This weekend, Debbie returned to run Hellgate for the second time. She first ran it in 2013. My prior blog post covers some Hellgate history, has some good photos, explains the Beast Series, and links to several other great races that she has done. In 2013 we had some snow, but it wasn’t as cold. Check it out.
This year’s report isn’t as expansive because I’m still thawing out. This was the coldest ultra we have ever been to, and we have been to many. Mercifully, it was dry. For Hellgate, I was the crew chief and the chauffeur. Our kids stayed home. It would have been super-challenging to have them along for this one. Between working in Lynn and Boston last Wednesday and Thursday, traveling back to Connecticut late Thursday, driving to Fincastle, Virginia on Friday, driving all over Jefferson National Forest on Saturday, and driving home yesterday, I’ve added another 1,600 miles to my Subaru’s odometer. Thankfully I do a lot of bicycle commuting, partially in an effort to offset the impact of driving to the races.
Last Friday, we broke up the drive with a detour to Front Royal and Shenandoah National Park. We drove up to the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. I brought my mountain bike, and rode for 65 minutes out and back on Skyline Drive, and then down to Front Royal where Debbie was waiting for me. It was a welcome break and I got to stretch my legs, take in some nice views, and come up close with a few deer grazing on the side of the road.
We got back in the car and finished the drive, arriving at Camp Bethel at 5:35 P.M. in time for dinner and the pre-race meeting. Race Director, Dave Horton, has his fingerprints all over this race. He gets ample support from a cadre of dedicated volunteers. Many of those volunteers are from Liberty University, where Horton has been a long time professor. Long distance running has become a big deal at LU and he even offers a course on running, which includes a requirement to run an ultramarathon. Many students used Hellgate to complete that requirement.
Debbie likes Hellgate. The point to point 66.6 mile course is a mix of singletrack and forest roads with more than 13,500 feet of elevation gain and loss. The climbs are tough and the terrain is rugged with lots of rocks and roots covered by leaves. The course criss-crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway and crests 3,000 feet several times, climbing as high as 3,600 feet.
The first half of the race has more climbing, but the hills are relentless the entire way, with the last big hill a mere 3.5 miles from the finish. There were 140 starter and 117 finishers. 111 made it below the 18 hour mark. That’s a 79% finish rate for those below the official cutoff and 82% overall, which is remarkable given the harsh weather conditions. Last year, the race was run in ideal (unseasonably warm) conditions and was dubbed, “Sissygate.”
This year couldn’t have been more different. The relatively high finisher rate is attributable to the fact that there are no rookies at Hellgate. Horton vets and selects runners who have pedigree. I have a hard time watching, and wanted to be out there in those crazy conditions doing it myself. It was about 21ºF at the 12:01 A.M. start on Saturday morning, and the temperature plummeted to 8ºF at the higher elevations, with the coldest time of day around 5:00 A.M. The wind was howling and brought the effective temperature well below zero. By noon, the temperature had warmed to 30ºF in the valleys, but it was below freezing all day.
Every Hellgate race report is going to cite the weather conditions, so I won’t belabor it. It was challenging for the crews, the volunteers, and especially the runners. However, we all know that ultrarunners are a tough breed, and most relished the opportunity to run in such interesting conditions.
After driving from Camp Bethel to the start, I saw Debbie at Aid Stations 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, and the finish. Fellow Connecticut friends, Scott and Sarah Slater, rode to the start with us. Both Slaters tackled Hellgate and finished together. Six crew accessible aid stations and the finish is a lot for a 66 mile race. There was no overlap due to the point to point course, so if you want to get to every aid station, you have to hustle.
There were two early stream crossings, which spelled disaster for some runners. Debbie had several sets of gloves and after dipping one into a stream, it turned to a block of ice. I had a spare set for her at Aid Station 2, so she wisely changed them. Her Altra shoes were also frozen, but she opted to keep going.
Aid Station 4 Headforemost Mountain around mile 25 at one of the various Blue Ridge Parkway crossings was the coldest part of the race for crews and volunteers. Debbie got there around 5:30 A.M. It was 1oºF and the wind was whipping. There was a huge patch of ice right in front of the Christmas tree festooned aid station. I was wearing lots of layers. At first, the car was parked a long way from the aid station, and I didn’t know when she would arrive, so I had her spare socks tucked in my pants. I was wearing her UltrAspire hydration pack under my jacket to keep the bladder and hose from freezing. I had all of her other spare clothes stuffed inside my jacket too. She opted not to change her shoes, which was a good thing because I didn’t want her to stop. I helped several other runners who didn’t have crews as they fumbled with their drop bags. I got one pair of shoes off of a runner using a borrowed screwdriver.
After she came through, I headed to Aid Station 5 Jennings Creek. A volunteer asked if I could shuttle another runner who DNF’d. His name was Lanier Greenshaw, a veteran ultrarunner from Alabama. He made it to Headforemost, but was frozen and exhausted after slipping in one of the water crossings. He was groggy, but in good spirits. He is proof that even the most experienced runners can have troubles and he was confident in his decision to call it a day.
I was happy to have company for several hours, though he dazed in and out of sleep as we made our way to Jennings Creek. It was a perilous drive off of the ridge on a series of rough forest roads. There was nowhere warm to leave Lanier, so he stayed in the car while I waited for Debbie. She came through around 6:50 A.M. She dropped her waist lamp, but kept her headlamp, even though the sun was rising in the east. It was still dark in the trees.
She was feeling good, but needed some food. Every time I saw her, I gave her a stocked UltrAspire pack. She would swap the one she was wearing for the one I had and then get moving again. Lanier and I drove to Aid Station 7 Bearwallow Gap, stopping a few times on the parkway to take in the incredible sunrise from various overlooks. It was perfect timing for us. We went from having a fantastically bright moon before it set, to having amazing starts set against a deep black sky, and then we got this cool sunrise. I love races that are out there in the woods!
As soon as we got to the aid station, a van load of dropped runners were getting shuttled back to Camp Bethel. This was good for Lanier, so we parted ways. I hope to see him at a future race so we can continue our conversation.
I got there before the top runners came through, so it was fun to see everyone come by over the three hours that I was there. I cheered for them, took some photos, and eventually walked down the trail to meet Debbie. She was hungry when she arrived and finally wanted to change to fresh shoes and socks. Someone suggested that I use hot water to melt her laces. I got some boiling water in a cup from a volunteer and voila, it was easy to get her frozen shoes off. The food and shoe change gave her a boost and she was off running again.
When I saw her at Aid Station 8 Bobblet’s Gap, she was dragging a bit. She had a major sidehill traverse and then a big climb up to the gap. I rode a mile and a half down the jeep road on my mountain bike and cheered for her. She arrived at the aid station, but didn’t stay long. She crossed under the parkway and headed for Day Creek, the last aid station before the finish.
I had a long drive to get to Day Creek, so I stopped for fuel and still had time to get to the aid station, hang out, and watch many other runners pass through. Her pace had slowed considerably when she arrived but she was positive. She dropped her heavy gloves, swapped packs and kept moving. Her original goal to finish in the top five wasn’t attainable (she ended up 8th) but she still wanted to break 16 hours and beat her 2013 time of 16:03:29.
The drive to the finish was also long because we had to go all the way around the mountains. I got to Camp Bethel, and then rode back on the course (dirt road) until I intercepted her. She was flying down the hill as only she can do. I was proud of her regardless of whether she broke 16 or not, but she wasn’t giving in. I encouraged her and then rode back to the finish and waited. I kept glancing at the clock. She passed several runners in the last mile, including Shuhei Yamashita, a Japan native living in New York, and Marcello Arias, from Chile. She blitzed those final miles, but came up short, finishing in 16:00:29.
Still, she was very happy. Horton gave her a big hug and she was relieved to finish this one. I was proud of her fortitude. She ran a smart race, dressed well for the conditions, and avoided any stomach issues. She sustained her energy most of the day and did the best she could. I know that she will recover quickly and will be thinking about 2017. Two weeks ago, she sort of got lucky in the Hardrock Endurance Run lottery. She is 7th on the “Never” wait list. Who knows if she gets in to Hardrock? We will see. Right now, the plan is to train for it and go visit Colorado anyway. She plans to register for another Hardrock qualifier just in case. ULTRA-TRAIL Mt. FUJI only qualified her for two years. It’s time to run Hardrock…or another qualifier.
At Hellgate, there were many fine performances. Brian Rusiecki did all New England runners proud by taking the win in 11:01:26. He ran a smart pace and surged to the front after 25 miles or so, and eventually put 35 minutes into Matt Thompson, his nearest competition. Third through fifth were Jason Lantz, Luke Bosek, and Jordan Chang. Jordan boldly led in the early going, and hung in there for a strong finish. He was one of the crazy runners wearing shorts!
On the women’s side, Sarah Schubert led the way in 13:04:16, a stellar time. She was 12th overall, and at 28 years old, probably has many strong races ahead. Second place went to 21-year-old Hannah Bright, who represents that next generation of ultrarunning talent. Debbie didn’t run her first ultra until at 24 (the 1999 Vermont 50) and that was 17 years ago! Bright overcame a bout of “Hellgate Eyes” which struck her around the 30 mile mark. I saw her at the Aid Station 7 Bearwallow Gap, and she was struggling to follow the trail. The cold dry area causes a type of snow blindness that has to be very uncomfortable. Thankfully, she got warmed up, and the situation appeared to clear itself. She is one tough cookie! Third through fourth were Kathleen Cusick, Alexis Thomas, and Alissa Keith.
I love the community attracted to these Beast Series races. Debbie and I saw many old friends and met new ones. Amy Rusiecki was there to crew for Brian, so it was fun catching up with her. Unfortunately, Ian Golden hurt his ankle very early in the race, but it was fun to catch up with him as he tagged along with Amy throughout the day.
I had a chance to catch up with fellow Connecticut mate, Dan Broom, who was doing a super job crewing for our mutual friend, Jerry Turk. Turk finished his 14th consecutive Hellgate, which is a remarkable accomplishment. I love watching Jerry (aka Mr. Bimble) run because he is so steady and so strong. 14:47:02 for a 58-year-old is magnificent. Experience will help you every time! I hope I’m going full tilt like that in 14 years when I’m his age.
Both Debbie and I will be on a Hellgate high for a while. We had a blast…a cold blast!