Four years ago, David Horton introduced us to Hellgate, a unique 100-km ultramarathon starting at midnight in the middle of December (the inaugural event started Friday night December 13, 2003). The race, which traverses the Blue Ridge Mountains near central Virginia, is famous for its frigid and icy weather.
Much has been written about this unique event (see the Hellgate website for several race reports). Aaron Schwartzbard (five-time Hellgate finisher and winner in 2007), has written an excellent course summary. His mileages, however, are based on David Horton’s published numbers, which we know are never accurate. During this year’s race, I wore a Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS, and in this report I provide what I believe to be accurate mileages for this event. I’ll also tell you how it went.
GPS track of the Hellgate course
Click to enlarge.
GPS track of the 2007 Hellgate 100K
GPS track of David Horton’s Hellgate 100K near Buchanan, VA. The data were recorded with a Garmin Forerunner 305 during the 2007 event.
Hellgate’s altitude profile is shown below. The 13,500 feet of climb is an average of what I measured during the 2003 (13,845 feet) and 2004 (13,220 feet) events, using a Polar S625X heart rate monitor; the altitude from the Garmin GPS is not as precise as the barometric altimeters used in the Polar HRMs.
Click to enlarge.
Altitude profile of David Horton’s Hellgate 100K
The race is actually 66 miles long, with 13,500 feet of climb. (In 2007, the Headforemost Mountain aid station was moved because of ice on the Blue Ridge Parkway; the plot above indicates the usual location at the top of the ridge).
Aid station mileages
The mileages that I measured for the aid stations, and the distances between them, are shown below. (For archival purposes, this table lists the mileage of the usual location of Headforemost Mountain; in 2007, this aid station was at mile 22.5). I also list how long each section took me to run.
|Measured mileages and split times for the 2007 Hellgate 100K|
|Aid Station||Cumulative distance
|AS 1 (FSR 35)||4.0||4.0||0:32|
|AS 2 (Petites Gap)||7.9||3.9||0:36|
|AS 3 (Camping Gap)||14.0||6.1||1:07|
|AS 4 (Headforemost Mountain)||23.8||9.8||1:54|
|AS 5 (Jennings Creek)||30.2||6.4||1:09|
|AS 6 (Little Cove Mountain)||37.8||7.6||1:30|
|AS 7 (Bearwallow Gap)||46.4||8.6||1:43|
|AS 8 (Bobblets Gap)||52.5||6.1||1:21|
|AS 9 (Day Creek)||60.3||7.8||1:31|
The following table shows the official event mileages, and compares them with the measured values from above. The last column indicates the discrepancy between “Horton miles” and real miles (blue indicating a section that is shorter than what Horton says and red indicating a section that is longer). Few people will be surprised that most (all but three) sections are long. The section from AS 8 (Bobblets Gap) to AS 9 (Day Creek) is really long (by 1.2 miles).
|Aid Station||Cumulative distance
|AS 1 (FSR 35)||3.5||3.5||+0.5|
|AS 2 (Petites Gap)||7.5||4.0||-0.1|
|AS 3 (Camping Gap)||13.1||5.6||+0.5|
|AS 4 (Headforemost Mountain)||21.9||8.8||+1.0|
|AS 5 (Jennings Creek)||27.6||5.7||+0.7|
|AS 6 (Little Cove Mountain)||34.5||6.9||+0.7|
|AS 7 (Bearwallow Gap)||42.5||8.0||+0.6|
|AS 8 (Bobblets Gap)||49.5||7.0||-0.9|
|AS 9 (Day Creek)||56.1||6.6||+1.2|
How my race went
This year’s race was my third Hellgate, having finished in 2003 and 2004. My personal record (PR) was 12:52:58, set in 2004 when I was third behind Sean Andrish and Aaron Schwartzbard. I didn’t have any particular goals for this year, although I felt pretty confident that I would break my PR. If Aaron had a bad day, I also thought I had an outside shot of winning.
The figure below shows heart rate (shown in orange), superimposed onto the altitude profile (in blue).
Click to enlarge.
Altitude and heart rate profiles
Altitude and heart rate profiles recorded during the 2007 Hellgate 100K. Altitude is in feet and heart rate is in beats per minute (bpm).
Start to AS 3 (Camping Gap, mile 14.0)
As usual, I went out hard. For the first eight miles of the race I was nearly anaerobic, which was a result of running all of the early road sections (virtually all of which are uphill). The heart rate settled down after I hit the singletrack after AS 2 (Petites Gap, mile 7.5) and continued to decline over the next seven miles. Up until this point I was in the lead, but Don Padfield and another runner passed me near the bottom of the long fire road climb up to AS 3 (Camping Gap, mile 14.0). Halfway up this climb, Aaron Schwartzbard and Serge Arbona also passed me. I had officially blown up.
I got to Camping Gap at 2:15 AM and in fifth place. The next section to Headforemost Mountain is a long 9.8 miles. In terms of elevation, this section is also the highest on the course and it is also run during the coldest part of the night (2:00–6:00 AM for most runners). It can be tough. At Camping Gap, I also learned that our drop bags would not be at Headforemost, since the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed due to ice. Things just got tougher.
The lack of drop bag access concerned me little, actually, as the temperature was quite pleasant and I had plenty of aid (Clif Bars and Clif Shot Bloks) on me. Indeed, I was more disappointed that I would not be able to shed my gloves and extra vest in my drop bag; I would have to wait until AS 5 (Jennings Creek) to to this, and also get the Ensure I had planned to have at Headforemost.
AS 3 (Camping Gap, mile 14.0) to AS 5 (Jennings Creek, mile 30.2)
While it is a long section, Camping Gap to Headformeost Mountain is mostly runnable, traversing the grassy fire roads that are also a part of the Promise Land 50K. Between that event and Hellgate, I’ve run this section of trail a half-dozen times. Nevertheless, I managed to get lost briefly by following some errant ribbons off the side of the mountain. It wasn’t much of a detour, perhaps losing four minutes, and turned out to be fortuitous. During this time, I was able to “scratch in the leaves,” relieving some gastrointestinal discomfort from eating too much at the pre-race (N.B. exercise restraint at the delicious pre-race meal — there is little time to digest it before you must run). Before getting back on course, I was passed by Mike Schuster and Sean Meissner, leaving me now in seventh place. I was running hard and not going anywhere. After getting back on course, I decided to take it down a notch, enjoy it, and let the race come to me.
I arrived at AS 4 (Headforemost), with Mike and Sean still there. We left together, but they were stronger and went ahead on the mile+ climb up to the usual location of the aid station on top of the ridge. On the trail shortly after crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway, I passed Mike and and then Sean about a mile later. This section must suit me, as this was where I made my move three years ago, passing a number of runners. At AS 5 (Jennings Creek, mile 30.2), I saw Nancy Schuster (Mike’s wife) and Jennifer Ragone who were there crewing for Mike, Aaron, and me. I dropped off my extra clothes and got some good calories in. Having passed Mike and Sean in the previous section, I was now back in the top five, and feeling good.
AS 5 (Jennings Creek, mile 30.2) to AS 8 (Bobblets Gap, mile 52.5)
About an hour after leaving Jennings Creek, around mile 36, Steven Baker blew by me moving very well up the fire road to AS 6 (Little Cove Mountain, mile 37.8). At his pace, I thought he might catch Aaron. It was now just getting daylight, and lights were no longer necessary on the fire road climb. Daylight (or darkness in a “normal” event) is a major milestone in any race, bringing a welcome change of perspective. I reached Little Cove Mountain at 6:50 AM, and ditched my lights there.
The next section to AS 7 (Bearwallow Gap, mile 46.4) is a long 8.6 miles. Leaving the aid station, there are 3.5 miles (not 2 miles, as Horton claims) of undulating grassy fire road, meandering alongside the slope of the mountain. This is a great section for stretching the legs. The road ends at an obscure trail head, which signals the beginning a relatively technical, rocky, leaf-covered, trail section all the way to Bearwallow Gap. Aaron claims it “blows dead goat,” but I like this section. Soon after reaching the single track, the sunrise’s warming glow emerged from beyond the ridges.
Horton was there at Bearwallow when I arrived at 8:30 AM. He confirmed that I was in fifth place, but could probably catch Steven and Don. I meekly responded, “How far deep do the awards go?” His response was “ten,” which he then changed to “three” in hopes of motivating me. At this point I was not really interested in racing, as Aaron was well on his way to victory. I downed an Ensure and Frappucino, thanked David, and left.
The section from AS 7 (Bearwallow Gap, mile 46.4) to AS 8 (Bobblets Gap, mile 49.5) is another long, tough section (although shorter than advertised). It is also my favorite. It begins with a fairly tough 1,000-foot climb over the course of 2.5 miles, followed by a beautiful 3.5-mile traverse with continuous views of the Shenandoah Valley to the southwest. Once on top, the traverse seems to go on forever. Be grateful and enjoy the views. The trail eventually crosses over the ridge to the east, then makes a hard right and descends down to a fire road, at the top of which is Bobblets Gap. I passed Don just before the aid station, and Steven just after it. Don would drop with a bad knee. I was now back in third place, and was told I was only 9 minutes out of second. With less than 15 miles to go, I had no chance of catching Serge. But it was reassuring to know that I was doing something right and making time on him.
AS 8 (Bobblets Gap, mile 52.5) to Finish (mile 66.0)
As in any ultra, experience and course familiarity is advantageous. This is especially true at Hellgate, since many sections are quite long. The penultimate section is particularly long.
Out of Bobblets Gap, it’s a 2.5 mile descent on dirt roads that can be tough on tired legs. The course then takes a right onto “The Forever Trail,” which is 5.3 miles of meandering leaf-strewn singletrack with three small, distinct climbs (see the profile). Accept that this section is long going in, and you won’t be disappointed.
At the gravel road is AS 9 (Day Creek, mile 60.3). From there it’s a long but walk-runnable climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, followed by a long runnable descent to the bottom. The last section can be done in about an hour with a little effort.
I finished in 12:26:10 (third place), taking 26 minutes off of my previous PR. A nice day in the woods.
Heart rate histogram
This graph below, which shows the distribution of heart rates during the race, is a more analytical representation of the heart rate data from above.
Heart rate histogram
Histogram of heart rate data from the 2007 Hellgate 100K. The overall mean heart rate is 142 bpm.
During Hellgate, my heart rate varied from 120 to 170 bpm, with an overall mean of 142 bpm. The curve, however, is not smooth and exhibits “resonant frequencies” at 166 bpm (corresponding to the hard effort in the first 10 miles), 150 bpm (miles 15–30), and at 134 bpm (from the entire second half of the race). Similar non-Gaussian heart rate distributions have been discussed before, and are apparently common in long races (at least how I run them).
Epilogue: The Garmin 305
This was my first real run with the Garmin 305. According to the published specifications, the rechargeable battery has a life expectancy of approximately 10 hours, limiting the device’s utility in longer ultras.
Since I was never in this race, my personal challenge during the last 20 or so miles was to “beat the Garmin,” finishing before the battery died. I was warned once during “The Forever Trail” section (approximately 11 hours in) that the battery was low, but the watch never complained again. The Garmin lasted the entire 12.5 hours, and is therefore suitable for just about any ultra, 50 miles or shorter. For longer events (e.g., 100 miles), I will continue to use my Polar S625X.