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rabbitELITEtrail athlete Rachel Spaulding recaps Hellgate 100K where she won and set a course record

Thirteen years ago my club swim coach yelled at me after yet another poor race. He said to me, “You are strong here, but you need to get strong HERE!,” pointing to my arms and then my head. I played this in my mind on repeat throughout the Hellgate 100K. It may have taken me 13 years, but I think I got there.

Hellgate is a special race. A 3rd place finish in 2019 and a 2nd in 2020, fading the last 20 miles and hobbling to the finish both times, left me hungry to seal the deal this year. So, when did I start preparing for Hellgate 2021? About 12 hours after I finished the 2020 race. I spent 2021 obsessing over the race and challenging myself in the sport. I worked on my weaknesses, both physical and mental ones. I also spent many weekends driving to sections of the course, training on sections to familiarize myself with sections that had me suffering in the past. By the time race week rolled around in 2021 I was ready to go. Race Director Dr. David Horton told me I wouldn’t be faster than my 2021 time. He also did not believe a female would be able to best Leah Yingling’s course record, which was a very impressive 12:07. He taunted me with these comments leading up to the race. In 2019 I didn’t even know I was capable of running 66 miles straight and in 2020 I didn’t think I was good enough to break 13 hours. Even with my lack of self-confidence I made both happen. I knew I was stronger than I was a year ago and I was determined to create results that proved it.

Weather can be a big deal for this race and people tend to obsess over it far in advance. I take that energy and focus on what I can control. Ultimately, the weather was okay on my race day. It was sometimes cold, windy, and rainy and switch to being uncomfortably warm and humid. The fog added some additional challenges early on as well. When the race started at 12:01AM the crowd of runners took off fast. I reminded myself the race wasn't going to be won this early on and stayed relaxed. By mile seven I was the first female, but there were many men ahead of me. I was excited to see my crew about 75 minutes in, consisting of my fiancé Logan and my future father-in-law. There was a lot of energy at this aid station, and it got me excited. I looked at Dr. Horton and said, “I am going to prove you wrong!”

I suffered early on during the race. From mile 13-27 I was very uncomfortable. A few times I started letting go of my big goals. I stayed patient and present, while reminding myself that it is a long race, and I was going to eventually feel good. After some problem solving, I started to feel much better. From mile 28-48 I felt in control of my race. I looked at my watch halfway and I was 6:01 into the race. When I hit mile 35-ish after a long gravel climb, it was still dark. I remember getting excited because in the past the sun was rising at this point. I continued to move well into the Bearwallow aid station. At this point of the race there are about twenty miles to go and everyone says this is where the race truly starts. My crew had me in and out pretty quickly, and I was encouraged by everyone nearby. I was told Chris Roberts (second place finisher at Big’s Backyard Ultra) left the aid station not too long ahead of me, so I went out chasing him.

Photo: Jay Profitt

The next section is about six miles long with sneaky climbs and messy descents. Last year this section took me almost 75 minutes and this year I did it in about 67 minutes, chipping away at the Course Record pace. The next big section is known as the Forever Section, which is about 8 miles filled with terrain that makes you question your sanity for choosing this event. I knew this section well and repeatedly told myself, “it does not last forever.” I got into the final aid station well aware that a sub-12 hour finish was possible, but I was going to have to push outside of my comfort zone to achieve it. I made my way up the final climb which is about 2.24 miles with over 1,000 feet of gain. I was deep into the pain cave at this point. I ran efficiently and hiked when needed with purpose. Next was the three-mile descent to the finish. I felt confident about the course record, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy with ‘just a PR and course record’. I was hurting but I kept moving. I made my way towards the finish, hearing loud cheers. I crossed the finish line with a time of 11:59.06, finishing first female and 9th overall. The most memorable part of this experience was that finish; being surrounded by people who were just as fired up for me as I was for myself. I truly felt like I had people rooting for me all day long.

I am so thankful for the ultra community I am surrounded by! I’d like to give a special shout out to the guy who roots for me every single day and planted the sub-12 hour goal in my head, my fiancé Logan. This time last year Logan said he would do everything possible to help me break 12 hours. We did it! I am also thankful for Dr. Horton who gives everyone a chance to be a part of something special, and helps you push yourself towards goals you didn’t even know were possible. Thank you to Ian Golden from the Trails Collective and rabbit, my run clothing sponsor, for believing in me this year! I can’t wait to continue to push myself and grow in the sport. It only took me an entire 12 hours to start talking about running again!

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