25,000+' of elevation gain ......... elevation range 1480'-6547' .........Daylight 0650 - 2006
64M Trails, 31M Gravel, 5M Pavement
April 20, 2018 - Going into this race I knew that Hellbender, one of the tougher challenges I've ever taken on, would require perfect preparation to succeed. Following a winter of disciplined training, injury recovery, and a lot of mental preparation, everything came together perfectly before toeing the line. Everything I have learned about how to succeed at this kind of exercise was taken into account and applied. I was confident and I was prepared as well as ever to succeed. So it was with a fair amount of disappointment that I got knocked out at the half way point because of dizziness due to a seemingly benign sinus infection, physically knocking me off balance enough that I became a danger to myself on the brutal terrain of this course. While I sit back comfortably now and ponder what might have been, a hollow feeling overtakes me when I realize there will likely never be a replay to get it right. Deep within I sense a threshold has been breached, on more than one level, with likely no chance of recovery, and that a painful decision about my trails ahead is imminent.
The pre-race was fun with a lot of people I know and like being there. The weather forecast could not have been better. I settled in the night before in my car in the starting line parking lot at Camp Grier. I should have known I might have problems the next day, but did not give it a thought; there was nothing I could have done to make any difference anyway. A sinus infection had been buzzing in my head for three or four days, enough so that I was taking antibiotics. On the drive down the day before I had to stop twice to take a nap to rid myself of a nasty sinus headache, which I never get. The morning rolled around dark early and I was feeling good after adequate sleep. All systems were go, go, go as I hit the line for the 0500 start.
The initial five miles were essentially a mild climb on pavement. Beginning with Michael Scogings I opted to take my time warming up and just jog at an even tempo until reaching single track and the first big climb. With lots of run in me, the first 4500-foot climb seemed comfortable. The early miles are always social. I found good company in new friends as well as Michael Scogings, Tin Ha, and David Walker. The sun rose bright to soften the mild chill that remained at the higher elevations. If the entire course was like the first twelve miles we were all in for a very pleasant day of climbing in the mountains.
After crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway the trail switchbacked its way down down down before reaching gravel roads below that would take us to our first major checkpoint at Curtis Creek. The running was easy so I let gravity do most of the work. Checking my watch at 23 miles I was an hour ahead of my plan, running well within myself and feeling good. Switching some gear out of my drop bag I was feeling very positive about the effort thus far.
The next 2500-foot undulating climb in four miles of singletrack in the rising warmth of the late morning sun would begin to take a toll on me. I could see others around me also dragging themselves up the steep trail. I found myself stopping to take a breather more than I would have thought. While that four miles of climbing punched me good the following run back down to Curtis Creek on a smooth gravel road offered a good reprieve.
At 50K I was even more than an hour ahead of my scheduled 3.5 mph pace. The next seven miles would take us 3300 feet up and over Snooks Nose and down into Neals Creek. I really enjoyed this section and got myself into an aggressive climbing tempo that seemed to make the time pass quickly. While I thought I was moving ahead of pace, the section seemed long, and my time returned to what I was shooting for by 38.5 miles.
Mile 12 with Michael Scogings above and Tin Ha below
From Neals Creek we approached perhaps our most challenging climb of the day, 2900 feet up Mt. Mitchell in the waning afternoon hours. Deliberately holding back some, walking more, and running the flats less I seemed to move up the climb comfortably. As I climbed into the shadows of the afternoon sun behind Mt. Mitchell the temps cooled quickly. Despite adding layers, gloves and a knit cap I was really feeling the encroaching cold temps of elevation. The cold seemed to reactivate the issues I was having all week with my sinuses. My head started to ache and I had to stop twice to dry heave. After getting aid at the top and continuing on along the soggy Buncombe Horse Trail, my well-being quickly deteriorated.
Climbing another 1500 feet to a course high at 6547 feet on the ridge, I could no longer mitigate the fact I was sick. After the final ascent on part of the Quest for the Crest course, the ridge undulates along a laborious rocky crest for miles before sharply descending to the mid-race check station at Colberts Creek. Losing one's balance in the dark on an obstacle course is the kind of challenge I don't want to relive. For seven miles I stumbled forward, stopping often, sitting down to collect myself and rebalance as best I could. I cannot recall being in such a survival situation quite like this before. There was real danger in taking a mis-step that could result in an egregious injury. I kept focusing on caution, patience, and perserverance. If I had to stop for any sort of bad injury I likely would face a worse challenge with hypothermia with no help coming to save me all night.
The fifteen to twenty runners that passed me during this time showed great concern for my well-being; some even offering to stay with me. I was very moved by their selflessness. Not wanting to ruin anyone else's day I made light of my circumstances and continued alone, focused on my own plight. Sometimes you feel like crying, but don't because you realize it doesn't help anything. About the time I was completely exhausted from overcompensating for imminent disaster, the rocky trail smoothed out some and became less steep affording me a break over the last couple of miles to the aid station. When I finally arrived way past my anticipated arrival expectation, Sean Blanton was there with a warm van and comfort food. I cannot thank Sean enough for his role in reviving me. My buddy Michael Scogings crawled in the van with me to get warm and decided to join me in calling it a day.
I kept thinking of the line - "the best laid plans of mice and men." As well prepared as I was for this event I could not have foreseen being laid to waste by a little micro-organism ... of all things. So it goes. It was a good day for a long while. I enjoyed it immensely, mostly. This was a hard course. I really admire the mental toughness it must have taken most of those who finished. Super event. Super organization. I won't be back, but I have a great memory.
AS1 Graphite Road - 5.0
BRP water only, self serve - 12.3
AS2 South Toe River Road - 15.5
AS3 Curtis Creek - 23.6
AS4 Curtis Creek - 31.3
AS5 Neals Creek- 38.5
AS6 Buncombe Horse Trail - 43.2
AS7 Colberts Creek - 52.3
AS8 Buncombe Horse Trail - 61.9
AS9 NC128 - 65.5
AS10 Neals Creek - 73.8
BRP water only, self serve - 76.1
AS11 Curtis Creek - 81.6
AS12 South Toe River Road - 89.7
BRP water only, self serve - 92.9
Finish - 99.9