Hellgate 100k

Getting in your car and leaving your house on the afternoon of Hellgate 100k, you are still in control.  Car loaded up, head filled with optimism, this is still a good decision.  As you head down the road, your training still matters, your experience still matters, your bib number still matters.

Driving down 81, you remain in control, but you are further from home, further from comfort.  The sun is waning, or gone, depending on if you worked a full day today or not.  There is a battle in your head between hope and nerves.  This is still a good decision.

Turning onto Rt 11 toward Buchanan, you are definitely leaving comfortable.  First time, or 10th time, your breathing becomes deeper as you try to grab one last bit on inspiration from that one last song of the ride, which is totally the wrong song.  There is no right song.

Finally turning on to VA-606, you are giving up control.  As you lose cell service and a yellow line in the road, you are handing over the next 18-24 hours to David Horton.  You hold onto the steering wheel just a little tighter as you turn into Camp Bethel.  You see a few reflective streamers and as you drive the final ¼ mile of the race, and the battle continues on between hope and nerves.

This was my 5th year running Hellgate.  And despite placing top ten in the past three years, turning onto VA-606 still makes my stomach turn.  Eric Grossman penned one of the better descriptions of David Horton’s masterpiece, the Hellgate 100k on his blog from 2012:  “…and Hellgate is perhaps most representative of what an ultra means to [Horton]:  huge withering climbs, brilliant wide-open vistas, plenty of brutal technical terrain but also miles of free running.  More than that, though, Hellgate is intimate.  Entries are capped to keep the numbers low…  Horton knows you.  And he wants you to face your demons, even if it takes forever to do it.”

And so yeah, at the end of another year of racing and of life, as we turn on to Rt 606 on our drive to Camp Bethel for the Hellgate prerace, its as if we are ushering ourselves to a face to face meeting with our demons.  Maybe these are “less important” demons like a strained hamstring or a sour stomach.  Or maybe these are bigger demons like marriage, job, and family problems.  One way or another, they’re probably going to come out at Hellgate for a full face off.

The only demon I thought I was facing was if could I beat the younger, 38 year old version of myself.  To some degree, this year’s Hellgate was a test of if at 41 years old, I was still fast enough, tough enough, and if I cared enough to set a new PR and break 12 hours (PR from 3 years ago was 12 hours and 6 minutes).  I didn’t care what place I came in, I just wanted to convince myself that I’m not slowing down or getting soft yet.

I pulled into Camp Bethel fit, healthy, and with some fire.  Ready for the 12:01am start, ready for the 15 degree temps and the 3-10” snow forecast, ready to undoubtedly leave it all out there again.

The intimacy of Hellgate starts as soon as you walk into Camp Bethel.  Somehow Horton knew my name that first time I walked into camp 4 years ago, and now we are good friends.  And I’m not sure there is a better place to reconnect the friendships made on the trails over the past 5 years than Camp Bethel.

Pregaming with Paul Terranova

After the prerace meeting, I would usually try and get an hour or two of sleep, but this year I happily chose to just hang out in the chairs with Keith Knipling and Amy and Nick Albu.  We chatted about who-knows-what and ate gummy bears until it was finally time to put some tights on.  Cause we were about to go run through the mountains at night, again, in the snow.

Another intimate Hellgate moment is your car ride to the start.  I rode with Becca Weast and Sarah Schubert, and her boyfriend Craig and good friend Kate.  We had a fun time and good conversation, but eventually, we reached the Big Hellgate parking lot and had to start gearing up.

Standing at the start line with old friends that you have battled with for years is something I will always cherish.  At 12:01am, Horty started us, and we were off running into the known unknown.  All my friends promptly left me (Bye Matt! Bye Frank!  See ya later Chris and Jordan!) but the running felt light and easy as we snaked through the “Masochist-like” section of the first few miles.  I fell in with Nick Pedatella and Christopher Miller and we ran every step of the climb to Petites.  Our posse grew as we descended into the Terrapin course and soon we had a large group of dudes playing in the leaves and laughing on the single track before the Camping Gap climb.  About 6 of us climbed the whole thing together – so much better than climbing alone.

Climbing Petites Gap with Nick Pedatella. Photo credit: Keith Knipling

The endless grassy road after Camping Gap felt great.  There was good conversation, Paul Terranova and I sang the “12 days of Hellgate” and my legs felt fresh.  VT alum Jonathan Ryder was with us and was running his first Hellgate and first 100k.  We started chatting about the Hellgate family, and really just how lucky we are in Virginia to have all the races we do – they really bind us all together, these experiences at Hellgate, MMTR, Promise Land, etc.  It’s a special thing.

The 12 Days of Hellgate

Chris Miller and I finally broke from the group and eventually caught up with Frank the Tank at Overstreet Falls.  I really like the aid station here.  Chris, Frank, and I enjoyed our first walking break of the night as we power hiked up to the Parkway and saw Chris Roberts running away from us.  More great conversation and working together through the night.

We pulled in to Headforemost Mountain at 4:08am – 2 minutes ahead of schedule for my 11:59:59 splits! We made solid work of the running down to Jennings Creek where at that point we were in a pack of about 5 runners.  It was so great to see Sophie, Annie, and Meredith (like a Western States crew redux!) as well as Sam Price and all the other great volunteers at the aid station who helped me get in and out of my drop bag quick.

Chris Miller and Daniel Frank dropped me like a rock on the climb out of Jennings Creek, but Frank G and I bombed the next downhill section and caught right back up.

Frank, Chris, and I climbed every bit of Little Cove Mountain together and arrived solidly in the dark.  I suddenly started feeling inspired and I tore out of the aid station ahead of Frank and Chris.  My stomach felt great, my legs felt great, it was starting to snow hard, and daylight was coming any minute.  Mix that with a few perfectly timed songs on the ipod and I got some of the best, most-inspired running I’ve ever had in a race.  I started thinking about my family and suddenly got really emotional.  Maybe I was coming face-to-face with the demon of racing and training vs. family time.  I channeled any guilt I felt about being away from them into purpose-filled running and just destroyed the devil trail…well, that is, until someone started adding snow to all the fluffed up leaves later in the devil trail.  That last mile before the creek crossing was pretty arduous and you couldn’t help but fall several times.  Everything was slippery and I was using a lot of extra leg energy.

Coming into Bearwallow. Photo credit: Jess Daddio/Blue Ridge Outdoors

I pulled into Bearwallow (mile 40-ish) in 6th place at 8:16, about 6 minutes behind where I wanted to be, but still driven for my sub 12 goal.  Had some fun exchanges with Horty and “the Laydehs” and they told me Chris Roberts was just a minute ahead and was complaining.  I ran out of the aid station loaded up with fuel for the last marathon of the day.

Having too much fun at Bearwallow.

“Wardrobe Malfunction and Snow-covered Drop Bag”, by Sophie Speidel

I ran most every bit of that first big climb and finally saw Chris Roberts.  He caught a glimpse of me at a turn on one of the first ins and outs and I waved at him and gave him a big grin.  He hung his head low in a sign of “dammit Andersen, I don’t want to race!” and then proceeded to pull away from me again.  We ran that section hard – I would almost catch up to him, and then he would pull away again.  This kept up until the last climb where he was finally out of sight.  We were working hard in the snow, with all those extra little slides and slips using up a ton of extra energy.  Although clearly none of this bothered Matt Thompson!

When I got up to Bobblet’s Gap, there was Chris Roberts waiting for me.  “Hey man, do you just want to give it an honest run in together?”  “Hell yes!”, I replied.  This is one of those awesome ultra moments.  We had been racing so hard for 50 miles, but the miles had suddenly worn on us and it definitely was going to be easier if we worked together through the Forever section.  The Forever section was the worst!  I felt completely defeated.  Not only had I seemingly lost all energy, but I also had lost any fire I had to finish strong.  Sub 12 pretty clearly faded away and keeping top ten was now the goal.  Oh well.  It was the day.  I had been racing hard, maybe a bit too hard, and now was going to have to pay the piper for a few miserable hours.

As we struggled through the forever section, suddenly Frank comes tearing by us!  He would go on to pass 2 more people and finish 3rd overall – Frank is an incredible runner!

As we finally neared Day Creek, we both declared our intent to walk every step of the climb to the parkway.  We lingered at the aid station for a few minutes.  We even casually watched as Daniel Frank came in and passed us.  We sat there sipping soup and wished him well.  We were sucking bad!

The climb to the top took FOREVER.  I thought it would never end.  Here I was, completely destroyed at another Hellgate.  After 5 races, I still don’t quite have this race figured out.  But I’m thinking that is part of why its so great.  Horton.  Would I want to be in any other condition at the top of this last climb than completely destroyed??

As we started running down to the finish, suddenly Brenton Swyers comes blowing by me!  I was actually so pumped to see him running so well and nailing a top-ten finish at Hellgate!  Dude!!  That pushed me into 9th place and Brenton told me Jordan Chang was just a bit behind.  And so here was another great moment in my Virginia running history – bombing down the last 3 miles of Hellgate with 3 other guys I’ve raced with for years, all running on guts alone at this point.

Nearly finished, completely done. Photo credit: Sophie Speidel

I kept looking back, imagining Jordan and a friend would come blowing by me, putting me into 11th…negative thoughts! Ah!  But I held 9th and finished in 12:24 on a tough day.  I sat down on that cold, wet concrete which felt like the most comfortable bed in the world, knowing I didn’t have to run another step.

After the shower and the nap and the food, as we all sit and gather and cheer other runners coming in, the question gets asked again and again, “How was your race?”  Eventually I stop asking because the only answer really is “Terrible!  So hard!  I feel dead!  That was so bad!”  Hellgate is so hard.  It not only makes you beg for it to end, but it makes you rethink ever racing again.  It is a scarring, formative event in your life.  But by the time you are writhing in pain on the long ride home, you realize that it was worth it and that you are better for having run it and perservered.  Will you ever want to race again?  Don’t ask me that for another week.

And so finally, as you pull back on to 81, you regain control and rearrange the lists of what matters in your life.

Thank you David Horton, and all of the selfless volunteers who brave the cold and lack of sleep for us, the runners.  Thank you Camp Bethel for being the stage.  Thank you Michelle for supporting this.  Congrats to Matt Thompson and Hannah Bright for crushing it and winning, and to all my teammates and really to every runner who faced their demons and brought it back home to Camp Bethel.

5-time finisher trophy. Horton, you misspelled my last name… 😉