Tuesday, December 17, 2019

2019 Hellgate 100k Race Report: A Cold, Rainy Day in Hell


Chapter 1 - The Plan

Hellgate has been a race that has been on my radar for a long time. However, due to Dr. Horton’s abhorrence of the modern race signup tool known as the internet and my apparently latent bias to the United States Postal system, I had never put my application into the mailbox. This year, with the birth of my second child, Lily, I had promised my wife that I would limit myself to signing up for only five races. Early on in the year I had set my race schedule with four races, culminating in the Plain 100 in September (with the DC Northface 50 in April, Highlands Sky in June, and Twisted Branch 100k in August). I knew that I would want to do a race later in the Fall after Plain and tentatively began thinking about Hellgate.

My Hellgate plan did not become set in stone until July. As a result of my second child being born in February, I had to get creative in my training this year My purchase of the Nordictrack Incline Trainer helped. Did I run the Terrapin Mountain 50k on a treadmill? Yes I did. But I was also forced to run outside whenever I had the opportunity, which was usually when the rest of my family was sleeping. On a weekend late in July, my wife, kids and I piled into the minivan for a trip to the New Jersey shore to visit my parents. The route to my parents house cuts across New Jersey through the Pine Barrens before arriving near the shore. Looking at a map and devising a plan, I had asked my wife to drop me off on the way on the western edge of the Pine Barrens so that I could run the rest of the way to my parents house. Thus, a little after midnight on July 20th, which just so happened to be the hottest day of the summer (85 degrees at midnight) I found myself dropped off on the side of Route 70 with a general route that would take me 40 something miles on highways, back roads, and trails to my destination. It ended up being a transcendent run. From the beautiful desolation of some of the piney towns at night, to the mysterious nocturnal sounds of the pine bogs, to the respite found after the sun came up in running across the be-sprinklered lawns of a retirement village-- the run was both hard and joyous. At 7:00 a.m. at the end of the run, I knew that I needed to run Hellgate.

Leading up to the race, I decided to set an ambitious goal-- a sub-13 hour finish and a top 10 placing. After the entrants list came out, I knew that coming anywhere near the top 10 in such a competitive field would require a force majeure. Nonetheless, all I could do was set myself up to finish in less than 13 hours and let the race play out. In planning my race, I studied Aaron Schwartzbard’s invaluable course description and my friend Ryan Quinnelly’s strava data from his awesome 4th place finish at Hellgate in 2015. Did I use that information to make a split chart or anything else to reference during the race? Of course not. Because at almost 40 years old, I am an old man and extol the virtues of running by “feel” without any need to look at any of those new-fangled watches that the kids are wearing these days.

Training for the race went well. Well, as well as it could considering the needs of my family and job. Six weeks out from Hellgate, still feeling content and complacent after Plain, I decided I needed to set an arbitrary goal for myself-- run at least 10 miles every day for the next 10 days. That arbitrary goal worked, and resulted in 2 weeks with about 75 miles apiece. However, both weeks were sparse on long runs and relied heavily on the treadmill for elevation. For the next week, Ryan Q challenged me to us both hitting 100 mile weeks. That, too, worked, and included one long run on the fire roads in Shenandoah National Park. Then came the taper. Overall, I was very happy with the volume in my training but knew I was missing those back-to-back long runs in the mountains that would really season my downhill running legs. The treadmill is great for training for the uphills, but there is no substitute for the downhill pounding that your legs really need to get ready for a mountain race. Still, I felt confident leading up to race night. And as the weather forecast for the race started coming into focus, excitement combined with that confidence, as it looked like the conditions might make for an epic adventure.

I knew that I would need to try to tamp down that excitement at the start of the race. Going out too fast would ruin the possibility of reaching my goals. I only really was able to internalize this truth in 2017 after many years of running ultras and starting out too fast. The traits that make me a strong ultra runner-- stubbornness and hardheadedness-- are also a personality flaws in everyday life. Thus, despite reading and hearing that one should start out a race conservatively for a long time, it was not until I was forced to experience it at the Miwok 100k that I was really able to accept it. You see, at Miwok, first, I was accidentally stuck near the back of the pack when the horn for the race start was blown sooner than expected. Out of 400 runners, I started out in 200-something place and had to settle into a long conga line as the race immediately went up a major climb forcing me to hike. Then, while still in 200-something place, at the top of the climb, I took a wrong step and twisted my ankle. It wasn’t until about 20 miles into the race, with my adrenaline covering the pain in my ankle, that I was able to start moving up in the field. And move up I did. By the time of the final downhill to the finish, I found myself around 20th place. I would lose a number of places on the downhill due to my wobbly ankle, but a very valuable lesson was learned. A lesson that I planned on implementing at Hellgate-- without the ankle sprain, though.

Chapter 2 - The Prayer

I woke up at 6:00 a.m. on Friday the 13th to the sound of my cell phone ringing. It was a message from my kindergartner son’s school-- school was cancelled due to the weather. I looked outside my bedroom window and thought that surely this must be a prank-- there’s no precipitation of any sort falling and the ground is completely dry. Checking the weather reports, however, it appeared to be a prophylactic closing- freezing rain was forecast for later that morning. That freezing rain never materialized in my location in Northern Virginia. However, as I look at the reports from Fincastle, Virginia, near where the race starts, it appeared that surfaces were being glazed over with ice. The forecast for that night is about as bad as it can get. Snow I can handle. Extreme cold temperatures are doable. Instead, it’s predicted that there will be temperatures hovering around freezing and rain-- lots of rain.

As I make the three hour drive from my office in Martinsburg to Camp Bethel for the race, there seemed to be a lull in the rain. It was foggy, but the precipitation had stopped. As I kept refreshing my weather channel app, it looked like the outlook was becoming more positive. Now, there was only about an 80% chance of rain overnight. While I was somewhat buoyed by the forecast, I was also completely aware of the curse placed upon me by the weather gods-- if I’m showing up for a hard race, the rain clouds will be following me-- the 2015 Cloudsplitter 100, where 24 hours of rain turned the former ATV trails into knee deep mud pits, the 2016 Thunder Rock 100, where I learned that 20 hours of downpours and no pre-race groin lubing does not lead to happy results, the 2016 Grindstone, the 2017 Ouray 100, and even this year’s Plain 100, where in a race known for it’s dry and dusty conditions, it rained for the first time in race history. In fact, the only 100 miler that I did where the weather conditions were benign was the 2017 Grindstone. However, like Mr. Bemis from the Twilight Zone, this was a cruel twist of fate because I did not get to enjoy the temperate conditions as I showed up at the start line with full blown sinusitis and laryngitis. With that history, I knew that the 20 percent chance of no rain was not going to happen.

I arrived in Camp Bethel in time to hear Dr. David Horton’s pre-race welcome and prayer prior to the buffet dinner. Little did I realize that the race would soon lead me to question my own religious beliefs, or lack thereof as an agnostic leaning atheist. As Dr. Horton offered a prayer, he said his thanks and then asked god for a small request-- to keep the rain at bay for the 140 or so runners about to set off at 12:01 a.m. Knowing Dr. Horton, perhaps he had his fingers-crossed when making this request. I choose to believe, however, that this is proof of the divine-- not of the benevolent, loving, touchy-feely sort, but rather of the vengeful, brutal god of the old testament. Because as we runners sat around munching on our pre-race lasagna, little did anyone have any idea about how nasty and brutal it was about to get after midnight-- where for most runners any time goals would be set aside and it would become all about surviving the night.

Chapter 3 - The Deluge

At 12:01 a.m. at the race start, it was raining. Not a downpour… yet… but definitely a steady rain. I started, according to my plan, conservatively, and placed myself in the midpack. Knowing it was going to be a long night, morning, and possibly afternoon, I started off slow despite the extremely runnable beginning terrain. It wasn’t easy for me, as I felt like zipping by runners in a long conga line that was forming, but I kept thinking back to Miwok and the lesson learned. Also, I made the best possible clothing choices, again taking some lessons from the Plain 100 this year. Despite shivering at the start line, I donned a short sleeve baselayer, with a long sleeve base layer, and my Outdoor Research Helium jacket on top. I knew that even if my clothes underneath got wet-- and if continued to rain, they would get wet-- my body heat trapped underneath of the jacket would keep me warm enough… as long as I kept moving. I also wore a pair of heavy wool glomitts that I had bought the week before and had a pair of waterproof gloves in a ziplock bag in my pack in case the glomitts got too wet. The only thing that I really questioned pre-race regarding clothing choices was whether to wear full length tights or shorts. While the tights would presumably keep me warmer, I’ve also experienced the displeasure of running for long periods of time in wet tights. Smartly, despite some other very experienced and much faster runners than me going out in shorts, I put on the tights.

As I hit the first climb up to Petites Gap, I naturally started to pass other runners. This is the terrain where I eat-- boring ass, moderately inclined fire roads-- and I make quick work of this milquetoast meal. The rain now seemed to be coming down slightly harder. Soon enough, I’m back onto another climb that’s in my wheelhouse-- up to Camping Gap. At this point, I’m having Terrapin Mountain flashbacks. Also, now it’s not only raining but there’s a thick fog that I’ve ascended into. The parade of headlamps ascending up into the gloom in front of me looked ethereal-- like ghost lights trying to lead me to my doom. As I caught up to one of the ghost lights, I realized it was my buddy Nick, who is a demon descender on the downhills, but who is moving along quite well up the climb too. I wished him a quick word of encouragement as I passed, without realizing the epic struggle through the harsh night that we will both be soon independently fighting. Soon thereafter, I realized that my wool glomitts are no longer keeping my hands dry and feel like boxing gloves filled with concrete-- weighing approximately 86 pounds each. I removed the one on my dominant side so that I could use my right hand to do all the important things-- adjust the beam of my waist light, squeeze and change my hydration bottles, wipe my butt, etc. Keeping it in the sleeve of my jacket seemed to be keeping it warm enough, but I realized I might be having some issues when I try to do the last thing on the above-mentioned list of tasks and can’t really feel if I’m holding onto the toilet paper or not. I then made a conscious decision to change out my gloves once I get to aid station number 4, which had my drop bag.

Chapter 4 - Purgatory

However, when I arrived at aid station 4, that plan fell to shit as I realized that there was something wrong. [None of what I’m about to say should reflect poorly on any of the volunteers who were out there all night and all day in the same miserable conditions. You were all awesome and I can’t thank you enough] If you’ve ever seen Apocalypse Now, there’s a scene in the movie where Martin Sheen’s boat gets to the last American outpost before he encounters Col. Kurtz. As a siege of gunfire and mortars ring out in the background from an unseen enemy, Sheen attempts to find a commanding officer, but quickly realizes there is none. The whole scene is seen through the eyes of one of the soldiers, who had just dropped some lsd. This is what that aid station was like. One of the volunteers tried to locate my dropbag, unsuccessfully. Finally, I was able to find it-- underneath a bunch of other bags which were in no discernable order. I quickly downed an Ensure from the drop bag, but completely forgot about changing gloves. I went to give my drop bag back to the volunteer and he asked me whether I needed help finding my drop bag, seemingly stuck in his own Sisyphean loop of searching for, but not quite finding the bags. I then went to try to fill up my bottles with Tailwind. There was no one there that was assisting in helping the runners fill up their hydration bottles. I asked out loud “what container has the Tailwind”-- there was no answer. Another runner next to me, who seemed to be getting visibly frustrated, was trying to figure out where the water is. His questions, too, went unanswered. I pointed him to an unmarked container and suggested that perhaps that contained water. It did not. He tried it and a brownish liquid poured out-- maybe coffee? iced tea? lsd-laced punch? who knows. I decided that I needed to leave this aid station immediately. This was purgatory and the longer I stayed, the less likely I’d leave. I found a container marked “Razz” and filled my bottles with it. Meanwhile the runner next to me was still calling out into the cold, uncaring night “Water, where is the water?,” as I quickly walked away. As I headed up the road, I called out- “Which way do I go? Is this the way.” No answer. Even though there were people around me-- either I or them had entered the spirit realm and could no longer communicate with each other. As I got further up the road away from the enthrall of the aid station, a person walking along the side of the road finally confirmed that I was in fact moving in the right direction. I only realized after the finish that the aid station workers were likely dealing with extremely hypothermic runners and trying to assist them while us runners that were less hypothermic were left to our own devices. However, it definitely added to the weird factor of an already-surreal journey. 

Chapter 5 - Survive Until Dawn

At this point in the journey, I started realizing that the cold and the incessant rain was having more of an effect on me than I had previously thought. I wasn’t shivering-- following through on my new motto of “just keep on moving” was working on keeping my core body temp from not falling too much. However, with a soaked-through glove on one hand and no glove on the other, I had completely lost dexterity in my fingers. Also, my face, and particularly my lips, felt frozen. I realized this when either I passed another runner or another runner passed me and I tried to offer them customary encouragement. After the words spilled out of my mouth, I thought to myself, “Did I just call that other runner ‘Goo Wad?’” “I hope that runner did not take offense to me calling them ‘Ice Wok’?” No longer able to enunciate with a frozen mouth, I decided that maybe I should just shut up.

At the next aid station, I finally remembered to change my gloves. It was an unreal struggle to try to get the dry, waterproof gloves on my frozen hands. I left the aid station, deciding to continue the struggle while moving forward uphill. Finally, the left glove went on. I then struggled with the right glove for what felt like 15 minutes, finally settling for the fact that I’d probably just have to wear it half on, half off my right hand. I thought of an OJ Simpson joke-- “if the glove doesn’t fit, you still can’t quit.” Luckily for them, there were no other runners around to share it with. Soon, though, my predicament no longer mattered. My so-called “waterproof” gloves were quickly soaked through and went back in my pack.

Adding to the challenge, all of that rain had started to freeze over on the trails. At first, there was a small area on the crown of the fire road where I could still get traction. Then, I was relegated to trudging along on the leaf-strewn sides of the trail. Still, I was moving well uphill-- more out of necessity than anything else because if I kept on moving fast enough I would keep the shivering at bay.

Finally, I allowed myself to start dreaming of daylight, which no longer seemed impossibly far away. I took a look around me, and the forest looked beautiful in the gloaming-- glistening, ice-glazed branches reflecting off the beam of my light.

Chapter 6 - It’s Business Time!

As the sun rose, so did my spirits. And I slowly realized that this is a race and not just survival. At the Bearwallow aid station, it was time to ditch my lights, my gloves, and anything else weighing me down. The only problem-- my fingers still didn’t work. I bashedly asked the aid station workers to help me take off my belt-- err… it’s a waist light… I swear…. that’s what I’m talking about-- and they graciously complied. Now unencumbered, I took off running up the trail. My legs felt great! I mean, I couldn’t feel my legs because they were so cold, but that was a benefit, not a problem. No feeling meant no pain and I was still running this late in the race. I decided now was the time to go on the hunt-- let’s see how far I can move up in the pack.

Chapter 7 - But First, It’s Pierogi Time!

I ran into the penultimate aid station and found the best offerings of the day- whiskey and pierogies! After a shot and several pierogies, I took off downhill on some good running legs. And as I ran, I couldn’t stop fantasizing about those pierogies! Truly the perfect aid station food. In my head, I began planning an aid station at a future race that would include nothing but pierogies. A smorgasbord of pierogi options-- potato, potato and cheese, sauerkraut and cheese, with caramelized onions, and with sweet fillings. And not only would there be any pierogi that a runner might desire at this aid station, I’d also hire a polka band to play Stanky & His Pennsylvania Coal Miners smash hit “Who Wants Pierogi?” I’d call it “The Pierogi, Polka and Perseverance” aid sta……….. and mid-thought I’m on the ground, having fallen on a smooth runnable road section of the race with no rocks or ice in sight. Luckily, it was just a small contusion on my right knee and some ripped tights. Not too bad. Presently, I was up and running again. I thought to myself, “Now where was I… Oh, yes, pierogies”……… and I fell again. This time I hit the road much harder than before, scraping both knees and the palms of my hands, which I used to brace my fall. The pain and oozing of blood snapped me out of my delirium. Enough of this dumpling day dreaming, I thought to myself. It was time to go on the hunt. And, in what seemed like a perfectly reasonable, not-at-all-insane thing to do at the time, I dipped my fingers in some of the freshly-shed blood on my knees and use the blood to put some warpaint on my cheeks. 

What I thought that I looked like with my "war paint."

A better representation of what I actually looked like.

Chapter 8 - Now Back to Business Time!

In thinking about this race and strategy, I had decided to imagine the final aid station, Day Creek, as the finish line. It’s the point in the race that is technically around the 100k mark. Also, it is at the end of the so-called single track “forever” section (which I did indeed hate, mainly because it was impossible to get into any type of rhythm) and involves a long sustained climb up a runnable fire road and then a fast and furious descent on fire road and road. I knew that if I could get to that point in relatively good condition, I could crush those last 6 miles.

As I headed uphill after the last aid station, I was passed by another runner who was seemingly gliding up the climb. Luckily, I decided not to try to chase him but stick to a run-hike strategy to try to conserve some energy for the last three miles. I soon saw, however, that he was struggling as well-- alternating between hiking and running-- and I was happy that I could keep him in sight. This continued for the entire climb-- a sort of slow-speed, geriatric chase. He ran, I settled in to a hike, I saw him start hiking, and I started running. Rinse and repeat. After cresting the climb, I passed him on the first bit of downhill as he stopped for a pee break, and I made a comment about us looking like two senior citizens racing up that hill. He gave a polite nod to my comment and I continued past him, pounding the downhill as fast as my battered quads would allow.

It was only after the race that I realized that the runner was the number 2 seeded person in the race-- Michael Dubova-- who was running the course in near record setting time when he had to sit in a car for a very long time to defrost after nearly dropping from hypothermia. I felt bad about my glib comment, particularly since I’m super impressed with his ability and drive to finish the race despite dropping out of contention. I think it speaks volumes for him as a fighter and for the respect that this race breeds in runners, as many other super-talented runners at other races would have simply dropped out rather than embrace the struggle to finish. In fact, the same can be said for any runner who finished the race this year, from Michael Owen, the number one seed, who has run a sub 6 hour race at the JFK 50 and also chose to finish Hellgate this year despite being waylaid by hypothermia, to the person that came in DFL, who had to struggle and fight far longer than anyone else. In fact, after experiencing the conditions of this race first hand, it astounds me that 128 out of 142 runners crossed the finish line. That is some amazing grit. That is what makes this race “special.”

Chapter 9 - Epilogue

I crossed the finish line in 13 hours, 10 minutes and change and in 12th place. It wasn’t quite the result that I had strived for of a sub 13 hour race and perhaps snagging of the last spot in the top 10, but I was and I am super stoked with my race. I also was the momentary winner of “best blood” as a result of my fall, but ceded the award to be handed out to another runner since I decided to drive home before it got dark. With the conditions as they were, I don’t think that I could have asked for a better result. I knew that I would need some carnage at the front of the race and gnarly conditions to have a chance at the top 10 and sure enough there was both. However, I (necessarily) took much more time in the aid stations than I normally would have and spent too much time fussing with gear (see below), which I amateurishly used for the first time in this race. While I’d like to think I’d easily have a “12” as the first number in my time if I had run this race in any other conditions, I’m also not sure how much easier the terrain was this year as a result of all of the water soaking down the leaf debris.

I do know that I’ll return to this race in the future. Perhaps not next year as I only have a limited amount of marital capital to take weekends away from my family for races and lots of races that I still want to experience. And when I do return, I worry that this year’s epic conditions may make every other edition pale in comparison. As singer-songwriter Dan Bern has lamented in his song “Tiger Woods,” which remains on almost all of my race day music playlists, perhaps I “went down on Madonna too soon” by completing this year’s race. Nonetheless, I will be back because this race, much the same as the Plain 100 did this year, feels like a family reunion for the tribe of people that make bad decisions. And I’m happy to be a part of this tribe, which for at least one night in December has David Horton as the patron saint and the patriarch.


Here’s the gear and clothing that I used during the race:
  • Shoes: Altra Olympus 2.5
  • Socks: Feetures light cushion crew socks
  • Legs: $10 Chinese-manufactured tights from Amazon and $10 Chinese-manufactured shorts from Amazon, with liner cut out.
  • Trunk: Highlands Sky Patagonia short sleeve base layer, Grindstone Patagonia long sleeve base layer, and Outdoor Research Helium rain shell
  • Hands: Fox River Wool Glomitts
  • Head: North Face 50 buff
  • Hydration: Ultimate direction SJ Vest 3.0 with 2 soft flasks
  • Lighting: Ultraspire 800 Lumen waistlight and $20 Petzl headlamp
  • Timing: Garmin 310xt forerunner


1. Ultraspire 800 Lumen Waistlight

I hate talking about gear. I’m a total luddite when it comes to running gear. I mostly buy outdated models and cheap clothing or just wear the clothes I get from races. However, I decided before the race to splurge on one thing— the Ultraspire 800 Lumen waistlight. It’s without a doubt the most expensive running item I’ve ever bought, even with it being on sale at $165. Still, I figured that the money would be well worth being able to see well while running throughout the night. As for the lighting, it worked great! Particularly in the raining and foggy conditions where a headlamp would have been close to useless. However, perhaps because of the conditions, the supposed 4 to 15 hour run time is a complete myth. On the two fully charged batteries that came with the light, I was able to get 3 hours of run time on the 400 lumen setting. I had also brought a lightweight battery pack with me as well as it would also be able to run by attaching a usb cable from the pack to the light. The battery pack had about double the capacity of the batteries. That too only lasted for 3 hours. One of the features of the light is that it does not dim itself as the battery juice gets used up. That’s great.. while the light is on. However, it is completely disconcerting when you’re flying down a technical trail with a steep drop off on the side and suddenly find yourself in complete blackness. Also, because the light is attached to your waist, you have to slow down whenever the trail takes a sharp turn as your head turns much more quickly than your waist does. It does lead to a quite comical effect though as you have to suggestively thrust your hips around each turn as though air-humping the trail.

2. Tailwind

Tailwind is great! I’ve used it as both my hydration and calories in races for many years now and would never go back to gels. However, in such cold conditions, the Tailwind needs to be much more concentrated and not just 2 scoops per bottle. All of that water and no sweating meant that I had to stop to piss approximately 666 times. Did I start to think about just pissing myself? Of course, I did, but luckily I kept my dignity intact at least in that regard.

3.  Sleeping before the race

Before making the drive down to Camp Bethel, I removed the baby seats, folded the seats back, and blew up an aeromattress in my Kia Soul (That's right, if you've been paying attention, my family owns a minivan and a Kia Soul... eat your heart out everyone).  Between the pre-race meal and the race briefing and the race briefing and the drive to the start, I planned to lay down in my sleeping bag and get some shut eye.  Sleep did not come easily, though I figured that I had to have actually fallen asleep when I realized that I had no idea what was going on in the podcast that I was listening to.  It was probably only about 20 minutes of actual sleep.  However, that 20 minutes, plus the several hours of lying down was greatly beneficial, and I'd highly recommend trying to get any sleep that you can to any future participants in Hellgate.  I was never tired during the race, and (somewhat unfortunately) hallucinations were kept to a minimum.  The only notable hallucination to speak of was when running by the race photographer (who after the race I learned was Jessica Croisant from the Sugarstride Podcast, which I really enjoy, and who I should have thanked for creating) it looked like from a distance that she was a bear.  Not an actual black bear, but smokey the bear, which was perplexing because I was quite sure there was a 0% chance of wild fire that day. 

The damage, which my wife informed me really isn't nearly impressive as I think it is after I told her it was impossible to change the baby's diapers with such gnarled appendages.

1 comment:

  1. Shawn welcome to the club of Hellgate finishers. This was an epic year even by Hellgate standards.