Confessions of a Newbie

            Someone once told me that a great way to finish an ultra was to start off by telling everyone you know that you signed up.  If you donít finish, then youíve got to tell everyone.  During the most puny moments, itís a great way to motivate.

            I told everyone.

            Iíve crewed my husband Ryan while he ran Hellgate for years (I missed the last two races to have a baby one year and take care of said baby the next), so I was exposed to the Hellgate culture over and over until I was finally infected a few years back.  After I watched some extremely powerful women finish the race under some of the worst trail conditions, I knew it was something I had to do.

            At the starting line of my first 50 miler, I cried.  I looked around at the other runners and thought, ďI donít belong here.  I canít do what these people can do!Ē I thought Iíd feel the same way at Camp Bethel, the cozy room filled to the brim with incredible running talent, but instead I just feel a calm certainty. I am an ultrarunner. I belong in the woods.  I am going to do whatever it takes to finish this race.

            Pack on, sweatpants off, headlamp, check.  My crew, my sister Kim and her husband Zack, drove all the way from Jersey City, NJ to freeze and watch me run around the mountains (thatís seriously crazy).  They give me last hugs and words of encouragement as Ryan and I walk hand in hand (oh, how cute!) to the starting gate.

            Am I in denial?  Standing there waiting to start, Iím not nervous or worried, just looking forward to running, feet aching for the trail, excited to see what all the hype is about.  So, obviously the answer is yes, I am in denial. These first four sections humble me.  How I long for a warm comfy bed, for closed eyes, for a happy, painless hamstring?  Thank goodness for Ryan, who decided to run these first 21 miles with me, party to keep himself from going out too fast and sweetly to sneak in an ďultraĒdate.  An ďultraĒcouple with kids, we almost never get to run together.  He keeps me solid during these wee, dark hours.  Heís run this course at least 10 times, so I know we wonít miss any turns, one of my greatest paranoiaís.  He patiently listens to my whining about headaches (we both have yucky colds to begin with),  bleariness, and hamstring issues, telling me every so often that he is impressed with how well I am running, a compliment that warms me thoroughly.  I know he means it.

            Long, dark climbs, and then more long, dark climbs.  Brilliant stars, Orion and the dog star Sirius hovering over the southern horizon, gently illuminating the way towards an eventual finish line so many, many hours into the future.  And then the swift, snowy single track Ė sliding around switchbacks, grabbing saplings and flinging myself around tight turns.  Narrow avenues of very cold, curled rhododendrons, large slippery oak leaves.  This is the thrill.  This is why Iím out here.

            When I hear the falls at Overstreet, my pulse quickens.  How many times have I waited in the dark at these wee hours, loving the sound of the falls at this hairpin turn, watching for the bobbing headlamps of Ryan and Horton? Remembering the wreck I was as I drove up to Headforemost with my sleeping 3 year-old in the front seat of Hortonís pickup.  The fog was so thick I thought at any moment Iíd drive right off the mountain.

            But tonight, Iím running.  I know Iím going to clear the first hard cut-off and that the hardest part of the course is behind me.  And then I see those blessed lights. Next, the cheering, and there are my angels, Kim and Zack.  Grilled cheese, tomato soup, and oh my, the chocolate covered espresso beans.  I am a new woman and Iíve already forgotten every doubting moment of the previous 6 hours.  And now itís time for Ryan to bust a move.  A nice shmooshy kiss (oh, how cute!) and heís off.

            I hope Iíll always remember the silent glow of the snow-covered hillside, reflecting the very first light (and maybe forget how many snot-rockets failed to launch).  Is that Sharp Top? The Peaks of Otter? I wish I had more time to spare so I could walk and relish the changing shades of dusky mountains, transforming from black cutouts against the starlit sky, into the folded, undulating fabric of this rhythmic love affair between plant and rock.

            I pick up a couple of guys on the way to Little Cove Mountain aid station and we run near each other for most of the remaining miles.  We donít spark up deep conversation or swap war stories.  Weíre just there, moving, commiserating; sharing the sights only the runners are privileged to receive (a few bare hillsides and a few bare backsides).  Is it Stephanie who comes up from behind and blows through the Devil Trail like itís pristine, pine needle single track?  The last descent to highway 43, I notice my left IT band is getting upset, but I forget all discomfort when I hear, ďJEN HENRY!Ē  ďGO D-BUB!Ē  ďGO FUNK!Ē  All my various nicknames from my very own cheering squad, now up by two with the addition of my super-awesome friend Beth and her husband Brian. My sister takes my hand and leads me through some folks busy fueling, to my own private aid station.  Deep fried French toast sticks and syrup from the nearest Burger King.  Orgasmic.

            The section from Bearwallow Gap to Bobbletís Gap is stunning - amazing scenery almost the entire way.  Is that Buena Vista with its impossible island mountains?  This time Iím moving slowly enough to enjoy the views; the strength in my left knee has deteriorated quickly and considerably and I can only run in short spurts.  With the exception of one mile of endorphin-induced, blissful, pain-free running, I move through this and the next section, the ďForeverĒ section, in this stop/start fashion, only able to run 10-15 steps at a time before my IT band gives out.  I figure this should be killing my enthusiasm, but I have a lot of energy (thanks to my crew who fed me constantly) and it was fairly warm with the sun now out, and well, Iím on a trail.  Life is good!  Sure I was cursing out my ITB frequently Ė how dare it keep me from running this beautiful trail? (I also tried apologizing to it, but that didnít work either.)  But who could be unhappy knowing the last aid station is rapidly approaching, the blessed Last Aid Station!  I know that by the time I arrive at Day Creek, Iíll have at least two hours to do the last 6 miles.  If I can just keep moving.

            Who looks forward to a three mile vertical climb after having been on their feet for 16 hours? A runner with a blown ITB, thatís who.  Iím so happy to be climbing.  Climbing is hard, but at least itís not painful. I have caught up with one of my Little Cove Mountain buddies and we trudge up to Blackhorse Gap together, sharing the view and some espresso beans to give us a little kick.  I canít believe it when we reach the top in fifty minutes, 10 minutes faster than Iíd expected.  But my elation is short-lived.  Isnít this the point at which I should be able to let it all out? To throw the last ounces of restraint onto the trail and haul ass down this mountain? But Iím going nowhere. My buddy is running beside me, but I know he needs to move so I tell him to go catch that guy we can see ahead of us.  The most I can manage now is a fast walk. It is here that my dignity finally suffers as people that have been behind me all day, droves of them, come flying down the hill past me.  How many places am I losing? How many women have gone by? The sun is setting.  The wind picks up.  I can see how high up we are and the knowledge that I have to get all the way down there at this snailís pace is breaking my heart. This is where I remember that this is a choice, that there are people suffering in the world who would give anything to be out here in my pain.  Iíll get there and Iíll be fine.  I finally hit the final stretch, the gravel road to Camp Bethel, still being passed, still limping, gritting my teeth and forcing myself to run. Iím gonna get there dammit!

            The final blessed turn into Camp Bethel.  How much I appreciate this little patch of soft grass we cut through.  Thereís Kim and Zack, telling me how awesome I am, running ahead to the finish and screaming my name.  Itís dark and Horton asks for my number as I run up the finishing lane and when he hears it he yells out ďJENNIFER HENRY!! Oh my God!!Ē 

            And then Iím done.  Iím not going to cry.  Iím not going to cry.  My hug from Horton, a big part of what makes this race worth it. And then thereís Ryan who I have been dying to see for miles and miles and I canít help it, a few tears slide out before I can grab a hold of them. 

            So what now? I want to remember the whole experience, but Iíve already forgotten so much.  I think I might have told myself not to do this sort of thing again.  I remember mostly my resolve to strengthen and tune this incredible machine so that maybe next time it wonít hurt quite so much.

Although I felt a sort of compulsion to tell people that Iíd signed up for Hellgate, I donít feel the same need to make sure everyone knows I finished.  Thereís something different about me now.  I can feel it, a deep-seated satisfaction, a quiet, internal smile, a reinforced confidence.

It is NOT insane to run ultras.  Viewed against the background of this chaotic, illusory everyday life, ultrarunning is one of the sanest things I do.  So whenís the next one?

Jen Henry