Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hellgate Race Report 2014

Hellgate 100k

Fincastle, VA

December 13, 2014

"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes." Oscar Wilde

The Week and Days Before

After the Mountain Masochist 50 miler the first of November, I took more time off. No running, doctor's Todd's orders, I went to see my chiropractor more often, give myself an honest attempt at recovery. Instead of running I did a lot of thinking, about what had gone wrong since Iron Mountain, why I was so disappointed about Grindstone and Masochist. At both I had run, at least at some point during, well enough. But overall I was not happy, I was walking away (Ok, limping) with at least a small handful of regrets after each.

After ten days off I started back to running, but I relaxed, I had run so very little between Grindstone and Masochist and had done ok, In the past I have run very little between Masochist and Hellgate and done ok. With my attentions turned to Hellgate and my knees finally feeling some reprieve, I set my sights on acceptance. I accepted where I was, fairly beaten but not broken. With one race left in the Beast Series I decided it was about survival. That isn't to say I didn't want to do well, but I knew ultimately it was about finishing.

The week leading up to Hellgate I didn't run at all. And I thought about Hellgate about as much as I was running. Our two youngest sons were sick, one with a cough and cold and another with a fever and vomiting. I started to worry about becoming sick. Then Todd's mom's stepfather became ill, she wasn't sure if she would have to travel to Indiana to see him, I didn't know if I would have Todd for crew or if he would have to stay behind at home and watch our children. Then on Thursday my brother called, my father who has diabetes and has been suffering with foot trouble all year was going back in the hospital for a fourth time with a bone infection. All this sickness and uncertainty lead me to two things, a near overdose of Emergen-C and the thought that Pam Rickerd had planted, "You don't have to run Hellgate, you get to." I decided I was going to run for my dad who was lying in a hospital bed the future of his foot uncertain.

That wasn't to say I was all together ready. Whenever I did think about Hellgate, especially on Friday, I got nauseous. I was laden with fear, too many to name, but all bearing down on my back. The biggest perhaps was accepting that with the no pacer rule I had to decide how well I thought I could do, and if I thought I could be top 5 I had to plan to run all of Hellgate alone, a first for me. I knew I wanted to do well, that even though the field of women looked strong, I wanted a top 5. I wanted 14 hours. I told Todd I was going to plan to run alone but if I was far enough behind a top 5 at Jennings Creek aid station he could plan to run with me starting at Bearwallow.

After some back and forth Todd and I decided that we were going to skip the dinner and race briefing at Hellgate in exchange for some rest at home before driving up. I love pre-race festivities and find the one before Hellgate to be even more special than most others, however I was using experience of past Hellgates to drive that decision, having fallen apart with fatigue both previous years I chose the comfort of my bed. I slept about an hour before Todd got home from work. I tried again between 7-8 but I just lied there in the darkness thinking of the year I had had, the good and the bad.

The rest of my crew, Opal and Kevin Corell, arrived at our house about 9. They brought pizza, I ate two slices. Todd had also come home from work with pizza, I had eaten three slices. We sat around the kitchen table making final preparations, choosing headlamps, stocking my pack. At a little before 9:30 we set off for Camp Bethel. They gave me the back row of the Tahoe to rest some more.

We said our hellos at the camp, which happens to be the finish line and picked up Sheryl Mawn and Jordan Whitlock to ride over to the start nearly an hour away at the Little Hellgate trail head.  Sheryl and I have run Hellgate the same number of times (three now), she always rides to the start with us. She always listens to me piss and moan the whole way over. This year she joked what was I going to complain about this year. Instead we laughed and talked about her living in Colorado, doing 14ers with Kelly Reece, the time passed quickly and we were there before it felt like we should be.

Horton had joked that the weather was going to make this year's running of Hellgate a sissygate. I wasn't upset to hear this, but when we arrived at nearly midnight at the start the weather seemed much warmer than I would have thought. This made final preparations a little more difficult as now I worried I was overdressed. I swapped my wool cap for a Mountain Junkies beanie, left my Houdini to be stowed in my pack that I was picking up at Petits Gap (aid station 2).

With Kevin's awesome gloves and a bottle stashed with a GU, granola bar and a Nutri Grain bar we headed over to check in and take a few photos. I was feeling fairly good. Standing around with so many friends, running and crewing, in the minutes leading up to midnight, well wishes and hugs, it's part of what makes Hellgate so special. But at the same time, I was just so so ready to START. As usual it felt like this great weight let off just a little when Horton unleashed us at just a minute past midnight.

In the Beginning, the Hellgate Start

The first few miles of Hellgate are rolling, grassy and wide double track and I found my legs right away. Having started near the back of the pack I quickly started to pick up my place in the pack. Usually I start really slow, but for some reason this is never the case at Hellgate. I really can't explain why that is, maybe the dark does it. There were more creek-like crossings in the first three miles this year. By the time we finally made it to the calf deep creek that leads you to aid station one we had already gotten our feet wet at least two or three times.

I had seen Bethany Patterson on the rolling grassy road and had tried to catch her, but she was too fast. I had reminded myself not to run anyone's race but my own and had slowed. But on the road to Petits I saw her once more. I was moving well on the road when my stomach had a sharp shooting pain, it made me walk and grab my side. It was particularly bad gas cramps, probably too much pizza. But it hurt and kept flaring back up, it was to be an omen of the next few hours to come. I reminded myself that it doesn't always get worse, to relax.

I stayed behind Bethany for a ways, I ate the Nutri Grain bar even though my stomach was saying no, but I had vowed to eat both the cereal and the granola bar before aid station two. That didn't happen, the stomach was revolting and getting the cereal bar down was difficult enough. I finally caught up with Bethany and her friend Ryan who I believe has run every Hellgate. She was as friendly to me as ever, which really is something, I had tried to start up conversations with others, and had lost all hope of friendships when Bethany started to talk to me. Sophie caught us and we four continued on to Petits. We got there at 1:25 am. They went on as I stopped to exchange the water bottle for my pack with my crew. Todd yelled at me for not eating, I tried to argue that my stomach was bothering me, he said it doesn't matter you have to eat. I wasn't there long, just to situate my pack.

From one peak to another, the valley in between.

Last year I fell apart with the weather from Petits to Camping Gap. This year, I was going to hold it together. The first mile of trail, though rocky, wasn't too bad. I moved quickly over terrain that scares me, over rocks and around bends. I passed a few runners and made an effort to catch back up with Bethany and Sophie when my head started to itch. I scratched the itch but it just got worse. Soon it was on my neck, then my arms. In addition my stomach went further south, by the time we were on the Terrapin section that leads to Hunting Creek Road my stomach said to get off the trail. I tried but it's single track, there wasn't anywhere to go. I climbed up the steep side of a creek bed, that I didn't realize was a creek bed until midway climbing up, I fell and smashed my finger. I barely got situated in time to use the bathroom. I was itching everywhere. What the hell is going on? I wondered. I put my wipes back in my bra and got back down to the trail, having been passed by no fewer than a dozen runners by this time. The time I had made on the way to Petits now gone.

I was feeling nauseous and itching all over. Hold it together, it doesn't always get worse. I didn't know what was making me break out but I could now feel raised bumps on my neck and see the hives on my arms. I had itched my head so much I had done something that messed up the fitting of my headlamp. I wondered if it was possibly the merino wool top I had won as a door prize at Grindstone that was doing it to me, that maybe sweating had made my skin irritated to it, but my head was itching too. I stopped and took the top off, ever so thankful to have the Houdini in my pack. I started running again and Brian Dibeler passed me, I thought I would stay with him and run but then the headlamp became problem-some from being knocked a little loose with all the itching. Fix problems as they arise, Alexis! I stopped once again, to pull off the side of the trail to exchange headlamps. Finally, with the Houdini on and the new headlamp I was able to run again! I had a small series of issues but had dealt with them without falling apart, give yourself a proverbial pat on the back, Alexis. 

And put your music in. You need it.

I wasn't as warm as before, the merino wool top had been much warmer than the Houdini but the itching was going away so it really did make me think it was the top. I got to Hunting Creek Road not long after and slowed to a walk to eat. I took out some Nature Valley bars, but they were dry and difficult to eat. I ate half of one. I had packed them because they had seemed like an easy source of calories, but they're not if you can't eat them. My stomach was still upset, both needing to stop and slightly nauseous making taking in calories difficult. I decided to let eating go for a while with the hopes that maybe my stomach would settle.

After that first section of trail in this section which is mostly downhill to rolling, you climb on a gravel road all the way to aid station three at Camping Gap. The sky was so clear it was beautiful, the lights off in Bedford I suppose it was, were beautiful to see. I ran much more of this road than I did last year, but probably still walked more than half of it. I knew I wasn't eating but I also convinced myself that I had eaten a lot during the day and my stomach was telling me not to eat, so I was listening. I was still running alright. As the road weaved closer to the top it got colder and the wind picked up, I thanked my crew again for remembering the Houdini. It was a life preserver.

I reached Camping Gap just before 3 am I believe. I was in good spirits. I joked with the volunteers, I drank a little coke, had a small bite of banana and took a cookie as I wished Brenton a good vacation. Leaving this aid station I had seen Dana Kracaw again, I had seen her a time or two over the race so far and when I kind of fell into her pace on the grassy road we started up a conversation. She was super sweet and friendly and I was my usual self, a complainer. I told her about my hives and the stomach trouble, my smashed fingers. She said she had fallen and I noticed then that both her knees were bloody, she said she thought she had broken her finger. Her sharing that made a difference. I had dealt fairly well with my little series of trouble on the Terrapin section between aid 2 and 3 but her smiling face through her fall reminded me that it isn't always what happens to us but how we deal with it that makes a difference.

We talked about races, Dana had ran Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc this summer! There is nothing on my running resume quite that awesome and I immediately thought she was cooler than the air around me, and conceded defeat. Todd had told me at Petits, that even though I was running with the likes of Bethany Patterson and Sophie Spiedel that I was ninth or tenth female. I really accepted that whomever I would like to think I could be, I am just a small town runner and mom, there were some tough as nails women in the field ahead of me, I didn't need a top 5. I would just run the best that I could and let the chips fall where they may.

In addition, Dana could run. I would have to take these little walk breaks, of which I was convinced I needed and she would just keep steadily plowing along. I would occasionally catch up to her again and we would chat and then I would fall behind and listen to my music again for a while, I managed a cookie once. But it was nice, it did help to pass the rolling grassy section to have an occasional friend. The first few miles are downhill in this direction but as you get closer to the turn there is an increase in climbing. It's all relatively rolling, small climbs but that didn't stop me from walking a half dozen times. She pulled ahead on the way to the trail that takes you to Overstreet Falls, and I stopped to use the bathroom again. Very thankful that I stashed wipes in my bra as they were easiest to get to there.

When I caught back up with Dana I mentioned my stomach was bothering me, I felt like a complainer, but there is something about getting that stuff out there that helps me, like the simple fact of telling someone how I am feeling makes whatever is happening that much easier to bear. We talked about Leadville as we covered the final rocky descent to Overstreet Falls and I was so happy for her company as I didn't even notice the usual ankle twisting and turning through here.

On the way up the gravel road I let her pull ahead and tried to eat again, I knew my crew was going to be disappointed in how little I had eaten in the sixteen miles I had gone since last seeing them. I managed two Oreos. I caught back up with Dana and ran a little more with her but then as the road flattened I knew we were approaching Floyd's Field. I was a little down that I was only going to make it there three minutes faster than my 2012 time, but I had struggled some so tried to accept that. I was very excited to see my crew and get some warm food and drink in me.

I got to Floyd's Field at 5:04 am. I saw Todd first and he led me over to the Tahoe where Kevin got out and gave me Mac and Cheese and Mountain Dew. Someone went over and got me Grilled cheese from the Aid station table and Todd said I was seventh or eighth. I said I didn't care I was running with my friend Dana and it was just about finishing the Beast. Todd said I was running well and needed to go catch the girls just ahead. Kevin said "you've won the Beast, all you have to do is keep running."

I looked at him, I was maybe hurt that he didn't remember, didn't realize. "I am not winning the Beast, Annie isn't two hours behind me, she could be right behind me." And then almost in unison, speaking over one another, they told me she had dropped from Hellgate. I honestly couldn't believe it. "Why? What happened to her?" They didn't know, they said they thought she was sick. That Jenny Nichols had fallen badly and was out too. I asked if they were lying to me, it just seemed so unlikely. They seemed a little mad about that, but it had all just caught me so off guard. I knew that the only way that I could win the Beast was for me to have the best day possible and Annie to have a bad day, I didn't think that was likely, not with the way the fall had gone. This news, it just didn't feel right.

They got me back on eating. They told me I wasn't eating or drinking at all from the sight of my pack. I said I am not. I don't feel well. They said it doesn't matter, you need to just do it. Todd said you've drank no water, this pack better be empty when we see you at Jenning's Creek. I could tell he was pretty upset with how poorly I was eating and hydrating. Then I noticed Austin Burling was there sitting in a chair, I said "Isn't he doing the Beast? Why is he in a chair?" It was starting to scare me.

Chelsie and I had made a pact, above all else, we keep moving, you don't stop at Hellgate unless you're going to the hospital. Todd said Austin's pack was busted, he was just changing clothes and he would be on his way. They started walking me away from the aid station and I started to tell them about the wool top and the headlamp, the stomach trouble and they said stop talking, eat and run. We will see you at Jenning's. They turned back, I shouted for them to have my new headphones ready at Jennings. I yelled it again but it was all darkness.

It isn't all bad all of the time.

I had eaten and the news that I might now actually be the winner of the Beast lit a little fire. I started to run. My music and the darkness, an occasional runner. I decided that I loved running behind strangers in the dark. But then I had passed all the runners and was leading the way into darkness alone. I thought of the year that I had had, how I really had been terrified of the dark going into Grindstone, how little it bothered me now. It made going to the bathroom so much easier. Just step off the trail and turn your light out. And I did. Several times through here as the trail was, after two or so miles in, downhill. My stomach turned further south. I'll spare the details, but it was often and it was bad. But I had the experience of terrible stomach trouble in 2012, I knew that even though it hurt I had kept on going then with less on the line. So I would stop, make it quick as I could and keep on moving. It made for a lot of leapfrogging as I would pass and then re-pass several of the same runners.

Through here there is some nice service road that is very runnable and even the double trail just before Jenning's is fairly runnable with a few rocks hiding beneath leaves. The leaves seemed a little worse than I recalled in previous years, but not bad enough to slow you much. I focused on drinking as much water as I could, I knew Todd was seriously disappointed in how little water I had drank, and where as I couldn't really eat I could drink. So I did.

Last year I had a tough patch through here, this year the running seemed smooth. If my stomach hadn't been so upset it may have been my favorite part of the day. I had been having a not so great day but I had been mostly meeting my troubles with ease. I was drinking every couple minutes in an effort to empty the pack. If I have any regrets it would be I wish I had tried to eat a little more here.

I made it to Jenning's at about 6:26 am, my bottom was on fire. I got to Todd and said where is the Tahoe I need Aquaphor. Blake, Kristen, Kevin, and Todd were all there to help, but it was almost like too many hands. They had a little trouble finding the Aquaphor and then they didn't even know where the headphones were yet alone have them ready. I did scold rather unkindly to this, so I tried to follow up with lots of thank yous. They gave me some eggs and mac and cheese, they gave me Mountain Dew and filled my pack, I tried to give them my headlamp but they said I was crazy, it would be dark for another half hour. I guess I've never made it to Jenning's that well, usually I leave at daybreak.

Todd walked with me a few steps from the Tahoe, he told me I wasn't eating, I had to eat. I had to stop and use the bathroom, I told him the stomach trouble was really fighting the notion to eat. He said he didn't care I had to eat. He told me I was just behind a few women, that I had to get moving. He said he didn't think I would need a pacer, I was running well enough. He said this is not a hike, this is a runnable hill, go run it. I ran on, once more into the darkness alone.

I caught Dana again, we had been leapfrogging for hours but I didn't see her after the climb from Jenning's. Then I passed Sophie who I had also been leapfrogging the last few miles. She said she was feeling Ok. The sky started just barely to lighten which was bittersweet. The sunrise usually breaks me at Hellgate, I ran more of this hill than ever before, hoping to make up some time but also in the hopes that the running would ward off the notion to get tired when the sun arrived.

After a climb on gravel road you go around a gate, run some grassy service road and then hit a downhill on more gravel road. I was running the downhill, expecting Sophie to pass by me when this female flies by. She said she had called her boyfriend at 3 am, I had this flashback of Dana and I passing a runner on the grassy road who was on the phone. She said that she had thought about quitting and decided to go on. I told her she looked great, she did. She flew on down the hill. Literally disappeared as quickly as she had appeared. That girl is going to win this race, I thought, there are just so many strong women here, finishing top ten here will be good. Annie is going to change her mind too. It doesn't matter, I reminded myself, you just do what you can, that is all that you can do.

I knew I should be eating, but the downhill made it hard. So I vowed to eat on the climb to Little Cove. But it seemed to take much longer to get from the downhill gravel road to the road that takes you to Little Cove. It was mostly double trail and downhill but it just took a while. I was actually getting hungry. On the road several crews were parked at the turn to Little Cove, I saw mine but they were just there to offer their friendly encouragement, their smiles, they still wouldn't take my headlamp. I said, "Did you see that girl fly through here? She was going to quit in the middle of the night, now she's running so strong she may win!" I really thought this. I started walking just passed the turn so I could eat and Todd and Kevin yelled at me from the turn to run, so I ran a few steps and then stopped and ate the crackers I had been planning on eating.

And I was able to eat them and drink more water, because they are dry. And then I thought about what I had been trying to eat from my pack, I had all of this really dry food, a lot of it I hadn't trained with, and I realized that I am a little bit of an idiot. I ate the whole package of crackers and drank a bunch of water. I ran up the gravel road alternating with hike breaks and I really started to feel better, really for the first time all day. I had a little piece of gravel in my shoe that had been there since before the aid station, I told myself to stop being so dumb and fix the shoe. I stopped and shook the shoe out. I started running again, I stopped twice more to pee. I was hydrating better than ever. I felt good about what I was doing finally, eating, drinking, fixing problems as they arose and it started to reflect in my running. I ran on to Little Cove.

I got to the Aid Station at 8:07 am. Nearly a half hour better than ever before. I started to run right through, they said "it's a long ways to the next aid station, are you sure you don't want to stop?" I stopped and took some soda and talked to the aid station workers, laughed about Horton's sign and the mileage. I left Little Cove in better spirits than ever before. I was 7th female, I had been staying strong through a not so great day and I was feeling better. I ran on towards Bearwallow.

This section was good except that I didn't remember all of the twists and turns, the changes from service road to double trail to single back to double. There was lots of trail and I liked that, I felt good even though the leaves were deep in several spots. When I hit the second section of trail I thought erroneously that I was on the Devil's Trail. I took my Houdini off and wrapped it around my waist and put my head in the game. I passed several runners and was feeling good. Until we hit some double trail again and a gate and I remembered the hell this section was in 2012, that nightmare brought back my memories of this section more clearly. And I realized that was not the Devil's Trail, I am not where I think I am. And that was a little bit of a bummer.

But then I saw more runners up ahead and just focused on reeling them in, passing the time. Then I realized that there was a girl, the same girl who had flown by me just a few miles before. I reeled her in but didn't pass her for a long time, I can't explain it, but I didn't want to leapfrog her, I didn't want to pass her until I felt like I could stay ahead. She had looked so strong, I figured she was just having a low through the leaves and if I passed her she would pass me again, I wasn't sure I could handle the repeated hit to my ego of her passing me effortlessly.  I would get close to her and then back off, like I was playing a game. I ate more crackers. I stopped several times to pee. I gained more on her in the Devil's trail, which was gnarly but not as bad as I remembered from the first year. Really it just seemed longer than I recalled. There was a little creek crossing too, that I remembered but it just felt like forever to get to the paved road. On the other side there is a little bit of climbing to get to the aid station. I was shooting for 10 am to Bearwallow but I think by the time I finally got there it was just a minute or so after. Either way it was was a half hour better than my previous two years of Hellgate, I had survived through my previous years low points mostly unscathed.

Todd was waiting for me as you exit the woods and brought me over to the Tahoe. They had things in better order here. They said I was 7th even though this was a half hour better than I had ever made it to Bearwallow. I had wondered a time or two during the night if I should just let Todd run with me, but now it was the time and there was no question about it, I had to go on alone. Todd said there were two girls just in front, ten minutes ahead, I could catch them both Todd said. They gave me Mountain Dew and Ibuprofen because my hips were really bothering me by this point. They gave me mac and cheese and then a grilled cheese, they said that I had to keep eating. I told them I wasn't going to hit my goal, which had been 14 hours. Todd said yes you are, Kevin said no, you're probably right, but we agreed I could maybe do 14:15. I told them I was OK with that, that I had given my best for the day and I could be happy with that.

As we walked from the Tahoe towards the aid station I felt out of it, I wasn't walking straight and I wondered how I was going to make it all alone. I was a little scared. I left the aid station, several people cheered my name but I was a little out of it like I said. I noticed as Todd and Kevin led me past the aid station table that the female I had been trailing was standing there. It made me nervous to leave the aid station before her, she was going to catch me.

I left the aid station and I threw half the grilled cheese away. Why? Because my stomach, which I have been told is my second brain is just as dumb as my first brain. And the two together could not make a good decision. I started running, now in 6th, sure that the female behind was just on my heels. I ran but was feeling sluggish, but a few minutes later the female behind had still not caught me, the Ibuprofen was working it's way through me, giving my hips a little break from pain, and the food was starting to work. Then I remembered, this section is my favorite. I absolutely love the weaving in and out, in and out as you move from Bearwallow to Bobblet's on really rolling, pretty trail that reminds me of Petits Gap on the AT or even some of Western States. I ran it well, I felt good, I listened to my music and really enjoyed the running. I didn't know how long it would last but I recognized the moment as one to enjoy the trail and the beauty all around me. It was definitely the high of Hellgate.

Then I saw Charlie Peele and Dennis Coan, they cheered and gave me hugs, took my picture and ushered me on. It was really nice to see fellow Blue Ridge Trail Runners just out to see friends on the course, offering their friendly smiles and warm hugs. After I passed them though I lost a little of my energy, I got near the edge of the trail at one point and almost fell. I laughed to myself, at Western States on an edge like this I had dreamed of throwing myself off the side to end the misery, today I was feeling good and almost accidentally taking myself out.

I got on the little rocky dirt road that leads to Bobblets and I began to fade even more. I climbed but I was falling off a bit. I made it to Bobblets and Kevin said I was doing great, I was only 8.5 minutes behind 4th and 5th. This, though I didn't tell them, knocked me down. I needed to know it and yet it was not the news I would have hoped. I thought I had run well from Bearwallow, I had given it a good solid effort. But it had taken me longer than I had hoped, I got to Bobblet's at about 11:30 am.

I'm still not sure what I am looking for, what I want, what I am hoping I will find.

At the aid station I saw Elisa Rollins and Sam Price, they were as friendly as usual, they gave me tater tots, quesadillas and pierogies. I ate some, but not enough, I was glassy eyed and Todd and Kevin were having to answer questions for me. I left and Todd said his good-byes, his plan was to go back for Mike Mitchell. He gave me my plan, I was to take two GU between here and Day Creek and then two more between Day Creek and home.

I started off down the road, the rocky rough downhill. And I was running strong, or so I thought. I caught Mike Pfleiger, another friend from the area pursuing the Beast.  He joked that I always catch him at 50 miles. In my head Hellgate is 70 miles, I'm not saying it is, but it is in my head. When he said that I had this sudden thought that we had so many miles left, I backed off, I let him pull away. The crash that had started on the climb to Bobblet's continued. By the time we reached the trail to the right I was falling apart fast. I hiked and started to let thoughts come in, 6th is great, you're going to finish the Beast, that's what you set out to do today, be happy with that. I was falling further and further back when another runner, I think a pacer, reminded me of Todd's plan, "Don't forget to eat." He said as he passed.

Sometimes, I listen. I took out a GU right then and ate it. I didn't get better instantly but I needed that GU, I was bonking. The poor eating had finally caught up with me. I started to rethink my goals, realizing where I was, looking like 15 hours, 15 hours will be great, I thought. A Hellgate time of 15 hours in the Beast is nothing to be sad about, that's a great Hellgate time. Sixth female is awesome, in this field, with strong women from Washington state to Florida. I will be honored to hold sixth I told myself. I remembered this section, running with Mike Mitchell and Grattan Garbee a few weeks back. I had had a low that day, they had found me sitting by the side of a tree, pulled me up both figuratively and literally. I remember Mike, a fellow BRTR from Lynchburg that day, taking my mind away from all the lows weighing me down that day, all the things the year had promised at the start, the broken dreams, how I had let myself down. I don't think he knew it that day, just how much his presence had lifted me. Saved the run. Saved me from myself. I am always, it would seem, in need of that.

In that final mile to Day Creek I thought of Mike, of those of us from Lynchburg doing the Beast. Friends before but the Beast had forged a stronger bond. On paper the Beast is hard, it's six tough races, 3 closely spaced 50ks in the spring followed by a summer to over-train that leads to one doozie of a fall with a 100 miler, a 50 miler just four weeks later and then the final deal, Hellgate. It's hard on paper, but it's something else entirely in the carry out. It had broken us all, in some way shape or form, the months since Grindstone have been a roller coaster. Not being able to run, when you are a runner, not being able to run when you feel you must, it's like not being able to breathe at times, You have to figure out how to take smaller breathes, be thankful for any air you get. I can't do the difficulty justice, I just can't describe what demons the Beast lets loose, at least the first time through, but suffice it to say, a mile out from Day Creek I knew I would complete the Beast and I thought of my friends that I had the absolute privilege of going through it with and I knew that it would all be OK. "And in that moment I swear that we were infinite."

On the straight away that leads to the Day Creek aid station I saw Kevin standing there in his maroon Moore's sweatshirt. I'm pretty lucky to have such great friends and crew.  It was 1:17 pm. I got to him and he immediately says "You're 2.5 minutes back from 5th place." It's hard to explain, but I hated that news, I had just felt complete and content with 6th place. I had worked between Bearwallow and Bobblets and picked up no time, I had bonked in the forever section and made up six minutes. It kind of made me mad.  "You can do it but you're going to have to run some of the uphill and the other side...well, the other side is going to hurt but you can do it," he said. He gave me some Mountain Dew as we walked to the aid station, he reminded me to eat a GU at the bottom and the top and sent me on my way, I'll see you at the finish he said.

I left the aid station and I walked and ate a GU and thought about what Kevin had just told me. At that moment I didn't feel like working for anything, I didn't feel like going after 5th place. But as I walked I remembered my mantra that I hadn't really followed all day, No Regrets. You will be upset if you don't try, you know you will.  So I ran a little. And then a little more. But I didn't see anyone, maybe Kevin just said that to make you move, I thought, so you would give it everything you have left. I ran a little more but I started to think that it wasn't going to happen. I saw two guys ahead. I ran to close the gap between us but didn't see anyone else.

Then at the 'tavern' there was a big group, three people and some dogs spectating and I caught the two guys and I could see another three runners up ahead. The guy, whose name I can't recall, who had reminded me to eat a GU said "There's a female right there, go get her." I laughed and said I hate this, it's going to come down to this, a downhill. He said she's struggling, she isn't doing the downhill that well. You can get her. What is was really coming down to was this: I had to decide, I had to fight. Though we were near the top I didn't jog or run anymore, I ate a GU I promised Todd I would eat and pooled all the energy I had left as I approached the parkway. I was reeling her in with just the hike, she was suffering, but this was a race, and this was top 5. I thought of Sophie, how she has nicknamed me "The Closer", I had to do it for Sophie, for Kevin, for Todd.

I walked across the parkway, took a deep breath, and ran.

In past years, I always find the strength to hit that final descent hard. I hoped I could do it this year. As I passed by the female I asked if she was OK, she just looked over at me and then away. I felt bad for a moment, but I remembered, this is a race. I took off. I used the first steep miles to pull a lead. Then I backed off in case she turned on the burners I had to be able to have another gear. I didn't want to race out the last two miles but I also didn't want to lose a top 5 either. Run smart. Drink. Run hard enough but not so hard that you can't run harder is she fights. Don't cramp.

It was a little stressful and a little fun. I wanted it now, I wanted the good day, I wanted to tell Todd when he arrived I had fought into the top 5. I had been lying to myself earlier, I wanted it. I just didn't think I had it in me.

The last mile flattens out, it's tough. I slowed down, my stomach was unhappy once more, just get to the finish line. The last stretch always feels like an eternity. But then I was at the finish line and into the arms of Horton's finish line embrace. It felt good. Fifth female, a 22 minute PR, 14:23.

Kevin, Opal and Kristen were there, they got me warm soup and crackers, a coke and warm dry clothes. Clark told me I had won the Beast and I felt almost a little embarrassed, it didn't feel as good as it should. Then Annie herself came over and was so sweet and kind, it made it feel better. She told me I had had a great year and she was really happy for me. It was tough, she had a smile on her face and yet my heart felt broken for her. It wasn't the way I had seen things going, I had gone into Hellgate pretty sure I wanted to push and have a good day but knowing that a good day still meant not winning the Beast. I knew I was on pace, as long as I finished Hellgate, to break the female Beast record, but I figured Annie would beat it too setting what would become the new record. To be in the camp, with the race and the series over, the winner was just so unexpected. Things don't always go the way they should, or you thought they would.

After some warm soup and a hot shower I gathered with friends, Chelsie's crew arrived and then Bethany's. At 4 pm we went outside to see them finish. Chelsie finished Hellgate with a PR and a few minutes later Mike Mitchell, Clifton and Bethany Williams finished. It was really pretty emotional seeing all of our friends who started finish so well and happy. There are certainly regrets scattered around but overall I think in the end there was also a great deal of acceptance.

Mike Mitchell, Chelsie Viar, me and Clifton Williams at the end of the Beast Series.

I have more thoughts but needed to get the race itself out of my head before I can make sense of the other.

Alexis Thomas