Prologue: The Fall
On Thursday, November 7th, just after 4:00am in the Nantahala National Forest of North Carolina, I climbed my way up a steep, rocky trail to the top of Albert Mountain. It was cold, dark, and the wind was howling. My headlamp and the flashlight I was carrying lit the way, though I could only ever really see a few feet in front of me since the trail, essentially made up of giant rock steps, was so steep. When I reached the summit I shined my lights on the legs of the fire tower rising up before me. In daylight there would be a fantastic, sweeping view of the forested landscape to take in, but all I could see was dark and mist. I couldn’t linger long anyway; I’d planned to travel north as far as I could until the weather turned bad, which it was predicted to do later that morning. I walked forward a bit, shining my flashlight this way and that until I spotted a familiar white blaze marking the Appalachian Trail just ahead. I jogged right toward it. After the big climb up the mountain, I was rewarded with a nice runnable section of gradual, sloping downhill, mostly soft-surface trail.
Two days prior, I began my six day journey north on the Appalachian Trail from the southern terminus in Georgia, with a goal of seeing how much distance I could comfortably cover by nightfall each day. This was in preparation for my goal of hiking and running the entire 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine next summer. It was a supported hike, meaning I carried minimal supplies with me while someone driving a car with provisions and the rest of my stuff would meet me at road crossings along the way. In this case, my support person was Dr. Warren Doyle, who I had met earlier this summer at a weeklong workshop he puts on called the Appalachian Trail Institute. The trip had gone very well so far. I hiked over 52 miles from Springer Mountain to Unicoi Gap the first day, and then 45 miles from Unicoi Gap to Mooney Gap the second day, crossing the state border from Georgia into North Carolina. The first day was very difficult. It was the longest distance I had ever covered in one day, my legs felt very sore and tired by the end, and there were certainly parts of it that did not go perfectly. The second day surprisingly went a little better in terms of how I felt physically, but there were still some kinks to work out in terms of my own efficiency and communication between me and Warren at road crossings. The third day, where this story picks up, started very well. I was feeling energetic and ready to go, waking up around 3:15am and beginning my hike from Mooney Gap at 4:00am on the dot.
As I made my way down the gentle descent from Albert Mountain into the woods, my steps felt light and springy and I had many positive thoughts about the day. Even with 95 miles under my belt over the past two days, I felt reenergized after a night of sleep and was excited to see how the day would unfold. A few minutes into the run, however, the light in my headlamp began to dim and slowly fade. Recognizing what was happening, my heart began to pound. I still had my flashlight as a back up, but two working lights were certainly better than one. Plus, my flashlight also had a tendency to flicker in and out on its own will, in which case I’d smack it with my palm a few times until it flickered back on. Once my headlamp went out, that flashlight would be my only way to see, and that made me nervous. I had about five miles to go until the next road crossing where I would meet Warren, so if I lost my only remaining light source, that would really put me in a predicament.
My headlamp went completely dark pretty soon after that. I took a deep breath, said a little prayer for my finicky flashlight, and continued on my way. While I felt a bit panicked in those first few moments worrying about all that could go wrong, the next mile or two went quite smoothly. The trail was very easy to run on, and worrying about how much life my flashlight had left, I picked up the pace a little bit so that I would make good time to the next road crossing. The positive thoughts I was having about the day quickly returned, and I clipped along, holding the flashlight very carefully as to not disturb its steady light. Just as I was beginning to feel at ease with the situation, my left toe clipped a small rock or root, I flew forward and landed hard, my right knee skidding over a rock. My first concern was whether my flashlight survived the fall (it did, though I had to give it a good smack to keep it from flickering), and my second concern was getting back up as quickly as possible, as I did not want to be sprawled on the trail like a wounded animal. I looked down and could see that my knee was bleeding through a tiny hole the rock had ripped in my tights. I took a few steps forward, felt positive that I was more or less okay and hadn’t broken anything, and continued running along the trail. My knee hurt, but I would compare it to the pain you get after stubbing your toe or banging your knee on the corner of a coffee table. Stupidly painful, but definitely temporary. A minute or two later, I shone my flashlight down onto my knee again just to check, and was shocked to see that quite a bit of blood was soaking through my tights. Now that wasn’t good. I was wearing a reflective tank top over my long sleeve, so I quickly took it off and wrapped it tightly around my knee to apply some pressure and stop the bleeding. I looked down at my watch and could see I had 2.5-3 miles more to go until I reached the road crossing where Warren would be waiting.
I ran the rest of the way to the road crossing at Rock Gap and found Warren peacefully snoozing in the drivers seat of the support van. It was just after 6:00am. I knocked on the window and he immediately jumped up and out of the car. I said I was doing great, but I fell and would need the first aid kit and help cleaning up a wound. I sat on the back edge of the van and peeled back my tights, and was shocked at what I saw. A large bit of skin below my kneecap had been ripped back, and since my tights were no longer there to contain anything, it immediately began to bleed profusely. For the second time that morning, I panicked. Warren took one look at my knee and said he was taking me to the hospital. Thankfully the nearest one was just 20 minutes away in Franklin, North Carolina. The doctors and nurses there were able to tend to me right away. They were impressed by how clean the cut was and were asking me all about the running tights I was wearing, as the sturdy material barely ripped and didn’t allow for any dirt to get in. In case you’re curious, they were the Tracksmith Allston Tights (that is not a sponsored link, I just really think they deserve props for that – Tracksmith even replaced my tights for free after I told them what happened). Thank goodness. They told me they would need to clean the wound then put staples in to close it, which sounded like pretty much my worst nightmare. The doctor had me lay back on a table, she injected some anesthetic around my knee, the one by one stapled everything back together. I had to cover my ears because the sound was so horrible, and as she got to the last few staples, it was clear the anesthetic had not reached that remaining area and I could 100% feel everything. Here’s a photo of my stapled knee, if you’re the morbidly curious type.
I left the hospital with eight staples below my knee, feeling very dejected. What I thought was just a minor wound turned out to be a potential trip-ending injury. The doctor initially gave me crutches to leave the hospital with, but it was clear right away that I didn’t need them as I could walk just fine, plus I didn’t want to get billed for the absurd amount that they likely cost, so I actually walked back and returned them and the doctor tore up the order for me. Warren drove me up to the Appalachian Folk School in Mountain City, Tennessee where I could rest. I felt very disappointed not to be out on the trail.
The next morning, we went to Farmers Barbeque & Grill, a local diner in Mountain City, to have breakfast and review how the trip had gone so far. Warren brought a binder full of newspaper clippings documenting an attempted endurance record on the Appalachian Trail by 19-year-old Sam Swisher-McClure, supported by Warren. Sam was attempting to break the record held at the time by Dr. David Horton. I had read about David Horton in several books, including Becoming Odyssa and The Pursuit of Endurance by Jennifer Pharr Davis, and North by Scott and Jenny Jurek. While attending the Appalachian Trail Institute earlier that summer, Warren had me watch a documentary following Dr. Horton’s endurance record on the Pacific Crest Trail called the Runner. I was endeared to his energetic, unapologetic personality and ability to persevere through difficult challenges to reach his goals. One of the newspaper articles about Sam’s record attempt included some quotes from Dr. Horton. I made an offhand remark about how I would like to meet him one day. Warren, with sort of a gleam in his eyes and said, “Well, what if I called him up to see if we could visit him today?” It was late morning at the time. We checked, and it would be about a 3.5 hour road trip one way. I said, “Sure!” Warren gave David a call, and by luck he had a window of time that afternoon to meet me, so up to Lynchburg, Virginia we drove.
We met Dr. Horton at Liberty University where he has been a professor of exercise science for 40 years. He brought us to his office, its walls covered in memorabilia and mementos of his family and his many accomplishments, including the Appalachian Trail record, Pacific Crest Trail record, 3rd fastest time ever in the Trans-America Footrace, movie posters, trophies, and on and on. He peppered me with questions about myself and my plans for hiking the Appalachian Trail next summer. He answered my questions about his experiences on the trail and gave me a bunch of helpful advice. I told him about how I fell on the trail and he was eager to see my gnarly stapled knee, which I was happy to show off. True to his personality that I read about and seen in his documentary, he was a ball of energy. He dished out some provocative opinions and we had some pretty good banter back and forth. Warren said later that he wished we had recorded our conversation for a podcast. While we might not have seen eye to eye on everything, he was extremely kind, welcoming, and supportive of my goals. He certainly didn’t sugarcoat how difficult the task of running and hiking the Appalachian Trail would be. He gave me a copy of his book chronicling his record on the Appalachian Trail and the Trans-America Footrace, which he signed for me, as well as a DVD of the Runner. Then he brought up his very special trail race that he puts on every December called the Hellgate 100K. He said it had already sold out, but he happened to know the race committee (AKA himself), and would offer up an entry if I was interested. Knowing that it took place the same weekend of a holiday party I was planning for my running club Rose City Track Club, my initial response was, “Oh, I can’t that weekend.” Then when he brought it up again later in the conversation and handed me the paper registration form just in case, I said, “Well… let me double check my calendar. I’ll think about it.” The race began at 12:01am on December 14th and the party would be 5:30pm on December 15th. “Well, technically I could make that work…” The rest, from there, was history.
In case you were wondering how the rest of my hiking trip wrapped up, I resumed hiking and running the very next morning on an easy section of the AT, once it was light out, to see whether the movement would aggravate the wound or my staples. Thankfully, it did not! I went on to hike and run a little over 40 miles that day, then the next day after that I finished the trip with a near 50 mile day. It was a very successful trip for many reasons, including serving as unintended training for the 100K I was then about to run. I absolutely hated having those staples in my knee and had them taken out as soon as the doctors would allow, around twelve days after the fall.
The Hellgate 100K would be my first ultra marathon ever. While I’ve run a fair amount of 40-50 mile days on the Appalachian Trail this year, it had always been at a relaxed pace and always with a focus on efficiency; not necessarily speed. The official unofficial length of Hellgate is 66.6 miles. It takes place in central Virginia every year on the second Saturday of December beginning at 12:01AM. Considering when it takes place, the weather has typically been pretty brutal, with a high chance of cold, rain, and/or snow. It has over 13,000ft of elevation gain/loss and the terrain is made up of technical single track trail filled with rocks, leaves, and roots; gravel forest service roads, and old wagon roads. There are quite a few stream crossings. It is a point-to-point course that begins at the Hellgate Creek Trailhead and follows the Glenwood Horse Trail to Camp Bethel. Here is an elevation chart for the race compared with the world famous Boston Marathon, a 26.2 mile road race known for its rolling, hilly course. I had run it earlier this very year.
The event draws in around 150 runners, and while there is no prize money, every finisher under the 18 hour cutoff receives a windbreaker jacket and custom Hellgate socks, and runners that finish among the top ten men, top five women, or top masters (40+) receive a nice puffy Patagonia finisher jacket. The reason given by Dr. Horton that only the top five women get a puffy jacket is because the women’s field is typically half the size of the men’s, therefore it’s equally as tough for a woman to earn a top five jacket as it is for a man to earn a top ten jacket.
I arrived at Camp Bethel, where the race would finish, on Thursday, December 12th. I had flown in that morning on a redeye from Portland and wanted to use the day to check out parts of the course with Warren, who had driven up for the weekend to crew me for the race. While the weather that day was sunny and not too cold, Blue Ridge Parkway, which wound through parts of the course, was closed due to ice from some bad weather earlier that week. We ended up not getting to see much of the course, but I did get in a nice five mile run up and down one of the first gravel road sections of the race. I also got to check out one section of single track trail from where the first aid station would be. I was surprised by how difficult the footing was, as the trail was quite rocky and covered with slippery wet leaves, making it impossible to see every each ankle-turning rock on the ground. I was walking carefully while checking it out just then, but the next night I would be running on that same trail in the dark during the race. That made me a little nervous. Then I walked up to the nearby stream, which would be the first big stream crossing on the course I had read about. My heart dropped. That stream was wide, deep, and loud from the sound of rushing water. I had to cross that on foot? In the DARK? As if I weren’t already feeling a little skittish, plopped right on the trailhead by the road was a deer carcass left by a hunter, with a large bird of prey poised on a tree branch nearby.
The next Friday evening was packet pick up, the community pasta dinner, and pre-race meeting. As soon as I entered the room, David spotted me, greeted me with a big hug, and introduced me to just about everyone in the room. I had come bearing gifts of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies (he mentioned that he likes chocolate chip cookies several times in the pre-race email), and sour candies for Ali his assistant (he had pointedly mentioned that Ali likes sour candy but not sour patch kids). Earlier that week I had offered to help lead the national anthem before the race, as he had put out a call for help. Maybe as a test to double check my competence or just to put me on the spot for the fun of it, he had me sing a few bars of “O Holy Night” right there in the packet pick up room. Then before I knew it, he was off to say hello to the next arrival.
After that I went back to my room to organize my things ahead of the race. I had created a time chart for Warren with estimated time arrivals at each aid station coinciding with finish times ranging from 14 hours through 18 hours, along with a space to write “in” and “out” times at the aid stations for myself and the other top ten seeded women in the race, in case I was close to any of them. I had made bullet point course directions for myself based on the pre-race emails and detailed course description by Aaron Schwartzbard, folded them up, and divided them up into three separate sandwich bags for Warren to hand to me at two different points during the race so I would always have directions on me just in case I got lost. I had my race outfit laid out, and several back-up layers and jackets folded up in a plastic bin, in case my clothes soaked through and I wanted to switch them out mid-race. I had a bag of easy-to-grab food including Bobo Bars (oat bars), Picky Bars (date and nut bars), and sugary dried mangos divided into several sandwich bags; an accessories bag with back up batteries for my headlamp and new spiffy flashlight (this flashlight ended up being amazing and incredible and worth every penny), a three-pack of hand warmers, and a duffel bag with a variety of shoes.
The weather report was not looking good. The forecast predicted it would be raining most of the time, and cold. I wore the following gear for the majority of the race, and I’m sharing this because I was really happy with my choices and how everything held up, and would recommend all of it in cold, rainy conditions. Disclaimer: the Showers Pass gear was given to me by them, and everything else I purchased myself.
–Nike Terra Kiger trail shoes
–Showers Pass Lightweight Waterproof Socks
–Tracksmith Turnover Tights – slightly thicker material and warmer than the Allston tights I was wearing when I fell, and higher/snugger waistband so I didn’t have to worry about water weight causing them to sag off my hips
–Nike Pro Bra – basic compression and thinner material, I didn’t want to deal with a thicker/cozier bra saturated with water/sweat causing my core to get cold
–Tracksmith Brighton Baselayer – thin wool long sleeve – didn’t want anything too thick as to not overheat and sweat inside my jacket
–Tracksmith Chase Singlet – thin wool sleeveless top, this is what I pinned my bib to. Extra core warmth, plus easy to take off quickly and throw back on top of whatever I was wearing if I need to change later, and still have my bib number easily visible
–Showers Pass Waterproof Knit Gloves
–Showers Pass Spring Classic Jacket
–Tracksmith Inverno Neckwarmer – really nice for extra warmth, plus it fit nice and snug over my mouth and chin when I needed it. I didn’t really think I’d care about keeping my chin warm, but it was nice!
–Nike Reflective Dot Fleece Headband
–Nike Featherlight Cap
After organizing my things, Warren and I enjoyed a delicious pasta dinner and got to meet a few other runners and support crews. Mid-dinner the camp director Barry announced a runner arriving into the dining hall that had just completed a run of the entire Hellgate course THAT DAY. He would then join everyone for the official race that night. Two days running Hellgate back-to-back. The room erupted into applause.
The next thing was the pre-race meeting. All the chairs in the room were reserved for the runners and the crews had to stand. There was a lot of energy, excitement, and laughter in the room, not only with the race looming hours away, but with many past participants and friends being reunited with each other. I sat next to Amy, a veterinarian from Tennessee, who was super nice and encouraging when I told her this would be my first ultra marathon. I also met Anne, who we have a mutual friend with, and her support person Wendy. Dr. Horton shushed everyone then took some time to introduce the people involved with putting on the race, then we also went over all the logistical stuff with the aid stations. The crews would normally have access to most of the aid stations (7 out of 9, I believe), but because the Blueridge Parkway was shut down, this year crews would have access to only TWO aid stations. David shared some funny stories from previous years, and said a few words about what made the race so special. He had several runners that had finished the race all 17 years stand up, as well as other runners that had finished over ten Hellgates. At one point he had me stand up and told everyone I’d be leading the national anthem, then had me sing a few bars of “O Holy Night” in front of everyone, which I kind of suspected he might do. Later he also shared about my plans for the Appalachian Trail next summer and everyone applauded while I shrank into my chair and covered my face. He addressed Warren, who had been standing in the back of the room, and said some very kind things about him and all his accomplishments on the Appalachian Trail, including hiking the entire way a total of 18 times, which everyone applauded for as well.
After the meeting, I went back to my room to lay down for the 90 minutes or so I had before I’d need to change into my race gear and drive with Warren to the start area. I had offered up the other twin bed in my room to Anne so she could get a little rest, and outside in the common area, Warren and Wendy (Anne’s support person) got out their maps and went over directions to the accessible aid stations. I felt really excited and ready to go. I think I dozed off for a little bit before my alarm went off, which was good. I was very prepared for the race both from a physical standpoint and organizational standpoint. Before the race I jotted down some personal goals. I really was diving into the unknown, so I wanted to give myself the opportunity to be satisfied with some baseline goals, but I also wanted to set some ambitious goals in case things went well. Here they were:
C: Cover 52-58 miles averaging 3.6 to 3.8 mph (an estimated average day on the AT next summer)
B: Finish the race
A: Finish under the 18 hour cutoff
A+: Finish under 17 hours, qualifying for Western States 2021
A++: Finish in top half of the women’s field
A+++: Finish among top 5 women (and get a puffy jacket!)
A++++: Make the podium (top 3 women)
I also posted some additional goals on Instagram, which included stay warm in the predicted 35 degree rainy conditions by being smart about gear choices, and not be stupid (there is an actual ‘stupid award’ given out each year!).
I was ready to go about 30 minutes sooner than I needed to be, so Warren and I went ahead and drove to the start area. When we arrived at the Hellgate trailhead, there were plenty of people there that had the same idea. I was glad to have the extra time because I needed to run into the woods and pee twice before the race started. The outside temperature felt pretty mild all things considered, maybe around 40 degrees or so. I had been planning to wear my Nathan hydration pack with a water bladder inside, but not knowing whether the course would be icy at higher elevation, I made the last minute decision to remove the water bladder (which weighed a lot, which was stressing me out), and replace it with a pair of Yaktrax (metal coils you can slip on your shoes for traction) and a smaller 18oz soft bottle of water. Much better- I felt more reassured in case it was icy up high, and I felt relieved not to be carrying as much weight. While there would be aid stations throughout the course, I wouldn’t get to see Warren again until about 30 miles in, and if the conditions got really icy and I’d have to slip and slide most of the way… that would not be good.
Dr. Horton stood in the parking lot with his megaphone and clipboard, and called runners over to check in. There were people milling around everywhere, with the steady pitter patter of rain made visible by car headlights. As midnight loomed closer, he had everyone make their way over to the start line, which was behind a big gate barring the course beyond, a grassy forest road. He called me up to stand next to him to lead the national anthem and invited everyone to sing along. Here is a video of everyone singing the national anthem plus the start of the race.
After singing, I rejoined the runners then Dr. Horton said a quick word of prayer. I noticed a giant branch by my feet and moved it off to the side so no one would trip on it. He had everyone start to make their way around to the other side of the gate, then counted down to the start at exactly 12:01am. We were off!
I settled in right behind the first large group of runners, maybe about ten in total. Everyone was in good spirits, chatting and laughing. The terrain was pretty flat to begin with, and we were running at a very comfortable pace. I was happy to tuck right in with the group. Almost immediately, the entire group missed the first righthand turn onto a trail, but we quickly got back on course. I scanned the runners for any other women around, and I spotted someone ahead of me who I thought was a woman wearing purple running tights. Wanting to keep them in sight, I stayed with the group for a while until we started climbing. The lead group cruised on uphill like it was a piece of cake, and I slowed way down and continued on at a comfortable pace for me.
We crossed over one tiny stream at one point, but soon enough we came across the big stream crossing I had seen the day before. The guy in front of me darted across the deep, swirling water like it was nothing! I came to a halt, scanning the creek for the best route to take, and then a woman behind me said something along the lines of, “It’s alright, take your time, just step on across.” I stepped gingerly in the water and immediately slipped and was submerged into the water all the way to my shoulder on my left side. Miraculously the only thing that got wet was my tights, as my waterproof socks, jacket, and gloves kept me totally dry. Even my arm stayed dry, since the elastic cuff of the sleeve was cinched so well at my wrist. I climbed up and out the other side. The woman behind me crossed the stream easily and we ran the next short section of technical trail together. I learned her name was Rachel. I told her that this was my first ultra race. She told me this was her first Hellgate. She gave me some encouragement and advice, including, “Don’t be afraid to power hike up the hills.” She sailed through the first aid station (mile 3.5) and I stopped and had a cup of water, which was easier than getting my bottle out of my backpack. I trailed her for a bit on the uphill gravel road, but had to pull off to pee and after that she was gone. I made my way up the road at an easy jog taking my time, up and up with headlamps dotting the switchbacks ahead of me. It was the same road I had run up and down on Thursday. As I reached one of the crests I could see more headlamps below me. I ate one of my oat bars on the way up, knowing I’d be able to wash it down with water once I reached the aid station at the top.
After taking in some more water at the second aid station at the crest of the gravel road (mile 7.5), Petites Gap, I crossed the closed Blue Ridge Parkway then started a descent on a more technical trail strewn with rocks and leaves. I got passed quite a bit, as I was worried about tripping and falling. Not only did I have that bad fall on the AT resulting in my stapled knee last month, but I also took a tumble on Wildwood Trail in Portland this summer resulting in a fractured elbow. I was not about to make any risky moves in this race. The trail turned into a grassy road, and I knew the next turn in a couple miles would be easy to miss, per the warnings in the pre-race email and race recaps I’ve read. Thankfully I had some others to run with and another person pointed out the turn, which actually didn’t have any streamers marking it, that I could see! There was a permanent arrow posted on a tree indicating the trail, so if I ran the race again I would know to look for the posted arrow next time. There was one reflective marker about 10-15ft into the trail, but you would only see it if you were actively looking right and into the woods. The next section was quite tricky. It was a single track trail with lots of switchbacks and ups and downs. I continually worried about getting lost, as I went a pretty long way on the trail without seeing any streamers. I even stopped at one point to pull out my directions to double check there weren’t any turns I needed to know about.
I had been passed by many people earlier but caught up with them, so we were running all in a row. You really had to be paying attention for the orange streamers hanging from trees, which were not always easy to see in the dark when they didn’t have the reflective thingy attached, plus I had to keep an eye on the ground and feet in front of me to be careful not to trip or run too close to the next runner. At one point the entire group including me went down a creek bed a little ways before realizing it wasn’t the trail and turning back. It was somewhere in this section that a woman named Kelly caught up with me along with a few other guys, and we said hello. The trail spit us out onto a road and I was grateful to have even footing again. I strode out and ran at a nice pace like I would any day. It felt good! I ran by Kelly and one or two guys, then one of the guys, Richard, went with me. We had a long ascent ahead of us so we alternated power hiking and jogging. I learned that he had only been running for four years and he had just run Chicago Marathon this fall, like me! I asked him his finish time (2:56) and I told him he beat me by a minute. And now here we were running in the woods in the middle of the night in the cold and rain in central Virginia! We hiked and ran a lot of that section together, chatting along the way, and arrived at Aid Station 3 (mile 13.1) around the same time. The volunteers were cooking up a storm and Dr. Horton was there to greet me and the other runners. I told him the weather was much better than I anticipated so far, as it was relatively warm and the rain, while steady, had been light. He asked if I was sweating under all my gear (which could have been a recipe for disaster), and thankfully my answer was no. He showed me all the different types of foods they had, including grilled cheese and salty potatoes, and I gladly had some of both. Kelly arrived soon after and he announced that she had been the “first loser” (aka 2nd place) in the race last year. I said “Well that’s one way to say it!” and he responded, “That’s how I say it!” He told me before I left that I was doing really well and handed me another grilled cheese for the road.
I think I left the aid station before Kelly, and then she caught up to me shortly after. Or maybe it was the other way around. My memories from those wee hours of the morning are about as foggy as the conditions were. The course continued uphill along a gravel road. I walked a couple times so I could reach into my backpack and grab my bottle of water to drink from. My pack situation was a bit perilous, as the one I had ordered well before the race, which had pockets for bottles in the front making them much more accessible, did not arrive in the mail in time. I was relegated to using my small bladder pack (which, as you might remember had just my yaktrax and one smaller water bottle in the main compartment), with only small pockets in the front which I stashed food in. It was not ideal. We continued climbing up the road for a couple miles then it turned back to single track trail. I ran along with Kelly for a little while, keeping an eye on the ground and her feet in front of me, trying to be really careful not to trip and fall. Many of the rocks were made slippery by bright green lichen. Eventually the trail swooped down to Aid Station 4 (mile 22.4) where we were warmly greeted by volunteers. Kelly went straight to her drop bag and I went straight to where the food and drinks were. A volunteer gave me some warm broth and then I had some soda after that. I took the opportunity to skedaddle out as quickly as possible and continue on my way.
As I made my way through the next section it started to get really foggy, making the non-reflective markings even harder to spot at night. I kept worrying I was getting off trail when I didn’t see a streamer for a while, and breathed a sigh of relief every time I did see one. Every so often I’d ask a runner around me if they had seen a streamer, or if they knew if we were on the right track, and the answer was usually “I’m not sure!” or “I hope so!” At one point I ate a date and nut bar, but it worried me how fiberous it was with the dates, so I resolved to stick to more bready/basic foods after that. It had been raining the entire race so far, and my clothing had been holding up very well, including my socks even through several more stream crossings. However in this section it gradually started to rain harder and the temperature was getting colder, and before long my jacket sleeves started to soak through along my forearms. I had been using the jacket sleeves to cover my hands for extra warmth, but since the sleeves were soaking through, my gloves, though waterproof to a point, eventually became soaked through too. My waterproof socks that had kept my feet dry for so long were finally becoming saturated and started to feel sloshy. It also continued getting colder. At first the wet clothes felt manageable and I retained body warmth for a while, but my hands were the first thing to go. The cold crept in and they went numb, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. As my hands got to the point beyond numbness to just plain pain, my thoughts went from “I can deal with this” to “maybe I should do something about this” to “okay I DEFINITELY need to swap everything out at the next aid station”, which I knew I’d be able to do because it would be my first chance to see Warren and have access to my gear.
I rolled into Aid Station 5 (mile 27.6), which was brightly lit and packed with volunteers and various support crews. It was a very figuratively warm, welcoming, and inviting scene. The volunteers told me something that surprised me, which was that the first woman (Rachel, who I had met at the stream crossing), had left the aid station just a minute before me! Now that was exciting! It also meant that the person in purple tights I had been following at the beginning was definitely a guy. Whoops. At that point I thought I had been in third place, but here I was in second place and just a minute behind first place! I took some water from the aid station and then immediately went with Warren to his car where my stuff was. I asked him to change out the batteries in my flashlight since there was still an hour or two of darkness left and I wanted to be sure I could see the whole way. I swapped out my jacket for a dry one (a Port Authority jacket with a big “M” on the front that I usually wear coaching track at Mountainside High School), put an oat bar in the front pocket, slipped on lightweight Tracksmith gloves, and then topped those with insulated Oiselle mittens, each with a hand warming hot pack inside thanks to Warren. He kept telling me how wonderfully I was doing so far. I couldn’t believe how close I was to the first woman and was doing my best to get ready as quickly as possible. I think it all took about 4-5 minutes. Keep in mind I had been completely drenched from the cold rain with numb hands, so everything took a bit longer to do. Knowing I would see Warren again soon, I ditched my pack. I took off down the road and immediately missed the first left turn I was supposed to take. As I continued running, something didn’t seem right, so I apprehensively turned around and saw someone with a flashlight (another runner’s crew person) waving their arms and running after me. They were likely calling for me, but my ears were covered by my fleece headband which was keeping my head warm. I ran back up the hill I had just run down, and they went back with me and pointed out the correct turn. I’m so grateful that they saw me and helped point me in the right direction. Once I rejoined the race a runner called out “Liz?” It was Kelly. I said “Yes!” And she asked, “Did you miss the turn?” “Yes!” She told me she had gotten lost in the previous section, which meant that even despite that she was making very good time. I let her know the top woman was just a few minutes ahead and she responded she would just be happy with top five.
We made our way up yet another forest service road, but this one turned out to be very slick, as it was now much colder than before and the mostly dirt surface was covered in a shiny new layer of ice. We were relegated to running on the more gravelly shoulder of the road, which was perilous to one side with a steep drop off down the mountain, and hazardous to the other side with the road slanted steeply into a ditch and rock wall. We commiserated on how cold and wet we were, and she said she regretted not swapping out some additional gear at the aid station. We ran a ways together, and both eventually switched from the outer side of the road to the inner side. I was faring well despite the ice and eventually took off ahead. I made good time there and passed a few men going uphill. Eventually we started going down again. It was starting to get ever so light out as the sun rose somewhere behind all the dark rain clouds. I had to pee but there were so many people around and not many places to go. I’d try to surge ahead of the headlamps behind me, find a spot, but then not have enough time before the other runners caught up. Finally there were some trees off to the side that offered some privacy. I did my thing, popped back out and rejoined the group including Kelly.
From the road we headed into a trail and continued downhill, and Warren was waiting to meet me at one of the road crossings he had found on a map. I drank some mango juice that he offered and unwrapped the oat bar in my pocket and gave him the wrapper. He had nothing but positive, encouraging things to say. I tried to eat the bar on the next stretch but I just couldn’t stomach it. I took one bite and let it sit in my mouth for a long time, and could barely bring myself to swallow it. I knew I needed to eat, but the thought of eating more food made me feel nauseous. I held onto the oat bar with my increasingly rain-sodden glove for a long time but eventually just put it back in my jacket pocket so that I could put my mitted and gloved hand back under my jacket sleeve. It was totally light now and the rain was relentless. My mittens with the hot packs that had been keeping me warm were now sopping and soaked through. I left them on for a while still to retain some warmth, but eventually they were so heavy and cold that I folded them together and put them in my other jacket pocket. I left my lightweight gloves on, which had soaked through, and kept my hands sheltered in my jacket sleeves, which were also soaked through. My tights were saturated with ice cold rainwater and my socks were sloshing with water and mud. The trail was more like a small creek in many sections, and the mud was treacherously deep and slippery in some sloped sections. There were quite a few stream crossings, which was actually nice because it was an opportunity to rinse my shoes and socks off while splashing through.
Kelly and I ran together for most of this section, I believe. My legs and feet were beginning to hurt, and I was still worried about tripping, and as a result was running very gingerly downhill. She ran behind me for a bit, but asked to pass as she wanted to hurry down to the next aid station to swap out her shoes. She arrived at Aid Station 7 (mile 42.5) a bit before me, and apparently the first woman had just left a minute or two before. We were the top 3 women and all very close together! I was a wet, cold wreck. I splashed through the very muddy grass toward the aid station tents as a slew of volunteers and crew members cheered me in, I grabbed a bite of a grilled cheese sandwich, then ran over with Warren to his car to change back into my original Showers Pass jacket and gloves (which were miraculously dry again from hanging inside the car). I also decided to throw on an additional long sleeve half zip pullover on top of my other clothes for extra warmth. I was so sopping wet that I was having an impossible time pulling the sleeves over my arms and the wool base layer I was already wearing. David Horton, who had been practically jumping up and down with excitement that a RACE among the lead women was forming, had been telling me to hurry up and get after Rachel and Kelly. He kept urging, “You’ve gotta go!” and “You can’t take this long at the next aid stations!” “Use that 2:59 marathon speed!” He ran over to help and so I had Warren on one side trying to pull up my left sleeve and David on the other side trying to pull up my right sleeve. It was probably quite a sight! In the process my grilled cheese had fallen to the muddy grass so I grabbed a sip of mango juice, ran back over to the tent to get another grilled cheese for the road, then dashed on up the hill to try to gain some ground on the two women ahead.
Then it got hard REAL fast. Maybe it was that I picked up the pace too aggressively in an effort to catch the two women ahead of me, maybe it was the lack of fluids that I should have been taking in my hurry to leave the aid stations, maybe it was the fact that I had 42+ miles under my belt already, but a little twinge in my outer left knee gradually turned into some very unpleasant tightness and pain during this section. The next aid station would be six miles away, and all I could think was, “My knee hurts. I need water.” Earlier this year on a training run on the Appalachian Trail in New York in humid August, my knee joints/tendons began to hurt very badly in the same way. I didn’t have water with me, but someone had left several plastic gallon jugs of water (“trail magic”) at a road crossing. I stopped for a few minutes and drank a LOT, and after that my knees felt better and I was able to continue like nothing happened. So here I was in the same predicament, entirely of my own doing, as I had chosen not to carry a pack for most of the race. Maybe I’ll come around, but I hate carrying stuff with me when I run, especially water because it’s so heavy. Yeah, not the greatest logic! So the next section really just turned into survival mode. I felt disappointed, as if I were letting the lead women just slip out of reach after they had been so close. I honestly don’t remember much until reaching Aid Station 8 (49.5 miles). The road access to get there had just opened up, so Warren was unexpectedly able to meet me. I stopped for a while, probably too long, but I needed fluids and I needed to eat something. I drank two cups of ginger ale and a cup of water. A volunteer offered some tomato broth which I was able to get down. I told Warren my leg was really hurting. I asked how far I had to go (a question I hadn’t asked once up until that point- I didn’t dare!), and he told me I had eight miles to the next aid station, then six miles after that. Eight miles. On a badly hurting knee. My eyes started to brim with tears and I had to turn away for a second. The volunteer that had given me the broth noticed my distress and asked if this was my first Hellgate, and I said yes. He said I was doing great and the next women were still within reach. He also told me he knew the next women behind me and that they were very tough runners. With that I said, “Well I better get going then.” I said thanks to him and Warren, and I could tell Warren was worried and feeling bad for me. I headed out down the gravel road away from the station, half running and half limping. I let out little yelps of pain with each step and when I got farther away from the station I started bawling to myself. Eight miles. With each step I just whispered, “Please, please, please.” Please help my leg to loosen up. Please make the pain stop! After a while my little prayer was answered, as my leg did loosen up and the downhill became less painful. There were a few guys around me, some passing me, and me passing others. We commiserated in short grunts and minimal utterances, “How you doing?” “Suffering.” “Yup.” I continued sailing down the hill when someone behind me exclaimed, “Right turn. RIGHT TURN!” In my pain cave and feeling sorry for myself, I totally missed a very well marked right turn onto the next section of trail. I thanked him profusely. To be in that much pain, and then to add a bunch of extra miles, assuming it would have been a while until I realized my mistake… yikes!!
The next trail section was rolling, muddy, and tough to find a rhythm with the short ups and downs, which made it pretty difficult with my ailing knee. There were lots of rocks and stream crossings, and any little torque or twist on my knee due to the uneven footing was very painful. Most of what I can remember from this section is all the wet leaves and mud, and inability to find a rhythm. On the upside, I fell into pace with another runner and we ended up chatting and laughing for a big chunk of the way. It really made the miles fly by and helped turn my focus away from how much pain I was in. I ended up having to slow down a bit more than him and was really worried about who was coming up behind me- as in, my (figurative) podium finish was very likely in danger. I got passed by several men that I hadn’t seen yet in the race, which meant I was definitely slowing down and more runners were likely to follow. As terrible as it was, I had to tell myself that every step counted, to run anytime I could (flat, downhill, teeny uphills). My heart sank a bit when I looked up ahead and saw Kelly (I think) run along the next switchback above me- not because she was so far away, but on the contrary, because she was so dang close. It meant that I had to keep trying. How could I not at least try, even when feeling so badly, when she was right there? The trail flattened out after a while, and a race photographer that I recognized from the pre-race meeting had stationed herself right by a big mud puddle, which I assumed to capture an awesome badass photo of me splashing through it. Of course me being me, I tiptoed around the puddle in order to be as least messy as possible, then even apologized for it. Haha. Since she was there and had likely walked in from the trailhead, that meant the final aid station before the finish would likely be close. Soon after that, I heard a pitter patter of steps behind me. They did not sound like big clompy man steps but light, quick, barely-there steps. The time had come. I wanted to turn around and see if it was a woman as I suspected, but part of me didn’t want to know, because if I didn’t know, then there was still a chance it was a guy! Now that’s logic at mile 60. It turned out to be Bethany Patterson, who I had reached out to online and exchanged a few friendly messages with ahead of the race. She gave me a big smile and said “GO GIRL!” I laughed and said great job to her. She was crushing it. I trailed her into the final aid station and the volunteers were LOVING it. They told us the first two women had just left the aid station and were just ahead, and we still had a chance. I knew I HAD to drink something before moving on, so I grabbed a cup of ginger ale and drank most of it. Bethany took off a little before me, and not wanting to miss the opportunity, I grabbed an Oreo cookie and made a run for it. My run lasted all of maybe 20 seconds as the final gravel road quickly rose uphill and my knee was still very much throbbing in pain. Bethany put some distance between us then she started power hiking. What amazed me though, was that after a quick hiking break, she kept running up the freaking hill! It was not an easy climb by any means. She continued up and around a bend and I never saw her again. One thing was for sure and my mind was made up: I refused to run one step up that hill. It was a steep, three mile climb straight up a mountain, followed by a steep, three mile descent. I knew the descent would be painful, and I couldn’t bear worsening my suffering even further. So I power hiked up, up, and up. All the guys around me were doing the same and gradually getting farther away, and I was surpassed by several more men along the way. In fact, I’m positive most everyone in the entire field was better at power hiking than me. I had barely looked at my GPS watch all day, but I decided that since I had resolved to walking up the mountain, I would at least aim to do better than 3mph or 20 minute miles to the top. At that point, I had given up on the idea of finishing top 3, but wanted to do everything I could to defend my fourth place position. I was happy to see my pace reading around 16-18 minute miles throughout. Three miles is a loooong way to walk uphill. When I finally crested the top I’m pretty sure I audibly gulped, then set off for what would be a painful descent down the mountain. It was quite rocky for the next two miles on an old wagon road. It was difficult to pick up my left leg higher than an inch or two off the ground because that required bending my knee, which hurt! So I had to kind of snake my way down around the larger rocks (as in like, rocks that were maybe just 2-3” high), when normally I’d be able to easily skip over them. I breathed a sigh of relief when the wagon road let up onto a much smoother, well maintained gravel road. The impact with every step hurt, but at least I didn’t have to think as much to calculate where to plant my feet. An orange line was drawn across the road with “1 mile to go” written under it. I was still running steadily downhill, and felt even more relief knowing I was so close. The last mile was tough in a physical sense, but it was also celebratory, like a big personal victory. I felt really proud of myself that I had made it that far. I rounded the corner into Camp Bethel and opened up my stride along the main driveway (the only paved section of the entire race – here’s one for the road runner!). When I rounded the final corner and toward the grass lawn where the makeshift finish line was set up, some people spotted me and started to cheer. Warren was sitting by the finish and as soon as he saw me he stood up with a big smile on his face and started cheering. Then there was David Horton front and center screaming into his megaphone, “FIRST ULTRA!!! LIZ ANJOS!!! 4TH WOMAN!!! FIRST!!! ULTRA!!!!” I couldn’t stop smiling running down the finish chute, lined with a simple orange streamer on each side. I crossed the line in a time of 14:18:43 and David gave me a giant hug, per tradition with every finisher, then he made sure we got a photo together to commemorate my first ultra marathon: his very special race, the Hellgate 100K. I looked over to where Warren was, off to the side taking it all in. Never one for the spotlight, he simply gave me a smile, wink, and a thumbs up.
The word I can use to best describe my feelings after this race is “humbled”. I was humbled by the kindness and generosity of the volunteers and organizers for giving so much of their time and energy, and standing out in the cold rain for hours on end, all to help a bunch of nuts run 66.6 miles through the woods trying to discover their human potential. That was a true labor of love. I’m humbled by Warren driving all the way up to Virginia from his “winter hibernation” in South Carolina to help me on this crazy adventure. I’m humbled by the tenacity of the 142 runners that toed the start line of this race with no idea what would be in store. 14 of those runners would not make it to the finish line. Some runners had to stop in the middle of the race for an hour or more to warm up after going hypothermic, only to continue on their way to the finish.
I’m humbled by the amazing women runners that were relentless in their pursuit to the finish line, but were completely kind, supportive, and displayed true sportswomanship out on the course. Kelly MacDonald (if you remember was the “first loser”–David’s words!–in last year’s race), went on to surpass Rachel Spaulding and took first place in 14:00 flat. Bethany Patterson continued her charge up that last big climb with an incredible surge to the finish in 14:05 for 2nd place. Rachel held on at the end for a top 3 finish in her first ever Hellgate in 14:16. Amy MacIntire, the kind veterinarian I had been sitting next to in the pre-race meeting, finished 5th in 14:46, rounding out the women that earned their puffy jackets. How’s that for an exciting race?
Looking back, I am really, really proud for meeting 6 out of the 7 goals I set for myself, including finishing my very first ultramarathon! I missed out on my top goal of placing among the top 3 women by two minutes. And I’m not going to lie, I’m a little mad about it. It doesn’t come from a place of wanting to beat everyone, I promise, it is really just me wanting to get the best out of myself and thinking of all the things I could have done better to eek out another two, thirteen, or eighteen minutes over 66.6 miles. I could have hydrated WAY better throughout the race, made possible by either taking my water bladder with me, or having ordered my preferred hydration pack with the front accessible pockets for water bottles much earlier than I did. Being better hydrated might have helped with the knee pain I experienced, which three days later is now totally gone. I certainly could have taken more time at the aid stations to take in more hot food and more fluids before moving on. I’ll probably be mulling over this stuff for a while, but it was all a valuable learning experience for the next race, whenever and wherever that may be. Ultimately though, I’ve been so happy and on a total high since race weekend. I accomplished something new and different to me and I met a whole lot of really amazing people. I was barely able to sleep Sunday or Monday night, I’ve been so excited about this new thing I’m discovering I’m pretty alright at!
My remaining proud moment came the day after the race. I woke up at 4:45am to a text message saying my flight from Roanoke had been delayed until 5:30pm, and I wouldn’t arrive in Portland until midnight. That would absolutely not do, as I had to be home in time for the team holiday party I was putting on- the very reason I almost didn’t sign up for the race in the first place! I quickly rebooked a flight out of Charlottesville, VA via the United app, and Warren drove out of his way 100 miles to get me there, and he may or may not have broken a few traffic laws on the way to get me there on time! I made it onto the plane 15 minutes after boarding began, with minutes to spare before they closed the door at the gate. When I arrived in Chicago for my layover, I ran to customer service to see if they could rebook me onto an earlier flight into Portland, and they put me on standby for the next flight. I ran to the customer service desk at my new gate and explained how this had been my original flight, and was my original reserved seat by any chance still available? And they gave me my seat back! I made it back to Portland with time to shower and dress nicely, arrive at the venue to meet a few other team members to decorate the room, and the holiday party went off without a hitch.
I made a point of wearing a short dress to the party, as I hadn’t worn anything revealing the big scar below my knee since my fall a month earlier in the mountains of North Carolina. Even if no one noticed my knee, it was meaningful to me because I no longer felt ashamed or embarrassed about it. To me, wearing both a dress and showing my ugly scar symbolized that I can display both femininity and fierceness in the things I do. I’m really proud of that. I also thought about how if I never fell in the woods that day, all the events leading up to running Hellgate–the day off from hiking, the road trip to meet Dr. Horton, the invitation from him to come out and run his race–never would have happened in the first place! This was really a wonderful way to cap off 2019 and I’m more excited than ever to see what the next year will bring.