22 April 2018


The Hellbender Hundered was an inaugural event this year, but that did not keep me from registering for it and from making it my first goal race of 2018. I knew that the race was being put on by a bunch of passionate and committed trail and ultra runners, who had plenty of race experience among them and who knew what runners would be looking for. So even though I try to avoid first year events, especially 100 milers, to allow them to work out the kinks first, I wasn't concerned about this event being well organized. On top of it, I had had the opportunity to run some of these trail during last year's Quest For The Crest 50K and this year's Mount Mitchell Challenge 40M, so I knew it would be brutal and absolutely beautiful all at the same time.
Of course, the race description on the website only made it more enticing. "The Hellbender Hundred is the most challenging hundred miler on the East Coast. Brought to you by a conglomerate of experienced race directors, the course will take you through a grueling tour of the massive Black Mountains, the highest mountains east of the Mississippi, on some of the most challenging trails in all of Western North Carolina.  With an elevation change of 50,000+ ft along this extremely beautiful route, you will not want to miss this premiere graduate level hundred through the heart of the Southern Appalachia's." I was sold.
Once I had pulled the trigger on Ultrasignup.com, it was time to start race planning. Training plan, drop bag planning, gear selection, nutrition plan, etc. I enjoy the logistics of planning for a 100 miler as much as if not more than the actual training. By the time race day rolled around, I had put in 1,100 miles and 130,000ft of vertical gain in the 3 1/2 months leading up to the race. I had run 8 ultra races or solo runs from 50K to 76 miles in the process, focussing more on running than getting vert, which was a departure from my training for Fat Dog 120 last year and Cruel Jewel 100 the previous year, where I was focussing on getting as much vert as humanly possible. 
For the most part, my logistical planning was unchanged from previous races, except that I was planning to run without crew or pacer, which meant extreme focus on drop bags. I calculated three different race goals, an extremely lofty "A"goal of sub 24 hours, a realistic "B" goal of 26 hours and a don't quit just because you missed your A and B goals "C" goal of 28 hours. This allowed me to ensure that drop bags contained just the right amount of nutrition and clothing at the appropriate times during the race, allowing me to keep my running pack as light as possible. 
I created a laminated aid station/pace chart, so I would always know how the distance to the next aid station and/or drop bag. I created gear lists for each drop bag, allowing me to quickly see the contents once I arrived at an aid station with drop bags. This was important as I had no crew and late race ultra brain would potentially make it difficult to think clearly. My drop bags contained spare shoes, socks, shorts, shirts, rain jackets, warm layers, hats, buffs, gels and drink powder pouches.
By the time race week arrived, I was nervous but more than ready to get this show on the road. I made the 5 1/2 hour drive to Old Fort, NC early Thursday morning to get there in time for race packet pickup, to catch up with friends and to still check out one of the many vegan restaurant options in Asheville, NC for my pre-race dinner. I made it in plenty of time to pick up my bib. After hanging out for a while, I left to check in to my hotel and to grab dinner. I had booked a cheap hotel in Asheville just of the interstate and only 20 minutes from the race start. After dinner, I finalized my running kit for the next morning, filled up my water bottles and taped my heels. By 9PM, it was lights out with my alarm set to go off at 3AM for a 5AM race start. Unfortunately, I woke up again at midnight and spent the next 3 hours lying awake thinking about the race.
The alarm went off as planned and after I ate a banana and drank some more Nuun to prehydrate, I did a final check of my pack and gear before getting dressed. Unfortunately, the bottom of my pack was wet, which meant my bottle(s) were leaking. Great, just what I needed on race morning. I located the leaks and taped them with some KT tape as that was all I had available. Thankfully, this patch job lasted for the duration of the race.
I packed up my stuff and made my way to the race start arriving 30 minutes prior. It was a pretty chilly morning with temps in the 30s, so I stayed in the car until about 5 minutes to race start. I was wearing Altra Superior 3.5, which I had tested for all of 2 miles prior to the race. I also opted for short CEP Merino socks and Altra calf compression sleeves, some well worn in Nike shorts, a Kuhl short sleeve button up shirt, Altra arm sleeves, Patagonia windbreaker, wool mittens, Altra buff and Petzl headlamp. We wuld only need a headlamp for the first couple of hours, so I used the smaller of my two headlamps and place the more powerful one, LEDlenser MH10, in my 52 mile drop bag for the night portion of the race.
I walked up to the start line, excitement had been building and people were pumped to get going. Everyone wished each other luck and I lined up near the front with the goal of sitting just at the bottom of the top ten so as not to get sucked in to a rabbit start. I had the feeling that there would be a few runners starting the race rather quickly and I did not want to get caught up in that.
The race started right on time and we were off, hootin' and hollerin', so quickly in fact that we just about passed the pace car (aka Aaron's van) as we made our way down the gravel road out of Camp Grier. Aaron barely made it into the car to stay ahead of us. The first 5 miles would be on gravel and paved roads before we'd start the first of 7 major climbs, this one a 4,000ft climb up Heartbreak Ridge. I settled into a comfortable pace quickly, chatting with other runners as we made our way up the road.
By the time we hit single track to start the real ascent, I was running alone at my own pace, somewhere just below the top ten. The plan was to run from aid station to aid station and to run entirely by feel for at least the first half of the race. I had already detached the trekking poles from my pack as I planned to use them for every climb from the start. I was moving pretty well and feeling good, continually checking in with myself to make sure things didn't go south early on. As we got closer to the top, the sun started to rise above the Black Mountains.
I had blown through the first AS at 5 miles, but I did get some water at the mile 12 water stop at the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was carrying Honey Stinger energy gels as well as Sword drink powder as my main fuel source along with Base Salt to address my sodium needs. I was hoping to keep AS stops to a minimum and only spend extra time when accessing my drop bags as needed. Unfortunately, this plan only worked until mile 40.
The day continued to warm up slowly, but because we spent much of our time climbing to higher elevations, I didn't shed my arm sleeves and windbreaker well into the race. I shoved them into my pack since I knew I'd need the layers again later. My race continued to go according to plan, I didn't worry about my pace, ran entirely by feel and stopped for pictures whenever I had a scenic view...and there were a lot of scenic views.
The first 40 miles were fairly uneventful and I was feeling great. I had been running with the two top female runners for a while at a relaxed pace, but as we made our way up to Buncombe Horse Trail Junction & Mount Mitchell AS at mile 43, things started to go south very quickly and unexpectedly. I started to have chills even though it had gotten pretty warm as we were climbing. It wouldn't go away, so I started to pick up my pace to try to warm up, but that only made me nauseous. During the switchbacks that had tree cover and shade, I started to freeze, during the exposed sections, I was only slightly chilled. Temps were almost in the 80s.  
This made no sense. The air was extremely dry, so I didn't really feel like I was sweating a lot, either. I was trying to assess my issues. All I could do is slow down, try to stay as comfortable as possible and try to get to the next AS to assess things again. My stomach wasn't in the mood for gels, so I was relying on my Sword fluids only. In addition to these issues, I had suddenly started to chafe on my inner thighs. I hadn't chafed in years and the shorts I was wearing had been through multiple ultra races without causing problems for me. WTF! 
I finally made it to the AS at mile 43 in the lowest state of mind possible. I had been thinking about the possibility of a DNF for the last hour and only minute earlier won the mental battle within to determine that nothing was going to keep me from finishing this thing. I was here because I wanted to be here. I had trained hard to be here. I wasn't going to give up. I wasn't going to hit my A goal and probably not my B goal, either, but I was going to finish. When I arrived at Buncombe AS, the volunteers were fantastic! Their attitude was just what I needed at this point. I stopped for a few minutes to collect myself. I knew I had a little more climbing and 9 miles to go before I would have access to one of my drop bags at the Colberts Creek AS. I needed to get there as I had a pair of shorts and tape there that I hoped would help me address my chafing issues.
I filled up my bottles and went on my way. I knew the next 9 miles would have some climbing, but also a significant portion of downhill running and all I planned to do was stay in one piece, stay relaxed and not make anything any worse than it was. On a positive note, my feet were doing great. 43 miles in Altra Superior 3.5 shoes without issues. The shoe/tape combination seemed to work. I had put Altra Lone Peak 3.5 shoes in my drop bags, in case I needed more cushioning. To my surprise, I never did have to change shoes or socks. All I had to do is remove debris every so often.
When I finally arrived at Colberts Creek AS, I was ready for a break and a reset. Thankfully, Sean Blanton and crew were there to take care of runners. They really helped me out. Sean was getting me tortillas with avocado and sea salt and I could get enough of them. I was also able to change into different running shorts and use KT tape to cover the chafed spots on my inner thighs. Juts in case, Sean put some diaper rash cream in a ziplock in case things got worse later on. Thankfully, I did not have to use it as the tape and new shorts worked perfectly.
I still needed time to reset, so I continued to eat tortillas and drink ginger ale as other runners entered and left the AS. I slowly started feeling better. Some rest now would surely pay dividends later. When I left the AS, I was in a much better physical and mental state of mind, but I felt like something was missing...shit...I left my trekking poles and I was already 2 tenths of a mile out. No way was I going to continue without them, so I turned around and started yelling for assistance. Thankfully, another runner relayed my "message" and a kind volunteer carried my poles to me. Crisis averted.
I now had to cover close to 10 miles to make it back to Buncombe AS, giving me another opportunity to thank them for earlier. This section had the fifth major climb and it would be dark by the time I made it back to the aid station. I had been running solo for almost the entire race and I continued to do so. It's strange how much a field of runners stretches out over the course of any ultra marathon. You can go for hours without seeing another runners. The only runners I would see would be in aid stations or along some of the overlapping course sections.
When I arrived back at Buncombe AS, I was excited to see Doug Daniel who had shown up to volunteer the night shift. It's always energizing to see a familiar face during an ultra, especially one that challenges you in every aspect imaginable. I spent some time to fill up my bottles and to drink some fluids while chatting with Doug. It was getting cold, so I got moving again.

I knew I was through the toughest part of the race, both from a distance and from a climbing perspective. Obviously, there were still two major climbs left, but it all seemed more manageable now. I worked my way from AS to AS, but as it came closer to 20 hours of running, drowsiness became my biggest enemy. I had weened myself off caffeine for 10 days leading into the race in hopes of making the use of caffeine pills more effective during the late hours of the race. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I popped 6 caffeine pills to no effect. I still managed to fall asleep while walking uphill.

Thankfully, that was my only issue and I was able to run whenever the terrain was runnable, but it did slow me down. A pacer would definitely been helpful during this section, but you can't truly find out what you're capable of unless you rely completely on yourself. Do I enjoy running with the support of a crew and/or pacer? Sure, but i learn a heck of a lot more about myself, whenever I'm out there by myself making my way from start to finish.

As I made the final descent down Heartbreak Ridge and towards the finish line, I was excited and running at a good clip even though my feet were pretty sore at this point. I didn't know how far I had to go, but I knew there was small chance that I would make my "C" goal of sub 28. I kept pushing and pushing and when I finally saw the finish line arch, I was ecstatic. I crossed the finish line in 27 hours and 47 minutes and to a high five by Aaron and Clay, I think. It's all a bit of a blur, sleep deprivation does that to me, that and hallucinations, but I've learned to deal with them. Aaron handed me the sweet Hellbender 100 finisher buckle and I was happy to be done. The thought of a hot shower, food and sleep had kept me motivated during the last few hours and now I could indulge in it all.

The Hellbender 100 was an inaugural race that was extremely well executed by their crew of  race directors and my their tireless volunteers, who were all absolutely spectacular, I cannot praise them enough. They took great care of runners at each and every aid station and it made all the difference for me. 

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