Images conjured up by the name "Hellgate" leap to mind. Quotes from sources such as Dante's Inferno ("Abandon hope all ye who enter here") to country crooner Rodney Atkins ("...If you're going through hell, keep on moving. Don't slow down...”) grace t-shirts handed out at check-in. And with runners arriving in the cold and ominous darkness for a midnight start, comrades instinctively join together against the waiting, sinister course. It's just not your normal race.
But a race it is. A race with such growing popularity that many are turned away not simply because of limited race slots. They are turned away because the race director regards them incapable of such an undertaking. It is a not a race for the faint-hearted or inexperienced. Each year on the second weekend of December, the rugged course, daunting climbs and technical descents draw the runners into the inky cover of darkness, some of them destined to never run into the light of day.
I know this course, this race, this pre-Christmas challenge. For each of the eight years of its existence, my name has been on the list of competitors. I’m not sure why. Each year I swear “never again.” And yet, my name appears as if written by the devil himself. To the mountains I must go. I must face the demons that await.
One year, the demons won my soul. I could not conquer the course and surrendered when I could not breathe about halfway through the required 67 miles. However, I out ran them each of the other years. Some years were harder than others to avoid being snared by their wicked grip, but never was it easy. I didn’t expect my eighth year to be anything different.
But it was. I found myself smiling at the start. I did not feel the trepidation that usually trumps all other emotions. I surged into the night anticipating what might come. I had no delusions of grandeur but was comfortable with my task. I counted sets of running steps mixed with hiking steps as the first ascent climbed skyward, headlamps above twinkling like tiny stars. My breathing was controlled; legs working well as I concentrated on small steps and mid-foot plant. Unlike other years, I climbed higher and higher passing others along the way.
Through the night I ran. I was surprised to be shoulder to shoulder with racers accustomed to being in front of me. At times I would pull away, content to take in the cold, still night alone. Occasionally I would run with- and then ahead of- female runners. I didn’t quite understand the excitement of my aid-station tending college friends upon my arrival. Why the hubbub?
Somewhere along the way I realized I was actually the second place woman. It was hard to comprehend. It had been years since I had been in the hunt and the miles through thirty seemed so easy, so effortless. Why was this happening? Had the devils left the woods?
No. I found them hiding behind the trees and lurking under rocks in their own territory: a trail we call “The Devil Trail.” A stomach turning south and waning energy from not eating chased me. So did another female runner. She passed me at about 43 miles. It was third place for me with twenty-some miles to go. My fun meter pegged zero.
I worked hard to gain a ridge high above the valley floor. I ate and drank when I could. My smile had faded but my legs kept moving albeit at a slower pace. Push. Push, I told myself even after a rock reached out to pull me to the ground face first. I didn’t like it that several men had gone by looking much more energetic than me. It was hard not to be discouraged.
But then came Rick. Rick Gray. A faithful friend with a heart as far from gray as could be. Golden, even. He is an encourager and gentleman no matter the circumstances. He was running toward a personal best, pulling me in his wake along the long, thin ribbons of trail. I let him. I needed mindless motion while I struggled to regain my strength and will.
Up and down. In and out. The never-ending trail changed as much as my emotions. I was fighting off sleep while trying to calm my stomach. I nearly lost my will in the gentle currents of the creeks we crossed. When will we be through? Where is the aid station? It seemed so pointless. Pointless until Rick softly called my name and I glanced backwards. Another woman approached, moving well. Suddenly I was awake and moving once again, trying to keep her in contact once she took the lead. Soon the initial surge wore off and the disappointment of falling into fourth position settled in. Nevertheless, her parting words haunted me, urging me onward. “Kerry’s coming.”
Not again, I wanted to scream. She was a strong finisher and certain to run me down. I barely held her off by a hundred yards in a prior year. Rick and I took on the final three mile ascent, glancing often back down the mountain. I knew she was close. I could feel it.
Crossing the gap to fall off the other side of the mountain on the final descent to the finish, I turned again. There she was. My heart jumped, spirits fell. But Rick and I ran on and on and on. . . and on. I dared not look back. My breathing became labored, arms flailing and legs heavy. It was all I could do not to give into the devil’s prompting to stop, abandoning hope even at the late hour. But over the din of the wicked one’s prompting, Rick reached out and grabbed my hand, joining with David, another runner. His message of triumph rang loud and clear, silencing the devil’s clamor. We crossed the line together, exhausted. Rick ran nearly an hour personal best. Me, a best by fourteen minutes.
Though the devil tried to dance, his music went silent.