Hellgate – 2007

Gaining Experience through a DNF

Don Padfield

I first got the crazy idea over Labor Day Weekend this year.  I decided that I needed a new goal to achieve in ultrarunning – something that I have never been able to do.  In the 35 ultra races I have run, I have never finished first.  

I’ve had some great races - races for which I did achieve my goal.  I ran my first ultra (Masochist) and finished. I ran my first 100 in Vermont and broke 24 hrs.  I finished the Plain 100 in Washington State (one of the most challenging 100’s with only one aid station at mile marker 55).  This year I ran Massanutten also with the goal of breaking 24hrs on a much more challenging course and finished in 22:16 and placed 5th.

 Based on these results it could be said that I have been successful in ultra running.  But as with any aspect in life, what does it mean to be successful?  For some ultrarunners, being successful is just getting to the starting line – having enough courage to tell yourself, your family, or your friends that you are going to attempt such a daunting task.  For most, I believe being successful is finishing the race.  And for a very small percentage being successful is actually winning the race.  When I signed up for Hellgate, I decided that was how I would measure my success.

 I have been running ultras for a little over four years and in that time have placed either in the top 10 or top 10% in nearly every race.  I have been very happy with this “success” but have always looked at the race results and thought, how is it that the top runner beat me by 45 minutes or 2 hours or some other incredible amount of time?  What did it take to run that much faster?  So I decided to train harder than I had ever trained before, all the while constantly thinking that my goal was to finish first at Hellgate.

 Perhaps my first mistake along the journey was actually telling Horton that I intended to win the race.  He has a way of trying to convince you that you aren’t tough enough to do something like that, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.  If I was going to try to win Hellgate, I had to tell people or else I wouldn’t be motivated enough to actually train hard for it.

 I was very excited when I told my girlfriend, Claudia, that I was going to run Hellgate and, without pausing, she agreed to crew for me.  There are few races that I have run where I believe there is an advantage of having a crew and Hellgate is one of them.  Besides, if you’re going to be miserable, why should your girlfriend, friend, or family member be left out of the fun?  Misery loves company.  Claudia had crewed for me at Massanutten and everything had worked so well for me.  I knew I couldn’t find a better crew than her for this race.

 About 6-7 weeks before the race, I had developed what I diagnosed as hip flexor pain.  It would bother me on all of my shorter runs, but I was still able to do my longer runs without a problem.  The speed work that I had been doing consistently fell by the wayside because it was too painful.  The week of Hellgate, overall, I felt healthy and ready to go.  My hip was still bothering me slightly but had been running that way for weeks so I didn’t really notice it.  Interestingly enough, when I got to Camp Bethel and was getting ready, I was unable to detect any hip pain whatsoever.  All the pain I experienced for so long was gone.  I felt like that was a sign to me that I was ready.

 We arrived at the start and assembled for a prayer and the National Anthem.  Then we were off into the darkness.  My plan from the start was to stay in the top 3.  I knew that if I were to have any chance of winning, I had to be within striking distance of the lead as daylight broke.

 I ran in second behind Keith Knipling for the entire first section.  I was feeling very good and knew there was a long climb to Petite’s Gap and the first aid station.  Along the way, I spoke to Keith and he asked if I thought we were going out too fast.  I said, “I guess we’ll find out in a few hours.”  I maintained a strong pace up the mountain – running as much as possible and power walking the rest.  I arrived at aid station two in third place, quickly switched packs, and was back on the trail.  Shortly after leaving the aid station, I moved back into second place.  Again I was feeling strong and was ready for the second long climb up to Camping Gap.  I maintained the same strategy for this climb also.  I arrived to the aid station with Serge Arbona and another runner from PA. I spoke to briefly on the long climb.  I was in and out of the aid station quickly and as I left, I met up with Aaron Schwartzbard who had decided to bypass the aid station.  We chatted for a short time and before too long he was gone out of sight.  I knew he was never too far ahead of me as I entered the following aid stations.  At AS4 he was 5 minutes ahead, at AS5 he was 7 minutes ahead and at AS6 he was 8 minutes ahead - still very much able to be caught if I was able to maintain my own pace.

 However, after leaving AS6, my entire race changed.  Although I had been eating well and felt great up to AS6, that all changed during this section.  I stopped eating and drinking much of anything.  The trail seemed to be the most difficult trail I’d ever run on.  Between the deep leaves and slanted trail, footing was extremely difficult.  While I never fell at all during the race, I felt myself constantly trying to regain my balance from tripping over rocks or roots buried under the sometimes knee deep leaves.  A few miles into this section, I developed a knee pain that only seemed to intensify as the section dragged on.  I was barely able to run and was beginning to have my first thoughts of dropping out.  Eventually I staggered up to one of the ham radio operators positioned a short distance before the aid station.  I had made it to AS7.  I entered the parking lot and spotted Claudia and heard Horton yell my name.  I walked slowly over to my car and Claudia went through the normal routine of asking me what I needed or handing me a replacement bottle.  I didn’t know what to say.  I wanted to summon the energy to say “I’m done,” but I couldn’t.  I wasn’t a quitter.  I know I said my knee was killing me and I took some ibuprofen.  Horton gave me some soup and a short pep talk about not quitting.  I took some extra time at the aid station and during that time Serge and Steve Baker came in.  That was a huge blow for me.  I figured that while I was still in second, I could continue rather strongly and maybe hold on to second or even third.  That would have been ok; I could have lived with that, but now I was going to be in 4th and that didn’t sit well with me.

 Somehow I got out of AS7 and kept going.  Serge was gone now but Steve hadn’t left the aid station yet so I managed to get ahead of him, but that didn’t last long.  He passed me at the top of the first climb.  Then it was relatively good footing on the ridge for a long way to AS8.  I was moving very slowly and quite honestly convincing myself that at AS8 I was done.  My goal at this point could not be attained and I knew it.  At some point, I decided it was better to accept defeat than to continue.  Shortly before AS8, Keith passed me.  We commiserated about how we felt.  I said to him, “Well, I guess now we know if we went out too fast, huh?”

 I arrived at AS8 and again didn’t have much to say.  I had already convinced myself that I was not going to continue.  Claudia tried to talk me out of it but there was not much she could say that would convince me otherwise.  Shortly before 10am, I went to the aid station volunteer at AS8 and said I was done. That was it.  It was so simple.  My goal of finishing first in an ultra race would have to wait for another day.

 We drove back to Camp Bethel where I was able to shower before we got on the road for our long drive home.  We were both exhausted when we finally arrived.

 Horton said to me at AS7 that I would regret it if I decided to drop.  I’ve been thinking a lot about that statement over the last day or so.  Do I regret dropping?  I don’t think so.  Had I continued on and finished in what I though would be 13-14 hrs, I still would not have accomplished what I set out to do.  So I have no regrets.

 Even in defeat, I do feel a sense of accomplishment.  I never before entered a race with the intent of winning it.  I am sure that only a handful or so registered for Hellgate and said, “I am going to win this race.”  I feel honored to be part of that select few that went for it. I gained an incredible amount of experience in the process that I will be able to take with me to future races and, maybe one day, I will be able to cross the finish line first. 

Congratulations to Aaron for his first win at Hellgate.  He’s a great runner and this win for him was long overdue.

 Thank you so much to the best crew I could ever ask for in Claudia.  She is incredibly supportive of my running and I am so grateful for that.

 Lastly, thank you very much to Dr. Horton and all the aid station and other volunteers that braved a long night.  This is such a great event and every runner knows that it is not possible to have this race without the volunteers. 

See you back at Camp Bethel on December 13, 2008!