The day Hell froze over: Running the Hellgate 100k
After two failed attempts at finishing the infamous Mountain Masochist (2004
due to a hamstring injury and 2005, a bad banana experience) this was a
challenge that I really did not want to take. In preparation for the
Masochist, I had put in the miles and had done the work only to make the
unfortunate decision to DNF. This 0 for 2 had an impact on my confidence,
and the day of the second DNF, I decided that I did not want to hear about
another ultra race. In my mind, Hellgate was completely out of the question.
Two weeks later, I was fending off questions from good friends about whether
I was going to run Hellgate. My answer was “it depends on when you ask me.”
I talked to my wife about it, and finally, I think she got tired of my
flip-flopping and told me that if I wanted to do it, to go ahead but I had
to finish. So, a few days later, I sent my application.
Most of the training leading up to Hellgate was done with two good running
friends, Chris Palladino and Cat Phillips. Chris was returning from a knee
injury and decided to run the race with me. Cat was also running the race,
and having won the first Hellgate, she knew what was in store for us. She
was able to give us some great tips.
At 8 p.m. on December 9th, Cat, Chris and I found ourselves driving from
Lynchburg to Camp Bethel. We arrived to find the majority of the runners
just relaxing before the race. Conditions outside were not ideal due to the
snow and ice that had settled on the ground. I began to wonder how I was
going to avoid slipping on the ice. Fortunately, Cat had brought an extra
pair of yaktraks which I would later discover were heaven-sent. While
waiting to be taken to the start, Josh Yeoman gave me a banana as a reminder
of my previous ultra experience.
The race started after Dr. Horton prayed and someone led in the singing of
the national anthem. This was a really special moment for me since this was
my first race as a United States citizen. I was born in Bolivia but came as
a student almost 15 years ago. So off we went on our adventure …
The first few miles went rather quickly. I had told myself that I did not
want to look at my watch if I could help it. This would help me take my mind
off the pressure of some self-imposed deadline and just enjoy running. I
warmed up quickly to the point that I had to remove my jacket. However, I
put it back on after we left aid station 1 since I got too cold after I took
a brief break.
The uphill running up to aid station 2 was a good indicator of what was to
come. Footing was OK for me, but Chris, who did not have Yaktrax had a more
difficult time and was sliding from time to time. The views from the
mountain were spectacularly indescribable. After a long climb, we reached
aid station 2. We refueled and headed out to the next aid station.
Unfortunately, we did not see the chem lights since the lights from some of
the cars most likely masked them. After running, for about 4 minutes Chris
said that we were not going on the right track. So, we headed back up the
road again and found the chem lights. Cat had warned us that this next
section was tough section, and she did not exaggerate. Running downhill on
top of rocks covered with ice caused it to be difficult to go as fast as we
would have liked throughout this section. The road up to aid station 3 had a
few patches of ice that proved treacherous more than once.
At aid station 3, I grabbed a potato which was absolutely delicious. The aid
station workers were outstanding. We left that aid station knowing that the
next aid station had our drop bags. On the way up the mountain we met two
other runners (Dave Bursler and Morgan(?)), and Chris suggested we run with
them until next aid station. Dave, an experienced ultra runner, was always
encouraging and giving words of advice. In 2004, he also helped Chris
through a rough part during the Masochist. The footing was so slippery that
Chris, Dave and Morgan piled up. I was a few yards behind them so I had time
to stop. We knew that the drop bag station was coming up.
We got to aid station 4 grabbed a couple things from our bags, drank soup,
and then we were off again. We knew that the first 20+ miles were the
toughest, so we were sort of glad that part was over. On our way to the
“breakfast” station, we passed a few people. I was feeling OK, but Chris’s
knee started to bother him a little. The gourmet breakfast we were served
was awesome. Dr. Horton reminded me that I had to finish and Chris responded
by saying that he was going to make sure that happened.
The way to the next aid station was up a road covered with ice/snow. It was
a nice break for a change. At the next station, we were hoping to see our
crew. The road made Chris’s knee feel a little better, but for the first
time during the race, he mentioned that his knee might force him to stop.
The only thing I could do was to go one station at a time. Deep inside me, I
was hoping I didn’t have to run the rest of the race by myself. We knew were
very close to aid station 6, when we saw Jeff and Mark, our crew. They got
to see the front runners and told us that Cat was in lead with the second
women a few seconds behind her. We left our headlamps there and loaded up
with food and other essentials.
The next section was a little tricky with roads and single track. We walked
a few single track trails mainly because it was hard to run on them. Where
we could run, we would run, and where we couldn’t, we would just walk but
always tried to keep moving. That seemed to be the key. To keep my mind
occupied, I tried to guess what my wife and kids were doing at that time. I
had promised my wife that I would finish, and I was going to keep that
We got to aid station 7, and that’s when finishing the race started to look
like it was a real possibility. My legs were fine, but my back was getting
sore with every uphill stretch. At this aid station, I had a cheeseburger
with a Mountain Dew courtesy of the aid station workers. Not wanting to stay
too long, we headed out again. We were warned that this next section was
We passed a few more runners in this section. Some of them looked like they
were really struggling, and I couldn’t blame them. I was hoping they could
find enough energy to finish. After a single track of up and downs, we
reached a road that led us to aid station 8. Unfortunately, our crew was not
able to access this aid station. I was able to refill my drink bottles but
unfortunately did not grab food. We headed out to aid station 9 knowing that
we were getting close. Neil Bryant who was helping at this aid station told
us that it was a little longer to the next station than was promised.
Something about Horton miles that you love to hate…
On our way to the last aid station, I began to feel fatigued and my body
started to run out of energy. I had a little hammer gel (by this time I was
getting sick of liquid food) and very little water and conquest left.
Missing a turn (thanks to Chris again for noticing) on the way down the road
after leaving aid station 8 didn’t help either since we had to turn around
and go back to find the trail again. This section seemed to go on forever. I
told Chris that I was struggling and the length of the race started to hit
me like a brick. I knew that I needed to eat something, but I didn’t have
anything. Then suddenly, we saw Mark one of our crew members, not a moment
too soon. Mark asked me if I was OK, and I told him that I needed food
badly. He said that he had a cookie which I gladly ate. Mark also told us
that when he got to aid station 9, our wives and kids were there waiting for
us. That energized us to keep on going. Seeing my wife and kids were all
that I needed to know that I was going to make it after all. One of the aid
station workers gave me soup and a potato which helped my body regain enough
energy to get back on the trail for that last leg. After finishing up the
food and refilling our drink bottles, I told Chris that we needed to keep
moving so we could finish.
We walked up the 3 miles to the top of the mountain. Once we reached the
top, we high-fived each other knowing that we only had 3 miles downhill to
go. The way downhill, I could hardly contain my excitement knowing that I
was only a few minutes from finishing up the hardest race I had ever done.
Seeing my wife and kids at the finish was great. Dr. Horton shook my hand
and gave me a hug. I asked him if I had gained his respect after two failed
attempts at the Masochist, and he quickly said yes. Dr. Horton was my
college professor, and I remember hearing about the amazing races he had
run. I thought he was crazy, but like many of us who have crossed his path
before, he has a particular way of hooking you into his races.
I finished, and even though right now I am in pain, the satisfaction of
finishing Hellgate is great. Thanks to Dr. Horton for putting an amazing
race (after Hellgate the Masochist “seems” like a piece of cake!). A big
thank you to all the aid station workers and the other volunteers. Thanks,
Cat for the yaktraks (they were butt savers). I can’t thank Chris enough for
sticking with me from start to finish and to my amazing crew, Mark and Jeff
who were there right when I needed them. Thanks to my wife for supporting me
in this crazy adventure. And finally, the most thanks goes to God for giving
my body and mind all it needed to finish the race.
Will I do it again? My wife has already put the event on the calendar even
though I haven’t said yes…yet.