Fear And Groaning At The Hellbender 100

     [photo by White Blaze Productions]

[NOTE: 2020 is the tenth year of my blog at Semi-Rad.com, and since I started it, I’ve been fortunate to get to do some pretty wonderful adventures. Throughout this year, I’ll be writing about 12 favorite adventures I’ve had since I started writing about the outdoors, one per month. This is the fourth in the series. The other stories in the series are here.]

Somewhere around Mile 62 around 2:30 in the morning, I realized I hadn’t seen another light in about an hour: no other runners, no houses, no car headlights, nothing besides the little headlamp bubble of light in front of me. I had kept my headlamp dimmed to conserve the battery, just chugging along through the forest, jogging with my trekking poles in my hands. The entire trail had been covered in fallen leaves for miles, and it occurred to me a few times that I could be totally lost, but every time I started to worry, another little orange course marker flag would pop up. I was totally alone, and would be unless I sat down for an hour and waited for another runner to show up.

It was dead quiet, no wind, no sounds besides my feet shuffling through the wet leaves, and my breathing. If an animal had stepped on a stick 80 feet away, I would have heard it. I had been moving for 22 hours, and I felt OK, besides my soaking wet feet and the beginnings of fatigue that starts to set in when you’ve been going that long. I started thinking about the completely dark, dead quiet forest, and being totally alone. For a half second, my brain flashed to an idea, completely out of nowhere: This was a horror movie scene, and a crazed killer with an axe or other implement of destruction would come rushing at me from the dark forest to the left or right, totally surprising me because my headlamp was so dim. Then, as quickly as the thought appeared, I said to myself, “What the fuck are you doing?” and pushed it out of my mind, choosing to focus on the joy of moving through the forest in solitude instead.

I never watch horror movies, so the thought felt like it came out of nowhere. But then again, running through the mountains in the dark, slogging through a 100-mile course with 21,000 feet of elevation gain in order to get a “free” belt buckle is borderline psychopathic behavior according to most sane people. So maybe thinking about fictional movie psychopaths isn’t that out of line.

elevation profile of the Hellbender 100

The Hellbender 100, set in the Black Mountains of North Carolina, billed itself as the “hardest and highest 100 on the East Coast,” with five climbs of 3,000 feet or more. In order to sign up, you’re required to have completed at least one other 100-mile race, and the 2019 race was only the second year of the event, so it would be hard to end up running in the Hellbender by accident. But I kind of did. My friend Forest had signed up, and I was supposed to pace him for the last 30 miles, so I’d planned a whole trip around it: pace Forest in the Hellbender, meet my dad in Atlanta a couple days later to catch a Braves game, then head to Alabama to tour the music studios at Muscle Shoals. Then Forest injured his foot and it wasn’t healed a month before the race. I half-joked to him that I could just run in his place:

screenshot of text message

Of course, a half joke is also half not a joke, and a couple emails later, I was signed up for the race myself, with 80 other people. Including Forest’s brother, Canyon, who is much faster. To say I was running the Hellbender 100 with Canyon is similar to saying that, if you happened to be somewhere on El Capitan when Alex Honnold free soloed Freerider, that you climbed El Cap with Alex Honnold.

At the starting line of the race at Camp Grier, at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, Canyon and I posed for a quick photo together, and I said, “Canyon, I was thinking. Do you want to run the first 15 …

… feet together?” He laughed, and when we were called to make our way to the starting arch, went to the front of the pack. I went to the back of the pack, futzing with my headlamp to turn it from the red light setting to white light, and failing. Hilary, my wife, finally handed me her headlamp and I jogged off, in 81st place out of 81 runners. I’m not sure if it’s the right strategy or not, but I figured if I was going to make it through all 100 miles, it’d be best not to take off too fast, or, really, fast at all. We jogged along a dark asphalt road for the first five miles, and I passed a few people, but mostly just shuffled along, hoping it wouldn’t rain all day.

A couple miles later, the rain started, as runners started to spread out on our climb up to The Pinnacle, 4,000 vertical feet up in the first 12 miles of the race. It drizzled, then poured rain, so we were totally soaked, as well as socked in by clouds, so no views. I settled into a rhythm of hiking uphill at a conversational pace, then jogging downhills and flats where I could—and finding that the course was quite technical. The rain let up, and so did the climbing, sending us down a wide dirt road for a six-mile descent into the aid station at 23.5 miles. As I started climbing up the next section, a 3,300-foot climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway, I thought of my joke about “we have to switch to ultrarunning now” whenever I crossed the 26.2 mark, from marathon distance to ultramarathon distance. I could see one guy about 100 feet ahead of me, but other than him, no one was around to laugh at the joke, which was OK, because it’s not that funny, and certainly much less funny when you’re hiking straight uphill and still have 73-point-something miles to go.

I had never considered myself much of a runner, especially not a distance runner. On my high school track team, the distance guys were built like deer—lean, long, and able to grit out the pain of running the mile at a blistering pace. I had a different relationship with suffering at that point, telling my coach that anything over 200 meters was long-distance, at least to me. He put me in the 400-meter run a couple times and I think realized there were probably much better candidates for the job when I kept up with the other runners respectably until about 250 meters, when my lane appeared to fill with invisible quicksand and the pack ran away from me as I struggled to keep my legs moving until the finish line. I rode out the rest of my track career running 4 x 100 and 4 x 200 relays, and then went to college, eventually giving up running for partying, and then a pack-a-day smoking habit for six years.

I tried to quit smoking more than 25,000 times, as smokers do, and eventually decided to enter a marathon in 2006 to motivate myself. It worked: I trained for the race for six months, I quit smoking, and after the marathon, quit running marathons too, giving myself a nice nine-year break from distance running. Aside from the occasional trail run, I climbed, hiked, and backpacked and managed to stay in shape.

In 2011, I happened to interview alpinist Kelly Cordes for an episode of the Dirtbag Diaries called “What is Hardcore?” Kelly was, in my opinion, pretty hardcore, having pulled off many long days in the mountains on first ascents all over the world, including a couple of situations on never-before-done routes that most sane people would call “near-death experiences,” what with the running out of food, chopping ropes, running out of water, and hallucinations. Kelly was not so sure that he was hardcore, but said something like: You know who is hardcore? My friends who run ultramarathons. Quitting on a mountain climb often meant you were just going to die out there, so it was easy to stay motivated to keep moving. In ultrarunning, he said, quitting means you get to stop, safely.

“Once you start hurting halfway through, and everybody hurts, there’s no way anyone feels good for 100 miles—why not just quit?” Kelly asked. “Why not just call it good at the aid station, sit down, snap your fingers and call for a beer and a bag of chips and say, ‘I’m done, my legs are tired’?”

A few years after our interview, what Kelly said had stayed with me. I was curious about the people who ran 31 miles, 50 miles, and 100 miles or more. What was that like? I had done a few trail runs with my friend Jayson, sometimes as long as 15 miles. I had spent some long days in the mountains, moving with a backpack on my back for 10, 12, 14 hours. In 2015, Jayson signed up for a 50-mile race. Inspired, I ran 10 miles around my neighborhood the next day, and feeling OK about it, I signed up for the race too—just the 31-mile one, though. But it was only 23 days away. I took it easy during the race, pacing myself in order to hopefully finish. Aside from some IT band pain at Mile 26 that almost made me quit until I massaged it out and was able to gradually walk and then jog to the finish, it went well. Almost fun.

Jayson and I signed up for more races, doing a couple 50-milers, surviving, and then signing up for the 2017 Run Rabbit Run in Steamboat, Colorado. I foolishly pitched the idea of making a film about Jayson to REI, and when they said yes, I had to not only train for and run my first 100-mile race, I had to produce and direct a film about it. Other than the last 12 hours of the race, during which both Jayson and I felt like we were going to die for different reasons, it was a success—we finished 32 minutes before the final cutoff. In the months after the race, I made that typical transition from “I’m never going to do that again” to “I wonder what it would be like to try that again” to “I think I want to try that again sometime.”

I was 36 when I did that first ultramarathon, 38 when we finished our first 100-mile race, and by that time, had spent more time in the mountains than I ever could have dreamed. I hadn’t learned so much about trail running, but a lot about how to keep moving when everything hurt, how to take care of myself, and how to get home safely. I looked at ultramarathons not so much as opportunities to race against other people, but as a way to test my limits with some support—with a marked course, some food and water stops along the way, and a pacer for the final miles, you could shut off parts of your brain and just go, focusing on moving forward and seeing what you learn from grinding it out when things get really bleak.

brendan leonard running at mile 35 of the 2019 Hellbender 100

It was right around mile 40, walking through the woods on the Black Mountain Crest Trail between the summits of Mt. Mitchell and Mt. Craig, that I felt all of the time I’d spent climbing, hiking, running, and faffing around in the mountains paid off. I had my trekking poles tucked under one arm, was eating a thawed but not warm burrito with both hands, and I had to use the bathroom. Except the bathroom was at the last aid station, a mile backwards and uphill and in my past, which is not an ideal location for a bathroom when you’re running a 100-mile ultramarathon you’re not sure you can finish. Also not ideal: being halfway through eating a burrito you really want to finish when you have to go No. 2. But I was prepared for this situation.

I ducked off the trail, walked 100 feet into the woods, stuffed my burrito in my vest pocket for afterward, pulled out a half-buried rock, dug underneath it with a stick, and did my thing. Two minutes later, I was back on the trail, eating my burrito, and here is how that’s not gross: I always keep a single latex glove and an individually-wrapped wet wipe in the glove. When situations like this pop up and I’m trail running, I pull the latex glove on, take care of things, and hold the used wipe with the gloved fingers as I pull the glove off by turning it inside out. Then I knot the inside-out glove, trash sealed safely inside, and tuck it back in my vest to throw in the trash later. In events in which handwashing opportunities are nonexistent and you have to eat once or twice an hour, I highly recommend this method to help keep you from getting sick.

diagram of skills used in 100-mile ultramarathon races

I jogged into the Colbert Creek aid station at Mile 48 just as the last light of the day was disappearing around 8:20 p.m., feeling good after jogging some big sections of the trail for the previous five miles, as opposed to walking. Although it had been slow going (the slowest 50-mile split I’ve ever recorded), I reminded myself that these things always take way longer than I assume they’re going to, while I changed my socks and packed a wind jacket, rain jacket, and liner gloves into my vest for the next 24 miles into the night. A guy I ran with a little bit on the last section had said the second half of the course was easier, and the lady parked next to Hilary said it was “more runnable,” but I was not counting my chickens before they hatched. Even if it was all flat terrain for the second half of the race, I was pretty sure I would find a way to feel like shit at some point. Hilary walked me partway down the road to the next section of trail, another 3,000-foot climb up the Buncombe Horse Trail.

In the thick trees, under the clouds, without many stars visible, I settled into an almost complete darkness, pacing myself uphill, not knowing where the top of the climb would actually be. I didn’t see another headlamp for over an hour on the way up, then finally started catching a few folks on a set of switchbacks. One guy asked as I passed, “that next aid station’s gotta be coming up pretty soon, doesn’t it?” I told him I couldn’t say, and I tried to keep myself thinking the same thing he’d asked. I could drive myself crazy straining to locate for signs of an aid station up the trail: the tiny dots of headlamps, the faint din of music, maybe the glow of a fire if they had one going? It was best not to think about it, because if I started wishing it was there, I’d start wishing every minute, then feeling sorry for myself.

I caught up to Ryan, a guy from Raleigh, and we jogged and hiked as the steep climb flattened out. Any relief at the end of the steep climbing was dashed when we discovered that the trail had, thanks to rain, become a trough of mud and standing water. At first we tried to hop around the wet sections, and then, realizing it was unavoidable, just walked through it, as it soaked our shoes. Here’s the point where if I could give myself advice, I’d say, “Hey, while you’re putting that rain jacket in your vest, pack an extra pair of socks to change into,” because immediately, the moisture started causing blisters on the bottoms of both feet.

We separated after the aid station, and I ran and hiked alone for a long time, still feeling like I had a lot left in the tank even though I was moving more slowly than I had hoped. Around 2:30 in the morning, I had my psycho-killer-coming-out-of-the-woods daydream, but besides that, I just kept trucking down the mountain, stopping at the aid station at Mile 65 to eat some avocado rolls and potatoes. Six miles, I reminded myself, and I’d be done running by myself—Hilary was in the rental car at the next aid station and would pace me for the last 28 miles. The six miles, as I fantasized, was not all downhill, and trudging through a short climb, I started to feel my morale dip. I told myself I’d ask Hilary to let me sleep for 15 minutes at the next aid station, and that would help. Then I realized I hadn’t ingested any caffeine in several hours, and popped a few caffeinated Clif Bloks into my mouth, almost instantly feeling a little bit better, or at least not on the verge of curling up in the fetal position on the side of the trail to have a good cry and a nap.

Leaving the Neals Creek aid station at Mile 71.5, after 24 hours, I joked to the volunteer checking me out: “How far am I off the lead runners?” Obviously a guy who was very used to sarcasm, he acknowledged the joke with a nod and no laughter, replying, “Well, they finished two and half hours ago, so …” Canyon had finished a half-hour earlier, despite having bonked at Mile 70 and struggling to finish, still taking third place. He would, by my calculations, be able to have a leisurely meal, a nice long night of sleep, and another leisurely meal before I crossed the finish line.

Hilary and I hiked up the road and onto singletrack as I shoved huge bites of pizza into my mouth, hoping the 1,000-foot climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway would fly by. We had talked about the strategy for this part of the race, and it had been pretty simple: 1) make me jog as much as possible, even if we’re “running” 17-minute miles; 2) make me eat; and 3) don’t let me sit down. The sun started to rise as we climbed.

After we crested the Blue Ridge Parkway, my feet really started to hurt, in a way that was brand-new to my experience: I had blisters on the balls of my feet where they met my toes, and on some of the bottoms of my toes, and the movement of walking and running started to shoot pain from my feet up into my legs.

I had done little research on the individual sections of trail, only focusing on the big climbs: 4,000 feet here, 3,000 feet there, 1,000 feet, 3,500 feet, et cetera. When we started up the Leadmine Gap Trail about Mile 77, we were greeted by a series of three climbs you could interpret as “Haha, surprise!” or “Fuck you”: only 100 or 150 feet each, they were 25 percent grade, which my feet and legs felt like, to be honest, was asking a bit much at this point. Hilary led and I tried to follow as closely as possible now gritting my teeth as the pain in my feet became almost constant. Surrounding us: panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which I promised myself would be there to enjoy more fully some other time, or just to enjoy at all some other time.

brendan leonard running at mile 75 of the hellbender 100 

At the Curtis Creek aid station at mile 80.1, they had pancakes, and let me tell you, if you ever forget how fucking great pancakes are, I cannot recommend highly enough running and hiking 80 miles as fast as you can, and then having some very nice person who has stayed up all night or gotten up early of their own volition serve you a couple very basic pancakes with syrup on a disposable plate. Even if you are the type of person who likes to go out to a restaurant just waiting and hoping for something, anything, to be slightly wrong so you can write up a shitty Yelp review when you get home, I believe pancakes at Mile 80 will turn you from the Grinch into a true believer. They may bring you back from the dead for a few minutes.

However, you still have 20 more miles to cover, so the joy is fleeting. Hilary and I jogged down two miles of road before the next climb, 2600 feet up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Midway up the climb, I was starting to let out audible grunts as I exhaled, as it seemed to make the pain in my feet a little less intense. As the dirt road ended and singletrack began, we started chatting with another runner. He was a bit dismayed that the last aid station was out of cheese for quesadillas, and that someone had said to him that this was the easiest part of the race, and how could it be the easiest part of the race if there was this big climb that we were now headed up and then following that, a very long and technical downhill section …

At this point, I noticed Hilary had shifted gears and was beginning to pull away. I dug deep and tried to catch her, and within a few minutes, we were out of earshot. Hilary said, “Sorry, I just think we should get away from—”

“Yup,” I said. I already had enough negative voices in my head; I didn’t need one more. We stepped over a guardrail, crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway, and jogged a brief downhill to begin the last half-marathon of the race.

In February 2020, the New York Times Magazine published a story about ultrarunner Jim Walmsley, who had qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials, and whether he could transfer his dominance of longer distances on trails to a road marathon. In the piece, Joseph Bien-Kahn writes:

“Because athleticism is only part of the equation in races that are just as much about your tolerance for extreme mental and physical strain, mainstream runners often look down on the ultra­runner. They still see a field of eccentrics and seekers, pushing their bodies and minds, which is well and good but certainly not a sport. (Some people in the distance-running community derisively refer to ultra­runners as ‘hobby joggers’ or ‘glorified fast-walkers.’)”

I had never heard those terms before, but laughed when I read them, as well as a couple other terms Bieh-Kahn used to refer to ultrarunners in the piece—“masochistic oddballs” and “amateur challenge-seekers,” which I can’t argue are untrue descriptions. When I first started running ultramarathons, I looked around at the starting line, and sure, there were a few ultra-fit looking folks, but the rest of us sure don’t look like we’re going to hoof out a sub-3-hour marathon. But I guess if we wanted to run a marathon, we would do that. And lots of us do: the same year I ran the Hellbender 100, I ran three other ultramarathons and three road marathons, including the New York City Marathon. I had fun at all of the races, ultramarathons and marathons alike. All of them sucked at times. In one race, I was running with 53,000 other people, with thousands of people cheering, and music playing every few miles. In another race, I was in a dense, dark forest in the mountains of North Carolina, trusting myself not to trip on tree roots and rocks, and not seeing another person for an hour or more. I love trail ultramarathons, and road marathons, but I have to say, when you all of a sudden find yourself in urgent need of a restroom, it’s pretty nice not to have to wait in line at a port-a-potty while the clock is ticking, and just hop off into the trees somewhere.

I came into ultrarunning not from road running, but climbing and mountaineering, which can also be endurance sports, but come with a completely different set of hazards. After several years of climbing, I wanted to take a break from the feeling of danger and just push myself in the outdoors, so ultrarunning was an easy transition. I often joke that ultrarunning is all the pain and suffering of mountaineering without the fear of death, which I think is mostly true. In mountaineering, you spend a lot of time thinking about the ways you could die and utilizing techniques and equipment to minimize the odds of death. In ultrarunning, not very many people die, but lots of people feel like they’re going to die, for a not-insignificant portion of the time they’re ultrarunning.

I’ve realized that I like being out on a trail for 20 miles during a training run, or 30 miles, or even 50 miles. I mostly don’t pay attention to how long it takes me, unless I’ve promised to be home at a certain time. I just go out and move for several hours, never looking at my phone, and when I finish running, I have burned enough calories to justify eating half a deep-dish pizza. Masochistic? Sure. Oddball? That’s fair, too. When you show up at an ultramarathon, though, you feel less like an oddball, with all the other masochistic oddballs around.

Hilary kept me moving, up the final climb across the Blue Ridge Parkway, and down the technical descent to the finish line. I kept searching the trees below for a sign of the finish arch, a little bit of red somewhere, and of course it seemed like it was never going to appear. The last seven miles was almost completely downhill, dropping 3,000 feet, and it took us two hours. I had told myself there was no need to run the final few hundred feet through the finish arch—I mean, after 36 hours, what was the point of rushing to shave off a few seconds? But then, we stepped off the trail onto the grass, and I said to Hilary, OK, we can jog. So we did.


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