by Bethany Patterson (aka Phat Girl)
I don’t write a lot of race reports, but I felt like I needed to share my experience this year. Well, actually Horton told me I had to write a story, so here it is.
I don’t even know where to begin. How can you describe something like Hellgate when there is no other race quite like it? Even from year to year, it takes on a new identity, and you find yourself in uncharted territory. Prior experience does not necessarily help because the conditions are so unpredictable each year. It could be snowy, cold, icy, covered in leaves or all of those put together (which is the most likely scenario). I can honestly say that Hellgate is one of the few races that actually scare me anymore. After having a rough time at the Masochist this year, I kept saying over and over that I really did not want to run Hellgate. Sophie can vouch for how adamant I was about that! My heart and mind were just not into it because I know how hard it can be.
So the week before the race this year, I found myself in a little dilemma. Part of me was excited and anxious about the race, and part of me had this feeling of dread and impending doom. I was actually considering not running and just helping out at an aid station. I could not seem to get into the right frame of mind for the race, but in the end, I did not have a good enough reason NOT to do it. So I decided to go for it regardless of how unenthusiastic I was…probably not the best mentality to have for such an epic race. I knew it would be an adventure; I knew it would be incredibly hard, and I just hoped my eyes would hold up better than they did last year when I dropped after 42 miles.
I think one of the hardest aspects of this particular race is the fact that it starts at 12:01am Friday night (or rather, Saturday morning). For me, that meant that I woke up Friday morning, worked a full day just like any other day, but with the knowledge that I would not sleep again until Saturday night! I really don’t like having to wait until midnight to start. I have never been able to sleep. Usually, I end up taking most of the time getting all my stuff together after the pre-race meeting. I think I packed the same amount of gear and clothes for Hellgate that I normally would only pack for a 100-mile race. Most years, there is always a big debate about whether to wear pants or shorts…personally, I hate wearing pants. This year was a pretty easy decision because it was so warm (for Hellgate that is); I was going with shorts. I was just anxious to get going and get the first few miles out of the way, even as my body was telling me to go to bed.
My plan this year was to start out very conservative and slow, since I did not feel like I was in shape to really race it. I just wanted to be smart so that I would be in decent shape for the second half. I wore an ankle brace on my left ankle that I had just bought a week prior to the race. I have pretty weak ankles, and have probably twisted my left ankle in just about every single race for the past two years. Knowing the leaves were going to be pretty nasty this year, I did not want to worry about my ankle the whole time. It turned out to be a good choice, because I never once came close to twisting my ankle. I had a lot more confidence running on the rocky, leafy sections of the course.
We all marched out to the start and tried to sing what vaguely sounded like the national anthem. Luckily Annette Bednosky finally jumped in to lead us in the song. I remember thinking how warm it felt at the start and before I knew it, we were off! The first few miles went by in a blur as we all jogged along just waiting to get to the stream crossing before the first aid station.
One of my favorite parts of the race is the section between aid station one and two. We come out from aid station one onto a dirt road that climbs up for about 4 miles. There is not really anything unique or special about this section, but I love jogging up the road and seeing all the headlamps snaking along behind me. It was still early enough that I felt fresh and happy to be out in the beautiful night with other like-minded fools. Out of nowhere my friend and running buddy, Ryan Henry, caught up with me, and we fell in step with a few other guys. I was glad to see him because we had talked before the start about our goals and races strategies this year, and we seemed to be on the same page. Hopefully we could join forces and help pull each other along, barring any disasters. I cannot emphasize enough how much it helps during a race like this to run with others, at least for me.
I don’t remember much about the section between aid station two and three, but I do know that I did not like it at all. I am sure I complained and whined through most of it. It was a lot more technical and had more uphill than I remember. YUCK! I was glad to get it behind me.
The next few hours flew by rather quickly as I ran with Greg Loomis, Ryan and others. We talked and basically kept our minds off of what was to come. I was thoroughly enjoying myself, running along in the middle of the night. In one section, I think between aid station 3 and 4, we run along a section of trail that is also part of the Promise Land course. It always seems magical running along this section during the early morning hours. Ryan commented that it felt more creepy than anything to him, but I like this section. You can look over to the left and see the town of Bedford twinkling down in the valley. Life is good. I feel alive and content with life. Everything seems right in the world. Can anyone see where this is heading?? All good things must come to an end. I have a running joke with Horton that every time he is involved in something, it turns out to be an adventure. Anyone who has ever tagged along on one of his training runs or crazy adventure runs knows this to be true. Well, Hellgate is no different.
The first big milestone in the race is aid station 4, Headforemost, which is at mile 21 I think. By this time, reality started to set in a little bit. We had only completed about 1/3 of the race, with the hardest sections still to come. I actually felt pretty good this year, I think mainly because I was forcing myself to keep my pace easy and relaxed. I tried to eat as much as I could at the aid stations, since I usually have a very hard time eating in the later stages of most races. I always look forward to the colder months, because it is SO much easier for me to keep food down in the winter than in the 90-degree summer heat.
Last year, my race ended at 42 miles because I had severe problems with my vision. My eyesight progressively got worse to the point where I could only see a cloudy fog ahead of me. I was basically running blind during the last trail section before Bearwallow, which also happens to be one of the rockiest, nastiest sections of the race. Aaron Schwartzbard was kind enough to keep me company during that section and help me get to the aid station unscathed. This year, I wore these wonderfully attractive glasses with clear lenses hoping to protect my eyes from the wind and cold. The glasses seemed to help for awhile, but eventually my eyes starting clouding up just like they did last year. I think I started having problems almost at the exact same point in the race as last year. I later found out that Joe Clapper was having similar problems. He unfortunately had to eventually drop because of it. I got this feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach, thinking I would have to drop out again. I did not want to make it so far only to have my eyes stop me again. I felt like crying. Funny how I went from not even wanting to run the race in the first place, to being terrified I would have to drop out. I carried some eye drops in my Nathan pack and was constantly putting drops in my eyes. I really started to notice my eyes getting worse between Headforemost and Jennings Creek (aid station 5). I had to slow down on the trail sections going into the aid station because my depth perception was really off. I could not distinguish between the rocks and leaves very well, which caused me to be very tentative running downhill. The only way I can describe it is to compare it to someone with very bad vision trying to run without their glasses or contacts. My vision just got more blurry and cloudy as time went on. Usually the only thing that helps once my eyes get to this point is to stop running and give my eyes time to recover. Things usually clear up after a few hours, which is no help halfway through Hellgate. I mentioned to Ryan Henry several times that I would keep going until I was force to stop, but in my heart I did not think I could make it to the end. I was pleasantly surprised to see my running buddy and Montrail teammate, Sarah “Space” Johnston at the Jennings Creek aid station. She ran a phenomenal race at Hellgate last year, but was not running this time around. I got an emotional boost from seeing her smiling face rooting me on. Leaving the aid station we climbed up yet another long road section. I tried running with one eye closed at a time, trying to clear up the cloudiness. My mind was on the section between aid station 6 and 7, which is where I had to drop out last year. I was torn between stopping before things got really bad, or trying tough it out and hope that my eyes did not get worse.
So the moment of truth was upon me and I had to make a decision at Little Cove Mountain (aid station 6). Did I go on and risk the possibility of stumbling through the worst section of the course basically blind?? I decided to go on because I could not stomach the thought of stopping just yet. Out I went from the aid station thinking I was being really stupid to do this, knowing my vision would probably only get worse…and it did. The next section heading to Bearwallow really sucks plain and simple. Even with perfect eyesight, this section is nasty and long. I have never run through this part of the course and thought, “boy, that wasn’t so bad this time!” It is NEVER fun! I really had to slow down here and take my time. I was trying to make it through without falling and breaking something. I knew it was only a matter of time before I was passed by another woman. I had no idea where anyone was in the race, but I had been the second female since the start. I started looking behind me expecting to see someone coming up behind me. Eventually it did happen, and Sophie caught up to me just before the last nasty, rocky section heading to the aid station. Even though I knew it was bound to happen, it was still disheartening to get passed. On the other hand, I was genuinely happy to see Sophie running well. I tried to keep up with her for awhile so that I would not be alone again. Right before we took a sharp left onto the “devil trail” as Sophie calls it, I told her I was dropping at Bearwallow. She made a comment that I could always stay on the fire road down to the aid station and skip the nasty trail part. I had already thought about it. It seemed stupid to do the leafy section when I was going to drop anyway. But when we came to the turn, I just could not do it. I still thought I was dropping, but I have been corrupted enough by Horton, that I just could not take the easy way no matter what. Thanks a lot, Horty! And then a funny thing happened as I slowly walked through the leaves and rocks…I got MAD. I suddenly got really angry and determined not to quit. I don’t know that I have ever quite felt like that in a race before. I eventually made it to the Bearwallow aid station, and decided to go on without much hesitation. My eyes had gotten a little better, I think in part because I was moving so slowly.
So out I went from the aid station with renewed determination. I knew there was a fair amount of road in the last 20+ miles of the race. I could see well enough to run those sections and I could go uphill just fine, so I simply had to make it through the trail sections. Then I hit my all-time low in the race. This section heading to Bobblet’s Gap seemed to go on, and on, and on, and on. I guess I have not run this part of the course much in the past, and I had forgotten how far it was. The trail just kept going around the side of the mountain about 800 times. If you look over to the right I think you can see a mountain called Purgatory, which Horton always delights in pointing out. Very fitting in my opinion, although I could care less at this point what was around me. I just wanted to get to Bobblet’s. I did not eat enough at Bearwallow, and was just in a funk through this whole section. Finally, a million hours and some whining later, I made it to Bobblet’s Gap. I was not in a good mood at all, but the aid station crew cheered me up immediately. Seeing all their smiling faces boosted my spirits. Rosie, all I can say is that you are awesome! Now, there was only one more aid station to go before the finish. I had finally made it to the dreaded “forever section” of the race.
I was mentally prepared for this section, having run it several times before on training runs. I basically just tried to keep my mind from wondering how far I had to go in this section. I knew it would feel like forever, and boy, did it ever! I got passed by Rebekah Trittipoe and Kerry Owens somewhere in the trail section. My goal now shifted to staying in 5th place for women and not getting passed anymore. I was pretty pitiful by this point. I just trudged along…slowly…and waited for time to pass. Finally I saw a woman running back towards us on the trail, probably to meet a runner. I made the mistake of asking how far we had to go. She said, “Oh, I think only about 30 minutes or so”. I could have cried right then. When will this dumb trail ever end? I finally came out to the last aid station, with about 6 miles to go to the finish. I think I looked pretty bad, or maybe Mike Zealand looked at all the runners with a look of concern when they stumbled up to the aid station. I downed some Coke, choked down some food and was off. The finish was just on the other side of the mountain. I was going to make it. I could feel tears welling up just thinking about how close I had come to dropping back at mile 42.
Luckily I started to feel pretty good hiking up the 3 miles to the top of the mountain. I felt like I was moving much better since getting off the trails. My eyesight had stayed pretty much the same since that morning, and no women were in sight behind me. I was going to finish, and I was determined not to get passed by anyone else. I came to the top of the road and started flying (relatively speaking) down the hill. I actually passed a few guys, which I must admit felt pretty good. I crossed the mark on the road for the last mile. Every muscle hurt. This was it! The finish line came into view, and I tried to look happy as I crossed the finish line, but I could not stop the tears from falling. Horton gave me a congratulatory hug as the other runners cheered me on. I could not believe that I had actually made it. It had been a long time since I had worked so hard to finish a race. My time was not fast, but I was content.
Now, reflecting on the whole experience, I can honestly say that it was one of the most special races I have done so far. There really is something magical and intangible about Hellgate. I am more proud of my run this year than I might have been had I won the race. I guess that is why we keep coming back year after year. See you guys in 2008!