December 9, 2006
Tip: When dressing for a race where temperatures are going to have you bundled up for hours (read: below freezing), don’t forget about your eyes. A pair of clear or light colored lens glasses and perhaps a brimmed hat to trap the warmth around your face may make your experience much more bearable.
Hellgate is unlike any other trail running event you will ever participate in. A 100 km event that begins at 12:01am Saturday morning (Friday night) so that everyone runs in the dark the same amount of time.
The prerace dinner and meeting are held at the finish line in a cozy lodge at Camp Bethel. All runners and crews maneuver around the room in prerace preparation and try to lie down for a bit before the caravan departure to the start. Each year Mother Nature adds a special touch, be it ice, snow, leaves, freezing temperatures you are in for a unique challenge. This year the last two in the list of challenges awaited the runners.
Apprehensive. Quiet. Tentative. Not usually words I would use to describe my prerace behavior, but even Race Director David Horton (a good friend of mine) commented on the change in my mood. An 11pm caravan to the Hellgate Trailhead for the 12:01am start on December 9 was just enough time to really consider what these 95 runners were about to get into. Without the normal preparation distractions (because we had to be 100% ready to go by the time we left the finish line to head to the start) the time in the van was just enough for the magnitude of 100km “Horton miles” to set in.
Below freezing at the start, reaching a low of 12 degrees (not including the wind chill factor) it made for quite a chilly night. Most of us bundled and layered; lights on head and in hand we took off into the night. It was a beautifully clear night a bright half moon and plenty of stars filled the sky. Running with Bethany and Sarah eased my mind as we conversed easily and laughed about the irony of this race and our friend, Horton.
We also ran with Aaron (3 for 3 finisher of this race) who has written a detailed description of this course complete with maps. So to save time and space please read his write up of the course as well. I will say that Horton has designed a challenging course with technical rocky trail sections interspersed with overgrown grassy roads and forest service road sections. This year the trail was often knee deep in leaves covering the many rocks hidden below. My watch clocked 13,196 ft of gain and 12,802 ft of descent on the point to point course with the high point at 3110ft and the low at 207ft.
During this race I encountered perhaps the scariest experience I have had to date in any race or training run. Below is a quick recount of how my vision loss developed.
3am on December 9, three hours into the Hellgate 100 km and I feel like there is something in my eye. I remove my ski glove and try to gingerly wipe and clean out my left eye, but nothing I do seems to help. There has been some dust from a few crew cars passing, perhaps that is it.
Just before 7am I arrive at aid station #6, about 35 miles into the race and ask Sean and Paul if they can see anything in my eye. I have been running for nearly seven hours and in the last four the vision in my left eye has slowly deteriorated; it has gone from blurred to cloudy to pretty much non-existent. I feel like I’m looking through foggy sunglasses and depth perception is a joke with only one good eye. Fortunately the sun is now rising, so I will have a bit more to work with.
The last 11 miles of the Hellgate 100km and my right eye is quickly clouding over and progressing towards an equal status of my left. There are 5 miles of trail I must get through before arriving at the final aid station. Negotiating these five trail miles is a nightmare and I’m near tears with my thoughts wandering to fears for getting through this race and concerns for my long term vision. I can only see the bright orange trail markings when I am within a couple of feet. I’ve run off trail numerous times because I can’t follow the trail for all the leaves and lack of sight. I know if I can just keep moving forward and get out of the woods to the aid station the situation will improve. I can barely make out the numbers on my watch to get an idea of how long I’ve been negotiating this section when a girl runs up the trail and informs me that she has run seven minutes from the aid station, meaning I’m nearly there. I ask Carrie to run in front of me to the aid station; just having her company and confirmation that the loss of sight is due to the conditions is a huge moral booster. When we arrive at the aid station she loans me a pair of amber lens sunglasses to protect my eyes. The last six miles are on a forest service road, so sight is not nearly as important. I head out of the station with one full water bottle and in much better spirits. I am a couple minutes ahead of record pace as I head up the last hill to the Parkway.
In these last six miles I was able to calm down a bit, focus on finishing the race and reflect on the fun and challenges of the night and following morning. I drew strength in traversing the course with 94 other athletes that were there for many different reasons and knowing that others are out there enduring the night. The trails required focus, quick feet and solid foot placement. I enjoyed the varying terrain and actually looked forward to the smooth forest service road sections that allowed me to relax and simply run. Making this last climb, that Sarah and I had marked just a couple of days before, crossing the parkway to drop down into Camp Bethel I reached a feeling of acceptance of what this event threw at me, that I was able to overcome my “issues.” I am so thankful that each experience is new and challenging. Nothing is a given: this drives me to train, research and prepare, to feel nervous at the start and elated at the finish.
Eric Grossman (also experienced the clouding eyes) set a new men’s record in 11:03.
Sarah Johnston (new to the Ultrarunning world this year) ran the third fastest female time on the course 13:37
Aaron Schwartzbard finished his 4th Hellgate (4 for 4!)
58 runners of the 95 starters completed the 2006 event. RESULTS
Andrew Wilds took photographed the event from various locations throughout the race. He also took pictures of cloudy cornias - there were a couple of us with this condition. This picture shows my left eye (the worst one)