Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Time falls away at Hellgate 100K

I have been an ultrarunner for ten years now. It has been an amazing ride, filled with peaks and valleys of adventure, disappointment, satisfaction, fear, and lessons learned. The threads that weave the ultra community together are the shared experiences and bonds forged during training runs and races. We spend hours on the trail and during the post-run parties hashing the details of our favorites trails and adventures, and planning for the next one. Not surprisingly, many of my ultrarunning friends have a particular race that defines them, that they obsess over and look forward to more than any other. AJW has Western States, Gary Knipling has MMT, Keith Knipling has Cascade Crest, Steve and Deb Pero have Hardrock, Mike Bur has The Barkley, and I have Hellgate 100K.
I have run Hellgate six times, more than any other ultra in my career. For the first five, I became obsessed with breaking the 15-hour mark. In 2005, the "snow year", we ran on sheets of ice and over 6" of powder, and I finished in 15:56. In 2006, the "Leaf Year" we got to see the trail that was hidden from the snow...and there were leaves, piles and piles of them. I ran a bit faster, in 15:16. In 2007, the "Warm Year" I raced Rebekah Trittipoe for the last 6 miles and second place (my highest finish) in 15:36. In 2008 we had a full moon and excellent weather, and I just missed my goal with a 15:03. Finally, in 2009, I came rested and determined to break the barrier I had set before me and did just that in 14:58, but it took everything I had.

 After that race, I took a break from running the 2010 event. I wanted to jump off the intense cycle of focusing on time and splits and instead be part of the event in another, more relaxed way. I drove down on race morning to help my friend Stephanie Wilson achieve her goal of finishing, which she did in strong fashion in 17:01. I took photos, ran the last six miles, and hung out at the finish helping runners get food and showers. I loved being on the other side, but I missed being "out there," and knew that in 2011 I would be back.

My CAT friends Jen Nichols, Mike Stadnisky, and Christian Dalhausen were entered in the 2011 race and their energy and enthusiasm about the event got me fired up. There is nothing like being a Hellgate newbie, and I had a blast training with them, answering questions about the race, the trail, and what to wear and eat. I knew the special adventure that awaited them, and it was so much fun to be part of their preparation---perhaps that is the teacher and coach in me. We decided to start together, to run easy to Camping Gap (mile 13, about 3 hours in), and then go our separate ways if needed. Most importantly, I decided to not look at my watch for the entire race, and to just run on feel (aka "perceived effort"). This would be a huge challenge for me, as my watch has always been an integral part of my racing plan---I needed to know my splits so I could adjust accordingly...or so I thought.

After we sang "Oh, Canada" and "The Star Spangled Banner" we were off at 12:01 am. Jen, Mike and I maneuvered through the pack with Christian not far behind, and soon we were climbing together up to AS 2, Petites Gap. The moon was out, there was no wind, and the long climb up the mountain warmed us up. In and out of the aid station, we bombed down the single track of the Terrapin Mountain course and soon were climbing up to Camping Gap. Jenny had fallen behind a train of runners, and Mike was pulling me up the mountain. We turned off the lights and enjoyed the moonlight. It felt easy. I wondered what time it was and then told myself to let it go, and we ran down the Promise Land section where Mike pulled away and I was alone.
Sunrise over Headforemost Mountain, mile 25
Since I didn't have my watch, I used the moon and the sun to help me predict my pace. I knew that if I came into Jennings Creek (AS 5) in the dark, then I was moving well. I saw our super crew Bob Clouston and Drew Kreuger and they looked surprised to see me: "Don't tell me what time it is!" I laughed/pleaded. And, they didn't, instead directing me to the pancakes and eggs and wishing me well. After Little Cove Mountain (AS 6), Kristen Eddy passed me with a smile and a greeting, so I knew I must be moving well (Kristen is a national class adventure racer and very fast trail runner). Hmmm, I thought. If I am near Kristen, then I bet I am in the top 5! This was exciting given the strength of the womens field this year. So, I made a little deal: I could look at my watch at mile 40 (just once) so I could get a sense of where I was. I would be absolutely thrilled to be near 10:10 am (my fastest split to that AS). Just as I was entering the AS, I looked down and the time read: 9:53. YOWZA!

Horty greeted me with a shout,"Fourth Woman!" and I was in and out in a flash. Bob had a delicious burger waiting as well as a full bottle of Perp, and then I was off. No more checking of splits, no more looking at the watch...just run! And run I did, as well as think about why I had been able to run the first 40 in such a fast time. I believe it was a combination of Masochist fitness, trail knowledge, nutrition (I ate and drank almost 4,000 calories for the 66 miles), and most importantly, letting go. Letting go of pressure, of time, of stress, of the past...and being fully present. Letting go.

The rest of the race went by in a blur. I was thrilled beyond belief that I would be able to run in the solid 14s for the first time in my Hellgate career. Alyssa Godesky passed me on the last climb looking really strong, and I wished her well as we hoofed it up and over the parkway for the final downhill. The sun was higher in the sky than it had ever been before on this downhill, and I took it all in as I approached Camp Bethel and the finish: 14:41, fifth woman, and a 17-minute PR. But who's counting? Not me.

This is a retrospective I made of Hellgate in photographs and video, from 2005-2008. Take a look. You might recognize West Coasters, elites, VHTRC buddies, and long, lost friends. I watch this every year as I get ready for the race, as it reminds me of why I love it so: the people, the trail, and the adventure. And the music says it all.

Thank you, David Horton, and all the Hellgate volunteers who make this event possible and so very special.

"Let it slide
let your troubles fall behind you
let it shine 'til you feel it all around you
and I don't mind
if it's me you need to turn to
we'll get by
it's the heart that really matters in the end..."

-Rob Thomas, "Little Wonders" .