Hellbender 100: A Different Perspective


By Aaron Saft, RD

The second annual Hellbender 100-Miler turned out to be a huge learning experience for me. Let me preface this by stating that two weeks prior to race day I made a comment on Facebook about how the attention of a race should not always be on the front runners, but on those at the back of the pack. They are on their feet much longer and under the burden of making each and every cutoff. Without intention, this race would hit home for me and what this comment really meant. Here’s my experience directing the Hellbender 100-Miler.

I counted down to the race start with the intention of sweeping behind the last runners and picking up course markings from the start to the first aid station. After that, Abby Harris, one of my lead race committee members and I would drive to Curtis Creek Campground to see the leaders come through. As we drove, we chatted about the excitement of the race, the amazing community and team of people that make the event possible.

It wasn’t long after our arrival that the leaders came into the aid station, and Abby and I worked side-by-side with our friends to make sure the runners had what they needed. Then the first male and female runners came through and something happened. Usually we would move on to the next aid station, but we stayed. The mid-packers came through and again, we stayed. I knew so many of the runners, and it was great cheering them on while making sure they had what they needed for the tough climb and descent that lay ahead. Before we knew it, the last few runners were coming in and I tended to each of them. Filling water bottles, getting food or taking trash while giving them words of encouragement. Then they were off, and we continued on to the next aid station.

When we arrived, the mid-pack runners were coming in and again, Abby and I stayed until the very last runner came through. He sat in a chair with his gaze fixed on the ground. I squatted next to him to talk when suddenly, he turned his head, looked me in the eye and told me that no race director had ever stayed to see him, let alone help him at any aid station. He said that their concern is always for the front runners. I saw the sincerity in his eyes and that it truly meant something to him that I was not only there, but present (and by present, I mean on an emotional level). I had to bite my lip and hold back my tears. As I held his gaze, I told him, “I’m here for everyrunner.” I meant it then, I mean it now, and I will always mean it.

I am a runner and a human doing. I am not a being. I don’t sit still. I create opportunities and experiences that bring people together, create community and share passion. I love people. I love you. I may not even know you, but if you were running this race, I would treat you like my brother or sister. You are family. My parents instilled in me to treat others as I expect to be treated. You are my equal and therefore I will care for you with every ounce of my love that you deserve.

When I stated that the back-of-the-packers deserved just as much attention as the front, I absolutely meant it. This small exchange drove it home for me. I’ve surrounded myself with those who have the same passion and love for others in creating the unique experience we call The Hellbender 100 Miler. The story doesn’t end there as we traveled next to the aid station near the summit of Mount Mitchell, where I would truly experience something that will remain with me for the rest of my life.

From the last aid station at Neil’s Creek, the runners had to make the ascent up Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi. I knew it would be tough for some of the runners to make the cutoff, but I prayed they would pull it off so they could continue on their journey. The 7 p.m. cutoff loomed. I’ve never been present during a cutoff when a runner’s been told they could not continue. A few runners snuck in and out just ahead of the cutoff, but four runners remained. The cutoff time came and went and still we did not see the four we were waiting on.

The first finally appeared and I walked over to greet him. I told the runner I was sorry. He said it was ok he just needed to regroup and he’d be fine. I then had to bite my lip again and tell him he had missed the cutoff. I saw the words register and it broke my heart. I wanted to give him a huge hug. I know it hurts to not achieve your goal, and I can’t imagine what it’s like when someone has to rip that goal away from you even though you’re in the condition to continue onward.

I didn’t have much time to recover from that exchange before my friend came in. I couldn’t hold back my tears as I knew how much this race meant to him. I embraced him more for my own selfish reasons than for his. I wanted him to know how much I wanted to be able to hand him that buckle! Damnit, can’t I just let these guys go on? That wasn’t the worst of it.

The gentleman that had made me utter the words, “I am here for everyrunner” came in. He knew it before I told him, and I could see how much it hurt. I put my hand on his shoulder and told him how sorry I was. I had to walk outside, look at the sky and tell myself that I now understand what it’s like to chase cutoffs and be told you’ve missed it. It’s painful, awful, dejecting and I’d never wish it upon anyone.

As I stood the next day at the finish line, I tried to stay in the moment and enjoy those that crossed the finish line, listen to their stories and respect their efforts but in the back of my mind, I remember those that did not finish for whatever reason and I’ve written this for you. You all have my respect and my heart. May you cross that finish line in whatever you do. I certainly hope you’ll come back and finish The Hellbender next year.

To my staff and all the volunteers, I can’t thank you enough for helping make this dream a reality and being a community that truly cares.

To those that finished, you are simply amazing. I’m so proud of you.




  1. Moving, beautiful. I am one of the runners who worries about cutoff times – thank you for respecting all runners in such a tender, loving way!

  2. Thank you. Being a mid and often back of packer this is so appreciated. I left an aid station with under a minute to spare and finished with 3 minutes to spare in my last race. But the race director was there to welcome us. That means a lot.

  3. Justin Brown on

    This is beautiful, Aaron. It shows what kind of person you are and how you truly are invested so much in the running community. I hope to get over to run one of your races soon!

  4. Alissa Keith on

    This is so true. I ran hellbender last year, and you were at the finish line cheering for me as if i were a front runner when actually i was like 15h behind Karl. Your attention to detail for every runner is phenomenal. Thanks for keeping us mid/back of the packers in mind!

  5. I wish more race directors would take this approach in visiting aid stations. What’s worse is when the RD isn’t even a runner at all and is completely clueless about how to conduct a race and support runners and crew.

  6. Loved the tone of this article…it captured the true spirit of running. It reminds of when I see a simple, faithful runner shuffling down the road, not setting the world on fire or setting any records, but he’s bettering himself, he’s having to motivate himself just like the elites…and he’s not on the couch eating potato chips:)

  7. David Boyd on

    Dude, you said it! This post does more to inspire me to run your race than any course profile, location, or popularity/notoriety ever could. Thanks for sharing and thanks for being there for ALL the runners.

  8. Rhonda Luevano on

    As a mid to back of the packer this literally made me tear up! Chasing cut offs is mentally exhausting. I love the ultra community because the “elites” are so down to earth and encouraging but it’s rough for the rest of us who are out there twice as long and all because we love the ultra. Thank you for what you are doing!! Truly inspirational!

  9. Thanks for sharing this Aaron. I’m sitting at work reading this on my lunch break with tears in my eyes. I made the cutoff by 1 minute at this year’s Mt Mitchell Challenge and finished back of the pack – I was so happy to finish my first ultra and to have done it in the mountains of my childhood made it that much more special. I hope to keep climbing the ladder of distances and to be able to run the Hellbender maybe in the next 5 years. Thanks again for the encouraging words, what a blessing.