Hellgate 2009 – “Very ‘Special’ Indeed”

By Jenny Anderson


It was cold wintery evening in December of 2003 when my life would be unimaginably transformed forever.  Sometimes, I think it was for the better but there are times that I believe that this change could be my ultimate demise.  Somehow, on that particular evening, it was no coincidence that I found a race report by Cat Phillips in my unassuming hands.  I remember reading it late at night after my kids had fallen asleep.  I read and reread the report in complete wonder and amazement.  I placed it on my nightstand and turned out the light.  I closed my eyes and by morning I was a new version of the old me.  What is it about a little bit of black ink (mere ant droppings) on a page that can make such an enormous difference in someone’s life?  It is insane how something so seemingly small can impact us so much.   

Two months later, without even running a marathon, I completed my first ultra (Holiday Lake 50k+).  I remember thinking “How did Cat run a 50k x 2 and on mountainous terrain?”  It was unfathomable.  Soon after, I was pregnant with our third child and took a rest from running to focus on my family and my job.  Fast-forward two years and I was ready to lace up the trail shoes again.  I began to run more and more and out of the blue I decided to enter the 2007 Lynchburg Ultra Series.  I met my goal and finished the LUS that year without any stellar performances.  The fact that I finished was a huge accomplishment for me.   

In 2008, things got even more extreme as my “purest” spirit morphed itself into a creature of the wild.  The competitive juices began to flow as I bettered my performances, won a couple races, and attempted my first 100 miler.  It was at this time that I fell from atop my pedestal into the darkest abyss for a runner - otherwise known as injury.  A blessing in disguise, I needed this slap in the face badly.  It forced me to reevaluate my life, my passion, my goals, and my work and put them into perspective.  I had to ask myself some tough questions which brought me back to my roots.  We all need to be rooted in something pure, something good, and something right.     

Very quickly, I learned to be grateful for the simple ability to run on trails.  After healing, I can honestly say that I never take another trail outing for granted.  Every single run, without exception, I get down on my knees in the middle of the trail, vulnerable and emotional, to thank the Lord for allowing me the privilege of being there doing what I love to do.  The trail is my sanctuary. 

That brings this story to Hellgate 2009 –  

Six years after reading Cat’s race report, I found myself at the start line of Hellgate 2009.  It was midnight and it all felt surreal.  I couldn’t believe that I was actually there doing what I always felt was unimaginable considering my ability, proneness to injury, and dislike of the cold.  Likewise, God was not holding anything back.  He was testing me further with temperatures surely to plunge below 15 degrees.  Five hours of this weather is one thing but 15 hours is another.   

I prepared very well for Hellgate.  I was meticulous and methodical in my training for the weeks leading up to the race.  I was running 100 mile weeks back to back without injury which was a first for me.  Additionally, I took every waking moment to think about and organize my gear for the race.  I had seven bins separating all my gear:  mittens and hats, food, liquids, medical needs; bottles, jackets, extra clothes, lights, batteries, and more.  I labeled food baggies for each aid station.  I printed out crew directions and things that I might want at each aid station.  You name it and I planned it.  The planning may have helped calm my nerves but it did absolutely nothing for my performance.  By an hour into the race nothing was in the correct bin and nothing that I thought I would want was desirable.  I realized that all I would need until the finish was a water bottle and some gels…nothing else.  I definitely learned an important lesson:  Don’t over think it and stick to the basics.    

Race Highlights:  For me, there were so many.  As Sophie appropriately described it.  Hellgate is truly “special.”  Remember that this is the same word we use to describe people with “special” needs and people who are in “special” education.  This is yet another reason to use this perfect adjective for this out of the ordinary event.  All 116 of the Hellgate starters are, without question “special.”  Here are a few highlights and what I was thinking while I was on the trail: 

  1. I’m in awe of the night sky with a crescent moon and the brightest stars I’ve ever seen.
  2. I’m awakened, “This water is up to my knees and it doesn’t feel that bad.  Is it really ten degrees out here?”  I stayed surprisingly warm.
  3. I marvel at the dark trails illuminated by everyone’s headlamps and the chem. lights creating a beautifully choreographed array of dancing lights through the mountains.
  4. I’m amazed by the generosity of all those helping.  One example is Susanna Greever chopping away at the ice on my water bottle.   “Aid Station workers rock!!!”
  5. I’m mesmerized, “I’ve never been on this magical trail before.”
  6. I agonize, “Alright, this is all starting to look the same.  Where’s the aid station?”
  7. I wonder, “Where did she come from?  That is Helen from MN passing me and she looks strong.  Keep up with her.  Don’t let her out of your sight.”
  8. I reconsider (four miles later), “okay – Helen’s way too good.  Let her go but don’t let the gap grow too much.  Where are those fast Canadians?”
  9. I’m grateful, “Thank you Cory for putting up with my crazy obsession and for helping me out here.  Thank you Krista for your companionship and pacing when the going got really tough.”  How can I repay them for their selflessness?

10.      I’m perplexed “Did I go off course or is this the forever section?  Where’s the next streamer?  Where’s the aid station that I was supposed to see twenty minutes ago?  Should I let my goal go of finishing in sub 14 hours?  Where’s the streamer?  Horton you are crazy!!  Where’s my ipod?  Music might help get me through this low.  Where’s the streamer?  Where’s the freak’n aid station?!?!?!  Yikes – Ouch…that fall really hurt.”

  1. I’m negotiating “Okay – run to the next tree.  Good.  How about one more?  Okay - I’ll run again when I hit that next streamer.”
  2. I’m determined “29 minutes left to get to Camp Bethel under fourteen hours.  I can do this.  I will do this.”

I arrived at the one mile mark with less than nine minutes to go if I wanted to break 14 hours.  My mind said “you can do that – easy – no problem!”  However, I didn’t know if my body was playing a trick on me.  Was I going as fast I felt?  After 66 miles of moving at a relatively slow pace, any pace seems fast.  Only the clock would tell.  I rounded the bend coming into the camp. I could hear the cheers but I could not see anyone.  “Where is the finish?  Do I have to go all the way to the backside of the camp?  Are you serious?  Where are you?  Where’s the clock?”  I was grunting and staggering the whole way.  Why?  Why were those little digits so critical in how I would feel about my performance?  What is it about a little bit of black ink on a page that can make that big of a difference in my perspective on things?  This brings me back to the original point “It is insane how something so seemingly small can impact us so much.”  They are just numbers.  I arrived at the finish line in 13 hours and 57 minutes.  I did it and those little digits did make all the difference in how I would look at this race and my performance.  Funny but true. 

Immediately, I swore “Never again.  I survived it and I don’t want to put myself through that again.”  As with most of us insane ultra-runners, within thirty minutes I humbly told myself “You did it but you must do better.  Maybe Hellgate 2010?” 

More than anything:  There were the unexpected moments that really spoke to me out there.  Many times it was a beautiful trail or a captivating scene.  But for me, as an independent and solitary being by nature, I was surprised by how others would help to fuel me.  I was overwhelmed by how much I would truly appreciate everyone’s help, support, generosity and the sacrifices they were making.  Examples include:  Susanna for her incredible hands; Tammy and Rick for their advice, genuine ways, friendship and warm wool mittens; Sophie and Rebekah for their never-ending mentorship, inspiration and spot on advice; Krista for anticipating my every need and her patience and positive spirit that pulled me in at the finish; Jared for calming my nerves at the start; Cat for unknowingly bringing me to that start line; Cory for providing me with grace, mercy and inconceivable love; and Horton for providing me with too many wonderful experiences to count.  

The truth is that it is these unassuming things that are what impress upon me the most:  a helping hand, a smile, a nice gesture, a race report, running alone on a dark trail in the middle of the night with the stars as bright as they can be; the silhouette of a gorgeous mountain only visible because of the florescent sunrise looming in the background, and yes – running 2.5 minutes under my goal of fourteen hours.  Most of all – the small act of merely being there in the company of extraordinary talent and tenacious spirits is that for which I am most grateful.   

Finally, I have come to the realization that nothing that is easy is worth anything.  Likewise, nothing that is worth anything is ever easy.  There are several common threads that bind ultrarunners but the core of who we are is seeking a life full of passion, enjoying God’s playground and challenging ourselves to do more than we think to be possible.  At Hellgate 2009, I did more than I thought I could.  I obtained a feat that seemed unimaginable six years earlier.  Although I reached my objective, I simultaneously realized that I am not nearly as tough as I would like to think I am.  I have a tremendous amount to learn and a lot of progress to make.  I wonder where this trail will take me six years from now.   

Thank you to all the Hellgate participants and volunteers for making my experience unforgettable.