Thursday, June 20, 2019

Old Dominion

Here's an answer to the question: "What do you think about when you run?"

WARNING: Much of this race report attempts to accurately convey my mental state during the 2019 Old Dominion 100. Know that I was pissy and moody much of that time, and combining that with my natural predilection for being a sarcastic ass yielded many thoughts that were perhaps comedically dark and possibly offensive. So … if you get easily offended or have no taste for dry, sarcastic wit, or find the occasional F-bomb to be in poor taste, then just click that little "X" at the top of this window and go on about your day. If you wanna know what really goes on in the mind of a runner mid-race, then read on!

Before you conclude that I'm a cranky, angry little man that hates everyone and everything, I have to say upfront that I am incredibly grateful to the race organizers, the volunteers, and all the crew/spectators I saw along the way. The Old Dominion 100 is a truly unique race with an incredible down-to-earth and family feel about it. Despite what you might read down below, I am thankful for having participated in the race and respect the hard work and dedication of everyone involved. Also, though I continually rail on the race for being flat and on roads, it does have a surprising variety of grades and terrain in the undeniably beautiful Fort Valley, which is nice … that said, they took the gravel and paved roads up to an 11 and I'd really like them to be way down at a 1 or 2. Personal preference, but there it is.

Okay, so why was I running Old Dominion? Well, it's the closest "mountain" 100 miler to DC. I wanted to run one of the old, classic hundred milers out here before I packed my bags and headed back to Missouri later in the year. Massanutten would've been a better fit for me, most likely (despite the ungodly amount of rocks), but it came only a few weeks after Hellbender's 25K feet of climbing. So, I opted for the tamer Old Dominion a few weeks later in the calendar. Plus, the buckle is downright glorious!

I knew heading into the race that it was unlikely to be my cup of tea. There's a lot of gravel and a lot of running and not nearly enough climbing and descending. The race claims 14 "significant" climbs over 14K total vert, but no, just no. There's maybe 6 or 7 non-hills, and even then only a couple of those are real climbs. Having previously run Vermont, which also was not my cup of tea, I knew what I was getting into. Like it or not I was going to be doing a lot of flat running all day, so better get used to the idea!

My ultimate goal was to finish without a headlamp. I came oh-so-close at Vermont a couple years ago. Given that the last few miles of the race were in the town of Woodstock, I could comfortably achieve that by finishing somewhere in the vicinity of 9-9:30pm. That'd give me a 17:00-17:30 finishing time. It seemed doable. Secondarily, I wanted to podium, but really, I just wanted to run 100 miles without a headlamp. I ended up finishing in 18:06, with a headlamp, taking 3rd place. It wasn't what I wanted, but whatever. It is a bit of a dick thing to say I wasn't pleased with an 18hr podium finish at Old Dominion when plenty of people out there would give their swollen right nut to have that kind of performance. Oh, sorry, did that little turn of phrase catch you off guard? Well, it'll come up again in a little while, I promise!

I started the race at 4am, one of the few runners without a light. Despite there being no moon in the sky, it didn't bother me at all along the pavement out of town. As I crested the first climb of the day -- the Woodstock Tower road climb -- at roughly 5am, the day's first light was just beginning to creep into the mountains. My legs felt stiff and heavy and my stride a bit clunky, so I was hoping the next couple miles of trail would clear things out. Only, it was mere miles into the race and I already had an upset stomach. At the top of the second hill along the Massanutten Trail, I'd finally had enough and deposited my offering to the trail gods. Suck it, Orange Blaze! Sadly, this did not alleviate the pain in my gut and I spent the entire first 50K of the race with an uncomfortably tight lower intestines that was bad enough it noticeably impacted my stride, to say nothing of my general demeanor.

Somewhere around Mile 20, steps after a photographer snapped my picture, I sucked down a fly and it stuck to the soft tissue at the back of my throat. I spent 2 minutes standing there, hacking and coughing and gagging and downing an ungodly amount of liquids to try and clear it out. I've never thrown up in a race before, and that was a close one!

I lumbered along to Mile 32 running all but roughly 1/2 mile of the course thus far. My legs didn't feel right, my stomach was a mess, I was sick of running, and the gravel roads were starting to piss me off. One of the aid stations I lolly-gagged into had nothing but gatorade, fun size snickers, and pringles. God Damnit! What do I have to do to get some fresh sushi or organic pesticide free berries around here?! On to the next aid station.

Just before the first drop bag at Four Points -- Mile 32 -- my stomach had had enough again and I was forced to dive over a guardrail on Camp Roosevelt Road and relieve myself in what I later observed to be a small patch of stinging nettles. Excellent! At least I didn't wipe my ass with those leaves! Nevertheless, for the next half hour my butthole itched to holy hell. Ultra running! Huzzah!

I strolled into Four Points just before the 5 hour mark, over 20 minutes back of what I'd hoped for. My stomach accounted for some of that time, but it was clear that my legs just weren't up to the challenge today. I chugged a frappuccino and headed off to tackle the middle section of the race having already admitted defeat on the day.

I hiked most of the next hill as an FU to the race. Make me run non-stop for 50K, well I'll show you! As I ran back down yet another non-trail section of the course I vowed that I would despise everything about this race from here on out. I came across a snake and instantly thought, "if that thing bites me, maybe I can quit, wouldn't that be nice." On the one hand, I was actually hoping for an excuse to be done for the day, and on the other hand I knew that my body was fully capable of making it to the finish of this candy-ass flat hundred. A ways down the road I straight-up kicked another snake so that it'd get off the road. You're welcome, fellow runners, I just saved your life with my bravery.

I then entered the Apocalypse Now section of the course -- the bombed out, fire-damaged, logged section of Duncan Hollow -- and began repeating the mantra: this is stupid, I hate this. It was slow going, but at least I was on a trail for a little while. And, at some point my stomach finally stopped making me want to keel over in pain. The trail fucking sucked because it was filled with bullshit Massanutten rocks and there were 75 horseflies attacking me every step of the way. I fucking hate horseflies! It started getting warm enough that I was needing to douse myself with water at every creek crossing to fight off the heat. At some point I came up to one of the 752 aid stations along the course, which was literally a couple old folks and two mules with some cases of water bottles along the side of the trail. Bonus points for originality and for the dedication!

Then, it was back to the horseflies … and a healthy dose of taint chafing. Yeah, I knew you wanted to know about that.  A little later on, I stopped for a legit two minutes because … my shoulder hurt. No, seriously. That's how much I stopped giving a shit. Somehow my shoulder -- it wasn't even my arm that was holding my bottle -- started hurting. Like, stabbing pains. I let it just hang there to try and minimize the pain. Every footfall, especially downhill, was excruciating. And so I stopped mid-race to massage my god damned shoulder. Fuck my life. Eventually the pain subsided, but the shame remains to this day.

After a long and not at all steep road descent back to Four Points -- Mile 47 -- I found myself 40 minutes behind schedule. Terrific. I knew that there was a quasi-climb up ahead but I had no real understanding of what it would be like. It ended up being an exposed 6 mile dirt road climb in the heat of the day. Right at noon I got excited because it was Jarmans O'clock and I was climbing a shitty exposed road. That excitement quickly dampened and I ended up just being plain sick of it all. It was a total "douche grade" climb, but I ended up walking entirely too much of it because I just Did. Not. Care. Around the 50 Mile mark I transitioned into my no-gels phase of running, where the mere thought of consuming a gel made me want to hurl. In the first 8 hours of the race I downed maybe 500 calories of gels and a few hundred calories of Clif Blocks. Afterwards: zero. Perhaps an epic calorie deficit was swiftly coming my way!

Around this point in the race I also started developing an odd hitch in my stride. Why? Because, my right testicle was painfully swollen. Actually, it wasn't the testicle itself, but rather the epididymis. Oh, you don't know what the epididymis is? Did you miss that day in 7th grade health class? Well, Google states that it is "a highly convoluted duct behind the testis, along which sperm passes to the vas deferens." Fun Fact: Epididymitis, inflammation of the epididymis, is often caused by a bacterial or sexually transmitted infection. You're welcome for that thrilling health lesson! But yeah, let's just stick with describing the situation as a swollen right nut (I told you we'd be revisiting this subject!). It hurt. So bad. For miles. And miles. And miles. All told, I'd say there was about an hour of extreme discomfort, then another hour or so of much more tolerable pain, and then it just kinda sorta dulled out into nothingness and the inflammation went away. I'm really glad we had this opportunity to sit down together and talk about my testicles, it's been a lot of fun!

Anyways … I walked into the 51 Mile aid station, "Mountain Top", which is not at the top of the damned mountain, feeling cooked, and frustrated at having to look at green mountains yet being stuck on a glorified logging road. After downing a dozen strawberries and a bunch of coke the volunteers convinced me to take a freeze pop for the road. It was magical! That is, until a mile later when I couldn't get the sugary residue off my teeth. I was told I was 17 minutes back of the next guy, which I thought was Rich Riopel in 2nd place. I figured if I caught him then I caught him, but I wasn't going to bother myself with actually working hard to do so. My pity party was just getting started!

After cresting the mountain, I continued to run along a god-forsaken road for hours and hours. This bit was particularly frustrating as right fucking next to me was a trail. I literally ran along a road for multiple miles while staring off to a trail not more than 10 yards to my right. At one point a gaggle of dirt bikers putzed along said trail and I momentarily felt glad that I was on a road. Dirt bikers are the worst with their loud, obnoxious douchebaggy vehicles spoiling every decent quality about the natural forest they are riding in. Ugh!

At the next station, Edinburg Gap -- Mile 56 -- I downed an entire watermelon, then proceeded to the "ATV" section of the course. I knew I was going to hate this section before I even saw it. It was a 10 foot wide scar in the forest, meant for lazy ass losers to have "recreation" time in their dumb CO2 spewing vehicles. Scores of rednecks and bros, hobbling along in their Jeeps, thinking they're all cool as they replay images of decades worth of Jeep commercials in their minds. Whoever designed these trails put mountain bikers' absurd trails to shame.

At one point along the ATV, sorry "OHV", trail I came upon a freshly washed Faux-Jeep Baby Cherokee. It was so cute! It putzed along the 2% grade descent at a comfortable 5 mph. The guy literally had to stop and let me pass. He was going so slow. This runnable section of trail actually perked up my spirits a bit, but the prevalence of cars still had me feeling pissy and mean spirited. Right then and there, I decided to make up a story of how that cute little Baby Cherokee ended up getting passed by a runner in a national forest, and here is that gripping tale:

Dad: "Hey family, who wants to head to the forest for the day?"
Kid #1: "Me, me! Are we going to go hiking?"
Dad: "Nope."
Kid #2: "Mountain biking! Hooray!"
Dad: "Nope."
Mom: "Are we going to go on a picnic where you assume all responsibility of the kids and I can just sit in the shade and guzzle a bottle of cheap Rose and read a book?"
Dad: "No way. This is going to be so much better! Let's take our glorified crossover out on the trails and go off roading! Who needs to enjoy nature with exercise or a picnic when we can take our cliché suburban airconditioned non-SUV and pollute the beautiful forests of our National Parks System with our internal combustion engine. It'll be so much fun you guys! We'll roll along at a blistering 5 miles an hour, because I'm too afraid of messing up my delicate crossover suspension system. Then, eventually, a runner will pass us by, rendering me totally emasculated and insecure, eventually bringing about an era of familial discontent that will inevitably lead to divorce and the dissolution of our family. And I'll spend the rest of my days hanging out, alone, at Dave and Busters, getting shitfaced every night on Coors Light while trying to hit on college girls half my age and uncomfortably staring a bit too long at the bartender's breasts. Then I'll stumble to my depressing 1-bedroom bachelor pad, reeking of stale pizza and dirty socks, and cry myself to sleep and dream of better days. … So, who's with me?!"
Kid #1: "That sounds awful. I'd rather go over to Billy's house and play Fortnite. See ya."
Kid #2: "Yeah, you suck dad. I'm gonna go hang out in my room and do homework or something, anything to get away from you."
Mom: "Sorry, honey, but that's the stupidest idea you've ever had. But you feel free to go out there by yourself if you really want to. I'll just head over to my coworker Kyle's place and hang out. You remember Kyle, right? Tall, handsome, muscular. God, I could ride that all night long. … Shit, did I say that out loud?"

Ok, back to the running bits! I rolled into Little Fort -- Mile 65 -- actually feeling pretty good. I was still bleeding time, but I had actually spent some quality miles on trails. Granted, they were trails for cars, but whatever, I guess I'm at that point where I'll take what I can get. I'm an optimist at heart.

I spent some time lazily hiking up a lame 300 foot road climb, then ran along some more gravel roads that I'd seen earlier in the day and tried to not get run over by redneck families on their 4-wheelers.

I eventually popped out on the Mudhole Gap Trail. I was told by an anonymous source that Keith Knipling loves this section of trail and wants to have babies with it. It was like 3 minutes of real trail, and then a few miles of quasi-trail … but covered in bits of fucking gravel. With the Old Dominion, even the trails are gravel! So yeah, apparently Keith Knipling has atrocious taste in trails. Gross, Keith, gross.

Okay, I have this theory. The Botts family, that started and maintain the race, are secretly Virginia gravel kingpins. They have backroom deals with politicians all over the place to get their overpriced gravel strewn out throughout the region, even in the forests. Directing the Old Dominion 100 Mile Cross Country Run is all a ruse to prematurely wear out the gravel roads and trails they maintain so that they can come back in and lay more gravel at a hefty profit, compliments of John Q. Taxpayer. I'm sure there are plenty of off the books money exchanges with local politicians. These folks are raking in millions with their gravel racket!

At one point, dropping down the ridge above Elizabeth Furnace, I spied the Shenandoah Mountains off to the East. Look at those majestic sons of bitches! Real mountains! Two to three thousand foot climbs! The Real Deal. Not like this shitty midget Massanutten Mountain crap. Please, just get me out of here, I hate this place, I want to run over there!

After some more gravel trail, I finally hit the legit trail just outside of Elizabeth Furnace and rolled into the aid station -- Mile 75 -- nearly an hour behind schedule. However, it was now 5pm, the heat of the day was gone, and I had some real climbs ahead of me to look forward to. 75 miles of boredom and worthless running to finally get to the good stuff. In a way, the Old Dominion is a lot like this allegory that I whipped up whilst running:

Dad: "Hey sweetheart, do you wanna go catch that new movie you've been wanting to see?"
Daughter: "Gee willikers! That'd be great, dad. I love you so much! I'll go get my jacket."
Dad: "Well hold on there, sport. I didn't say we'd go right now! First, I need you to write a 5,000 word essay arguing that mountain bikers are objectively better trail stewards than runners and hikers. When you're done, we can go see that movie."
Daughter: "God damnit, dad. You're the worst! I hate you! I wish mom had given me up for adoption when I was born!"
Dad: "Me too, kiddo, me too."

Okay, so I was at Elizabeth Furnace, working through my drop bag, getting ready for the long anticipated fun part of the course, when who strolls over? None other than Jack Kurisky! I was doing the whole solo schtick but decided I'd allow him the opportunity to fill my bottle with some ice, you know, keep him busy, give him something to do, make him feel special. Good thing Old Dominion doesn't have a real Solo category, or else some stickler might've reported me … for a non-volunteer putting a handful of ice in a bottle. (Enter Hardrock joke here, if you're into that sort of thing). Anyways, it was great to see a friend after nearly 13 hours of not loving life. As always, he was extremely supportive and upbeat, and he sent me off in a much better mood than I'd come in with. And to top things off, I was told the guy in front of me "just left one minute ago". Oh man, I'm only a minute behind Riopel and I'm just now entering my comfort zone.

With a fresh state of mind, I hit the trails leading up Sherman Gap. I heard it was steep and a little gnarly, and that it'd be friggin awesome! Only, I had to run through 2 miles of bullshit rollers to get there. What the hell?! I want steep climbs and I want them NOW! Finally, I got to the gritty section of Sherman Gap and slow-hiked my way up for nearly 30 minutes. It was heavenly. No more running for me, just hiking up and falling down … the way it should be. I wish Shermans was twice as high!

As I flew down the other side of Sherman Gap, I quickly overtook Riopel. Only … it wasn't Riopel. It was some random old dude. Random old dude, where the hell did you come from? I could've sworn there were only 2 people ahead of me. Nevermind, you're going slow downhill, you must not be in the race. Moving on.

At the bottom, I hit a 2 mile stretch of rolling road. Ugh, more friggin road. But it leads to another steep climb. I'll take the bitter with the sweet right now. Life is all about compromise, that's what the Buddha says. I cruised into Veach East -- Mile 83 -- and exchanged some sass with the VHTRC volunteers who kept trying to push their idea of a fun time: soup and broth. It's 80 fucking degrees out dude, get that shit away from me! As I left I heard cheering. Damn it, random old dude is an actual runner. I really don't wanna race right now.

Random old dude caught up with me. We exchanged pleasantries. Then he went off ahead of me up Veach Gap. I, on the other hand, lazily hiked. Why? Because I'm a slow hiker. But most importantly, because I'd been running all damn day and I deserved this, so leave me alone! After the crest, I went flying down the hill. I quickly overtook random old dude, who was hobble jogging his way down the mountainside. Into Veach West -- Mile 86 -- I went. More coke, more fruit. More sass about broth. No, kind volunteer, I don't have a drop bag, it's friggin Mile 86, who has a drop bag this far into the race, leave me alone! Onward to more fucking gravel and pavement!

My legs were feeling good and by the next aid station -- Mile 91 -- I was ready for the final climb. I was going to no walk this non-trail bastard. I got to a stretch of road I'd already visited back at Mile 65. I'd lazily walked it that time, but the sun was setting now, the race was almost over, and I was feeling great, so I sprinted all the way up. Well, not a sprint so much as a shuffle jog, but you get the idea. I ran right on by the little aid station up there just as nautical twilight was beginning, begrudgingly turned on my piddly little Petzl Bindi, and started tearing ass down the mountain into Woodstock. It took me 61 minutes to get to the top in the morning and I'd be damned if I wasn't going to get back to the finish in less than an hour. I heroically flew down the pavement for 1000 vertical feet, crossed the North Fork Shenandoah River, sprinted at a blazing 10 minutes per mile along the rolling asphalt, kept running along the rolling asphalt, ran some more … still more running … Jesus Christ when the hell can I stop running … okay, sweet, Downtown Woodstock, only 2 miles to go … aaaand, FINISH!

Riopel was there. He finished less than 20 minutes before me. And he had this to say about the race: "I liked the roads!" God damnit, Rich, you're a disappointment.  Also, there was no Top Finisher Patagonia schwag … what bullshit!

That first 75 miles was terrible. That last 25 was much better. I was faster than everyone else in that stretch, so suck it, fellow competitors! Never in my life have I had so little fun running a 100 mile race.

And for the record, no, I'm not coming back. I got my buckle, I'm done. Those valley roads and all that pavement and gravel will haunt my memories until the day I die. There's mountains right friggin there, so why in the hell are we running on these god forsaken roads?! Next time I get into States, you won't be hearing me talk about a Grand Slam, nope nope nope.

I'd like to thank my wife for solo parenting for 2 days, dealing with a sick kid, and for having to clean up kiddo car seat vomit all by herself. She puts up with a lot just so I can go run for a long time in an angsty, pissy mood.

The End

P.S.: Hugs and kisses, rainbows and unicorns!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Fare Thee Well, East Coast

As I was driving to the airport at 4am last week, working on less than 4 hours of sick-kiddo-interrupted sleep, I found myself tearing up. Why? Because I had some dirt in my eye, duh. No. It was because the events of the next few weeks were suddenly sinking in. And just like with my emotionally compromised state at Mile 80 of nearly every 100 Miler, slightly salty water for some reason began to form at the corners of my eyes.

In two weeks, I'll be moving from DC, a region that I've called home for the past decade, to St. Louis, in order to raise my children closer to family. I sat there, in my car on I-95, with quick-fire images of my favorite trails popping into my head. And then, more importantly, thoughts of all the folks I've met over the past 4 years of ultrarunning, and all of the friendships I've found along the way.

After many years of hardly running, I finally got off the couch and committed myself to the sport 5 years ago. By early 2015 I had finally run my first ultra, and not long after that my first hundo. I started out knowing nothing about the sport. I knew nothing about Happy Trails. I knew no other runners. My initial ignorance is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that, for my very first ultra, I chose the North Face DC 50 Miler over BRR.

Right from the beginning I knew I wanted to run longer, harder races. Starting out, though, I just thought that I'd be doing it all by myself, in my own little introverted bubble. In that first year, I finally learned about VHTRC, and I started to find "my people". Now, nearly every race I go to turns into something more akin to a family reunion. In the years to come, as I struggle to seek out the most rigorous 100 foot "climbs" that St. Louis has to offer, I will no doubt longingly yearn for the comforts of Rock Creek Park's endless miles of single track mere minutes from my front door, and for the killer climbs and descents of Shenandoah. More than that though, I'll miss the Virginia ultrarunning community -- the training runs, the volunteering, hanging out at a race every couple of months. Sure, St. Louis has its own ultra club, but it won't be the same.

I've met too many people to call out individually, but I'd like to take a moment to call out some of the Beast Coast folks that have had a particularly strong impact on me these past 5 years.

First of all, I'd like to thank my favorite race directors: David Horton, Alex Papadopoulos, and Clark Zealand. It's not by accident that over half my races have been ones you've put on. Every runner is indebted to the race directors and volunteers who make our favorite races happen, but the atmospheres that you've developed and nurtured, each different in their own ways, are second to none. Your races are clearly labors of love, and each of those races has strengthened my love for this sport -- excluding Holiday Lake and MMTR because, well, nevermind, I won't get into that here! Someday down the road I hope to give back to the ultrarunning community and direct a race of my own, in no small part because of the impact Horton, Clark, and Alex have had upon me.

You don't have to look too far in this sport to find admirable runners and personal heroes. You can have your Walmsleys and Dauwalters, but for me, two runners I look up to most are VHTRCers. Though I'd never say it to their faces for fear of turning bright red right there on the spot, you'd be hard-pressed to find more admirable people than Sophie Speidel and Jack Kurisky. I look up to the two of you more than anyone else in this sport. You are genuinely kind people who strengthen this community of oddball athletes with your dedication to the sport itself and to your fellow runners. And it doesn't hurt that you guys are straight-up studs! You keep putting in the work, showing up, and killing it on race day. It's clear that you guys love "the process" that gets you to the starting line year after year after year. I wanna be like you when I grow up!

And finally, I'd like to give a huge shout-out to all of the CRUT and C-ville runners out there that I've bonded with at races, of whom there are too many to call out individually. Right from the start I seemed to gravitate to y'all; and not unlike an awkward new kid at school, you were kind enough to invite me over to the lunch table where the cool kids sat. Half the fun of racing has been to see you all, swap stories, and suffer together. Sadly, I was unable to convince my wife that we should relocate to Crozet so that I could live out my days blissfully running up and down Jarmans.

And though I may be moving, many might not even notice. I still plan to take the 700 mile drive down I-64 a few times a year for races and such. I have to return to Grindstone this year to snag my 5X buckle, after which I'll likely keep coming back to volunteer and to help many of you finish my favorite 100 mile race. And the only way I'll ever miss Hellgate is if the Race Committee bars me from entering. I'll probably be at Promise Land most Aprils, and I hear the first Saturday in August is a lovely time to visit Crozet.

If anyone finds themselves in St. Louis, don't hesitate to reach out. And for anyone that makes the trek west for the big mountain races, St. Louis makes for a great pit-stop and I'll have spare beds ready to go! I'll also be that much closer to those races, and with extra hands around to help with the kids, it's all the more likely I'll be available for some crewing and pacing duties -- so when you make it into Hardrock, please take me with you! Oh, and if anyone is interested in a meet-in-the-middle group run, just know that my closest publicly accessible 1000' climb is in Frozen Head State Park … it's 7 hours away from St. Louis, but whatever.

It has been an absolute pleasure to be a part of this community of runners, and I'm counting down the days until I get to share miles and stories with many of you again.

Thursday, February 7, 2019


So there I was. Standing at the finish of another 100 miler. Panting, grasping for air. Hands on knees. Mumbling semi-incoherently. Overcome with emotion. Pretty typical, right?

Well, not exactly. Those emotions, they weren't your standard feelings of elation, pride in your accomplishment, gratefulness that you don't have to take another step. No. I was overwhelmed with a sense of intense shame. How did it come to this?

I'll spare you the intense details and cut right to the chase. But, for those interested in wasting an hour of your life, feel free to jump ahead so you can start from the beginning, and then retrace your steps to finish the thrilling tale of a guy that ran a race.

Anyways, back to that whole cutting right to the chase thing ...

I embarked upon my final lap at the HURT 100. I had secured 5th place and was fairly confident no one behind me was in striking distance. So I set out to enjoy myself and the peacefulness of the pitch-black jungle on the outskirts of Honolulu. My 24 hour goal, sadly, had slipped away, but I was confident I'd finish before sunrise / 25 hours, so I intentionally took it easy.

Halfway down the descent to the first Aid Station of the loop (the Pirate hangout, Pirate Cove, Manoa, whatever other name it goes by), I overtook 4th place. He was hobble-walking. It was his first 100 miler and he said his legs felt shot. But he was upbeat and excited to walk it in for the finish. Kudos! I knew the top 3 runners had been battling it out all day and they were far ahead of me, so it seemed like 4th place was my destiny. Not too shabby!

This has nothing to do with the race, but check out this view from my hotel room. Not pictured: primates in the zoo making adorable sounds.

After exiting the Aid Station and heading back the way I came, I bumped into fellow DC area runner Keith Knipling. As this happened, a Japanese runner with poles came screaming down the descent. I was a bit confused because I didn't remember lapping him and he seemed to be rather reckless for a person only on their 4th lap. I made mention to Keith of how I just slipped into 4th, overtaking the shirtless 5th place guy with the jell-o legs who also just ran by us. Keith, completely confused, said "No, I'm pretty sure that was Tomo. He's really good." And so it was confirmed, Japanese pole guy, AKA Tomo, AKA Tomokazu Ihara, was hunting me down and my 4th place position was in jeopardy. He was maybe 10 minutes behind with 14 sloppy, muddy, rooty, dark miles to go. And he looked strong. Like, really strong. My reaction: I can't compete with that, so yeah, I'm fine with 5th! And I casually worked my way along to the next Aid Station, patiently awaiting the inevitable.

I made it up the next climb and back down to the very, very, very sloppy 10-15 minutes of riverbank running before the Jackass Ginger (or Nu'uanu) Aid Station. Miraculously, I hadn't been passed yet. So I exited my final Aid Station of the day and kicked it into overdrive, busting my ass to slog back through the muck as quickly as possible and climb back up the hill I had just come down. I had my eyes peeled. 5 minutes ticked by, then 10. At 13 minutes without running into Tomo -- which would've amounted to a roughly 26 minute gap -- I was frustratingly confused. Not a moment later, I look back and there he is, right on my tail, levitating over the mud with his poles. We must've unknowingly crossed paths at the creek beside the Aid Station. We exchanged pleasantries for a moment and then he shot off like a rocket up the final climb. I, on the other hand, admitted defeat and resumed a more casual pace. 5th place. Good enough for me! Let's enjoy it!

When I climbed up to the ridge, I sat down on a bench, gazed up at the full moon, looked out over the lights of Honolulu, and took it all in. Perfect running bliss!

About 10 minutes later, and just before the final descent began, I finally lapped 12 time finisher and fellow DC area runner Alex Papadopoulos. I slowed to chat for a few minutes when he let me know "Tomo is 12 minutes up on you". For reasons that will become apparent momentarily, I now question the accuracy of that statement. It was nice to catch up with him and spend a few minutes sharing his home turf.

Not relevant to the race either, but look at that bright moon!

With my legs feeling rather sprightly after 23 hours and 40 minutes, I decided I was going to cap off this wonderful race with a no-holds-barred death-defying descent and utterly destroy my quads, because, well, why the heck not! I had no illusions of recapturing 4th place, I just really like hard downhill running at the end of a race. I recklessly flew down the muddy, rooty, rocky, often winding, and pitch black trail. I was having the time of my life. Towards the end, the skin on my feet felt like it was being shredded by the impact forces on the rocks. I didn't dare distract myself by trying to drink from my water bottle. I was risking death to simply blink my eyes. My breathing was uncontrolled and erratic. It was the fastest I'd run all day. I had no higher gear, this was as fast as my legs could possibly carry me.

I careened into the Nature Center at full speed, crossed the small bridge that signified the start of the race, hit the few feet of pavement before a final hairpin turn on a handicap ramp that led to the finish and … WAIT … WHAT THE HELL IS THAT? A headlamp. A runner. The uncanny likeness of the runner that had passed me less than 2 hours ago. 4th Place turned his head, then seemed to try and pick up speed. Literally 2 seconds later we were both at the hairpin turn of the handicap ramp. 4th Place tried making the turn a split second before me. I lost control on the concrete trying to reach for the hand rail and make the turn myself. The full force of my body going at top speed collided with 4th Place, sending him reeling in the opposite direction he wanted to go, and me, the beneficiary of the madness, bounced perfectly into position. Overwhelmed with adrenaline, I secured my footing and shot down to the finish. I quickly kissed the sign, rung the bell, and turned around to watch the other runner jog in.

The scene of the crime.

Instantaneously, I was overcome with shame. It just felt so incredibly wrong. A volunteer awkwardly handed me the finisher hat and belt buckle and stared at me with confusion as I kept mumble-panting.

I ran into him. It was an accident. Oh my god, what did I just do? Is he okay? Why did I keep running?

I literally felt like throwing up. The volunteer and my wife, from their vantage point at the finish, were completely unable to see what had just transpired and couldn't understand my incoherent rambling. Another volunteer had been manning the Ultrasignup tracking app at the bottom of the handicap ramp, and had the benefit of seeing half the story through an obscuring hedgerow. He came over to talk to me. There was pantomiming of Tomo being pushed out of the way, hands flung up in the air. Words were thrown out, like unsportsmanlike. Dizzy, exhausted, confused, on the verge of throwing up, and coming off the craziest adrenaline spike I've ever experienced, I tried to make sense of it all. And I could not shake the shame.

I went over to Tomo, grief-stricken, and apologized. He shrugged and said it was no big deal. You were going faster. I wouldn't have been able to catch you anyways. Did he really believe that? Was he just saying that to make me feel better? I have no idea. But I just felt worse and worse.

I tried to compose myself. My head was swimming: unsportsmanlike, impeded, accident, my fault, unsportsmanlike. Do I hand in my buckle? Do I request to be disqualified? How did this even happen? I don't even like the notion of "racing" in ultras! After 24 hours of running, do I deserve to be disqualified for a panic-stricken, adrenaline-laced, piss-poor judgement clusterfuck of a finish? What would happen in a 1500m race? Yup, DQ.

Take a break from this sad story and check out this panorama of the beach from Lost!

I went over to the RD, John Salmonson. I tried to explain myself. I pled my case to have our places switched. All the while, I felt the shame continuing to wash over me -- you just asked to have places swapped?! You should be DQ'd! Turn in your buckle! How are you going to be able to look yourself in the mirror?!

I lost control. I ran into him. I impeded another runner. I impeded him! He deserves 4th place, not me.

John's response was quasi-apathetic. "I didn't see everything. It doesn't sound pretty. I know Tomo, he's a friend, he's not going to care." THIS ISN'T ABOUT CARING, THIS IS ABOUT JUSTICE! More half-explanations, more urging, more attempts to hold back a flow of tears. Eventually, he pulled up the Ultrasignup tracking app, looked at Tomo's finishing time, then went over to my time and rolled it back to exactly 1 second after Tomo's. And then, "There. Done." Which sounded more like, "Fine, anything to get you to stop harassing me!"

I walked over to Tomo, let him know again how sorry I was, and that I had our finishing places switched. Then I hung my head and walked over to my wife so she could take care of her husband, who instead of being elated with a strong showing in difficult conditions at another big 100 mile race, had transformed into an angsty, moody adolescent.

This view from my pre-race dinner reminds me of a simpler time, a time before hulking out and tackling a fellow runner.

The guilt, the shame, the disappointment. It stuck with me. I was in paradise and borderline depressed. The next day, a buddy texted me and let me know I'd made the pages of iRunFar and that they were seeking an explanation to the 1second difference between 4th and 5th place. I composed myself as best as I could, did my best impersonation of a PR Manager, and crafted an explanation. Most unexpectedly, it was quickly followed with praise, support, and various other attaboys. I pretended to be a linebacker at the finish line of one of the most difficult 100 mile races in the world, and now I was being applauded for my actions -- well, not my actions, but you know, rather, my attempt to save face and accept responsibility. Either way, it felt, and still feels, very odd.

Even now, weeks later, I can't help but feel the slightest twinges of those same painful emotions when I look at my hard-earned buckle. It's my 9th one. Some, I look at and beam with pride. Others, an ambivalent shoulder shrug. Not this one. Not my first HURT buckle. It has a unique story. And with it come emotions that will be forever burned into my memory. Emotions I'm still coming to terms with.

Many thanks to my wife for sitting around at a race aid station for 16 hours on her vacation, to the grandmas for looking after our kids, to my fellow VHTRC runners for their companionship, to the volunteers and all the other runners I bumped into over the course of my 24 hours and 21 minutes of jungle fun, and most especially to Tomokazu Ihara for his grace and civility (and for not tackling me in return).

While I do take 100% responsibility for the entire finish line fiasco, I'll just say it right now: that finish was stupid. Here's what it looks like on Google Maps (red line), complete with proposed "alternate routes":

That hairpin turn is stupid.

Granted, this isn't a World Majors Marathon or something. And there's only like a maximum of 70 people that even finish the race each year, across a span of 14 or so hours, so the odds of a tight finish are absurdly small. But still. Why is there a glorified finishing chute with a hairpin turn?!

P.P.S.: Check out Paul Encarnacion's video to get a feel for the Hawaii gnar!

Oh, what's that, you wanted to waste away even more of your time?! Well then, here you go!

The Full Story

I signed up for the HURT 100 kind of on a whim. The race had intrigued me since I started running. Steep, muddy, technical, rooty, slow. Sign me up! But flying 5000 miles for a race seemed like a bit of a financial extravagance, not to mention the complications that arise when you've got 2 young kids.

The quirky lottery selection process is based upon accumulating kukui nuts (points) that increase your chances, but let's be honest, it's probably just you are selected to run at the pleasure of the race committee. I made the mistake of name-dropping local DC runner / RD and bajillion time HURT finisher, Alex Papadopoulos, in my lottery application. And next thing I know, my wife and I are planning a luxurious kid-free Hawaiian vacation!:

Chris: Hey honey, wanna go to Hawaii?
Kristin: Uhh, duh!
Chris: … to crew me in another 100 mile race?
Kristin: Damn it, Chris! I didn't sign up for this crap when I agreed to marry you!

I found out I made it through the lottery in August, where I was midway through a disastrous training block, culminating in a rather pathetic showing at Grindstone. With the amount of time and money this race/trip was going to eat up, I didn't want to half-ass it. I ended up putting together the best 3 months of training of my entire life. Over 40 hours per month while averaging over 60,000' of climbing per month. I even threw in a couple of weeks where I climbed Everest (>29,029' in 7 days). Speed was nowhere to be found, but my legs were strong, and ready to tackle whatever Hawaii threw my way.

Prerace fireworks, just for me!

Lap 1

Lap 1 of 5 went off without a hitch. A group of about 10 guys jumped out front and tore ass up the initial 0.7mi 20% grade climb, and I quickly found myself in the gap between the frontrunner/morons group and everyone else. 20 minutes in, the only sign that anyone was in front of me was the unmistakably sad click-click sound of a scared little runner extending their poles (it was Mike Wardian!). Much of the first climb up Hogsback was rather tame, though steep, and I spent much of it hiking to keep my energy in check. After some rolling, rocky, windy running, and some more climbing, I reached the Pauoa Flats … a couple hundred yards of flat ground absolutely covered with roots. My legs were fresh and the obstacles didn't seem to daunting. Reader, file this away in your memory, okay!

Running down to the first aid station at Mile 7 brought about my real introduction to the HURT course -- perfectly runnable stretches for like 300' and then roots, and uneven dirt steps held together with slick bamboo or wood or metal, and 3-10' rocky "step-downs", and random boggy sections of trail, and literally climbing across a field of tangled roots that formed a trail with a 45-degree camber. Oh, and you're doing this in a friggin cloud so it's damp and humid and slick. After a couple miles of this insanity, I was greeted by a beautiful waterfall. I spent a moment oohing-and-aahing at it before cannonballing down the steep, rocky trail to the Pirate Aid Station (Manoa).

 … and then I turned around and retraced my steps all the way back up, ducking and weaving my way through 120 of my fellow runners. One of them, oddly, was Wardian who'd apparently made a wrong turn already (how? HOW?!) and lost an impressive 40 minutes before the first aid station! Epic!

I ate acia bowls on my vacation. Yummy!

After a couple miles of retracing my steps, I hung a right and worked my way along a ridge to what would become my favorite stretch of the entire course: a meandering, runnable segment that leads to a high point overlooking Waikiki before painfully plunging straight friggin down. It's so steep in places that some benevolent soul tried digging out marginally useful steps in the dirt to help control your descent (and handholds for the subsequent ascent?). You're literally staring off the edge of a steep ridge, falling down the trail, using a couple of random trees on the side of the trail to brace you.

Then came a perfectly runnable, but steep, downhill to the 2nd Aid Station at Mile 13 -- Jackass Ginger (Nu'uanu), and back up the way I came. On the climb back up, I passed Alex and mentioned how groomed the trails seemed. He said a lot of time was spent rehabbing this section ahead of the race, and it showed. They had been smooth, runnable, not at all technical. Runner, file this away in your memory, okay!

I careened down to the main Aid Station to complete my first lap in just under 4 hours, arriving at the tail end of the Top 10. Race conditions seemed pretty good and I cautiously believed I could score my ambitious A-Goal of a 22:30 finish -- an ambitious goal I'd put together after much research on prior top race times.

Lap 2

I slowly hiked my way back up the rooty, steep Hogsback climb, this time finding a relatively root-free path on the far left edge and following that most of the way. The hill was dry and I kicked up enough dirt that I regretted not having something to cover my mouth. But it had me guessing that today might not get all that muddy, further reinforcing my faith in a 22:30 finish. By the time I reached Puaoa Flats, I was singing a different tune. The flat, rooty stretch of trail was coated in mud. The ground was an array of boot-sucking mud pits. The roots, mud-slickened booby traps. I walked nearly the whole stretch, going one mile an hour pace, maybe two.

And things only got worse heading back down to the Pirate Aid Station. After navigating 2 miles of muddy, technical trail, I popped out to the beautiful waterfall and was greeted by an endless sea of tourists. The foot traffic, combined with the water flying off the waterfall, the moisture in the air, and the rocky ground, turned this section of the course into a muddy slip-n-slide. I weaved through the day adventurers -- bros in friggin flip-flops, women in friggin white jeans and heels, friggin purse dogs yip-yapping and darting left and right, and even friggin babies with pacifiers and soggy diapers stumbling around the muddy rocks. I frequently came to a complete stop to get around people. It was … so weird. And slow … so effing slow. And when I got down to the Aid Station, guess what I got to do next?! That's right, turn around and work my way back through that mass of humanity!

Flowers in Hawaii are pretty!

… And then back through the muddy flats. But the run down to Jackass Ginger was going to be awesome -- that groomed, runnable descent!  Only, nope! The trail had slickened, and the bottom portions were mucky as hell. Oh, and there were also tourists down here, too. Damn it! Damn it! Damn it! Another tap of an aid station and back the way I came, into the depths of muddy despair. Along my climb back up, I ran into Alex again and instead of talking about how well groomed the trails were, I got this: "The course hasn't looked this messy in a decade."

I finally strolled back into the main aid station a full 30 minutes slower than my first lap, despite feeling like I had worked harder. I met up with my wife and let her know to throw out the timesheets -- I'd still try for sub-24, but who knows.

Oh, and it was 2:30pm and it was 80 degrees out. My heat training seemed like it was taking hold, but I was surprisingly not interested in eating any candy bars, sushi, sandwiches, or even having a frappuccino. The heat had me only wanting easily digestible gels, blocks, and simple liquids. Lap 3 was gonna be not only about surviving the mud, but also making sure my calorie intake didn't nosedive. Another thing to deal with, hooray!

Lap 3

Lap 3 was pretty simple. Take the previous 2 laps, make them muddier and slower and that pretty much covers it!

I moved along at a snail's pace, stuck in a low gear. It frustrated me at first, but the heat and humidity wasn't bothering me and it was clear that my legs could handle the steep climbs and descents, so I just accepted the course for what it was and enjoyed myself. HURT had become more of an adventure run than a race.

At some point in the lap, I was finally able to pass Paul Terranova. He'd been minutes ahead of me for nearly 30 miles. Every aid station I'd come in as he was coming out, and I'd make some sarcastic remark about how he needed to slow down, or that I was gonna pass him and poach his pacer, Nick Pedatella, whom I'd ran with a bit at both Grindstone and Hellgate. Mind you, I'd never met Paul before, so I'm guessing he just kept thinking to himself who the hell is this annoying little kid?!

As I came out of the 2nd Aid Station, I realized sunset was approaching, so I tried booking it to get to the top of the ridge overlooking Waikiki. And lucky for me, I got up there right in time. I stopped to watch the sun set for a bit. It's not every day you get to perch yourself on a ridge top to see a sunset over a beautiful ocean-side city in the middle of a race! Definitely a moment I'll never forget.

There are a lot of yard birds roaming around Oahu.

And then, another moment I'll never forget. As I methodically made my way down to the main aid station to complete Lap 3 in the dark, I came to a road crossing and a race volunteer. He let me know "there's a runner just ahead of you without a headlamp, but I can't help." I found this all very confusing. 1) the race starts in the dark and there's only 11 hours of daylight before the sun sets, so why the hell is there a runner out here without a headlamp? 2) Why can't the volunteer help, isn't that what volunteers do?

I couldn't recall if the volunteer even had a light of his own … but why wouldn't he … he's volunteering at a race and it's dark out. Weird. So weird. I was running with a back-up light (a Petzl Bindi) since I was so close to the main aid station, where I'd soon dig out my legit headlamp. I could easily make out the profile of a person slowly staggering / weaving along the pitch-black trail. I told her she was going to take my back-up headlamp and that she needed to get my main one out of my pack. For about 6 hours, she tried and failed to unzip my pack, so I had to rip it off myself and get my lamp out. Then onward I went.

When I got back to the main Aid Station, it had cooled down enough that I was in the mood for some frappuccino and various solids. I checked my watch and saw it'd taken nearly 5 hours to complete Lap 3 -- another lap, another 30minute slowdown. I was bleeding time due to the race conditions, but I was still making up ground, having recently moved into 6th place. So I calmly took my time and prepared mentally for the overnight hours … and then I took even more time to hit up a porta-potty … I got to poop mid-race using a bon-a-fide toilet. Mud be damned, this was an amazing day! It's the little things!


Lap 4

I spotted Paul and Nick in the Aid Station as I started Lap 4. I was in no rush to climb Hogsback so they caught up to me rather quickly. We hiked and ran along together for maybe 2 miles. When the trail flattened out I seemed to be opening my stride up more than Paul, so I took off into the night to finish my race alone.

Lap 4 saw the course conditions continue to deteriorate. But there was one bright spot: no more tourists to dodge! I greatly enjoyed this lap, just cruising along in the dark by myself. Aside from the litany of technical hazards whose complications only increased in the dead of night, it was a peaceful, stress-free bit of running. Well, except for some folks' lights. I'm not sure what the deal is, but there's apparently a new trend in trail running that includes strapping a row of 10,000lumen light bulbs to your waist/chest. I saw entirely too many runners with these odd contraptions, and as a result, I and dozens of other fellow runners are now legally blind from the damage they've caused to our retinas. Every time I encountered one of these over-illuminated weirdos, I'd freak out, avert my eyes, nearly fall off the edge of a trail into the abyss below, and after miraculously surviving each encounter I would promptly wish bodily harm upon them and their entire family as I stumbled down the trail with half my vision obscured by colorful halos that approximated the temporary searing of your eyeballs you experience after getting absolutely drunk and on a dare attempt to stare at the sun for 60 seconds straight (yes, in this hypothetical scenario I am black-out drunk and it's midday … your point?).

Lap 4 clocked in at roughly 5:30 -- yup, another lap, another 30minute slowdown! My big toe had been sticking to my insole, leading me to think I had a burst blister of some kind, so I swapped out my socks, yet kept the same mud-caked LonePeak4.0s. I found no blister so it must've just been mud-saturated socks. I didn't need to change them out, but I wasn't fighting tooth-and-nail for every second, so whatever.  Another frappuccino and I was off!

I got to see a lunar eclipse, and I didn't even have to stay up late!

Saturday, December 15, 2018

2018 Hellgate 100K -- An Ode to Mountain Racing

Note: This race report will make a bit more sense if you read this first. And apologies if the formatting is a mess ... there was a lot of copy-and-pasting involved.

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery ... or something like that."

I’m not very competitive by nature, but I love a footrace in the mountains.
Often, the term “trail running” is used to define the other side of running – the one off the roads, off the grid, away from the cars and crowds.  I’m not so sure I am satisfied with trail running alone, as I find myself more and more inextricably tied to the challenge and beauty of running in the mountains.  Whether using gravel roads to climb them, single track to traverse and descend them, or no trail to explore and wander on them, mountains become the ultimate test for the mind and body of any runner.  And mountain racing…here is where transformative magic happens.

I decided to tackle the Beast Series for the 2nd time this year. With Aaron Saft and Matt Thompson both out of the way, it was finally my time to shine! After MMTR, I found myself well atop the leaderboard. And after a certified disaster at Grindstone, I was looking forward to finishing off the year on a high note.

Enter Hellgate 100k.  Mountain racing.  I wish every runner could experience this.

Three Four friends and I, all of us Hellgate veterans plus one newbie, entered this year’s Hellgate with the lofty goal of finishing under 12 hours.  Make no mistake, we would all love to beat each other too, but the time goal was paramount this year. 

The Hellgate PreRace at Camp Bethel (photo: Michelle Andersen)
I have tried and failed at this goal the last 4 years, getting as close as 12:06 last year, pathetically giving up with John Anderson and phoning it in the final 14 miles.  I was truly beginning to doubt if I could do it I never doubted that I could do it, though, because I knew that John once ran a 12:06 and I’m clearly a better runner than him.  Jordan Chang has gone sub 12 just once in his 11 finishes.  In his three five finishes, Chris Roberts John has not broken 12 (it’s worth repeating), nor had Nick Pedatella in his one finish last year where he also got a taste at 12:09.  And speedy Dan Fogg was here to get his very first taste of Hellgate. At the prerace dinner, we all discussed this goal, knew it would be difficult, and sorta kinda pledged to work together, i.e. beat each other

Hellgate is a perfect race because you never really know how your day will turn out.  It’s simply too hard, too long, and the weather is just too unpredictable.  It’s hardly worth making it your A-race because it can be so soul-crushing, but you had better bring your best A-game because it demands everything you have both physically and mentally.

I wish every runner could experience that feeling when you finally get out of your warm car at 11:50pm on that second Friday of December and shuffle over to the start line in the cold, in the middle of nowhere, doing your final gear check as you prepare to run through the uncertain winter night.

You might think Hellgate is so hard because it is so long, at 66.6 miles, and has so much elevation, making you climb almost 14,000 feet throughout the race (that is nearly half as high as Mount Everest).  But no, Hellgate is so hard because in order to do your best, you have to start working on that very first mountain climb (1400’ starting at mile 4) and keep enough in the tank for that very last mountain climb (1300’ starting at mile 60).  Although the four five of us weren’t running together (because John was too busy chatting up folks at the start of the race, as he is wont to do), we all no-walked that first climb up to Petite’s Gap, hoping to set a sustainable tone for the remainder of the night and day.  I wish every runner could experience the upper switchbacks of the Petite’s Gap climb at 1am on a clear December night, looking down and seeing a line of headlamps from all the other mountain runners making their way.  

Jordan,Dan, Nick, and Chris I all separated from me John as we traversed those early hours of the night.  This is the first real test of any mountain race – is this a good early effort?  We don’t look at pace, but rather gauge our progress through a subjective measure of our effort, something honed from countless hours running in the mountains.  What is a sustainable pace when you are climbing 2000’ at 2:00am?  How fast is too fast when you are descending a rock-strewn, leaf-ridden singletrack by headlamp?

Climbing the single track by Hunting Creek on the Terrapin course, after more than an hour of needing to go to the bathroom I finally relented and hopped off the trail to dig in the dirt and do my business, leaving Dan and Nick to forge ahead together. As I finished, John and his social club passed by. I quickly jumped ahead, despite John sarcastically prodding me about how I lost so many places and needed to sprint to catch back up. I then passed Dan, who didn’t keep up with Nick and didn’t seem willing to keep up with me, either. By the time I’d popped out on the Hunting Creek Road climb, I’d caught back up with Nick. We entertained ourselves together for awhile, watching a crazy person attempt hill sprint intervals and intersperse intense-arm-swing hiking. As he sprinted his way off into the night, Nick and I were comforted by our shared knowledge that he’d eventually become carnage. (Side Note: “crazy person” ended up being Rich Riopel, who finished ahead of us. I’m still unwilling to relent and declare his climbing style as anything other than utterly absurd, but kudos on making it work out in the end!). After another no-hike climb, we rolled into Camping Gap for our first water stop of the day.

I wish every runner could experience that inviting fire that I barely noticed at Camping Gap aid station (mile 14, at 3000’ elevation), and then run away from it into the cold, windy darkness, knowing you may not see another soul until the next aid station, 10 long and lonely miles away.

Another runner passed us on the fire road descent past the Terrapin Lollipop, on the Promise Land course. He seemed a bit too speedy on the downhills for this early in the race. Nick and I discussed … perhaps some carnage for later on?! (Side Note: Nope … that was Mike McMonagle, who finished ahead of us)

I finally spy two headlamps, about ½ mile ahead of me, around mile 19, 3:00am.  I have no idea who they are, but I like that I am seeing them. I am racing them.  I want to catch up to them as much as they don’t like to see a headlamp closing in on them.  As we weave through the mountain side trail, we spotted a headlamp behind us off in the distance. You can always tell when one of them someone ahead of you looks back to take a peek – their headlamp shines bright.  They We shouldn’t have peeked, some might say. But we were confident in our pace, and that stretch of trail can be long and boring so we really had nothing else to do if we’re being perfectly honest.

Once we topped out on Onion Mountain, I sped ahead of Nick to find a place to dig a hole … again. Nick passed me here last year doing the very same thing, so this time around I wanted to build a little gap so I didn’t have as much ground to make back up. Along one of the switchback turns descending down to Overstreet Creek, I found my spot. I hate this downhill at the end of Promise Land, it just hurts so friggin bad. But at Hellgate, you’re only a couple hours into the night and feeling good, with no urge to tear ass down the rock-strewn single track … and the bits of snow on the trail made it downright magical looking. I wish every runner could experience the intense satisfaction of casually taking a dump alongside a stretch of trail that has brought them soo much pain and suffering in the past.

Nick ran ahead. Then John a minute later. By the time I made my way all the way down to the road Finally, around mile 22, I catch back up to them.  Its indeed Chris and Nick.  Jordan is somewhere ahead.  The sub-12 hour pace group is coming together (with Jordan not too far ahead and Dan not too far behind).

We all climb the gravel road up to Headforemost AS (mile 24.6) comfortably hard, knowing that even though we have 4442 miles left, a sub-12 effort starts with no-walking this climb.  There is a deal you some make with yourself themselves when you they are climbing this hard so early in a race – I shall eat like Frank Gonzalez (in other words, I’m gonna eat so much food!).  I didn’t feel like I was working all that hard, but my gut needed solid foods so I filled up on Grilled cheesePotatoes, snickers barstater tots, cookies, wafflesmore potatoes – these are the things we are eating as we toil through these mountains.  It’s hard to eat while you’re breathing hard, it’s a skill that comes with practice, or so I’ve been told, I wouldn’t know at this stage in the race because I was feeling good and properly pacing myself. We rolled in at 4:05, exactly where I wanted to be for a sub-12 finish.

John and I abandoned Nick near Headforemost as he hopped off the road to do some business (the same place I did my business back in 2016 … yup, I remember all the spots I’ve pooped on this trail!). The two of us ran together, purposefully, on the descent into Jennings Creek. A fall on John’s part (one of many on the day it seemed) and yet another poop break for me separated us at one point, but we reconnected heading into the Aid Station, with Nick still only moments behind us. Some volunteers were able to find some Tums for me (no dice on the Pepto) and then I was off to the races as John continued to hang around the aid station and get the royal treatment with his unnecessary crewed stop … dude, we stopped at Headforemost literally 59 minutes ago, man up! I rolled out at 5:04, a couple minutes ahead of schedule.

There is a 2.5-mile climb as you leave the Jennings Creek AS (mile 30.7).  It’s still pitch dark and there are a lot of switchbacks, and so, for some, the headlamp game begins again.  Roberts has now pulled a little ahead of me and Nick is now a little behind meMyself, John, and Nick are climbing within a couple minutes of each other. None of us has a far enough gap to avoid being seen as our headlamps traverse another switchback.  I keep my headlamp focused down and hurry around corners but I know Nick can still see me and he’s not letting up.  Roberts isI am flat out out-climbing methem., but keeps I keep looking back and showing me his John my full beam … because I’m curious as to why he hasn’t bothered to catch up, and I’m ahead of him and Nick, and I’m bored and have nothing better to do.  John probably thinks We are racing each other, but because no one is giving up, but I’m not racing, I’m just nonchalantly cruising along, waiting for them to stop slacking off and finally catch back up to me we are working together to push each other up this climb and so we can all get to Camp Bethel before 12:00pm.  

We hit the top and start to descend.  More switchbacks, more headlamp games (if you wanna call it that), but this time another headlamp is seen far ahead. This ends up being Jordan.  So here we are, the four of us, after 6 hours of running just separated by a few minutes, a few headlamps around a few switchbacks.  I wish every runner could experience chasing and being chased by headlamps on mountain switchbacks where even the stars and the town lights below start to play in the game, throwing off your tired eyes.

RobertsAnderson and I trudging through the Devil Trail (photo: Jordan Chang)

I know we’re approaching the Little Cove Aid Station. I’m interspersing more hiking while climbing to save some energy before the Devil Trail and to give John a chance to finally catch back up. I catch up to ChrisHe finally huffs and puffs his way up to me, and we both catch up to Jordan, and the three of us run together for the next 15 miles. We chat, we run in silence, we take turns leading and we take turns hiding our suffering. Jordan nearly drops me for good on the climb right before the leafy downhill stretch of the Devil Trail, but I manage to maintain contact, and eventually due my duty taking over at the front when we get to the worst stretch of trail. I wish every runner could experience just how deep and fluffy and maddening the leaves are in the Devil Trail where sometimes you can’t even run downhill. That said, I haven’t so much as missed a step on this stretch of trail in the last 3 years … all you really gotta do is up your cadence, shorten your stride, bound vertically a bit more almost like you’re aqua jogging. John on the other hand … not exactly a picture of elegance in motion out there.

Getting aid with from my arch nemesis/frienemie Chris Roberts John Anderson's wife at Bearwallow (photo: Sophie Speidel)

We hit Bearwallow Gap (mile 46) at 7:59am.  This is the only split that matters (not true, see earlier mention of splits and subsequent mentions).  If we can make it here by 8am and we can stay tough, we can break 12 hours.  There is still 20 miles of running though and a lot of climbing.  We all know this though and we are all business as we fuel up one last time by our crews (if you have a crew … I don’t because it’s only 100K, but whatever) before the big climb up to Bobblet’s Gap.  I fall a minute behind John and Jordan because my windproof tights are starting to limit my stride now that it’s daylight and I’m looking to move more freely … I jump behind Michelle’s car and strip down bear-ass naked in full view of the aid station workers and a handful of crew/spectators … off come the tights and on go the Patagonia Strider Pro’s, and just like that ITS GAME TIME! … well, after I chug a Frappucino, of course!

I quickly catch back up and We are digging in as we start climbing the endless ins and outs of this mountain. This 2 mile climb murdered my soul last year, but with Jordan leading the charge I easily conquered it this time around. After cresting the climb we transitioned to This is the most beautiful part of the course.  The trail is old, with weathered moss and mountain laurel framing it as you are treated to expansive views to the north.  I love this stretch of trail, and I love running it hard. Jordan didn’t seem to be of the same opinion so I moved to the front of our little group and set the pace. I wish every runner could experience what it feels like to hopelessly, then successfully chase another runner through this section.  True mountain racing. (Side Note: I’ve never “hopelessly” chased another runner through this section because I’m always faster than those around me in this section, unlike Anderson who has been dropped by me twice in successive years … humblebrag I suppose, but whatever)

By the time we get to Bobblets (mile 52), we have separated.  Roberts is I am ahead of John by a minute or so and Jordan is just behind.  We all know Nick is not far back, with Dan likely in the mix as well.  Nobody is giving up, we are still working together and by now everyone has a taste of the reality of a sub-12 hour finish. It’s 9:12am. In 2016 I raced my way back into the Top 10 right here and proceeded to steamroll Barkley Boy John Kelly (shameless self-promo) with a 2:30 split to the finish. Sub-12 was inevitable!

John Finishing the climb to Bobblets Gap. I was too fast for a photo op. (photo: Kristen Chang)

I manage to finally catch Roberts Knowing sub-12 was firmly in hand, I chilled on the downhill just before the Forever Section to let John catch back up so we could work together for as long as possible. and as much as he seems relieved to chat and talk about our time I do some quick math and let John know that if we buckle down, we can probably go sub-11:40. he doesn’t I don’t let up and it’s not long before he pulls I pull away again.  Dammit RobertsJohn, would you just slow down man up and pick up the pace a bit?!  Nature finally calls for John and I lose a few minutes on him that I’m sure I won’t regain, and so I run the rest of the Forever Section in that unique silence that happens when you traverse this section alone.  You are almost done with Hellgate, but there is still one more cruel climb to come.  And then there’s all these leaves and rocks again, often reducing you to walking and cursing on a 2% grade.

The Forever Section – note happy rocks and leaves under foot (photo: Marc Griffin)

I finally hit Day Creek Aid Station, mile 60, at 10:41am 10:37am.  Holy crap, this is actually going to happen.  At 42 33 years of age, I am becoming a bit more aware of age every year I race but here at Day Creek, I’m crushing the 37-year-old who ran this race for the first time 5 years ago I am in the best shape of my life and oh so glad I’m not approaching my mid-40s right now.  Figuring yourself out, pushing yourself, beating your old self after 60 miles. Now this is mountain racing.  

I decide to pushI don’t push, I know for a fact that I’m going to make it up and over in less than an hour. I’m savoring this climb and saving my legs for some sweet 6-flat miles on the way back down to Camp Bethel. I can’t run for long spells at a time without quickly redlining, so I just make sure I don’t walk for long spells at a time either.  Sometimes I’m running just 20 steps and walking 1020, but I’m not pushing all that hard.  4 years ago I got to Day Creek with 61 minutes to spare before 12pm and I wasted that opportunity.  I didn’t realize how hard it would be to get here again with a similar opportunity and I had already planned to climb this hill with heart.  

One last switchback to the right and up a few pitches, and there is Roberts John just behind me.  “Hey Buddy!” I yellJohn yells.  He probably thinks I am is not happy to see me him, but I think it’s pretty cool he nearly catches up to me. I wave him on and tell him to catch up.  He doesn’t have the legs to run away from me, but I don’t really have the legs to catch all the way up to him and so he gets But I know he can’t catch up and so I get a head start crossing the Parkway about a minute 30 seconds ahead of me John for the last 3.5-mile descent of the day to Camp Bethel.  

There is no something close to a magic out-of-body experience on this downhill today – this hurts doesn’t hurt at all, it’s just smooth and fast downhill running, just the way I like to finish my races.  I lay into the downhill as fast as I can go without straining my tired muscles and I look back about halfway down but I never even catch a glimpse of RobertsAnderson.  Running full speed over leaves and rocks, I’m not sure how more of us don’t just crash and die and I’m seriously afraid of ruining my sub-12 with such a fall but I’m confident in my abilities this time around (unlike 2 years ago when I bit it hard, twice, trying to outrun John Kelly).  Turns out Jordan had a nasty ankle turn just a mile from the finish doing that very thing.

Finally the gravel road, then the beautiful “1-mile” mark on the road.  It still hurts My legs are finally starting to feel tired but pain is being replaced by emotion.  I wish every runner could experience what it feels like to finish such a journey, to battle doubts all day, for 65.6 miles, but finally be here, at the “1-mile” mark that Horton spray painted on the road and know that your goals will indeed be met and even exceeded.  

Finally in Camp Bethel

Chris Roberts is I am once again faster than me John – 11:34:12, 4thplace.
I still have no idea how I John ran an 11:37:30, good for 5th.  It was a magical day for him.
Jordan was right behind – 11:44:55, 6th.
And Nick Pedatella was just behind him at 11:47:35, 7th.
Dan succumbed to the Forever Trail and slowed to a 12:10:21, 9th. But he beat old man Meltzer!
All racing within a few minutes of each other for 66 miles.

Mens Top Ten (photo: Michelle Andersen)

Turned out this was the most competitive Hellgate mens race ever, with 7 men finishing under 12 hours (5 under 12 was the previous max).  Congrats to Darren Thomas on the win and Rich Riopel and Mike McMonagle on crazy fast times!

Also of note, John and I ran from Jennings Creek to the finish faster than Matt Thompson did when he won last year, and from Little Cove to the finish we were only a couple minutes off Ryan Paavola's course record splits ... maybe we shouldn't have taken it so easy at the beginning?

2018 was the 2ndmost competitive womens race, just behind last year’s, with 5 women under 14 hours.  Congrats to Anna Evans on the win (13:04!), Kelly MacDonald and Shannon Howell for 2ndand 3rd, my good friend and teammate running acquaintance Becca Weast in 4th(we made a pre-race pact that we would both break our time goals and suffer a lot doing so – we did it!), and Sheila Vibert in 5th.
Congrats to all the mountain runners who got it done at this year’s Hellgate. 

I have finished this race in over 1714 hours, and now under 12 hours, and I can say that it takes all that you have to finish, regardless of your time.  We all climb those climbs, leave those comfy aid station fires, play the headlamp games, toil through the rocks and leaves, chase runners through the ins and outs, and follow ghosts through the forever section.  

Thank you to all of the selfless volunteers who staff the aid stations, do the radio communications, medical, and timing.  You are so very appreciated.  

Thank you to my John’s wife Michelle for being out there and letting me get naked behind your car at Bearwallow.  I asked you not to crew, I told you not to come, that it would be cold and miserable and you wouldn’t sleep.  You wouldn’t have it any other way and I’m not sure I would be as motivated to push if you weren’t there with me.

Thank you to Bob Clouston and Sophie Speidel for helping me find my drop bag at Bearwallow, and for being friendly faces to see at a critical point in the race.
Thank you to my wife for dealing with our two young kids without me around for 27 hours straight!

Beast Series champs with our bears. Note: Anderson has never even attempted the Beast Series.

And last, thanks to David Horton.  He loves this race, loves to share it with us, and mostly loves to see what we have to give in order to finish it.

Six Four years of Hellgate thanks to this man. (photo: Not Michelle Andersen, because she hasn't sent me the finish line photo she took.)