Hellgate 100k, directed by the legendary David Horton, starts at 12:01am on the second Saturday of December in Virginia. You are virtually guaranteed unpleasant weather that could present itself in the form of extreme cold, snow, ice, rain, or all of the above. The forecast in the week leading up to the race had steady rain starting Friday evening and lasting into Saturday morning with temperatures in the 30s to 40s. But that forecast was a week out and would definitely change to milder conditions as the day drew near. Right? Wrong. Horton’s prayers were answered and it was gonna be a cold and wet race.
All joking aside, Horton doesn’t want to see people suffer. He wants to see each runner overcome the challenging conditions and make it to the finish line having learned something about themselves. It’s not supposed to be easy. If it were easy, what’s the point? I don’t say this to sound sadistic or macho. Ideally, I would be perfectly trained and healthy for each race, execute my nutrition and pacing perfectly, and get to the finish line ahead of my time goal. It is extremely satisfying to have a day where everything comes together. But it is even more fulfilling to battle through adverse conditions, push beyond your preconceived limits, and make it to the finish line of a race in which you doubted your ability to do so.
I’ve had a few races where everything clicked, and it felt like a relatively effortless day. But those races aren’t the ones I reminisce on. I don’t call on memories of those perfect days when I’m struggling to get to the next aid station, and I’m questioning if I truly want to finish. I think back to those demanding days where I wanted nothing more than to quit and the times where I said I would never run again if I could just get to the next aid station and stop. In each one of those scenarios, stopping wasn’t an option. Sometimes it’s the sheer fact that there is no other option but to keep going, while other times it’s pride or the fear of disappointing loved ones that has pushed me to finish.
Completing Hellgate now tops the list of finishes I am most proud of. I slowed down towards the end and dropped out of the top 10 thus missing out on a sweet Patagonia puffy jacket. I didn’t finish under my time goal. I didn’t pass people in the last few miles with a strong finish. There was nothing sexy about my finish. The fact that I got to the point where I truly questioned my well-being in continuing the race and had to continuously problem-solve and persevere to make it to the finish line is a memory I will always cherish.
I carpooled to the race with Tim Hill, Alondra Moody, and Cole Nypaver of Knoxville. Tim, Alondra, and I would be racing, while Cole had so graciously volunteered to crew for us. It’s always nice going to a race with a group of friends to share the excitement and anxiety.
We arrived at Camp Bethel around 7:30pm with the rain already falling in a steady drizzle. The rain would not stop until 9:30am the next day.
Horton’s pre-race briefing was entertaining and not brief. Horton has a magnetic presence, and I could have listened to him talk about running for hours. We then had a couple of hours of downtime before leaving Camp Bethel at 10:50pm to make the drive to the start. I spent that downtime nervously reorganizing my crew bag and drinking coffee.
The drive to the start took around 45 minutes, and we all sat in Cole’s truck as long as we could in the heat and avoiding the rain. With 10 minutes till midnight, we left the oasis of the truck for the start line and awaited the adventure that lay ahead.
Start to Petites Gap (0-8)
We took off into the night at 12:01am. The wide jeep road allowed everybody to run at their own pace while also having several different conversations going on at once. I settled into my own rhythm and relished clicking off some quick and easy miles.
I ran right through the first aid station without stopping and then began the steady climb up the gravel road to Petites Gap and aid station #2. I enjoy climbs by headlamp, because you can’t see the top of the climb and psych yourself out about how long the climb will take. I was running this climb at a good pace in attempts to keep warm. The rain was steadily falling and showed no signs of letting up. I couldn’t tell if my raincoat was already soaking through or if I was just sweating so much from the uphill exertion.
I arrived at the aid station, quickly topped off one of my water bottles with Electroride, and crossed the road to singletrack.
Petites Gap to Camping Gap (8-14.3)
I left the aid station with a few runners ahead of me determined to keep their headlamps within sight. This descent was fairly technical with lots of loose rocks and leaves. I quickly abandoned my strategy of keeping the runners within sight and focused on just staying upright. The next 3 miles were probably the most technical all day with lots of leaves and quick turns. I ran this section with Dan Fogg who had completed this race last year and remarked that Hellgate could be boiled down to, “Run up a road then down a trail.” I remembered reading that in an earlier race report and that sentiment held true throughout the rest of the day. The race does have a lot of climbing, 13k feet over 67 miles, but a majority of that climbing is on very runnable gravel roads.
I arrived at Camping Gap aid station (mile 14.3) and topped off both water bottles with more Electroride. It would be about 9 miles to the next aid station. I still seemed to be sweating at a good rate despite the temperature being in the low 30s.
Camping Gap to Floyd’s Field (14.3-23)
I left this aid station with Dan and John Andersen. Dan and John had each set a new FKT on the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park in October. John set the new FKT on October 19 and then Dan lowered the time by 24 minutes a week later. So I was in good company leaving this aid station and happy with my effort level thus far.
I had a mini freak out soon after leaving this aid station as I went to put back on one of my waterproof mittens and realized I had dropped one! Thankfully, I caught my mistake quickly and found it within seconds after turning around to retrace my steps.
At this point, I wasn’t exactly comfortable but not terribly cold either. I was soaked underneath and any gust of wind gave me a chill. I was now at the point where I was taking off my Goretex mittens to ring out my glove liners every 15 minutes. Pro tip: make sure the sleeves of your raincoat go over the cuff of your gloves. I had foolishly not pulled my sleeves all the way down over my rain mittens and all the water from my sleeves was funneling down into my mittens and leaving my glove liners soaked. I didn’t realize my error until mile 30 and my hands got progressively colder over the next 15 miles. Oops.
The next several miles of grassy road was really fun to run as the terrain gently undulated and allowed for smooth running. I was fairly anti-social as I caught back up to John and Dan and only talked enough to exchange a few pleasantries before pulling ahead. I was enjoying this section and wanted to stay in my own rhythm.
I arrived at Floyd’s Field aid station (mile 23) quicker than expected and was excited about the fact that the next aid station meant crew and the almost halfway point! Floyd’s Field aid station is usually right off of the Blue Ridge Parkway but had to be moved up a mile due to the Parkway being closed.
I was continuing to push my effort to ward off the cold. I had another rain shell, a T-shirt, and waterproof gloves in a dry bag in my pack. I debated changing at this aid station but felt that the time it would take to change would result in losing too much body heat from standing still. I made a deal with myself that I would push hard to the next aid station, and then have Cole help me change into dry clothes.
Floyd’s Field to Jennings Creek (23-31)
I don’t recall much about this section. I just remember it having some fun downhill singletrack and that the rain and wind picked up significantly. My hands were now officially numb. I was having to ring out my glove liners too frequently and finally just put them in my short pockets with only my rain mittens to keep my hands warm. Again, put your raincoat sleeves over the cuff of your gloves!
I had a pair of unopened hand warmers in my pack, but it would have been useless to try and get them out as I don’t think I had the dexterity to deal with the zipper of my pack or the plastic packaging of the hand warmers.
I finally made it to the aid station and could not find Cole. I was stumbling through the aid station looking for him. A volunteer asked me what I needed, and I mumbled that I should have crew here. Right as the volunteer and I began shouting for Cole, Cole appeared behind me. I had walked right past him in my delirious state.
We quickly walked back to my bag. I told Cole I needed to change and get my hands warm. If I could get my hands warm then everything would be okay.
Taking off wet clothes is hard enough and not made any easier when you can’t feel your hands. I put on a new long sleeve top, raincoat, and Buff, then hustled over to the fire to try and get my hands warm before throwing on a new pair of dry gloves. Kudos to whoever got that fire going in the rain!
I had been able to get in nutrition as planned and was feeling great despite the wet and cold. I was using gel flasks, which was a lifesaver with my numb hands. The gel flasks required much less effort to operate than ripping open a gel wrapper.
I stood over the fire shouting at my hands to warm up. I knew that I would slowly start to shut down if my hands didn’t warm up. The fresh dry layers on my top half made me feel exponentially better but all the standing around was allowing the cold to sink back in.
There was a long climb out of the aid station, and I figured running uphill at a hard effort would warm me back up. Cole helped me get my gloves back on with hand warmers inside, and I headed out of the aid station in hopes that warmth would eventually return.
Jennings Creek to Little Cove Mountain (31-38.6)
My hands were not getting any warmer after a mile into the climb. Patches of ice had formed on the gravel road, and I would slip before I realized I was on the ice. Thoughts of turning around and going back to the aid station had been on my mind ever since I left Jennings Creek. I was not warming up despite the harder effort and flailing my arms about in attempts to get the blood flow back to my hands was not working.
I truly questioned my safety. Should I turn around? Is it irresponsible to keep going and become hypothermic? How would I get help if I did become hypothermic? I was having to walk through an icy section as I pondered these thoughts. Suddenly, my left foot hit ice and I hit the ground hard on my left hip. I laid there for a second as I did a quick assessment in making sure I wasn’t injured and also wondering what the eff had just happened. The ground was cold and laying there wasn’t doing me any favors. I hopped back up and hiked quickly uphill. A surge of adrenaline coursed through me and within minutes the feeling in my hands slowly started to return. I was warming up again. Emotion poured over me and I wanted nothing more than to get to the finish line. The urge to finish wasn’t to just be done with the race. It was more than that. I was ready to battle through whatever else the course and weather would throw at me. I would do whatever was necessary to finish.
Over the next 6 miles, I was able to run at a solid effort and caught up to two people as I made it to Little Cove Mountain aid station.
Little Cove Mountain to Bearwallow Gap (38.6-47.4)
The spike of adrenaline and strong running warmed me back up, but it was still raining and still in the 30s. I had another pair of unopened hand warmers in my pack and an aid station volunteer quickly got them out for me and helped stuff them in my gloves. I now had two hand warmers in each of my gloves. In a resolute manner, she told me that the next section was runnable, reminded me that it was almost daylight, and that I would be able to see my crew in 8 miles. The firm yet encouraging way in which she said all of these things was exactly what I needed. I became overwhelmed with emotion from her kindness and the fact that she was on top of this mountain at 7:00am in the freezing cold and rain. I placed my hands on her shoulders, thanked her, and took off before I started crying.
The next 7.5 miles had a mix of runnable downhill and uphill single track. It was finally light out again. And it finally stopped raining 9.5 hours into the race! This was a very pretty section with moss lining the trail that seemed to be glowing from all the rain. Ice had formed on some of the trees and served as a stark reminder of how cold it was. There were also some unobstructed views of the valley thanks to all the leafless trees.
I got passed by Travis Zipfel a few miles from the Bearwallow Gap aid station. That dude had looked like absolute death at mile 30, and I thought for sure he would drop. I told him he looked a lot better than he did the last time I saw him. “They rebuilt me at Jennings Creek. I’m going to go get 3rd place.” He zoomed on past like he had just started the race and would go on to finish in 4th place. I was amazed at how he had turned his race around. I would love to know what they rebuilt him with at Jennings Creek so that I could use it in the future.
Bearwallow Gap to Bobblet’s Gap (47.4-53.5)
I arrived at the second crewed aid station not needing a wardrobe change this time. I did need a change of gloves as my second pair of waterproof gloves were becoming saturated. But I had my sleeves over the cuffs of my gloves this time. Yay for figuring out how to dress in the rain!
Horton, with his signature booming voice and the tone of a proud parent, shouted at me that I was in 8th place and doing great. Cool! Cole helped me get everything situated for the last 20 mile section. After spending too much time swapping out my gel flasks, changing gloves, and standing over the fire, Horton then yelled at me, this time with the tone of a scolding parent, that I had been there too long and I needed to leave. “Yes, sir!”
My nutrition plan of getting in around 300 calories had been going to plan. So I thought. I didn’t realize until cleaning out my crew bag after the race that I had forgotten to take a gel flask of 450 calories at either Jennings Creek or Bearwallow Gap and also left a gel flask behind at Bearwallow Gap with 200 calories left. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but that was 2-3 hours worth of nutrition that I thought I had consumed. I did not realize my mistake during the race and was consequently not able to correct the calorie deficit. This caused a significant bonk that I could not rally from over the last 15 miles.
This 6 mile section was predominantly uphill single track. It also was a pretty section of trail with more luminescent moss and lots of high flowing creeks.
I was moving okay, but there was a noticeable downshift in my ability to run for an extended period.
Bobblet’s Gap to Day Creek (53.5-61.5)
9th place had caught up to me just as I neared the aid station at Bobblet’s Gap. The next 2.5 miles were down a gravel road, and I did what I could to stay in front. I hit the dreaded Forever section and was quickly passed. The bonk had fully set in. The Forever section lived up to its name, and the next 5.5 miles of singletrack did indeed feel like they took forever. It did not help my psyche that I got passed by two more people.
Day Creek to Finish (61.5-67.2)
I had been eating what calories I had on me during the Forever section but nothing was helping. I was determined to pound the calories at the last aid station for one last rally before the last 6 miles to the finish.
I drank pickle juice, two cups of ginger ale, lots of potato chips, and an orange. I walked out of the aid station burping like crazy and laughing at myself for all the randomness I had just consumed. I managed to not throw anything up and kept my ultrarunning streak of no vomiting going strong.
If you have fresh legs, the last 6 miles would be so fun. 2.5 miles of runnable uphill followed by 3.5 miles of smooth downhill. If your legs are dead and your stomach is not happy with your recent choices, it’s still a fun section.
I jogged what I could on the uphill until pangs of dizziness slowed me back down to a walk. Dan from earlier in the race passed me on the uphill section and another chipper individual ran past me as I shuffled the final downhill. Bastards.
I finally hit the 1 mile mark that Horton spray paints on the road. The finish and a warm shower were now just a mile away!
I finished in 13th place and with a time of 13:14:29. What a day it was. I hit an intense patch of self-loathing from the Forever section to the finish. But the finish line replaced all those negative emotions with ones of accomplishment and happiness. I crossed the finish line and shook Horton’s hand having never been more proud of myself for finishing a race. I told him that those were the toughest conditions I had ever endured. He asked if I would have wanted it to be easier. I immediately replied no, and his face lit up in a smile. I had the exact experience that he wants every runner to have in finishing Hellgate; face immense adversity, problem solve, persevere, and will yourself to the finish line.
All the gratitude to the volunteers who work this race. They have to battle through the terrible conditions just like the runners. I heard so many stories at the finish of volunteers giving gloves, clothes, and jackets to runners who were too cold and wet. Thank you David Horton for this special race. It was an experience I will always cherish, and I will without a doubt be back. Biggest of thank you to Cole. You volunteered to crew for Alondra, Tim, and myself. Hellgate is probably the worst race to crew for with the cold and late night/early morning hours. But you served each of us with calm and poise and helped get us to the finish line. We couldn’t have finished without you. Thank you!
Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News | Friday, Dec 20 | Ultrarunnerpodcast.com
Great report, Ryne and it was fun running some patches with you. I spent about 20min at Bearwallow in a warm car trying to come back to life (while being fed all the calories by my wife) and I more or less did. If it makes you feel better, I was past with about a mile to go last year (likely losing out on a Small size puffy) because I tied my shoes too tight, never fixed them and was moving so slowly. Oh the lessons we learn. Hope to see you there next year!
Thanks! And nice job on rallying. No matter how many of these races we do, it never fails to learn something new. I plan on being back. I definitely drank the Hellgate kool-aid!
Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News | Friday, Dec 20 - Yeovil Marathon
Great report and congrats on 13th place. 2019 was definitely the most difficult of my now nine Hellgate finishes. I too almost lost it to hypothermia on the climb out of Jennings Creek but somehow managed to get through it. Hope you can make it back this year!