Hellgate 2010 Race Report

by Brock Webb


Hellgate is supposed to be a bitter cold, sleep deprived, leg torturing suffer-fest, so why in the hell didn’t the weather cooperate? Everything was looking good: freezing cold temperatures and snow on the trail. Then by a sudden freak accident, it was warm for a single day that happened to coincide with the race before getting back to freezing. Consequently, the suffering was diminished by the fact that my shoes and laces weren’t crusted over with ice and my face wasn’t numb until mile 28 or so. At least the trail still eats through your legs much like a very dull saw blade rips through wood: slow and painful grinding with a good smoldering burn... Hellgate is still tough.

 While the weather was warmer, the trail was dryer. Last year, the first 4 miles were soggy with plenty of places to soak your shoes. I still got my feet wet at the 3.5 mile point, but easily avoided the same right before the Bearwallow Gap aid station. The snow and packed ice on the roads weren’t too bad but slippery in patches on the first third of the race. The only other trouble with footing was when I kept sliding back down the trail due to wet leaves while climbing up some of the steep parts after Bearwallow as well.

 One of my favorite sections of the race has got to be the stretch between Camping Gap and Headforemost Mountain. The nice rolling hills were soft and the quiet darkness engulfed the sound of my footsteps and the frost of my breath was dispersed into inky blackness. Leaving the wide trail into the forest, the path of trodden snow highlighted rocks, roots, and other dangers while providing a little cushion while cruising down the hill. Fortunately I managed to keep my balance and not bust my butt on ice covered rocks on the decent to Overlook Falls like I did last year.

 Headforemost Mountain aid station was moved up the road to a new location, and I had an awesome grilled cheese sandwich there. I didn’t grab much out of my drop bag, although I debated leaving my headlamp. I was well ahead of the cutoff and began to think I might do a little better this year despite the fact that I didn’t believe my training was as good, so I pushed this thought back to the ‘we shall see’ part of my brain then got pointed in the right direction and moved on.

 The sky began went from dark to grey as the tranquil light of dawn crept slowly into the snow covered wood. As it grew light out, the trees soon gave way to a soft, green trail that quickly drew my feet down towards Jennings Creek. I stopped and grabbed a few snacks for breakfast, downed a small carton of chocolate milk (yum!) and headed up the road for another climb. There really isn’t much to this section as it’s mostly roads and easy trail, I’m just not in the kind of shape to try running up the hills for longer than a few flat stretches allow it. So I mostly power hiked then let gravity pull me gently back down for another climb to the aid station at Little Cove Mountain.

 Tripping over to BearWallow Gap went much smoother than last year’s stumble through the leaves. There were all the same nasty rocky sections with hidden dangers, but most of my frustration from last time had been from getting stuck behind a few slower runners that I couldn’t seem to pass. Everybody has their downhill comfort zone and fortunately most people, including myself, respect that and let people pass at their own peril. For me, there is definitely a point where going slower becomes more dangerous in terms of tripping on things and it seems to eat into my legs a whole lot more. But that was then and now I was happy to pick through it like a clumsy mountain goat might.

 Speeding through the next aid station as fast as I could, I was happy to dump my jacket while trading-in for lightweight gloves and hat. It went so smoothly that I completely forgot to grab extra Gu packets and left the ones I had in my jacket pocket. Fortunately for me, it meant that I didn’t finish the race with extra Gu packets still in my pack, as my backup-backups were now primary sources.

 I can only describe the next section as tough, beautiful, and my new favorite part of the course! Nasty climbs to summit three distinct points along the ridgeline give way to beautiful views, so long as you don’t stumble off the side of the mountain while trying to look at them. There were times my feet slipped back on the leaves while going up the steepest parts and my legs burned at the strain, but meandering along the ridgeline completely made up for it I really did enjoy this stretch of trail.

 At Bobblets Gap I had a quick time check which now told me that a sub-16 hour day was possible, but only if the mileage in the next section was correct. I knew the “advertised” mileage was a little short of the actual, but couldn’t remember how much. Down the road to the “forever section” I went, hoping to bank a little time without trashing my quads before the final hill to the finish. This section just keeps going and going, but if I had known it was at least an extra mile, I would have been less anxious to finally get to Day Creek.

 Time check: it was going to be very close. Chugging some Mountain Dew I heard the “three miles up, three miles down” phrase. The good thing was that it’s really more like 2.4 miles up and perhaps a little more than 3.5 miles on the backside. I hope I had legs for the top… that was my only chance. Nose to the grindstone I power-hiked my way up to the top ignoring the seconds even though they ticked away in my head like the beat of my pounding heart. Step by step, my mission was to make the summit and burn the rest. I didn’t see the top of the hill: I saw through it. I was mentally and physically ready to push as hard as I could to the end when I got there so I drank as much fluid as I could while crossing the parkway and then took the final plunge.

 Racing down this last section was a course in discipline and reckless abandon at once. According to the Garmin, I averaged somewhere close to an 8:20 pace from the top to the end. Some sections I dipped into the 7:30 range and others I slowed with the terrain. The trick was staying on the border between complete devastation and a pace I could just hang on too. Turning into Camp Bethel I faded and my legs withered with the effort as I trudged on toward the finish. My body went into cruise control as I did my best to soak in the moment with the realization that it was a good race, an effort I can be proud of, a great end to the season, and I can’t wait until next year!

 P.S. I have the easy job; I’m just out there running. I know a lot of effort and spirit go into making these events possible which is why I say thank you to Dr. Horton and everyone else involved for putting on such a special event!