Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Scenes From A Rivalry

Scenes From A Rivalry: A Brotacular Ultrarunning Love Story


The Meet-cute:

2015. 2nd Saturday in December. The Glenwood Horse Trail.

It was my first Hellgate. I knew nothing about Hellgate. At the finish line of my first 100 miler 2 months before, some weird old dude handed me a sheet of paper: 2015 Hellgate 100K Application.


So I figured, why not.


I knew I wanted to take it easy. It was my first year of ultra running and I wanted to simply use this race as a way to celebrate how far I'd come. A couple of miles in, I found myself running alongside a chatty dude.


"Hi, I'm John Andersen. I'm kind of a big deal."


This loquacious fellow gathered up a few more runners into a posse and proceeded to fill every second with chatter. I kept up for a while, but somewhere on the climb up to Petite's -- or was it all the way at Camping? .. No matter -- I lost connection and never saw him again.


In the succeeding weeks, I started planning the next 6 months of training. I'd gotten into Western States on my measly 1 lottery ticket and was going to cram as many races into the Spring as possible to try and get my legs ready. I signed up for the Beast Series, and then pored over race results from the previous years. I immediately identified 1 runner whose race times I thought I might be able to emulate…if I could run his times, I knew I'd be well on my way. The runner, none other than John Andersen.


At Terrapin 50K, near the top of the first climb, I found myself in the vicinity of a chatty cathy. And, of course, it was John. A bit awestruck at his effortless running ability, I did my best to keep up with him. We proceeded to run together, chatting along the way, as I mostly let him lead me through the race course. He was the well-worn veteran, and I, the ingenue. By the end of it, it was clear we were both running comfortably at similar abilities. There was … a connection. Neither of us wished to part the other's company, so we cruised into a tie for 3rd place, literally holding hands across the finish line. That was it. I knew. I had found the yin to my running yang.


The Courtship:

We raced a total of 5 races together that year, sharing well over 100 miles of trails with one another. 4 of those races ended with us tied or finishing back-to-back. For all of our differences, our age, our training, it seemed as if the universe wanted us to be together, to support one another through the tough times, each time we ventured out into the deep, dark woods. We shared in multiple Top 10 finishes together, collecting matching swag along the way. Each race was a chance to reconnect, to share with one another -- stories of who we were and where we came from, of our families, and of our hopes and dreams.


At Bull Run, we ran together in the pouring rain. At Promise Land, John cheered me on as he passed me near the top of the final climb, and welcomed me to the finish mere seconds after him. The end of the year was Hellgate again, and this time, we ventured together for the first 4 hours. I fell behind, but nearly caught back up at the finish. And again, there he was to welcome me in, 4 minutes after his finish. It was my first Top 10 at Hellgate. We were so proud of all that the other had achieved. Throughout the year, we went back and forth in wins and losses, and by the end, our special rivalry was flourishing … a relationship built on mutual respect and admiration, with, dare I say, a hint of disdain and contempt.

2016 Hellgate. Happy beginnings.


Equal Partnership:

We only raced each other 4 times throughout 2017 and 2018. I took 3 of the victories: a solid trouncing at Promise Land and slim victories at each Hellgate. For those Hellgates, we spent many a merry mile together. In 2017 we separated mid-race but rejoined by Mile 53, and then lazily walked it in together because we falsely believed we'd be unable to secure our desired sub-12 finishes … furthering our special bond. The next year, we worked together to crush our expectations and went well under 12 hours. We worked together for nearly the entire race, only for me to pull away in the final miles.


It may seem as if I were beginning to secure the upper hand … the full-length tights, as it were, in our relationship. And to add fuel to the fire, I outperformed expectations at Western States in 2016, whereas my success gave John a false hope, inevitably leading to a very embarrassing implosion when he had his shot in 2017. And yet, the scales remained even, as John absolutely annihilated me at Grindstone in 2018. His run was epic, and he trounced me by over 90 minutes. I truly believe that he was happy for my success, just as I was happy for his … for a time.

2018 Hellgate. The Golden Years.



In 2019, I pursued a better quality of life with my family by moving from the East Coast to St. Louis. The tough decision was made for John and I to pursue a long-distance rivalry. I made a promise to John that we would still have our annual Hellgate together. And I had hoped that would be enough. I came back to Camp Bethel and reigned victorious, again, the third Hellgate in a row. Not only that, it was the largest defeat yet at Hellgate as I persevered through hellish cold rain to beat John by over 7 minutes. With distance between us and my continued success, the seeds of division were sown.

2019 Hellgate. Hoodie puffies for everyone!


It pains me to admit, but I truly believed I was the more important one in this special thing we had together. But 2020 was a wake-up call. At the 2020 Sissygate, John and I found ourselves together, yet again, leaving Bobblets Aid Station. But John left me and by the next aid station he was out of sight and I was lost in self-doubt and misery. In my moment of weakness (needing to take a dump at Mile 55), John abandoned me and he never looked back. As a result, his course PR to this day is better than mine. I should have been happy for him, but I felt betrayed, humiliated. To add fuel to the fire, John expertly ridiculed me in his race report that year with a parody of Taylor Swift's 'Exile'. The balance of power had shifted.

2020 Hellgate. John Andersen is an asshole.


In the summer of 2021, we tried to move past our petty fighting. Couples therapy, if you will. We ran the Black Hills 100 together, every step of the way. We cheered one another on, we waited for the other when necessary, and we looked out for one another during an overnight rain storm. Our reward was a matching pair of podium awards: badass bison skulls. Rather than bonding through competition, we worked to rekindle the flame that brought us together at the beginning of it all … recognizing each other's value as a runner through the most admirable of race outcomes, a selfless tie.

Black Hills 2021. Bison Skullz.


But, I must admit, I began to grow bored. I sought to strut my colorful feathers in the Backyard arena, seeking out the attention of others. By October, a whole new world was opening up to me, a world that was so much bigger and brighter than little John Andersen of Crozet, Virginia. I was becoming so much more than simply John's rival, his nemesis, his frenemy. I never meant to hurt John. But his jealousy grew exponentially, and he got back at me the only way he knew how, in the most painful of ways, by abandoning me on Hellgate's grassy road near Mile 16, and running away with a 15 minute victory. I had begun to dream big, to find value in my own achievements, apart from him. And he put me right back in my place. It was, dare I say it, textbook emotional abuse.

2021 Hellgate. Look at that smug son of a bitch just standing there, well rested.


I knew that I was not yet strong enough to leave him, so instead, for 2022, I vowed revenge. 2 straight years of losing to John, and by the widest margins in our Hellgate rivalry. It was more than I could stomach. Any mutual respect in this relationship was long gone by now. All I wanted in life was to hurt him, to make him suffer! October rolled around and I ruptured my achilles at Big's, threatening my chance for redemption. But I played it smart at Hellgate and took care of my body and minded my pace. John and I came into Bearwallow together, like so many times before. But this time, I chose to lay down the hammer and crush his soul. When the dust settled, John was so broken he couldn't even finish under 12 hours, whereas I had been waiting patiently at the finish for nearly 30 minutes. Never has there been a victory as sweet as this!

2022 Hellgate. Suck it, loser!


The Last Dance:

By 2023, it felt like it was the end of the line for our special little rivalry. My trajectory was upwards, still in my 30s and with bright possibilities on the horizon. John, on the other hand, could feel the cold, unflinching grasp of old age dragging him down. Everything just felt harder for him. A DNF at The Bear, 3 months before Hellgate, was the universe's way of telling him to let go, to finally concede that his best days were in the past.


But we both still had our one shared goal for Hellgate: 10 straight Top 10s.


It was a silly, random goal, but it drove the two of us for years. John was already at 9. This year was going to be his crowning achievement, after which he could limp off into the sunset with his head held high. I was at 7 and had spent the past 2 years racing terrified of losing out on my Primary Running Objective due to the physical toll the ridiculous Big's Backyard race took on my body every Fall. To make matters worse, exactly 7 days before Hellgate this year, I wrapped up  the 24 Hour World Championships, half a world away from Camp Bethel, in Taiwan. 7 days to travel and recover from a 24 hour race, to find the will to eek out yet another Top 10 at Hellgate. The task felt insurmountable, perhaps Quixotic. Though, to be fair, no less so than John's own quest -- with each passing year, his dream felt closer and closer, but creeping old age kept reducing the likelihood of achieving that dream.


Could I Top 10? Could I crush John, yet again?...Should I? How would it all shake out?

As I reflected on our near decade-long rivalry, the movie Marriage Story came to mind (but who is Adam Driver, and who is ScarJo?). The special thing we had together was coming to an end. Deep down, I believe we both knew it. In a divorce, there's effectively 2 paths to choose: a hippy-dippy "conscious decoupling", and a knock-down drag-out legal battle, dragging each other through the muck and mud. Consciously or not, we took the high road together.

As in the merry early days of Hellgate, we ran together all the way to Bearwallow. Most of the time, John led with confidence. Whenever I wavered mentally, afraid my body would crap out on me at any moment, John was there to support me. That's not to say it was all kumbaya vibes. Elements of our rivalry inevitably cropped up: when I stopped to go to the bathroom and then had to spend an hour desperately trying to catch back up because John refused to take it easy, or when I made a power move to sprint into Jennings Creek just ahead of him. But we ran together through the night in search of our common goal.


After dawn, we were at Bearwallow together. How fitting. How poetic. Our shared years of experience told us breaking 12 hours was in the bag, yet again. In the history of Hellgate, no one had ever broken 12 hours and not been in the Top 10. And yet, 12th and 13th place. We'd been praying for carnage all day long and it never came. Our chances of Top 10 were effectively dead. Lifelong dreams shattered. All because Horton invited too many damn young, fast kids.


The bickering started. I bungled the drop bag stop. John left me behind. Horton ridiculed me. Enraged, I took off. Soon after, I caught back up with John and rapidly left him in my wake. Perhaps that was it then, the unceremonious end to years of battle, right there, on an insignificant turn, amongst the rhododendron of Hellgate's Pretty Trail.


I pushed, desperately trying to crack the Top 10. But a Top 10 without John? Could I do that to him? It felt wrong. In the end, I approached Day Creek with no one in sight. Watson was there and told me 10th was 9 minutes up. 9 minutes in 6 miles, on legs that had covered more than 200 miles in the past week? Impossible. I pushed hard, for a time. But climbing Blackhorse Gap can be brutal, and my body was done. And so my attention drifted from what was ahead of me to what was behind. My lifelong dream of 10 straight Top 10s had died. I repeatedly looked back for a sign of my rival, my friend. I was in need of solace, and, likely, so too was John. But he was nowhere to be seen. So I ventured on, slowly, with dead legs carrying a deadened soul, to Camp Bethel, all alone, amidst a cliché of cold rain.


I crossed the finish in a blur and was whisked inside to crash on a couch. My body and mind on the verge of failure. 5 minutes later, John approached. I stumbled outside to greet him. As was the case last year, he laid himself bare before all in attendance and humbly kowtowed to my superior athletic prowess. His presentation felt genuine. I was conflicted. Unequivocally, I reigned supreme in our rivalry. But this rivalry had now reached its natural conclusion. There was nothing left to prove to the world. John is only getting older and slower, and I just beat him a mere 7 days after running a 24 hour race. If this thing drags on any longer, it will only continue at John's expense. It has to end. This is the end. And I must take the bitter with the sweet. I will miss our rivalry. I will miss him. I will miss … crushing him.

2023 Hellgate. I will always be better than you, John. Always.


Will John return to Hellgate to nab that 10th Top 10 at Hellgate? Perhaps. I sure hope so. If he does, we will undoubtedly share some miles … early on … before he runs out of steam, falls behind, and openly proclaims to everyone in his vicinity that he wishes he were half as talented as me. And I will cherish those shared miles. But it won't be the same. Our rivalry has ended. This chapter of my life has concluded, of our lives has concluded. And so we must each move on; I, inevitably, to bigger and better things, and John, to consolation age group awards and arthritis. I'd like to believe I can find another rival to duke it out against, to share with in suffering. But it's unlikely. There will never be another rivalry quite like ours. There will never be another John Andersen. … unless I get fast enough to start keeping up with Jordan Chang again …

The Rivalry, in numbers. (Note: 2015 Hellgate omitted because the rivalry had not yet begun, despite John frequently adding his "win" to the tally)

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