Sunday, December 20, 2015

Burning in Hellgate

I've wanted to do the Hellgate 100km for a while.  I don't know why this race has fascinated me, but it has.  Maybe it's the 1 minute past midnight start, maybe it's the mid-December weather, perhaps it's that it's a Horton race measured in Horton miles, perhaps I had a morbid fascination with the stories about Hellgate eyes (frozen corneas) as the most common race injury, I don't know. 

But, I've wanted to do Helgate for years.  I've even signed up the last two years and then the universe prevented me from actually getting to the race.  In 2013, it was a blizzard/ice storm that would be hitting the area (and my entire drive home) that put into perspective how reckless and irresponsible it would be to travel to Virginia and back through those driving conditions simply for a race.  It didn't help that I was still recovering from an injury incurred during a road race the previous weekend.  Then, in 2014, my Achilles flared up just prior to the race and I was again unable to attend.  This year, nothing was going to stop me from getting to Hellgate and finishing this race!

So, I drove to DC and picked up Kathleen Cusick and Keith Knipling to share the last few hours together.  Luckily, they had done the race before, and knew where to crash for a few precious hours prior to the race and how to connect for a ride to the start.  So, just before midnight, I was finally ready to start my first Hellgate adventure.

The first few hours of the race were a blur of cruising down some hills, hiking up other climbs, twisting my still tender ankle, and enjoying the race.  It was warm already, and I was anxious about how I would deal later on.  It was the middle of the night and I was already in a tshirt and shorts.

On the big climbs, I enjoyed seeing the lights up ahead and behind me - enjoying the serenity of the trail that can only come at 2am with a group of like-minded folks.  My only concern was that my headlamp started to die about an hour into the race and completely died just after 2 hours.  I put in my spare battery (thank goodness I had that) as I silently cursed Brian for not recharging the headlamp like he said he did.  Doing some quick mental math I wasn't sure I could make it to daybreak!

At the first crew station (mile 21), I was told I was in 3rd female, but I noticed that the 4th female came and went as I was digging around in my drop bag.  I let her go - my experience here wasn't about racing as much as it was about finally finishing Hellgate and having some fun out there.

Four hours in, the 2nd battery on the headlamp died, and I scrambled through my pack for another set of batteries.  I was starting to wonder what the heck was wrong with my headlamp that it would kill batteries in only 2 hours. I continued to cruise around and was loving the trails.  The sun came up somewhere between 30 and 35 miles, I was so pleased to take the headlamp off and not worry about that.  I was amazed that, when running through the night, mileage and landmarks all blur together in a haze of memories.  I can't remember where the big climbs were, or what mileage I was at when certain things happen, I just remember running through the night.

Once the sun was up, the temperatures got hotter.  I was downing water in hoping of staying ahead of my hydration, but I know how my body is and it struggles in the heat when not acclimated.  I walked for most of the section from mile 34 to mile 42 as I struggled to stay cool and keep my focus.  At the mile 42 aid station, Horton was there (will a bull horn) and told me that the I was 4th female and that the top 5 females would be getting a nice Patagonia down jacket...so I better get a move on.  I rolled my eyes at him as I secretly decided I had to stay in the top 5.

The next section was glorious single track as the trail skirted through the sides of the mountains.  It felt like it was entirely a slight downhill, as I cruised and enjoyed the views.  I was refreshed by the food I ate at the last aid station, and re-energized with my desire to earn a jacket.  This section was long, but I got lost in the trails and somehow was able to forget all the discomforts I should have been feeling.

The climb into the next aid station (at mile 49) was where I realized I was in serious trouble.  I was overheated but wasn't sweating.  My stomach had shut down due to the heat.  The last few miles of this race were going to be rough!  This race is known to be challenging for the cold temperatures and here I was burning up...I felt like I was literally burning at the gates of hell!  At the aid station, they offered me ice cream (which I gladly took) and I doused myself in icy water, trying to cool myself down.  I left with another runner and we cruised the first mile or so downhill together, but he left me when the trail turned up and I slowly worked my way forward.

My next several miles took me forever - I was overheated and struggling.  I stopped at each of (the many) water crossings to throw water over my head and on myself, even laying down in a few of the slightly larger streams.  I could only walk, and even that wasn't fast.  Guys were passing me at an alarming rate, but somehow I was still the 4th female.  At one river crossing, I looked up to see another female coming up the trail.  I let her pass and then tagged onto the back of her in hopes of hanging onto a top 5 female finish.  That lasted only a few moments before she pulled away and I was again walking.

At another water crossing, I was just getting out of the water when I looked up and saw the 6th place female approaching.  The prospect of not finishing top 5 was enough to motivate me to run through my discomfort as I worked to maintain my position.  I got to the last aid station and saw the 4th place female was still there, and knew that the 6th place female was hot on my tail.  I grabbed a few cups of soda and boogied out of the aid station in 4th place.

I knew that the last 6 miles of this course were 3 miles up, then 3 miles down, so I focused on hiking strong on the uphill.  The 5th place female was right behind me so I encouraged her to catch up so we could work together.  She did, and we pushed each other up the climb, each taking our turns to push the pace a bit and be dragged along.  We could see the 6th place female, as well as at least one other female, behind us so we worked to keep an honest pace and maintain the gap. 

Towards the top of the climb, another female (who we didn't see when we looked back) came flying by us, and I immediately latched on to her pace.  Where had this chick come from?!?  She had to have been running in 7th or 8th all day!  About a minute after working off her pace, I realized that we were passing the female who had been 3rd all day. 

Once safely in the top 5 again (but not by much), I decided to conserve a bit of energy on the hike and let this female go a bit.  I was confident that if I could see her at the top of the climb, I could likely catch her on the downhill.  I crested the climb, gave high fives to the volunteers there, took one more sip of water, and then started cruising downhill.  I caught a few guys as I pushed the pace, but couldn't see the 3rd place female.

I kept pushing the pace as best I could, but wasn't catching sight of the female ahead of me.  Eventually, I ran out of space to catch her and we were turning into the finish.  After all the struggles that I had encountered during the day, I was pleased that I somehow finished 4th place and under 15 hours. And, in general, I was so excited to have finally gotten to participate in Hellgate.  It lived up to the reputation as a fun but challenging race.  Of course, I feel like I missed out on one aspect of the event, given that it was so hot, so I'll have to return another year for a more typical cold race.

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