It all started with a Facebook post about my butt.
You see, back in June when Geoff and I moved to South Carolina from Vermont, we were fresh off of our first 50 miler and refusing to immerse ourselves solely back into the road running world. So in a defiant act of denying our new paved reality, we went hunting for SC trail races. Paris Mountain 50K came onto our radar relatively early on, but was quickly vetoed down as soon as we decided on One Epic 24 Hour Run, as they were too close to each other, calendar wise.
But then the race director for Paris Mountain posted a contest on Facebook. He asked people to nominate a friend to receive 50% off of their registration fee, and asked you to state why you are nominating them. The person nominated with the most Facebook “likes” won. Geoff, not skipping a beat, nominated me, with the explanation of “I wouldn’t run behind anyone else.” To the untrained eye, it looks like a very sweet compliment; there is no denying that it indeed is. But those who know the first thing about Geoff are fully aware that his comment was actually a covert “I run behind her so I can look at her butt” statement.
Go ahead and ask him, he won’t deny it.
Needless to say, 53 “likes” later, I won the discounted entry. We were in. (Thank you Hannah Hawley!)
Fast forward to Friday November 20th. As soon as I was done training my morning clients we hopped in the car and headed North West towards Greenville, SC. Fun fact: this was one of the towns we were looking to move to when we left VT for SC. Myrtle won for a few reasons, but we were still itching to see Greenville, since neither one of us had ever actually been there.
As we headed West the roads slowly became hillier and hillier, and the trees actually had some color (foliage) to them. I could feel my stress level slowly starting to decrease. As we crested one hill on the interstate somewhere around Simpsonville, SC, we finally got a panoramic view of the Carolina foothills mountain range. Their beauty took my breath away for a few seconds. It pains me to even try and describe how much I miss the mountains.
First stop: Fleet Feet in Greenville to pick up our bibs and t shirts. We met the race director and a couple of others working packet pickup, who simultaneously made us feel welcome, and asked what the hell we are doing in Myrtle Beach. (I know guys, I know. ) We were given great bibs, t shirts, throw away gloves, and stickers. Awesome, useful stuff…no junk. I consider this perfect swag.
Next stop was our humble abode for the next 48 hours: the Paris Mountain State Park Campground. If the sight of mountains didn’t relax me before, setting up a tent surrounded by colorful autumn leaves was better than any anxiety drug I could have been given. Not a strip mall, a Wal-Mart, or an Eagles Beachwear store to be seen! My restless wandering soul was finally content, at least for the time being.
We set up shop just before sundown. Then we got to shoveling a dinner of simple carbs down our throats, all while frequently and simultaneously bursting into the chorus of Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom“. I’m still not exactly sure why. This was quickly followed by bed, as the 5:00 am wake up call was just around the corner.
Pro tip: the Grizzly by Black Pine 2 Person Sleeping Bag is the greatest sleeping bag ever created. Unless of course, you plan to hike with it, in which case it is ridiculously huge and unwieldy. The temperature both evenings dropped well into the 30’s (if not colder), and we were snug as…well two cozy runners in a kick ass sleeping bag. It was fantastic.
You can go ahead and laugh when I tell you this, but the next morning we drove the mile from the campground to the parking lot next to the start. I have no shame. It was in the low 40’s, EARLY, and I knew we would be cold and sore at the finish. Having the car right there would be a first world comfort I was totally looking forward to. During that 45 minutes or so spent in the car before the start, I drank a little bit of an energy drink, ate some dried fruit, applied SBR trislide, put on my compression socks, and played the “shuffle game” with the car radio. Geoff got a little peeved when I stopped at George Michael’s “Last Christmas”, as he said a) it was too soon, and b) now he was going to have THAT song stuck in his head for the entire 30+ miles. I retorted with, “Well, it’s better than PHIL-A-DELPHA FREEEEDOM! I LOOOoooOOOoooOOVEE you…YES I DO!” and ended that argument right then and there.
If you are new to my blog, I bet you are wondering when I’m going to shut up about these shenanigans and talk about the race already. I swear I’m getting there…but first…the bathroom.
EVERYONE needs to visit the bathroom pre race, and Geoff and I both wound up doing so DURING the pre-race announcements. Normally, this is not a huge deal, but as it turns out, on this day we would miss a bunch of prudent information that would indeed affect our race later on. Ooops?
The race that day included a 10K, half marathon, 50K, 50 mile relay, and a “ruck” division. Though each group was separated in a wave start, the waves were literally 10 seconds apart. So before I had time to get cold ( a first for me!) we were lined up and ready to go. The sun was just barely starting to rise, which meant we didn’t need any headlamps. We took off through the starting line and across a paved parking lot, immediately heading into the park and hitting trail.
We ran down a long set of wooden steps and a small hill, and suddenly a big pack of 50K runners and ruckers came to an immediate halt. The sign we first saw pointed straight ahead, but all of the masses ahead of us went left. After a short pause, everyone saw a sign pointing left, though from a different direction (we saw the back of the sign) and figured that the masses must be headed in the correct direction.
They weren’t, but we wouldn’t learn this until much later.
The beginning of the race was pretty bottlenecked, as is to be expected of most trail races. This doesn’t really phase me, especially on a training race, as this one was for us. It forces me to take it easy as opposed to burning myself out in the first 1/10th of the race, which my ridiculous inner competitive voice will let me do, despite the fact that the reasonable side of my brain knows better.
But that said, the bottlenecks caused me to completely blow my race strategy from the start. Our plan for the 24 hour race is to run approximately a mile OR 10 minutes, whichever comes first, then walk a minute. So obviously we wanted to practice that strategy in this race as well. However, because of the bottle neck, I felt I was taking it far too easy to justify a walk break. The same went for nutrition: I was too focused on passing the bottlenecks that I forgot to eat during my designated 30 minute intervals. Both of which were pretty stupid decisions, both of which were completely my fault, and both of which I would pay for later.
We climbed, and we climbed, and we climbed, past some amazingly gorgeous waterfalls and stone structures. The trail was a combination of pretty much everything you can imagine: sections of slightly wider than single track dirt, followed by narrow, rooty trail, followed by rock gardens. There were many sections that reminded me of good old Vermont mountains, and others that ran along ridgelines in what felt like a jungle. It truly was gorgeous from start to finish.
Eventually we were able to pass the bottleneck, and power-hiked/ran up even more hills. Before we knew it, we hit a sign that signaled the split between the half and the 10K. The 50K runners were supposed to run two laps of the half marathon, and one of the 10K.
I think we climbed some more (are you noticing a trend?), and just at the right time, the downhill began.
And it didn’t stop.
We ran downhill for what felt like forever. It was gorgeous. I was on cloud nine. I kept telling that voice in the back of my head to shut the hell up, the one that was trying to remind me “you know, all of this great downhill probably means you’re going to have to climb again soon…”. I also STILL forgot to eat, because I was enjoying the downhill far too much to want to slow down and eat.
We came to a spot where the trail crossed a paved road, and a small group of us stopped. The obvious idea was to cross the road and continue on the trail. But there was no trail marker. However, to the left of the trail were three long yellow pieces of tape with arrows pointing down the road. It didn’t make sense, that with all this trail we’d head down the paved road. But the tape clearly pointed downhill. We all paused, confused. Geoff went down the road, another girl went up the trail. A third pulled out her cell phone to read the written race directions. And me? I took this opportunity to shove some more Clif Shot Bloks in my mouth.
No one could seem to figure out exactly where we were supposed to go, but Geoff thought he saw some runners at the top of the hill on the trail, so we backtracked (after heading down the road) and climbed the trail on the opposite side of the road. Only about 5 minutes lost and an extra quarter mile of distance gained.
Climb. Climb. Climb.
At the very top of this climb we finally came across the first aid station. 8.4 miles according to my GPS. I was thrilled to see saltine crackers in the middle of the aid table. Geoff jokes that I have the taste of an 80 year old woman with my affinity for boring, bland foods; I’ll take saltines and Necco waffers any day over the newfangled snacks these young whippersnappers enjoy. As we stripped a few layers down and grabbed some snacks, and I looked down at my GPS watch and declared out loud to pretty much everyone “uh, we better get moving. 8 miles in 2 hours? This might be the longest day ever. Let’s go.” At this point, another couple from Charleston, SC, who Geoff and I would refer to as “Charleston” from this point out, joined us. Thankfully the next mile was practically all downhill, down a nice, smooth yet winding mountain bike trail. We got our pace down to the low 8:00’s and made up a little time, all while talking about the hilarious differences between Charleston and Myrtle Beach.
Before we knew it, we were at another aid station. More saltines in my hands, and we headed back towards to start/finish.
And this is where all hell broke loose.
The trail started to double back on itself in a few different places. Runners were coming back towards us on lap two, but they were coming from multiple directions. And then of course, there was this intersection:
This cluster of signs will hereby be known as “malfunction junction”, in honor of that horrible intersection in front of the Co-Op in Brattleboro Vermont with the same name. In retrospect, the logical solution to this calamity is to only follow the arrow you are facing. What it would end up doing was circling the pond, coming back onto the same trail for just a few yards, then taking you into the finish line to finish the first half marathon. But what ACTUALLY happened was that people saw a ton of arrows at once with no idea how to interpret them. Remember, the lack of oxygen to the brain can make runners easily confused.. Some people completely missed the pond loop, some people ran it more than once, and some people never even made it back to the check point, they just headed back out on the half marathon loop. People who were behind us were now ahead of us, and people who were ahead of us were now behind us. And to make matters worse, everyone kept asking each other what we were supposed to do, and no one seemed to know. It was truly a cluster out there for those of us who weren’t familiar with the trail.
Geoff and I somehow made it back to the finish line. Whether or not we went the right way, I have no idea. We clocked in at about 12.4 miles. Refuel, and head back out. This time we ran reverse of the confusing circle that we still aren’t sure we ran the right way. As we headed back out, we passed a girl who was most definitely ahead of us, who was now behind us. She asked what we were doing, and we said “not a clue, what are you doing?” She didn’t know either. I asked her if she had made it back to the start/finish to complete the first lap, and she hadn’t. Keep in mind, she was AHEAD of us. She looked really disheartened and frustrated. I asked her what her mileage was at that point, and it was exactly the same as mine. I told her to fall in with us; we were going to get this race done together.
Back around the crazy confusing loop, I think the correct way this time, past the malfunction junction of arrows, and past a few more spectators who were trying to help everyone sort out the course, but no one actually knew what was going on. We hit the first aid station which was also the last aid station. Now, as I grabbed a cup of Tailwind, I asked the volunteers which way to go. The sign pointed left, but people were running to the also marked trail on the right, the same place we came out of just a few miles ago. The volunteers straight up said “we don’t know”. You see, originally the course was supposed to run the half marathon loop BACKWARDS (well, reverse direction, not literally backwards, that would be really hard) for loop two. Apparently, this was changed right before the race start, and was one of the memos I missed while waiting in line for the bathroom during the pre race briefing. But I wasn’t the only one who missed it, as it seemed many others went right (to run the course in reverse) while others went left. Truly unsure of what to do, the volunteer said “I think you should go this way (right, reverse)”.
So we did.
And it was wrong.
We, and many others, spent the next 13 miles following signs in reverse, having realized we went the wrong way long after we should have turned around. And we also spent the next 13 miles assuring other runners running in the opposite direction (or, the correct direction as it turned out) that one of us was going the wrong way, but since it was a loop, it really didn’t matter. Some people were really upset and I won’t lie, at first I was really irritated myself. But then I reminded myself of the following:
a) it was a beautiful day and I was on the trails, my happy place.
b) I’m RUNNING. I LOVE RUNNING!
c) This could be viewed as an adventure. A hilarious adventure.
d) Did I mention trails, mountains, sunshine, and running?
One way or another, we were going to cover 50K. I certainly wasn’t in it to win it, so what difference did it make which direction I got there, so long as I covered the mileage? I’d almost feel like I somehow cheated the system, if I wasn’t 100% convinced that the reverse direction was much, much harder. The climbs felt significantly longer and the descents steeper and not runnable. For this reason, there was a lot of walking on lap two.
Now, here’s a fun story for you. At some point towards the beginning of lap #2, the really nice girl we picked up at the turn around asked me what I did for a living. I said I’m a personal trainer, writer, and mom of two. Oh, and I run. A lot. She got quiet for a second and then said “Are you THE Heather?” I laughed and said “Yes, are you THE Jess?”
A week or two prior a fellow blogger (Jessica from Run Pink Jess) commented on one of my posts and said she’d be at the race as well. Turns out, we did more than “try and meet up” at the race, we had already spent many miles together. It was pretty funny that it took us that long to make the connection. Our matching compression socks should have been the first obvious “Hey fellow blogger!” giveaway.
Lap two was slow going, but it was going. Eventually we reached malfunction junction again, and this time, I knew what to do. Or at least I thought I did; I still have no idea if we went the right way.
Through the start/finish area, grabbed some pickles (I love ultra aid stations!) and headed out for our last 10K loop.
6.2 miles (in theory) seems so attainable and yet so far away all at the same time. My feet felt great, my head was in a great space, but my legs were starting to scream a little bit from the climbing and descending. Damn you, Myrtle Beach, and your lack of elevation. But, one foot in front of another, here we go.
Clouds rolled in, it got cold, and I got to the point in the race where I felt “OK, this was fun, but I’m ready to be done.” It happens towards the end of every race, whether it be a 5K or a 50K, it’s truly all relative. But the fact that my nutrition was crap from the get go left me feeling pretty sluggish. No one’s fault but my own…
We went back out AGAIN, for the LAST TIME, around the confusing pond, and back out onto the half marathon loop, the RIGHT way this time (which wasn’t right, it was left).
We picked up another girl who we had passed long ago yet was somehow ahead of us now. Again, no idea how that happened, but she had a good 3 more miles on her GPS than we did. In retrospect, it’s hilarious. She hopped in with us until I stopped near the top of the climb to take a picture (or, use blogging as an excuse to let my legs rest for a second). She would continue on, saying, understandably, that she couldn’t stop moving at this point. She would also end up finishing that 10K four minutes faster than we did, securing a third place overall female finish. Had I known I was that close to placing, maybe I wouldn’t have taken so many pictures.
But then, this blog post wouldn’t be nearly as visually stimulating.
FINALLY, we hit the 13.1/10K split and for the first time that day, took the 10K route. And it turned out to be a long, gentle downhill. So gentle that you would almost think it was flat, but it was downhill enough to keep you going.
At this point, Geoff, Jess, and I were laughing at the fact that we kept almost eating it over and over again, and we wondered who would have the first or worst bloody, bruised toe nail. For as often as we kept tripping, it was a wonder none of us actually went down. We hit the LAST aid station (which was also the first, third, fourth, and sixth…I think…aid station). The wonderful volunteer there cheered for us wildly. I told her “Thank you so much for volunteering, but I’m really glad I don’t have to see you again today”.
I hope she knew I meant it as a joke.
The last mile was pretty uneventful. We were just holding on. I tried to give encouraging shout outs to those headed back out for another loop, secretly thankful I wasn’t one of them. We reached malfunction junction and knew that this time we got to skip the loop around the pond and instead head straight to the finish.
Jess, Geoff and I forced ourselves to RUN into the finish, where we were greeted by a decent group of people still hanging in there, despite the fact that the sun had disappeared and the temperature had started to plummet. We were given handmade finishers plaques (Tiles? Rocks?) which were another unique touch to this race.
Jess and I somehow managed to sneak in 4th/5th place out of 12 females in the 50K division, which made me feel pretty good. Especially since I’m such a newb at this ultra business, and because we were cruising along at a relaxed pace.
Race director Matthew came over and asked “Have you been out there this whole time?” to which we replied, kind of confused, “yeaahhh…”. To which HE exclaimed “ON THE FIRST LOOP?!” We clarified that we had actually been out there that whole time doing all three loops, for a total of 31.4 something miles, which seemed to reassure him that there weren’t actually people wandering aimlessly through the woods.
***Race report card:***
Course: A+++. It could not have been more stunning. It was challenging, but not gratuitously so.
Course Markings: Q. That’s right, a Q. What does that mean? I have no idea. Just like the course markings.
Aid Stations: B+. I would have liked to see some fruit, but that’s probably just me. And maybe there was fruit, but I missed it. Also, there were literally 10 separate promises in the pre race email for bacon, and I never once saw any. Now, as you may know, I’m a vegetarian, so I couldn’t care less about the presence (or lack thereof) of bacon. But many of my fellow racers seemed pretty stoked for it, and they never actually saw any. So I’ll pipe up for them. Where was the bacon? The finish line had hot, fresh pizza, which was killer. I didn’t see anything BUT pizza, because I had pizza tunnel vision.
Atmosphere: A+ Let’s face it, the trail running community is kickass to begin with. But beyond that, there was music, a live band, Merrel shoes/apparel giving away goodies, I heard Fleet Feet was there for a bit (but we missed them while we were out on trail), a cool bus with a photo booth in it (that we also missed while out on trail), and a bunch of other fun things going on. For those running the relay or shorter distances, or simply there spectating, there seemed to be a lot of great activity.
Swag: A+ Great shirts, stickers, and very unique finishers awards.
***Personal Report Card***
Sticking to Race Plan: C+ I totally ignored the inner competitive voice and did NOT race, but I also didn’t pace the way I had planned to for a supposed “training” run. We were all over the place.
Nutrition: C+ Again, blew the plan. But, I was able to listen to my body, and fuel when I started to notice myself starting to crash, physically and mentally
Attitude: A. The only reason I don’t get an A+ is because at one point when the navigation confusion set in, I did start to gripe at an innocent bystander about the trail markings. Sorry dude. But I did quickly (like, within seconds) drop the attitude, and had a really freaking fun race.
WOULD I DO THIS RACE AGAIN? Yes, a million times over, yes. And as the race was only in it’s 2nd year, I can only imagine it will improve from here. Thank you to race director Matthew Hammersmith, Upstate Ultras, Without Limits, and Paris Mountain State Park for a fantastic day.
And a huge thank you to Geoff for not only never saying no to my crazy adventures, but for always being one step behind me while I set out on them.
Even if it’s because you are staring at my butt.