Hellgate 100k on marginal training

Hellgate 100k
66.6 miles – 13,500ft elevation gain
12:01am, December 11th 2011
Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains

You may have noticed a lack of recent race reports.  This is due to the 5 months it took for a bad case of IT Band syndrome to heal up after my debut 100-miler back in June.  Not knowing how long it would take the ITB to heal, but knowing that Hellgate fills quickly, I sent in my application and thankfully secured my slot.  Then came the day when I was back to 100% and ready to start training… with Hellgate only 2 months away.

Hellgate elevation profile

Hellgate elevation profile - courtesy of Keith Knipling

Normally giving myself 6+ months for an event like this, the next 2 months became an n=1 experiment on how much fitness could be gained in an extremely short period of time.  I made some bold jumps in mileage but paid careful attention to the body so as not to overdo it.  All seemed well and I was able to peak out at 60 miles/week for 3 weeks, along with some fairly regular Crossfit for strength and flexibility.  Not perfect, but not too shabby given the circumstances.

Race day came and at 12:01am on a cold December night we headed out into the darkness of the snowy Virginia mountains for 66 miles of “fun”.  The field was stacked with names like Karl Meltzer, Jeremy Ramsey, David Goggins, Keith Knipling, Chris Reed, Aaron Schwartzbard and many others who have put me to shame on more than one occasion.  I knew from the get-go that a top 10 finish was out of the picture, which is quite unfortunate given the sweet Patagonia swag at Horton races, particularly this one, but nonetheless I had a daunting task ahead of me.

Hellgate 100k start

The start - that's me in blue behind Goggins

Rather than recounting details of the course, I’ll defer to Aaron and Keith‘s wonderfully detailed course descriptions.  All you really need to know, though, is that 100k =62.2miles.  Hellgate 100k = 66.6miles with 13,500ft elevation gain.  We start at midnight, purposefully cross through streams when bridges are accessible, and there have been multiple accounts of runners suffering from corneal edema (i.e. temporarily losing their vision due to a freezing of the fluid buildup in their eyes).  In other words, this race is awesome and right up my alley (totally serious).

Corneal Edema

An example of corneal edema - cool, huh?

The first 25 miles or so were rather uneventful.  It was cold, the stream crossings were low so my feet remained dry early on (though the couple inches of snow quickly changed that), and I started off at a fairly fast pace since I was feeling good.  I was in 6th place for a little while, but I knew that since I was racing with little training that this would soon fade.  It was still nice while it lasted, knowing that I was racing one of the toughest 100k’s out there and ahead of Karl Meltzer and David Goggins.

Around mile 25 I started getting a sharp pain in the distal medial section of my quad, down near the knee and possibly my MCL.  I considered dropping before things got worse, but after DNF’ing at Masochist one month prior (nothing physical, just tough to race when dealing with the loss of a friend/mentor) and having not started Hellgate last year due to not being healthy, I knew that I had to give it everything I had and get that DNF monster off my back.  Onward…

My pace slowed significantly due to this pain and I started getting passed, first by runners I knew couldn’t be far behind (Jason Lantz, Jordan Chang, Harland Peele), but then by guys I had never seen before.  I was now in a new group of runners that I don’t generally see in races.  There is no faking it at Hellgate; you get put you in your place.  As the pain worsened, so did the temptation to drop.  It seemed like the smart thing to do, after all.  Arriving at aid station #6 (mile 37ish) just after dawn, I whole-heartedly attempted to drop.  Another 8 hours of running did not seem tangible given my current fitness and new potential injury.  Unfortunately, my buddy Jaime was running the show and he would have none of it.  “You can drop, but not at my aid station. Besides, we don’t even have any chairs. Keep going.”  Crap.  Onward…

After a long 8 mile stretch to the next aid station, the pain wasn’t getting any worse but I realized I had completed 2/3 of the race and I had invested a significant amount of time and miles to get where I was.  A finish was now tangible, and although it would hurt and I’d possibly be worsening my new quad/knee pain, the pros outweighed the cons.  Onward!

Not looking too chipper - mile 46 (photo by Sophie)

After a relentless 8 mile climb to the next aid station, I caught up with Jack Kurisky, a good VHTRC friend who always happens to be there when I need that extra encouragement to push myself, and we ran together for the remainder of the race.  It was rough, and at many points I encouraged him to go on since he was clearly holding back to run with me, but like the dedicated friend he is, he stayed with me and kept me moving.  During the “forever section” (it honestly feels like it lasts forever), Mario Raymond came flying by like a bat out of hell.  I honestly have no idea how he consistently does this, but it’s not the first time he’s come blazing past me late in a race.  I tried to keep up with him for all of 30 seconds then quickly realized that was a stupid move.

At the last aid station, Jack and I passed Goggins who was heading back to his car.  Shawn, my borrowed crew from Mario, informed me that Goggins had twisted his ankle just prior to making his way in and he needed to do some adjusting before moving on.  Bummer, but I now had a legitimate chance at being able to say I beat Goggins, someone who is known for being one of the toughest ultrarunners out there.  Yes, he was injured and not performing at his best, but neither was I so it’s a legitimate claim.

With 3 miles of climbing and 3 miles of descent to the finish, Jack and I kicked it into high gear, constantly looking over our shoulders so as not get passed.  As we crested the mountain, we realized a sub-14 hour finish would be possible if we were able to maintain 7:30’s to the finish.  Possible?  Yes.  Probable?  No.  Still, we tried…

Jack and I - mile 64

Jack and I at mile 64 (photo by Sophie)

We pushed hard and maintained closed to 7:30’s, but with one mile to go I realized I had miscalculated the mileage and sub-14 was out of the picture.  We entered Camp Bethel and veered our way to the back.  The finish line came in sight, and as we got closer a few folks made their way out into the cold to cheer us on.  We crossed the finish line together, finishing in 14:03:41 and tied for 20th place.

Finishing my first Hellgate (photo by Keith)

Many thanks to Jack, for sticking by my side and pushing me to run when I wanted to stop; Horton, for putting on such a phenomenal race that I will surely be back for next year (adequately trained, too); Mario, for letting me borrow his crew-man Shawn; Shawn, for driving our butts to and from the race and crewing for multiple runners at once; Keith, for providing all the helpful advice needed to prepare for my first Hellgate and for taking this awesome picture of Best Blood; and Jaime, for not letting me quit at his aid station despite my best efforts.  I finally got that DNF monster off my back, and after a few weeks of recovery I’ll be back for a solid 2011.

My first Hellgate… mission accomplished.


Race Report: Holiday Lake 50k++

Holiday Lake 50k++
February 14, 2009
Appomattox, VA

On Saturday I ran the Holiday Lake 50k++, the first of six ultras I will be running this year that comprise the Beast Series. The “++” after the 50k indicates that these miles (or kilometers in this case) aren’t standard issue miles, but they are in fact Horton miles. Horton miles are special because even though David Horton is a Ph.D., he apparently does not know how to measure distance properly. This particular 50k measured out to be 32.3mi on my GPS, but previous versions of the course were known to run upwards of 34mi.

View Large Map

Runners gathered at the 4-H Center the night before the race for a pasta dinner and typical Horton antics. In addition to being the location for the race’s start, middle and finish, the 4-H Center features a full cafeteria, bunkhouses and hot showers – the perfect amenities for a race.

Horton giving the Friday night pre-race briefing

Saturday morning gave us an early race start, 6:30am, so it was necessary to don the headlamp if you wanted to avoid tripping on roots in the dark. Too bad I brought my cheap headlamp that had a nearly-dead battery. It was worthless. I think I would have been better off carrying a jar of lightning bugs.

Marc Griffin and myself at the start
T-minus 1 minute or thereabouts

After a group-singing of the national anthem, Horton yelled go and we made our way into the darkness. The first 0.6mi was on paved roads so I used this time to find and situate myself behind a runner who was running my pace and had a bright light that I could mooch off of. That plan seemed to work pretty well and as soon as the sun poked its beautiful head out I started picking off runners with my favorite phrase: “on your left”. Temperatures started in the low 30s and slowly creeped into the 40s as the day progressed – perfect weather for fast running.

Lately I have been running plenty of 50k’s but they have all been run at a slow and easy pace for MMT training. Today I was taking a different approach and giving it my all to assess my current fitness level. My previous 50k PR was a 5:18 set at Potomac Heritage in October (my first ultra) and I know I have gotten faster since then, so my goal was to shoot for sub-5. I focused on keeping my heart-rate at the appropriate levels and not worrying about my placement among other runners.

I wonder how fast I would have been had I not carried a camera and took pics?
Sunrise on the Holiday Lake course

The first lap (a tad more than 16 miles) was flat, fast and fairly uneventful. I ran straight through the first two aide stations, quickly filled my water bottle and grabbed a piece of banana and PBJ at the third and was on my way. At one point I came across Jeremy Ramsey, winner of last year’s Hellgate 100k and member of the Inov-8 ultra team that was rolling deep at today’s race. Passing him seemed out of place for a newbie like myself, but I just assumed he was having a bad day so I continued on my way and thought nothing of it. As I got closer to the turnaround, the front-runners started passing by and, although I didn’t care about my placement, I started counting runners to keep my mind off the somewhat hard pace that I had been holding. One, two, three… eight, nine, ten, TURNAROUND. Seriously? Just 10 people ahead of me? I thought I was going to be counting to 30, not 10. I was in 11th place?!? Well then, looks like this race just got interesting.

At the turnaround Horton was yelling something at me but the only words I heard were “top 10”. Hmmm, temptation to push the pace was calling, but I held back and stuck to my plan. At the next aide station I stopped to fill my bottle and again Horton reappeared, this time proclaiming “Bobby, you’re in 11th place. You’re the first loser! The next guy is 1.5 minutes ahead. Go get him!” I’m not one to disregard orders, especially those coming from the Race Director, so off I went up the hill, this time with a bit more pep in my step. Screw the original plan!

Running around the lake, on Valentine’s Day. Holiday Lake – get it?

After about 2 miles I caught sight of the 10th place runner. I slowly picked up my pace so that I could eventually pass him in a comfortable pace without sprinting. The overtaking occurred just after the next aide station. He had slowed for a cup of water and I kept at full speed since I was carrying all I needed. I kept a strong pace to get some distance and get out of sight so he wouldn’t be tempted to re-take 10th. I looked back periodically and the plan seemed to be working.

Image courtesy of Andrew Wilds Photography

During the last few miles, the strong pace and the flat course had me wishing for a hill so I would have an excuse to walk for a bit. Ingesting a GU packet every 45 minutes seemed to be working in terms of energy levels, but now my right hamstring was just barely starting to cramp. I had been taking an S-cap electrolyte pill every hour, but with this cramp I popped another and it seemed to help slightly. Then, with a mile to go I came upon a small hill came and I relished in the opportunity to walk. It felt marvelous…

…until I looked back and saw someone just 100 feet behind me! F*CK! I suddenly got that adrenaline kick that is all-too-familiar from my skydiving. This sprint up the remainder of the hill was a good start, but with the high of an adrenaline kick comes the low as it fades. I felt the energy drain out of me as the runner (Graham Peck) slowly approached and overtook me. I had just enough energy to muster out a “damn”, but with that Graham gave a wave of the hand and said “come on!” – he wanted a fight!

We busted out our 6-minute-mile paces (no joke) and gave 100% effort to the finish. He pulled ahead by about 100 feet, and as we turned onto the pavement it was a half-mile downhill battle to the finish. I leaned into the hill, and with what seemed like no fuel left in the system, I was running off of pure grit and determination in hopes of earning a top-10 finish. It was the longest half-mile I have ever run. Thoughts of tripping and the resulting carnage crossed my mind. When I thought he had won it, we approached a steeper section and I once again leaned into it, taking full advantage of gravity and the extra weight that I carry around compared to other ultrarunners. Graham looked back as I started to close the gap. With maybe 100 yards to go and 75 feet between us, reality sunk in and my 11th place finish was finalized. I crossed the finish in 4:10:50.

Finish line shot courtesy of Andrew Wilds Photography
Holiday Lake 2009 results

The feeling of defeat in the fight for top-10 hurt for maybe two seconds until I realized I had shaved an hour and eight minutes off my previous 50k PR! It was the hardest effort I had ever given in a run, probably by ten-fold, but damn did it feel good to completely blow away my sub-5 goal!

Me and Horton – the man, the myth, the runner
Justine Morrison – fellow VHTRC’er and overall female winner
Inov-8 Team members: JB, Kevin Lane, Clark Zealand and Jeremy Ramsey

Q and me sporting the lovely Valentine-themed finisher’s shirts

Final standings:
11th of 257 starters and 248 finishers (final results)
7th in age group (age group results)

One down in the Beast Series and five to go. We’ll see if my beginner’s luck holds up…