100km Trail Race
Hope All Ye Who Enter Here”
It’s Sunday afternoon, the day after the Hellgate race, and I’ve decided to attempt and capture my thoughts of the experience while they are
still vivid. This account is detailed and I don’t expect anyone to read it but I’m going to lay it all out anyway. I hope it will be of interest to a
few of my friends and family.
First some background on the race. In 2003 Legendary ultradistance runner and race director David Horton added the Hellgate race to the
other 3 races he directs in the Virginia Mountains. Horton’s races, such as the Mountain Masochist 50 miler, are known to be extreme tests
of endurance. For the past few years I had wanted to run in a Horton event but various injuries had kept it from happening. This year I
decided to go for Hellgate. I had read that the race was ridiculously difficult with long and relentless mountain climbs and descents. All
accounts indicated that it was “over the top” even for Horton. So I thought it best to collect as much additional information as I could.
I wanted to be prepared mentally for what was going to happen as well as physically.
· I found that the race was not “exactly” 100km (62.2 miles) but for reasons unknown had been measured at 66.6 miles
(a rather intimidating number when referencing Hell)
· GPS readings showed 26,000 feet of elevation change. (SEE ELEVATION PROFILE)
· It’s a trail race so there is a lot of single track with rocks, side slopes and general lousy footing.
· It’s scheduled in Early December in the Mountains North of Roanoke, Virginia. The weather is unpredictable that time of year but
one thing is certain, it will be cold.
· Mr. Horton also scheduled the race to start at Midnight. That meant we would run with headlamps or flashlights for the first 7.5 hours.
· I learned that there is a major stream crossing a mere 3 miles into the race. There is no bridge and no way around. You go through
and live with the effect of freezing water soaking your feet so early in the race.
· There would be 9 aid stations. A 10k road race would have one every 2 miles but this race through the wilderness could only have
access to the trail once every 6-8 miles. That meant that you had to carry your own water and food with refills coming as infrequently as
2 hour intervals.
· The race has a time limit and two intermediate checkpoints where you can be pulled from the race for being too late
(based on an 18 hour finish). It seems simple enough, the time at the first major checkpoint must be under 6.5 hours and at only 21.5
miles it sounds easy. I would typically run that distance in training in under 2.5 hours. However, I was assured that it is, in fact, NOT
a generous time given the nature of the course. The second major checkpoint (43 miles) must be reached within 12.5 hours.
The field is “limited” to 100 entries and in 2004, with good weather, only 58 entrants received a finisher’s award. Missing a cutoff is
definitely a concern.
· Finally, there would be a couple of runs on the trail to let entrants see parts of the course. Since I’m in Florida that was not an option
for me. I would run the course for the first time on race day.
I knew all of this before I signed up but, as I said earlier, I had wanted to try a Horton race.
Training for the event was difficult due to living in Florida which has none of the features that the race would offer. I had no choice but to
train on flat trails, with good footing, and cold is not available in Central Florida. I hoped that being in good shape would make up for
non-specific training. Everything went as planned for 3 months, then, 3 weeks before the race I got sick while traveling in Texas.
At first, I thought it was good. It would force me to rest and I would avoid the risk of getting sick the week of the race. Unfortunately, it
did not work out at all. I stayed sick for 2 full weeks and as I left for business in North Carolina the Monday before the race I knew I
had something worse than a simple cold. On Tuesday, at the urging of several co-workers, I went into a walk-in urgent care facility in
Boone, NC to see a doctor. I had Bronchitis. Antibiotics and steroids were prescribed and I crossed my fingers that the horrible cough
that had plagued me for over 2 weeks would magically disappear by Friday. Of course, it did not. What I got instead was classic side
effects of antibiotics. You all know what they are and that it’s not good for running (unless you’re running for the bathroom).
I was determined to run the race anyway and proceeded to my hotel in Roanoke Thursday night. Then the storm hit. You all saw
it last week as it slammed the Northeast as far down as the Carolinas. I watched in disbelief from my hotel room window as ice and
snow pounded the area less than 16 hours from race time. The forecast also went bad. Friday night would be 18 degrees and windy.
The temperature would not get above 28 degrees during the entire race. I did not sleep well.
At the registration table I signed in and they gave me a race T-shirt. The shirt had a heartwarming quote from Dante’s “Inferno” which
summed up the race theme, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”. There was a nice meal for the runners late Friday and then a
pre-race meeting. The weather was a major concern. The single track trails has 6” of snow with a hard ice crust covering them.
It would not hold your weight so you pushed through to the hidden rocks underneath. The sections that were on gravel roads were
completely iced over. This solid sheet of ice made it uncertain as to whether or not all of the aid vehicles could get to their remote locations.
Then I noticed that almost every runner was attaching some type of spiked grips to the bottoms of their running shoes.
They were called “Yak Trax” and I seemed to be the only person who had never seen them before. Naturally, I had no time to run out
and buy a pair and I would eventually regret being unprepared for this aspect of the race. Mr. Horton noted in the meeting that there
were special awards for each runner that finished under the official time limit. 91 runners showed up and he had purchased only 71
awards. He did not look the least bit worried. In every race you find a variety of emotions in the few hours before. I looked around
the room and nearly everyone was looking at the ground. It was quiet and I felt the fear and apprehension spread throughout the room.
At 11 am everyone loaded up for a ride to the start line and at 1 minute after Midnight the race was on.
Start to AS #1
A race of this distance should have a subdued calm start. It did not. The first 3 miles went by as a blur. Everyone was running way
too fast and after only 10 minutes I had determined that I needed to be careful and not get pulled into the hysteria. We’re running
66 miles in the mountains and it felt like a roadrace. The stream crossing was just before AS #1. As advertised, everyone just ran
through and dealt with it. After a few more miles it wouldn’t matter anyway.
AS #1 to AS #2
The road to AS #2 is uphill all the way. The road climbs 1,200’ in less than 4 miles. With the difficult climb to deal with, the field
spread out and just like that it was quiet. By the time I topped out over the Blue Ridge Parkway there was a long line of lights visible
winding down the hill behind me. The leaders had already vanished over the parkway into the darkness. Once on single track in the
woods you don’t see anything but the small area illuminated by your light. You could be 50 yards behind someone and never see
them. It was about to get lonely.
AS #2 to AS #3
Once off the parkway, we dropped into a nasty descent on single track and eliminated 800’ of the climb we had just finished.
Plowing through the snow was hard work even while going downhill and every long descent was followed immediately by a climb.
I don’t remember any flat spots. The finish of this section was a 1,000’ climb on an ice covered road to AS #3.
AS #3 to AS #4
This section continued uphill past the aid station and as we went higher the wind picked up and the road got worse. It was a complete
sheet of ice and getting steeper. My shoes were worthless in these conditions. I had to search the road for any spot that had a bit
of snow covering the ice otherwise I had no grip. Around me, runners went by with “Yak Trax” on their feet and looked with pity
at those who were trying to run it with regular shoes. Finally the inevitable happened. My feet went out from under me and I landed
hard on my knee. I tried to be more careful but soon fell again. Within the next 3 miles I fell 6 times and landed hard on the same
knee 4 times. On the last fall, my flashlight was knocked out of my hand a slid over the edge of the road into a steep drop-off. It was
a backup light but with 4 more hours to sunrise I really wanted a backup for my headlamp. This was only 16 miles into the race and
I was not doing well. I admit that I had some negative thoughts about making another 50 miles in these conditions. My knee really hurt
and I was moving too slow to keep warm. The wind chill at this point was adding to the misery. I really had no choice but to continue
to the top of the climb which was also the highest point on the course at 3,600+ feet. Once I made it to the top, another big drop and
climb followed and I was only concentrating on not falling. Before I new it I had stayed on my feet and covered another 5 miles and in
the distance I could see the first major checkpoint. This is the AS that had to be reached in under 6.5 hours to continue. I felt like
I had been terribly slow but was surprised to find that I was in right at 5 hours. This really boosted my spirits since I was certain
I could now make the second cutoff as well.
AS #4 to AS #5
I lingered in the aid station for way too long but finally headed back onto the trail. With confidence building, I ran fast all the way to
AS #5 but it was mostly downhill which helped. Running downhill hard certainly has its share of risk. First is taking a hard fall. It was
still pitch dark and going fast downhill on snow covered trails is dangerous. The second risk is destroying your quadriceps muscles
early in the race. This descent was over 2,500’ and very steep in sections. It would be the equivalent of running down the stairs
from a height equal to 2.5 times the height of the Sears Tower (Highest building in the world until 1996). The force required to
control the speed can “blow your quads” and debilitate you for the rest of the race. I ran steady, but tried to stay in control, all the
way into the AS while thinking that I still felt good for having just completed more than the marathon distance.
AS #5 to AS #6
There is no rest on this course. After leaving the AS you go straight into a 1,000 foot climb to the top of Little Cove Mountain
(back up the Sears Tower). DAYLIGHT !!! The top of the climb was the point that I turned my lights off. After 32 miles of
running in the dark I was ready for the sun. Unfortunately, the 1,500’ descent on single track that followed went bad for me.
I was so excited to be able to see that I went even faster on this trail. The next thing I know, I catch my foot on a snow covered
vine and took the hard fall that I had avoided while running downhill in the dark earlier. I did not land on the sore knee this time but
over-extended the back of the other knee. At least it evened out my limp. It was still cold and after the fall I noticed that my water
bottles had frozen shut. My fingers were too cold to fix the problem. I also found out that my energy gels had frozen. I had to move
them under my hat so that they could thaw and be eaten.
AS #6 to AS #7
Mr. Horton warned everyone in the pre-race meeting that this would be the most difficult section on the course. It was a continuous
roller coaster of climbing, dropping, climbing, dropping on a narrow trail with absolutely horrible footing. Rocks and snow were
everywhere. I melted the ice from my water bottle before heading out onto this section of trail which I expected to be long and
difficult. I put in a steady effort all the way to AS #7 which was also the second major checkpoint and cutoff. The time limit was
12:30 hours and, after running strong for the last 5 hours, I was in at 10 hours. I felt great. I was 43 miles in and past the last time
check. Mr. Horton was at this AS and we talked briefly. As usual, he was very optimistic and encouraging. Since I had time, I
decided to change into a new pair socks. I was still afraid of blisters that could be caused from running so long with wet feet. Of
course, my shoestrings tied tight and frozen. Mr. Horton was very helpful and pried them apart with a fork while I grabbed some
fluids and prepared for the next section.
AS #7 to AS #8
Although this was described as the most beautiful part of the race, a shock was in store for me after leaving AS #7. I had forgotten
that the elevation profile showed that this section starts with a major climb. At 1,000’ it was not bigger than previous climbs
(back up the Trade Center again) but it was steeper and on single track trail. I immediately wished I had not eaten that Hot Dog
at the aid station and tried to put bad stomach thoughts out of my mind. The footing was bad and I slipped and slid all the way to
the top. Once I had attained the ridge, the views were breathtaking. I wish I’d had time to admire them more. Instead, it was
back on the roller coaster in and out of valleys along the ridge. After what seemed like a very long run, the trail came to a road
which led uphill to the Parkway and AS #8. I found myself slipping into a very conservative pace. I had never gone this far before
(time or distance) and was still a bit concerned about the next section. Reaching this point was another milestone of sorts as it meant
that I had covered the distance of a second Marathon. With only 14 miles to go I know that barring serious injury I’ll make it to the finish.
AS #8 to AS #9
This section starts with Downhill, downhill and more downhill. If you have “blown quads” when you get here, your race is over.
A 1,200 foot leg pounding descent on ice covered gravel roads leads us back to some spectacular single track. The three major
single track climbs made this section seem like it went on forever. In fact, it was the longest stretch between aid stations the entire
race. The anticipation of reaching the final AS made me look around every corner always expecting it to be there. I have read
since then that this section is longer (or maybe MUCH longer) than advertised. If I had known the course it would have been a
lot easier to control my emotions when the AS did not appear. I mentioned the water crossing early in the race. There were
many more crossings but they all had rocks positioned such that you could get over dry. Unfortunately, they were covered with
ice and without grips on my shoes I kept slipping off into the water. Early on, I gave up and just ran through them all. By the time we
approached AS9 the snow was melting some and the trail was under water in a lot of places. I didn’t matter at all, since my shoes
had been wet for 13 hours already.
AS #9 to FINISH
The finish is so simple and yet so hard. It’s a steep almost turn less climb up a gravel road to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Of course, it
was covered with snow and ice. Going from the valley to the Parkway is 1,800 feet of climbing and once you reach the top you just
cross over to the other side and run 1,800 feet back down. I still felt fine and had no problem on this section. In fact, I ran way,
way too fast down the hill coming in. It was covered in ice but I was anxious to finish and took some chances. As I approach the
finish, I can’t believe that my legs are not sore or tired after the punishment I put them through. I had the good fortune of running with
Jeff Garsteki for quite a few miles in the middle of the race. From 10 to 65 miles we alternately, ran together or leapfrogged back
and forth. As I made the final turn into Camp Bethel, there was Jeff again, He yelled at me to catch up so that we could finish together.
Mr. Horton greets each and ever runner that makes it in and it was a pleasure to see him waiting at the finish. During the entire race
I never asked once where I was in relation to the other runners. That’s something I’ve never done in any race before. I found out
afterward that several runners finished just in front of me and that 15 minutes faster may have moved me into the top 10 men. I was
surprised that anyone was that close since I had really only seen one person in the last 8 hours of the race. I feel like I could have
gone much faster if I had better shoes and more confidence in my training. Since this was the longest I had ever run and, by time,
more than doubled my previous long run, the uncertainty of the distance and the conditions at the start kept me from racing in my
normal aggressive fashion. It was the right decision, but now I know I can go much harder and still survive to the finish. Maybe next year?
Today I took an assessment of the damage. My left knee is bruised and swollen from multiple falls on the ice and the back of my
right knee is sore from the fall on the downhill. Also, my big toes are both numb from the impact of so many rocks through the
bottoms of my shoes. I had no blisters or blood. After 66 miles of abuse, the mad dash down to the finish did finally make my
quads a little sore.
Before I left for home, I spoke to David Horton about the race and how to describe it to my friends. We agreed that unless you
are there, on the mountain, feeling everything you can never understand the enormity of the challenge or the thrill of making it to
the finish. It’s one of those things that have to be experienced. Only a day after and I’m thinking about next year.