Hellgate was a wonderful and unique race to end the sporting year. I have full faith that my coverage won’t turn it into the next big thing on any already fast-growing ultra scene. With a gatekeeper Race Director like David Horton, it is bound to stay special. This is a lengthy report because it doubles as a year-end review for the 2013 Livingston Family ultrarunning season. Debbie did all of the running this year and I did all of the crewing (with support from family and friends), but we view it as a team effort.
The Newtown Cyclocross (Connecticut Series finale) is next weekend and Scrooge Scramble is Christmas Day, but Hellgate was the last BIG one, and closes the book on Debbie’s 2013 campaign. What is Hellgate? Well, it’s officially the Hellgate 100K, an ultramarathon trail running race in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia. It is the final race in The Beast Series and Lynchburg Ultra Series and is really more like 66 miles with approximately 13,000 feet of elevation gain/loss on a point-to-point course. The hilly terrain is a challenging series of trails and dirt roads.
Hellgate was dark, cold, and wet…perfect running conditions according to Horton! He has referred to sunnier editions of Hellgate as “Sissygate,” but this year, he wasn’t complaining. We have known David Horton for a long time, and a lot has been written about him by others. He is a wonderful character who cares deeply about ultrarunning and trails. Running Hellgate is a privilege. One of the things he is famous for is inaccurate race distances. In trail running, distances are approximate anyway, but the term “Horton Miles” is used to refer to distances that are longer than reported. So, the Hellgate 100K++ was really 66 (give or take a few) miles. Debbie’s Suunto died after 15 hours, so we don’t have our own total. Click here for course info and background on the event, and here for a good 2012 recap.
Horton only lets in 140 runners and you have to apply for entry. After some late drops, there were 132 official starters at 12:01 A.M. on Saturday night. He decides who “gets to race.” So, even if the secret gets out about Hellgate (it’s been around for 11 years, so nothing really to worry about), you still have to get your entry past the race director.
It’s been a long year of ultrarunning for Debbie. She would readily admit that she has fallen short of her performance goals. After her awesome race at the 2012 Laurel Highlands Ultra, her strength has been sapped and her results have been varied. Each race since then has presented its own challenges: fatigue, nausea, aches and pains, etc.
The most serious challenge has been the fatigue and particularly when associated with gastrointestinal issues during the races. She and her support team at Pursuit Athletic Performance (Coach Al Lyman and Dr. Kurt Strecker) have been methodically working on the issues and Hellgate was a modest step forward. She bonked just as badly as in most of her 2013 ultras, but this time, she bounced back and got to the finish. She has gotten a lot of support and advice from friends in the running community who have also faced periods of rough results. Prior to Hellgate, Debbie was already on track to finding some solutions, but these fixes often take months to take effect. She is a busy mother of two, who still squeezes in her work as a yoga instructor/fitness trainer, and community service, but she is also strong and balanced. So, the proverbial “burn out” question remains, but in my opinion, is unlikely the sole factor, but rather a contributing factor.
Over the past 24 months, she has trained with a lot of focus, so it has been frustrating (for all of us) to see her suffer in some big spots. For someone who has been at the “sharp end of the race” for so long, the decline in speed has been surprising, but she has been steadfast in her efforts to return to form. I’ve had my own lengthy stretches where the form was lacking, so I know that with the right combination of rest, recovery, and nutrition, she will once again run an ultra where (most) everything goes right.
A year ago, she closed out the season with the Pinhoti 100, but her gut was really bad. That was one of the first times she really had in-race nutrition issues. Those issues continued this year. She had OK runs at the Traprock 50K, and Wapack and Back 50 mile trail race, but neither times were up to her previous standards. The Cayuga Trails 50 mile trail race was an ugly one. She had no juice and suffered through it with a myriad of issues. Even our White Mountain Hut Traverse was a rough experience. She was well prepared for her “A race,” the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance 100 miler, but failed to finish, dropping out after 68 miles.
Heat and altitude were additional factors in Lake Tahoe, but we all felt that she was prepared. That DNF was hard for her. She hadn’t dropped from an ultra in six years since the 2007 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Her Tahoe disappointment was real and she hopes to get back for another attempt in 2014, but the added challenge of a new lottery entry system has kept her waiting. It was after Tahoe that we chose Hellgate as a way to end the year with an ultra, so when Horton accepted her entry, she was happy.
It’s interesting that the last time she DNF’d, she chose another Horton race, the Mountain Masochist Trail Run (50 miles) , as her “comeback” to end the year on a positive note. So, we knew many of the local Virginia ultrarunning clan from MMTR and the 2011 Grindstone 100, which is directed by Horton’s colleague, Clark Zealand.
After TRT100, Debbie took a long break before building back up to the Vermont 50 Mile Run and the Cape Cod Marathon (road for a change), but they were rough races for her. It was on the way to Cape Cod that our 7 year-old son inquired about Hellgate. He asked how long it was and when Debbie told him it was 100 kilometers plus, he asked, “How far is that?” She said 62 miles and then he replied, “That’s a short one.” After Vermont, she took another break before running a bit more leading up to Hellgate. She set low expectations (just get to the finish) and didn’t train with any focus. The plan was to experiment with her nutrition and persevere, regardless of how poorly she felt. Heat and altitude wouldn’t be an issue in Virginia in December. She would rest again after Hellgate.
My parents, Stan and Lynn, were all-stars. They took our kids from Thursday afternoon until Sunday evening, so that Debbie and I could travel to Fincastle for the race. We drove part way on Thursday night after work, and finished the drive to Camp Bethel on Friday morning. We got there during the pre-race meal held at the camp dining hall. After dinner, the group moved to a building filled with bunk rooms.
The pre-race meeting was a lot of fun and I immediately realized that the entrants were all part of the Hellgate community whether they were a 10 time (soon to be 11) finisher like our friend, Jerry Turk, or a rookie like Debbie. The meeting had its fair share of healthy wise-cracking. Horton throws a lot of good-natured barbs.
After the meeting, runners scattered about the building. Some took naps. Others sorted their drop bags. Just before 11:00 P.M., we formed a convoy and drove to the start near Hellgate Creek. I drove Debbie and North Carolina runner, Shawn Pope. This convoy could be more accurately described as a “Cannonball Run.” We joked that we were racing to the start. I had to drive like a maniac just to keep up.
I don’t know who was leading the train, but I suspect it was Horton and his chauffeur. Driving was a challenge all weekend. With the dirt roads, dust, mud, snow, ice, switchbacks, precipitation, and potholes; I’m glad we brought our Subaru Outback and left our Volkswagen Eurovan at home. By the end of the weekend, we had gone through nearly piece of gear that we packed. The car was loaded with a messy pile of muddy boots, shoes, gloves, hats, packs, bags, and clothing.
After we sang the national anthem as a group, the runners were off and the chase began. I saw Debbie at aid stations 2, 4, 7, and 8. The aid stations were stocked with good options and the volunteers were fantastic. The drive from Hellgate Creek to Petites Gap was fun with some wild switchbacks and a crazy amount of dust. She looked good coming through, but it was only 7.5 miles. There was an early stream crossing that you couldn’t get around, so she made the conscious decision to change her shoes and socks right away. She wore the 2nd pair all of the way to the finish. She returned to her tried and true Vasque shoes after experimenting with other brands over the past 18 months.
Eric Grossman, who went on to win, was already leading the men, and women’s winner, Kathleen Cusick, was already leading the women. Despite being 1:30 A.M., the mood was festive. We were required to wait for the last runner to pass before again traveling in a convoy to aid station #5, Jennings Creek at about mile 28. Aid stations #3 and #4 were off-limits to crew.
On the way up to Jennings Creek, it started to snow, which was good because those dirt roads needed to see some moisture. The dust was crazy. When I got there, I climbed into the back seat and took a 90 minute cat nap. I set my iPhone alarm for 4:20 A.M., so I could get up and shoot photos of the lead men. It snowed on and off for a while, though the temperature wasn’t as cold as expected. Debbie came through at 6:30 A.M. and she was third woman, not far out of second. She was running well within her limits, so I actually had high hopes for a nice result. Despite some struggles, she was less than 30 minutes behind Kathleen at last year’s Vermont 100, which saw an awesome battle among the top women. That was right around the time when her fitness started to slip. Interestingly, another woman in that battle was Larisa Dannis, who has had a spectacular 2013 and is poised to be one of the next great female ultrarunners. Larisa just broke the course record on the way to a win at the Lookout Mountain 50 miler, a race that Debbie and I did two years ago. It’s kind of weird that Debbie and Larisa’s fortunes have been on opposite trajectories since Vermont. Both women are fantastic runners, though Debbie has 16 years of ultrarunning miles on her body.
During the lead up to Hellgate, Jay Avitable and Carrie Lombardo, both in the Bimbler’s Sound running club, were very helpful with tips. Jay helped me lay out the crewing plan. The runners had a long stretch between Jennings Creek and aid station #7, Bearwallow, at 43 +/- miles. I found Bearwallow on my own after driving up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The weather was horrendous with a mix of snow, freezing rain, sleet, fog, and rain. It seemed to change with every twist in the road. It was a bit cooler at Bearwallow. I projected that she would come through at 9:45 A.M. I made some lukewarm tea (I ran out of fuel) and waited. I chatted with other crews and volunteers. I took a lot of photos. When it snowed, it was pretty. When it rained, it was ugly.
The wait at Bearwallow was terrible. It was during this section of the race that she fell apart. Several dozen runners passed Debbie during that 15 or so mile stretch. It took her nearly five hours and she lost nearly two hours. She will tell her own story, but evidently, it was a horrible bonk. I waited and waited. It was agonizing. When it got to the point where I was concerned, I checked back at the aid station to see if she had gone through Little Cove Mountain aid station. She had. So, she was either lost (which would be hard to believe since the course was very well-marked) or she fell way off the pace.
It was the latter. I eventually walked down the trail a 1/4 mile or so and waited again. Finally, she came walking up the trail, very slowly. She was out of gas. I jogged in to the aid station with her and sat her down. She begged for hot solid food, so we gave her as much as she could eat. Then, she changed her socks, jacket, hat, and mitts. She said that she just lost all of her energy and there were moments when she said she was literally asleep on her feet, staggering around each turn. I suspected it was food/fueling related and that it was just something she had to work on. Her old formula just hasn’t been working. She took more solid food with her and recommitted to the finish line. She has been mostly vegan (like me) for more than five years and she has been vegetarian for 20 years. We have always felt that our diet has been a strength for us. Yet, there could be a deficiency that never showed up until age, time, and distance added up to where she is today.
She headed up the trail toward Bobblets Gap. It was a long stretch without aid and with a lot of climbing back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I packed up, restocked her second pack, and headed to Bobblets. Driving the Parkway was an adventure! It made for even more fun. I was really bummed out about her bonk, but I was glad that she was headed for the finish. I thought she could revive herself and have a good final push.
I set up her stuff and a chair at the aid station, which was under a bridge on the Parkway. I filled my own pack and ran a few miles down the trail until I intercepted her. She had perked up a bit and was in better spirits. She ran quite a ways uphill before she had to walk the final pitches to the aid station. She didn’t stay long at all, which was a sign of the old Debbie when she was very efficient at aid stations. She wanted to push ahead and see if she could recover some of the ground that she lost earlier in the day.
Just as she was leaving Bobblets, it started sleeting heavily. I had a long drive back to Camp Bethel. The road was treacherous. I decided to skip the final aid station at Day Creek. I went straight to the finish, changed, and ran back until I intercepted her. I saw Jerry Turk and many other runners along the way. Most were all smiles, but even the grim-looking runners managed a “hello” as I passed. It was pouring rain at this point, which just added to the misery. I thought I could get to Day Creek before she did, but that didn’t work out.
I thought I was running fast enough to get to the aid station in time, but she was running faster! I bumped into her on the climb back up to the Parkway at Blackhorse Gap. It was a little more than 3.5 miles downhill from the Parkway to the finish,and she ran it in a remarkable 28 minutes. She was pushing hard. She had re-passed many of the runners who had gone by her during her bonk, but she had lost way too much time to catch up to her goal time. I was really proud of how she finished up. She was tearing down the slippery descent like the old Debbie, and letting out grunts with each step of the way. She even passed a few more guys on the final stretch of road, which is something that she couldn’t do at either Cayuga or Vermont 50. That last stretch is really what made this race a success.
A top result was ruled out after her bad stretch, but she finished strong, in 16:03:29, which is what will give her confidence going into the off-season. I was out there in the elements all day long and I was darn proud of all of the runners, crews, and volunteers. Despite the foul weather, the true spirit of ultrarunning was on display, and I witnessed a lot of grit. Everyone was friendly, which is what I remembered from Grindstone.
It was great to see Jordan Chang, Matt Bugin, Holly Bugin, Greg Loomis, Diane Behm, and so many other running friends. Maybe we can get some other Shenipsit Striders in to Hellgate in the future. Heck, I might even consider running it. It would be the farthest I’ve gone on foot in one day. Of course, I’ll have to get my entry past Horton!
It was also great to see David Goggins racing. We first met him at the 2007 Pittsfield Peaks Ultra. I don’t know how much balance is in his life, but regardless, his physical efforts impress and inspire me. There were some awesome performances. Kathleen Cusick was way out in front for the women and ran a strong 13:20:42. She was followed by Jennifer Edwards and Amy Albu. I wish I knew more about how those women did, but I was consumed with my other duties. The men’s race needs more explanation, so I need to find out more. Evidently, it was a close finish. Eric Grossman crossed the line in 11:25:48 and Rudy Rutemiller was only 7 seconds back. That’s a close finish that I wish I saw! Frank Gonzalez was third.
The quote of the day was from the men’s showers. Old New England Grand Tree Trail Running Series friend, Greg Loomis, asked someone about the water temperature. His reply was that it was just like “warm snow.”
Something tells me that like the TRT100, we will return to Hellgate.