Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hellgate 2010

A few things I learned this past weekend –

1. The race is actually 66.6 miles long (I thought it was merely a 66 mile 100K).
2. My pain threshold is way higher than previously believed.
3. Having crew rocks!
4. The hour before dawn is the most incredible time to run through the woods.
5. Always take the bacon.

Going into this year’s race I knew I was not anywhere close to last year’s level of fitness. I wasn’t exactly proud of it, but I was okay about it. The past few months have been a whirlwind time in so many different ways (mostly good) and training simply had to take a backseat. And when needed, I could always pull out the old "foot surgery in June" excuse. No one had to know that it was minor and I was back running within 6 weeks! Oh and that I had run a 100K race in August...

The other major difference with this year’s race was that I knew the course. I knew what to expect. Last year was not only my first Hellgate but I had also failed to research the course other than to read Aaron Schwartzbard’s musings (which turned out to be a Godsend). On the flight to DC last week, I read my report from last year and jotted down some predicted times for Chris so he’d have an idea when to expect me at the aid stations. I knew the weather was going to be much "warmer" than last year but I didn’t really think the cold had bothered me much and I figured less ice but possibly some deep snow wouldn’t make that much of a difference to the terrain. So I mostly based my plans off how I was feeling compared to last year. I came up with 15 hours as my goal. I know that most people thought I was sand-bagging, something I may have been guilty of in the past... but I honestly didn’t feel that I could do much better than that. Two 30 mile training runs in November, following two ~25 milers in October (one of them being TCM) were about the extent of it. Coupled with being a good 10lbs heavier than 12 months ago (which was already above average for most runners). I set my focus on enjoying the race as best I could, putting one foot in front of the other, staying positive and being thankful I am able to do this. My competitive nature hoped that would still result in a top 5 spot. I very much wanted one of those Patagonia shirts!

After catching up with folks at the pre-race dinner and briefing, we organized my gear and I slept for about 30 minutes in the car. One of the lovely things about this race is the finish area at Camp Bethel with it's great facilities. We took off from there at 11PM following a long line of cars to the start area near Natural Bridge. The race takes place in the Jefferson National Forest, criss-crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail several times. The first twenty miles of the race has a lot of road but mostly just on the long uphill sections so it doesn't make a whole lot of difference to me when I'm hiking those climbs anyway.

After a final check on gear, a hug from Chris, followed by a photo...

... the National Anthem led by Sheryl, it was 12:01AM and we were off! This is what we had to look forward to...

Start to AS1 Forest Service Road 35 (4.0 miles)*

*For this years report I am just going with Keith's numbers as they are definitely more accurate that Horton's. In fact, this year I didn't even look at the mileage sign at any AS!

I kept a nice relaxed pace all though here as the trail meandered uphill at a gentle grade through the forest. The trail was wide at first with plenty of space for people to pass back and forth. I settled in a little behind Sheryl and Zsuzsanna, as a few other women went ahead (at least that's what I thought). The creek was lower than last year and I went across it much slower with the result that I didnt get wet. But I made up for that shortly afterwards. Through AS1 quickly just taking a mouthful of water.

AS1 to AS2 Petites Gap (3.9 miles)

From here the trail turns to road and up, up, up we go. This is one of my favorite sections of the course. It's early so the body still feels ok. It dark and quiet out but not much wind until closer to the aid station at the top. I caught up with Sheryl and we ran / hiked the next few miles together. It was nice to get to know her a bit. I'd first met her at Sawtooth 100 in September where she killed the last 10 miles of the course after a horribly wet and cold night in the woods. She took the lead in that race at around mile 95 (of 102.7) and went on to win by about an hour. And I knew she capable of doing the same thing here.

The road switched back several times so that we could see a line of headlamps above and below us. Like Christmas lights! I went ahead a bit on my own and turned off my headlamp for a few minutes to soak up the surroundings, trying to get my head around what would unfold over the next several hours. I knew it wouldn't be easy. But I also felt like these early sections were clicking along okay and that I could look forward to seeing Chris at AS4 (mile ~25) and all the aid stations after that. It would prove to be a great help as things got tougher.

I reached AS2 at 1:32AM, deciding to look at my watch much earlier this year. I figured it would be helpful for next year's planning! I took a cup of coke and a few pretzels and headed off. There were several runners at the AS with me and I heard one of the volunteers say "first women through here" but I wasn't paying too much attention to who was around me. Too early for that.

AS2 to AS3 Camping Gap (6.1 miles)

Soon after leaving the AS we began a long downhill on rocky trail. Perhaps one of the hardest things about this race is the constantly changing terrain from non-technical to technical to very technical... I am used to the rocky and rooty trails in the upper Midwest but what kills me here are the loose rocks - I am not confident enough to cruise down these hills knowing a twisted ankle is never far away. Having said that I think I do go for it a bit more when I'm in good shape as I know I'm running "lighter" and my reaction times are quicker. On this occasion I was happy to let several guys go by me as I proceeded with caution. Though it didn't stop me from falling on the now snowy trail and twisting my knee a little. I was just after taking my first gel and the fall made me a bit nauseous for a few minutes. I knew the trail eventually came out on road and soon enough it was time for more climbing. I was happy enough about that as my legs were still feeling good but I could tell I wasn't hiking as fast as last year with the same effort.

I was alone for most of this section and felt pretty relaxed but was happy to smell the fire and round the turn into AS3 at around 3500 ft. Several runners gathered around the wonderful spread - the volunteers do an awesome job considering the conditions at this race. I am sure they were every bit as happy as the runners to not have the biting cold wind this year. Coke, pretzels and I was off.

AS3 to AS4 Headforemost Mountain (9.8 miles)

3:01AM. Not so bad. I knew the next section would be a long one. I'd told Chris to expect me anywhere between 5:00-5:30AM. So I settled in for a few hours of navigating the mix of dirt road and trail, up and down, all the while looking across to the left seeing headlamps bobbing in the distance. I laughed at how that had frustrated me a little last year seeing how far I had yet to go but this year it felt more like those lights were showing me the way. The trail weaved in and out along the side of the mountain. The thin crescent moon was visible amongst the trees and the lights of several towns far below and off in the distance once again reminded me of how few people get to do this.

As it got closer to 5AM I figured I didn't have too far to go now and was really looking forward to seeing Chris. I had another gel along here and met up Mosi who was running his first Hellgate. He was kind enough to help me up when I attempted to run along an icy section and ended up in a heap!

Chris had come down the trail a ways and we ran the flat section into the aid station which had been moved out to the road this year. I stopped briefly to get a cup of tomato soup, coke and a few pretzels. Off we went across the Parkway (at 5:19AM) and up the snowy trail. Thankfully no repeat of last year's face-plant! Chris hiked with me for several minutes before heading back to check on the competition :)

He thought one woman had gone by while he was waiting for me. Still too early to think about it!

AS4 to AS5 Jennings Creek (6.4 miles)

I was looking forward to the next section knowing there was quite a bit of downhill and that it was one of the shorter sections. Pretty much everything hurt at this stage. Worst was the tightness in the back of both knees. I'm no stranger to tight hamstrings but this was something new and more intense than I would have liked at just over a third of the race down. The other issue was my abs (or lack thereof) - I was being made fully aware of the extra pounds I was carrying with every step of downhill!

Lots of snow for the next few miles. It probably slowed things down a little but was a welcome change from the loose rocks. I rolled an ankle and went down on my right knee again but no lasting damage. A few guys passed me early on but I ran mostly by myself through this section. A few creek crossings as the trail widened and wound it's way downhill towards Jennings Creek a.k.a The Breakfast aid station. Last year I rolled in here with a bloody nose with the result that I had to get my picture taken... this year was a much less dramatic occasion though I was pleased to be told I was in fact the first female through here. Though Chris couldn't quite tell how my brain was working when I asked him how far back the others were and started talking about how long the next section would take me and who I expected to pass me. He pretty much told me to shut up which was what I needed to hear. Though for all the whining and complaining I was doing to him, I was actually pretty happy most of the time I was on the trail!

The usual routine of coke and pretzels and off we went. Chris gave me a few gels and an S-cap. 6:34AM. I was happy enough with my progress given that I was only 25 minutes behind last year but I was worried that the pain I was experiencing was only going to get worse and that pretty soon I'd be losing time. But for now I just thought of putting one foot in front of the other and running when I could.

AS5 to AS6 Little Cove Mountain (7.6 miles)

I have to say I really enjoyed this section. I had forgotten there was so much road climbing back up from Jennings Creek but I didn't mind it right now. I tried to stretch out my calves and hamstrings as best I could on the uphill and kept a good pace going. I was alone for the first few miles and it was so beautiful winding up the mountain in the pre-dawn light. I began to get glimpses of the surrounding mountains and valleys as the sunlight filtered through the trees. I passed a guy near the top who looked pretty cold. I wished I had stuffed the extra pair of handwarmers in my pack to give him. My own were almost used up by that time. They worked a treat last year between a liner glove and my mitts but this year that system was generating too much heat so I ran most of the way just carrying a mitt with handwarmer inside in each hand and putting them on from time to time.

Things started to hurt a little on the downhill again but even after the dirt road turned to trail it wasn't super technical so I was able keep a decent pace. I was hoping to make it to Bearwallow Gap by 8:30AM at the latest so I was really pleased when I hit the short section of flat paved road at the bottom of the trail and it was only 7:30. What I had forgotten was how long the next uphill to the aid station was... Ahhh why did this not seem so long last year? I hiked alongside a guy as several crew cars passed us in both directions. I tried not to think too much about my tight legs and aching lower back, focused on seeing my super-crew again soon, and the fact that I was at around the halfway mark and the wheels hadn't fallen off the bus. Yet.

Chris was sitting along the road a short way down from the AS. I ran alongside him up to the car, dopped my headlamps, gloves and mitts and asked him for my other pair of gloves, continued up to the aid station - took the bacon that was on offer - Yum! Coke, pretzels, and off we went down the trail. These quick transitions were good not only for saving time but also mentally for me to just keep moving forward and not start to think too much about how I was feeling. 8:06AM. Two things struck me - I had run that section faster than last year and despite the sore muscles, it didn't feel like I'd been moving for eight hours. Chris told me the next ladies had come through AS5 about ten minutes after me. I just had to keep it going...

AS6 to AS7 Bearwallow Gap (8.6 miles)

I was looking forward to the next section. I knew it would be tough. But I had fond memories of it last year as this was section where things really started to 'click' for me and I was able gain quite a bit of time on the leaders. This year my task was not to get caught!

We started out on a downhill which felt good at first. I put a smile on my face and tried to forget about the aches and pains. I had about 30 miles to go but was just taking it one section at a time. I knew the knee-deep leaves section was coming along soon but was pleasantly surprised to find them a bit lower this year and I just felt less cautious running through here - perhaps with the earlier ankle rolls I figured I'd survive another few if it came to it. The beauty of having experienced more than one severe roll during training runs is that I know exactly that break point between short term pain and long term injury :)

I passed one guy at the top of the next descent as we started down the tight switchbacks. A little later I met up with Aaron at roughly the same spot I'd passed him last year - I asked him to chat up the ladies if they came by to slow them down. The section rolled along okay through here, there were a few creek crossings, more ups and down but nothing too remarkable. I knew I was cruising along here faster than expected and definitely faster than my body would have liked but I figured I may as well do what I can now to stay ahead. I didn't know what I'd have left for the next section, or the one after that, but figured trying to convince myself I was feeling strong was a good enough strategy. If nothing else it kept my mind occupied for a few miles.

Towards the end of the section I came upon fellow Minnesotan Dan who was capping off a fine year of racing with his first 100K. We were heading downhill through more deep leaves, across a creek and up the other side. Didn't feel much like climbing but I knew we had to be close. Crossed a road, a short wooded section and soon the aid station came into view. Picked it up a bit and I was there. Greeted by Chris as well as Horton himself and Sophie was there too - it was awesome to see her - despite her giving me a hard time about my 15 hour goal!! I may have been smiling but my legs were ready to argue that it was an entirely sensible goal. Adam C was there also, crewing for Corey, the other of the MN trio. Horton asked if I was ready to crank it up. Hah!

Grabbed a handful of pretzels and smiled for the camera - or is that a pained expression that Sophie captured? Cup of coke and we headed out. 9:54AM. Getting there. Chris told me that Rebekah had come into the last AS 15 mins after me and there were several other girls on the way up the hill as he was driving back down. I was delighted to hear Rebekah (a Hellgate veteran) was having a good race and made a comment that she could pass me but no one else. To which Chris responded that he only heard the last part.

AS7 to AS8 Bobblets Gap (6.1 miles)

I knew within minutes of leaving the aid station that I'd have a tough time getting to the next one. I'd really pushed it in the last section. But I tried to think of the distance as being shorter and couldn't really remember the first half so tried to keep a positive outlook. And then as the climbing continued up to the ridge line and beyond the doubts started to creep in... This was the section where I'd surely be caught.

Still, my legs had finally loosened up - evidence that, when it comes to ultras, things never always don't get better. The pain behind my left knee was completely gone and my right one wasn't so bad. I didn't dare try to stop and stretch out for fear I'd tweak something but just keeping the best pace I could seemed to be working. The hardest thing here was to run everything that was not a steep climb. Several times I would catch myself walking when I knew I should be running. A few miles in, this becomes the "repeat" section. Picture the trail as it hugs the side of the mountain to your left with fabulous views of the valley below to your right; it swings around the corner left, goes slightly downhill for 30 yards, takes a sharp right, goes uphill at a mostly gentle grade for a hundred yards, swings around the corner left... and so on and on and... next year, to distract myself, I plan to count just how many times it does this!

I met two guys coming against me who told me there were six guys waiting to be passed - they were "right there" apparently! I thought about asking them how far but decided I probably wouldn't like the answer. I was right as a few minutes later Chris was out the trail to meet me and figured he'd covered close to a mile. Ugh! Still, it was great to see him and funnily enough he'd called out to me just as Robert was going by him which turned out to be just the impetus Robert needed to switch into "get 'er done" mode. He was off like a shot, gaining 17 minutes on me in the last 15 miles!!

We made it to the aid station at 11:14. Slower than I'd hoped but I was cheered up by Chris telling me that he'd waited 20 minutes at the last aid station and none of the women had come through. Still not out of the woods, in all senses, but getting there... just get through one more long section and the last up and down over the mountain will take care if itself.

Chicken noodle soup, pretzels, coke. Took a few gels from Chris and down the hill we went.

AS8 to AS9 Day Creek (7.8 miles)

Chris ran with me for a half mile or so before heading off to the final AS. Then a few minutes later Mario came cruising by! Man, he looked good on the downhill. I was surprised to catch sight of him a mile or so later upon leaving the road and heading into the woods winding uphill at first. But he had it on the downhills and was able to finish strong. I knew this section would go on FOREVER but I set a goal of 2 hours and just settled in. I had my splits from last year written down and in my pack (I guess I'm competitive with myself even when I'm not competitive) and thought it had taken me 1:45 so I figured I would for sure be slower this time. Turns out I'd misread it and it was 1:30 last year but the upshot was that I felt pretty good when I did make it through here in 1:45!

Things rolled along okay through the woods. I was sore all over but a lot happier than I expected to be. Just one more aid station. As with the earlier sections the leaves didn't seem as bad as last year. Though I did still manage a fall bringing my count to 3. Not bad. I tried to break down this section to figure out how much there might be left to go. I figured we must have covered close to 3 miles by the time we left the road and there was a long downhill to the aid station. And surely I've done a few miles in the woods already... and Chris will likely have time to get out the trail a ways to meet me so maybe just 30 minutes until I see him... and then it would seem like no time to the aid station... it all helped!! And then, something weird happened. Last year I met a guy coming opposite me as I crossed a creek. I was so ready to be done and wasn't at all happy when he told me it was about 18 minutes to the AS. At the time I was so disappointed to hear it was more than five minutes that I didn't think it was odd to get such a specific response. It took me exactly 18 minutes to reach the AS. This year I half expected to meet someone at the creek. Instead, a little further along I met the same two guys I'd met in the previous section. I joked with them that I had yet to find those 6 guys. I hesitated but then asked "how far?" About 15 minutes came the reply. It took me exactly that.

I met Chris a few minutes later and was so happy to be that close. I felt like I'd done ok in that section but wasn't convinced it would be enough. So I cautiously asked "how far back?" He started by saying no one had come in to the last AS while he was there but he didn't want to miss me here so he'd left. Oh right, so you didn't wait long? No... just an hour. I think I hit him.

Got to the AS, a few swigs of red bull, a handful of pretzels, an orange quarter and off I went.

AS9 to The Finish (5.7 miles)

I won't lie, I was thrilled to know that the win was mine for the taking. I knew the time would not be stellar. I figured a little over 14 hours at this point. Certainly not a time I would have expected to win this race considering the very pleasant conditions. But I guess that's the beauty of racing, the unpredictable nature of it. I knew that early on Chris was thinking I was giving up a little or resigning myself to the fact that I'd get passed but I wasn't being deliberately negative. I just needed to think about it logically and be okay with what might transpire. I don't race well if I'm putting myself under pressure and being mentally aggressive. If my mind is calm I find that my body can do the aggressive racing much better.

So here I was, the FINAL section... 3 miles up, 3 miles down. I could see one guy ahead of me on the trail as I left the AS at 11:59AM. I caught up with him after about a mile and we hiked along together, the time going by quickly as we chatted about our races. Both very happy to be within striking distance of the finish line.

40 minutes to the Parkway. Towards the top I had seen two more guys a few hundred yards ahead. I really wanted to run the downhill as hard as I could but I guess they did too :)

Five minutes went by, I figured if I could run this as fast as last year I'd make 14:05 so that was now my goal. The wide trail wound it's way down the mountain, getting less technical the farther down I got.

I met Sophie's smiling face around one corner and soon after there was Chris. Yay! Can't be far now... we hit the road a few minutes later. And then the 1-mile to go sign. Yes, of course I checked my watch. I knew last year's 6:30 wasn't going to happen but thought it'd be "fun" to see what I could do. I was making a lot of weird sounds while Chris was doing his best to encourage me. But Camp Bethel wouldn't come soon enough! Finally, the last turn, the wooden fence, into the camp and the few hundred yards to the finish line. 7 minutes flat. 14:05:24.

Horton there to greet us. I told him that training definitely helps with this race. Jenny was there too - how cool was that! Thanks for sticking around :)

We sat on the grass for a few minutes. I wanted to let it all sink in before heading inside. I've done some stupid things in my life and pushing my body well beyond it's level of training for 14+ hours may have been one of them. But in that moment, it was the most amazing and gratifying experience of my running career. And I got to share it with my favourite person.

Thank you to everyone who makes this race possible - David, Clark, the many students and other aid station workers who take such great care of us under tough circumstances, the medical team and all of the other volunteers who give their time and energy to allow us to do something truly special on a cold December night in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I hope to be back in 2011 - with the goal of training like 2009 and racing like 2010!

Merry Christmas folks. And remember, always take the bacon.


Sophie Speidel said...


I loved reading your account and re-living all the familiar "milestones" of this race that only racers can appreciate...the climb up to AS #2 (also a favorite section for me), the rocky trail after Camping Gap (we call those rocks "baby heads"), the long climbs up the dirt roads, the "in and out" section before Bobbletts and, of course, our personal favorite, the NEVER ENDING section before Day Creek. I also enjoyed reading your splits---as someone who will never be able to approach 14:05, it was fun to see how you were on my PR pace of 14:58 for most of the race and then turned on the twin turbos after Bearwallow---wow! Very impressive. It was great to chat with you after the race, and I hope you and Chris made it home safely in the blizzard. I will be back next year--to run. One year off was enough!
Merry Christmas and here's to a new year of wonderful adventures! Congratulations!

Londell said...

Great inspiration for me... To know you are human after all? Al kidding aside, congrats! Thanks for sharing.

sea legs girl said...

Awewome, Helen! Yes! You won and you deserved it. Damn it, though. How can you run that last mile so fast?! All along, I was suspicious there had been some math mistake last year to run the last mile in 6:30, but now I am convinced you have some super powers when it comes to rallying strength.

How cool that Chris came. I won't ask the question I want to ask about whether or not he came along as JUST a pacer. ;). I'll save that question for later.

Casseday said...


GREAT race report and congrats on the well-deserved win! Are you going to return the favor and crew Chris on his upcoming adventure this weekend?

- Adam

SteveQ said...

Congrats, Helen! The only appropriate reward I can think of is to remove the "Reluctantly Allowed" from your name on my list.

dennyj said...

Great report, thanks! I can't even imagine running for 14 hours. You're incredible!

PatrickGarcia said...

Excellent report Helen! Well done!

Kel said...

Great job as usual, Helen!

Safe travels to Ireland for Christmas :)

Pam said...

Always fun reading your race reports. Congrats on another win and fabulous race! So happy to be part of your 'big plans' for 2011. Though I sure hope people are taking pictures of your finish since I won't be there live to see it. Just promise you'll send Chris back to pick up my dead ass somewhere along the trail and hopefully you'll wait for me :). Cheers to what will be a great year of racing!

Julie B said...

Another great race, Helen! Congratulations!

Yoga Teacher Training said...

What a challenging run! Congratulations on another great race! It's so thrilling to read your step-by-step account - with the details you provide, I get in-depth information of what truly happened.

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