Virtual racing series runs a thin line between heaven and hell

Golden Hell Week runners’ challenge finished Oct. 1

Jeremy Johnson
Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 10/13/21

Hell is a relative term. Removing it entirely from any theological context, it generally indicates pain, misery, even anguish. But on the other hand, it’s sort of a fun word too — mischievous and …

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Virtual racing series runs a thin line between heaven and hell

Golden Hell Week runners’ challenge finished Oct. 1

Posted

Hell is a relative term.

Removing it entirely from any theological context, it generally indicates pain, misery, even anguish. But on the other hand, it’s sort of a fun word too — mischievous and devious in just the right way. You give it to someone to show you’re ready to fight for your convictions. And nobody ever says, “I had a heaven of a good time” after a particularly raucous event.

After all, one person’s hell can be another person’s heaven. And one’s own personal hell can become downright heavenly after accepting the benefits of a little pain and misery.

That’s how it is for runners. We love this stuff. We live for a little pain and misery. My (very supportive) family thinks I’m nuts. Non-running friends think I’m sadistic. Maybe I’m a little bit of both. But after decades of torturing my body with drugs and alcohol, trail running seems like a better kind of suffering, an addiction with more rewarding consequences.

Running addicts look for reasons to run, and when social media algorithms and a little online word of mouth clued me in on the Golden Hell Week underground “race series,” I couldn’t resist dancing with the devil that is those steep, winding, rocky trails all throughout the beautiful City of Golden.

Now’s a good time to mention that I’m a freelance writer and trail enthusiast with no affiliation to Golden Hell Week. See that’s the thing: nobody’s really affiliated with Golden Hell Week because, according to them, it’s barely even really a thing. It’s like Fight Club, in that everybody seems to know about it, but nobody seems to talk about it much —at least in an official sense. According to the website (GoldenHellWeek.com): “The event is free! Primarily because, in reality, it isn’t an event, a race or really anything but a cool place to post your Strava link.”

That’s the first thing to know about Hell Week (after “Don’t talk about Hell Week”): it was a virtual race long before COVID-19 made virtual races commonplace. Certainly, more socially inclined runners can run with friends. There is no rule against groups. But to the more anti-social among us (that’s me!), a journey through hell is one you go alone, with only the Strava app as your guide.

The next thing to know about Hell Week is how it got its name. Or, that is, how I think it got its name.The idea of running five races in five days certainly is a hellish thought. But I have to believe it was called Hell Week because, well, it originally took place over Halloween.

The problem with a race series over Halloween is that the weather is unpredictable and anyone who worked 9-to-5 was forced to run in the dark. So it was for me in 2017, when I reached Mountain Toad brewery after dark on a Monday and decided to tackle the longest race at the time, Lookout Mountain, for my inaugural Hell Week run. The cold rarely bothers me, and that evening was no exception. So, for the first two miles along Clear Creek and across Highway 6 and up to big parking lot, it was wet, but warm enough and manageable. Then, quite suddenly, just past Windy Saddle, it wasn’t. The trail turned to sheer ice. I wasn’t wearing the right gear and was dangerously unprepared. But, eventually, sometimes crawling on all fours, I reached the top — and then made my way back down, more slowly than I’ve ever come down a mountain before or since. It wasn’t fast, but I made it, which just so happens to be a Hell Week motto: “You don’t have to go fast, but you gotta give it everything!” I left it all on that mountaintop that night and learned a valuable lesson about the thin line between heaven and hell.

Since then, Hell Week has been moved to late September — Sept. 27 to Oct. 1 this year — which means (generally) better weather and a little more daylight for us runners who have to log at least a race or two after their day job.

The third thing to know about Hell Week is that it is quite the journey, both literally and figuratively. While the courses have rerouted a bit over the years to accommodate stewardship, logistics, and more local business, the trails and overall distance remain mostly the same. All five courses (Apex, Lookout Mountain, Mt. Galbraith, North Table Mountain, and South Table Mountain ) at one time started from Mountain Toad Brewery, but Hell Week now includes starting lines from Cannonball, Coda and New Terrain breweries, too. The race series covers a distance of just a tad more than a marathon (27-28 miles or so). It takes place from midnight on the last Monday in September until the following Friday at midnight. Five races. Five days. “Your trails, your time,” is another Hell Week motto.

This loose format ensures that no two journeys are ever the same. Some folks run all five courses in a row ... on Day One ... like some giant ultra-marathon. Some run one a day all week long. You can mix and match: run two races on two days of the week and then cram the last leg in late Friday. (Again, that’s me!)

That’s another thing to know about Hell Week: there is no right or wrong way to do it. Because for all the preparedness and training in the world, trail running is full of variables. For instance, I never felt as prepared as I did last year, arriving early that Monday at the foot of Mt. Galbraith. I became frustrated shortly into my race after a wrong turn and a subsequent backtrack. And then, with about two kilometers to go, one of Galbraith’s trademark jagged rocks turned my ankle outside-in. The resulting avulsion fracture resulted in a complete Hell Week DNF (did not finish) and three additional weeks in a walking boot. Turns out, watching Hell Week results pour in while I iced and elevated was truly the most hellish Hell Week for me.

This year, my fifth running Hell Week, I finally found the right tone for the event: cautious optimism. The result was some so-so runs on Monday (the Table Mountains), two stellar, PR runs on Thursday (Apex and Galbraith on Thursday), and one exhilarating, if not slightly foolish, risky but most rewarding night run up Lookout Mountain for a Friday finish. It was heaven and hell wrapped up in one shadowy, twisting, ankle-testing passage.

And that led to the last, but perhaps most important, thing to know: A voyage through Hell Week deserves a cold brew from a local brewery. Personally, post-run beer is one of the best reasons to run.

You’re thirsty, I’m thirsty, we’ve earned it.

And so it was that on Friday, while enjoying a cold blueberry Kolsch at Mountain Toad, I first met Quinn Aaron, the “we” behind Golden Hell Week. The man behind the curtain, so to speak. He was totally laid-back and unassuming, and even a little geeky in the way that I and most trail runners are—number nerds who love competing against ourselves, comparing times, collecting data.

“I always tell people that I’m not really an event organizer, just a data collector,” Quinn confirms. And though it’s a statement clearly shrouded in modesty, I think I speak for all Hell Week runners when I say that he ought not to sell himself or the event short. Certainly, for the 115-plus participants and 105 finishers, of which I was one, its impact can’t be understated.

Because for the trail runner, true hell is having nowhere to run, nothing to inspire, no one to share your adventures with. And Golden Hell Week gives us all those things, plus community, camaraderie, and a whole helluva lot more.

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