Hell is a curious place. It is very different from the Judeo-Christian images of fire, burning lakes and raining brimstone that have been passed along for generations. Hell is a land of vast emptiness, hollow with the absence of soul. My presence in this realm was not caused by a sinful life, but by my own wishes to suffer above my threshold of pain and to see what lay beyond. All it took to gain entrance was a $150 fee and a penchant for self-destruction (or could it be rebirth?). By the afternoon of December 11th, 2010, I had passed through the gates of Hell and had set up a permanent residence in both body and mind.
For the uninitiated, all of this hyperbole refers to the most agonizing...I mean, most SPECIAL trail footrace in the Southeast, the Hellgate 100k. A brainchild of the infamous Dr. David Horton (Liberty University), Hellgate is a "62.4-mile" point-to-point slog across some of the most soul-crushing...I mean, FUN terrain within Virginia's Jefferson National Forest. I put the length in quotation marks because everyone knows that Dr. Horton and his cohorts were born without the ability to accurately measure distance. It is rumored that the actual length is 66.6 miles, but I don't think anyone REALLY knows how long this race is. It's definitely longer than 100 kilometers. Hellgate is special for a lot of reasons: the total elevation change across the entire race is approximately 25,000 vertical feet, much of the course is covered in shin-deep leaves and rocks, it is run in one of the coldest months of the year (snow and ice are inevitable), and the whole shebang begins at exactly 12:01 AM. Can you say "stacked odds?"
Against my better judgement, I found myself at the starting line of this monster with 125 other psych-ward escapees. Also against their better judgement, I had with me a full support crew consisting of my parents, my cousins Stacie and Josh, and my close friends Lee and Bethyn. One of the most exciting things about Hellgate is it's point-to-point nature: all the runners start near Natural Bridge Station, zigzag their way through the deep, dark woods and end on the far side of Jefferson National Forest at Camp Bethel. For the runners, this means every step is in a forward direction and no terrain is repeated, keeping the race relatively fresh. For the crews, the day is much more logistically stressful: not only must the runners be shuttled to the start, but long drives are required between each aid station. The dedication of Hellgate crews and volunteers is remarkable and unshakeable.
Gathered with everyone in the chilly midnight air, joking about how warm it was (the starting temperature was in the high 20's), I double- and triple-checked my clothing and pack items: water, a minimal stock of bars and gels, iPod, race map, extra socks, extra light, vaseline. Dr. Horton led us all in singing the national anthem, we echoed an excited countdown, and the most beautiful suffer-fest of my life began.
SECTION 1: FS Road 35
Aaron Schwartzbard, one of the very few people to have finished every running of Hellgate, likens this section to a prologue. It is approximately 3.5 miles long and consists of very gently rolling forest road, flat singletrack and a foot-soaking creek crossing at the end to keep things spicy. The worst thing about this section is that it sucks one in kindly, enticing one with slight hills and descents that are reminiscent of a relaxed training run. Nothing very eventful happened here, except for the inevitable inundation of my feet at the creek crossing. I settled into a rhythm, got used to running by the light of my cheap headlamp and occasionally gazed up at the beautifully clear and starry sky. Lee later described watching the 126 headlamps flowing through the woods as a "mobile rave party."
SECTION 2: Petites Gap
Alright! This was more like it. Section 2 is a four-mile climb up to Petites Gap, near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Approximately 1200 vertical feet are gained in the process. The entire section is on well-groomed forest road, so footing was a non-issue. Mixing some running into my power-hiking, I found a pace that felt very comfortable and enjoyable, two qualities of running that I knew were bound to disappear by daylight. Had to enjoy them while I could. As we wound up the switchbacks, it was thrilling to look down and see a stretched line of a hundred headlamps zigging and zagging all the way down the mountainside. At the top of the climb, about two inches of snow were on the ground, and we would be running through snow for the next ~30 miles.
SECTION 3: Camping Gap
After the Petites Gap aid station, we got the first real hit of delicious, rocky singletrack. Crossing the BRP, we began to tightly wind down the other side of the ridge with a pleasant layer of snow and leaves covering the trail. Eventually, this turned into grassy, rolling forest road, and finally gravel road. A 2.5-mile climb up this road led to the next aid station at Camping Gap, which is also used as an aid station twice in the Terrapin Mountain 50k. Terrapin was the first ultramarathon I ever ran, and a wave of nostalgia hit me as I arrived at the aid station. Section 4 would be the longest section without aid, approximately 9.5 miles, so I stocked up on food and drink before plodding on.
SECTION 4: Headforemost Mountain
Leaving aid station 3, I plugged into my iPod for the first time during the race. The resulting musical motivation made Section 4 feel like a two-hour party. The only bad part about this stretch was the slowly worsening condition of my feet. After the creek crossing at mile three, I had neglected to immediately change my socks, and now my feet had been wet for 15 miles and my shoelaces were too frozen to undo. The blisters that started forming during this time would greatly impact my gait later in the race.
We began by running a lengthy bit of downhill forest road that eventually climbed again and reduced to a long, technical section of singletrack. I jammed along, psyched by the combination of fair weather, snow, interesting trail and good music. Everything seemed to flow beautifully through here. Due to snow conditions, the fourth aid station had been moved about a half-mile from its past location and was now situated directly adjacent to the BRP. The climb up to this aid station went by quickly and I beat the first time cutoff by an hour and a half, reaching Headforemost Mountain by 5:10 AM. My crew helped me untie my frozen laces, and I finally got some dry socks on the feet. Unfortunately, the blisters would continue to haunt me.
SECTION 5: Jennings Creek
I have decided to re-name this section the "epic endless descent from Hell." Apparently, there was some uphill trail in the section, but I certainly don't remember any. I felt good after leaving Headforemost Mountain, almost fresh, and breezed down two miles of comfortable double-track trail. For the first time all day, I was running alone and loving every second of it. The course funneled into another singletrack section, this one very deep with leaves and the occasional rock garden. The longer the descent went on, the worse my quads began to feel, and this relentless "Highway to Hell" went on for six miles. Needless to say, my mood had deteriorated slightly as I rolled into aid station 5 at Jennings Creek.
SECTION 6: Little Cove Mountain
Aahhhh...daylight. From what I've read, sunrise is often when 100-mile racers get their second wind and finish strong. After eating some breakfast at Jennings Creek, I began a looonnngg climb up a gravel road and my surroundings started to brighten. Up until this point, I was feeling very good physically and was very confident about my ability to complete Hellgate in good form. However, the sunrise during this seven-mile section did not give me a second wind; it knocked the wind out of me. By this point, I had not slept in exactly 24 hours, and seeing a second sunrise without sleep must have thrown my body into a panic, because it started shutting down rapidly. I drag-assed and occasionally jogged through the two long climbs and one long descent of this section, arriving at aid station 6 practically asleep on my feet.
SECTION 7: Bearwallow Gap
The next time someone tells you that Red Bull is unhealthy, disgusting or dangerous, ignore them. As far as I'm concerned, Red Bull is liquid gold in a can. I cannot count how many times this magical nectar has helped me get through arduous challenges. It certainly did not let me down here. After chugging a can at aid station 6 and getting a briefing of the next section from my crew (apparently, the second hardest part of the race), I sped away, more awake than ever. Section 7 is almost entirely on rocky, steep and off-camber singletrack, and is often completely masked by leaf cover. Despite these obstacles, I was on Cloud 9 the whole way: when I stumbled into the Bearwallow Gap aid station at "mile 42," I exclaimed to an excited Dr. Horton that this was BY FAR THE BEST SECTION OF TRAIL EVER (literally my mood at the time). This aid station was also the second and final time cutoff, which I had beaten by a solid two and a half hours. I downed some of Bethyn's amazing homemade biscuits and cookies, and Lee geared up to pace me for the remainder of the race. We marched out of Bearwallow Gap at 10:15 AM.
SECTIONS 8-9: Stupid terrible agony
Honestly, I don't remember much here. And I'm thankful for it. I'm pretty sure my mind is subconsciously suppressing all of the mental anguish that began to take over. I can remember flashes of endlessly running in and out of mountain hollows, snippets of Lee's perpetually playful humor, and the steady deterioration of my running gait. This "run" had turned into a tug-of-war with the forces of gravity, as I allowed it to move me forward but fought to keep my body upright in the process. By the end of section 9, I was solidly in the darkest mental state of my life and felt as if I had smeared my soul throughout the Virginia woods, never to feel happiness again. I wish this was exaggeration.
SECTION 10: "Hey Lee, I'm actually going to finish this."
Six miles of repentance, six miles of humility, six miles to look in the mirror and say "I apologize for my bullheaded nature, my lack of judgement and my wish to walk the razor edge between movement and collapse." Three miles up to the Parkway, and three miles down to Camp Bethel. One foot in front of the other. Don't cry, don't break now. Not until you finish.
About 1.5 miles from the end of Hellgate, I looked over at Lee and said quietly: "I'm actually going to finish this thing." It was at this point that my running stride finally came back, and I breezed weakly into Camp Bethel to finish in 16 hours, six minutes and twenty-five seconds. All of the mental agony disappeared and was replaced by nothing but relief and a purer since of victory than I have ever felt. I walked inside the main building at Camp Bethel, and was cheerily introduced to the crowd by Dr. Horton as the youngest finisher of the 2010 Hellgate. By this point, my time didn't matter, my place didn't matter, and my ability to actually finish provided overpowering happiness.
I owe a huge amount of thanks to Dr. Horton, to all of the race volunteers (especially the sleep-deprived and loopy LU students), and most of all to my family and friends that sacrificed time, warmth and comfort to support me.
"I and mine do not convince with arguments, similes, rhymes: we convince by our presence." -- Walt Whitman
-- Robert Rives, December 2010