Hellgate 100k: Quest for the Puffy Jacket and a Western States Lottery Ticket

How to start this post?  The Hellgate 100k wasn’t only a race to me. It was more than that. It was an adventure, a saga, and challenge of how the human spirit can endure so much and be so strong in the face of adversity. This is my story of my Hellgate.

Coming into the race, Hellgate follows this ultra running mystique and lore that legend David Horton puts into motion in a December 100k in the blue ridge mountains of Virginia. What happens at Hellgate, almost kind of stays at Hellgate. First off, only about 110-140 entrants are let into the race each year as David Horton hand selects the field. The stories of the event are published, but like the Barkley Marathons, not much is made by way of video, pictures, and really detailed audio-visual footage that places non-participants into the thick of the action. Instead, Hellgate is something in which only those that actually run the race can truly gather what this event is all about.  There is this something to be said for running into the darkness at 12:01 am just as midnight waves goodbye and you wave goodbye to your loved ones as you embark into the cold, wet, and unrelenting terrain that makes this race special. With a midnight start, you run up and down the mountains in the Blue Ridge all through the early morning into the day. There is no other race that I know of like this around and with that unique start-time, comes its challenges and opportunities. The race being in December is a crap-shoot for what the weather can be. Every Hellgate gets labeled a name to define the day: Sissygate, Heatgate, Icegate, Snowgate, Watergate; they all poke fun at the ambiance that runners get to indulge in during their own Hellgate experience. For me, I had never run a race this long in the pitch black. Really, I train mostly in the dark on roads, not a ton on trails. Here I would be facing my fear of navigating in a totally new environment with at least 9 hours of the race in pure darkness. What was I getting myself into?

So how hard is Hellgate? Really?

This is a question that I asked myself before I ran the event as many runners might wonder. The truth of it is, it is hard, but not hard. What I mean by this is that the course has its fair share of elevation and tough climbs and punishing descents but the footing that you run on is diverse and sometimes fast.  Hellgate has a flow to the course, often running a long ascent on a gravel road, similar to Tussey Mountainback. Then you run on some winding trail along the ridgelines- up and down with piles of leaves and hidden rocks underfoot. Then you come out of that onto wider atv trail that is rutted out and can have the occasional rock underfoot. Rinse and repeat and this is the natural eb and flow that is the music of Hellgate. So yes, it can be hard and it can be easy, but that is far from the point.

The woods and trails of Hellgate are mystical and devious in the night and you never know what strange happenings might occur while you are out in darkness…

My Hellgate begins with a nice drive down from Princeton, NJ with my Father. The weather forecast is to be cold, wet and rainy. I have all of my raingear ready and warm layers as I know this will be crucial to just finishing this beast of an event.  We arrive at Camp Bethel, the finishing point of the race where all of the pre-race festivities begin. It is here, we get to have a complimentary pre-race pasta meal, potentially our last supper before Hellgate takes us and runners have the chance to rest in the cabins (thank you Nalven for reserving a cabin), and connect with old and new faces. As my first Hellgate, I came into the event as a somewhat unknown. I have run many fast ultras in my career as many of the road events 50k-100k have suited me well. But I do look at myself as an Ultra-trail runner, that can handle diverse terrain well and have developed my aptitude to perform best on courses like this.

From the moment you set into camp, everyone with the race staff is so friendly, open and conversational. Then you get to meet Mr. David Horton and let me tell you, that man is something special and can talk your ear off too!  You now get to eat and then head over to the Pre-Race Briefing. Like a sermon, Horton inspires you and humbles you in his prose of what Hellgate is and is going to be for us all. It is something you have to be there to truly feel the hairs stick up on the back of your neck. Reality sets in as in a couple of hours: 10:51pm on the dot, we will leave the camp and caravan the 30 or so odd minute drive to the race start. We catch some shut-eye for a couple of hours as the rain continues to fall. It has been raining steady since 5pm. We wake up from our brief slumber and prepare to head to war (or that is at least the feeling I had from it). 

It was a wild thing to see the long line of cars out on the interstate cruising to Hellgate.  By 11:20, we arrive in the trailhead parking lot. We check back in with Horton and then we wait inside our cars for a little more. I finish up drinking my Yerba Matte drink (a real boost for my race) that helps get me awake and alert. We roll out of our cars, turn on our headlamps and process to the famous “Hellgate” After a national anthem is recited, we are set and in an instant, off we go.

Chapter 1: The Race is in progress – Where can I meet my Dad and change my gloves?

I would not see my Father for another 20+ some odd miles, as the cold and steady rain with temps in the mid to low 30’s devours the group of runners, brave enough to tackle Hellgate. I set-up with a pack and like any good trail-ultra; the pace feels relaxed, with ample conversation. We are only delaying what our bodies will inevitably go through much later in the race.  I settle in with a group of maybe 12 or so, hit the first creek crossing and of course I slip on the rock and go down right into the freezing cold water. Horton has a “Stupid Award” and I was thinking that I might already be making a case for it.

My mits and tights are now soaked as I know I have to compose myself and just get through the race until 20 some miles before proper aid. This is the strange part. My mind during the night hours was laser-focused but also numb. I was enduring unreal conditions for a long time and could really do nothing about it, and so I committed to the Hellgate march. Up we hit a long gravel-road ascent. I loved this part and gradual worked my way up the pack as it began to thin out.  I tried to make conversation with the runners I was with as this camaraderie could help distract us from everything out there.  I shared some miles with Michael Owen. He just finished like 3rd at JFK the other weekend and would be in my mind, the guy to go after.

We hit the first aid station and I rolled through, still with ample hydration and food in my Nathan Vaporkrar 12L pack. Let me talk about the fog. Since my headlamp displays more of a floodlight design, in foggy conditions, it refracts the light and makes it very difficult to see where to go. A rookie mistake for Hellgate. I had my Nathan Zephyr 300 running flashlight and had to resort to just using that as runners started to blow by me on this trail section. I struggled through here. It was like I was a drunken sailor. I kept falling on the wet rocks and leaves and having difficulty seeing the trail. It was frustrating as I knew that I could run much better than I currently was. It now became my motivation to link up with runners and use their lighting to help guide me through. I have no idea what place I am in, I just want to survive until the daylight. I know once the sun comes up, I will be able to see normal again and be able to really push myself.

We hit another gravel road climb and I push with one guy, then separate from him. I make my way up using my headlamp to scan around me to make sure I do not miss a crucial turn. Hellgate is not marked with neon signs to help guide runners. No, you have  orange streamers guiding your way with some orange chalk on the road for tricky sections and this you must need the ability to focus on your surroundings so as not to miss a crucial turn. My main mission for this race was top 10 for Men. With that placing, I would ensure getting an embroidered Patagonia Down Jacket, an amazing prize in its own right but in these brutal conditions, would mean even more of a real treat.  I ran with Jordan Chang and we chatted up in the foggy summits of the mountains. I hung with him until Mike from Utah came by and I latched on with him. We hung out for some miles until on a trail section, he started to pull away on the downhill. What I do not remember was if this was before or after Jennings Creek aid station. I remember coming down the hill and going into the aid, already soaked through the bones on my running tights and my mitts were so wet, that my hands were literally freezing. I blew through that aid station and began more of the eb and flow that is Hellgate. The rain continued to pour and I just remained present and alive in the moments as I was engulfed by nothing but darkness and had become alone after Mike disappeared into the foggy woods. I fumbled through the trail sections, and continued to grow frustrated with just trying to find my way. It was now that I wondered where my Father was as he was supposed to be at the last aid station, and  I hope that nothing bad happened to him driving out in these conditions. The tough part of this is not knowing and feeling almost stripped of reality.  Hellgate is run almost in a dream state, as its hard to comprehend everything that you are feeling and experiencing.

The Course Profile:

See the source image
http://www.extremeultrarunning.com/

Chapter 2: Survival of the Swiftest

What impressed me about my state was that I was completely alert and by now in the race, it was maybe 3 or 4 am. After Jennings Creek, things became really interesting for me. The course had ice on the trail slightly and on some of the trees but nothing that was so dire in injuring yourself. By this next stretch from the trail into another gravel road, the road had frozen completely like a sheet of sheer ice as to what you find at a skating rink. I tried to run either in the middle on a small plot of frozen grass or on the edges where a layer of icy snow covered the footing. It was here where I wanted to pick up the pace a little as my body wrestled with staying warm. I would have surges of feeling really cold and then I would pop a Boom Gel or drink from my bottle and I would have a little more heat surge from my internal furnace to keep me moving for a little longer.

Here is where it gets DIRE!

“SMACK!” , down I went. “SMACK”, “Ugh”, “SMACK”, “Oh Cmon!!!”. I kept slipping on the ice. It bruised my body pretty well and on one slip I started to slide off the mountain road…  “Oh No,NO,NO”. Down I go like on a slip and slide. I am caught by a branch luckily, my feet dangling below. I shine my headlamp and see a drop-off of about 800 feet to the next level of the mountain. Like pure instinct, I do not panic and pull myself back up onto the icy road, maintaining my balance like a graceful ice skater and shuffle my way onto the other side of the shoulder away from the edge. In that moment, I did not know I had almost fallen in what would have been a very dire moment. I had no time to thing about what could had been. I was out here surviving and the only way I would survive, is if I could make it to the finish. I kept plugging away.  I had never been so stripped to just the raw fabric of being a living being just trying to survive.

I hit some more aid stations and am so happy to see other human beings. It brought so much joy to have those connections as these long stretches without anyone was tough. I had one section on a road to trail section where I had no idea where to go. I waited about 10 minutes until I saw the next runner and we both finally was able to find the trail. He was hurting back with his stomach and I believe later dropped. I kept on surviving.

I hit an aid station near an ATV section and it must be 5-6 am at this point. I talk with the volunteers and man they were so brave for being out in these elements with us. I fuel up and they tell me this section is about 5-7 miles until the crew access aid station. I could not wait to see my Father as I missed him much earlier in the race.  As soon as I left this aid station, I can see the sky start to change color. I am in good spirits as a runner soon comes my way on the trail. I motion to him to tell him he is going the opposite direction and then turn to him to ask if he is okay. He now slogged by almost in a zombie trance. I kept going as I knew he was only about a half mile from the aid station if that. I stopped for a bathroom break and man I had been dealing with some bad rubbing on my inner thighs and legs as it burned to put back on my tights. The rain was still coming down.  When will this end?

The next section was the faster parts of the course. Here we would run around a trail that just would weave in and out of the ridgeline until the next aid station at Bearwallow Gap. The fog started to subside and as the sun started to slowly rise in the horizon, the clouds parted and I could start to see how high up I was.  The sunrise was something magical. It is har to explain the feeling that surged through my body at that time. The conditions we encountered throughout the night were truly the most difficult I had ever experienced in my lifetime.

Chapter 3: Sunrise Revival

As things came into perspective, I was way up about 2000ft above the land below and the warmth of the sun was so welcoming and beautiful. The emotions I had now felt was like sheer bliss. I had fought off my inner demons, survived a dangerous fall, and with my sore and battered body, I was complete. I felt a new wave of energy and life take hold of me. I began to fly along the trail at a pace that was like running an Olympic Mile. I was rejuvenated and free.  This is the moment in the film where our hero has gone through unexplainable hardship and has fought to survive and now  is the moment of realization that we have weathered the storm and are now safe. Just to be able to see the surroundings around me felt like the biggest victory of my life. For hours on end, I stumbled and fumbled through the fog and cold, wet darkness of the Hellgate course; miraculously never wavering too far from the race course.

As the miles passed, I soon locked eyes on a runner with a yellow pack. ANOTHER PERSON! Since the zombie guy I had seen maybe 7 miles ago, this was so exciting. I quickly glided over to him and I am sure that I freaked him out. I started talking and it was runner, Zach Kuenzle. We ran for a little bit together and he must had thought I was chugged 8 Boom gels in a row or something because I was wired. He soon let me lead and I kept flowing. He had said we were 2nd and 3rd place and I thought—Holy crap, how did that happen?  I had real no idea of my place, I just wanted to survive. And in this survival run, I conserved some energy to be able to know push the pace. I think it was through this section that some 7-7:30 miles happened.  It was here where the rain finally stopped, after 9 plus hours of driving freezing cold rain, It had stopped.

Chapter 4: Bearwallow!!! Horton Says I GOTTA GO!

Coming into that aid station was like civilization at last. It was a muddy dirt parking lot with some tents set-up. I ran here and started to fuel. My body was feeling worn well and I needed a little break to replenish my fuel stores. It was here, I dropped my pack, changed my top layers and wanted to change my bottoms and socks too.  As I finally was able to connect with my Dad, David Horton is giving me a pep talk that I am looking great and can close on Mike up ahead. After some time goes by Zach comes in and Horton is like “You Gotta go!!!”. Without changing my bottoms, I now have a new upper with more layers, new gloves and a new beanie. Man did that feel like home. And without grabbing more gels, off I go.

This next section is running through all types of rolling terrain and has this “Forever section” It was at some point through here where I hit a little low patch. I soon went though my handhelds and ate all of my gels. Now I was riding solo. My body craved nourishment and I was hurting from the lack of it. I got through this section with only little shuffling on the small climbs here and then on a bigger climb started to falter. My body half felt torn to bits from all of the chaffing from moving in soaking wet clothes for now almost 10 hours. I slogged through this section as best as I could and hit a little aid station where I needed to take some pickles and much needed salts and fluids. Once I was topped-off, I continued onward. I had my ups and downs in this section often running the flats and downhills well and the uphills, I would just poke along.

Before I knew it, I was at the last aid station. I came in there and at this point, my body was wrecked. This is the part of an ultra where you have to dig deep. I hung out with my father here and stripped down my layers as the temperature began to warm as the morning turned into a pretty nice day for December. I had about a 10k to go with 5k worth of an all uphill climb followed by a nice descent into Cap Bethel and the finish line. I left this last aid station walking really slowly as I was hoping I could regain a little back into me, but the section without any fuel in the Forever section really did me in and there was no real coming back from this.

Halfway up the big climb, I was caught by Zach and did not try to give chase at all. I felt that I could comfortably cruise in third place which was very much over-achieving for myself and my expectations in this race.  I soon pushed my hard walk from 20 minute miles now down to around 14-15. I gave it my all in the climb and once at the top, I crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway and then began to descend. The view from up top was incredible and it was so exciting to know that three short miles, that I would be done with Hellgate. I passed some hunters with their hound dogs and man those dogs were cute. That gave me extra motivation as I willed myself down the mountain. What was once deemed an impossible task, I soon gained momentum and my body started to allow me to run 7:20 minute miles, then even push faster than that at times just under 7. As I hit the final stretch on a gravel road and saw the 1 mile to go in chalk on the road, I could see 2nd place right there up ahead maybe 200 feet ahead of me. I yelled to him that we were going to finish. I started tearing up knowing how I had conquered something that was so brutally hard and, in those conditions, it was enough to strip anyone of their sanity.

I cleared the Camp Bethel entrance and then sprinted as best as I could to the finish. I was right behind Zach by about a minute to finish in 12 hours and 11 minutes , with a moving time of 11 hours and 44 minutes.

Crossing a finish line had never felt so sweet!  I gave a big hug to the RD, David Horton and met with our top 3 Men as we talked about the comradery of fighting through these shared experiences together. I gave my Father a big hug and simply said, “WOW! That was soooo hard! I am so grateful to be done!”.  It was a relief to be all finished and what was once a brutal night, the morning and day was calm and beautiful for a nice December day in Virginia.

Horton gave us our Patagonia Puffy Jackets, which was sheer motivation for getting to the finish line. As soon I as put that sucker on, man it symbolized the comfort of civilization, of warmth, and of victory.

I spent the next few hours changing my soaked clothes and dealing with some of the worst chaffing on my bottom that I have ever experienced. Though the aftermath was filled with the wounds of battle, it was sweet to be a survivor of the night. 

The Hellgate 100k++ is a race not for the faint of heart. This race challenges you in ways you never thought possible. The race is surrounded by tons of lore and it merits the stories and myths behind this event. Once you experience Hellgate, you are changed forever.  I am so grateful to be a part of the Hellgate family and am looking forward to the race in 2020. In 2019 I survived the race, but can I thrive in the race? I would love to go back and test my limits and see just how fast I can run this race in.

I do know that when the clock strikes 12:01am, Hellgate will be ready, and so will I…

 A little recap from Mr. David Horton Himself:

http://www.extremeultrarunning.com/2019_hellgate/horton.html

Gear Used:

  • 361 Degrees Taroko Trail Shoes
  • Janji Nepal Running Tights
  • Outdoor Research Helium WP Jacket
  • Nathan Exodraw Handhelds (2)
  • Nathan Vaporkrar 12L Hydration Pack
  • Dion Snowshoe Beanie
  • Fits socks USA Low Trail sock (2 pairs)
  • Craft Hybrid Running Mits and Craft Running Gloves
  • Janji Kenya Longsleeve Shirt
  • Craft Baselayer
  • 361 Degree Singlet

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