66.6 miles of VA Against the Odds
The real deal. I didn’t truly belong at Hellgate this year. I’ve been dealing with a fair load of life: a business expansion, a dental infection, a family cancer diagnosis and my chronic issues and something new I still couldn’t put my finger on and yet I was invited by Dr. Horton himself to join his very special family event. I considered my options with my husband and we agreed that I’d better go to Hellgate, whether I decide to run the race or not, I would be at the event. I sent in my application and began to attempt some training.
My training included a lot of weighted hiking on the treadmill. I felt beat down and fatigued from almost every run or hike but I was managing to get the minimum miles I thought I needed to complete Hellgate. I knew I wouldn’t be competitive, not really, but I knew on race day I’d give it everything I had. Fast forward past the moan and groan and race day finally arrived.
The weather was going to be pretty fair for December in the Virginia mountains. Lows near 32, highs near 40 and some chances of rain on and off. This is what I’d experienced many times out on the Appalachian Trail, unpredictable changing weather that only somewhat matches anyone’s best attempt at a forecast. I arrived to Camp Bethel and met up with my friend, Warren Doyle, also my crew for the next 16 hours.
I checked into the race and chatted with Jana who I’ve known and stayed in touch with for years. She introduced me to Heather who recently won StoneMill 50, another local race. The three of us chatted for a bit, but with my personal struggles at the moment I feel like a “Debbie downer” so upbeat social interactions about “how well we might do” make me feel uncomfortable and like I am quite depressing as I try to lower people’s expectations of me. I try to explain, I WAS a good runner and I USED to be able… but no one really knows what to say when you dump a bucket load of reality on them. These ladies were kind and supportive despite me handing them the uncomfortable kind of conversation.
It meant a lot to me, nonetheless I went to spend time with Warren, who has a different perspective on me and ultra races in general. We worked on logistics, goals and race prep. I was shooting high because I too can’t see past what I WAS and USED to be. My legs tell me I’m still in the game, my mind agrees but something has been slowly making me struggle on the trail and my reality is that currently I AM NOT, what I once was. I shove that voice down, expressing to Warren that my mental strength is the weakest link right now, I couldn’t think of anything else that would derail my race.
After a lovely dinner and the epic pre race meeting Warren and I traveled to Natural Bridge, VA to the starting area where I had 2 hours to snooze. As soon as I laid down I stressed about time and got back up and changed into my running clothes. Then I rested for an hour. I’m not sure I slept but I rested. I got up and ate a Perfect Bar and drank my coffee. I was ready with 20 minutes to spare.
At the starting line I found Jana and Heather and cozied into the crowd. We all sang the national anthem and at 12:01AM on December 10th, 2022 we were off! The trail was mostly flat to start weaving on a wide grassy trail and then slowly we traveled a bit more uphill, but gently rolling. The first thing I noticed was how crappy my Kogalla was. My bright light was hardly lighting the ground in front of me. Crap! I thought, good thing I have extra stuff but I really didn’t want to stop to get it out so I was just careful. I don’t even recall the first Aid Station but I know I quickly landed on the gravel road that all the race prep material said I’d be on and I would just keep going up. I began to climb and dropped my pace but maintained a jog. I felt really good. I made sure I was drinking and could talk comfortably. I was doing well, but I did notice some reflux from the coffee and some lower belly cramping. I wasn’t sure how this would turn out but I continued to follow my nutrition plan for the time being. As I climbed, I felt a bit better.
Up and up we all went. I looked back and as the cold rain fell the headlights bobbed below. I was alone, which I knew meant I must be going too fast, but I was really not overdoing it so I just continued to climb. By the top and Aid Station 2 I was damp. As soon as I saw Warren I asked him to get my rain coat out of my pack and I threw that over my pack and grabbed my second headlamp. I took off down the steep wet descent and enjoyed the flow, I was running really well, better than I had in months, but it was still the first 10 miles of the race so I just fed myself positive jargon about, “This is what you trained for” “You are still a good athlete” “You got this.” As the trail turned back into a climb I felt my legs starting feeling a little less fresh already.
I stayed strong and checked in on my nutrition. I was a little behind now, the cramping had returned with a vengeance. After a spring gel I had to stop for a quick bathroom break. I hoped I would be fixed after that, but I was not. I continued to climb but I took it down a notch trying to determine the next step for my stomach. Did I need to stop again or would taking it easy for a few be enough.
Around 12 miles I was feeling the climb but I was still moving strong, my stomach was in and out of discomfort but I was maintaining. The temperature was dropping and the rain was steady as we climbed higher and higher. I recall wondering how long I’d be climbing and then I continued to climb and climb more. Eventually I arrived to Aid Station #3 and grabbed a cup of Coke hoping that might ease my stomach and provide a little extra fuel. I was drinking my Spring Hydration mix and eating my Spring gels but they were not settling as well as I’d prayed they might. I stopped again soon for another bathroom break.
After this there was more climbing and my legs were aching already, my breathing had gone from a fit athlete to an out of shape couch potato. I was hiking with intermittent jogging and the first female came up from behind and I held on to that pace for about a mile before my stomach churned again. After another pit stop, the next female had caught up to me and flew by and then another female who was looking strong and she outdid me on the climbs but I caught her on the descent before Aid Station #4. I felt myself waning but I’d hoped if my stomach would recover, I could get back to running. Here my headlamp had also died, which shouldn’t have happened but… it did. I took off my Kogalla after wasting 3 minutes looking for my extra battery. I gave up and grabbed a hat/ headlamp a friend just bought me. The 3rd female had passed a few minutes before I was ready to go. My stomach was cramping again as I finished up with Warren and hit the trail. As soon as I was out of sight I took another pit stop. I finally felt a bit better. I took the long downhill to Jennings Creek, Aid Station #5 cautiously. There was a lot of race left so I went gently but rolled with the trail. It felt great to be running again. The race was getting real though, I was feeling the wear and tear earlier than I should. I caught the third female again just before the Aid Station.
I hiked my way out of Jennings Creek fighting back negative thoughts. I still ran a little but it was getting hard. Another female runner past me. My mind was uncomfortable and I worked hard and steady on the long descent that followed. I’d hoped I’d catch the female again but now, even on the downhill my breathing was hard. I checked my heart rate and I was not overdoing it so I ignored my lungs and pushed on, a steady run. The next climb to Aid Station #6 was where I just couldn’t get enough gas. The incline was 2 maybe 3% and yet I was burning. I was dizzy and winded. I hiked strong but three more females came running up from behind. Heather and Jana, asking if I was ok, surprised to see me walking. I was not surprised by my walking, this has been my race story for as long as ever, and with ALL my real life stuff I was happy to be moving steadily. Nonetheless, it was impossible for my mind not to lock in on the fact that I was straight up losing the race at this point. I was no longer a contender for top 3, or even top 5, I was solidly in 8th now. That stung but I knew what I was coming in with. By the time I got to Aid Station #7 I was tearful. I grabbed grilled cheeses and sat with Warren. I shed 2 tears and shoved the food down. I knew I was in a serious nutritional hole. I downed a Celsius for the caffeine in hopes it would help with my breathing like it usually does.
I took a full 5+ minutes here before I took off to suffer my way up the next climb and a long rocky, leafy trail section. I felt faded. I was determined though and that kept me going. At Bobblett’s Gap, Aid Station #8 I had warm broth and noodles. My feet were so cold, my fingers were cold too but I was moving and ready to push through to the end. By now, my stomach was ok, but I was avoiding any further caffeine as that seemed to upset things again. I stayed on top of my hydration and finally got hungry around 50 miles in. I ate some Skratch chews and continued hiking. My breathing was hard no matter what now, up, down, flat and this isn’t new for me, but it was worse than usual. I blamed my training and my nutrition. I tried to stay positive but I was not doing well.
I was within 2 miles of the last aid station when 2 more females were pushing past. They were tired, you could tell, but they were motivated and moving steady. I tried to stay with them but I couldn’t breathe well enough. I was fried. I worked hard to keep them in my site. As we approached the last Aid Station I stopped to pee, knowing it’d be my last chance. I arrived less than 30 seconds after but I needed to eat before the final 6 miles so I wasted 3 minutes here I shouldn’t have but I just could not eat and climb at that point. I knew I was in 10th and if anyone moving stronger than I came up, I’d be pushed out of the top ten.
I climbed as hard as I could, maintaining a 15:30 for the first mile, and 16:10 for the second and barely hanging on to a 17 min mile for final stretch of the climb… what I didn’t expect was to pass the 10th female limping and then to see those 2 ladies. I was almost caught up. I pushed and then as soon as I was over the ridge I would run hard to the end.
I ran until I caught them. Amanda and Shannon were immediately friendly and supportive. I turned down my jets and my motivation to race them and ran with them instead. We plodded down the mountain together carrying a conversation intermittently. The last mile I really felt the burning in my lungs, I still wasn’t sure if I could kick it in to be 7th instead of 9th but I’d already decided, for what? 9th was fine, right now the three of us were going to finish together and that seemed pretty amazing. With 0.5 miles to go Amanda pulled Shannon and I. I was literally sucking wind when Amanda said, “Meg, you’re wheezing” and Shannon started to have some quad spasms/ cramping. We waited for one another. We’d already decided we were going across together and so we did. The three of us in 41st place, Shannon taking 7th, Amanda in 8th and myself in 9th. It was a fantastic way to finish a really hard 66 mile run.
I was really grateful to Warren, to the top females for their kindness and support and to the volunteers who kept me together and moving forward. Finally a thank you to Dr. Horton for allowing me into his race family and to my husband for giving me the push to get out there, despite it all.