You gotta be kidding…

 

Yes.  Those were my exact words at Aid Station 8.  The number-taking guy was sitting in his chair at the top of what seemed a long mile climb.  As I cheerfully said “61” to make sure he took down the proper number, he looked up and stated rather matter-of-factly, “You’re the fourth woman through here.”  WHAT?!?!  Surely, he was jerking my chain.  I couldn’t remember the last time that I was in the hunt near the front of the pack.  As I shook my head in disbelief and continued the fifty yards to the aid station, Dr. George Wortley walked toward me and said, “ Bethany is only about five minutes in front of you.”  Again, I could not wrap my race-warped mind around what he was telling me.  The closest I’ve ever gotten to Bethany is in the first quarter mile of a race before she takes off like a rocket.  The whole day continued to be a mystery to me.

“Back in the day”, I used to know what it was like to be racing near the front.  But, for a myriad of reasons, those memories faded long ago.  Every race for the last five or six years has been less than optimal.  If it wasn’t a physical issue, it was a time-management problem with work and travel and the inability to train.  Sometimes – and even in the last couple of weeks – I was hard pressed to run five or six miles on easy roads without having to take multiple walk breaks when my heart rate skyrocketed and my arms and legs felt like they were going to fall off.  I began to wonder if I was having some big, bad heart problem.  After all, Charlie Hesse had been experiencing similar problems and he just found out he has an appointment in January with a cardiac surgeon in a sterile operating room. 

I had committed months ago to running Hellgate for yet another completion of the Horton Slam.  It is an awfully hard race that put an end to my streak in 2006.  I had run the first three in the allotted time but failed to finish last year when turning blue and having breathing difficulties got the best of me.  For the most part, the mystery condition that had plagued me since 2001 has gotten pushed behind me thanks to nutritional support in the form of Juice Plus. However, it didn’t make me any faster.  Even group training runs that were supposed to be “slow” ended up to be a solo run for me because everyone ran away.  I hope it wasn’t anything personal!  I ran the Masochist without any major problems but posted a time nearly an hour and a half slower than my best.  If the slow down was because I hit the half-century age mark back in February, I convinced myself to be content with whatever I could do.  Even a slow run is better than no run.

Several weeks back, I got a call from Tracy Boyer, a multimedia author for the Roanoke Times.  She explained that she was interested in doing a story on Hellgate and had noticed my name as a finisher each of the years other than last.  Would I be interested in being the story line in the race coverage this year?  Well, I must say I was humbled but figured that the human interest side was following some old lady in her trek through the woods.  I agreed.

What ensued in the following weeks was a series of experiences that served me well as motivation to train and focus as much as possible on Hellgate.  The comprehensive story that Tracy had in mind, including race coverage, would be pretty dismal if I dropped out.  I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with Tracy, a bright and enthusiastic young professional, as we ran roads together, completed video interviews and even took a field trip to some mountain trails for more video and, yes, Tracy ’s first long run.  Additional time spent on Terrapin Mountain with photographer, Josh Meltzer, added to my excitement about this year’s race.

Now, cut to the race itself.  I had prepared as best as I could and was excited that I would have the added motivation of video and still cameras following my every move.  It was also nice to have Gary, my husband, and Seth, my 16 year old, along for the ride.  Though both had been to a lot of races, Hellgate never really captured their attention enough to want to spend a long night on blustery mountain tops and in the depths of frigid valleys.

With warmer than normal temperatures, the start did not seems as ominous as previous years.   Off we went and for once, I didn’t feel totally winded by the time I reached the first aid station (AS 1).  The climb up to Petites felt okay with intermittent walking and running, arriving at the next aid station with a smile on my face.  Although Gary informed me that AS 4 may not be there due to a closed Blue Ridge Parkway gate, I resupplied and started down the mountain.  Approaching AS 3, I continued to run alone and was content to do so, but started to feel a little sleepy.  Refueling at 3, being told that AS 4 was going to be two miles closer than normal and picking up company for the long climb up the next mountain revived me considerably.  I got to AS 4 happy to be alive.

As AS 5 drew nearer, I noticed that it was still dark.  I had totally abandoned wearing watches over the last years since they never told me anything good!  Thus, coming into Jennings Creek in the dark was a novel experience.  I began to wonder if I was doing pretty well time wise.  I was surprised at how well I felt but had absolutely no illusions of running faster than other years.  I was excited to see my local running buddies manning the aid station, took in some soup, grabbed two peanut M&Ms, handed Gary my pack to fill and started walking down the road with Tracy , her camera and furry little microphone.  Soon, my now-filled pack caught up with me via “Space”, (Sarah Johnson) and I bid my farewell to Tracy .  Unfortunately, it was at that point that I realized I had taken far too little food for the long climb.  “That was a mistake”, I told Tracy .

Sure enough, I started to bonk and fall asleep.  I even resorted to closing my eyes and walking until the sound of my feet changed as I began to walk off the side of the road.  Lots of people passed me and I knew I had to do something.  Out came a caffeine tablet, 2 Fig Newtons and 1 pack of Vanilla Cliff Shot.  By the time I reached the top, I was feeling better and started to catch people again.  I remember thinking that my legs were feeling good, my breathing was under control, nothing hurt.  What was up with that?

Little Cove Mountain (AS 6) was sort of fun since Space and other LU kids were there.  I was so pleased that I could start this section that was always so difficult.  The single track in this section was horrendous in terms of knee deep leaves, off camber trail and tons of hidden rocks to negotiate.  But, I kept passing people.  It was all very, very strange.  Still, thoughts of being even in the top ten women never entered my mind until Kerry Owens from Washington DC started speculating about our position. Hum. Interesting.  But, I did what I could to suppress my growing excitement.  There is no way it could all be true.

Bearwallow Gap (AS 7) was also entertaining with lots of people I knew standing around.  I took half a hamburger, a first for me, drink, stuffed other treats in my pockets, much like a squirrel preparing for the winter, and headed up the steep and long climb to the ridge in front of me.  Still, nothing hurt.  Every time it was time to run, my legs and lungs did not protest.  My energy was good and the weather perfect.  Josh Meltzer, the Roanoke Times photographer, ran in backwards from Bobblet’s Gap and started snapping photos.  It was fun to chat as I ran the trail and he bounded from tree and rock to find the perfect shot.  I was further buoyed by gaining the road for the mile climb up to AS 8 and seeing Seth, the burgeoning photographer-son of mine, with his camera.  Between Josh and Seth, they snapped off a couple hundred pictures in about 15 minutes.  I had to laugh, feeling much like a star being followed by the paparazzi.  But, don’t worry.  I’ve seen the pictures and no illusion of star status remains!

Now, jump back to the top of the story.  With renewed interest and having to contemplate whether or not I was going to “race” at this point, I took off with a cup of fruit in one hand and Cheetos and Chex mix in the other as I pursued the runners ahead.  As two downhill miles fell away, I spotted Bethany Patterson just one road bend ahead.  My heart quickened, not believing my eyes.  When the course turned into the woods onto trail once again, I caught her.  Though we changed positions a few times, she catching me on the ups and me overtaking her on the downs, I finally pulled away.  I told myself to not be too excited about now being in third place.  Afterall, the reason why Bethany was where she was had nothing to do with talent; her eyes were once again fogged over and being “blind in one eye and not being able to see out of the other” made running very difficult.

For much of the “Forever” section, I alternatingly ran by myself and then joined a couple of guys, chatting to make the time pass more quickly.  By now, I had figured out that Annette Bednosky was in first (and had probably already finished), leaving Sophie Speidel in second.  I had no illusions of catching her until I arrived at the last aid station and was informed that she was less than two minutes ahead.  Oh my goodness!  I nearly cried.  What if it was possible for me to pass her?  I took off running but knew the three mile climb ahead would be tough.

About a mile from the top, I ran out of gas.  A little light-headed and ready to be done with the race, I finally got to the top and began running off the other side.  I never saw Sophie but was amazed to pass a few people on the way down.  With just a little over a mile to go, voices caught my attention from behind and I was shocked to see Kerry on my tail once again.  “Oh, no!”, I screamed to myself.  This is going to be hurt.  It had been a long time since I had to race at the end.  As the pain increased and she got closer, I almost gave up and conceded either a tie or a 4th place finish.  But, after so many years of frustration, how could I not at least try to hold it together for another two or three minutes.  To my surprise, I glanced back twice to see her take a short walk break.  I ran on, ever so hopeful to gain the final finish line.  Up into the final shoot I ran, to the words of David Horton demanding, “Happy face.  Happy face.” 

Happy face indeed.  Finally, I was finished.  A completely unexpected third place and a PR by 14 minutes just two months from my 51st birthday…It just doesn’t get any better!

 

Rebekah Trittipoe  Dec 2007