Hellgate 100K race report (by Alexander Kovalev), December, 2004


It is time for me to give a more detailed account of my adventures in Roanoke, Virginia, at the second annual Hellgate 100K trail race. I have been anticipating this to be a rough one, and I was not disappointed in the outcome of my initial assessment. If anything, I underestimated its excruciating brutality, especially given the weather conditions on the trail.


The race was supposed to start at midnight on Friday, so I departed for Roanoke airport via Chicago on Friday morning. Despite the delays in arrival and departure in Chicago, I managed to witness a couple of amusing scenes on the plane.


One of them was when a guy who was sitting in front of me started looking through an issue of Penthouse that he apparently purchased at one of the magazine stands in the airport. He was not particularly shy about browsing through the pages right there on the plane. I mean the guy was even stretching the centerfolds all the way up to the ceiling of the plane, so everyone around him took a really good look at the contents along with him. With a smile on my face, I was observing the reaction of the nearby passengers to such a fascinating display of male curiosity. The passengers around us consisted mainly of older and properly dressed southern ladies who up until that moment were happily immersed into their romance novels. I realize, of course, that romance novels might be very intense in their imaginary powers. But even the good old vivid standbys of the romance novels like “she gazed longingly into his eyes, and suddenly found herself hopelessly drowning in the deep ocean of his sensual masculinity” can’t possibly compete with the explicit display of raw graphics of Penthouse. So, all of these middle aged southern bells had an expression of indignity upon noticing this guy’s interests. That did not deter him from continuing browsing and then happily greeting his wife at the terminal upon arrival. He prudently left the magazine in the pocket of the seat upon arrival, of course.


Upon arriving to the race headquarters at Camp Bethel some 20 miles away from the Roanoke airport, I ate dinner of pretty good lasagna, salad, and bread, and mingled with other runners for a while. After pre-race instructions, I started getting ready for my mid-night start, changing into my running clothes, putting flaky silicon powder in my socks to minimize the possibility of blisters on hard terrain, packing my drop bag for aid stations, and going through the map of the course.


The race director, Dr. David Horton, who happens to be a very well accomplished ultra-runner himself is an amazingly warm and funny guy. His great sense of humor temporarily deterred me from the nagging concerns of how I would feel about starting the race after a full day of being awake and traveling to the area.


At 11 PM they took all the runners to the starting line which is 26 miles away from the camp where we were to finish. The race was going through multiple mountains of the local area and promised a lot of climb and descent (24,000 ft of elevation gain and loss over 62 mile course to be precise). The big portion of the climbs was to occur in the first 22 miles which we were to run at night.


The big part of the hardship of this race was the weather. Not only the rain prior to the race caused a lot of the creeks and rivers to swell and run over the trail, but it also created a lot messy mud puddles throughout the course. So, your shoes were practically never dry because you either go through an ice cold river in the middle of the December night or sloshing liquid mud along the way.


I have never run a race that started at midnight. Most of the ultra-marathons begin early in the morning after you have had a chance to sleep for several hours prior to the start. That apparently affected me a lot more than I initially thought. Going through long steep mountain climbs with rough footing, in the dark with just a flashlight, with gusts of cold wind and whirling snow at the top proved to be too much to me that night. I slowed down a lot more than I planned, but continued moving through the course, feeling increasingly more weary about the outcome of this race. By 4:30 AM I started feeling tired, sleepy, cold, and sick to my stomach. I secretly hoped that I would miss the first mandatory cutoff time at mile 22, and would not have to continue, but I made it just in time, so I did not have a good excuse to stop there. At 6:30 AM after drinking a small cup of hot chocolate at that aid station, I continued on my delirious quest of conquering Hellgate course.


At mile 26 I fell hard after stepping and slipping on a wet tree branch lying completely concealed by the fallen leaves in the middle of the trail. My angle and left arm were hurting badly after I landed on the pile of rocks that ever so helpfully happened to be located right by the side of the trail. I am sure that did not help me further into the race either.


It is a beautiful area, and seeing it during daylight helped me persevere until mile 43 when I missed the second and final crucial cutoff time and was forced to stop the race by one of the course officials. Surprisingly, I did not mind that much after enduring the most horrendous climbs and footing that left me kind of numb and devoid of any willpower to go on beyond that point. I guess I just was not in good enough shape for this kind of race. The only thing I regret is missing the last 19 miles which were supposed to be the easiest of the entire course and the most scenic.


After finally getting back to the hotel, I realized that by that point I had not slept for about 34 straight hours; over 13 of those were spent running through the mountains. I had a little picnic in my room drinking red wine and eating pop-tarts before I finally fell into a grateful slumber.


Next day I visited one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Natural Bridge, a few miles north of the race area, the Dixie Caverns in Salem, a few miles south of Roanoke, and finally departed for Kansas City on Monday afternoon.


Despite the fact that I did not finish the race, I felt gratified that I got a chance to experience such an amazing and tough adventure as Hellgate 100K race. Who knows, I might be back at some point in the future to take a shot at finishing it.