Hellgate 100K: Stoking the Fire Within

Photo by Jay Proffitt

“Pay me now, or pay me later.”

This infamous quote from the Hellgate 100K race director, Dr. David Horton, pretty much sums up how your race will go depending on how much blood, sweat, and tears went into your training. How much were you willing to sacrifice then, or how much are you willing to suffer now? In a way, race day is a bit like judgment day. That might sound scary and intimidating, but I don’t see it that way. We are what we do every day, including what we do when no one’s watching. At the end of any day, I want to look back and feel fulfilled, content with, and proud of the way I spent my time. I want to feel like that when I arrive at the finish line of a race, and I want to feel like that when I’m a little old granny looking back on my life. I mentioned in my last newsletter that what I like about running is how objective it is. As a musician and creative person, I’ve accepted that my work might not resonate with everyone, though it’s hard not to take it personally sometimes. In a race situation, the result is the result- it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks! It’s like getting a chance to demonstrate your body of work; a culmination of everything you’ve worked so hard for.

When I step up to any start line, I want to be the best version of myself. In the past, it was rare that I actually felt that way, because I’d inevitably start mulling over all of the things I could have done better. My breaking point was the night before the 2019 Boston Marathon. I cried and cried because I had so many regrets with my training and lifestyle leading up to the race. I didn’t feel that I had done everything I could to prepare well for the race. After that night, I knew I never wanted to feel that way again–something had to change. And I did change- not only my training, but my attitude, habits, and outlook as a whole. I let go of my routine training rituals and started running in the mountains a lot more. I went on to have the best stretch of running in my life over the next year, culminating in a half marathon PR, two marathon PRs, my first Hellgate finish (and first ultra), and completing the Appalachian Trail in 51 days. It wasn’t just about realizing success on paper, but about leaning into who I was as a person, and starting to look at the world in a different way.

And just as if the universe needed to correct itself, my highest of highs were followed by the lowest of lows, all within the span of one year. In a way I found a truer version of myself through some profound, life changing experiences. The tragic part, though, was that I could no longer relate or connect as well in some of my closest relationships, resulting in some painful losses that I am still sitting with.

My year started off well, with a sixth place finish in the Promise Land 50K, followed by taking running the fastest known time for women on the 72 mile route traversing the Smoky Mountains known as SCAR. I did not finish my next two goal events: the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile in June and my FKT attempt on the Long Trail in August. I made some mistakes, and my head was not in the right place. Because of those disappointing experiences, my hope with Hellgate was to finish it no matter what and end the year on an uplifting note. I worried about how I would feel about myself and my goals for the future if Hellgate didn’t go well. I had thoughts such as, “Maybe I already peaked,” or “Maybe last year was a fluke,” or “Maybe I should rethink my future goals.”

After this difficult year in terms of life stuff I’ve felt the fire inside me is a little dimmer than it used to be. Preparing for Hellgate acted as a sort of kindling–something to keep the flame going. My training wasn’t perfect, but it was very solid. I would give myself an A- for meeting all of my general objectives like doing my long runs, workouts, and consistently building volume. I’m docking myself some points for not getting as many longer climbs and descents in, not hitting my weekly elevation goal even once, and not getting on technical trails as much as I could have. Stress, anxiety, and grief have been a constant presence. In spite of that, based on how I felt in the weeks leading up to the race, I knew I had hit my stride at just the right time, and I felt optimistic and ready to roll.

Hellgate Creek (Start) to FR-35 (AS1)

The first few miles of the Hellgate course were relatively flat with mostly easy footing. I went out at a pace that felt smooth and comfortable and found myself at the front of the pack, just behind the male leaders. I probably got some raised eyebrows from some of the other runners–what the heck was I doing up there? You don’t want to win the first mile of a 100K race! I wanted to treat the race like any other long run, and I didn’t feel like I was pushing, so that’s where I landed. I felt nervous about the first stream crossing, since last time I had slipped and fallen in sideways, so part of my going to the front was not wanting to get boxed in and feel rushed going across the stream. My plan backfired, however, because a big group (John Anderson and co.) started to pass me just as we were getting to the stream crossing, so as we got closer I started to panic. It ended up being a non-issue because the stream was much lower than last time, and instead of running on across (like I saw others do last time), everyone just took their time and walked. I felt silly afterward for being so nervous about that part, but still felt relieved after getting through it. Now instead of worrying about falling into a stream, I could just focus on the race!

Miles: 0-4.0
Start time: 12:01am!
Section Time: 37:25
2019 Section Time: 38:55

FR-35 (AS1) to Petites Gap (AS2)

This was a nice section up a gravel forest service road. It started pretty flat, gradually went up, then got a little steeper toward the top. All in all, it was about 1,300ft of climbing over four miles. There was a switchback where I could see a string of headlamps bobbling above and below me in the night. I continued to run at a steady clip, but didn’t push too much going up the hill. Rachel Spaulding pulled up alongside me and we ran together and chatted a bit before she continued along. I remembered from our training weekend the month prior that Rachel was really good at the long, continuous uphills. A day or two after the race, David Horton, the race director, asked if I ran all the way up the hill. I proudly said, “Yes!” and he responded, “That was stupid.” As a side note, looking back on my race data, I took the crown for the Petites Gap Road Climb segment on Strava, which maybe in my case should be renamed the “Queen of the Idiots” segment, but I digress!

I was an hour into the race and wanted to stay on top of my nutrition, I took my first Spring Energy gel. At the top of the climb was the aid station at Petites Gap. I had everything I needed with me in my pack, so I kept on running through without stopping. As I ran by, David Horton said, “You’re looking good, girl,” and Logan, Rachel’s fiancĂ©, told me “She’s a minute ahead!”

Miles 4.0-8.0
Section Time: 39:37
2019 Section Time: 41:40
Overall Time: 1:16:52
2019 Overall Time: 1:20:35

Petites Gap (AS2) to Camping Gap (AS3)

After passing through the Petites Gap aid station, I followed the course across the Blue Ridge Parkway then turned left to go down a more technical single track trail. Two years prior I felt nervous about twisting my ankle or falling in that section, but this time I didn’t sweat it. I skipped down the trail, dancing over all the rocks and roots, and felt totally relaxed, taking my time. It was very foggy with low visibility. As I continued downhill it was like plunging into the great, misty unknown. I could hear some voices echoing in the forest down below me, including a woman which must have been Rachel, but otherwise I was alone. Any other runners that were around me at Petites Gap must have stopped for a bit at the aid station. The single track trail opened up and turned into a grassy wagon road. One runner caught up to me, and we chatted a bit, and I reminded him (but also was saying it for myself) not to miss the tricky right turn to stay on the Glenwood Horse Trail. We caught the turn and made our way through another single track section, before hitting another gravel road and turning right, beginning the long climb up to Camping Gap. The time was just flying by, and before I knew it, I had hit the two hour mark and took another gel. I didn’t feel hungry or lacking in energy, but I took it anyway because I knew I should–sort of like topping off the energy reserves. I still had over 50 miles to go!

Miles 8.0-14.0
Section Time: 1:15:36
2019 Section Time: 1:22:09
Overall Time: 2:32:28
2019 Overall Time: 2:42:44

Camping Gap (AS3) to Headforemost Mountain (AS4)

Ahh, the section where things took a turn for the worst. I breezed by the Camping Gap aid station just after 2:30am, where the wind was whipping and howling. As far as the weather and temperature went, I felt comfortable–if anything even a bit warm and sweaty. However, I felt for the aid station crew as I ran by. They were totally exposed to the cold and wind, and they weren’t running like I was, so they must have been freezing! I had all the water and food and I needed on me for the next long section, so on I went.

By my rough calculation, there was over 2,000ft of climbing in this section, including reaching the highest point of the course. As I climbed up and up, I remember there being a strange pocket of warm wind that came out of nowhere. The wind continued to ribbon between cold, warm, cold, warm. Same with the fog. It would be foggy one moment, then the wind would whisk it away. I started to sweat even more, but knew better than to start removing layers, as it would keep getting colder the higher I went. Then some rain began to sprinkle, which turned into a drizzle, which turned into a steady rain. I was glad I had brought a lightweight packable jacket just in case, which I was able to reach behind and grab out of my pack.

Just as soon as the rain began, it went away, then it didn’t rain the entire rest of race. I didn’t want to stop to put my jacket back in my pack, so I tied it around my waist, and there it stayed. Being so lightweight, it just sort of floated around me as I ran–plus it’s pink–and someone commented as they ran by that it looked like I was wearing a tutu. Very me!

It was also somewhere during this section that I started to have terrible stomach issues. I took another gel at three hours early into this section. My stomach seemed to be protesting, “Why the heck are you feeding me! Stahp!!!” My theory is that it wasn’t the gel itself that was upsetting my stomach, but more so that I timed my meals horribly leading up to the race. I mean, I had an entire days’ worth of food just sitting in my stomach that hadn’t had enough time to digest. I felt full and bloated. Knowing I had a big effort coming up, I also snacked a bit more than usual during the day, which in hindsight probably ended up just making things worse. Ugh!!

The course sort of undulated on a twisty, turny, single track trail. On top of my stomach reeling, my body just started to feel achey all over, like I was sick. I felt like hurling, and almost did. I started to majorly slow down and got passed by many people. The trail came out to a road by Overstreet Falls. Instead of turning right to stay on the course, I turned left down the road a bit and crouched behind a large boulder and tried to “go”, but to no avail. The worst part was that runners were spilling out onto the road in droves then, so I could physically see my position in the race getting higher and higher.

I walked a bunch going up that road. A runner caught up with me, Kyle from Pennsylvania (I think– I know Kyle and I chatted at some point!). He asked how I was doing, and I mentioned my stomach giving me trouble. He offered some kind of medicine that was supposed to help stave off nausea and increase your appetite, and asked if I wanted some. Now, I know I probably shouldn’t just take drugs from strangers, but I knew he was Kyle from Pennsylvania and I was desperate to feel better, so I said, “Sure!”

When I arrived at the Headforemost Mountain aid station, I quickly filled up one of my bottles with Tailwind (an electrolyte drink). Adrienne Mitford, who was there waiting for a runner she was crewing, saw me and asked if the one bottle was all I needed, looking a little bit concerned. I said yes, then wailed, “It’s like Promise Land all over again!” as I had stomach issues in that race too.

Miles 14.0-24.5
Section Time: 2:23:58
2019 Section Time: 2:07:14
Overall Time: 4:56:26
2019 Overall Time: 4:49:58

Headforemost Mountain (AS4) to Jennings Creek (AS5)

Another rough section. My body just did not want to run. With roughly 2,500ft of elevation loss, that would normally have been my happy place. I love downhill running, and I’m good at it! I felt achey all over and found myself sporadically stopping and walking for a few seconds at a time for seemingly no reason at all on some of the easiest stretches. It was like my legs just weren’t having it. For the first time I felt my stomach rumble with hunger–maybe it was that medicine kicking in! So I cautiously and a bit reluctantly ate another gel, and actually felt okay. I jogged into Jennings Creek aid station feeling weary and humbled.

In 2019, at this point the race was only beginning to unfold. I had arrived at the aid station just seconds after the first woman departed. It was dumping cold rain, and I took approximately seven minutes to change out my sopping wet gear and skedaddle out of there, thrilled by the chase. By contrast, it took me longer this year to finish the same section with zero outfit changes, and I was already feeling defeated, slow moving, and not optimistic about how the rest of the race would turn out.

I filled my bottles at the aid station, where I saw Sarah Hodder (who had given me a ride to the start line- thank you, Sarah!). She and the aid station volunteers asked how I was doing and I said “Umm I’m okay,” and a volunteer (Sam Price?) said “That’s GREAT!” I suppose “okay” is better than “horrible”, “wretched”, or “dying”, so they had a good point. They offered me food, and I didn’t trust I could handle real food at that point, but then they offered some hot broth which sounded perfect. Another woman came up to the aid station soon after me, so I finished my broth as quickly as I could, and we ran out of the aid station together.

Miles 24.5-30.5
Section Time: 1:19:09
2019 Section Time: 1:18:02
Overall Time: 6:15:35
2019 Overall Time: 6:08:00

Jennings Creek (AS5) to Little Cove Mountain (AS6)

I started to feel a little more like myself in this section. Right after the Jennings Creek aid station, the course followed a gravel road that climbs about 800 feet over two miles. I hoped to put a little bit of ground between myself and the woman that had caught up to me (top five women get Patagonia hoodies- I was very motivated), so I ran steadily up the road and actually felt alright. My energy seemed to be coming back and my stomach seemed to be calming down. Every so often I could see the two headlamps of some runners that were up ahead of me, so I worked on bridging the gap to them little by little- and it was working! I got so close that I could hear them chatting with each other. I glanced behind me, and the next woman was nowhere in sight.

After reaching the top of the hill, the course veered right to go through a brief single track trail before coming out onto a gravel road again, this time downhill. I could see and hear the next two runners down below me while I was on the trail and they were on the road. It was also finally light out! Once I hit the road, pulled off to quickly pee since no one was around, but I lost the two guys in front of me in the process- I told myself to keep chipping away and I’d catch them again.

I ran down the forest road for the next while, and remembered there was a right turn I had to make sure not to miss. I went right by it during a training run on the course the month before. Since I had been running downhill for a pretty long time, I started to question whether I had actually missed the turned already. The two guys ahead of me were nowhere in sight. I turned around to look and didn’t see anyone behind me either. I tentatively kept running, while glancing behind me once in a while, and searching for orange ribbons marking the course (confidence markers, as Horton would call them). Becoming nervous, I turned back around and ran uphill, thinking I’d better make sure I was still on the course. Shortly after, I caught a glimpse of another runner coming down the road. That was enough confirmation to me that I was still on the right track. So I flipped around again, that time in the right direction, and sure enough, just around the next bend or two was the (very clearly marked) right turn. D’oh!

I was mostly alone for the next bit, which was actually pretty nice. The sky was a beautiful peach color and all of the leaves covering the forest floor were glowing a deep, blood orange-red. I followed the switchbacks of the trail down to a stream, and saw that the next runner, a man in a blue shirt, had nearly caught up with me. The trail spit us out onto a gravel road where we caught a few strides on precious flat ground before turning right up another forest road that would take us up Little Cove Mountain. Blue shirt guy passed me, made a funny remark that I don’t remember, and as we ran and power hiked up the road, I glanced down to the road and breathed a little sigh of relief when I saw no other runners in sight.

Going up the hill, it helped to have the next runner to key off of. Had I been by myself, it would have been hard to stay as focused. When he ran, I ran, when he hiked, I hiked. As we got closer to the top, I could see the two guys that I had been following earlier, which meant that we were gaining on them! Feeling motivated, I ran the rest of the way up the hill to the aid station. I passed the man in the blue shirt, plus one other runner right before the aid station. The two guys I was chasing were just leaving the aid station as I arrived. I refilled my bottles with Tailwind, and my eyes grew wide when I spotted a giant bag of gummy bears. I delightedly grabbed a handful of gummy bears, shoved them in my mouth, said thank you to the volunteers, and continued on my way.

Miles 30.5-38.3
Section Time: 1:36:42
2019 Section Time: 1:34:12
Overall Time: 7:52:17
2019 Time: 7:42:12

Little Cove Mountain (AS6) to Bearwallow Gap (AS7)

The next section meandered for a while on a soft, grassy wagon road. The two guys ahead were still within sight, and very little by little I started to gain some ground on them. Once I finally caught up to the guys, Jana Fridichova came out of nowhere and blew by all of us like we were standing still! She did the same thing to me in the mid-late stage of the Promise Land 50K–Jana is the master of pacing.

The rest of this section wasn’t fast, but it was steady. I think the medicine I took for my stomach was wearing off though, because I felt queasy again. The last few miles of trail to the aid station are extremely technical; lots of ankle rolling rocks hidden under leaves. I remembered how I felt in 2019 running this section- cold, wet, but still moving well, and still excited about chasing the leaders. I didn’t feel so good this time. I started to gain on some runners that had passed me earlier, including one woman, which was exciting- I had no idea what place I was in, but figured it was anywhere from 6th to 8th based on what I knew; then another woman caught up with me just as we arrived at Bearwallow Gap. Or was it the same woman? My brain was very foggy. She cracked a joke about the difficulty of the section we just did, and I couldn’t bring myself to laugh or react. I guess that’s how blah I was feeling. Apparently I still felt okay enough to wave to Adrienne when she took this photo, however. It’s all for the camera!

The aid station was situated in a parking lot that was totally packed with cars and crews. Adrienne offered to take my headlamp and flashlight off my hands. Jen Henry was there as well, and asked if she could grab me anything. My stomach hurt, and I felt achey all over. I asked for Tylenol–even though I knew that wouldn’t help my stomach, I hoped it would help with everything else. While she grabbed that for me, an aid station volunteer offered some Tums, which I gladly accepted. Adrienne collected the used wrappers from my hydration vest. Another volunteer helped me fill my bottles with more Tailwind, and then the volunteer that had given me Tums also poured me a cup of hot broth. I felt so taken care of and grateful for everyone’s help. I told Jen and Adrienne defeatedly, “At this point I’m just trying to get through it!”

Miles 38.3-47.0
Section Time: 1:54:49
2019 Section Time: 1:56:48
Overall Time: 9:47:06
2019 Overall Time: 9:39:00

Bearwallow Gap (AS7) to Bobblets Gap (AS8)

Things got worse before they got better. The climb out of Bearwallow Gap and onto the next ridge was agonizing. My stomach was just reeling and tightening up, like all my ab muscles and organs were contracting at once. Once again, I felt like tossing my cookies. I had gotten out of the aid station before many of the other people around me, but with the way I was moving, it would only be a matter of time before they caught up with me again. I was moving very slowly, and moaning and groaning from the discomfort. The woman that had caught up to me at the last aid station (Valerie, I believe!) caught up to me once more on the ridge. She heard me whimpering and asked, “Are you okay? Do you need anything? I’ve got medicines X, Y, and Z!” The last thing she mentioned was Gas-X. I didn’t have gas, but that sounded like something that might help my stomach. She stopped for a moment and took a sandwich bag out of her pack, and handed me the pill as I thanked her profusely. For someone else to stop in their tracks in the middle of their race to help another runner? That is some serious kindness! We wished each other well and she continued on her way as I trailed behind.

I continued trudging uphill and ran any little parts I could. The scenery was totally beautiful with the Blue Ridge mountains all around, and bright green moss on the trail peeking out from the fallen leaves. I turned up a switchback, then saw Rachel Corrigan just behind me. Rachel and I met at Hellgate 2019 and again at Promise Land 50K. We also got to share some runs on the Hellgate course together the month prior. Just like in the Promise Land 50K, and just like Jana had both times, Rachel caught up to me in the later stage of the race. I smiled and said “Hey!!!” and she said “Hey!!!” back. It was so nice to see a familiar face. I got ready to step aside so she could pass me, but she said she was happy to go with me. We chatted and commiserated about the race to that point. She told me that earlier, in the dark and fog, a tree fell on the course right in front of her! It sounded like it really shook her up, and understandably so.

I told Rachel about my stomach woes, how I was disappointed that it happened, but how I also hated feeling like I was making excuses for having a crummy day. It sounded like her run was also not going totally as expected or hoped for, at least maybe in that moment. Or maybe she was just saying that to make me feel better, because it seemed to me like she was running well! At mile 50ish in a 66.6 mile race, who even knows? She offered me a ginger candy to help soothe my stomach (that’s now three runners that offered me aid on the course out of the goodness of their hearts). We talked about how we thought we could still shoot for under 15 hours. I told Rachel that I knew my finish time of 14:18 from 2019 was approximately 4.8 miles per hour. And by my cloudy math in that stage of the race, we were right on at 4.8 miles per hour (after doing some fact checking that is not true, my mph in 2019 was 4.65 and we were averaging around 4.7- haha whoops). But by my not-totally-accurate logic, if we kept going the way we were, we could finish not only under 15 hours, but on the lower end of 14 hours! With that, she pardoned her away around me as she was feeling good and wanted to roll with it. I tried to go with her, but couldn’t will my legs to move faster, so we told each other, “Good job!!” and off she went.

Miles 47.0-53.1
Section Time: 1:31:04
2019 Section Time: 1:31:22
Overall Time: 11:18:10
2019 Overall Time: 11:10:22

Bobblets Gap (AS8) to Day Creek (AS9) aka THE FOREVER SECTION

Through the rest of the previous section, I didn’t move very fast, but I kept my effort steady and honest. As I got closer to Bobblets Gap, running up yet another gravel road, I heard cheering as Rachel Corrigan was leaving the aid station. I don’t know what I actually looked like, but if I could guess I would say ghostly, pale, and eyes glazed over. Sam Price, the crew leader, asked how I was doing and what I needed. I said I was in rough shape and asked for help filling my bottles with Tailwind. I forget what Sam said, but he was trying to cheer me up and it worked, because he got a smile and maybe a laugh out of me. The aid station was situated under a bridge, creating a wind tunnel. They had a nice fire going opposite of the tables. The warmth felt good. I thought of how lovely it would be to stay there and said so. In addition to the Tailwind, I may or may not have been offered some libations, which I reluctantly declined. It would have been very hard to leave otherwise!

I left the comfort of the warm fire and prospect of bourbon and continued on my way. The next few miles were downhill on a gravel road, which offered a bit of time to collect myself and contemplate how I wanted to approach the remaining 13.5 miles of the race. I did a little systems check. I was tired, but not in pain. The Gas X seemed to have calmed my stomach down. I felt defeated, but didn’t want to prolong my suffering, which was a tall order given that I was about to enter the toughest part of the race- the Forever Section. It’s only five miles, but feels like nine. It’s mostly comprised of very squirrely, jumbly single track trail. The footing is what makes it the most slow going, in my opinion, plus the constant gear shifting with the little ups and downs.

After having done that section in training the month before, I remembered how frustrated I felt trying to find a rhythm. The biggest temptation was to stop and walk through the rocks and leaves out of annoyance, but honestly, the risk of rolling an ankle while walking didn’t seem any less than running, so by that logic you might as well just run! With that in mind, and with really nothing to lose since my day was going pretty horribly anyway, I gave myself a little challenge: run the entire Forever Section.

And I did! It was not a fast run. Especially on the uphills. It was the teeniest shuffle of shuffles. But the important thing was that I didn’t break my momentum or let myself get frustrated. At some point I passed by Fletcher, Rachel Corrigan’s husband, who was also racing. It might have been in this section that I caught up to Valerie, the woman that had offered me medicine earlier (the timeline is all pretty muddled at this point). I said thanks again and said something like, “You got this!” She looked very focused and possibly in the pain cave–a feeling I know well, so I didn’t try to keep talking. Then to my surprise, on one of the last downhills, I caught up to Rachel Corrigan. She said something along the lines of, “I was wondering when I’d see you!” or “I’ve been waiting for you!” It reminded me of something out of a Marvel Comic, like what a superhero would say to the villain upon the final epic battle–all in good fun. I said something like, “We’re doing it!” or “We’re getting there!” and continued skipping down the treacherous, leafy, rocky way while praying not to fall on my face. I picked up the pace as much as I could once we reached the flatter section of still-technical trail leading out to the Day Creek parking lot.

Miles 53.1-60.7
Section Time: 1:37:30
2019 Section Time: 1:51:23
Overall Time: 12:55:40
2019 Overall Time: 13:01:45

Day Creek (AS9) to Camp Bethel (Finish!!)

It was a huge relief to be out of the Forever Section. One final challenge remained: the 2.5 mile continuous uphill gravel road to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I knew that once I reached the parkway, I’d be home free. The only thing remaining beyond that was three miles downhill and flat–my specialty–to the finish at Camp Bethel.

In 2019, I was so incredibly wrecked at this point in the race that I vowed not to run a single step up that stupid road. I walked the entire way up. This year, even at the latest stage of the race, I told myself to just run. It didn’t have to be a fast run, it could be a teeny tiny baby step run, but just a steady, unrelenting run. I spotted one guy just ahead of me, so I kept my focus on him and tried to close the gap little by little. Since the road curved around, every so often I glanced below to see if anyone was behind me–nothing! I had no idea what place I had among women, and I was afraid to ask at the aid stations for fear of disappointment, plus it’s not like I wasn’t trying my hardest anyway. What would the difference be in knowing? Just run!

Maybe midway up the hill I caught up to the man that had been ahead of me. We commiserated on how our races hadn’t totally gone our way. He said he had pretty much let go of his sub-14 hour goal and was just getting to the finish line. I told him that my course PR was 14:18 and that I thought I could get it, so I was still definitely in it. Maybe it boosted his spirits to have someone to get to the finish line with, because instead of me just passing him, he stuck with me and we worked our way up the hill together. Toward the last stretch, I admittedly took a few intermittent walk breaks. I glanced behind me again expecting to see no one, but lo and behold–Rachel Corrigan!! I thought I made good time up the hill, but she made REALLY good time up the hill and seemed to come out of nowhere. I definitely couldn’t afford to take any more walk breaks, and continued on with my piddly little uphill run, and braced myself for her to pass me again.

Then just in that moment, we came around a bend, revealing the gate marking the top of the road. I hustled up past the gate, darted by the Appalachian Trail and across the Blue Ridge Parkway, and made a mad dash down the wagon road on the other side. “Road” is a generous word, since it was still strewn with softball-size rocks and leaves, forcing me to pick up my knees and feet all along the way. I felt like I was flying, so it was funny to look down at my watch and see that I wasn’t even breaking eight minute miles, with hundreds of feet of elevation loss per mile. But for someone that had 63 miles on her legs and a jumbly downhill trail to navigate, I WAS flying!

Like I said earlier, I thought I’d be home free once I hit that downhill section, but all along the way I could hear footsteps behind me. Then I wondered if I was hearing my own footsteps. I was desperate to turn around and see but A) I didn’t want to trip, and B) I didn’t want to come across like I was running scared, though of course I definitely was! So I compensated by pushing down the hill even harder, trying to shake whoever was on my tail.

I could have cried tears of joy upon seeing the gate marking the end of the rough section of the road, because after that it would be much more smooth and runnable. The footsteps I’d heard behind me turned out to be real–they belonged to the guy that I’d run up the road with earlier! We continued tearing down the hill together, motivated by the fact that we were gaining on a group of two or three runners ahead of us, including Jana, who had passed me much earlier in the race!

We caught up with them just as we passed over the spray painted line marking exactly one mile to go to the finish. When Jana saw me, she exclaimed, “Gahhh don’t make me WORK for it!!” I knew exactly what she meant. It’s how I felt in the 2019 race when I thought I was by myself, but then caught a glimpse of another woman runner on a switchback ahead of me. I couldn’t in good conscious keep on cruising along comfortably when I was so close to gaining on someone, so I had to do the uncomfortable thing and work harder, because I knew I could. How incredibly annoying!

So with maybe 3/4 or 1/2 a mile to go, we had a great group rolling down the last stretch to Camp Bethel. It was probably the only part of the race where I could let my road running speed shine, so I kicked it up another notch and tried to put a little distance on everyone. It worked! I turned the final corner, flew down the driveway of the camp, and up the tiny little grassy hill through the makeshift finish chute. I had hit the lap split to time my last mile and clocked it at 6:46. My overall finish time, unbelievably to me, was 13:57:49. I learned later that I had placed 4th among women. David Horton gave me a giant hug at the finish line, and then I immediately sat down on the ground right then and there out of sheer exhaustion.

Photo by Jay Proffitt

I clapped and cheered for Jana and the men in our little finishing group, Corey, Tim, and Walter who all made it under the 14 hour mark too. Rachel Corrigan kicked it in right at 14 hours, improving on her previous best by nearly two hours. Rachel Spaulding came over to congratulate us, and then we learned that she had not only won and placed in the top ten overall, but broke the course record and became the first woman to finish under 12 hours. I learned Michael Dubova had broken his own overall course record. My friend Eric, that I also coach, ran a big course PR. Several of David Horton’s students that I’d met finished their first 100K, including Emma who became the youngest woman ever to complete Hellgate at the age of 20. What a day!

Miles 60.7-66.6
Section Time: 1:02:09
2019 Section Time: 1:17:03
Overall Time: 13:57:49
2019 Overall Time: 14:18:48

I was pretty shocked and very happy that my race turned around the way that it did. I would say 80% of the race I felt horrible and I felt like I was running terribly. I had a lot of thoughts like, “Oh well, I guess it’s just not my day,” and “Ughh just finish the thing,” and “What am I doing out here?” and “Maybe my body is just not meant to handle this.”

Could it have gone a lot better? Oh, yeah. I don’t think my finish time represents what I felt physically ready for. Physical preparedness is one thing, but as far as race strategy and a nutrition plan go, I really didn’t think those things through before the race. “Pay me now, or pay me later.” However, I’m excited that I pulled it off and still reached some of my goals (under 14 hours, top five women) when I felt so bad through so much of the race. I don’t think I could have finished as well if it hadn’t been for the kindness of others–runners, volunteers, and friends–all along the way. I’ll certainly think back on this race if I ever find myself in a seemingly hopeless situation. When you feel crummy, you want to stop. It makes sense to stop. I wanted to stop back at Bobblets Gap with 13 miles to go. But then if I had, I never would have found out how it all unfolded. It makes me regret the times that I have given up, so that’s a big lesson learned.

Running that final stretch reminded me of how I felt toward the end of my Smokies Traverse FKT. I was behind record pace for pretty much the entire run, until turning it around with five miles to go, and beating the record by ten minutes. I would rather not have everything come down to a finishing kick, but it sure makes me believe I’m capable of more than I think in those meaty middle sections. I would rather not be queen of the first three miles and last three miles in a 66.6 mile race. Clearly I’ve got many things to work on, which only feels exciting because that means there’s so much more room to grow.


This was looong letter about a looong race! Thanks so much for reading! If my writing inspired or resonated with you, please consider buying me a coffee or becoming a monthly member! Another great way to support is by sharing this a friend or family member. Your support keeps this newsletter going, for which I’m so grateful.

Speaking of, it’s the one year anniversary of Mercury on the Run!🎉 I started this newsletter/blog as an outlet for sharing my thoughts on all things running and trails as they intertwine with life. Whether you were there from the beginning or joined this week, thank you for coming along on this journey with me.

To celebrate, and as my own small way of saying “thank you” you to my Buy Me a Coffee monthly members (or if you’ve sent me 12+ coffees this year), I will be sending out two special Mercury on the Run stickers, logo designed by Anna Trella Ruth Miller. New monthly members will receive stickers as well. Thank you for supporting my writing, and have a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! ~Mercury

2 responses to “Hellgate 100K: Stoking the Fire Within”

  1. Embracing the Forgettable – Mercury on the Run Avatar

    […] bank that I’ll cash out on later this year. It comes back to that David Horton quote in my Hellgate recap, “Pay me now, or pay me later.” Keep putting in the work. Your future self will thank […]

  2. Long Trail: A New Approach – Day 6 – Mercury on the Run Avatar

    […] done it in the past has been hot and in the afternoon. It meanders and seems to go on forever. The Hellgate 100K has a “forever section” and on the Long Trail this is my personal “forever […]


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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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