I remember in August 2003 when David Horton first informed the ultrarunning community of his idea to put on a 100K in Central Virginia. A sixty-two mile run through the most rugged sections of the Blue Ridge Mountains in December. I thought to myself now thereís an event I will never participate in. A little more than 2 years later I find myself at Camp Bethel preparing to do the unthinkable. Why? What prompted me to be there was friendship and the desire to help someone. Morgan Windram, a young girl from State College, Pa, asked a couple of friends to join in her quest to complete the event for a second time. I was one of those friends but sat back a while to see how the other one would respond. He declined meaning I was going to be fortunate enough to run with Morgan but also I was going to have to do it in an event that has never appealed to me.
My Hellgate adventure started midnight Friday morning as I drove 325 miles to Fincastle, Virginia in a blinding snowstorm. The snow was predicted to be heavier in the North so I hoped as I drove Southwest, that the intensity of the storm would decrease. There would be no such luck on this night. As I made my way through the D.C. metropolitan area the roads became snow covered and remained that way until I reached my destination. The trip down was almost as much of a wild experience as the run itself. I drove 30 mph from the halfway point down as my car had difficulty getting traction on the icy roads. Tractor-trailers blasted by me doing 45-50 mph sending Earth shattering fear through my body, which contributed to keeping me awake. I drove for 7 hours straight before I decided to pull over 30 miles short of my destination into a rest stop to get some sleep. Normally I go for the creature comforts of a hotel room but there would be nothing normal about the race so for consistency sake I was okay with sleeping in my car. I woke after about 4 hours of sleep and made it the rest of the way into Camp Bethel. When I arrived I parked in the lot across from the dining hall and slept another couple of hours. As I waited for the 6 p.m. check-in I spent the ensuing hours trying to prepare myself mentally for the challenge I was about to encounter.
As I mentioned before this would not be a normal race for me. My goal was to be there for a friend as a companion and motivator and do my best to help her have fun and do well at the same time. There were some that thought it would be difficult for me not to run my own race but I knew differently. First of all even though I was there to help I knew that I would learn a few lessons from her too. Secondly I get more satisfaction out of helping other people than I do when I achieve a personal goal. I admit I am competitive but at the same time I can be very unselfish. Winning means nothing to me. Seeing a smile on someoneís face means the world to me.
Morgan showed up at Camp Bethel around 5 p.m. just as I was snapping out of a trance I had put myself in. We hung out together in the dining hall as we waited for the check-in process to begin. As I do at every event I participate in I met up with old friends. I chatted with Kevin Bligan , David Snipes, Vicki Kendall and Tom Skinner whom I ran the Heartland 100 with in October. Tom gave me a warm feeling as he told me the reason he signed up for Hellgate was because he saw my name on the entrants list. I didnít know whether to feel embarrassed or flattered but I knew embarrassment was the prevailing emotion as my face turned beet red. In the background I could hear the commotion of the check-in process starting so I broke away from Tom.
We sat down for a fantastic pre-race meal of meatballs, spaghetti, salad, and cake. We had excellent company in Sophie Speidel, Scott Brockmeier, Vicki Kendall, Dan Lehmann, and Aaron Schwartzbard amongst a few others. Sophie snapped some pictures, we talked, ate and then it was back to the dorm for the pre-race briefing. David Horton took care of the most critical part of the evening first trying to obtain rides to the start for all 80 participants. It seemed most had rides to the start with their crews but there were many, such as Morgan and I, who needed a ride. David rented a 15-seat passenger van, which Morgan and I were lucky enough to get a seat in but then he needed to find rides for at least 20 more people. It was great to see how everyone chipped in and offered a ride for one or two runners if they had space. One of the funniest moments of the evening came when a gentleman offered a seat in his vehicle for one runner but he or she would have to share the ride with his dog Sierra. No one answered the call so David figured everyone must have a ride but then when he asked at least a half-dozen people still indicated they didnít. Guess no one wanted to ride with poor old Sierra. When finally David asked, ďwho needs a rideĒ and no one raised their hand David pumped his fist and gave a mighty ďyesĒ!
When the transportation issue was resolved David went on to describe the course, how it was marked, and the conditions. He delivered the description in an accurate, concise manner in humor that only Dr. Horton possesses. He came right out and told all crewmembers that if they werenít driving a 4-wheel drive vehicle they should just wait until the daylight hours to meet their runners. Most of the access roads were snow and ice covered making them impassable to any other kind of vehicle. There was at least one runner who pulled from the race before it even started because his crew wouldnít be able to help. I started to wonder how aid stations were going to be able to be assembled if the roads were impassable. Just as these thoughts entered my mind David addressed the issue. He said all the aid stations should be in place as advertised but there was a chance something could happen and we should be prepared for such an occurrence. His statement was be thankful for what you got. Someone yelled out we could always eat the snow. Something I would indeed find myself doing later that day. David addressed all the questions and then ended the meeting around 9 p.m. allowing everyone to get a couple of hours sleep in the bunkrooms.
Me, I was content to stay awake, do more thinking and watch the other people. I was still in my normal person mode and was having trouble transforming into my ultrarunner persona. It never seems real to me that people run this long. How and why do they do it? As I look at these seemingly normal people I think how crazy they must be on the inside. The one thing I always seem to forget is that I am one of them.
I started to get dressed for the run an hour prior to our departure to the start line. It was very cold outside so I planned to dress accordingly. I wore two polypropylene turtleneck shirts, a hooded sweatshirt and a light jacket on top. I wore a pair of tights to cover my legs and planned to wrap another pair around my waist in case it got colder throughout the night. I covered my head with a knit cap and wore three pairs of cotton gloves to protect my hands. In my waist pack I carried spare batteries for my headlamp, moleskin to care for blisters, a scarf and a full face knit hat. Knowing my feet were going to get wet I also carried a spare pair of socks in my jacket pocket along with a small Black Diamond 2-Led headlamp in case of emergency. The two water bottles I planned to carry were filled, my number was pinned to my tights on my right leg, and I was now dressed and ready to go with 15 minutes to spare.
David Horton said we would be leaving for the start at 11:00 p.m. sharp so at 10:45 p.m. I noticed people starting to scramble about. Morgan made her way out of the bunkroom at about this same time looking very confident, prepared and ready to run. Both of us made our way to the van with drop bags in hand anxiously anticipating the start. Morgan sat in the front of the vehicle while I found a seat in the middle. I sat in between two guys who were virtually rookies in the sport but didnít seem at all fazed by the challenge they were about to undertake. The guy to the left of me said his only other ultra-run was the Wild Oak 50 miler held in the rugged trails of the George Washington National Forrest. He was hoping for brutal trail conditions because his strength isnít speed but rather physical toughness and the ability to maneuver around technical trails. The guy to the right of me had just completed the JFK 50 three weeks ago and seemed to still be very pumped up about that experience. His only worry about this particular event was his headlamp. He expressed his concern as to whether his batteries would have enough juice to get him through the night. He was also worried about what he would do if he fell and either broke his light or lost it down the side of a mountain as he fell. I tried my best to assure him that he would be okay. Iíve never broken a light in a race so the thought seemed kind of unreasonable to me at the time. The only trouble I could foresee was the cold weather could wear his batteries down pretty quick but with only seven hours of darkness to deal with I was sure he would be okay.
We arrived at the start in the Hellgate parking lot at the Northeastern terminus of the Glenwood House Trail at about 11:40 p.m. I, unwillingly, departed the warmth of the van and then met up with Morgan. We left our drop bags in the van as instructed and proceeded to check-in with one of the race organizers. The one drop bag that we were allowed to have would be placed at the 22-mile mark and then the same bag would be transported to the 42.5 mile mark. My bag, as usual, contained a lot of things. Most of which I would not use but I feel more comfortable with the awareness that I have anything I might need. In the bag I had dry socks, a sweatshirt, a long sleeve polypro shirt, cotton gloves, knit hat, spare batteries, four cans of Sobe Adrenaline energy drink, two cans of Starbucks Double shot, and four bottles of chocolate Boost.
Once checked in Morgan and I made our way down to the start line. David said a prayer and then asked us all to join him in singing the National Anthem as a group. When all the pre-race festivities were over we moved up to the start line and without much hype began our race.
It was 12:01 a.m. on a cold, clear Saturday morning when we started, as the average person was home asleep in a nice warm bed. Here we were galloping through the woods on snow and ice covered trails. Just how crazy am I? I was still struggling to get myself in the mode I needed to be in but it wouldnít be long before the transformation was made.
The first 3 miles are advertised as being on flat, grassy roads but with the snow it was hard to tell what kind of terrain we were running on. I guess in David Horton terminology those first 3 miles are flat but I would personally have to say it was more rolling than flat. Most of this section was on a wide path so early on it was easy to jostle around to find a good space to run in. I felt very good at the start so good in fact I wanted to push Morgan to the front. She seemed content to remain in the second tier of runners. I must admit it was difficult for me watching the runners up front blitz this first part of the course but I kept reminding myself of why I was there. Morgan ran this race in 2004 so she knew what lay ahead and had a plan and intended to follow it. As we ran we reviewed what our goal would be this day and how we would achieve it. She ran 14:52 the previous year and wanted to cut an hour off that time. I thought that was a reasonable goal and with some work could be realized. Since Iím a strong uphill runner and sheís strong on the downs we agreed we would use our strengths to push one another.
We ran at a nice even pace for the first 3 miles the entire way until reaching the first water crossing of the night. I had been concerned about this all day because the temperatures were in the low 20ís at the start. I even thought of going sockless the first 3 miles and then removing my shoes before going through the water. That was normal Dave thinking though, now I was ultrarunner Dave and just splashed my way through the water without a second thought. Once out of the water we headed up a single-track trail for about another Ĺ mile before reaching the first aid station. I told Morgan to move on as I briefly stopped to tighten the laces on my right shoe. I had a slight pain on the top of my foot that I believe was due to lack of support from the shoe. I was sure that if I tightened the laces the pain would go away.
I quickly caught up with Morgan as she began her walk/run up the first major climb of the day. It was a 4-mile hike up a snow/ice covered gravel road to the next aid station. This is where both of us encountered some problems. I couldnít seem to maintain my balance on the ice and fell several times and I think that this is where Morgan realized it might not be her best day. As we walked up the road she told me she remembered running up at least part of this the previous year but she didnít seem too sure. I allowed her to dictate the pace but did push her a little as I tried to run some sections. When I ran I told her to stop if she needed too and I would follow suit. We did more walking than running in part due to the icy conditions but I think mostly due to the steepness of the climb. It was still very early in the run but there were a lot of females going by us. Morgan didnít really express a particular goal in her final place but I hoped she would cross the finish line in the top 3. There was no doubt in my mind that she had the ability to do so it was just a matter of her digging deep down to find the desire. As I saw the people going by I was still confident she would do well but I sure was worried.
The course, over 65 miles, has approximately 13,000 feet of elevation gain with the majority occurring in the first 22 miles. I did not mentally prepare for a tough mountain run but I quickly realized this is what I was in for. I seemed to conveniently forget Davidís course description from August 2003 when he first came up with the idea. Why did I forget you might ask? I think itís because I looked at Morgan as a daughter more than a friend. Sheís just a sweet little 23 year old girl whom I could never imagine running in a rugged mountain range nor would I want my daughter to. Not that she couldnít do it but why would she want to. I should have known better since there are many sweet little girls doing these things now days.
Anyhow we made it into the aid station in a little worse condition then when we first started the 4-mile climb. Luckily I wasnít in any pain from the falls but I was still shaken mentally by the ordeal. I couldnít help but wonder if this would be the trend for the rest of the night/day. I think Morgan was frustrated that the course conditions were impeding her progress. Mentally I believe it drained her knowing she might not have the day she wanted. She was very upbeat and never mentioned this to me but there was just something in how she spoke that led me to believe this. Another little problem that I had on this section was that during one of my falls my headlamp fell off smashing it to bits. Fortunately I brought along my spare 2-LED light as an emergency back up. It was not nearly as bright but it would have to due.
We left the aid station crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway for the first time of the night before turning left up to a single-track trail. My memory of this section is pretty vivid having slipped and fallen a half dozen more times. The falls this time had a lot more potential for causing severe injury though since I was running on single-track with a steep drop off to my left. We ran through choppy snow and broken ice. I was told that under normal conditions this section is covered with loose rocks but the snow and ice hid them well. Every time I slipped I could hear chunks of ice falling down the sides of the mountain echoing as they hit the bottom. I was fearful that soon one of those chunks of ice could be me. I was so shaken that there were a couple of times I tripped just out of nervousness alone. Finally I heard Morgan shout out my name as if to say what is your problem. She wasnít being mean but rather trying to bring me back to reality and get me refocused.
I was happy to get off that Ĺ mile section and get back on a wide path for the next mile or so. The path was covered with packed snow making it easy to run on. I was able to relax and recover a little as we made our way down hill. The easy going was short lived though as the wide section turned right back on to single-track trail for a couple of more miles of slipping and tripping. The only thing good that I could find out of this whole ordeal was that my mind never wandered off onto topics of concern. I had no choice but to concentrate on my footing and maintaining my balance. My mind was blank and the only emotion I was feeling was fear but I was determined not to allow this section to beat me. When we finally got off the trail and headed up another road section I quickly recovered, regained my senses and wondered how Morgan made out. . I casually questioned her to see how she was doing. One thing about me in a race is I try to stay consistent no matter how I feel. I donít get overly joyed if Iím happy and I wonít let on if Iím sad or worried. I think consistency is key to doing well over the long haul and it also helps others around me feel more comfortable in my presence. I could tell by Morganís reply that she was still really upbeat and enjoying everything I was dreading. We continued to chat as we made our way going mostly uphill into the next aid station at mile 13.
We left the aid station knowing the next 9 miles could be the toughest part of our day. Tough is a word that I would use to describe the next sequence of events that occurred. As we made our way up an icy road not more than 500 yards away from the aid station Morgan took a nasty fall landing hard on her left hip. She lay there for just a second before struggling to get up. I asked her if she was okay and she said she wasnít sure. The anguish in her voice told me all that I needed to know. I was absolutely positive that she had been seriously hurt and should consider at least going back to the aid station to evaluate things. I made the suggestion but she wanted to move on in hopes the pain would subside. I completely understood her thinking and gained a new respect for her physical toughness but still I was concerned.
The 9 miles from aid station 3 to 4 led us mostly down wide roads and paths. Even though we couldnít see the surface I could tell if it was gravel or grass. The gravel roads were a sheet of ice and hard to get around on without falling. The grassy sections were covered with packed snow and could easily be run on. We did a lot of walking but there was at least one downhill section where we did some significant running. After this particular long running spell Morgan seemed revived. The tone of her voice led me to believe the pain may have subsided to a level she could handle. Soon though the mood was somber again and there was a feeling of misery in the air. I hoped to brighten things up by keeping the conversation going but once again I knew she was suffering way too much. She tried to disguise it but it was easy for me to tell she was in a lot more pain than she was leading on. I had a sad feeling in my heart knowing what the outcome was going to be when we arrived at the next aid station. I gave one last desperate effort to help her regain a positive attitude by pointing out some of the beautiful nighttime scenery. There was a city off to our left all lit up that looked spectacular from the mountaintop. The sky was clear exposing more stars than I ever knew existed. It was cold but very quiet and soothing. There have been times when Iíve been in pain that Iíve been able to allow the atmosphere to heal me and I feel nothing and can continue on. My pains werenít the product of a severe injury such as what Morgan had so unfortunately what worked for me wasnít cutting it for her. As we came off the wide road section onto a single-track trail we got lost for the first and only time of the night. The path was clearly marked for us to turn off to the left but somehow we missed it and went straight for about 25 yards. We quickly found out we were off the path and backtracked to where we made the mistake and continued on. When we got back on the right track we met up with Chris Palladino a guy I met at Mountain Massochist in 2004. We both remembered each other and had a pretty good chat catching up on what happened over the last year. I never lost track of Morgan as I spoke with Chris. I kept peeking back to make sure she was moving along and sure enough she was hanging right in there. The single-track trail was covered with icy chunks of snow making it harder to run through but we managed to run the trail in entirety to the road section that would take us the last 1 ľ mile into the aid station. We did almost have a catastrophe as we came down the short hill off the trail to make a right onto the road. I was in the front and slipped down the hill while Chris and Morgan followed my lead. Chris slid down and slammed right into my back and then Morgan came down right behind Chris. The fourth guy behind us must have been far enough back to see what happened and was able to maintain his balance. Luckily none of the three of us got hurt on this one so that incident will just go down in history as a funny occurrence. Morgan informed me of her final decision to pull out of the race as we made our way up the hill to the mile 22-aid station. This was already a forgone conclusion in my mind so I was not shocked by her decision. I had a passing thought that maybe it would be appropriate for me to pull out too just to make sure she gets back to Camp Bethel and gets the proper care. I had two trains of thought when considering this. Yes I did feel like a father figure and felt the need to make sure she was okay but then I also didnít want her to think that I didnít believe she could care for herself. She was tough and proved that to me by enduring some excruciating pain over 9 miles of hiking through the rugged mountains. She certainly didnít need me to make sure she got back okay. This young lady could obviously take care of herself. When we arrived at the aid station Morgan reported to an official and removed herself from the race. I had my bottles filled with water, grabbed some food, and waited a couple of seconds to be sure she was okay before I headed back out.
It was 5:45 a.m. by the time I left the aid station. We had only made the cut-off by 45 minutes. I donít ever remember being that close to being pulled from a race so this was a new experience for me and a challenge that I welcomed. I welcomed the challenge because I had nothing else to run for. This was not supposed to be my race. I had not prepared to run alone nor did I want to run alone. Now that Morgan was gone all my motivation for being there went right with her. The challenge to finish this race within the allotted time was enough to get me psyched up. My only goal at this point had to be to make it to the mile 42.5 mile mark before the 12:30 p.m. cut-off. This would allow me 6 hours and 45 minutes to go 20 miles. I was certain that would be enough time even if I struggled but struggling is not what I wanted to do.
As I left the aid station I was tired and a little weak from the emotional struggles of trying to help Morgan and the normal toll the nighttime hours take on the body. I moved along at a decent rate using a light I could barely see with. It was no big deal though because within an hour the sun would be up and I wouldnít need the light anymore. The thought of being revived when the sun came up pushed me along even though I was depleted at the time. In the pre-race briefing David Horton described miles 22-42 to be the rockiest on the course. I knew if this were indeed true than I could have some genuine problems making the next cut-off at mile 42. My strength is speed on somewhat smooth surfaces. I can manage the technical trails but Iím not particularly efficient at it. Thoughts of the rocks were causing me to be negative so I squashed them and told myself to accept whatever comes my way.
The miles leading me into aid station number 5 became increasingly easy as daylight broke. My attitude changed from concerned to determined. My pace changed from sluggish to fast and my goals changed from just finishing in under 18 hours to finishing anywhere between 15-16 hours. Fortunately the course cooperated with me. The same time I started to feel good the trail started on a gentle downward path on a packed snow surface covering any rocks that may have been there. I breezed down this stretch of trail with little or no energy spent. I would estimate the distance to be about 4-miles on a gentle downhill, which led me down into the next aid station. I quickly grabbed some food as a volunteer refilled my water bottle. Notice I said bottle and not bottles. One of my bottles went flying down the side of the mountain on one of my falls earlier in the run so now I had to make due with one. Anyhow I spent little time in the aid station before hauling my butt out of there quickly. As I exited David Horton yelled some comments of encouragement to me. Encouragement from a guy who just speed hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail meant a lot to me. Also made me realize that my undertaking is nothing compared to what he did and I should easily be able to manage a decent finish. David pointed me in the right direction and I was off on my own again looking for the next aid station 7 miles away.
I had lots of energy and I needed it to make up time in order to make the mile 42.5 cut-off. I did a walk/run thing up the next significant climb. Along the way I encountered Shawn Krause and friends. Shawn was up ahead of his buddies so I ran up to him to chat for a couple of minutes. We talked a little at the pre-race briefing so this was not our first meeting. Shawn is a transplanted Philly guy who now lives in Maryland. We talked a little about the Philly sports teams and then a little about our goals for the day. It was good to have some company but I was on a mission and didnít have a lot of time so after a quick talk we parted ways. Again alone I traversed the icy roads and trails through the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.
I was greeted at aid station number 6 by Vicki Kendall. Her spirit is so uplifting and her enthusiasm just draws a tremendous amount of energy my way. Even though I didnít want to spend a lot of time at the aid station I had to talk with her before moving on. I explained what had happened to Morgan and listened as she told me of her own bad experience with the icy roads in the early morning hours. I moved on quickly after our conversation full of pep generated from Vickiís bubbly personality. My goal was to get to the next aid station before the 12:30 p.m. cut-off. I had no idea what time it was because I refused to look at my watch. Since no one really knows how many miles lay between the start and finish or aid station to aid station I couldnít allow myself to time miles. It was supposed to be 7 miles, which shouldnít have taken me anymore than an hour, and forty minutes but what if it was 8 miles and it took me longer? I would get frustrated and tired looking for the aid station. It was better for me to just run and when the aid station showed up then thatís when it showed up. The knowledge that I just barely made the first cut-off made me continue to run hard. There was no way I was going to allow myself to get timed out.
I left following a wide snow packed road that was easy to run on for about 2 miles. This type of running surface didnít come often but I sure appreciated it when it did. I really had to put in an extra effort when running the sections that had choppy ice covered snow. I was able to relax and recover during this 2-mile section.
I was so determined to make that cut-off that I could think of nothing else. Itís not a normal occurrence for me not to be thinking of someone or something during a run but that had been the pattern up to this point. I didnít need the emotion from outside forces. I was drawing all my energy generated from the fear of being eliminated from the competition. I tried to make up some time by running the hills from point to point or for so many seconds. I tried any method to keep from walking completely up a hill.
Along the first part of this seven-mile section I came upon 3 people from Wisconsin, Brian Seegert, Julie Treder, and Jeff Haas. I didnít spend a lot of time with them just enough to catch their names and say hello. They looked to be in excellent spirits and moving along just fine. It made me feel good that I was able to get by so easily knowing they to were moving at a decent pace. I started to feel a lot more confident in my chances of making the cut-off and truly felt I was going to make it with ease at this point. It wasnít long after I passed them that I found myself back on a single-track trail going up and down short inclines along what seemed to be a ridgeline. Again I was running on a narrow path with a steep drop on my right. Just as it happened in the early morning hours the ice chunks that I kicked fell down the sides of the hill echoing as they fell. I wasnít as fearful in the daylight hours because I could see where I was going but I was still tentative with ever step I took.
Shortly after I left the Wisconsin group I saw another runner moving slowly along the path stopping occasionally to walk. I used him as a guide to keep moving forward. Company is always nice and I thought that if I could catch up with him Iíd have someone to talk to for a few moments. As I came up on him I recognized him as Billy Barnett. I asked him how he was doing and he said he was struggling a little but considering the conditions doing okay. He made a comment about his girlfriend, Jenn Shelton, being way ahead and kicking his butt. It certainly didnít surprise me to hear Jenn was up front considering some of her other performances this year. The short steep hills continued which eventually must have taken a toll on Billy because he decided to pull back a little and let me move on. I went ahead feeling lonely for only a short period of time before catching up to Dan Lehmann. I was really happy to see Dan because I knew he would talk to me for awhile. I was certain he would try to convince me to come down to West Virginia to run his race in the hot, steamy month of June on the rocks and mud. The only temptation of the Highlands Sky 40 to me is the challenge of doing something I donít like and learning to do it well. Sure enough when I pulled alongside Dan one of the first things we talked about was his race. Actually I brought the subject up. I honestly wanted to learn a little more about the race and who better to ask than the guy who designed the course. He said he thought I would enjoy the run, which of course caused me to chuckle. I guess thereís always the possibility I may give it a shot but Iím not too sure I would enjoy it. The conversation went back and forth for a while before I pulled a way on some uphills. Again I wanted the company but I needed to keep moving forward as quickly as possible and just didnít want to lose track of my objective.
It wasnít long after I pulled away from Dan that I made it into aid station number 7 or mile 42.5. When I arrived I took a peek at my watch for the first time since I left Morgan at Mile 22. I knew I made the cut-off without looking at my watch but I wanted to know how much time I made up if any at all. My watch read 10:44 a.m. I was surprised that I was now an hour and forty-five minutes ahead of the cut-off. I made up some significant time but I was aware my work was not quite done. I still had at least 20 miles to go and maybe as many as 24 with only seven hours and fifteen minutes to do it in. This would be no problem with fresh legs and course knowledge but at this point I wasnít sure just how fresh I was and had no clue as to what laid ahead.
A volunteer refilled my water bottle and I grabbed a sandwich, a couple of cookies, and a brownie and jammed them in my pocket for later. The aid stations were pretty far apart so I had been muling food since very early in the race. David commented in his pre-race briefing how the body needs more energy to function in the cold weather. He urged us to eat and drink a lot and to carry food with us. It was good advice and I followed it. After I loaded up on food at the aid station I accessed my drop bag pulling out a bottle of Boost and Sobe Adrenaline and slammed them down my throat as quick as possible. The Sobe seems to have a quicker effect if I chug it rather than drink it slowly. I canít stand the taste so I chase it with either Boost or Ensure. The Boost not only kills the taste but also gives me some valuable calories that I need. Just before I left to head back out on the trail I saw hamburgers cooking on the grill and the aroma just sucked me right in. I walked over and grabbed one and then hurriedly made my way out onto the trail.
I walked slowly up the single-track trail feeling the effects of the effort I gave to reach this point within the given time limit. I was concerned that I may have pushed too hard and not left enough in the tank to finish strong. I only allowed these thoughts to stay in my mind long enough for me to eat my hamburger. Just as I finished eating Dan pulled up alongside of me again. Since he is a veteran of the race and I had no knowledge I questioned him about the remainder of the course. He told me that in his opinion the next seven miles would be the most difficult part because of the climb to the top of the mountain and the ensuing jog around the ridgeline that goes on forever. I listened to him and got a good idea of what was to come but decided to form my own opinion as to what was easy and what was hard. Iím glad I did that because if I would have dwelled on the fact he said this seven mile section was hard it would have been no matter what.
As Dan and I started the initial climb we noticed articles of clothing strewn across the trail. First it was a nice coat and then a hundred yards down the trail a shirt appeared, and then finally a quarter mile or so later a pair of tights and gloves. I couldnít help but laugh as I wondered what the heck was going on out in the woods. Whatever it was there was some gal or guy running around naked out there somewhere. The humor came at a good time as I was struggling to regain my strength.
Dan commented that heíd like to get in to the finish line under 16:17 to obtain a personal record. He questioned if I was just trying to get in under the time limit or if I had a goal. I told him I just wanted to finish but if I could find the energy I wanted to finish strong. It was just a second or two later that I got it into my mind that I needed to push hard again. In my experiences Iíve found that walking for long periods of time demoralizes me causing me to go into a slow death march. There was no reason on this day to walk for long periods because the energy was there. I just needed a kick-start.
I got to the top of the hill and just as Dan indicated stayed up there running around the ridge for a very long time. The trails led me up short inclines and then down into small valleys. The trail always turned to the right at the bottom only to rise again and follow the same pattern. This did seem to go on forever but knowing it had to end sometime I just tried to remain patient and enjoy the scenery. My strategy paid off as before I knew it I was starting to descend the mountain. I saw two guys in the distance coming up the switchback trail as I was going down. I asked them how far to the aid station and one of them said about 1-Ĺ miles. I was content with that until I wondered if he meant conventional miles or Horton miles. I got to the bottom, crossed a creek and then went up about a mile on a snow-covered road into the aid station. It was 12:32 p.m. so it took me less than two hours to go the seven miles. I was pretty happy with that effort and hoped to maintain that pace for the remainder of the run.
I quickly got in and out of the aid station again muling some food and having my bottle refilled. I followed the same road that led me into the aid station for about 3 more miles straight downhill before I turned off right onto a trail. I ran the entire way in about 30 minutes and figured it could only possibly take me another hour to get to the next aid station. Big mistake! This section is more than the 7 miles itís promoted as being. I was totally unaware of what was about to come and paid a price for not being prepared. There were a few significant climbs in this section, which really depleted my energy and pushed me to my limit. The only thing I could do was to beat this section with my mind. My body was tired and weak but I knew if I just kept telling myself to move forward that I would eventually reach the top. Just put one foot in front of the other is what I kept saying. I was never frustrated because I knew as long as I kept moving forward that it would only be a matter of time. I did look at my watch a couple of times because I assumed there was no way it could possibly take me more than 2 hours to get through this part. I did get some added motivation when in the distance I saw another runner. I tried to focus my thoughts on catching up to him rather than any pain I was in. The guy in front of me knew I was back there though and put on the jets anytime I got near. This late in the run I was walking up the hills all the way and he was still doing the walk/run thing. We played cat and mouse like this for almost a half-hour until he finally disappeared. I was still about 30 minutes away from the aid station when I ran out of water. This is when the advice at the pre-race briefing to eat the snow came into play. There may have been an inch of snow on the ground covered with a thin layer of ice. I removed the layer of ice and scooped the soft clean snow in my bottle and sucked on it to satisfy my thirst. I had spent nearly one hour and fifty minutes on this section before I again saw a person headed in the other direction toward me. He told me I was about one mile from the aid station and that I would know I was close when I reached the mud. I pushed hard for another 10 minutes before reaching the mud and finally the aid station. I found this theoretical seven miles to be the most difficult part of the race and was ecstatic to finally get it over with.
I was in and out of the aid station and now looking for the energy to put away the last 6.3 miles of the course. It was mentally draining to know that I had a 2.8-mile climb staring me right in the face before I could run the last 3.5 into the finish. That last section really drained me of everything but I had to push to finish. Everyone who finishes has to do this section and I would be no exception. As I went up I thought of harder climbs I made. I kept focusing on the double Hope Pass climb I made at the halfway point of Leadville in 2003. Now nothing on this course could compare to that. This ascent was on a road and I had air to breathe. What more could I ask for? I then thought of the tough climbs I made in 2002 and 2004 to the top of No Name Ridge at Cascade Crest that comes at the 75-mile mark. Again nothing here compares to that. These thoughts are what I used to motivate myself and to keep my mind occupied as my body moved forward. The hill kept going up and up but again I thought in terms of time instead of distance. I was sure that if I kept moving I would be up in less than one hour. Sure enough 51 minutes into the climb it came to an end and I was on my way down.
I could see the road that I would be travelling in the distance as it spiraled its way down the mountain. I wanted to maintain about a 10 minute per mile pace the final 3 Ĺ miles, which would get me to the finish line in 16:13. There was no point in trying to do a sprint to the finish from here, as I knew I couldnít break 16 hours even by doing so. I was very confident I could maintain a nice consistent 10-minute pace without much of a problem. I did have some concerns about the terrain I was running on. In those last few miles I faced every kind of running surface that I had run on through the entire night. There was the choppy, icy snow, the slick ice, and the packed snow. I used different running styles to safely maintain my pace through each surface. I did tip toe my way through the icy stuff because I certainly did not want to slip and hurt myself this close to the finish. There was a photographer stationed about 1-Ĺ miles from the finish line who snapped my picture as I went by. Iím going to be very interested to see those shots. Having run 60 some odd miles on a brutally cold night and day on a tough course Iím sure I wasnít very pretty looking. Anyhow he yelled out to me that the one-mile to go marker was just ahead. The course got slicker as I got closer to the finish line. I thought to myself that darn Horton is giving one last effort to take me out. I gingerly ran along on the roads and in the thicker snow so I could maintain my balance. I felt a surge of energy when I reached the marking in the road that said 1 mile to go. As David said this is the only part of the course that is accurately measured. I knew for sure that indeed I only had one more mile before the finish. Even with the surge of energy I ran a consistent pace just trying to put an end to my very long day without any serious injuries. I turned left off the road and entered Camp Bethel and then ran a few more hundred yards to finish in 16:11:14. I shook Davidís hand and told him that he put on a spectacular event on a very challenging course.
My weekend had a bittersweet ending in that I finished a race that I never intended on running in the first place but my friend had to call it a day because of injury. I made due with running alone for 40 some odd miles but I missed the fun that could have been had. In real life good friends can sometimes be hard to find but in the sport of ultrarunning Iíve found many and include Morgan amongst them. She will return, she will be strong and I guarantee you that she will have her day.
Dave BurslerBear, Delaware