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What is Hellgate?

By Sophie Speidel

Over the past two years, I kept hearing about the Hellgate 100K. I heard it was a “very, very special race” from race director David Horton. I heard it was a “really tough challenge” from Gary Knipling. I heard it had “beautiful trails, gorgeous views, and killer climbs” from many who had run it before. So I thought I would finish off 2005, a year that had proved to be very special and challenging for me as an ultrarunner, with my first 100K, the Hellgate 100K, in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Natural Bridge, VA. This is what I discovered:

Sophie and David
Author Sophie Speidel with RD David Horton

Hellgate is Classic Horton. If you combined all the best features of David’s other races, you have Hellgate. It has the ease of the finish being at Camp Bethel, which provided a delicious pre-race meal, cozy post-run fellowship, and comfortable lodging just like Holiday Lake (but the bunkhouses are more comfortable than HL). It has beautiful sections of the actual Promise Land horse trails, and long, hilly gravel road sections just like Mountain Masochist. However, the two features that truly make Hellgate unique are the midnight start time and December race date. Neal Jamison described Hellgate’s aura when he said that during the Friday night briefing and pre-race preparation, the runners just look at each other knowing they are part of something special. With an ice storm Thursday night covering the entire 66 Horton miles in sheets of thick ice and snow, it wasn’t clear if all the aid stations would be accessible for aid station workers and crews, so David urged us to be prepared for ANYTHING—food, clothing, anything. What makes David such a superb race director is that he sincerely wants everyone to experience a safe, tough, and rewarding challenge, but he does not coddle. The time cut-offs for Hellgate are tight, and they don’t change due to weather. Hellgate truly reflects David’s love of adventure that he enjoys sharing so much with others.

Hellgate is the Final Exam. In 2005, I finished my first 100-miler, I did a double crossing of the Grand Canyon, and I ran two 40-milers, a 50-miler and a handful of shorter training runs. If these were the “tests” that we ultrarunners like to use to determine what we are capable of, then Hellgate is truly the “final exam.” I took everything I had learned this year in terms of training, nutrition, dealing with sleep deprivation, and mental preparation, and applied it to Hellgate. I did not race any ultras this fall, but instead did a lot of hill repeats, road running with faster runners and long speed intervals on the track, and I came into Hellgate rested after a three-week taper. I used only Sustained Energy, water, and Hammergel during the race and ate no solid foods, and as a result, I never bonked or had any stomach issues. I slept well the week preceding the race and took a 45-minute nap a few hours before the start, and I never got sleepy during the night section. And I am convinced that approaching this race as an exciting adventure with my close friends gave me the humor and mental fortitude necessary to deal with the challenges when they appeared. As a result, I ran a strong race in very difficult conditions, and I feel very satisfied that everything came together. If you are looking for a real test of your endurance and mental toughness, Hellgate is ideal.

Hellgate IS a really tough challenge, and it IS a very special event. Gary and David were right. Hellgate had long, slow road climbs covered in thick ice that went on forever and technical sections that were covered in blocks of snow that I call the “Shale Trails”---the ice chunks broke off with every step and either banged against your sore ankles or disappeared into the precipice below. The snow cover this year actually allowed for very fast running for those who had the foresight to screw sheet metal screws into their shoes (not me) or buy a pair of Yaktracks (me). The Yaktracks made huge difference and I was able to run hard and not slip at all during the first 50K (unlike Ryan Henry, who fell –hard-- at least 4 times in front of me). Unfortunately, one of my Yaktracks fell off somewhere on the trail and I was like Cinderella with one good slipper, so I spent the second 50K slipping and sliding like so many others. This was just one of the many small events of the day that made finishing so rewarding. I loved running under a sky full of stars, with a big moon low in the horizon and the “crunch, crunch, crunch” of snow under my feet. I loved the quiet of nighttime in the forest and then hearing the sounds of the aid stations in the distance and the hollering of the aid station workers as I came in. I loved watching the sunrise and the gorgeous views of the Shenandoah Valley while up on the ridgeline, and the final 3.2 miles of downhill to the finish with the sun setting in my eyes. But perhaps the absolute best part of the whole night and day was running up to the finish line, which was at the door to the lodge, knowing I could go inside where it was warm and where I could finally sit down!

Hellgate is a wonderful gathering of ultrarunning friends, old and new. To paraphrase Anstr, Hellgate is “where the studs go.” It attracts a tough group of tough ultrarunners. I met a crew from Wisconsin who thought nothing of the snow conditions and said they would be back next year. Ring and MMT regulars Kerry Owens, Aaron Schwartzbard, Quatro Hubbard, Jeff Wilbur and Ryan Henry were there, as were Vicki Kendall, Dan Lehmann, Jay Finkle and Neal Jamison. I also met two ultra newbies for whom Hellgate was only their second ultra. Tanya Olson (whose brother Dusty is Scott Jurek’s pacer) lives in South Carolina but finished both Masochist and Hellgate this year, despite having no access to mountains for training. She cried at the finish. Chuck Sturtevant, a VHTRC listserv lurker, came from Bolivia, where he trains sporadically and yet finished strong. It was wonderful to share in their excitement of finishing such a tough run! After the last finisher arrived, the VHTRC group gathered around blazing fire eating soup, chili, and birthday cake (thanks, Q), shared our stories of the day with our new found friends, and talked well into the night before falling asleep on the floors and bunks. One of the last things I remember Kerry saying to me before I closed my eyes was, “Next year when I talk about entering Hellgate, talk me out of it.” Coming from a tough dirt chick like Kerry, that sums it up right there.

Thank you, David, and all the volunteers, for a truly special event!

Hellgate's Ridge Line
The Ridge that Hellgate Travels

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