Last year’s Hellgate was exciting. There was the pending article in Blue Ridge Outdoors that was going to document the 15 years of Hellgate finishes by me and four other guys. There was the fact that it was going to be 15 years of straight finishes. There was a couple of inches of snow during the race. And, I finished under 17 hours for the first time since 2010! How in the world would this year’s race ever measure up to the standard set last year?
Well, the race would be different that was for sure. I was another year older, and at 49 years young, father time is starting to creep up on me. Also, my son-in-law, Ben, was going to be crew for me solo for the first time. He and Amy (my favorite daughter) were my crew the last two years. Finally, while there was snow in the forecast, it wasn’t due to arrive until Sunday morning—long after the race was over.
Ben and I flew up to Roanoke on Friday morning avoiding any icing conditions. The flight went quickly with a 30 knots tailwind. We grabbed lunch, bought some groceries, and drove up to Camp Bethel. There we napped in the car until the late afternoon. I wandered around talking to some folks before the check-in and dinner. I spoke with Jeff Garstecki quite a bit, and we ended up sitting next to each other at dinner. I knew that we were about the same age, but learned that he is 10 days older than me.
|Right before the 12:01am Start|
At the race briefing, it was mostly normal Horton stuff, except he wasn’t making fun of too many people this year. We were treated to a song by the Camp Bethel director, Barry, who sang, “It’s Hellgate Time at Camp Bethel.” It was most excellent. All of the runners without a crew were found a ride to the start with two of them riding with us. Constantine and another guy were first year runners, and they had all sorts of questions for me. I was able to answer all of their questions and concerns, detailing as much as they desired.
Midnight approached quickly, and before we knew it, we were making last minute preparations, checking in with Horton again, and walking over to the starting line. We sang the National Anthem, O’ Holy Night (led by Ben), and finally happy birthday to Karl Meltzer at midnight just before starting at 12:01am.
Mile 3.5 45:43 (13:04 avg./mile) FSR 35
I try to make a concerted effort to move quickly through this section. The start is always exciting and slightly terrifying at the same time. With only 145 runners, the start is small with little jostling once we start running. The dark, cold atmosphere is warmed by the cheering crews, but that only lasts a minute or so. Try to wrap your mind around this—we are going to be running all night—seven hours in darkness. I settle into a good rhythm and think this might be a little quicker than last year. I make it through the stream crossing, getting my feet wet, and into the aid station. It is always a bit farther than I remember from the stream crossing to the aid station. I grab a cup of water, click my watch, and start walking uphill. My time is actually within 10 seconds of my rolling five year average—so much for starting quicker than normal.
Mile 7.5 1:05:10 (16:17 avg./mile) Petites Gap
|Changing shoes and socks|
The trick on this section is just getting it done. Four miles uphill on a dirt road to the next aid station is all that is to it. I jog the less steep portions and walk the steeper sections. I am keeping up with most of the people around me, but I am definitely not pushing it. My non-pushing is rewarded by getting to the aid station in over an hour—not great. However, Ben is waiting for me, and I sit down to pry off my frozen shoes and socks, changing into dry ones. I think I am dressed about right with three technical shirts and one pair of tights. I was getting warm on the first section, but as the course climbed, the temperature is cooler. I get the shoes and socks changed, and then drink a good amount of chocolate milk and take a bagel with me, saying good night to Ben as I won’t see him until morning at Jennings Creek.
Mile 13.1 1:38:08 (17:31 avg./mile) Camping Gap
The warm up is over and now it is important to make good times through these next two sections. I run down the rocky trail rather well and make the right turn that climbs and descends several times, crossing two small streams, before dumping out onto a dirt road. This dirt road starts a climb that isn’t as long (less than three miles), but is steeper than the climb up to Petites Gap. I power hike with purpose and pass a few people on the way up. I get to Camping Gap feeling good, and my time is reasonable, but not great if I am going to break 17 hours again like last year. I am currently almost 12 minutes behind last year’s pace. I quickly grab a couple of sandwich quarters and hurry out of the aid station.
Mile 21.9 2:26:03 (16:36 avg./mile) Headforemost Mountain
Along the several miles of the grassy road section, I talk at times with various people. One is a Brian, but I don’t know his last name. Looking at the results, the last name could be Walters, Carr, or Lang. It is always fun to me to start up a conversation, ask how many times they have run this race, and then have them ask me. Even though Horton introduced all of the fearsome five at the pre-race briefing, it is hard to identify people all covered up in the dark. There is some residual snow around on the shaded sides of the mountain. It is nothing more than an inch or so, but it brightens up things. After the grassy road section, I start moving quickly through the single-track trail that takes us up and over Onion Mountain and down to Overstreet Falls. Brian and I move quickly past a few runners as we make the treacherous descent to Overstreet Falls. When I get to the falls and another dirt road, Larry Huffman and I start the hike up to Headforemost Mountain sharing stories about David Snipes and past years. This split is faster than last year, so now I am less than nine minutes behind last year’s pace. At the aid station, I grab a cheese quesadilla and start the next section.
|Eating breakfast at Jennings Creek|
Mile 27.6 1:37:21 (17:05 avg./mile) Jennings Creek
As the course goes down the hill, I try to push the pace. I pass a few runners, but overall just maintain my position with the other runners. I see several I know on this section, including Brock Webb and Marlin Yoder. The technical, rocky section before getting on the final stretch, which is a grassy road, seems to get rockier each year. I manage not to twist my ankles too much on this section. I glide into the aid station where Ben is waiting for me with a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. It is delicious! I change out shirts, in the process dropping to just two lighter weight shirts. I also change my hat and gloves into lighter pairs. It is now 7:30 or so, and the temperature should warm up a little. I wash down the sandwich with a good bit of Conquest—yes, I still have a little powder left. I lost four minutes on this section to last year’s pace, so now I am 12 minutes behind.
Mile 34.5 1:54:26 (16:35 avg./mile) Little Cove Mountain
|Heading away from Jennings Creek|
The climb out of Jennings Creek finds me back beside Brock Webb and another runner, who I meet on the next section. There is also Makoto, who seems to be hiking uphill slightly faster than me. I am hiking uphill faster than Brock, so I push on ahead, knowing he will likely catch me on the next downhill section. I feel good, but I am not moving as quickly as I want to. That being said, I know I can get under 17 hours if I stay focused on the task at hand. I make it through the single track section in great shape and have a few good conversations on the dirt road up to the aid station. This split time is again slower than last year—this time eight minutes slower. So, now I am 20 minutes behind last year’s pace! I decide to start a little caffeine by drinking a small cup of Mountain Dew. I also eat some bacon along with another sandwich quarter.
Mile 42.5 2:17:43 (17:13 avg./mile) Bearwallow Gap
|Coming into Bearwallow Gap|
|Changed and finishing lunch|
Leaving the aid station, I figure if I can run this section in about 2:15 that will put me into Bearwallow at 11:45am, which would put me 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Then all I have to do is make up another 15 minutes in the last 20 miles to slide in under 17 hours. I explain this strategy to Joe, who is running beside me, and he thinks it is a great plan. Joe and I proceed with me in the lead to catch and pass a couple of runners before we come upon Lanier. As I slide by Lanier, who is from Athens, Alabama and who I ran many miles with last year during this race, I ask if he is aiming for 17 hours. He responds in the affirmative, and he tags along with us as I lead a growing train of runners. We also pass Brock Webb again before we make it to the infamous devil trail. As we make the turn to join the devil trail, Joe, who is running this race for the first time, says he thought we were already on the devil trail. Oh no, it gets more technical and more fun! The good thing is that now we have less than 45 minutes until the aid station if we push it. I am making good progress through the leaves and rocks, but Brock still catches and passes me as we make our way down the hill to a river crossing. Joe has fallen a little behind on the devil trail, but I cannot wait for him if I am going to have a chance to meet my goal. I roll into the aid station 42 minutes after turning on the devil trail—a very quick time through that section. I decide that things are warming up, so I change out the tights to shorts, and change shirts again, ending with two shirts—one long sleeve and one short—and a hat and no gloves. I eat the majority of a slightly charred ham and cheese sandwich that Ben made, washing it down with chocolate milk and a little Conquest. The overall time in the race stands are 11:44. I made up 12 minutes over last year’s time and am now less than eight minutes behind last year’s 16:54 pace. As I prepare to leave the aid station, Joe makes his way into the aid station. I grab a small cup of Coke to keep the caffeine level up in my body.
Mile 49.5 1:49:59 (15:43 avg./mile) Bobblets Gap
The climb out of Bearwallow Gap goes very well with a little caffeine in my body. Last year, I didn’t start any caffeine until I was into this section. I catch up to Janice at the top of the climb, and soon thereafter, Lanier catches up to me. The three of us, plus Janice’s pacer leap frog through most of the rest of this section. At some point, Joe catches back up, and when we drop down to the dirt road that will take us the last mile to the aid station, Joe decides to run up it. I walk with Janice and her pacer talking about the beautiful, almost perfect weather. I think it could be a little cooler, but Janice is all bundled up and says her hands and feet have been getting cold. My hands are a little chilly, but then again I didn’t put on any gloves for this section. When we get to the aid station, our crews are waiting for us. Ben has cooked up some Ramen soup, although it is a little hot. I carefully eat about a third of the soup. I put back on my gloves while I drink some Coke. My time on this section was seven minutes faster than last year, so now I am less than two minutes behind last year’s pace! Now, all I have to do is apply the proper finishing effort to get under 17-hours and a Western States qualifier. Additionally, Ben tells me that Jeff (another one of the fearsome five) is only seven or eight minutes ahead of me.
|Eating soup at Bobblets Gap|
Mile 56.1 2:08:56 (19:32 avg./mile) Day Creek
Brock and I leave the aid station together as we begin the 2.5 mile downhill dirt road section. I pick up the pace and catch and pass Janice again, and then Joe. Finally, I pass Lanier and another guy before exiting the dirt road for the “forever section.” As I start the first climb, I have a bowel issue that I need to resolve. And then there is Jeff ahead of me, but before I pass him, I decide to go squat behind a tree and take care of business. When I am finished squatting behind the tree, Brock, Joe, and Janice have passed me and Jeff is nowhere in sight. Lanier and I stay together the rest of this section just catching glimpses of Brock and Joe at times. Janice and her pacer are moving well. Right around the 15 hour mark, Sophie Speidel is hiking towards us announcing that it is 55 minutes to the aid station. I respond that this is not acceptable as that would doom my sub 17-hour effort. She responds that I need to run more and talk less, so that is what I do. I trip and fall twice trying to push the pace, but I still manage to get into the Day Creek aid station around 15:43, which gives me an hour and 16 minutes to finish under 17 hours. I drink the rest of the bottle of Coke that I started last aid station and grab a handful of pretzel sticks for this next section. Last year, I ran this section in 1:12. Can I do it again? Ben says Jeff is only a couple of minutes ahead of me.
|Starting the last section|
Mile 62.4 1:14:14 (11:47 avg./mile) FINISH
Lanier started out of the aid station ahead of me and is moving well. I take almost five minutes to catch up to him right before we both catch up to Jeff and Brock. As we pass, Jeff is bent over dry heaving a little. I wish him well and tell him that he can get this thing done. He confirms this thought and tells me that Ryan Henry (another of the fearsome five) is not too far ahead. Can it be that I finish before not one but two of the other fearsome five? I have never finished ahead of any of the other four. I hit the first gate in 15 minutes and think I am moving faster than last year. As I near the parkway, I catch and pass Janice again. Despite my determination, I reach the parkway in 41:30—30 seconds slower than last year. Okay, it is now or never, I have to run 10-minute miles over the last 3.5 miles. Fortunately, it is all downhill. I passed four runners on the climb up, now starting down, I quickly pass one runner and then I pass Ryan. He is running still, but clearly working hard. I hit the gate—two miles from the parkway in 20:30—now I just have 1.5 miles. I hit the mile to go mark at 16:49—I can make this as I run the last mile in less than 9 minutes.
|16 starts, 16 finishes!|
Official Finishing Time 16:57:43
97th out of 145 starters (124 finishers under 18 hours)
I finish and have to make the point to David Horton that I am third out of the fearsome five. It is a good year: first, I finished number 16; second, I qualified for the Western States lottery for the third year in a row with this sub 17-hour finish; and finally, I was NOT the slowest of the fearsome five this year. I sit down after I finish waiting for my heart rate to slow down under 150 beats per minute. I really had to push hard the last section, and I am not as speedy as I used to be. It is now seven years that the streakers have remained at the fearsome five. Are we getting slower as we age? Yes, but the fastest of us this year was the oldest of us—Jerry Turk at the young age of 60.
Ben and I head to our hotel and crash before getting up at 5am in order to escape Roanoke before it becomes buried beneath an early season snowstorm. There are about two inches of snow on the runway as we take-off, but we make it home uneventfully. I think Roanoke ended up with at least a foot of snow. Now, that would have really made things interesting if it had come a day earlier!
Never stop running,
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