||Saturday, December 8, 2007
||Natural Bridge Station, VA
||Run - 100 km
||Male 30 - 34
||1 / 105
||Fifth time's the charm!
Some races are isolated events, connected to nothing. Some races are connected to a bigger history. Hellgate, for me, is a race with a history. My history with the race goes like this:
2003 - David Horton announced this new race. 12:01am start time, middle of December, 100K(++) of tough trails... I decided to do it because I had nothing else going on in December, and if it turned out to be a cool event, I'd regret not having been there. Before the event, based on the entry list, I thought I might have a shot at winning it. But at the pre-race check-in, a couple guys who are out of my league showed up. Yet somehow, early in the race, I ended up ahead of them. For 40 miles, I ran as hard as I could, with one eye on the trail, and one eye over my shoulder. Then, 10 miles from the finish, an unknown runner, Ryan Cooper from Boulder, CO, passed me like I was standing still on a climb. I was disappointed, and had a hard time convincing my legs to hold on for another 10 miles. I didn't want to get passed again. I finished in 13 hours for second place.
2004 - Time to try again. Sean Andrish was clearly the favorite. But in a long, hard race like Hellgate, anything can happen. He could have a bad day, I could have a good day! Early in the race, he pulled away from me on a downhill, and I didn't see him again. I made it a point not to ask at the aid stations how far ahead he was. My plan was that I would imagine that he's just out of sight ahead of me. Then, I'd ask the volunteers at the last aid station how far ahead he was, and they'd say, "He just left two minutes ago! If you hurry, you can catch him!" And I'd want it more, so I'd hurry, and I'd catch him! I ran as hard as I could, and I got to the last aid station, exhausted. I asked when Sean had come through. "Oh," they told me, "about an hour and a half ago. He probably finished just a few minutes ago!" *sigh* And as disappointing as that was, near the top of the last climb, just over three miles from the finish, I realized that Keith Knipling was behind me, within spitting distance. No only did I have no chance to catch Sean, but I had to work to stay ahead of Keith. I finished in 12:45 for second place.
2005 - During a winter race in the Blue Ridge mountains, you're likely to come across some ice. This year was unique in that there was little OTHER than ice. During the 20 meter walk from my car to race registration, I almost injured myself. Twice. This would become known as The Ice Year. Me, I had run a marathon PR three weeks earlier, and my legs were still feeling it. I hoped that when the race started, everything would come together, and I would be able to run. I also hoped that I would win the lottery, discover a cure for cancer and end hunger. None of those happened. Instead I struggled through the race, never quite feeling good. I finished in 14:35 for eighth place.
2006 - By this point, I had come to terms with my inability to run a mountain trail ultramarathon well if I had only trained for road marathons. At registration, when Horton asked, "YOU GONNA GET THAT WINNER'S JACKET THIS YEAR?" I told him that I had given up on winning. I was going for a 10-year finisher's jacket. I didn't expect to have a great race, but I didn't expect a terrible race either. From the start, while the spirit was strong, neither the legs nor the stomach was willing. I struggled through extremely cold temperatures and harsh wind. After 20 miles, I decided that I'd just do my best to enjoy the rest of the day. I took advantage of all the aid stations had to offer. While I normally just fill my bottles and go, this year, I was having soup, hot chocolate, scrambled eggs. I spent time running with Ryan Henry and Bethany Patterson, and when Bethany's vision started to deteriorate due to the cold and wind, I walked with her to the next aid station over some tricky trail that can be hazardous even to the fully sighted. I caught up to Kevin Bligan, who had his own problem in the form of a knee cap he had cracked several weeks prior. He kept me motivated through the long section near the end that has become known as The Forever Section. I enjoyed a much more social race, but I was hours slower than my best time. I finished in 16:10 for 31st place.
Which brings us to 2007. I had spent the Summer and Fall training for road marathons. My training had been rather similar to 2006. Despite not achieving my main marathon goal in the Fall, I had been running well. A few weeks before the race, I joined Horton and several other runners for a training run on the first 23 miles of the course. During that run, between what I said and how I ran, Horton got the silly notion that I'd do well at Hellgate this year. I tried to persuade him that I can run just fine for about two and a half hours, but after that, the smart money is on someone else. I told him, I got no skillz on hillz! To all of which, he responded, "The runner doth protest too much."
The week before the race, Mike Schuester asked if I would try to stay at the front at the beginning. I have had a wide variety of experiences with this race. I wasn't running to prove anything or to win anything. In the beginning, several years ago, it was a race. But as the front of the race grew ever farther from my grasp, it became something else. It was an anchor in my year. It's a reset button. By December, life is so busy, and my mind is so cluttered that I struggle to fit 24 hours into a day. Then I start running south from the north end of the Glenwood Horse Trail one night, and --- maybe because the task itself is so difficult --- by the time I get to the other end of the trail, everything else seems easy. From adversity comes clarity. I was returning to this race for a fifth time for that clarity.
I would be running for me. I wasn't planning on doing anything based on the leaders. I had been able to run 13 hours the first year of the race. I felt I should be able to do that again. That's what I told Mike. I told him that I would run however I felt. It seemed that 13 hours was reasonable. But there were a lot of strong runners on the entry list. Thirteen hours should be good enough for a top 10 finish. "But," I told him, "someone is going to win this race in eleven and a half hours."
A couple days before the race, Horton sent out the final entry list --- the one with race numbers listed. David Horton is not shy about sharing his opinion, and David Horton loves the competition of ultramarathons in the same way that some people love pro football. Thus, whereas some race directors avoid the possible discomfort of letting their race favorites be known, Horton always seeds his races. And at the top of his list, next to race #1, was my name. Clearly, I failed to impress upon him exactly HOW MUCH I wasn't planning on winning.
I've done races where I've surprised everyone by exceeding their expectations. I've also done races where I've surprised everyone by failing to live up to their expectations. This race was going to be of the latter variety. But that's okay. If I hadn't learned not to worry about the expectations of other people, I would have stopped racing long ago.
After the pre-race dinner, the course briefing and a bit of down-time, I rode with Keith Knipling, Mike, Jen and Nancy (who would be crewing for Mike) and Bryan Banning (a fellow racer who Mike had met at dinner, and who needed a ride) to the start. Unlike most years, the start was warm --- in the 40s. Usually, waiting for the race to start, standing around in running clothes when the temperature is in the 20s or teens, is a painful experience.
At 12:01am, I started running. And I felt... Well, fine. Some people were running faster, but I had no desire to try to keep up with them. I was content jogging at my pace. I was content to be jogging at all. Earlier, at dinner, when I saw Annette Bednosky, she said, "I am SO happy to be here! There is NO PLACE in the world I would rather be right now!" Being from the greater Washington, DC, metropolitan area, where we don't readily express such sincere cheeriness and enthusiasm, I wasn't sure how to take that. I stuttered for a moment before asking if she was being sincere or sarcastic. She was being sincere. And while I didn't share that exact sentiment as we sat in the dining hall of a camp somewhere off the grid near Fincastle, VA, when I started running, everything sort of clicked into place.
During the first 13 miles, I had some interaction with other runners. Keith and Don pulled ahead at the beginning. I seemed to be running at about the same pace as Serge. I said hello to Robert in the first couple miles. Mike and Alex caught up, and went by. Serge and I leapfrogged each other for a while. Mike and Alex came back. Keith and Don came back. Serge dropped back a little.
Then I was alone.
Four years prior, in the first Hellgate, it was at almost exactly the same point in the race, just after the third aid station, Camping Gap, 13 miles into the race, when I found myself alone in the lead. There was a thin blanket of snow on the ground, which turned the mountains to silver in the light of the full moon. On that night, I decided that I would try to get out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind. I turned off my flashlight, and ran by moon light. I wanted to win, so I ran hard. I only needed to stay in front of everybody else. And my plan worked. It worked, until it didn't anymore, 40 miles later when, after running harder for longer than I thought I could, I was passed.
But in 2007, there was no moon. There was no snow. Yet there I was, at the front of the race once again after 13 miles. There are no do-overs in life; you make your choice, and you move on. Sure. But to be at that point, in that position, in those conditions... If ever there was a do-over, this was it. The race in 2003 was bittersweet for me. I enjoyed so much about the race, yet I came away with a sense of disappointment. I suppose I felt that I had something to prove --- to myself, and to everybody else. If Ryan Cooper hadn't shown up that day, I would have won, and I wouldn't have felt that disappointment. But he did, so I didn't. Yet I had no control over his race schedule.
Life becomes unnecessarily complicated when we use the wrong metrics. In 2003, for 40 miles, I measured how well I was running against how fast I thought Clark Zealand and Courtney Campbell might be running. After that, I measured my success against Ryan's. Running down that grassy road by the light of my flashlight in 2007, it all seemed so clear: none of that mattered. I was having one of those rare runs when almost everything seemed easy. And the things that didn't seem easy felt difficult in a deeply satisfying way, as if I were stretching after a long nap. To throw away that sort of run by measuring it against a hypothesis of what other people might be doing or feeling at some given moment would be a tragic waste. In 2007, the only thing I had to prove was that I had nothing to prove.
I ran my own race. I did look over my shoulder occasionally, and I wondered how far back the next runner was. But I was comfortable because I knew that I was running my own race. It didn't matter if, when I looked back, there was anyone there or not. Either way, I would continue to run exactly as I had been running: steady, controlled, relaxed.
The fourth aid station is normally at the top of Headforemost Mountain. Due to a closure of the Blue Ridge Parkway (due, in turn, to ice), the aid station was at the bottom of the mountain in 2007. A volunteer at the aid station asked how much time I had on the next runner. That's the million dollar question! As I left the aid station, and started the climb up the mountain, I listened. When I arrived at the aid station, the volunteers cheered. It was two or three minutes after I left before I heard the next cheer.
I looked at my watch for the first time at the top of the mountain, when I passed the normal location of the aid station. It was around 3:50am. The actual distance of the race is 66 miles. The actual distance of that point in the race is a little under 24 miles. My previous best time on the course had been 12:45, and I had never gotten to Headforemost Mountain feeling as good as I did this year.
I believe that a big part of the problem I've had with long, difficult races in the past is that I wouldn't eat enough. I definitely wouldn't eat enough at night. I can go pretty far on limited food. Although I might be fine if I run for three hours without any food, I won't do so well if I have another 10 hours to run after that. Sometimes, it's too much of a hassle to eat. That's particularly true when running at night, and you're on trails, trying to keep the rubber side down. Whether bombing down a hill, or grinding up a hill, dividing your focus to retrieving and consuming calories ruins the rhythm. But it has to happen. It's gotta, gotta, gotta happen. Sure, it might ruin the rhythm for a few moments to retrieve and consume some calories, but if you put it off, if you skip eating and let yourself fall into deep caloric debt, that rhythm gets taken off the shelf, thrown on the floor and stomped on until it's in a thousand tiny pieces, and all the king's horses and all the king's men could not put it back together again.
I had a new pack on. It had compartments in the front, for easy access. I bought it specifically for this race. I needed to minimize the number of barriers between me and food. I used the pack for a couple months, trying different foods that would survive a long run in the pack, and would be easy to consume. Even during the day, I practiced keeping my eyes on the trail (as I would have to do at night, when I would only be able to see the small circle illuminated by my flashlight) while using one hand (since the other hand would be holding a flashlight) to unzip a compartment, get some food, put it in my mouth, and close the compartment again. The plan was to start with enough food and high calorie drink to get me to Headforemost Mountain, then, I would restock with the contents of my drop bag. That would be enough to get me through the next third of the race, to aid station 7, Bearwallow Gap. Then I'd restock again, for the final third. Of all the years I had done this race, I felt that this year, I had arrived at my best laid plan.
It was at Headforemost Mountain where the plan went awry. Aside from not being able to position the aid station in the normal place, the race was not able to deliver the drop bags to the aid station. So at that aid station, and the next, and the one after that, I had to be very deliberate. When I arrived at the fifth aid station, Jennings Creek, I took my time to make sure that I had everything I needed before continuing onward. As I approached, I had to focus. I was not sleepy or fatigued, so there was no reason for me to waste any time doing anything that would not move me forward. But I no longer had the luxury of operating on an established plan, so I could not afford to rush the process and make clumsy mistakes.
I got food, drink, I had some soup, and I took inventory several times. Then I marched back into the darkness. Climbing out of the valley, I listened once again for the cheers from the aid station. After about five minutes, it came. The gap was increasing, but ever so slightly.
The sixth aid station is at Little Cove Mountain. I had never reached Little Cove Mountain before sunrise. In my best years, I have reached the aid station just after sunrise. And as the sun rises at Little Cove Mountain, I feel like I have survived --- as if the rest of the race is a minor detail. But that's not really true at all. In reality, Little Cove Mountain is barely past the half-way point on the course. The remaining 31 miles has less climbing, but more technical trails than the first 35 miles of the course. So depending on who you ask, the second half is either easier or harder. Either way, I've never needed a flashlight for any of it. This year, I would need it for another 45 minutes.
Beyond aid station 6, before the trail turns back into gnarly, off-camber, rocky, leaf-covered, single track trail, there is a long, grassy road. As I ran on that road, I thought back again to 2003. I remembered feeling spent. I remembered willing myself to run, for fear that otherwise, I'd be caught. I remembered slowing to a walk during any of the few slight inclines. But on this day, in 2007, it was still easy.
"This is how it should be," I thought. Every amature athlete --- every athlete who runs despite the greater responsibilities of life rather than to meet the greater responsibilities of life --- faces the same question at some point: why do it? There are many answers to that question. To see how far I can push myself. To prove that I can do it. So I can eat whatever I want. Because I had nothing else to do just then.
To me, that's just post hoc rationalization. Maybe not entirely, but those reasons that we share with acquaintances over cocktails at holiday parties only skim the edges of our reasoning. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. We humans, we gotta create. The need to create --- the need to expend energy to bring something into existence even if it has no benefit to our own survival --- that makes us human. And, quite possibly, that made us human. A dancer or painter appeals to some innate, visual aesthetic. A mathematician manipulates higher order logic to bring forth new equations that demonstrate the elegance, the simplicity, of the universe. Even the corporate executive who continues to work despite having made his fortune --- even he creates when he balances economic theory with corporate law (or not) to strengthen his position in the marketplace.
Just as the painter, dancer, mathematician or corporate executive creates, so does the runner. But while the painter, dancer, mathematician or corporate executive feel both the joy of meeting the human need to create, and the pleasure of seeing some final product, the runner only has the former.
Somehow, even as we are fortunate enough as creatures to be able to derive joy from activities that are intentional, yet do not contribute to our immediate survival, we still judge our successes by external factors. Even the painter, after he paints his chef d'oeuvre, might judge his success by his assessment of how the paint lays on the canvas after he is done, rather than by the transcendent satisfaction he felt while painting it. Yet without that satisfaction --- with only judgment on the final product --- there would be nothing driving him to paint.
So at those cocktail parties, the reasons that come out for running long distances in the woods tend toward values that are meaningful after the fact. But as I ran down that grassy road, a little more than half way through the race, a few minutes before sunrise, what drove me forward had nothing to do with pushing myself to new heights or being able to eat more pie the following week. What drove me forward was the transcendent satisfaction of creating my experience. There would be no tangible product of the experience. (There would be some race schwag. But that's not a product of the experience in the most literal sense. It's merely peripheral to the experience.) As soon as I would finish, there would be nothing but sore muscles. Yet the satisfaction of the moment was enough. "This is how it should be," I thought.
At Bearwallow Gap, the seventh aid station, I finally saw my drop bag. I was back on plan. Again, I moved through the aid station deliberately, moving as fast as I could, without risking carelessness. Every year, before the race, I believe that I'm going to run conservatively to Bearwallow Gap, then push myself through the final third of the race. And every year, by the time I reach Bearwallow Gap, it is all I can do not to curl up in a little ball on the side of the trail, shaking with dread of the climb out of the gap to the next ridge. This year was the first year that that was not the case. I was ready, finally, to push myself, to start racing in earnest. Jen and Nancy were there, as was Horton. I asked what kind of lead I had at the previous aid station. They estimated somewhere around 10 minutes. I was still being chased, and I could still be caught, but the gap was moving in the right direction (from where I stood).
Ten miles later, on a climb that came early in "The Forever Section," I felt like there was someone behind me. I turned around, and there was no one there. A few moments later, again I turned, and again, there was no one. This was where, four years prior, after running in the lead for 40 miles, I was passed. I had been hiking up the hill, and suddenly, there was someone behind me. Moments later, he was ahead of me. An entirely unspectacular moment out of context --- "Good job," I said. "You too," he replied as he moved past. --- but one that was so emotional that years later, I cannot pass the same spot without experiencing sharp, visceral recall.
The truth is that I still wanted to win. I'm a different person in 2007 than I was in 2003. My view of what draws me the trails and to races is more whole. However I run, and however anyone else runs, the experience of running this race informs who I am. Whether I finish in 12:45 for second place, as I did in 2004, or 16:10 for 31st place, as I did in 2006, the experience contributes to who I am. So to try to resent any of those experiences is to resent a part of myself. I had been running well since midnight, and with relatively few miles between me and the finish, it was all but certain that I would run well for the rest of the race. I cannot recall a race that felt so effortless and right. Knowing all of that, if someone could catch me and pass me, then that person deserves to win.
None of that is incompatible with my own desire to win. It's separate from what motivates me to run, but it is just as real. I had entered new territory; I had never been in the lead at this point in the race. Someone behind me could have reached Bearwallow Gap feeling even better than I felt. With more than 20 miles between there and the finish, a 10 minute cushion is not a lot. I had reached Bobblet's Gap, the eighth aid station ahead of anyone who could give me an update on the standings, and the same would probably be the case at the final aid station, aid station 9, Day Creek. The only way to run would be to assume that I was loosing ground.
I pushed through to Day Creek, and I beat the aid station to the aid station. A ham radio operator had arrived early, and he was able to fill one of my bottles with some water he had in his thermos. I took that as a good omen --- I got everything I needed, but I was ahead of everybody's schedule. As I hiked and ran up the final three mile climb, I started to let myself think that it could happen. Even if someone else is stronger on trails, I have top-end speed on my side. If someone passes me on the climb, I have a three mile descent to the finish to make it up. I still worked to stay in front, but the closer I got to the top, the more I felt the race was mine.
I crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway, at the top of the climb, in the lead, still with no one in sight behind me. I started the final descent --- slowly, at first, as my legs adapted to the downhill. Then faster and faster. I saw the photographer, and I knew I was approaching the final mile. I saw Horton, who had come out to see me near the end. I saw the marker that Horton had placed to indicate one mile to go. Every year, he wheels and marks the final mile. It's slightly downhill on a dirt road, with a little incline in the last quarter mile to the finish line. It's the place to test what you have left. Horton yelled, "You have seven minutes and forty second to break 11:30!" A 7:40 downhill mile was no problem. I just opened up and let gravity pull me in.
I crossed the finish line in 11:28:13. First place. I had nothing left. It was all I could do to brace my fall as I crumpled to the ground two feet beyond the line. Horton immediately grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet. "No, no, no... You don't want to do that," he told me. I was too overwhelmed to be able to say anything. I could hardly stand up. The world was spinning. I couldn't talk. I felt wonderful. Horton was excited for me. "He's only been trying to win this for three years!" Horton announced to the small group of people who happened to be gathered.
I tried to correct him, but the words wouldn't come out. I shook my head and took a hand of my knee, and held it open, with all fingers extended.
"Oh RIGHT! Five years!" He laughed. "Tell me, Aaron, out of all the races you've run, out of all the events you've completed, tell me... What you just did here... If you were to rank it... How special is that to you?"
Again, I tried, but the words wouldn't come out. But again, it was easy enough to say what I wanted to say. I held up my hand again, this time, with only one finger extended.
"Yup," Horton said, "that's it. Right there."