This report is in response to David Hortonís request for race reports, particularly from Hellgate first-timers. Iím as much of a first-timer as you can get, since this was my first Hellgate, as well as my first official race entry of any distance--I decided to write down some thoughts on my first real ultra, as much to aid my memory in the years to come as to share with anyone else. . . .
I read everything I could about the Hellgate course and the overwhelming sentiment that I heard prior to entering was that itís a very difficult course, made more-so by the midnight start-time, and tight cutoffs. It is not to be taken lightly. I was battling the cutoffs before the race even began, as I arrived late at the Camp Bethel dining room to get some dinner, just as everyone else moved to the bunkhouse building to prepare for the pre-race briefing--Last place already!! Hopefully not a sign of things to come!! I made it in time for the briefing after getting as much food into my nervous stomach as I felt that I safely could. I donít think I was the only one with a healthy dose of dread mixed in with my excitement during the pre-race briefing. I could only guess at my chances of finishing under the 18-hour cutoff, but felt as though my chances were 50-50 under the best of conditions. However, the area had received 1Ē of ice the day before the race on top of several inches of earlier snow. David warned us that vehicle travel was very treacherous on many of the roads around the course and to be prepared for the possibility that certain aid stations might not be there. Poor footing was virtually a guarantee. With just a few hours prior to the start time, my chances of becoming an ďofficialĒ under-18 hr finisher were starting to feel very slim. Before laying down in the congested gathering room at Camp Bethel to vainly attempt a few minutes of sleep, I went to my car to attach sheet metal screws to my shoes.
The midnight start allows runners to be fairly fresh during the nighttime sections, but also allowed all day for my anxiety to build. As a rookie, I was absolutely intimidated, surrounded by all the seasoned, organized runners from the pre-race briefing, right up to waiting for the countdown to 12:01 and the start of the race in the icy parking lot. Talking with Dave Bursler in the van on the way to the start was a welcome diversion. Arriving at the trailhead, the night was clear and beautiful. I was fortunate to see a shooting star while waiting to begin -- Iím sure I would have seen many more, but for the careful attention that the slick trails would require. Finally after group-singing the national anthem and a word of prayer, the countdown came and we were off!
Iím amazed at the details which other runners seem to recall in their reports from previous years. Probably due to my unfamiliarity with the course, my memory of what-happened-where is somewhat vague. I recall the section before the first cutoff (22 miles) was predominated by very long, not too steep climbs with footing varying between below average and poor. I had a real hard time watching what seemed like dozens of runners steadily passing me as I intentionally tried to stay slow over the beginning couple of miles--it didnít feel like a real good start, and I was starting to feel like I was in way over my head. Things settled down a bit, and time passed quickly as I ascended to AS#2 and enjoyed chatting with Quatro Hubbard for a bit. On some of the early climbs it was possible to switch off my light and run by the ligth fo the moon & stars reflecting off the ice & snow--magical! Following AS#2, things eventually got worse, and I was feeling way too weak for being so early in the course. In particular, the ice on a long section between AS#2-3 was in thick, broken chunks strewn over the narrow portion of the road that runners were using. I occasionally ventured outside of the established tracks to see if the unbroked crust would hold me while walking, but it was always too weak, so it was back to the trail that was already broken in. This was a frustrating low-point -- I felt like I was expending a huge amount of energy too early in the race, and not gaining much ground in return. At one particular junction, where I wouldíve missed a turn, I was fortunate to be met by runners returning to the correct trail, without so much as a wasted step on my part--thanks, guys! I did feel fortunate to have relatively sure footing on the icier road sections of the first 22 miles--I credit the sheet metal screws (and, I believe it was Neal Jamisonís advice) for this--I brought the screws and a screwdriver along, undecided whether or not to use them for such a long distance, having never done so before. After seeing the parking lot at Camp Bethel and speaking with Neal, I was convinced to give it a try, and was glad I did, since I saw some other runners who were having some serious trouble with falling on the road sections. Some extended sections of road seemed to have refrozen ice on the surface, which was particularly slick.
For The first 22 miles prior to the first hard cutoff at the Headforemost Mt. aid station, I refused to look at my watch, splits, trail descriptions or elevation profile that I had along--I believe this was good for me, as I would have the rest of the daylight hours to count miles and watch the time.
I was glad to reach Headforemost Mt. (AS#4) 30 minutes ahead of the first hard cutoff, just before first light--I was close to the cutoff, but given the footing over the first six hours, I was very aware that I might not even make it past the first cutoff. I had two cups of soup, which really did the trick, and I began feeling much, much better on the next section. After making it past AS#4 the footing improved substantially, in my opinion--no more loose ice ďscreeĒ, and there was a nice break from the bigger climbs. I was probably half-way through the course when I realized that I might still have a decent chance of finishing under 18 hrs if nothing bad happened and my body didnít give out--this day would be my first time going over 50 miles, so that was a bit of an unknown. This allowed me to continue at a steady, comfortable pace. In fact, the middle third of the course was about as relaxed as I think Iíve ever been on the trail--very comfortable. I passed several others on the climbs, and felt like I was making good progress. The hours slipped away with no real discomfort. Being unfamiliar with the course again helped me to keep my watch under my sleeve and, for the most part, forget about hurrying, getting impatient, or competing against anything but the trail. For several hours during this period I ran with Kerry Owens, at times passing one another, at times close by, but never too far apart. She was moving so (seemingly) effortlessly, I knew she would eventually leave me in the dust, which happened shortly before AS#7, and went on to finish strong.
Just prior to reaching the Bearwallow Gap AS (#7)and beginning the last third of the course, I became very lightheaded and weak despite the gel, fruit bars, Conquest, and salt I had been taking in steadily. Fortunately I only had to continue like this for about 15 minutes before reaching the AS around 45 minutes ahead of the second hard cutoff. I was in luck--the volunteers had real food, which was just what I needed. My drop bag was also there, and I was glad to see it even though I didnít take anything from it--in fact, I ran with the exact same clothing night and day, with the exception of changing into some lighter-weight gloves soon after dawn, and tying my windbreaker around my waist once in a while. I downed a hamburger and a hot dog, and continued, slowing down for awhile to keep my stomach from getting too upset with me, and within 15 minutes I was feeling much better. The seven miles between AS#7 and 8 went by seemingly in an instant, even though I know I was moving fairly slow. At this point I was confident of finishing and making the final cutoff, and thought I could project my final time, provided I could stay alert enough to follow the (very well-marked) trail to the finish. What I failed to remember was the ďbonus milesĒ that others had talked about between AS#8-9. It is either longer than advertised, very slow, or both. That section took a good 45 minutes longer than I had projected, despite normally knowing pretty well what pace Iím moving along at. This was the most disheartening portion of the race, and Iím just greatful that I had plenty of time to finish--I hadnít pushed myself much during this or the previous section--If I had missed the cutoff by a few minutes because of this, I would have been totally demoralized. I finally reached AS#9 after seeing mirages of it through the trees for the previous half-hour. I drank and chatted with the friendly guys there for a minute before heading up what would at long last be the final climb of the day. I climbed slowly, but soon enough reached the Blue Ridge Parkway, crossed over and began the descent on icy gravel road to Camp Bethel. I felt well enough to run in, albeit slowly, most of the last three miles to the finish, passing three others during that span, with some more slick ice to contend with. I followed the orange flags to the painted finish line, and was greeted with a Horton Handshake. Finally inside, I did some lackadaisical stretching, showered, downed a great bowl of chili, and picked up my new favorite shirt--the Patagonia long-sleeved finishers shirt. I made a rather hasty exit after the awards were presented, since I felt awake enough to make the hour and a half drive north to home, as long as I didnít get too relaxed beforehand.
For me, this was a tough event, and I felt fortunate that I felt good and nothing significant went wrong to slow me down. I was completely impressed with the organization and hard work that mustíve gone into putting Hellgate into motion, especially considering the many impassable roads and icy conditions--Many thanks to David and the volunteers. The aid was a big boost, as it is something Iím unaccostomed to--I wish I couldíve spent more time grazing at the aid stations, but knew I needed to keep moving, and so spent a total of maybe 25 minutes total at the 9 stations. The course ran tough with all of the ice and snow, and Iím interested in seeing how it would be without ice to contend with--I imagine it would be significantly easier in some sections, and more difficult in others. Footing required lots of attention, but I managed to not fall over the entire distance. The majority of the big climbs on the course are on fire/gravel roads, and so none are terribly steep, however they are long, and the cumulative effect of the climbing plus the distance made for a real tough day for me. I was elated to finally cross that finish line just after 5 pm on Saturday after 17+ hours of running and being awake for the previous ~34 hours. Overall, this was a great test, under some difficult conditions, and I was pleased to have been a part of it.
My training/experience compared to real ultra-runners (which I donít really consider myself) probably sounds like a joke--maybe 25 miles in a good week, and Iíd never even put my money down to run in any event prior to this yearís Hellgate--no marathons, no 5Kís--nothiní. In fact, seven months before Hellgate was the first time Iíd ever run consistently in my life. However, what I did have in my favor was that most of my training has been pretty specific, since I tend to seek out tough single-track trails with big climbs, and always going as fast as I can so as to take as little time away from my family as possible. I bike some, and take the occasional hike with my 35 lb. two year old in the backpack. Completing 2 loops at The Wild Oak Trail (TWOT-50 miles, 16000í C&D) this fall has been my only other time going above 25 miles, and was probably the most important factor in my reaching a sub-18 hour finish at Hellgate.
By the way, hereís my plug for TWOT: For the right people with the right expectations this is an amazing, no-frills, unsupported, tough, beautiful, sometimes painful, worthwhile, minimally marked course. There are 25 and 34 miles loops and you can do as many as you want. If you want a tremendous challenge Dennis has been setting dates in February and October every year. More info at: http://www.vhtrc.org/events/twot100.htm
A final thanks to all who made this the wonderful experience that it was for me, including David, the countless dedicated & cheerful volunteers, other runners that I crossed paths with, and my supportive family.