Through Hell and Back.


The 2nd annual Hellgate 100K was held December 11th, starting at 12:01 am.  The point-to-point course roughly followed the Hellgate horse trail through the mountains of eastern Virginia , near where the Appalachian trail travels.  None of the 86 of us at the start line had thought to bring a horse though, so we had to get back to Camp Bethel on our own 2 feet.


Everyone knew going in that this was a tough 100K, both because of the terrain, and because nobody believed it was only 62 miles long (a common theme of David Hortonís races).  A number of runners had a GPS unit, and after the race the consensus was about 66.7 miles, with 12,700 feet of climb and 12,800 of elevation drop.  We lucked out with the weather, with temps in the 40s and little to no precipitation.  A number of the aid stations are located at high points of the course, and it did get cold and windy up there.  Thanks to all of the volunteers who braved those conditions (although the campfires at some of the aid stations looked very cozy).


The course was a combination of single track and old roads, with surfaces of grass, gravel, and rocks (lots of rocks).  One of the good things about the wider sections is that they allowed you to run (or walk) side-by-side with another runner, and converse without having to look back (and then fall).  There were very few flat sections, and you were usually going up or down, sometimes for 3 or 4 miles at a time.  There are many stream/creek crossings, but they are all short.  At most of them, you can rock hop across (carefully), but at some, you had to step in.


From the start to aid station #1 was some fairly easy typical trail running, just the thing to get you going.  AS1 to AS2 could also be thought of as easy (since it was on a fairly smooth gravel road), except that it was all uphill for 4 miles, with 1,200í of elevation gain.  While many ultra-runners tend to walk the uphills, at this point everyone seemed to be feeling good, and nobody wanted to slow down.


After leaving AS2, you started a long downhill on a grassy road, and it was here that I got off course for the first (and last) time.  Near the bottom of the hill I came to a gate, and did not find any streamers, glow lights, or arrows.  Looking back up the hill (way up the hill), I could make out some glow lights branching off to 1 side; I had missed a turn.  With a bit of mumbling, I trudged back up the hill and picked up the correct path.  While I may have lost a few minutes there, it did teach me to pay closer attention to where I was going, and I didnít go off course the rest of the day (the course was well marked).


This was the first of 2 usually negative things that probably ended up being positives.  Just before the next section of rocky single track emptied onto an uphill road section, I caught a toe on a rock and went down.  After stepping out onto the road, I took a minute to brush myself off, and the runner that had been a little ways behind caught up, and we headed up the road together.  It was Bethany Hunter (now Patterson), and I was a bit surprised to be running along side a more accomplished (and well known) runner.  It wasn't planned, but we ended up doing most of the rest of the race together, occasionally being joined by Scott Gala and Sally Brooking.


In other races I've done, there have always been sections where you meet up with someone for a while, but you usually end up separating again.  There are so many individual variables, that it could be hard to do an ultra with someone else unless it was planned in advance, and even that probably doesn't always work out.  There is no way to know for sure, but I don't think I would have done as well if I had not had the chance to spent most of the race with Bethany .


The night portion of the race is a bit of a blur, as you really had to stay focused on the trail and the markings, but there are some sections that stand out.  About halfway between AS4 and AS5 you started downhill on a rocky, rooty, narrow single track that required intense concentration.  After 2 miles of this, the trail emptied out onto a wider grassy road, but continued down for another 2 miles.  It was a big relief to finally reach the bottom and the aid station.  They had hot soup here, which went down well ( Bethany opted to try a twinkie).


Between AS5 and AS6, the sky started to lighten up as dawn approached.  Somewhere in this section was the halfway point, but it still felt that there was a long ways to go.  Our spirits were lifted during a long single track section that we flew down, and after another long uphill climb, we found ourselves at AS6.


The next section was 8 miles long, and advertised as the second toughest section.  A couple of miles of the trail cut across the side of a hill, with the trail filled in with leaves.  This wouldnít have been so bad, except that this section was also very rocky.  Even with the daylight, it was nearly impossible to run this section, and you had to carefully pick your way through the rocks.  Near the end of this stretch, my feet were starting to feel raw, but fortunately they settled down after we got past it.


David Horton was at AS7 when we pulled in, and I suggested that the next time they marked the course, they should take some leaf blowers with them.  It seemed reasonable to me, but somehow I donít think it will happen.  The section from AS7 to AS8 was very scenic, as you followed the contour on the side of the mountain, and had incredible views of the valley below.  You ended up with another long climb to AS8, and at this point, finishing started to seem feasible.


There was a long downhill after this aid station, and the downhills were starting to hurt.  I hate to admit it, but I started to look forward to the uphills (and the opportunity to walk).  I reached AS9 at about 13:20, so I knew that a sub-15 hour time was possible.  At no point did I ever check my place at an aid station, and all I could think about now was getting it over with (thatís pretty typical in an ultra, isnít it?).


The last section was basically 3 miles up and then 3 miles down, and those last 3 miles really hurt.  Hats off to Roy Heger, who caught me just 1 mile from the finish ( Roy said he was REALLY hungry).  I finished in 14:38, good for 14th, with Bethany and Byron Backer close behind.  Will I be back?  Why certainly, and I did tell David Horton that I would try to bring another Wisconsinite next time.  So, who wants to go to Hell?


Robert Wehner