They say change is the only constant in life.
Switch jobs, move your home, have a baby, get sick.
You never know what life will bring, and it’s those who are successful at adapting to the changes that are most successful in life.
The same could be said about ultrarunning.
You never know what the course, weather, or day will bring. And you never know how your stomach, mind, and legs will react.
But the better you are at adapting to the environment, the more successful you will be come race day.
My Hellbender 100 was packed full of changes.
Change: The Start
For the final days leading up to Hellbnder, all I could think about was preparing for the race. Work? Nah, let’s plan. And when the day finally arrived, I was excited to finally transition from preparing to running.
There’s something unique about the first several hours of a 100-mile race. It’s a race, after all, so you’re constantly checking in on whether you’re keeping pace and not wasting time on climbs or aid stations.
At the same time, you know you’re going to be out there for a very long time. In this case, I predicted a 30-hour finish, which meant that I knew I’d see two sunrises and still have several hours left to run. That mind-trick of focused running with no end in sight is both overwhelming and freeing.
For the first 30ish miles, it was freeing. Early morning headlamp hours changed to a beautiful sunrise along Heartbreak Ridge. One of my favorite parts of sunrise running is the headlamp dance, or deciding whether or not to turn it off. Too soon and you can’t see the trail, too late and you don’t enjoy the morning trail glow.
It was fun to experience the other 100 runners sharing that dance with me.
Not to mention that the weather for both Friday and Saturday were some of the best of the month. Two perfect bluebird days, with dry trail and low winds. It started off cool, not cold, and before I knew it, I was approaching an aid station at mile 23 with a handful of wildflowers to present to my amazing wife, daughter, and mother (mom would be crewing me for the remainder of the race… badass) who I knew would be waiting. They returned the greeting with food and smiles, and I quickly took off for an eight-mile loop back to that same aid station.
Change: The Heat
I left mile 31 feeling confident.
The Hellbender course is in my home mountains — starting just 11 miles from my house. It’s designed to be tough, weaving off the Black Mountains ridge line, home of Mount Mitchell, and repeatedly dipping between 2,000 and 6,500 feet. Every summit is followed by a long descent, and every low point another climb. The final course clocked in at a little over 100 miles with over 25,000 feet of elevation gain.
The next several miles of course are ones I’m familiar with — a roughly 3,000-foot climb from a campground in Old Fort to the top of Green Knob, and then a steep drop to Black Mountain Campground. It was 1:00 Friday afternoon when I started the climb.
That’s when the change in temperature came — and it slapped everyone smack in the face (and some in the gut as well. Yuck).
It probably wasn’t actually that hot, but in the unprotected moment, it sure as hell felt that way. Before I knew it my bottles were bone dry, and I saw several of my fellow crazies resting on the side of the trail, doing anything they could to cool off in the tiny shade of the Mountain Laurel.
By the time I rolled into Aid Station 5, around mile 38.5, more than three hours later, I was over-heated and under-hydrated. I wanted ice. And water. And to strip down to my birthday suit and soak my weary bones in the creek.
Katie and my mom rushed around for the first two, and shortly after leaving the aid station with my first pacer, Griffin, I dipped a bandana in the creek to wipe myself cool.
No nudey soak, but it did the trick.
Change: Sunset with Company
The next 14 miles led from Black Mountain Campground at the base of Mount Mitchell to the top of ridge along the Crest Trail. This would be the highest point of the course, coming in at over 6,500 feet, and would eventually lead us back down to 2,800 feet at Colberts Creek.
Some changes during a race are obviously negative, but you sort of expect them — overheating is a prime example. Other changes bring magic that catches you completely off guard.
I knew the sun would set eventually, but what I didn’t plan for was a perfectly timed golden masterpiece, on the highest portion of the course, on a perfectly clear, perfectly still night.
This ridge is typically a brutal place — often cold, and windy, and barren, with sharp rocks and wicked drops. But on this night, it didn’t feel that way. Hiking up Big Tom Gap, I could literally see the stoke radiating from Griffin in the form of smiles and laughter, and I couldn’t help up dish that stoke right back.
The changing vegetation from dense Rhododendrons near the campground, to pines still in winter mode up top. From overheated and caked in trail dust to majestic twilight views.
These changes came as a surprise, and we soaked in every moment.
Change: The Cold, Dark Night
That blissful sunset quickly turned to darkness as we dropped back down into the cool Rhoddies. Around mile 52 I said goodbye to Griffin to go back up the Buncombe Horse Trail towards Mitchell with a new pacer, Michael.
Michael is a relatively new friend. While I’ve known and run with Griffin and Paul (whom I’ll pick up later) many times before — including when they paced me through the Thunder Rock 100 — miles with Michael were numbered.
But I knew he was the perfect person for the 20-mile stretch from Aid Station 7 to Aid Station 10 because when I told him it would be through the night, he literally jumped to the edge of his seat with excitement.
I knew that the trails we were climbing offered epic views of the rolling mountains towards the Northeast, and I knew that the constantly changing vegetation as we climbed in altitude could keep you distracted for days. But these trails were new to him, and all we could see were the five or six feet lit by our headlamps.
None of that mattered, however, as Michael filled the quiet night with stories, hoots and hollers, and an unmatched passion for the adventure. We were having fun.
Upon cresting back up towards the ridge, it turned cold. Very cold. Cold enough for Michael’s hands to go numb and my teeth to start chattering. Cold enough to where the thought of pausing to pull a pair of pants out of my vest and put them on seemed impossible.
And suddenly, determined to keep moving and stay warm, the adventure got a bit more serious. Though for Michael, no less exciting.
We took a moment to warm by the fire at Aid Station 9, and were fed hot coffee and sandwiches by the welcomed familiar face of a training partner, Eric. As we slowly dropped back down towards Black Mountain Campground at mile 74, the cold turned to relief and gratitude for a chance for new friends open to adventure.
Change: Unexpected Delay
There are a few times in life when others know what’s best for you better than you do.
… When you’re heartbroken, and your best friend tries to get you out of bed and out for dinner.
… When your partner tells you your favorite, old, crumbling shirt should be retired.
… When you’re 88 miles into a 100-mile race and tell your pacer you want to drop out, but they tell you no.
You know, for example…
That last one pretty much sums up the last 25 miles of my Hellbender experience.
But before we get to mile 88, let me add a little context.
During my three previous hundred-mile experiences, the sunrise on day two had been a turning point. I’d made it through the night, and the warmth and light meant the finish was near. Hallelujah.
I would experience a clear change from night to day.
This time, things were different. I picked up Paul, someone who knows me as a runner and maybe as a person better than just about anyone else, at 4:45am Saturday, and it wasn’t long before the sun climbed it’s way up the same mountain we were hiking.
But in spite of Paul’s jubilant energy, the sunrise didn’t bring the change I was expecting.
At some point through the night I fell a few hours off my 30-hour goal, and that sunrise no longer became a sign that I was nearing the finish, but a reminder that it would be another eight hours before I’d be able to stop running. Or lay down. Or drink beer. I still had another full work day left out on the trail.
The lack of change from night to nearing finish became even more overwhelming on the seemingly never-ending climb from Aid Station 11. In my heart, I knew I was getting close — just 18 miles to go. From Paul’s support, I knew I was making progress — one step in front of the other.
In my head, I wanted to quit.
“Paul, these damn switchbacks aren’t taking us anywhere! I don’t even think we’re climbing! We’ll never reach the top of this stupid mountain.” (There may have been a few more curse words than that…)
“Doug, we’re getting there. You’re doing great.”
“I don’t think I can do this. I really don’t. I think I want to drop.”
“Yes you can. And no you don’t.”
And he paused for a minute or two to allow for some space.
“Alright, let’s break it down. There’s this climb, one other climb, and the ridge line descent to the finish. That’s it. Who can we dedicate these sections to?”
Paul goes on to walk me through a dedication exercise I reluctantly followed. At first, I was too pissed he wouldn’t let me quit to think about anything else, but it was those thoughts of gratitude he forced me into thinking that ultimately brought the change I was searching for.
By the time we left the final aid station with 10 miles to go, I had begun to break free of the despair and self-loathing, and into a place of determination. One step up the mountain. One step closer to the finish.
Paul is quiet, giving me the space I need, but offering just the right amount of company to keep me sane. We’re greeted at the top of top of Bald Knob by the familiar voice of Pete Ripmaster. We were excited to see each other for the first time since his Alaskan adventure, and we hug as he yells with excitement. I start walking down the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Paul gives the look of someone confident that I’ll finish.
I’m sure he never questioned that I’d make it, but I think we were both a little relieved we’d soon be heading down Heartbreak.
At the final water drop, just before we took off down the trail, he gave me a piece of advice I’ll always remember.
“We should talk about this ridge. It’s going to feel like we’re really close. But there are still several miles. Embrace the final leg but don’t get frustrated if it’s longer than it feels like it should be.”
Every time my mind began to slip, I went back to that advice. Embrace the final leg. Don’t get frustrated.
Change: The Finish
I could fill an entire blog with stories from the Hellbender trail — like Griffin throwing back a shot of whisky with Big Tom, Michael’s introduction to the Death March, or of the unexpected thrill of running up to my daughter 38 miles into the race. And I could fill the entire internet with words of gratitude towards the race directors and volunteers, and to my mom for following me around all night, providing everything I need and more without hesitation. And to my wife Katie, for putting up not only with the training and racing, but the moaning and groaning that followed last week.
And to Paul, for dealing with all the shit I bestowed upon him.
But for whatever reason, this race keeps bringing me back to change.
Changes were inevitable over the course of a 33-hour run, as they are with any journey you decide to take. External changes to the world around you, and internal changes to your body and mind.
But the biggest impact on my race didn’t end up being change, but how poorly I handled it when things didn’t change the way I expected them to.
It’s that realization that I’ll take away from this race, not just the stories, but those moments of weakness. And it’s those moments that will ultimately force me to make a larger, lasting change to who I am.