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It would be safe to say that signing up for the Hell Hole Hundred two weeks after running 90 miles at Knock on Wood was a bad decision, except for the fact that I signed up for Hell Hole first. So in retrospect, perhaps attempting a 100 miler at Knock on Wood when I knew I was going to attempt running 100 miles two weeks later was a bad decision…
…except that nothing about this sport is ever a good decision. And I kind of like it that way.
Hell Hole Hundred is an Eagle Endurance event held in what has grown on me in the last year as one of my favorite/least favorite places on earth: the Francis Marion National Forest (a.k.a. the Swamp in the middle of nowhere, South Carolina). I believe the race is named after one of the dirt fire roads that the course crosses, Hell Hole road. Regardless, the course is aptly named “Hell” because it is nothing short of, well, Hell. Let’s count the reasons why:
1) It’s eleven billion degrees in the swamp. You alternate between completely unshaded fire roads in the blazing sun, to gorgeous shade covered trails…except the trees trap in all of the humidity and block out any breeze, so you can’t breathe.
2) Nothing living in this forest/swamp is cute and cuddly. Instead, there are angry wild boars, alligators, biting horse flies so large they could practically pick you up and carry you away, gigantic spiders that will build a web across the trail in thirty seconds flat, and so many venomous snakes that the course actually had to be rerouted this year. Oh, and occasional locals with shotguns.
3) A two mile, knee deep water/ankle deep mud, swamp that you simply cannot go around, so you end up with trench foot and about three pounds of mud in each shoe.
4) A 14.9 mile (was 16.3 before the aforementioned 2 mile swamp was cut down from it’s original 4 mile swamp distance) soul sucking loop, where you can quite literally run the entire thing and never see another runner. It’s a combination of horse trails and dirt fire roads that you are pretty sure will never, ever end. The monotony will drive you insane.
5) Ruthless, and I mean absolutely evil, bugs. Mosquitos, deer flies, horse flies, ticks, black flies, probably some other mystery bugs, all out to slice your skin open and drink your blood. I left these out of point #2, because they deserve their very own mention. In fact, I probably would have had this blog post finished hours ago, but I keep stopping every other sentence to dig my nails into my skin and try to find some sort of relief from the 597 bug bites I am currently covered in.
Also, I think this oozing rash on my ankles might be poison ivy, or maybe swamp rot, but I digress.
In short, the average ultrasignup.com user may take one look at the elevation profile of this course and scoff at how “easy” it appears in writing. Yet the difficulty (and misery) of this course is highly underrated and undiscovered. And if we’re being honest: highly unconquered. The finisher versus starter ratio is painfully low.
Despite all of this, I absolutely love (and love to hate) this blasted swamp. So I keep coming back for more.
After Knock on Wood, I tried everything I could to recover as quickly as possible. I walked a lot, avoided running, ate and hydrated well, and even popped all of the “healing” supplements that I usually avoid, because they make me gag and I’m convinced everything should come in chewable Flintstone Vitamin form. I went for one single run in the 2 week span to test my legs and heart rate, and concluded that I felt fine. I even lined up in the magical red light machine and massage lounge at good ol’ Planet Fitness, hoping it would all help me recover faster.
This is where I insert some sort of disclaimer that as an educated Exercise Physiologist and certified (certifiable?) running coach- I KNOW BETTER THAN THIS. One does not magically recover from running 90 freaking miles in a matter of 14 days. There was (is) damage on the cellular level that cannot be seen nor felt in a casual 6 mile run.
I should have business cards printed up “Heather Hart, ACSM c-EP, RRCA running coach, Do As I Say, Not As I Do.”
Anyway, despite my much smarter and level headed husband begging me to back off to a shorter distance (as he did), I toed the line for the 100 miler, because as race director Chad Haffa likes to say “move your ass and finish the race distance you signed up for”.
Now, the Hell Hole Hundred includes the following distance options for your running pleasure: 211.9 miles (“The Devils Doorknob), 140.6 (“El Diablo”), 100 miles, 100 mile relay, 100K, 60K and 16.3 mile day and night options. The 211.9 milers (four of them!) had started their race on Thursday night. After a few loops around the currently flooded swamp, it was determined that part of the aforementioned 4 mile water covered trail was simply too dangerous due to all of the now angry venomous snakes that had been misplaced because of all of the water. Thank you sub-tropical storm Alberto. So our 100 mile course, which was to be 6 loops of the 16.3 mile course plus a 1.1 mile out and back, would now be SEVEN loops of the 14.8 mile course (GPS claims it was just over 15 miles, but who’s counting). Yes, what’s another almost 4 miles when you’ve already run 100, right?
It’s a devil of a good time, that’s what it is.
Back to my race: Geoff and a few others had participated in the Friday night 16.3 miler, and assured me that the swampy section of the course was indeed “soul sucking” (that seemed to be the common descriptor). I was mentally in a wonderful place going into this race, nothing could intimidate me. Bring it on swamp.
Loop 1 (miles 1-15ish)
We start the race, and I immediately fall into my comfortable 3 minute run/2 minute walk pace. I had planned out every loop to the minute, including aid station time and transition breaks. For this first loop, I was assigned a 14:00/mile average pace. However, knowing that this “it will take your shoes right off your feet” swamp was coming, I found myself averaging closer to 12:00/mile with the walk breaks in order to buy some time for trudging through the muck.
The first stretch of this course is absolutely gorgeous. Long, straight sections of double track horse trail through the very green forest. The temperature was surprisingly cool – if I had to guess, it was only in the high 70’s. Certainly not what I was expecting, so I enjoyed every last second of it. We hit the first aid station at mile 6, and spent very little time there. We cross highway 41, and head through my absolute favorite section of this course: a windy, narrow, single track through some gorgeous, green forest. This tiny spot will make you forget you are in Hell…until you are soon spit back out onto a fire road and begin the 5 mile fire road march. I call these the “Did I miss the turn? It all looks the same!” roads.
SEVEN MEASLY MILES IN to this race my right foot, right knee, and right hip started to scream at me. It’s been well over a year since I have had any sort of joint pain or running injury (I hope that didn’t just jinx me) so I immediately knew this was my body protesting over the fact that we were racing again already. But, not wanting my husband, who had volunteered to run the first loop with me, to already have his “I TOLD YOU SO” moment, I kept my mouth shut and ran through the pain.
We make it to the “Oasis in the Swamp” aid station at Yellow Jacket road, run by the only two previous finishers of the 211.9 mile Devil’s Doorknob event: Karen Jackson and Nathan Dewey. You want to see a kickass aid station that has probably everything you could ever want, AND makes you smile long enough to forget about the fact that you are running for a few days on end? Let two badass ultra runners design it. I cannot thank these two enough for all that they did for the runners this weekend.
Again, Geoff and I fuel up quickly, spending little time at the aid station, and head out on our way.
A ton more dirt road as we bypass the first section of the flooded trail, and before we know it:
Knee deep swamp. Channeling my former obstacle course runner self, I charged right in. I knew that my feet were going to get wet, so there was no point in delaying the inevitable. Plus, trying to pick my way around the puddles would just slow me down, and 30 hours only lasts so long when you’ve got 104 miles to cover. Much to my surprise, I had an enjoyable time on my first loop through this mess. I actually found the cool water incredibly refreshing on my already sore feet, and I entertained myself by cracking jokes about pool noodles and boogie boards (see video above).
The swamp continued on and off for probably two miles, until we finally reached a sign informing us that we only had 0.7 miles left until the loop was over. It was at this point that I realized just how much mud had accumulated in my shoes, and was now forming itself like a mold around my toes. While not painful, it was wildly uncomfortable, and I found myself grateful that fresh socks and a shoe change were just minutes away.
We finish the loop, and I realize I’m 12 minutes ahead of schedule. Though this month marks three years of messing around in this crazy world of ultra running, I still have so much to learn. I vacillate between being excited that I’ve banked 12 minutes, to being fearful that I’ve gone out too fast, to realizing none of that really even matters because I still have almost 90 miles left to go, and anything can happen. Geoff runs off to officially finish his race (he was only signed up for one loop), while I sit down in a chair at our tent off the side of the trail. Chad the RD comes running over with a bib, my bib, and we do a quick swap realizing I had run the first loop with someone else’s bib. Oops? Then Geoff comes over and immediately goes to work on my feet.
While husband-of-the-year gets my feet ready for loop two, I shove some sour cream and onion potato chips in my mouth, refill my tailwind, and pack my hydration pack for the next 15 miles. I’m up and out on the trail long before my assigned 15 minutes is up.
Loop 2 (miles 15ish-30ish)
As I start loop 2, now solo, I’m feeling awesome. My feet are dry, my belly is full, and the pain I was feeling on the right side has diminished. And, as if the universe has aligned, the sky is overcast, and there is a slight breeze. It feels incredible, and I start wondering if, despite the swampy sections, we may have lucked out during this year’s Hell Hole Hundred with less-than-hell like conditions.
In fact, I even foolishly mention this at the first aid station to frequent volunteers and Eagle Endurance supporters, Merridee and Howie. I believe my don’t-speak-too-soon words were something along the lines of “Wambaw Swamp Stomp (same swamp, one month earlier) was WAY worse than this! This weather feels great!”
Lesson #862 of running 100 milers: don’t get used to the weather. A full day (or two) is PLENTY of time for things to change.
I head back out onto the tiny stretch of beautiful trails, before I hit the start of the long dirt road sections. This, of course, is when the overcast sky decides to clear up, and the sun begins to blaze. It’s close to noon, and there is absolutely zero shade to be found.
And it’s now 100 degrees.
And it’s definitely NOT a “dry heat”.
I find myself switching sides of the road frequently to try and bask in even two feet of shade,when I come across it. I’m hydrating, I’m slowing down my pace, but I’m painfully aware of the fact that this heat is going to zap the energy from me quickly. I’m trying to maintain a positive attitude, after all, I’m out in the woods doing my most favorite thing in the world. I’m happy…I’m just also really hot.
I enter the oasis in the swamp and Karen and Nathan quickly get to work taking amazing care of me. As soon as I take off my hydration pack, Karen has an icy cold towel around my neck, and Nathan begins filling my hydration bladder with ice cubes. They both offer me all sorts of food, and I’m trying to determine what I can stomach. I usually don’t have an issue eating (quite the opposite, says the girl who has put on a solid 5 pounds of “ultra weight” in the last month) but the sharp jump in temperature has my stomach doing somersaults already. I settle for a pickle, a 1/4 of an orange, thank them both, and head back out, just as Chad arrived in time to tell me to get my ass moving.
That guy really is the best.
I walk down the road, eating my snacks while pickle juice and orange juice run down my forearms. It’s equal parts stickily gross and awesome, as they are both semi-cold and it’s really freaking hot out. I finish my snacks and start running again, much to the disdain of my now pissed off stomach. But we (my stomach and I) continue on anyway, dipping and dodging the sun to grasp at any tiny patch of shade we can find.
Round two of the swamp is not nearly as enjoyable as round one. I was actually looking forward to the coolness of the shin deep water, but what was once cool now feels like moderately warm coffee. The muck, now having been traversed by dozens of people more than once, is much harder to navigate the second time around. Yet still, this section is relatively shaded, so I take my time making my way through it.
It should be noted that I’m nearly 15 miles into loop 2, and other than aid station volunteers, I’ve only seen one single person on the course. Fortunately, I absolutely expected this to be the case, and have come to prefer solitude in the woods rather than crowded courses.
I finish loop #2 strong enough. I’m now 30-something miles into the course, and 25 minutes ahead of schedule. In that moment, I feel good. But then again, who doesn’t feel good when sitting in your chair?
Let the record state: transition, with the comfort of food, loved ones, and your feet propped up is a big, fat, liar.
Loop 3 (30ish miles to…)
I take every second of my 15 minutes before heading back out on the course. Have I mentioned it’s hot? It is. And the bugs are now becoming absolutely ruthless if you dare stand still for more than a millisecond, despite about 15 layers of deep woods, DEET laden bug spray. Fresh socks, fresh shoes, a pack full of water and snacks, and now my headphones in and music playing in my ears, I head back out on the course.
500 feet down the trail I get my first dizzy spell.
I figure it’s probably just because I had very recently shoveled a ton of food into my belly, and spent 15 minutes sitting down, so I slow my pace down to a brisk walk. I allow my heart rate to chill out a little bit, and notice it’s taking longer than it should to come down. Eventually, I run again…only to almost immediately be slapped in the face with more dizziness and a hard time breathing. It’s at this point that I first realize how suffocating the forest was. The breeze of the earlier morning is completely gone, and the humidity hangs in the air like a thick blanket, almost captured by the trees above.
I repeat this run/dizzy/walk cycle until I stumble across a sign in the woods that I hadn’t noticed before. It’s the turnaround for the 100K runner’s last out and back, that lets me know I’m only 1+ miles away from the start.
So I sat down.
I couldn’t believe that I had only traveled just over one freaking mile from the start. How I fell apart so quickly was beyond me, but there I was, sitting in the middle of the trail alone in the woods, needing to figure out what the hell I should do next. I knew sitting wasn’t helping anything, so after about 30 seconds, I stood back up. I turned and faced the reverse direction, then turned back to the correct direction and kept moving forward.
I kid you not, over the next ten minutes I probably did this no short of five times: stop, turn around, look longingly back towards the direction of the start, wonder if I should head back that way, turn around, keep moving forward. I couldn’t decide which was worse: walking backwards on the course to turn in my bib, or continuing on to eventually quit in a more noble direction…but having to walk further to get there. I wish there was video footage, because the whole thing was ridiculous.
I think of how I promised Geoff that even though starting this race in the first place was stupid, I would do nothing TRULY stupid. I think of the tightness in my chest and labored breathing. I think of how I’m not going to tell him there is tightness in my chest, because he’ll get pissed (he’s probably reading this now, pissed). I know it’s way too early in the race to make any big decisions, but I also know it’s way too early to be walking…just walking. I try to run again, I’m dizzy.
So I just walk.
I take in a deep breath and know what I have to do. I pull out my phone, and send a text.
There’s no cell service at the start/finish, but I knew Geoff was planning on heading to the gas station convenience store a few miles away, where there would be service. I figured if he saw it, he’d come get me. If he didn’t…some one else would bring me back. Or maybe I’d keep going. I don’t know. But I knew I had four more miles to truly figure out what the hell I was doing.
So I put on some music, and walked.
I tried to push the walking pace as best as I could, but could barely maintain an 18 minute mile. This was not fast enough to beat the 30 hour cut off, or so my “I can’t do math while running/walking” brain thought. In retrospect, I had just over 22 hours left before the cutoff, which required a 22 minute pace.
In retrospect, I was also having trouble breathing.
I’m less than a mile from the first aid station when my phone rings. It’s Geoff. He’s on the trail, walking in the opposite direction trying to find me. The trail is so painfully straight and narrow at this point, that I look ahead and see him about a half mile away. We wave, we meet up, we walk.
I’m 37 miles into the race, and I tell him I’m done. And I’m honestly not sad about it. Not a single tear is shed. Not even when Geoff says “I told you so.”
Not even when I get back to the start/finish, and Chad gives me the combo “what the hell is going on/why the hell aren’t you out on the course?” look.
Not even when I ring the chicken bell, a now iconic piece of the Hell Hole Hundred, that is rang by the quitter, everytime someone drops from the race.
Hell, I was proud to ring that damn chicken bell.
Out of the runners attempting more than one loop: 58% quit.
No one finished the 211.9 miler (in fact, they all quit before the rest of the racers even started on Friday night.)
No one finished the 140.6 miler.
Only two of the 100 milers made it to the finish…and honestly, no one else even came close.
The swamp chewed me up and spit me out, in the way that this swamp has become accustomed to doing. (This time, the numerous biting, blood sucking insects certainly helped.) Despite my shortcomings, despite the muck, despite the fact that 48 hours later I’m covered in so many bug bites I look like I have some sort of skin disease…I loved every minute of it.
I had previously gone nearly an entire decade of racing without a single DNF (did not finish) to my name. Yet for whatever reason, I’ve DNF’d a lot of races in the last year, and frankly, I’m not ashamed. People always ask why on earth anyone would constantly sign up for races and half the time not do everything in their power to finish them. They can’t wrap their mind around this concept. But the answer for me is simple:
1) I love the ultra community, and
2) I genuinely, with all of my being, love to run around in the forest. There’s truly not much else I’d rather do.
Some people spend their weekends and money going out to eat, or at the movie theater, or a night on the town with friends. I’m so grateful that I married a man whose idea of fun is the same as mine: load up the car every chance we can and head into the woods to be surrounded by these incredible people at equally incredible events, running our hearts and legs out, simply because we CAN.
Sometimes I show up to these races and I finish what I set out to do, and sometimes I finish really well. Sometimes after a “mere” (ha) 37 miles in the 90 degree sun, my body rebels after the third big race in a row, and I’ve finally learned to respectfully listen to it.
Because my long term goal isn’t to have a house full of medals or buckles, a super high ultrasignup ranking, or “bragging rights”. My goal is to be able to continue to show up, as much as possible, learn something new about myself every race, grow as a person, never lose the love I have for this sport or the people in it.
And of course, never take for granted all of the gifts running has given me.
Don’t get me wrong: finishing feels awesome. Winning even better. But the highs and lows of simply getting out there are absolutely priceless. I can’t even begin to express my gratitude to the whole process.
We all have our reasons. Whatever your reasons are, don’t stop believing.
(Thank you Chad, Krista, Eric, Anne, Nathan, Karen, Merridee, Howie, and everyone else who made this race so awesome. Congrats to all of my fellow runners – DNF’s or finisher’s coins, you all deserve a high five for getting out there. And last but not least, thank you Geoff for not disowning me for heading out into the swamp once again. Remember:the $30 club made me do it. )