When I sent my paper application in to run Hellgate 100k, it sounded like a great idea. When I was lined up with 139 other runners about to start a 100k at midnight in the freezing cold, it did not. As the seconds ticked down until the race start, I found myself turned backwards looking at my crew. They were in for a night of music, dancing, and eating junk food. I turned around and looked at the dark trail ahead of me, I was in for a night of something entirely different. When the clock struck Hellgate, there was nothing I could do, and we were off with only our headlamps and a trail of orange streamers to guide the way.
The first section passed quickly, as the start of a race always does. At mile 8 I arrived to Aid Station #2 where my crew was waiting and BOY were they excited to see me. I asked how I was doing: first female. “Oh noo” Being first felt…weird. Normally, I would have panicked that I had gone out too fast but I had been particularly cautious for this race – my first 100k, I definitely didn’t want to go out too fast during this one- and knew that wasn’t the case. My crew helped convince me to just run how I feel and see how far it got me. So off into the dark woods I went!
It was a 16 mile stretch until I would see them again- roughly 3 hours. I got passed by Sarah Schubert at mile 10 and passed back into first right before A.S. #4 at mile 23. It was the same thing as before, it felt weird to be first, I felt fine, thanked my amazing crew, and I ran on.
The distance between A.S. 4 and A.S. 5 is only 6 miles and net downhill, meaning it’s supposed to be one of the easiest sections of the race. It was anything but that: less than a mile out I realized that the hose of my hydration pack was completely frozen. I tried bending it, putting it underneath my shirt (it had already been underneath my jacket) and running while pressing the hose against my chest. No luck. I tried to calm myself down by remember how easy this section was suppose to be. It wasn’t. The trail on this section was extremely difficult to follow. It wasn’t that the course wasn’t marked, the problem was (to quote Leif) that this trail looked like it is only used once a year during Hellgate. I found myself at what appeared to be 3 intersecting trails with no streamers telling me where to go. After looking in each direction and finding no clues, I picked the one straight ahead and ran down it before coming to several large logs crossing the trail. I knew this wasn’t right, in fact I was pretty sure it wasn’t even a real trail, so I headed back. I looked in the two other directions and still couldn’t decide, so I chose the trail to my left and ran down it. After a couple steps a VERY obvious and reflective streamer came into sight that had been invisible to me before. “That was weird…” I thought as I kept running. The trail was becoming harder and harder to follow and at several points I got confused which way to go. Soon, I came to a grassy downhill that I knew led me into the aid station. We’d walked up this trail in previous years while crewing and I knew it was littered with several deep holes. I reminded myself to be alert and avoid twisting my ankle (again, I already had at mile 11) but I couldn’t see that far into the distance. Even with my super bright headlamp I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. My vision looked milky and very cloudy, like someone had put fingerprints all over my contacts before I put them in. I knew what this was: the start of Hellgate eyes. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it’s a condition where your corneas freeze. Yes, they actually begin to freeze. It’s not painful but it clouds your vision and makes it EXTREMELY hard to see.)
At mile 30 and ~5:30 a.m, I entered the aid station. I found Jonathan to explain what was happening and started choking up. “I…I can’t see. My pack is frozen, I haven’t drank any water.” Dylan removed my jacket and pack as Jonathan ran to get eye drops and water. I sat down while Laura and Sam tried to take my shoes off (which were frozen solid from a creek crossing ~2 miles back), replace my socks, and put band-aids on my already forming blisters. Neel and Hunter were unsuccessfully trying to thaw my pack out, they later told me they had to literally stick it in the fire to accomplish this. I was an absolute mess. Sarah Schubert had come and gone somewhere in this time. After what was a Nascar-worthy pit stop by my crew, I stood back up, put eye drops in my eyes, my pack and jacket back on, and left with clean socks on my feet. I had another 16 mile section until I would see them again and two bad eyes to get me through it.
I started up a long fire road climb. I tried hiking with my eyes closed, squinting, and straight up crying to re-wet them and get my vision back. It was getting worse. Headlamps and reflective things (streamers, several trail signs) were extremely blinding to look at and I had to mostly just stare at the ground to see where I was going. The sun was rising and I was hopeful it would help but the exact opposite happened. The sun, obviously, was just like a huge light swallowing my entire field of vision even when I wasn’t directly facing it. I moved from fire road to a technical section of trail and started tripping every couple minutes. At one point two runners (one who was Jon Houck – whoop whoop!) passed me and I completely fell off the trail letting them by, having to catch a tree to not start sliding down the cliff. After running for awhile like this, I got to a road that was about a quarter mile from Bearwallow Gap (mile 46 aid station). Apparently, there was a streamer straight across the road to a trail that leads you to the aid station. I didn’t see it and ran straight down the road about a quarter mile before convincing myself I made a wrong turn. I guess I looked VERY lost and confused because some guy in his car stopped to talk to me. I asked him if he knew where the course was and he said he wasn’t sure but my best bet would be to cross straight across from where I came out. I ran back up and sure enough, there was the trail with the streamer that I hadn’t seen before. I could hear the aid station and thought about how I still had 20 miles left in the race. That’d be about 4 more hours tripping on rocks, making wrong turns, and running blindly through the woods. I entered the aid station and started crying into Jonathan’s sweatshirt. “I think I’m done.” He gave me a moment before walking me to the rest of the crew.
As always, they fixed me right back up again. Catherine gave me sunglasses, Henry got me hot food, my pack and jacket were taken and I got a new jacket to wear. I put eye drops in my eyes and someone suggested I take my contacts out, rewet them, and put them back in. Of course, as soon as I took out my contact I dropped it. Immediately we were on our hands and knees looking for it. The ground was pretty blurry even when it was a foot in front of my face. “Is this it?” I asked, pointing to something shiny on the ground. “No, that’s a rock.” “Oh… is this is?” “Another rock.” THAT’S how bad my vision was. At one point I got up and told Jonathan not to move, there was something shiny on his jacket. “That’s his jacket’s button…” Crap. Someone got my glasses from out of the car and I put those on. We thought maybe they would help keep the wind and cold out of my eyes and help my vision a little. I had 6 miles until the next aid station, probably over an hour at the rate I was going, and left feeling miserable.
And miserable I stayed! I’ve never cried and run before but trust me, I cried through this entire section. I tried to look back and see if 3rd place was catching me but couldn’t see far enough to know. I looked ahead but couldn’t see there either. It was extremely frustrating when I started an uphill because I couldn’t see how long it was, how steep it got, or how technical it was so didn’t know whether to run or hike. When I got to turns I couldn’t see far enough down the trails to know which one had a streamer marking it and I couldn’t see rocks that were on the ground. I would run, trip on a rock, catch myself, run, trip on a rock, trip on another rock, then finally catch myself. I was miserable, miserable, miserable. At one point, I was running and found myself completely off the trail. I back tracked to the last streamer and looked around and didn’t see any other direction to go so I started back down. It was definitely not right. I could hear someone coming closer and had to wait for them. He showed me where the trail was, totally not obvious to me, before we climbed a mile to the aid station.
Jonathan came down the trail to see me and I told him I was quitting. No way I was going on. I couldn’t see anything, I couldn’t do this for 3 more hours. I didn’t care if I was in 2nd, I didn’t care how close I was, I was tired. “OK, you can be done.” I had dreamed of those words the last 6 miles but in this moment it hit me that I wasn’t physically giving up, I was mentally giving up. It felt terrible, it felt wrong. They told me unfortunately 1st was very far ahead, very unlikely I would catch her but I had a very good chance of hanging onto second because Kathleen Cusick (3rd place) was 15 minutes behind me. Immediately I was back in. In a whirlwind, we went through the same motions of filling up my pack with food and water, putting my jacket back on, and sending me off down the trail. I was running down, down, down into the dreaded “forever” section knowing now, with the last aid station 8 miles away from me and then another 6 to the finish line, I was going to finish Hellgate one way or another.
The next section was a blur, lots of hiking, hallucinations of Kathleen, some random guy in the woods taking my photo. I still have no idea how he got there or if he was even part of the race. Then I was at the last aid station. From here on out it was 3 miles up, 3 miles down to the finish. I hadn’t seen Kathleen but only imagined she was closing in, I felt like I was moving very, very slowly. About 3 minutes after starting the last climb I heard cheering and knew Kathleen had just come in behind me. I hiked faster but couldn’t run for long periods of times. I knew if I could just crest the mountain in 2nd place, I would be able to kick it in. The climb ended up being short, only 2.2 miles, and then I was rolling downhill. I kept looking back to see if Kathleen was catching me, if she was going to outsprint me, and finally did see two people about 3/4th of a mile out from the finish. I attempted what felt like a sprint but according to my watch was about 7:30 min/mile pace and just hoped I could hold them off. I imagined they were women and was scared I’d drop 2 places in the last 5 minutes of the race. I got into Camp Bethel and rounded the corner up to the finish line, never happier in my life. It was such a wonderful feeling to be finished a race that was so mentally challenging and freaking long! My first 100k! Crazy! I found out that Jordan finished his 10th Hellgate in 5th place – I thought finishing this race once was crazy, think about 10 times!!! Leif, my let’s-freak-out-about-this-race-together partner, who I constantly asked his fueling plan, pre-race dinner plan, pre-race sleeping plan, race-day clothing choice, blah blah blah blah had a strong finish after a very tough race. Virginia Tech breeds some amazing ultra runners!
Thank you SO SO MUCH to ultraVT’s amazing crew and support system. Jonathan, Dylan, Hunter, Laura, Henry, Sam, Catherine, Neel, and Lynnie – I could not have done it without you guys. Thank you Michelle Anderson, Josh, Kristen, David Horton, and anyone else who helped me through this race as well. The ultra running community is truly unique and exceptionally kind. I love this sport, the pride and pain it brings, and the adventures it takes you on. You truly have not lived until you’ve died at Hellgate.
Leif, me, Jordan, and David Horton