It’s 5:00 in the morning. The air is still and it’s as dark as can be. I’m on remote singletrack trail beyond Headforemost Mountain, which I passed who-knows-how-long-ago. My visual world is limited to the small area illuminated by my headlamp beam, and the bouncy flicker reminds me of an old-timey silent movie. My light by the way is noticeably weaker than it was at the midnight start of the race, and that’s not the only thing waning in strength. It’s easy, however, to pull out my backup headlamp, not so easy to retrieve my fading resolve. I don’t feel so good. My head hurts and my gut’s feeling punched. I’m on the final -I think, you never know; the trails at night will fool you- descent to Jennings Creek aid station. I can see lights and hear voices. My spirits bubble up a notch.
It’s the twelfth running of the legendary Hellgate 100k trail ultra. I’ve finished it a few times before, but I don’t remember feeling this bad. Is it even in me to finish it this year? Racing ultras can outsmart you; you can endure successful training to prepare the body physiologically for the challenge, you can build your mental toughness, confidence and resolve, and you can even have solid race performances under your belt. But on a tough race on a tough day there you go -unhinged and reduced to the human frailty you worked so hard -so you thought- to overcome.
“Johnny! What do you need?” It’s smiling Gina Gilbert, taking command of my care for my brief rendezvous at Jennings Creek. “Are you ok? Are you eating and drinking?” I nod weakly, probably with a wan smile and vacant expression on my face. I grab handfuls of food for the trail: orange sections, cookies, bugles. I have to choke down the food, but as I trot off into the darkness again -will it ever get light?- I do feel a little better. Maybe, hopefully, I’m emerging from the deepest part of this particular abyss. Next stop, Little Cove Mountain Aid Station.
Earlier in the race, on the Petites Gap climb, the first big ascent of the course, I felt fine, strong. We hit that ‘game on’ climb just a few miles into the journey, not long removed from the rousing midnight:01 start at Hellgate Creek, where 145 of us sang The Star Spangled Banner and loped off into the unseasonably warm night. By the start of the climb I was alone, about 12 places back from the leaders. I was in my element, really; climbing is my thing. I would come to find out later that I would get no higher in the race standings than at that point; my deterioration relative to the field would be gradual but sure. But that comes later. At Petite’s Gap aid station all systems were go and as I breezed through David Horton announced on the bullhorn “it’s John Robinson, first…dentist!” Ok, I’ll take that! On the Camping Gap climb friend and fellow BRO Magazine athlete John Anderson caught me and we had a nice conversation about, among other things, the Eastern Red Wolf population. At that point I still felt good; I didn’t know I would struggle later to keep the Hellgate wolves at bay.
Then it was on to the long section that features the grassy fire road. Nice were the views of the lights in the valley -and the stars overhead- and pleasantly distracting. My buddy Josh Gilbert caught me and I enjoyed talking to him before he moved ahead. A little later, alone on that out-there piece of trail, an hour or so shy of Headforemost Mountain aid station, is when I first encountered a serious drop-off into the realm of substantial physical suffering, of pain and despair. As my good friend and training partner Joe Dudak overtook me along there, it further crystallized the notion that I was in trouble, as I couldn’t begin to stay with him. Joe offered words of encouragement and bounded off.
Ok, it’s getting light now -hallelujah- but I don’t really recognize this section of the course from previous years. On one long unmarked section I become convinced that I’m lost. I turn around and go back the way I came until I meet another runner who assures me that we’re going the right way. I’m more than a little hazy in general but at least I’m still moving. With the sky lightening, the welcome coming of the dawn, I get the overwhelming urge to “go behind a tree.” The awkward squat business is soon accomplished and I’m underway again, feeling noticeably better, thank you, but sheesh(!) rearranging my ‘junk’ at the call-of-nature stop brings chafing pain to the forefront. That pain eventually settles, overshadowed by other concerns.
It’s full daylight as I pause at the Little Cove aid station. I stock up on mini doughnuts and orange slices. Ahh the volunteers…”I love you people!” I chug some ginger ale before dashing off. Gotta keep moving. At this point I’m with two other guys. We share a little good cheer and conversation -I muster what I can- and leap-frog one another as the miles drag for me. I stubbornly avoid MP3 music accompaniment in my running, but a song’s been going through my head…it’s a nineties tune called “In a Daydream” by The Freddy Jones Band. Luckily it’s a song I like and can live with, but I almost have to chuckle as I think it would be more fitting now if it was titled “In a Nightmare.”
So, the underlying theme continues to be that of elevated discomfort, and I’m rearranging my race goals now as I lumber along en route to Bearwallow Gap aid station. I’m not going to quit if at all possible, although I seriously considered that option in the predawn hours. No, when I see my crew Marybeth at Bearwallow Gap I will assure her that I’m moving ok but a bit slow. Some of my lofty race goals are out the window, even sounding a bit embarrassing to me now…those such as nab First Place Grand Master, and Finish Top Twenty Overall. Now I am just concentrating on race goal number one -finish the race with no long term injuries- and struggling with race goal two: run a happy race. I’ve already blown the latter, given the whimpering I’ve emitted, but I can try to salvage what positiveness I can in the remaining 50k of this tomfoolery.
So, my pace is not fast; I only occasionally overtake someone. More often someone passes me. They are typically cordial, gracious. I, for my part endeavour to extend the same courtesy; the ultra racing brotherhood/sisterhood is supportive as ever.
The several miles of the Hellgate course leading up to the bustling aid station at Bearwallow Gap feature some sketchy treadway. Thick leaf cover hides head-sized rocks. It’s tedious going. Gotta staaay positive. One thing that helps me do that is the thought that my crew Marybeth is waiting up ahead.That knowledge also gives me incentive to clean up my act so I don’t look so much like ‘death warmed over’ when she sees me. I run the last circuitous mile to Bearwallow with a cheerful chap -he’s go it together!- and jogging into the clearing of the aid station Marybeth is the first person I see. I don’t tell her I feel like hell but she can probably tell it with one look at my visage. Just seeing her helps me a lot though, as does the gallon jug of water that she dumps on my head to both cool and invigorate me. I quickly stock up on food and off I go. Just as I exit someone hands me a one-quarter section of hamburger on bun. Some of my appetite’s back ’cause it tastes delicious.
I hunker down to complete the next section to Bobblett’s Gap. It’s looong, but I remind myself that this is my favorite part of the course -besides the very last 10 feet of the race- and I launch into it with new-found optimism amid the unwavering physical distress. The morning is beautiful and I make myself notice it. I climb up and up, and once established high on the mountainside I follow the predominantly smooth trail along the contour line. Finally I drop off onto the fire road where Anne Townsend cheers me on with a big smile. Thanks! On that piece of fire road, just when I’m thinking for the twentieth time that I’ll NEVER get to Boblett’s Gap, there it is, with Marybeth beaming her good cheer. The day is now quite warm and another dousing from the gallon jug is refreshing. After I gobble a cup of soft ice cream -maybe that was just a hallucination but man was it good- I grab handfuls of bugles and orange slices and some tangerines and slide off into what is famously called the endless section of the course. OK, I’m a little intimidated because every section for the last thirty miles has seemed endless to me. But I gulp and go on. “You can do this. YOU CAN DO THIS.” I hammer it out one blow at a time. Deep into this soul-wrenching section I find myself running with a few kindred spirits. We talk and joke a little, trying our best to lighten it up a bit.
My feet are trashed. One of my shoes is failing and tied up with knots I can’t easily undo -my mistake at trying to get “one more race” out of the worn out Salomons. Those sticks and rocks in there will just have to wait. As an additional bonus, the chafing below my belt is worse than ever. Yes, the section of trail is endless but that’s no surprise so shut up, I tell myself. Finally the slope of the trail levels out into the valley and sure enough here comes Day Creek aid station. Someone’s jumping up and down and yelling encouragement. It’s my sister Ginny, and her presence here from across the state is totally unexpected and a big boost to my morale. I know the next six miles are going to be awful tough going but I’m confident I can make it. With a cold water slosh on my head and two Popsicles (!), Ginny and Marybeth -not to mention the wonderful aid station volunteers- send me off onto the last leg of this crazy journey.
I walk the entire climb to Black Horse Gap, and guess what? It takes FOREVER. A kind gentleman up top takes my bib number and grants my request for a few ice cubes and I get on to the task at hand: running -hobbling- down the fire road to the finish at Camp Bethel. Oh boy I just want to stop but I keep rolling, with a few wheels partially off, that is.
At the one-mile-to-go point my friend Ron Bell appears. He has come up to meet me and accompany me to the finish. He gives me ice water and ahhh does that taste good. At the Camp Bethel entrance Ginny and others welcome me, and I gallop the final few tenths of a mile with the growing realization that yeah I’m gonna finish this beast after all.
Amid shouts from friends and otherwise kindred souls I enter the chute and stumble across the Hellgate finish line to Race Director Horton’s welcome. It’s over. I finished. It took me a total time of 14:45 and change.
And speaking of change….I’ll never be the same because with every ultra endurance experience one is plunged into the depths of the essence of what it means to be human, of gut-wrenching truth, of deeper insight into love, joy, friendship, not to mention pain and suffering. I’m very grateful to have been able to participate in such profound pursuit and discipline.
Just don’t make me run out there tomorrow; the wolves will get me for sure.