After a some last-minute schedule swapping at work, I was able to run the second of my 2 "must do" east coast races last weekend. So a long 13 days after getting home from my incredible JFK vacation, I was back flying the friendly sky to DC to face the Hellgate 100k.
Arriving Thursday afternoon gave me plenty of time to get a crappy massage that evening, sleep until noon on Friday, pseudo-organize my gear, and buy Yaktrax. I anxiously waited for Lucia to get home from work, then we drove to Bryon's house to carpool with him and Lindsay for the 3 1/2 hour drive to the start. It was definitely an interesting car ride. Usually, at least amongst fellow Oregonians, I consider myself to be fairly well-spoken when talking politics. However, put me in a car with 3 DCers, and I could barely get 2 words in. They definitely kept me entertained.
We got to the starting area, at Hell Gate (there really is an actual gate called this), about an hour before go-time. This gave me plenty of time to get ready, go back-and-forth between shorts and tights, and down a few more calories. I decided to go with tights and one bottle until a.s. 2 at 7.5 miles (thanks Krissy). Shortly before midnight, the 110 starters gathered around Hell Gate, where Horton said a prayer, then we were led by Annette in singing the Star Spangled Banner.
At 12:01 a.m., we were off. And off we were...it felt like the JFK start, not the start of some hellish 100k++ run into the scary woods through the night. I wasn't tempted - I started very easy, running most of the first 3 1/2 miles to a.s. 1 near Annette. Less than a mile before the a.s., the course markers were vandalized, so most of us got temporarily lost. However, Horton was running that section close behind me and shouted directions on which way to go. This was the only time all race that I got off-course.
The section to a.s. 2 was my favorite part of the course - 4 miles with 1200' of climbing on a smooth dirt road (with the occasional icy patch thrown in for fun). I loved it! Just doing what I love doing, without really trying, I went from probably 20th at a.s. 1 to 7th at a.s. 2, covering those 4 miles in 31 minutes. Feeling warmed up at the top, I saw Lucia and Lindsay, quickly changed into my shorts, grabbed my Nathan pack from Lucia, and with a kiss I was off.
I left that a.s. with Byron Backer and Brian Kistner (I think). Following Byron's lead downward, I eagerly listened to a few words of course advice from him, one being that the leaders were going way too fast. After a mile or so, Byron let me by and I continued on my way to a.s 3 at 13.1 miles. I don't remember too much, except the final bit was another nice climb on a smooth gravel road. Arriving at the a.s., I was told that due to icy roads and closed gates, neither drop bags nor crew would be at the next a.s. In fact, I probably wouldn't see either until a.s. 7 at mile 42.5. Hm, this created an issue for me since I am definitely a gel-guy, and rarely eat solids in races. So I quickly changed my plan and ate some potatoes and other stuff that I can't remember.
As I left the a.s. station, I had to make a choice: continue with my normal fueling strategy of gels until they ran out in a couple hours; or conserve my gels, try to eat real food, and risk either real-food issues or bonking from not being able to eat the real food and not having enough gels. I chose option 2.
I really enjoyed most of the next section to a.s. 4 (shortened from mile 22 to mile 20). It was mostly a bunch of easy, rolly running. At a slightly confusing intersection, I caught up to 3 guys, Keith Knipling, Mike Schuster, and some other guy. Eventually I went by all 3 of them, arriving at a.s. 4 in 4th place, with Mike and Keith right behind me. As advertised at a.s. 3, there were no drop bags or crews here. Feeling a bit light-headed, I knew I needed calories, so I ate more potatoes and other stuff I can't remember.
Keith, Mike, and I all headed out together up another cool climb. We started out walking, I soon realized we should be running, said so, and we ran. Mike and I got slightly ahead of Keith and entered the next single track together. I think he led for a bit, then I went by. I got a bit ahead of him, started feeling a bit low on energy on a technical downhill, and took my last gel as Keith went ripping by. I seriously thought he was going on for the win then. Shortly after, I heard a party! It had to be a.s. 5, and with that much noise, I was certain crews (Lucia!) were there. That got me happy to get there quick, but first a short pit stop where Mike caught up to me. We ran down the last 1/4 mile to a.s 5 at 27.6 together. I think I got there around 5:25. I crossed a bridge with a cow carcass on it and immediately saw Lucia and Lindsay waiting to go to work. I was so happy to see them! Lindsay took care of re-filling my water, while Lucia filled my pack with handfuls of gels. I drank a bit of coke, got a kiss, and was out of there.
Feeling low on energy from my lack of calories the last couple of hours, I was disappointed to be slogging up a very runnable smooth dirt road for a couple miles. Two lights were closing in, and after getting back on single track, one eventually passed me. After the gels started kicking in, I felt better and eventually was on another uphill dirt road climb. It was light enough to turn off the lights, so I did and enjoyed the climb to a.s. 6 at 34.5. I think I got there around 6:55. The great volunteers told me I was in 6th, filled my bladder, and I was off.
As I headed out, I clearly remember thinking that the first 34.5 miles of Hellgate really weren't all that tough. Seriously. It wasn't easy, and had a few short technical sections, but nothing that stuck out in my mind as really tough. The next 2 miles further proved my point.
Then it started. I turned off a really nice, fast dirt road and onto leaves. A lot of them. Supposedly there was a trail down there, but I sure couldn't see it. Nor could I see my feet. Or ankles or shins. My knees were barely showing. The leaves were that deep. Lucky for me that my feet sure could feel all those sharp rocks under them. The "trail" was like this for a long time. I would occasionally run for 10-20 seconds when the leaves weren't quite as deep, but mostly, I hiked. It was futile to even attempt to run. The terrain wasn't at all steep, but it was very off-camber and the leaves were very deep. So I hiked for a long time, with the occasional puke thrown in for good measure. Eventually I saw a Montrail jersey closing in and knew it was Mike. That made me realize that I actual could run again, so I did. I ran the last 1/2 mile in to a.s. 7 at mile 42.5 with Mike right behind me. I think it was a little after 9:00 when I arrived there very haggered. I was happy to hear Horton announce that I was still first place Oregonian, but trumped him by saying I was probably first place east-of-the-Mississippi. He concurred. Lucia and Lindsay were there and helped me with a quick clothes drop, switch from pack to hand helds, a quick kiss from Lucia and as I started off, Horton yelled that the next stretch was a really good one. He was right.
Dropping my pack, I felt great again! I had all kinds of energy as I ran uphill on a nice single track. I occasionally looked back to see if Mike had joined me, but I was alone. I felt good again in this 7 mile section, and my 75ish minute split proved this. When I saw Lucia, I said I wanted a coke & water bottle, which she expertly mixed and handed me in mid-stride. I didn't even have to stop. Perfect. Almost. Luckily Lucia remembered the kiss.
Apparently this next section is long. Still feeling great, I ran down the next two miles on a dirt road at a decent pace, hoping we would be staying on this road for a long time. Nope. A right turn into leaves. Again, I guess there was a trail, but couldn't see it. So I hiked again and resumed puking. After a really long time of not seeing another runner, a blue flash was quickly catching me. Chris Reed cruised by me as I gave him a rah-rah. He was feeling good and flying. Less than a mile later, I saw Bryon sitting on the side of the trail taking pictures. Unfortunately, his huge November caught up too him at Hellgate and he retired at a.s. 4. That allowed him to get some lovely shots of me. Thanks, Bryon.
I shuffled into the final a.s. at mile 56. Lindsay told me I was in 5th. Grouchily, I barked back that I was in 7th. Lucia quickly sent me on my way with a bottle of plain water, a lemon drop, and a kiss. The time was 11:47, and although beat, I felt pretty confident I could cover the last 6.5 miles in less than 73 minutes.
I ran about half way up the 3 mile hill, then the terrain got really steep and the leaves got deep, so I hiked the last half. Cresting the hill at 12:26, the SAR people gave me a nice wave as I took off for the final 3 1/2 downhill cruiser miles. After 20 minutes, I knew I was getting close. One mile to go - a sweet sign. I cruised along past some barky dogs with my bottle cocked and ready to squirt, made the turn into Camp Bethel and at 12:53:47, I became the 5th finisher of the 2007 Hellgate 100k. Apparently 2 guys in front of me had dropped earlier. Oops, sorry Lindsay; I'll never again doubt my crew.
After a hug from Horton and Lucia, I mentioned to Horton that although Hellgate was tough, it's definitely not as tough as days 1 & 4 of the Tuscarora Trail Stage Race. Although he didn't want to, I think he agreed.
So overall, yes, Hellgate is a tough race. I went into it with an "adventure-run, not race" attitude, and that's exactly what I got out of it. I absolutely believe the first 34.5 miles are much easier than the last 28. Horton disagrees. He's wrong. For runners familiar with Where's Waldo, I compare Hellgate very closely to the original Waldo. Both advertised as 100k, they're both really about 66.3 miles. They both have 11,000'+ vertical. As far as difficulty of actual terrain, while the technical parts of Hellgate are much tougher than Waldo, the easy road parts are also much easier than any part of Waldo (there were many miles of Hellgate where I was easily running 7-something pace). The overall course records are very close, and they both have an 18-hour cutoff.
Thank you to David, Mrs. Horton, all of the fabulous volunteers, my fellow adventurers, Bryon, Lindsay, and most of all, Lucia. Without all of you, my Hellgate experience wouldn't have been nearly as incredible as it was.