I love a footrace in the mountains.

Often, the term “trail running” is used to define the other side of running – the one off the roads, off the grid, away from the cars and crowds.  I’m not so sure I am satisfied with trail running alone, as I find myself more and more inextricably tied to the challenge and beauty of running in the mountains.  Whether using gravel roads to climb them, single track to traverse and descend them, or no trail to explore and wander on them, mountains become the ultimate test for the mind and body of any runner.  And mountain racing…here is where transformative magic happens.

Enter Hellgate 100k.  Mountain racing.  I wish every runner could experience this.

Three friends and I, all of us Hellgate veterans, entered this year’s Hellgate with the lofty goal of finishing under 12 hours.  Make no mistake, we would all love to beat each other too, but the time goal was paramount this year.  

The Hellgate PreRace at Camp Bethel (photo: Michelle Andersen)

I have tried and failed at this goal the last 4 years, getting as close as 12:06.  I was truly beginning to doubt if I could do it.  Jordan Chang has gone sub 12 just once in his 11 finishes.  In his three finishes, Chris Roberts has not broken 12, nor had Nick Pedatella in his one finish last year where he also got a taste at 12:09.  At the prerace dinner, we all discussed this goal, knew it would be difficult, and sorta kinda pledged to work together, i.e. beat each other.  

Hellgate is a perfect race because you never really know how your day will turn out.  It’s simply too hard, too long, and the weather is just too unpredictable.  It’s hardly worth making it your A-race because it can be so soul-crushing, but you had better bring your best A-game because it demands everything you have both physically and mentally.

I wish every runner could experience that feeling when you finally get out of your warm car at 11:50pm on that second Friday of December and shuffle over to the start line in the cold, in the middle of nowhere, doing your final gear check as you prepare to run through the uncertain winter night.

You might think Hellgate is so hard because it is so long, at 66.6 miles, and has so much elevation, making you climb almost 14,000 feet throughout the race (that is nearly half as high as Mount Everest).  But no, Hellgate is so hard because in order to do your best, you have to start working on that very first mountain climb (1400’ starting at mile 4) and keep enough in the tank for that very last mountain climb (1300’ starting at mile 60).  Although the four of us weren’t running together, we all no-walked that first climb up to Petite’s Gap, hoping to set a sustainable tone for the remainder of the night and day.  I wish every runner could experience the upper switchbacks of the Petite’s Gap climb at 1am on a clear December night, looking down and seeing a line of headlamps from all the other mountain runners making their way.  

Jordan, Nick, and Chris all separated from me as we traversed those early hours of the night.  This is the first real test of any mountain race – is this a good early effort?  We don’t look at pace, but rather gauge our progress through a subjective measure of our effort, something honed from countless hours running in the mountains.  What is a sustainable pace when you are climbing 2000’ at 2:00am?  How fast is too fast when you are descending a rock-strewn, leaf-ridden singletrack by headlamp?  I wish every runner could experience that inviting fire at Camping Gap aid station (mile 14, at 3000’ elevation), and then run away from it into the cold, windy darkness, knowing you may not see another soul until the next aid station, 10 long and lonely miles away.  

I finally spy two headlamps, about ½ mile ahead of me, around mile 19, 3:00am.  I have no idea who they are, but I like that I am seeing them. I am racing them.  I want to catch up to them as much as they don’t like to see a headlamp closing in on them.  As we weave through the mountain side trail, you can always tell when one of them looks back to take a peek – their headlamp shines bright.  They shouldn’t have peeked.  

Finally, around mile 22, I catch up to them.  Its indeed Chris and Nick.  Jordan is somewhere ahead.  The sub-12 hour pace group is coming together.  

We all climb the gravel road up to Headforemost AS (mile 24) hard, knowing that even though we have 44 miles left, a sub-12 effort starts with no-walking this climb.  There is a deal you make with yourself when you are climbing this hard so early in a race – I shall eat like Frank Gonzalez (in other words, I’m gonna eat so much food!).  Grilled cheese, snickers bars, cookies, waffles – these are the things we are eating as we toil through these mountains.  It’s hard to eat while you’re breathing hard, it’s a skill that comes with practice.  

There is a 2.5-mile climb as you leave the Jennings Creek AS (mile 30).  It’s still pitch dark and there are a lot of switchbacks, and so the headlamp game begins again.  Roberts has now pulled a little ahead of me and Nick is now a little behind me.  None of us has a far enough gap to avoid being seen as our headlamps traverse another switchback.  I keep my headlamp focused down and hurry around corners but I know Nick can still see me and he’s not letting up.  Roberts is flat out out-climbing me, but keeps looking back and showing me his full beam.  We are racing each other, but because no one is giving up, we are working together to push each other up this climb and to Camp Bethel before 12:00pm.  

We hit the top and start to descend.  More switchbacks, more headlamp games, but this time another headlamp is seen far ahead. This ends up being Jordan.  So here we are, the four of us, after 6 hours of running just separated by a few minutes, a few headlamps around a few switchbacks.  I wish every runner could experience chasing and being chased by headlamps on mountain switchbacks where even the stars and the town lights below start to play in the game, throwing off your tired eyes.

Roberts and I trudging through the Devil Trail (photo: Jordan Chang)

I catch up to Chris, and we both catch up to Jordan, and the three of us run together for the next 15 miles. We chat, we run in silence, we take turns leading and we take turns hiding our suffering.  I wish every runner could experience just how deep and fluffy and maddening the leaves are in the Devil Trail where sometimes you can’t even run downhill.

Getting aid with my arch nemesis/frienemie Chris Roberts at Bearwallow (photo: Sophie Speidel)

We hit Bearwallow Gap (mile 46) at 7:59am.  This is the only split that matters.  If we can make it here by 8am and we can stay tough, we can break 12 hours.  There is still 20 miles of running though and a lot of climbing.  We all know this though and we are all business as we fuel up one last time by our crews before the big climb up to Bobblet’s Gap.  We are digging in as we start climbing the endless ins and outs of this mountain. This is the most beautiful part of the course.  The trail is old, with weathered moss and mountain laurel framing it as you are treated to expansive views to the north.  I wish every runner could experience what it feels like to hopelessly, then successfully chase another runner through this section.  True mountain racing.

By the time we get to Bobblets (mile 52), we have separated.  Roberts is ahead and Jordan is just behind.  We all know Nick is not far back.  Nobody is giving up, we are still working together and by now everyone has a taste of the reality of a sub-12 hour finish.

Finishing the climb to Bobblets Gap (photo: Kristen Chang)

I manage to finally catch Roberts on the downhill just before the Forever Section and as much as he seems relieved to chat and talk about our time, he doesn’t let up and it’s not long before he pulls away again.  Dammit Roberts, would you just slow down a bit?!  Nature finally calls and I lose a few minutes on him that I’m sure I won’t regain, and so I run the rest of the Forever Section in that unique silence that happens when you traverse this section alone.  You are almost done with Hellgate, but there is still one more cruel climb to come.  And then there’s all these leaves and rocks again, often reducing you to walking and cursing on a 2% grade.

The Forever Section – note happy rocks and leaves under foot (photo: Marc Griffin)

I finally hit Day Creek Aid Station, mile 60, at 10:41am.  Holy crap, this is actually going to happen.  At 42 years of age, I am becoming a bit more aware of age every year I race but here at Day Creek, I’m crushing the 37-year-old who ran this race for the first time 5 years ago.  Figuring yourself out, pushing yourself, beating your old self after 60 miles. Now thisis mountain racing.  

I decide to push, to make it up and over in less than an hour.  I can’t run for long spells at a time without quickly redlining, so I just make sure I don’t walk for long spells at a time either.  Sometimes I’m running just 20 steps and walking 10, but I’m pushing hard.  4 years ago I got to Day Creek with 61 minutes to spare before 12pm and I wasted that opportunity.  I didn’t realize how hard it would be to get here again with a similar opportunity and I had already planned to climb this hill with heart.  

One last switchback to the right and up a few pitches, and there is Roberts.  “Hey Buddy!” I yell.  He is not happy to see me.  He doesn’t have the legs to run away from me, but I don’t really have the legs to catch all the way up to him and so he gets a head start crossing the Parkway about a minute ahead of me for the last 3-mile descent of the day to Camp Bethel.  

There is no magic out-of-body experience on this downhill today – this hurts.  I lay into the downhill as fast as I can go but I never even catch a glimpse of Roberts.  Running full speed over leaves and rocks, I’m not sure how more of us don’t just crash and die and I’m seriously afraid of ruining my sub-12 with such a fall.  Turns out Jordan had a nasty ankle turn just a mile from the finish doing that very thing.

Finally the gravel road, then the beautiful “1-mile” mark on the road.  It still hurts but pain is being replaced by emotion.  I wish every runner could experience what it feels like to finish such a journey, to battle doubts all day, for 65 miles, but finally be here, at the “1-mile” mark that Horton spray painted on the road and know that your goals will indeed be met and even exceeded.  

Finally in Camp Bethel

Chris Roberts is once again faster than me – 11:34:12, 4thplace.

I still have no idea how I ran an 11:37:30, good for 5th.  It was a magical day.

Jordan was right behind – 11:44:55, 6th.

And Nick Pedatella was just behind him at 11:47:35, 7th.

All racing within a few minutes of each other for 66 miles.

Mens Top Ten (photo: Michelle Andersen)

Turned out this was the most competitive Hellgate mens race ever, with 7 men finishing under 12 hours (5 under 12 was the previous max).  Congrats to Darren Thomas on the win and Rich Riopel and Mike McMonagle on crazy fast times!

2018 was the 2ndmost competitive womens race, just behind last year’s, with 5 women under 14 hours.  Congrats to Anna Evans on the win (13:04!), Kelly MacDonald and Shannon Howell for 2ndand 3rd, my good friend and teammate Becca Weast in 4th(we made a pre-race pact that we would both break our time goals and suffer a lot doing so – we did it!), and Sheila Vibert in 5th.

Congrats to all the mountain runners who got it done at this year’s Hellgate.  I have finished this race in over 17 hours, and now under 12 hours, and I can say that it takes all that you have to finish, regardless of your time.  We all climb those climbs, leave those comfy aid station fires, play the headlamp games, toil through the rocks and leaves, chase runners through the ins and outs, and follow ghosts through the forever section.  

Thank you to all of the selfless volunteers who staff the aid stations, do the radio communications, medical, and timing.  You are so very appreciated.  

Thank you to my wife Michelle for being out there.  I asked you not to crew, I told you not to come, that it would be cold and miserable and you wouldn’t sleep.  You wouldn’t have it any other way and I’m not sure I would be as motivated to push if you weren’t there with me.

Heart emoji.

And last, thanks to David Horton.  He loves this race, loves to share it with us, and mostly loves to see what we have to give in order to finish it.  

Six years of Hellgate thanks to this man. (photo: Michelle Andersen)