My Hellgate Story

by Ed Marsh

    My Hellgate experience began on a nice summer day during a leisurely run with Doug Blackford, a Hellgate veteran, and Dennis Norris.   They were discussing a 100k that would be held in December and which would start at midnight.   This sounded sort of cool, so I listened more intently.   I quickly gathered that although it was advertised as a 100k, it was much longer, as are most of the races directed by Dr. David Horton, the race director.   I had completed the 40 mile Mt. Mitchell Challenge  nine times and the Iron Mountain Trail Run a couple of times, and on the basis of my times in those races, quickly concluded that the 18 hour cut-off at Hellgate would pose no problem.   This was the first of many miscalculations!

    My training plan was laid out to perfection.   The execution was deficient in many respects.   In preparation I ran the Iron Mountain Trail Run in October, which I finished in last place, but I had a good excuse because I missed a turn and ran an extra four miles. Perfect training for Hellgate!  I had intended to run the Richmond Marathon in November.   Instead I got lazy and did very little running for several weeks.   When it was time to turn in some high mileage weeks, I contracted food poisoning after eating Polish sausage before a Carolina Panthers football game.   I lost a week and a half of training.   So, three weeks out I approached Hellgate with great confidence but with marginal training.  

    It was about two weeks out that I started reading race reports from prior years.   I began to realize that I could be in deep trouble.   The course would be difficult and weather conditions could be harsh.   Most troubling, my algebraic comparisons of times of runners at other races that I had run to their times at Hellgate raised serious concerns about whether I could make any of the time cut-offs.   My great confidence quickly evaporated.  

    On race night, while everyone else was singing the National Anthem, I was trembling too much to move my lips.   What had I gotten myself into?   I was totally intimidated.   Dr. Horton said a prayer and we were off.   The first three miles were very comfortable.   Then we reached a wide stream, which I fully expected.   I knew it best to plunge right in and not to attempt a dry crossing on rocks that could be covered with ice.   Before I knew it I was at the aid station, feeling good but with cold, wet feet.

    I quickly developed a love – hate relationship with segment 2.   We had a steep climb up a gravel road for what seemed like forever.  The full moon was only occasionally obscured by clouds and many runners were able to turn off their headlamps.   I was walking quite a bit, but constantly questioned myself as to whether I should be running.   I could see numerous headlamps high up on the ridge ahead of me, which convinced me that I should run more.   But, looking down the road, there were at least some headlamps behind me, so perhaps I should not run.   I never did decide whether I ran too much or too little during this segment.   Nevertheless, it was an enchanted time of the event with a full moon, what appeared to be snow flurries flickering in the beam of the headlamp, and twinkling headlamps both high above me and below.   Eventually I arrived at the second aid station, Petites Gap.

    Serious DNF thoughts entered my mind between Petites Gap and Camping Gap.   My legs felt heavy.   Were my shoes full of mud?   Had my shoes and socks frozen?  Did I run too much during the second segment?   I had nothing in my legs and each foot felt like it was covered in concrete.   I was making plans to drop at Camping Gap; however, I remembered from the pre-race briefing that this would not be an ideal drop spot.   I think it was about here that I began to notice black semi-circles under my field of vision in each eye.  I convinced myself that my corneas might be freezing, a condition that we had been warned about before the race.  For an hour or so I tried to determine whether the black areas were getting larger or smaller and I think this distracted me from thinking about my heavy feet.  I finally concluded that my eyes were fine.   I began to feel better, breezed through the Camping Gap aid station, and never again had any thoughts of not being able to go the distance.  

    I made the first cut-off with a 30 to 45 minute time cushion.   The middle third of the race  runs together in my mind.   It was very enjoyable with a variety of single track trails, gravel roads, grassy roads and leaves, leaves, leaves.   The many runners ahead of me had stirred up the leaves such that the wet undersides had frozen making them very slick.   I never did decide the best way to run down the technical, leaf covered sections.   If I ran fast, I would risk tripping on hidden rocks.   If I held back, I would tend to slip backwards on the icy leaves.   Fortunately, I only slipped once during the mid-section and I landed in a thick pile of leaves.   It was so comfortable I didn’t want to get up!  During this section I grew to love the hundreds of green glow sticks hanging from trees.  It would be virtually impossible for anyone to get lost, although I did find myself on one occasion heading toward  what I thought was a glow stick.   After a few steps in the wrong direction, I realized that I was heading instead for the moon!   Shortly thereafter, dawn arrived and it was a new day.

    I should mention that Dr. Horton had warned us about the stream three miles into the race.   I have no recollection of any warning about the other ten or so streams that we had to forge.   At the end of every descent you could count upon a rain-swollen, fast-flowing creek with plenty of mud at the bottom and icy rocks in the middle.   The streams were perfectly spaced to assure that your feet would get wet and cold just as soon as they had begun drying from the previous crossing.

    To this point I have neglected to mention the weather.   How could I have forgotten so soon!   It was cold and windy much of the time, particularly on the ridges.   Some participants had water bottles, as well as gels and Clif bars, which had frozen solid.  I had a hand-held water bottle and new gloves.   The gloves did a wonderful job of transferring heat from my hands to the water bottle.   At one aid station, a volunteer (they were all terrific), remarked that my water bottle was warm when all others were frozen solid.   He should have felt my hands.   I’m in the market for new gloves!  I suppose that by Hellgate standards, the weather was good.

    Many say that the last third of Hellgate is the easiest third.  I disagree.  I entered the last time cut-off at Bearwallow Gap with more than a 30 minute time cushion.  I made another miscalculation and decided that I had plenty of time to change into some dry socks.   This is when I discovered it is both difficult and time consuming to untie frozen, mud covered shoe strings.   I eventually got into the socks, enjoyed one more cup of the delicious chicken noodle soup that I sampled at almost every aid station, and set out for Bobblets Gap.    

    This is where the course starts to run together in my mind, or perhaps I am trying to block it out of my mind.   I remember many, many miles of single-track trail covered with leaves.  The uphill sections were steeper than I wanted to hike, much less run.   It doesn’t look bad at all on the elevation profile, and many runners say they love these trails, but I hated them.   Nevertheless, I plodded onward still confident that I would finish well under the cut-off.  

    Leaving Bobblets Gap there are a couple of miles of down-hill on gravel roads.   I decided that I should “put more time in the bank” and hammer these downhills.   This was another miscalculation.   As I found out later, I fried my quads during this section of the course.

    Between Bobblets Gap and Day Creek two runners passed me.   They said that if we pushed it a little, we could finish in about an hour and a half.   This confirmed my view that I would finish well ahead of the cut-off, since it was about 3:30 pm at this point.  I had visions of a sub 17-hour finish!   Picking it up sounded like a good idea.   About 10 seconds after I did so, my toe caught a rock which propelled me at a high velocity into a tree.   The only thing I remember is Clif drink spewing like a geyser from my hand-held water bottle which absorbed most, if not all, of the impact from the tree.   I sat stunned on the ground for a brief period of time, ascertained that I was fine, but decided that picking it up might not be a good idea.   Thereafter, I resorted to shuffling through the leaves, but I found that I could not shuffle as fast as others.   Several runners passed me during this section.   

    I eventually reached the Day Creek aid station and was told that it was up and over and I would be at the finish.   I knew that it was only a 10k in length, that I had just over an hour to complete it, but for the first time I began to have doubts about earning a finisher’s shirt.   Unfortunately, it was still light at this point and I could see the mountain that I had to climb up before going over.  On the long road up, I passed two bear hunters.   I realized that since I had on black tights, a grey jacket, black gloves and a black hat I probably resembled a bear, particularly in my hunched over position going up the road.  I donned my headlamp even though it was not yet dark.   When I eventually reached the top and started down, I realized that my quads were completely gone.   Every step was extremely painful.   This is when I reasoned that the relatively small rocks on the gravel road were extremely dangerous, so I started walking the down-hill.  This is where I lost my finisher’s shirt.   Once the road leveled out, I ran the last mile into Camp Bethel and was greeted by Dr. Horton and other runners.   I covered the distance in 18 hours and 23 minutes – my second consecutive last place unofficial finish in an ultra.    

    Was I disappointed that I didn’t achieve an official finish?   Yes, a little, but I’m just thankful to have had the opportunity to participate.   It gives me a goal for next year.   If I can correct just a few of my many miscalculations, I’ll be well under 18 hours in 2009.   Hellgate 2008 was the most incredible, stimulating, exciting adventure in which I have ever participated.   The aid station volunteers were terrific and I regret that I did not thank them more profusely as I passed through.   Not enough can be said about Dr. Horton’s organization.   He thought of everything and not once did I feel uncertain about where to go or what to do, but I did question many of the distances.   But of course, I had been forewarned about this.

    As I close I’ll relay one “day after” story.   On Sunday morning I decided that I deserved a three- egg bacon and cheese omelet.   Unfortunately, I dropped one of the eggs as I removed it from the carton and it splattered over a good portion of our kitchen.   I grabbed some paper towels and got down on my knees for the cleanup.   It was then that I realized that I could not get up again.   I crawled around on the floor for several minutes, thinking that perhaps I would have to call 911 for assistance.   Finally, by opening the door of the oven, I was able to gradually lift myself to a position that enabled me to stand again.   Hellgate 2008 was still making its presence known!