I have tried several times to start a race report for this year’s Hellgate 100k, but I only get so far before I seem to drift off course. In fact, I gave several tries at writing a “pre” race report, trying to put down my thoughts on the significance of this insane race the second weekend of each December, but again find myself tripping over words on the way to expressing how this race felt and affected me.
Hellgate 100K. David Horton’s “very special” 66.6-mile trail race though the mountains of western Virginia that starts at 12:01am the second weekend in December. Designed to “inspire humility”, the race doesn’t disappoint. And it’s not just the race that inspires humility, but also the training. As you slog out on another cold, wet, dark November training run, you can almost hear Horton tease: “Go ahead…I dare you to train for Hellgate!”
I ran Hellgate last year as well and admittedly I had no business being let into the race, let alone running it. Undertrained and underprepared, I somehow managed to finish in just over 17 hours through snow, ice, and rain, finishing 93rd out of 110 finishers. Don’t get me wrong, finishing Hellgate is quite an accomplishment and I am as proud of that finish as I am of any other race. But I was over my head, inexperienced, undertrained, and without expectations.
This year, I toed the starting line wearing bib #6 – my seeding. What a difference a year makes.
I’m not sure why I get so tongue twisted when I try to articulate the meaning of Hellgate. Last year, I felt an uncanny need to run Hellgate. I felt I needed to finish this crazy, epic race in order to somehow provide some peace and clarity in my then insane and overwhelming life. So I ran it. Through excitement, through a blizzard, through calm, through 5 hours of rain. Through exhaustion, through “this is so f&$%ing stupid!”, through “one mile to go!” Through a new raw, exposed place, I finished.
Yet the next day, I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t wake up some changed person who had transcended above his current problems or who had newfound confidence.
Somehow I made it to church the morning after Hellgate last year, pretty much a wreck, but I found my clarity. Clarity on why the heck would I do such a thing? Really, why? What did I really get out of this race besides pain? Sitting in the pew, I randomly flipped though a bible and came upon the following from Romans:
..But we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint…”
And there in my sleep-deprived, drunken-like stupor, I was given the answer to my why.
And I got it. Running ultras may seem obsessive, extreme, and unnecessary. But in our sufferings, though self-inflicted and paid for, we find deep meaning that carries over into our daily lives. This is important. This helps us be better us’s. In a modern world, suffering will happen. Perseverance is necessary. Character gives us hope. And we can all use hope. Think about that word, hope –it is full of meaning and has lots of different meanings.
So, that’s my why. I found it through Hellgate 2013 and it set the stage for an amazing 2014. Despite a continuously crazy, overwhelmed, and overbooked life, I trained and raced and transformed into to a new runner. Top 20’s in the spring 50k’s gave way to a win at Catoctin and a top-ten at Masochist. I entered 2014 Hellgate with something new – expectations. I expected a high seed and got it. I expected to do well and… come on! You think Horty’s just gonna give it to me?!
…“I dare you to train for Hellgate!”…
Sure enough, after November 1st’s Masochist, having used up all my fuel both physically and mentally, I crashed. Pneumonia, a really cold-weather snap, and my body begging for an off-season prevented anything I would call a stellar month of training before Hellgate. Yet, I had changed, and a year of hard work is not quick to fade away. I patiently ran, rested, and tapered. I was…hopeful…Hellgate would be ok…
Saturday, December 13th, 12:00:59am…
My race goals were fairly open – just honestly do the best I could. Top ten and sub-13 hour were the numbers. I used Keith Knipling’s splits from his 2007 12:26 finish and wrote them on an elevation profile I would carry in my pocket (Thank you Keith! On behalf of the Virginia ultrarunning world, thank you for all your awesome elevation profiles and race reports to guide us!!).
My plan was to go out fairly strong for the first 24 miles (Headforemost Mountain aid station) and then back off a little and just hang on.
I ran in a comfortable lead pack for the first three-mile “warm up”. I remember commenting to myself, “this is so reasonable!” about the pace, which is interesting given a new course record was set that day by Ryan Paavola. I ran all of the climb up to Petite’s Gap and arrived at the top with Ryan, Darren Thomas, Guy Love, Jason Lantz, David Mackanic, and Brad Hinton. I only needed water so quickly blew through the aid station and found myself running with Ryan in the lead. I knew this was a fleeting moment, but thought it was fun – then suddenly Ryan stopped to pee and woohoo!, I was running in the lead at Hellgate! Cruising down the trails leaving Petite’s Gap, I thoroughly enjoyed leading Hellgate for a little over a mile before being predictably overtaken by Ryan, Darren, and Jason. “About time you caught me!” I chided them, and we were all off together through the crazy leaves on our way to Camping Gap, sliding around and laughing like a bunch of young kids in the woods.
When we got onto the Camping Gap road climb, Ryan and Darren effortlessly took off, while Jason lingered with me for a while. I finally prodded him that “this is where the sub-12 guys leave the sub-13 guys” and Jason floated up the mountain, leaving me alone, how I would be for the next 10-½ hours.
I pushed it up the mountain and admittedly was playing headlamp games – there are a few switchbacks that offer good views of who’s up ahead or behind, so as to not give the guys behind me any incentive, I just turned my headlamp off and ran the Camping Gap climb under the half moonlight. That was serene.
I came into Camping Gap at 2:15am in 4th place, and fueled up for the next section, about a million miles on an overgrown grassy/weedy fire road to Headforemost Mountain. I predicted that where I was at Headforemost was pretty much where I’d be at the finish place-wise, so again kept the effort up a bit and ran into the night.
I didn’t even use my GPS for Hellgate, knowing my battery wouldn’t make it. But I’ll tell you, running by timed splits, vs. mileage, was hugely helpful to me for this race. According to Keith’s splits, Camping Gap to Headforemost Mountain would take me about 2 hours, so I looked at my watch and just told myself, “4:15am”, and put my head down and ran. Much more sensible than trying to translate Horton miles. Like on Camping Gap, there were a few places here where you could see behind and ahead of you to look for the headlamps of other runners. For the first hour or so, I could see two headlamps chasing me about 5-10 minutes back, but then they seemed to just disappear from view.
Two hours was a LONG time. It was really windy and you’re pretty much tired at 3am no matter who you are or what you’re doing. Yet when I arrived at Headforemost at 4:10am, ahead of schedule, I knew it was going to be a good day. Feeling confident, I fueled up, and went to work, ready to grind out the next 8 or so hours grateful to be out here, and hopeful in this day.
Slight race day error – I meant to switch out the battery of my headlamp here, and about 20 minutes after leaving the AS I got the rapid flashing from my Petzl that says, “You are about to be screwed!” Fortunately, I had practiced changing the rechargeable battery by feel and there was plenty of moonlight. Yet I was a bit tense as I took the battery pack out, hoping I wouldn’t fail and have to wait for another runner to help (yep, forgot the backup light too!). But success! Little things like practicing changing out your headlamp battery pack in the dark matter!
I ran the rest of the race like a hundred (not that I’ve ever run a 100-mile race!). But I power hiked most of the climbs, kept the flats reasonable, and let gravity guide me on the downhills which are my strength. I ran into Jennings Creek AS “ahead of schedule” and again left feeling confident about the day. Last year, it was daylight at this point, and this year I had a few hours of darkness to go. That was a good feeling.
My only problem I really started having was that my GI tract did not seem to be moving at all. I had some lower GI upset earlier in the day, and took a big dose of Maalox and tums in the morning. Unfortunately now, that seemed to just have slowed my gut motility, so all the food and water I was drinking just felt like it was sitting there in my belly not moving along or getting absorbed. This started to give me stitches/cramps when I ran downhills. Not a huge deal, but it definitely made the downhills less than comfortable, and I sadly started to pass on real food options such as pancakes and perogies, knowing that these were not going to digest well today. Oh well, live and learn. Race day is all about problem solving, so just Tailwind and gels for me today.
I hit Little Cove Mountain AS at 6:30am, about 20 minutes ahead of Keith’s 12:26 pace. His race report spoke of dropping his headlamp here, but I was a bit tickled to have to keep mine on for a little bit longer as I entered the Devil Trail.
I actually liked the Devil Trail. I mean, besides the ridiculous sections where there were literally knee-high leaves on the trail – but you just had to laugh when you hit those sections, knowing that nobody was running that (well, except for Ryan Paavola!). Again, I looked at my watch and knew I would arrive at Bearwallow Gap at approximately 8:10am and voila – after keeping it together on the tricky footing of the Devil Trail, I arrived on time at Bearwallow Gap, closing out the middle third of Hellgate in 4th place, feeling good, with “just a marathon to go!”
Seeing some sunshine hitting the top of the mountain where I would be running to from Bearwallow, I dropped my jacket, hat, headlamp, and gloves, refueled, and took off up the mountain. I realized I made a mistake taking my gloves off because the water that filled my new bottle was like 20 degrees and COLD! My right hand instantly went numb holding this and it just kinda sucked for the next 30 minutes, as nobody wanted to hold “freezing bottle” because everybody was numb.
Ins and outs came and went and I was still running well as I arrived at Bobblet’s Gap. Last year, this was a low point for me. I was TIRED, it was raining solidly, and there was a crazy wind blowing through the tunnel you ran through under the parkway. This year, it was pleasant out, and there was Sam Price, cooking tater tots! Though I couldn’t eat any, just the sight of Sam and tater tots cheered me up a little. A boy who had been at all the aid stations so far told me “Brad Hinton may be 5 or 20 minutes behind you”. Sam and I laughed as I took this good or bad news down the mountain with me into the forever section.
My side stiches/cramping was getting worse now, making me want to stop eating and drinking all together, but I still had 15 more miles to go. Further, pushing the downhills earlier in the race was starting to finally show as my quads were starting to feel a bit trashed. This was so different compared to Masochist 5 weeks prior where my quads were the heroes at the end of the day. Oh well, go with it.
As I turned off the road decent into the forever section, I knew I was slowing down both mentally and physically. Back came ridiculous leaves to slow you down, and the constant up and down winding of the “forever section” made it hard to get into a groove, not that I had any sort of groove left in me.
It was in this section that the emotional expenditure I gave at Masochist caught up to me. I just didn’t have it in me to close. Sure, I was running through some discomfort, but there was zero killer instinct in me to close strong or tempo this race home. I was tired, kinda feeling lonely and sorry for myself, and my gut was just a crampy mess. Still, 4th place was pretty awesome. But then I saw Brad. Looking behind me, I finally saw Brad Hinton racing along the trail. HE looked good and WAS closing strong. He pretty much zoomed right past me. “I knew 4th wouldn’t last forever! You look great” I said. “Thanks, keep it up” he encouraged. “Anyone behind you” I asked. He gave me the “nope” headshake and was off.
Ok, 5th place is still really nice! And that was the #2 seed. Seeing Brad fly past me awoke me from my slumber and made me run the rest of the forever section, where I had been hiking more than I should’ve been. Seeing Day Creek aid station is probably one of the best sights in ultrarunning, period. Civilization! 6 more miles! Almost done!
I arrived at Day Creek at 10:58am. Eric Grossman was there. “Can I run this in an hour?” I asked him. “mmmm, yeah, but you gotta climb it in 35”. Breaking 12 hours would be REALLY nice, but about 200 yards up the mountain from the aid station, I knew I didn’t have it in me. Maybe my lack of calories was finally catching up, or just running 60 miles was finally catching up, but when I tried to run up the hill, everything started to rebel. My feet and tendons felt like they were going to snap. So I would run 20 steps and walk 20 steps, until it all became hiking. But with solid power hiking, I made it up the loooong climb and arrived at the top at 10:36am.
“I don’t have it in me”. I didn’t. I’m not going to say I was bonking, but I was pretty much bonking. Just 3 miles, and all downhill! Come on, 25 minutes is a piece of cake! Only it wasn’t. As soon as I started running downhill, my side stitches acted up terribly. I was shoving bottles in my sides, breathing all crazy – anything to stop it, but no go. It was pretty excruciating where I simply had to start walking downhill. Now I was doing run 20, walk 20, but downhill this time. To me, this downhill is terrible. It just seems like it lasts forever.
I reached deep into the pain and suffering cave here, and managed to keep running as much as I could, but sometimes just taking walking breaks out of exasperation alone. Finally, the “one mile” mark. I was fully expecting to be passed I was going so dang slow, but fortunately, the road was empty behind me. When I hit the mile mark, I was determined to run this last mile in. It was by far the worst, most painful, and most pathetic mile I have ever run in my life. Each step was calculated and tough.
At last. The entrance to Camp Bethel. Oh look, the arrows even cut over the grass on the turn! – Thank you Horton for not making me run the 20 extra feet – seriously! As I approached the finish line, there was Horton on his megaphone. Name called. 5th place. 12:06pm.
I gave Horty an exhausted handshake/hug and pretty much collapsed on the ground. It was a little after noon, sunny, and warm outside. This edition of Hellgate was over. An exclamation on quite a year. I finished Hellgate with “what’s left” – all that was left in my physical and mental tank – for the day, and for the season. Stopping running NEVER felt so good.
I can think of no better way to close out 2014 than to be completely on empty. Dump everything out, so the vessel can fill again with something new and different. A year of expectations awaits, a year of challenge and improving. A year of hope. And of course, Hellgate 2015.
Congrats to all the runners who started Hellgate, whether or not you finished. You came with what was left and poured it all out. Congrats to my CRUT teammates on a truly incredible year – racing has never been so much fun. And thanks to all the volunteers and of course, King Horton. It’s been…special!