Hell Freezes Over (Again)

The Hellgate 100K – December 12, 2009

Natural Bridge & Fincastle, VA

Martha Wright  

Prologue:  In 2006 I was running fairly well and thought I would try David Horton’s newest race, the Hellgate 100k: a 66-mile trail race with unpredictable December weather, 13,000 feet of elevation change, rocky trails, and a midnight start time.   Despite having completed many ultras and having finished a couple of longer races (a 100k and a 70-miler), I had never run anything like Hellgate.  And it showed:  by the time I reached Bearwallow Gap (mile 42) that year in 12 hours and 20 minutes, I was completely depleted and in the depths of despair.  I came home and didn’t run for a month.  I told my husband, “No matter what I say, don’t let me go back.”  Fortunately (or maybe not), Brook didn’t hold me to it.

 Preparation:  Early in 2009, I thought this might be the year to seek redemption at Hellgate.  Holiday Lake 50K and Terrapin 50K went well; Promise Land 50K, not so much, due to an unseasonably hot April day.  But good runs at Catherine’s 50K and Catoctin 50K in the summer gave me hope that I was on track.

 At my fifth Mountain Masochist 50-Miler in November, I lowered my time and gained a little more confidence.  In the next few weeks I ran the Richmond Marathon and two 20-milers, one on the Hellgate course.  In addition to putting in the miles this year, in September I joined an outdoor bootcamp-style fitness program which helped improve my speed, strength, and overall fitness level.  And I ran some shorter races this year…the first 5K and 8K races I’d run since 1997, along with a 10K and a couple of off-road half-marathons.


Left:  John and I prepare to go out in the cold, dark night


Planning for race day began in earnest after Mountain Masochist.  My longtime running friend John Deeter volunteered to crew for me, which was a huge plus because (a) I’ve never had a crew before, and (b) John is the reason I made it to the finish line of the Laurel Highlands 70-miler in 2005, when he ran (okay, walked) the final 13 miles with me over four very long, dark and humid (80ºF) hours.  John is a veteran of many marathons, ultras and Ironman tri’s, so I knew he could help me through any rough patches.  Plus his map-reading skills are exceptional, which can be a critical crewing skill for Hellgate to find your way to each aid station.

 I took the advice of Dr. Horton and Sophie Speidel and went to the November 28th training run which covered the final 20 miles of the course, from Bearwallow Gap to the finish (the section I didn’t see in 2006).  Starting out fresh with a fun group of people, this part seemed very do-able:  “Oh, there will be an aid station there?  That was quick!”  “This is Day Creek already?!”  The “Forever Section” flew by that day as I ran on the heels of Donna Elder and Marc Griffin. When race day rolled around, I had a hard time convincing myself that I’d run that very same section just two weeks before.  But the training run was worth it for the confidence I gained, even though I didn’t remember ANY of the course two weeks later.

 Pre-Race:  Finally it was time to leave for Camp Bethel.  I arrived mid-day, and took a short nap in the afternoon.  The rest of the Richmond contingent trickled in:  Marianna Inslee, Matt Warner, Walter Crenshaw, and Darin Dunham (going for finish #7).  John Deeter arrived around 5 and we headed to the dining hall for check-in and dinner.  The dinner was good—too good—and I ate more than I usually do. 

After dinner there was a race briefing in the lodge, and runners were sorted in carpools to the start.  We took (or tried to take) another short nap between 9 and 10, then it was time for last-minute preparations before the 11:00 pm departure to the start at Natural Bridge.  Marianna, Marc Griffin and Kerry Owens rode with John and me.  The readout in John’s van said 23º, but there wasn’t any wind, so it didn’t feel too bad.  (At least it was warmer than the 2006 start of 15º.)  116 runners gathered by the trailhead, one runner led us in the singing of the National Anthem, and at 12:01 a.m., we were off.

 Start to Aid Station 1:  3.5 Horton miles - 4.0 GPS miles - 11:15/mile - :45

 I start out very conservatively.  Maybe too conservatively, because when I turn around to look, there is nothing behind me but darkness. 

 Hmmm.  Maybe I should pick it up a little.  I move up through the line of runners until I find Walter and we run together.  Our feet are already getting wet on this section…due to all the rain Virginia has had this fall, it’s a good indicator of how wet the rest of the course will be.  Soon we hear shouting and we’re at the creek; it’s moving pretty fast.  There’s a group of us crossing; I take a bad path and end up knee-deep in the middle of the creek, unable to pick up my foot without getting knocked over by the water.  Great.  Fortunately a runner steps back into the creek from the other side and offers me his hand.  I gratefully take it and finally I’m across.  He told me, “I just couldn’t watch you standing there anymore.”  J  (Thank you, Rick Meyers from Pennsylvania.)

 A.S. 1 to A.S. 2 Petites Gap:  4.0 Horton miles - 3.9 GPS miles - 15:24/mile - 1:00 (1:45 total)

 I run and chat with Rick Meyers for a while, and eventually find Walter again.  Scott Taylor catches up to us.  (Scott is an LU student who took three exams on Friday before driving to Camp Bethel to finish his final race in the Beast Series.  Talk about a long day.)  The highlight of this section is going up the switchbacks and seeing a line of runners’ lights both down below and up above. It’s not long before I see John standing near the aid station.  So far, so good.

 A.S. 2 to A.S. 3 Camping Gap:  5.6 Horton miles - 6.1 GPS miles - 12:18/mile - 1:15 (3:00 total)

Coming out of the second aid station, I realize I’ve lost Walter.  I run/walk up the road, remembering Darin Dunham’s advice not to run this whole section, even though the grade isn’t that bad.  The road gets icy near the top and I have to be careful not to slip.  Finally we see the lights of the aid station at Camping Gap.  Crews can’t drive to this point, so I check in and continue down the road.

 A.S. 3 to A.S. 4 Headforemost Mountain:  8.8 Horton miles - 9.8 GPS miles - 14:48/mile - 2:25 (5:25 total)

 This is a long section but it’s not lonely as I go back and forth with many different runners, including Dan Lehman, Rick Gray, Kevin Townsend and Roger Sutton (I think).  It’s about 3:30 in the morning and we’re running on a snow-covered fire road, watching an orange crescent moon rising over Bedford.  Beautiful.  The going gets tougher near the end of this section, as we have to negotiate a very icy downhill section (the part that is the Promise Land course).  Several people pass me as I take my time creeping down.  Then more ice as we climb uphill to the aid station.  Once again, John is waiting for me and we walk into the aid station with Dan and Rick.  I check in and John and I carefully walk down the iced-over road for a half-mile to his van.  (John took one for the team--he slipped on the ice here earlier.)  I tell him I’ll see him at breakfast and take off down the hill.

 A.S. 4 to A.S. 5 Jennings Creek:  5.7 Horton miles - 6.4 GPS miles - 12:30/mile - 1:30 (6:45 total)

 I make good time until the trail gets rocky, then I slow down out of caution…no sprained ankles today.  Dan and Rick catch up to me and I run with them for a while until the trail gets rough again.  I can see the sky growing lighter, and knowing that the sun will be out today lifts my spirits immensely.  (In 2006, it was overcast and a bit depressing, but maybe that was just me.)  Unfortunately, I have to pass on the delicious breakfast they’re serving here as I’m sticking to Perpetuem and Hammergel for this race.  I stop at John’s van and change my hat, sunglasses (from clear lenses to amber) and top layers (to bright pink—it’s still hunting season), and pick up another bottle of Perpetuem which John has ready for me.  This stop takes about nine minutes, but since I haven’t spent time at any other aid stations, it’s worth it.

 A.S. 5 to A.S. 6 Little Cove Mountain:  6.9 Horton miles - 7.6 GPS miles - 15:07/mile - 1:55 (8:40 total)

 Uphill again.  For a long time.  Moving well and passing several people.  I finally catch up to Dan and Rick right before the aid station.  John is waiting and I pick up a fresh bottle and head out with David Snipes.   

A.S. 6 to A.S. 7 Bearwallow Gap:  8.0 Horton miles - 8.6 GPS miles - 16:18 mile 2:20 (11:00 total)

 David and I leave Little Cove Mountain and run about a mile and a-half to the bottom of the hill, then he finds another gear and I never see him again.  This is the section that completely crushed me in 2006.  Fortunately, the leaves aren’t nearly as deep this time, although the rocks and the slanted trail are still there.  And while the sun is out and shining brightly (and warmly) on that mountain across the valley, we are running in the shadows; my Nathan Intensity tube has frozen shut and my Perpetuem is now a frozen slushie.  Sigh. 

 Early in this section I meet Tim (from Georgia) and we run together for a while.  Then I pull ahead and end up running alone for the rest of the section…I finally get to the creek crossing and then…Bearwallow Gap.   John meets me and I run over to the A.S. to check in, where Dr. Horton makes me back up and run in again so he can take a picture. I’ve arrived at this spot an hour and twenty minutes ahead of my 2006 time, and I’m feeling pretty good.  I stop at the van and load up for the last 4-5 hours, and give John a hug good-bye as he’s now headed back to Richmond.



2006 – about to drop at Bearwallow Gap              2009 – same place, much happier

            (photo by Andrew Wilds)             (photo by John Deeter)

 A.S. 7 to A.S. 8 Bobblett’s Gap:  7.0 Horton miles - 6.1 GPS miles - 16:24 mile - 1:40 (12:40 total) 

I leave Bearwallow Gap alone (and don’t see another runner until right before AS 8).  I’m now walking anything remotely uphill-looking, so I walk a lot of this section.  I enjoy the views of Purgatory Mountain (Dr. Horton pointed it out to me on the training run…several times).  The trail’s pretty rocky through here, and I’m fading a little, so I continue to walk.  And walk.  And wonder where it was they said the aid station would be.  Finally it comes into view.  For the first time today, my shoelaces have thawed enough for me to empty out my shoes and re-tie them.  The tireless and cheery aid station volunteers top off my bottle and I prepare to run a little more in the next section.

 A.S. 8 to A.S. 9 Day Creek:  6.6 Horton miles - 7.8 GPS miles - 15:24/mile - 2:00 (14:40 total)

 The “Forever Section.”  I just ran this two weeks ago; it really didn’t seem so bad then.  So where did all these hills come from?  And why does none of it seem familiar?  I pass one runner in this section who tells me there’s just one more hill.  Ha.  It’s an endless series of hills.

 I hope that I’m finally getting close to the Day Creek aid station, when suddenly a guy comes running toward me, and asks, “Are you Martha?”  He’s Brian Hayes from Richmond, and he had driven up to run the last 20 miles with Walter.  Unfortunately, Walter came into Bearwallow Gap just over the time cut-off, and wasn’t allowed to continue.  But he then drove Brian to two aid stations to find me so that Brian could still have a chance to run today and I could have some company.  This turned out to be a huge boost and helped keep me moving at a good pace.

 A.S. 9 to Finish Camp Bethel:  6.3 Horton miles - 5.7 GPS miles - 12:18/mile - 1:12 (15:52 total, 3:53 pm)

 We reach Day Creek and head out…uphill, of course, for approximately 2.2 miles (about 40 minutes).  John Cassilly passes us running back downhill to his car at Day Creek, after running in with Matt Warner for a 13:47 finish for Matt (10th place).  After the longest 40 minutes of climbing I’ve ever done, we reach the Parkway at the top and take off downhill.  It feels great to be able to run; I hope I can keep it up all the way to the finish.  It’s about 3.5 miles and we make it in 30 minutes.  As we enter the gate of Camp Bethel, I ask Bryan for the time and he tells me 3:50 pm.  Sub-16.  I am happy.  I run through the grass up to the lodge to the finish line and a welcoming hug from Dr. Horton.  Redemption is sweet.

 Post-race:  I wander inside, get my beautiful Patagonia Capilene 4 finisher’s shirt, and shower and change while I’m still moving.  Unfortunately, running hard on the final long downhill has caused my stomach to rebel and I end up eventually lying down with a bout of nausea, and miss the entire last hour of finishers coming in. (Thanks to Dr. Wortley for checking on me, though).   I get up and eat a little bit of soup and bread, and soon there’s just a small group of us who are staying for the night.  I’m asleep by 8 pm for almost eleven hours.  The next morning it’s 30 degrees, icy and raining, and even though I have to drive home in that weather, I’m extremely thankful that I didn’t have to run in it.

 While I did the miles, I didn’t do them alone…a lot of people had input into getting me across the finish line this time: Dr. Horton, for all your time and effort putting on these races, and for your encouraging words; all the Hellgate volunteers and Clark Zealand, for being out there in the cold; my husband Brook for encouraging me and making it possible for me to run; my sister Pat for helping me survive pre-race week; John Deeter for being a bright spot at every aid station; Walter for sending Bryan to run with me; Bryan for being great company the last 7 miles; my fitness coach Sherma Francis for motivating me to work hard; Sophie Speidel and Darin Dunham for their Hellgate advice; Kathy, Lynn, Molly, Prissie and Marti Jo for running with me (and listening to me) every week; and Ken Hubbard for being my long-time ultrarunning buddy.

 What Worked:  (For me, at least) 

-          Running the course one section at a time.  (This was key.)

-          Staying positive during the race.

-          Training – 1,400 miles in 2009, including five 50k races, one 50-miler, one marathon, and several shorter races.

-          Planning – Being prepared (mentally and physically) for whatever the weather could be.

-          Nutrition – Because it’s hard for me to take in enough calories in the cold, I went with Hammer Perpetuem (Caffe Latte flavor w/caffeine) and Hammergel.  No solid food. 

-          At both AS 8 and AS 9, I took 1 Succeed electrolyte cap, 1 Tylenol, and 1 Excedrin TH (acetaminophen w/caffeine).

-          Crew – Having a crew was great.  My hands freeze in the cold and John took care of mixing all my bottles and anything else I needed.

-          Clothing – I don’t like the cold, so I wore two base-layer thermal tops and one 1/4-zip thermal top, plus a lightweight Patagonia Houdini jacket.  (It felt alternately hot and cold during the day; it’s good to have a top layer you can adjust.)

-          Shoes & socks – Coated feet completely with bag balm; wore Injinji socks with Smartwool socks.  No blisters.   Shoes – Asics 2140 Trail.

-          Gear:

o         Nathan Intensity Pack w/Camelbak reservoir (worn under jacket to keep it from freezing)

o         Sunglasses w/clear lenses (night) and amber (day)

o         Handheld bottle – Nathan Winter Bottle with non-freezing spout

o         Polartec mittens w/handwarmers; fleece hat and neck gaiter

-          Taking Dr. Horton’s advice:  “Something will go wrong. Be prepared to deal with it.”

 What didn’t work:

-          Ate a little too much at dinner.

-          Creek crossing – didn’t mind getting my feet wet, but it was almost a lot worse.

-          Fell off pace too much when I was running alone

-          Need to work more on walking/running uphills


-Martha Wright - mpholden@yahoo.com