I signed up for Hellgate in October after running much better than expected at Grindstone and feeling much better than expected in the days following. Keli was able to get a few days off from work, my birthday would be the Thursday right before the race, so we were going to take a mini one day vacation to Charlottesville before heading to the race. Birthday present to myself was Hellgate and Keli’s present to me would be to crew me. Hurray!
No Hellgate report would be complete without reference to Keith’s and Aaron’s reports. Keith gives a good breakdown of the sometimes significant difference between Horton miles and actual miles and his elevation profile would be printed out and taped to my handheld bottle to provide me with real-time updates of all the joy that was coming my way.
Aaron provides a very detailed description of the course, which I, like countless others, read in hopes of being prepared for everything that lay ahead. My brain turns to mush in a race, though, so (and also I think because of the nature of the course) not a lot of it stuck in my mind. So I would recommend both reading it and, if it’s your first time, expecting the unexpected. It’s a really tough course that goes up and down and all around, and besides being a little unprepared is part of the fun.
One highlight Aaron mentioned was turning off his headlamp and being able to run purely by the light of the moon. So a few weeks before the race, I excitedly checked a lunar calendar and learned we would have a new moon (i.e. no moon) for race day. Boo hoo.
Had a nice time in Charlottesville and area in the day before the race. I ate a lot of delicious food in the 36 hours prior to the race. Probably not the best pre-race nutrition plan, but oh well. I went into this race, not so much excited or tense, but also not relaxed. I was kind of ambivalent to be honest. I hadn’t run a ton since Grindstone, so I wasn’t sure if I’d feel out of shape, or well rested, or somewhere in between. I didn’t have any strong expectations (good or bad) going into the race. Mostly ambivalence.
The caravan left Camp Bethel at 10:50pm.
Observation 1: The caravan drives too fast.
There is a best blood award at Hellgate. I truly fear that one day that award will be earned on the drive to the start.
We arrived at the start, sat in the car for another 20 minutes, walked to the start, nailed the National Anthem, and were off.
Observation 2: This is a fast field.
The top 10 finishers get a sweet nano puff Patagonia jacket. I didn’t think I could feasibly get top 10, but, hey, you never know! Those thoughts were quickly dispelled at the start, when 30-40 people flew out ahead of me. And several people would pass me in the early miles. I try to start slowly, but still, there are a lot of fast runners in this race so don’t get drawn up too far!
I started off in shorts, t-shirt and windbreaker plus gloves. Five minutes in, I slowed to a speed walk and removed said windbreaker, stuffing it into my pack. Gloves would stay on for a few hours more because I have weak frail hands that get cold easily. Nothing exciting to report in the first five miles to the AS1.
There’s a long climb from AS1 to AS2. I expected the temperatures to cool off as we ascended, but about two miles into the climb, we rounded turn on the road, and it actually felt noticeably hotter and more humid. My stomach wasn’t feeling right, and sadly before we even reached the top of Petites Gap, I would utter “Never again [will I run this stupid race]” out loud to myself.
I don’t know if it was what I’d eaten before or the unexpected warmth, or despite my wanting to remain patient, the fact that several people were passing me on the way up, but I wasn’t feeling good, wasn’t having a good time, and I wasn’t being the toughest cookie about it either. But I wasn’t planning on dropping or anything yet. So I continued on.
Observation 3: Rocks and leaves, particularly at night look very similar, and though the leaves tend to outnumber the rocks, you kind of have to assume that they’re all rocks, or at least that rocks lie beneath.
As Aaron notes—and this is one of the few things that stuck—the first half is largely up a road, down a trail. Though not always super technical, you have to be careful on the downhills. I was sufficiently careful throughout the race particularly at night. Had a few close calls, but no falls.
The race was uneventful from AS2 to AS6. I wasn’t feeling good through AS2 and AS4. Shared some miles with friends James and Erik between 2 and 4, which helped numb the pain. Seeing Keli for the first time at AS4 was a big boost, and by the time I left AS4, I was feeling better (still not great, but good enough). The pity party was over. I kept it slow and conservative (particularly on the trails).
The first signs of daylight were coming as I left Jennings Creek (AS5) with Erik. In hindsight, I should have left my headlamp there; you have ~2 miles of climbing on a road, so if there’s any glimpse of daylight as you leave AS5, you’re probably fine without a light. Unless you’re running up the hills, which I was not.
Observation 4: The aid station crews are great.
Hellgate does not have world’s greatest aid stations in terms of food. But another runner noted (and I confirmed at AS6) that a single crew would set up several aid stations throughout the race. So they’d set up AS2, wait for everyone to come through, then pack up and go set up AS5 (or something like that). I could be exposing my ignorance if lots of races work like. But everyone was clearly working super hard, and they were all super nice and helpful.
I started feeling really good leaving AS6. I picked off one or two people early on. About halfway to AS7, it gets a bit more technical. I ended up passing another 4 people in about a mile, and I ran pretty strong the last 1.5 miles into AS7 feeling great. I asked what place I was in and Horton told me I was 39th, adding that I was behind my expected finish (I was bib #30). I told him I would pass 9 more people. Hung out here for 5-10 minutes with Keli, eating lots of tater tots, soup, and other snacks. Headed off into the hills again.
Observation 5: I want to die.
15-20 minutes into this section, I bonked. Hard. Maybe I ran too aggressively into AS7; maybe I didn’t eat enough; maybe it was the heat. Interestingly, this kind of happened to me at the same point in the other 100K I’ve run (Miwok). I was all alone and not feeling at all good. There’s a decent-sized climb to start and for much of this section the trail follows this annoying, repetitive pattern of following a ridgeline while going in to and out from the mountain. At times it seemed to create an optical illusion where the trail appeared to be going uphill when really it was going down hill(?). I don’t know, I didn’t care. I thought I felt bad on that first climb to AS2, but now I was truly miserable and not trying to pretend otherwise. Luckily no one was around to witness my suffering.
I finally reached the road going up to AS8, having walked much of the way. In an effort to expedite the misery, I played a game where I would ‘run’ to an orange streamer, then walk the next ~100 yards to the next streamer, then ‘run’ to the next streamer, then walk, etc. I’ve played better games in my life.
Observation 6: Having a crew makes me want to live again.
I was a broken man coming into AS8, where Keli was waiting. I sat down on a bank next to the trail. Keli had bought some trail mix and other goodies, which was good because Clif Bar’s #7 and 8 didn’t feel so good going down in that last section. She got me nourished, gave me some words of encouragement, and got me out of there. It’s unclear what would’ve happened in the absence of crew, but I might have just kept on sitting. It was in the mid-70s at this point I think.
There was still another ~13.5 miles to go, but in my mind, I was focused on getting to the last aid station, which was 6.6 – 8 miles away, depending on whose word you were taking. The last section, though not easy, seemed manageable and quantifiable (~2-3 miles up a mountain on a road, then 2-3 miles down a mountain on a road).
Leaving AS8, you run along a road downhill for maybe 2 miles before cutting off onto a trail that goes on forever. At times it is unclear why someone designed the trail in this way. You go up, down, left right, seemingly circling back on yourself. I got through it. It wasn’t pretty or enjoyable, but I ran/walked my way through it neither fast nor slow, always moving forward.
I passed three people in the quarter mile before AS9 (Day Creek). I wasn’t enjoying myself, but they were enjoying themselves less. I took my time in the aid station, eating a popsicle, eating some food, and drinking lots of water. The three of them headed out before I did.
I caught the first two in the first quarter mile or so. The third guy was way ahead, so I just settled into a determined power hike and trudged onward. Ultimately, I caught up near the top, we chatted a bit, and I pressed on alone (as I would remain for the rest of the race). Cresting over the Blue Ridge parkway it took me a couple minutes to adjust to running downhill.
With about two miles to go, I let all tension go. I had no races planned for 2016 yet, and I’d already decided during this race that I was going to dial back my running for a few weeks over the holiday. So I just let gravity take over, opened up my stride a bit, and let myself enjoy this last race of 2015. The road bottomed out, and I turned left up into Camp Bethel, slowing a little bit on the incline but still running strong. Up the final chute, and crossed the finish line just as Horton got my name out. Finished 30th place, so I wasn’t lying back at AS7!
Observation 7: Best race swag ever.
Patagonia Houdini (retails for $99), Nice warm socks, and conductor-looking hat that I wore with pride for the next few days.
Observation 8: I’ll be back.
But not next year. And I think I’ll want more of a full moon. And maybe incorporate it into the Beast Series. I know, I know, I swore it off at Mile 7, and don’t get me wrong, I experienced some of my worst misery (second probably to my DNF at Bighorn). But the lows make the highs all the better.