In the east, they slope gently, with winding switchbacks occasionally dropping rather steeply. Often, though, the ascents are deceptively unrelenting. Gradual and long, miles can stretch on with no break in the climb, though the grade could seem relatively subtle. As the hours wear on, the mountains of the east let you know, "We may not be the steepest or tallest, but we can break you down." Never underestimate them.
My foot twinges lightly with pain as I write. Injury is very rare for me, I have been lucky this way. I can attribute more race failures to damage to my mind than to my body. I especially hate to admit that I took an injury along my favorite stretch of the 42.5M* of the Hellgate course that I covered. Ironically, it is the section I had gone in fearing.
Leaving Camping Gap, AS 3, you know you will have a long, dark stretch of lonely coldness, and the footing is bad. It is technical single track with some challenging downhill. My preferred terrain. On the way to AS 3 you begin to climb more toward a ridge line via a winding gravel road that's quite snowy and iced over in patches. I was bracing myself for it to become dramatically colder as we climbed, fearing the ridge tops would have winds. They didn't. It was an amazingly good weather night. We mostly had to contend with the weather remnants under our feet. There continued to be ice patches on the gravel road miles (of which there were many), but you could generally discern their location at the margins of snow and gravel. It certainly helped keep me awake.
On the single track, the issues were rocks covered (sometimes deeply) in leaves, all covered with several inches of snow. But it was happy, fluffy snow, not the iced over, deep business that you have to punch through or screw your shoes for. No, this was a lovely snowy, though moonless, night. I was far enough back in the pack that I was getting a broken in path, but footing was still sketchy. That did not prevent me from dropping the downs at top speed, or trying to. Even in wintry conditions, I just feel like I have better control of my footing when I have that kind of flow on a downhill. At the time I was in a revolving group of several guys running strong in front of me. Many females I knew were already well ahead of me and would likely stay there. I knew I was not on top of my game for this race. But this single track with the powdery snow, running through the night- wow! It was just exhilarating.
So, at this point I'm moving very well and having no issues of feeling sleepy. I was also not too far off my 15hr goal splits. The night seemed to be going exceptionally well, and I felt unconcerned about my position, believing I could press forward come daybreak. I was moving comfortably, surprisingly with no issues from my recently cranky hip. Another downhill came along and the group I'm running with has already seen how I operate- "she runs like she's on fire downhill, we pass her on the climb... got it." I called out to the guy ahead of me to pass (and passing really did require cooperation there), but, no dice. I'm finally on this guy's heels, he's just moving too slow... I have to throw on the brakes. Ack, so hard and jarring! I deeply dislike having to stress my body by breaking downhill. I feel like I have developed a really relaxed downhill running approach, and I just spin my legs "big", very freely. But it requires people get-out-the-way! This guy didn't, and I eventually rolled my right ankle pretty decently when I managed, as if starring in my own cartoon, to break just at the top of this rock that rolled forward with my foot stuck to it. I yelped. That hurt. Crap. Shook it off, "maybe not so bad," I thought. I move on.
I was happy to roll into Headforemost Mtn. AS 4, 21.9M. That's where I had a drop bag. Unfortunately, it was one of only two places for a drop, although, I was shocked to have been told that at least one year there was no drop and minimal aid until 42.5M! Those back roads become treacherous and close down. I actually had arrived prepared for the same type of situation. I've definitely never carried such a heavy pack. I had an insulated 100oz Camelbak inside of a Patagonia fast pack that would hold lots of layers. I started the race wearing a 220g Icebreaker wool zip-t, a pair of 200g wool leggings, a pair of Sugoi firewall/wind resistant tights over the wool, a pair of Cloudveil gloves that are good for down to ~20F and I had stuffed hard warmers into the palms. I had brought chemical warmers that you slip into you shoes, but they were really thick. That was not going to work (I ended up with no warmers in the shoes, I'll come back to that). Instead, I shoved the foot warmers down the back of my pack. I felt this would serve to keep my liquid warmer and warm my whole back- it worked great! My single greatest concern about the course (other than the distance) was the idea of getting my feet wet and then having them freeze. I had heard of several stream crossings (and there were), but in particular at about 3M in there's a big stream, and I was essentially guaranteed to have wet feet. Well, when I got there, I decided to walk off to one side; I scoped it out. I picked my way across- definitely there was ice on the rocks, could be a disaster here- and eventually made it to the other side, totally dry! It did help that I went with a new gore-tex pair of the La Sportiva Crosslites that have a built in gaiter- they are sweet shoes. Overall, they were the perfect shoe for the single track portions of this course, additionally giving me a barrier against wetness from hours in the snow. The issue with using them in this race was that they give an awfully hard ride on the miles and miles of gravel road. That said, I must say that they gave me a really confident traction in a lot of icy road conditions. Still, if you hit that ice just right? You're going down! Luckily, I didn't. I also didn't get cold, the layers were just right (chilly fingers just a few times).
Layering strategy for this race points the light (pun intended) back on the poor (for me) location of AS 4 as the drop bag point. I got there right around 6a.m. (about 25min. behind my goal time). You have to start the race being careful not to overdress because right out of the gate you are climbing. But as you climb toward AS 3, you noticeably chill down, so around 2:30-3a.m. I added the wind-blocking layer (heavier than just a windbreaker) that I packed from the start, pulling it over my wool shirt. I also added to the wool neck gaiter I was wearing a Patagonia balaclava with my warm Cloudveil hat on top of that. This gave me a way to cover my face at times. My legs were roasting. My feet felt perfect (I wore heavy Smartwool socks). What had not occurred to me was to go ahead and ditch my headlamp, just keeping my small hand held light. I could have also ditched the other unneeded stuff I was toting, instead, it stayed on my back, chafing it nicely, until I got to Bearwallow Gap- six hours after my drop bag. It was a long time to carry that crap, I'm just sayin'.
So, what happened between leaving Headforemost Mtn. AS 4 and Bearwallow Gap AS 7? As I said, I thought the 3:15am-6am stretch was going to be ultimate challenge. It wasn't, in fact, it was pretty fantastic! I couldn't possibly get sleepy or I might have broken a bone. You have to pay attention. It's a total blast. Plus, I knew during that section as you head up Headforemost Mtn. that not far away is Apple Orchard Falls and Terrapin Mtn. This made me feel really relaxed since it is terrain I'm very familiar with. But I did not know (and have little desire to revisit) the climbing, winding, endless expanses of gravel road, fire road, hell road... those roads always have gates and for me that may as well be the Hellgate, these roads were taking a lot of the fun out of this for me. As the sun began to rise, pink and stormy blue streaks blurred over the ridges in the horizon. I had had such a good night, and the sunrise was full of promise, rising over the single track. But quickly, all too quickly, the road began again.
Now, I have to admit my own fault. It's no fun to be in a race when you aren't in shape, at least somewhat near your peak. As I pounded my feet on the hard packed surface hour after hour, AS 4 to AS 5 unfolding to be not anything like advertised (more likely a 10M stretch) I was not only losing the fun factor, and I was not only dropping behind because of my marginal fitness. Gradually, I began to accept that I was actually injured. My right foot and ankle felt seriously tweaked. Did I really roll it that hard? Wait a minute, that pain is across the top of my foot... what caused that? Holy shit. Then it hit me that in the hours before we started to race, I was going to the car parked in the grass under trees behind the bunkhouse. Shadows cast by the house lights obscured a set of stumps beside the truck parked behind me and which I was walking directly into! I heard "thunk, whomp" and thought, "whaaat? what the hell?," being totally caught off guard by the collision. I saved myself from a fall when I tripped over the stump, but in doing so I had taken a hard landing on my right foot, sending a shock across the upper foot. Apparently, that had torqued the same ligaments that are involved with lifting the foot during climbing and with my forefoot striking style and push off. Over time, the endless, hard surface uphill road miles had seriously inflamed that spot. The hard surface had beat up the metatarsal, and the forefoot felt bruised. And finally, I realized that my beloved single track had also not left me unscathed. The uneven surfaces (and no doubt the fact that I'm weaker right now) had fired up my old posterior tibial tendinitis. This tendon runs over the inner ankle bone and is involved with arch support. So, whereas if you had a single acute injury, you may (even if this causes a separate issue over time) be able to adapt your gait to overcome it temporarily. I really could not do that. I had something blown up on essentially every part of the right foot and ankle, and there was no creative way to land on it that was going to get me by. So, I ran with some pain. With walking breaks it wasn't so bad. In fact, I intended to finish the race.
I knew if I could just hang on, if I could just get to Bearwallow at AS 7, I would pick up my buddy, Bill Gentry. Then, the plan went, together we'd set off on the "downhill" side of this beast and finish it up. Well, AS 6 to AS 7 turned out to deliver more single track (finally) but by the time I got to there I was no longer in any shape to enjoy it. Hell, I could no longer even run. Not at all. Things went downhill fast. The miles got slower and slower. I walked approximately the last two and a half hours toward Bearwallow Gap, at this point holding on just to get myself off the course. That's when I got cold. The geography of the course on the way to this aid station was very deceptive, it was a really evil stretch. You have a long, long subtle climb, reminded me of Massanutten trails. You look at the ridge that wraps around in front to f you and you can't really figure out where you are headed. "Oh, that ridge... ok, I think we're going up there. I bet there's a road that meets it from the other side." You keep going, realizing, "no, no we're not going up there... okay... hey, we're dropping down, switchbacks- cool! Okay, this is IT, we're dropping into the aid station." Then, no. You drop down and you're still not there. Where is it? Where is the aid station? Then I had an increasing awareness that I was IT, the last runner out there, or darn close to it. Wow. Harsh. Well, it didn't really matter. By then I was really hurting. I would've run on it anyway, but I couldn't seem to produce that result. I couldn't force it, but soon, at last, there was no reason. Finally, there was Gentry, there were a couple of race volunteers. They dropped down a ways from the aid station to meet me and help me along. They (thankfully) put a jacket on me, and I sadly accepted that my day was done. Very frustrating at that point, as I had covered the hardest parts of the course.
It was hard to accept that I was as injured as I was. It turns out that it isn't that serious, just that I had so many different things wrong with the same foot. Later, I realized my left ankle looked kind of funky, too. It's a tough course, but one that could be runnable by a strong climber that is comfortable with the road sections. I have no plans to toe the line for quite a while, well, not until February for the Pilot Mtn. trail marathon (I'll see if I can revisit the podium there).
Racing is most fun when you are ready, really ready, and have trained for the day. But better still is to just run and love your running purely, doing it often for no particular goal. I think that is what I was doing at Hellgate. I knew I was not there able to compete, but found the long, cold, dark run and time with friends totally irresistible. I want my training to return, evolve, have focus and discipline. But this was about spending some hours with my passion, with my love, not really caring about my time or even finishing. That passion is the wave I will try to ride into the next season of racing and being ready for it.
Thank you, Bill Gentry, for your above and beyond friendship and help.
*According to Keith Knipling's data, the measured distance to Bearwallow was 46.4M, reported in his outstanding write up from 2007.
2010 Hellgate results