Hellgate. The race that never starts. Where the leaves run deep. Where you may never have this opportunity again.
I can always find something to write about David Horton’s Hellgate 100k because it contains many of the recipes for a good story – hardship, vulnerability, and even in a pandemic year, intimacy. This race is, for the folks like me who for some reason continue to sign up year after year, a story of opportunity.
I first heard about Hellgate from a friend, Virginia ultrarunning legend Sophie Speidel. A true point-to-point course, the race travels 66.6 miles through Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains on the second Saturday in December, starting at 12:01 a.m. She told of the intimate gathering of runners and crew before the race, all huddled together in a large cabin at Camp Bethel, a youth camp in the mountains near Roanoke. Camp Bethel serves as the pre-race headquarters as well as the finish line. With the fireplace going, Horton would hold court, preparing runners for the night ahead while sharing stories of the past. She talked about the crazy hard course and the difficulty of a midnight start, and about all the crazy weather and the knee-deep leaves and the atrocious footing. It was the picture of that cabin though that stuck with me. I wanted to be in that cabin, gathering with those amazing people, preparing to run through a winter’s night.
I’m not sure if Horton knew all of the intricacies of a December race when he created the Hellgate 100k. First, there is the weather. I have run in snow, freezing rain, zero degrees, and 70 degrees. You can train and plan your heart out, but the weather may throw a last-minute curve ball. This becomes one of the many head games of the race – it is probably not going to go as you think it will go.
Then there are the leaves, the deep Hellgate leaves. There are several portions of the course where the leaves along the trail are knee-deep. And I’m pretty sure that no one else uses these trails except for Hellgate, keeping them nice and fluffy with loose rocks underneath.
But aside from the 13,500 feet of climbing and descent through leaves, shitty weather, and terrible footing, it’s December. Just as we have natural circadian rhythms for day and night, I’m pretty sure that running a 100k race in December will never sync with the natural circadian rhythms of your year. You have to continue to train through the shortening days and bad weather of November and early December. You have to avoid getting sick or burning out. And I think December is a time of year that we start to think about where we came from, what we are doing, and where we are going in life. Adding a 100k race to this introspection is just something you have to experience for yourself. Hellgate surely becomes one of those events that is a reflection of your year and who you are. Got some family problems? That’s probably going to come out at Hellgate. Been inconsistent with your training? That’s definitely going to come out.
Seven years ago, at just my second Hellgate, I reached the last aid station (Day Creek, mile 60) at 10:59 a.m. After running well all day, I arrived in 5th place with exactly one hour to get up and over the last big climb and descent (three miles/1200’ up and the same down) in order to break 12 hours. Sub-12 is hallowed ground at Hellgate. Yes, this qualifies as a random-ass time goal, but to me, it was important. That day, after my body and mind were coming to terms with running hard for 60 miles over the past 11 hours, I just couldn’t do it. Or should I say, I just didn’t do it. I gave up on my goal for a more comfortable finish in 12:06.
I never knew how precious it was to get to Day Creek at 10:59 a.m.! Every year after, I ran Hellgate and was determined that if I reached Day Creek before 11 a.m., I was not going to let that opportunity go to waste again. But snow, extreme cold, and even extreme heat kept me from getting that opportunity again until 2018, when consistent training and favorable weather finally brought me back to Day Creek with a little over an hour to go before noon. I became flooded with emotions, knowing just how precious and fragile a thing that was. I ran (and power-hiked) my heart out for my first sub-12-hour finish, even though I am pretty sure I was more exhausted than in all my previous attempts.
And so brought the best lesson that I have taken from ultrarunning into my personal life, one that stands out even bigger in these pandemic times. You never know when you’ll get to Day Creek at 10:59 again. What are you going to do with this opportunity?
I often battle myself in the days before a race. Why the heck am I so nervous? What if I blow up? Why all the doubts? Why do I care so much? These are natural emotions before you do anything that you deem important. To paraphrase historian and author Jon Meacham, we can either see events around us through a lens of fear, or through a lens of hope. As for our amateur athletic endeavors, they are important. These races, these random time goals, these finishes. They become a part of who you are. And so, ask yourself – are you approaching them through a lens of fear, or a lens of hope?
It is obvious that the lens of hope seems better. But it’s not easy to just hit a switch. I humbly offer this – at your next race, when you are nervous, timid, or scared, ask yourself “what am I going to do with this opportunity?” And don’t just ask yourself this question at the start. Ask this when the shit really hits the fan, when you are at your lowest.
Alas, the 2019 Hellgate brought eight hours of freezing rain and a proper Horton sufferfest. But this year, 2020 of all years, we got “Sissygate” weather! (This is David Horton’s term for perfect weather.) After avoiding COVID in the midst of rising cases and a near-miss Governor’s edict about a curfew after midnight that was to start just two days after the race, I really appreciated that nothing is a given anymore. So, there at the start line of this year’s Hellgate 100k, what are you going to do with this opportunity?
After a fun start with some of my best Hellgate friends, I ran alone for much of the night – just me and a headlamp and miles of empty mountain trail. I stayed patient and reflected on the balance I was able to maintain this year. You’ve made it to the start. You’ve kept your shit together. You’ve got your family and friends. Enjoy this. I reached Aid Station 4 (Headforemost Mountain – mile 24) at 4:02 a.m., about five minutes before my best time. Well, you don’t get to Headforemost at 4:02 every day. On I ran through the remaining night, energized with potential and opportunity.
The nighttime at Hellgate is truly a bizarre eight-hour prelude to the day in which you finish the race. Everyone runs through it. You get your biggest climbs in it. You get miles of sleepy grassy roads in it. You start to doubt yourself in it.
And then the sun comes up. The trade for this awakening of your soul, unfortunately, are miles of trail with deep leaves and terrible footing. The Devil Trail. The Forever Section.
I came into Aid Station 7 (Bearwallow Gap – mile 46) at 7:52 a.m., eight minutes before my best arrival time. Well, you don’t get to Bearwallow at 7:52 every day. What you are going to do with this opportunity? Here is where a year of consistency paid off. A year of clinging on to a few close friends and getting out there in headlamps before work, every week. Running with the simple purpose to not waste this opportunity was all I needed to see the race through a lens of hope. There was no magical flow, just execution governed by hope and not fear.
The six-mile climb out of Bearwallow Gap is the crux of the race. Everyone is tapping into reserves at this point. The venue is a beautiful trail that winds slowly and endlessly up the mountain with views that remind you that you are indeed getting to run in the mountains this day. Making the most of the day is different for everyone. For some it is just staying grateful and finishing. It is that for me, but it’s more. It is reaching the point of really, truly wanting to stop, but persisting. It is coming face to face with random time goals, fatigue, a wonky stomach, seeing your nemesis still hanging on right behind you – all of this – and continuing forward with hope, not fear. It is making the most of the opportunity we have out there.
Alas, Day Creek. This time, it was 10:30 a.m. The prospect of a finishing time of 11:twenty-something was a result I did not think I was capable of. Now here I was, a physical wreck; you are always a physical wreck at Day Creek. However, mentally…mentally I knew that one day years from now, when my body had long determined that even running Hellgate was no longer possible, I would look back at this very moment and either wonder if I could’ve done more, or known that I did all I could. Well, you don’t get to Day Creek at 10:30 every day. What are you going to do with this opportunity?
I climbed that last climb with all my heart. Literally. I would try to run for 30 steps and walk 30 but that was too much. My heart rate and breathing would get so labored that my guts would start contracting like the mountain was trying to just kill me from the inside. But doing something with this opportunity did not mean walking that whole climb. So, it was 15 steps running. Then just 10. Sometimes just 5. Whatever I could do. Can I really do this for this whole fucking climb?? For some random-ass arbitrary time goal?? Yep.
When I made the turn into Camp Bethel and realized I was going to hit 11:26, it was an amazing feeling, but not magical. Magic is something that we can’t understand. This was real. I put in the work, and I did not waste the opportunities given to me that day. In ultrarunning, that means having grit, heart, and hope. I know that I gave all that I could, and that is a feeling that will stick around long after the thrill of a podium finish and a PR are gone.
And that is why we do this, isn’t it? To know that we can make it through the hard stuff and the hard decisions? And is ultrarunning not always a metaphor for life? Life is happening now, even in a pandemic. What are we going to do with this opportunity? Will we look back and wonder if we couldn’t have faced the challenges with a bit more grit? With a fuller heart? With hope, not fear? May we answer these questions correctly, more often than not.