Reflections on the Hellgate Experience
By Tonya Olson
The race was weeks ago, yet I am still struggling to put the experience into words. So much happened to me out there that it has been daunting to condense the experience into a brief race report. Nonetheless, this is the story of my first Hellgate.
Unlike many of the other runners, I did not spend the year preparing for the challenge of running 100k in the Blue Ridge Mountains in December. In fact, I had spent most of my life not being able to comprehend just why a person would ever want to run that far. Through running Mt. Masochist as my first ultra, I met an incredible group of people who impressed me with the way they seemed to ask for more in life than to simply exist, I signed up for Hellgate to return to their world. I needed a place of retreat where people said “why not?” instead of “you can’t”. I ran to the mountain seeking to sort myself from the rubble of a mis-directed life; I was not disappointed. Running Mt. Masochist showed me that my body could handle distance, while Hellgate taught me about trust, the power of choices and the resiliency of spirit.
The start of the race scared me. It was dark, we had a long way to go ahead of us and it felt like we were running too fast. Thankfully, I was running with Rebekah Trittipoe, a friend whose judgment and advice I could trust and rely on in the miles to come. She was sacrificing her race to stay with me, as she is both fast and talented and should have left me at the start. She assured me that we wouldn’t keep up the quick pace for long, as up ahead the course wouldn’t allow it and that we needed to make time while we could. She was right. I had prepared for the distance of Hellgate…my mind could not have conjured up the challenges that the icy footing presented. At one point before dawn, we’d left an aid station laden with soup and goodies in preparation for a 2 mile walk up a hill and all I could hear were the sounds of people falling. “Ugggh! You okay man?” “Dang, I lost my soup”, “Uff, that’s going to leave a mark!”, after three of us went down like dominoes, we agreed to not turn around to check on each other, if anyone was hurt they’d need to say so. I marveled at the different styles of falling displayed; some runners were able to fall in a controlled manner, others flopped to terra firma with startling quickness, landing before they knew they were falling. I was one of the latter, at one point proclaiming “I think I broke my radial head!” as I landed. Rebekah turned to me and said (lovingly) “Well, you don’t run on your elbow-get up”. We were both right.
The sudden fall and painful wrenching of my elbow was as surprising in action as was my reaction. As I lay on the icy road clutching my cup of soup, the myriad of questions which had been bombarding my mind during the training and running of the race were all answered with my choice to stand up and continue. Nothing else mattered, the insecurities that had been the sources of doubt “Whether or not I would finish, was I strong enough, would my body hold up, do I belong out here?” all questions were answered by the simple decision to stand up and run on. As I took my first tentative steps, I fell inextricably in love with running long hard races in the woods. Like, Thoreau’s “The Road Not Taken”, that choice made all the difference. I loved Rebekah for reminding me of the necessity to get up and continue and for not feeling sorry for me. She showed me through words and actions that on the trails, you take what the day offers, without complaining; which is a fitting metaphor for the life that I seek to live.
The darkest point for me was just before dawn and the section before the first cut-off point. I was struggling to keep up with Rebekah aka. “Twinkle toes” Trittipoe. As she danced down the trail ahead of me, I flailed behind, disheartened, dispirited and marveling at the athleticism of those ahead of me. I tried everything I could think of to maneuver on the ankle twisting ice “boulders” more effectively; changing my center of gravity, foot placement, speed, concentration, breathing…ultimately concluding that I was not and never would be able to claim mountain goats as my predecessors and should be thankful for every moment that day I managed to stay vertical. As the sun rose, the mountain revealed herself not as an enemy but an ally; because just as the footing became too tedious to handle, she offered refuge in a new challenge. Each type of terrain was inspiring itself and fostered appreciation for what had been left behind or what loomed ahead. Downhill single track kept me awake, alert and warmed my toes, up-hills let me move ahead a bit without fear of falling and the icy roads heightened my skill for and appreciation of falling and landing safely.
The darkest may have been before dawn, but hope and inspiration were conferred in the form of eggs and sausage! Somewhere after dawn and between woods and icy roads, an aid station appeared and Dr. Horton was on hand with a crew of angels to make sure that we were fed both physically and emotionally in preparation for the miles ahead. A quick hug and some kind words replenished my spirit; I said a quick prayer of thanks for all of those who braved the weather to man the aid stations. I can’t thank enough those courageous souls who endured the cold and kept us supplied and encouraged on our journey!
At some point, my legs began to simply not respond to my pleas to get moving. Rebekah suggested that we pray and said something intelligent and heartfelt, I’m sure. I couldn’t hear past the din of my labored breathing and crunching footsteps so, closed with my own personal prayer that maybe a bear could leap from the woods and coax some speed out of my unresponsive legs. I began to cry as I ran downhill trying to catch up, wracked with guilt that I was holding Rebekah back and fear that I would fall and break the other elbow. I sobbed past a man in yellow, caught up with Rebekah and we soldiered on. She let me run ahead, perhaps to quell my hysterics. As we climbed the hill, tears streamed silently down my face, I felt empty, spent and alone. But I was not finished. The course, the conditions, the effort of the day had broken me, my integrity-my understanding of who I was and what I could handle had been shattered. Before the race began, I had thought that I might be able to finish the race, but not without a fair amount of pain, despair and hopelessness. Now, late in the race I was tired sure, but had never felt hopeless or doubted whether I would finish. I had been comforted by an inner sense of calm and confidence that was inexplicable given my inexperience. Through the tough parts of the race, I trusted those who had encouraged me to run the race. How could I doubt myself if people such as Rebekah and David Horton thought I could handle the challenge? .
Fittingly, the last three miles were downhill on glare ice and although I was physically ready to be done, the profound emotional impact had taken its toll, I felt numb both physically and emotionally, the day had been too overwhelming to understand. All I knew as I ran down the hill to the finish was that I would never be the same and that the race would not be over until I had been hugged by Horton. As Rebekah and I approached the finish line hand in hand, tears of joy, relief and regret fell. Joy over the accomplishment, relief of being finished and regret over not finishing sooner…most of all though, I was overwhelmed with gratefulness for the people I’d met, the experience of Hellgate, and appreciation for the mountains which had hosted the event.
“Fall down seven times-stand up eight.”