Hellgate at Perigee

By: Marianna Inslee


Little did I know as I walked around the gate to the official start of Hellgate 100k that I was actually entering the edges of Hell.  A place I would stay until I finally was able to convince the powers that be I was worthy.  I’d read all the stories, listened to fellow runners who had attempted Hellgate, but after finishing over 20 Ultra since 2006 (including two 100 milers), I was confident that while Hellgate would be difficult, it would just be another ultra.  Oh how wrong I was.

 As I waited for the race to start I thought about how lucky I was to be running Hellgate this year.  The weather could not be better, with temperatures in the 30’s, and the sky partly cloudy with a full moon at perigee to light our way.  I was particularly looking forward to running the two early gravel road sections with out my headlamp.  You see, the 2008 running of Hellgate was run on December 13 while the moon was at perigee.  Perigee is when the Moon’s elliptic orbit is at its closest approach to the Earth and appears 14% wider and 30% brighter.

 Imagine the moon so bright that you are able to turn off your head lamp and run in the dead of the night with only the moon’s glow to light the way.  I could see the road ahead like it was early morning dawn, the tree shaped moon shadows it cast along it’s side, looking into the woods I could see the trees in their winter slumber waiting to burst forth anew come spring, dead falls and detritus covering the mountain floor, providing safely, nourishment and warmth to small creatures and insects, a mountain stream rushing rushing its way down the mountain on its way to the ocean, many many miles away.....it was absolutely amazing. 

 We started on a trail, ran up a gravel road, across a stream (up to my knees!) in and out of AS1, onto another trail, along another road and down a trail, in and out of AS2.  At times I marveled at running by the moon’s full light, the musical sound of the rushing water, my white breath as it hung suspended in the darkness until it was caught by the wind and blown away in front of me.  This was truly a time of ultra running bliss.

 But that is the trick about Hellgate…It lulls you into a sense of well being and serene confidence early in the race.  At this point you are feeling good, the world around you is amazing and fun, yet all the while Hellgate has already begun it slow insidious work against your body and mind.

 Aid station 3 is a complete blur.  I remember a large bonfire with men sitting around, and one very cold volunteer working the table.  I told her I was warm and thanked her whole heartedly for standing around in the freezing temperatures helping us runners.  Aid station 4 is the first cut off, and I and two other came in and left about 1 hour before the cut-off with the early dawn light awaking around us.  Some of the mountain views just before and shortly after AS 4 are simply breath takenly beautiful. 

At this point I was still on my game, looking happily forward to Aid station 5 with its breakfast menu of sausage and eggs.  While I was a tad cold, I knew with the arrival of the sun the world would warm up and I was looking forward to dropping off one of my layers. 

 Oh how Hellgate laughed at me.  You see for most of the rest of the race we had the pleasure of running almost solely on the West side of the mountains in full shadow.  We could see the heat of the sun, but could never actually feel its warmth.

 I can best describe Aid Station 5 as breakfast and a hug.  It has to be the best aid station I’ve ever had the privilege to experience.  As soon as I arrived, one person took my bottle and started working on its frozen top, another handed me a handful of scrambled eggs and sausage “cupcakes” (yum yum), but best yet was the woman who was giving out “free” hugs.  Oh the value of a warm hug some 30 miles into a race, priceless!  I left AS 5 on top of the world, my stomach was full, my water bottle no longer frozen, and a glowing smile from the warm hug.  Thus far the trails had not been so bad, it was cold but not horribly so, and I was half way to the finish line. 

 You see, Hellgate had not yet turned its full attention onto me.  It was busy with other runners and thus far I had skimmed by with little notice, or so I thought.  Hellgate’s affect is cumulative, and as I was soon to realize the worst was still to come as it seemed to focus  its full attention on me trespassing along at its edge. 

 After aid station 5 the terrain takes a significant turn for the worst.  While there may have been some large climbs early in the race (which I ran/walked), the trails/gravel roads were all rather pleasant.  After aid station 5, the trails become exceedingly difficult and there seemed to be a never ending supply of 1,000 foot climbs.  More often than not, what seemed to be runnable turned out to be trails covered by 2 feet of leaves covering melon sized rounded rolling rocks. The climbs were steeper, the down hills I ran, but only because well, you should run down hills but oh my gosh did it ever hurt, hurt, hurt.  

 Even though I made the second cut off with about one hour to spare, I no long felt confident I could finish the race within the designated cut off time of 18 hours.  Oh how Hellgate had sunk its claws in to my body and mind. 

 During one practically difficult uphill climb on a gravel road I saw a man holding two dogs, as I got closer I could see four other men with four to five dogs each.  I asked if they were hunting bears.  They replied that yes there were out hunting bear.  I sadly told them I was sorry, but I suspected that we runners had scarred them all away.  As I run/walked/hobbled away down the road, I realized I was also hunting bear.  You see, Hellgate is the sixth and final race in the “Beast” ultra running series and I was one of only three women still in the running.  Those of us who are able to finish all six races within the time aloud would be awarded a large bear trophy.  As I needed something to take my mind off my current situation I decided to reflect on all six races in my quest to complete the inaugural running of the Beast series.

Holiday Lake – two glorious laps around a lake, slipping & falling at an icy stream crossing

Terrapin Mt – Fat Man’s Misery, Death on the Rocks, pictures from the top

Promise Land – soaking in a cool mountain stream, 100+ steps to the Promise Land

Grindstone – Sunrise, the search for pancakes, phantoms in the dark

Mountain Masochist – Brilliant blue sky, trees in full fall regalia-breath taking beauty

Hellgate – running by the light of the moon at perigee, free hugs!  The trek thou Hell

 This reflection really helped me mentally through most of the next couple of aid stations.  It even allowed me to joke about the section that “blows dead goats”.   Yes I was mentally and physically exhausted, but I was hunting bear, and to get that bear all I had to do was get to Camp Bethel.  Oh such a simple concept.  That is if Hellgate had been finished with me, but Hellgate was still not convinced I was worthy of release. 

 You see, as I left the final aid station, I finally felt like I had a chance.  I told Hellgate it was mine and laughed at its attempt to stop me.  Oh, what a mistake that was.  Never, ever laugh at Hellgate, to do so is to bring its full vengeance upon you.  You see, I somehow failed to remember that the next three miles were up up up a mountain.  Thus as I started the climb, with its seemingly never ending trek ever upwards, with only views of mountains to the west I seriously began to doubt I would ever make it.  I kept calculating and recalculating the pace and kept coming up short.  It was not only physically exhausting, but mentally it was killing me.  I tried to make a deal with Hellgate, telling it if it let me leave I would never again step foot in its domain.  Hellgate just laughed at me.   

 Finally I crested that mountain and crossed over onto the East side and started down towards civilization and the finish line at Camp Bethel.  With only two miles to go, I still was not convinced I would make it.  You see, while I eventually escaped Hellgate’s clutches, I do not believe I proved myself worthy.   Instead Hellgate decided to leave me to my demise has it focused its attention on others. Yes I did finish with slightly more than an hour under the time allowed, but I know in my heart that Hellgate is out there waiting for my return, and it would not be pretty.