Opening Scene: I was battered, beaten, disoriented, and hungry. This was my Hell at Hellgate. I felt so disconnected from the race, from the world. I truly felt Lost. Lost in time, in space, in some type of limbo between reality and nightmare. This is Hellgate.
Have you ever looked at your year and felt that things were just tough? Where you prepared for your exams only to get grades below what you hoped for? In many ways that is how most of my 2021 season felt in the running world. I started out with a “BANG” running across NJ. Then as I recovered, I felt excited about a great year ahead. But with a bad ankle injury(tearing a tendon), most of my year was not at full-strength.
Manchester 2 Monadnock was a great season opener but with my ankle not where it needed to be, I struggled more than I would had liked.
Cut 112 was playing out to be an epic run for me but then I really re-injured it and again to the point where I had to drop due to avoiding any further damage.
I suffered in the heat at the Mission Clean water timed run and had to resort to more of a training effort than all-out race effort.
Virgil Crest was a brutal day of suffering where everything that could go wrong-did and then the Maine Marathon, I had the biggest suffer fest when my sinuses closed up and I felt like I was running under the ocean.
Now to Hellgate. It is a hard race and one that has different conditions every year. I think that is some of the allure- that no one year is the same. By Hellgate, I had gotten my ankle back to more normal levels and with a solid ankle brace, I found I could run hard without fear of re-injury. I felt fit and ready to run a solid race at Hellgate. I really wanted to put together a complete race-which I felt since NJ, I had not been able to do.
Hellgate is a David Horton “cult” classic that really has this special mystique around the race. From the Midnight (12:01) start to the pre-race dinner, and meeting; this race is a special one. The weather was another wet one with rain as soon as we arrived at Camp Bethel, but possibly warmer weather this year with temps in the high 30’s , low 40’s most of the time and warming into the morning in to the 50’s and 60’s. The weather at Hellgate is as much a part of the experience than anything else. To me, this is what drives the challenge of the race. The course is a perfect symphony of rocky, wet, leaf-ridden trails that Virginia Blue Ridge mountain running is known for, jeep roads, and double-wide dirt roads that go up and down the tops of these mountains in the mist. The roads are often long gut-busting climbs that seem to go on forever and once at the top-usually an aid station followed by more techy trails but only the light of your headlamp or light torch.
So I came into Hellgate with high hopes. No matter what, I set the goal of Top 10-as this does gain some merit with some special Patagonia schwag only those lucky-enough to earn those places get. In 2019, it was a super warm Patagonia down jacket. This year, a R1 Hooded Fleece Jacket. The merch is always a nice motivator when you are really suffering out there. And at Hellgate, everyone suffers-even if for only a few miles (horton miles).
There were many of the top runners back again: Course Record Holder Michael Dubova, Hellgate staple-Jordan Chang, John Anderson, Chris Roberts, And out from the Northwest: Mario Mendoza. It was going to be a fast race.
It was fun this year to have my amazing wife, Ashlee along for the ride. She would be crewing me at Bearwhallow, the crux of the final push to the finish. The race was humid, wet, foggy, misty; a perfect eerie type of Hellgate vibe. We lined up together at the Hell Gate trailhead at the gate as once 12:01 would hit, we would be off on an adventure through our own form of metaphorical “Hell”. When the race started we headed out and the adventure began. I ran with the main group and just hung out. The first few miles do not decide anything yet in this beast of a race. It is those latter miles through the night that ultimately set the stage. Around mile 3 there is a creek crossing that in 2019 I fell in. This year I would avoid that. Of course, I did slip on a rock and almost went in but caught-myself just in time. Man, that was a close one.
I ran with Michael Dubova as Jordan Chang shot off the massive “forever climb”. We did not speak much if at all but just took in the moment. I knew he was going to go for it and have a stellar day. And after that climb and aid, you enter the techy trail. He shot ahead on this section and that was the last time I saw him. I had a sweet Kogalla waist light and Black Diamond Headlamp that helped to light my way and I had issues with the belt so I ran with the Kogalla light in my hand. Those 700+ lumens was so clutch to be able to see every wet rock. If only the battery lasted longer. I soon linked-up with Mario Mendoza which was fun to catch up since 2013 National Snowshoe in Bend. We both took our time through the trail section and then up on the road climb, we had another runner join us. We worked together at a good uphill tempo. It was by mile 14 or so where I was getting too hot. I was sweating heavy and my legs just started cramping up really bad. I had to lose that group and walk for 15 second spurts while taking in hydration to try and remedy this.
I then had that moment of worry. Why am I struggling so early on? I then played this game of having to get enough fluids and electrolytes into my system. But I have noticed that I crave water more than electrolyte drinks which I think is to myself being more akin to fat fueling and burning. I struggled through the next parts of the course. The temperature would go from 30’s to 50’s and back again like the drop of a dime. It was hard to keep yourself in the right type of temperature and that was beating me up and I am sure made me waste more precious energy. Hellgate can be disorienting as you run through the deep dark woods up these mountain paths.
The Fog was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was like something out of a London horror movie. Now moving through the high point of the race, the fog would blow in through the trees and with your headlamps and lights, would radiate and create a fog out where I could not see in front of me. It made navigating difficult. So much so that I hit a rock and slammed downward. I scrapped up my knee pretty bad as blood was running down my leg but in the moment, it was a wake-up call to be more careful. I hit one aid station in need of salts. I had some soda and chicken broth as another runner came by. As soon as I left the aid, I stopped and threw up all the essential calories that I needed. I think I was in like 6th place-maybe 7th and things had gone from not feeling great to much worse.
As more fog rolled through these sections- this is the doldrums of the race course. It is 2 to 3 in the morning where you are most tired and truly “foggy”. I could not take down any gels or calories throughout this section. I felt a little bit in a fog myself. This was a lonely stretch and hours of feeling out of sorts. I hit one section of the course that you have to make a turn. I initially thought it was left. I push the uphill section maybe a mile and did not see any pink flags. I get to a dead end in a field and felt like this was off. This did not seem like the course. With the Fog, I could not look ahead and see a streamer so I turned back to where that turn happened. I got there and soon went the other way to finally find a streamer. That sucked. I then picked up my pace to make up some time. I was disappointed in myself for waisting so much time. It may not have felt like a lot of time but I was stopped in that field for minutes on end.
Up and down the dark foggy gravel roads I went. It was then at another section where you hit a sort of field. This is a tricky spot which I got lost in 2019 and went left or right. I knew it was around here somewhere. With the thick fog, I walked the perimeter of the field up and down, up and down. Where is the trail? I waisted a lot of time here to finally find that trail right in plain sight once some of the fog cleared.
I was battered, beaten, disoriented, and hungry. This was my Hell at Hellgate. I felt so disconnected from the race, from the world. I truly felt Lost. Lost in time, in space, in some type of limbo between reality and nightmare. I kept pushing onward-not knowing what would come next. It was right before the sun was ready to hover into the horizon that I hit my next aid. I took time here eating a banana, drinking water as I had finally gotten myself to sipping on Tailwind, eating a little banana that my stomach would not revolt. I was low energy. It had been at least 6 hours without any real calories in my system. In my own fog, I thought I asked what mileage we were at here, and it seemed from my watch I was like 5 miles off-track. Now looking back on things, it wasn’t the mileage but the time that I lost going the wrong way and searching for the trail in the heavy fog that really costed me something like 20-30 minutes of wandering like a drunkard out in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I tried to surge ahead as I saw the watch drawing closer to 7am and I was maybe 45 minutes from where I was at Bearwhallow in 2019. I started to worry about Ashlee worrying about me. I always love this section that leads-up to Bearwhallow. It is as the sun starts to rise that so does your spirits. It was here that I pushed my pace. I then saw Chris Roberts almost in the same location that I saw Jack Kuenzle. I became so full of energy and happiness that here was another person in the race. I zoomed up to him and told him what I thought had happened about getting lost as I zipped on by. I was hoping I could pull Chris along. I was now drunk on this spirit of feeling. I was now in that near top 10 slot. And was just happy I was salvaging my race mistakes.
All good things must end. I pushed too hard for running on fumes of fumes, as I felt my body literally eating me. It felt so odd. I hit a climb and became so light-headed that I almost tipped forward off of the trail. That would had been bad. So I walked. And tried to run but usually became a walk again. Chris then passed me. I just had to make it to Bearwhallow. Here I could see Ashlee, and regroup. I could Eat lots of Bananas and just see what I could do those last 20 miles. The winning Female, Rachel Spaulding came up on me in this stretch and was nice enough to give me a Spring Energy Gel. Those things are amazing and expensive. I was so grateful for that and that style of gel was perfect for me. I started moving stronger just after a runner with an orange beanie passed me. I hit the aid in like 13th place maybe? It was a relief to get here. I changed out of my clothes, and got a solid pep talk from David Horton and Michelle Anderson to get rolling. Ashlee gave me the fire that Ian Golden was right behind me and I knew the chase was on. It was at this moment that I let go. I had run half of the race with what had to be 100 calories up to this point minus that Spring gel. How did I do that? In the past I would had wilted away. Yet I still maintained a strong-enough pace to be back into the thick of things.
And so I pushed up the climb and just ran. I just did my thing. If I would be passed, let it happen. I was content on finishing and whatever the fates had for me, would be fine with me. But that connection of community and positive energy I felt at Bearwhallow, gave me the boost I needed. I now was keeping calories down. I could see the trail and I knew the course well at this point. Let’s Roll. It was at this point that I passed two more runners in this section. I was in 9th male and 10th overall. I was run-hiking the ups and cruising on the flats and downs. And soon in the famous “Forever Section” the downhill sections became tough with the wet rocks so then my ups got stronger. I do not know how all of this turned around the way that it did. I was in this “Fog” so much of the raise to finally come out with some clarity. So I pushed, and pushed, and kept moving well. I hit the last aid station. Now it was only 5k up and then about 5k down and flat to the finish. I walk and ran up that 5k climb with purpose. In 2019, I was on a full death march. I got to the top finally and then across the Blue Ridge parkway and bam- time to hammer down to the finish. The wet rocks here made it harder for me to run the same pace I did in 2019 but I was still in the 7 to low 8.
You hit the gravel road and then it is like 1.5 miles to the finish. I started to think about the entirety of this adventure. I ran most of this dealing with adversity I normally have not dealt with and for so long. But how I rose from those “ashes” was really cool. I might of had some happy tears wellup in my eyes that last stretch. Hellgate gave me Hell, and yet I live to tell the tale. On the day, I was a survivor of the course and challenge this race poses. I hit that final stretch into camp and pushed to the finish. And Man, crossing that finishline was incredible. 9th place male and 10th overall. I was down but not out.
I won the Stupid Award, a sweet fleece blanket with a cool embroidery on there. Sometimes I learned, you have to do stupid to find out what you are made of. This run for me was character-building. Never give up. Our bodies are designed to survive. Trust yourself and keep working through things. Because eventually, things can and will get better. It takes belief.
Thank you to everyone at Hellgate. The volunteers, the race organization, Horton, the competitors, friends and family, and the Camp Bethel staff for another epic time. This was the perfect way for me to close out 2021. This community is so freaking cool and you all helped give me the fuel I needed to finish. A finish is a finish so thank you.
I hope to take this energy I was given at Hellgate and use it at the Cocodona 250. Time to bring the heat!