by Micah Jackson
When I signed up for Hellgate 2009 my reason for doing so was just to do it for the "experience." I had never done an ultra longer than Masochist, and didn't know what to expect from something as nuanced as Hellgate. I just wanted to do it for fun. It certainly did end up being fun, but not exactly in the way I imagined it. The first week of January 2009 marked the beginning of a challenge that I made with myself. I wanted to run and stay in shape all year. I've been a runner for a dozen years or so and a trail runner for about three years. The hallmark of my running career had been inconsistency. I would run for a few months and then not run at all for a few more months. I eventually got into shape for my first ultra, MMTR 2007, but soon found myself several months removed from that race and out of shape. I wanted 2009 to be different. I wanted to move from strength to strength building on each event so I could be stronger for the next one. I am grateful to say that the challenge was met. I experienced many fulfilling moments on the trails throughout the year. My main race goal for 2009 was MMTR. I wanted every ultra I ran and every training run I did to help me achieve my goals in that race. Since it was my first race and also because it's such a big deal on the ultra scene I think this is my favorite race. I wanted to peak at this race and capture a stout goal that I could be proud of. I set a goal of 8:15-8:30 and trained my tail off to get there. I ended up not quite reaching my goal, I ran 8:47. I wasn't terribly disappointed, but I felt like I could've done better. Oh well, maybe next year. But in between now and then there is another whole year of training and staying in shape..... Like I said, Hellgate was just going to be for the "experience." This race was an afterthought compared with Masochist. I didn't seriously start thinking about it until about 10 days before the race at which point I started to get a little nervous. Questions began running through my head, "It's going to be how cold? I might need to put screws in my shoes? How in the world do I pace myself for a 66 mile race?" About three days out from the race my stomach was an absolute knot of nerves. Well, Friday eventually came and I ran around like a madman trying to get loose ends tied up before I could head out to Camp Bethel. I finally left Lynchburg and headed down Route 130 towards Camp Bethel. A good omen actually occurred beside the road where 130 and 501 meet at the James River. Do you know that spot? It's on the MMTR course right before you leave the road and head into the woods for a day of fun. I picked up a hitchhiker there named Walter. He must have been in his 60s and was leaving Lynchburg after living there fore 26 years. He was tired of being cooped up and decided he wanted to hit the road one last time. Apparently he used to do a lot of hitching in his younger days, and he wanted to do it again rather than going to some nursing home. Not a bad reason I guess. His sense of adventure suddenly made my night of running in the woods seem rather manageable. I dropped him off at the Natural Bridge Hotel, and off I went. I arrived late for the pre-race stuff and pretty much had time to get my stuff ready and find a ride out the the start. THE RACE I think the national anthem went well at Hellgate 2009. Sometimes we have less than full participation, but I felt like we we're doing a little better tonight. I started out with my Inov-8 305s (love 'em) shorts under tights, short sleeve shirt, under long sleeve shirt, light jacket, beanie, gloves and mittens. I had to drop the jacket after about two miles because I was starting to sweat already. Horton has told me before that you do not want to sweat when it's cold out. Surprisingly the short sleeve-long sleeve combo provided me with plenty of insulation throughout the night. My biggest concern going into the race was how to pace myself for the first half of the race. I didn't want to run too hard at night only to burn up during the daylight hours, but I also didn't want to leave time out there on the course. Once I started running though, I just settled into a nice steady pace. When the grade permitted running I ran, when it got too steep or nasty I slowed down or walked. This pace brought me steady miles throughout the night. Up until Headforemost Mountain I hadn't considered what place I was in or my eventual time. One of my goals was to possibly run around 13:30 to 14 hours and maybe have an outside shot at a top 10, but I also knew that I had just a good of a chance of getting bonked and not even finishing. I left Headforemost around 4:50 and was about in 21st position. I think this is where I really started to get into the groove. It's hard for me to remember much about specifics from here on out. I just ate a gel every 30 minutes and worked the terrain as I was supposed to do. Run steady on flats and downs, run slowly on the slight ups, walk when it gets too steep. I started passing people during this stretch and by the time I hit Jennings Creek I found out I was in 16th place. I left this station in high alert race mode. I tried to maximize efficiency with every movement. Run hard, but not too hard. EAT!! DRINK!! I kept repeating to myself, "It's supposed to hurt." Head down, feet grinding. I passed another runner on the long climb out of Jennings Creek, and knew that two other runners were just ahead. I started on the downhill and ran steady and conservatively, no need to push it too hard now. I saw their lights on the gravel road a bit down the hill and almost caught up to them by the time we got off of the single track near the bottom. I made the turn going up to Little Cove Mountain at exactly 7:00. By the time I reached aid station six I had passed three more runners. A gentlemen at the aid station who was holding a clipboard looked me dead in my eye and said, "11th place." I looked around and saw a runner at the table. Tenth place. (A little side note. I've never gotten a top ten before, and only recently had shared with some friends that in 2010 I would like to shoot for that goal). I left Little Cove in tenth and soon saw another couple of runners up in front of me. For a mile or two we leap-frogged back and forth. I decided I wasn't ready to race mono y mono and settled back a couple of hundred yards and let the other two duke it out for a little while. I had another gel and two more ibuprofen (five throughout the day). By the time we reached the downhill section of the single track I was ready to make my move. I ended up passing not only the two runners right in front of me, but also another runner we had caught. I hit the super nasty devil trail in 7th place and was totally blown away with my performance. Soon I was at the creek ready to cross over to Bearwallow Gap. I had just seen sixth place a couple hundred yards ahead. Bearwallow was kind of like a cold splash of water in the face. I knew I was in the race, but I knew that there was a lot of race left to run. Jeremy, Horton, Donna and Susanna were big encouragements as they affirmed my outstanding performance and helped me make some gear changes. I changed my socks, dropped my mittens and tights, and took off with success just beyond my grasp. The last twenty miles actually went by fairly uneventfully. I passed the sixth place runner somewhere on the ins and outs. By that point I was mentally exhausted. I was just running in cruise control. Eat, drink, run, climb. Eat, drink, run, climb. "It's supposed to hurt. It's supposed to hurt," I kept repeating to myself. The miles ticked on by and I became more and more tired but thankfully I kept ticking right along. Before I knew it I was at Day Creek and ready to end Hellgate. Jeremy and Donna gave me one last bit of hurrah and sent me on my way. This was a great section in that I knew the race was all but over. I still continued to look over my shoulder for another runner but I wasn't concerned. I was just out there in the woods on a beautiful day running the best race of my ultra career. I climbed up to the top of that hill and started down the big downhill towards the finish. It hurt a little, but it didn't matter. I sort of noticed how scenic the road was heading down from the Parkway. The views were expansive. But I didn't look for long, it was still heads down, finish line in sight. I couldn't wait for that mile to go marker and eventually I saw it. Wow. I made the turn into Camp Bethel and saw the dining hall and lost it for a minute. I was running as hard as I could and was overwhelmed by the success of the day. I quelled the hyperventilation for a bit and ran as hard as I could across the line. 13:07 38. 6th place. POST-RACE I enjoy being out in the woods. I enjoy solitude. I enjoy friends. I enjoy competition. I think these are the main reasons why I like ultras. It has been a great blessing to have shared the trails with so many great people in the Lynchburg ultra community. I have been motivated and entertained during our countless hours in the woods. I appreciate the support from friends and family as I've entered into this crazy sport. I appreciate the support from the priceless volunteers who make these events a possibility. I appreciate the willingness of all of our fine RDs in the greater area who work so hard to make these events happen. Specifically, I must thank Dr. Horton for his enthusiasm and love of ultrarunning. He has brought a great thing to our neck of the woods and impacted many lives through his love of the sport. Lastly, I want to congratulate all of the participants of Hellgate 2009. I hope you enjoyed your time on the course and hope that next year is even better!