Thursday, December 15, 2016

Ending the Year on a High Note

(Everyone smiles when the suffering has ended! Photo Credit: Kristen Chang)

In the 3 months leading up to Hellgate, I'd run only around 300 miles ... Shameful! What's worse, only 90 of those miles came outside of a back-to-back weekend, Grindstone, and MMTR. I'd been in a perpetual recovery cycle, trying to prevent further damage to my bum hip. I knew I'd feel "rested" coming into Hellgate, but I was unsure as to how much fitness and speed I'd retained. And my disastrous outing at Masochist last month left me lacking in confidence.

That said, I still felt that a good outing could result in a sub-12:00 performance ... that, and a Top Ten finish, was my ultimate goal. It was a full 2 hours faster than my lazy jaunt through the woods last year, but then again, I'm a totally different runner than I was a year ago. The forecasted single digit conditions and my lack of training would undoubtedly conspire against me at some point, but it was the last race of the year and I didn't want to go out on a sour note.

I drove down to Camp Bethel the day before the race. I arrived feeling groggy from a 4 hour drive and a poor night's sleep -- toddler with 102 temp and a little projectile vomiting thrown in for good measure, why not! The atmosphere that greeted me was much different than last year.  In 2015, I was a newbie, an outsider. I didn't really know anyone so I just drove down, ran my race, and got out of there. This time around, there were scores of familiar faces and plenty of conversations to be had. It lifted my spirits and had me eagerly looking towards the 12:01am start.

After a light dinner, I headed over to the pre-race meeting ... a.k.a. Patagonia Puffy Convention. Horton's pre-race meeting Keynote Topic was Poop Here! Inspiring, as always. Afterwards, I failed miserably at trying to get some shut-eye. When 10:45pm rolled around, I met up with my random ride to the start and hoped to fit in a few minutes of shut-eye. Instead, we made a wrong turn about a half-dozen times and by the time we'd finally gotten to the start, I felt so out of sorts that I just wanted to say screw it, I don't care about this race anymore!

... But I walked to the starting line and quickly felt rejuvenated upon seeing all of my fellow compatriots in suffering. It was pitch black and bitterly cold. The time for this "very special" race was at hand. We shoddily sung the national anthem before jumping head-first into the abyss. It was Hellgate time ... 66.6 mountain miles and over 13,000' of vertical gain in the middle of December when everyone is sick, sore, and worn out from a year of training and racing. Hellgate ... the race everyone loves to hate!

(Obligatory Keith Knipling Elevation Chart)

I was donned in windproof pants and jacket, one of those absurdly warm Marine Corps Marathon long sleeves, light gloves, a beanie, a buff to protect my neck, clear sunglasses to stave off Hellgate Eyes, my trusty Injinjis, Lone Peaks (insoles glued this time around!), and two still-unfrozen handheld bottles. I could feel the cold in my bones at the start, but any fears of underdressing went away after the blood starting pumping within a couple minutes of jogging.

I quickly found myself in the company of John Andersen and Chris Miller. We shared many-a-mile together in races this year and the first part of Hellgate was no different. Enough eager runners jumped out front along with the real contenders that I had no idea where we stood -- maybe we were 10th, maybe we were 20th. Whatever. Let the race come to me.

The early miles in the dark felt eerie. There were times when I'd have perfect recognition of a section of trail that I'd only ever seen once before, a bit of a mind-trip in a frigid, sleep-deprived state. Aside from that, though, I never really felt the effects of sleep deprivation.

We made easy work of Petite's climb and then tackled the 4-mile-long Camping climb. The night sky was mostly clear and the stars and honey colored moon were fantastic company. John, Chris, and I interspersed chit-chat with labored hiking. When we arrived at Camping Gap I checked my watch and was pleasantly surprised to find I was right on target for the day -- the same pace I'd started out last year, only it felt much easier with nearly 2,500 more training miles and over 300,000' of vertical under my belt.

After cresting Camping, we proceeded into the 10 mile stretch of trails with a handful of successive 2-3mile climbs and descents that led to Aid Station 4, the first Bag Drop for the day. At some point along the way, John took charge on a steep single-track descent ... like, the dude straight up glissaded past Chris and I on successive switchbacks and tore ass down the mountain ... no "hey, I'm gonna pass" ... it was like an animal trying to assert its dominance. Quickly, I began to feel that I was being dropped. My legs felt sluggish, my knees achy, and it just seemed like I'd be gasping for air if I tried keeping up. Luckily, I maintained close enough connection that I could reconnect each time a climb began.

At this point in the night, sometime around 4:00am, the cold became all too evident. While I didn't feel cold (aside from some very stiff fingers), the weather was making itself known in other ways. My muscles didn't feel loose and my bum hip began to feel inflamed. It wasn't a huge deal yet, but I still had over 8 hours of running ahead of me. Also, I wasn't overheating so I wasn't really sweating, and thus, I was taking in significantly less water than planned. And it was proving difficult to take in substantial fluids now that my bottles were turning to slush and the nozzles required a good bit of chewing to break apart accumulated ice. No big deal ... except for the fact that a majority of my nutrition comes from liquids. I wrestled with this for a good number of hours, frequently trying to assure myself that less calories wasn't necessarily a bad thing since I was running comfortably ... let's just hope my body can still burn fat efficiently!

Just before arriving at Aid Station 4 -- Headforemost Mountain -- around Mile 26, I jumped into the woods to attend to some business. I hoped to connect back up with John and Chris soon, but I had a feeling I'd be spending the next few hours in no-man's-land. When I got to the AS, I actually passed up John and made quick work of digging through my drop bag and swapping out my cold bottles -- which, miraculously, hadn't frozen ... yet!

As I departed the Aid Station, John blew by me, and I'm still not entirely sure if he even saw me. I tried yelling to him that I'd be catching up, but then all of a sudden my knee gave out on me. I tried to pick up the pace to catch up, but pain radiated through my leg and I had to slow to a limp. Welp, there goes my day!

I still have no idea how it happened, but the stabilizer muscles in my lower leg just stopped working, preventing me from lifting my knee, and the nerve in that area would send bolts of pain through my leg with every footfall. This could turn into a very long day.

As time ticked by, my knee kept deteriorating. At some points I felt like I was just dragging my right leg along for the ride. I was in the midst of a 2000', 6 mile descent. Instead of cruising along I was struggling at what felt like mall walking pace. By the time I reached the next Aid Station at Mile 30, I had been passed by 6 to 10 runners. I started to wonder if I'd be able to do anything more than limp to a 17 hour finish. Should I cancel my big race next spring? Is my body just not cut out for this? What the hell am I even doing out here?! It was a tremendous low point for me, and the only consolation I had was that it was the end of the year ... just get to the finish, the off-season awaits!

Two hours went by like this ... and then ... I fell ... HARD!  My left quad took the brunt of it. I lay on the single-track, splayed out and stunned. When I got back up I started to jog again, and within 100 yards I realized my knee didn't hurt anymore. What The What?! I was stupefied. For the next hour I cautiously turned up my effort, testing my knee to see how it'd respond. And ... no complaints!  Just like that, I was back in business. So, let that be a lesson to y'all: sometimes tripping on a rock can be a good thing!

... One problem ... I'd lost nearly 30 minutes in those 2 hours of hobbling. I was probably 10 places behind John and Chris at this point. I figured I was so far out of the Top Ten that I'd never be able to make up enough time. My only hope: Hellgate carnage!

By AS 6 at Little Cove Mountain around Mile 38, I'd caught back up with Sarah Schubert, eventual female champion and all around Beast. We proceeded down the long, smooth double-track one after the other, and as I started to gap her it began to sink in: I could still make something positive out of this race.

Newly energized but still cautious, I cruised along. Around Mile 40 I came upon Chris Miller, who was in good spirits but was battling through a bit of a slow patch. He let me know there were 3 more runners not too far ahead ... motivation! I made surprisingly quick work of the Hellgate Leaves in the miles before AS 7 at Mile 46. Last year it felt like quicksand. Practically every stretch of trail was inundated with knee-high leaves. This year was no different, but I had enough spring in my step to hop through dicey sections and be light enough on my feet to avoid losing balance on the rocks lurking underneath. It was risky running, but a hell of a lot of fun.

By the time I made it into AS 7 at Bearwallow Gap, I was about 45 minutes off my ideal pace. But my legs felt fresh and my successful campaign against the Hellgate Leaves really boosted my confidence. I quickly swapped out bottles and headed back towards the trail. As I departed, I jokingly asked the timekeeper, "So, what am I in, 25th place or something?" He quickly looked at his chart and responded, "If you leave now, you'll be 11th." I asked how far ahead 10th was, but the only response I could elicit was a borderline sassy, "You'll just have to wait and see..."

So, somehow, miraculously, I found myself 20 miles from the finish and only one place out of the Top Ten.  It was time to find some carnage!

The next part of the course is my favorite. It doesn't have any climbs or descents which is a shame, but it weaves its way along the side of the mountains for miles and miles. Instead of going up and down them you proceed in and out, rounding the side of one mountain and then swinging into the hollow before the next one. And all the while you're rewarded with fantastic views to your right. It really is a wonderful stretch of trail.  But ... some people think this section sucks ... it's long, monotonous, blah blah blah.

Along this section, I gradually increased my effort, working my way up to what I'd call a medium cruise. My stride felt smooth. I own this trail! Every time I rounded a mountainside, my eyes would dart ahead, trying to find my prey. About a mile or so before Bobblets Gap, AS 8, a.k.a. The Tunnel,  I finally spotted him. Tenth place would be mine! Each contour in and out of the mountains I made up ground before finally overtaking him within sight of the aid station. I'd been drinking so little fluids that I had more than enough to make it to the final Aid Station, so I only stopped for a moment to down some ginger ale slushee (compliments of 0 degree wind chills) for some quick calories.

(Frozen drinks, anyone?! Photo Credit: David Horton)

With Tenth Place secured, I looked ahead to the Forever Section, and decided I wanted to gather up some more carnage. A lot of people complain about this section ... it feels long and monotonous, there's no views, blah blah blah. I think it's quite simple. Run downhill for awhile, then go up and down 3 relatively small hills (less than 1 mile climbs each). Easy! I pushed the pace and after a few miles spotted my next victim. This time, I felt like making a game of it. I stalked my prey, staying 40-60 seconds back for what seemed like forever, just waiting for a chance to strike.  He stumbled. I made my move! Ninth Place!

He tried running with me for a bit, and I happily let him tail me, but when we got to the final hill, I pushed hard and built up a decent gap. When I arrived at the final Aid Station, I lolly-gagged getting some drink mix in a bottle for the final climb -- I probably didn't need it, but I didn't want to burn out so close to the finish. As a result, the prey caught back up with me. We briefly chatted and he seemed a bit worried someone else might steamroll him in the final miles and take away his Top Ten. I tried to assure him that the only thing behind us was carnage, but he still seemed on edge. We began the final 2.5 mile climb and I warned him not to push it too hard ... and then I ran ahead in seeming violation of my own advice. For 2 miles of climbing I effectively did 30 second hill repeats. I made a sizable gap on tenth place. But the final section of the climb had me worn out and I just didn't feel like running anymore. Tenth place gained on me, but I knew that if I had a lead when we crested, there'd be no way he could catch me on the descent.

I crested the climb still in ninth place, and I careened down the other side. Occasionally I looked back, but it became obvious I'd be uncontested. I pushed to a hard downhill cruise all the way to the Mile To Go marker. Then I tried pushing a little harder. My legs didn't have much speed left so another gear wasn't in the cards today, but I did put in a solid 7-flat final mile on my way to a 12:39 finish. And when I crossed the line there was Horton and John Andersen to greet me. John had only finished 4 minutes earlier. Somehow in the final third of the race I made up more than 20 minutes of the gap that developed while my knee gave me problems.

Also, this little guy was greeting me at the finish! A well earned 2nd place in the 310+ mile, 6 race Beast Series:

(First Beast Series Completed!)

It wasn't a perfect race by any means. I struggled through some demons in my darkest 2 hour stretch of hobbling. But it all turned around when everything was said and done. It was validation that I could hold onto my endurance through nearly 6 months without meaningful training. So long as I get my hip sorted out, 2017 looks to be another fantastic year. Moreover, Hellgate was a great way to put the haunting failure of last month's Masochist firmly in the rear view mirror -- that disaster of a day was an abberation, confirmed as such by a shared suffering in this "very special" race on beautiful, frigid trails in December.

On a side note, this year's Top Ten schwag was a Patagonia Nano Air vest. I'm not a vest guy and they were out of Smalls (seriously, race directors, buy more Smalls and Mediums and less Larges ... we're trail runners, not shot putters ... oh, and a couple Extra Smalls wouldn't hurt!). So I didn't even get a fancy schmancy Top Ten prize. I guess that means I'll just have to come back next year and go through this whole charade all over again!

Up next: rest, an MRI, and beer.

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