I have heard for a few years about the infamous races that David Horton puts on in Virginia - "Horton miles" are said to be longer than actual miles and the courses are tough and interesting. Living in New York seemed to put us a bit closer to Virginia, but it was only as we were driving back to Texas that I managed to fit one of these races into our schedule.
I picked the Hellgate 100K - a midnight start near Natural Bridge VA, a long race, in the cold of December. It seemed like an appropriate challenge on our way out of the winters of the northeast. David Horton doesn't let just anyone enter this thing, but apparently he was suitably impressed with my running resume.
In fact, he seeded me 5th in a field of highly talented runners, which made no sense to me. When we arrived he came over and said "You're fast!" - I was wondering if he was mistaking me for someone else? I insisted that I am not fast, and John added that I am steady. David didn't look convinced, but I was about to show him.
Not only am I not intrinsically fast, I was treating this as a training race - a good start to next year, a warmup for Bandera and everything that follows. Not only that, but if I don't train on mountains (which I haven't been), my uphill speed is completely unimpressive. Hellgate is all about the mountains.
So I approached the race cautiously, hoping to maintain my climbing legs, my downhill knees, and my flat-running hip flexors. That last part would never be an issue on this course, it turned out. But it was good that I didn't overdo the ups and downs early-on.
A bit too cautious in the dark at the start, I ended up standing behind a group of spectators that I thought were runners and after the "GO!" signal it took a second to realize that the entire pack had departed. Oh well, I imagine I'll catch up to a few of them soon.
Yeah right! David apparently screens for fast people, and most of them actually are. I was alone right from the start and not catching up to anyone. Oh well, run your own race. It's not the first time I've started at the very back.
The first section through the woods was pleasant, mild climbing and getting used to the trail markings (plenty abundant). The famous stream crossing was a simple matter of getting my feet wet to get across, not worth the time to look for rocks to hop but also nothing compared to some of the creeks we have traversed in the past.
I was the last one into the first aid station, got some water for a Spiz baggie and moved on up the road.
The climb up the road was nice, it was a good grade for speed hiking and using my poles. I was able to run a little here and there but mostly kept it at a fast walk. I could see headlamps up on the switchbacks up ahead, that was neat. Eventually they started letting crew cars back down the hill but everyone was really nice, most of them stopped for me, and it motivated me to run parts of the last bit to the top.
Hi John! He was crewing for me, not the easiest job on this cold night. He helped me fill part of a water bottle and gave me an Ensure to drink. The theme throughout the race became cold Spiz on the course (chilling me right down to my stomach) and warm Ensure out of John's pocket (the best Ensure ever!). I made it to aid station #2 a couple minutes before the projected "Last Runner" time, not a whole lot of leeway there.
Finally some downhill! Usually I start catching people on the downhills. Not tonight. Those fast folks are apparently good at that too. I was also somewhat careful through the rocks on the singletrack. David had mentioned in the pre-race briefing about being thankful for being healthy, and it struck a chord with me. Compared to one year ago, I was SO thankful to be able to be doing this. I appreciated every minute of it, and I didn't want to do anything stupid to jeopardize my year-long comeback.
Through the woods I could see headlamps way ahead on the next big climb. Eventually I got to the road, right after a few vehicles drove down it. That was the only traffic I would see for quite some time. The climb up to aid station #3 is long but I was mentally ready. Here is where it started snowing. It wasn't supposed to start precipitating until later in the morning. C'est la vie.
Long climb, cold Spiz to drink. I saw some headlamps approaching below me and wondered if a couple runners had gotten off course? Then I realized it was the sweeps who were clearing the course. I haven't been close to course sweeps in quite a while. Back to work!
The wind was blowing snow in my face as I rounded the corner to the aid station. They helped me fill a Spiz baggie to carry, thank you! I got out of there just ahead of the two guys running sweep, ready to run and try to put some distance on them.
More and more snow, wow. And no tracks ahead of me, either I'm really far behind everyone or the snow is falling fast. I started running on the high exposed doubletrack road, and it felt great to actually be running for once. The footing was good and it was slightly downhill. The only annoyance was the huge snowflakes getting into my eyeballs, nose, and mouth. I dug out my cap so I could use the brim to keep the flakes mostly out of my eyes. Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes!
I started making out footprints ahead of me, yay! Then a light, then a figure. I was having a great time running downhill in the snow, using my poles for balance. The lady up ahead was having a tougher time with the footing. We greeted each other as I passed, then I finally wasn't last any more. That took forever and a snowstorm.
Long, long road run. Eventually the fun gentle downhill stopped and there was some climbing. My legs were still doing well and I was basically babying them to hopefully be able to continue the half-decent climbing for the rest of the day. I also leaned heavily on the poles (and surprisingly my arms did not about fall off the next day as a result).
A green light ahead - a radio tower? No, a runner finishing up a roadside break. This was a guy in shorts (!) who I would see a lot throughout the day. We started the big descent and I was very thankful for my poles through some icy patches. They were so helpful that I was able to pass another couple people on the way down.
The group of us made it to aid station #4 with about 15 minutes to spare on the cutoff time. Happy day! I started to believe I was moving well enough to stop thinking about the cutoffs. At the very least, I wasn't going to see the course sweeps again (that part was true).
I may have gotten a bit complacent through the next section. It was supposed to be getting light but it was so overcast that it took forever for the sky to brighten even just a little. It had stopped snowing anyway. My first climb went fine, then I futzed around a bit with a pit stop and some Spiz and just enjoying the pretty woods.
The run down to aid station #5 seemed to take a long time, even though I was still enjoying the downhills quite a lot. I passed several more people, making me think I was doing better than I was. When I pulled in to see John (yay John!) my watch had me back to within 5 minutes of the "Last Runner" projection - what? It seems there was still some clock-watching to be done.
I have no idea how they set up the "Last Runner" projections to perfectly match my pace all day, but that is how it turned out...
John helped me with a quick pass through the aid station, then it was on to another climb up a road. For a while I was near a couple other runners (including Shorts Man) so it was nice to have a little company for a change. A woman ahead of me pulled up at one point and asked if I thought that was a bear or a stump up ahead? Hmm, it's in the shape of a bear but not moving. Definitely not a bear, I told her. It took a few more steps to be absolutely certain, but it was pretty funny.
Big climb, check. Big downhill, OK that seemed to go on a long time... it took forever to reach the road at the bottom. I had thought I would have 45 minutes to go up, 30 minutes to go down, then 45 minutes for the next climb to the aid station. The downhill took me closer to 40 minutes so I started worrying about the time cutoffs.
I followed Shorts Man up the next road and we passed a couple people who were moving more slowly. Shorts Man seemed to be on a mission (I saw him looking at his watch too) and I took it seriously that we needed to move. Still, he zoomed through aid station #6 and was completely gone by the time I turned to follow. Well, I did spend an extra minute talking with another runner and the aid station people, but the runner seemed intent on hanging around to make small talk and I finally realized that was not something I should be doing.
I had gained a couple minutes on the virtual cutoff time, but only enough to understand that I needed to stop guessing about where I needed to be at what time in between the aid stations. I just had to move the best I could and trust that the "Last Runner" times at each aid station were what mattered.
Because the next aid station had a real cutoff time, and the next section was billed as long and difficult. Time to get moving then!
I ran great along the road, moved pretty well on trails around the corner, apparently passed the AT without seeing it, and started the long traverse back to the southwest. The trail itself was easy enough, with good footing. It started going up and down more, requiring some work but that's OK. Then it turned to switchback down, then it climbed seemingly almost to the top of the ridge, then it turned some more. Where were we going?
I could hear the highway down below, then if I remember right I think I heard a train whistle. Civilization, but not exactly. I was stuck on this trail that seemed intent on exploring the entire side of the ridge from top to bottom. I remembered that this was built as a horse trail so I guess that's what the horse people wanted to see.
Finally a bit of running... oh wait, the road goes straight but the trail turns and climbs uphill. That seems most unnecessary. Well, for that bit of complaining I was rewarded with some rocks covered with leaves. Urgh, someone at the start said there wouldn't be any of those this year. Yeah right. I stopped for a quick break - I had to get some food in me and take a pee, even though I was starting to wonder how I was going to make the cutoff.
The next mile or so was the worst of the entire day. It was curse-worthy. On a slope that I could normally run quickly, there were tons of rocks and lots of leaves, so I moved carefully through it. No way was I going to jeopardize my current running health with this thing! Not worth it! Cutoff or no, I had to take it easy. That didn't stop me from talking about it. Who puts horses through this stuff, anyway? That just seems mean!
So I fretted and stumbled my way for a while. Finally a little creek crossing, then I heard a car on a road! There might be hope after all. I ran as hard as I could up the next hill to try to get to the aid station in time, finally the trail was clear and I could actually run. John saw me (Hi John!) and told me I just had to get TO the aid station by the cutoff (which I did, by less than 10 minutes I think), not OUT the other side. Nice to get a little break.
Yay for making the 2nd cutoff! I'm getting to the finish line now, even if it's past the 18-hour cutoff there. I was going to be OK with not making the cutoff at aid station 7, but now that I was there I was ready to continue scratching and clawing to stay in it.
My climbing legs were still doing great, very happy for that. Somewhere through here it sleeted for a while but it just bounced off me so I decided that was the best form of precipitation we could have. Sadly it turned into rain and then we started getting wet for real. I was warm, it just wasn't super pleasant all the time.
I followed a couple guys (including Shorts Dude again) up the next hill. This section featured a bunch of "swoops" in and out of ravines on a mostly-flat trail, never-ending back and forth. I was happy to still be running well, swooping in and out. A bit up and down too. It was impossible to tell when it might end. Just trust that if I keep moving OK, I will make it to the next aid station in about the right amount of time.
And I did, passing another runner along the way. In fact, he was only the 2nd person using trekking poles (other than me) that I saw, and both of them were hobbling. Not sure that was a glowing endorsement for poles, but I also didn't see all the rest of the pack ahead of me so who knows what I missed up there. All I knew what that I was really happy with my poles on that course.
I finally saw a sign for the Appalachian Trail - I've been looking for you all day! I was on it briefly and then it took off again down a different path.
It was raining pretty good at aid station #8 and I had to wait just a moment for John to get back from the truck but soon he got me going again. He even gave up his gloves when I mentioned my hands were cold and my overmitts were wet on the inside. His gloves plus the overmitts were all I needed, even as it started raining harder.
Time to run! One last big section before the final aid station. It was a long downhill on a road but I kept moving, kept running, passing Shorts Guy one last time on the way down. Aren't you cold? I watched for and found the turnoff onto the trail, then proceeded for several miles on singletrack as the trail went up and down, crossing creeks and weaving a bit. But the trail was going mostly in the right direction so I didn't complain at all. Plus - no leaf-covered rocks!
I was motivated to try to get to the finish line on time. Then my brain would start questioning, how in the world are you going to get through these 8+ miles in 2 hours? How is it even possible to make it the final 6 miles in an hour and a half? SHHH! Quiet, turn it off! Trust that the time sheet is made for you today. Just do the best you can and shut the heck up.
Push, run, use the poles, start pushing harder up the hills now that my legs seem to be OK for the duration. Be efficient, watch the trail, keep going. But how in the world...? Shh! Just SHHH!
Sometimes it's better to be stubborn than smart.
I caught a glimpse of a runner behind me but only for a moment then I was around another corner and off again.
Finally a gentle straight downhill and I hoped I was getting close. There's John, Hi John!! He tried to take a photo but I yelled, "No time, gotta go!!"
At the previous aid station I had told John of my plan to do the last section without a pack, just my poles and a couple items in my pocket. He placed a headlamp on my head and offered me a backup flashlight just as I was asking him to grab the Fenix out of my pack. We turned everything around in a rush and I was out of there.
Apparently the aid station people were considering not letting me go on, but they saw that I was still moving well... I was motivated and pretty much ignored everyone except John.
Up the hill - 3 miles up and 3 miles down to the finish line, less than an hour and a half to do it. Is it possible? I don't know but I'm going to find out!
I took off at a fast walk/something of a run. I had heard that there is a gate about 1/3 of the way up, and I was happy to reach it in 15 minutes. Still gotta push, breathing hard, giving it all I've got. Then a voice next to me - what? It was one of the volunteers, a guy named Jeff who works for David. He was coming along for a run over the mountain. I was happy for the company but made it clear I couldn't carry on a conversation at that point!
I worked my butt off up that hill, pushing as hard as I could and knowing that it would take a while. Finally - the top! I got there in about 40 minutes, phew.
I relaxed going down the other side, and Jeff and I had a great conversation while loping down the dirt roads through the fog. The downhill took quite a while too (3 Horton miles?) but Jeff pointed out landmarks and helped me figure out that I would make it as long as I kept running. No sprinting needed.
And I did - 17:52:47!
David Horton was there to greet me and he said I was cutting it close. Indeed! I asked if he believed me now? That I was tough? he asked. No - that I'm NOT FAST!
A nice jacket and warm socks for finishing in less than 18 hours, most excellent:
Huge props to Mr Horton for putting on such an interesting and challenging race, and for letting me try it. Also to anyone who finishes it, that is a Big Deal. Kudos to you all!
By the way, a shout-out to Aaron Schwartzbard for his writeup and map review of the course - hugely helpful for a new Hellgate runner.
OK, enough of the snow for now, time to go south for a while...