In 2003, I was a sophomore at Liberty University. I had Dr. Horton as a professor and I remember him talking about this 100k race he dreamed up. He was going to start it at 12:01am (not midnight to eliminate any confusion on the start date of the race) in the middle of December in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I remember thinking, “What kind of idiot would run this race!?” Fast forward 8 years….
Julie and I headed out to Camp Bethel at about 4pm on Friday afternoon. It was a very bizarre feeling driving up interstate 81 knowing that in a few short hours I would be starting one of the hardest 100k races in the country. I have my routine down for races that start in the morning, but what should I do for a race that starts in the middle of the night? I was up at 430am for a full day of work Friday and then drove up to Virginia shortly after getting off. I was concerned the long day of work I put in would affect my energy knowing I would be running throughout the night and most of the day Saturday.
We arrived at Camp Bethel and had some time to catch up with some buddies before Horton’s pre-race briefing. The briefing started off in typical Horton fashion with unflattering nicknames and your intelligence being questioned and moved into what we should expect during the race in a few hours. After the briefing, Julie and I headed back to the car to finalize any last minute preparations and try to take a quick power nap. Besides being concerned about the lack of sleep I would be working on, I was worried about Julie crewing for me by herself. Mainly because of some of the mountain roads she would need to drive on and how the lack of sleep would affect her as well. Luckily, a buddy of mine’s crew allowed her to follow them to each aid station throughout the night.
Before we knew it, 11pm had rolled around and it was time for the short drive over to the Hellgate Creek trail head, near Natural Bridge, VA. I always thought Horton named this race Hellgate because of the level of difficulty but when I saw where the race starts, it all came together. After the national anthem sung by all the runners and a prayer from Horton, we were off into the darkness. My goal was to run the 6-7hours of darkness very conservatively and then when the sun came up if I was feeling good I was going to try to pick up my pace some. According to Horton, the first third of the race was the toughest because it was the middle of the night and it had the most climbing, the second third was a little more technical but runable and the last third was the easiest.
|Keeping warm until the very last minute.|
The night running was actually very pleasant-good company to run with and the weather was cold but not uncomfortable. I kept saying to myself, “This section is the toughest part of the race? This isn’t so bad.” There was one stretch between aid station 3 (mile 13.1) to aid station 4 (mile 21) where I started to feel the effects of the lack of sleep. I was in the midst of a 3 mile climb up a gravel road and my eyes started to get really heavy. Luckily for me, I got to the top and was rewarded with a nice, long technical downhill, my favorite. Imagine yourself running down a trail with leaves up to your ankles. Under those leaves are loose, softball to volleyball size rocks just waiting to catch your toe and send you falling, perhaps to end your race. Now imagine it’s the middle of the night and you have been running for four hours already. It was just what I needed to get the adrenaline flowing again and wake up before I got to the first major aid station.
There were two aid stations that runners would need to get to by certain times in order to be allowed to continue on in the race. The first one is aid station #4 and the second is # 7. I came into aid station #4 at 5:45am, 45 minutes ahead of the cut off-maybe a little too conservative. I was feeling good but concerned that I was so close to the cutoff. I spent a few minutes with Julie asking her if she had been able to get any sleep. I drank about a quarter of my Hulk smoothie from Smoothie King (a must for any long race I do anymore), drank a Red Bull and ate some monster cookies. I have to give a shout out to running buddy Marc H for the great recipe for these cookies-they hit the spot, big-time. These cookies have oats, chocolate chips, M&M’s and peanut butter-all energy packed calories. I left the aid station feeling good and was excited to see the sunrise in the next hour.
|Still feeling good.|
As the sun came up, I honestly felt like I had just started running. I am not sure what I did or what I ate, but I felt amazing. (Maybe the monster cookies?) I was able to run consistently for the next 18-20 miles. I had to have passed at least 20 or more people in this stretch. I came into aid station 7, which is the second cut off, at about 10:30am still feeling strong. I had gone from 45minutes ahead of the cutoff at aid station#4 to 2 hours ahead at aid station#7. I kept asking myself, “Can I keep this up for the rest of the race? This last 1/3 is supposed to be the easiest!” I saw Horton at this aid station and he told me ever so nicely, “You better not quit, wussy boy!” I told him I was feeling great and there’s no doubt I would finish. He then told me something I didn’t really want to hear-“You look great! Only 20 miles to go!” For some reason, in my head I thought I figured out there was less than that so it was actually quite discouraging, especially since they were probably “Horton” miles. (Horton miles are kind of like country miles, only longer.) I only had two more aid stations and then the finish, so my goal changed to just make it to the next aid station. Then came the section known as the “Forever section”.
|Getting some advice. "Don't quit, wussy boy!"|
Any kind of nickname like that in a race can’t be a good thing. As I headed out of the next to the last aid station, I yelled back to one of the workers asking what the mileage was to the next aid. They kind of chuckled and yelled back, “7-8miles.” I made a mental note of where I was at mileage wise on my watch and headed on. It started out with about 2.5miles of downhill gravel road and then switched onto single track trail. It was actually a very nice, runable trail. I kept telling myself, “This isn’t so bad.” I ran for quite a while and actually passed two runners during this stretch. The second guy I passed asked if I knew how far to the next aid. I looked at my watch and we were at about 6 miles from the last station so I told him it can’t be too far. I kept on going for what seemed to be 20 minutes. I had to be getting close.
As I continued to run, I passed a lady coming at me from the opposite direction. She offered me some encouraging words and then said, “You are only 25-30 minutes from the aid station!” I seriously almost cried. I pushed on and in about 20 minutes made it to the last aid station. Who in their right mind said this is the easiest 1/3 of the race? It was by far the hardest for me. I don’t usually ever run with a MP3 player, but something told me to grab it from Julie at the last aid station. I had actually already left and turned around to go back and get it. I am so glad I did, it really helped me get through this tough stretch.
|6 miles left.|
The distance from the last aid station to the finish was about 6 miles-3 up and 3 down. The 3 mile climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway was not as bad as I anticipated. I actually was able to run some of it, which made me feel pretty good. Before I knew it I had crossed the Parkway and began the final 3 mile descent to Camp Bethel and the finish line.
This stretch was by far the most enjoyable for me. There were no runners around so I settled into a comfortable pace and enjoyed the beautiful weather. I took this time to really think about how great the last year had been. I was about to complete my goal of finishing the Beast Series that I set for myself two years ago and it felt fantastic. I also thought a lot about my dad during these last few miles. I set out to complete the Beast Series to see how hard I could push myself but also to raise money for the American Cancer Society in honor of my dad, who lost his battle with colon cancer six years ago. I know without a doubt that he would have loved to have been at all these races crewing for me.
Before I knew it, I was making the left into Camp Bethel and was only about a quarter mile from the finish line. I crossed the finish line in 15 hours and 10 minutes, successfully finishing the Beast Series. After a congratulatory hug from Horton and a few pictures with Julie, we went inside to get my Finisher’s Patagonia fleece and my Beast Series trophy.
The term “Special” gets used a lot for Hellgate but that really is the best word that can be used. From the hospitality at Camp Bethel to the 12:01am start, it was a great experience all around. Even though Horton will probably call this an easy year for the race, I will still be proud of my finish. It has been almost a week as I finish this recap up, and if somebody told me I could rewind to last Friday and run it all over again, I would do it in a heartbeat. There is just something about running these races that reminds me how blessed I truly am. I wish everybody could experience what it’s like to run in the mountains under a moon so bright you can turn your head lamp off and see the trail illuminated by it’s light. There was one section that really stands out in my mind as I reflect back on last week. I am not sure what time of night it was but probably around 2 or 3 am. I had just came to the end of a nice, technical single track trail that dumps you off onto a gravel road. (This stretch is actually part of the Terrapin Mountain 50k ran earlier in the year) As I started to climb up this gravel road, I was able to turn my head lamp off, and because there were no other runners around at the time, the only light I could see was from the moon and stars. There was a beautiful creek running parallel to this road for about a half mile. The only noise I could hear was the constant water crashing against the rocks. So even though I was in the midst of a tough, 3 mile climb, it was certainly one of the many beautiful sections of this tough course.
I have to thank Horton for dreaming up this race 8 years ago and continuing to direct these great races every year. Also, thank you to the awesome aid station volunteers who stayed up all night in the cold for us crazy runners. Last, but certainly not least, I have to thank my amazing wife, Julie. She stayed up all night in the freezing cold to make sure I got to the finish line. Looking forward to seeing here at 7 out of the 9 aid stations definitely gave me something to look forward to. (Even though she missed me at one of them because I beat her there). I might have to make Hellgate annual Pre-Christmas tradition!