Special … yes, that probably is the best way to describe Hellgate.
In my three short years of ultrarunning, I’ve run roughly 20 different events. Not one of them compares to Hellgate. It loses out on “favorite race” to Grindstone – which might cause some to question my ability to effectively judge the merits of a race – but when it comes to uniqueness, Hellgate takes the cake.
There’s no one solitary thing that gives Hellgate a leg-up on other races. It has solid, but not unwieldy, climbs. None of the descents are particularly excruciating. At times it has great, sweeping views. It’s a healthy mix of gravel roads, double-track, and single-track. Just an ordinary race, right?
But then you’ve got the 12:01am start. It’s likely the last race on everyone’s calendar after a year of hard training and running. Chances of showing up sick or injured, or both, are not insignificant. The weather is drastically different from one year to the next. The course tests enough different running skills that you’re bound to confront a weakness somewhere in those 66.6 miles. The volunteers, braving the elements, are the best you’ll ever come across. The limited entry gives the race a family feel – when you drive into Camp Bethel before the race and when you run in at the end, you’re coming home. And then there’s the leaves … oh god, the leaves … the endless piles of knee-high leaves hiding untold numbers of nefarious rocks.
It’s an agglomeration of characteristics, an equal share of wonderful and awful, all working to build you up, to break you down, to impart what some might describe as self-shadenfreude, and, perhaps, to leave you with the sense that, somehow, you will have left Camp Bethel with a better awareness of who you are as a runner, as a person. Hellgate is Horton’s gift to us all. Each year we think we know what we’re getting, what will be revealed when the wrapping paper comes off – joy, suffering, a bond with others, aching muscles, those damned leaves, and an incredible atmosphere. This year, I ended up with a bit more: humility, affirmation, self-reflection, and an eagerness for next year.
Enough with the poetic ramblings … on with the race report!
***DISCLAIMER: What follows is as close to brevity as I'm ever going to get.***
Anticipating 20 degree temps and up to a foot of snow, I opted for tights. I also opted to put on too many layers, nearly replicating my clothing choices from last year’s single-digit excursion. I didn't feel warm. Did I just make a stupid mistake?!
The race started and I immediately tagged along with Matt Thompson. I know he’s a better runner than me, but the handful of times I’ve started out with him, I’ve never felt overtaxed. I’d hoped John Andersen and Chris Miller would join us, but from the get-go I could tell John was more interested in hosting a social hour to start off the day, and I knew Chris would be somewhere nearby.
I ran in/around Matt and Frank Gonzalez for the early miles. The pace was comfortable, but I was not! Within 15 minutes I knew it was nowhere near 20 degrees … yet. I struggled to dig into my jacket and my long sleeve shirt to grab and peel off my arm warmers by Mile 3 – they were drenched in sweat. By the time we began Petite’s Climb I was stopping again to peel off my jacket and throw it in my pack. There could be snow and wind up at 3500’ where I could need it again, but at 1000’ it was just too much clothing. Once I was down to nothing but a long sleeved midweight I could feel the chill and the slight breeze perfectly modulate my body temperature. I was finally comfortable and it was time to get down to business!
I had splits for a sub-11:40 finish which I figured would require perfect trail conditions and a strong final third of the race. The slightest difficulty – snow, nutrition lapse, a rough section – and I’d have to pivot to a sub-12:00 goal. Early on, everything seemed to click. I was in the Top 5, my effort level felt manageable, and I was hitting the climbs with ease. I ran all of Petite’s and began gapping Frank as I made my way down to the Terrapin section of trail. At the bottom, I saw the trail continue on, but also a trail veer up and off to the right. I couldn’t spot any markers, so I stood around for about a minute until Frank caught up. We took a couple steps on the offshoot and saw a streamer in the distance, and we were back on our way!
|(If I knew the pic would be this cool, I wouldn't have opted for a cheesy smile and thumbs up. Courtesy of Keith Knipling.)
I pulled ahead of Frank again going up the Camping Climb – those endless hours of 12% treadmill climbing were really coming in handy! Jordan Chang finally caught up and rapidly gapped me. I stopped for some quick power-hiking a couple of times, but for the most part it was run, run, run.
At the Camping Gap Aid Station I caught back up with Jordan and left ahead of him. I crested the climb and cruised along the grassy roads, frequently looking back, waiting for Jordan to catch up. Matt and Brad Revenis were well up on me, way out of sight. So I ran through the night alone in 3rd place. Near Mile 20, well into the climb up Onion Mountain I was caught by Paul Jacobs. Before we crested, I hopped off into the woods to take care of some business for a few minutes. Two more headlights streamed by. Just like that, I was in 6th place.
I finished the last few minutes of the climb, then headed down the rocky, technical Promise Land trail to the temporary Overstreet Creek Aid Station -- moved back from Headforemost because the Blue Ridge Parkway was shut down because of the storm … the storm that still hadn’t produced a single snow flake. I don’t like this stretch of trail in the daylight at the end of Promise Land, so I certainly did not enjoy it in the middle of the night.
At the Aid Station I caught up with Frank, who was one of the headlights that passed me a couple miles earlier, and quickly jumped ahead of him. As I rolled out of the station, I could hear John Andersen coming in – man is that guy chatty. I yelled that I wasn’t waiting for the two of them, but that they needed to catch up. I had imagined this race starting out with John and I running together, and hopefully trying to break each other on the climbs, so I was eager for him to catch up and start a stretch of hard, competitive running. But I felt good on the climb up Headforemost and their headlamps drifted off behind me more and more. I patiently chased a light ahead of me, no more than a minute up at times, but I never caught up.
I arrived at Headforemost, the ghost of an Aid Station, on my splits to the minute – 4:07. I was pumped! This is going to be a great day! The temps had dropped, the snow began to fall, and I was no longer concerned about ditching my tights at the next Aid Station. It was turning into a perfect night out on the trail!
Then things started to turn. A sense of nausea and a loss of appetite had been building for some time. I reached for my 4th Huma gel, gagged upon seeing that it was Chocolate, then just barely managed to gulp down an Apple Cinnamon instead. My nutrition plan was now on the verge of crumbling … and I still had over 40 miles of running left. Moreover, the newly falling snow was messing with my visibility and it was starting to give me a headache – light bounced off every snowflake and it was as if I were running through an endless parade of white confetti.
I managed to make good time on my descent into Jennings Creek while battling a whole-body fatigue trying to fight with the competing nausea and hunger pangs. My spirits were lifted when I miraculously made it through Miles 27.25 to 28 without getting lost for the first time in 3 years – the forest thins out and any hint of a trail all but disappears. But a mile later, on a rocky downhill I was startled by an owl, jerked my head around to look for a headlamp that wasn’t there, tripped on a rock, and went skidding down the trail. I tried to get up and buckled back to the ground. I gave up and laid there for at least a minute, with my head resting on a fluffy pile of leaves, waiting for John and Frank to come help me up. My knees took the brunt of it and a good deal of flexing and rubbing was needed to get back up and head down the trail. Surprisingly, I was still all alone when I worked my way back to a shuffle.
|(Accurate recreation of my Jennings Creek fall.)
The final mile into Jennings Creek Aid Station, I spotted the guy in front of me and picked it up to an honest pace. Sophie Speidel and Annie Stanley helped me with my drop bag. I let them know I’d probably be puking when they saw me again in three hours, and then I was off. My pace was slow as I started the next climb while battling to down another gel.
Somewhere between Miles 30 and 40 I also became tremendously over-hydrated. I needed to down my Tailwind for calories, but it was cold enough that my body was hardly sweating and retaining too much liquid. Nearly every mile I had to stop and pee. At some point I found myself catching up with 4th place, who happened to be Nick Pedatella. I caught him over and over again, like the friggin’ Groundhog Day of running. Each time I’d catch him I’d immediately stop and pee. I can only imagine what he must have been thinking to have a competitor repeatedly catch up and back off – who the hell is this guy?!
I felt good climbing up Little Cove Mountain and ran the entire time. At one point I could see Nick making the turn to the Aid Station. I checked my watch and chugged along. 5 minutes elapsed by the time I got up there. I looked back down the mountain and didn’t see any other lights – John and Frank were at least 5 minutes back. I was in No Man’s Land.
The Aid Station was still getting set up when I arrived. I desperately needed calories and asked for potatoes. A dude handed me a whole potato, in foil, and freezing cold! Props to you, volunteer dude! The cold didn’t bother me, but I felt bad taking a whole damn potato, so I asked if we could cut it up to just take some of it. Fast forward through 2 minutes of an entire aid station digging around to pull out a pocket knife and I was back on my way with a handful of potato slices!
Still in the dark and still on my splits, I made good work of the smooth downhill before the Devil Trail. The snow continued to fall and I was overwhelmed with a sense of calm. Snow, trails, solitude … this is why I run!
|(Jazz hands! Courtesy of Keith Knipling.)
My memory fails me, but if I hadn’t been catching up with Nick before, I certainly was now. Daylight came as we entered the den of thigh-high leaves that comprises the Devil Trail. I quickly found my rhythm, just like last year – slow the pace to a recovery jog effort and throw a little bounce into your step and you just might be nimble enough to make it out of the Devil Trail with only a handful of falls! Nick was a fish out of water and I blew past him.
I cruised into Bearwallow Aid Station a few seconds ahead of Nick, perfectly on my splits at 8:10. I was again assisted by Sophie, Annie, and others. Nick left ahead of me as I spent some time at the Aid Station, gathering up tater tots and freshly made cheese quesadillas. I was way down on my calories and this did wonders for my spirits. I was ready to blast through the final 20 miles!
… Then I started up the climb out of Bearwallow...
I don’t think this climb has a name. It needs one. I’m gonna start calling it Horton’s Revenge. I always forget how long it is – 2 miles and 1000’ of climb – and how technical it can be. Instead of cruising and catching up with Nick, he climbed well out of my sight. The snow and rocks and leaves were killing me. I couldn’t get traction. I couldn’t make progress. I was grinding to a halt. Most long ultras will present at least one major challenge … this climb was mine … and I wasn’t doing a very good job of overcoming it.
|(Gonna go out on a limb and guess this is right at the low point of my race. Courtesy of Keith Knipling.)
Close to the top of the climb I looked back to find John Andersen’s smirking face. If I didn’t let out an F-bomb, I was certainly thinking it. How the hell did he catch me?! I wasn’t going to just stop and let him catch up, so I drove on. I hit my stride through the ins-and-outs along the mountainside – it’s my favorite stretch of trail on the entire course ... smooth, flowing, runnable, with tremendous valley views (that is, if you're not bogged down in a cloud of snow). Things began to look up. Moreover, I had somehow dropped John entirely.
I rolled into Bobblet’s Gap Aid Station as they were still getting set up, so they had no food (potatoes) to devour. I dilly-dallied to let a volunteer help me grab some PB crackers out of my pack so I could get some calories in. As I started to leave, I saw John approaching. I checked my watch and did some math. It was 9:31. I probably lost 10+ minutes on that climb! I was trucking it to the finish at this point last year and it still took me 2:30 from Bobblet’s to Camp Bethel. I just had a terrible climb in the snow, calories were becoming a problem, hydration was a mess. If the next few miles of trail had snow, it would take a Herculean effort to break 12:00, never mind the now impossible 11:40. So I waited for John to sort himself out and then blurted out: “I’m not sure we can make it in under 12. Wanna just run in together?” He happily obliged.
|(Trying to calculate my finishing time at Bobblet's Gap.)
Now let’s rewind for a sec…
Remember when I said it took me 2:30 to complete the final stretch last year? Well that’s what I thought at the time. I was too mentally defeated to pull out my time sheet from my pocket which had last year’s splits written on it. And so I made the terrible error of thinking I might not make it in under 12:00. In reality, I covered the final miles in 2:20 last year. I was literally 1 minute per mile faster through 50 miles and if I’d just maintained last year’s pace at the end, I could’ve finished in around 11:50. But my memory failed me and I messed up my math. I’m an idiot!
Anyways, back to it…
The Ultra Duo who shared literally 100+ miles in races last year was finally back together! All it took was abandoning all competitive desires and, well, kind of just giving up on life for a little while.
We jogged through the Forever Trail, walking entirely too much of the inclines. At one point, Frank came barreling through. I briefly had a mind to pick up the pace and run with him – I’d give my odds of being able to keep pace at better than 50/50 – but my spirits were broken … I’d abandoned all hope of a sub-12, and at that point a 12:01 meant the same to me as a 12:31 just so long as I didn’t slip out of the Top 10. And so, Frank disappeared into the distance and I sauntered on with John.
Jaunting into the final Aid Station, I had more than enough supplies to make it the next hour to the finish – I’d consumed maybe 10 ounces of liquid in the past 2 hours, still trying to fend off over-hydration. So I was well stocked up. But I stopped to stick with John, who wanted some soup. I don’t drink soup during races, I think it’s weird. But I asked for some because I was done caring about this race. The muscles were fine, the mind and spirit were toast. Another runner came right on through and both John and I just shrugged our shoulders and kept standing around.
(What's that? Somebody's passing me? Meh...)
We eventually left, and did our best to keep to our promise of walking Every. Damn. Step. of the final climb. There were a couple short spurts of jogging in there, but we were largely successful in Operation: Maximize the Laziness.
At the top of the climb, yet another runner passed us. I had slipped from 4th to 8th/9th in 17 miles. Ouch! My legs felt good so I tried to run just behind him. John wasn’t keeping up, but was doing his best to ward off any other runners coming by. I eventually took over the dude in front of me, but firmly let him know I wasn’t in the mood to drag race -- if he could keep up, there’d be no race to the line from me.
My legs turned over faster and faster. I was nearing sub-6 effort as I hopped onto the road that would take me down to the camp. In the distance I saw the guy who passed me at the final Aid Station, so I picked it up even more and quickly overtook him. My watch beeped: a 6:02 mile. I maintained the effort with surprising ease and cruised into the finish in 12:21 for 6th place and an 18 minute PR. Not bad for practically walk-jogging the final third of the race.
Hellgate demands introspection and self-examination. Am I satisfied with this year of running? Where have I improved and where have I fallen short? What weaknesses in my skillset has the course exposed? Where will I find motivation for next year and what goals shall I set for myself?
So, am I satisfied with how Hellgate went down this year? Yes. And no. ... And that’s okay.
The first 8 hours of the race I performed EXACTLY how I expected … I put myself into a position to achieve what I knew I was capable of achieving. More so than a great finishing place or a competitive race, I run to seek affirmation of my abilities, to test myself, to know myself, to gauge where I am as a runner, where I came from, and where I might soon go. And the first 47 miles of Hellgate gave me exactly that.
On the other hand, I just plain gave up at the end. I hit one snag in the race and refused to put in the effort to right the ship. Instead, I sought comfort in complacency and a companion to drag down with me. Don’t get me wrong, sharing trail miles was great, and I don’t regret it this time around … but I was in a reinforcing duo of despair, and the next time John and I cross paths I’d rather agree to gut it out and push each other to the edge of our abilities. We’re too talented to ask anything less of ourselves.
All told, I left 30 minutes on the course after Mile 53 compared with last year, to say nothing of the time lost climbing Horton’s Revenge. I should have finished under 12:00. I should have been in 3rd place, or even 2nd, at the end of the day. But I wasn’t. All because I couldn’t adapt to a little curveball and I refused to embrace and tap into what limited competitive drive I have. So next year I’ll be training harder, getting faster, and working on harnessing a more competitive spirit. If I can ho-hum my way to a 6th place finish at Hellgate, I owe it to myself and to everyone else toeing the line with me to suck it up, grit it out, and embrace a more competitive attitude.