Friday, December 25, 2009

Hellgate 2009

I had run my first Ultra (Holiday Lake 50K) just 22 months ago. Prior to that my only running experience was training for and running 3 half marathons. Now I found myself standing among 116 elite runners. This is company I probably did not belong in, but I was determined to prove to myself I could and would finish Hellgate. It was like a moment frozen in time, well maybe time was not frozen, but everything else certainly was.
My friend John had volunteered to come and crew/pace with my Dad. Dad is always the first to volunteer to help and is an awesome crew captain. We met my Dad at camp Bethel and sat down to a filling pasta dinner. We then attended the brief and I headed off to my Jeep to try and catch an hour or two of sleep. The next thing I know John and Dad are in the car and we are driving to the start. I quickly got dressed for the cold and we all walked down to the start together. We prayed and sang the National Anthem and without much fanfare we were off.

Dad and I at the StartDad and I at the Start

Running to the first Aid Station was surreal. It was dark and cold, but clearly I had overdressed. As we wound our way through the woods I contemplated a quick equipment adjustment. The pack bunched up as we hit the first river crossing. It was deep and cold, but unlike some racers who were putting garbage bags over there feet I just ran through. The water was up over my knees. Someone in front of me fell in. I was just glad I made it through. At the Aid Station I quickly stopped and replaced a heavy layer with a light layer. 2 minutes later I started the climb up to Aid Station 2. Since I had been sweating my base layer was wet and I now found myself shivering in the cold. I made the decision to put on one more light layer, hoping I would find the sweet spot where I was warm, but not sweating. This took me less than 2 minutes, but as I would find out in 17 hours, those 2 equipment changes would come back to haunt me.
Hellgate Elevation ProfileHellgate Elevation Profile
My goal for the race was just to finish. Race Director David Horton had set 2 cutoffs and published “Last Runner” times for each Aid Station. I wanted to stay ahead of the last runner times. At Petites Gap, Aid Station 2, I was 15 minutes ahead of this time. The single track after Petites was very runnable for me and I was really on a high at this point, just enjoying the night and being in the woods. The climb up to Camping Gap was icy and long. In the past this may have been draining, but tonight was different, I was having a great time. The Christmas Lights at the Aid Station were a welcome sign. I had some soup and enjoyed the view before quickly heading off into the night. I now had a 30 minute cushion.
The next section is the longest of the race. Some of this section is run on the Promise Land 50k course. I ran a lot early on and was enjoying the view off the ridge and all the stars up in the sky. It was really something to look forward and back and see little lights bobbing along the trail. I then made the classic mistake of thinking I was further than I really was. We hit the single track and I had a hard time running down hill. At one point I fell hard on some Ice. I kept thinking that the Headformost Mountain Aid Station was high. I finally bottomed out on a road and started to climb. I was getting a little anxious as it was getting colder and my 30 minute cushion was slowing eroding away. I hit the Aid with 20 minutes left on my cushion. I quickly ate some piping hot tomato soup and a frozen grilled cheese. It never tasted so good. It was now after 6 and you could see the first glimpses of the sun. Daylight would be here soon and hopefully some new found energy.
The next section seemed long to me. I ran down hill forever and finally hit a road. I thought I was near Aid, but was wrong. The road just kept going down. The sun had now come up, but it still was cold. I finally could hear people, but still had a ways to run. At Jennings Creek Aid I quickly ate some pancakes and was off. I now had very little time cushion, but thought I was in good shape.
John and Me at the StartJohn and I at the Start
This next section was marked by a long climb to where the road dead ends. A man running in front of me kept turning around and yelling at me to hurry up, but I was giving it all I had. At the dead end the course then continued onto a trail. After a little climb I started down. I ran the entire way down the trail and onto a road and then back into the woods. I just kept pushing, knowing that every second counted. The course then climbs up another road. This was starting to be the theme of the race, climb up a road, run down some singletrack, repeat many times. At the top of the road and the Aid Station I had little time to spare. I quickly resupplied and was off.
The first part of the section leading into Bearwallow Gap was a very runnable double-track grassy road. The Aid Station workers had warned me to be careful because the footing was bad ahead. I just kept thinking what could be bad about this? I then hit the road’s end and plunged into the woods. The bad footing was now staring me straight in the face. The trail started off off camber and I struggled to stay on my feet. Things then got worse as I hit some nasty single-track. The leaves were deep and covered the softball size boulders littering the trail. I winced in pain just thinking about navigating this obstacle course. This is when I started to repeat to myself and any runner who I came upon the following: “Why does that %$&^*$ Horton pick the path of Most resistance?”. I finally descended to the river crossing. I had been thinking that since my shoes were dry I would put on some fresh socks for the final sections of the race. The river made sure they were no longer dry. Someone told me 10 minutes to go to aid. I quickly ran up the hill and found Clark at the trail head. I commented on how hard that section was, had some more tomato soap, changed socks, and was off towards Bobblets Gap. I was on a mental high, knowing that I made the final cutoff with a little time to spare. Now I could not be pulled from the race, so I should make it to the finish line. I was confident I would beat the 18 hour cutoff. This is where I made my only big mistake of the race. Dad offered to pace me to Bobblets, but I was feeling so good that I declined the offer. This would all change with a few hundred feet of ascent.
The initial climb out of Bearwallow crushed my moral. Someone passed me like I was standing still. I had lost my mental fortitude. Nothing felt that bad, but I could not force myself into anything faster than a walk. I even stopped a few times to catch my breath on some hills. I normally only stop on the course for bio breaks or aid. I was in trouble at the worst possible time. The swoops in and out of the mountain really crushed my attitude. The man yelling at me on the climb out of Jennings Creek was quickly gaining on me. He passed me and ran ahead. I struggled to keep up, but was unable to. The lack of sleep and miles had caught me. I was falling asleep as I ran. I am not sure if I ever really slept, or was just close. I am just happy I did not fall off the mountainside. I finally made it to the road and started to climb. Dad met me a 1/4 mile from the aid station. He found a beat down runner who had lost hope and was thinking of calling it a day. He talked me up some and told me I could do it. I started to tell myself I had trained too hard and my family had sacrificed too much to quit, so I would go on and give it all I had to beat 18 hours. I had survived the lowest point of the race.
John was rearing and ready to pace me through the Forever Section. John is a hockey playing,mountain biking, RKC Kettlebell swinging maniac who loves a good book and his cat. I knew he would be up to the task. We took off after a quick refuel. John had me running down the road in a 10 run 2 walk pattern. This helped me to recover and prepare for what was to come. We entered the woods and started to climb. I was able to climb ok and shuffled my feet on the flats and downs. One hill down, two to go. The second hill came and went. We came to a steam crossing and John proceeded to rip a dead tree out of the ground and press it over his head! I was laughing at his antics and it really took my mind off trail for a few minutes. I kept thinking we were almost to Day Creek Aid. I was wrong. This is not called the Forever Section because it was short. I started to complain about how long it was and the path of most resistance. John kept it positive. We finally came to the road and ran out to the Aid Station. I did not stop as we now had 80 minutes to cover the last 6 miles.
We started the climb up. John was telling me how much the last section blew because of how long it was. It was good to get my mind off of things for a bit. I settled into my fastest possible sustainable climb. The road just kept winding away. I know there were many false summits. I was mentally in it for the long haul. At first John was talking and asking me questions, but I did not have the energy to answer. We pushed hard up this road, possibly harder than I had pushed all day. 45 minutes later we reached the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was now dark. I had only 35 minutes to make it off this mountain. I started to run at what felt like a 5k pace. Looking back, I am sure it was no where near this pace, but it sure felt fast to me. Somewhere on this downhill I dropped John and quickly passed another runner who did not have a light. I just kept pushing, looking for the 1 mile to go. I finally hit the hard road intersection and took a few seconds to pick out which road to take. I finally saw the arrows on the road and was off. I ran hard down the road. My lungs and legs were burning. I had just given up hope for a sub 18 finish when I came across the 1 mile to go marker. I had 6 minutes left. I pulled all my remaining energy and took off. I could probably run a 6 minute mile on a track with fresh legs, but it was not to be on this night. I ran hard for 3 or 4 minutes until I saw my Dad along the road. He pushed me on, but Hellgate had taken all I had to give. The runner I passed coming down the mountain caught up and we ran into the finish together. So 18 Hours 3 Minutes and 30 Seconds after the start I was done. David greeted us at the line and I fell to the ground exhausted. He told us we would be finishers, just not under the time limit. I just sat there contemplating what I had just experienced. It truly was something special.
210 seconds is not a long period of time when looked at through the prism of 18 hours. If I had choose the correct layering at the start, if I would have been quicker through aid stations, if I would have ran harder into Bobblets Gap (3:00 per mile slower in this section than any other section all day). If – If – If……  The night before I had set out to finish Hellgate and I did. I would have loved to finish under 18, but I will take 18:03:30 over a DNF any day. As I look back over my Ultra career this truly was my best performance. I recovered from the lowest of lows and I pushed harder than I thought I could at then end. I left Camp Bethel fully satisfied that I left all I had in those mountains. That is all any of us can ask for when running ultras or living our lives.
Thank you to all who helped me along my journey, Aid Stations workers are the best. Thank you David for organizing a great race. Thank you John for coming along to crew and pace. I am so glad you had a good time (John now wants to train and run Promise Land). Thank you Dad for always being there for me, whatever my endeavor. I know if I need a crew or a pacer you will always be the first one there. Hopefully some day I can figure out a way to repay you for this. Lastly thank you to God for giving me the ability and the courage to set high goals and then achieve them. I now know why everyone says Hellgate is so special. I just cannot figure out how to put it into words.

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