Last Updated on January 22, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
“Uhhh…we have a problem.”
It was 7:00 am, and Geoff and I were standing in front of a registration tent in the middle of the woods, a task we have completed countless times before. The drill was all too familiar: walk up to the tent, smile, give your name, get your race bib, and be on your way. When you know the race director, you can skip the formalities of giving your name, and instead insert some sort of joke…like this morning’s commentary on how it was far too early for the sickeningly sweet hand holding between my husband and I.
But this time the routine was thrown off, for apparently, there was a problem.
“Only one of you is on the registration list…” race director Chad informed us.
“Wait, what? Who is it!” I replied, absolutely confident that it would be me. I do a lot of things wrong in life, but registering for races isn’t one of them. If anything, I’m far too good at it, and end up registering for events more frequently than I probably should.
“It’s Geoff” Chad replies, much to my dismay and amazement. “Geoff’s on the list. You didn’t register.” In total runner shock, I begin to fumble with my phone, trying to simultaneously log in to Ultrasignup.com while also checking my email for registration confirmations. I’m inundated with other countless races I forgot that I was registered for…but not this particular one. In fact, there was absolutely no record of me having registered for the Last Chance Trail Run. While I stuttered a few confused words and excuses, Chad hands me a bib and tells me I can’t have buff (race day swag) then sends me on my way. This is certainly every runners nightmare…that and sleeping through the alarm or taking a wrong turn. Thankfully, I have the #30DollarClub to save my butt (more on that later).
When 7:50 am rolls around, and Chad begins giving pre-race instructions, I stand at attention front and center. The course is a very simple out and back from the start, then another out in back in the opposite direction. It really should be simple enough, but since I’m already off to such a fabulous start on this particular race day, I figure I better focus. Chad has already bailed me out of my registration snafu , I don’t need to add “rescue Heather because she got lost in the middle of the Francis Marion National Forest” to his already busy to-do list.
Chad explains the history behind this race: apparently the first running of the event, 6 years ago, was held on the day the world was supposed to end according to the Mayan Calendar. I had initially thought it was a “last chance to get in miles before the New Year” sort of event, which made no sense because everyone knows obsessive runners are out there ticking away Strava segments up until midnight on New Years Eve.
Apocalyptic references make so much more sense.
The race starts and about 55 runners take off. It’s a small race field, no doubt, and I recognize many of the runners from other Eagle Endurance races. There is a 25K and a 50K option, and everyone is headed down the same trail. For the first time in as long as I can remember, Geoff and I have NOT signed up for the most possible mileage available. (We like to keep our cost per mile as low as possible and get our money’s worth).
Or in my case, I didn’t sign up for any distance at all. (Oops again.)
Instead, we’ve opted for the 25K, as we have One Epic 24 hour race coming up the following weekend. We’re immediately on a section of trail I remember from Swamp Fox Ultra just one month prior, only we’re headed in the opposite direction, and as expected, I’m having equal parts happy reminiscing memories, and terrifying flashbacks. I had told Geoff earlier that I wanted to take this run nice and easy, and simply enjoy time on the trail, rather than actually try to race.
But the course is so flat.
And so fast.
The course is also so painfully straight and narrow, you can almost see the runners more than a half a mile ahead of you. Sure, the trail features it’s own version of suck, in the form of knobby, rooty, grass covered, hole filled, and occasional mud pit covered trail. It’s not by any stretch “easy”…but it’s fast-ISH.
And despite my best intentions, our pace is slowly ticking down faster and faster. I mention to Geoff more than once that we are cruising along at sub 9 minute miles, and we should probably slow down. I realize in the world of running, this isn’t that fast, but I’ve spent the last year focusing on my “ultra pace”, which is significantly slower. A “Run backwards while singing Elton John and Kiki Dee” type of slower. In doing so, I’m completely convinced that I’ve lost any and all ability to push my lactic threshold for a significant amount of time, and I don’t want to even try.
I’m an ultra runner, damnit. Pass me some potato chips.
But here we are, cruising along at a pace I can feel is faster than “Zone 2”. I convince myself we won’t hold the pace for much longer, but we’re simply trying to break free from the pack and find our space on the trail. Eventually, we pop out of the woods and hit a 3/4 mile stretch of dirt road. I pick up the pace a little more, using the flat, open road as a (valid?) excuse to break away.
At this point, you might be thinking “why in the world does this girl show up for races if she isn’t going to ‘race’“? WELL, let me tell you about the thirty dollar club. Technically, it’s titled the “Trail Rewards Club”, but “thirty dollar club” has a fun ring to it. It’s essentially a monthly subscription that allows us to race whatever Eagle Endurance race we want, whenever we want, for a measly $30 a month. No added fees, no extra registration costs. It is the greatest thing to ever hit the ultra world since trucker hats, in my meager opinion, and I’m a proud $30 club member. And now, of course, I use it as an excuse for pretty much everything race related, and even made it into a trendy hashtag: #30DollarClubMadeMeDoIt
We hit the first (and only aid station on this sections) and I stop to take off the long sleeve tech t shirt that Geoff told me not to wear, because I’d be hot 5 minutes into the run. He was not wrong, but I made it 2.8 miles before admitting that he was right. We lose a few seconds walking, but I’m quite pleased with my ability to strip off a layer, shove it in my hydration pack, put the pack on again, and go.
We’re cruising along, still knocking out mileage a little faster than I think we should, when my darling husband says the four words that often get me in trouble:
“Hey, you could probably place.”
Damnit, f*@%, s&*!, all of those expletives. Here I was, trying to enjoy an easy “taper” race, and hoping we’d get to slow down at some point soon, when the husband has to point out that just maybe I’m doing better in this race than I think I am. I love running simply for the sake of running. It makes me happy. But deep down I’m secretly wildly competitive. I can usually ignore the competitive voices, especially because I’m typically not fast enough to actually “race”…until someone (like my husband) awakens the idea that just maybe I can boost my ultrasignup.com stats with a OA or AG podium in that day’s given field (because those stats totally matter…said in my best sarcastic or perhaps serious voice…you decide.) We’re not far from the first turnaround, and we start to see the front runners coming back at us in the different direction. Of course, now that I’ve got this tiny idea in my mind that MAYBE I could “race”, I begin counting how many women are in front of me. One. Two. Both more than a few minutes ahead of me. Guy, guy, guy…there’s a woman…and we’re at the turnaround. Yes, it turns out that third place is just a few feet ahead of me hidden in the middle of a larger pack of runners. Maybe that crazy husband of mine was right afterall.
We’re told to take a rubber bracelet at the turnaround to prove we’ve been there, since the turnaround is unmanned. I grab my bracelet, Geoff grabs his, and then the wonderful husband of mine who put the idea of actually racing into my head in the first place decides to stop and retie his shoes.
I watch the few seconds of a lead that the 3rd place woman has on me quickly grow into at least a minute lead or more. I can’t decide if I’m suddenly wildly frustrated or relieved, so I just laugh. Eventually, Geoff’s shoelaces are tied to his satisfaction, and we take off running back down the trail the way we came. I really enjoy out and back courses because you get to see the people ahead of you and the people behind you, and in the case of the trail/ultra running community, you get to give and receive a zillion “great jobs” and high fives. Everyone is so friendly, it instantly puts a smile on your face…and temporarily makes you forget that you decided to race-race.
It’s a small crowd though, so I’m back to focusing on my own ridiculousness in no time at all. I’m slowly chasing down the pack that was ahead of us, the pack that I know contains the woman I had determined was in third place. She probably doesn’t know we are racing, she’s probably out there just enjoying the course, but she is now my #1 target in this race. I push a little faster than I probably should have to catch the pack. Once we reach them, Geoff tells me to hold my pace, and I gladly slow down, fall into their rhythm, and catch my breath.
Unfortunately it doesn’t last long.
We come back to the aid station, and the woman that I was trying to pass has decided to stop to grab water. I take the opportunity and speed off down the trail. The next two miles are run at a pace that literally made me say “I f*cking hate running” outloud. We’re less than 9 miles into a 15+ mile race, and my body is starting to protest. But I figure if I can put some distance between myself and that woman, I can slow my roll a tiny bit and try to hold on for dear life – and third place – for the rest of the race.
We hit the start/finish line, where we head out for the last 5 ish mile out and back section. Our family (Geoff’s mom, sister, and brother) are there cheering for us. Geoff stops to grab something from the aid station, I stop long enough to tell the family “Too fast. Running too fast. Hurts.” and pose for this awesome picture.
And then we are off again.
I remember this section of trail from Swamp Fox as well, and I also remember how race director Chad is notorious for extra long courses. We are at ten miles. In theory, we should only have to run about 2.75 miles out on this section before we turnaround. But as experience has taught me (remember that 29.6 mile marathon?), I’m not holding my breath. I look at my watch and say a tiny prayer to the running gods that we stumble upon the turnaround aid station before mile 13.
We are alone on the trail. No one in sight ahead of us, no one in sight behind us. Which causes my brain to start playing “On My Own” by Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald on ridiculous ear-worm repeat. Talk about quality, motivating, race music. I try to drown it out with something more exciting, to no avail…
“This wasn’t howwww it was supposed to beeeeeee!”
We cross the 26.2 mile turnaround, still spray painted and taped across the trail from the race a month ago. I’m grateful I remembered this exact spot, or it would have caused me great confusion in my glycogen and oxygen depleted, Patti LaBelle filled brain.
This section of trail is a big more ragged than the earlier part. Still flat, still fast, but not as well beaten down and pretty gnarly in sections. I keep cutting Geoff off while I try to find the path of least resistance, and breathly apologize each time. We’ve slowed the pace down about 20 seconds per mile, and just that tiny bit slows my breathing rate down enough to realize how much my quads hurt. Have I mentioned I have zero recent practice in running faster that fully aerobic/fat burning zone?
I have nothing exciting to tell you about this section of the course. I’m in “let’s just get this over with” mode. I’m still hopelessly UN-optimistic that we’ll see the turnaround any point soon, so imagine my surprise when we start seeing the front runners headed back towards us. Shortly after, we stumble upon the aid station and turnaround at almost exactly 12.75 miles. I turn mid-run, while hearing the aid station volunteer yell to me “Wait, don’t you want anything? Water? Snacks? What’s wrong with her number?” I hear Geoff explaining that I messed up registration, which is why I’m #950, while everyone else is in the 200’s. I also realize just a few feet later that I am most definitely going to run out of water in my hydration pack, but refuse to turn back around.
Just call me hot mess express, making poor choices and blowing through aid stations, coming soon to a race near you!
I look down at my watch and note the time, then see how much time passes before the woman who doesn’t know I’m trying like hell to stay ahead of her shows up heading in the other direction. Turns out, it’s two minutes and change. I double it, round it down to 4 minutes, and can’t possibly do the math at this point to try to figure out how much distance that equates to. “Not enough” is all I can come up with, so I keep pushing.
The last mile and a half hurt so friggin bad. I try to will my legs to continue ticking out sub 9 minute miles, but they are refusing. My pace at this point is anything but consistent, but at least I’m moving forward. I put a smile on my face and say “good job” to everyone headed in the opposite direction, but all I can think is “where in the *%#$ is that finish line?”
Turns out, the finish line is at exactly 15.53 miles (25K). Mark the calendar, a Chad Haffa race that is exactly as far as advertised truly IS apocalyptic!
(But seriously, Eagle Endurance races truly are the best).
We finish very unceremoniously, but in the best way possible: with our family at the finish line cheering us in, high fives from those who finished before us, and me yelling something along the lines of “that *[email protected]%ing hurt!” We find out that I actually finished second, as one of the ladies ahead of me was running the 50K. Geoff also finishes second male, so we high five and celebrate over some orange slices and mini dixie cups of mountain dew.
I f*cking love running
We hang out for a bit, collect our finishers coins, and then I work on perfecting my art of a complete outfit change in a port-a-potty, while Chad cracks some “but the COWS were vegetarians!” jokes our way as he cooks up some post race grub. Another Eagle Endurance/Chad/Krista race in the books.
If you are local to SC (or even if you aren’t) and you haven’t run one of their events yet, you really should consider adding one to your race calendar. The courses are deceivingly difficult, the swag awesome (pro tip: it helps if you pre register) and while the distance is never guaranteed, the Lowcountry ultra community is one of the best groups of people you will ever meet, hands down.
Thank you guys, for welcoming us into your community and always showing us an awesome time!
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.