Aaron Schwartzbard is the first of the Fearsome Five to reach the aid station. He’s in a surprisingly cheery mood given the current course conditions. It’s no longer snowing, but the wet snow is deceptive and makes the leaves slicker instead of adding traction.
“Well look who it is!” says Horton upon seeing Schwartzbard. “You’re doing alright. It must be those sideburns!”
“You wanna stroke them for good luck?” says Schwartzbard.
Schwartzbard takes his time socializing, filling his hydration pack, and crushing a few pierogies. The cold eventually starts to take its toll, and he grabs a pierogi for the trail and hikes it out of the gap.
We stick around long enough to see Sarah Schubert come into the aid station. She’s still in the top five women and moving strong, but the leader Hannah Bright is a good 20 minutes ahead.
“This year was hard for me,” she tells me after the race. “I had just run a 100-miler a month before and Horton knew that. My legs and body weren’t quite ready and he recognized that, but he wasn’t demeaning about it. He was like, ‘You found your limit. You can run this race, sure, but if you want to race and do as well as you know you can do, that’s too short of a turnaround.’”
Camp Bethel is quiet when we return. It’s close to 11a.m., and Matt Thompson is expected any minute. His family waits in the room where, just 14 hours earlier, the entire starting field of 140 runners had been seated at the pre-race briefing.
In the back of the room, volunteers organize a spread of snacks and beverages. Multiple pots of coffee are at the ready. Another volunteer is seated at a table with a radio in hand, coordinating pick-ups for runners who dropped out or didn’t make the time cutoffs.
Horton bursts into the room, still brimming with enthusiasm despite going full-steam for over 24 hours without any sleep (or coffee, for that matter). He’s just been to where the trail pops out onto the road, the final stretch, and says Thompson is 10 minutes away.
There won’t be any records broken on this 15th running of Hellgate 100K, but when Thompson, accompanied by his sons, finally drags himself across the finish line with a time of 11:22:09, Horton is beaming with pride. He wraps Thompson in a warm embrace, the kind of hug that a father might give one of his own on graduation or wedding day.
“Everyone knows they’ve done something when they finish this race, every finisher, every year,” says Horton. “They can’t take it for granted that they’re going to finish. You have to earn it every time.”
For the next seven hours, Horton greets every single runner at the finish line. After nearly 17 hours of running through the night and day, and into the night again, Darin Dunham is the final of the Fearsome Five to arrive at Camp Bethel. It’s his fastest time in seven years he tells me, and at just under 17 hours, his time qualifies for the Western States lottery. Like Darin, Aaron, Jerry, and Ryan all have relatively uneventful runs for their 15th Hellgate. But Jeff Garstecki felt every mile at the end.
“Personally, I think it was one of the harder years, definitely in the top three or four as far as toughest conditions go,” Garstecki tells me a week later. “The Forever Section was when I started feeling bad and I just never came out of it. We’ve all had that. But as bad as I felt throughout this race, there was no thought of stopping or quitting. The streak keeps me going.”
And so, the streak lives on, even if “it’s really just an accident that I keep signing up,” according to Ryan Henry. How long will it last?
“25 sounds like a nice number,” says Dunham. “And if there are five of us in 10 years, that’ll be awesome, but at the same time, if one of us doesn’t finish, I won’t shed a tear.”