Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Crew's Perspective: Hellgate 100k Ultramarathon

Every athlete seems to have a "special race." One that they hold near and dear to their heart and make a concerted effort to return to year after year. For my husband, that race is the Hellgate 100k.

Set in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia, this point to point trail ultra, advertised as 66.6 miles by Race Director David Horton, seems to have a special aura among it's athletes. It's mysterious, starting at midnight and running through the night. It's challenging, held in the unpredictable winter weather of mid-December while featuring close to 13,000 ft of climbing. It's special, the volunteers, aid stations, pre-race dinner and awards all make for a fun adventure and quality race experience.

This year was my husband's 7th attempt at Hellgate. The race is his baby, he's only missed one year since he first raced in 2006. His goal is 10 finishes before turning 30, and I have no doubt he'll be successful! Since he says he's not going to post a race report, I decided to share my perspective of his race and the ins and outs of a typical race crew experience.


We arrived Friday evening around 6:30pm to Camp Bethel, the location of the finish line, and enjoyed some pre-race festivities. I personally was ecstatic to be in attendance without the pressure of competing! We dined, chatted with friends then settled in for Dr. Horton's typical pre-race talk.

Pre-race shenanigans: With Jordan on the left and Dr. Horton on the right!
Center photo by Scott Livingston.
After prepping his bags, Jordan and I along with crew teammates Matt and Kelly headed to the starting line. With a midnight start, we had about an hour to rest beforehand. I was relegated to the trunk of our Honda Fit, along with the dog, and managed to snooze for a few minutes before awaking to familiar voice of Dr. Horton on the bullhorn taking roll call of athletes before the start. After a flurry of activity leading to a gathering at the start, the national anthem was sung (by the athletes together) and at promptly 12:01am the athletes headed off into the cold, dark mountains. Hellgate had begun.

The start. Photo by Stephen Hinzman.
Shortly after the start all of the crew members retreated to our vehicles to make our way to aid station 2. There are 9 aid stations in the race, but due to crowding, parking and other issues, crew only has access to a select few. Shortly after 1 AM (WELL beyond my bed time I should say), the first athletes arrived (approx mile 7). A few minutes later my husband came through with a quick wave, no stopping or special needs, he just kept on moving. A bit anti-climatic, yes, but this is the reality with being support crew: wait, wait, wait.... wave, wait some more...

After the last athlete had ascended the mountain, the crew drivers caravanned to aid station 5, Jennings Creek aka the "breakfast" aid station. During the drive it began to sleet/snow A LOT, only 4-5 hours earlier than predicted. My stomach turned at the thought of Jordan being out there in the cold mountains, hoping his gear would be substantial enough to keep him warm and dry.

Aid Station 5 was roughly mile 27 in the race and the first athletes were predicted to arrive around 5-5:15am, so we had the opportunity to sleep for about two hours. Two of us were in the front seat, one in the middle and the dog in the trunk. It was tight and not exactly comfortable. I slept for about an hour in the drivers seat with my legs on the dashboard straddling the steering wheel (fun!) before awakening to the sound of more rain/sleet/snow. At this point (4am) I was too worried to sleep, so I got out of the car and headed down to the aid station to wait.
Cold, dark but festive with Christmas lights!
I stood by the fire and watched as one by one the top runners came through. Many familiar faces, some unfamiliar. Some hurting badly early, others cruised through with no issues. Nonetheless it was interesting to watch each athletes style, nutrition strategies in action and general reaction to the challenges of the race. Fellow VT Ultra-runner Rudy Rutemiller was running solid in 3rd place overall... and Jordan came a while later right around 6am. A little behind his usual pace but looking great overall. We refilled his hydration pack, encouraged him to eat and with a kiss, I sent him on his way.

Upon leaving this aid station, I handed over the car keys to Kelly who took over with the driving responsibilities. After going through the night on a little over an hour's rest, I desperately needed sleep (and NOT while behind a steering wheel!). I guess I was tired because I next awoke to daylight and the parking lot of the next aid station, #7 Bearwallow's Gap (mile 43).

The sunrise over the mountains (that I missed!) Photo by Guy Love.
The further along you get in the race, the more spread out the athletes become and the more waiting that's involved. We hung out here for a good 2 hours, sitting by the fire to stay warm and listening to Horton's antics. It wouldn't be a race without Horton standing around making fun of you (thanks Horty!) Standing around it got VERY cold quickly, so I'm thankful for the fire and to Kelly for bringing me an awesome superhero onesie to wear and keep warm. What fun they were too!

The athletes slowly trickled in and each was welcomes to cheers, cowbells and the smiles of willing volunteers. We waited patiently for Jordan and he finally arrived, moving steadily and all smiles!

Here he is finishing one of the toughest sections of the course, nicknamed the "devil trail."

At this point he took off with his first pacer, Robbie, to assist him through the next trail section. The rest of us drove up the mountain along the Blue Ridge Parkway to aid station 8, Bobbet's Gap. As we ascended the mountain, the weather conditions deteriorated and a steady downpour of freezing rain set in. Kelly and I planned the rest of our journey and I finally changed out of my PJs in preparation for running later. Jordan came through 50 miles close to 11 am, switched pacers, ate some more food, put on a water proof jacket (smart move) and began what is called the "forever section." I have run this section with him probably for the past 5 years, but this year my pacing duties were pushed back to the very end (with no complaints by me!)

Gotta love the enthusiasm!
Aid station 9 Day Creek: The final aid station! Kelly and I arrived with an hour to spare and Robbie went to get some MUCH needed coffee. We repacked the car, which by this time was a bit of a disaster, and then stood by the fire to keep warm. It was steadily spitting cold rain, which wasn't exactly motivating to me to get ready and run. Nonetheless, I changed and set off with the dog running backwards on the course to find my husband. After 12 hours of little sleep and sitting in a car, everything hurt! I was stiff beyond belief and barely moving up the mountain. Good thing I wasn't in a rush. About 15 minutes later, our paths intersected and we all turned around.

Jordan and his BFF Matt.
We made it back to the last aid station and then the two of us took off up the mountain, the final climb before the finish. Jordan had a garden burger (thanks Robbie!) in hand, and me, nothing. Just as he finished his burger, I realized just how little I had eaten all day, that I was actually quite hungry and bonking. NOT a good feeling when you're facing a 3 mile climb...and rule #1 of pacing is NO complaining to your athlete (but I might have anyways hehe).

Us taking off up the mountain
Photo by Robbie Poff.

We walked, holding hands, VERY slow moving but steadily covering the distance. Jordan gave me an update on the days events and I sang random songs. That's just how we roll! As we climbed higher, the temperature was noticeably dropping. It was also still raining and I was not in rain gear, which made for a very cold and wet Kristen. We were both exhausted, achey and now cold/wet, but we were together and nothing else mattered: misery loves company and we were happy.

At the top of the mountain, we crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway and reluctantly began running again. 3 miles of downhill... seems easy enough? It hurt... we were moving slower than usual and it seemed to drag on forever, so I joked that our slow moving just meant more time for us to spend together. Optimistic right?! The rain was relentless, in fact, it was getting worse, but the finish line eventually came into view and Jordan went on to finish his 7th Hellgate in a time of 14:23. 14+ hrs of running, no sleep, freezing rain/sleet/snow. Yup, he got the full Hellgate experience... !!

Photos by Robbie Poff, etc.
Hellgate is a special race for runners, crew members and volunteers alike. For me personally, this was only my 2nd time getting the full overnight experience! Honestly, I haven't been the best of "crew" for my husband in the past... I'll go ahead and confess that this girl needs her beauty rest and gets cranky on little sleep, so I usually show up in the morning at mile 43. Committing to the full thing was HARD, and I only ran 8 miles of the course. It's just simply incredible to see what these athletes can endure regarding the difficulty of the course, fueling for the distance and pushing through weather extremes. 

Inspiring? Absolutely. 

Insane? Most definitely. 

Is my husband amazing? Of course! 

Will I eventually run the entirety of Hellgate myself? Considering who I'm married too, probably so... just let me get past being scared of the dark first = P


  1. Crewing seems like such a tough, tough job and the conditions of the weekend made it even more challenging. Congrats to both you and Jordan!! (and those superhero PJs suit you...most definitely!!)

  2. Great perspective, as always, Kristen. It's a treat to see how things go for the frontrunners. Thanks for sharing and thanks for also braving the cold, nasty weather to support your hubby in his endeavor. It takes a village to run an ultra! Merry Christmas!


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