“If there is no struggle, there is no progress” –Frederick Douglas
Every year of the Hellgate 100K, prior to the race, registered runners are presented with race shirts, as is common in running races as a memorial or marketing piece for the event. The Hellgate shirts are not common though. They include snazzy, almost ridiculous colors that not many people would wear in public. On the front of the shirt, to capture the challenges that a race named “Hellgate” must present, is a logo of a person running through a fiery gate at the bottom of a flaming mountain. And there is always a quote underneath that logo along the lines of facing pain and overcoming obstacles. This year’s quote was that of Mr. Frederick Douglas.
The Hellgate race is extremely challenging, and although I have not yet encountered any flaming gates of hell, every year’s race has been unique in the struggles that it presented to me and the other runners. As if a race that begins at 12:01 am on the second Saturday of December is not enough cause for concern and some question about the runners’ sanity levels, we also traverse mountains with over 13 thousand feet of elevation gain and loss over 66.6 miles, starting at Big Hellgate Creek trailhead in Virgina’s Jefferson National Forest through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Oh, and of course December weather. Signing up for the race in October, you have no idea what weather you will get. In my first four years of racing Hellgate, I had the hot year, then the cold year, then the snow year, then the nice year (lucky!). My fifth year presented us with, somehow not surprisingly, rain and ice. For us runners, we struggled and progressed.
I’ve done 3 Hellgates solo and one with a crew person (during the cold year when temp lows were in the single digits). I was comforted and lucky to have a crew person for the 2019 edition, Crystal Achuo, for the potentially bad weather where changing gear and clothing on the fly could be critical – it was. Almost instinctively forecasting that there would be rain on race day, 2 weeks prior I ordered waterproof gloves. Unfortunately, those gloves have still not arrived! After overthinking what to wear and what to pack in my gear bag most of Friday, about 10 minutes prior to the start of the race and feeling the cold rain, I settled into wearing shorts, long sleeve shirt, hat, cloth gloves with hand warmers and a waterproof running jacket. I gave Crystal 2 bags of random clothing and jackets to hold for me if needed, including 5 or 6 pairs of gloves if the prior pair got wet. We hiked to the starting line, sang the National Anthem with the other runners and race director David Horton, and were off.
At the start of the race, I was worried that I may not make it healthy to the first aid station. You see, I had a stressful week with an audition Wednesday night then a wise taper move going to the Ravens game outside in 20 degree temps Thursday night. I try to do things in the name of fun but that may have been pushing it a bit. All of the activity caught up to me Friday and with the stress of trying to cram race prep and travel and possibly not eating something right, I found myself a few hours prior to the race with a stomach bug and headache and felt nauseated with a feeling that I may need to throw up. Fortunately, the sickness started to work itself out and by the start of the race I still felt bad but was getting better and hoped running would help heal me further. I started out nice and easy and luckily the sickness seemed to know to go away – I felt fine by the time I reached the first aid station.
And yet it continued to rain and rain. And my gloves got wet and I changed them whenever I could. I learned that hand warmers become depleted of heat pretty quickly when wet and I changed those once as well. Although the visibility was challenging with the rain and fog, the weather and what was mostly soft rain felt comfortable until about 4 or 5 am. Then it got cold, and cold rain turned to freezing rain. But I was running/jogging strong – on pace for a similar time to my 2018 PR of 12:44 – and I was hoping to get an elusive top finisher jacket awarded to the top 10 men/top 5 females and remaining 10-year age group winners after that. After “the freeze” started I approached the 5th aid station at around mile 31 at roughly 5:30 am and realized that I was in 11th place – if I could keep that position I would be guaranteed of at least an Age Group win. Here is where I made a mistake. In my haste to keep moving and maintain position, I didn’t take Crystal’s suggestion to change jackets/clothing. Although my clothes were completely drenched even under my waterproof jacket I falsely assumed that if I kept moving and could make it to sunrise that it would get warmer. But of course since it was cloudy and freezing raining, it would not get warmer for a while, and it got colder instead with very little hope of even seeing the sun. And, the gravel roads up and down the 2-3 mile climbs that I needed to traverse were now covered in ice! I found myself sliding a few feet to the side of the road sometimes approaching steep drop offs. Eventually I learned to stay in the middle of the road where there were more rocks or on the non-cliff side on the grass. My legs got tired and I had a sharp mystery pain in my groin muscle. And I got cold. And my teeth would not stop chattering – so hard that it hurt my jaw. When I reached the next aid station (where no crew was allowed) I had no choice but to keep moving or risk hypothermia as I still had 8 miles to get to Crystal, and a change of clothes.
Finally, after hobbling and slogging along being passed by a few runners, I got to Crystal and the mud field that was Bearwallow Gap. She could see that I was noticeably shaking with blueish lips and I was way off my projected time. She saved me by helping to gather whatever I needed as I changed my clothing and shoes in the car. At this point I overdressed and put on a new, dry waterproof jacket – as it was most important for me to stay warm versus risking hypothermia. As I changed clothes and ate food, I watched as several more runners pass by and by. With frozen hands, it is difficult to change clothing, but after about 30 minutes at the aid station, I was moving up a mountain again now somewhere between 20th and 30th. I became far less concerned about top 10 of even an age group win and focused more on finishing with a respectable time, and mostly with finishing at all.
With the stress of “racing” for top 10 or an age group win somewhat removed, I just kept moving and slowly the weather got better. Eventually around 11 am or so, it stopped raining and the sun came out. My mystery groin muscle pain just as mysteriously went away and I started feeling like I was in “race mode” again. For the last 15 or so miles I passed a few runners but still was unsure of where I was at against the field. I was projecting for around a 14 hour finish and figured that it would be a good goal to try and break 14 hours. Also, not knowing if any other 40somethings were or were not ahead of me (after top 10), I still had a glimmer of hope that I could win top master and either the hope of winning or the fear of coming close not having given my best effort kept me motivated. I pushed on, chatting with several runners and sharing each other’s pain and accomplishment along the way.
When I got through the forever section, a section quoted as being 6 miles but is actually 8 miles and feels like it will never end, Crystal was there at the final aid station. I handed her my jacket and running vest, she asked me if I needed anything, and I told her no thanks I wanted to keep moving with my new goal of trying to break 14 hours. Then I grabbed some quick food and took one water bottle with me up the steep 2.3 mile climb that led to a very long (3.6 mile?) downhill to the finish. I had about an hour and 12 minutes to complete that section if I was to achieve my goal. I walk-jogged the uphill and jog-ran the downhill, walking short distances a couple times to lessen the strain on my quads. I passed a few runners on the uphill stretch, including somebody who looked like he may be in my age group. Knowing that I am not very fast on downhills (compared to other mountain runners) I had some concern that I may get caught from behind but remained focused on putting out my best effort. Eventually, I hit the turn to Camp Bethel and approached the finish line with nobody visibly behind me. Crystal was there cheering for me and congratulating me for the finish and for finishing just under my 14 hour (amended) race goal. The Race Director David Horton was there with a few others and the small crowd cheered and welcomed me as I crossed the line. One of the things that impresses me about the race director at Hellgate is that he greets every finisher with the same level of enthusiasm, even as he must be getting more tired heading into the later hours. He was shouting and excited when I finished. He remembered that I was on the list of runners going for their 5th finish (runners finishing 5 Hellgates get a large eagle trophy with their name engraved on it) and excitedly retrieved the trophy for me – to my surprise my name was already engraved on it. I quietly asked what place I was in and was told that I finished 17th and I sat down holding my large eagle trophy with a smile end let the finish sink in. A few minutes later, again to my surprise one of the race assistants informed me that I was the top master finisher and I could not believe it. I was getting the puffy Patagonia after all! We snapped some photos then I was off to the retreat center with Crystal for a nap. I returned to the finish line one last time to cheer on the final runners finishing under the 18 hour cutoff. I enjoyed chatting with fellow runners and adventurers, sharing stories and trying to decide what “gate” 2019 would be. Eventually I think most runners may have settled on “Nastygate”, but “Watergate” and “Floodgate” were in the running too. I personally think that Nastygate sums it up well.
Hellgate is referred to as one of those special races and it certainly has that feeling. Maybe it is the intimate and cozy race pre-race dinner and briefing that feel like a family gathering or religious (church of trails?) experience, with the race director preaching sermon about special moments and special memories. Maybe it is the crazy shirts, socks or the playful and actually very clever songs that have been written about it by fellow runners and camp staff. Or the course. A bunch of crazy people running through the mountains at midnight in December. I’ll never forget how much of a rookie I felt like for my virgin race 5 years ago, and it is hard to believe that I am now a 5 time finisher of this crazy and special race. I feel proud and blessed to be part of the Hellgate family.