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In 2008 I tried to finish the Horton/Zealand Beast Series which consists of three springtime 50k’s, and three fall races: Grindstone 100, MMTR 50 Miler, and Hellgate 100k. I injured my IT band during Grindstone and hobbled through a finish at MMTR, but didn’t take a crack at Hellgate that year, thus failing to concur The Beast. The Beast Series culminates with Hellgate and the race has been described by many, including the race director, as “special”, and I have to agree with this assessment. I was pretty bummed (alright, I was mentally crushed) about not being able to finish The Beast in 2008 and used my disappointment as an impetus during 2009 to finish the three fall races. Each race is separated by about a month, so special attention to recovery is key. I really enjoy these races and the challenge that goes along with completing them in this short period of time, so I put them on my list for this year. Coming off good finishes at Grindstone and MMTR, and with some solid training I felt pretty prepared for Hellgate this year.
My wife Raj and good friend Erik Moralis crewed for me this year. We left Pennsylvania at 4 pm and arrived at the starting location of the race: Hellgate Creek Horse Trailhead. We tried to sleep a bit for an hour and then started to make the final preparations at 11:00 PM. At 11:55, all of the runners were at the trail gate “The Gates of Hell”, ready to start our journey. I have always thought the start of this race is exciting. Everyone seems so hyped up and much enthusiasm goes into the singing of the National Anthem before we start. We all did the 10-second countdown at 1 minute past the witching hour and we went off into the night.
The race starts on a wide trail for about 3.5 miles of small rolling hills and then you are dumped onto a forest service road, which you follow for 4 miles gaining 1200 feet. The sequence of trail, forest service road, and grassy road continues to repeat for the first half of the race. The breaks in the technical single-track trail at night are welcome because the forest service roads give you a chance to relax a bit and regain your rhythm.
My goal was to run the first third of the race in about 4 hours. I arrived at Headforemost Mountain (aid station 4) slightly over 4 hours. So the next goal was to arrive at Little Cove Mountain (aid station 6) before daybreak. During the 2009 race, I arrived here after daybreak. I wanted to break 12 hours on the course this year and I knew that involved getting to Little Cove Mountain before sunrise. I got there in 6 ½ hours and still needed my headlamp for another 25 minutes for the next section. Things were going well, but I was starting to feel a bit fatigued.
After Little Cove Mountain, the course changed over to mostly single-track. The trail is technical at times and has some fun switchbacks and incredible views. It is really impressive to look down the mountains from the top. Due to the maturity of forest and the downed leaves, you can see endless views through the woods that are only available during the late fall and winter months.
After Little Cove Mountain, I started to become more preoccupied with my finishing time. I was trying to catch up to eventual winner and teammate, Jeremy Ramsey, while keeping other runners off of my tail. Unfortunately, I got into sort of a negative mental headspin about breaking 12 hours. At my lowest point during the race, which was Bobblets Gap aid station, I became convinced that I would need 2 hours for the next section, thus making my 12-hour goal an impossibility. Erik and Raj told me that Patrick Garcia was very close to me and I had better put it in high gear if I didn’t want to get caught. I got some good calories in me and took off on the next section. I was feeling poor in the beginning, but progressively got better through the section, almost feeling a sort of “turn-around” that comes to me sometimes in 100 milers.
I got to Day Creek aid station, the last aid station, at 10:48 and knew I would probably break 12 hours (last year it took me an hour and 4 minutes to finish the last section). I definitely misestimated the time for the previous section. I broke up that last climb into sections of hiking and running, then crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway for the last time and hammered in the last 3 miles, crossing the finish line in 11:48:50. I shook hands with race director extraordinaire, Dr. David Horton, who congratulated me on my finish and promptly yelled to the few spectators – “Hey, we have our first loser!” Yes, yes indeed, this race is special.
For the entire race, I wore a pair of size 13 Roclite 318 GTX shoes with Merino wool Debrisocs. The shoe and sock combo worked very well for me. I didn’t cross any ankle-deep water crossings, so my feet remained warm and dry for the duration of the race. The debrisocs helped keep powdery snow out of my shoes as about ½ of the course was covered with an inch of snow, with one section was covered with about 4 inches of snow. I wore layers of technical running gear, a double bottle waist pack and two headlamps - one around my waste and one on my head, which worked very well. Raj and Erik supplied me with Hammer and Clif Gels, turkey and cheese mini wraps, sliced pears, water and Nuun. I had some minor lower stomach problems, which I think stemmed from my large meal I ate earlier in the evening.
For folks that have been thinking about running this race, think no longer. Run it and you will not be disappointed. You will likely find it special in some way to you, whether it be the midnight start, the beautiful forest, the wildlife, the long miles, the people you commune with in the woods, taking a crack at the course record, or the unique way the race director motivates you to do your best. Thanks to all the aid station volunteers and all others involved in the race – you guys are wonderful. Hopefully, I will be back next year to take on the challenge of Hellgate, that is, if I am man enough!