Cat Phillips

So I finished my first ultra.  I still find it hard to believe.  My first glimpse of ultras was over 10 years ago.  My parents housed the same couple—the Strzeleckis—when they came to town for the Masochist.  What I remember about their stays was that they would the race, and then afterwards they would no longer go to and from their room in the basement via the stairs in the house.  They would go in and out the basement door and walk the gentle slope in the back yard to our front door.  I thought this a bit strange at the time, but now that I have completed my first ultra, I understand completely—it was a valiant attempt to avoid stairs at all cost!

After a few years of making excuses to Horton as to why I couldn’t do one of his races, he finally convinced me to give Hellgate a try.  As he says, once he got me to help clear some of the Glenwood Horse Trail with his sidekicks, he didn’t have to do too much convincing.   He’s right.  I saw jungle turned into beautiful single track, I played in woods I had never seen, and I finished my last triathlon of the season.  I had no excuses, and I wanted to try something new.

There I was Dec 13th, 12:00 a.m.—excited and nervous, scared and thrilled.  I had no idea what to expect, and I couldn’t wait.  It was time to delve into the unknown.  The only time I was cold the whole race was just waiting to start.  Once we were off, I had returned to the familiar—racing—and my body was heated by the adrenaline.  Doing Ironmans, I know how to pace myself, I know what my body can and cannot do, and I know how important it is to keep things in perspective.  I knew nothing about ultras—I hadn’t even trained over a marathon distance—but I did know that I had a very long night and day ahead of me.  There was no need to rush anything. 

My feet got wet from the beginning (yes, the fist creek was not 3 miles into the race, it was more like 200 yds), but like my body, they were never cold and I never even had the hint of a blister.  The icy chill of the first of many creek crossings simply soothed my legs and feet—like putting out a fire.  That was one more thing I knew—all these unfamiliar things were becoming familiar.  I now knew what it was like to have wet feet and legs at 12:20 a.m. in the morning 20 degree weather, and it really wasn’t bad. 

I was getting used to siting for the chem lights and streamers and running in the dark with my light, when we hit the first aid station and the road.  Talk about familiar territory.  I love running and I love running on the road.  I just couldn’t walk up the road no matter how convinced I was that ultrarunners walk up all hills—not yet.  So I turned off my light and enjoyed the light of the moon all the way up the icy road to Petites Gap.  I was still running with people at this point.  We chatted and paced each other and I tried not to think about how far we had to go.  Just keep everything in perspective and have fun…  

Aid station #2:  I felt like a headlight hypnotized deer.  It was early and I wanted to keep moving.  Fill my bottle, eat some Hammer Gel, take an Endurolyte.  Go.  Just like a triathlon, the transitions (and aid stations) add up, so the faster you get in and out the better.  I was off and still running.  A slightly technical section was ahead, so I wanted to keep moving to get ahead of the guys with whom I climbed to Petites.  I don’t like being followed when the trail gets tricky.  I like going my own pace, not being rushed.  Eventually I was passed on the descents, but I love climbing, so I thought I’d see them again.  After the single track, I caught quite a few guys on the long haul up the gravel road.  Eventually I found myself alone.  Somewhere earlier I had dropped and lost one of my gloves and was running Michael Jackson style until I got to aid station #3.  I was in 4th here, but I didn’t know it.  This was my first ultra, and I just wanted to finish.  Position before mile 62 really didn’t matter.  But a cold hand did, so Horton gave me one of his gloves.  Water bottle full, I was off and running again.  Up, up, and away.  I was having such fun.  I felt so lucky to be out in the night.  I had already seen 3 or was it 4 shooting stars.  The night was mine to enjoy.

Aidstaion #4 (Headforemost Mtn):  The time between #3 and #4 seemed to go by in an instant with the moonlight as my guide.  Floodlights ahead, muffled voices—I was at the aid station.  Caffeinate, eat, and go!  I was off again.  100 yds down the trail, and wait!  Was this the first drop bag aid station?  I was beginning to get a little tired and I wasn’t thinking straight.  I had forgotten to get a new Hammer Gel flask—that’s 500 calories I had to have to get to the next drop bag at mile 42.  I knew I had to get it.  Horton’s words of advice before the race started were to drink and eat the entire time, so I back tracked to the aidstation.  There was no need to be running on empty at this point in the race.  I left the aidstation again and slipped and fell on the ice.  Bam!  A quick survey showed nothing was hurt, just a bruised knee and hand, so off I trotted into the woods. 

This was the first time I ran into Courtney Campbell.  “Hello,” I said as he turned around verifying that I wasn’t one of the escaped bears from the zoo.  He was a little surprised to see a girl, I think, and said hello and mumbled something about being injured and only being beaten by a girl once in his 80 ultras.  “Oh,” I said.  “Then I guess you wouldn’t want to hear that this is my first ultra ever.  We are only 22 miles into the race.  You never know what will happen.”  I giggled to myself because I really do love racing!  We hung together for a little while, but watching him glide over the rocky terrain I knew I was no match for him on the downhills, so I clicked away the miles at my pace, assuming I wouldn’t see him again

Aidstation #5 (Jennings Creek at 27.6 miles) was nice to see.  I ran into Muffy putting up chem lights on this section, a familiar face in the woods was an unexpected and welcome site.  I was still feeling good physically and mentally.  I had already run further than I ever had before, so I was on uncharted territory and loving it.  I was still smiling and having fun and enjoying the newness of the experience, and my body was still cooperating (with a little coaxing from Aleve).  Again, bottle full, it was time to hike up another long and winding (and icy) road.  I was beginning to enjoy the steep sections so that I could walk (yes, I was finally thinking like an ultrarunner), and when I rounded a bend I was surprised to see Courtney again.   We talked a bit, but the night was heavy here and daylight was fast approaching.  A hunter drove by us and got stuck on the ice.  He rolled down his window and asked Courtney to lock his hubs for him.  Thinking quickly, Courtney pled ignorance and kept on going.  I told Courtney that this was the up, up, up to make up for all that down, down, down we had just enjoyed.  Leave it to Horton to give us a little (A LOT!) of everything.

This is when things began to blur together.  Courtney eventually pulled away as we descended to the Little Cove Mountain aidstation, and again I assumed that was the last I would see of him.  I bumped into Horton placing chem lights in this section—another wonderful surprise greeting in the middle of nowhere—but we didn’t need them, the trail was so well cleared and marked.  The sky was slowly getting brighter.  The ridge lines of the mountains around me glowed.  I even thought to myself if I had a choice between being in a warm bed and being where I was, there was no question which I would choose.  I had totally lost my mind.  In Ironman racing, I retreat to my mind for miles and miles taking no notice the world around me.  I’m focused and driven—racing myself.  In this case I was driven by the beauty around me—it made me look forward to the long journey ahead. 

Little Cove Mountain aid station was a bit of a let down.  I was hoping to see my husband Van by this point, but he was nowhere to be seen.  I figured our babies—a beagle, a brown dog, and a fluffy shepherd mix—were acting up so he couldn’t get out of the house when he had wanted.  So I gave Lavinia (my cousin, Grattan’s wonderful wife) my jacket (which I hadn’t worn all night, it had just been tied around my waist) and headlight.  More liquids, food, and off I went.  Not 100 yds later, I saw a familiar figure walking down the road towards me—it was Van!!  He had been out at the two previous aid stations, but I had been running faster than we predicted and he’d just miss me by minutes each time.  He walked/ran with me up the hill, past the bear hunters, and onto level ground—time to run again.   It was light by this point, and seeing his smiling face reminded me to keep everything in perspective and have fun.  Especially since the next section to Bearwallow Gap was going to be tough.  Thank goodness for those long training days I’d had all summer, my body was holding up and I continued to smile.

From Bearwallow Gap onward, I had a little help from my mp3 player.  If I had been running with someone, I never would have taken it along, but I had been by myself for hours.  My legs were in autopilot and it was just a matter of keeping one foot in front of the other—Eminem helped.  The faster I went, the sooner I’d be done.  Great logic and it helped me keep up my running pace through the section to Bobblets Gap.  Van changed my batteries at the aid stations while the wonderful volunteers at each station filled my bottles.  Keep running, you are almost there.  Another warning from Horton was to watch the section from 52 to 56.  It would be challenging.  I had mountain biked that section around Day Creek years before, and I remembered pushing my bike quite a bit on the trails—it would be tough running! 

I have never been so happy to see a Dr. Pepper as I was at the Day Creek aid station.  I needed a lift to get me to the Parkway and down the other side.  It hit the spot.  As I left the aidstation, Van whispered that Courtney wasn’t too far up the road.  That was all I needed to put the zoom in my walk (no, I did not run up that road!!!).  Eventually, I saw two guys coming down the trail towards me.  They looked extremely surprised to see me, cheered me on, and then glanced nervously back up the trail.  Much to my surprise, there was Courtney.  I made it my goal to catch him on the uphill because I knew I would be no match to his experienced legs descending down the other side to Camp Bethel. 

I was a few steps behind him as we crossed the Parkway—about 3 miles to go.  He took off down the hill.  Where he got the strength and speed, I have no idea—experience, maybe, but being part antelope must help.  I could run, but barely, and he just pulled away—floating down the hill.  How could he run so fast after so long???  Did his quads feel like mine?  Since he was injured, I would hate to see him on a good day.  As I cruised down the hill, my legs loosened some.  I was so very happy to see the one mile to go sign.  I actually felt like I was flying then.  I could feel no pain. I was almost done!  My last mile was an 8:21 and felt like a sub-6 min mile.  At the finish, all I had left was a HUGE smile on my face and the satisfaction in knowing that I had finished.  I had kept things in perspective and I had fun.  And I was done!

I am still amazed at myself for finishing.  I’m amazed at all 71 of us who started Hellgate.  I’m amazed at the 44 who finished, but I’m even more amazed at the folks that knew when to call it a day.  Rational thinking gets hard out there, and it is important to know when to say when.  But I bet most of them will be back next year, so maybe I can’t credit them with rational thinking... 

I am floating from this experience—another unknown is now familiar.  I still have a huge smile on my face.  Horton was right.  His races are fun, well organized, and challenging—the toughest thing you’ll ever love.  I can think of no better test of the human body and spirit (unless you throw in some swimming and biking too).  And now that I am no longer avoiding stairs, or walking down them backwards (thanks Jim!), I’m ready for the next adventure.  

[For those number geeks out there, my Polar s720 heartrate monitor had Hellgate clocking in with 13,159 ft of elevation gain.   Over the 13:15, I burned 8500 calories, and my average heartrate was 150.  The refueling began with a big bowl of that delicious chili at the finish and hasn’t stopped since!  ]