Actually, it’s just the Fearsome Four at the moment. Ryan Henry from Carlisle, Penn., “is a dear friend of mine,” says Horton, “but he’s late for everything.” The others are folded into the crowd of runners, and he calls each one out in classic Horton fashion.

Jerry Turk from Guilford, Conn., but originally the south of England, is “the Yankee.” Darin Dunham of Huntsville, Ala., will be “the first of the Five to drop out” from the streak. Aaron Schwartzbard from Washington, D.C., “runs either here or here,” says Horton, holding one hand high above his head and the other stretched low toward his feet—Schwartzbard won Hellgate back in 2007 with a time of 11:28:13, but he’s also had years when the course took him well over 15 hours. “Maybe it’s those sideburns.”

“That’s not usually the kinda thing that comes up in most pre-race briefings,” Schwartzbard tells me later. “There are people who are highly turned off by the David Horton Show, because he does tend to say things that are not necessarily polite. With anything he says, it’s not entirely serious, but it’s not entirely joking either, and there’s something to be said for that level of honesty. We live in this Instagram Facebook culture where everyone’s like, ‘Go get ‘em! You’re great!’ and Horton’s not afraid to call it like it is.”

The final of the Five, Jeff Garstecki from Columbia, Md., somehow eludes Horton’s banter. He and his wife Tammie are lingering near the back of the room when Horton dismisses the runners. It’s Tammie’s first Hellgate, and I can almost feel the anxious excitement emanating from her.

“We’re going to try to squeeze in a nap, but I don’t know how much sleep I’ll actually get,” she says.

Jeff, on the other hand, exudes a levelheaded ease about him, which surprises me when I learn of his injury.

“I have three degenerative discs in my back,” he says. “If the race had been last weekend, I wouldn’t have been able to run. I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom at Thanksgiving.”

After 14 years of running Hellgate, Garstecki and the other Fearsome Five know better than anyone how different the race can feel from one year to the next. Out there, everyone faces his own demons, be they changes in physical fitness, recent injuries and illnesses, or life stressors. But it’s that, combined with unpredictable weather, which can really make or break the race.

 

One of the Fearsome Five, Jeff Garstecki, poses after the pre-race briefing.

In 2013, it snowed, then rained, and never got above 40 degrees. Two years later was the hottest Hellgate to date with a high near 80 degrees. And in 2016, temperatures reached a record low for the race at eight degrees. Runners couldn’t drink their water fast enough and ran for miles between aid stations with useless, frozen hydration packs.

“If the weather is particularly challenging, it levels the playing field quite a bit,” says Jerry Turk. “It doesn’t matter if you are a racing snake in your mid twenties, if you have to deal with bitterly cold, freezing conditions and that’s something new to you, then in my mind, I’ve got a little bit of an edge because I’ve seen it before.”

That first year in 2003, runners ran on two feet of snow under a perfectly full moon. The visibility was so clear, most of the racers went without headlamps. Two years later, in 2005, the ice was so bad runners could hardly find traction on the parking lot, let alone the trails. Garstecki, who fell more times than he could count, bonked, became hypothermic, and nearly dropped at Bearwallow Gap over two-thirds of the way through the course.

“I remember it was freezing out, right, but I felt so hot, so I was taking off my clothes. My plan was that I was going to lay down in the snow until the next runner came behind me. I didn’t lay down, I kept walking, waiting for that next runner, but nobody reached me before I got to the next aid station. I spent 45 minutes to an hour just getting warm by the fire. My legs were so bloody from the ice scratching my legs. I managed to finish, and I got the best blood award that year.”

 

More than the elements and the strenuous physical output, Hellgate has been a mental game for Schwartzbard. He nearly won the race in 2003, back when nobody knew the course and certainly nobody knew him. A marathoner at heart, Schwartzbard was surprised to find himself alone and in the lead for 45 miles. He nearly started congratulating himself on his performance when another runner sailed past and pushed him into second.

“I really had it in my mind that I just might make it. I had my eyes on the winner’s jacket, and then at the end to be passed like that, even now when I get to where I was passed that first year, I have this dark feeling like there’s some sort of haunting there. It was such a deflating moment that hung over me for awhile.”

In 2004, Schwartzbard again placed second. A year later, he slid to eighth. By then, he had given up hope of ever winning Hellgate. In 2006, he ran his slowest time to date at 16:10:51. But in 2007, when he showed up to register the Friday night before his fifth running of Hellgate, he was surprised to see Horton had seeded him number one.

“That was a little bit awkward. The guy who had won Hellgate the year before was number two, and usually you always seed the previous winner as number one. Horton is not hung up on etiquette, though. That fall I was in really great marathon shape, but that’s very different from being in trail shape. Still, he realized I had more fitness than I recognized in myself.”

Sure enough, like some self-fulfilling prophecy, Schwartzbard won that year, thereby lifting the heavy cloud that had been hanging over him since 2003.