Thursday, December 22, 2011

Race Report: 2011 Hellgate 100K

My Three Hellgates

Number 1: The race I wanted to run, aiming for 13 hours.
Number 2: A P.R. at least (14 hours), once #1 went out the window.
Number 3: A race to finish before I gave in and DNF'd.

I had high hopes for Hellgate this year.  I've been running pretty well, the weather looked to be warmer than usual, no snow on the course...  my dad was going to come crew for me again...  what could go wrong?  Two years ago I finished in 14 hours, so given how I've been running, I figured I could do 13 this year.  My 100K PR is under 10 hours, but that's on the road, and Hellgate is... different.  A midnight start, so you get a good 7 hours of running at night.  Plenty of elevation change, mainly in the form of long, multi-mile climbs.  Plus, it's several miles longer than 100K.  Is it 66.6 miles?  Perhaps.

Start to AS 2 (@8 miles)

I napped a little in the afternoon and at least rested a bit before the start (Sean being in no mood to actually sleep for some reason).  At the start, I was surprised by how warm it was.  I got out of the car wearing a jacket over my warmest running shirt, mittens, and a heavy hat that I can fold down to cover my ears and neck.  After all, even if it was warmer there, we'd be running up into the mountains...  But once I checked in, I went back and revised.  Lighter shirt, lighter gloves... I kept the hat just in case.  As we started off through the woods, I figured I had made the right decision.  I warmed up quickly, and unzipped the jacket.  I wouldn't have wanted any more.

I fell in behind the front pack, which was surprisingly large -- maybe 12 or 15 people.  I didn't think I needed to be going any faster, and I didn't think that many people finished under 13 hours.  There was no clear leader -- different people dashed ahead here or there.  I found myself ahead of some of the people I'm usually behind, but it didn't feel like I needed to slow down, either.  So far, so good.  The first leg is all nice trails.  It starts wide enough for the mob, and eventually narrows as you close in on and parallel the road.  A little up and down, but very runnable.

There was some water on the ground, but nothing too extreme.  The usual stream crossing before actually coming out to the road and the first aid station (and it's a big stream -- wet feet are unavoidable, and I splashed my legs too).  I went right on by the station as I didn't need any aid in the first hour.  This was the start of the second leg, which has its ups and downs.  Figuratively, that is -- the actual course is just a four-mile climb up a mountain road.  The up is the down, I suppose you could say.  Anyway, there are two neat aspects of it.  First, with the full moon, we ran the whole thing without lights, which was fun.  And second, as the road switchbacks up the mountain, you can see a long string of lights playing out behind you.  That was actually a little better in previous years -- this time I think so many people near me were running without lights that the stream of headlamps was a little more broken up.

I ended up running with Keith Knipling as we finished the leg.  He had finished just ahead of me at Grindstone, and I hoped to finish this one in his vicinity too.  We chatted as we climbed, though he depressingly seemed pretty confident that everyone ahead of us was going to stay well ahead of us.  I broke it off at the end by turning my lights on.  My dad was waiting for me at the aid station at the top, and he had mentioned several times how he'd be looking for my lights as I came in to a station.  Keith went right on through as I pulled over by Heather and my dad.  He had my fresh hydration pack ready, but I wanted to switch to a cooler hat, so I put down my old pack and rooted through my crew bag for the hat.  I got it, mounted up with the new pack, and headed out.  I had made great time so far, a few minutes ahead of my previous 14 hour pace, at a time in the race where it was pretty hard to make up time.

AS2 to AS4 (@24 miles)

We immediately headed sharply down on another nice trail.  Someone was just ahead, and I pulled even on the downhill and we exchanged small talk.  After a while, I checked my watch, and finding it was time, reached for a gel.  And though I didn't quite recognize it at the moment, this was the end of Hellgate #1.

There was nothing there.  I checked the other pockets, in case my dad had just put it in a weird place.  Nothing.  I felt the weight of the water compartment.  Light.  The trash pocket.  Full.  There was no way around it -- somehow, I had left the station with my empty pack instead of my full one.  Aargh!  Double-aargh!

OK, it would be OK.  I checked my cheat sheet.  75 minutes to the next aid station.  I just had to hold out and I could eat there.  It was going to be 3 hours and 20 minutes before I saw my dad again and could properly resupply.  I had fumbled the refill for the longest gap between crew stations on the entire course.  Lovely.  But I just had to make it an hour on the water on me, and then load up on food, and hope for the best.  I was going to be short on calories for the next 75 minutes, so I couldn't try to make a move here, but I could try to hang with the runners around me, and coast down the hill to the next station.  I figured it was better for this to happen early in the race -- I should still have energy in my legs, and it should be able to carry me until I could catch up on the nutrition again.

I would eventually discover I was wrong on all counts.

First, the trail turned uphill.  Despite my plan, I passed some folks as they slowed to a walk and I jogged more of the lighter inclines.  I came up behind Keith again, which was nice, as he had at least a bit of a head start out of the station.  Also I could force myself to slow down -- I had no need to pass him.  After a little bit of climbing, the trail turned down again.  Just as we were coming out of the woods, one of the runners ahead of me went down spectacularly -- fortunately, on the last bit of dirt before the hard road.  I waited for her to get up and we headed out to the road, beginning to climb.

It didn't take long at all for me to recognize this road.  We first ran down it, and then ran, jogged, walked, or crawled back up it, during the Terrapin Mountain 50K.  I asked Keith to be sure.  "Are we heading toward Camping Gap?"  Yes.  Lovely.  It was at least a 3 mile climb, ranging from uncomfortably steep to steeper still.  At least we could turn our lights off and enjoy the moonlight again.

Halfway up, and really worrying about the nutrition situation, I asked the runners around me if anyone had some gels they could spare.  Keith cheerfully handed over a pack of four gel blocks.  I don't normally care for blocks, particularly on cold nights like this where they had turned solid.  But in this case, it was gold.  I fell back a bit and stuffed two in my mouth, waiting a while for them to warm up enough to chew.  When I caught up a bit later I asked if he wanted the other two back, and he said I could have them.  Double thanks!  I saved them for the next leg, the longer of the two before I'd see my dad again.

I started recognizing more turns, and shortly we pulled into Camping Gap.  Huzzah!  I headed straight for the table and surveyed the offerings.  No gels, and I didn't really want candy, but I began throwing down peanut butter-covered crackers.  I also took about 7 banana chunks to go, stuffing my pockets full of them.  Everyone I had been running with was long gone, and I was still grazing.  Energy drink.  Water for my pack.  More crackers.  Eventually I pulled myself away.

Next up was the Promise Land section.  I remembered ups and downs on a wide, grassy road along the side of a mountain.  Then ups and downs near the famous falls.  Then a climb to the aid station.  When I thought about it, I remembered leaving the aid station and passing a gate, and then heading immediately down for quite a while -- this is the part that had been snowy before.

To my horror, we left Camping Gap by heading up the road.  The road we take up to the mountain top at Terrapin.  Better than leaving up the ridiculously steep trail, granted, but where was the downhill?  I thought there must have been a mistake.  I knew I had seen a course marker at the side of the road shortly after leaving the station.  It looked like a steep drop-off full of woods at the side of the road, there, but what if there had been a trail?  I paused and looked back, but there were no runners in sight in any direction.  Could I have missed a turn?  Surely not a gate and a wide grassy road...  I faced up the hill again and headed on, still nervous and confused.  But I eventually saw another streamer.  I was on track.  But still going up, still confused about this section.

Eventually, I came to the gate, and the course headed back down again, on the grassy road.  I have no idea where the Terrapin course turned off to summit the mountain.  Oh, well.

I didn't feel like I was making great progress on the grassy section -- I hiked a lot of the uphills.  I ran well enough on the downhills and at least jogged the flats, but it was rolling, and there were plenty of short uphill bits.  I couldn't summon the energy to run them.  I was eating banana when I would have eaten gel, and hoping for the best, at least hoping not to lose a lot of ground, but with the way this was going, I wasn't optimistic.

However, I did eventually see the light of a runner ahead of me, as the mountain curved back on itself.  That gave me something to aim for!  It was a slow process, but I closed in over the remainder of the grassy section.  As we headed into the woods, the visibility wasn't as good, but when I saw the light, it was closer.  Of course, we hit the uphill part first, and I was hiking again, unlikely to be making up ground.  I thought I must be really losing time now, as I thought I remembered running more of the uphills in 2009.  Still, there was that light ahead, and no one passing me...

Finally, the trail turned down again.  It was easy to let gravity pull me faster down the hill.  Sure, it was rocky, but that was something I could manage.  I steadily ate away at the gap, and just as we emerged from the woods, I saw it was Keith I had caught up with.  I had to rest my legs before attacking the final climb on the road, though, and I slowed to a walk as we turned up.  Keith glanced back as he jogged up the hill, and that was the last I saw of him.

It only took moments to determine that I wouldn't be running this one.  My legs were utterly shot.  I could fool myself with the assist of the downhill, but there was nothing left.  I walked on.  Eventually, people started to pass me, jogging up to the Headforemost Mountain aid station.  I'd had no problems in previous years, but walking up this time, even in the better weather, I started getting cold.  I had used the last of the bananas and Keith's gel blocks long ago, and all that was left was the long, cold walk.

Finally, I started passing cars.  A spectator called out that it leveled out and there was half a mile to the station.  The climb behind, I managed a shuffle perhaps, but not much more.  It wasn't that far before I saw a table ahead, they checked me into the station, and I found my dad.  He had realized what happened, and immediately asked.  I just said "let's get to the car."  He said "It's way uphill!"  I said "Let's just get there."  We went.  I was cold, hungry, and had legs that weren't going to make it one more mile, let alone another 2/3 of the race.

We got in the car and fired up the heat, and I rooted through the other pack and started slurping down gels.  My legs just ached.  I was intimately familiar with this, having had a major bonk run a few weeks before Hellgate.  (I hadn't eaten enough for a normal day, much less for the 24 miles I was aiming for, and my legs ended up in just this exact condition after maybe 17 miles.  Here at the race I had made it perhaps 22 before it hit me, and another couple up to the station.)  I wasn't sure whether I could recover.

I remembered feeling a lot better after a couple hours in the car at 24 Hours at the Fair, but that was just cold and sore feet.  I wondered whether the cutoff for this station would roll around with me still sitting here in the car, waiting on my legs.  I probably would have quit right there, except I didn't want my dad, as the crew, to think it was his fault that I gave up.  (Of course it wouldn't have been -- I was the one who put on the wrong pack!)

Even with the walk up the hill, I had arrived at 4:18, 20 minutes ahead of my 14-hour pace.  I decided that if at all possible, I would try to leave by 5.  It wasn't looking good at 4:40.  But as it got closer to 5, my legs finally started feeling better.  The ache had subsided.  'Calories at last!' they seemed to say.  I had at least another gel, and then turned to the matter of my attire.  With the legs under control, the biggest danger was the cold (another thing I remembered from 24 Hours at the Fair).  I had to be able to get out and get moving before I was disabled by shivering.  I put on everything I had taken off before -- my warmest shirt, another long sleeve shirt for good measure, and my jacket.  My warmest hat and mittens.  I ensured I had extra gels -- my dad had said he must have dropped some, but there were still plenty to load into the pack.

Right around 5, I headed back out.  I asked my dad to wait 10 minutes before leaving, just to make sure I didn't end up doubling back in the cold.  Shortly I found the dropped gels in the middle of the road, and added them to my stash.  They went to check me into the station again and I had to tell them they had already gotten me, before I went back to the crewmobile.  I picked up to a jog as we headed out of the station, with strange runners around me.

AS 4 to AS 6 (@38 miles)

The trail out of here was a nice downhill, which I jogged.  I actually wasn't sure I wanted that just now -- I'd be warmer on a good climb -- but I took it.  And, of course, we did get to a climb, on another pleasant trail.  I jogged it to keep warm, and passed several people in the process.  I felt like I was making decent progress on this leg, especially under the circumstances.  It was clear I wasn't going to make 13 hours with a 40 minute layover, and in fact I was now 20 minutes behind my 14 hour time.  But if things went well, I could hope to catch up to that, and perhaps at least score a PR by coming in just under 14.

Suddenly, I saw lights in the distance!  I know you sort of circle down to this aid station before you arrive, but it didn't seem that far and I was moving pretty well!  I pushed it a little down the pleasant trails, catching up to another runner ahead as we finally pulled into the station.  I had just made up 15 minutes!  But my dad wasn't there.  The volunteers topped off my water, and I asked them to tell my dad that I had gone on (assuming he asked or identified himself or something).  Fortunately, this time, I had plenty of spare gels.  I headed out.

The next leg was one of the less pleasant ones.  It's a long climb up a road, to the very top.  When the road ends, you head back down, on a mix of trail and road.  And then when you think you're done, there's another long climb up a road.  Lots of climbing, lots of road.  Ugh.

I tried to keep jogging on the road, channeling myself between stations 1 and 2.  I wasn't as fast, but I did keep moving, and passed people.  I just caught up to someone near the top, and we chatted a bit, though I pulled away on the downhill.  That mixed downhill went well enough, though I didn't look forward to the climb.  On the up side, the sun came up!  That was good for a little boost.  On the other hand, the guy sitting at the bottom said it was a mile and a half up the hill to the station (I even thought I remembered 1.9 from the crew directions -- in other words, not close).  There were a lot of crew cars passing in both directions, though I could never actually see parking or station signs ahead.  I worried about my dad, wondering what I'd do if he wasn't at this next one -- somehow borrow a phone and find some signal and call Erin to have her call him?  (I didn't remember his number off the top of my head.)

Then my dad pulled up next to me, honking and cheering.  He apologized for missing me at the last station, and I think I just said "Don't worry -- just go get to this one!"  I had this vision of it being just around the next turn, though in reality it was probably a slow mile or more.  Eventually, I got there.  I assured him I had had plenty of spare gels, and he assured me he had put more spares in the next pack.  Having warmed up quite a bit since the layover, I left my mittens and hat and jacket (along with my lights) and picked up lighter gloves.  As I left, I was within minutes of my 14-hour pace -- I had picked up 20 minutes over the last two legs!

AS 6 to AS 8 (@52 miles)

But leaving that station, things got ugly again.  At first I thought I was walking just to revive my legs after standing around at the station.  Then I jogged a bit, as it was relatively flat, and they only felt worse.  What the?!?  First I had to walk.  Then I had to sit.  I found a log.  It felt just like before.  Apparently, I should not have pushed to catch up to the 14 hour pace.  I ate, drank, and rested.  I wasn't going to be able to sit here for 40 minutes -- even with the sun up it was way too cold.  And this was a very long section.  I had to decide quickly whether to turn back or press on for what might turn into 3 hours.

I didn't at all fancy turning back when my dad would be long gone.  But I could sit any more either.  I began to walk, at least making some progress, and I ate as often as I thought I could.  Perhaps a bit too much.  People jogged on by, but I just had to keep walking until my legs recovered.  Again.  And this was the end of Hellgate #2.

Had it happened 15 minutes earlier, surely I would have quit at Little Cove Mountain, the previous station.  But now I was stuck.  I had to make it another 8 miles before I could quit.  I'm afraid I spent some time dwelling on that.  It had frankly amazed me that I could make it past the first crash.  I wasn't sure I had a second one in me.  If I were to finish, it would not be the finish of a physical race, it would be the finish of a mental race: pushing through 40+ miles after my goals went out the window.

Eventually, I moved on and thought about the race report I had read describing this section.  You go through a section where the rocks just hide under a thick layer of leaves (oh how well I remembered that), then switchback down to a stream crossing, and then come out to a road a bit before the next aid station.

A couple weird things happened.  There were no leaves in the leaves-over-rocks section!  We ran down a long kinda rocky trail, but it was totally clear.  I thought wow, there are going to be some fast times this year.  Warm weather and somehow the leaves are MIA.  Must have been washed away by the rain in the previous week.  We hit the switchbacks sooner than I expected, and I took them carefully as I fell there last year.  Then the stream crossing, not huge, but plenty to get your feet wet.  Thankfully my shoes drain quickly!  Despite being sidelined earlier, I was suddenly making fantastic time on this section.

But no road.  After the stream crossing, it headed way up again.  I could vaguely hear cars in the distance, or I told myself I did, but there was no road in sight.  If we hit it soon, I'd really have a good time on this section.  We didn't.  Instead, we hit the real leaves-over-rocks section.  I still think they weren't as deep this year -- more shin than knee -- but it was plenty to hide the rocks, just as I remembered.  I took it slow, as I was no longer really racing this one.  Someone ahead pressed it faster and slowly pulled away, and I let him go.

At long last, we switchbacked again, down to another stream crossing -- this one twice as big.  I guess this is the "deja vu" section.  It had taken much longer by now, 20 minutes slower than before, but at least the road crossing came quickly, and then a climb on a nice trail up to the station.

I rushed across the parking area to meet my dad, swapping packs and getting underway again.  I had momentarily forgotten about my planned DNF, since at least I had been able to get moving again.  And the Drs. Horton and Zealand were there -- I'm not sure I would have been able to walk up to both of them and declare a DNF anyway.  It wasn't the race I had been looking for, but surely I could press on for the remaining three legs?  I left the station ahead of the guy who had passed me earlier, so at least there was that.

The next section was made up of a big climb up to an eternal zigzag in and out of the creases of a mountain.  Followed by another climb, of course.  I hiked the climb, and jogged the rest as best I could.  A couple folks passed, though I mainly kept up with them.  It was definitely better than last year, where this whole section was a major low point for me.  Of course, there was another steep climb out of nowhere in the middle of the zigzags.  Should've known.  But I was doing well keeping up the jogging.  Well, until the final climb.  Some of those just ahead jogged it, and I didn't bother.  Thankfully it wasn't that long.

When I got to the top, it was the station stationed just under what seemed like a stone bridge for a railroad crossing.  Not that there would really be one of those on top of a mountain, but whatever.  Better yet, the whole family was there!  Mom and dad plus Erin and the kids!  Apparently, Sean and Caelan had been having a ball digging in the dirt in the lee of a giant boulder.  Heather was there, and reported that Chris was about 10 minutes behind, and I almost stopped and waited.  Except I was sure he'd be running faster, so I'd either slow him down or immediately lose him.

I swapped packs and headed for the exit.  Erin and my parents were all talking in their own little world, and Sean was following me out.  I called "Hey, someone get Sean!" and no one heard, except a volunteer who didn't seem to know what to do.  So I sat down in the trail and waited for Sean, and we had a nice hug when he arrived.  By then, Erin noticed and headed over to claim him.  Meanwhile, the volunteer helped me back to my feet.

AS8 to Finish (@66 miles)

Out of this station, there's a long, awkward downhill, on a road that's been decimated by erosion.  You spend so much time crossing back and forth to find clear ground that it seems twice as far.  But it is solidly downhill.  I made what time I could -- not as fast as I can normally take downhills, but for now, it would do.  And toward the end, I did catch sight of another runner.  I was pretty sure no one left the aid station while I was there, so this was solid progress.

From the road, the course turned uphill on a trail, and then continued up and down, in and out of the mountain, across many small wet spots, and so on.  I seemed to make decent enough time, passing the occasional runner.  After a while, the character of the woods changed, and it seemed to me like the aid station was drawing close.  Somehow I had fumbled my cheat sheet, either writing it or reading it, and I thought this section wasn't that long (when in fact it's nearly 8 miles).  So it seemed reasonable to be "getting there".  But even though we ran downhill perpendicular to the mountain like I remembered, it didn't lead to the little corridor of trees right before the last aid station.  And then we did it again, and it still wasn't the station.

I passed Joe Dudak, who had hurt himself out there and like me, wasn't having the race he hoped for.  We talked a bit, and I probably misled him a little as to how close the aid was.  I talked to another runner shortly afterward, who said it was still a ways away.  Surely not!  It had been a while for a short section...  But it was still a good 20 minutes before we hit that corridor.  And just then, Chris, Jared, and his wife blasted down the hill to pass me.  Wow!  "You're not doing badly, they're running way ahead!" she called out as they all disappeared around the next turn.  Nice.

We all got to the station at pretty much the same time, and I swapped packs and headed out first.  One last section.  It's a 3-mile climb, then a 3-mile descent, leveling out for perhaps the last half mile.  I thought I was doing at least a decent hike, but it didn't take long for Chris and Jared to blow by.  They were talking about my great hiking technique as they left me in the dust.  What's up with that?

But a mile or two later, I caught up again.  I called out for them to speed up, because what were they doing letting me catch up?  But as it happens, we hit the top together.  They had much better downhill legs, however, gaining four minutes on me in the last few miles.  I just tried not to be passed.  I figured my odds were good since no one else had passed me on the previous section, so hopefully everyone (other than Chris and Jared) was in similar shape at this point.  And in fact, I made it, unpassed, for a finish time of 14:20 and change.


While that was a very respectable finish, as Hellgate goes, it wasn't what I had hoped for.  Under the circumstances, I was happy to call it a day, and claim my second Beast and the coveted Hellgate finisher's shirt.  Had I kept up with Keith, I would have made it under 13, but with everything that happened, it was not the day for that.  In fact, it was a pretty harsh reminder that my race really hangs on nutrition, with little room for error.

But once again, even with all that happened, I really enjoyed the race.  If you ran it during the day, all those roads in the first half would probably be a drag.  But run by moonlight, while the rest of the world sleeps, with the trail of lights out there with you...  Going up a mountain and seeing the light of the next aid station a million miles above, only to realize it's actually just moonlight flickering through the trees...  Looking forward to a tough climb because it's just the thing to warm you up...  Beautiful trails by day and by night...  It's a mighty hard race to resist.

As for the 13 hours, I still think it could happen -- I could have easily been more than 20 minutes ahead at Headforemost (1/3 of the way), and with another 15 minutes on the next section, and even 10 on the penultimate leg after everything that went wrong...  Well, it wouldn't take much more than that.  I'm sure I'll be back.  :)