I start most of my race reports by telling you how beautiful the course is, but they always are! I choose races that look epic and challenging. The beauty is the payoff for the hard work. Hellbender was definitely all that and then some. I had Hellbender on my radar after hearing about the inaugural year of the race last year. When Stephanie and I began talking about races for our 2019 calendar, we discussed Hellbender and were eager to sign up.
I don’t judge a race by swag, but if you do, this race won’t disappoint, but there’s really so much more. The race starts in Old Fort, North Carolina at Camp Grier. From the moment we arrived, it had a cozy, welcoming feel as volunteers greeted us at the large pavilion. Many of the runners stayed in the small bunk houses that circled the pavilion, and as the runners began to gather, it had the feel of meeting your new best friends who you were going to spend the next several days with at camp. We caught up with old friends and met new ones while we waited for the pre-race meeting to start, followed by a great pre-race meal. We camped in a nearby field. It doesn’t get much better than sleeping very close to the start of a race!
We had one friend coming to help crew us part way through the race, and possibly pace, but we were prepared to be mostly self-sufficient. We knew this would be a challenging race, but felt well-trained and ready. Stephanie had been fairly sick 10 days prior to the race and we weren’t certain she would start until just 5 days or so before the race. I had been dealing with Piriformis Syndrome for many months, and I always stand on every starting line knowing that anything can happen and there’s no guarantee of a finish. I don’t take a 100 mile race lightly and always respect the distance.
Some people did better at studying the course
Now, I’m an admitted elite geek! I love to follow all the ultra runner elites, read articles about them, follow them on social media, listen to them on podcasts, and follow the races. I admire their God-given gifts of speed and strength. I’m especially inspired by the masters-level runners that are still racing strong, and admire my coach, Meghan Laws “The Queen” who not only guides me, encourages me but believes in me. My gift is not speed. I’m a fast runner only in my dreams. But what I possess is toughness and determination. I pick races I really want to run and embrace them.
Almost time to get this started
After a quick check-in on race morning, we were off at 4:30 a.m. The first 5 miles were on road. If you know me, roads are not my favorite, but five miles on country roads in the dark seemed like a nice start and almost enjoyable. It seemed we were quickly at the first aid station where the real race would begin, and later end. During the pre-race meeting and chatting with some of the runners who had run the race last year, we knew the first climb would be the longest of the race. I had to tune out the course details at the meeting because it was beginning to get too overwhelming. We knew there were 5 big climbs in the beautiful Black Mountains, with the toughest ones being in the first half of the race. In the middle of the race we would climb and summit Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak on the east coast at 6,684 ft. There would be 21 miles of gravel roads, and the five miles of pavement at the start. We knew the biggest climb of the race was the first one – 7 miles. The predicted morning rain started during our first climb and we stopped only to put on our rain jackets. As we got close to the top it was much cooler. We had been told we could expect big weather changes between the tops and bottoms of the climbs. It was raining and foggy by the time we got to the top, and most runners know that’s not a fun combination with headlamps. Luckily, daylight came before we reached the summit but our epic view was fogged in. The beautiful scenery along the way did not disappoint, however. We came across three very old and abandoned campers at an intersection of fire roads just below the summit. In the early morning rain and fog, we called them the “creepy campers!”
Summit of Pinnacle but no view
We made it to the top of Heartbreak Ridge and summited Pinnacle before finally heading down. We knew for certain we had our work cut out for us. Before long, we were at the Blue Ridge Parkway water drop and headed down towards the second aid station where I knew a couple of the volunteers. They were the only friends that I knew would be at the race and was already looking forward to a familiar face. Getting hugs and words of encouragement from Kris and Kim was just the boost I needed. As it turned out, I knew people at almost every aid station and they were calling out my name and cheering me on. Each aid station had a large number of extremely helpful volunteers and always offered us a great variety of food choices. We were waited on, encouraged and taken care of like we were the only runners in the race. We went up the Snooks Nose climb to Green Knob, which we were told was the steepest climb of the course, and then back down to another aid station.
As we came into Neals Creek aid station, we were surprised to be greeted and encouraged by Aaron Saft, the race director. At this point, we were probably the final runners to get there, but were well ahead of cutoffs.
We then began the climb to the summit of Mt. Mitchell. It proved to be a very tough and technical climb that was beginning to eat away at our margin on the cutoffs. When we finally summited, we were able to take in the incredible view before checking into the aid station there. Ken, who had come to help crew for us, met us as we reached the summit and our spirits were lifted just to see him (he couldn’t crew us here, but did greet us). As we came into the aid station we were again met by the race director. We had lost some time on the climb and were now only 20 minutes ahead of cutoffs. After the long hard climb, we were thinking the downhill would give us a chance to gain back some time (I should have paid more attention at that pre-race meeting). I was so surprised to see Aaron once again and asked why he was there. He said that he was there to check on us and see how we were doing. He was there for all the runners at the back of the pack. It was probably one of the most encouraging things I’ve ever had an RD do. Aaron told us that we probably would not be able to make up any time on this downhill section, but we would in sections after the next aid station. I assured him that we would make it to the finish and hoped to get a hug from him. He promised to give us a hug and a he’d hand us a buckle when we got there. When he said it, you knew how much he really wanted to see you finish.
Mt Mitchell Summit and not quite so cold
The downhill from Mt. Mitchell had a few more climbs and very technical, rocky downhills, including a rope section. It got dark, and with the wet trails, it seemed like the longest and toughest downhill section. We knew we needed to get to the aid station and make the cutoff but we were getting very nervous about it. When we finally got there we were sure we had missed the cutoff. This time I was surprised to see my friends Brad and Jenny. Brad quickly told me that they were going to let us keep going if we wanted to continue. Yes! We wanted to! They told us we had to go roughly 22 miles in ten hours to make the next cutoff. Brad assured him that we could most definitely do it.
We still had a long way to go, but we were full of hope and began the climb up the Buncombe Horse Trail, when we passed another runner. We were no longer DFL. But if we thought the climbs got easier after Mt. Mitchell, we were wrong. It might look like it on paper, but you have to account for how you might be feeling at this point in the race. We had wet feet all day, and the steep and technical downhills had begun to take a toll on our feet. This quickly became a low point for us as we fought hard to stay moving and make up some time. Then, Stephanie’s light went out. As we were rushed through the previous aid station, we had not gotten extra batteries. We somehow managed through some very wet and muddy sections using only my headlamp as our guide. We were eager to get to the aid station, not only to put on our long pants and warm up, but we really needed to borrow a headlamp if we were going to make it. The volunteers were so happy to help us, give us warm food, coffee and lend Stephanie a headlamp that no doubt saved our race and allowed us to keep moving.
We began to move faster through some “easier” sections and surprised the volunteers when we came into the next aid station an hour and 45 minutes ahead of cutoffs. With Ken bringing our drop bags to us, we were finally able to take time to change shoes and socks. We couldn’t pay too close attention to our feet but knew how they felt, and we had roughly 30 miles to go. Ken began pacing us for the last 20 miles. It was nice for us to share those miles and some final tough climbs with him. He got to experience our race but only a small amount of our suffering. We had managed to pass a couple more runners in the final downhill push and finished 2 ½ hours ahead of the final cutoffs. As promised, Aaron gave us a hug and handed us our buckles. As we sat down, the aid station volunteers began to wait on us hand and foot. Then Aaron came over to us and handed us each a special gift, telling us we had both won our age group award. We started out just wanting to finish this beast of a race, but walked away with so much more.
The next morning, I walked over to the pavilion to see if Aaron was still around to thank him once again, and thank the volunteers who were still there. Aaron gave us another hug and said he had one more thing to give us and soon came back with gift certificates for a pair of shoes! We said thank you and final goodbyes.
We may not be gifted with speed but we are both tough, determined and never give up! As AJW would say: “Gritty AF”! This race, the Hellbender 100, is the Beast Coast at its finest!