Hellgate 2008

By Paul Melzer

Friday at midnight I began my second attempt at Hellgate. Six hours later I was sitting with two other early casualties in a van waiting to be transported back to camp, ashamed, despondent, sad; convinced I'd tried everything and thinking I was through with running ultras.

About three hours into the run I felt my stomach beginning to turn on me. This is something I've been battling for two years now. I've tried everything—I think—and am still being shot down. And yet, two months ago I forged a long solo run on the Mason Dixon trail, 193 miles in 3.5 days; I came to Hellgate with a renewed sense of confidence. I'd had no stomach issues throughout the MDT193 and believed that as long as I kept my heart rate down and kept on top of fluids and fuel, I'd be able to finish Hellgate, maybe even in good time. Nope, no such fortune.

My stomach seems to be my own personal Achilles' heel. Other pains don't slow me down, but nausea seems to stop me in my tracks; the resulting inability to eat or drink anything makes it impossible to keep going very long or fast. I read about how others do put up with it, repeatedly throwing up throughout a run. They keep eating/drinking and moving forward despite it all. But this misery consumes me and I simply stop swallowing anything. As I write this I feel like a wimp—after all, it's just one other sort of pain, right?—and yet there I was sitting beside Rebecca Phalen (corrected) who was stopped by the the same thing, not being able to keep anything down. Even the strongest can be stopped by this issue. But comparing myself to others can prop me up or bring me down depending on who it is; in the long run it doesn't better me or make me a stronger runner.

The world is a mirror, they say. In a way, the four runners I came across who'd quit the course early, each reflected something back to me. Rebekah reflected the strong, accomplished runner in me and helped to assuage some of my angst. But this only helped for a while. I was transferred to the drop bag van—Rebekah and the other early drop found their crews—and waited until I could be transported back to camp. I was feeling like a failure. I should have asked someone for an extra coat and offered to volunteer for the rest of the day, but my dark cloud obscured that from me—I apologize to all for that. Two other early drops joined me in the van. I didn't get their names but learned that one of them had dropped because of cold feet—literally—and the other had simply not gauged the difficulty of running rocks at night, he was in over his head. Hell, my own feet were freezing too, but that would not have stopped me, no way. I felt ashamed to be sitting with these two (I'm now embarrassed to admit this), since their woes seemed so "petty" to me. Okay, the mirror here shows me to be a judgmental prick as well as everything else, at least from time to time.

Interestingly enough, the one who was stopped by cold feet had a great attitude at that moment;  he was clearly happy with having tried and evidently saw no purpose in kicking himself for stopping early. (A part of who I am as well, though tiny at that moment.) The other guy was very quiet; it could be my projection, but like me he seemed ashamed. Probably was my own projection since I couldn't connect with the other runner's positive attitude, at least not at that moment. At that moment was thinking "I'm through with running ultras," which made everything all the more dark since this sport is my passion and giving it up is hard to swallow.

"Hard to swallow," full circle to my dilemma, and a moment to ask for help. I'm not into ultra running because I'm a masochist. I recognize that pain is part of the experience and can accept that, but my stomach's shutting down after a few hours of running and simply doesn't want to start up again. It's not always been like this but has developed from about two years ago. I was surprised and discouraged to see it come on even earlier yesterday, despite my renewed confidence and focus. FWIW I have no digestion issues away from running, and it doesn't seem to be an issue of excess stomach acids. I believe I keep up on electrolytes, water, and carbs, and have tried various things to keep the stomach settled (ginger, protein, fats); still, it seems the blood is shunted away despite running slow (I kept myself back of the pack this time on purpose). My training includes weekly mileage of 40-60. My diet is not great, however, but again, gives me little or no grief when not running.

I'm faced with having to adjust my race calendar for 09 and remove the great runs I'd planned on. But it makes no sense taking up valuable slots on races that others would love to get in on, spending money and time on a weekend that I suspect will end early for me. I'm wondering aloud here, but would love any suggestions. I am truly stumped at this point. Maybe a stomach transplant (along with whatever other organs are involved in this conspiracy)?

Lastly, thanks for David Horton and all the volunteers who put on Hellgate, a true beast amongst 100k races.