|Roger Sutton, author of Hellgate
Let me start by saying, I had no business being in this yearís Hellgate 100k. In the last 18 months, Iíve been to the golf course many more times than to the trails. The chronic injuries Iíve dealt with for the past 20 years have simply gotten the best of me. After the debacle of the Vermont 100 mile back in the summer of 2008, I have, for all practical purposes, retired from running. Not just competitive running, all running. I spent 14 months doing other things. Going to the gym to lift weights, an occasional mountain bike ride, etc. really everything except running.
The email from Hellgate race director David Horton last September was unexpected. ďAre you coming to Hellgate this year?Ē he asked. The answer should have been quick (and easy to give), but it wasnít. Hellgate is a special place for me. After the 2006 race, I used it as my inspiration for a novel that a few of you have read, or not (Come on Brad! Youíve had it 3 years!). It was 4 months away. Enough time to get back in shape and run? I had not been back to the race since 2006 and maybe that was the problem. Memories of events fade and 3 years is about the amount of time it takes to forget how unimaginably, ridiculously and even unfairly difficult and treacherous Hellgate can be. I had not been there for three years. ďIf you have a spot for me, Iíd love to.Ē I answered.
My plan to get in shape failed miserably. Within a few weeks, my Achilles tendon, an old nemesis, flared up. No worries, I reason, Iíll ride my bike to simulate the long runs. A good plan if I had actually followed through. Instead, I went to the doctor for my 30th evaluation of my Achilles issue. I lost hope many years ago but thereís this place in Gainesville thatís supposed to be REALLY good. New technology, that kind of stuff. Hey! Itís almost 2010, canít they figure out how to fix this thing yet? Turns out they can. They want to operate right away but I push them off until Jan of 2010. I have to run Hellgate in December. Knowing Iíll be in ďthe bootĒ for Jan, Feb and part of March, my motivation dips. Running becomes a 3 times a week 4 miler and I canít seem to even get out for the bike rides.
As race day approaches, I canít find much in my log book to feel good about. 18 months with fewer than 25 running days and only one run longer than 15 miles. Should be good right? I mean, come on, Hellgate is only 66 miles over the most unforgiving terrain a maniacal, deranged human being could conceive (congrats David!). There are two time checks (mile 24 and mile 46) and if you miss them, youíre out. The first one is at the highest elevation on the course and involves A LOT of climbing from the starting point in the opposite valley. Throw in typical Hellgate weather and the diabolical midnight start time and it was clear that I had little chance of making the first time cutoff at Headformost Mountain. Still, itís Hellgate and I want to go.
Race week arrived and the weather started to deteriorate. Temperatures plummeted across the country and reports started flooding into race headquarters that we could be in the single digits at the courses higher elevations. Where are these higher elevations on the Hellgate course? Everywhere!
Iím not as dumb as you might think. Or am I? Having read what Iíve just written maybe I am. I have no grand illusions of running to glory at Hellgate. I just want to be here one more time. To feel the energy, and fear, that the race brings. To see old friends and to revisit a course that Iíve not seen in awhile. I canít possibly run 66 miles in my current physical condition, not in Florida on a nice day and certainly not at this race. But Iím willing to try for that first time check. Itís unrealistic to think I can make it, but even if Iím slow they canít pull me until Headformost Mountain. Thatís enough time for me to feel what Hellgateís all about one more time. I see Clark Zealand at the dinner a few hours before the race and confess that my real goal is to make it there (Itís an aid station that he is working). Imagine even working a aid station in those temps, horrible. The volunteers at Hellgate are a special breed.
The start is exciting as always but settles into a nice rhythm within a couple of miles. A landmark of the Hellgate race is the frigid water crossing before the first aid station. Itís usually shallow but you still get your shoes wet. Today itís running deep and swift (melting snow and rain from earlier in the week). I walk across carefully with water at my knees. Itís COLD and my feet become numb, a condition that would stay with me for the rest of the race. Coming out of the water and into the aid station, I take my first and only fall. I simply rolled an ankle on a rock and went down hard. I hit my left knee solidly but the energy of the race carried me from the aid station and Ii didnít take time to look at it. After the race, in the quiet of my hotel room, I pulled back the long pants I wore during the race to find a swollen, bleeding and purple knee. Collateral damage.
The climb to aid station 2 (Petites Gap) is a slap in the face. Itís 3.5 miles and its all uphill, moderate most of the way but with some steep sections, a prelude of whatís to come. My first special moment of the race happened here. I was power hiking one of the moderate sections about a mile up (trying to start conservatively so I would increase my chances of making it to Headformost Mountain) when a group of runners passed me. One of them said hello and I soon realized that I knew most of the group. A few years ago, Eric Grossman put together a wonderful 6 day stage run down the Appalachian Trail and I was fortunate enough to be a part of it. There were 6 of us on that trip and 4 were in this group! Kevin Townsend, Doug Blackford, Mike Day joined me all the way to the top of the climb. Byron Backer had also been on that AT trip and was running somewhere up the road from us. Over the top thereís a steep single track section and I opened it up and soon found myself alone. After a couple of miles, I saw a light catching up and was thrilled to see that Kevin had joined me on the descent. We would stay together for a long time.
The climb to the third aid station (Camping Gap) is not a slap in the face, itís a hard, firm and well aimed kick in the crotch. On this climb there was another surprise. Kevin and I joined a women that was absolutely cranking up the incline. It turned out to be Alisa Sprigman, a friend of one of our Florida Ultra Runners gang, Andy Matthews, who has crewed her at several races. Against my better judgment, I said something nice about Andy. Alisa dropped back after Camping Gap and Kevin and I continued a much too aggressive pace (for me) towards my first goal, Headforemost Mountain. Itís a long (2 hours at a hard pace) section and Kevin made me press all the way but I didnít want to run alone so I worked to stay with him, falling back on the downhills and catching back up on the climbs.
When the lights of the Headformost aid station came into view, I looked at my watch. Shockingly, we were almost and hour and a half under the cutoff. I needed to either stop or find a new goal because I was not going to get pulled from the race. I was very pleased with the effort Iíd made but that cushion was enticing and I decided to try for the second time check 22 miles away.
It was cold, REALLY cold, when we jogged out of the aid station and back onto the dark trail. For some reason, my three year absence from the event had clouded my memory of the next section. I thought it was all downhill. Itís not. Itís a long, winding, up and down killer section that beat me up and made me wish Iíd stayed by the bonfire a few miles back. When we finally hit the seemingly endless descent into Jennings Creek, Kevin took off. I tried to go but he disappeared into the darkness and I never saw him again. My lack of training was exposed on the steep switchbacks near the bottom of this 1200 foot drop. Legs that had felt surprisingly solid for 6 hours, suddenly showed signs of damage and my feet started to ache (I had chosen regular running shoes instead of trail shoes because the stiffness of trail shoes aggravates my Achilles too much). That was it. Iíd made it 31 miles, well beyond expectation, but now every downhill took its toll ,building on the damage of the previous descent. I started grinding. The next time check was at Bearwallow Gap, mile 46, and I wanted it. Not just to get there, I wanted to be under the time limit. That was my race, I had to beat 12 and a half hours and to do it I would have to go deep and do harm to my body.
As my unprepared body imploded along the high, rocky (and leaf covered) trail thatís leads to Bearwallow Gap, I was passed by the field. I donít mean a few runners went by, I mean a freeway full of runners went by. Hereís the cool part. They were great. Every single one had either a kind or encouraging word to impart. Several even stopped to offer assistance even though they were close to the cutoff themselves.
Eventually, The last water crossing appeared and I knew the aid station was less than a mile away. I canít say I looked good staggering into Bearwallow Gap but I was there with an hour to spare on the time limit. A lot of runners arrived after I did and continued on to the finish but I was done. My legs and heart had given me so much more than Iíd asked for at the start of the day and I was so pleased to see so much of the course that Iíd nearly forgotten. I told Clark at Headformost Mountain that I wanted to see him one more time today, so I walked over, checked into the aid station and then told him I was done.
A month before the race, I sent David Horton a quote by Virgil. ďPerhaps one day this too will be pleasant to remember.Ē He surprised me by using it on this yearís shirts.
Hellgate is horribly demanding, unfair in many ways, but those difficulties fade and it does become pleasant to remember. This will probably be my final Hellgate , since my reconstructed foot is an unlikely candidate for such abuse, but itís already a pleasant memory for me. Thanks again for the invitation David.