frostbitten, twice shy.

"Go to Heaven for the climate,
Hell for the Company"

-Mark Twain


After my buddy Bobby Bodkin had to pull out of the Hellgate 100K at the last minute and having already made arrangements to be there to pace for him, I agreed to accompany pal Brian Dibeler for the last 20 miles of the notorious race.

Earlier in the year Brian had completed the Holiday Lake 50K, Terrapin Mountain 50K, Promise Land 50K and Mountain Masochist 50 Miler and had only Hellgate left to complete the grueling Beast Series (most years, runners would also need to complete the Grindstone 100 Miler, but it had been cancelled due to the government shutdown in October) put on by Clark Zealand of Eco-x Sports and the legendary Dr. David Horton.

Yes, Brian had just one last race left to run, but, in addition to being his first foray over 50-something miles, Hellgate promised punishment in the form of 13,500-ish feet of climbing, bonus miles (the course measures out at something like 66.6 miles), a disorienting 12:01 AM start time and, this year, an unpredictable but no-matter-what-not-going-to-be-pleasant weather report.

Courtesy of Keith Knipling and his 2007 race report (http://keith-knipling.com/?p=19)

But those worries were for another day (you know, like 30 hours in the future).  First we needed to figure out how we were going to get to packet pick-up, the pre-race dinner, and the starting line.  After discussing our original plans--his to hitch a ride down with friend and fellow Beast Series participant Scott Newcomer and mine to (as per usual) catch a flight on the seat of my threadbare pants--Brian and I agreed that I'd pick him up so we could ride down to south central Virginia together, perhaps even draw up a strategy of sorts during the 4+ hour drive.

Ultra Penguin appears courtesy of Lindsay Lutz
As I recall, little strategic planning occurred, but we did laugh a lot, filled each other in on many of the details that had led us each to our current standings in life, and agreed on the title of this blog post.  Spoiler alert: neither one of us ended up scathed enough by the weather to merit that title, but our minds were made up and it was too good to waste.

Before I type another word about the weekend, I should give a bit of history on Hellgate.  

The race was dreamed up by Dr. Horton, the holder of more ultra running feats than I care to try and list here (Google and gawk, I dare you).  Not only is he held in high esteem for his athletic accomplishments, but, as a longtime kinesiology professor at Liberty University, David has also served as mentor and motivator for countless students.  
As an RD, he also happens to possess a mischevious streak that borders on sadistic.  Hellgate, the race he introduced in 2003, is certainly not for the faint of heart nor is it designed for first-timers.  The race is capped at 140 entrants with Beast Series participants getting first crack and the remaining spots filled only with runners that Horton's race committee (the RC) deems worthy after receiving and reviewing the completed mailed (no electronic sign up for this race) applications.  To quote the race app, "The RC DOES NOT want runners competing that don’t have a realistic shot of completing Hellgate within the time limit."

On paper, the 18 hour time limit sounds extremely generous, but not when you consider the course, the sure-to-upset your Circadian rhythm start time, and the cold and conditions that mar December in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  With a couple consecutive years of mild weather, the race was due for a return to the nasty weather that built its reputation.

Dr. Horton seemed nearly gleeful at the prospect of snow, ice and frigid temperatures as he led the post-dinner/pre-race briefing in the quaint surroundings of Camp Bethel (which also proved a bizarre deja vu to the church camp at which my family resided during the second half of my childhood).

Hard to describe a Horton-led briefing, chock full of nervous energy, a course description too detailed to possibly digest without having been on the trails before, motivational isms, random asides and good-natured teasing.  I can tell you this, it sure felt like being among family.

It was captivating watching him hold court, as he slipped easily from "aw, shucks" irreverence to compassion and back again.  In response to an accusatory inquiry about who had measured a section of the course that had struck all prior Hellgate participants as far longer than advertised, Horton responded, "I've got a wheel right there in my truck!  Course I never used it."  Moments later after making a point to single out some folks who had traversed some hard personal roads since last year's race and ask for rounds of applause, the man who is currently side-lined due to wear-and-tear issues of his own looked around the room and said as though he were speaking directly to each of us "appreciate your ability to start" and added a poignant "I still dream about running sometimes."

As of late, actual racing hasn't struck me as very appealing, but after spending half an hour in that room, listening to Doc warning of what was to come and expressing his intense love of the course, the event and the people gathered there, I wanted to strap on a bib (and three layers of clothes) and attempt Hellgate myself.

When the meeting ended, it was still a few hours until race time so Brian had ample time to sort out his gear, decide on what to wear (at least at race start), and make sure that we were on the same page with Stephen Hinzman, a former (and future?) Hellgater who had been kind enough to offer to crew for Brian after someone had done the same for him at a prior race.  We thanked him for letting Brian be the recipient of his forward payment and felt relieved to find him bright-eyed and excited for the long night and day ahead.

At first it felt as though we had all the time in the world and we spent (wasted) many minutes accomplishing, well, not much of anything.  Ten-fifty, the appointed time for the convoy of vans and vehicles to leave for the starting line of the point-to-point course that would wind its way back to Camp Bethel, was suddenly just minutes away and we scrambled to assemble everything that needed to find its way into Stephen's SUV.

I spaced out a bit in the backseat and, frankly, didn't manage to make tails or heads (who says heads needs to come first?) of which direction we headed or what turns we took, but I did pick up on the fact that it took us a pretty long time to get where we were going and it was awfully cold wherever it was that we ended up.

Awfully cold and awfully dark.

Stephen's dashboard reported an external temperature just below freezing.  The start line rests at just over 750 feet and the high point on the course is well over 3,500 feet, so it seemed safe to assume that between the elevation changes, the many hours of remaining darkness and the impending precipitation, it was going to get a lot colder before the sun came up again and had any chance to cast a bit of warmth.

Heavily bundled runners, crew, friends and family gathered for Horton's signal and shuffled about to stay warm.  Stephen muttered something about trying to put his father's camera equipment to good use and headed a few hundred feet ahead of the start line to set up his tripod.  His photo of the runners heading off into the night is sure to have made the camera and his father proud and I love the image of Horton just to the right of center, surveying what he wrought.  If the color version of this photograph doesn't find its way into Horton's official race report in Ultrarunning, someone has some explaining to do.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Hinzman
I'm actually just barely visible in the trees just off of Dr. Horton's right shoulder, taking a photo that, in light of Stephen's, I will never show anyone...ever.  In fact, while I'm thinking of it, I'm going to delete it from my camera.  Done.  

Within a minute or two the bobbing headlamps disappeared from view and the small left-behind crowd dispersed back to the vehicles to head back to camp for some sleep or on to Petites Gap, the site of Aid Station 2.  Due to ice and snow that had fallen earlier in the week, the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed in several places, limiting crew access to Aid Stations 2, 5, 7, 8.  While runners would hit Petites Gap fairly quickly, as it was only 7.5 miles from the start, it would be an extremely important crew point as the mileage between there and Aid Station 5 was over 20 miles.  That distance, the several thousand feet of elevation change in that section, and the snow that was likely going to fall during the hours runners would be on that leg of the course, were going to demand that wise fueling and clothing decisions were made at Aid Station 2.

Stephen and I spent the miles and minutes that it took to get to Petites Gap introducing ourselves, finding out what we occupied ourselves with when we weren't driving around in the backwoods during the middle of the night, and discovering that we had a shared love of backpacking and the gear that goes with it.  I'd lost myself in our conversation before realizing that I was seeing vehicles and headlights way, way, way up above us and when Stephen pointed out that the runners would dump out onto the road we were traveling on their way up to Aid Station 2, I began to realize just how much climbing Hellgate entailed.  Runners would find Aid Station 1 waiting for them just 3.5 miles from the start but were then faced with a relentless 1,500 feet of grind over the next 4 miles.

As we parked the car, I noticed that the thermometer on the dash had jumped up unexpectedly to 45 degrees.  That seemed impossible, but Stephen rolled down his window, stuck out his arm and nodded in commiseration with the reading.  I felt empathetically ill at the thought of runners, clad in multiple layers to ward off the cold, sweating profusely on the trudge up to Petites.  The insulated shelter of that side of the ridge was surely an anomaly that threatened to leave Hellgaters soaked through and that much more vulnerable to what lay ahead.  I let out what I could swear was an audible "gulp" worthy of a cartoon scaredy-cat and wondered in what state Brian would emerge.

In comparison to races back in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey, I knew fairly few runners and could only speculate about relative abilities as the first few headlamps neared and passed us by as we waited.  As more and more people passed by on their way to the Aid Station, I grew concerned that Brian was having a rough go.  I was pleasantly surprised, however, when he arrived with a grin, his jacket tied around his waist to save him from overheating.  He was playing things conservatively, making good decisions, saving energy for the many miles still ahead, and avoiding rookie mistakes.  He ate a bit at the Aid Station while I refilled his hydration reservoir and then Stephen and I wished him well as he chugged back out into the night.

A few minutes later, I nestled into the passenger seat, determined to catch at least an hour or two of sleep to be as strong as I could be when I jumped in at mile 42.  With the exception of a couple of startling bumps in the night and the occasional rousing headlight beam, little interrupted my "nap" and I was shocked to find that day had broken when I came to and learned from Stephen that Brian had come and gone at Jennings Creek (AS 5/27.7 miles), looking strong and having survived a cold night of hard-falling, visibility-limiting snow.

With a few hours to kill, we drove into Buchanan for some breakfast as a lighter, finer mix of snow and sleet continued to fall.  The temperature rested firmly in the lower thirties and threatened to remain there all day long.  Grey skies offered little hope of clearing.

The king of burgers proved the easiest, quickest accessed option for food and, if nothing else, it was warm.  After a night sleeping in the seat of a car, any coffee is good coffee and that proved to be the case even at the BK.  Dean Johnson had settled for the same and we did some catching up and he let me know how Lori was doing thus far in her first attempt at a Hellgate finish.  It sounded like she'd had a long, cold night too but was ready to see how things would go with the arrival of daylight.

Before long, we were at Bearwallow Gap/Mile 42.2, anxiously waiting to see how Brian was holding up and seeing what the weather morphed into next.  I walked down the trail a few hundred yards just to get a sense of the footing and discovered deep beds of wet leaves and a smattering of ice and sleet at the surface.  Thankfully, the wind was down and there was a lovely stillness except for the soft tinkling of the freezing rain as it met the forest floor.

Back at the aid station, crew and family members, volunteers and expectant pacers sought shelter in their vehicles or alongside the stacked fires that volunteers tended throughout the day. I made note that depending on Brian's mental state, we might need to avoid their tractor beam lure throughout the day if we wanted to keep on moving.

Scott came rolling into the aid station looking fatigued but having put 42 miles behind him in very good time.  I asked how he was doing and he told me that it "had been a long season" and it was catching up with him.  Based on those words, I wondered how his day would end but should have remembered that I've heard him talk that way before only to grind out solid finishes.  Don't let the tired posture fool you, Scott would end up finishing just one spot outside of the top 30 with an impressive 14:52:34.

Making certain I was ready when Brian arrived, I climbed into Steve's vehicle and got changed.  I filled my hydration pack and walked it over to where the runner's drop bags rested.  I heard the crackle of a megaphone and was surprised to hear Dr. Horton ask all assembled, "Who's got the prettiest beard out here?" and then announce "Lutz" before anyone could answer.  I was surprised by the love and surveyed the scene to try and nod a grinning acknowledgement.  The very second that my eyes located the source of the shout out, Horton finished his thought "NOT!  Sucker."

THAT made more sense and I felt silly for having swelled with pride in the first place.  There was no time to linger on being burned by the doctor because just like that, Brian popped into view with a broad grin.

His spirits were high and he was moving really well.  He pounded some calories, including some of the handmade hamburgers being slung by the Bearwallow chef, made some minor wardrobe changes and off we went, but not before a proper send off from our crew chief, Steve.

The trail out of the aid station began climbing immediately.  There was the tiniest bit of ice and snow on the ground, but, all in all, the trail was in fantastic shape.  Even with the sloped grade, it was surprisingly runnable.  Brian was quick to agree and expressed relief after the nasty footing that had made up the course in the middle of the night.

As we shuffled along, we fell right back into the conversation we'd enjoyed on the drive from Pennsylvania and the up-and-down miles leading to Bobblets Gap began peeling away.  I let Brian set the pace that suited him and we alternated between solid power hiking and running.  We had passed one runner as soon as we'd come out of the aid station and we passed several more before catching up to and then accompanying three others into the next aid station.

The volunteers were set up beneath in an old railroad underpass which provided protection from precipitation but also meant that they were holed up in an unpleasant wind tunnel.  Brian wolfed down a burrito, I scarfed a few Pringles and we hurried back out onto the course without any additional company.

The old road that we were now following tracked downwards for the next couple of miles and we settled into a solid pace.  I don't know if either of us did a GPS check during that section, but we were cruising.  There were some deep gouges in the trail that demanded some quick reactions but that kept things interesting.  We didn't slow at all until I couldn't pass up the just-too-good Lost Trail Road sign.

Horton had warned at the briefing about missing a turn through this portion of the course and it was easy to imagine losing track and continuing on well past the turn off only to be faced with some serious back tracking to return to the course.  The markings were great, however, and there was no missing the huge red arrow that returned us back to singletrack.

The next few miles included two or three minor climbs each followed by short descents.  We continued reeling in other runners.  By now, Hellgaters had been on course for over 13 hours and with so much climbing early in the race and the volatile weather having changed over to a cold, steady rain, most had to be really feeling the effects of exhaustion and exposure.  If Brian was, it was not evident, and he just kept plugging away.  We came jogging into Aid Station 9 at Day Creek knowing we had just a handful of miles and one significant climb left to go before Brian was officially a beast.

Off we went.

For roughly 3 miles and over 1,000 feet of gain, we hiked in step with two other runners before catching and passing another and putting a slight gap between all three as we topped out at the intersection with the Blue Ridge Parkway.  It would be, literally, all down hill from there.  We made quick note of the fact that the elevation change had brought a sketchy layer of ice on the parkway and the jeep road we would be following on the other side, but Brian didn't hesitate, darting downhill as though he wanted to make quick work of the remaining miles.

We were really cruising and caught another handful of runners on the way down to Camp Bethel.  We were knocking off miles at 8.5 minute pace and I was impressed that Brian had so much leg left after all that Hellgate had dished out over the last 15+ hours.  His quads should have been fried, but he had run a really smart race and proved more than up to the task.  We were still talking, still laughing and while it was going to be nice to get out of the rain and dry off, I would have loved to have more ground to cover.

The running was almost over, however, and, as we rounded the bend into camp and the finish line clock came into view, it confirmed that Brian was going to be well under the 16+ hours he'd come in expecting to be out on the trails.  Initially, there wasn't anyone in sight, as, wisely, everyone was hiding inside out of the wet and cold.

As we approached the final few yards before the finish, Horton and Steve emerged from indoors and I scrambled for my camera.  The clock read 15:45:03 but I really wasn't paying attention, trying to take in the view of Brian collecting his congratulatory hug from Dr. Horton.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Hinzman
Our adventure was over.  

Well, sort of.

The one catch was that we were still looking at a drive of several hours back to southern Pennsylvania which happened to be under a winter weather advisory with the expectation of several inches of snow.  We snagged showers (thanks for the towel, Dean!), wolfed down some food, stared into space, said thank yous and goodbyes and climbed into the car.

Brian had made such masterful work of the race, I was without the normal calamity that accompanies my race recaps.  Surely, we were bound to roll the car, get stuck in a 45 car pile-up or nod off and wake up in a snowbank.

Not so.  No calamity.

What I did get to see was a wife and child beaming with adoration as their husband and father arrived home with a smile and a happy report on a goal obtained.  I hadn't met them before, but, having heard Brian speak warmly of them throughout the weekend, I easily recognized them as the lead characters in his stories and felt so honored to have accompanied Brian at Hellgate and to have returned him safe and sound to the loving arms of his family...all the way from Hell to Heaven in one very long day.



Thanksgiving is over and for many thoughts have turned to the next big day.

No, not Christmas.  Sooner.

On Saturday morning, Placer High School in Auburn, California will play host to the annual lottery for the Western States Endurance Run.  Thousands of applicants, having completed at least one of the official qualifying 50 mile, 100 kilometer or 100 mile (or some distance between those three) races in 2013, will wait expectantly, fingers crossed that theirs will be one of just 400 (or so) names drawn to take part in the storied race in June of 2014.

This past year has been by far my favorite year of running but I didn't actually do much racing and what racing I did do was rather forgettable from a competitive standpoint.  The posted results were pretty underwhelming and there were even a couple of DNFs along the way.  It wasn't until late October that an official Western States qualifier was eked out with a sub-11 hour finish at the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 mile race near State College, Pennsylvania.

Each consecutive year that an entrant fails to have his or her name drawn in the lottery, she or he is assured of a second "ball" in the next lottery so long as a qualifying race is again completed in the preceding calendar year.  Such was the case for me in not having been drawn last December, so the finish at Tussey increased my odds from poor to slightly less poor.

All I had to do was complete the registration.

Back in early November, I logged into Ultra Signup and found myself staring at the monitor, fingers hovering over the keyboard, thinking about the path that had led me there.

Back in 2009, I ran my first ultra, the New River 50K in southern Virginia.  At the time, I hadn't actually met anyone who had run that far at one shot.  For the life of me, I can't recall what made me think that I could nor can I remember how that race had been chosen as my first.  The start of a bad habit never really broken, I ran too fast early and faltered late...but I did finish and obviously have continued to come back for more.

As I suspect happens to many people who get hooked on long-distance trail running, I started seeking out races all over the country and, upon learning about the race and its history, immediately moved Western States to the top of my must-do list.

The increasing popularity of trail running and ultra racing has made Western States more and more exclusive.  The number of applicants jumps exponentially each year without further expansion of the field due to caps put in place in 1984 with the enacting of the California Wilderness Act.  That act helped to create the Granite Chief Wilderness through which the course passes as well as many other wilderness areas in the state of California and that same act continues to protect these areas today.

I, for one, am a huge proponent of the race cap even if it means that many runners must wait years to get into Western States and some will never get in at all.  It will become even harder next year as 50-mile qualifying races are eliminated entirely and folks scramble to register for the longer events that will be the only way to earn entry into the lottery.

All of which was rattling around in my head as I sat in front of my computer.  I wanted in, but so did many, many others.  Why should I be allowed in over anyone else?  Was it really MY dream, THE race that I simply had to do over all others?  Did I really want to toe the line MORE than anyone else?

"This past year has been by far my favorite year of running...."

It's been my favorite year of RUNNING, but that doesn't necessarily have much or anything to do with racing.  My done-in-a-day run of the Black Forest Trail in May was an incredible experience and I've revisited that day in my head, in storytelling and in writing many times.  
A couple of morning runs with friends in and around Boulder in July stand out in far greater detail than most of the organized events in which I participated.  So too do so many solitary runs here at home as well as numerous small group outings with friends on the nearby Horseshoe, Conestoga and Mason-Dixon trails.

I had a blast for the second year in a row at TransRockies this past August but, honestly, my favorite moments at TRR consist not of the race but of minutes of the days and nights spent there in conversation with friends on and off the course.

Pacing for my dear friend Kelly at the Leadville 100 was another experience that will remain vivid for the rest of my years, but I was there for him, not for me, not even for the race itself.  I was there with a friend, trying to help him achieve his dream and that was what made it so meaningful.  It's a cherished memory, but the race itself wasn't and isn't one I ever need to do myself.

Sugar Pie, my four-legged companion, arrived late in the year and has transformed every outing into something special.  A late season through-run of the Old Loggers Path with her and a handful of new friends confirmed that I would take that type of adventure over an organized event any and every day.

I dream of running, not of racing.

And it isn't all I dream of...not nearly.  In fact, much of what I dream of doesn't involve running at all.

Yes, I would love to run Western States and may yet one day, but, honestly, I would be lying if said I actually dream of it.  But I know others do and sitting in front of my monitor I realized that I needed to leave those dreams to others until or unless the race becomes that for me, especially if my bowing out increases the chances of someone else's dream coming true.

On Saturday morning, Placer High School in Auburn, California will play host to the annual lottery for the Western States Endurance Run...you can bet I'll be paying close attention to who "wins" their way in even though I've removed myself from the running by deciding against registering.  I'm excited to send congratulations to all who see their dream come true and can't wait to see how those dreams continue to take shape between now and next June.

I'll keep dreaming too, but of other things.

And, holiday or not, I'm going to keep on giving thanks as well.  Giving thanks and hoping for the future.  I have much reason for both.

I am thankful, immensely, for my wife and hopeful that she and I will both still be drawing breath together decades from now and hopeful too that every now and again her hand will reach out to me or squeeze back when I reach out to take her hand in mine.

I am thankful, boundlessly, for my daughters and hopeful that they will never let what they know (or think they know) or all that they've experienced get in the way of striving for what they don't know and have yet to experience.  I am hopeful that they are never unaware of the love and faith in their abilities that their parents have for them.

I am thankful for my immediate, extended and adopted families for shaping me, accepting me and reshaping me anew when necessary (often) into a me that I too am able to accept.  I am hopeful that together we grow, flourish and continue to celebrate the myriad of ways in which we are different and the same.

I am joyfully thankful for this planet for both possessing natural, untrammeled wonders and for hosting the triumphs of civilization.  I remain cautiously hopeful that distinction and balance can be made between the two and that the failures of civilization aren't mistaken for triumphs and allowed to render nature extinct, not in my lifetime nor the lifetime of any creature that comes after.

I am thankful for hope.  Real hope.  Not sloganeering, not wouldn't-that-be-nice daydreaming, not wishful thinking without effort made toward realization.  Real hope with real effort.

I am thankful for dreams and hopeful for dreams, realized or simply sought after.

Dream on.