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Hellgate 2006: Leaf Year

By Sophie Speidel

In 2005, the Hellgate 100K course was covered from start to finish in thick snow and ice. The road sections were slick and dangerous, but provided fast running for those with Yaktrax and sheet metal screws in their shoes. The rocky trail sections were hidden beneath all the white stuff, so the runners were spared with dealing with loose rocks on steep ridgelines. I remember thinking after the race, “I really want to run Hellgate next year and see that trail with no snow!”

I need to be more careful what I wish for.


Ryan Henry (left) and the author at the finish line.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Wilds Photography. Click for larger.

In 2006, the weather was downright perfect for running (but not necessarily for aid station volunteers, but more on those fine people later). We had dry trail conditions, temperatures in the teens up on the ridge at night that eventually climbed to the high 40s during the day, and a clear, star-filled sky with a moon that was so bright we could turn off our headlamps and see clearly. It was absolutely beautiful out there, and despite a little bit of biting wind on the eastern ridge in the middle of the night, it was a perfect night and day for a run in the mountains. Oh, did I mention knee-deep piles of leaves that covered all the rocks until you put your foot down and twisted your ankle for the millionth time? But besides that, it really was a perfect night and day for a run in the mountains.

At the pre-race dinner, a few kind folks approached me to tell me that they read my race report from 2005 and that they found it helpful as they prepared for this year’s race. This year was my second time running Hellgate, and for me it was a totally different experience than last year. Since I know there were many first-time runners who had a ton of questions about clothing, light options, and drop bags, for my report this year I have put together a list of things that worked out for me and things that didn’t, and hopefully it will come in handy for someone preparing for Hellgate in 2007…but only if there isn’t snow, ice, or freezing rain!

What worked?

Training: I ran the Mountain Masochist 50 mile five weeks earlier and I was a bit worried that I would not be sufficiently recovered in time for Hellgate. I did very little in between races except for a 4+ hour hilly run and a 5+ hour run with lots of climbing. I gave myself two weeks to taper for Hellgate, and did little running but lots of rest and easy cross training during these two weeks. In the end, I feel that running Masochist turned out to be good preparation for Hellgate. For a variety of reasons (the night start, the amount of climbing, the temperatures, the Horton miles, and the rocky sections), Hellgate is much more mentally and physically demanding than Masochist. In comparing race times with other runners, it seems that with all things being equal, it takes most folks between 6 and 7 hours longer to run the 66.6 miles of Hellgate than the 54 Horton miles of Masochist. Do the math…whew!

Attitude (and preparation) is Everything: On Wednesday night, as I was packing my drop bag and fanny pack, my husband commented that I seemed to be just as uptight and nervous as when I was packing for my last 100-miler. Hellgate has been described as a race that runs like a 100 miler, so I found that running it at my 100-mile pace with the mantra, “Smooth and light” running through my head was very effective. I was totally at peace running in the dark, partly because the course was marked ridiculously well with chem lights (thanks to Cat Phillips and her friends) and because Horton had stressed at the pre-race meeting that “we are all in this together” and to watch out for one another. I also took my husband’s advice to wear my glasses that I use for driving at night, and I wore them the entire race without any blurry vision (which unfortunately plagued some of the lead runners) and without one trip or fall. This gave me a ton of confidence.

Lights: Thanks to Mike Bur and David Snipes, I have found the most effective light combination yet for a race like Hellgate. I am typically a poor night runner because I like to sleep, because of my poor vision (see above paragraph), and because I had not found lights that gave me confidence on technical trail. Mike Bur lent me his beloved Petzl MYO XP to use as my headlamp and David Snipes gave me a cool rubber band contraption that allowed me to have my Gerber LX handheld hang from fingertips with little energy expended but with lots of control. As a result, I was able to see the trail perfectly and made excellent time during the night sections. Thanks to a 20-minute nap after the pre-race briefing and a flask of espresso Hammergel, (and perhaps seeing all the bear hunters in their camo while at the early aid stations), I was alert the entire night.

Hydration and Nutrition: Using a handheld light creates a few dilemmas regarding hydration. What should it be: hydration pack, bottle pack, or hand-held bottle? That seemed to be the question of the night. I took a gamble and used a hydration pack for water and hand-held bottle for my sport drink, since I wanted a free hand for my light. Everything was working just fine until about mile 26 when my water tube froze along with my bottle nipple. I was able to unscrew the bottle top to get fluids, but using the pack was impossible. Once it was daylight, I switched to handheld bottles for the rest of the race, which I had packed in my drop bag. I also ate a variety of sport beans, Clif blocks, and at every AS, I had a cup of hot soup. Yum!

Clothing: The weather report called for temperatures in the low teens at night. I wore wicking wool socks, tights, a wicking zip-top, a fleece vest, and a wind shell along with a warm beanie hat (which greatly helped to reduce my headlamp from bobbing up and down). Except for the wind that hit us between miles 16 and 24, I was never cold while moving. (I wish I could say the same thing for the great AS volunteers, many of whom I saw over the course of the race at various points, obviously freezing but always smiling!). During the day, I took off my jacket and swapped the beanie for my cap, since the sun was bright on the ridges. My trusty Montrail Leona Divides once again gave me incredible support in the rocky sections and today, three days after the race, my legs feel fine.

Knowing the trail: After last year, I still didn’t really KNOW the trail, so I was looking forward to seeing it in all its glory. The first three miles are nice and easy single-track with the infamous stream crossing at the end before the first aid station. If you look at the photos from the race photographer, you will see runners wearing a variety of plastic contraptions meant to protect their feet from the raging cold waters. One runner even had red plastic wrap all the way up to his knees AND a pair of Yaktrax on his shoes. Truth be told, crossing the stream was not too bad if you walked right through the water and took care not to slip on the rocks climbing out on the bank. Trying to step on the rocks to avoid wet feet was asking for a fall (which happened to one runner from Wisconsin, who unfortunately dislocated his shoulder in the process and ended up dropping at mile 42).

The course basically consists of very runnable gravel fire roads in the first half, along with a few technical singletrack sections with some rocks and leaves, some good long climbs on fire roads and a long downhill on a grassy horse trail that is my favorite section. The second half has many more rocks covered by leaves, steep switchbacks, steeper climbs, and the section between Bobblets Gap and Day Creek that Horton says is 6.6 miles but it runs more like 8. It comes when you are ready to be done, after a long downhill from the Blue Ridge Parkway. You start out on benign singletrack and cross a stream or two…or three…and everything starts to look the same. On a normal day (because, after all, this is just NOT normal) this section would be a nice run in the woods, but at the end of Hellgate, it’s just plain hell. The only good thing about it is that when you get to the aid station at the end, you have only 6 miles to go to the finish.

What didn’t work?

Image of Sophie and David
Sophie with David from 2005 Hellgate

Horton Splits: Horton ran the course in 14:45 in 2003, and generously provides his splits on his website for anyone to use. Last year I was running close to these splits but the snow had the last word (or so I thought), and I finished about an hour slower than I wanted. This year, I hoped to break 15 hours, so once again I used his splits for help. I was running between 20-30 minutes faster than his splits the entire night and day until the final two sections. Horton ran the section between Bobblets Gap and Day Creek (which, did I mention, is WAY longer than the advertised 6.6 miles?) in 1:36 and the final section from Day Creek to the finish in 1:09. I ran the Bobblets/Day Creek section from hell in 2:00 and the final section in 1:28. Now, I know Horton is fast runner and that I could have just been running slower than he did, but I just have to call these “Horton Splits” because both years when I was following them, I was cruising along feeling very smug that I was going to run near 14:45, and then, just like when one experiences Horton Miles for the very first time, I heard myself saying, “There is NO WAY he could have run this section this (expletive) fast!!!” So, consider yourself warned.

Fifteen servings of espresso: I had three, 5-serving flasks filled with espresso Hammergel along with other foods I had trained with. I remember from 2005 how important it was to eat constantly, so I my goal was to finish a flask at the end of every 5-hour stretch along with soup and trail mix (I have found that eating solid food---such as hot dogs---doesn’t work for me during races). That, combined with my green tea from my drop bag, led me to have a serious case of heart rate zoom every time I tried to climb hard during the last 3 hours of the race. Next time I will cut back on the caffeine.

So, what’s the “deal” with Hellgate?

Hellgate, like many other ultras in 2006, filled up very quickly. It has a limit of 100 starters, and Dr. Horton says he wants to keep it as an intimate, tough challenge. I would have to agree with the others who say that Hellgate is probably not a great choice for a first ultra (though others have done it as their first with no problems). It makes sense that it is the last on the calendar of Horton races, as it is the hardest of the four. In fact, a few folks who have run a lot of ultras think that Hellgate is indeed a “crazier” race than the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100, because of the midnight start, the leaves, the potential for extreme weather, and the moving rocks. At the same time, these are also some of the same features that make running and finishing Hellgate so rewarding.

As I was resting on the couch after the race (during the absolute best post-run of any ultra, in my opinion, with hot showers steps away from the finish, a warm living room filled with runners and crew, delicious home-cooked chili and soup, and a comfy bed awaiting after hours of sharing race stories), I was saying things like, “I am never running 100K again” and “I am never running this race again, I’ll just come to crew.” But no worries, it was just another example of classic post-ultra traumatic stress syndrome…by Sunday morning over scrambled eggs, two orders of bacon, pancakes and toast at the nearby North Star diner, I was already trying to figure out how to break 15 hours next year. I just won’t rely on Horton Splits to get me there!

Many, many thanks to David Horton and his fabulous volunteers for another awesome Hellgate adventure!

Happy Trails!

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