Monday, December 23, 2019

A tale of two races

This is a tale of two races. One for me. One for her. Both 100ks (and a little more) but both very different kind of races.

Dec. 7, 2019 was a test. It was something I had to do. Alone. I had only started one race since completing my 20th Mountain Masochist race in Nov. 2017. I failed miserably seeking an 11th finish at the incredibly challenging Hellgate 100K in December of 2018. In those two years, an injury post-MMTR kept me from running. Caring for a dying father-in-law in our home added to stress. When I did begin to run, it was like going nowhere fast. I felt like my engine was equipped with a governor set at the lowest speed possible. Then in February of this year, I was nearly killed when a piece of equipment fell on me, breaking my shoulder in three places, gashing my arm, and dealing a non-fatal blow to my head.

When a screening cardiac CT test came back positive for heart disease, late July of 2019 found me sharing my story with a cardiologist. That Friday visit landed me on the cath table first thing Monday morning, waking up from that procedure with a stent in the left anterior descending coronary artery. So then it was cardiac rehab and a new opportunity to chase fitness.

After weeks of hard work, I was pleasantly surprised that I could often run up hills without walking. Whoa. I hadn't been able to do that in a very long time. Trips to the mountains began to fill my calendar and dreams of completing more ultras spawned in the muddy muck of making fitness gains. The Devil Dog races up near DC came at a good time with two options; 100k or 100 miles. I felt I displayed considerable self control when I checked the 100K box as my re-entry into raceworld. So it was set. December 7 would be my test. My confidence builder - assuming I was not asking my heart to do more than it was capable.

So while the Devil Dog 100K would be my race, the Hellgate 100K (more like 66.6 miles) would be her race. "Her" is Hannah Quigg, younger sister of two of the original Shindigglers, Sarah and Abby. Hence, Hannah is a Shindiggler Jr.. Hannah had completed a number of 50Ks and a 50 miler in her young life as a college student. Being the have-no-fear type, she wandered into my office one day to ask if Hellgate was a good idea. "If Horton will let you in, go for it" I replied. Thus began 1 a.m. start training runs to know what it was like to run through the night and see the sun come up. Complicated training runs involving hopscotching cars at the start and end of the run and shuttling back and forth were included in our training itineraries. On race day, Hannah would run. I would crew one week after my test race.

The two races are as different as night and day. Devil Dog is run almost entirely on single track; the terrain quite runnable though there are rocky and rooty sections. A 23-mile loop is followed by two 19-ish mile loops. Run in the Prince William National Forest, it is hardly remote. Sirens and motorcycle vrooms can often be heard. Still, creekside running is idyllic and the open forest pleasant enough. Though there are some rolling hills, no mountain peaks rear their ugly heads. Instead, the trail beckons the contestant to actually run, or at least saunter. The trail is far removed from her sinister cousin, Hellgate.

Hellgate fights you from the start, delivering one after another bare-fisted punches until you are black, blue, and bleeding. Relentless, miles-long climbs on gravel roads, punishing descents, off camber-technical trail, and rocks hidden by mounds of leaves dominate the course, all in a sleep-deprived state given the one minute after midnight start. It is not a race for the tender-hearted. Suffering is inevitable though the extent of pain and misery is up for grabs. Weather conditions are most often brutal, adding to the challenge of staying the course and crossing the finish line.

What follows is a comparison of our experiences in the context of each third of the race. As you will see, my race would prove calmer, perhaps even wimpy and insignificant by comparison. Hannah's race, on the other hand, was nothing less than epic.

Devil Dog: I rolled out of bed around 5 a.m. Taking advantage of a cabin stay less than 150 yards from the start line was more than convenient. My normal pre-race prep was accomplished without fanfare or conversation. No idle chatter. No nervous jitters. Just preparation that had become mechanical after years of racing. My goal was to be steady and solid, explore the dynamics of endurance as the miles piled up, and complete the 62-mile distance without mishap. It was only a test, albeit an important one.

I had probably voiced but a few scant sentences since arriving the evening before. I did not know anyone and chose to stay to myself. The same proved true at the start and for the first 18 miles. Even with 200 runners responding to the start gun, I quietly found a comfortable spot in the long conga line dancing its way along the twisty, turny single track. The pace was easy though there was little opportunity to slow down or speed up given the narrowness of the trail. Once dawn broke, the hardwood forest was bathed in sunlight, making the dry but wintry temps bearable. I was alone with my thoughts, though surrounded by many runners.

Finally, at around mile 18, I could finally breath in the crisp and welcomed air of solitude. Gliding along the trails, I was happy and content, marveling that with all the actual running, my legs had yet to protest. Miles between the two aid stations seemed long and yet, the start/finish line with it's well-stocked aid station eventually came into view. The first 23 miles were completed in 4:56. Not speedy, yet not too embarrassing-especially for a 62-year old grandma. I sat for a moment in the well-equipped pavilion, changed socks that just didn't feel "right," restocked, and headed off again for round two. I sauntered without suffering.

Hellgate: The weather predictions for Hellgate were horrible --and accurate. Temps in the 30s, rain, freezing rain, icy roads, and Blue Ridge Parkway closures. Milling around in the darkness at the start, Hannah seemed to embrace the challenge. She was dressed appropriately, carried options for more warmth in her pack, and had prior training run experience to know what lay in her future. As rain fell, we sent her off among the crowd as the dial on race director David Horton's watch struck 12:01 a.m.. Hannah was smiling as her journey began.

I, along with Shindiggler Jr, Makena Bonheim, drove up the long, steep mountain to the first access point for crews. The rain was falling harder and temps had dropped. Still, in very good time, our runner with bib number 112, ran into the soft glow of the aid station lights. She was wet but not terribly cold, the strenuous climb upping her body temp. Now she was faced with technical, wet, slippery, rock-strewn trail, followed by miles climbing on gravel road before reaching the next aid station. Without crew access there, about 8 or 9 miles, predominately up, stood between her and the aid station moved down two miles off the parkway. Another six miles from there would have to be conquered before seeing her crew at Jennings Creek. Still, Hannah smiled as she turned her back on us and ran further into the dark and dreary night.

With hours before intersecting with our runner was possible, Makena and I parked at Jennings Creek and created a make-shift bed in the back of my Jeep Cherokee. I felt guilty fading off into slumber while the rain beat down on the roof with increasing intensity. What a night to be tromping through the woods! As the very first hints of dawn appeared, here came Hannah.
Looking much like a drowned puppy, she surrendered to our tugging and pulling in an effort to get her warm and dry. Still, she told us about hooking up with Darin Dunham, a guy who was going for his 17th finish in as many years. The time passed quickly but the fact remained; Hannah was freezing cold, her hands so numb as to be worthless. It's no doubt her positive attitude helped her complete her first third (plus a few miles) in as good of shape as any.

Devil Dog: I began the second loop, looking forward to more solitude, more time for personal reflection, and uninterrupted time to assess and make any necessary running, fluid, and/or nutrition adjustments. But the most carefully laid plans often go awry. Unexpectedly, I found myself falling in
step with a guy who commented on the Hellgate socks I was wearing, and his newly found side kick, a woman attempting her first 100 mile finish. He had finished Hellgate last year as the final race in the Beast Series. Nate, Jennifer and I began a pleasant conversation on a variety of topics that lasted for miles and miles. When Nate finally matched pace with a runner who was slightly faster, Jennifer and I dove headlong into significant topics. As a mom of three, a GYN oncologist surgeon, an author, and CEO of a non-profit living in Beverly Hills, we had a lot to discuss! Together we ran, hiked a few hills, and sucked most of the oxygen from the forest's atmosphere by our constant chatter. As we ended our first 42 miles, we were delighted to have shared a bit shy of six hours together.

Hellgate: When we left Hannah in the pouring down rain at the Jennings Creek aid station (about 29 miles), we would not be able to see her again until Bearwallow Aid Station, supposedly 42 miles into the race but likely more like 46. After a harrowing drive up a mountain road that already held captive two aid station vehicles in its icy clutches, we refreshed ourselves with a Burger King breakfast. I again felt twangs of guilt sitting in dry, warm comfort while eating a nice hot meal. We could only surmise the extent of Hannah's suffering. Despite her great attitude last we saw her, suffering would surely be inevitable.

Makena and I chatted with other crews around a compact campfire lit by the aid station (AS) workers.As we waited, the rain began to abate around 9:30 or 10 a.m., blue skies occasionally teasing everyone before being covered again by clouds. At about 11:30 a.m. Hannah made a slow approach to the tent. Gone was her smile and effervescent self. Somewhere along the Devil Trail that she had just traversed, a demon must have snagged her soul. She was weary and worn. Tired and downtrodden. Her expression clearly denoted doubt and trepidation. "How am I going to do twenty more miles?" was the unspoken question.

While she nibbled at a portion of a grilled hamburger, we decided Makena would pace her the last 20 miles. Hannah needed the emotional support that only a best friend could offer. As I watched them make their way up the mountain, I could not help compare what lay ahead in their last third of the race compared to what I faced a week prior.

Devil Dog: It was a little shy of 4 p.m. when I finished my second lap. With 19 miles remaining, I inwardly predicted another six hours until I could hit the showers and crawl into my bunk. With the sun descending on the horizon and crystal clear skies, an impending big chill threatened. After downing broth and a grilled cheese sandwich, I made sure I had my waist light, an extra battery, and a backup light before venturing from the well-stocked aid station. I was alone again, Jennifer heading out before me, spurred on by the fact that she had three more loops to complete for the 100-mile distance.

Unlike the stampede of the first loop, there was no need to keep pace with other runners because there were no runners around. Occasionally, I would pass someone or someone would pass me. However, most of the time it was without comment, save the ever-popular "Good job." Sections I had twice covered earlier in the day seemed to grow in length, landmarks growing increasingly difficult to identify.

I soon pulled my jacket from my pack, snugged up the zipper on my top, and turned on my light. The dusky evening hours had given in to the darkness, and the darkness to falling temps. Though I now ran and hiked intermittently, I felt I was making steady progress, howbeit slowly. I embraced the darkness and the solitude that came with it. I passed the first aid station, thanking them for their tireless work. Then it was more of the same until after what seemed like an eternity, I arrived at the 55.5 mile mark and the second aid station. Hot broth hit the spot now that the temps had fallen into the low 20s. I asked for help to change the battery on my main light, confident that the new battery would light the rest of the way. Then off I went, looking forward to clicking off the final miles of this race.

I was hiking quickly now for the most part, having lost interest in actual running. On a particularly technical section, I unexpectedly found myself in the dark. The new battery decided to give up the ghost. I flicked on the back up light. It's beam blinked and then quickly died. "What?!?! You gotta be kidding me!" Since the first battery for the main light was not dead when I changed it out, I fumbled around and put it back in the light, praying there was enough juice left for the remaining 45 minutes to an hour of the journey. I was relieved when it's light pierced the darkness, but dismayed when almost immediately, it flashed three short bursts, a warning that the battery was about to run out. My prayers became fervent, asking God to miraculously let the light shine on. I tried running by orange-hued moonlight, but under tree cover and on rocky single track, it was very difficult. My pace certainly quickened, and out loud prayers ascended each time the light blinked it's warning signal.

Finally, I crossed the final bridge, managed the last hill, drawn to the top by the finish banner. Without fanfare, I announced to the workers that my three loops were complete. The timing chip was removed from my shoe, and I was handed an award. My time was 16:08. I was the 9th woman and 37th out of the eventual 93 finishers. My race ended as unremarkably as it had begun. Though I grew weary, the suffer-meter never really pegged. I had accomplished what I intended: 62 miles covered without any major mishaps. I walked to the cabin, got showered, and took my place in my bunk. I had finished, but honestly, it didn't feel like much of an accomplishment.

Hellgate: By stark contrast, Hannah and Makena had a very different last third. A tough climb marked the beginning, miles of relentless single-track followed. They ran when they could run and hiked when necessary. I walked a half mile down the trail to meet them as they approached the Bobblits Gap aid station. Hannah looked whipped but happier than before. With 15 miles to go, I
helped her restock her pack, reminded her of what was coming up, and sent the two of them on their way. They now faced the infamous Forever section, an arguable eight miles of up, down, and all round trail. I predicted they would be on the move for two hours before meeting them at the last aid station.

Sure enough, they emerged from the trail at precisely two hours. Hannah looked much more upbeat, although she was a bit wobbly as I sent her off on the final six miles. "3 up. 3 down." I felt like an emotional mama, tearing up as we both realized the enormity of what was soon to be accomplished. There was no doubt Hannah Quigg was going to finish.

And finish she did. With nothing left in the tank, she gingerly ran up the incline to the finish. She was totally spent. She had been on her swollen, battered feet for 17 hours and 9 minutes, enduring horrendous conditions, and overcoming the desire to stop the suffering prematurely. Her mother, sister Abby, and Makena and I looked on as she ran into the congratulatory arms of race director David Horton. At the age of 22, she had accomplished what few even dare to imagine. She was an official Hellgate finisher.

Devil Dog was my race and Hellgate hers. Both served a purpose. Both instructed. But hers is the race to loudly applaud. Congratulations, Hannah, on the massive accomplishment! This TrailMama is so proud of you!

A walk in the park and a pink finish line

By the time I finish most races, I've figured out at least the first paragraph of my post-race story. This was one of the few where the ...