picture by Teri Smith aka runnerteri
Last Sunday I completed the Hellz Bellz Ultra, a 43 mile trail run/race (give or take a mile or two) in the Yacolt Burn State Forest of SW Washington put on by Bivouac Racing. I'm one race away from completing 100 endurance races (marathon & ultra combined) and with this being my 69th ultra, I have to say it was definitely one of my favorites. I love an old school, chill vibe race and this one fit the bill. And it managed to do this on an interesting, scenic and challenging course, with well place aid stations and amazing volunteers. The cherry on top was that mother nature cooperated and it was the perfect day for running in the forest and mountains. I really couldn't have asked for a better day. And since the start of the pandemic I really haven't been excited about racing. This one brought back that passion, but for races that provide the experience more than the competition. I loved every step and didn't want it to end.
Oh and did I mention we got to rid a historic train from the staging area to the start line?!!
The race was staged from the little town of Yacolt, WA at the town's recreational park. Yacolt is only an hour from home, but since we needed to be ready by 5am, I decided to use that hour sleeping instead of driving to the race. There was plenty of tent camping out on the green, but I was comfortable in the back of my Suburban, which I call my truck. Morning was easy and I decided to drive the quarter mile to the train station. You see, the start was a few miles away and instead of parking at the trailhead, we were all shuttled by the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad. It was so much fun. And while it took a little longer than expected, I loved every minute of it.
So instead of starting at 6am, we took off from Hantwick Trailhead at 6:35am. The first 2 miles were on wide double track along the East Fork of the Lewis River Trail. This would be the last flat and easy running for most of the day! Soon we turned up the Bells Mountain trail, which climbs steadily up and up with a few flat and rolling sections here and there. I really didn't want to feel rushed this day so let a lot of people pass me but soon settled in with a few people and we chatted as we hiked and jogged and finally topped out. I'd been up Bells Mountain trail with Marc but we'd turned around before we started to descend too much so some of the trail to the Yacolt Burn trailhead was unfamiliar to me. Before long I found myself alone again. There were only about 40 starters so it was easy to spread out if you weren't consciously trying to run with someone.
Although this was a race I wasn't really interested in competition. While I wanted to make the cutoff, of course, an ideal day for me would be a long, enjoyable day in the forest and mountains. After finding out that the first woman in the prior year's fatass had finished in 10 hours, I had a loose goal of finishing in under 12 hours. And I only had to make one cutoff of 32 miles in 10 hours. So I didn't need to rush.
The first aid station Yacolt Burn Trailhead was at 11 miles. Our drop bags were here and we would be back at mile 32. I grabbed some fuel and my visor from the drop bag, filled up my reservoir and drank a cup of coffee. I declined the breakfast burritos as I was focusing on carbs. Plan was to eat every 30 minutes with about 100-125 of calories - mainly payday, stinger waffles, clif bar, gels and gummies. I successfully kept up that plan until the last hour of the race, when I was tired of eating. But I never had tummy troubles and it felt good to eat for most of the race.
The next section of the race was about 7 miles and we had to go up and skirt the top flank of Hamilton Mountain. I'd run this section before with Marc in 2021. That day we had great views but this time we were shrouded in foggy cloud. I'm really thankful for the weather as it never got too hot all day, even when the fog lifted. I was pretty much by myself this whole section - one guy passed me early on after the aid station and I pass another guy near the top of the climb. I enjoyed noticing my own thoughts. Interesting that they tended to go to the negative - feeling every niggle, thinking about upcoming races that now I may not want to do. I decided to contradict all those thoughts and told myself they didn't matter. Struggle is part of ultra running. It's rarely easy and there's always a part of every race where I question my choices.
Almost the high point of the race
This section had a lot of hiking and before long I had reached the high point and then soon I saw Teri with her camera. It was great to see her! As I descended I noticed that I was kicking a lot of rocks and had a few near misses. Fortunately I didn't tumble the whole race, but it took constant vigilance. There are a lot of rocks on this course, which slowed me down considerably since I'm usually pretty fast on the descents. But again, I really didn't care about my time as much as I cared about not hitting the dirt!
Pictures by Teri Smith aka runnerteri
The Grouse Vista AS was at about mile 18 and had a patriotic theme with a lot of red, white and blue. As with all the other aid stations, the volunteers were amazing! And especially since we were a small field I felt like I got personalized service at every stop. I filled up again and grabbed some cookies and M&M's to go.
The next aid station at the Tarbell trailhead was about 10 miles away. Somewhere along here I suddenly realized that all my negative thoughts and worries about this little pain and that had melted away. Maybe it just takes me 20-25 miles to warm up but I was feeling free! It was a good lesson in not letting my mind and feeble thoughts get in my way. Just because a thought passes through my brain doesn't mean it's true!
I love this section of trail that winds around the side of Silver Star. As a bonafide tree hugger I hate to see clear cut. But the positive is so many wildflowers. They were really popping on this day! I don't normally take photos during races but I had to take a few of the mountain lilies (orchids?) to send back to Marc. My pictures don't really do justice to the amazingly beautiful fields of flowers that went on and on along the hillside.
The clouds had cleared and the sun was out by now. Fortunately, the clearcut was interspersed with forest and less rocky trails. Running the flats and descents felt easy despite being over 25 miles into the run. I passed Hidden Falls and was seeing more mountain bikers and hikers on the trail. Around this point another racer approached from behind, passed me and moved ahead quickly. I kind of wondered how he was behind me since he was moving along a lot faster.
After I passed Chinook Trail that goes up to Silver Star I was in familiar territory having run this section to Tarbell Trailhead numerous times. I knew I had about 3 miles of mostly downhill with some gentle rollers to the next aid station. Where the forest cleared I saw the other runner up ahead and decided he probably wasn't as experienced pacing a longer ultra. This turned out to be true as I ended up passing him at the next aid station and then he passed me again (like I was standing still) with about 5 miles to go and finished just a few minutes ahead of me.
At the Tarbell AS the volunteers had a grim reaper theme and were super helpful and enthusiastic. They also had Twinkies! I wish I could've stuck a few in my pockets but figured they wouldn't travel well. So after a fill up and a few cups of Coke I had to be satisfied with eating one as I walked out the station.
It was only 5 miles to the next aid and again, I was pretty familiar with the terrain so knew I'd have some open areas plus some shady spots, especially through Rock Creek Campground. The trail was rocky again so I was moving steadily but not rushing. I caught up to a couple who were fixing their poles/packs so I passed. But once they got moving again they were right behind me. I gladly let them pass since I really didn't want to feel pressed on the rocky trail. I thought they would move ahead out of sight but they were always just ahead and I almost caught up to them a few times. I think the woman was just a little faster so she'd run quickly but the guy couldn't keep up with her (but was still as fast or faster than me) so they'd slow and never really make up too much ground on me.
It was along this section that I saw the naked hiker guy. I suppose he thought he wouldn't run into many people along this part of the trail, or perhaps he didn't care. He was with a not naked hiker guy who kind of smiled sheepishly as I passed. I chalk this up to one of those funny things you see on the trail.
I finally arrived back at the Yacolt Burn aid station, right behind the couple. This was supposed to be mile 32, but I think it was more like 33 or 34. I didn't need my drop bag so just filled up, grabbed some cookies for my pack pocket and took a quesadilla slice to go. The couple was still milling around so I took the opportunity to take off as fast as I could. I was hoping that I could put some distance on them so I could run in peace without the leapfrogging, and the downhill out of the aid station helped. I ended up finishing about 10 minutes ahead of them.
This last section was the same Bells Mountain trail we had run out on, but a little shorter since we'd finish at Lucia Falls instead of Hantwick Trailhead. Trail always looks different going the other direction and as I kept descending to Cedar Creek I didn't recall that the course had descended so much earlier in the day. My memory also failed me because I thought that once I crossed Rock Creek I'd be nearly to the high point of Bells Mountain trail. Well yeah, I was nearly to the top at this crossing, but not quite as near as I remembered and it was A LOT steeper than I remembered. After crossing Rock Creek and ascending the steep hill to some clearcut I came across another runner who was walking very steadily but very slowly. I easily passed him and we exchanged a few words about being almost to the top of that particular hill.
I think my only real mistake of the day was at this point in the race. I didn't have stomach troubles, but stopped fueling, thinking it would be quicker than it was descending the last few miles to finish. I didn't bonk but if I'd had a gel I might've had a little more pep right at the end. I'd forgotten how steep and rocky it was those last few miles and instead of running down I more gingerly stepped down until I reached the forested trail that was buttery in comparison. I did have a slight, slow speed fall in this section. I was actually stopped but my foot slipped on the dusty, loose dirt and I went off the trail up to my knee. But no damage done except for a small scrape.
Finally I reached the flat double track and turned right to Lucia Falls. I thought I'd heard it was about a quarter mile, but of course it seemed never ending. At this point I definitely didn't want to get passed so after looking back to see no one I walked a few steps here and there. And then eventually the trail turned to the left and down a small hill was the river and the bridge for the finish. It was slightly anti-climactic and as I crossed I had to ask if this was actually the finish. But I'll take a low-key finish by a beautiful river over a finish under a blown up arch any day.
I was instructed to wait for Rich who was driving the shuttle and who would escort me to the van as there were a number of trails and I didn't really know which way to go. Soon he arrived and I was the only finisher waiting at the moment so we walked up the trail about a quarter mile to the parking lot. We chatted about the naked guy he'd heard about from the other runners and as we reached the top, Rich commented that I was strongest hiker up that hill the whole day. Honestly I hadn't really noticed we were walking up a hill and that was the best compliment I could've received that day.
Back in Yacolt I got to ring the bell and received my cherished coffee mug. Attention raced directors - we have enough pint glasses - more coffee mugs please! I chatted with a few others as I waited for my veggie burger and then took it to go and was on my way home.
I really can't say enough good things about this race, in general, and my day on the trails, in particular. I loved everything about it. As I told Rod the night before when I picked up my number, I just wanted to enjoy the trails and was more interested in being out there than trying to finish as quickly as possible. I probably won't run the race again since I'm becoming less interested in racing in general. If and when I do race I'll probably run new races or old school races that I haven't run in years (such as SOB or MRTR). That said I think this one will become a PNW classic and you'll probably see me out there volunteering next year. I just need to find an assignment where I get to ride the choo-choo train!