Learning the Hard Way

by Chris Miller

 If I placed my foot just right, I’d only get my feet little wet…

 Right.  Next second – I’m balancing like a tripod on the formerly appealing bolder in the middle of the first stream crossing.  Sitting is a better word really, sitting in about 5 inches of water with both arms submerged to above my biceps. 

 Nice one.  To make matter worse, Aaron Schwartzbard was just behind me and had just witnessed my dazzling footwork.  The counsel of Aaron’s brilliant course overview, which I’d read and re-read dozens of time, echoed in my mind: But whatever you do, don't try to cross the stream on the rocks. In December, they're usually covered in ice. You'll just end up falling and getting your whole body wet. And that's no fun at all.”  

 Chalk it up to irony I guess.  Lesson learned.

 Lessons learned came to be a theme for me throughout the Beast Series.  Though all these seem like common sense in the end – it took painful discovery to recognize (and sometime remember) each one. 

Holiday Lake taught me the hard way about nutrition and hydration.  Terrapin Mountain showed that mountain running requires one to actually train consistently on hills.  Promise Land taught me to worry about me and not the other guys (who, inevitably, despite running an ultra in the previous week looked amazingly fresh as I exerted way too much energy running their race – not mine).  The lessons from Grindstone – my first 100 Miler – are many, too many to account for here.  But one tidbit – study/know the course – and when the aid station volunteer says the long 8 miles to the next aid station are difficult, don’t think you know better.  I think my comment was something like “yeah but it’s mostly downhill…”  Would have been nice if it was true – but I guess I inverted the elevation profile in my head.  MMTR showed me the importance of recovery – something my body was not after Grindstone…and now Hellgate. 

Hellgate is a fitting culmination to the Beast Series.  Nothing is easy.  Nothing is to be taken for granted.  This would be the first ultra I’d be running for the second time.  I knew what to expect, I was confident in my ability to finish, and had grand plans of knocking about 30 minutes off of my 2008 time.

 Of course a plan only survives until the battle starts, and if Hellgate is anything, it is a battle.  So thoughts of PR quickly turned to thoughts of survival during the long climb up to Petites Gap.  Wet quickly turned to frozen, as my shirt sleeves solidified and my hands became numb.  Luckily I had an extra pair of gloves in my pack, and after making the switch I prayed the wind would be calm.  As fate would have it, the air was still, and despite the temperature if I kept moving, I was okay. 

During the downhill after AS2 I began to warm up again, and with my head focused I could again concentrate on running.  I found myself running more of the uphill sections than in past races.  Aid station 3 and 4 passed quickly.  The night was beautiful.  I was comfortable enough, eating and drinking sufficient amounts, and generally enjoying running under the brilliant stars. 

I was looking forward to the stretch between AS 4 and AS 5.  The terrain allows for a good bit of running here and I thought I could stretch things out a bit.  Then nausea hit, heart rate was too high, my pace slowed, and my calves and hamstrings started to cramp.  I struggled though to Jennings Creek.  There, Horton explained that my race number was 7 and I was not in 7th.  That little bit of motivation sparked a decent climb up the next Everest, and I continued to run strong through the next aid station and into section leading to Bearswallow gap.  This section destroyed me in 2008, and I did not want a repeat.  Knowing what to expect (you know – the leaves, rock, switchbacks, off-kilter trail, did I say leaves?) I maintained a solid pace up until the aid station.  There I met my wife, got some hot chicken soup and set off for the next climb.

 Having run this section before, I generally knew what to expect.  Swoop in, swoop out, swoop in, and swoop out.  Despite this knowledge I was slowing and struggling up even the slightest incline.  I knew if I was to meet my goal I needed to pull it together.  After slogging through AS 8 I started the long descent on the Forever Section.  In 2008 I cruised on this downhill section, but this year I could not find the next gear.  Entering the single track portion of the Forever Section I found myself behind 2 teenage hunters and their seven dogs.  Though their pace was slow, I made little effort to pass them – content with the slow pace up the first of three despicable climbs.  I was struggling mightily.  Calling myself names seemed the best thing to do, but despite my creative language, no groove was found.  I limped into the last aid station with the next runner on my heels.

 Working hard on the last climb I knew that I would not match my 2008 time.  I was okay with that at this point.  I found some solace in the fact that there was no one within sight of me as I started the long decent to Camp Bethel.  The one mile to go line hit sooner than expected, and I decided to cruise in comfortably.  Almost as an afterthought I looked back, and out of nowhere the next runner, the first female, was gaining fast.  I do not mind getting passed late in a race – as long as I’m giving it my all –if the other runner is faster then so be it.  While I don’t mind, getting passed is not my preference.  I was going to have to work for this one.  With the pressure on, I took off as fast as my legs allowed and with my family cheering me on finished my second Hellgate.  5 minutes slower than last year and way off my goal – but happy none the less.  As expected Hellgate challenged and I’ve once again learned many lessons (The first of which is: Improper Stream Crossing Techniques)

Entering the Beast is a serious commitment and finishing is an accomplishment I’m proud of.  I could not have done this without some serious support (and luck).  I’m blessed with a tremendously supportive wife and two great kids who allow me the time to train and race.  Thanks to my sister who did not think twice when I asked if she wanted to run miles 66-86 of Grindstone with me.  Thanks to all of the volunteers – simply amazing generosity from all.  Thanks to the help of Howard Nippert whose wise council transformed my training program into one of quality and consistency.

 Big, big thanks to Clark and David.  One of the reasons I find doing these crazy races so much fun is your passion.  It is contagious.

 I’ve got some unfinished business though – so I guess I’ll be back next year – I cannot think of a better way to put the explanation point on the year.