Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Blessings

Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you have had a wonderful day celebrating with family and friends. When I was on my run this afternoon, I considered all I have to celebrate on this particular Christmas. Thanks for indulging me while I share my list, and please share yours, too, if you are so inclined...

Christmas truly begins for me with Lessons and Carols at St. Anne's-Belfield School on Friday, which is a wonderful school tradition based on the tradition from Kings College in Cambridge, with incredible music thanks in part to J.R. Ankney, one of my ultra buddies and our choir director...the (now) annual Winter Solstice 8+ mile trail run on Saturday with 30+ trail and road running friends, and then lots of hot coffee and lively fellowship afterwards at our fave hangout, Greenberry's...afterwards, Christmas shopping at Blue Ridge Mountain Sports with Bill Gentry and Quatro Hubbard and checking out the National Geographic map for the GRINDSTONE 100 course (*some* of us are considering it)...exploring the tree farm on a rainy Sunday run and finding cool new trails (don't you LOVE discovering new trails?)...decorating ginger bread cookies with Virginia...shopping for our "Secret Santas", a Speidel family tradition, on Christmas Eve day...another gorgeous run on Ridge Road on Monday and feeling totally recovered from Hellgate...reading Christmas cards from friends and family far away...seeing the Fedex guy arrive late on Christmas Eve day with Rusty's gift (a cool Garmin GPS techno device for his mountain bike---schweet!)...a beautiful church service with my family and my mom at St. Paul's followed by dinner at our good friends home, which has been our tradition for the past five years...singing along with Rusty and Chris Holden as they brought down the house with "American Pie", which they have done for the past five years...watching our kids open their gifts Christmas morning and Rusty and I having no desire to open ours, only to drink coffee and enjoy their excitement...hanging out with my mom and sister and chatting with my other family members, knowing they were all healthy and safe...tagging along with Rusty and his buddy Milton on their mountain bike ride in the afternoon-- they rode, while I ran the trails near UVA a bit before running home, a two+ hour jaunt through the Ragged Mountain Reservoir trails with a clear blue sky, brilliant 50 degree sunshine and late afternoon shadows falling along the trail, listening to Mary Chapin singing,

"Now we'll be led by eventide's hand
'Til then we'll walk through the gloaming
Back up the hill once again
Done with another day's roaming..."

I wish you peace and all the blessings of Christmas.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Hellgate 100K 2007: We are family

Every time I finish Hellgate, I say the same thing to myself and to the others around me: "I am NEVER running this race again." And the others always respond with, "Shut up, you said that last year." And for a few days afterwards I walk around truly believing that I just ran my last Hellgate, but eventually I come to terms with what draws me back, year after year, and by mid-summer I am looking forward to it again. Why is that?

Half Full

Keith Knipling quizzed me earlier this week about why I love Hellgate, and one thing I realized was that the midnight start (described by one cynical runner as a "cheap gimmick") is actually a psychological advantage for me: as an eternal optimist, I like the feeling of running into the light. I love running the fabulous Glenwood Horse Trail on the ridgeline above Bedford, with its slight downhill and views of the valley. I love the brutal climbs to the gaps on the fireroads and and the long descents. And, as I wrote in my previous post, I love the epic feel of the race, running point to point in the mountains in winter, in the middle of the night and all day long. Most importantly, I love the family feel of the event: On this Friday night in December, I am surrounded by my brothers and sisters-in-arms from near and far, friendships made through suffering together on training runs, 100 milers, and Horton events. Some are elite, national-caliber competitors and others are middle- and back-of the pack runners, but we all share the same passion for adventure.

Devil Trail

But there is also a huge reason to hate Hellgate. It is the trail that I call "Devil Trail." Like its namesake, this trail appears during vulnerable times during the race: just before dawn, after long sections with no aid, and on steep climbs. Devil Trail is covered in leaves and hides moving rocks and immobile boulders, and it is off-camber and very steep. When runners complain to Horton about the Devil Trail, he gets a creepy smile on his face, especially about the Devil Trail just before aid station 7 (mile 42) that parallels a perfectly runnable fire road. I hate the Devil Trail.

Sub-15 hours, blah blah blah

This year my goal for Hellgate was to once again attempt to break 15 hours (see my previous post for my 2005 and 2006 attempts). I ran nice and slow the first few hours and was very comfortable in the 40-degree temperatures. The weather was perfect and the only big challenge this year would be the trail itself. I had finally figured out my lighting and had great vision all night long, and I was eating and drinking enough...until we hit aid station 4, and the volunteers told us that due to road closures, they couldn't get our drop bags to us. This was a big problem for me, as I had put all my nutrition (flask of Hammergel, Sustained Energy mix, etc) in my bag. Now, I was presented with a dilemma: do I risk eating solid food, which had always presented me with GI distress during ultras, or doing I stretch out what I had in my pack (sport beans, six Clif Bloks, Nuun tabs, and two Clif shots) for another 20 miles? I went with the latter, and ultimately bonked on the Devil Trail at mile 39.


It was on this section Devil Trail that I came across Bethany Patterson. This was the same place I encountered her last year, when she dropped due to cloudy vision, brought on by cold and wind. This year she was having the same problem with her vision, and after commiserating with her for a stretch, she stepped aside and I led for awhile. We came to the Devil Trail where it leaves the runnable fire road and goes straight up the mountain. She said, "Since I am going to drop at the next aid station, I should take the fire road." Then, in the same breath, she said, "No, I'll take the trail just in case I feel better." Of course, as we progressed through the leaves and rocks, I knew she was wishing she had taken the road, but I was impressed by her positive attitude and toughness. As I pulled away, I realized I was now in second place, but what I didn't know until the finish line was that Bethany did NOT drop: she stuck it out and finished in tears, sobbing "that was the hardest thing I've ever done." Her integrity, guts and focus were incredibly inspiring.

This is a race, Sophie

So, I'm cruising along trying to refuel as fast as I can, after getting my nutrition from my drop bag at mile 42 (with help from Jen Henry who became my crew at each AS, and who I know was concerned about me because I was not my usual happy self---thanks Jen). I was just trying to make my sub-15 hour splits and keep moving, and was told by one runner that the women behind me were a "good twenty minutes back." I descended from the mile 50 AS at an easy pace, and entered more Devil Trail at Day Creek totally alone...one can see and hear for miles in that section, and I saw and heard no one until 2 miles from the next AS, when suddenly, a woman's voice echoed from the hills behind me. I knew it had to be Rebekah Trittipoe, because all day long I had seen photographers from the Roanoke Times come onto the trail looking for her...they were filming a very cool interactive media piece on Hellgate, and Rebekah was a big focus of the story. So, I had a little conversation with myself which went something like this, sans expletives: "Sophie, if you want to stay in second place, stop whining, suck it up right now, and get moving."

I came into the last AS and Gary Trittipoe at first thought I was Rebekah (I always take this as a nice compliment, as I am often confused for her in races since we both have brown hair in pony tails and wear white Montrail caps when racing). I told him she was right behind me (although I wasn't sure how far), filled my bottle, and TOOK OFF. I knew I had a 40+ minute climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and another 25 minute downhill to the finish. I saw Jeff Wilbur as he was running up the road and he told me I had about 10 minutes on her, but to not let up at the top. I also passed Byron Backer, a perennial top finisher, and knew I was making good time. Looking back every few minutes, I didn't see her blue Montrail jersey, so I knew it was going to be OK, but I still worked my butt off until I saw the finish line.


Finally, it was over. I scored my highest finish but second-slowest time (15:34). So much for sub-15! But as Horton congratulated me, I realized I had run a totally different race than ever before: I had overcome my low energy and negative thoughts to find another gear, and I am very proud of that. Minutes later, Rebekah finished in a Hellgate PR, followed very closely by Kerry Owens (in another Hellgate PR) and Bethany. Joined by Annette Bednosky, who had won the women's race two hours before, we all sat down on the grass and posed for pictures, cheering and laughing like sisters, relieved to have finished another incredible Hellgate adventure. My new mantra for Hellgate, just in case I decide to run it next year will be, "Devil Trail be damned, I've got all my sisters with me!!"

Here are my pics from the pre-race meeting and the race itself, and the results. Many, many thanks to David and all the volunteers for another memorable day and night, and special thanks to Rebekah, Kerry, Annette, and Bethany for being such great friends, role models, and competitors.

"Whenever we go into the mountains, or indeed anywhere in God's wild fields, we find more than we seek."

---John Muir, as quoted on the Hellgate 2007 entrants shirt

Monday, December 3, 2007

Coming up: Hellgate 100K (gulp)

On Friday (12-7) I will make my way down to Natural Bridge, VA for dinner and the pre-race meeting of the Hellgate 100K, which begins at 12:01 am on Saturday, 12-8. If I am lucky, I will be able to get in a good nap after dinner, and then the REAL hell begins: the wait until the start. But once we start this amazing race, all other worries, nerves, anxieties, and negative thoughts fly out of my head and all I have to do is think about the beautiful night, the sounds of the forest and other runners near me, and how gorgeous the sunrise will be. I love this race.

I have written extensively on Hellgate in 2005 and 2006, so this time I will keep it short and sweet: I look forward to this race each year because it is a sheer adventure, unlike any other race I have done. I love running the first section in the dark because it seems to suit my biorhythms better. I have been much more alert in the night section during Hellgate than I was at either 100 miler that I finished, mostly because I am fresh (and freezing). And I LOVE running most of the next day back to Camp Bethel, where we started the journey---it truly feels epic to be cast off into the woods in the middle of the night and then run home, to a warm fire and warm food! Wooo-hoo!

Aaron Schwartsbard has written the most helpful and entertaining description of this race (or any race, for that matter) that I have ever read here. If you are running Hellgate, thinking about running Hellgate, or are just interested in what all the fuss is about, spend some time reading his report. I plan to read it all week as part of my taper :-)

Here are some fun pics from the 2005 event.