Monday, December 14, 2015

Ten Years of Hellgate: Letting Go

Waving farewell at the finish. (photo: Michelle Andersen)

When I crossed the Hellgate 100K finish line for the tenth and final time on Saturday, I turned around and saluted the course. I had been bidding adieu for the past 16+ hours to every section, saying goodbye to an old friend for the last time. There were no tears and no regrets at the end, just a lot of gratitude for time spent together and the lessons learned. I had finished in my slowest time ever --16:24-- but was thrilled nonetheless. I had taken a calculated risk for this final ride, gambling that the warm 50 degree temps overnight and 70s during the day would not be an issue; I was wrong. After 42 miles of cruising comfortably near PR pace, on the hot grind up from Bearwallow Gap, the course once again reminded me who was in charge. And that's the way it should be.

 "We" first met when I was 43 and relatively new to the ultrarunning community, and over the next ten years my relationship with Hellgate grew from one of fear and dread to one filled with gratitude and respect. The fact that the race has been part of my birthday weekend each year added special meaning to the adventure: running from night into day, under full moons and in quiet forests, I was able reflect on my life, my choices, and the people I loved, and celebrate the gift of another year. It was the perfect birthday present.

But Hellgate is also a race. I honed my closing skills on the final six mile climb and descent from Blackhorse Gap more than once. I learned how to pace, to stay alert overnight, and to eat, to adjust when things went wrong, to suffer, to dig deep into the pain cave, to take risks, and to fail. I ran the course in deep leaves, snow, ice, cold hard rain, and hot, beating sun. I started out as a wide-eyed newbie and grew into a more patient, intelligent, and mindful ultrarunner under its watch.

Finishing with Annie. I hope to return the favor and pace her in one day. (Michelle Anderson)

I once called Hellgate "the final exam" because it came at the end of the racing season and demanded my full attention and preparation. One can try to dial it in at Hellgate, but that typically results in a huge smack-down. A successful finish requires patience, courage, and a sense of adventure. I have been lucky to have run the women's race with some of the greatest runners in our sport: Krissy Moehl, Amy Sproston, Bethany Patterson, Justine Morrison, Helen Lavin Scotch, Kathleen Cusick, Annette Bednosky, Rebekah Trittipoe, Kerry Owens, Donna Utakis, Sheryl Wheeler, Megan Stegemiller, Alexis Thomas, Vicki Kendall, Alyssa Godesky, Amy Albu, and Jenny Nichols are just a few women who have inspired me, pushed me, and made me better over the years. As I ran the last brutal miles  through the Forever section on Saturday paced by my good friend, training partner, and Crozet Running teammate Annie Stanley, I had fun showing her the landmarks to look for, just as Ryan Henry had shown me years before. The repetitive creeks, the pine tree grove, the final descent to the aid station. The shiny tops of the cars! We laughed at my bumbling and stumbling, took a selfie, shared our goals for the future. Breathed hard on the climbs. Exhaled on the descents. During those special miles with Annie, I felt like I was passing the baton to the next generation of courageous women who will take on Hellgate and be changed for the better. It felt just right.

As we neared the Day Creek aid station, we came upon my husband Rusty, who had biked from the finish to ride us in. I lingered and thanked the volunteers one last time. Most years I wouldn't have wasted any time to get in and out of Day Creek, but not on Saturday. I took it easy and savored the fact that I wasn't racing the clock. It was just me, Rusty, and Annie hiking up the mountain. The sun was setting, and there was a wonderful warm breeze blowing. I had never before taken the time or energy to lift my head to notice the incredible views on this climb. I made sure I did this time.

Cruising up to Blackhorse Gap one last time with Annie and Rusty

The greatest lesson of Hellgate for me? We are a family. We watch out for one another in the darkness and help each other find the trail. We share our fuel, our water, our gear. We set a good pace and help one another keep up. We spend our night and day crewing, volunteering, and supporting. We pace the last miles with good humor and patience. We cheer when our friends succeed, and share their pain when they are disappointed. We bond together, and are forever changed, on the Glenwood Horse Trail every year because David Horton, Charlie Hesse, and George Wortley decided to create an adventure called the Hellgate 100K. Thank you, gentlemen. Thank you so very, very much.
David and me at the finish line
My retrospective of Hellgate, 2005-2009 in video and photos. I'm so glad I took the time to capture these people and these views. Best viewed on a laptop.

Hellgate all-time results, reports, and top 10 age group times are here.