Thursday, December 14, 2017

Complete Opposites - Hellgate 2017

I have been to the Hellgate 100k(+) race a few times now.  First, in 2015 I ran the race during the warmest year imaginable - it was 60 degrees at the midnight start, and 80 degrees by the time I finished, nearly 15 hours later.  For a December race that often boasts cold temperatures and that supplies heat guns at the aid stations to thaw out water bottles, I felt like I perhaps didn't get to run the true Hellgate experience.  Then, in 2016 Brian decided to run and asked me to be his crew support.  Brian got a more typical Hellgate experience, running through an overnight low of about 7 degrees and only warming to about 20 degrees by the finish.

This year, I decided to return, and even convinced my running buddy Kelsey Allen to join me.  While neither of us were feeling particularly prepared, we were excited to have an adventure! 

After a long drive down to the race site, we checked-in, organized gear (and drop bags), and caught a few hours sleep before our 10:30pm alarm clock.  Some quick pre-race preparations, a ride to the starting line, and Kelsey and I were lining up for the 12:01am start.  The temperature was hovering around 20 degrees, comfortable with

After a few moments, Kelsey and I found ourselves running together.  I suspect she was using me to pace her in the early miles.  Either way, it felt like a training run which was a great feeling.  About 30 minutes into the race, we started to see snowflakes in the air - this could be an interesting run!

Kelsey and I continued to run together, and the snow continued to increase in pace to steady snow by 1am.  We shared moments and miles with others, but somehow it was always us together.  We didn't plan to run together, yet found comfort in sharing miles and stories along the way.  The ridge from mile 8 to 20 was breezy and chilly - we kept warm by swapping stories and sharing news, as other than the two of us we are alone.  Somehow, running by headlamp adds such an isolated and lonely feeling to the trails so I was grateful to have Kelsey by my side.

Leaving the mile 27 aid station, I recalled that I fell apart in the next section of trail in 2015.  Kelsey helped keep me focused and keep my spirits up so I ran much stronger through the next 8 miles.  It's amazing what good company (and chatter) can do!  At some point, I realized that I was still running by headlamp miles farther than last time - what a great feeling!

As the sun rose, we realized how much snow had fallen.  There were a few inches of accumulation, enough to make the leaves that much more slippery and to make the feet pretty darn wet.  We basically walked a few downhills, as the leaves were mid-shin deep hiding ankle-biting rocks and the snow was only adding to the treachery.  Luckily, we both stayed upright.  We also thanked our lucky stars that the temperatures stayed in the 20s, because had it risen above freezing we would have had rain (or large, wet snowflakes that soak through your clothing).  Never thought I'd be grateful for below freezing temperatures!

I felt particularly strong as we powered through mile 48, but then quickly started to fade by mile 52.  I started shoving Sour Patch Kids by the handful into my mouth as my pace slowed over the rolling trails leading towards the mile 56 aid station.  Kelsey did her best to motivate me and maintain forward progress.  I could feel my legs shaking as my bonk increased.  I stumbled over rocks, I tore up my knee, I struggled to stay upright and move forward.  Even though the snow had stopped at this point, I was still running sloppy.

Through the last aid station, and all we had was a 3-mile climb and a 3-mile descent to the finish.  Kelsey did her best to lead me out and keep me moving well - but we had a few females right on our tales.  We pushed, and eventually Kelsey ran off ahead to maintain our 5th place finish.  Almost immediately, Meghan Hicks caught up to me.  We climbed the last mile to cross the Blue Ridge Parkway, and cruised towards the finish together.  While I would have loved to finish this race with Kelsey (having shared 58 "Horton miles" with her), it was wonderful to run with Meghan and get to know her a bit.  We gabbed, enjoyed the downhill cruise to the finish, and crossed the line together just under 14 hours.

Looking back, I can hardly believe that the last time I ran Hellgate, it was 80 degrees and this time it was 20s and snowing.  I remember stopping in rivers to cool myself off and this time I cursed my luck as I slipped on a rock and submerged a foot (and a glove!).  I was running in shorts and a tank top in 2015, this year I had on two layers of shirts and a windbreaker to stay warm.  Overall, my 2015 memories were of overheating and of loneliness along the way.  In 2017 I will remember the beauty of the snow throughout the day, and sharing nearly 14 hours with a great friend.  Surprisingly, even with the challenging slippery conditions, I managed to improve by an hour over my previous finish - mainly due to the amazing company I had with Kelsey by my side. 

What a great reminder what I love about this sport - sharing miles with friends, enjoying the beauty of the wilderness, and pushing your body along the way.  Who knows what another Hellgate experience might bring!