Last Updated on January 22, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
14 years ago this month, I “ran” my first half marathon. I use the term “ran” loosely, because it was more like a 13.1 mile jog/walk/shuffle where I was entirely out of my element, questioned what the hell I was doing with every painful step, and wondered why I hadn’t opted to just cheer on my sister at the finish line from the beer tent instead of trailing along behind her down the streets of Myrtle Beach. I was not a runner, and I certainly hadn’t trained for that mess. As such, I spent weeks regretting what I considered to be a 4 hour mistake, all while trying to walk without a limp again.
Had you met me at the finish line on that fateful February morning in 2005, and told me that one day in the future I’d casually say things like “oh, it’s only a 50K” while using a 6 hour race as a “recovery ” run, I would have laughed in utter disbelief, and asked you to hand me a Mich Ultra from the aforementioned finish line beer tent. Because I drank crappy beer back then.
But here we are.
Let’s start with a little backstory: sometime last year I had signed up for Hallucination 24 hour trail race, with the intention of trying to hit 100 miles in 24 hours or less. But over the course of the year, I had a number of failed 100 mile attempts and less than stellar ultra experiences. In an almost last minute decision, I switched my goal race from Hallucination 24 hour to Frozen Hell Hole Hundred (with a 30 hour cutoff rather than 24 hours…and a yeti on the buckle… let’s be completely transparent about my motivation), with a race date two weeks earlier. I succeeded at Frozen H3 (yay) and shortly after remembered I was still registered for 24 hours at Hallucination.
Not going to lie: in the 24 hour post-100-mile-high, I actually contemplated going for another 24 hours a mere two weeks later. For the record, I realize what a horrible idea that is. Thankfully, about 48 hours later I made the decision to back down to the 12 hour option. As the post-100-mile-high continued to dissipate, I finally realized that the 6 hour option was my best bet.
Actually, not racing at all would have been the wisest decision, but hey, you live and you learn.
In the past, Hallucination 6/12/24 has been held at Middleton Place, outside of Charleston, SC. The course was flat, open, and fast…easily runnable. The kind of course where you could just zone out and run without fear of tripping, getting lost, or faceplants on the trail. It was for that reason that I declared, quite cockily, that this year I would “easily” run a 50K in my 6 hours and call it a day.
This year, the course had moved to Biggin Creek Trail in Monks Corner, SC. While maybe a third of the 2.2 mile loop course was indeed open and relatively flat, the other 2/3rds of the course were windy, root covered, single track, mountain bike trail. Lots of switchbacks, a few short, sharp climbs, and PLENTY of roots just waiting to trip you the second you stop paying attention. In the grand scheme of things, it was not a difficult course…but it was night and day compared to Hallucination of the past.
Saturday morning a crowd of hopeful runners line up at the start line for either the 6 hour, 12 hour, or 24 hour option. As Chad, the race director, starts the countdown, everyone at the front of the line does that panicky “OH NO, I SHOULDN’T BE AT THE FRONT OF THE PACK!” freak out and steps back away from the starting line. Since no one would step up, a couple of us actually toed the line, jokingly. I thought to myself, hell, if you people really want to put in the extra effort to go around me in another 100 yards, so be it! And we took off.
The first part of the course consists of flat, open fields. I run accordingly at a not too fast, but not too slow pace, knowing that we have single track coming up shortly so I might as well open up my gait and stretch out my legs while I have an opportunity.
Much to my surprise, the only person that passed me in that first stretch was Eagle Endurance $30 club offender Chris V. I thought for sure the timid pack would go flying past me in the first 200 yards. Chris sets the pace, and we ran through the first 2.2 miles together, talking about Frozen Hell Hole (he had also finished 100 miles there) and what races we each have planned for later in the season. The first loop goes by in the blink of an eye. We came through past the aid station/start/finish line around 22 minutes…probably a bit faster than I should have, but I thought to myself “meh, it’s only 6 hours, right?”.
My friend Felicia confirmed my mistake when I rounded the first corner to complete the out and back past our tents. She yelled out something to the extent of “What the hell, Heather, are you racing?”
No. I mean yes. Well, I mean…oops. Ahhh.
I purposefully stop at our aid table to ditch my jacket and let Chris run on without me so I’ll slow down. I had a loose race plan, and I’ve already managed to ignore it in a short 2 miles. So I head out on loop two and I do slowdown…but just a tiny bit. I know I have to maintain about an 11:30 average if I want to hit 50K in 6 hours. This is no problem on the first flat section, as I can easily tick out 9:30 – 10:00/miles. But as soon as we hit that windy, root covered single track, the pace slows significantly. Still, I push on.
I’m walking the very fine line of pushing hard enough to reach my goal, but not so hard that I can’t maintain this pace for 5.5 more hours. It’s harder than I expected it to be, due to a combination of the course, and what I won’t admit to myself quite yet- my still not recovered from the 100 miler body. Somewhere towards the end of the second loop, I hit a root and fall, HARD. So hard I can hear the guy behind me slam on his breaks and hold his breath to see if I’m alright. I instinctively yell “I’M OK!” the second I hit the ground, before even stopping to determine if I was, in fact, OK. I hop back up and keep running, and realize despite a couple of scraped knees…I am OK.
The loops continue on. Somewhere around mile 8 I think to myself “I don’t feel so bad for having just run 100 miles two weeks ago” because I was still in utter denial. But, these would be my famous last words, because the moment I thought “this isn’t so bad” is exactly when I started feeling bad. And not just a little bad, but really freaking tired. Like, if my legs could talk, they would have said things like “um, we just ran 100 miles two weeks ago, what the hell is your problem, woman?” and “Yeah…we’re gonna go ahead and say ‘no thank you’ to this whole running thing. You’re on your own.”
My brain, on the other hand, couldn’t help but notice that only one other woman had caught and passed me…so maybe we should keep pushing hard and see what we could do.
My brain and my legs rarely agree on such things.
At mile 10 I told myself I could listen to music, and broke out Spotify and my headphones (with wires, I’m so 2012). I rarely race with music – in fact I had gone the entire 100 miles without listening to any. But the pain cave is slightly more tolerable with distractions such as my friends Hall and Oates, and having found myself deep within that cave only 1/3 of the way through the race, I was in desperate need of relief. So, into my ears the music went.
And so the next 20 miles went. Let’s cut to the chase, because I’m sure many of you are still tired (and potentially bored) from the 7,000+ word 100 mile recap.
Highlights of the race:
– Before the race, I realized my soft flask hadn’t been cleaned very well after Frozen H3, and so I chose to not use it, nor the Tailwind that I brought as my main nutrition source for this event. Instead I fueled solely on mini York Peppermint Patties and Swedish fish candies. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this, but I also wouldn’t necessarily not recommend it.
– I tripped a total of 7 times, but only hit the ground once. I credit much of this to spending my youth “figure skating” in socks on freshly mopped kitchen floors: I established killer proprioception early on.
-I reached a point of no return during the race, where I knew the best thing to do would be to slow down and let my body recover, but I was in too deep “racing”.
– I passed my friend Eric, and mumbled something to him about “Can’t hear you. Need music. Not in a good place. But what’s another 3 hours, right? Ha…ehh…ouch.”
– Mentioned 362 times to various people that “my legs really hurt”.
– Decided to embrace the “hurt” and change my mindset: this would be a perfect, hard training experience for the upcoming Georgia Death Race, which is likely going to suck a million times worse than this.
– Tried no short of 25 times to do math in my head to figure out how far off track I was from a 50K in the allotted time, to absolutely no avail.
– Reminded myself endlessly that this hurt was deserved; racing a 50K two weeks after running 100 miles was asking for a healthy dose of suffering.
Eventually, I came around to the start/finish line at about 5 hours and 50 minutes into the race, with 29.5 miles done. One more 2.2 mile loop would have officially given me the 50k, but I didn’t have official time on the clock left to do it. So I sat my ass down in a chair, happy to be done. Imagine my surprise when I looked up from my chair to see the one female who passed me going out on another loop. She wasn’t in the 6 hour!
Which means I won! Kickass!
But I didn’t get to celebrate for long, because Geoff and our friend Brian dragged me out for one more loop. I had to get an official/unofficial 50K after all. They shoved my awards into my hydration pack and we headed back down the trail. Fortunately, they let me walk for a “cool down” loop.
After that loop, I put my feet up for a few, then headed back out for two more loops (walking, thankfully) with my friend Kristy to help her finish up her day.
Takeaways of the race:
– Just because you think you’ve recovered…doesn’t actually mean you’ve recovered.
– My mental game has come a hell of a long way over the last few years. Because honestly, that kind of sucked. On a good day, on fresh legs, it would have been a fun and relatively mild course. Instead, it was very long, very brutal 6 hours, albeit, still fun.
– The ultra community is pretty incredible. I’m pretty sure the number of hugs I received outnumbered the number of miles I ran.
– Every single one of us is capable of overcoming hard things. This weekend I watched friends hit new time and distance PR’s beyond their wildest dreams. I watched people from 14 to 84 push themselves, all day and overnight, beyond the limits of “normal” people, to achieve their goals. I watched people dig deep rather than giving up. I watched people figuratively and quite literally hit the ground, pick themselves up, brush themselves of, and keep going. I saw first hand what I already knew: ultrarunning will change your life.
Thanks again to Chad and Krista for providing an outlet for us “crazies”, for letting us test our limits, for missing entire nights of sleep to make sure we aren’t lost in the woods, and for providing endless bowls of Swedish Fish . I’m not sure if we thank you enough for all that you do, so on behalf of all of us, THANK YOU!
(In the Carolinas, or feel like racing down here? You need to head over to http://www.eagle-endurance.com/ and join us for one of these incredible trail events!)
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.