Unfinished Business: A Hellgate Redemption

By Brock Webb, December 14 2009

Special note: My thanks to all volunteers who endure the same freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation, and put in a heck of a lot of hard work to make Hellgate possible!

Fulfilling a Promise
For me, Hellgate 2008 was a humbling experience and my first DNF. I was under-trained, under-prepared, and over-confidant. I ran trails but was no "trail runner." When I knew I was not going to complete the race last year, I set it in myself to find a way to come back and succeed where I had failed before. This was about proving to myself that I had the guts and the courage to come back here and make good on the promise I made to myself in the lonely darkness one year ago.

Toeing the Line
It was warmer than last year, 21 degrees Fahrenheit versus 19 and no discernable wind. I knew it would be "warmer" but still had reservations about my preparations not only for the cold, but also for the duration of the exposure. Starting at 12:01, there is something unique about the experience. It is freezing cold, dark and save a few, no one has had any sleep since the previous morning. Yet strong in spirit we awaken ourselves to the journey that lies ahead and prepare to go forth into the night.

And so it begins. I focused on starting slow and keeping pace, which meant staying with the middle of the pack as we moved up and down the hills. I had a few glimpses at the sky through the parting of trees, brightly lit up by all the stars. The three stars of Orion's belt were the first discernable feature I noticed when looking up, yet I could not distract myself too long from my task for the footing was questionable and one wrong step might be the end of the race. I didn't worry too much about keeping my feet dry because I knew I was going to have to walk through the creek at mile 3 and there wasn't any use in fighting it. I saw several people trying to get around the 'water features,' as I once had, to no avail and thought about the value of experience. When I did get to the creek, I saw someone hoisting drawstring trash bags onto their legs. A friend of mine suggested that I do this beforehand and I thought about it. I rejected the idea, not because I didn't believe it would work, but becaue I would miss out on a Hellgate "tradition" of sorts and that diminishing my suffering isn't part of the fun.

Running by Starlight
Leaving the first aide station, the smooth road afforded me the opportunity to divert my eyes from the ground and look on ahead safely. I turned off my headlamp and let my eyes adjust to the darkness and the long shadows cast by other runner's lights. I alternated run/walk up the hill and stayed focused on moving forward. It was in this section that I was able to really look up and see the sky. There wasn't much light from the moon to interfere with the stars as it was in its waning crescent phase. From this aspect, I was able to run by starlight moving steadily up the road. We began to encounter patches of ice on the road and the gleam of lights gave them a creamy white appearance, like sinister ghosts at our feet, licking at our shoes.

The Fiery Moon
Having spent some time working the uphill muscles getting to Petites Gap, it was nice to have a little break and "enjoy" some downhill. There are some smooth and enjoyable sections, but you cannot divert your eyes for fear of a hole or rock coinciding with your footsteps. I enjoy downhill running and believe it to be one of my strengths, even late in the race. This was not the case on my 2008 Promise Land experience where the last three miles felt like whacking my quads with a hammer repeatedly as I clunked down the hill. But many steep hill-repeats have improved this ability to where I rely on smooth motion and conservation of energy to recover strength.

And I needed a little recovery as the climb to Camping Gap was tough and seemed to go on forever. The road up was icy and I saw a vehicle off on the shoulder almost in a rut alongside the road where I didn't think it had the means to escape given the tow strap I saw in what looked like an attempted rescue effort gone awry. I had to focus on the road and footing, but my eyes would scan the ridge for signs of a campfire, a beacon of hope that I was nearing the aide station. I kept seeing the glow of a fire along the ridgeline amongst the trees and it looked so far off it was disheartening. Almost a mile later I realized that the fire I was chasing was really the moon, glowing a dull orange being hidden in the shadow of the earth. There it was, a fiery moon, eerie and beautiful to behold at the same time as it hung quietly in the sky.

The Furthest Point
I eventually got to Camping Gap and needed a rest. I enjoyed dipping frozen cinnamon-sugar doughnut holes in hot coffee for a minute or so. I looked at the time and decided that I could not pause any longer. The thought of the cutoff at the next aide station weighed heavily in my mind as well as the nine tough miles to go before getting there.

I really liked this section, despite its isolation and creepy darkness; it had some really nice rolling grassy hills and is part of the Promise Land course. There were a lot of downed trees in the path but it was not windy that night. Last year the wind was strong and the creaking of the trees had me on pins and needles, just listening for a loud crackle and snap, wondering if a tree was going to land on me. I chalked it up to paranoia, but it appears my concerns were somewhat valid at the time, despite their statistical improbabilities.

So far, both my knees were feeling good but my left calf was still tight, as it had been since mile four. I knew my left calf was an issue ever since Mountain Masochist, and my legs were feeling crappy due in large part to the imprecise guesswork and fumbling in a recovery/train/quick taper plan in between ultras this fall. Since Masochist, I ran the Richmond marathon with my dad (it was his first marathon!), crewed and paced a friend at JFK getting 30 miles in, and a PR at the 22 mile loop from Fountain Head to Hemlock Overlook park (which is part of the Bull Run 50 trail). My calf had loosened up after about 10–15 miles on the JFK, so I was still hoping for some magic here, but the tired legs sucked. Negative thoughts began to creep in, but I realized my sugars were probably used up and I just needed to change gears, knowing these moments pass in time. I sucked a "stinger" packet down and began to recite the bedtime story I read to my son every night, "In a cave in the woods, in his deep, dark lair, though the long, cold winter sleeps a great brown bear…" (Bear Snores On)

The grassy road turned into the woods and after a little while I heard rushing water – meaning that I was getting close to the end. There was a mess of frozen water on the trail and I stopped running to walk and play it safe. No sooner had I done this, I slipped and knocked my knee really good and ended up on my butt/side: ouch. It was a great warning for the guys behind me, I think we all took it easy on this section after that. When we got to the bottom of the hill, I felt my heart leap a little bit with excitement. They had moved the aide station back to this point last year, meaning this was the furthest point I had ever been on the course. It was still a tough climb up to Headforemost Mountain, but I took it in stride, knowing that I had survived the first trial with 30 minutes to spare.

Darkest Before Dawn
I had a chance to adjust my shoes but could not stand the choking smoke of the campfire long enough to defrost the frozen tops of my shoes. I changed heat packs, but realized I should have held onto the warm ones long enough for the new ones to kick in. This is the coldest part of the course and my fingers were numb after fooling around with semi-frozen laces. The road out was frozen in places and I joked with someone about needing my ice skates. I even dodged forward and slid a little bit for fun, then got back into the race.

It was dark and cold, but I knew the dawn was coming fast. I wanted to drop my headlight, but knew I had to hold onto it until Bearwallow Gap where the next bag drop was. The trail was nice and had a few gentle downhill sections that I really enjoyed. There were a few rocky places, but the nothing really bad. My legs still hurt, but I had survived the night and the light began to win its grappling match with the dark. I began to hear the camp at Jennings Creek and the thought of hot bacon propelled me down the trail.

Drawing a Blank
The next section should have been significant, given that I would cross the halfway point on the course. In retrospect, I didn't have much recollection of this section at all and feel like I'm drawing a blank, even after I just ran it! The climb up was not bad, just monotonous. However, I really liked the smooth downhill surfaces and the road/trails were conducive to running without fear of stepping on something bad. I chatted with another fellow on the climb up to Little Cove Mountain, and we thought we were making pretty good time. More doughnut holes, Twinkies, chips and soda were consumed, pouring a wealth of junk sugar and easy carbs into the tank.

Hidden Dangers
An enjoyable downhill began a new section that proved very difficult. The trail was tight and sometimes I thought I would fall off the side of the mountain. There were a lot of spots where running was enjoyable and I made good progress while the trail was good for the first few miles. But that all changed and I soon found myself on a long stretch of loose rocks on narrow trails covered in piles of leaves. I was last in a line of three other runners making our way through this section at speeds much slower than I would have liked. I took this as an opportunity to take it easy. It seemed like I could walk just as fast as they could jog, so I hung back and watched out for the hidden dangers as the others went before me.

Eventually we got to another creek crossing and my shoes had just gotten dry from the last time I plunged through icy water! At this point in time getting my feet wet again does not bother me this is probably why we were told not to bother with dry shoes until Bearwallow Gap. We crossed the creek and I was able to break away from the pack and enjoy some nice trail for longer than expected. I debated back and forth over whether or not to change shoes or tempt fate. I thought I had a blister developing on my left foot, which convinced me I needed to assess the situation or pay dearly for it over 20 miles if I was wrong. This was a great station with lots of food choices and more importantly I was close to an hour ahead of the cutoff! I grazed, got about 30 ounces of drink mix in my hydration pack, and took a handful of shortbread cookies over to the drop bags while I changed out my shoes.

More Difficult than it Looks
It turned out that I didn't have any blisters but having dry feet, new socks and shoes felt great! I was also comforted that nothing was really wrong and a painful recovery from torn up feet was not in my future. I generally don't have any foot issues, even in the 100-miler I did, but there are firsts in every race. What appeared to be a tough climb on the map didn't seem so bad at first, but it got worse! There were a few steep climbs and plenty of ups and downs along the ridgeline. Some of these short climbs took their toll, and I was challenged to run the short flatter parts in favor of recovery. Sometimes long gradual hills are just better because you know what to expect and an elevation profile can turn out more difficult than it looks. But there was plenty of nice sweeping trail, beautiful views off the side of the mountain and I reached Bobblets Gap a mile earlier than expected.

Over the Barrels
The road down from top was rougher than expected and required a lot of lateral movement to keep the speed and footing solid. Deep ruts carved by use and water runoff had created erratic channels and exposed many ankle-twisting hazards if not careful. But this soon turned onto a smooth, packed down grey road with houses here and there alongside it. I let my hips relax and cruised down the decline making close to, or better than, eight-minute miles. This was an enjoyable section and I began to think about the finish and that downhill to it as well. My legs felt strong and my resolve crystallized as I prepared for what appeared to be three little humps before Day Creek. I now dubbed these the three little barrels the race would have me over before the last leg of the race.

Turning off the road and back into the woods, I neared the single digits and began to climb the hump of the first barrel. I should have known better having just relearned my lesson on things being more difficult than they look, but I didn't. These three little barrels assaulted my legs with nasty climbs and drops, a trail that had become a stream due to the recent rain, fluffy leaves hiding who knows what, and more stream crossings. It seemed to go on far longer than I expected and finishing the last hill and seeing the cars through the woods was a most welcome sight, even if it meant a big climb afterwards.

A Sprint to the Finish
Six miles to the finish and time for the "victory lap." I had my favorite poison for the occasion: a large cup of Mountain Dew followed by a chaser, another cup of the same. For me, there is something quite special in the combination of adrenaline and endorphins brought out by the sugar and caffeine this late in a race. Short steps, maintain cadence, march up that hill and fly down the backside was all I could think to myself. I was elated when I reached the gate at the top, sooner (in miles) than expected with nothing but downhill between me and the finish line.

It had been a long race and I was ready to float down the mountain as fast as my legs would let me. I picked up speed as the loose rocks and ruts became less frequent, constantly seeing how fast I could go and still maintain the pace to the end. I began to pass a few other runners on the way down, and felt confident in how I was running at this point. Hanging on by a thread I turned the corner into Camp Bethel ready to collapse at any moment.

I saw the finish line and dug deep. Drawing one deep breath, I directed every last remaining bit of energy and focus to my limbs and it was like a turbo boost. I could feel my legs well up with fuel and explode, propelling me forward in rapid bursts as if under their own control. I sprinted the finish pushing harder with each step, knowing I had finished what I had set out to complete and burning with the promise of redemption.