Sunday, September 15, 2013

“What do you THINK about for 12 hours??”: Labor Pains 12 Hour Race

I want to preface this race report with my rationale for signing up this crazy race: Grindstone training. Peak long run. That's it. Time races do not really appeal to me that much..running of repetitive laps around and around a track for a specified number of hours..taking the destination out of it is not really my idea of fun. Plus, your reward for running faster, rather than be finished quicker--you get to run MORE MILES! Lucky you. But with my training schedule I really needed a 50 miler that weekend that was within feasible distance, and since there were none, and Labor Pains did offer this unusual component for the traditional timed races of an all-trail component, I was in. Although as the start date of the race grew closer, my motivation for running this race did change quite a bit (to be touched on later...)

We stood at the starting line about 5 minutes before the race would start, the RD informed us that he had changed the course this year to add another hill, with more rocks into the lap, making for a more difficult course than the years past. I kept that in the back of my mind along with my seemingly ambitious time goals and knew that with the heat and humidity of the day (temp highs around 90 with seriously high humidity), I was just going to have to take what the day would bring. 

Before the race, Mom stepping it up as an ultra pacer.
 I found my old friend Mosi before the race start and when he told me at the starting line that he planned to go out at around 10 minute pace, I planned to run with him for a little while to keep me tame. But when he took off like a bat out of hell at the sound of the start, my plans quickly changed and I ran by myself amidst the small crowd for the first few miles. The lap started out on a road for a brief segment then turned onto some gravel that led you to a short but steep grassy hill. I ran up this in the first lap, in hopes to avoid any anticipated bottle necking when we reached the single track, but would wisely power hike it in the subsequent laps. I managed to get into a pretty good position once we reached the single track. This part of the trail was pretty nice. Smooth rolling trail, non technical, minimal roots and rocks. Pretty easy. It started out going slightly downhill but quickly changed to a net of uphill.

To give a brief description of the  5 mile loop that I would be running around and round all day: There were three “big” hills on the course. The first had a long gradual and (usually) runnable start and a definite power hike up a pretty steep and rocky, but short. This was probably the only part of my first lap that I hiked. Then the trail would continue on a slightly uphill grade on the single track for a few minutes until you reached the second hill. The second hill was smoother than the first and less steep, just a bit longer, and warranted a power hike (on every lap after the first one!) in the 12 hour race. Then the course turned onto a road where you would dive bomb down an asphalt hill and in towards the mid-lap water station. After that, the next hill would soon approach, which was pretty short but steep and ended on a ridge-like crest of a hill beneath a pile of loose rocks, looking like it used to be a stone wall, you had to climb over. Even on fresh legs, that rock pile and the next steep little rock pile extension downhill forced me into cautious tip toeing as to not break an ankle mode. After that came a beloved (by me!) long mile or so section of very runnable downhill trail. And after that there was one more short but very steep uphill grunt over loose crumbly rocks to the start/finish area of the lap. Then it was just run through the pavilion to my crew, get reset, and head out for another. Then just repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat for infinity x12 hours. 

I am not one to gun it from the start of most races, but the first lap I went out a little fast intentionally and for a number of reasons. Firstly, I was pretty jittery about this race from the start and it wasn’t from the coffee. Prior to the race I had decided that I was going for the course record, which I knew was a lofty goal considering the individual who set it. However, I was somewhat aware of my fitness levels and training and was quietly confident that I had it in me. Originally when I had signed up for this race, I had through that getting in a nice, relatively easy paced long run and really just going for 12 hours of time on my feet in preparation for Grindstone. However (for reasons that go  beyond the scope of this blog post) I wanted to beat that CR and whether or not that meant winning the race I didn’t care. Anyways, all the jitters from this contributed to my need to just get some of those jitters out with some quick downhill striding on the first lap. Secondly, I was considering the heat and humidity that was predicted for the day. I wanted to go out a little quicker on the first few laps so that I could take advantage of the least miserable weather of the day (which was not even that great). And thirdly, I wanted to give myself some margin for error, potential bonkage, prolonged bathroom break, inevitable slowing of pace after the first 10 hours, etc. So there you have it, my excuses for throwing down a 46 minute lap right from the start! 

I met up with Megan Stegemiller, a friend of Mosi’s whom I was introduced to at the start of the race, towards the end of the first lap after I stopped for a brief pee break (I swear no matter what I do I will always have to pee within the first 5 miles of any race). We ran together for the rest of that lap and the second lap. I found out that she was the 2nd place female in Grindstone last year so I racked her brain a little bit with Gstone questions for a while. There were two women ahead of us at that point, or so I thought. One I had seen had straight up gunned it from the start, probably at 7 minute pace without hesitation. I thought she was doing the relay. She was not and that wouldn’t last very long. There was also a girl in black spandex who had also gone out pretty fast, but was mostly visible for the first lap at least ahead of us. 

Coming in from the 2nd lap, Megan behind me.
Megan and I ran together for the rest of the first lap and for the entire second one. On the second lap things finally started clicking and with the companionship and chatting I felt my jitteriness of the race start subsiding. I felt everything start to relax and the running felt smooth. I am grateful that I was running with someone too, because I think she slowed my likely too-fast for a 2nd lap pace down a bit with her wise choices to hike sections like the little steep grassy uphill at the beginning and the third hill along the course that I was otherwise wasting too much energy running up. 

I pulled ahead somewhere at the beginning of the third lap even though I was making a conscious effort to slow up the pace a bit on that lap and found myself running solo again. The heat of the late morning was beginning to settle in. My mom had agreed to pace me for the 4th lap, so since I had run most of the third alone I was looking forward to some company when I rolled into the start/finish area to start the 4th and round it in to mile 20. She stuck with me for about a mile and a half up to the first big hill (“Oh this is nice!” on the first mile of downhill trail..HAH!) She started falling behind on the first big hill and I tried to slow my pace to wait for her. I saw her just behind me for a while and I thought she would catch up but she never did, so on I went until I was through all the hills and flying downhill again into the start/finish and I knew I had lost her. But again, grateful that someone was there to slow me down a bit and keep my pace honest. 

By the time I had run 20 miles I flew through the start/finish area feeling like I had a pair of fresh legs. My dad praised my time for this last lap, 51:13—“Perfect, Jackie!” He had been concerned that I had gone out too fast. And so the 5th lap rolled by, pretty uneventfully. I continued to feel like a million bucks, confident that it was my day. The whole time I actually had not really been too concerned about the two women who I thought were ahead of me. CR time was all I cared about and I was well on track and feeling good, minus the heat factor. But apparently I must have passed the spandex chick on the 4th or 5th lap. Somewhere along at the end of the 4th or maybe 5th lap I flew by some woman like she was standing still, so I didn’t even recognize her as the original lead woman who I thought was in the relay. She must have gunned it to catch up to me because she ran with me for about a quarter mile and told me she had been in first, had gone out too fast from the start, and was planning to drop out of the race when we reached the start/finish area next. And so there it was that I found myself in first place for the women in the solo race. This wasn’t too important to me though, and I knew the race had not even started yet.  
Rounding in mile 35.
Somewhere on the 6th lap I really started feeling the heat of the midday sun and consciously slowed my pace a bit. I began to come down from my feeling good state to a “decent” feeling state. When I finished the 7th lap and thought “Hey I’m a little more than half way!” a little voice in my head just said “Ohhhh noooo…” My crew was there to give me iced towels at the start of each lap though, which I draped around my neck and tucked into my sports bra for the whole lap. I think those towels really helped to trick the thermoreceptors in my brain into thinking we were actually not so hot, and helped my body to manage the heat. I managed to hold my pace consistent for the 6th, 7th and 8th laps at close to 52 minutes each not feeling horrible and continuing to eat and drink with minor stomach issues. 

Somewhere on that 9th lap things started heading south. I had been running for about 7 hours, it was about 3pm in the afternoon, and I started getting really hot. My stomach started churning and an uneasy nausea started coming on. I suddenly realized that I had probably not been drinking as much as I should have been during those first 7 hours and became utterly aware of my growing state of dehydration. I had been drinking one 20oz bottle of water or Gatorade from my handheld per lap and eating some, but my fluid intake, which may have been just find for a 7 hour run through Colorado, was just not nearly enough to balance out the fluid loss from the sweat I was putting out on a day like today, considering I had completely sweat through my singlet and shorts on the first lap. This lap I did stop at the little water station about midway through the loop for the first time the entire race, refilled my bottle, tried to gulp down as much as my stomach could take and dumped Dixie cups full of cool water over my head and neck before setting off again. I actually tried listening to music during that 9th lap in hopes that Blink 182 would work their miracles for nausea like they did for heavy legs during Hellgate, but no such luck. If anything, the music actually made the nausea worse and it was a pain to have to coordinate my phone (due to my missing iPod) and my bottle at the same time. So about 2 miles in I just ditched the music completely and handed in everything to my crew at the end of that lap. Somewhere along this lap I passed Mosi and his pacer though, who must have died harder than I did! This was close to a 54 minute lap, which doesn’t sound completely aweful, but trust me, all that slowing down came towards the end of the lap when it hit me the most. I think I actually fell backwards during my final crawl up that rocky hill at the end of that lap.
Rock jumped out in front of me somewhere out there..
 The start of the 10th lap and now Jenna, my 2nd year friend from PT school, my pacer for the day was finally here! I was happy to see her and had actually made it my goal all day to be looking good by the time she got there. However, this was very much not the case. I felt like absolute death when she picked me up. It was actually kind of funny because this was not only Jenna’s first time ever to an ultramarathon event, but it was actually the first time she had ever run with me. Well, she was about to see me at my finest! I told her right off the bat, “I am going to puke. Just watch out.”

“Ok, that’s fine!” she replied chirpily. I love Jenna. I have been nauseous before during a long race, but I had honestly never felt THIS sick to my stomach ever before in any race and I really thought I was going to vomit. Somehow I came very close a few times but never actually did the whole works. I almost wanted to throw up because I thought that it would make me feel better based on race reports of ultrarunners who claim that after they vomited it was like starting a whole new race. However, I was unable to actually throw up, but just hang around that very uncomfortable margin of “almost” throwing up for the next couple miles and not being able to drink or eat anything. Somehow I managed to gut it out though (hah!) and finished the lap in a sloth-slow 59 minutes. 

The start of the next lap wasn’t much better, but Jenna stayed with me which made things a bit better. I felt like the energy way being sucked out of me and I was hiking up the hills sooner than I had during the previous laps. I just felt like my race was slipping away from me. Doubtful thoughts of failure were racing through my head. I thought I had lost my race and lost the CR for a little while. Until I did some quick rough math and realized that even if I held onto my sloth-like pace for the rest of the time of the race, I would still manage to finish under the course record by a few minutes. I may have felt like I was moving slow, but I knew that I was at least capable of gutting it out at this pace for another few hours. Hey, that’s what ultrarunning is all about, right?! So that’s exactly what I did. Put my head down, tried to ignore the nausea, and just ran when I could, hiked when I needed to. I still couldn’t take in much fluids or food, just trying to scarf down a gel if I felt any lapse in the intensity of the nausea, which was rare. I told Jenna that the theme of this lap was relentless forward progress. Relentless. Forward. Progress.
Keep on trucking!

In all my systemic stomach agony, I had somehow forgotten my legs in all the mess. Someplace along the way I did realize that my legs felt great. Pretty much as good as they did after running 20 miles! This was very encouraging, so I used the things in my body that felt good, my legs, my right elbow (I had fallen and landed on my left earlier),  to fuel me through the 11th lap. I stopped to used the woods someplace in the last mile of the 11th lap and as I came back out two guys were passing Jenna and I. They were moving well, unlike most people in the race at this point, and looked like they were feeling good and having fun. They had pulled ahead a little bit when I told Jenna that we were going to catch them. I wanted to be having fun again too! I picked up the pace a little bit, caught them, and the four of us ran together for a few minutes. One guy’s name was Jeff (or so I remembered later!) and apparently I was 5 miles ahead of him.

Running with our small group even for those few minutes lifted my spirits a bit and when we got to the downhill road section right before the start/finish area I unknowingly pulled ahead of them. I scrambled up the rock hill and towards my crew and exclaimed that I was feeling much better and ready to hammer out 2 more laps! My stomach even somehow felt better. I gulped down some precautionary Coke and headed out for the last 10 miles. 

I had lost Jenna at the end of that lap as I picked up the pace in my somewhat socially revived state and my mom started out the next one with me. Mile 55 and here we go! I had been informed that the 3rd place guy was only “a few minutes” ahead. A “few minutes” in ultrarunning I have discovered can mean anywhere from 1 to 20 so I wasn’t holding my breath about catching anyone. I wasn’t feeling that good. I was still glad that my mom was starting out this lap with me. Surely enough though, there was 3rd place guy less than a mile into the lap when we saw him plodding up the hill. My mom ecstatically pointed him out to me “Third place guy!!! LET’S CHICK HIM!!” I think she was more excited than I was. Maybe since, from what I could tell in my delirious state, he was young, fit (obviously) and good looking (or at least from behind to a girl in a severe state of dehydration). I passed him soon after the first hill and as I was running by he immediately asked was mile I was on. When I told him I was going on 60, his pacer immediately started laughing at him and from what I could tell, making fun of him that he had just gotten chicked by a chick. It was kind of funny J I also somehow dropped my mom in the process of passing them but apparently they had been kind enough to tell her a shortcut along the road to pick back up with me when I exited one section of the trail. So she got to run with me a little longer, until the next hill I think when I lost her again. During the hills on this lap, every time I slowed to a power hike, I started feeling light headed. I suspected it was because of my low blood volume from dehydration making me go orthostatic at any slight alteration in blood pressure, but still, it was a little scary. Soon, I was abandoning my power hike for fear that I was going to pass out and just running up everything. 

Towards the end of this loop I started getting excited. I knew I had a good cushion going into the next and final lap to break and CR but I couldn’t blow it. This was going to be a glory lap as far as I was concerned. I ran strong into the start/finish area and exclaimed “One more time around the merri-go-round!” My family was proudly cheering. I heard people around me saying that I looked great. And all day I had been thinking about some of my patients with neurologic injuries who I treat in acute rehab, and just thinking when I thought I was feeling miserable, This is nothing. NOTHING. These people go through a 12 hour race or more every single day of their lives. Except worse because even I have a finish line to look forward to and in several hours, and the whole thing will be over. My patients don’t have that. When they wake up tomorrow and the next day, they go through it all over again. So, to answer the question that I get from so many people, What do you THINK about for 12 hours?? For me, I thought about that. I used it all to fuel me (since clearly food was still not working out too well in that department).

I started the last lap again with Jenna, who had only guaranteed she would run 10 miles for the day but was still headed out for the 3rd lap. At the first little grassy hill I started hiking and my vision started tunneling black. At the same time Jenna told me that she would turn around after the first mile and head back to see me finish and I desperately pleaded for her to stay with me for fear that I would pass out on the next hill and never make it to the finish line. She agreed without hesitation. That is an awesome friend. 

My glory lap really turned into a lap with a mission of not blacking out before the finish line, because it only got worse. I had never had anything like that ever happen to me in a race before, although I had read about it before when people were severely dehydrated. Still, all I could think about was that sweet sweet finish line and my likely anxiously awaiting crew and this kept a smile on my face through the entire lap (or at least a smile that was in my head). I even did a little celebration at the halfway point water stand and got cheers from the volunteers there telling how awesome I had looked all day (to which I wanted to reply REALLY??) I was slow getting up the climbs, but when we got to that final mile or so of downhill trail and road into the finish line, it was game over. I was flying again, nausea, black-outs out the window, and there were my resilient legs underneath me, still feeling spectacular and comfortably clicking the miles away. And finally, finally, I scrambled up that last uphill grunt to the finish/finish area with a big smile on my face, hands in the air. Time on the clock was 11:22 and the RD announced that I had just broken the female course record by over 20 minutes (after I had to tell him, that is!). So, first female, new CR and third place out of all the boys. Game over. Day success.  (Video of finish ,courtesy of Auntie Ann).

 As always, I cannot thank my family, my dedicated crew enough. There is no way I could pull these things off without them, especially this race in the heat and humidity that there was. Even though my nutrition and hydration went to hell, they were key in helping me get all that I could on that day. Of course my pacer Jenna was awesome and stepped it up an extra notch to make sure I didn’t die out on the trail. And the other volunteers and spectators as well as my fellow racers made a challenging day a lot of fun, especially those ones that helped pick up my spirits when I needed it the most. 
Me and Jenna.

The whole crew.
 So, lessons learned from this race: 

1.     1.   Never run that long of a race in that much humidity again. Please. Ever. I hate the heat. Hopefully this will not be a factor in Grindstone.
2.       2. Stay AHEAD of hydration. When you are sweating out 2 liters of sweat each lap and drinking 20 oz of water each lap, you are digging yourself a hole.  
3.      3. Keep eating. For as long as you can. I wish I had started heading more real food around mile 15-20 when I could actually stomach it. It might have helped me.
4.      4.  Keep up the Colorado training (I wish!), 14ers, and mountain repeats on the MD heights trail in training. My legs felt fantastic all day!

That said, that was the longest long run before Grindstone and it’s mostly downhill from here in training. I recovered really well from Labor pains, and my legs felt so good that I actually wanted to run the next day (though I resisted the urge). So, even though I am both excited and completely terrified, bring on triple digit 1-0-0!!!

Splits and stats from the race, courtesy of Dad.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Cayuga 50Mile, Ithaca NY

Just about to run up a waterfall, nbd. Photo compliments to Jeff Hills.
Trained, Shmrained--I couldn’t turn down the invitation I received from the RD Ian Golden as an elite entrant in the inaugural Cayuga 50 miler, USATF National Championship 50 mile trail race in beautiful wine country Ithaca, NY! After that hellacious spring semester of full time PT school courses, full time Sports and Ortho clinical, and 20 hours per week of research on top of it all, my running life took a blow and I don’t think I have ever felt more unprepared to run 50 miles. This was the first long ultra that I had not been specifically trained for, and I had not done a single “back-to-back” long run days workout, which is usually the staple of my training for long ultras. Still, I was still somehow managing to get in 40-50 miles per week with some quality workouts and surprisingly, I have never remembered my speeds on the track to be faster than they are now. I clocked a new mile PR recently (5:45) with some still left in the tank, not to mention a new 50K PR (4:09 at Dirty German) and a very near marathon PR (3:11 at Delaware marathon) within the weeks leading up to the race. So, while my long ultra endurance may not be there, I was confident that at least I was fast and fit. My brain would have to get me through the last 20 miles! 
My good old JMU Tri teammate to join me for the adventure!
I drove up to Ithaca with Ian, who graciously agreed to join for the adventure and crewing, on Friday, arriving just in time to pick up my packet and get some dinner in the small town before the pre-race briefing. We met up with Matt Flaherty, an old race friend whom I had kept in touch with after UROC 3 years ago, Cassie Scallion (the large women’s favorite),and Ben Nephew and another elite runner. I felt like the biggest poser elite at this dinner table ever! I was forced to choose another dinner option other than my traditional (and safe) pre-race dinner of rice pasta and a small salad…actually there was no pasta option at the small food court where we could redeem our meal tickets, so, since Cassie Scallion was eating a double slice of some gorment pizza oozing with cheese, I went with Matt Flaherty’s choice, a vegetarian wrap with a just a few sweet potato fries, with the rationale that if the guy who would likely beat me by more than 2 hours was eating this pre-race, it must be safe, right?!

Ian Golden had rented out cabins for the elites to stay in and I was rooming with Cassie and Meghan Hicks, an editor from irunfar covering the race. When I got to the cabin, I realized this wasn’t really going to be quite the roughing-it experience I had anticipated. Our cabin had electricity AND a refrigerator! I stored my Starbucks coffee cup with a medium black coffee in the fridge next to Cassie’s cup for the AM. We all hung out outside for a little bit, then went to sleep around 10:30 or so. 
Race morning!

Race morning was a cloudy mist, not visibly raining and not too hot, but the air felt pretty humid. Race was a 6am start and I woke up at 4:15 with the intention of eating and drinking my coffee prior to the start and giving a little time to digest. I had been on major coffee withdraw ever since the semester was over, pretty much cutting myself off from it cold turkey, so really was looking forward to the caffeine buzz in the morning. And after just half the cup I was feeling pretty buzzed. I actually took a few drinks of Cassie’s since they both looked the same, and hers was loaded with milk. It was hard to taste since we were drinking them very cold from the fridge in the absence of a heating mechanism. I prayed that that amount of milk from the mix up wouldn’t be enough to set off my stomach during the race. I had chosen to sport my lucky JMU tri shorts for the day, which were spandexie, thinking they would probably be good for being rained on, my blue DRC racing singlet, and my Salomon Speed Crosses with heavy treading for anticipated muddy conditions. I had a rather late jaunt over to the starting line of the race but managed to make it just in time and the close call gave me a half mile warm up. And by that time, after ingesting about 10-12 ounces of coffee, I was completely jittery. Then, before I knew it the race was off at 6am sharp, and I and my jittering legs were off around a short field segment and into the woods!

The irunfar preview had predicted me to finish “just outside the top 5” so, just as I expected, several other woman jumped ahead right from the start. I predicted that I was probably just inside the top 10 during the first mile. I recognized one of the Nypaver twins running just several feet infront of me, and I went up to run next to her on the first segment of slightly uphill double track. I guessed it was Sandi Nypaver because I saw the other twin a little behind us. When I confirmed my suspicions, I tried not to sound too anxious to ask her what she thought of Grindstone 100, where she holds the course record. She said she blew out her legs hammering down rocky mountains in the first 60 miles and had little left for the last 42 miles. Yikes, noted not to make the same mistake in October!

We were running comfortably for the first couple miles, and even though it was uphill, I didn’t feel like I was pushing too hard. And just as I was wondering why Sandi was running with me for so long, we hit a pretty steep climb, one that was an easy power-hike choice for me and Sandi took off up the thing in full running stride. Well damn, that was then end of that company. I was feeling pretty good, but not THAT good. I was still uncomfortably jittery from all that coffee. My arm holding up the hand held was actually visibly shaking. Ugh. Well, no caffeine for me in this race for a while, as clearly my body had forgotten how to handle it.

Regardless of my caffeine high, I was enjoying the scenery of the gorgeous Cayuga falls as we traversed stone pathways next to waterfalls and climbed countless stone steps to the top. Actually, if I had known anything about this course prior to running it, I would have at least made an effort to incorporate a lot more stair-well repeats during my sanity breaks while in the lab this past semester. Ascending stairs can be deceivingly tough if you’re not used to them! Stone steps after stone steps with double track paths led the pack to get more closely knit again with intermittent single track, usually with some nice downhill and just the right amount of rocks mixed in. Here on the trails things were pretty muddy and I could see things getting pretty ugly here on the second lap.  
Dad keeping me hydrated

My parents, Auntie Ann, and Ian were crewing for me, along with my dad’s cousin Kristine, who, with zero previous running interest or experience came along for the winery tours on Sunday. When I hadn’t seen my crew at the first two aid stations, I was beginning to get a little concerned. Then there they were waiting for me in the middle of the road that connected two trail segments. Huh? I was a little confused and not prepared to see them, and all I could manage to say when my dad asked me what I needed was “NO CAFFIENE!”  HAH-Too bad the only gels I had thrown in my bag all had caffeine of some sort, and I had basically just delegated him an impossible task. I think I just started drinking Gatorade and nibbling on some salty margarita cliff block shots at that point to keep some calories flowing. 

Finally, about two hours into the race, my caffeine high was slowly coming down to a more controllable level. Whew, let’s never do THAT again please! Then I needed to pee, held it for about 5 miles till I came to a bathroom (with plumbing!) at the next aid station. There was my crew dutifully waiting for me. When they saw me they started screaming, Auntie Ann waving her signs, and when I veered a hard left straight to the ladies room they started screaming louder in protest “NO, JACKIE THIS WAY!” which basically announced to the entire small crowd at the aid station that I was entering the bathroom. LOL awesome. And to make it even more awesome, the stall I chose to go into had no toilet paper. Fail. This first 15 miles were not off to the greatest of starts… 
Headed back out

But I actually left that aid station feeling a lot better, downed some Gatorade and S-caps, swapped my handheld with my crew and was off again. There was a woman who looked a little older with thick brown hair and a visor that I was running with back and forth for quite a bit up to that point. She and I continued to run together, along with a few guys. The guys made some good company. The one guy kept talking a lot, and to be honest, I don’t really remember what exactly he was saying because I don’t even think he was talking about running. But I do remember laughing with him and being entertained. There was still slightly misting rain and high humidity and soon later I had ripped off my sweat-soaked singlet to hand off to my crew at the next aid. The course conditions were muddy from the previous two days rain and I was very happy with my shoe choice of my heavier treaded Solamons. I saw a few pretty good falls during the first half of the race. 

I guess none of the falls I witnessed were as good as the one Cassie Scallion took  though, because at one of the aid stations on the way back in to finish up with first loop, my dad told me that Cassie had been injured and she was now in second place and things were not looking good. Yikes. I felt really bad for her and hoped that she was ok.  The way back into finish up the first half, the muddy sections on the out and back section were even worse than initially and I knew that when the hundreds of runners repeated this things were only going to get worse. 

I had felt decent up until that point, but I never really started feeling “warmed up” until 20 miles in. Then finally, things started flowing more smoothly and I felt more rhythmic. Hopefully this was a good sign I wouldn’t crash and burn later! In the last mile of the first loop, I was surprised to see how close the leading women actually were. I thought I was going to be crushed by about 2 hours by the winning woman, but I calculated that the leading woman was about 30 minutes ahead of me. First place woman looked strong and had a big smile on her face. I saw Sandi about 10 minutes later, followed by two more women just minutes behind her. I had just picked off another woman not long before that point and was currently in 6th place. I saw 5th place woman leaving the aid station at the start/finish area as I came in and she was no looking great. I was confident I could catch her. 
As I approached that halfway point aid station, I was feeling pretty good about the race, thinking that there is no place any girl should rather be than running through beautiful wine country!  I took a couple of minutes at this aid station to try and get some calories in me, which had not been going too well for me all day, as my stomach was feeling a bit churney. Still, I was feeling pretty good for running 25 miles coming into that aid station, and if I wasn’t, I sure as hell was lying to myself telling myself that yes, I WAS feeling great! I ran into the aid station with a grin on my face when I saw Ian Golden, the RD and exclaimed “Let’s do it again!” Then I was off again, to catch my girl. On my way out though, I saw a girl who had been on my heels ever since passing her a couple miles back and Rachel Nypaver behind right behind her. Yikes, these girls were close! Usually after 25 miles, people started spacing out and gapping a bit, but this could be a really close race.

Early into the second lap I met my short-lived blue shirt runner buddy. I call him Rabbit. He was moving at a pretty swift place, and every time we came to a downed log or branch in the trail, he would do some crazy hurdle move over it. His pace wasn’t quite out of reach for me though, so I turned things up a little bit to keep his pace. He was also interesting to talk to, and soon we became buddies. We made secretive plans to even split the course and scrape in under 9 hours. We had about 18 miles to go and I really felt like I could. I knew we were going just as fast if not faster than we had during the first time through and everything inside me (with the exception of maybe some mild rebellion from my stomach) told me that I could. Then we hit the mother of all RBs (raging bitches) though, and unfortunately for Rabbit, he was purely hamstring dominant on every climb, leaning his trunk forward to a 90 degree angle and pushing up on his thighs with his hands. When we started the climb he actually pulled ahead of me in this fashion, but I knew better, and by the time we had grunted our way to the top of the climb, I had passed him along with another guy and dropped him for good when I barreled down the descent on the other side of the mountain and looked back to find him still walking to recover from the climb. Oh well, nice plan while it lasted.

Up until that point in the race my sole source of calories had been Gatorade, whatever Gatorade-like concoction they had at the aid stations, gels, and a couple block shots. It sounded like the recipe for disaster for a race this long. I knew my crew was concerned I wasn’t getting enough to eat because they kept trying to get me to eat Cliff bars and other aid station food. So, mostly to appease them, I took a cliff bar at the next aid station. My stomach still felt uneasy so it was a risk, but I started munching, taking a bite every 5 minutes of so, until when I was less than halfway through the bar I felt some esophageal reflux threatening to fully erupt, at which point I gave up hope on solid foods for this race. Soon later I had to take a couple minute pit stop to use the woods.  Surprisingly, my legs were feeling pretty darn good. Finally, I caught up to 5th place woman, who apparently was not going down without a fight since it took me longer than I thought to catch up to her. I passed her on a downhill segment and she was not looking good. I was more concerned with the chicks behind catching me at that point than I was that girl re-passing me. Apparently she was a sub 3 hour marathoner who was carrying no means of water or food with her during the race. Ek. I was on a particularly long section between aid stations at that point, and so after I sucked down the rest of my Gatorade (probably then energy source that saved my race!) I didn’t have anything to take in for 2.5-3 miles, which was way too long.

By the time I reached the next aid station I had been sucking water droplets and air from my bottle for half an hour and felt like I would either put my face in the mudd and start drinking at any minute or pass out from dehydration. So, of course, I binge drank at the next aid station all that I could. Cup after cup of water, Gatorade, soda, everything I could, popping a few S-caps in the process. (Ian noted that it was a good thing I had some years of practice with this at JMU!) I definitely had a water belly leaving that aid station. Better than dehydration though, and soon everything settled down a bit and I was back in rhythm. But still, my stomach felt uneasy. 
Mud christened.

Until I needed to make another pit stop in the woods. I came to accept the fact that my stomach issues for this race might not end. The places that were very mucked up with mud during the first two times over, definitely were now that a few hundred people had run over the section 2-3 times. It looked like a 10th of a mile section of swamp that was barely solidifying. There was no way around it either, so straight through I went. My feet sunk in deeply with each step and I had to forcefully flex my hip up to pull my foot out with each step, until one step I pulled and my foot didn’t come out and I landed belly down in the mud. I stood up and had to pull my leg out of the mud with my arms. I trudged on until finally I was out 20 seconds later. I had mud all over my hands, and not sure where to wipe it, smeared some under my eyes to proudly give myself some war paint.

The next several miles through the next couple aid stations I was alone again, the mileage was beginning to hit my legs, and I was running a bit scared, knowing those girls could not be far behind me. Here is where I could tell I wasn’t optimally trained for the long distance ulras, but I did my best to go into auto pilot and just grind out those miles. I think I can attribute my grinding abilities at 40 miles into a race to experience more than I can to any other race preparation. 

Finally, I hit the aid station that marked a 5K to go, woohoo!! I always love getting to this point in an ultra because that same thought always goes through my head, and that is Anyone can run a 5K! This last 5K was no jog through the park though; it had some painful descents and slippery stone steps beside the waterfalls to go with. Also, as suspected, I needed to make one more stop in the woods along the way. The last 5K was rather amusing in the fact that there were a number of tourists and regular hikers out now, who would usually give a look and a cheer to my sweaty disheveled mud-covered body hauling on through the trail. 
Last stretch to the finish.
One last final double track descent, the field to the finish line was in sight and I picked up my pace a couple notches  to cruise into the finish line as 5th place female in 9:16. Of course my crew was there to cheer and greet me which made me even more happy to be done.

I was very pleased with my results, considering my placement in the field and the fact that I had actually expected to finish an hour later than I actually did. The $ prizes only went 4 deep (it would…) but then I at least won my first place age group award by default and got a really nice $230 Scott jacket. As always, I am forever grateful to my amazing crew. Especially my Auntie Ann, who chose to spend her birthday weekend traveling to New York to follow me running around in the woods all day! They make the racing almost easy rolling into aid stations when I don’t really have to think or sequence my hydration and refueling. 
The entire race was also just a really good experience in not only meeting a few of the elite athletes that I always read about, but getting to hang out with them by a campfire drinking beer, reminiscing about the race and life, not to mention getting treated like an elite myself. And surprisingly, the aftermath of quad soreness from the race was not as bad as I thought it would be considering the hills and my relatively untrained state. At least I could move around well enough to make it to the wineries the next day to celebrate my Aunt’s birthday!
Finally, the moment my crew has been waiting for! Happy Birthday Auntie Ann!

Hammering down those rocky hills doesn't come without a few sacrificial toe nails!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Through the Gates of Hell: Hellgate “100K”!

Pre Race
I almost didn’t apply to Hellgate due to the fact that the race fell right in the middle of finals week, but eventually the internal battle was won by my love of the trails and adventure over desire for academic perfection. I was a little surprised that I had actually gotten into Hellgate on top of that, since I knew the RD would "hand select" all racers and that many would be getting turned down as he tried to keep the event a small one. However, finals week had not allowed me to prepare as much as I would have liked for Hellgate..I hadn’t studied the course or read any race reports since the week I found out I had been accepted into the race. But I did take opt to cut out some of my usual late night study time for as much extra sleep as the week would allow. 

 Alan and I drove to my parent’s house, halfway to the race to meet my dad and my aunt to ride the rest of the way down with them. I was a bit cautious about what I was eating that day since I couldn’t really be sure what would sit well and what could turn into a night full of disaster.  I woke up a bit late for my 9am final exam and practical exam though and only had time for a banana and granola bar. I ate a bagel with some almond butter when I got out before hitting the road. At my parent’s house I stretched my legs out and took the pupps for a short jaunt around the backyard and for lunch had some baked potatoes and veggies (squash, zucchini, green beans). I had some nerves on top of being very well tapered and the combination did not leave me with much of an appetite, so I really had to make myself eat all day.  I tried to sleep a little in the car, but mostly just studied for the two finals I had on Monday and Tuesday after the race. We had a relatively smooth ride down to the race and arrived shortly after 6pm. Ian, my old and dedicated friend from JMU Triathlon club, came from JMU to meet us for the pre race dinner.

The dinner was pretty good. Lasagna (meat and vegetarian), spaghetti, salad and bread. I played it safe with my lactose intolerance and stuck with the spaghetti, but decided to live life on the edge a little and even tried a few bites of the vegetarian lasagna, loaded with cheese. It was pretty delicious. After dinner, Horton pointed me out, called me aside. He commented on my youthful age for participation in this event and asked what I had done to get into the race, since he didn’t let just “anyone” in. I was a bit taken back, but he didn’t revoke my race acceptance so I was happy about that. I will admit that it did ignite a little flame in me to upset his pre race seedings and predictions (I was number 13 for the women).

Then it was off to the lodge for Horton’s pre race meeting for about an hour and a half, which is probably the longest pre race meeting I have ever experienced, and was really more like a raffle bonanza. Horton had named this year’s Hellgate the new “Sissygate” because the temperatures would be so mile…around 45 tonight with highs reaching almost 70 with sunshine tomorrow. I was actually pretty disappointed with the temperatures, as I love running in the cold and tend to do pretty well in it and was hoping for a bit more of a chill (minus the famous “Hellgate eyes” of frozen corneas). The excitement in this room packed full of racers and crews was pretty cool and I got to talk to some of the Beast series runners. I asked if Hellgate was their favorite race of the series and they practically laughed in my face. Actually, they said they wouldn’t even consider doing this race if it wasn’t in the series and the last standing in the way between them and the prized Beast Bear trophy. “Worse than Grindestone 100 mile?!” 


Welp, this night could be interesting. After the meeting, we took all our stuff back to the room where we had dinner to lay out my things. I had made a spreadsheet with a play by play of everything I would want at every aid station (AS). This was a first for me, but I did this partially to keep my dad sane with the hectic craze and confusion of the night that would surely come, and partially to assure myself that I had a plan, that they would be ready, and to make sure I kept the caloric intake flowing. Ian was planning to pace me for two of the sections, AS7-AS9, and I thought I would be running the last segment alone until Ducky called me right before my prerace nap and gave me the best surprise ever--she would be there the next afternoon at AS9 to pace me the last 6 miles up and over the last mountain to the finish. I was very excited I would get to see her and this gave me something else to look forward to. 

I attempted a short 30 minute nap in the car before the start of the race, but really wasn’t able to fall asleep. Still, it was good to close my eyes for a bit and relax. I “woke up” half an hour later and did everything I normally do in my prerace routine. I went to the bathroom to get dressed, put in my contacts. I made my strong cup of coffee and banana and bagel with almond butter.Then, at 10:50pm, we left with the caravan led by Horton to the starting line. I was packed snugly in the between Alan and Dave Ploskonka, who joined our carpool, on the ride there. I had my strong cup of Starbucks coffee in hand, and I had been looking forward to this moment for the past 2 weeks of coffee deprivation so I couldn’t be happier. 

The night was disappointingly warm for me, with even more heat to come with the daylight. I wore my favorite Saucony shorts, a light longsleeved DRC tech T, and a hydration pack (of which was really a game time decision to take with me as recommended to me by Dr. Horton himself, since I never use these in training).

Start -> AS1 (3.5 Horton miles)

Approaching 12:01am at the starting line.
I knew it would be a good day from the minute I started running. I started in the back of the pack with Alan and near my dad and aunt. The race started after the National anthem at 12:01AM sharp, and I realized that my starting position was probably somewhat of a mistake since I was having to skirt up the edge of the path to pass a lot of runners. The pace felt completely effortless, and I had to try to not get carried away. I felt like this was the best I had felt running in a really long time, but also considered it could be the strong fresh coffee pumping through my veins and didn’t know how long it would last. The first section was supposedly the easiest of the race, completely flat and net downhill. There were a couple small but significant hills in this section though that I had overlooked in the copious amount of time I spent studying the course (HAH do I ever?!!), but I just took them easy and stayed relaxed. The much anticipated river crossing was non existent this year though; we came to a stream and I just skipped over some big boulders to keep my feet dry.

At first I didn’t notice much because I was running with the pack, but after a few miles the pack thinned out and I realized I couldn’t see the trail. My headlamp and the small flashlight together were just not bright enough and when we got on rocky single track at the end of this section, I was practically stumbling through the trail. If I were night running on a trail at home I am sure these two lights would have been sufficient, but here the blackness of the night just swallowed up any light before it could reach the rocks and leaves beneath my feet. I knew I had a long night ahead of me with worse sections of trail and needed to find my dad at AS2 asap to switch out to the brighter headlamp.

AS1->AS2 (7.5 Horton miles)

I may have taken a cup of water to go, but otherwise didn’t stop at AS1. There was no crew access here and they only had water. It was nice to check off one of 9 AS for the journey, but other than that I didn’t need anything. I was informed that I was the 7th woman.  And so began a long treck up the mountain on the gravel road. I ran most of the first part of the climb. The grade seemed low enough that running was still efficient. I met a couple guys on my climb up, chatted for a little. And we all marveled at how amazingly beautiful it was out here at night. The trees were parted from the road so you had a view of the clear blackish blue night sky and thousands of stars. The moon was close to crescent and together with the brightness of the stars they seemed to light up the road. My lights were sufficient for this road part with the moon and star light, and I even turned them off briefly a few times and just ran in the dark. And the view was every bit as beautiful as it was described to be…we began a long twisting road type switch back climb up to the top of the mountain, and looking ahead there were tiny little bobbing lights winding up the mountain and looking down, another winding string of tiny lights. I took it all in with the thrill and satisfaction of knowing that I was a part of something special.

AS2-AS3 (13.1 Horton miles)

Panicked head lamp exchange!
When I ran into AS2, I think I was 4th woman, but really I was probably tied for 4th with Sophie Speidel and another woman but I had just run ahead of them to find my crew. I saw my aunt when coming into the AS, but didn’t see my dad when I first ran in as I scanned the other crews on the side of the road. I was still a bit panicked about my headlamp switch and must have sounded it as everyone cheered me on and all I could say in response was “Where’s my dad?!!”  But there he was at the AS table, probably getting me something I had listed on my spreadsheet. He was wearing the “big nerd” headlamp (as my traildawg friend Henry, who had loaned me all his light gear for the race had termed it). The headlamp itself wasn’t too big, just very bright running off its external battery pack of 4 AAs. I stowed this away in my hydration pack (another perk to wearing this for this race) and was off again, this time able to see much better.

The climb continued to grow longer. Some of the steeper sections I hiked up. Sometimes, when I found myself growing tired of constant running up a hill, I hiked. I was very conscious to start snacking early. I had actually started in the first couple of miles on some Cliff block shots and was going between these and pretzels for the first couple of sections. Near the last miles or so of the climb, I passed Sophie again, a woman whose race reports I had read and who also happened to consistently finish around my goal finishing time at sub 15 hours. Perfect. I knew I was where I wanted to be in the race right now. She and I went back and forth a couple of times on the climb before we started running together and conversing. Yes, you learn a lot each time you run this race, she said, and this would be her 6th time running Hellgate. I secretly hoped I would still be able to attain my goal time coming in as a rookie! She also wisely advised me to stock up at AS3, where there was no crew access, because the next section would be a long one.

AS3->AS4 (21.9 Horton miles)

I had no idea if “long one” meant long as in lots of rocks and climbing that would take a long amount of time, or long as in a “Horton long” 8 miles which was really more like 11 miles. Either way, I stopped to fill up my hydration pack, grabbed a couple of PB&J squares from the AS and was on my way. I was a little surprised and excited about how well my stomach was taking nutrition tonight. I had read about how nutrition intake is something that people often struggle with in Hellgate because the stomach shuts down at night as it is used to doing during sleep. Well, maybe all my late night study stress eating in grad school was finally paying off! 

The next section has a lot of grassy rolling hills. Although the running was pretty easy, I have to say it wasn’t one of my favorite sections. It did feel incredibly long and for the most part, non eventful. I was playing tag back and forth with Sophie and another woman on this section, stopping once to use the woods, but eventually I pulled ahead and held my lead. 

AS4->AS5 (27.9 Horton miles)

About 5 hours into the race and I was at AS4, the aid station claimed to have the highest drop out rate in Hellgate history. I was glad to be finished with the last section and understood why it was. I didn’t really feel sleepy, but just felt like I was ready for it to be daylight. That was a long night of running at around 5 hours, and it wasn’t even over yet. Going into that aid station, I wanted Red Bull, new batteries for my handheld light, as the trail was again getting hard to see, and to change shoes from my hybrid Salomons to my heavier treaded ones for the next more technical section. I also decided to take my iPod on this section, which may have been one of the best decisions of the race. I never run with music so thought it would be distracting and even scary at night, but I had read reports of people who did use music who claimed that it opened up a whole new world for them after they did. 
Too fast for the photo :-)

  Coming out of the aid station, I took a few minutes to going up a short hill to hike while I ate, drank and fumbled with my iPod and headlamp wires. It turned out to be well worth it. A couple of guys passed me running up the hill and one of them encouraged me to come along, as the leading women were not too far ahead. Once I got to the top of the hill I collected myself and then took off down the other side of the hill with Blink 182 in one ear of my headphone. Those reports were right. The music really did open up a whole new world. The running seemed effortless once again as I flew down the hill. Plus my feet which had been turning a bit achy before, now felt light and fresh again in my new shoes.

It didn’t take me long to catch up to the guys who had just passed me and blow by them. As they cheered me on. Am I running too fast?? Well, it’s over 5 hours into the race, it feels good. I don’t know how long this is going to last so I’m going to go with it. I think this is something that only experience can teach in ultra running. That fine line between going with something when you feel good and unknowingly pushing yourself too hard and blowing up later. Sometimes when I have a high point and start running fast, I question my pace. But I have learned that when these moments come and everything feels right, you take advantage of it for as long as you can. And this was one of those moments. Sophie was my sub 15 hour pacer; I knew she'd run a smart race and if I stuck with her I would make it under my goal time. Right now I was putting a gap on her and probably running well under pace for that time, which was a gamble. But something in me felt right about taking the risk.

It wasn’t long before I caught up to and flew past two other women, now putting me in 2nd place. I heard them yell "Go girl!" or something along those lines as I passed, at the same time I imagined they were also thinking See yah at mile 50, yah Hellgate newb!  

 Most of this section was downhill, but the grade wasn’t uncomfortably steep and (to my surprise) not too rocky. I was just having a blast, pummeling down hills, leaping over rocks, passing packs of guys. I wasn’t expecting Hellgate to be this much fun and I was having the time of my life! The only tricky part was sometimes it wasn’t obvious where the trail turned, so a couple of times it turned and I didn’t see it, so ended up running into the middle of the woods. But I could always trace my way back to the other headlamps, whom I had usually just passed so it was somewhat embarrassing, but at least getting seriously lost wasn’t really an issue. At one point I passed a group of guys down one of the hills and I didn’t realize I had passed Dave until he came right up behind me and blew by me again a minute later. I was pretty surprised to be seeing him and was excited to see someone I knew, but knew he could not be having a good race if I was seeing him. But he zoomed off ahead at a blistering pace and I didn’t see him again until he came back up a hill, thinking we were lost and questioning the markings. The panic was short-lived though, and another runner soon came from behind and affirmed we were on the right path. Then he took off again and  I wouldn’t see Dave again till a few hours later.

AS5->AS6 (34.8 Horton miles)

At AS5 my aunt told me that the leading woman was 8 minutes ahead of me. I was climbing another road climb when daylight slowly began to settle in. I seemed to have timed my race perfectly and was on the top of a mountain ridge overlooking the entire landscape as the sun rose. At this point I was running by myself and everything just seemed so beautiful and peaceful. I thought about how the early risers were just waking up and rolling out of their warm beds, getting ready to put on a pot of Saturday morning coffee and make pancakes. I took in the fact that I had just run all night, admired it for a minute, appreciated that neither my legs nor my mind felt tired. I considered how lucky I was to have a body and mind that enabled me to be out here in this world on top of this mountain. I knew that there was absolutely no place else I would rather be than in this place at this moment.

Then I let it go. I was going to look at this as a new day. It was 7 hours into the race but my run had just begun.
The next section at the day break was also fun. I eventually turned off onto some single track and it was more downhill running! And then for some unknown reason, the next part of this section was an emotional one for me. The amygdala, the area of the brain highly involved in the regulation of emotional experiences, is intricately and actively connected to areas of the higher centers brain that control and sense human movement, and to the areas of the brain taking in all the information from the world around us…sight, sound, smell, sensation. The amygdala then, in turn, triggers a physical emotional response to these experiences. I turned my music back on and it took me back to my brother’s room in our old house, where my cousins, brother and I would have our jam sessions to old school Blink. I considered where I was in my life then and where I am now, and again, everything just felt right. I was surprised to suddenly find water in my eyes. I imagined that it my amygdala had taken over and I knew this was the physical response to my happiness in this moment. Whatever the reason, my legs were flying still faster down the mountain and skipping over rocks with a kind of grace I never knew I had. 

I came to the end of the single track and then came another long climb. I was back on a gravel road and knew I was getting close to the AS because cars were driving up and down the road and cheering me on so I knew it was the crews of other runners. But that climb took a bit longer than anticipated probably because I was so used to the effortless speed of flying downhills that this uphill powerhike grunt was no longer fun. When I finally got to the top where my dedicated crew awaited me, with anything I could possibly want spread out on a blanket, I did feel relieved. I ripped off my headlamp, something I had been looking forward to doing for the past few hours, and downed some more Red Bull and started munching on a bagel. 

AS6->AS7 (42.8 Horton miles)

I went through a few highs and lows on this section. The first part I was in a bit of a low point. Even though I had been feeling really good on the last section overall, that last climb coming into the AS had been tough. That compounded with the update that the leading woman had put an additional 5 minutes on me on this section probably dampered my spirits. I was just starting to feel tired and my mind was beginning to contemplate just how far I had left to go. But I tried to come out of it and also considered the fact that although somewhat tired, my quads were still holding up pretty well and I was still running strong and painfree. I think this is where I noticed the training benefit from the downhill training I had a couple weeks ago on the steep steep Maryland heights trail. At UROC my legs had felt 100 time worse long before this time! So I guess that perked up my spirits a bit. I turned on my iPod again, switching over to some New Found Glory, and all was well in the world again. I came to some downhill rocky sections and started cruising again, feeling good. The field was pretty thinned out at this point so I had been running by myself for quite a while, now only occasionally passing single runners. I was looking forward to the company of running with Ian at the next AS.
I was going up a rocky switchback climb and jumped when I came around a switch and saw Dave lying in the middle of the trail. Uh oh. I stopped, asked if he was ok, if he needed anything. He mumbled something about hypoglycemia and I was going to give him some food I could dig up out of my pack when I saw he had a small pile of gels on the ground next to him that he was sucking down. I told him I would get someone to come back for him at the next AS and felt bad leaving him there. I reasoned that there really wasn’t much else I could do though, so continued on.

AS7->AS8 (49.8 Horton miles)
About 30 minutes later I arrived at AS7, the place where I would meet up with Ian and the moment I had been looking forward to for quite some time. Approaching the AS I kept glancing at my watch, watching the time creep closer and closer to 9:30am, the time I had told Ian to meet me. I was determined to make it there on time. Sure enough, I ran in at 9:30am to the minute. My crew continued to be amazing as always, had everything I could possibly need spread out on a blanket right infront of me. I told my dad that I didn’t need to refill my pack when he tried, as I thought I had enough water in it. Horton was also waiting at this aid station to greet me. He said something about who knew the random young girl from Delaware would be 2nd place in the race right now. It made me just a little bit happy to know that I was upsetting his pre race predictions and surpassing his expectations of my #13 seed :- Meanwhile, first place chick was cruising and had gapped me further, on a good section. I realized that it wouldn’t be realistic to catch her unless she blew up, but I didn’t let this put a damper on my spirits. 
It's lunch time at the Team Jackie sleeping bag blanket buffet!

 The first thing Ian and I had to do was take on a big climb. I didn’t mind this climb so much though, now that I was in good company. This was good, because the next part of the race would be my least favorite of the day, by far. I had read about this section aka the “swoop” section. Basically, you are on a single track trail that “swoops” sideways and up and down into and out of the sides of the mountains. It’s not really like any other trail I have run. Perhaps the only good part of this section was the spectacular views you had looking off the edge of the cliff you were running  along at the end of the occasional swoop. 

I hated the swoops. The trail was pretty smooth, which is maybe why people report liking this section, but the constant swooping didn’t allow me to get into any kind of rhythm. Up and down and in and out and, Ahh, look out for that cliff! The small up swoops were a significant uphill, but not so steep that I could justify hiking them, although I will admit that I did resort to hiking a couple of them. Plus I could always see guys just ahead of me, and everytime it seemed like I was going to catch them, SWOOP, bam, they were out of sight. Only to come back into sight right before the next SWOOP. Ughhh. I felt like I wasn’t making any progress and felt slightly nauseated. On top of not having a particularly good time on this section, I was beginning to get a headache and I couldn’t determine if it was from dehydration or lack of sleep. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was 10:30AM and tried not to think about just how long I had been awake. Better keep drinking. I took a long swig from my pack and ccchhhhrrrrrr. Empty. Uh oh. 

So for the next 40 minutes or so, I didn’t take in any water or food. I knew this could potentially break my race, but I really had no choice. Ian distracted me a bit, and we did some reminiscing about the good old JMU days. We finally came off the swoop trail and began climbing again up a gravel road. A guy with a camera came running down towards us and took a picture of me, right before he asked me why I was walking up the hill when the AS was a quarter mile away?! Thank goodness. It was an otherwise runnable hill, had my head not been pounding and the heat of the day setting in with no shade from the trees. So we started running. And running. And running. “Quarter mile my a$#” I said 10 minutes later when we still weren’t at the top.

AS8->AS9 (56.4 Horton miles)

Right about now is the time I start wishing it were the Hellgate 50 Mile, not the Hellgate 100K. Finally we came to the AS, probably a mile at least up hill from our photographer sighting. Horton quarter miles are tough. I knew I desperately needed to rehydrate and refuel if I wanted to make it out of this race alive. I started chugging water and shoved some pretzels in my mouth from the aid station, at the same time as a half of a bagel that my dad had given me. Coke was my drink of choice now, as I had been craving it in my thirst on the last part of the last section. I took a few minutes to refuel and regroup at this section because I desperately needed to. I knew the next section, the “Forever” section, was the longest of the race and I was mentally prepared to take it. 

The section started out going 3 miles down a mountain on gravel road. And that’s where I really felt my legs. I suspected all the fun times in the race were now over and I prepared myself to enter the tunnel of pain. My legs were sore and my feet were tired and achy and now the downhill road was bringing out the worst of everything. Not to mention I was starting to feel more nauseous. Three miles straight downhill felt like a very long time of running. Some Hellgate veterans actually claim this segment to be “free miles,” because you can pick off the miles probably faster than you have been able to for the entire race. However, I thought these miles were a bit painful for me to consider anything coming for free. And maybe this is where stubbornness can be a good quality to have in ultra running. I estimated that I was probably running just sub 8 minute pace and I was determined to keep up my pace and not slow down, and certainly not walk any part of this.

I was ecstatic to see the course markings for the turn off back onto single track. I have read about a lot of people missing this turn because they were moving so fast down the hill, but trust me, I had had my eyes peeling anticipating that turn for at least 20 minutes! Of course I took the opportunity for a much needed power hike up the first hill segment. I took in some more fluids and took a gel now that my nausea had subsided. I collected myself again and felt ready to go. “Bring on the Forever section!”
This was actually a pretty good section for me. I was expecting it to be long, so no surprises there. Not time to think about seeing an AS for a while. There were a few good steep climbs on the trail, so steep that I had to resort to using Fowlers sign (pushing down through my legs with my hands like a fat kid) to get up the damn things. But honestly, I didn’t mind these short steep climbs. Plus, every time we hit another vertical challenge I would just scream “Bring it on Horton! I OWN THIS MOUNTAIN!” like a maniac. Ian would just laugh at my insanity. For some reason, yelling at Horton throughout various portions of this segment just made everything much more enjoyable.

We started out hiking up most climbs and continued to barrel down the descents at a swift pace. But after a couple more miles I was feeling good running again, and so gave up the power hike completely, and just ran up and down everything and anything, even if it seemed like hiking might be more efficient. I was in a groove and near the end and wasn’t going to let hills slow me down! I had been getting a bit clumsy over the past couple of sections, but this time, instead of muttering obscenities every time I caught my foot and stumbled over a rock, now I would trip and stumble and continue on without even acknowledging anything had happened. Ian laughed at me for this too. There were some long periods of time when neither of us said anything and he could tell I was in my zone, but it felt good to just be running in the presence of someone else. 

And it’s always the best feeling in the world when the AS comes 20 minutes before you are expecting it! The forever section wasn’t so forever after all! And best of all, I could hear Ducky’s voice coming out of the woods. Yahhhhooooooo!!! I reached AS9 in good spirits.

Happy to reach the final aid station!
AS9-Finish: (62.7 Horton miles)

I’m pretty sure showing up to pace someone through the end of a long ultra must be like showing up to the raging party completely sober. I have no idea what was running through Ducky’s mind over the course of this section, but I am sure it was somewhere along the lines of this girl has gone batshit crazy. The first half of this section was probably my worst section of the race while the last half probably the best. 

I don’t really remember at all what I wanted or grabbed at AS9. I had been thinking about this finishing segment ever since laying eyes on the elevation profile of it months ago, and part of me was terrified. Three miles straight up, 3 miles straight down. The climb was going to be a long one, but I was perhaps most dreading what I knew would be a very painful “rocky” descent as described in so many previous race reports. 

So no sooner had I realized I had arrived at the last AS, I had begun my long hiking trek up the mountain. I had thought that I would be relieved to have the running broken up by this long hiking “break” at this point in the race, but I was in such a groove before hitting the AS on the forever section, that all I really wanted to do was to keep running and finish the dang thing. I actually did attempt to run what I considered shallower maybe runnable grades, but it was short-lived and I realized I was pretty much wasting my energy. So hiking it was. It was a really really long hike. Definitely the longest amount of hiking I have ever done in any race. And it definitely wasn’t a “break.” It was actually pretty damn hard to keep up that power hike. Ducky of course was some good company. I didn’t want her to see me struggling now when this was the first time she had seem me all day, and actually in months. My respiratory rate was rather high at this point and so conversation wasn’t flowing smoothly on my end, but Ducky kept my spirits up. At one point I remember she asked me what my strategy was for climbing something like this. In my head I laughed, but all I could say was “Just get up this *%$!ing thing.” I must have been such joyful company. But sure enough, I could tell my biomechanics were beginning to break down and everything started to hurt. Sure my legs were tired and my feet kind of hurt, per the ushe, but now my low back was aching, my SI’s (sacroiliac joints) were screaming at me, and I was aware of the tension in the back of my neck as holding my head up to look upwards up the mountain actually took a good effort. I don’t remember what Ducky was saying but I know it made me feel somewhat better in my misery.

You can really tell I am loving this climb.
I tried not to look at my watch going up that climb, because I knew from reading the previous reports, that this climb was going to take at least 45 minutes. I pushed myself but things hurt and I was running low.  I took a gel and some water trying to hold on to whatever energy I could, after which I wanted to vomit (but suppressed and continued on). I must not have been doing too horribly though, or at least relatively, because I passed a couple of guys going up that RB. But all I could think about was how in the hell am I going to run when I get to the top of this thing??? I felt completely exhausted and totally out of rhythm. Why can’t the end of the race be in the midle of this mountain, at the REAL 100K distance?? Then those annoying words came through my head from someplace within my neglected right brain…If it were easy everyone would do it. That’s right. Damn it.

We finally made it to the top of the mountain, pretty much dead on for my expected 45 minutes. Some guy perched in a lawn chair at the top asked if I wanted water and I might have grunted some kind of “no” response (Man, what great people watching THAT must have been all day) And I didn’t think I would be physically able to, but I started to run. I was determined to end this race with some dignity. And sure enough, everything that really hurt going up the climb screamed in rebellion. This was going to be a looonnnggggg 3 mile descent. 

Then for the first time in a while, I looked at my watch. 13:26. I hadn’t really realized exactly how much under my goal time I was. Then I started thinking about the finish, with my dad and aunt and Ian waiting for me. I came to the realization right then that this whole race was crazy. Stupid and crazy, just like every other one of my long endurance feats I thrive for. And I love it. And then it became clear to me how much my family really must love me to travel to Virginia to drive a car through the desolate mountains through all hours of the night with all my crap, to catch a glimpse of me for a fraction of a minute maybe every couple of hours only to get me everything I decide I want, then cheer for me again as I run away. They support me not because they think I’ll win, but because they would support me in everything I do that makes me happy, even when it’s running through the woods in the middle of the night for 14 hours. And I knew I would do anything to make them proud. They have never been into this stuff and say they could never do it, but I knew there was a part of them with me. No, there was a part of them, quite literally, in me and in the strength of my mind and body that was still pushing on. And there went my overactive amygdala once again as I felt the water welling up in my eyes.

I came out of my deep thoughts and, suddenly, I realized there was no pain anymore. It was a strange feeling, not exactly like running on fresh legs because my legs didn’t feel good, they were just completely numb. I really couldn’t feel them. Part of my left brain wanted to hold up, stop, do some testing, figure out if this could be real, but my right brain was not having it. And for once, it must have taken over. In a matter of seconds I had cut loose the tethers that I now felt like were wrapped around my legs, opened up my stride and started dive bombing down that damn mountain.“I’M FLYINNNNNNNGGGGG!!!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. "ARRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHH!!!!!!” I spread my arms and took it all in. Then opened up faster and let my legs soar. It felt like the closest thing to complete euphoria I have ever felt. The trees around me were whizzing by faster and faster. And when I didn’t think it was possible for me to move any faster, I went faster still. “WWWAAAAAHHHHOOOOOOOO!!!!!” I screamed louder, laughing, half crying, flying, helicoptering my arms down the mountain.

 And with every ridiculous scream, Ducky would reply with an identically ridiculous “ARRRRGGGGHHH” or “YEAAAAAAHHHHHHH YAAHHHOOOO WE’RE FLYINNNNGGGG!!!” It was just like we were two crazy JMU Tri kids again, doing our traditional finals week midnight run through the quad and the libraries, minus the Halloween costumes. Either way, we must have been quite the spectacle for any runner we may have passed, but honestly I don’t remember if we even did. 

We flew over some orange spray paint on the gravel road and I almost didn’t even get to read the big number “1” painted below the orange line. “One mile to go!” Ducky chirped. I glanced at my watch. High minute on 13:46. Three miles my sweet bippy, Horton!

“Do you think we can make it in under 14 minutes to break 14 hours??” I gasped. I didn’t need to ask the question because of course I knew the answer. I just wanted to hear it out loud.

“Hell yeaaahh!”
And I surged harder, still flying, searching for the end, digging deeper. I couldn’t look at my watch again. I didn’t want to know how close or how far. But the end was finally becoming real. And then I saw it—Camp Bethel! We were still screaming. The downhill finally began to level out and I immediately felt the speed in my legs dwindle, and I had to laugh in my head at my gravity assisted pace for the last 20 minutes, but kept pushing on. So, yes, I guess it was a long 3 mile descent, but because it was really 4 miles!

I crossed the orange spray painted finish line of the 66.6 mile "100K" with a clumsy little celebratory finishing jump kick over the line in 13:53, making my last mile at sub 7 minute pace, and a finish time of an hour under what I had previously considered an ambitious goal time. I came in 2nd woman after Kristen Eddy, a Hellgate veteran with many years of ultrarunning experience on me, who finished in about 50 minutes before me at what must have been a blistering pace. Sophie came in about 40 minutes behind me with a new Hellgate PR for herself. I was 26th place out of the 139 starters with all boys included. On the guy's side, three of them broke the old CR, Alister Gardner now having it with a time of 10:52 (ok, so he beat me by less than 3 hours!) Holy smokes, that is fast. Alan finished in around 17:35, giving us both good finishes for our first Hortion 100Ks. I told him I thought his trekking poles weighed him down LOL :-)

I was a bit out of it right after crossing the finish line but must have hugged my aunt, my dad and my pacers Ian and Ducky. And of course, I got my Horton hug that comes with a Hellgate finish. Indeed it was a very happy moment and I was taking in the glory of it all. And, of course, there was that instant amnesia of all the pain and suffering of the day within seconds after crossing the finish line. Such amnesia that I might be crazy enough to do it all again someday. Of course I am going to have to convince my crew again... ;-)
My amazing and dedicated Team Jackie crew.

Forever grateful to Ducky and Ian, greatest teammates a girl could ask for.
Horton hands over my Hellgate winter parka for top 10 (NOT to be confused with top 13. Heheh ;-) )

Post Race:

Somewhat surprisingly, Hellgate turned out to be a pretty good decision afterall. I can certainly call it the best race of my year, in terms of how I felt during the race and post race satisfaction. I was not overly satisfied with my results from my previous and only two 100Ks, both run this year (Bandera and UROC) so this was a great end to the season. And to be honest, although the conditions were mild, I did not think that the technicality portion of this race was nearly as bad as what it has been described in the plethora of race report literature out there. Yes, the amount of mountains and climbing kicked my ass at times, but I only had to slow to walk a couple of very short segments because of rockiness and technicality, and even those were not for more than 15-20 seconds. I definitely could be stronger with my climbing skills, which hopefully will come when I move out of Delaware and get some terrain back in my life, but the Hellgate course was truly awesome and I loved it all (minus the stupid swoops)! You have to work hard on the climbs, but you can make up a lot of time on the descents. Plus, dive bombing down that last mountain to the finish was just plain fun.

And, despite the extreme disturbance in my circadian rhythms and my sleep schedule not being  back to normal for a week, I was able to ace those last two finals (maybe because I was able to stay up all night studying!) just 36 hours after the finish of Hellgate to contribute to a straight line of solid A’s for a semester of PT school at UDPT, which is not too shabby (although I must admit that 4 out of 5 of my courses were on neuro, of which I read for pleasure in my “spare time” :-) ).   

And perhaps even more surprisingly, my legs felt pretty freakin good afterwards. I mean yea I was walking like a cowgirl the day after, but nowhere near anything like the rodeo queen I was after UROC. By Monday I was taking stairs like a champ (up AND down), did some swimming and the day after that I went cycling on a 30+ mile road ride. I intentionally have withheld from doing a ton of running since then, to give my body some peace after this season’s beating and have since been supplementing with some good cross training…swimming, cycling, yoga, resistance training. And, I believe I have found the newest and greatest form of cross training to promote gains in core strength, balance and flexibility in my off season. So get a laundry load of this- Extreme Ironing! 

Aside from the fact that this sport actually exists, it looks awesome. Plus I am tired of looking so disheveled after my ultra events. I may just need to start the Extreme ULTRA Ironing movement. And next MD heights training run, don't be surprised if I come back with a well-starched singlet :-)
(And hopefully someday I can make it to THIS level!!!!).