Hellgate ’10 – Mission Accomplished
Dr. David Horton really does say it best when he calls Hellgate 100k a very special race. This year’s race had significant meaning to me because I was going for finish #5, which meant I was in the running for the Eagle trophy…but Dr. Horton was true to form when he asked me before the race, “are you ready to EARN it?” I first ran Hellgate as an indestructible, naïve 19 year old and I can honestly say that this was the first race to break me. I have learned to respect the course and its conditions which has in turn helped me set personal bests each of the last 4 years, sometimes by hours. I spent a fair amount of time this past week thinking back on the things that have changed since then. 5 years sure goes by quick. Anyways, on to the race.
I arrived with one of my crew members at Camp Bethel EARLY for the first time ever. It was nice getting the chance to relax and be still before all the hustle and bustle of last minute race prep began. Dr. Horton was there waiting to harass me about whether or not I was man enough to earn a 5th finish. I got the chance to sit on the steps in the lobby and people watch for a while, which is always fun. I watched the room light up as David Goggins walked in, and I got to see new, timid faces peek their heads around the entrance, hoping they were in the right building. After the usual great dinner, we headed off to the pre-race meeting with all the normal reminders and rhetoric. Then it was off to the start for me.
Up at the start two of my buddies set up a sleeping area in their SUV for me so I got the opportunity to get some shut eye before the 12:01am start. I will mention this multiple times, but yes, my crew was that huge group of crazy awesome Virginia Tech students and alumni hanging out at every aid station and yes, they are the best.
The Start- AS #1 (officially 3.5 miles; 3.5 miles cumulative)
At 12:01am we took off into the darkness of the Jefferson National forest. A group of 126 of us began this journey together, a stream of headlamps and reflective gear trekking off into the darkness. The weather for this year seemed like it would be the best ever, with very little wind and temps staying in the high teens or low twenties during the night. Reports said that there was snow on the course but it didn’t seem like it was bad. We were all looking forward to these great racing conditions especially considering Hellgate’s past weather conditions. This stretch of the race was relatively uneventful per usual and I spent some time chatting with my friends Steven Baker who is a VT alum and Darryl Smith, who was also going for his 5th Hellgate finish. Darryl and I have an interesting relationship because we met in 2006 when we were both attempting Hellgate for the first time and since then we have spent considerable amounts of time running together during Hellgate every subsequent year. We see each other once a year and it’s at Hellgate. Like Horton said, this is a special race.
AS #1- AS#2 (officially 4.0 miles; 7.5 miles cumulative)This section includes a long fire road climb where you can look up and see the stars like you would never otherwise be able to see them. This was the last time during the race that I was able to look around and revel in the beauty of God’s creation. Other than the stars, the section was pretty tame. One of the cool parts of this section is being able to see a stream of headlamps hundreds of feet above you and hundreds of feet below you during those long climbs. After finishing those few long climbs there I ran, right into AS #2
AS#2- AS#3 (officially 5.6 miles; 13.1 miles cumulative)This was one of the tougher sections for me. There are a lot of long fire road climbs, and I was not feeling up to running them. I did a lot of walking in this section and lost ground on my buddy Steven Baker along with a bunch of other people who I had been running with from the start. I knew that AS #3 was the last AS before the long haul to Headforemost Mountain, so I sucked it up and just kept going. I had some serious doubts at this point about what my priorities about the race were. Did I want a PR? Top 10? Just another finish? Before I could answer these questions, I thankfully reached AS #3
AS#3-AS#4 (officially 9.4 miles; 22.5 miles cumulative))
The volunteers at this AS were AWESOME! I knew a few of them from a couple of other ultras and triathlons I had done and it was great to have a conversation with someone my age. I filled up on hot soup, got my camelback all set and took off. This section went much better for me. Much of it was very runnable and I was able to bust some great downhill sections along the way. I ran much of this section with Darryl and eventually moved ahead on the last technical downhill before the big climb to AS #4. I popped out of the woods at Overstreet falls and began the long, long ascent to the top. My legs were feeling great after the downhill running so I actually ran the whole way to the top, passing a bunch of people in the process. I ended up pulling into AS #4 in 11th place after being outside the top 20 at AS #2. I was super excited at this point to see my crew for the first time. There to meet me was nearly my complete crew of 8 souls braving the cold. They got me all set to go in record time and off I headed onto my favorite section of the course
AS#4-AS#5 (officially 5.7 miles; 27.6 miles cumulative))
This is by far my favorite section of the course because the whole thing is RUNNABLE. You have a bunch of sweeping downhills and uphills to start off followed by crazy awesome, steep and snowy descents to finish it off. Last year I picked off 12 people during this section to move into 5th place. I was hoping to do some similar damage even though I really had no idea who was in front of me. During the early sections of ups and downs I caught up to Jack Kurisky and another guy and hung with them until the very top where you start the dive-bomb to AS #5. Here I dropped these two and took off, looking to take more scalps. Right as we headed into the real steep section I caught Bobby Gill, which was neat because I hadn’t seen him since the start and its always cool to see someone you know. I kept bombing the downhill until AS #5 nearly catching one more guy. I pulled into the Jenning’s Creek AS in 8th. Finally, I was back in the top ten and I began thinking that it just might be possible to get top 10 in this ridiculously stacked field.
AS#5-AS#6 (officially 6.9 miles)
After my phenomenal and efficient crew hooked me up at AS #5, I headed off towards the next AS. On the way out, I came upon Ryan O’Dell and pointed him towards the first big climb of the section. Eventually I took off and he didn’t follow. I cruised to the top with two headlamps following me. I was in 7th and was hoping to keep moving up. Once I reached the top of the first climb, I bombed the downhill, through the woods, hoping to beat daylight to AS #6. On the final, ridiculous climb to AS #6, my legs started to feel the effort of the last 10-15 miles of hard running. My legs began to cramp and I could feel my hip begin to tighten. I made it to the top in 7th, just in time for a short break to refuel and reload. My faithful crew of 8 was there waiting for me and took care of everything for me. After chugging some red bull, I sojourned on.
AS#6-AS#7 (officially 8.0 miles; 42.5 miles cumulative))
This part of the race has always given me trouble. Its long, boring and at points very, very tough. The first section is very runnable and at this point I was feeling fine. I was running in 7th. And I felt like I was going on a nice, steady pace. After the first few miles, the trail heads into the woods and gets more technical with a few rollers. Here I began to slow down and was caught by Frank “the tank”. He passed me and I tried to stick with him for a while but ended up letting him go about 2 miles later. The next section between these aid stations is probably the nastiest point of the course. There is a sharp left and you go up a bunch of rock-covered switchbacks. I have missed that turn 3 times in previous years and I was determines not to repeat that detour again. During the rocky climbs and switchbacks Frank really made a move a completely dropped my face. I was feeling terrible and unmotivated at this point. I just wanted to get to AS#7 where I could see my crew again. I trudged along and was eventually passed by Ryan O’Dell who blew by me and I saw him catch Frank as well. He was moving! Finally, after crossing the road and a few more hills, I popped out at AS#7.
AS#7-AS#8 (officially (7.0 miles; 49.5 miles cumulative))
I picked up a buddy to run with me at this point and we took off up the hill away from AS #7. I was not in a good mood and I think it showed because I was not talking or joking around or anything. I just ran. Right then I was feeling a mixed bag of emotions because once again, I was sitting right at the cusp of a top 10 finish but I sure wasn’t feeling like top 10 material. I was trying to weight that with just being happy to be out there, having the opportunity to run and potentially finish my 5th Hellgate. Either way, I think I told my pacer, “I think I am ok with not getting top 10” Yeah I might as well have just admitted defeat. On we went and the farther we got away from the hustle and bustle of Bearwallow gap, the better I began to feel. There are several parts of this section that are flat and smooth, which makes running easier obviously, so I took advantage to gets my legs back in running order. By the time we were on our last descent to the fire road that takes you to AS #8, I was feeling better and we climbed the long road to the top, talking and having a good time.
AS#8-AS#9 (officially 6.6 miles; 56.1 miles cumulative)
As far as stops go, this is usually my last real stop because once you get to AS #9 you just want to finish and don’t want to stop for long. I loaded of on food and fluids and took off with my pacer and Kristen my fiancé. Every year she runs this section with me so she knows it as well as I do. It’s nice to run with someone who is familiar with a section of the course because you can work together to tackle the little obstacles of the section. Right after we left to aid station, Darryl Smith caught back up to me and said “We gotta move! Harland is right on my heels and he’s a fighter!” I was now in 10th place and was sure that I was about to be passed by Harland Peele and be bumped into the “first loser” spot, as Horton refers to 11th place. Instead of caving though, I decided to dig deep and give it a go. This section as usual dragged on forever (its not called the Forever section for nothing), but unlike previous years, I came up with a strategy to cope with its redundancy. I took the time before the race to count the number of creeks we needed to cross before we would hit the last AS and it was somewhere in the area of 12-15. And so we counted. From the true creek crossings to the dry creek beds, we counted how many we crossed. We obviously missed a few in our census because by the time we had counted 11, we were there at the end of the section. Still, this section did hurt. My legs were about shot by the time we rolled into AS #9 but I knew that there was still a lot of racing to be done. Oddly, we had not seen Harland at all even though Darrly said that he was a mere 30 seconds back of him and Darryl had already put a couple minute on me by the time we reached AS #9. (At the finish Horton told me that Harland had bashed his knee pretty bad after AS #8 so that explains why I didn’t see him)
AS#9 – Finish (officially 6.3 miles)
I breezed through this AS like previous years, but made sure to keep my pack and fluids with me (there you go Jeremy, happy?) Last year this section became my nemesis because I had taken it too lightly. Not this year. This time I was going to respect this last part of the race and push right on through to the finish. I climbed the long, windy road with some of my best friends and just reveled in the fact that I was out there, doing what I loved. We all kept cautiously looking back, knowing that we would soon see Harland or someone else catching us. No one showed. We just kept climbing. Walking ‘fast’ uphill has been one of the toughest things for me to learn as an ultra-runner. I sort of have an ‘on’ and and an ‘off’ mentality when it comes to running and walking doesn’t fall very well into either category. Fortunately, I have had a lot of practice so maybe I was finally coming around. Needless to say this was the best climb out of my past 4 years and we made it to the Blue Ridge Parkway in under 40 minutes. After crossing the parkway and passing the gate, I told myself that this was it. 3 miles of runnable, downhill, leg pounding trail and fire roads until the finish. No one had passed me on the climb, so I was cautiously optimistic that I could hold off anyone else at this point. Down we went, at some points faster than others but consistently running at a good clip. About halfway down I recognized the spot where last year I had been lying on my back, getting passed by Tom Williams and Keith Knipling in the final miles. I was stronger this year and pushed those memories aside for the thoughts of how it would feel to finish my 5th Hellgate. Soon enough, we hung a left into Camp Bethel and I knew for sure that I had done it. 5 years. Horton was there yelling my name as I crossed and crumpled to the ground. Man, what a good feeling.
This was a very, very special race for me. I can honestly say that I have never raced so hard in my life. I had achieved a goal that I had set 5 years before when I was 19 and had done so in a respectable fashion. Who knew that doing a race in 2006 would spark me to do this over and over again, each year running faster than the last. In 2006 I ran 16:48:06 and placed 41st out of 58. This year I ran 12:51:38 and placed 10th out of 111. Getting top ten in this field was a dream come true because after the first 2 years, I had proven I could run Hellgate. Then came the question, could I run it FAST? Hellgate has become an annual, year-end ritual for me to push my body to its limits and for some odd reason, I keep coming back. Thank you Dr. Horton for putting on such a great race that challenges me on so many levels. Your dedication to making this race great has been proven year after year. Thank you to all the volunteers who freeze their butts off all night. You guys are amazing and we wouldn’t be able to do it without you. And finally thanks to my AWESOME crew. Kristen, Devon, Carrie, Steve, Brian, Bradner, John, Kelly and Tim, you guys are what make this race so much fun for me. To have friends there supporting me means the world. I can honestly say that your support kept me going more than anything else in the race. Wow, another Hellgate in the books. Every year I say, “This was the most memorable Hellgate ever!” and this year is no exception. Racing the likes or Karl Meltzer, David Goggins and Andrew Thompson is not an experience I will soon forget. ‘Till next year, you horrible, terrible, wonderful Hellgate 100k.
Here are my unofficial splits taken by one my my crew
Headforemost (Aid Station 4) 4:28am | 12:14/mile | Came through in
****Who know the actual distance of the course? No one. We usually guess between 65 and 66.6 miles?