|Some races are isolated events, connected to nothing.
Some races are
connected to a bigger history. Hellgate, for me, is a race with a
history. My history with the race goes like this:
2003 - David Horton announced this new race. 12:01am start time,
middle of December, 100K(++) of tough trails... I decided to do it
because I had nothing else going on in December, and if it turned out
to be a cool event, I'd regret not having been there. Before the
event, based on the entry list, I thought I might have a shot at
winning it. But at the pre-race check-in, a couple guys who are out of
my league showed up. Yet somehow, early in the race, I ended up ahead
of them. For 40 miles, I ran as hard as I could, with one eye on the
trail, and one eye over my shoulder. Then, 10 miles from the finish,
an unknown runner, Ryan Cooper from Boulder, CO, passed me like I was
standing still on a climb. I was disappointed, and had a hard time
convincing my legs to hold on for another 10 miles. I didn't want to
get passed again. I finished in 13 hours for second place.
2004 - Time to try again. Sean Andrish was clearly the favorite. But
in a long, hard race like Hellgate, anything can happen. He could have
a bad day, I could have a good day! Early in the race, he pulled away
from me on a downhill, and I didn't see him again. I made it a point
not to ask at the aid stations how far ahead he was. My plan was that
I would imagine that he's just out of sight ahead of me. Then, I'd ask
the volunteers at the last aid station how far ahead he was, and
they'd say, "He just left two minutes ago! If you hurry, you can catch
him!" And I'd want it more, so I'd hurry, and I'd catch him! I ran as
hard as I could, and I got to the last aid station, exhausted. I asked
when Sean had come through. "Oh," they told me, "about an hour and a
half ago. He probably finished just a few minutes ago!" *sigh* And as
disappointing as that was, near the top of the last climb, just over
three miles from the finish, I realized that Keith Knipling was behind
me, within spitting distance. No only did I have no chance to catch
Sean, but I had to work to stay ahead of Keith. I finished in 12:45
for second place.
2005 - During a winter race in the Blue Ridge mountains, you're likely
to come across some ice. This year was unique in that there was little
OTHER than ice. During the 20 meter walk from my car to race
registration, I almost injured myself. Twice. This would become known
as The Ice Year. Me, I had run a marathon PR three weeks earlier, and
my legs were still feeling it. I hoped that when the race started,
everything would come together, and I would be able to run. I also
hoped that I would win the lottery, discover a cure for cancer and end
hunger. None of those happened. Instead I struggled through the race,
never quite feeling good. I finished in 14:35 for eighth place.
2006 - By this point, I had come to terms with my inability to run a
mountain trail ultramarathon well if I had only trained for road
marathons. At registration, when Horton asked, "YOU GONNA GET THAT
WINNER'S JACKET THIS YEAR?" I told him that I had given up on winning.
I was going for a 10-year finisher's jacket. I didn't expect to have a
great race, but I didn't expect a terrible race either. From the
start, while the spirit was strong, neither the legs nor the stomach
was willing. I struggled through extremely cold temperatures and harsh
wind. After 20 miles, I decided that I'd just do my best to enjoy the
rest of the day. I took advantage of all the aid stations had to
offer. While I normally just fill my bottles and go, this year, I was
having soup, hot chocolate, scrambled eggs. I spent time running with
Ryan Henry and Bethany Patterson, and when Bethany's vision started to
deteriorate due to the cold and wind, I walked with her to the next
aid station over some tricky trail that can be hazardous even to the
fully sighted. I caught up to Kevin Bligan, who had his own problem in
the form of a knee cap he had cracked several weeks prior. He kept me
motivated through the long section near the end that has become known
as The Forever Section. I enjoyed a much more social race, but I was
hours slower than my best time. I finished in 16:10 for 31st place.
Which brings us to 2007. I had spent the Summer and Fall training for
road marathons. My training had been rather similar to 2006. Despite
not achieving my main marathon goal in the Fall, I had been running
well. A few weeks before the race, I joined Horton and several other
runners for a training run on the first 23 miles of the course. During
that run, between what I said and how I ran, Horton got the silly
notion that I'd do well at Hellgate this year. I tried to persuade him
that I can run just fine for about two and a half hours, but after
that, the smart money is on someone else. I told him, I got no skillz
on hillz! To all of which, he responded, "The runner doth protest too
The week before the race, Mike Schuester asked if I would try to stay
at the front at the beginning. I have had a wide variety of
experiences with this race. I wasn't running to prove anything or to
win anything. In the beginning, several years ago, it was a race. But
as the front of the race grew ever farther from my grasp, it became
something else. It was an anchor in my year. It's a reset button. By
December, life is so busy, and my mind is so cluttered that I struggle
to fit 24 hours into a day. Then I start running south from the north
end of the Glenwood Horse Trail one night, and --- maybe because the
task itself is so difficult --- by the time I get to the other end of
the trail, everything else seems easy. From adversity comes clarity. I
was returning to this race for a fifth time for that clarity.
I would be running for me. I wasn't planning on doing anything based
on the leaders. I had been able to run 13 hours the first year of the
race. I felt I should be able to do that again. That's what I told
Mike. I told him that I would run however I felt. It seemed that 13
hours was reasonable. But there were a lot of strong runners on the
entry list. Thirteen hours should be good enough for a top 10 finish.
"But," I told him, "someone is going to win this race in eleven and a
A couple days before the race, Horton sent out the final entry list
--- the one with race numbers listed. David Horton is not shy about
sharing his opinion, and David Horton loves the competition of
ultramarathons in the same way that some people love pro football.
Thus, whereas some race directors avoid the possible discomfort of
letting their race favorites be known, Horton always seeds his races.
And at the top of his list, next to race #1, was my name. Clearly, I
failed to impress upon him exactly HOW MUCH I wasn't planning on
I've done races where I've surprised everyone by exceeding their
expectations. I've also done races where I've surprised everyone by
failing to live up to their expectations. This race was going to be of
the latter variety. But that's okay. If I hadn't learned not to worry
about the expectations of other people, I would have stopped racing
After the pre-race dinner, the course briefing and a bit of down-time,
I rode with Keith Knipling, Mike, Jen and Nancy (who would be crewing
for Mike) and Bryan Banning (a fellow racer who Mike had met at
dinner, and who needed a ride) to the start. Unlike most years, the
start was warm --- in the 40s. Usually, waiting for the race to start,
standing around in running clothes when the temperature is in the 20s
or teens, is a painful experience.
At 12:01am, I started running. And I felt... Well, fine. Some people
were running faster, but I had no desire to try to keep up with them.
I was content jogging at my pace. I was content to be jogging at all.
Earlier, at dinner, when I saw Annette Bednosky, she said, "I am SO
happy to be here! There is NO PLACE in the world I would rather be
right now!" Being from the greater Washington, DC, metropolitan area,
where we don't readily express such sincere cheeriness and enthusiasm,
I wasn't sure how to take that. I stuttered for a moment before asking
if she was being sincere or sarcastic. She was being sincere. And
while I didn't share that exact sentiment as we sat in the dining hall
of a camp somewhere off the grid near Fincastle, VA, when I started
running, everything sort of clicked into place.
During the first 13 miles, I had some interaction with other runners.
Keith and Don pulled ahead at the beginning. I seemed to be running at
about the same pace as Serge. I said hello to Robert in the first
couple miles. Mike and Alex caught up, and went by. Serge and I
leapfrogged each other for a while. Mike and Alex came back. Keith and
Don came back. Serge dropped back a little.
Then I was alone.
Four years prior, in the first Hellgate, it was at almost exactly the
same point in the race, just after the third aid station, Camping Gap,
13 miles into the race, when I found myself alone in the lead. There
was a thin blanket of snow on the ground, which turned the mountains
to silver in the light of the full moon. On that night, I decided that
I would try to get out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind. I turned
off my flashlight, and ran by moon light. I wanted to win, so I ran
hard. I only needed to stay in front of everybody else. And my plan
worked. It worked, until it didn't anymore, 40 miles later when, after
running harder for longer than I thought I could, I was passed.
But in 2007, there was no moon. There was no snow. Yet there I was, at
the front of the race once again after 13 miles. There are no do-overs
in life; you make your choice, and you move on. Sure. But to be at
that point, in that position, in those conditions... If ever there was
a do-over, this was it. The race in 2003 was bittersweet for me. I
enjoyed so much about the race, yet I came away with a sense of
disappointment. I suppose I felt that I had something to prove --- to
myself, and to everybody else. If Ryan Cooper hadn't shown up that
day, I would have won, and I wouldn't have felt that disappointment.
But he did, so I didn't. Yet I had no control over his race schedule.
Life becomes unnecessarily complicated when we use the wrong metrics.
In 2003, for 40 miles, I measured how well I was running against how
fast I thought Clark Zealand and Courtney Campbell might be running.
After that, I measured my success against Ryan's. Running down that
grassy road by the light of my flashlight in 2007, it all seemed so
clear: none of that mattered. I was having one of those rare runs when
almost everything seemed easy. And the things that didn't seem easy
felt difficult in a deeply satisfying way, as if I were stretching
after a long nap. To throw away that sort of run by measuring it
against a hypothesis of what other people might be doing or feeling at
some given moment would be a tragic waste. In 2007, the only thing I
had to prove was that I had nothing to prove.
I ran my own race. I did look over my shoulder occasionally, and I
wondered how far back the next runner was. But I was comfortable
because I knew that I was running my own race. It didn't matter if,
when I looked back, there was anyone there or not. Either way, I would
continue to run exactly as I had been running: steady, controlled,
The fourth aid station is normally at the top of Headforemost
Mountain. Due to a closure of the Blue Ridge Parkway (due, in turn, to
ice), the aid station was at the bottom of the mountain in 2007. A
volunteer at the aid station asked how much time I had on the next
runner. That's the million dollar question! As I left the aid station,
and started the climb up the mountain, I listened. When I arrived at
the aid station, the volunteers cheered. It was two or three minutes
after I left before I heard the next cheer.
I looked at my watch for the first time at the top of the mountain,
when I passed the normal location of the aid station. It was around
3:50am. The actual distance of the race is 66 miles. The actual
distance of that point in the race is a little under 24 miles. My
previous best time on the course had been 12:45, and I had never
gotten to Headforemost Mountain feeling as good as I did this year.
I believe that a big part of the problem I've had with long, difficult
races in the past is that I wouldn't eat enough. I definitely wouldn't
eat enough at night. I can go pretty far on limited food. Although I
might be fine if I run for three hours without any food, I won't do so
well if I have another 10 hours to run after that. Sometimes, it's too
much of a hassle to eat. That's particularly true when running at
night, and you're on trails, trying to keep the rubber side down.
Whether bombing down a hill, or grinding up a hill, dividing your
focus to retrieving and consuming calories ruins the rhythm. But it
has to happen. It's gotta, gotta, gotta happen. Sure, it might ruin
the rhythm for a few moments to retrieve and consume some calories,
but if you put it off, if you skip eating and let yourself fall into
deep caloric debt, that rhythm gets taken off the shelf, thrown on the
floor and stomped on until it's in a thousand tiny pieces, and all the
king's horses and all the king's men could not put it back together
I had a new pack on. It had compartments in the front, for easy
access. I bought it specifically for this race. I needed to minimize
the number of barriers between me and food. I used the pack for a
couple months, trying different foods that would survive a long run in
the pack, and would be easy to consume. Even during the day, I
practiced keeping my eyes on the trail (as I would have to do at
night, when I would only be able to see the small circle illuminated
by my flashlight) while using one hand (since the other hand would be
holding a flashlight) to unzip a compartment, get some food, put it in
my mouth, and close the compartment again. The plan was to start with
enough food and high calorie drink to get me to Headforemost Mountain,
then, I would restock with the contents of my drop bag. That would be
enough to get me through the next third of the race, to aid station 7,
Bearwallow Gap. Then I'd restock again, for the final third. Of all
the years I had done this race, I felt that this year, I had arrived
at my best laid plan.
It was at Headforemost Mountain where the plan went awry. Aside from
not being able to position the aid station in the normal place, the
race was not able to deliver the drop bags to the aid station. So at
that aid station, and the next, and the one after that, I had to be
very deliberate. When I arrived at the fifth aid station, Jennings
Creek, I took my time to make sure that I had everything I needed
before continuing onward. As I approached, I had to focus. I was not
sleepy or fatigued, so there was no reason for me to waste any time
doing anything that would not move me forward. But I no longer had the
luxury of operating on an established plan, so I could not afford to
rush the process and make clumsy mistakes.
I got food, drink, I had some soup, and I took inventory several
times. Then I marched back into the darkness. Climbing out of the
valley, I listened once again for the cheers from the aid station.
After about five minutes, it came. The gap was increasing, but ever so
The sixth aid station is at Little Cove Mountain. I had never reached
Little Cove Mountain before sunrise. In my best years, I have reached
the aid station just after sunrise. And as the sun rises at Little
Cove Mountain, I feel like I have survived --- as if the rest of the
race is a minor detail. But that's not really true at all. In reality,
Little Cove Mountain is barely past the half-way point on the course.
The remaining 31 miles has less climbing, but more technical trails
than the first 35 miles of the course. So depending on who you ask,
the second half is either easier or harder. Either way, I've never
needed a flashlight for any of it. This year, I would need it for
another 45 minutes.
Beyond aid station 6, before the trail turns back into gnarly,
off-camber, rocky, leaf-covered, single track trail, there is a long,
grassy road. As I ran on that road, I thought back again to 2003. I
remembered feeling spent. I remembered willing myself to run, for fear
that otherwise, I'd be caught. I remembered slowing to a walk during
any of the few slight inclines. But on this day, in 2007, it was still
"This is how it should be," I thought. Every amateur athlete --- every
athlete who runs despite the greater responsibilities of life rather
than to meet the greater responsibilities of life --- faces the same
question at some point: why do it? There are many answers to that
question. To see how far I can push myself. To prove that I can do it.
So I can eat whatever I want. Because I had nothing else to do just
To me, that's just post hoc rationalization. Maybe not entirely, but
those reasons that we share with acquaintances over cocktails at
holiday parties only skim the edges of our reasoning. Fish gotta swim,
birds gotta fly. We humans, we gotta create. The need to create ---
the need to expend energy to bring something into existence even if it
has no benefit to our own survival --- that makes us human. And, quite
possibly, that made us human. A dancer or painter appeals to some
innate, visual aesthetic. A mathematician manipulates higher order
logic to bring forth new equations that demonstrate the elegance, the
simplicity, of the universe. Even the corporate executive who
continues to work despite having made his fortune --- even he creates
when he balances economic theory with corporate law (or not) to
strengthen his position in the marketplace.
Just as the painter, dancer, mathematician or corporate executive
creates, so does the runner. But while the painter, dancer,
mathematician or corporate executive feel both the joy of meeting the
human need to create, and the pleasure of seeing some final product,
the runner only has the former.
Somehow, even as we are fortunate enough as creatures to be able to
derive joy from activities that are intentional, yet do not contribute
to our immediate survival, we still judge our successes by external
factors. Even the painter, after he paints his chef d'oeuvre, might
judge his success by his assessment of how the paint lays on the
canvas after he is done, rather than by the transcendent satisfaction
he felt while painting it. Yet without that satisfaction --- with only
judgment on the final product --- there would be nothing driving him
So at those cocktail parties, the reasons that come out for running
long distances in the woods tend toward values that are meaningful
after the fact. But as I ran down that grassy road, a little more than
half way through the race, a few minutes before sunrise, what drove me
forward had nothing to do with pushing myself to new heights or being
able to eat more pie the following week. What drove me forward was the
transcendent satisfaction of creating my experience. There would be no
tangible product of the experience. (There would be some race schwag.
But that's not a product of the experience in the most literal sense.
It's merely peripheral to the experience.) As soon as I would finish,
there would be nothing but sore muscles. Yet the satisfaction of the
moment was enough. "This is how it should be," I thought.
At Bearwallow Gap, the seventh aid station, I finally saw my drop bag.
I was back on plan. Again, I moved through the aid station
deliberately, moving as fast as I could, without risking carelessness.
Every year, before the race, I believe that I'm going to run
conservatively to Bearwallow Gap, then push myself through the final
third of the race. And every year, by the time I reach Bearwallow Gap,
it is all I can do not to curl up in a little ball on the side of the
trail, shaking with dread of the climb out of the gap to the next
ridge. This year was the first year that that was not the case. I was
ready, finally, to push myself, to start racing in earnest. Jen and
Nancy were there, as was Horton. I asked what kind of lead I had at
the previous aid station. They estimated somewhere around 10 minutes.
I was still being chased, and I could still be caught, but the gap was
moving in the right direction (from where I stood).
Ten miles later, on a climb that came early in "The Forever Section,"
I felt like there was someone behind me. I turned around, and there
was no one there. A few moments later, again I turned, and again,
there was no one. This was where, four years prior, after running in
the lead for 40 miles, I was passed. I had been hiking up the hill,
and suddenly, there was someone behind me. Moments later, he was ahead
of me. An entirely unspectacular moment out of context --- "Good job,"
I said. "You too," he replied as he moved past. --- but one that was
so emotional that years later, I cannot pass the same spot without
experiencing sharp, visceral recall.
The truth is that I still wanted to win. I'm a different person in
2007 than I was in 2003. My view of what draws me the trails and to
races is more whole. However I run, and however anyone else runs, the
experience of running this race informs who I am. Whether I finish in
12:45 for second place, as I did in 2004, or 16:10 for 31st place, as
I did in 2006, the experience contributes to who I am. So to try to
resent any of those experiences is to resent a part of myself. I had
been running well since midnight, and with relatively few miles
between me and the finish, it was all but certain that I would run
well for the rest of the race. I cannot recall a race that felt so
effortless and right. Knowing all of that, if someone could catch me
and pass me, then that person deserves to win.
None of that is incompatible with my own desire to win. It's separate
from what motivates me to run, but it is just as real. I had entered
new territory; I had never been in the lead at this point in the race.
Someone behind me could have reached Bearwallow Gap feeling even
better than I felt. With more than 20 miles between there and the
finish, a 10 minute cushion is not a lot. I had reached Bobblet's Gap,
the eighth aid station ahead of anyone who could give me an update on
the standings, and the same would probably be the case at the final
aid station, aid station 9, Day Creek. The only way to run would be to
assume that I was loosing ground.
I pushed through to Day Creek, and I beat the aid station to the aid
station. A ham radio operator had arrived early, and he was able to
fill one of my bottles with some water he had in his thermos. I took
that as a good omen --- I got everything I needed, but I was ahead of
everybody's schedule. As I hiked and ran up the final three mile
climb, I started to let myself think that it could happen. Even if
someone else is stronger on trails, I have top-end speed on my side.
If someone passes me on the climb, I have a three mile descent to the
finish to make it up. I still worked to stay in front, but the closer
I got to the top, the more I felt the race was mine.
I crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway, at the top of the climb, in the
lead, still with no one in sight behind me. I started the final
descent --- slowly, at first, as my legs adapted to the downhill. Then
faster and faster. I saw the photographer, and I knew I was
approaching the final mile. I saw Horton, who had come out to see me
near the end. I saw the marker that Horton had placed to indicate one
mile to go. Every year, he wheels and marks the final mile. It's
slightly downhill on a dirt road, with a little incline in the last
quarter mile to the finish line. It's the place to test what you have
left. Horton yelled, "You have seven minutes and forty second to break
11:30!" A 7:40 downhill mile was no problem. I just opened up and let
gravity pull me in.
I crossed the finish line in 11:28:13. First place. I had nothing
left. It was all I could do to brace my fall as I crumpled to the
ground two feet beyond the line. Horton immediately grabbed my arm and
pulled me to my feet. "No, no, no... You don't want to do that," he
told me. I was too overwhelmed to be able to say anything. I could
hardly stand up. The world was spinning. I couldn't talk. I felt
wonderful. Horton was excited for me. "He's only been trying to win
this for three years!" Horton announced to the small group of people
who happened to be gathered.
I tried to correct him, but the words wouldn't come out. I shook my
head and took a hand off my knee, and held it open, with all fingers
"Oh RIGHT! Five years!" He laughed. "Tell me, Aaron, out of all the
races you've run, out of all the events you've completed, tell me...
What you just did here... If you were to rank it... How special is
that to you?"
Again, I tried, but the words wouldn't come out. But again, it was
easy enough to say what I wanted to say. I held up my hand again, this
time, with only one finger extended.
"Yup," Horton said, "that's it. Right there."