Thursday, December 13, 2012

Race Report: Hellgate 100k

Hellgate 100k++

Fincastle, VA

December 8, 2012 12:01 a.m.

I had my reasons for not planning to run Hellgate, they can all be piled under the category ‘Fear’ and ranged from frozen corneas (AKA Hellgate Eyes) to getting lost in the woods in the dark. I had given it careful consideration after Masochist and knew that there would be a lot to overcome mentally for me, perhaps too much. After Masochist, whenever I saw Frank Gonzales he encouraged me to register and I felt the shame of my laundry list of fears every time he said he thought I would enjoy Hellgate, do well there. Simply put, I am a sissy. I brushed the thought and the race aside, maybe next year I’ll be braver, stronger, faster. So when the race director goaded this year's event as "Sissygate" I felt myself being called to participate. Maybe this is your year.

So last Monday I called my husband Todd and asked what he thought about me asking David Horton if I could run Hellgate that Saturday. Subconsciously I must have known what I was doing. Just as I began to reconsider the notion he urged me to ask Dr. Horton. Todd even went as far as to track down the good doctors number and email address. He called and texted me throughout the day “Have you called?” “Why not”. “Call him.”

I think asking a race director the week of a closed race to run is ballsy. It is not my usual mode of operation. I clearly wanted to run and yet I constructed a short, poorly written email that I assumed would get me laughed at but certainly wouldn’t get me into the race. And yet Horton said yes, I could run as long as I was doing it for me.

From the time I got Horton’s reply email until the time I dropped my check and registration form off I was nauseated. I was a ball of nerves. However, after talking with Horton I felt a little calmer. I don’t know why, he didn’t say anything at all that should have calmed me, but I didn’t feel like throwing up anymore. I tried to push the fear of the unknown as well as all my other fears aside as best I could for the rest of the week.
Sheryl Mawn and I at the start. 
I could go into all the demons that possessed me that week, but I will lose even the most interested in doing so. I wrecked havoc on my nerves so badly I was almost numb by the time I reached Camp Bethel Friday night. Chelsie Viar, whom I rode to the dinner and pre-race festivities with, commented on just how bad a shape my poor fingernails were in during Horton’s race briefing. I was wound tight.

It is to this effect that I let Mr. Hyde out when what occurred next. My crew, Todd and Blake, showed up and we had a nice Subway sandwich. Afterwards I went to the Suburban to start compiling my gear and found that my clothing and pack were wet from a cooler mishap. I lost it. I think I said at least a few choice words I am ashamed to admit. Todd kept very cool with me and Blake wandered off which was probably safest.  One sports bra, my shorts and my purple shirt were wet with cold water. My (borrowed) pack was so wet I could wring out the water. I sent Todd off in search of a dryer and turned the heat in the car up as high as it would go and laid my clothes out to dry along the vents. Sam Dangc, who had caught a ride up with Todd and Blake, did his best to either put my mind at ease or drive me further crazy, I’m still not sure. I know I was mean and surly and yet he stayed to watch the transformation which actually helped to keep the lid on my breakdown if only just a little. I did my usual pre-ultra routine in our 90 degree car, praying that my clothes would dry and my mind would ease and reasoned that with a start to my night like this it could either get much worse or only better.

By the time we had to head to the start my clothes were mostly dry and my pack was dryer than it had been. I thought of leaving the hydration pack, fearing the wet making me cold, but Sam encouraged me to bring it. Sheryl Mawn rode to the start with us and she kept my mind busy as she detailed parts of the course and gave me advice. The time passed quickly and I was grateful. I was just ready to begin.

Josh Gilbert, James Decker and I.
At the start there was good cheer, picture taking and singing. I tried to lose myself in the moment and I think I accomplished as much. Before long we were off, Chelsie by my side. I secretly hoped she would stay with me all night but I think we were only together for the first two miles. Todd had told me to run my own race and not worry about what others were doing but I was afraid of being alone for long sections at night and about getting lost. This was to be a test and I was more willing to run slower than I needed to keep from falling apart. However, after the race started I kind of changed gears and decided that the more people behind me the more people to fall back on if I found myself alone or lost later on in the night. I decided to just run comfortable and try and find someone my pace. This first section to the first aid station was very runnable and the group stayed fairly close together. There was nothing notable; one low creek crossing with slippery rocks was about all I remember.

From the first aid station you run up a gravel road to Petites Gap, aid station number 2. This climb wasn’t bad. I stayed in sight of James Decker and Holly Bugin as best I could. I tried to take the climb comfortably hard and I think I threw in one or two walk breaks for good measure. I was having fun. I love running uphill. And the better I become at it, the more I love it and the more fun I have. I remember making a sharp right turn and seeing all the headlamps below in succession, it was here that I felt the privilege of being a part of this event. Later it would feel more of victimization taking part in Hellgate but here I basked in the opportunity.

Blake and Todd were there at Petites Gap to hand me a new bottle and a sip of coffee but I tried to keep moving through this aid station. It is here where we crossed a road and headed downhill. I ran a little hard to try and catch back up with the runners ahead but it was a little technical and I slowed to prevent taking the wrong step. Soon we were on a grassy road and several people, including several girls, passed by me. I reminded myself to run my own pace and my own race. It’s a long day, make it to sunrise first, I chided myself.  I was nervous about missing a turn through this section so I did stay with the two girls ahead of me until we got to the turn but then I let them pull away and settled back into my pace. For the most part I don’t recall this section of trail very well. I have read Horton and Aaron’s description of the race to try and jar my memory and I get nothing, proof that my mind had made up its own conclusions about some of Hellgate and decided to record them differently. I do remember the road; I ran but added more walk breaks. I was perhaps a little embarrassed about the more frequent walking which is why I may have snapped at Jeremy Ramsey when he rode by me on the climb to Camping Gap and said “Alexis, what are you doing?” To which I rather rudely and unintentionally barked “WALKING”. In all I believe I climbed to Camping Gap just fine but I was a little flustered by getting caught walking. I think its proof I still have a ways to come or rather go in my training and running of ultras. But alas, I made it to the aid station, ate an Oreo as my bottle was refilled and started back out. Jeremy offered up some kind words and I felt worse for being so nasty, that he should still be so kind to me.

At aid station #4
I left Camping Gap assuming that this next section was to be the worst part of the race from the descriptions I had read. Perhaps I didn’t read enough race reports. Most of this section was great. The section from the gate to Overstreet Falls is the Promise Land course, only backwards, and I ran comfortably here knowing that I would have an idea of where and when turns would be. It was also through here that I met my first event long friend, Marc Griffin, 6 time finisher of the Beast Series, who I had seen off and on in the previous section. We started talking and the miles drifted by and before too long we were at the few turns that take you to the only technical trail of this section. Marc pulled ahead in the trail switchbacks and I did have some difficulty maneuvering these technical spots but I didn’t believe them to be as bad as I had made them up in my mind to be. Near the bottom there were a few slick rocks and I did have to walk even though they were downhill in order to save my ankles but it was a very brief section. And then we were climbing on road again on our way to Headforemost Mountain and the first cut off of the day. Marc had taken a bathroom detour and we found ourselves climbing this section together when we caught up with Matt and Holly Bugin. She said they were going to drop at the next aid station; I tried to encourage her to keep going, I thought she was doing really well, but she seemed finished. Knowing that negativity in an ultra can spread like wildfire I pushed on to the next aid station anxious to see my crew.

I reached Headforemost Mountain at about 5:07 a.m. Blake was standing there holding my camera and said “Alexis, is that you?” in a way that suggested surprise at my presence. I won’t lie; his surprise was to my delight. He started calling for Todd and you could tell they weren’t really expecting me yet. I ate a half of a grilled cheese at this aid station, a few Fritos and a sip of coffee. I got a new bottle and was headed out with Marc when I remembered I needed more GU. I ran back to Todd and grabbed several more GU.
It was at this point, with Marc a little bit ahead of me, that I realized my headlamp was not as bright. Horton had said that the better your light is the faster you would be able to run. He couldn’t have been more right. Through this section to Jennings Creek my headlamp continued to dim and my pace suffered despite my using a flashlight in addition to my dying headlamp. I realized we hadn’t changed the batteries on my new headlamp and even though I had only bought it Tuesday I had used it twice the week leading up to Hellgate. Marc pulled ahead; I stopped to use the bathroom for the first time, and the trail seemed hard to follow and technical at times. I don’t remember much from this section because of my light. I did feel more alone going through this section and there were a few spots that I had to be careful about and I did keep hoping that the sun would come up. But the sun didn’t see us on this part of the course and around 6:30 give or take I arrived at Jennings Creek, the Breakfast aid station. I ate a little bit of eggs and drank a cup of Mountain Dew and handed my pack, gloves and hat as well as my Black Diamond Icon headlamp off to my crew. I put on my backup headlamp (that I probably didn’t really need seeing as we were headed on road) and grabbed a refilled water bottle and more GU. I had the feeling I probably should be eating more “breakfast” but also wanted to keep moving.

Me and Chelsie pre-start.
Not long after leaving the Jennings Creek aid station you begin a climb. I was with Marc and another guy whose name I can’t recall. It was dark when we started the climb walking and it got light as I turned off my headlamp and we continued to walk. I felt like I should be running but I also felt that these Hellgate alum knew better than me and I should follow their lead. We continued to walk and it got cold, I had second thoughts about abandoning my gloves and hat at Jennings Creek. My mind started to berate the amount of walking. And then I got chicked. Yes, women can get chicked, right? Kathleen Cusick passed me looking strong and lively. As she passed I took to running for the first time since the last aid station. I tried to stay with her but I fell behind. For the first time all day I turned on my iPod and just tried to keep her in sight. I was making a mistake but I didn’t realize it until probably Monday after the race. Since leaving Jennings Creek I had not been running my race. I was running the two guys race I was walking with as we left the aid station and did the first climb and I was running Kathleen’s race as I followed her down the next section. Should I ever find myself willing and able to run Hellgate again I might get “RUN YOUR OWN RACE” tattooed on the underside of my eyelids so I can see it every time I blink to avoid getting Hellgate Eyes. Who am I kidding; I’m too much of a sissy to get a tattoo.

But I digress. I eventually came out to a road and followed it until a right turn. Just as I was making the right turn a car carrying Chelsie’s crew, Cheyenne, Wade and Debbie, passed by cheering for me which uplifted the spirits if only half a degree.

I hiked and ran this next section. I don’t remember the running but I remember that I felt fatigued and the sun was draining me instead of filling me with a sense of revival like I had hoped. I was in a rather bad mood. But I think I was still at least a little bit in charge of my emotions. Not for much longer.

Here it is important to reveal my major flaw of Hellgate. I decided before ever reaching the starting line, without ever seeing the course, when and how the race would beat me. It would be before 7 am, it would be before the first cutoff and it would be a mental breakdown where I would hallucinate rabid dogs come to eat me alive or something just as gruesome. I told the few friends I shared the news about getting into the race the same thing, if I make it to 7 am I can make it through to the end. I believed this and when I arrived at 7 am on the climb from Jennings Creek I kept expecting the race to get easier.  I had after all made it to 7 am unscathed but it didn’t get easier because my demons were awaiting me at 10 am. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Todd is such wonderful crew!
I continued to climb up to Little Cove but I was no longer able to bask in the beauty around me and this saddens me looking back days later. There were clouds below me and a vastness all around me that my words would fail to suitably describe. But I was falling into a pit of my own self-doubt, fueled by hunger and fatigue. My stomach was unhappy. My legs tired. I know this only describes every other runner out there Saturday morning but it didn’t really make the effort any easier on me. When I saw Todd, Blake and Kevin Correll just before the aid station I was at my first low since the start. Todd gave me Imodium and a bag of Fritos, he exchanged bottles with me and gave me more GU. I stopped at the table and perused the food, nothing looked appetizing, I moved on. I left the aid station and headed into my own nightmare.

There was no hallucinating or rabid wildlife in my nightmare and it was no longer dark out. Rather the real life nightmare that occurred was stomach trouble, no toilet paper and a boiling over of self-doubt. I started out from Little Cove and I started eating the Fritos Todd had given me, they were salty (good) but tasted greasy (bad). I would eat a few on the uphills and put the bag away for the downhills. I didn’t take any GU but focused on eating the real food, the Fritos. My stomach didn’t agree with this new plan. I ended up having to stop for an emergency restroom break, then another and then another. It all but stopped me because every time I started moving again I had to stop immediately. I couldn’t get off the trail fast enough. And to make matters worse I didn’t have any wipes or toilet paper, they were in the pack I had handed off at Jennings Creek. Due to this my bottom started to hurt. And at the risk of sharing too much detail, it started to feel like it was on fire. I was pretty much stopped in the woods, people passing by me one after another, including another female (I was now 7th) and it hurt to walk. And so I lost it. I quit.

The pain in my legs and the fatigue were one thing but I just couldn’t handle the chaffing. I decided when I got to the next aid station I was dropping out. There was a little more to this, but it’s hard to describe here on my blog. But basically for the first time ever in a race, I gave up, I was done. And then I started to cry. I was mad. I had deceived myself unintentionally. How was I to know or think that making it to sunrise would be enough? I had defeated myself by not keeping enough in the mental fuel tank. I got angry. I cried harder. Like wiping tears with my sleeves hard. I stopped to find a leaf to see if that would help, it didn’t. I was out there, not moving, in the woods, 40+ miles in and I had become unraveled. And it was all because I had convinced myself that after 7 am I was free from this very kind of unraveling. Looking back it doesn’t sound like much to say that I had G.I. issues and quit. But out there on Saturday morning my whole world was coming down fast.

After I quit I thought about the money I was throwing away by quitting. I had stressed about the money to get into the race, Todd told me Hellgate was my Christmas gift. Now I was going to have nothing to show for the money. I had asked late to get in and now I was going to be a DNF, I cried harder. Then I thought about Todd who had crewed me all night long and how he would be denied a run if I quit at Bearwallow Gap. I thought about the shame I might place on myself in the following days for being a ‘quitter’. I started to convince myself that I could just walk it in. I stopped crying and just kept moving. After a few minutes I felt good enough to run a few steps. It doesn’t always get worse, I reminded myself. And then the terrain would get rocky and my ankles would turn and I would slow to a crawl.  I was trying to just convince myself to finish no matter what and then the loose rocks under leaves would frustrate me back into leaning towards quitting. It was nasty, both the trail and the mental collapse. I felt like my ankles and stability muscles were being worked overtime. I told myself I had hours to finish, I could do it. But then I would think about more people passing me and I didn’t know if my ego could handle being passed for the next seven hours. I know that may sound bad, but I knew it would be hard to continue to fall. I kept moving but I didn’t take GU, I had sworn off the Fritos for life and I just wanted so badly to be at Bearwallow.

Finally, I saw a trail head sign up ahead, I heard cars, I sensed pavement. I thought I was at the next aid station. When I got to the road I looked left and right, no streamers. Then I noticed the streamers went across the road back into more single track trail. My heart literally felt like it sank inside me. I was crushed. I tried to stifle a whimper. I was back to feeling like quitting. I felt like I was on a roller coaster and just wanted off. Within a few minutes or so of being on the trail I finally ate a GU, the first time since Little Cove Mountain. I had been on that section of trail for far too long without a GU. A few minutes later I saw Todd and Blake up ahead. I was never so happy to see the faces of my crew. They had seen Marc who had told them I was suffering. I kind of announced to the entire aid station that I wanted to quit. Jamie Swyers said “Not here you don’t.” I ate half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and grabbed a fresh grilled cheese as Jamie laid it down on a plate. Todd had disappeared off to the car. And I was just standing there at the table looking down at the food when Cheyenne Craig came up, grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the table and the aid station. ‘Come on, here ya go,’ in a way that suggested I pull myself together and fast. About 100 yards from the aid station we stopped, I ate the grilled cheese and drank some Mountain Dew. I didn’t realize until later, when the Mountain Dew and the sandwiches had started working how awesome Cheyenne’s gesture was. She had pulled me away from getting trapped at the aid station. A trap I was eager to fall into at the time.

And then the sandwich was gone and Todd was there to pace me and we headed on.
I was mean and disoriented coming into Bearwallow Gap but I think I got there around 10:30 and left about 8 minutes later with Todd in tow. We started out and Todd said “We are going to catch 5 people between now and the finish line.” He was behind me. I rolled my eyes at his statement. A few minutes later he told me to run when I wanted to walk. I snapped. “I don’t think you appreciate what I’ve been through!” He backed off. He didn’t tell me what to do the rest of the run. I appreciate that. I felt like I was running this first little section so that he could in fact get his run in for the day.  I don’t know how long I’ll last, I told him. He encouraged me, told me I was strong, I was going to finish and finish well. 

We were running really runnable ups and downs, especially if you didn’t have 45+ miles on your legs. I made Todd run behind me so I could walk and run when I wanted to walk and run. The fuel started to work its way into my system, I got back on my GU schedule of every half hour. Then we started to come into sight of other runners. We caught one guy and then passed a girl. I went from 7th to 6th . Then a few more runners came into view and we continued to gain and then pass them. I remember the swooping in and out but I don’t remember any climb to Bobblet’s Gap. I just know we got there.

We got to Bobblets Gap right behind Marc and he commented that I was coming back. I got a water bottle from Blake who met us there and we started off into the ‘Forever section’. I enjoyed the downhill and being able to run. Todd pointed out Aaron ahead of us on the road, “That’s Aaron of the race description. You should catch him so you can tell him how much you loved reading and rereading his description all week.” I had enjoyed reading it. I printed it out and carried it with me the later part of the week. I only wish I had been able to better recall some of the descriptions during the actual run. We talked to Aaron for a brief moment but then I kicked a rock with my toe. Ouch! Then again, the same toe on a different rock. I remember Marc pulling away, and then Aaron as my toe screamed at me. Then Todd pulled away with them chatting away. I started to get angry that Todd was pulling away from me. Then the hill got even steeper. I turned my iPod on let gravity do its thing. I flew down the hill the rest of the way until the single track trail to the right. I saw runners up ahead, I worked to slowly catch them and pass them. My race was pulling somewhat back together. By the time we passed Jenny Nichols and I went into 5th place my body hurt but I had turned race mode on. We caught up with two more guys and stayed with them pretty much the rest of the way to the aid station at Day Creek.  

I remember coming into this aid station and the volunteers being really awesome. They were saying good job and you only have six miles left, a real six miles. I drank Orange Crush and ate 2 cookies. We had just left the aid station when we saw Blake barreling down the hill towards us. He had driven to the finish line and had started running towards us. He kept us engaged as we ascended the final climb with word on the finish line. He also confirmed I was in 5th place. We walked every single step of this 2+ mile climb even though I felt like I should be trying to run at least a few steps. I knew I should conserve some energy for the final descent but I also don’t like to walk that much. I believe it took us about 45 minutes to walk that climb and we passed two more people along the way.

At the top we crossed the road and went around a gate. We said hello to a couple taking bib numbers and offering up some final water and headed downhill. I told Todd and Blake I was going to turn my iPod on and just run whatever I could find it in me to run. I ran about as hard as I could. I really wanted to make the finish in 14:45. It was a steep downhill for about 20 minutes which helped to be able to run fast. By the time we reached the one mile to go sign I was wearing thin. My stomach had started to bother me and I had to slow down. When we reached the camp entrance it felt like we still had forever to go and I was nauseated. I joked that I was going to end up vomiting on Horton’s shoes.

And then, finally, 14 hours and 45 minutes since I had begun this journey there was the finish line. And there was the clock and Horton holding out his hand with five fingers. The open arms and the coveted hug. He told the crowd he’d just let me in on Monday. I wish I had been able to appreciate that moment more. He really is a remarkable person. But I really did feel like I was going to lose my GU. I went around the side of the building to throw up. I didn’t. I still don’t know how I didn’t. I felt awful though, I leaned up against the wall and just stayed like that for a few minutes.

Afterwards in my new pullover.
When I finally came around the building a few minutes later I was a little embarrassed and was starting to feel the aftermath of what I had just endured. I went and got my pullover from Horton as well as my Hellgate socks and sat down amongst the others inside. I became a little withdrawn, I fell asleep a few times waiting for other friends to finish.

By the time we left and headed home I was completely beat. I fell asleep in the car and then immediately on the couch when I got home. A few weeks before, after my better than expected Masochist finish, I had put my name in for the drawing of the 2013 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. I knew the drawing was to take place between 9-11 am the morning of Hellgate, it was part of the reason I wanted to run Hellgate. I hadn’t thought about it at all during the day while running like I had thought I might. I had a 7.8% chance of getting in. Pretty slim. While waiting in the grass after Hellgate I had checked my email, nothing. I assumed that meant I was a no go. That night between falling asleep on the couch and going up to bed I checked the website. And there I was; my name and all the other identifying details on the list of runners. If I hadn’t been so tired I might have been excited.

I have no idea how I’ll survive Western States, or if I’ll even make it out there (It’s more expensive than I’d realized) to see. But I know that the task is less daunting after making it through Hell.

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