I do not like uncertainty. Despite my generally optimistic disposition, I will admit that I tend worry like hell about the worst possible outcomes when important things are happening.
Racing is an intriguing practice of dealing with this. When you pick up your bib, you are holding this number that is going to follow you whether you finish strong or find yourself in the back of someone’s car at mile 24. When I pin my race bib on, I can’t help but feel like I’m pinning a “shrug emoji” on me for the night’s coming endeavor.
Dan Spearin, Michael Dubova, Chris Roberts, and I all drove to the Hellgate start together, leaving camp early to get to the start for some predictably bad parking lot napping before 12:01 a.m. When our alarm goes off at 11:25 p.m., it woke only Dubova because the rest of us were wide awake. As prepared as I try to be, the minutes flew by, leaving me panicked that I wouldn’t be ready by midnight. Dubova seemed just as frantic as me, as if we didn’t have the Longest Day of the Year™ to prepare. Spearin was calm as could be, taking his time, seemingly unworried about Horton’s 12:01a.m. deadline. Roberts just seemed upset to be racing, as if someone is doing this to him for a reason.
The four of us hurried to the start line as everyone else was already in place and singing the national anthem. Fist bumps and then we blended into the crowd and tried to make our way towards the front for the start. Some hellos, heys, good lucks and more fist bumps, and then: 12:01 a.m.
From the start, the uncertainty weighed on me. Even though I have done this race eight years in a row, and even though the night’s weather was hardly extreme, there is something about Hellgate that preys upon your uncertainty. This is one of the things that makes it so “special.”
Running up the Petites climb while trying to keep your heart rate low is the same exact thing as trying to keep your panic about the uncertainty low. Don’t think too far ahead. I was in a big group of guys (plus Rachel Spaulding– hell yeah), and there was a larger group of guys way ahead. I felt insecure about my place in these groups. Thinking about the competition, the miles between aid stations, the hours of darkness ahead—all of it can quickly send my heart into panic and create feelings of inadequacy and failure. This despair stuck with me all night at Hellgate. There is something about the darkness that keeps it from leaving. The only defense, really, is not to pump yourself up, not to lie to yourself or make up imagined fitness, but rather to just stop thinking so much and keep moving. The only way to battle uncertainty is to keep stepping a little bit further into it until maybe, just maybe, the sun comes up.
Arriving at Bearwallow is always so special is because you’ve finally left all of that uncertainty back on the Devil Trail. Uncertainty now turns into duty. You’ve made it here —do this, and you will finish. There seems to be no uncertainty at this point, even though the pain is going to be greater, the suffering mightier and the outcome actually more uncertain than ever. With your hands pushing down on your trusty shrug emoji bib as you power hike the first steep climb out of the aid station, you can say to yourself, “I didn’t come this far for this to be easy, I came this far so that now I can suffer.”
I have come to realize, however, that the true magic moments at Hellgate are indeed the “I have made it this far so that now I may suffer” moments. To have put yourself in a position to really test yourself. Most people don’t ever make it to the beginning of such an exam. Once you realize the privilege of this, you can indeed suffer with purpose and learn what it is you came here for and then, know that your friends are experiencing the same things. To know that when we finally reach the Parkway after the final climb out of Day Creek, that Dubova, me, Roberts and Spearin, and everyone that finished, got to catch their breath but then say, “I didn’t come this far for this to be easy.”
I can’t overstate my gratitude to all of the volunteers along the course. You are a breath of fresh air and your generosity is one thing that is definitely not uncertain. Similarly not uncertain, are all of the great friendships that have been made at this race. Come hell or high water, we will see you at Camp Bethel next year. (fist bump emoji. heart emoji. fire emoji.)