Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hellgate 100k ++

Hellgate 100k ++ is a very special race.  I knew this even before I got invited by David Horton to run it.  And now that I've run it, I can say it has stolen my heart.  Tough course, epic weather, brilliant race director, great competition and great company... an ultra runner's dream.  (Note: the ++ in the Hellgate 100k name is for the extra bonus miles added by David Horton - the course is 66.6 miles) (Also note the elevation chart from my Ambit data at the bottom of the post)

My lead up to the race was a little unconventional because I'd raced the Pinhoti 100 six weeks prior to Hellgate.  My recovery seemed slow from this 100 - maybe because I hadn't raced a 100 in over a year or maybe because I was stressing about recovering in time for Hellgate - so I listened to my body and tried to do only what it was happy doing.  Things seemed to finally come together about 2-3 weeks before Hellgate and I felt ready.

The race begins at 12:01am on a Saturday morning, this year it was December 14th.  My journey began on Thursday when I left Seattle bound for Roanoke.  I got in late Thursday night and did a quick gear check to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything before crawling into bed.  I tried to sleep as long as I could on Friday morning but I was too excited to sleep the day away.  I was excited for the race but also excited to see my college coach, who was driving down from Ohio to be my crew and support for the weekend.  Coach and I hadn't seen each other in about 12 years and the reunion was sweet.  We spent the day on Friday catching up and talking about old times while listening to great music.  I kept my feet up, ate plenty of food and took a few naps.  Perfect race prep!

The midnight start is very cool.  It creates a great energy and excitement and I really enjoyed it.  It meant running about half of the race in the dark, but it also meant having time for fun on Saturday night after the race!  I found it somewhat hard to know what to eat during the day on Friday - somehow that's easier when you are sleeping until a few hours before the start. 

My Coach was a champ - he drove out to the finish area and picked up my packet at 5pm when they were available.  I stayed and napped.  Lucky me!  This gave us freedom to arrive at the start when I was ready, not having to sit around at the camp for hours before the caravan to the start began.  It was awesome!  I started getting dressed and ready for the race at 9pm in the hotel. We'd been monitoring the weather forecast most of the day and it was clear mother nature had many tricks up her sleeve headed our way!

We arrived at Camp Bethel about 10:15pm.  This gave plenty of time to mingle among the racers and get a huge hug from David Horton.  It was awesome to see him again.  He and I met at White River in 2011 and he has this incredible personality and energy you never forget and once you're back in his presence it all comes back again.  I was really excited to run his course and his race.

At 10:50pm, and I mean exactly 10:50pm, all the racers pile into cars and drive the 30 minutes or so to the start.  Coach and I didn't know the way so we wanted to join the caravan.  It was the fastest moving caravan I've ever been in!  We literally hauled along these roads - sometimes going 80mph.  I guess this is what happens when you put tapered runners behind the wheel!  :)  At the start line I waited in the car to stay warm and eventually everyone headed down the hill to the official start.

The start had a great energy, racers ready to go and see what the night would bring.  I love this photo - it seems to capture the energy just waiting in all of our headlamps! 

The race started with some relatively easy terrain, and mother nature was leaving us alone for the time being. Racers were chatting and everyone was settling in.  It was easy to peg who the top women were - David numbers racers according to ranking.  I was #103, meaning I was ranked 3rd among the females.  I started the early miles with the two top ranked women.  There was a stream crossing about 4 miles in that was deep and impossible to avoid, reaching almost my knees at the deepest steps.  Wet feet never worry me, and it wasn't cold enough to really chill my toes at this point.  Right after the stream was the first aid station, which we all ran through without stopping.

From AS1 to AS2, the course goes up a fairly good climb.  It's all on a gravel road so it's easy footing and felt very easy to me.  I love to climb and I think I found myself pushing it too hard on this early climb.  I ran the whole climb and was ahead of the other women at the 2nd Aid Station.  Of course, it's easy to feel good this early in a race!  It was a beautiful climb - not only because I love to climb, but also to see the snake of headlamps behind you as you climb your way up the long switchbacks.  I saw my Coach at the top of the climb and he seemed pleased with how my race was going so far.  This gave me a good boost as the race headed onto single track.

The single track was my first taste of what single track would be like in Virginia.  There were many more rocks than I am used to and they were covered with 6 inches of dead leaves, which made it hard to spot the rocks.  A friend from Washington had warned me about the rocks in a good luck text hours before and I didn't even consider how right he'd be!  I got passed along this section by the woman who ended up taking first place, Kathleen Cusick.  

Somewhere along this section it started to snow.  The course has a fair bit of uphill the first half and the few hours I spent along the higher sections brought some heavy snow.  It started as these small pretty flakes that made you feel like you in a snow globe.  But within minutes the snow was much heavier, making visibility challenging with a headlamp.  It felt like I was only seeing white for long periods of time.  It was difficult to see the trail and even more difficult to feel confident in my footing.  I was grateful to have a second light source - my flashlight gave me depth perception that the headlamp could not.  It snowed heavily for about 2 hours, and during this time about 2-3 inches of snow fell. 

The night aid stations all blurred together for me.  I remember laughing several times about the bonus "Horton miles".  Aid stations would tell you they were x miles apart and some where more like x + 2.  The weather was unpredictable - at times it would snow, other times it would be ice pellets and other times some other frozen precipitation.  It was cold and I was wet the entire time.  My Patagonia Light Flyer jacket honestly saved my race.  That jacket is incredible.  Kept the weather away from my core but let my body breathe. I also wore a Barrier shirt from Pearl Izumi.  This layer against my skin kept a great barrier against the front of my chest.  These 2 top layers were key to keeping my body happy! 

Aid Station 5 was the next time I saw my Coach after Aid Station 2.  The night was almost over at this point and the weather seemed less brutal.  Likely because we'd come down off the highest point on the course.  I did not envy the crew and aid station volunteers who'd been standing out in this weather all night! 
After Aid Station 5, the course climbs, descends and then climbs again to Aid Station 6.  The first climb out of the aid station is on a gravel road, and sections of it were quite slippery from the ice.  The road was a white glaze and about a third up this climb it was easy to go without my light.  I run a lot in the pre-dawn for my training and I absolutely love that time in the morning when you can see to run but cars still consider it "dark".  The climb went on for several miles and as I got higher I could see the low cloud cover and fog in the valleys.  It was beautiful. 

The course undulates up and down with some great ridge running from here on out.  My first east coast ultra was the Pinhoti 100 and I wished that course had longer climbs like we have out west.  I found Hellgate to be more to my liking with the climbing going on a little longer and allowing me to settle into a climbing rhythm.  I don't have a lot of recollection about the course except to note that several sections were what I call nasty single track.  Littered with big rocks which were covered in leaves and snow.  These sections were slow for me because many of them were descents and I didn't want to fall.  I saw my Coach again at Aid Station 7.  I was able to finally shed the headlamp (been wearing it turned off for several hours) and I picked up some extra gloves.  It has started to rain at this point and the rain was cold and tough to handle after being wet since the start.  And trying to put on the extra gloves made my hands especially cold and my hands were miserable after this aid station for about 45 minutes. 

Aid Station 8 came up reasonably quickly and I loved the ridge running along this section.  Once I got my hands warm I was running along this section feeling pretty good.  I was happy my hands were warmer again.  I saw my Coach at AS8, the aid station was perched under this old bridge.  It seemed pretty to me but I didn't take much time to look at it.  The course descends a gravel section that is easy to run fast on right after the aid station and then turns to single track.  I really enjoyed this single track and could sense the finish line approaching.  However, along this section I spotted a pink jacket coming up behind me.  Needless to say, it woke me up and scared me.  I hadn't run in 2nd place for most of the race to lose it now.  I focused my energy and kicked into another gear.  I didn't know how I would do it for 12-15 miles, but I knew I had to give it everything I had.  By the time I got to Aid Station 9, I had a fire in my eyes even my Coach could see.

Aid Station 9 to the finish is a 6 mile section - 3 miles up, 3 miles down.  I knew I had at least one woman coming up behind me and I knew I had to run this section as hard as I could.  I felt strong and knew I could run the 3 mile climb but thought it might wipe me out for any fight on the descent.  I decided to revert to my power hiking, which many of you know is not slow.  :)  Looking back at my Ambit data, I hiked up at about 15 min pace and felt like I could have kept this up for a long time.  When I hit the top I was able to cruise on the downhill, booking it to the finish. 

In the end, I finished 2nd female in 14:19.  The next female was about 11 minutes behind me at the finish.  I am happy I was able to gain that much distance over the last dozen miles.  The end of Hellgate brought out in me what I love about running ultras.  Just when I think I'm tired and spent I always know I have another gear.  My body has incredible reserves and strength.  And I love it when they get a chance to shine.

After the finish, I got a big hug from David Horton and made it top priority to get into dry clothes.  My Coach and I headed back to Roanoke for hot showers and some food.  I'd been looking forward to celebrating with Coach the whole race (and dreaming of being dry and warm).  We were both exhausted from being up all night, but we celebrated in style and had a blast hashing out the race.

Hellgate is a very special race.  And now it's a very special race to me.  The race went very well for me, especially considering I'd run a 100 just six weeks before.  I had plenty of curve balls thrown at me during the race and was able to deal with them without them disrupting my rhythm.  Even the epic weather didn't seem to phase me.  If anything, I think the weather kept me in the present - dealing with the moment and not focused too far ahead.  The course is amazing, I really enjoyed racing it.  The Hellgate 100k++ stole my heart.  It's definitely one of my favorite races and I can't wait to go back again.

I left Sunday mid-day to fly back to Seattle.  On the way home I had plenty of time to reflect on my experience and count my blessings.  For one, I have an amazing Coach.  I hadn't seen him in over 12 years and it felt like no time had passed.  If anything, we've grown more alike in the last 12 years.  He has been a great supporter of mine and this race highlighted everything about him that I feel so blessed to have in my life.  Crewing for a runner is not an easy job.  Crewing in bad weather is even more difficult.  Dealing with me pre and post race has it's challenges too.  But Coach took it all in stride and made me feel like he did this every day.  I am grateful for all that he does for me.

I also realized how much I loved this race.  Hellgate is one of my favorite races.

I found myself pretty choked up on the way home thinking about everything I've been through this year and where I finally ended up.  I was actively injured until July this year, when I finally found a Physical Therapist who fixed me.  Never in my dreams had I believed I'd run Pinhoti in November and have it go so well.  Never in my wildest dreams would I think I'd be healthy after the Pinhoti effort and be able to race Hellgate so soon afterwards.  I got all that and more.  I had a great race at Hellgate.  I flew home that day counting my blessings.  I count them every day.  I cannot wait for an exciting 2014! 





  1. Awesome way to finish off 2013 and put the injury behind you!

  2. Great job Jen!! Will you go back next year?