In the classical definition of Hell, there is neither a space nor time continuum. In race director David Horton's envision of Hell aptly named The Hellgate 100K this holds true. Time has been described by former Hellgate runners as non-existent. His mileage data is known as "Horton Miles" for its irreverence for accuracy. "Horton Miles" are comically long. The Hellgate "100K" is actually 110K leaving the distance to once again parallel the underworld, 66.6 miles.
As a masochist, I have become familiar with the skills required to make it through various creations of what earthlings devise to simulate eternal damnation. There is an art to making it through to the other side of these carnival rides. It is easy to fall prey to the smoke and mirrors we create to fool ourselves, but with the right tools we can escape Hell. We are after all, sentient beings, bound to space and time.
In late September of this year I found myself in Dante's third level of Hell, reserved for gluttons. In Dante's Inferno, Hell is 9 layers. Gluttony is the meat in a sandwich of Lust and Greed. I was gluttonous in my racing endeavors. I ran hard all summer and ran well, but I lusted for more. Greed fed the machine after a win at Iron Mountain and gluttony prevailed as I attempted a run at UROC only 4 weeks later. I paid for my sins with humility and enlightenment was reached. I spent October running very little and recovered for the first time in 6 months. November held the most enjoyable running I had experienced in 2 seasons. The flesh and bones were renewed and healed. I had started over from scratch and felt amazing.
The week prior to Hellgate I stumbled upon some research I wasn't privy to in earlier races and began my carb loading cycle earlier and omitted fruit, (fructose). I didn't feel bloated and I was digesting the carbs well. This was a great sign which I have learned in past experience. I ran 5K worth of intervals on Monday and 2 miles of intervals on Thursday. I had faith great things were in store for Hellgate. I wanted to run even more on race week but limited myself in hopes of charging up for the 66.6 mile jaunt through the black abyss.
The 2012 edition of Hellgate was slated to commence at the standard 12:01am start time on the second Saturday in December. The race starts near midnight on Friday and I wanted to be rested, therefore I drove down on Thursday night with my crew to get rest all day on Friday. Checking in to the hotel we were greeted with the following sign posted on the lobby desk and the front door:
The pre-race dinner was the tastiest I have ever had and the pre-run meeting was full of familiar faces to add to the communal and familial feel of Horton races. (Dr. Horton also informed us during the pre-race meeting that he was scheduled to have major heart surgery on Monday following the race. Our thoughts and prayers are with him.)
Eric Grossman walked into the meeting late which invited provocation from Horton to call out the current course record holder himself. "Hey Eric! What time are you shooting for tomorrow?! I am betting you can't break 11 hours. It's too hot this year. I think you'll hit 11 hours and 15 minutes." Eric surreptitiously avoided answering the question and with a coy smile held his stance.
This race however, is Hellgate, known for bringing out the inner demons of runners. Little did we know Eric was battling a fight within himself he had never dealt with before. He was unsure of his health this race and was in turmoil as to whether or not he should start the 10th running of Hellgate.
Magic or mayhem under black skies with blazing stars overhead; I knew it was going to be a special night. I knew Horton had undershot Eric's potential, and more importantly the potential of an all-star crew of speed-demons including:
- Chris Reed- multiple winner who had run 11:15 in worse conditions.
- Alister Gardner- UROC elite top 10, Virgil Crest 50 winner.
- Jason Bryant- over 30 podium finishes in his illustrious career.
- Darryl Smith- previous Hellgate podium finisher.
- Frank Gonzales- 7 podium finishes in the last 2 years in Virginia races, Hellgate veteran.
- Eric Grossman- CR Holder, Over 70 Ultra finishes, OVER 39 ULTRA WINS. WHAT?!
At the devils hour we stood in the darkness, awaiting command from the St Peter of the underworld to start our journey. I made note of the runners I deemed my competition and pointed them out to Stephanie. I would want to know names if I requested time splits later in the race. I was pleased at the relaxed pace in the opening miles. I tucked in comfortably behind the affable Frank Gonzales. We made a little small talk and watched Alister Gardner shoot off into the night. Jason Bryant followed in quick pursuit and I eventually let Frank Gonzales pull away from me as well. It was early in the race and this time around, I wasn't racing for anyone but me. (This should be the case in most races...) I knew the pace I wanted to hold and stuck to it.
Coming into the first aid station, I knew I was doing something right, because Eric Grossman made a comment from behind me regarding the infamous river crossing. If I was running easy and was still with former winner Chris Reed who had beaten the guys up front; and with Eric Grossman course record holder, then I would just forget about everyone and run my own race like I was doing, because it was working.
The miles passed quickly, like water rolling down a rapid, up and over rocks, tumbling downstream. I surmounted climbs and descended rocky terrain with ease early in the race. Soon enough, Eric, Chris and I caught up to Frank Gonzales and our foursome ascended some of the biggest climbs of the race together.
Stephanie was calculated at the aid stations, and we found a common scenario unfolding. Several runners would escape me and then I would catch them at the Aid Stations. I had Stephanie to toss a bottle so I needn't ever stop or slow.
In Dante's Inferno, he has a guide to take him through Hell, without whom, his journey would have been quite different. I assume Stephanie's flawless crewing, acting as my "Virgil", gained me several minutes by the end of the race.
Nearing mile 20, after running with Chris Reed and chatting about families back home, I noticed a headlamp pointed at me. A runner was walking back up what seemed to be an eternal descent I had been running down. It was Jason Bryant. I asked if he was OK and little did I know by his calm demeanor that he was walking backwards to the previous aid station to DNF. This put me in 2nd place with Alister out in front. Chris and Eric were third and fourth respectively.
Closing out this section Eric began feeling strong, and passed Chris somewhere. After not seeing crew for 13 miles, I grabbed a quick bottle from Stephanie at the aid station. Eric and I made haste up a nasty climb in 2nd and 3rd place. Chris and his headlamp were no where in sight for the remainder of the race. The climb Eric and I were attacking was long and steady. Instead of tucking in to Eric and letting him lead I tried to run shoulder to shoulder, proving mentally I didn't need him as a crutch. I wanted him to see I was as strong as he'd ever seen me mentally as well as physically. I'd been in front of him for the first third during the climbs and although I assumed he was beginning his move, I was there to spar. Nonetheless, he slowly pulled away. I had to run my own race. I let him go but he didn't get far.
As we entered the middle third of the race, the climbs abate somewhat and the terrain smooths out. There are less rocks. Mentally you can't think about the miles still looming ahead. I assume that is part of the mental game of making it through Hell. Make it through by living in moment, lest you become angst ridden contemplating the task ahead. Running parallels life in this regard. Make it to the next aid station, live in the moment and be in the present. Just take it one step at a time and awe inspiring feats are possibly.
The light of day meant an ever increasing ability to practice mindfulness in my running and live in the moment, not fearing the remaining miles. Eric was not too far ahead of me, and I was still enjoying the run. A torn adductor muscle in my groin had yet to nag me any more than in the opening miles. I knew my body would hold strong. The draw of the finish line provided focus and drive that my depleted energy levels and fatiguing muscles were lacking at that point. I held my core strong and ran as I had been doing for over seven hours. The rocky section I had heard so much about didn't cause strife. I moved fluidly and smoothly, not stressing about speed that the rocks were impeding.
Climbing up to Bearwallow Gap the grade is seemingly constant for miles as the trail slowly rises the contour line of the mountain to the aid station. Rounding bends in the mountain I could see Eric's white shirt and it fueled me. I dug a little deeper and raised my energy expenditure ever so slightly to begin the long process of closing the void which existed between us. I didn't want to catch him and then be tired from the effort, so I climbed steadily. Coming into the 8th aid station at the top of the climb, I caught Eric! This was a large victory for me. There was only 13 miles left and only one more aid station.
Leaving the Bearwallow Gap aid station the course descends an incredibly long fire road. I caught Eric after several minutes of descending and we once again were shoulder to shoulder. I had looked at my watch and I knew with strong efforts, determination, and luck, we could break his old course record. I truly and whole heatedly wanted Eric to break his old course record. As I approached and ran side by side, he looked over to acknowledge my presence and I had a giant grin on my face and I held out a fist for him to "fist-bump". I yelled at him, "Let's do this! You're gonna get your record!"
Like I said, I wanted Eric to break his course record. I wanted him to have the best race possible. The paradigm exists in that I also wanted to beat him. This fist-bump of camaraderie also "could" have served the purpose to show Eric how great I was feeling and that I was making my move. Unless he was feeling ready for a surge, I'd be on my merry little way. Had he been feeling spent, nothing is more demoralizing than a giant grin and encouragement. lucky for me, I didn't have to fake it, I really did want Eric to push hard and have the race of his life.
We ran shoulder to shoulder to the bottom of our descent and I took the lead for the climb. My nutrition had been flawless all day, and I reminisced to every time over the previous year Eric and I had been within meters of each other in the final miles of a race. He had warned me to not let him get in front of me for the final climb, because he would surely beat me on it. As a Hellgate virgin I heeded his advice and was hoping to escape him on this last stretch of trail en route to the final aid station.
The stretch of trail leading to aid station nine is called "the forever section". I assaulted every climb and tried to outrun Eric but he was latched on to my heels. I bombed down rocky descents. I could tell I had a mild advantage on the technical descents. This was, until, I fell and hit hard. I managed to not get shaken up too badly and I continued on in front.
I managed to pass Eric on the final climb of UROC two years prior, and during the Tour De Virginia this summer, I managed to finish strong and gain time on him several times in the last 10 miles of a race if I was feeling energized. I knew it wasn't impossible to hold my own on that final climb, but I had already blown my reserves trying to escape him during the forever section.
We entered aid station 9 together and I was honored to once again be with the grand master himself, Eric Grossman. We were 6 miles from the finish. Eric and I grabbed a caffeinated sip of mountain dew. We both yelled that we would prefer Coke, but took the Mountain Dew in lieu.
I refused to quit even as he slipped out of my grasp. I watched him climbing strong and I swore to not walk. The good thing about racing for maximum potential and NOT for placement is that even though I could have walked the climb and still finished 3rd, I wanted my best possible performance. This was for ME. Every cell ached and pleaded for me to walk, but I ran every step up the final climb. The pace was pitiful, but I dug as deep as I could. I couldn't even see Eric.
The final 3 miles are heaven, all smooth and downhill. I felt victorious. Eric had escaped me, but once again, the battle provided a performance I was proud of.
Canadian Alister Gardner finished in 10:52, winning and setting a new course record. Eric broke his old course record of 11:03 which stood since 2006. His final time was 10:57. The ever-witty Grossman proclaimed he "has the American course record!" I finished in 11:07, rounding out the top 3 podium.
Here are answers to questions you might have about Hellgate and my experience. (AKA- stuff I couldn’t squeeze into this report.)
Shoes- Montrail Mountain Masochists
Socks- Swiftwick Vibe One
Shorts- 2xu Compression
Headlamp- Black Diamond Sprinter/ Tikka XPII
Nutrition- Gels/ Blocks/ Water
Training- I was tapped out on hill work prior to Hellgate, so I actually focused on core strength prior to hellgate and did a ton of threshold and speedwork on the road. I only ran trails once weekly and felt stronger than ever on the climbs as a result of finding balance in training and doing road and speed work.
Many thanks to Advanced Orthopaedics for their constant attention to detail and helping to balance me out!