Sunday, December 15, 2013

Heaven and Hell

I was a pilot, my body an airplane. We were flying through hell, complete with snow, sleet, rain, and fog. My mouth repeated, "you don't have to run fast, just run steady." My voice said, "you're doing great. You're nailing this." My body winced and smiled. My stride felt phenomenal... My crew yelled, "he's less than two minutes and WALKING! GET HIM!" I told Glove I was crushing the descents but not the ups. He said, "fake it."

Hellgate. That 66.6 mile SPECIAL race that starts at 12:01am in the middle of December. This year called for true hellgate weather--snow, rain, ice, cold. People's corneas freeze over every year. It's incredible. Last year at hellgate I was happy to be selected to run the race. It's hard to get into and I felt part of a special, tough, inspiring group of people.  Last year I ran well with Guy, a best friend and training partner, all night long but fell apart as the day went on. I didn't eat enough, didn't take care of myself at aid stations, and was forcing myself to make the top 10, which I didn't. This year I wasn't going to make those mistakes. I ran insane mileage this summer and some good races this fall. After Grindstone was cancelled my goal turned to Hellgate. I realized that I hadn't set a lofty goal in a long time. I was going to destroy myself during hell.

I took two endurolytes, on the verge of hamstrings cramping the past two hours, and shoved a mouthful of saltines in my mouth and took off out of the last aid station. Easy as three miles up, three miles down. Last year this was where I lost top 10--I walked literally the whole climb. It's a big climb-- 1250 feet in 2.2 miles but IS hard-runnable due to it being on a forest road. I put my head down and resolved to catch second place, Frank Gonzales. It was just like that the last 11 hours. Put your head down, smile, and run. I caught Frank in a little less than a mile and gave him a fist pound. I paused my music to exchange encouragement and kept it paused to see if he'd make chase. Nope. His pacer yelled at him, "YOUR NOT GIVING UP YET! GET YOUR ASS IN GEAR GONZALEZ!" I thought, "man that's a good pacer."

I kept running to make the gap insurmountable. At the almost peak of the mountain I opted to hike. I consciously thought, "there's no way Eric is close." And then I walked for maybe three minutes. I crested the ridge and the radio operator said, "first is four minutes up." I thought, "four minutes. Three miles" and took chase. I didn't think, "four minutes, let's catch him." My body instead of my mind just wanted it this time. My body was enjoying itself like it was making love with the mountains. It chased. My eyes peaked down the road as far as I could at each turn but never saw Eric Grossman. Still, push push push. There he was. The last stretch. 800 meters ahead. Then 700. 600. 500. 400. Make the turn into Camp Bethel. The finish is in 400 meters. 300, 200, 100 meters. Running out of real estate nearing the finish line, I told Brad Hinton's crew, "give me another quarter mile!" But another quarter mile wasn't there. I crossed the finish line in 11:25:55, eight seconds behind Eric for second place. He didn't know I was behind him, so he probably would have out-kicked me if he looked back. But it doesn't really matter.

I never really entertained the idea of winning hellgate. I knew I could get top 5. Hell, I told my mom before the race that "I'm either going to get third or finish in 16 hours the way my week has gone." Flash back to Thanksgiving and I was texting Guy. I told him I ran a surprisingly quick 5k. I beat Eric's Thanksgiving 5k. Glove said that that meant I was going to beat him at Hellgate. I laughed. Eric is a legend. I've admired his humble and kind demeanor, plus insane speed since I knew of him through Guy three years ago. I've poured over his blog trying to learn from the best. In one post he spoke about running with alacrity. That word has been on a sticky note in my computer background since I read it a year ago. So I never thought I'd come close to beating Eric. He earned the W by running hard from the get go. My head was spinning when we took the finish line photo. Was I really standing next to David Horton and Eric Grossman?

Incredible company.

How did I get to be chasing second and first place? I race progressively, unintentionally. I'm typically in the 20s place wise until the last part of the race where I "blitz" in and pass gobs of folks. I didn't want to run that way at Hellgate this year. I didn't want to make up huge chunks of time. So I went out with the people I knew who would run well and run fast---Sam Dangc, Brad Hinton, Jordan Whitlock, Shaun Pope, Jordan Chang, Keith Knipling. We and a few other people ran in a pack through the first aid station after a little wrong turn. It was quick, but I wasn't breathing as hard as everyone else seemingly. The climb up to AS2 came and the pack strung out. I ran with Sam for a bit, then I opted to hike as he ran away. I turned off my headlamp to calm down and enjoy the early night.

Hellgate start. 12:01 am. Photo: Steven Hinzman

I ran solo post aid station 2, then up the climb to camping gap I chased Shaun Pope. Generally I hiked most of of the climb. I passed Shaun, not having his day, and found myself at the gap after being passed by Bruce Udell, a Wisconsinite. Then the snow came. GOBS of snow. Like you can't see more than five feet in front of you. Flakes an inch in diameter. Magical. White snow juxtaposed against the black night. Winter wonderland.  Then it turned to cold. Wet. No more friendly winter wonderland. I put on my outer layer which was not waterproof. My core was too warm but my head was wet and cold. Not the best combo. I started to get tired. 2:30am, where I should either be partying back at Virginia Tech, or asleep like normal folks. I popped in some tunes and put my head down. Thankfully Bruce stayed about 200 meters ahead this whole section and I was able to follow his headlamp, cause I couldn't see anything else besides that little white smear ahead of me.

Descending, the snow turned to freezing rain but eventually stopped. I caught Sam and Jordan Whitlock who were "just relaxing" in the snow. I tried to make conversation but I think they were tired too. I stuck with them but mostly led until the final decent into the breakfast aid station, mile "27.6" but is really the 50k mark. 5:15 50k split, why yes, I will take that. I saw my crew and took my time to do what I needed. Took off my base layer, grabbed pancakes (yum!), and some words of encouragement. Out of the aid, I dropped my right glove. Rut row. I used my buff to wrap my hand, adapting. Sam, joking and leaning on his crew's car, said, "Rudy I'm done man!" I said, "no way dude lets get this climb together!" With races this long, I am ALL about working together, competing together until the natural time comes where you make a move. I was a little up from Jordan and Sam heading up the climb but elected to walk slowly to wait for them to catch up. We took the climb quite casually. Brad Hinton caught up to us and Jordan and I tucked behind him for the next five miles or so. He was running the ups really well but the downs were easy. Jordan and I never let him get too far ahead while climbing up to lookout mountain.

Taking time to do things right. Pancakes in hand!
Happy at 5am

Out of lookout mountain aid station I was ready to run alone. I didn't really think, "this is where you make a move." It was entirely too early for that. The two mile downhill out of the AS is just so cruise-able, so that's what I did. Daylight came on this section. I was happy. My legs had been feeling great all night long. With sunrise always comes new energy. I looked around, now on singletrack, and it was indeed a winter wonderland. A special moment. I thought for sure that Brad, Bruce, or Jordan were going to catch back up to me during this section but I didn't want them to so I ran pretty hard. I planned to run hard here and then take the next section easier.

I ran into bearwallow gap, mile 45, in third place. Here my crew was fantastic as they had been. They took my headlamp and switched my pack for a simple bottle. For the rest of the race I was able to go light with just 13oz of water and a couple gels for each section. I do think my crew saved me 10 minutes. They were awe.some. Last year I rushed out of this AS. Not this time. I knew what I had to do (eat my PB&J) and did.

Into Bearwallow. Photos: Wyatt Lowermilk

No rushing.
The planned substantial homemade PB&J

The next section is wonderful, the "ins and outs" of the mountain. I hiked mostly and turned off music to relax. Still 20 miles to go. Don't get too eager here. I got a little delirious and started having a couple small hallucinations that turned back into trees but audibly told myself, "you're seeing things. stop." And then they stopped.

From Boblett's gap to the finish was a 15 mile tempo run. I vigorously hiked the ups during the forever section and still crushed the downs like I had been all day. My body, the airplane, was responding to everything I was doing, processing food and running. Well-oiled, I was only moderately surprised at how well I was running. All the miles and workouts were showing their dividends. Coming into the last aid station my crew was stoked. Their excitement was contagious. You know how it ends.


Before the race started I was legitimately so nervous I was scared. Same thing as last year during the pre-race briefing, so fidgety and nervous. I never get that nervous. Only for Hellgate. I knew what I'd be going through and in the front of my mind I frankly didn't really want to put myself through it. But the back of my mind knew I was due to crush it. I love Hellgate. Dr. Horton is an incredible man and his race is so special. Really, I fancy myself good with words but when it comes to describing Hellgate and Horton, I can't. Special. My public internet thank yous do not suffice! But I will try. Dr. Horton--thank you. Volunteers--thank you, so encouraging and selfless! Fellow runners--thank you. Crew--thank you. Friends--thank you. Family--thank you for the prayers. Everyone makes this event special and I'm just filled with happiness that I got to be a part of it two years in a row. So much love.

Back in early November I was looking for Hellgate quotes to put on the t-shirt. I found one from an artic explorer that in fact made it on the back of the shirt. Applicable.

"It appears that a Hell [gate] one day is liable to make a Heaven the next." - Raymond Priestly
Intimate briefing. Photo: Scott Livingston
The man who made east coast ultrarunning


Too happy!


  1. Best race report ever. Kind of how you pored over Eric's blog, some young gun out there is gonna read and re-read this and dream of someday beating you. (It'll be a long while.)

  2. Really happy for you. Made me feel like I was there...maybe next year. You've got the humility and talent to be an elite for a long time.

  3. Great run, Rudy. You did surprise me at the end. I was happy to see you have a breakthrough race, though, and even more so after reading your report. Good job capturing the spirit of an ultra-worthy performance.

  4. Great write-up and run. Well done.