For those who don’t want to read a long race report, I will be posting my picture/video version later this week!
Back in October when I mailed in my application to run Hellgate, I wasn’t sure if I was getting in over my head. I had learned from the past few years that training primarily for ultras and being able to jump into triathlons and race respectably was possible. But was it possible the other way around?? In late October when I found out my application was accepted into the race, I knew I was going to have my chance to find out.
Between IMAZ and Hellgate I had 3 weeks. In that time I ran about 44 miles, the bulk of which (25) came in two back to back runs (10/15 miles) last weekend. The rest of the miles were scattered in handfuls here and there, all very easy and used to loosen up. I had hoped to be able to run a lot more than I did following AZ but my legs just weren’t back under me quickly – I only had 7.5 miles that first week!
Needless to say, while I was pretty sure I could make it through, the nerves were definitely there. I know that having to get through an ultra when you’re not trained for it can be anything but pretty, and I couldn’t help but have the memory of JFK ’09 lingering in my mind (DNF’d JFK after racing Clearwater the week prior). When the bib numbers came out and Dr. Horton had seeded me 4th, I was flattered but I also began to feel the pressure. I wanted to deliver! So just before 4pm on Friday I found myself in the car with Ryan and Carly and we headed down to rural Virgina. Due to my own lack of planning (I suppose I could have pre-made something and brought it with) we ended up at Wendy’s in Woodstock, VA for dinner. While the go-wraps and fries I ate were super tasty, unfortunately I would be seeing them again soon…..yes, that’s foreshadowing. Since we were early enough, we arrived at Camp Bethel in time for me to get my number and chill out a little before the run. Being around everyone ready to run was making me pretty anxious so I was happy to jump back in the car for the caravan to the start. It was surprisingly warm and in a race that is known for bad weather being one of the biggest obstacles, I was happy that a light long-sleeve under my Oiselle Fargo Jacket, tights, gloves and a beanie were enough to keep me warm. I was also wearing Ryan’s Oakleys which we put clear lenses in to avoid the dreaded Hellgate eyes (it has become a common occurence at this race to see people’s cornea’s freeze. Needless to say I wasn’t taking that chance on my Lasik-ed eyes!) Promptly at 12:01 am Dr. Horton sent all 137 of us off into the cold and dark trails.
The first 3 miles of the race are gently rolling trails and are followed by a long climb up a road. I kept reminding myself to keep it chill but I couldn’t help but notice that I was running stronger up the climb than I ever would have before – I would wager some of the pounds I shed this year getting in IM shape helped that. As I got up to the 2nd aid station I was told I was in the top handful of women. Cool, too bad we still have 55 (or is it 59?) miles to run! At this point I started tuning into my body to see what was going on. As the next section wore on, I began to feel worse and worse. I would try to eat a GU and it would seemingly come right back out – only I wasn’t puking…..it was all coming out the other end. My science knowledge isn’t good enough to know if when that happens any calories are retained, so I was getting pretty worried that it was only a matter time before I was literally running on empty. But, if there is one thing I have learned this year it’s patience, so I just tried to relax, ride out the really low points, and sip/eat whenever I felt like I could keep it in. I made it to Camping Gap 13 miles in and this was probably the peak of the worst of it. Unfortunately I had about 10 miles to the next aid station where my crew was waiting. I am still not sure what was going on – maybe it was the Wendy’s? – but it was a really low point. At one point while leapfrogging with Jen Nichols she tried to make conversation and I was focusing so hard on keeping my stomach happy I couldn’t even respond (sorry Jen!). The upside though was that it was nighttime so finding a dark nook to take a bathroom break in is pretty easy. I bounced back a little bit towards the end of it and I was surprisingly still way ahead of my project pace times coming in to the first crew station. So far ahead, in fact, that Ryan and Carly had just woken up and I found them in the car staying warm! I handed off my headlamp for fresh batteries as I made my way down to the food options. Soup was really the only thing I could stomach so I took that and an Ensure for the trail in hopes I would be able to slowly sip it throughout the next section. I didn’t stick around for long as it was Cold. My hands were frozen under the gloves and I couldn’t feel my toes after a few of the stream crossings. I only had to stop for a bathroom break once in this section so I knew I was on the upswing. Running in the dark was getting old though…. The trail was very well marked but there were still a few scary “umm, dude where’s the trail?” moments. What we did have on our side though was that it was a clear night with a full moon, giving us a decent amount of moonlight and making it so you could actually run sans headlamp on several of the jeep roads – very cool!
I kept it chill and just made sure to get in the calories I could, and as I reached the next crew stop I was in a slightly better mood. Bob was also at this stop and another friendly faced helped. Ryan and Carly quickly replenished food and water in my pack and I was off again. The next section is a lonnnggg climb followed by a nice little descent. Only to be followed by an identical long climb up to Little Cove Mountain. The sun had come out towards the beginning of this part, and while that helped I was definitely starting to feel the effects of not having slept. I asked the question that no ultrarunner should ever ask “how far am I?” and when I heard only 35 miles I was not a happy camper! BUT I was able to shed my beanie, headlamp and glasses and put my hair up and I think looking a little prettier while I ran boosted my mood. The next section is pretty long at 8 miles and after awhile I caught a guy and asked him how much farther we could possibly have to go – I felt like I had been running forever! He said he didn’t know but he hoped it was soon as he was in dire need of food. I offered him the last GU I had with me and he gratefully accepted. Luckily the aid station was just up ahead and this is where Carly would be joining me! I felt good enough here to finally ask if anyone knew what place I was in. Some said 4th, some said 5th, and some said 6th. I allowed myself now to hope for a top 5 finish, but I knew I had work to do to ensure that. Carly and I set off and I have to say these next 20 miles were pretty tough mentally. I was feeling pretty good though and we made good time getting to Bobblet’s Gap. The next section of the race is 8 miles. Well, it’s 8 “Horton Miles”…..meaning the true length is somewhere in the 9.5 mile range. I was happiest to have Carly here as at one point I thought we must have gone in a huge circle at one point and would have sworn we’d seen this section of trail. But, Carly just assured me that we had not and encouraged me to keep pushing it as much as I could.
As we were running into the final aid station they were pretty pumped to see me and Ryan told me there’d be no dilly dallying as I had made some good time and was only 5 minutes back of the woman in front of me. I looked at the sign nearby which said 6.3 miles to the finish. Is it really 6.3? I asked. The kids working the aid station laughed – of course not! They said. It’s more like 7….3.5 up, 3.5 down. Wonderful. (Note: the race is rumored to really be 66.6 miles…cruel I tell you!)
As we set off in pursuit I had Carly keep track of the time and we did intervals of “how far can I run up this thing” with 2 minutes of a fast hike in between each one. Finally we caught sight of someone up ahead. As we passed Sophie – who was having a great race with a huge PR – she gave us some great info on the course. She said it’s generally 40 minutes to the top (from the bottom) and 31 down to the finish if you work the downhills. I thanked her and she sent me off to go pass some more of the men up ahead 🙂 Carly and I will get our final splits off the Garmin this week but we made it up QUICK. There was no stopping me now though – I was headed home. For the first time in an ultra I was going to use my pacer to actually pace me (usually I prefer them running behind me or side-by-side). I told Carly to run ahead of me and push the pace, I’d yell to her to slow if I couldn’t hold on. So we started running, and in ultra-terms, we were flying…..8:15….8:05….Under 8!….and then there was the finishing chute! I pushed hard all the way in and was greeted by Horton who happily proclaimed I did him well by finishing in the place of my seed number….Didn’t want to let him down with that! My final time was 14:32:40.
After the race it was quick showers (yay for hot showers!) and we hit the road back to Baltimore. Fueled on Red Bull and wings in Harrisonburg, VA, this drive was one of the harder parts of the weekend! But we made it through like champs (thanks to Ryan for doing the actual driving on less than 3 hours of sleep). As I sit here on the couch with my swollen sausage-toes and a few tweaks and twinges in my legs I am so happy to have done this race. Only having the opportunity to run 2 ultras this year, HURT and Hellgate could not have been better picks. These truly are races that embody the spirit of ultrarunning, ones that definitely give you plenty of “this is what you came for” moments. Dr. Horton puts on some of the best events in ultrarunning and the best always come out for them. It was truly an honor to partake in this year’s event.