Sunday, December 13, 2009

Spending time in the Pain Cave at Hellgate 2009

Readers of this blog will know that I put it out there on my previous post: my BHAG. This is an acronym used in the business world that stands for "Big Hairy Audacious Goal."

A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.
—Collins and Porras, 1996

My BHAG for Hellgate #5 was to break 15 hours after coming very close in 2006 with a 15:16 and then again in 2008 with a 15:03. I came into this year's race enjoying the training effect from summer 100-miler training and Grindstone 100 in October, and I scored two PRs in a 50K and a hilly 5K in the last month to boost my confidence. Plus, race night fell on my 47th birthday...what better way to celebrate than to bust it loose and break 15?

Over the years I have become well-acquainted with the Hellgate course. One could say we have a "love/hate" relationship... I love the course but hate certain sections. "Familiarity breeds contempt" might be an even better way to describe my feelings for Hellgate: the more I struggled for the sub-15 benchmark, the more determined (and frustrated) I became. I know exactly where I typically run strong and where I typically fall apart. So this year, in setting up this BHAG, the plan was to minimize my mistakes from the past and capitalize on my fitness. I focused on all the areas within my control: fitness, nutrition, rest, equipment, and attitude. The areas of the race out of my control were weather and trail conditions (and, of course, the chance that I might fall and get injured. Fortunately I only fell twice with no lasting effects). I accepted it was going to be cold, wet in places, and possibly icy and/or covered in leaves. I knew about the Devil Trail, and was ready to take it on.

The Devil Trail: 3 miles of rocks, leaves, off-camber trail and rocks.

If there was ever a year for me to achieve this BHAG, this was it. I am in the shape of my life thanks to a summer of 100 miler training set up by Andy Jones-Wilkins. Andy had me running more weekly miles, more intense track ladders, and more hill repeats than ever before. Adding the Grindstone 100 into the mix, a few longer runs in late November and swimming and pool running 2-3 times a week since early October helped me stay stretched out and injury free. I was also mentally ready to start spending time in the Pain Cave. I read up a lot on sports psychology and training and the concept of getting comfortable while being uncomfortable is something I totally buy into. I coach my lacrosse players to embrace this mindset so Hellgate presented me with the chance to walk/run the talk!

The first half of Hellgate is the toughest---the most climbing, no daylight, and long sections on knarly trail. But there are also long sections of gravel roads which I tried to run whenever I could. If it was at all runnable, I ran it. That became one of many mantras for the race---"Run the Runnable Stuff." I also took advantage of the long downhills and tried to hammer those sections without trashing my quads. By the midway point, I was feeling great on the climbs but my right hip flexor was screaming, so the downhills were slower than I wanted. Donna Utakis, last year's womens champ, came into Headforemost Mountain AS (mile 22) right behind me and we started the process of leapfrogging one another. She was feeling great on the downs while I was hammering the ups, but we managed to stay near the other and this was perfect as it kept me focused and moving.

Donna Utakis enjoying the climb in the Forever section--NOT!

This was the key to my race, hands down. I drank about 1200 calories from Perpetuem Cafe Latte (absolutely the most de-lish flavor sport drink ever), and had the rest come from mix of Hammergel, Clif Shots, EFS, Sharkies, Clif Bloks, three egg mini-quiches and half a plain burger (which was personally delivered, with Horton's permission, 200 yards up the trail by John Cassilly, my de-facto crew at mile 43). The "real food"--eggs and the burger-- came at crucial points in the race and combined with the other gel products, provided me with a grand total of about 3800 calories for 15 hours, which is 230 calories an hour. Perfect!


I am in awe of the Hellgate finishers who are also Beast Series finishers. After running the Grindstone 100 in October, they also run the Mountain Masochist 50 in November! There is no way I could attempt to run a decent, competitive time at Hellgate if I didn't take a long recovery after Grindstone. Rest and recovery are essential to my training, so after Gstone I ran very little save for a 50K, a 5K, a few 4+ hour runs and a few track workouts. The rest of the days were filled with sleeping in and pool running/swimming. I took at least one day off a week and often two days, and came into Hellgate feeling very rested and eager to race---always a good sign!


Yeah, it was cold out there. At the pre-race meeting we were told to expect temperatures overnight in the low teens and only in the 30s/low 40s during the day. Fortunately we had very little wind, and the trail conditions were a bit wet but not bad. In fact, we ran through an inch of lovely, soft snow for a few miles on the Promise Land 50K section of the course, and had a few icy patches where I lost it and ended up on my rump, but overall conditions were perfect for a race. I wore the same race kit that I wore in 2006 when we had similar conditions: Underarmour tank top, Patagonia Capilene Zip-top, Patagonia fleece vest, Sugoi jacket, Patagonia beanie, Injinji toe socks, and Arcterex gloves. No problems at all staying warm, and I shed my jacket and vest at mile 40. One tip that worked well was to stuff my hydration pack hose down into my tank top to keep it from icing up...this worked like a charm, though my bottle top froze and I had to unscrew it every time I wanted to drink from it.

Sunrise over Headforemost Mountain--it was about 7:00 am and 15 degrees, the coldest period of the race


A few days before the race I happened upon an Endurance Planet podcast that featured Krissy Moehl and Lisa Smith-Batchen talking about goal setting in ultras. Krissy and Lisa are two of the most humble and inspiring ultrarunners today and the wisdom they shared in the interview became a key component of my BHAG plan. Krissy talked about how she likes to look at racing other women as "competing with" as opposed to "competing against" and I really liked that idea. I am competitive. Anyone who knows me, or who has watched me race or coach lacrosse can attest to that. But I also embrace the idea of synergy, or working together for a common goal. When Donna came upon me at Headforemost, I didn't realize how instrumental she would be in helping me achieve my goal, but I knew I wanted to take Krissy's advice to heart and race WITH her. We would chat a bit, laugh when I fell (again), commiserate, and then run. She was really fast on the technical downhills while I was strong on the climbs. When we came into Bearwallow Gap (mile 43) together, Horton yelled, "It's a race!" But I shook my head and said, "Nope! She's helping me break 15!" and he was bummed, I think. He likes races, and I like collaboration.

A true BHAG...serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit

As we left Bearwallow, I knew the next three sections would be the key to achieving a sub-15. Over the years I had always had problems- stomach, energy, attitude--in these sections, so the mantra now was, "Let's spend some time in the Pain Cave." I had to move really well and run as much as possible, and it was important to reach Bobblett's Gap (mile 49) by 12 noon (I got there at 11:55), and Day Creek (mile 56) by 1:45. Donna had been moving really well on the downhill from Bobblett's but I was pulling away on the climbs in Day Creek, so she waved me on and I started to hammer. I got to the Day Creek AS at 1:47 and didn't stop. My mind was racing with the math and I knew I had to run 1:12 on the last 6+ mile section. In the past it took me anywhere from 1:15 and longer, depending on my attitude. This time I was ready. I sighted Brad Birkholz, Jarett Tighe, Justin Faul, and Jack Kurisky about 50 yards ahead and made reaching them my goal. I ran as much as I could, but at times it was so steep that walking was more efficient. "Every step counts" was all I could tell myself.

A true BHAG is clear and compelling

I wasn't looking behind me, I wasn't racing someone else, only the course and the clock. I asked myself, "do you have the courage to do this?" Spending time in the Pain Cave means not being afraid to go to the edge, to experience discomfort, and to take a risk. As I reached the top of the climb, I asked the guys to help me run it in for a sub-15. They smiled. "We've got this" one of them said. The time of day at the top with 3+ miles to go was 2:27. We had to run 32:59 to make it. Brad took off, then Jack. Justin and Jarett followed. I tried to stay behind Jack, feeding off his energy. The "one mile to go" sign came up and I had 9:59 to run a mile. Piece of cake, right? I felt like I was running tempo pace, which is about 7:20. But as I neared the finish line it was clear I was running more in the 8s. We turned in to Camp Bethel, onto the driveway, and I knew it was about 400 yards to the finish. Jack was about 20 yards ahead and he yelled, "go Sophie!"

I will never set a course record, so this was the closest I would come to that feeling of urgency. It was exhilarating. I rounded the bend and saw the clock: 14:58 with 20 yards to go. I had done it.

People like to shoot for finish lines.

This was my last Hellgate 100K, at least for the next few years. It was my fifth finish and I achieved my BHAG, but I also missed my daughter's swim meet to race this year, so the time is right to enjoy the memories of the past five races and give back to the event as a volunteer. I have grown so much--as an ultrarunner and as a person--because of this race. Now it's time to let it go and move along the trail. Thank you, David, for another memorable adventure. They say that ultrarunning changes lives, and I know for sure that this race has changed mine.

I am so grateful to my husband and kids for their support of this crazy race...and to all the players in this year's drama: Ed Duval, JR Ankney, Donna Utakis, Jack Kurisky, Brad Birkholz, Jarett Tighe, Justin Faul, John Cassilly, George Wortley, Charlie Hesse, Susannah Greever, and of course, David Horton and his band of merry volunteers. Happy Trails to all.


Rick Gray said...

Sophie, You accomplished and trashed your "BHAG". What a special way to finish out your 5th Hellgate. In order to accomplish your goal, I know you had to spend a great deal of time in the "pain cave". You are very deserving of every bit of praise that comes from finishing this tough run, but also for breaking your 15 hour barrier. I am so proud of you and for all of the support that I know your family has given you. Rest up my friend. You truly deserve it. Rick

annette bednosky said...

thanks for a great write up Sophie! You have such a attitude of honest gratitude and love of this sport. Congrats on meeting your goal. I know you must feel proud and relieved!

Marlin Yoder said...

Great summary Sophie! I was able to relive my Hellgates by reading your account! Congratulations on finishing strong and breaking 15:00. I was sitting stuffed at a post-meal family Christmas gathering, looked at a clock and saw the time was 2:50. I resisited the urge to yell "Go Sophie" lest my family thought I was completely nuts. But I was pulling for you!!!!

ultrarunnergirl said...

Awesome Sophie!!! You rocked it! Sub-15!
Is it really your last Hellgate? I'm not putting any money on that . . . :)

Steve Pero said...

Wow....great report and great race!


See you next month, hopefully...

Anonymous said...

Happy late Birthday, you are awsome! Congrats on the sub 15. I knew you could do it, when you pulled away from me going up the first major climb after aid station 1, I could tell you were strong and ready. Time for us to rest up and then get back to See ya soon!!!!!

Brad B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brad B. said...

Leaving that last aid station and realizing there was a chance of breaking 15 hours I pushed up that hill as hard as I could. Your comment at the top of the hill got me to kick it into a gear I never thought would be possible at that point of a race. I was honored to find out that I played a part in meeting your goal of breaking 15 hours. This Hellgate was a PR for me by an 1 hour and 24 mins, so I’d like to thank you as well.

Hope to see you again next year. (Hopefully as a racer)

Brad Birkholz

Dan said...

...."and I like collaboration."

I like the way you think.


J.R. said...

It was an awesome run Soph, and I am forever indebted to you for turning me on to the beauty of the trails, and to the joy (yes, joy) that is the ultra distance. It has been a source of comfort, strength, and happiness, and I look forward to your advice, inspiration, and pacing efforts next year as I try to finish the beast with Hellgate. I had a great last 25 or so miles and look forward to all of it next year.

Helen said...

Great report Sophie - Thanks for sharing! Congrats again on hitting your goal - it is amazing what we can make our bodies do when our mind is in the right place. It's hard to put this Hellgate experience into words. I think it will take a long time to digest it all... but I do know I'll be back again! Hope to run with you in 2010.


Run Home Pam said...

Congratulations, Sophie. You did it!

Unknown said...

good work sophie! you are truly an inspiration, revel in the accomplishment. i look forward to following you as you work towards your next bhag!

Sillybusa said...

Great and inspirational report! You certainly know how to put the ultra experience into words. So...What's your next BHAG?

Unknown said...

Sophie, Incredible job! I love reading what you have to say. You really speak to me and teach me.

I loved being there and seeing you accomplish your goal. I was so moved and in awe of the fact that you bagged your BAHG.

I'm so proud of you and it was a true honor to share the trails with you this past weekend. I hope to see you again really soon.

Sophie Speidel said...

Hi everyone,

I just wanted to say that I am overwhelmed by your kind words, good wishes, and support. You never know what kind of reaction a blog report with get and I am glad this one was particularly helpful and/or interesting.

I continue to be amazed by the unconditional support that we ultrarunners give one another. I know that if I had written about failing to meet my BHAG I no doubt would have gotten the same wonderful vibe that you sent me here. Thank you.

I am grateful to know many of you and hopeful to eventually meet those who I have not yet met but who comment regularly. I wish you all a wonderful holiday season and good wishes and good kharma for 2010. firm BHAG in place for 2010 yet. It's nice to look at the weather forecast for this weekend and be able to say, "Yay! It's going to snow! Let's go on a snowy run!" without worrying about training for anything. I do know that I have been thinking about going for BHAG at Masochist in November and possibly a road marathon PR in December at our local marathon. Stay tuned!

xoxo Sophie

Thomas Bussiere said...

What an awesome report - Very insightful. Congrats on sub 15, and thanks for sharing your experience with us.

run4daysbill said...

Hey you! GREAT JOB at HG!!! :)

Way to lay it out there and then go get it. Great, great job.

Hone said...

Congrats on the great time at Hellgate. That is on my bucket list for sure.