||Saturday, December 13, 2003
||Natural Bridge Station, VA
||Run - 100 km
||Male 25 - 29
||2 / 71
||70+ starters, 44 finishers... 13,000+ feet of climbing, rocky trails, cold weather
(To anyone who enjoys course elevation profiles, you can get a little more insight about this race here:
The race was the Hellgate 100K --- 100 kilometers of challenging, hilly trails. I went to the race with the idea that I had a good shot at winning, but when I picked up my race number --- number five --- I knew that there must have been some fast people who registered after the last list of entrants had been published. I glanced through the registration list from across the registration table and found Clark Zealand and Courtney Campbell in the list. "Well," I thought, "so much for the win." I can hold my own against most folks, but those guys are in a different league.
The feature that did most to distinguish this race from others was the start time: 12:01 am. I have my prerace system down pretty well. I know when to wake up and what to eat (and when to eat it) and how I should spend the last few minutes (or hours) before the race. But with a midnight start, everything I know goes out the window. We had a big lasagna dinner, then a prerace briefing on Saturday night. After that, we had a couple hours before we'd need to make our way to the start (this, being a point-to-point course).
I got a ride to the start with Eric Ivey and his wife, Michelle. When it was time to leave the warmth and comfort of the heated seats in the car for a dark trailhead, air temperature in the 20s, and a guaranteed calf-deep stream crossing in the first three miles, I had second thoughts.
There would be nine aid stations along the course. We could send a drop bag to aid station four, at mile 22, and to aid station seven, at mile 42. My strategy was to stop to replenish supplies from my drop bag, and to race very conservatively through mile 42. Before reaching the first aid station, passed a small pack of runners. We were heading down a hill, and I tend to be a strong downhill runner. As I passed, we exchanged greeting. One of them asked who I was. "Aaron. And who are you?"
"Clark." So this had to be Clark Zealand. I had figured that I was pretty close to the front of the race, but with the start in the dark, I could get a good estimate of how many people were ahead of me on the trail. After passing that pack, at the bottom of the hill, I though about slowing myself a bit. In the week before the race, I had spent time mentally preparing myself to run at the right pace for ME for the distance. In my mind, that had meant that if someone was running faster than me, and I couldn't keep up, I wouldn't speed up. At this point, I realized that it ALSO meant that just because I was passing someone who I "shouldn't" be passing, if I was running at my own pace, I shouldn't necessarily slow down. It's a fine balancing act, racing to the best of your ability, but not so hard that you sacrifice the later miles for the earlier ones.
I continued at my own pace, and eventually, there was one more runner ahead of me. I had a good idea about who it was. He slowed a little to let me catch up, and asked who I was.
"Aaron Schwartzbard. And who are you?"
"Darn! Then you know what that means..."
"I'm running faster than I should!"
He asked if I had seen Clark, and I explained that he couldn't be too far back. And as the path went upward, he pulled away. While I didn't try to keep up as he pulled away, I didn't ease back either. I just stuck with the pace that was right for me.
We were on a gravel road at this point, and as we moved higher up the mountain, the road grew more and more covered with snow and ice. I found that I'd slip more when I tried to walk than when I jogged easily, so I stuck with a slow, steady jogging pace. Courtney was alternating between walking and running, so I'd approach him as he was walking, then he'd pull away as he'd start to run. The moon lit the ground, so I could turn off my light, and just enjoy the motion.
After cresting the climb, we were back on single-track. Downhill --- my brier patch. I turned my light on again and hammered down the hill. It required intense focus. I knew that as it was the middle of the night, I was probably less alert than I realized. And here I was, flying down rocky, twisty, single-track trails at full bore. I had to keep an eye on the ground near my feet to avoid tripping over rocks, and I had to keep another eye 20-30 feet ahead of me on the trail. If I were to forget to keep looking ahead, and I came across a large blow-down or a sharp turn, my race could end right there. My SEASON could end right there! Any change in direction would require at least 20 feet of lead-in. By the time the hill bottomed out, I was buzzing, high on adrenaline.
Starting up the next climb, I caught up to Courtney again. He and I leap-frogged several times over the next few miles, neither of us moving more that a dozen or so meters ahead of the other, and each of us moving at our own paces. The next aid station was at Camping Gap, 13 miles into the race. I was first through there, and the trail became wide and runnable on the other side. I was still running with my original plan --- run my own race, conservatively through the first 42 miles. But the situation had changed several times since I made those plans. First, Clark and Courtney showed up. Then, I found myself in front of both of them.
It was very possible that I was already running too hard. I just don't have experience at this distance. But I felt like I was running at a reasonable pace. Courtney was having foot problems, which is why he wasn't already far ahead of me. I felt that if I wanted to run to my best advantage, I'd have to push the downhills. I thought that if I could work the downhills, I could build a gap. The trick would be not loosing that gap on the climbs. Not having as much experience or miles in my legs as my pursuers, I'd guess that near the end, I'd fade quite a bit while they would still be running strong. But if I could create enough of a gap, by the time I'd fade, I wouldn't even be on their radars. Out of sight, out of mind. Even if it wouldn't work, I'd have nothing to lose; with my original plan, I'd never get out of sight of Courtney, and even with his injured foot, I'd have no chance of winning a close race with him over the last few miles.
I turned off my flashlight. The sky was clear, and we had a beautiful waning gibbous moon overhead to light up the ground. On the climbs and flats, I'd run by moonlight so that people behind me wouldn't be able to track me. The downhills, though, required my flashlight. I was running the downhills hard. Very hard. Stupid hard. I was running down rocky hills faster than I would in daylight, jumping over rocks and roots, skirting blow-downs, practically skidding around switchbacks. And at the bottom, as soon as the momentum had run out, the light went off, leaving me running blind for a second or two before my eyes would adapt.
I reached the aid station at mile 22, and I stopped for the first time. It was a glorious stop, too! After 22 miles of running (mostly alone) through trails at night, it was in front of some of the only people out there that I hit a patch of ice, and went flying, landing firmly on my butt. After uncooly playing it off, I found my drop bag, asked a volunteer to refill my bottles, drank a can of Ensure, and swapped my used Hammer Gel flasks for fresh ones. Runners were allowed to bring one drop bag. All drop bags would be transferred from mile 22 to mile 42 after the last runner passed the aid station at mile 22. Knowing how difficult the course was, I thought that there was a possibility that some of the last runners might not make it through in time for the drop bags to be transported before I got to mile 42. I decided to take enough Hammer Gel to finish the race. Better to be safe than sorry.
Leaving the aid station, the volunteers warned me to be careful not to fall again. I assured them that the fall they saw was my first fall so far, and that I wouldn't fall again. I promptly fell again, landing on my pack (bursting a five ounce flask of Hammer Gel, I was to find out later). As I got up and started running, I realized for the first time since before the start that it was cold outside. At this point, the temperature was probably somewhere around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. I was comfortable while running before the aid station, and I was still warm when I stopped at the aid station. Even the stream crossings --- I never attempted to keep my feet dry --- didn't bother me. I had been working hard. But as I started to move again, the cold caught up with me and stuck with me for long enough to remind of how much was beyond my control.
Within a few minutes of leaving that aid station, I came across someone on the trail hanging a glow stick.
He asked, "Are you a runner?"
"Yes I am!"
"You're not supposed to be here yet!"
Things were about to get especially tricky. Up to this point, the occasional glow stick hanging from a tree alerted me that I had not gone off the trail. More importantly, glow sticks marked turns that would otherwise be easily missed. I was ahead of schedule, so I wouldn't have any more glow sticks marking the trail. There were orange ribbons every hundred meters, but they were intended as post-sunrise aid, and were nearly invisible in the dark. I could easily miss a turn, and every junction would require special attention. In addition to watching for rocks and roots, running slight harder than I felt I could go for the distance (by this point, I was starting to become nauseous), occasionally looking over my shoulder for any sign of someone catching me and trying to minimize my flashlight usage, I had to keep an eye out for semi-invisible strips of orange ribbon at random intervals and locations on and around the trail.
A few things were going through my mind. "Race the downhills." "Stay focused." "Say 'NO' to vomit." "Keep an eye out for orange ribbons." I lost the trail once. When I pointed my light down the trail to make sure an orange ribbon was somewhere ahead, and when I could see none, I decided to head back down the short, but steep, hill I had just climbed. When I came back to a ribbon, I found the turn down a trail that I had not seen at all in the dark. I paid more attention to the trails after that, and didn't miss a turn again.
After the next aid station, aid station five, the course climbed up a long gravel road. As the road went higher and higher, it became icier and icier. It was a long slow hike up the road. If it had been light out, I believe I would have had an incredible view in to a valley. As it was, I was concerned that with road being so wide, I could easily miss a turn. I spent too much time with my light on. Anyone in the valley could have seen my light scanning through the trees and along the ground on the sides of the road, looking for ribbons.
As the road wound up the mountain, to my right was dirt and trees. To my left, the ground plummeted into darkness. I looked into the darkness below and wondered where the next runner was. He had the advantage: at the aid stations, he could ask when I came through. I, on the other hand, had no idea whether I was five minutes ahead or 50 minutes ahead. Was I making time or losing time? All I knew was that I was running scared. I wanted to hang onto the lead for as long as possible. It's a rough feeling when you have to put forth 100 percent effort to maintain the status quo.
After an eternity of climbing, I found David Horton waiting at the top, hanging a glow stick at the point when the course heads into the woods. He had driven a car up the road, whereas on this night he would have been better off in a Zamboni. He was clearly concerned about the situation with the glow sticks (or lack thereof), but I assured him that it didn't cause any significant problems for me. He described the course to the next aid station, and I continued down the trail. Several miles down the trail, I saw a headlamp running toward me. It was Horton again, this time running, taking the glow stick situation fully into his own hands.
Less than a quarter mile later, I was on another gravel road. The sun would be rising soon. I started the hike up the road and as I climbed, the sky grew lighter and lighter. I passed aid station six, calling out my number, catching them somewhat by surprise.
"You're a runner?"
"Awesome job! You're an hour ahead of schedule!"
Though I didn't stop, I thought about how happy runners would be to arrive at that aid station in a few hours. Supposedly, there would be real breakfast food --- pancakes, sausages, eggs and whatnot. If I hadn't been on the verge of loosing my Hammer Gel for the previous several hours, it would have sounded terribly tempting!
At the prerace meeting, Horton warned that the following section would seem to go on and on. For a few miles, I was confused. The trail was on an overgrown jeep road. It was very runnable, and I took full advantage of it. With the sunrise, I got a (short-lived) second wind. I was pushing the pace, running every bit I could to stay ahead of the runners who, I was sure, were just behind me. Shortly after I arrived at the single-track portion of this section, I understood. The trail was either 1) rocky and leaf-covered, 2) narrow and slanted, 3) steep, or 4) all of the above.
The miles and terrain were taking a toll. I was still running, but it was getting difficult. In most long races, I would occasionally ease up to avoid pushing myself beyond my capabilities. But if I never push my boundaries, I would never know what my capabilities are. In this race, I had decided to push those boundaries to the end.
By the time I reached the aid station at mile 42, I was ready for the "nice" section that supposedly followed. I needed a reprieve from the rocks and hills. I found my drop bag, which had been transported as promised, and took my second stop of the race. While a volunteer refilled my water bottles, I drank a can of Ensure. Horton was there, and he encouraged me to hurry, "because if you REALLY hurry, you still have a chance to break 12 hours!" I informed him that there would be no hurrying in the remainder of my race. As he had in the prerace meeting, he promised that the next section would be one of the nicest sections of the course. "You have about a mile of climbing up to the ridge, then you follow the ridge line, with a beautiful view of the valley to your right, all the way to the next aid station."
I mistakenly interpreted that to mean that along the ridge, the trail would be relatively flat. I was wrong. The trail was lovely. The view was beautiful. And if I hadn't already run more than 42 miles, I'm sure I would have had a fantastic time up there. As it was, the hills along the ridge, while never terribly long, were straight and steady. My physical decline had come into full force. Each time the trail curved into the ridge, I would sight the farthest point on the trail I could see. When I'd get to that point, I'd turn back to see if Courtney or Clark had caught up to within a few hundred meters of me. I was slowing down significantly, and I expected that for the rest of the race, they would be eating into the time cushion I had built. I didn't know what effects Courtney's foot problems would have on his race, and I didn't know that Clark had been forced to drop at mile 13 due to hip problems. All I knew was 1) I was glad every time I turned around and saw nobody behind me, 2) I had to continue to work as hard as I could until I reached the finish line, and 3) don't vomit.
At every previous aid station, as I approached, I'd wipe the snot from my nose and at least try to pass the volunteers running. Gotta look good, don'cha know! When aid station eight came into view, at the top of a hill, I didn't even bother. I recognized some of the volunteers from several of the other aid stations. As I walked toward the aid station, I called to one of the guys I recognized, "I thought that section was supposed to be EASY!"
"After you left the last aid station, Horton said, 'This section's NICE, but it's not EASY.'"
"I THOUGHT it was supposed to be EASY!"
In the middle of the aid station, the ground leveled out, and I was able to start running again. One of the volunteers chided me for having walked.
"Walked?!?!" I replied with a laugh, "SHHH! Don't tell anyone I WALKED! Tell 'em I RAN the WHOLE WAY!"
Amused, she called after me, "You've been cheery since five AM!"
Funny... I didn't FEEL so cheery. Well, that's not entirely true. I didn't feel energetic or comfortable or relaxed (I was, after all, the hunted at this point). But as much as I was hurting, I was happy to be there, feeling intense highs and lows through this difficult, amazing adventure. Someone might live an entire lifetime, and only have such intense experiences --- either good or bad --- enough times to count on one hand. Within the course of a single race, I've had many of those sorts of experiences. And now that I know that those sorts of experiences are so accessible, it would be difficult to live without them.
So I ran down a long hill, and I realized that by now, even my downhill running was suffering. I was still watching my back, looking down long sections of trail for anyone following me, and still, to my relief, no one was there. The trail started upward again, and I was reduced to walking again, walking as fast as I could. The trail turned back on itself, and I could see not too far in the distance another runner. Maybe he wasn't a racer, I thought. Maybe he was just out for a jog! Or maybe he was a volunteer, traveling between aid stations. But no, I could see that he was wearing a number. He was moving faster than I was, certainly. I had a few more minutes in the lead --- a lead that I had held for 40 miles --- but the pass was inevitable.
When he passed me, he did so authoritatively. He was running up the hill much faster than I could walk up it. I offered my good wishes, and in moments, he was out of sight. Part of me wanted to give up at that point. I don't mean that I wanted to quit the race (well, a PART of me did, but that wasn't an option), and I don't mean that I was frustrated at all. To the contrary, I was very happy with my effort, and that I had done so well for so long. What I mean is that now that I was no longer in the lead, I wanted to stop the intense push, and take it easy for the rest of the race. I gave it my best shot while I was in the lead, but now, it didn't seem to matter whether I finished in second or fifth or tenth place. I considered the possibilities, and it didn't take long to realize what I was going to do: I was going to continue pushing myself as intensely as I had up to that point. I was only getting slower, and even at maximal intensity, I could still fall back several more places. But after crossing the finish line, if I could tell myself that I raced the entire race as hard as possible, my satisfaction would be far greater than if I were to treat the rest of the race as a leisurely stroll through the woods. That would be true no matter who did or did not pass me.
Despite my steady resolve, my legs were done. They were done climbing, they were done descending, they were done pushing me over the rocky flats. The only paces left for me were "tortured grind" and "painful shuffle." I was still looking over my shoulder, hoping no one was behind me, but I really just wanted to make it to the last aid station.
When I arrived at the last aid station, several volunteers were waiting, ready to offer assistance. They asked, "Do you want anything?"
"Yeah," to stop, to be done, to lie down, "to die."
But I kept moving. I remembered looking at the map before the race, and it seemed that the last section consisted of one long climb, and one long descent, to get over one last mountain and to reach the finish. The gravel road turned into a jeep road, which turned into an over-grown jeep road. The grade remained constant as I made my way up in a tortured grind. Even though I was moving as fast as I possible could, I was sure that no one in the world could have climbed that hill more slowly. I was happy finally to see the road disappear behind a ridge ahead, but again and again, it curved around to a higher ridge, then one higher, and yet again one higher, each hidden by the previous. When I finally saw a gate across the road, and the Blue Ridge Parkway on the other side of the gate, I knew I was finally at the top. So close to the end of this race, with the last major climb behind me, I could surely take a moment to lay my head on the gate to catch my breath. When I reached the gate, I saw a race volunteer waiting, watching for fast-moving cars on the parkway and race-weary running crossing the road, so that n'er the twain should meet.
I save my moments of weakness for times when I'm alone in the woods. So rather than stopping at the gate, I continued to move forward. On the other side of the parkway, the descent began, and I shifted gears to start my painful shuffle down the hill. My quads were so far gone that each time a foot hit the ground, the muscular shock ran through my body. It was like jumping into cold, cold water: knowing of the sensation to come would do nothing to abate it. Yet the descent felt much shorter than the climb. I had traveled from the valley floor, over the parkway, then back down to the valley floor on the other side. Knowing I was almost done made me anxious. I couldn't let anyone pass me now. I passed the marker the Horton had placed one mile from the finish. One more mile --- and not even a TRAIL mile (which is at least SLIGHTLY longer than a STATUTE mile) --- remaining. I put everything I had remaining into that mile. I followed the last few ribbons until the finish chute was in view. The finish chute was in front of me, but no one was there. Where was everyone? Hello? I'm about to finish! I'd like someone to write down my number and time!
Before I could grow too concerned, people came out of the building next to the finish line. I had forgotten that the temperature was still probably on the low side of 30 degrees. They cheered and I finished, and... Well, just that. I finished. Finished. Done. Not just with the race, but physically, mentally done.
They guy who passed me, Ryan Cooper, from Boulder, CO, finished a half hour ahead of me. He ran a stellar race. If he had finished only a few minutes ahead of me, I would have to struggle with questions of where I could have raced smarter to save time, or if I could have gone faster if I had raced more conservatively at the beginning. As it was, there wasn't any question about whether I could have won: I couldn't have. And that's a good thing. I raced hard, I took risks and pushed my limits, and I finished in the best place I could.
I didn't have many well formed thoughts during the 13 hours I was on the course, but several times, while looking behind me, fearing another running creeping up on me, I thought about all the people who would be looking behind them, fearing the race cut-offs --- seven hours for 22 miles, 12.5 hours for 42 miles and 18 hours for the entire race --- creeping up on them. (Eighteen hours is just not a lot of time to cover that course!) I knew that Hellgate would be difficult, but like so many people who stood at the starting line, I didn't realize HOW difficult it would be.
When I sent in my application for this race, it was only a couple weeks before the race. I sent an e-mail to David Horton to let him know that a new application was on its way, and to apologize for sending it in so late. He replied, "Come on down for the adventure." Adventure, not race. He was right. Running through the cold, the night, the hills and rocks and streams...
Yes, it was an adventure. In the beginning, I only had the faintest of ideas of what lay ahead of me. Once it started, I committed to it fully, and suddenly I was in the mud, wrestling this terrible gorilla, knowing I could never beat the gorilla, but also knowing that I would fight as hard as I could for as long as I could. Like any good adventure, the terms were not up to me --- we were fighting on the gorillas terms. If I had just decided to stop fighting at some point, the gorilla would have broken me. It was only over when the gorilla decided that he was done with me, that he didn't feel like wrestling anymore, that he'd rather go eat a banana. Only then could I stumble away, bruised, battered, worse for the wear.
What's the point? Why would I challenge that gorilla when the BEST I could hope for would be to survive? The answer is this: I now know that that gorilla won't beat me. He can wear me down. He can take me to an ugly place that most people never experience. But he won't beat me. While knowing that fact is, in once sense, deeply satisfying, it doesn't satiate my hunger. If anything it whets my appetite for more. More trails, more gorillas, more adventures.