren’t they all I said – I left in pretty good form.
7.6 miles according to Keith. No wonder it took so bloody long.
AS6 to AS7 Bearwallow Gap (8.0 miles)
This section started off well. A nice grassy downhill that lasted for maybe two miles. It was just what I needed. The sun was up and I wasn’t doing as bad as I thought. I felt like I had run within myself to this point and knew that if I could just maintain this progress I had a good chance of being able to finish strong. I wasn’t sure if 14 hours was still a possibility but I figured no point in worrying about that now. I had a little chasing to do...
And then it was back to technical trail with rolling hills. And I do mean technical – this was killer stuff – rock and more rocks, all covered by leaves. I soon spotted Jenny ahead through the trees. And just as soon as I set my sights on her – splat! I knocked my left ankle off a rock and went down. No serious damage. Concentrate. Concentrate. Concentrate. Without doubt this race requires more concentration than any other I have done. Dusted myself off and continued on. I passed Jenny a few minutes later and soon after we both passed two guys. And a while later another one. We were making progress! A mix of up and down but the downhill was pure misery in my book – rock strewn switchbacks with very little room for error. Despite the nice start to this section it was definitely my least favourite. So far.
We crossed a road, some more trail, and then we came out of the woods to the aid station. Now that it was bright the (same?) group decided they needed more photos. But I couldn’t stay long... Jenny arrived into the AS just behind me and was gone through before I had time to drink a cup of coke! Refilled my water, added a few more Nuun tabs (love this stuff), grabbed a few gels from my drop bag, and my baggie of chocolate covered espresso beans (there is no such thing as bad caffeine), and hit the trail again. 9:30AM. Not bad. Not bad at all.
I haven’t been mentioning the temperatures much. I suppose it was cold enough – teens perhaps in the early morning – I really have no idea but it didn’t bother me much. I was keeping my hands warm and my feet would get wet every so often between creek crossings and the odd soggy patch of ground, but they seemed to dry up pretty quick. As the morning wore on it became quite sunny and I think if I’d had shorts in my drop bag (I hadn’t even brought any on the trip not considering this a possibility), I would have been tempted to change.
8.6 miles according to Keith. Well, I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
AS7 to AS8 Bobblets Gap (7.0 miles)
Jenny had picked up her pacer at this AS so I chatted to the girls briefly and asked her pacer how far ahead the leaders were. 10 minutes. Wow. Now I was really feeling good. There was some climbing at the start but I was feeling strong and no question I had my sights on “the Canadians”! Still, it was only mile 42, or 45 or something like that, still a long way to go. But driving down the day before I had told myself the race would start after this aid station so I was pleased that I’d not gotten caught up in times and position early in the race. It’s amazing how the mood swings in an ultra. I’d gone from feeling like crap to thinking things were going just great. I felt like I had a good chance of keeping 3rd place, 14 hours was back on track and who knows, the ladies up front might be feeling more tired than me.
I enjoyed this section. Or at least I enjoyed it more than other sections. After 40 miles, it’s all relative. Mentally I was doing well, and it was a very pretty section of the course as the trail swung in and out of the mountain to the left with views out across the valley to the right. Once again, I remembered Aaron’s posting on this section – I recalled he hadn’t been too happy with the repetitive nature of this section but it seemed to be what I needed at this point. Still, even flat, fairly runnable trail gets old after a while – especially when your legs don’t really want to run all that much. This was where I developed a new mantra - each time I would feel like walking I told myself – “I bet the Canadians didn’t walk this”. As it turns out, I guess they did. But it helped me to keep moving forward. A short descent and then out onto a dirt road for the one mile climb to the aid station. The climbing was actually a welcome change. And I was hiking pretty well. Still, I was very surprised to turn the corner a hundred yards from the aid station and see the two girls just arriving to it. It pleased the aid station workers no end to have a bit of front runner excitement happening on their watch!
A very quick stop here. I didn’t need a refill. Just a cup of coke and a handful of pretzels and I was off. After “the Canadians” for what I hoped would be the last time! 10:45AM.
6.1 miles according to Keith. Short = good, right? Not exactly, not when I was expecting more of the same in the next section.
AS8 to AS9 Day Creek (6.6 miles)
This section started out deceptively well. After I caught up with the girls and chatted for a bit, I continued to descend along the dirt road. The road goes down for quite a ways, I think 2 miles or more, turning into a gravel road about half way down. It was nice to feel like I was making progress. And hopefully opening up a bit of a lead. I didn’t come here thinking I could win. Not that I didn’t dream about it but I honestly didn’t think it was within my reach. I’d had some good races this year and felt good about my recent training, but I was up against girls that I believe are simply more talented than me. Having said that, I know a course like this plays to my strengths. Patience and persistence. Mind you, this section would definitely test the former!
If I had thought about it I might have remembered reading about a section that “seems to go on FOREVER” but for the first hour or so I blissfully assumed that it even if it was a bit longer than advertised it surely wouldn’t be much different from the previous section. So I set my goal of reading the final aid station at 12 noon. Sorted. I’d be home by 13:30 if the final section panned out. If I should have learned one lesson in ultras by now it’s that when things start to look really good... something ain’t right.
The downhill came to an abrupt end with a turn onto single track and up we went. The rest of this section was just awful. Meandering aimlessly through the woods seemingly going nowhere fast. Don’t get me wrong – it was beautiful trail, the sunshine filtering in through the forest – and on any other day I’d feel like I was in heaven. But after 50+ miles, kicking leaves had lost its appeal. Along here I met up with Robert. He witnessed a rather spectacular fall as I swung off a tree and landed in a heap. Luckily, just leaves underneath. I thought for sure once we emerged from this section we’d be close. The vegetation started to change and I started to get excited. 11:50 on the clock. And then, along comes a runner from the opposite direction. I knew I hadn’t gone wrong but he had me worried all the same. He confirmed he was a pacer heading out to meet his runner. I asked him how far to the next aid station. Not far, was the reply, it took me 18 minutes, and I was taking it easy. Now, I’m sorry, maybe we’re all ultra runners and everything but “not far” does not equal 18 minutes. More like 8 or even 10 would have been ok. It was 11:57 on my watch. This sucked. Big time. But he did add that I’d be going downhill soon.. However, it became apparent that we had different definitions of “soon”. Five minutes passed, more up and down. I crossed a creek and headed up the other side and actually said (whined) out loud “Why did he lie to me?” God, what a baby! Another five minutes and finally some downhill. I was never so pleased as to see that aid station. Not least because I knew there’d be a cup of coffee waiting for me!
Funnily enough, I arrived at exactly 12:15PM.
7.8 miles according to Keith. Now, that’s just mean.
AS9 to The Finish (6.3 miles)
Horton had said at the race briefing that it was a short section – 6 miles – 3 up and 3 down. That part I remembered clearly. The sign on the gate said “6 easy miles”. I wasn’t so sure about that. But at least I finally felt like I knew what to expect. I got my water half filled, downed the coffee, and set off up the road. A guy had come into the aid station just ahead of me and headed off at a steady jog. I had no intention of even trying to run. My hamstrings were so tight I was worried what might happen. I figured even an hour to the top and I should still get down the other side in under 30 minutes. My 14 hour goal was well intact. Hiking up the road I took a look off to the left and saw a clearing high up in the trees. I sincerely hoped we were not going over there. It seemed farther than 3 miles. A lot farther. We weren’t. But the road did twist and turn and continue to climb at a grade beyond what my legs were asking for. Still, after a while I realized I’d passed the gate and so I checked my watch. Yet another part of Aaron’s story I’d remembered was his estimate for this climb – the gate was about 1/3 of the way. I’d gone 16 minutes. I figured I should see the parkway by 13:10. This pleased me no end. And I guess inspired me to push a little harder. Before I knew it I was at the gate and the guy in the truck was asking for my number. Is this the top I asked? It sure is, came the reply. 12:58. Seriously? Sweeeet!
Off I went at a gentle trot down the dirt trail. For some reason I was convinced that there was a technical section ahead and so I didn’t want to get too excited. But next thing I knew I was out on the road. Wow – I must be close. I couldn’t remember how long on the road but 1.6 miles came into my head for some reason. 13:15. I can do this in under 13:30... I was searching for the mile marker. I knew that Brad and Robert had marked it the previous day while they helped with the course marking – so I figured (prayed) it was likely to be accurate. “1 mile to go” – there is nothing so sweet! Especially when it came quicker than expected. 13:19. I can do this. YAY. I wanted to see how fast I could run the last mile. I remembered at Terrapin Mountain 50K that I had really hammered it to the finish. And here we had a similar, mostly downhill grade. I could see the guy ahead of me. I knew he was too far ahead and anyway I had no need to catch anyone else. I checked the watch again and then I saw him make a left turn which I knew had to be into Camp Bethel. I soon followed. The road curved around, and finally, FINALLY, the finish line was in sight. David and a few others were outside. The guy ahead finished, the clock ticked over the 13:25 mark. Onto the grass and up through the orange flags. DONE. 13:25:18. A happy camper once again! My last mile – 6:30. There was a time not too long ago when it took me 6:30 to do a 1 mile road race.
5.7 miles according to Keith. Making the final section shorter than advertised almost made up for the rest. Almost.
A few finish line photos and then off to the car to grab my stuff. I had spotted the icy stream as I was running into the camp but all thoughts of that quickly evaporated as I got chilled immediately after finishing. I headed for the hot shower. Glorious. Cleaned up my face. It didn't look much better. And then chilled out on the sofa for several hours. With multiple trips to the soup and chilli pots at the back of the room. This was the perfect finish line setting. Runners would arrive and people would run outside to greet them. Back inside for warmth and chatter. Awards being given out constantly – Patagonia finisher shirts, 5 year awards, BEAST series awards... I came away with an entry shirt, a Patagonia technical shirt and for winning David showed me the Patagonia jacket that he’ll get printed with the race name/date - there is some serious schwag to be got here! Robert finished shortly after me for a PR and Brad also set a PR – by something over an hour I think! I got to chat with Jenny, and later Donna and Sophie – who broke her goal of 15 hours by just over a minute – nice one! It was such a pleasure to get to know these ladies and to meet so many new people. I watched Dorothy finish becoming the only woman to get the BEAST series this year – huge congrats!! That is 6 tough races throughout the year. I enjoyed chatting some more to Aaron and also to Keith who’s Dad I had met while crewing at Sawtooth in September. And in between all that I enjoyed a very relaxing massage! I could have stayed for hours but had a flight from DC early Sunday morning so I headed off around 6pm. Sad to bring the event to a close but knowing for sure I’d be back again.
The word David Horton uses most to describe this race is “special”. And there is no doubt about that. Be it the challenging conditions, the night sky illuminated by a million stars, the beauty of the trails, the community of runners, the incredible volunteers, the intimacy of the pre and post race festivities, a race director like no other, this is indeed a special race. Thanks to everyone who makes it possible.
100K (a.k.a 66 miles)
13,500ft of climbing
89 finishers (18 women)
8 Nuun tabs
6 Vanilla Power Gels
9 Succeed tabs
1 Stinger Chews
1 Can Red Bull
Chocolate covered espresso beans
Grilled cheese sandwiches
7 bio breaks
1 bloody nose
1 even bloodier knee
1 bruised ankle
0 lost toe nails (so far)
More so than any other race, and perhaps due to my lack of knowlegde of the course going into the race, I would say that running it again would be a completely different experience. It might be better, it might be worse. But definitely it would be interesting to see how things would change. Of course, no two years are ever the same in terms of race night/day conditions so that is a key factor, especially with this race.
With knowledge of the course, could I improve my times on certain sections? Would it help me mentally to know what's ahead? Or would it be distracting?
In writing my race report several things came to mind...
- I didn't consume nearly as many calories as I had planned; I had divided up my gels and clif bloks so that I'd have about 200 calories an hour - as well as whatever I felt like at the aid stations - but I averaged less than 100 calories an hour, not even touching the bloks; certainly, having eaten well in the preceeding days (and weeks) meant I had plenty of reserves to draw on and I don't feel like it negatively affected my performance - but it's something I would probably try to be more diligent about next time.
- More hill training never hurt anyone! To be honest I hiked better than I expected but given how awful my hamstrings felt on the last uphill climb I know that I have some work to do there.
- The fact that I could run a 6:30 mile to finish makes me wonder how much I had left in the tank? If I had pushed it sooner, could I have gotten closer to the CR (13:01)? Or would it have had the opposite effect?
I guess there's only one way to find out if running Hellgate once makes the second time any easier. Though I fear I already know the answer...