BY:   David Horton

The word that I and many others use to describe Hellgate is SPECIAL.  And you’d have to be there and participate to know exactly how special!   The pre-race, post-race, and finish line are at Camp Bethel, outside Fincastle, VA.  The event starts off Friday with a wonderful pasta meal prepared by a real chef, and then we adjourn to another building for the pre-race briefing and to prepare for the 12:01 a.m. start.  Many anxious runners were awaiting this meeting with much trepidation. 

The talk was centered around what to wear, as we had several inches of snow the previous weekend and the forecast for the upcoming night was extremely COLD.   Our record low for the race has been 11 degrees, but there was discussion of the possibility that it might reach single digits.  Fortunately, it did not, but it was still a recorded low of 16 degrees.  It was very cold for the aid station workers and race director, but not too bad for the runners.  We did have issues with fruit and fluids freezing if they were left out too long, and some runners had camel packs and water bottles freeze as well. 

One of the problems we have had in previous years was frozen corneas.  Dr. George Wortley, our medical director, was working with some other doctors and testing eyes before and after the race.   They hope to publish the article in a professional journal.  They are calling this phenonmon, “Hellgate Eyes.”  Many of the runners from past years have learned their lesson and wore protective glasses/goggles . . . which resulted in only two runners enduring the dreaded Hellgate Eyes this year.   Maybe it just wasn’t cold enough!

Hellgate is also the final event in the Beast, a six-race series that Clark Zealand and I organize in the Central Virginia area.   The first three races in the spring are 50K’s and then there is the Grindstone 100 in October and the MMTR 50 in November.  The spring ultras are just a warm-up for the fall.  There were 23 men and 2 ladies vying for the 15-pound Beast Award ( a bear on a marble base ) with a finish at Hellgate.  All the men finished Hellgate under the 18 hour time limit.  One of the ladies was unable to run: therefore, Dorothy Hunter (Cary, NC) became the only female finisher of the Beast Series in 2009.   Chris Miller was the overall winner of the Beast Series placing very high in all 6 Beast events.

We had our largest starting field ever, 116 with 29 of those being females, also a record. I will continue to limit Hellgate to 100 runners and then later have a drawing for the additional slots.  Those runners who are in the Beast will continue to have first crack at entering Hellgate, followed by previous several time Hellgate finishers.  Transporting runners, drop bags, pre- and post-race facilities warrant keeping it small to maintain the intimacy and family-like environment.  Unfortunately, there were many runners turned away this year.  I want to continue seeing those who have run Hellgate many times, but I also want to see an infusion of new blood every year.

We had one snow and many inches of rain in December this year.  As a result, the streams on the Devil Trail section and the Forever section were beat down the most ever for Hellgate.  However, the streams were really flowing, so there went any hope of keeping dry feet.

One of the major challenges of Hellgate is marking the 66.6 mile course, oops I meant 62.2 mile course.    We marked much of the course the previous Saturday to the race.  Marking continued on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of race week.  The chem light crew was headed up by Donna (Easy) Elder and Jeremy Ramsey.  Jeremy won the race in 2008, but he was unable to run this year due to foot problems.   They marked from 8:00 p.m. on Friday night until the wee hours of Saturday morning. 

There was a very strong men’s field with previous winners Sean Andrish (Leesburg, VA) and Aaron Schwartzbard (Reston, VA) vying for their second Hellgate win.  No runner has ever won it more than once.  There were many other runners with very good running credentials as well.  A similar story was also in the women’s field.  Last year Donna Utakis (Amherst, MA) won.  A few years back, Justine Morrison (Washington, DC) had won.  A rising young star by the name of Helen Lavin (Minneapolis, MN) was also hoping to do well.  Denise Rispolie and Audrey Kelly (two young ladies from Toronto) were also intent on improving their second-place finish in the 2008 Hellgate.

As expected, Andrish went to the front, but he was shadowed by Chris Reed  (Allentown, PA) and Thomas Williams (Clinton, CT).  By Aid Station 2 (AS 2), Andrish had a 2-minute lead on Williams and 3 minutes on Reed.   By AS 5 (27.6 miles) Andrish had increased his lead to 17 minutes over Reed and 20 minutes over Williams.   It was still a 17-minute lead for Andrish at the last AS (Day Creek, 56.1 miles).

Andrish went on to take the overall win with a time of 12:16: 23 (the first to win Hellgate twice).  Andrish was also the masters winner . . . it’s hard to believe he’s a masters runner.   Reed took second, closing the gap on Andrish, with a time of 12:24:22.   Keith Knipling (Alexandria, VA) came on strong (as he usually does) to edge out Williams for third with a time of 12:53:05, and Williams came in fourth in 12:53:50.   Jordan Chang ran a PR to take fifth in 13:05:30.  One of the biggest surprises was the sixth place finisher, Micah Jackson.  Micah is a local runner who really just started training hard this year, surprised himself and me by finishing in a very good time of 13:07:38.  Earlier, he said that someday he hoped he could finish in the top 10 of some ultra . . . goal achieved.

Rispolie and Kelly took the women’s lead from the start and ran as a team.  At AS 4 (21.9 miles) these two had a 12 minute lead over Anderson and a 15 minute lead over Lavin.  Rispolie and Kelly checked into AS 7 (Bearwallow Gap, 42.5 miles) at 9:14 a.m.  Lavin checked in 11 minutes later with Anderson another 3 minutes back.  Lavin had fallen earlier and broke her fall with her nose.   She had blood all down her face, but it didn’t seem to bother her.  She looked like someone had landed a good fist to her nose.

Something must have clicked as Lavin checked into the AS 8 (49.5 miles) with the two Canadian ladies.  She gained an additional 13 minutes on Rispolie by the next aid station.   Lavin cruised on to the finish to win in 13:25:18, with Rispolie 18 minutes behind in second place.  Kelly took third in 13:52:50.  Local runner, Jenny Anderson finished her first race over 50 miles taking fourth in 13:57:28.  With these four female runners finishing under 14 hours, made it the fastest women’s field ever.

The masters winners were Sophie Speidel (Charlottesville, VA) in 14:58:52.  This was also Sophie’s fifth finish receiving the coveted Eagle trophy.   Jerry Turk (Guilford, CT) and Vicki Kendall (Arlington, VA) won the Grand Masters awards in 14:52:54 and 16:26:09 respectively.   Doug Blackford (Todd, NC) and Barbara Isom (Silver Spring, MD) won the Super Masters titles in 17:04:37 and 17:25:24 respectively. 

Prior to this year, there were eight runners who had completed all six Hellgate races.  This year, two of those were not able to participate, but the remaining six runners finished Hellgate again this year: Aaron Schwartzbard, Jerry Turk, Jeffrey Gatstecki, Ryan Henry, Dan Lehmann, and Darrin  Dunham.  How long will these folks continue to finish Hellgate??  Streaks are good things/bad things to get started.

Five runners were going for the Eagle trophy for finishing Hellgate five times.  They were Keith Knipling, Sophie Speidel, Byron Backer, Kerry Owens, and Rick Gray.  All of them finished Hellgate under the 18-hour time limit.

We give out VERY GOOD awards at Hellgate because it is such a tough and special event.   The top ten men and top five women and age group winners received embroidered Patagonia Wool 4 zip tops.  All other male and female finishers received Patagonia Capilene 4 zip tops.  The overall male and female received Patagonia Down Hoody jackets.  Thanks go out to our sponsors, Montrail and Patagonia, for helping us make this a great event.

Another special thing that we do at Hellgate, is offering two “real food” aid stations.  AS 5 (Jennings Creek) finds Rosie Bryant serving breakfast of sausages, bacon, eggs, and pancakes.  Lunch was provided at AS 7 (Bearwallow Gap) by Dan Laslie who served up hamburgers, hot dogs, and soup.  Believe it or not . . . many runners not only eat the real food, but absolutely love it!  Who would have thought it???

And let’s not forget the finish line meal that was waiting as runners, aid crews, family, and friends came into the lodge to get warm after a very long and cold night/day.  Homemade vegetable soup, chili, and an array of meat and cheese trays, along with other goodies disappeared right before our eyes!

If you don’t believe that Hellgate is a special event, go to our website, extremeultrarunning.com and read all the stories from runners who ran this year.   There are already 17 stories.  Also, Robert Wehner,   ninth overall from Hubertus, WI) maintains data from all years and course data for multiple categories.

It’s a good thing that the race was not the previous weekend in which we had a very cold and rainy   Saturday.  It’s a good thing that it wasn’t the following weekend, because the race would probably have been cancelled, as we received 17 inches of snow and probably much more up in the mountains.  God was looking out for us.

The 2010 Hellgate 100K will be held on December   11.  The first race in the 2010 Beast Series will be the 15th Annual Holiday Lake 50K which will be held on February 13.  Happy running in the new decade.