Hellgate 2015 aka ‘Heatgate’

Report by Angela Russell

Going into Hellgate 2015 I had four goals to accomplish:

1.       Finish

2.       Finish under 17 hours – Qualify for Western States

3.       Get my Patagonia Houdini Jacket (race swag)

4.       Top 10 Female

Angela RussellI’m happy to say I completed all those goals with a finishing time of 15:40 and placing as 9th Female. I had a really good year of training, running and racing. So I decided to throw my name in the hat for Hellgate 2015. I anxiously waited to hear if I was selected, checking my email daily for word. Then there it was, an email from Horton saying I had made it through the first round of the selection process. A range of emotions flooded through my head. Was I ready for this race? A race that was known to be one of the hardest 100k’s on the east coast. How was I going to handle a 12:01am start? Could I compete with the field?

My initial goal of Top 5 Female’s was revised to Top 10 when I first saw the list of runners. I knew I would be facing some of the elite women from up and down the east coast. I worked hard training over the fall months to prepare for this race under the guidance of my coach, Sean Andrish. Drawing on Sean’s experience at Hellgate we discussed the course and where we could leverage my strengths such as downhills and rocky, technical sections. I also studied various race reports and found that Aaron Schwartzbard’s Hellgate report was very insightful. I would highly recommend it.

At 10:50pm I jumped in the car with some fellow Hellgate runners and followed a high-speed caravan of brake lights to the start. I began to feel a little anxious, but felt instant relief when I looked up to see a clear sky full of diamonds illuminating the darkness. It was going to be a beautiful night for running.

We got to the parking lot and made final preparations. As we approached the starting line we heard the National Anthem and I knew it was game time. I made my way to a starting position towards the front of the pack. Panic struck with the realization my headlamp was not functioning properly and with the help of a fellow runner I switched it out as the final seconds counted down to 12:01. We’re off!

The race started off fairly fast and everyone was holding an almost 5k pace for the first few miles. We breezed past the first aid station and began our first big climb towards Petites Gap and aid station #2. I settled into a comfortable race pace; running when I could and walking when I had to. I remember looking down at the stream of headlamps climbing the mountain below me and occasionally turning off my own headlamp to enjoy the beauty of the night. I was running in fourth position and kept sight of third female for most of this section.

I went through AS#2 quickly and was feeling great through the next several sections. I was lucky enough to share trail time with friends Keith Knipling, and Jeff Garstecki. I found myself playing leap frog with the third female runner for several miles before eventually pulling away from her heading into AS#5. I downed some pickle juice and switched out my flashlight for the final hour before the sun would be up. I left quickly and between AS#5 and AS#6 paired up with another runner, Ryan Nebel. We pushed each other for the next several miles welcoming the morning light before Ryan pulled away from me heading into AS#7.

Angela Entering AS #7I entered Bearwallow Gap at mile 42 and heard Horton announce my name as third female running maybe 20 minutes behind 2nd. I was feeling good but starting to notice the first signs of electrolyte and hydration deficiencies. The long climbs and unseasonable heat were taking their toll already. Quick refuel and I grabbed my second handheld before heading towards Boblett’s Gap. The next section was mostly runnable with great views but the morning was starting to heat up and I began feeling thirsty. I ran out of water between aid stations for the first time here. Coming into AS#8 I was dehydrated and starting to feel nauseated. I spent a few minutes at this aid station trying unsuccessfully to eat something. During this time Keith passed through, saying ‘Are you ready for the Forever section next’? 

If you are familiar with the Forever section, it’s exactly what it sounds like. 6 “Horton miles” that seem to be more like 8. I headed down the fire road with less than 20 miles to go watching Keith pull away as we descended. By this time it was almost noon and temperatures were reaching the high 70’s. My legs started really cramping and my stomach was turning knots. I started vomiting a couple miles in and knew it was going to be a long afternoon. I focused on my iPod to distract myself and wound up missing the turnoff from the fire road onto the trail. After going probably a half mile downhill I realized my mistake and my heart sank as I turned to make the climb back up to the trailhead to get back on course. Over the next couple miles I was leap frogging another runner who was also struggling. Eventually I found him sitting alongside the trail asking if I had any extra water. Unfortunately, I did not have anything to give him. There were at least 3 miles to the next aid station and I needed more water myself.

At the next stream crossing I found myself refilling my water bottles and splashing water on my face in an attempt to lower my core temperature. I knew it was unsafe to drink from the stream but the benefits outweighed the risks in my opinion. I mostly walked the rest of this section, which truly seemed to go on forever. I came into AS#9 somewhat out of it and telling my crew, P.J. Vaughan, that I was not doing well. Luckily the aid station workers had popsicles which helped cool me down. I drank fluids and refilled but was still unable to eat anything solid. 

I was still third female at this point but I had lost a lot of time in the previous section and I knew it was going to be a struggle to get to the finish with many strong runners not far behind me. All I could do was walk as I headed out of the aid station for the 3 mile climb ahead. By now my legs were exhausted and becoming unstable. I slipped and in an attempt to break the fall I injured my wrist. It swelled up and began throbbing immediately. I sat there debating going back to the last aid station or continuing my death march to the finish. I decided to push on. Shortly after that my good friend Erik Price and his pacer caught up to me. Erik asked if everything was OK but in his push to the finish probably couldn’t recognize how much I was struggling at that point. I congratulated him as he pulled away and made his way over the top of Blue Ridge Parkway to begin his descent to the finish line.

With about a half mile to the top of the hill I looked back and saw four women coming up behind me. They were moving well and caught me quickly. As they approached I caught the attention of one of them, Alexis Thomas, and she was concerned, asking if I was OK. I told her I’d be fine and congratulated her on a great race. This was tough to see as I knew she was now the last runner in the top 5.

Angela and Danny in better circumstances at the finish of The RingI stumbled into a water stop at the top of the mountain. 3 miles downhill to go. There were two aid workers there who were concerned for my safety and trying to convince me to drop. I was out of it but determined to go on. Right then I saw my friend Danny Mowers approaching. He was pacing another runner and thankfully he agreed to help me from this point to the finish. His runner continued on and we walked on in a slow march to the end. My wrist was very swollen and I could barely stand. 

With about a half mile to go we came upon my crew, P.J. Vaughan, who had been concerned and was wondering what had happened. We walked the rest of the way together. As we made the final turn toward the finish I could hear people cheering and Horton calling my name. Tears began flowing as I crossed the line to complete my first Hellgate in 15 hours 40 minutes as 9th Female.

Noticing my wrist and physical state Horton immediately got me medical attention. They assessed me and were unsure if my wrist was sprained or broken so they put it in a splint to be safe. I sat there for the next several hours recovering, thinking about my race and watching other runners finish. I saw many good friends, including Sophie Speidel, who celebrated finishing her 10th Hellgate and Birgit Mitchell, who finished 1st in her age group! I also heard many stories from other runners…I was not the only one who had struggled with the heat.

In the hours and days after the race I tried to process everything that had happened. Sure, I might have placed higher or had a faster time; but I had run a GREAT race that I am very proud of. It gave me confidence in my ability to compete with the some of the top runners in the sport. I also learned some valuable lessons I will carry forward; specifically my nutrition and hydration planning. 

Overall, I had a very positive race experience even though there were some setbacks, I plan on toeing the line at Hellgate 2016 even more prepared than I was this year. I want to congratulate all the Hellgate runners. I enjoyed sharing the trail with both new and old friends. Thank you to Dr. David Horton and his outstanding team that makes this event possible. And a special thank you to my sponsors, coach, crew and supporters who all encourage and inspire me every day. 

Happy Trails,

Angela Russell

Hellgate Results