For me, the biggest challenge of Hellgate seemed to be in getting to the starting line. It started the Saturday prior when my new fuzzy bedroom slippers, which are dangerous for all sorts of reasons (the-never-wanting-to-leave-the-house-again-because-I-don't-want-to-take-off-these-fuzzy-little-balls-of-delight type of reason), helped me fall down a flight of hard wooden stairs leading down to our basement. I let out a string of expletives that both shocked and impressed my roommate, and he thought for a second, as did I, that I might have been seriously maimed judging from the sound and what came out of my mouth. Luckily, I fall well (everyone has their strengths), and managed to land squarely on my upper-right bum (and not my tailbone), and nail my upper right back, tweaking my shoulder. I was in pain and covered from head to toe in the marionberry smoothie I'd been carrying, but nothing was broken. I lounged around on ice the rest of the day and ended up cancelling my Sunday morning run plans with Ronda because I was too sore to get out of bed, but managed to get in a quick 4-miler with roomie on Sunday night that confirmed that I wasn't broken, just sore.
The fall down the stairs seemed to worsen the cold that had been coming on for days, and by Monday I felt crappy enough to stay home from work. I went to bikram Monday night, solely with the hopes of using the 110+ degree room to burn off the cold. The bikram cold treatment seemed to work, as I awoke Tuesday feeling almost normal, except that my hamstrings were majorly tweaked from bikram. Argh. It had seemed curious how insanely flexible I'd been in class. I spent the rest of the week stressing about my hamstrings, and massaging the heck out of them with Arnica gel. Even though I'd been feeling unusually ready for Hellgate trianing-wise after averaging 70 miles/week over the previous 10 weeks, getting to the starting line was beginning to look challenging.
After a less than optimal week, I managed to make it to VA and to wake up Friday morning in my favorite training villa in Front Royal after 11 glorious hours of sleep feeling rested and 100% ready to run. Bring on the crazy!
I arrived at Camp Bethel a bit later than planned, due to the slow pace at which I approached Friday afternoon. So, in fear of missing the pre-race supper, I grabbed a turkey sub from Sheetz loaded down with jalapenos, banana peppers, pepper jack cheese and mustard. Potentially a poor choice? I stopped by a store to grab a friend some TheraFlu and picked up Imodium just in case. I have a history of stomach issues in races even when I don't dine on crap pre-race.
|Horton in his element. Pre-race briefing at Camp Bethel. Lots of good energy in the room. All photos by Bill Hite.|
Hellgate is unique in that it starts at midnight on Friday so folks start gathering at Camp Bethel, the finish line, Friday afternoon, and into Friday evening. There's a pasta feed, a pre-race briefing, and a bit of heckling from Horton. He asked me if I'd come to race, and I mumbled, and then asked me if I knew what the course record was. I did. It's always a bit difficult to judge what goal time is realistic on a course you've never been on, but based on the fact that Krissy Moehl ran the course record with frozen corneas
and nearly blind for the last 11 miles, I figured it shouldn't be completely out of reach. At least sub-13 was the time I was shooting for (course record was 13:01:14). I also hoped to win, because a course record isn't a course record unless you finish first. Above all, I wanted to finish 2011 on a positive note, and hoped that everything came together for a solid effort.
It was fun to see many familiar faces during the pre-race festivities, and as everyone dressed and prepared themselves to be carted off to the start, it was fun to eavesdrop on how various folks were approaching various potential issues. Putting on layers, taking off layers, worrying about cold, wet feet, etc. One guy considered leaving his socks off until after "the" river crossing, and then putting them on afterwards. This became even funnier during the race when we crossed several raging streams before getting to "the" river, and this just in the first 4 miles. I'd guess we crossed 20+ runs (that's east coast for creek). I didn't count, but the creek crossings were a constant and planning to keep your feet dry was a pointless endeavor. I hope the guy putting plastic bags over his shoes for the early rivers (per the accounts of others), gave up at some point. I actually prefer to run with wet feet, or rather, I like to run through cold water because it feels refreshing as odd as that may sound, and found the many water crossings pleasant, although the first few were a bit frigid and the toes a bit frozen.
|The River. We'd already crossed several rivers, but this turned out to be the real one. After Aaron's car-ride story of frozen gloves from putting his hand down in the river, I opted to remove my gloves for the crossing. |
At 10:45 p.m. everyone jumped in vehicles and we caravan-ed to the Gates of Hell, from where the race begins. At 12:01 after the usual Horton pre-start rituals, we were off. The lead pace was slow, so I joked for the boys to move over so I could take the lead, and actually did for a mile or 2. It was short-lived, and maybe a bit stupid, as the first of many odd pains/aches began shortly after...the first being completely dead quads. It was looking like it could be a really long night. None of the issues I was worried about heading into the race bothered me (heart/chest pain, right knee pain, sore hamstrings) but a number of other random things flared up. Luckily, they all seemed to work themselves out within a few miles, including: brick-like quads, exhausted hip flexors by about mile 10, flaming ITBs , some ankle tendon pains, pack-induced lower back pain, etc. I kept trying to remember that pains will usually disappear and as Horton likes to say, "It doesn't always get worse." This seemed to be very true all night and day, as weird twinges would come on, but then quickly fade, and I felt relatively good and fresh for much of the day. "Relatively" is relative when you're running a mountainous 66 mile race that starts at midnight. It helps to write this a few days after, as I'm sure Neal can attest to the fact that I didn't look very fresh coming through a couple of the later aid stations.
I don't remember the details of all of the sections, but the race can be generalized into the dark half and the light half (depending on how long you're out there, as those who finish in 18 hours get to experience a lot more light than dark, etc--but this report is written from my perspective which worked out to be roughly even, if not skewed a bit towards the dark side). Aaron Schwartzbard
gives a very accurate course run-down, and interesting historical tidbits on the race, and Keith Knipling's report
from 2007 is also very detailed and useful.
|Course profile taken from Keith Knipling. My favorite sections included those from Camping Gap (mile 14) to a few miles before Bearwallow Gap (mile 46.5). The front half climbs were nice, too. I didn't love the final section before Bearwallow to Day Creek, and the last section wouldn't have been bad had I not been expecting it to be all downhill.|
The portion run in the dark includes lots of fire road and gravel road on big but runnable climbs. There are some rough trail sections thrown in, but a majority of it is on very runnable terrain, which is nice being that it's dark. The full moon made for a beautiful night of running. I switched off my light for much of the road climbing in the beginning, which was a nice rest for the eyes and helped to keep my light as bright as possible for the rough trail sections. I used a Petzl Myo RXP, and the Fenix EO5 (new to me for the race and I found it to be really useful). It's a tiny light, weighing almost nothing (1 AAA battery), but on sections where it helped to have a second light to fill in the shadows, it worked well. I also used it on its own on some of the road sections where the moonlight wasn't quite bright enough to see all of the bumps and holes. I like carrying 2 lights, but don't like the weight of a standard handheld. This was light enough (0.7 oz) even for my week arms, but at 27 lumens gave off a decent amount of light for its size.
I was worried for about the first 10 miles about the deadness in my quads, but then started to feel OK, and really enjoyed most of the night section. I did face plant twice, but that's almost expected. The Promise Land Section was a highlight (AS 3 to AS 4), as it's a nice really runnable grassy fire road. The only negative to this section, is that there can be lots of holes and uneven terrain. I attempted to run without a light for parts of this, but that resulted in one of the face plants. My other favorite section in the night half was the downhill coming into AS 5. It's part on trail, and part fire-road, and was really fun to bomb down. I passed 4 or 5 guys in this section and was feeling really good heading into the "breakfast" AS #5. I don't remember being offered breakfast, although I do remember hearing the word "sausage" on my way out. In general, I was trying to get in and out of aid stations as quick as possible, so just kept moving.
|Heading into AS 4, feeling a bit rough and before my only major stomach issue of the night.|
I wasn't much in the mood for real food, as my stomach had been somewhat on edge all night, and I was concentrating on continuing with Cliffshots once an hour or so. Starting a race at midnight presents all kinds of potential issues, one of them being that most people are not used to fueling all night. In a 100 miler, the night section usually comes late in the race, when many are probably taking in fewer calories, but at Hellgate, you hit the night from the beginning when you're trying to stay ahead on fueling. Maybe my nightly snacking habits paid off, as I never felt that bad, and my stomach only threatened to head south around AS 4, but never really did. Only a single extended pit stop the entire race, which for me is a good day.
Not having any idea of splits, or really much knowledge of the course, it was hard to calculate what pace I was running. Knowing that the course was closer to 67 miles than 62, I used my Garmin a lot throughout to try to figure out where I was in comparison to 13 hours. As I obsessively checked my Garmin and tried to do the math in my head it started to make me a little batty. I hit 33.5 miles on my Garmin right around the 6 hour mark and it was still good and dark, so was somewhat on course for a 12 hour time, assuming the two halves are equal (which they're not). But, my limited knowledge of the course from reading the course descriptions was of the first 20 miles, and once I got past that, whatever I'd read about the course disappeared from memory. Every turn and hill was somewhat of an unknown. We always seemed to be heading in the opposite direction from where I'd guess we might head, and each turn was kind of like a "huh, that's interesting" kind of moment. I'd read through the course description many many times, but it's hard to remember the details when you don't have the context to which to apply them. In hindsight, a printout of the elevation profile would have been nice to have carried along, because even though I'd looked at it, I had no memory of what the second half would entail, except for a jagged line.
So, with that said, it's not surprising that I had a couple of navigational issues, which I'm guessing cost me about 10-15 minutes total. The first came after leaving the "breakfast" aid station (#5). I was really inside my head and not paying much attention as I headed up the road, when I realized that I was really zoned out and hadn't been watching for a turn, had there been one. I'd been moving really well down into AS #5, and motored through and just got absorbed in my own thoughts. The good thing about the full moon was that a light was really unnecessary on the gravel road parts, and you could run from the light of the full moon. The bad part about this was that it was difficult to see the reflective markers if you didn't have your light on. I switched my light back on, but after several minutes with no new markers in sight, I realized I wasn't very certain that I was still on course. I took out my map and tried to figure out where I might be, and if I was supposed to be on road, but still wasn't sure. I'd passed 4 guys going down the hill into the breakfast aid station, so proceeded to wait for one of them to catch up, which took a few minutes, and shouted at them to confirm that we were on course. Just because they were behind me didn't make me very confident, being that they might just be following me. They confirmed, so I took off again, but in my indecision, and lack of forward progress, etc, wasted a few minutes and the forward momentum with which I'd motored out of the aid station.
|Sunrise in the Blue Ridge Mountains.|
The day half includes more of the crappy shin-high leaves covering softball-sized rocks sections, where footing is a bit more difficult, and running at times is a bit more challenging--including the aptly named "Forever Trail." The leaves weren't so bad this year (according to the experts), but even with a few to several inches of leaf cover, it becomes difficult to see what's underneath. There is less climbing in the light half, but in general, there's not a whole lot of flat throughout, being that there is 13,000+ feet of gain, and just under 13,000 feet in loss. The sun came up for me right around AS 6. Horty yelled something to me about picking up aid as I ran through the AS, as the next 8 miles were a long 8. This was at least the second time he tried to get me to slow up and refuel, but my Nathan was still relatively full, and I had a handful of ClifShots. Plus, my drop bag would be waiting for me at AS 7, and I could grab more gels and refill there. He also let me know that I was in 5th (or 6th) and that I had folks to catch in front of me. Besides my buddy Darryl, who I spent a good portion of the night and day near, I had passed several, but hadn't been passed by anyone since the first few miles.
I enjoyed the section right after AS 6, as it reminded me of a later portion in Promise Land, yet wasn't. Grassy fireroad that is runnable and scenic. And with the sun coming up over the mountains and the view of mist in the valleys below, it was really quite lovely. It brought back lots of memories of east coast runs, and while I have to admit I prefer the big trees in Oregon, the forests of Virginia are pretty stunning, as well, and I was really enjoying this homecoming run and scenery. After the lovely section, we turned onto some crappy trail before hitting AS 7, which was rocky and difficult to run. This is where I started to get a bit grumpy.
|Concentrating on the trail. Between the night running, and the technical trail sections, Hellgate requires a lot of focus. I was pleased to get away with just 2 face plants on soft sections. |
By the time I got to AS 7, I was starting to want to be done, and didn't thoroughly enjoy this next section, which footing-wise had some really thick leaf cover over poorly-placed rocks. I was just trying to stay in front of Darryl and company, so used them to motivate me to pick it up whenever they caught up. At some point in this section I pulled out my music and the world changed. I picked up the pace, and felt like a different person. I should have taken out the music about an hour sooner, but alas, better late than never. Moving through AS 8, I think I dropped the F-bomb when Neal told me I had 16 miles. Mileage-wise, that would have taken me a good bit over the un-advertised 67. The Horton mileage thing can get a bit annoying, especially late in the race. You know going into it that the mileage isn't accurate, so I was going by my GPS, but then when you get to the last few aid stations and are trying to calculate how many Horton miles are built into the end, it gets confusing. In the end, I shouldn't have looked at the aid station mileage or asked questions, because you can't do anything about it at that point, and it just leads to frustration. I'm not sure the rationale behind putting out inaccurate distances at aid stations, rather than just listing the actual distance, but it's a Hortonism that you just need to accept if you're going to run his races. And when Horton yells at you that it's a "looooong 8" to the next aid station, does that mean it's a technical, slow 8, or does that mean it's 9.5? Hard to say.
It's always frustrating to get lost. I missed the turn onto the "Forever" trail, a couple miles after AS 8, which cost me somewhere around 5-10 minutes. Darryl, who ended up 3rd and finished 10 minutes in front of me, was a couple of minutes behind me when I missed the turn. Alas, the turn was well marked with ribbons, but most other road turns had been marked with bright orange arrows painted on the road, so I guess I was expecting them (wrongly). I should have paid more attention to the fact that there were multiple ribbons (it was very heavily flagged), but when you're running downhill on a gravel road and there's someone in front of you, the natural desire is to keep heading downhill. I passed a guy to move into 3rd, but since we were both now off course, I guess I was never really in 3rd. There were several of us that missed it, so I wasn't alone in my oblivion. Alas, it was an easy fix, as it became obvious fairly quickly when arriving at an intersection with a stop sign sans trail markers that a turn had been missed.
The Forever Trail is aptly named. It seems to go on forever at a time in the race when you really just want it to end.
|As close as I get to a smile. At least I don't look angry or distressed. I really was having fun out there!|
Arriving at the last aid station, I was happy to be off of the Forever Trail, and excited for the downhill finish. Alas, when I asked the AS to confirm that the last 6 miles were flat or downhill, they kind of chuckled and pointed up towards the parkway. I'm not sure why I envisioned the finish as a 6-mile downhill, but I'd been looking forward to it for miles, and was slightly bummed when I had to slog upwards again. If you take a look at the elevation profile, you'll notice it's not all downhill. But, it is shorter than even what's advertised. A hefty 3'ish mile climb followed by about 3 miles of bomb-able downhill to the finish.
I finished in 12:23:40, which was good for 4th overall, 1st chick, and a new course record. Full results can be found here
. Helen Lavin, who has won the two prior Hellgates finished just 13 minutes behind me, also well below the old course record. I'm not sure how to summarize Hellgate, other than with Horton's description, "special." A great way to cap off the year in a unique race with many close running buddies. I achieved my goal, and hope that I can run the course faster. Course knowledge would have been fairly useful in a few places, and I'm still kicking myself about those lost minutes from navigational issues. Every year at Hellgate seems to earn its own name--The Leaf Year, The Ice Year, etc., and this might have been The Easy Year or The Wet Year. The weather was relatively warm (20 at the start? and up to 35 during the day?) and there were no ice or snow issues. There was a lot of water on the course, but again, that was kind of nice. I plan to return, although it's hard to say if it will be in 2012. After hearing Hellgate stories for years, I feel like I need to experience one of the harsh epic ones to truly experience Hellgate. Regardless of whether my Hellgate experience was a soft one, I loved the experience. Thanks to David Horton and all of the volunteers for making it such a fun and "special" experience.