Hellgate 2020 – Pandemic Edition
It has been a wild year, and a lot I haven’t simply written about. I still have yet to write about my training/FKT adventures in early November, before I figured out if I was Hellgate accepted.
Yeah you read that right. An old fashion write-in race application. Not only do you have to send in a check with your application, but the race committee has to believe you can finish the race. So you put down races you have done in the last year (insert deer in the 2020 headlights look here) that might help the race committee decide if you are worth putting in the 150 people race, as well as your finish times too. I wrote in my FKTs and dabbled in a few other things that looked impressive (but maybe my 8:11 finish at Terrapin with a 16:14 average pace wasn’t as impressive as I thought…I’ll be bringing this up a lot since part of the Hellgate course overlaps with Terrapin Mountain 50k).
This wasn’t all pink bubbles and unicorn pigs. I was terrified to apply, but I had nothing to lose…no other races, and with 2021 up in the air, I knew I could A-race this mentally and physically. Why was I so anxious and nervous to apply? The race is 66.6 miles and had an 18 hour cut-off, that’s close to a 16:00 min/mi average pace flat, something I did not do at Terrapin (and mentally me trying to convince myself that’s ok because Terrapin had 9,000 feet of gain over 31 miles, and Hellgate 12,000 feet gain over 66.6 miles, should be less hilly right? Right??). Sure I had a few 100ks now under 16 hours, even a self-supported one! But these were flatter, and had regular start times, which means running in the dark when you are already tired. Hellgate’s start time was at 12:01am, so you start out in the dark, and I am notoriously slow in the dark on any terrain, fresh or not. This of course added to my worries already as big as Terrapin mountain.
I didn’t think I would get in. Then the email came and the heart attack that followed closely after, maybe a few milliseconds or so. Starter list was 109 men and 38 women. Of those, 134 would start the race. Let the weather stalking begin immediately and intensely as possible, searching for that wicked forecast that occurred last year. Last year on the same weekend and day (figuratively, they started at midnight, and I started about 7 hour later), I did Freight Train 100k in the pouring, cold rain. In the back of my mind, I knew Hellgate was occurring in Virginia not too many more miles away, but in the mountains, and could not imagine the harsh conditions they faced.
I was in Virginia actually when I got the notification something hit my inbox. I had planned on a few FKTs there best case. So let’s review the training.
I had mostly been working on volume over the weeks and my body was still pretty good after the North Country Trail Wisconsin FKT (220ish miles). I had some changes in how my body seemed to work, as my body demanded more and more water. No idea why. When I got to Virginia in early November, I set an FKT on the Peaks of Otter there, then set a new FKT on the Priest and 3 Ridges route which ended up being a lot rougher on my body than planned. I attempted an FKT on another, but the body wasn’t willing with the higher water demands and being unsupported like I often like to do and stepped off about 1/3 the way in for safety. The leaves were so deep along several of these trails, and I learned a lot from that alone. In the meantime, my new Nordictrack treadmill arrived back in Wisconsin. At home, I went ham on their iFit and got a lot of climbing practice. I also used a lot of new gym equipment to prep my quads better for the downhills. I thought I was doing good! In addition, I set the first known time on the Sugar River Trail for a flat mental piece of my training (which, looking back, glad I did, even though I did not perform as well as I’d liked).
I begrudgingly tapered, there was so much more I had wanted to work on, but was out of time and needed the recovery period. I’m sure my pestering was getting on my friends’ nerves, so I did what any good athlete does while throwing taper tantrums…I bought everything I didn’t need. TO THE E-STORES! I managed to purchase a few last minute things (a few I did end up using), and managed to “think” I purchased something that never got dropped from the cart.
During taper, I had Thanksgiving turkey with the hubby and went through a period of time where I felt pretty bad, with no energy, and just could not perform. I thought this was just due to taper…after all, after I got back from Virginia, I quarantined for 2 weeks, and this was past the two week period and felt great right before eating that turkey dinner, so covid-19 probably wasn’t the cause. Turns out, after some self-testing, the turkey had it in for me. Every time I consumed it, I just felt bad. Potential foreshadowing.
Weather watch: 2 weeks out showed highs in the mid to upper 50s and lows in the mid to upper 30s, chance of rain about 20%. The chance of precip never really increased. As long as it didn’t rain, I was good. A few days out, the forecast shifted to showing even low 60s! I was ecstatic. Please oh please be a sissygate, I needed all the help I could get. However, being from Virginia and the local area, I knew even looking at the weather the day before meant absolutely nothing. I tried to keep my hope contained into the size of a salt tab at least.
The few days leading into the race “day”, I had nightmares that hadn’t plagued me since Ironman Wisconsin in 2017. My mind was filled with images of failure and giving-up of all sorts. Not sugar plums. Missing gear, getting lost, failing to do the course, the course filled with impossible features… Hellgate was a bucket list race for me personally. I want to do every race that goes through the area I grew up and lived (until 2016). So technically I still have Holiday Lake 50k and Promise Land 50k, but timing hasn’t been good for me to get them done since I started running ultras. Something about running in the land where my family resided for well over 200 years just feels special to me. I have images of what it was like back then, how the mountains haven’t changed.
Then insert pandemic here. 2020 has not been without its hiccups. In fact, the race was threatened to be cancelled the day of the race due to the state governor making a new declaration. Curfew from 12am to 5am, just when the race ran! Luckily, this didn’t start til Monday, race SAVED! I probably would have figured out how to run it anyway being me. I was after all, already there!
Before I knew it, race day was here. Since I had done Blue Ridge double and had success not sleeping earlier in the day, I opted to not sleep before the race. I also opted to eat dinner elsewhere and later than the pre-race dinner, also skipping out because of covid risks. I miss the way races were, where everyone was together and I’d rather be out by myself by choice then be forced to stay apart from everyone (even though I would not have wanted to be around them due to covid either). I ate Sheetz, yes, gas station food. Seemed simple. Before heading out to dinner, Rich (hubby) and I headed to Camp Bethel (the finish) to pick up my bib and do covid sign in and listen to the pre-race meeting. During the meeting, I started having a large kick to the stomach. Period cramps, right on time this time for a change, UGH. I was crouched over in pain, about as intense as they had been the past two times, so nothing abnormal. I met up with a new friend, Kim, who had finished the race 3 times before! And then headed right out to get some midol and food.
Getting food felt awful and nightmare-ish. If I was struggling this much now, how in the world was I going to get up and down mountains fast enough to finish, or even get half way?! I tried not to freak out. I had never ran on period cramps before. The midol settled things about 50% of the way down, enough that I could stand upright again. About 10:30pm we made our way out of the Sheetz lot and to Natural Bridge for the staged parking. I was in wave 4 of all the waves set up to make the race covid-19 safe. Because I was in wave 4, I missed the singing of songs and a bit of Hellgate tradition. At Natural Bridge, I worked inside my car to get ready.
I applied all the vaseline and diaper rash cream to the known-to-get-angry areas and changed into my gear. I opted for a wool blend long sleeve with my Altra Wasatch jacket (old pink trusty!), my Inknburn 6” shorts under a pair of Altra heat zone tights, my Altra Red Team tech tube (also for covid), and glove-mitts. I chose to wear only my Altra Olympus trail shoes, since Altra has decided to upgrade the soles to be more aggressive and grippy, I knew they would shred through these trails. My mom had gotten me a light up cheap-o beanie, which I decided to use since the temps outside were currently 38 degrees, and I have historically struggled at this temp and below in the daylight! I slipped on my headlamp on top and it was comfy enough to make it work. I packed my new Ultraspire pack with a 75% full bladder with a 3 scoop tailwind mix (non-caffeinated), a flashlight, spare headlamp, many snacks including some last minute snickers bars, the sheet of “missed turns” send out by the RD Dr. David Horton (the RD of my very first ultra, the Dam 50k), iPod and headphones, phone, and extra beanie and CHAPSTICK. I should note here for myself (and a lot of this info is for my future self, sorry guys!), I wore the XO Skin ankle socks because I knew the first half of the course was gonna be wet.
About 25 mins before my wave start, we headed up from Natural Bridge to Natural Brigde Station (about a 5 mile drive to the Big Hellgate trailhead and starting yellow gate). I got out and it was COLD. I had my jacket on under my water pack and gloves on. My COLDSUX license plate started to make big waves and smiles at the race. So much nervous energy, I loved it. Yet, I felt alone. I walked over to the yellow gate and waited socially distanced for my wave to be called up. I met Aneta who ended up being in my wave. She seemed like a really cool person, and maybe we could run together! She had finished a few times as well, like Kim (who was in the wave behind me, about 5 mins behind, so we couldn’t run together), and it made me feel a bit better that there were others who had multiple finishes and knew the course.
One at a time, we crossed in front of the yellow gate getting re-checked in. Horton told me he heard someone tell him to give me a hard time. What did it mean?! Who knew me?! This would occupy my mind for a few miles. And with a short build up, we were off into the darkness. I tried to keep pace with the group I was in. I knew the first 3.5ish miles would be pretty flat (only about 500 feet of gain…yeah only, yeah it’s flat). This might be a good time to introduce everyone to the Horton mile.
The course on site and all information will have you believe that the course is exactly 100k. But everyone who takes this race seriously knows that is not the case. The race is really 66.6 miles, but most people record more like 67-68 miles, and an extra 5ish miles is a LOT of time when considering cut-offs. So when I made my sheets, I followed 67 miles total. Even then, your watch will always have a different value, and whether it’s low or high just means all your math will forever be off. Horton miles, as I found out in my first 50k, are miles that don’t really exist, but you have to run them anyway. They appear out of nowhere sometimes! The course for Hellgate has not changed in its 17 years running, so the fact this course is long and IS slated and advertised as so, it’s a safe bet to put your money on 67ish miles. So let’s call it 100k++.
The first mile felt fast. My heart rate rose, but I refused to be left behind although I knew it would take me a few miles to warm up completely and level out. The ground was soft, and the creek crossings came. I still used caution but knew there was no way to remain dry so I didn’t bother. There was a little bit of technical ground to cross over on some downhill parts, but the trail was mostly single/double track, climbs reminiscent of kettle moraine. So basically I died. Phew.
Nothing tricky had transpired yet as far as navigation, but I was getting hot. What? Me?! I was sweating bullets with the jacket on. So while dropping to a jog, I fenangled off my pack and took the jacket off while moving. I couldn’t lose the time. Ah better, but I could tell the buff was keeping in a lot of heat too as well as the hat. Nothing I could do about either of those. And I needed to pee. It was a well known fact there were no restrooms at the start, and I DID go at Camp Bethel, but I succumbed to my darn hydration being on point. I thought maybe if I waited for an aid station, I’d have a shot at a porto…
Mile one ticked by at an alarming 10:17. A few more kettle-like hills ticked by and I slowed a bit to walk them, getting a 2nd mile in a bit slower, but then the 3rd mile went fast again. I was happy that I was moving VERY well in the dark for myself, but frightened that I was going to burn out super early. I knew I had to run the first section faster than the 2nd because that’s when the real climbing started and I would lose my average pace to that. Mile 3.5 clocked in and no aid station. I didn’t color myself surprised because I knew my listed miles might be off due to “Horton” mile interference. Mile 4 dinged off on my watch (I did stop in mile 4 to relieve myself), and I took a sharp turn out of the woods to a table…the first aid station. The email read: if you more than water at aid station one, maybe you should stay home. True words to be honest. I was fine on water and did not stop. Next aid station was Petite’s Gap at “mile 7.5”, so not much else to do but climb on the roads to come. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember much between the water-only aid station and half way to Camping Gap aid station, about 15 miles into the race. I remember asking an aid station volunteer how far it was to the next aid station and them telling me it was 5 miles, and it was really closer to 10 miles, and I used this information of whether to stop and refill my bladder or not (I did not stop and ran out of water about 2 miles from the aid station). I remember grabbing a baggie of grapes and strawberries. I remember running with two older guys who had finished Hellgate at least once before and a few other really epic long distance races like Bigfoot, and we had some good conversation as we basically yo-yo’d due to pace up the climb that I VERY WELL remember from Terrapin Mountain 50k…the 10 mile climb in the middle of the race. Distances started lining up for me. I have to note here, there were a few people who passed me and they smelled really good, like fresh laundry. Thanks racers!
Before the big gravel road climb, I had rolled through a slightly technical section that seemed awfully familiar… big think at 2am. The trail weaved in and out of the mountain-side, up and down short, steep climbs. I had a good flow here, but it SEEMED SO FAMILIAR! It was very wet with the constant stream crossings. Leaves littered parts of the course here, but overall not too bad. The trail literally popped right out onto the big gravel road to go right uphill (literally). This is where I caught the guys and said “this seems familiar”. The confirmed this whole section was part of Terrapin and I knew I was in for the long haul. I broke out my power hike and settled in. I saw many people behind and in front. I passed and was passed by various people. My hike was resting at a 14 min/mi, and a good even effort. I got several complements of the yo-yo’ers (people who would walk-run, going ahead of me when running, falling behind while walking) of my power hike, and one said “if I could power hike as fast as you, I would never run”. I was very amused and kept the miles going. I occasionally made the point to look up and see the trail of lights above me along the switchbacks…yes I have to go up there. I also occasionally looked DOWN, and saw where I’d been and I was not last. I know this probably wasn’t as intense as if we’d all gone out together, but you could still see the string of lights and it was nice in the darkness. Occasionally there would be some wind, depending on the side of the mountain you were on, but nothing terrible.
I could hear the waterfalls along the road as we passed by. Would be neat to do a reverse Hellgate one day (maybe not so much given the forever section and devil’s trail I will get to later). Anyway, my mantra for this race was blink blink, drink drink. I knew I did not drink well at night, nor when it’s colder out, so I needed to stay hydrated, a strat to keep my feet from blistering early on. Blinking to make sure my corneas did not dry out or “freeze” with Hellgate eyes overnight. I wondered how people with contacts fared with Hellgate eyes? I still don’t have the answer. Seriously, Hellgate eyes ARE a thing people get in this race. I eventually broke out the other bag of fruit I had, after eating my snickers (which worked well for this race), which I had been carrying in my jacket pocket. I was determined to finish the whole bag before reaching to top of the climb. It was hard, I hate eating in ultras. Also, I was not allowed to have crew until mile “22”. The next aid station I remember really well.
The Camping Gap aid station was at the top of the climb, where you turn right on grassy double track for miles and miles. I spent the time drinking three pepsi’s, refilling my bladder with caffeinated tailwind, and featuring a now deepening bone chilling wind. Wow this aid station was the coldest place on the course. I don’t remember grabbing food here, but got good info the next aid station was 10 miles away. I think I was currently around the end of mile 15 for me, and I had to pee again. Whhhy. I never had this much go power in a race before! (Pun intended)
I exited freezing cold after sweating bullets climbing up. I shoved on my jacket on top of my pack and went on my way. I had long put my gloves away in my pockets, and didn’t grab them again. Pretty sure these went at mile 1 haha. I spent the next 10 miles looking for a place to go, but was wildly unsuccessful because the whole trail was on a mountain side (steep slope up one side, steep down the other on trail). I kept my power hike until I warmed up again, and then ran a bit. I regretted not running this section (leading to the promise land course) during Terrapin, so I ran it now. I was still being surprised about my running pace. I checked my watch for the time, only 3 more hours of darkness left before sunrise! That got me excited as I ran into the darkness, not a soul around. Everything seemed so FINE right now! I’m fairly sure I remember part of this section near the end…nevermind, I have no clue. It hits the highest point on course, and I remember passing “by” some towns I could see below, and how I wish I could figure out which they were, but I don’t remember this section as well. But the rumors were true, the course was mainly up a road (either gravel, grassy double track, dirt, fire road with giant ruts), and down a trail that may or may not be technical. Either way, I think I was ahead of my predicted paces that had me finishing around 16:50 total time. I pressed hard though because the first cutoff was at Floyd’s Field at 6:40am. The section before Floyd’s Field was a bit more technical coming in downhill, with several shifty rocks which took a toll on my foot’s skin. I started to pray that my feet would not end up macerating.
I arrived at Headforemost Mountain (or Floyd’s Field) before dawn to meet Rich at my mile 25 (course mile 22.4). I drank some soda and made the decision to change at the next aid station when the sun was up. This was a super smart move because the next section was pretty wet on course. I had some broth. There goes my memory again! Poof.
Out of Floyd’s Field (which I have found most difficult to type), it was a short jaunt of 6 miles to Jenning’s creek, which happened to correlate with the correct mileage!! Wow face emoji here. These six miles, I caught up to two other girls on the last climb off the mountain. One looked very tired and was very quiet and lagging behind (although very strongly moving forward, mad respect), the other a prowess of the terrain. I found out she had been military and seemed tough as nails. I tried to keep up with her for a while before falling behind on some technical downhill. I learned a lot of important things here:
– People in this race don’t mind being alone, and will not “hold up” for anyone
– Everyone is out for their own position, and pretty competitive, no matter where they are in the race.
Not that I minded one bit, and I could respect all that, but it was such a vastly different vibe. It wasn’t all about beating the cut-off, but about beating others. I had gotten this vibe in race reports too, but I assumed I was reading that of way more competitive people. I was not in any mental place to be competitive right now, too soon (28-31 miles in, not even half way), and I was so focused on the cut-off. Besides, with everyone in different waves, it was hard to know your position unless you asked, and it did eventually come up with everyone I met.
As I saw the girl fade off into the distance, the sky was getting lighter on my left. We were solidly on single track and heading downhill. It rolled and rolled down. I was starting to question why we were even allowed so much downhill, this was ridiculous. Surely we would be punished with more ups soon? The trail got a bit more tricky as I got closer to the aid station. I eventually turned off my headlamp, with much more light out than expected. Rich was waiting and I was ready to get out of all this winter gear and risk the warmer weather getup. I was all business. I had messed around a bit too much at the previous aid station but got out fast enough. I knew this would be my “long” stop. I swapped out my shirt for a short sleeve, stripped pants off (kept shorts under), sat down for the first time and took off my soaking wet shoes and socks. I switched to a more comfy pair of socks a bit thicker and not as good with water shedding, and my brand new pair of Olympus shoes. Before the swap, I slathered the bottom of my feet with hand sanitizer (unrelated to covid), twice. I refilled my water again, ready for the next long haul. I was just about at mile 31, 7 hours and 45 mins in. Double that and you get 15 hours and 30 mins. But that’s 62 miles, not 67! 5 more miles at a 16 min/mi pace is 1 hour and 20 mins. So that would put me at a 16 hour and 50 min finish time, although I did not know this right then…I was going to be hit with something bad soon derailing my race.
After about mile 36 or so, I decided to switch my watch’s GPS mode from GPS+glonass, to just GPS since I was already at 50% battery life. This definitely made my tracking less accurate.
I was pressuring myself out of there that so hard that I did not remember to take more midol (and wouldn’t remember each time until 14 miles left in the race), nor drink soda or any other calories. And the next time I would see Rich would be about mile 47! No crew allowed at the next aid station. I went off with some potatoes and broth. Of course I realized this gut wrenching mistake about 2 miles from the aid station. I start to climb up the gravel road leading out of the aid station to make my way to the imaginary mid-way point on course. The cramps returned. I was low on calories again, and I was gradually swapping from tailwind to pure water at this point. I took a bite of the potato and it was hard. I spit it out and tossed the rest. The climb was lonely in what seemed like it was swirling around the mountain. At the top was a literal whirlpool bathtub and a gate that led down…you guessed it, a technical trail. I got over my pity party of being near mile 38 and ran some and forced on a strong power hike to go up Little Cove Mountain, another gravel road. I did well, but again, calories waned. I was tired. I needed something. When I got to the aid station at the top of Little Cover, I refilled my bladder again preparing for the next 8 mile Devil’s Trail section, drank two full cups of grape soda and took some sausage patties to go. Heading out didn’t seem so bad down the trail/grassy double track. I took a bite of the sausage…it was weird tasting, but the salt filled my soul meter. I started to let the soda settle a bit and within a few minutes…I was sick to my stomach. I tried eating some more sausage since I needed the calories…and a few minutes after that my run was slowed to a jog…then to a walk. Between that and the cramps, I was feeling REALLY bad. What was in the sausage?! (My best guess was that it was turkey sausage and would explain perfectly why I felt the way I did. I had had sausage before at Cloudsplitter and it was amazeballs. This was most assuredly awfballs.)
The trail was SO EASY TO RUN and I could NOT run! My world was crumbling. I tried to force some chewy fruit candy slices (that I had been eating most of the race without issue as my sub for gels) down, and my body would instantly try to reject them. Enter the GI problems. I’ll spare the messy saga. I wandered down and down, and there was a giant wash out I was warned about, two logs and a plank now spanning the giant chasm. It seemed impossible to me. The height above the ditch loomed. I stood there for a solid minute. This was NOT going to stop me, it was like 4 feet to make it across. I SO wished I had my poles feeling mighty unsteady from the sausage and cramping. I focused on one spot across and thought about my proprioceptor training, that I knew with (absolutely no) confidence that I did not have to look where my feet went, only where I needed to go. I took the weirdest of steps one by one across the gap and made it. My stomach lurched as I jogged away. I tried to remember if this was the devil’s trail and why the devil’s trail was so bad. It didn’t seem that bad so far and I figured I was pretty deep in now. I tried to throw my brain out from receiving signals from my lower extremities that were clawing at my mental fortitude. Eventually, Kim caught up to me. She seemed so fresh and strong and I immediately felt weak with my current sausage-induced status. I listened to her and tried to glean any info she tossed at me, trying to follow closely behind as I could. I think this was the final 2.5-3 miles or so of this section. Everything was bad.
I looked up at the sky. The sun looked like it was slowly sinking in the sky to set! What are you doing there sun?! I looked at my watch for time, 10:40am. Oh. I am really messed up, these mountains play mind tricks on you for sure.
The course took a sharp turn up. The volume on the technicality of the trail maxed out. Leaves buried every rock just about, only about 4-5 inches deep, but enough to prevent you from seeing anything under them. And most of the rocks were loose or had been knocked loose by previous runners. My positive look on it was that it definitely wasn’t the over foot deep leaves I had had on some of the FKT routes I had done. But I was in such bad shape I couldn’t stand upright from the cramp, and my balance was off.
OUCH! I screamed outloud, that sent me to the ground in a ball. I had slammed my foot into a rock, but this was different, this hurt a LOT more. I figured I had jammed it really badly and needed to shake it off and moved on, but I vocalized that I might have broken my toe (my middle one, how does one target JUST that one?!). I felt like I was exaggerating at the time…
Then the switch backs came going down steeply and I realized how sore I had become and still was (I had ran the start of day creek aid station – the last aid station – the day before as a shake out and got sore from it despite trying to go as easy as possible). I didn’t want that stupid award so I kept my mouth shut. I had never struggled on something this technical before, but the gut was kickin’ me in the butt. Kim wandered ahead in the final half mile or so, and I arrived with a very grumpy grump at Bearwallow Gap (noted in my crew notes as a warning that I might be in a mood), the aid station I could start having a pacer, the one where I’d see my mom and sister, and the final on-course cut-off of 12:30pm, but my personal cut-off for my wave was 12:46pm. I hit this aid station, around my mile 46, at 12 hours after race start. I lost HOW much time?! I began my 20 mile freak out. But I remembered I started at 12:16am, so I had about 45 mins of wiggle room…still not enough knowing what was to come. The course would become much more technical, although less overall large climbing, with the exception of the final climb of 2.3 miles that I was now very familiar with given I did it the day before. “I’m not going to make it”, I wanted to cry. My sister fed me a clementine. I took a whole bottle of soda. Calories were not happening with the stomach firing death missiles at everything I looked at and attempted to consume. Soda would trick it for a few minutes at least. I could not handle tailwind anymore, which was making my GI track do somersaults every time I drank anything. I dumped it and opted for full water.
The next climb was a nightmare. It was so pretty and my absolute bread and butter (food, no, barf). It was absolutely my wheelhouse, there we go. But my system was angry. I cried to Rich that I wasn’t going to make it. I decided I would make a final decision at Day Creek aid station when I got there since I could do easy math when there. Sad miles ticked by at too high a pace. Rich spoke gleefully to me about all his adventures so far overnight and into the day and all the coordination of the crew. I spoke literally none. I could think responses but could not verbalize. It took every last ounce of willpower to move forward as fast as I could. Sorry Rich, I did respond, in my head. My personal conversation with him was riveting, I swear, even if one sided. I had recalled part of the course would weave in and out of the mountain side on the ridge line, and thought I remembered it being this section. Though this was more so just a big climb and then big descent that was all technical ground. I also remembered someone saying this section would have a pitch or camber to it…nothing on course met this description. Rich and I played the blaze/streamer game. We did this on the North Country Trail FKT, the blue blaze game. We would note who got the streamer first…although Rich won since I still spoke 0 words. Rich cheered when I ran, and I got a kick out of that whether he knew it or not. I was pathetic. I should be stronger than this, I was fine, my feet were ACTUALLY fine! I felt no macerations or blisters. Prayers are powerful. Did I actually manage to stop it from happening?! Safe to say now, I did good. I nibbled on a bag of plain chips and remember complaining hard inside my own head loudly as possible that these were not name brand (literally how grumpy I must have been to be complaining about aid and being picky about my chips?! Talk about lows in a race), and they tasted bad because of that. I did finish them, even if it took me 20+ minutes. I was having a much easier time drinking now though. I picked up my blink blink drink drink mantra again.
This section was a “short” 7 miles. Nothing could have gone on longer than the 2.5 miles of devil’s trail. But then Rich brought up the next section was the Forever Section…the longest section of the race left. Fondly named that for being mostly technical and being much longer in distance than stated on the record (noted at 6 miles, but it’s really over 8 miles). I did not dread it. I kept running and bit more and more as the section neared closer to Boblett’s Gap. I was nearly in tears at Boblett’s Gap. Mom and sister were above on the parkway, as the aid station was down below the bridge crossing UNDER the road. Rich ran up and grabbed the midol (finally) and a soda. While he was gone, I eyed the aid station fare. I downed some magic juice there, and it went very smoothly. The clementine previous eaten tasted like acid after about 15 mins, so I passed on that. I took some ginger ale (I knew this brand lacked actual ginger that affected me). Along I went, Rich caught up, I gagged on the midol hard, but got it down with the soda. I started running along down the “road”. Down it went, the better I felt. Am I coming out of this? Is it too late? The road turned off onto a read gravel road and I bombed it hard. This was the forever section and I vaguely remembered my notes saying RUN as long as possible here. I had my slowest miles calculated in my spreadsheet on this section. Any mile under 16:00 min/mi was good…my 2nd mantra for the day I had been chanting with each passing mile. I didn’t need to know how long the course was according to my watch, I just had that one goal. I had taken the headlamps too just in case. I felt real bad not seeing my crew and stopping so little not to see them at any aid station…
The road took a sharp turn onto a trail. So far the course had been perfectly marked in my opinion, but then Rich said “I would have been lost so many times by now without you navigating”. I still didn’t have much desire to form words. But you can insert a nice blank stare for your imagination here. Speaking of which, I took my phone out once, for one selfie, at like 4am. I never took another picture. It’s a big regret of mine, but I felt like I had no time to do so. So enter the Forever Section. The course was on a single track, of fairly technical trail. My climbing had suffered so badly that it was now too slow for my liking (averaging 17-19 min/mi pace), and my downhill was ok, but my toe bothered me and my quads were shot. I braced myself for every hill. It seemed like the kettles had returned, with no real large climbs, but the course was either up or down at any point in time…sinking down into the stream crossings, rising up out of them constantly. I was now good at this however, and my pace evened out to be much better than my estimated pace. I was feeling the flow here and just focused hard on moving forward again as fast as possible. I finished my soda with about 1.5 miles left. I caught up to Kim and her two pacers it seemed like she had along now. She cheered me on, and I don’t remember if I cheered back, but I promise I only had good wishes for her. She said it was just 6 miles, 8 miles, and 6 miles left, back on the devil’s trail. I passed her in…spirits. Can’t say I was good there yet. The soda was hard to mash down the throat still. I spit up bubbles constantly, with the stomach still in a reject all ye who cometh into here. I waited for the trail to spit me out near Day Creek. I knew what it would look like after seeing it the other day. Finally, it came, and I raced in. I had told Rich to phone ahead to the crew saying I needed my poles and soda at the ready and I was not stopping here. Again, feeling guilty not being very personable. But cut-offs don’t care. I arrived at Day Creek with 2 hours and 10 minutes to make the 6 miles to the finish. Was it 6 miles, was it 7 miles? Any additional mileage could cut me short time. I’m panicked. Why? I had a 2.3 mile climb, about 1200 feet to be exact, on an old fire road. The section I had done prior to the race. I knew how hard it was going to be. I knew my climbing was weak now. I feared it would take 30 min/mi to get one mile in, so estimating an hour to reach to top (and like other reports had mentioned, it would take this long). I cried some more. I wasn’t going to make it. But I would finish, even if after 18 hours.
I grabbed some iced green tea at the aid station and didn’t bother refilling water…I had no time. Rich caught up with me on the climb to bring me my poles. I cranked up the pace to as high as I could. I busted myself up, no words from either of us with the sun setting behind the mountain on the left. The shadow eventually washed over us and a chill swept in. Then I saw the gate, much sooner than I expected. I had made the climb, all 2.3 miles, in less than 45 minutes. I bought 15 minutes of time! Still not safe, I asked the man writing down runner bibs at the top how far it was. He quoted 3.5 miles. WHAT? Was this section short?! I didn’t completely believe him but it was enough gunpowder to make me explode forward with new hope. I had finished my second bottle of soda on the way up, and started my decent into Camp Bethel down a “road”. I was so afraid it would get technical. A few larger rocks cropped up along the way down, as light diminished quickly, but I ignored them. I had to stop and put on headlamps (wrangling them out of the pack), but then tried to keep the momentum. I used whatever magical nothing-left that was in my quads to stabilize me down and down and down. Even the fumes were gone long, long ago. Maybe they were but dreams I was coasting on (or rather stomping down the mountain on).
The trail dumped us out onto a flat section (ouch), but overall still down in my opinion. Rain droplets started falling. I ran harder. I passed a guy along the way. I turned left. Nothing to worry about now. Didn’t matter if I could see the finish, I could see I was in Camp Bethel, this was really happening. Up until that point, not for 20+ miles, did I believe I was going to finish. My pace had suffered so badly due to some stupid sausage, that I thought it was over a long time ago. I had given 110% so long ago, I had nothing. I ran on literally beyond nothing for so long. I have no idea how I was able to manage this. I saw the chute “uphill”. I read about so many complaining or meme’ing about the uphill finish, but this was nothing. This was just how it is. I crossed the little white painted line at the top with David Horton standing right in front of me. I finished in 17 hours and 23 minutes. I was surprised how much time I shaved off in just the last two sections (yes I shaved off time in the Forever Section), as I was behind to finish for a while.
It turns out Aneta finished about 17 seconds in front of me, and I never saw her after she left me at the start! I didn’t even see her finish, but got to see her after the race.
Hellgate was one of the hardest things I have ever done, mainly because I am not used to or have the ability to run that fast (fast for me). It changed my perspective on things. There was no bad weather, no bad conditions really. It was perfect. I’ll get to that in a minute. It was sad I didn’t get a Patagonia finisher sweater anywhere near my size (I ended up with an XL). But I was overwhelmed that I managed this race at a 15:39 pace average, with 14,000 feet of gain. THIS WAS FASTER THAN MY ROCKY RACCOON 100K FINISH (15:41 pace), with 4,000 feet gain! And yet, I feel like I did not go nearly as fast as I am capable?! I know I pushed way harder being pressured for time, but I lost so much from having the nausea and cramping for a good 1/3 of the race. I went further and beyond what I imagined in so many ways. In a way, this race itself is perfect for me. Although I’d love to be competitive, I do not think I can with the sheer talent this race brings to the table. I am always amazed at the people who traverse this course in such fast times, just like at Terrapin. I have a good idea of how I can improve this should I decide to do it again. Although I feel bad putting my mom, sister, and Rich through all this when I hardly got to see them. I didn’t even see them at all at Day Creek. So maybe this is best done alone. Meeting the people I did in the race inspires me to try again, knowing they might be there again too. I did like how all the aid station food was made to-go. Overall, I had about 1 hour of non-moving time, but this is probably a lot lot less since there were so many switchbacks which garmin usually considers non-moving time as well (going around them anyway), and I hardly ever sat in one spot for very long.
I thought long and hard after this race. It had such a different vibe. People were competitive, even if they wouldn’t make top 5 (women) or top 10 (men). Everyone fought for their own spot. In that respect it felt lonely, but then again during a pandemic, one must accept being alone anyway. Out of the starters, 121 people finished, 3 of them not under 18 hours. I finished 111th overall. I will not be ashamed of my finish time or position because I only came to finish, which I did not think I could do even before starting. I just threw my name into the hat of a race I had wanted to do for a while and see what would happen when the cards fell…in the fire. I thought I went out too fast, but honestly, it was fine. With any ultra, you speed up and slow down. I didn’t feel any less capable at mile 54 than I did at 4 in the legs. There wasn’t a true point where I didn’t think I could run (had my stomach not been dealing with the death sausages) because I went out fast. I am just so very thankful I ran fine in the dark when previous I had not.
There was so much information out there to take from, yet not nearly enough, that it was hard to narrow down what to make of it all. I feel like I did my best given what I had. Now I have way more, despite not remembering it at all. I did not suffer from sleepiness at any point. I got tired when I was in need of calories, and I was grumpy when I hit my lows. I have no idea how I can make it 100k-100 miles without blisters sometimes and other times, I get everything wrong with my feet. I made it out with exactly ZERO blisters or sores. I had some mysterious chaffing on the sides of heels that didn’t hurt (still don’t). However, I’m pretty sure the toe I jammed is indeed broken at the tip somehow as it is still very painful almost a week later (so guess I ran about 22 miles on the broken toe). I had no other cramping other than the period cramps, which I struggled with the entire race. It in fact did not make me stronger, just added a variable of difficulty to deal with that I had never dealt with before. Another experience coin for the bank I guess?? The upset tummy was brand new as well. I had never felt that sick from aid station food, but hey there is a first time for everything, this race just gave me a LOT of firsts. My pack chaffed me severely. The pack wraps around and I got chaffing from everywhere it touched around my torso with the exception of bra and shoulders/neck (but the storage is SO good and the bladder didn’t chafe me at all). My jacket ended up wedged between my shirt and shorts for a while, and gave me a majorly deep burn that I am still treating for oozing today. It’s a shame there isn’t top 10 females, as it still is a really competitive field even with less females overall. I would definitely push way harder if I knew I could reach that goal. Should I go back?! The weather is going to be a huge factor moving forward, as you are very unlikely to have another sissygate. Heck the weather was way better for Hellgate 2020 than it was for either of my Cloudsplitter 100s, and those were in October!
I still love the 100k. Though I feel like tossing any plans I had (even penciled in) for 2021, not only because of the pandemic continuing on because America is far too selfish to have slowed this enough to have a good 2021, but because I feel the need to just get better and faster even if that’s not possible, I should at least take some time to try. I don’t want to Boston Qualify, I don’t care about Western States (that’s not a race I could even consider given the simple statistics haha), no lotteries…I am from the east coast, and that’s what I want to be good at. I need to run more. I need to run better. Of course I am seeking any conversation related to this. Opinions, speculations, whatever you have, talk to me. Nerd with me. This is my lifestyle. Adventure is hard, and that’s why we seek it out. I might come back and edit this with more thoughts, but for now, I leave you slightly injured and tapping my toes on the ground (figuratively, with the broken nature thereof) impatiently figuring out what’s next.
Super special thanks to my mom and my sister who put up with a really crazy and hectic day, and Rich for doing most everything and NOT getting lost (to my knowledge) and pacing and talking to me despite my inability to produce the sounds of a human and more so a Neanderthal during the 20 pacing miles. The volunteers who tried their best to help out, and special one to those guys at Bobblet’s Gap who gave me that encouragement that I have found best at the local 540-races I’ve come to love in the area. Thanks to Camp Bethel for putting up with us ultra runners, and Dr. Horton for holding such a special race year after year and remaining unchanged and showing us we are more than we think we can be. Also shoutouts to those runners who show up multiple years like family, it really gives it something else that I want to be part of again despite my actual allergy to the cold (yes I was prepared to get the stupid award should temps have been bad; and yes Megan, I had been taking my allergy meds leading up to the race).