My Time at Hellgate

As I toed the line at midnight I felt a blend of giddiness, fear, and dread.  A really strong inner voice was giving me the old “Joe, what did you get yourself into?”  Did I really belong with all these fast people?  I had been thinking about Hellgate 100k since my first ultramarathon in 2007.  On some ultra forum I read snippets of a race in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with a cult following, with a race director with his own cult following  -- a gifted runner in his own right – but with a blend of sadism which can be seen in the names of two of the races he started:  Mountain Masochist and Hellgate.  What other race has a midnight start (he says it is so everyone – even the top runners—have to run the same amount in the dark), crazy climbs and descents, knee deep water crossings when a bridge is handy, some of the nastiest rocky single-track covered with a foot of leaves,  and … well, you get the idea!  When I asked my brother, who lives in DC, about the area of western Virginia, he replied to the effect:  “those are some real rednecks down there  -- are you sure you know what you are doing?”  Midnight start?  Possible snow and ice?  Wet feet the whole time?  Winter temps?  Crazed RD?  Bring it on!  What is more kick-ass than that?

The good news is I thought my training was solid.  No major injuries for 6 months and steady 50-80 mile weeks with a number of races from a Turkey Trot 5 mile to two 50 mile ultras, the last being Door County 50, 7 weeks before, all on road.  If I have a strong point it is my climbing so why not use my training and my strengths to tackle a really tough course in a race with maniacal following? 

Unfortunately my legs had been feeling really “dead” for the last few weeks.  With Hellgate looming I knew I needed to rest more so I only ran two times the last week before the race.  By race day I was feeling pretty well rested and up to the challenge, though sort of scared shitless.

Since the weather is always iffy flying out of Marquette I felt obliged to arrive a day early.  I flew into Richmond, pleased with myself until I realized later there is a direct flight from  Chicago to Roanoke.  The great news is I took a detour on the way and saw the home of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the cotton gin.  I stayed in some cheap motel off exit 150 and ate at Cracker Barrel, a restaurant/knickknack store with decent food but unfortunately no alcohol – bit of a letdown there.  Oh well, back to my motel room with an eye on the Weather Channel, the weather looked like it was going to be outstanding but the recent rains meant the rivers/creeks/gullies would be full of runoff.

Friday morning I arrived at Camp Bethel and met up with a group from Wisconsin that had arrived the night before.  They were led by Robert Wehner (veteran of several Hellgates – and a RD of several ultras in Wisconsin), also with Marcel (and crew/wife or girlfriend Jodie), Sean (and girlfriend Cassie Scallon –an excellent runner coming off a  spectacular win at JFK.  Cassie got a GI bug on the drive to Virginia and didn’t start the race.), and Brad B, a veteran of the race as well.  We took a walk for an hour or so on the trail and Robert gave me his take on the course and a description of the legs.  Spent the evening hours at bib pick-up where my low-grade anxiety ratcheted up when I realized I was given bib #137.  It seems Dr. Horton seeds the racers based on past performance and his perception of how you will do in the race.  Many runners feel their race is successful if they “beat” their seed number!  And so now I’m seeded 137 out of 140 runners!  Oh well, doesn’t mean a thing, he probably didn’t know where to put me.  Still I was a little miffed ….. but also a little concerned – maybe he is right?

Met a few other runners who are Race Directors themselves (as am I).  Hmmmm…. Is Hellgate the race that Race Directors run?

After a family-style meal of lasagna, spaghetti, bread, salad, vegetables, and cupcakes we had an orientation meeting where Dr. Horton gave last minute instructions and embarrassed a few people.  All in good fun!  He also introduced Clark Zealand, a very fast guy, who has taken over RD of Mountain Masochist the last few years.  Now we had a couple of hours to get our stuff ready for the race.  Robert, the designated boss of our dorm room, enforced a no lights on rule from 8:30pm to 10pm during which I think a few runners actually slept but most of us just rested with our eyes closed.  I might have dozed a few minutes.  Then it was lights on and a scramble to put on my tights and make sure my hydration system was full and drop bags ready.

Caravan to the start in multiple cars/vans/trucks driving up Highway 81. Weird experience  on a near deserted interstate.  Finally pulled off to the start with 15 minutes to start.  It was cold just standing around but some were wearing shorts.  Probably about 30 degrees or so.  I wore some clear glasses – afraid of “Hellgate eyes” (frozen corneas) that had occurred to racers in the past (in colder and windier races).  With a few minutes to go we had a prayer by Dr. Horton, then the Star-Spangled Banner, then the Canadian anthem (Oh Canada?).  Now the start.

The pace was fast from the beginning.  I was probably about a third of the way back and people were running much faster than I expected and what I’ve experienced in other ultras.  I kept up, but didn’t pass anyone, just kind of holding steady.  We went up and down a few little 20 second climbs or so.  I passed a few people that were breathing pretty hard for the first few miles of an ultra – they needed to slow down.  Through the creek crossing that was knee deep, with a pretty fast current, and quite rocky and hard to keep my balance.  A few people partly fell in the water – didn’t want to do that! Then through the aid station and the REAL start of the race – the climb to Petite’s Gap.  All uphill.  There were a couple of switchbacks that you could see the head lights behind and below you.  Above was the moon and I turned my lights off.  Also up high, way up high, those aren’t stars but headlights of the leaders WAY above up and traversing the  ridge.  This was walk/run.  Probably one third fast hiking and two thirds trotting.  Passed a handful of runners on this section and the race began to really spread out.

After Petite’s Gap we crossed the parkway and descended on a slightly rocky single-track which changed into a two track.  More single-track and some off-camber technical trail followed.  Perfect.  Eventually another major climb (1500 feet or so) up to Camping Gap, and the third aid station.  The next leg to Headforemost Mountain was billed at the longest, highest, and coldest, and lived up to all three of those superlatives.  A lot of climbing, single-track, and gravel road.  Luckily, I had my ipod nano with me and jammed to Steely Dan, Tom Petty, Todd Rundgren, and the Who.  I ran a lot of this alone in the woods; but on the climb to Headforemost Mountain I passed a few more runners.  Came into the aid station and loaded up on more gels and had a couple of cookies.  My stomach was still Ok, and I wasn’t too tired yet.  This was about the one third mark.

The elevation profile shows the next section to Jenning’s Creek as mostly downhill but it isn’t necessarily a cakewalk.  There was some significant up and some sketchy single-track followed by a long downhill that was really starting to tweak my knee.  Sometimes it would hurt quite a bit, then become quiescent.  Jenning’s Creak volunteers cook breakfast but I was feeling good and didn’t even stop at the aid station.  I had plenty of fluids, and some gels, and was feeling pretty good for the long climbs ahead to Little Cove Mountain which was a little past halfway.

Imagine my surprise when I cruised into the Little Cove Mountain Aid station to find only about 5 people lounging around a fire.  The time was exactly 7 hours, and my body was starting to really feel the effects of the race.  I felt like I should be about done but still had 31 miles to go.  Sitting around the fire I found Dr. Horton who asked how I was doing.  I told him I was pretty shot but still had a little fight in me.  That’s when he told me I was in 11th place, and I couldn’t believe it!   Still I was barely hanging in there.  I knew I couldn’t go any faster and he told me that I just needed to maintain my effort and some runners in front of me might falter.  Top ten was within my grasp!

With that motivation I cruised out of the aid station to start a really long (8 mile) nasty section which started on a pretty nice fire road but quickly deteriorated into a single-track with plenty of steep uphills, rocks, and off-camber trail.  There is a section with shin-deep leaves and rocks.  Some parts, even level, were essentially unrunnable for hundreds of yards because of all the rocks hidden on the trail under the leaves.  Tight switchbacks led up and downhill, some in better shape than others.  This was a pretty slow section due to terrain, and eventually it emptied out onto another fire road with a decent (hike) climb to Bearwallow Gap.

At the Bearwallow Gap aid station I made the only serious mistake of the race.  I changed my hydration pack and neglected to take out my patellar knee brace out of the old pack.  I really needed the brace after that and started to have more and more knee pain for the next 23 miles.  I was now at about 43 miles.  I left my lights at the aid station.  I had a full hydration pack and some gels but my stomach was getting queasy.  I wasn’t able to take in my desired 300 calories/hour that was my goal.  Probably only able to take in 100-150 calories/hour for the rest of the race.  The next section didn’t have lots of climbing but had a lot of single-track which ran in and out of the ridgeline.  There were many small gullies and creekcrossings which were full of water from the recent rains.  Sometimes I could hop over the water, but more often was forced to splash right through a number of times.  My knee was hurting so I pulled the waist string out of my tights and wrapped it tightly around my lower patella and tied it and that seemed to help but it kept slipping down and I had to stop and retie it often.  I was still able to run most of this section.  In the last two sections I passed one or two runners.  I felt faint and woozy at times.  A couple of times I almost vomited.   Bobblet’s Gap was the next aid station.

After Bobblet’s Gap is 8 miles to Day’s Creek.  This starts with about a 2 or 3 mile downhill which was hard on my knee but I was able to run at a pretty good clip.  Then it was a sharp right turn into the nasty single-track again.  (Some runners missed this turn but it was easy to see.)   This trail was up, and down requiring some serious hiking.  At one point it actually went up a creek bed and I had to jump from bank to bank.  I thought I was making decent time when Helen Lavin came screaming by me.  She was running a lot more of the hills than I was.  Two things I remember about her other than she was going much faster:   she had some sort of a long-sleeved parka or coat on which I thought would be really hot (I was sweating at this point in a long sleeved technical shirt with the sleeves pushed up; and she said “hi Joe” but I don’t think she knows who I am – maybe she said “how’s it going”?  In any case in my sorry mental state I spent sometime perseverating about that.  Did she say “hi Joe”? or did she say something completely different?    Just at the end of the section, as we ran into Day’s Creek, I was passed by the same guy that passed me, like, 15 miles ago.  Turns out he made about a 15 minute wrong turn on an earlier section and was now making up for lost time.

After Day’s Creek I knew I could finish OK the last 6 miles.  The climb out I walked the whole thing and got to the top in about 41 minutes.  The run down to Camp Bethel was slow partly due to my knee and partly because my legs were trashed.  I was passed by Micah Jackson just as we were onto the gravel road.  I did the last section in, I think,  about 70 minutes.  Horton gave me a big hug and I was surprised to finish in (just) under  13 hours.

Aftermath:  Now, 9 days later, my legs are just getting back to normal.  My quads are still slightly sore.   My knee is better but still tweaky.   Overall, I recovered pretty well, and I’m back to 6-8 mile days.  I loved this race and will do it again if my body lets me.  The weather was perfect this year.  I’m sure it would be a lot harder with the snow and ice of previous years.

Joe Jameson