Hellgate was an awesome race, and actually my first “normal” ultra over the 50 mile mark. It was a bit colder than I’d hoped for, but otherwise was a great night (and morning) in beautiful mountains and a chance to meet some more incredible people in the ultrarunning community. This is a race that I’ll definitely be back to at some point, and can definitely see it as being one of the primary races I focus on in the future.
As always the community and race organizers were to thank for making the race so enjoyable; without that I’d probably just stick to trail running on my own and wouldn’t do these things. Thank you in particular to Scott Livingston for some pictures from the race, as I actually didn’t get any myself. And of course without my wife’s support and her making it possible for me to shirk dad duties for a day, I wouldn’t be able to do these things at all.
Hellgate 100K is actually 66.6 miles, fitting in with the theme. It has 13.5K ft of gain through the mountains of western Virginia. A great course overview and more detail can be found at Aaron Schwartzbard’s blog. I signed up for it primarily for 1) Barkley practice, and 2) a Western States qualifier. The race came on the heels of JFK 50 for me, and going into it I felt rather unprepared. I had no idea what to shoot for as a goal. Winning seemed unreasonable, but I thought I might as well try.
With the Barkley practice part in mind, though, I was actually looking forward to the midnight start. I drove down to Camp Bethel early on Friday to try to catch a nap in the afternoon. I set up in one of the available bunk beds and may have gotten 20-30 minutes in , but was largely unsuccessful.
Normally I’m fairly particular about what I eat the evening before a race, particularly since in this case evening was just about 6 hours before the start, but thanks to grad school I’m still physically incapable of passing up free food. So I dug in to the delicious pre-race meal that was provided, being sure to at least try to limit my quantities.
This was actually the first time I had ever been to a race by myself. Up until our twins were born my wife had been with me to every race since I started running again, but coming to an overnight race with a 2 year old and 1 month old twins wasn’t exactly feasible. Fortunately, she had some help at home while I was gone, and fortunately for me I stumbled across a familiar face at the dinner!
Andrew Thompson, a Barkley legend and finisher had come down for the race. I met him at the 2016 Barkley Marathons, where we spent a bit of time together on the course and he provided me with some delicious maple syrup from his farm in New Hampshire. Chatting with him for a bit helped quite a bit to relax.
If I started to feel comfortable for a moment David Horton, the race director and himself the 2nd Barkley finisher (1 second before the 3rd), was quick to take care of that. During the pre-race briefing he pointed me out and made sure everyone was aware of my Barkley performance that year. I quickly tried to shift the focus back to him and to Andrew, actual finishers, and then slowly ducked back into a sideroom. Great, no pressure.
Part 1 (Mile 1 – 19)
The temperature was in the teens when we started at midnight, and it ended up getting down to 8 degrees. I’ve run in much worse conditions, and I have no idea why I went out there with a non-insulated, handheld water bottle. I guess I’ve never done a “normal” race in those conditions and I thought I’d just keep refilling with unfrozen aid station water. My bottle quickly turned into a solid block of ice that couldn’t be refilled.
Otherwise, things felt pretty good. I was comfortably running with the lead pack, and enjoying talking with this year’s Barkley Fall Classic winner, Jason Lantz. I just kept moving along, enjoyed the night, and in the ultrarunning equivalent of the “this is fine” dog largely ignored the fact that my well-practiced nutrition plan had been completely abandoned (eating without water generally causes more problems than it solves). I went the first 25 miles of the race with almost no water and no nutrition.
Part 2 (Mile 20 – 34)
As a result of my stellar calorie intake of approximately 0, I bonked hard at mile 20. And I mean hard. And instant. There was no gradual slowdown or onset of fatigue. My body just quit. I made this situation even better by promptly missing a turn and wandering off course for about 10 minutes. The course was well-marked, but the trails were covered in leaves and it was easy for the reflective markings to blend in with the thousands of beautiful ice crystals that my headlamp revealed in every direction.
The next 15 miles mostly involved me walking just fast enough to not freeze. I drank quite a bit of water at A.S. 4 and got in some calories, but still couldn’t get anything in my bottle. The trek to A.S. 5 was the lowest of all the racing lows I’ve experienced other than the final futile hours of my Barkley attempts. I shuffled along carrying my bottle under my arm while I attempted to retain some feeling in my fingers and not wander off course again. A steady stream of people slipped quickly past me.
At no race other than Barkley has the thought of DNF even entered the back of my mind, but the thought was front and center. I was dehydrated, freezing, in a big calorie hole, and things were hurting badly that had no business hurting at that point. I found myself wondering why I was there, why I decided to do two demanding races so close together (JFK 50 Miler was 3 weeks earlier), and even why I do these things to begin with. I’ve made a habit to tell myself in rough spots that it doesn’t always get worse, but I didn’t need status quo or a slight improvement. I needed an ’04 Red Sox ALCS kind of turnaround.
Ironically it was the cold that probably kept me from stopping. If anything sounded more miserable than moving forward, it was sitting around in those temperatures.
By A.S. 5 I had dropped back to twentieth something place. I had stopped caring about time or place, and decided I was just going to enjoy a walk in the woods. I started calculating what pace I would need to still make the 18 hour finish cutoff and considering whether I could in fact just walk most of the rest of the way. I took my time at the aid station – rehydrating, getting in some good calories, and letting the aid station workers fully thaw my bottle. David Horton was at that aid station at the time, and I even asked him what the cutoff time was just to be sure my math was right.
Part 3 (Mile 35 – 44)
I started the climb out of A.S. 5 with Jon and Brenton, two awesome local guys from Liberty University. I had completely relinquished any thought of actually racing at that point, but chatting with them kind of reset my mind. I was also able to get back on my nutrition plan and start taking in Hammer gel and Endurolytes with my new, unfrozen water. At the top of the climb Jon and Brenton started running, and I thought “sure, I’ll see if I can hang for a bit.”
As we started running, I didn’t feel awful. Then about a mile into it, I could feel the calories starting to hit me. I gradually upped the pace, and before long I was cruising. I hit a very runnable stretch and opened up. It felt every bit as much like joy as the previous 15 miles had felt like despair. At the end of that stretch the sun was rising, it was warming up, and I felt I was actually back to properly hydrated. I looked down at my watch, saw I had 31 miles left, and thought, “Alright, I’ve got a 50K left to race. Let’s do this!”
I hurtled down the side of the mountain, humming the Rocky theme probably a bit too loudly. By A.S. 6 I had moved back up to 15th. The top 10 at Hellgate get a Patagonia vest. I had long ago given up hope of a nice, puffy vest, but I asked the aid station workers how far ahead 10th place was. They told me 20 minutes. There was about 27 miles left. After thinking about it for a second I decided I’d give it a shot and see how it went. I took off again with a new mission.
About seven miles later I left A.S. 7 in 10th place.
Part 4 (Mile 46 – 66.6)
With about 20 miles to go I was in position to get a vest, I was feeling pretty good overall, and my nutrition plan was back on track. I could get in Perpeteum before it froze, and my gels were going in on schedule. I was starting to feel some significant pains, though, that weren’t just normal soreness or fatigue, and the risk/return of trying to move up much further didn’t seem very good to me. I moved up one more spot to 9th to give myself some insurance, and then dialed it back. This section of the course also had some incredible views, and it was nice to relax a bit and enjoy them.
I coasted along for a while before using my insurance with about 8 miles to go for someone who had done similarly to me and come back out of nowhere. At that point I was experiencing significant pain on the top of my right foot, and after a few miles I let him go and just kept a constant watch over my shoulder for anyone else approaching. I held on to 10th and crossed the finish line in 12:45.
It would have been nice to run a strong, complete race, but coming back that much from such a huge low was one of the most gratifying, confidence-building finishes I’ve ever had. Achievement can often taste sweetest as a chaser for failure. It was also a great race in a beautiful area. I love the concept of the midnight start and even having it in December. I just wish I had been better prepared for the cold. The race organizers were great, and the aid station workers were absolute super heroes: working diligently every time to thaw my water bottle and get me what I needed before I even knew I needed it.
The race also taught me some important lessons, the foremost being to not let the nutrition plan slip and to have good contingency plans in place for when something like weather does interfere with it. I also learned that I’ll never do two races as demanding as JFK and Hellgate that close together. I’ve seen some people be able to do things like that fairly well, but I think I clearly don’t possess those recovery powers. The issue with my foot actually kept me from running for close to two weeks after Hellgate. My next race (2017 TWOT 100) was over two months away, though, so I had some time to relax, (hopefully) sleep, and stay warm in my new Patagonia vest.
And of course preparing for the next race started with rewarding my body for this one. When I was doing my undergrad at NC State I basically lived off of Bojangles’ (half the inspiration for the KrispyBo) and Cook-Out (yes I’ve had every shake flavor… plus a few hundred combinations. Any shake is always made even better by the addition of Oreo. Trust me on this one). Unfortunately since leaving Raleigh neither of those places has been close to where I’ve lived, so any time I head back down south my radar always has a lock on the nearest one. It’s usually a tough call, deciding which one to go with. In this situation, though, the appropriate answer seemed to be “both.”