By Jaret Seiberg
Crossing the finish line just more than 17 hours after I began the Hellgate 100K, race director David Horton asked me if he should host the run again and if I would run it next year if offered.
Twenty-four hours later I’m still not sure.
Hellgate was probably the most incredible running adventure of my life. It has everything that I’ve come to love in our sport -- rugged mountains, fast-flowing streams, water falls in the middle of no where that few ever see, incredible views, and a level of insanity that sets us a part from road runners.
Yet Hellgate also is a dangerous course with time cut offs that are very challenging. The first 21 miles contained numerous iced-over roads. The temperature at the 12:01 a.m. start could not have been more than 20 degrees. When day broke, it warned a bit. But by noon temperatures plummeted again and the wind picked up.
Going fast enough to stay warn and to keep ahead of the cut-offs was never easy. Travel on the iced-over roads was slow. Climbs went on for miles as there was at least one major mountain assault between aid stations.
Of the approximately 75 people who signed up, 40 finished within the 18-hour time limit and four others made it through the last cut off to complete the race in just more than 18 hours. That leaves more than 30 who dropped or were disqualified for missing a time cut-off.
To put the challenge in perspective, Tom Corris was the final person to cross the finish line in under 18 hours and he made it with about seven minutes to spare. I doubt Tom has ever been close to a cut off before in his ultra running life and probably never will be again.
So finishing this is a major accomplishment.
Given that the race is held in mid-December, this is -- and will be if David decides to host it again – an event where weather dominates. If it had been very mild, everyone would have moved quicker. Yet if it was a day later and we were in a snow storm, I’m not sure how many would have gone past the first aid station and I question if the race could have been held given the difficulty of getting cars to the aid stations in the mountains.
Yet I don’t want to mislead anyone. Even in perfect weather, this would be a very difficult course. Keith Knipling used an altimeter and said there was more than 13,000 feet of elevation gain. I would have guessed that there was more. This course involves constant climbing and steep descents.
We met the night before for a great dinner at Camp Bethel, just off exit 162 on I-81. Then the briefing where we were warned about an injured, pregnant bear that escaped from the Natural Bridge zoo. With this reassuring thought in our heads, everyone had about 90 minutes to try to catch a nap. We then car pooled about 30 minutes to the start at the Hellgate trailhead.
Underneath gas-generator powered lights, we took off at 12:01 a.m. David called the first section flat. Gary Knipling and I disagreed – though given the rest of the course in retrospect it now does seem flat. The pack spread out before one of two stream crossings where you had to get your feet wet. (BTW.... Gary did not point out a single wild flower during the entire run. I also did not see him pick up any bear poop. So he may have been bored out there.)
From the aid station, we climbed a mountain on an iced-covered dirt road. The views were simply amazing and the stars we crisp in the night air. Getting to aid station 2, people were falling all over the place as the ice was especially bad there. I have no idea how anyone drove a car there. But they did.
After a descent of a few miles on single-track – one of the nicer single-track sections – we came to another dirt road, which included a very cold and unexpected stream crossing. We then pretty much followed the road up a mountain to aid station three. It was eight miles to aid station four and it was 3 a.m. I was desperate for caffeine, but the front-runners drank all the Coke and Mountain Dew. Soup also ran out before I arrived.
So I trudged off for aid station four. I had been running with a small pack of guys who knew each other pretty well and a woman from Boulder, Colo. We separated at the aid station and I was alone for about a five mile stretch as we ran a horse trail along a mountain ridge.
When we dipped into the woods, I caught Kerry Owens and we ran the single track together for a mile or so. I gained on her during the down hill past a water fall and kept the advantage during a long hike back up the mountain on a dirt road to the aid station.
This section seemed to take forever, but I was quite happy to make the aid station. This was one of the mandatory time cut offs and I got in about an hour under the gun. I finally was able to put on dry socks and get some caffeine in my system. I gave myself a minute in front of the fire while eating and then caught Kerry who transitioned faster than I did at the aid station.
We stayed together for about the next 18 miles. We both worried about making the next mandatory time cut off, which was at mile 43. Basically we could not slow down much if we were to stay in the race.
The best part of reaching aid station five was the soup. At last, the front runners had left me soup. All the others had run out. They also had salted peanuts, which hit the spot.
From there, we left on a dirt road and began another very long climb up a mountain. We then rang along a ridge line and down some single track to another dirt road. Of course, we had to climb again. But the reward was aid station six, which had eggs and sausage. It was a great sandwich.
The next section seemed to take forever. After running along the dirt road for awhile – past the hunters and their hounds – we ended up on a ridge line, which we seemed to follow forever. I could see the James River in the distance and thought that meant I was close to the aid station.
I was wrong. Around this time, Kerry and I parted ways as I felt a bit of an energy burst. After going down the mountain, we got to turn around and climb back up it. We then followed ridge line for a few more miles, before finally hitting a paved road which we crossed before getting to the aid station about 10 minutes later. I was about 45 minutes ahead of the mandatory cut-off, which meant I was going to finish the race.
The next section began with a very challenging climb, but soon offered some wonderful vistas as we ran forever along a ridge line before climbing up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and an aid station at mile 50.
The second-to-last part of the course was mentally the toughest. It was just more than six miles, but felt like 10 miles. We ran down hill for 30 minutes at a good clip. I though that meant we had to be about half way to the final aid station. We weren’t. It took us another 1:15 to reach the aid station on a section had too many mid-sized climbs to recount.
The reward was the final aid station and then a three mile climb straight up the mountain to the Blue Ridge Parkway. At this point, I knew I’d finish in under the official 18 hours and I backed off on the climb. I was tired and cold and saw no reason to push it. Susan Baehre, of course, sprinted up the hill and passed me at the mid-point. She said she only fell four times and she did not appear to be bleeding, which is unusual for her.
From the parkway, it was three miles down to the finish line at Camp Bethel. As I headed from the finish line to my car to grab my bag, Knipling duo came across the finish line. They were followed two minutes later by Kerry. I also saw Marty Lindemann finish, followed by Tom Corris.
After a hot shower, I climbed into the car for a ride home. That was brutal. I was very tired and while I pulled over twice to sleep, I would have much rather been in a bed. For those who run this next year – if there is a race next year – spend the night at Camp Bethel for $19. It would be a bargain.
The drive home did give me a chance to reflect on the race. It is an incredible challenge. But perhaps it is too challenging to be marketed as an ultra race. While David Horton has not posted the final numbers on those who did not finish, it had to be more than 30 people, or about 40% of those who signed up.
While high attrition rates are common for 100 milers, I think the difficulty of this event caught people off-guard and I’m not sure if the 18 hour time limit is fair. Clearly a longer event poses more of a challenge for the volunteers, but I cannot imagine how frustrated I would have been to survive the first 43 miles only to be pulled from the course for being 30 minutes or an hour late.
The idea of making everyone run at night sets this event apart from others. But the same effect could be had by starting earlier in the night and thus giving people more time to finish. That also would allow the race to finish in day light with perhaps a more generous time limit of 20 or 21 hours.
What scares me the most is that under the original 16 hour time limit I would have been pulled from the course. Fortunately David Horton raised it to 18 hours a few weeks before the start.
Also I’m not sure everyone was prepared for the weather. Basically you were stuck with what you were wearing for the first 21 miles, which for most of us meant a good chunk of the night running.
As advice to those who run this in future years, be prepared for the extreme cold. I saw many runners in shorts who were very cold and would have been in extreme trouble if they had injured themselves between aid stations. Others lacked hats or jackets.
I don’t mean any of this as a criticism of David Horton, who once again put on a tremendous event. The course was well marked and there were always people at the aid stations. He deserves tremendous credit for pulling this off and I sincerely thank him for all his work.
So now that I have written about the race I come back to the question David Horton asked when I finished: Should he hold the race again and would I run it again.
I answer yes to both.