It’s 3:30, and my sore body can’t sleep anymore. Seems like a good time to write a race report!
Before the Race
So maybe let’s start with this past Thursday, when the Governor of Virginia’s looming afternoon announcement had me on pins and needles about whether Hellgate would be allowed to take place. Hints of instated curfews would be the perfect storm to prevent the 12:01 AM start from occurring, and after much beating around the bush, it was shared that among other admonishments, curfew would be in place from 12- 5 AM… going into effect Monday morning! We’re saved!!!! Hellgate goes on!
Friday morning, I woke up full of nerves after a terrible night of rest. Most races begin in the morning, but I’d be going all day, so this whole eating thing. That. I began with a cup of protein coffee and chewed half-heartedly on a sweet potato muffin on my way to work. I accidentally left my lunch in the car. Because I’ve been working half time, when I came back home to pack for the race, I then ate half of my lunch: sautéed chicken, steamed broccoli, and sweet potatoes. This is a staple meal in our house. Once all of my gear was packed up, I departed (around 2:45) to fuel up my car and pick up a pepperoni pizza from Vito’s for dinner.
I arrived at Camp Bethel around 4:30, picked up my packet, connected with Steve Combs, whom I’d be driving to the start. Once the sun started setting (around 5), I climbed into the back of my car and curled up on my new car air mattress (it was pretty nice) to rest. Sleep was iffy, but at least I was going through the motions? I definitely was experiencing that sense of dread thinking about how once this thing starts, the only way out is through! Before I knew it, Steve was rapping on my window. It was time to go.
We arrived at Hellgate Trail head around 11:30 and were anxious to hand over our drop bags, but we needed to wait for the first two waves to deliver theirs. I’m glad I went to the bathroom when I did, because when I returned to the car from the woods, the horn was blaring, a series of whoops were hollered, and a stream of headlamps were bobbing just past where I’d been! Almonst a full moon kind of night for them!
After the 2nd wave of runners were started, exactly 5 minutes later, I knew it was time to meander over to the start, even though my nerves were telling me to barricade myself into the car. Finishing Hellgate would mean a distance PR, a climbing PR, and time on feet PR. I definitely had put myself in uncharted territory with many variables to navigate.
Regardless of my angst, my time to start had come. I thanked Horton for the race, whooped and cheered, and we were off. I had no idea what to expect, but I wanted a good day and a great race experience so badly. I have crewed and paced others through the night for 100 milers, but that is entirely different. What I didn’t want was to run all through the night by myself. The first few miles were quite runnable, but I was trying very hard to set the pace easier than easy. Very quickly, I got too warm for the waterproof Lululemon jacket I was wearing, but I didn’t want to stop, so I began the process of removing my jacket while still holding my pack and keeping my eyes on the trail. Actually, I was very excited to shed my jacket because I had intentionally worn my reflective clothing: Lululemon shorts and a long sleeve crop top by Oiselle. If we were going to run through the night, might as well light it up, right????
Right before hitting the road a fellow runner accidentally ran off course toward someone’s house. This reminded me to focus my energy on the trail; even veterans can get off course. Shortly thereafter, we hit the first road climb, and my body really wanted to run this, but I remembered all of the warnings about how bad an idea this can be with dire consequences later in the race. I allowed myself 100 steps of running and 50 steps of hiking. There was no benefit long term to powering through these endless series of long road climbs, and yet, I was already passing people from earlier waves, and that lifted me! I fell into pace with a newly made friend, Richard Key, over this long road climb. He has a very strong power walk, so I'd run several steps and then hike next to him. Not long into the climb, one of my gels did NOT sit well with my stomach (in fact it felt sour), so I switched to gummies and sipping tailwind to help it settle, doing my best not to worry about it and instead focus on my surroundings. In the darkness of this night, I’d notice twinkling lights far above me, realize they were moving steadily, and realize oh boy, we are climbing up there. On occasion, the higher we climbed, we could look out and see the spaced out lights suggesting a town that I don’t know the name of (no sense of direction, here) and also look up and behold the beautiful stars made visible by a clear night. We power hiked a lot, ran through some gnarly single track. For hours and hours! We realized when we were on the Promise Land course (nostalgia!), and I asked Richard about the exact cut off/mileage again for Heardforemost Gap. He said there was no need to worry about this as we were currently on pace for 15 hours. 15 hours! Wow! This was going to be a 5th Hellgate for him, so it was helpful getting some play-by-play of where we were on the course and what was ahead. Really, I just wanted to know for general mile marking and getting past certain parts of the course. As we began descending, Richard and I passed by a couple of runners complaining of knee and ankle pain and that they were dropping at the next aid station. I felt really bad for them, but they were safe and moving, so after offering Advil and apologies, we resumed our descent.
Soon after this, we hit 22 miles, or ⅓ of the course behind us! I told myself I would do a happy dance when I reached this mark. Then, I realized with all the downhill that I really needed to go to the bathroom. Stopping for this was such an inconvenience; it was an obstacle to my momentum. I can now understand why some would… yeah you know. I told Richard I've absolutely gotta go, and he said he'd see me soon probably... little did he know it wouldn't be for another 22 miles before we were running together again. Anyway, while I was off the trail, a bunch of people I had passed flew by. I got back on the course, and focused on regaining ground… safely. I have a history of twisting my left ankle, and it's the inside of my left knee collapsing inward to compensate that has been giving great pain the past several weeks - I didn't want it to worsen in the slightest.
Once I reached the aid station 4 (I ran through aid station 1, refilled tail wind at aid station 2, and I don’t think I remember aid station 3), I was ready to eat! Someone said I was around 11th female (which made zero sense to me given the number of other women in earlier waves, but it motivated me to keep pushing along!). Volunteers refilled my tailwind while I quickly ate a whole grilled cheese, sipped on some broth (it was amazing broth), and then grabbed a baggies of pretzels, grapes, and peanut butter M& M’s! Yum! I also almost forgot to visit my drop bag (I do not like to waste time at aid stations). I put my jacket (I'd been wearing it around my waiste) in my bag, and that was it. I pulled out some sweet potato cookies and got moving. In hindsight, I should have removed a headlamp, my waterproof gloves, and my hydration reservoir. Too much weight I was lugging.
I hit the next section with excitement. Just over 1 hour of night time left! I was on a gravel/dirt road for sometime and running behind another man. We approached single track that was pretty technical, but the next aid station was the breakfast one! I was so excited; I'd made it through the night! As we were descending toward Jennings Creek, I got caught by a woman who started in wave 5. That was a gut punch. She said she was aiming for faster than 16 hours, and I then realized, with how quickly she could descend on technical trail, the only way to pull away from her and probably others was to climb hard. My competitive streak had kicked in. We continued descending on a grassy road with the occasional hole, and sometimes my footing was really bad. Curse words were said, and I began to realize that I was running a little scared, and it was causing me to get sloppy. After that long grassy descent, we approached the breakfast aid station at 6 hours and 40 minutes elapsed time, I ate a slice of bacon, two potatoes, refilled my tail wind, was assured by Jeremy Peterson that I was 10th female (again, this placement wasn’t making sense to me, but he meant well), but it urged me forward regardless! We hit a road climb as the sunrise was peeking over the ridgeline. I put my power climbing wheels on and left everyone I’d been running with behind me. I never saw them again.
As I powered up the road, I saw another person (who had long hair), but I couldn’t tell if it was a male or a female! The runner kept looking back from me and pushing harder. Now, I was really curious! Who is this person? I looked at the ridgeline, and this beautiful sunrise was kissing my face. I pulled out my phone for the first time and snapped a picture. I wanted to remember that moment! I texted Mike to tell him I was 32 miles in. I had hit the 50K mark in 6 hours and 45 minutes, only 12 minutes off my fastest Promise Land finish - could I run that twice?? Then I was wondering, how much elevation had we covered thus far? Anyway, finally we hit a descent and then a lovely flowing single track that went down, down, down. As I was descending, I came about Sophie Speidel looking relaxed and feeling good! It's always nice seeing familiar faces on the trails!
Not long after that, the trail spit us out at the bottom of Cove mountain, and I began powering up that, still seeing this long-haired person, whom I realized was a man by this point. Also, at this point, I realized I was approaching two women! Yessss! We reached the aid station at the top of this climb, and I again refilled my tailwind (alternating caffeine and naked). I took a bag of cheezits here, which I never opened. I introduced myself to Shane, Alexis, and another female. We meandered down the road, and I eventually took off. I actually was very excited because Alexis was from wave 1, starting 15 minutes ahead of me, which means I had been bridging the gap steadily. By this point, a marathon remained. Only a marathon. A marathon! Okay, that is a long way to go. But I was feeling really good, a flow state. I took off. I passed by another female (I think her name was Jennifer), I asked how she was doing, she said fine, but I think she wasn’t feeling very good. I later learned GI issues had plagued her early on. That could have been me. Broth has an absolute game changer for my digestive tract. It calms my stomach, gives me plenty of salt, and soothes the lining of my intestines. I had broth three times this race (and I ate chicken noodle soup for my post-meal dinner with no feelings of gut rot - yay!).
I passed by a couple of other guys, who said I was looking and doing great! That was nice. It was around this point that I hit 44 miles, ⅔ of the race behind me, and my celebratory act for this milestone was to pull out my headphones and jam out! Finally, this undulating section of trail leads into the Devil Trail. I ascended to this trail after briefly seeing Richard Key above me navigating his way through it! It’s been ⅓ of the race since I’d seen him! Anyway, once up there, the leaves! The rocks! There’s no way with my ankle and knees as precarious as they were that I’d hop around on that. I looked up and saw Alissa Keith. I was making continuing to make ground! I powered to her, chatted for a bit, particularly about how much longer this section was before Bearwallow Gap, and then took off the best I could.
I crossed the creek finally, got a little confused on the markings because I’d seen one orange flag but none in the direction I sensed I needed to go. I took a deep breath, went to the bathroom (I realized quickly I needed to rehydrate), and proceeded to the route. Feeling a little lost in this part cost me a good two minutes, but it turns out my sense was correct and I was going in the right direction. And soon, I crossed the road. I'll admit, the single track was kind of frustrating. I was already at 46 miles and was wondering where the aid station was!!! A little tapping here to release myself of feelings of impatience. Finally, I emerged from the trail and entered the large parking lot at Bearwallow Gap.
I was so proud of myself.
I was having a great day, running a great race!
I was a strong woman!
I had been emptying water from my hydration bladder periodically to reduce weight. I was very much looking forward to lightening my pack here. First, I went directly to my drop bag. I asked for a large bandaid from an amazing, cheerful volunteer. He asked for size, and I lifted my shirt so he could see my back. He asked no further questions. I had noticed a rubbing on my back for some time -- something was chafing me, and I didn’t pack body glide. Anyway, he came back with a very large bandaid and applied it. I took out my hydration bladder, both headlamps, my gloves, mittens, and shirt. With 20 miles to go, I needed as little weight as possible on me!
I refilled my tailwind bottles again. From this aid station, I consumed more broth, some Mountain Dew, and then I grabbed two packages of peanut butter M&M’s which I never ate. I love that the aid stations had these though because chocolate and peanut butter is my favorite combination! Everyone was cheering for me as I left the aid station, told me I looked amazing. I said, “It’s my first Hellgate. I’m so excited! Thank you for everything!” With whoops and hollers, I was on my way with 20 to go! Only 20 to go!!!! That didn’t seem so hard! I could definitely finish in 15 hours! It was barely 10 AM, though it felt like afternoon, to be completely honest.
It wasn’t long before I was climbing again. Relentlessly. It was the kind of climbing that is steep and the winding trail showing you where you're headed is also visible. This time, I was hurting. I had my music, but I was finally entering the pain cave. Whenever, my headspace started heading south, I changed the music. I passed a few people engaged in the death march. That was not going to happen to me. I simply wouldn’t let it. I reminded myself of my committment to having a great day and a great race, and so I started my Faster EFT finger tapping, releasing myself of all expectation and finding my constant flow of energy. It was here when I recalled Annie Stanley’s compelling words of encouragement that she had left on one of my posts leading up to Hellgate: “I’m sure you have lots of mantras - this is my favorite: This is temporary. Best used, of course, in the hardest moments but also a good reminder at the highs, that it won’t always feel or look or be as amazing as it is in this moment.” Amazing advice.
It was not soon after I crested the ridge of this climb and was descending that I encountered Mandy Debevc and Richard Key prancing along. I fell into rhythm with them for a bit, pausing my music. It was good to be with people here. Richard realized it was me, and we chatted about how the race had been going. Mandy introduced herself to both of us, and when she realized I started in wave 4, she was complimentary and encouraging of my hard work. She asked my age and then said she is a Masters runner, and she decided she wouldn’t be offended by my catching up to her. After that, the two of them were giving me excellent advice for the upcoming Forever Trail and the Final Road climb/descent. By this point in the race, I was taking it a mile at time. I had just set a 50 mile PR of around ~10:30. Not too shabby (my last 50 mile race was actually 52 miles in 13:38 at Bighorn, which was also at elevation)! We had around 17 miles to go, and we ran several miles together, snaking along the ins and outs of the ridge. We were quite high up, and I was loving the views here. I was extremely grateful to share them with company; this definitely kept me from dipping into a low place. We talked about finishing predictions, worst case scenarios (since I dropped both my headlamps), and how late it feels in the day, even though it’s not even 11 am.
Mandy asked me, “Are you blowing up?” I replied that my hip flexors are tired and my power is gone. We tried to go through all of the women in waves 1 and 2, but it was inevitable that we'd miss someone. She said okay, you could be 5th female, so if you want to really go for it, relax on the "forever" section and run the final climb/descent like you’re going to throw up. Try to make as much ground as possible. I told her I wasn’t sure I’d be able to run the climb that way. She said to try even a run/walk. I said I could do that.
I felt they were implying that it was time to take off, with maybe 14 miles to go, and so I did. I separated myself from these two awesome people, and after passing a few more runners, I approached the Bobblets Gap aid station, which was located in a tunnel underneath the Blue Ridge Parkway. I entered the aid station, but didn’t want any of the food - the finish line was pulling me. I did want Mountain Dew, though. Suddenly, Mike descended from some area just off the trail. He told me he almost missed me, as he’d just arrived there, and I was very glad to see him, but also in a hurry to move on. So he ran a few steps of the way with me as I began the descent. I told him I was hurting but I was having a great race and I was committed to having an awesome finish. I told him I really wanted to come in under 15 hours. He encouraged me and said he would see me at the last aid station: Day Creek.
This section of the course was intense with a long descent. At one point, I twisted my ankle for no apparent reasons and cried out so loudly (I thought). I kept moving though, even though now my ankle was definitely screaming at me. Maybe 11 miles to go; I’d come too far to give up now. At this point, I remembered Annie’s advice again and took it a step further. I began listing gratitudes I had that directly related to race day:
- Hellgate is happening
- The weather is surprisingly nice
- I’m having an amazing race
- I was allowed to race
- The volunteers have been amazing
- The racers have been amazing
- Steve has been so positive with the pre-race jitters
- I got to see Mike at the aid station
- My knee has held up this long (this was a huge concern!!!)
- Dr. Glazer did amazing work on my knee.
Listing these was a tremendous help to me.
Admittedly, I was hoping the "forever trails" included this long descent and hoped it would continue for awhile. I could rely on gravity and sacrifice my quads! Nevertheless, I saw the orange streamers indicating a sharp right hand turn for single track… here they were, the Forever Trails. Oh, how these miles sucked. So much hiking. Upon entering, the trail went up, up, up. Sigh. The descents were overall pretty technical, so therefore, this really felt like it took forever. I came upon 4 men, 2 of which were racing. One man was propped against a tree with his crew surrounding him. I had my music in my ears, but I hope that what I said encouraged him to keep going “this is temporary; relentless forward progress; this won’t be forever.” It wasn't long before I saw him behind me, and so we all were basically together for a period of time. The mountain views here were breathtaking, but I didn’t want to stop. It seemed like one man was ready to pass me, another technical descent had me watching my footing very carefully, and I ushered him to pass, and he fell over. I felt really bad about that. His crew helped him back up and they proceeded ahead of me. I must have I passed them one final time before heading into Day Creek because I didn't see them until they finished. I was somewhat grumpy coming into the final aid station because at this point (miraculously my Garmin still had battery), I was over 60 miles; was Hellgate going to be 68 miles??? Finally, I exited this trail, saw Mike snapping pictures, subsequently took a bad step, and proceeded to the aid station.
I asked Mike to get my other watch of my pack out just in case my current watch battery died. While he was doing that, I was refilling my bottles with water and tail wind. I downed the ginger ale and sipped on broth. No more food, though. I had plenty if I felt I needed it. Mike began hiking with me, told me it was 2.4 to the top of the 1,000 foot climb, then 3 down. I was ready. I told him that I wanted to finish as close to 2:15 as possible. He said he was predicting 14 hours 30 minutes for my finish. Challenge accepted.
I began running up the mountain. 100 steps, 50 hiking. That was too much; my heart rate was sky high and I wasn’t recovering enough to run again, so I reduced myself to 50 steps running, 50 hiking. That was better, but only for a time. I eventually passed Rick, a very strong local ultrarunner. It was good to exchange with him for a bit (he was a wave 3 runner), but ultimately, I carried on. I ran when I could. Sometimes the grade of this mountain just wouldn’t allow for it. About 600 meters from the top, I encountered Becca Weast. She was out for a jog after crewing all morning. She shared that I'm almost to the top, just where that gate is ahead, and then a mostly smooth descent. I continued to hike, very excited to end the climbing. Finally cresting that mountain was a huge victory! Coming down the other side was painful however, but I was hoping to finish by 2:20, so I needed to keep going. At times the pace was 8:30, other times, 9:30. Usually I can bomb it out in a race on these final descents, but I’d left my heart on the race course by this point. There simply wasn’t much hardly anything left to give… except my resolve to keep going. At 65 miles, my watch was still going, but I was getting anxious to see that “final mile” sign on the road… at long last, there it was. 65.37 when I saw the red spray paint.
1. More. Mile. The descent leveled out to a flat road, and, woof, that was painful powering up my glutes and hip flexors again. I resorted to my music, shuffling through my “Race Playlist” for the gangsterist of gangster music to power me home. The final turn was coming, I could see it after passing by a few houses, but I wasn’t quite sure where the finish line was. Was it where packet pick up was? I had a moment of weakness and backed off for about 30 seconds. I could see a couple of spectators, but couldn’t see the finish - where was it????? Finally, I saw some streamers establishing the finishers’ chute and saw that it was a short (grassy, slightly inclined) chute! Yessss! I powered it home, tears welled up in my eyes, and I was done. I wasn’t top 5, but my performance was strong, and I was very happy to finish in 14:03. So close to 14 hours. It turned out my placement was 8th. Here are the final results.
My post-race reflections:
That was really challenging - so many things I’ve never done before! I do think I pushed a smidge too hard in the beginning, but I powered through some major hurt with a resolute attitude. I wanted to set the tone for something I’d never done before in a positive light. By mentally proclaiming that it is a great day, a smart race, a great performance, I literally willed these things into being. Yes, there were definitely low moments, but those were made less by reminding myself that this is how I chose to spend my weekend, that the hard spots helped me appreciate the finish and the highlights even more. Besides, it’s not even the whole weekend; this is temporary, and most of the race experience will be awesome!
I shared with a friend earlier today: “I think I’m most proud of being seeded in the 4th wave and finishing among 1st wave women… I believed in me, and it paid off well.” I was a dark horse literally dressed in black. No one expected anything out of me, and personally, I have found that those are the best races… where you blow everyone away (especially including yourself), minimize expectations, and experience the flow state. Going into this race, my main expectation was to finish in 17 hours, but I ultimately couldn’t know what to expect, how this would feel, what a feasible finishing time prediction would be for me. I knew I was strong going into it. I ran TWOT and stopped often to eat, take pictures, revisit the map, and I still finished in well under 7 hours! That after a tempo the day prior. I ran so many hard training runs solo. I amped up my mileage and my climbing quickly, suffered a bit of injury, questioned my readiness (most people do, right?), and tapered hard. I fueled my body for success. I prioritized rest and recovery. I listened to my gut, and my gut didn’t betray me.
What composes a person who is clutch or a person who chokes? I listened to an amazing podcast by Steve Magness and Brad Stuhlberg (Growth Equation Podcast) about this on my birthday about 6 weeks ago. Mike and I were headed to a 5K race in Waynesboro, VA as I was finishing up the podcast, and my main takeaway ultimately was that to access the flow state you must remain mentally "in the game". Practicing this in training with solo attempts, tough weather conditions, and hard workouts (5-6 miles under 7 minute pace or track intervals with minimal recovery, for example) that repeatedly load up the mental burden quickly and force your resolve to either choke or lean in. I'm a mentally stronger runner now. I'm confident, had the race been canceled due to COVID government mandates, that I would have run a solo 100K anyway, but I will say I enjoyed coming from the back, chasing people down. It forced me to stay focused, calculate risk, and feel the magnetic attraction of the finish line for the duration of the race!
If the 2020 pandemic hadn’t happened, I likely wouldn’t have applied for this race… yet. I’m so thankful for the experience. It was mostly heavenly - heavensgate.