2012 Hellgate ( Sissy Gate ):   Ten Years of a Midnight Start, Dec 8:   By David Horton

The start is ALWAYS at 12:01 a.m.  Starting at this time and not 12:00 p.m. eliminates any confusion as to the starting date. It also allows most runners to finish before nightfall or at least arrive at the last aid station by dark on Saturday night. The last six or so miles are three miles UP and three miles DOWN to the finish on forest service roads, NOT technical trail. 

The pre-race meal and finish line is at the very quaint Camp Bethel near Fincastle, VA. Because of this and the difficulty of getting runners to the start, as well as taking GREAT care of the runners themselves, the limit will continue to be around 140 runners. We started 139 this year and 137 last year. There were a number of runners whose entry was rejected because they were deemed unable to finish. What qualifications are deemed worthy of entry? Completion of a few 50 milers and/or a 100 miler, or something longer indicates that a runner can possibly finish the race.

Why did I call the 2012 race SissyGate? The temperatures ranged from 40 to 65 degrees, there were very few leaves, and the trail was in great shape!  We also had our best aid stations ever. They were all manned by enthusiastic Liberty University students escaping the pressures of final exams (at least for a little while). In the last three years, the finishing percentage has averaged around 85 percent. The three years prior to that was 77 percent. It has been several years since we have had classic Hellgate weather: snow, ice, or a combination of both.

One of the unique things about Hellgate is that it is a point-to-point course with a variety of trail surfaces. The most OFTEN reported distance as measured by runners is 66.6 miles. We have had the exact same course all 10 years without even minor changes. I hope that continues and I think it will because the majority of it is on public property. The only private property on the course is the last 400 yards into Camp Bethel and the finish line.

This year’s men’s field looked to be fit enough to see the first runner break the 11 hour barrier. Eric Grossman (Emory, VA) was the course record holder and was gunning to be the first runner under 11 hours. Chris Reed, the 2011 winner was back, as well as local runner Frank Gonzalez who wanted to win Hellgate for his first big local ultra win. Troy Shellhamer (Louisville, KY) had shown his endurance by pushing Grossman in the 500+ mile run on the Appalachian Trail across Virginia in the summer of 2012. Alister Gardner (Quebec, Canada) had shown that he had some speed and endurance by running 9:08 in the UROC 100K in September.

The overwhelming favorite in the ladies field was Kristen Eddy (Herndon, VA). Eddy had placed 3rd in the 2011 Hellgate 100K. The two ladies in front of her in 2011, were not back this year, and their times were the two fastest ever by any female. There were a number of other women who had run several ultras, but no one looked able to beat Eddy.

After singing the national anthem (I really like doing this at all our races), the runners were off into the dark following reflective streamers marking the course. Gardner was the first runner to check into the first aid station, two minutes ahead of a large group of other runners. By aid station 3 (13.1 miles), Gardner had a 7-minute lead over Gonzalez and 8 minutes over Grossman, Shellhamer, and Reed.   He was also 10 minutes ahead of Grossman’s record pace at this point. By aid station 6 (Little Cove Mtn.- 34.5 miles), Gardner had extended his lead to 21 minutes over Grossman and 22 minutes over Shellhamer. Grossman was able to reduce Gardner’s lead to 10 minutes by the last aid station (Day Creek- 56.1 miles).   

Gardner maintained a strong pace to become the first finisher UNDER 11 hours taking 1st place in 10:52:48. Grossman achieved one of his goals . . . he broke 10 hours but came in 2nd place finishing in 10:57:54, just five minutes after Gardner, two exceptional performances on the Hellgate course.  Shellhamer took 3rd place with a time of 11:07:29, the fourth fastest time ever at Hellgate.

The ladies race started off very tight. At aid station 2 (Petites Gap- 7.5 miles), Jennifer Nichols (Bristol, VA) and Kristen Eddy checked in at 1:22 a.m.  Two minutes behind them was Jacqueline Palmer (Newark, DE), Sophie Speidel (Charlottesville, VA), and Holly Bugin (New Kent, VA). At aid station 3 (13.1 miles), all these ladies were still within five minutes of each other.

There are two major cutoffs at Hellgate. Runners must reach Floyd’s Field (Headforemost Mtn.-22.5 miles) before 6:40 a.m. and Bearwallow Gap (42.5 miles) before 12:30 p.m.  More runners drop out at Floyd’s Field than any other aid station. The first third of the course is the toughest, and it is ALL in the dark.

Eddy checked into Floyd’s Field at 4:49 a.m. Nichols checked in eight minutes later with Palmer two more minutes back of Nichols. Local and first time Hellgate runner Alexis Thomas had moved up to fourth another four minutes back. By aid station 6 (34.5 miles), Eddy had moved out to a 17-minute lead over Palmer, pulling away from all the other ladies by a large margin. 

Eddy continued to run strong throughout the day and passed a lot of guys as well. Eddy finished in 12:49:51 for the victory with the third fastest time ever for ladies, also taking an hour off her 2011 time!  Eddy was in 37th place at aid station 3 and finished in 15th place overall, now that is good pacing.

Eddy is 42 years young. Taking 2nd place was 24-year-old graduate student from Delaware, Jacqueline Palmer in a fine time of 13:53:48. Moving up and taking 3rd place was Sophie Speidel in a personal course record of 14:33:50, who was just a few days shy of a HALF century old!!  Cusick and Thomas took 4th and 5th respectively.

Grossman (44) and Eddy (42) were the masters winners.  Robert Wehner (Hubertus, WI) won the grand masters title with the fastest time ever run by someone 50 or older (12:29:25) and finished 10th place overall. Local runner Rebekah Trittipoe took the grand masters title (16:14:42). Trittipoe has now finished Hellgate nine times, the most by any female runner.

There were five runners who had finished all nine previous Hellgate races:  Aaron Schwartzbard, Jerry Turk, Jeff Garstecki, Ryan Henry, and Darin Dunham. All finished this year within the time limit and were awarded a personalized, specially designed 10-year plaque. Four runners who finished Hellgate for the fifth time (Chris Reed, Shawn Krause, John Cooper, and Al Eder) were awarded an eagle trophy.  

Hellgate is the sixth and final race in the Beast Series. Twenty-two males and one female (Jennifer Broton) completed Hellgate and were awarded the big BEAR trophy for completing three 50Ks in the spring, as well as Grindstone 100, MMTR 50 Miler, and Hellgate 100K in the fall . . . a worthy challenge and a well-deserved reward.  Two runners who completed the Beast Series this year, Marc Griffin (Stuarts Draft, VA) and David Snipes (Mechanicsville, VA) have also completed the Beast Series for all five years, since its inception.

Sub 18-hour Hellgate finishers were treated to Patagonia awards (jackets, shirts, and shoes).  Personally, I think we have the best awards of any Ultra on the east coast. Finishers were also awarded DryMax socks specifically made with the Hellgate logo on them.

The past 10 years of Hellgate have been very interesting. In the early years, there was usually snow, ice, or both. The last few years have been very temperate. Sooner or later we WILL once again have true Hellgate weather.  I just hope I am still the Race Director 10 years from now. I LOVE this race.