by Lisa Buehl
I always have the same goals for running an ultra- finish, don’t fall, and don’t get hurt. I consider Hellgate to be a success, even though I only met two out of three! Pulling out at the last aid station was the smart thing to do, considering my total lack of training and preparation. All I had to fall back on was a 30-plus year running base and the excellent care by my “Crew”, my long-suffering and endlessly patient husband Eric. (I know he considers ultra-running a sickness that we will hopefully one day find a cure for.)
Every event I enter is challenging for me- the longest training run I have ever completed is 15 miles, my longest prior to Hellgate was 10! There is nothing on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to even remotely pass for a hill, let alone a mountain! So the fact that I met the cut-offs and made it to AS 9 add up to success in my book.
I have been intrigued with the idea of Hellgate since I first heard of it, but never actually thought I would attempt it. Having grown up in northern Michigan, I love to run in the cold. I am also not an early morning runner, so the idea of starting a race at midnight appealed to me. I’m not afraid of the dark. I love rugged terrain. It sounded like the ideal event for me!
However, it was not without a moderate amount of trepidation that I learned my name had been drawn. My work schedule was hectic, with no time for proper training. The time passed so quickly before the race date. The planned long runs and trips to the mountains of Western Maryland never materialized. I did lots of visualization, imagining myself flying nimbly over the trail, dashing up mountains and floating down the other side, leaping over logs and rocks, walking on water! Then race day was upon me, and a long five hour drive. I arrived too late for the pre race dinner, so I had to make do with bad pizza from a convenience store.
We arrived at Camp Bethel just in time for the briefing. As usual, I looked around the room at all the “real” ultra runners. I know these people have properly trained for this event, whereas I have only thought about training. I have never considered myself to be a “real” ultrarunner, or even particularly athletic! I have never been fast or competitive, just consistent. Every race hurts, but perhaps that’s why I do this- it feels so good when I stop, and everything else in my life seems simpler by comparison. Time seemed to crawl until the start, then there we were! I wasn’t nervous, just impatient. Anxious for the beginning of a great adventure, with the outcome unknown!
I have never been able to remember every intimate detail of a race, but this one definitely had its moments. It was pure magic to find myself looking back down the mountain behind me at the trail of headlamps winding up the switchback. Being able to turn off my light and run under that huge moon, with the wind roaring through the treetops was an absolute Zen moment for me. Reaching down to find that my shoelaces were frozen solid made me laugh out loud- I wouldn’t have to worry about them coming untied! Seeing a strange bright glow in the distance, and finding that it was strings of Christmas lights at an aid station was such an uplifting experience. Sipping the world’s best potato soup and standing next to a bonfire made me feel as though I could run forever. The kindness and smiles from the aid station volunteers, the company and encouragement of fellow runners. The moment when I first realized that sunrise had actually begun, and when I first felt those first warming rays. Tuning in to my some of my favorite music while cruising down the trail. Even at the moment when I realized that my body was done, and I was not going to finish.
Am I disappointed? I got the chance to experience Hellgate, and there will always be next year. For 15-plus hours I was able to do what I love the most and what makes me feel totally alive and free- run! Already I have forgotten any pain and discomfort- my memories are only of the trail moving under my feet and knowing the satisfaction that “I can do this”. And valuable lessons were learned. Lamb’s wool feels great cushioning your toes until it becomes sodden with water, turning into hard lumps and permanently fusing to your running socks. Hand warmers saved me- slipping a couple down my shirt warmed me up all over! Hot dogs taste great until you start burping them up for 3 hours. Learning that your husband loves you enough to stay up all night in the freezing cold and still be cheerful at each aid station. Cursing the race director somehow makes climbing up impossible mountains more enjoyable.
Maybe I will actually train for 2009.