Hellgate 100K – December 13, 2003

“To Hell and Back”

by David Horton


            Why start another ultra when you already direct four?  For years, I had known about the Glenwood Horse Trail (GHT).  In fact, we use 6.2 miles of the GHT in our Promise Land 50K race.  I had seen the GHT in different places as being anywhere from 60 – 64 miles…. around 100K???  In August of this year, I told Dr. George Wortley, the medical director of the Lynchburg Ultra Series (LUS), that I was thinking about running the GHT in two days as a fun run.  The more we talked, the more excited we became.  I thought, what the heck, why not just have a race…. and the story starts, and the work begins.

            A location had to be determined for the start/finish.  After much looking, we found Camp Bethel (located near Fincastle, VA and just over one mile from the GHT).  The camp is a multi-use facility operated by the Church of the Brethren.  They have a number of facilities that we could use and they cook meals as well.  They were and are extremely friendly, helpful, and were willing to allow us to use their facility.  Boy, did we find a GREAT place for race headquarters.

            The next major issue was finding and clearing the trail.  There were several sections that were overgrown and covered with dead trees.  We spent 7 Sunday afternoons clearing the trail.  The entire trail is a mixture of single track trails, grassy no traffic roads, and gravel and dirt roads. 

            The starting time was set at 12:01 a.m., so that runners would do the night time running when they were fresh; and 12:01 not 12:00 so that there would be no confusion on the starting date.    Picking a mid December date to run a 100K race has potential problems with weather.  When we tried to mark the course the Saturday before the race, we had to deal with 4-10” of snow on the trail!!  It took us 12 hours to mark 35 miles.  The night right after the race ended brought 3” of snow and ice and rain all the next day.  We were very fortunate.  Even though it was very cold and much of the early part of the run was snow and ice covered, it could have been much worse.

            I had originally set the time limit at 16.5 hours.  I knew that I needed to get an idea of how long it took to cover the course and aid station guidelines for crews, so I ran the course starting at 12:01 a.m. on November 8 and, was crewed by Dr. Wortley.  I had some G.I. problems during the run, and it ended up taking me 14:44 to complete the course.  I then increased the time limit to 18 hours.

            Fifty-two runners had already completed the other three races (LUS) that I direct in 2003.  An idea came to me that we should do something for those who completed all four ultras in the Lynchburg area.  Thus the “Horton Slam”, LUS plus Hellgate 100K was originated.  The award was to be a fleece blanket with all four race names embroidered on it.

            We wanted to make this a more self-sufficient race so we had only 9 aid stations (16 at the MMTR 50 miler).  I recruited 4 crews of workers from Liberty University students (a captive audience).  We marked the course with orange streamers and then put up chem. lights (for the first 35 miles) on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.  Per our usual standards, we marked the course heavily, because no one who was running had covered the entire course. 

            After our meal on Friday, we had a pre-race meeting and then runners lounged, with many taking a nap on the available bunk beds (8:30 – 10:30).  We carpooled the 26 miles to the start, for the 12:01a.m. start. 

            For many runners, this was their first race with night running.  We had about a ¾ moon on a very clear and starry night.  With this and the snow, visibility was outstanding.  Many runners talked about how magical the night was and that for many miles they didn’t use their lights.

            When we decided to start the race, I thought we might have about 75 runners.  We started 71 runners from 13 states and Canada.

            With Courtney Campbell (Berryville, VA) and Clark Zealand (now from Kitchner, Ontario) running, I thought it would be a two man race.  However, Courtney had been having a foot problem and Clark lived in flat country now and had not trained on hills. 

            In the ladies division, I thought it would be between Cat Phillips (Lynchburg, VA), Annette Bednosky (Boone, NC), and Sally Brooking (Marietta, GA).  Annette and Sally were very experienced and Cat was running her first ultra.  Cat however, was a very experienced runner and a professional trialthlete.  She had run on a lot of the course and had helped in clearing much of the trails.

            Campbell and Aaron Schwartzbard (Reston, VA) jumped to an early lead and were within one minute of each other, through aid station (AS) 3 (13.1 miles – Camping Gap).  Ryan Cooper (Erie, CO) checked in 11 minutes after Campbell at this point.  Clark Zealand had problems with his hip at this point and was forced to drop out. 

            By AS 4 (Headforemost Mountain – 21.9 miles) Schwartzbard checked in at 4:11 a.m. with Cooper at 4:22 and Campbell at 4:29.  Schwartzbard checked in to AS 7 (Bearwallow Gap – 42.5 miles) at 8:40 with Cooper at 8:53 and Campbell at 8:55.  Campbell left the AS before Cooper and looked to possibly chase Schwartzbard down for the victory.  WRONG!  Cooper closed to within 2 minutes of Schwartzbard by AS 8 (Bobblets Gap – 49.5 miles) with Campbell falling back.  Within the next 3 miles, Cooper raced by Schwartzbard and flew to the finish, completing the course in 12:31:22.  Schwartzbard held off Campbell 13:00:24 to 13:08:16, to take second place.

            Phillips checked in to AS 2 (Petites Gap – 7.5 miles) at 1:21 with Brooking at 1:26 and Bednosky at 1:28.  That was as close as Brooking and Bednosky ever got, as Philips pulled away the rest of the race, taking her race to the men.  By AS 3 (13.1 miles) “Cat Girl” had moved into fourth and stayed there the rest of the day, making an unbelievable ultra debut!!!  I knew she would run well, but I never expected her to run such a GREAT race.  At 42.5 miles, she was only 23 minutes out of the lead.  Finishing only 8 minutes behind the great runner Courtney Campbell (4 time MMTR 50 Mile winner) demonstrated just how well she ran. 

            Bednosky took second place in 15:24.  Just like her husband Ryan, Lori Cooper put on a late rush and took third in 15:45 with Brooking taking fourth in 15:50, and also first female master runner.  Jerry Turk (Clinton, CT) took the masters’ title in 14:40.  The grand master winner was Dan Lehmann (Helvetia, WV) in 16:15, and Gary Knipling (Mason Neck, VA) was the super masters’ winner in 17:09.  Gary’s son Keith, finished with his dad. 

            Five males and five females finished the “Horton Slam” and received the embroidered blanket:  Joe Novak, David Snipes, Josh Gilbert, Brian Loose, Graham Zollman, Annette Bednosky, Rebekah Trittipoe, Anita Walker, Amy Thompson, and Marty Lindemann.

            The race would not have been successful if we didn’t have the help of the Lynchburg Amateur Radio Club (LARC).  Hal De Vuyst (who has worked all 21 MMTR 50 mile races) headed up the LARC team and was able to recruit a team of 14 LARC members to man the aid stations.  They also supplied huge lights for the night aid stations.  Their help was invaluable in tracking the runners.

            My wife (Nancy) and Nancy Hesse cooked soup and chili for the runners to eat after the race.  Sitting by the fireplace in the lodge and eating hot food by the runners was a treat for them.

                        The black long-sleeved t-shirt designed by Liz Corrales was a real hit with the runners.  The saying on the front of the shirt “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep” was very appropriate.  Liz also designed the logo for the finisher awards.  Male and female winners received the beautiful embroidered Patagonia Supercell Jackets.  The other top 9 males and top 4 females received a Patagonia R.5 tops.  Age group winners also received the R.5 top.  All other finishers received a Patagonia mid-weight capilene Zip-T top.

            Lawrence Bryant cooked breakfast for runners and crews at AS 6 (34 miles).  I wasn’t even running and the greasy breakfast tasted great to me.  What a welcome break.

            Because of great support from our sponsors (Frank Villa, Montrail, and Patagonia), we were able to give away almost $1,000 of running attire in a raffle.  Conquest was also provided by Gray Buffington.

            Because it was such a huge success, there will be a second running of the Hellgate 100K.  The date for 2004 is December 11, starting at 12:01 a.m.  To maintain the spirit and intimacy of the race, we will be limiting the field to 100 runners, and I expect that will be reached way before race day.  It will not be a part of the LUS, but it will continue to be a part of the “Horton Slam.”

            It was a very rewarding and fulfilling experience to initiate, develop, and direct the first 100K ever held in Virginia.  There is always the very REAL possibility of bad weather, but that is part of the challenge.  The cut-off time will also remain at 18 hours.

            The Hellgate 100K is a VERY different and challenging race.  The rewards of finishing the race are enormous, just ask one of the runners who finished it.  I know it was very rewarding for me to complete it in a training run. 

P.S.  Two different runners used their altimeters to measure the elevation gain.  The two readings were 13,100 and 13,900 feet of gain.

P.S.S.  Neal Bryant dropped out at AS 5 and had an appropriate quote, “It is the best race I have never finished.”