Friday, December 17, 2021

Hellgate Is My Happy Place

I bow to your superior Hellgate skills. (PC: Michelle Andersen)

Let's dispense with painful reality of the race: I lost to John Andersen. Again. For the 2nd year in a row. By 15 minutes. Shameful. It was supposed to be a battle for the ages. Instead, he separated 16 miles into the race and I never saw him again. And now he has a 4-3 lifetime head-to-head record over me … though his Top 10s average time is 12:07:21 to my 12:06:12 (and Jordan's 12:04:24).

This year's title bout was a bust...

Heading into Hellgate this year was … weird. I didn't feel residual fatigue from 350 miles at Big's. That was late October, and then I took 3 weeks off from running, and then I piddled around with 30 mile weeks right up to Hellgate while trying to battle a messed up hip. I really didn't stretch after Big's, like, at all. I just ran 350 miles, what if I try to stretch and EVERYTHING tears?! I'm notoriously tight even on the best of days. So when I started feeling searing pains in my bad hip (torn labrum a few years back) after a week in which I did 8+ hours of "leaf lunges" cleaning up the yard, well, I knew Hellgate 2021 wasn't going to be all unicorns and puppies.

Aside from the obvious goal to Beat Andersen, I was just looking to have a comfortable night of running, and rely on my overall fitness to eek out another Top 10 and a Sub-12. Dreams of an 11:15 and a massive PR were just going to have to wait for another year.

The early miles were calm and collected, but there was no denying that my hip was painfully tight. I took the downhill from Petite's deliberately easy to lessen the stress on my hip, running in the neighborhood of Rachel Spaulding.

After Camping, I caught back up with John and ran alongside him for a couple miles before dispensing with some stomach contents in the woods. I hoped to catch back up soon, but instead I  took it painfully easy on the downhills all the way to Overstreet. I figured I'd rather run a slower race and survive, than limp into Jennings at Mile 30 with a totally shredded hip. And the fog was further complicating matters. So I lazied my way along, continuing to bleed time, all alone in the dark, for hours on end. I guessed I was outside of the Top 10 and might never break back in, and I spent a good couple of hours trying to come to terms with the fact that one of my Lifetime Running Goals -- Ten Straight Top Tens at Hellgate -- was disappearing before my eyes.

Approaching The Devil Trail, just after Little Cove, Cole Crosby came flying by like a happy-go-lucky bullet train, bemoaning an earlier wrong turn in the fog, and clipping off miles that were 90-120 seconds faster than mine. A few miles later, approaching the final depths of The Leaves, I caught back up with a crashed-and-burned Cole -- no energy, nutrition issues, etc. He's a super fast runner, so I'd hoped for his sake that he'd be able to spend some time resetting and then get back at it; and that seems to be what happened. It's always great to see people overcome race problems and fight back rather than capitulate.

I lumbered into Bearwallow a full 30 minutes late, and 20 minutes behind John. But by then, all the hip babying had seemed to do the trick -- it finally declared that I was the winner and it would stop being such a pain in the ass. I did some quick math and realized I had a tiny shot at Sub-12, but it meant I'd have to equal my 2018 effort when I banged out an 11:34 after my first-ever Bearwallow By 8. Michelle and Annie were there to get me situated; it was nice to see some friendly faces after nearly 6 hours of underachieving and mentally beating myself up over it. As I was leaving, Horton let me know I was in 9th Place … and then Rachel came storming into the Aid Station. Knowing she'd also be targeting Sub-12 for a Course Record, I took off, on a mission to not have the day be a total bust, and with the hopes I might be able to rabbit Rachel a little bit.

I still couldn't open up my stride quite like I wanted, especially on the ins and outs of The Pretty Trail -- my favorite section of the course -- but I could feel I was at least as fast as I'd ever been before. I rolled right on through both Bobblett's and Day Creek, afraid ceding even 30 seconds at an aid station might keep me from getting that Sub-12. Rachel nearly caught up to me in The Forever Section, but it seemed like I kept outclimbing her any time a hill appeared.

After a solid bout of climbing to Blackhorse Gap, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief as I had more than enough time to get in under 12:00 and had another Top 10 in the bag. Though my hip wouldn't let me really fly, I still took the final miles pretty hard. I rolled into the finish thoroughly exhausted and collapsed, right at the feet of Andersen, well rested and patiently awaiting my labored arrival.

Describing leaf piles in The Devil Trail? (PC: Jay Proffitt)

And then the attention of everyone at the finish quickly turned to the clock and the camp road, awaiting Rachel's arrival. She came cruising in at 11:59 for a new CR and the first female ever to go under 12. It's one of the coolest moments I've ever experienced at Hellgate. Between Rachel's Sub-12 and Dubova's absurd back-to-back CR's, it feels like there's been a phase shift in what's possible at this race. 3 years prior, John, Jordan, and I had rolled into Bearwallow at 8am, simply hoping we could find a way to break 12, something John and I had never done, and Jordan had only achieved once before in nearly a dozen attempts. And now … well, the men's CR had dropped by a full half hour, a woman broke 12, Jordan's gone Sub-11, and both John and I have gone Sub-12 3 of the past 4 finishes. The floodgates have opened!

Men's Top 10, in awe of a laydeh sub-12. (PC: MA, Jay Proffitt, somebody...)

On paper, the race was a bit of a bust -- barely breaking 12, losing to Andersen by an ungodly 15 minutes, nearly getting kicked out of the Top 10. But I knew my body wasn't in top form. I listened to my hip and took care of it when I needed to, and was somehow able to run Bearwallow to the Finish 5 minutes faster than ever. So overall, this was a pretty good confidence boost for future years. And more than simply attending a race, I had another weekend of chatting with running friends that I rarely get to see more than once a year. And I got to spend some time chatting folks up about Long Haul, which worked flawlessly for me yet again. So all in all, a pretty excellent weekend. And … and … I got to fly out instead of drive 11 hours each way … no more sleeping in random truck stops for this guy!

Thanks to:

  • My wife for looking after the kids and letting me go on yet another running adventure this year
  • Will for the ride to and from the race, and for your family's incredible hospitality
  • Michelle and Annie for your helpfulness and kindness at Bearwallow
  • NOT Danton and Jimmie, for tricking me into riding with them to the start, effectively imprisoning me in a car for 2 hours with a loudly snoring Dubova
  • Helen for your tireless support of this race, especially the now infamous Helen's Water Stop
  • Squirrels Nut Butter for your support and for your sweet, sweet lube
  • Myself, for creating Long Haul Sports Nutrition and agreeing to sponsor me
  • And obviously David Horton, for everything.

It was great seeing and chatting with so many other runners out there at the pre-race, on the trails, and afterwards. I look forward to those encounters all year long, and like always, I cannot wait until next year.

An Aside: The Three Amigos Status Update

Jordan Chang just finished his 15th Hellgate, and his 9th overall Top 10 finish. Next year he'll be going for his 10th! He also just hit 7 consecutive Top 10s. His overall Top 10s average is 12:04:24, and his consecutive Top 10s average is 11:48:55.

John Andersen just completed his 9th finish and 8th consecutive Top 10. He currently averages 12:07:21 in his Top 10s.

I'm still bringing up the rear, with my 7th finish and 6th consecutive Top 10. My Top 10s average is 12:06:12.

From 2016 through 2020, for 5 years, the 3 of us were never separated by more than 4 places (the worst was a 6-9-10 in 2017). 3 years in a row we went back-to-back-to-back. This year I brought shame to the Three Amigos, bringing up the rear for a 5-place-spread (3-6-8). My 8th place was also the worst place by any of us since 2017.

I'm excited for the next four years. There's a lot more anniversaries and Top 10s that still need to be achieved!

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