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.)