Friday, December 20, 2013

Hellgate 100K 2013

Ten years ago, I stood in front of a forest gate in the middle of the dark, cold woods with a hundred or so other runners. It was midnight in the mountain of Virginia and we were getting ready to run a brand new David Horton race, the Hellgate 100K.  It was December and freezing cold and in the first three miles, we would get wet from a stream crossing.  There was a lot of climbing and descent, some technical single track, rolling forest roads and cutoffs designed to push the average runner.  It also happened to be a special year because I started a conversation with the man who had given up his seat in the van for me.  We ended up running the first twenty four miles together and were married by the next Hellgate.

I ran four Hellgates in a row and each of them was unique.  That first one was marked by very high water and a lot of ice from flooding.  There was some snow and it was very cold.  It was also the only race I have ever finished over the time limit.  Hellgate #2 was also very cold with much more snow.  I finished that one, with ten minutes to spare.  Hellgate #3 was the ice year.  Not ice like the first year, but a few inches of snow covered by a half inch of ice.  Sometimes the ice broke when you stepped on it, other times it didn't.  The trail was a mess for a back of the packer, with chunked up ice everywhere.  I missed a cutoff that year at mile 42, the only time I had ever missed a cutoff.  Hellgate #4 was the very, very cold year.  I watched my breath freeze when I exhaled.  Up high, it was 12 degrees with about a 20 mph headwind.  When the sun came up, everything was foggy.  It turned out my corneas had frozen, as had other people's, giving rise to a new term "Hellgate eyes."  Despite that, I finished with a nice 43 minute cushion.  I was content with tying the score 2-2, and didn't run Hellgate again.

That is until this year, when I had the brilliant idea to run Hellgate one more time, as an anniversary run.  It didn't matter that Tony had long since quit running ultras; I thought it would be a nice little trot down memory lane.  As the race date drew closer and closer, however, I became really concerned about my training.  Or lack thereof.  From July to November, I coach cross country, which doesn't allow me to get the miles and type of training in that I would like.  I looked back at my mileage over the months, which averaged 33 miles per week. A month ahead of time, I went out and ran 50 miles, just to make sure I still could. Even if my body was ready, my mind was convinced I was not.

As the days ticked closer, I ended up with a cold.  I overdosed on Vitamin C and zinc, trying to keep it at bay.  This gave me nausea.  Then I started obsessively checking the weather.  The forecast fluctuated between cold rain, freezing rain and a wintery mix. This started a few days of trying to figure out what to wear.  I would only have access to my drop bag at mile 28 and then 42.  (Tony was not crewing me until the next morning and would not see me until mile 42.)   I finally decided on a tried and true combo- an old Patagonia race shirt, followed by an equally old CWX base layer, topped by a Brooks Utopia top and pants.  I carried my Marmot Precip jacket in my pack.  Then came the shoe decision.  I wear Brooks Glycerins on trail, but had run some in the Ghosts.  I decided I would wear the Ghosts for the first section, because they were lighter and would drain better in the creek.  Then I would change into nice dry Glycerins, which I have worn in the snow many times and have pretty good traction.  The forecast didn't call for the precipitation to start until morning.

Okay, all decisions were finally made and Tony and I once again stood at the forest gate in the middle of the woods with 132 other people.  This time, however, I ventured out onto the trail and Tony went back to a nice warm hotel room.

The first section is a double track trail, leafy and rolling.  It is all runnable but  I took a few short walk breaks on hills, pacing myself off the other runners around me.  I felt pretty good and the dreaded wet stream crossing was neither too deep nor too cold.

The next section is all forest road.  You go a mile or so on flat to gently up, then take a sharp right and head steeply up the hill to the next aid station.  I ran/walked and again, thought I was moving pretty good.  But when I looked down the hill, I didn't see very many headlamps coming up behind me.  I reached the top at the next aid station, quickly refilled water and changed out of my wet socks and headed down the trail.

The third section starts off with a nice downhill technical section.  I still felt like I was moving good, keeping the distance between me and the other runners and passing one partway down.  The trail changes into grassy road and then back into singletrack.  You end up the section with an uphill gravel road and it was here that it started sleeting hard.  To keep my mind off eveyrthing, I tried to listen to my iPod but it was too cold to work.  Partway up, I started changing places with another woman.  She asked, "Am I last?" and I assured her that we couldn't be.  When I got to the aid station, however (where it was now snowing hard), the aid station worker told me there were only three others behind me, but I was 15 minutes ahead of cutoffs, which, this early on, was fine.

I headed out quickly, leaving some runners behind at the aid station and passing a handful more on the now snowy road.   I chatted briefly with a runner who had run all of the Hellgates and he told me we were indeed doing fine.  At this point in the race's history, he said, there are no marginal runners.  Except me, I thought, or maybe said out loud, opening the door for more negativity.

This next section is my favorite part in the race and the main reason why I wanted to come back.  It's part of the Promise Land course and follows a grassy road, overlooking the lights of the towns in the valley below for a good couple of miles.  This year it was exceptionally beautiful.  It was still snowing hard, but huge goose feather snowflakes were coming down and there were about three inches on the ground.  I could still see the lights below and I usually wonder what the "normal" people are doing down there at four in the morning.  This time, I just felt lucky that I was not one of the normal people and instead, part of a small group of people who were getting to experience this.  It was really quiet, as it is when it snows, the people behind me were still quite aways back and it was snowing so hard it was difficult to see through the beam of light.  Everything was white and despite the footprints in front of me and the lights behind me, it felt like I was alone.

This idyllic state abruptly ended when the double track turned to downhill single track.  All those footprints that had been somewhat dispersed on the road were now concentrated into a thin line, packing down the heavy wet snow.  My first thought was, "hmm...this could be a problem."  I didn't have time for a next one because I was down on the ground.  I sure was wishing I had worn my other shoes.

My ACL surgery comes into play at this point.  My knee did not hurt, but it is not as agile as it used to be.  So, I picked my way very slowly and gingerly down the snowy, slick, singletrack.  All those runners who I had passed and kept in front of on the uphill now passed me.  Finally I was at the bottom of the hill at the first hard cutoff aid station with about 13 minutes to spare.  This concerned me a bit so I got out quick and kept moving up the hill.

When we passed the spot where that aid station used to be, before bad weather forced it to move, I checked my watch and found I was almost 20 minutes ahead of the cutoff.  There was some good running here on nice snow covered roads before it changed back to single track.  I passed another runner, who was concerned we weren't going to meet the next cutoff.  I told him I thought we would be fine and I started to relax some.  I felt like the cutoffs should be getting less tight and I was determined not to be stressed out, constantly checking my watch and not enjoying a thing.  Instead, it was getting light and the trail snaked its way over and around hills and I just settled in and enjoyed the run.  Then the downhill technical section began.  I was once again slowly picking my way down and continued to move slowly when the trail turned to downhill double track. After getting passed again, I looked at my watch and really started to panic.  Regardless of how my legs felt about running fast downhill, I had to move and so I did.  I didn't look at the time when I got to the aid station, but I knew I was cutting it close.  I grabbed my dropbag, pulled my bag of food out of it, and headed out with five minutes to spare.  I was in such a hurry, I didn't think about the fact that I really needed to change shoes.

The next section is a long uphill on a gravel road that was packed with snow.  Same theme:  I thought I was moving well.  I left some runners behind and was only passed by one other person, who was using trekking poles.  However, that nice uphill is followed by a lot of downhill and I continued to be slow.  Same story:  I was passed by the people I had just passed and I began looking at my watch.  I lost a lot of time on the downhill and knew I wouldn't make the next cutoff.  I still kept moving hard and moved well up the long uphill to the aid station.  There, I was about 13 minutes past the cutoff and assumed I would be pulled, but they told me I could go on. I was actually disappointed in a way, because the weather had deteriorated, I knew the next section was hard and I knew I was not going to gain all that time back to meet the next cutoff. 

I ended up enjoying the next section, in part because I knew my race was over.  It starts off downhill on double track and then starts rolling.  It transitions to single track, climbing up the mountain and then down some technical trail.  The footing was very slippery on all the single track, the wind and sleet picked up and I heard a hunter shoot from somewhere down the hill below me.  I was hoping it was not in my direction. As the weather continued to worsen, the trail got slicker, I became concerned that I might fall and hang out here by myself for a long time.  I worked to catch up with another runner and stayed with him for the rest of the technical section.  More uphill double track follows, then a final long section of single track, where there was snow and leaf-covered rocks.  I had started this section knowing I wouldn't make the next cutoff, but I kept moving hard anyway.  The sleet changed to a steady rain, but I was still warm. After another wet creek crossing, the trail approached the aid station and here Tony came walking down the trail.  As always I was very happy to see him and walked the final third mile with him.  When I got to the aid station, I was about 13 minutes over.

I was not unhappy to have to stop.  I really enjoyed the night section and the daylight trail sections where I wasn't panicking.  I never felt exhausted and never felt like I was doing a death march. It was just stressful knowing I was behind and I am to the point where I just want to run and enjoy it.  Hellgate is the only race that I have ever had trouble with cutoffs and I think I am ready to concede defeat.  

So, a week later, I have been beating myself up for being so slow. Tony's practical advice is to just get faster and quit worrying about it. So, once my foot heals (wrong shoes, too tight), I will.

Year in Review and What's Next?

This year has been nothing to write home about.  I did the inaugural Georgia Death Race, the Inaugural Leatherwood 50 miler, ran a 50K at Black Mountain Monster and went to Vermont and ran the 100 there.  It seems like my running has been very inconsistent this year, so my goal for next year is to get consistent.  The inconsistency has made me feel like not much of a runner, so I want to put more miles in, drag the tire more, do a little speedwork and hillwork.  Once again, I would like to run the Bartram and do 100 on the AT.  I am running Delerium 24 hour in February and am thinking that my next challenge will be to tackle a 48 hour. 


Matt Bader said...

The DNF certainly sucks and it definitely must feel like this year has been more trying than triumphant, but you are clearly much more than "not much of a runner"! Keep your head up!!

Denise Davis said...

Thanks, Matt.