Friday, December 18, 2015

2015 Hellgate 100K Race Report

I've tried to structure this Hellgate race report so that there is less of "my experience" and more of a "just the facts" summary, complete with a breakdown of the vertical profile of the race.  I've also tried to avoid repeating course details that can be found in other race summaries, like Keith Knipling's or Aaron Schwartzbard's.

So What Is Hellgate?

I've heard from many runners and across a number of race reports that Hellgate is a "very special race".  For starters, it's a 100K qualifying race for Western States, so that should tell you that it's no ordinary jaunt through the woods.  It has a number of climbs, particularly in the first sections of the race, that total out to roughly 13,000'.  And it takes place in the Virginia mountains ... in December!  Some years, the course is covered in ice and snow.  In at least one running of the event, runners learned that corneas can freeze, bringing about term Hellgate Eyes.  The event is the brainchild of East Coast running guru David Horton, and he's designed it to humble the lucky few who take part every year.

... And Why Did I Run It?

I'll be perfectly honest.  Hellgate was not originally on my race calendar for 2015.  The whole point of my first season of ultrarunning was to build up for the Grindstone 100 in early October.   But after I drastically exceeded my expectations there, I decided to see about Hellgate, too.  I had 2 motivators for signing up for the race:

  1. It's a 2017 WS100 qualifying race, so over the course of 2 months I'd be able to secure entry into the 2016 and 2017 lotteries by finishing Grindstone and Hellgate. Hooray!
  2. I don't know how much longer I'll live in the Mid-Atlantic before moving back to the Midwest, so while I'm out here I'd better experience a "classic Horton" race.
I had plans to get some good runs in between Grindstone and Hellgate and come to race day prepared to push my limits.  But I babied some post-Grindstone tendinitis, got sick for a week, succumbed to Thanksgiving laziness, spent another week taking care of a sick kid, and the next thing I knew I had a 100K on the horizon and the only training I had to show for it was a pancake-flat marathon a month before and a handful of 6-12 mile tempo runs.  I certainly wouldn't be overworked coming into the race, but I was fearful my legs would have no strength or endurance left to successfully tackle this challenge.

What Irks Me about Hellgate

Before I jump into a race analysis and jump through a series of praises which far outnumber my complaints, I feel the need to point out a couple things that really bug me about this race.

Horton Miles

For the uninitiated, this 100K is actually somewhere between 66 and 67 miles.  Horton's overall mileage and AS-to-AS mileage are notoriously off. A lot of people think this adds to the quirkiness of the race, and yeah, it does, but I just can't seem to shake off how infuriating it makes me!  We live in an age where everyone has highly accurate GPS sensors on their wrists, so why the heck is a race director shrugging his shoulders with a resounding meh! about how inaccurate his mileage is.  Oh well ... Luckily there are a slew of race reports out there that runners can consult to overcome the evils of Horton Miles.

Just remember, IGNORE the mileage on the Aid Station signs!

I Thought This Was a Trail Race

With the location in the Virginia mountains, one might assume that this is a trail race.  One would be wrong.  This race does have some good single-track sections, particularly towards the end of the race, but on numerous occasions while running I thought to myself "where the hell are the trails?!".   I'd classify this race as a hybrid race, a hybrid between a trail race and a hillbilly road race.  "What's a hillbilly road race," you might ask.  I'll describe it as a race that takes place across backcountry roads, gravel roads, fire roads, double-track ATV trails, and the like.  So that's a major complaint I have about Hellgate, but this aspect of the race also lends itself to some amazing positives, which I'll highlight below.

What's Awesome About Hellgate


Extending your race season into December can be exhausting, or so I hear.  This, again, was my first season of ultras so I don't know any different.  But it doesn't take a genius to figure out how daunting it can be to keep up a difficult training regiment deep into Fall as it gets colder and darker every day.  And to show up to the starting line in good shape, you also have to avoid getting sick as flu season picks up ... no easy task, especially for those of us with little ones running around. It's especially trying for anyone competing in the Beast Series, as they have to endure a 100M and 50M in the 2 months prior to Hellgate.

The 12:01am Start

The race starts just after midnight, partly to ensure every runner spends the same amount of time racing in the dark.  You're unlikely to get much of any sleep the day before so by the time the race is over you'll most likely have been awake for upwards of 36 hours.  Just before 11:00pm, everyone loads up in cars to drive from Camp Bethel to the starting location.

There's just something special about running at night, the whole experience feels so surreal.  And this race takes full advantage of it.  Despite my disdain for the gravel roads and fire roads of this course, they provide some amazing views during the nighttime climbs at the start of the race.  As you're huffing and puffing up the mountainside, you can look out over the edge and see dozens of little blips of light snaking their way up behind you.  I'm sure it'd be even more incredible with a full moon out, but sadly we were racing under a new moon in 2015 -- though the skies were clear and filled with stars. My favorite moments of the race were the climbs in the first 24 miles.

The Vertical Profile

I LOVED this race profile.  It doesn't have a lot of huge climbs but it does a great job of varying the elevation with lots of little ups and downs.  A lot of the uphills are runnable, which can lead someone into inadvertently expending too much energy in the first third of the race without realizing it.  If that's the case, the last third of the race would be rough going.

I think my favorite part of the race was the final climb and descent.  It's a great way to cap off a challenging course.  I personally took the opportunity to treat the final mountain as my victory lap.  Instead of trying to book it up and down at the end, I lazily strolled up the mountain and then even more lazily tumbled down the backside as opposed to tearing ass to the finish.  I used that time to reflect on my first season of ultrarunning as it came to a close, and to look ahead to what was in store for me next year.

The Leaves

It's December. There are leaves EVERYWHERE!  A majority of the single-track -- and even some of the double-track -- were downright treacherous with the amount of leaves you had to wade through.  Rocks and downed tree limbs are hidden from site, waiting to ambush the unaware or overzealous runner. Towards the end of the race there was what felt like a 10 mile stretch of trail that I had to take about 2 minutes per mile slower than I wanted simply because I had no idea what the hell was underneath my feet with each passing stride.  I will admit to taking a couple of tumbles as my foot sank through a patch of leaves covering a sizable depression in the trail or hiding a slippery rock.  I certainly wasn't the only one getting beaten up by the seemingly innocuous leaves.  There were many huffs-and-puffsgod damnits, and son-of-a-bitches to be heard by all.

The Gravel Roads

Wait a minute ... wasn't I just railing on the lack of single-track?!  Yes, yes I was.  But these wider trails and roads to run on also gave Hellgate a unique flavor.

First of all, throughout the night portion of the race, these wider trails lent themselves to expansive views off the sides of the mountains.  The starlight was just strong enough to illuminate ridge lines beyond the dark abyss. The ability to even see the stars was rather unexpected and very much appreciated.  If I was trudging along a steep section of the course I could just look up and gaze at thousands of twinkling lights -- something I never get to see living in DC.

Also, I found these sections of the course to be much harder on my feet.  I was expecting the loose dirt and soft leaves of single-track trails.  Instead, I got a lot of heavily compacted roadway littered with gravel.  This made the miles feel a little bit tougher.  Just another way for the race to test you.

Additionally, and this one is just a theory right now, but I imagine these long, steep gravel roads could be particularly tricky to navigate if covered in inches of snow or a sheet of ice.  Seeing as how temps for the 2015 race ranged from 45 to over 70, I can only imagine what these sections of the course would be like in bad weather.  It's mostly for this reason that I want to sign up for the 2016 Hellgate and hope for a challenging winter race.

Vertical Profile Analysis

I like to think of races in terms of major uphill, downhill, and flat segments. So I've provided a breakdown of Hellgate into thirds, and for each third I have data on each major climb and descent. I find this type of planning useful, so hopefully some of you out there might find some value in it, too.


When planning out a race strategy my first order of business is to create a crude profile in Excel to capture all of the noteworthy inflection points in a race. I then estimate the average grade for each section and use that to calculate an expected pace for each section according to past data I've gathered from training runs and other races.

An example of what I use is the graph, below, from an easy-paced 30 mile training run on the Grindstone course that I used to help plan out my 100 mile race.

(Running Pace vs Incline)

For each uphill and downhill segment of the run (or for each mile if the miles are generally incline-only or decline-only), I plot my training run pace on the Y-axis against the average gradient on the X-axis.  Fitting a 2nd Order Polynomial generally yields a good fit across a wide range of gradients.  In this particular example, my data suggest I run a comfortable 11:30 pace on flat sections, something on the order of 16:00 pace for a 10% incline, and roughly a 10:00 pace for a 5% decline.

I'll then use this curve fit to calculate paces for each section of the race course ... and I'll generally add time penalties to my estimates as the race progresses: add 1 minute to each projected pace for miles 30 to 55, add 2 minutes for miles 55 to 80, add 3 minutes for miles 80 and above.

Using the above curve fit and adding 0:30 to the pace for miles 30-49 and 1:00 to the pace for miles 50 and above, my projected Hellgate finish was 14:03:25.  That's 9 seconds off of my actual finishing time!  So taking data from my 100 miler training runs and applying it to Hellgate told me that if I took the race easy and treated it like a mountain 100 miler, i'd finish in roughly 14 hours, and that's exactly what happened.  A quick use of this planning strategy yielded a planned finish for Jarmans that was also very close to what I ended up running, and after manipulating the time penalties for Grindstone to return a best case 24-hour finish, this process was scarily close to predicting my actual AS-to-AS splits.

... But enough of that ... Here is the breakdown of Hellgate's Vertical Profile.

Hellgate 100K Elevation Profile

Here, again, is the elevation profile:

The profile itself, as well as the drop bag locations at Aid Stations 4 and 7, lend towards breaking this race up into thirds.  The first third is heavy on climbing, the middle section has more downhills than uphills, and the final section has mostly smaller climbs and descents before a final 6 miles of fun!

First Section:  Start to Top of Climb Just After AS4

This section is dominated by climbs.  In the first third of the race (technically 37% of the race), you cover over 40% of the vertical gain (just over 1 mile of climbing), but less than 30% of the total vertical loss.

The table below breaks this section into 4 segments, and each segment has information about each major climb and descent.  My distances and altitudes are estimates -- no GPS watch is perfect -- but they should be fairly accurate.

StartEndDistanceStart AltEnd AltTotal GainTotal LossAverage Grade
To AS1Flat0.03.83.89001060500-3204%
To AS2Petite's Climb3.88.14.3106024401400-406%
AS2 @ 8.1
Petite's Descent8.19.61.52440170040-770-10%
To AS3Climb #19.610.61.017002050380-108%
Descent #110.611.40.82050175020-350-9%
AS3 @ 14.2
Camping Climb11.415.64.2175032501630-1008%
To AS4

(Drop Bag)
Camping Descent15.617.62.032502700110-680-8%
Climb #117.621.33.7270036001160-2607%
Descent #221.323.11.83600280070-880-10%
AS4 @ 24.6
Climb #

To AS1

There's not a lot to discuss here.  This section is fairly flat.  There is a slight climb at one point, but I honestly didn't even notice it.  This is a good way to start off the race.  You can crank out some decent splits while getting your body warmed up.  The only thing to note about this section, in my opinion, is that there are a handful of creek crossings. If it's a fairly warm and dry race day, as 2015 was, there's no need to try and find a dry crossing -- your feet and socks will dry in no time and it won't affect you later on in the race. This section ends at AS1, which you don't really even need to stop at.

To AS2

This section is effectively the climb up to Petites, and the descent back down.  The Petites Climb is over 4 miles long and it gains over 1400', but the grade is only around 6%, so this, too, is a fairly runnable section of the course. I myself ran most of the climb without much trouble, only stopping on occasion for a speed hike break.  You reach AS2 at the top of the climb.

I lumped the descent after AS2 into this section because it's a fast, easy downhill section and doesn't really belong in the same section as the upcoming Camping Climb.  I easily cruised down this descent in a similar pace to the flat first 4 miles of the race.

To AS3

This is a 6 mile section that includes the biggest climb of the race, the Camping Climb.  But first, you have to climb up and go back down a smaller mountain. That first climb and descent are roughly 1 mile each and cover between 350' and 400' of vertical change, for about a 8-9% grade. I believe this section is gravel roads and you can actually mix in running with power hiking on the uphill, but don't push yourself too hard because the short descent isn't a lot of time to recover before tackling Camping.  The Camping Climb is just over 4 miles long and gains over 1600' for an 8% grade.  It's steeper than Petite's and warrants the use of longer stretches of power hiking.  I believe I found a fairly good groove with 1 minute of short-stride running (180 steps) and around 40 seconds of power hiking for recovery (80 steps).  You'll actually reach AS3 before you get to the top of the climb, so if you're feeling good I wouldn't dilly-dally there.  If you're struggling up the climb, AS3 is a good place to take a breather since it's roughly 75% of the way up.

It's worth noting that this section is a great opportunity to check out the trail of headlamps along the course. It's a pretty impressive sight.  And the fact that you're not on single-track means you can look up and admire the stars if it's a clear night.  For the 2015 race, I had thought temperatures might dip into the 30s along this section of the trail, but I doubt if they ever got below 45.  I was in a t-shirt and felt just fine.

To AS4

This section is roughly 10 miles long and you stay in the same altitude band of 2700' to 3400'.  The section is comprised of two descents and two climbs, totaling roughly 2000' of both gain and loss. As far as I recall, it's mostly gravel roads or double-track. You start by descending 2 miles and roughly 700'.  It's a fast and easy section.  The first climb is fairly long at 3.7 miles but the grade is 7% and there are a decent amount of runnable sections.  Here, I again employed a 180-80 step run-hike strategy to much success.  The second descent isn't very noteworthy other than to say it can be a bit steep at times, but not unmanageable.  The final climb takes you up past AS4, which is roughly three-quarters of the way up the climb.  It's a good climb, much like the previous ones.

By this section in the race, I had personally decided to dial it back a bit.  Since I hadn't put in any quality training runs in the previous 2 months, I started to notice my quads rebelling.  I was getting very slight tweaks that forced me to stop and stretch a couple of times along this section.  I knew I had a lot of downhill running ahead of me so I decided to abandon any hope of getting close to a 13 hour finish and instead protect my muscles and treat the race as a very long and enjoyable training run.  For what it's worth, I think I was ahead of a couple of eventual Top 10 finishers when I pulled into AS4.  I went to my drop bag, swapped out my electrolyte concoctions and discarded my long sleeve shirt, jacket, gloves, etc. (that I never used!)  As I was doing that, a swarm of runners flew through the aid station, never to be seen by me again.

Horton says that more people will drop out at AS4 than at AS7 -- the two major drop spots.  I honestly don't get why.  So much of the first third of the race is on non-technical roads and contains climbs that offer plenty of opportunities to slow down and relax.  My advice is to take this first third comfortably.  And when you get to the AS3-to-AS4 segment, make sure you don't get overzealous on the downhills and bomb out your quads.

Middle Section: Just Beyond AS4 to AS7

This section has 2 major descents and a handful of smaller climbs and descents.  In this middle third of the race, you cover nearly 43% of the vertical loss (just over 1 mile of descent), but less than 25% of the total vertical gain.

The table below, again, breaks this section into segments, and each segment has information about each major climb and descent.  This section begins just after AS4 when you finish the final climb of the first section, and the section ends just before AS7, which is located about 0.4 miles beyond the final descent of the middle section.

StartEndDistanceStart AltEnd AltTotal GainTotal LossAverage Grade
To AS5Descent #
Descent #227.930.82.93000150080-1490-10%
To AS6Climb #130.833.32.515002350920-1408%
AS6 @ 38.5
Climb #236.838.92.113501840620-1407%
To AS7 (Bag Drop)Descent #138.941.72.818401450210-580-5%
Climb #141.742.81.114501780390-908%
Descent #242.844.61.817801160150-690-9%
Climb #244.645.71.111601550400-307%
Descent #345.746.81.11550113020-420-8%
AS7 @ 47.2

To AS5

This 5.6 mile segment that goes from the top of the climb beyond AS4 to AS5 is dominated by two major descents and a small climb.  The descents can be fairly steep at times but there's nothing too remarkable about them.  There is some single-track in here that feels fairly technical -- at least, it was in the dark -- but most of the descents are on double-track.  For about half of the runners, you'll be finishing this segment with enough daylight that you can turn off your headlamps; but the the front-most runners will come through here in the dark.

To AS6

Getting to AS6 requires a modest climb of 2.5 miles, and then a good-sized descent before climbing another 2 miles or so.  The top of the climb is technically a couple tenths of a mile beyond the aid station.  The faster runners may need a light up to this aid station, but I personally was able to keep the light off for about 5 of the 8 miles between AS5 and AS6, largely because a good portion of the race is on gravel roads and the slower-paced climbing demands less of a light source once dawn creeps up.

You'll get to the aid station towards the end of the second climb, and it's located at a bend in the road.  Beyond the aid station, the gravel road appears as if it's carved into the hillside.

To AS7

The first portion of this segment is a very runnable downhill gravel road.  But then you hit the single-track and it all changes.  For more than 6 miles you'll be running on single-track that isn't too demanding vertically, though there are a couple of ups and downs.  But what you will notice about this section is that the terrain changes drastically.  This is where the leaves may start pissing you off.  For many parts of this section, there are rocks along the trail, but they're all covered by a foot or more of freshly fallen leaves.  I, and others, had to cut our strides down considerably to avoid losing our balance and crashing to the ground after getting caught on those hidden rocks.  This isn't the last section of the course that will force you to wade through leaves, but for me it was by far the most tedious.

You'll finish this segment of ups and downs and then a few tenths of a mile later you'll cruise into AS7, the final bag drop location.  And if you're lucky, Horton will be there to heckle and goad you on.

Final Section: AS7 to Finish

I rather enjoyed this section of the course.  It's dominated by single-track, which was a welcomed change of pace.  Also, the types of climbs and descents change considerably.  This section of the race, roughly 20 miles in length, covers the final 30% of the race and contains roughly 30% of the total vertical gain and loss.  However, a good deal of that is saved for the final climb and descent.  Between AS7 and AS9 are rolling stretches and much smaller hills that are much easier to mentally tackle one-by-one.

At this point in my race, the sun was starting to show up in full force.  The temperatures began climbing into the 70s and I really started to perspire. I'm usually light on the water intake most races, only consuming 2-3 ounces per mile.  But for this section I made sure to down at least 16 ounces of water between every aid station, take on another 8 ounces or so of ginger ale or Gu Brew at each aid station, and continue to work through my ultra-dense calorie/electrolyte concoction (EFS Slurry -- a 16 ounce mixture of water and EFS liquid shot and powder registering at roughly 500 calories and more electrolytes than any human could ever need).  I took in nearly 100 ounces of liquid in these final 20 miles to ward off dehydration and heat exhaustion.

StartEndDistanceStart AltEnd AltTotal GainTotal LossAverage Grade
To AS8AS7 @ 47.2
To AS9Descent #
Climb #155.956.70.814401850430-3011%
Descent #256.757.50.8185014900-360-9%
Climb #257.558.40.914901840360-208%
Descent #358.459.20.81840141040-460-12%
Climb #359.259.80.614101610210-107%
Descent #459.861.01.21610128010-330-5%
To FinishFinal Climb61.063.32.3128024201160-3010%
Final Descent63.366.73.42420118020-12507%

To AS8

This 6 mile section goes by fairly easily, if you ignore the occasional frustration of the hidden rocks under the leaves.  It begins with a modest and manageable climb.  Once you get to the top you skirt alongside the ridge, rolling up and down a maximum of 200' at a time.  This is the only section outside of the first 4 miles of the race that are fairly flat and runnable.  The issues, however, are that you're 50 miles into the race already and "runnable" has to be taken into the context of those damned leaves.

Aid Station 8, Bobblets Gap, is at the end of this flat section and just before a modest descent.  This aid station had enticing pierogis and ice cream when I ran through it, but I was to close to the end to be bothered with such luxuries!  I simply filled up my water, downed some ginger ale, and went about my business.

To AS9 -- AKA "The Forever Trail"

As you can see by the elevation profile, this penultimate section for the race is defined by 3 lesser peaks. After a comfortable descent -- again, on leaf infested single-track -- of nearly 3 miles, you begin working your way up and down these smaller climbs.  This section is called the Forever Trail because, well, it feels like it's taking you forever to get through it.  A lot of the trail looks the same so if you're feeling tired by this point, a bit of deja vu might be in store for you.  To make matters worse, if you put too much stock in Horton Miles you'll only expect to run this section for 6.6 miles, in which case you'll spend the last 20-30 minutes of this section wondering if you're going crazy.

Personally, I really enjoyed this section.  I wish it would have gone on for longer.  I found the single-track to be very runnable.  The 3 hills are only 200' to 400' climbs, with each climb and descent taking no more than a mile.  If you're feeling good you can easily alternate between running and walking the hills and make some good time.  As an added bonus, the third and final climb is only a little more than 200' and roughly 0.6 miles in length.  Piece of cake!  Then, it's a 1 mile downhill into the final aid station.

To The Finish Line!

When you roll into AS9, the task ahead of you looms large.  The final climb is almost 2.5 miles long and nearly a half mile of vertical at a 10% average grade.  It's along a fire road so you can get some pretty good views all around you as you work your way up, assuming you have the energy to take your eyes off the road in front of you.

I started this section mixing in running and power hiking. A haphazard gear drop at AS7 led to an accidental stop of my watch for nearly 20 minutes and I wasn't 100% sure about how much further it was to the finish line, nor was I 100% about just how long the climb was.  I thought it was a cool 3 miles up and 3 miles down -- as opposed to 2.3 and 3.4 miles, respectively.  I did the math and figured a sub-14 finish would be too hard and might trash the legs I'd been carefully babying all day.  ... I backed off the pace ... and ... I really enjoyed the hike up to the top.  I got dropped by Marc Griffin, whom I'd been running with, more or less, for the past 3 hours.  Oh well.

When I got to the top, instead of bombing down the fire road on my mostly fresh legs, I continued to take it easy.  I looked all around me, soaked in the vistas, and took some time to think through what I'd accomplished in my first season of ultrarunning. ... And then someone passed me ... and they passed me HARD.  It was about halfway down the descent.  I brushed it off and let him barrel down the mountain. Then I looked behind me and someone else was coming up on me fairly quickly.  So I said screw it! I picked up my pace from a pedestrian 11 minute-per-mile descent to about 7:00.  Lemme tell ya, if you have the legs, you can fly down that mountain!

With a little over a mile to go, you pop out onto a paved road that leads back to Camp Bethel.  The road flattens out a bit, but it's still a modest descent -- instead of the roughly 10% grade coming down the fire road, you're rolling along at something like 4%.  Just before I popped onto the paved road, I saw the guy who had blown by me a few minutes ago.  He had probably built a solid 2 minute lead on me in less than a mile, but I started gaining on him and that proved to be wonderful motivation.  Moreover, Horton marks the 1 Mile To Go spot on the road in spray paint.  It's impossible to miss and provides a little extra oomph to your stride.  I didn't full-on sprint near the end, but I was surprised as to how fresh and fast my legs felt.  I ended up hitting that final mile in 7-flat and was only a handful of seconds away from catching my end-of-race rabbit.

Final Thoughts

Coming through the chute and having Dave Horton there to greet you is a great experience.  With the near-record high temperatures and me taking the race easy, I can't say that I am able to truly appreciate just how "very special" Hellgate is.  But I'm certainly willing to give Hellgate another chance in 2016.  I'll do my best to toe the line with legs that are more prepared, and maybe, just maybe, there'll be some snow, ice, and cold to combat.

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