Last Updated on January 22, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP
The 2019 Hell Hole Hundred weekend would be my fifth Hell Hole experience. I’ve got two previous Frozen Hell Holes (100K and 100 mile respectively) and two previous summer Hell Holes (once as crew and one 45 ish mile DNF) on my resume. I’ve covered this 16.3 mile looped course 13+ times. I feel like I could run it in my sleep.
Therefore, as a previous chicken bell ringer, make no mistake: I fully expected to suffer this weekend.
The Hell Hole Hundred event is an annual trail running event put on by Eagle Endurance every June. It’s held on the Jericho Horse Trails in the Bethera, SC region of the Francis Marion National Forest (also known affectionately as the swamp). It is notorious for ridiculously high temperatures (90-100’s are the norm), suffocating humidity, a 2 mile stretch that is typically underwater, uneven terrain, horseflies the size of quarters, unrelenting mosquito swarms, and a slew of other uninviting wildlife (wild boars, alligators, venomous snakes, spiders, etc.)
It’s also notorious for a significantly high DNF rate, typically from people who view the elevation profile (I think I gained about 300 feet during my 100 miler there) and assume this must be a fast, runnable course.
What they fail to consider is everything mentioned above.
My intentions this weekend were to complete the 50 miles that were on my training plan for the Vermont 100. As such, I backed down from the 100 miler I initially registered for this time last year, to the more reasonable 100K, and once again down to the 50K. (For those curious, the following race distances are available during the weekend: 16.3 miles, 50K, 100K, 100 miles, 140.6 miles, and 211.9 miles). A large part of me will tell you I stepped back in distance because I’m trying to be very smart and strategic about my training.
The other part of me will admit it’s because I know how miserable this race tends to be, and I wasn’t going to run one step more than I had to.
Friday we headed down to the swamp to set up camp. Because this race is becoming more and more popular by the year, we knew that we’d have to get there early to procure a campsite close to the course. Plus, two of our friends were already out running the 211.9 mile “Devils Doorknob” race, and a handful more would begin the 140.6 mile “El Diablo” race that night.
The night was filled with bugspray, friends, laughter, good food, and giving Chad the race director a hard time for his brand new, air conditioned RV, while the rest of us peasants were sweating our tails off in tents.
Saturday morning my alarm went off at 5:45 am. I had a fitful night of sleep, the wildlife in the swamp is LOUD at night. Further, this was only our second camping outing where my kids had their very own tent, so my natural momma instincts were to listen for every single rustle or voice and assume it was my kids needing me. In reality, it was just the other runners and their crews, my kids were fast asleep.
The first thing I noticed when my alarm went off was that I was – dare I even say it – a bit chilly. Here we were, at Hell Hole Hundred, and I was wishing I had brought a long sleeve shirt. What kind of crazy upside down universe are we in? Granted, it was probably around, oh, 68 -70 degrees Fahrenheit. But after spending the last month acclimating to – and running in – regular temperatures of over 90+ degrees, 68 feels cool.
I head out of the tent and to the port-a-potty, past other running friends who are also beginning to stir, wearing blankets, and declaring “WHAT IS WITH THIS WEATHER?” Chad, the RD, was of course, pissed. Nooo, not really, but he takes a lot pride in how sucky this course can be, and cooler weather was certainly hurting it’s reputation.
But don’t worry, the day was early.
I spend the next hour getting ready. I fill my pack, eat some breakfast, and peek on my kids a million times in their tent. They are out cold, despite all of the commotion and voices around them. My amazing friend Felicia had volunteered to hang out with them while I ran, but I was sure I’d get to see them before I ran. Oh well, they are 10 & 12 now, this is certainly not their first “watch mom run” rodeo.
Geoff, our friend Brian, and I all decide to run together. I tell them explicitly that I am doing a TRAINING run…but it’s also “only” a 50K (yeah, you’re version of reality becomes a bit warped once you’ve firmly established roots in the world of ultramarathon). So while I had a general easy pace goal, I also didn’t necessarily want to start at the back of the pack. Chad gives some last minute instructions about paying attention to trail signs and “not petting the wildlife”, and we are off.
The first stretch is relatively uneventful. The lead pack takes off , as they do. The middle group (that’s us!) start the back and forth hopscotch that happens at the beginning of trail races, trying to find our groove before the crowd starts to thin out. The trail is surprisingly dry for the swamp. Typically we have to pick our way around endless puddles and wet spots, but not today. The lack of water on the trail seems to also contribute to an overall lower feeling of humidity in the long, tree covered tunnel of a trail that stretches on for a solid 4 miles in this direction.
Low temps, low humidity, dry trail…what IS this race? I’m about to comment on how un-hell hole like this event is so far, when the trail instead whips out one of the surprises it had hidden up it’s sleeve:
Dead fish. And lots of them.
There was a rumor that the first bridge we would cross, about 2.5 miles into the course, was now a “fish kill”. This area of the swamp usually included very fast moving water and a small waterfall. However, because we’ve had such a dry spring, the water levels had dropped enough to cause the water to stagnate. There was no waterfall, and I imagine, a lower oxygen content combined with warm temperatures had caused hundreds of fish to die. Of course, we knew this was the case before we actually saw it, because we could smell it a solid tenth of a mile away.
And it was vile.
We weren’t the only ones that sprinted through that section (I took the above pictures on my second loop) and I imagined that the smell was only going to get worse with increased temps.
Once we pass the fish morgue, my brain instinctively goes into Hell Hole mode. “Five road crossings and four bridges until the aid station” I say. I started counting probably during the third loop of Frozen H3 in January, and those numbers will likely forever be burnt into my memory. However, this summer the first aid station was moved to a new spot on Irishtown road, and therefore it would now be six road crossings and five bridges until the aid station. I had initially counted the number of roads and bridges because it ALL.LOOKS.THE.SAME. The trail is so straight, you can practically see runners nearly a mile away, or so it seems. Later on in longer races, this section can feel absolutely defeating, as if you are making no forward progress. So counting landmarks helped mentally keep me on track.
We eventually make it to the first aid station, and everything in my world feels amazing. The temperature is still nice and cool, and everything feels good. For nutrition, I’ve been experimenting with SIS gels, and so far: so good. I don’t even need to take anything off of the food table. Geoff, Brian, and I take turns in the port-a-potty (running is so glamorous!) and they we are off again.
At this point, the 100 (and 100+) milers split off for a brief time to head down an added 2 mile section of trail. We take a left onto a dirt road. And then another left onto another road. Right onto the third road, and last left onto the fourth road. In total, this section is about 5.5 miles of dirt road. At this point in the day, all of the roads are covered in shade from the trees, so we relish in it.
As we run, we discuss the most random topics. At one point, we are talking about how many believe the Normatec recovery boots are overrated, and far less expensive generic versions are seemingly getting just as good reviews. This is when my husband tells us his million dollar plan is to simply buy a 55 gallon drum and an air mattress. Stand inside of the drum, then blow up the air mattress around you to create compression to help speed up recovery in tired, sore legs. The ridiculousness of this idea has me laughing so hard, I can barely run.
We’re at Yellow Jacket aid station before I know it. The temperature is slowly beginning to creep up, but nothing I can’t handle. I’m still fine on water and food, but Geoff and Brian take a moment to refill. While this is only the second actual aid station, Chad had placed three additional water coolers along the 16 mile loop, so there was definitely no shortage of fluids if you needed them.
We’re on to the last stretch of the course. During January and last June, the first part of this section was so flooded (and full of angry snakes) that Chad had rerouted the course to a drier, less full of snakes section. Notice I said drier, not dry. For reference:
Sounds great, right? I thought so too…until I realized that what was once a swamp was now dried mud, that refused to dry into a flat, easy to run on surface. Instead, it felt like chewed up concrete, just asking to twist your ankles and piss off your plantar fascia.
But…this is Hell Hole after all. We wouldn’t show up if it was easy.
(Actually, yes we would. The $30 club ensures that).
We alternate between chewed up mud and mowed grassy sections, famous for my “Lowcountry shuffle” technique that sort of prevents you from falling into the many holes hiding under the tall grass. When that section ends, we enter the last straightaway back in the forest that is littered with gnarly, knobby mangrove roots just waiting to smash your toes and trip you.
And then finally, we’re about to cross Highway 41 back into camp. As we approach the end of the trail, I see some words spray painted on the forest floor. The only one I can make out is “sorry”. Sorry? Sorry for what, Chad?
Sorry for the DEAD, SMOOSHED, ROADKILL DEER that’s directly in the middle of our road crossing. Hellhole indeed.
We finish our first loop. I quickly grab a different pair of shoes from my tent. Here’s a fun side story:
Thursday before the race it occurred to me that my current trail Hokas are 2.5 years old. Yep, you read that right. My newest pair was inadvertently left behind in Georgia, at the drop bag that I never made it to during the Georgia Death Race. And it didn’t occur to me until Thursday, because I had been recently doing a lot of my long runs on pavement. For my shorter distance trail training runs, I’ve been wearing more minimal shoes. But I knew I wanted Hokas for this race so…I went to the local running store. They didn’t have my go-to shoe, the Hoka Challenger ATR’s, but instead sold me a pair of Speedgoats.
So back to the race…the Speedgoats worked great…until about mile 12 when I realized they just weren’t wide enough in my forefoot. I could feel a hot spot forming between two of my toes, and quite frankly, I hate having my toes touch anyway. So I grabbed my backup plan: my Hoka Cliftons (road shoe). The trail was flat and dry, I figured these would be fine.
At this point, I also realized that I had passed a bunch of people during the second half of the first loop. That annoying inner competitive voice creeped into my head. Man she ruins so many things for me. So I walked up to the timing table, and said to co-race director Krista “hey, ummm…can I ask you an obnoxious question? I want to know if I can run the second half of this 50K easy, or if I need to pick it up…can you tell me what place I’m in?” She laughs and pulls out the ipad with the live ultrasignup timing, scrolls a bit, and then says “you’re the first female 50K to come in.”
“Oh hell” I explain, sort of exasperated. Here’s the thing you guys: In the big picture, I’m just a middle of the pack racer. In these non Western States qualifying ultras, not wildly popular races though, I can usually hold my own. At Chad’s races, I either podium top 3 or DNF (and for the record, the DNF’s aren’t because I wasn’t going to podium, they are because I usually make stupid decisions and try to race distances I shouldn’t). And I’m not going to lie, the podium portion is pretty fun – especially because my prize is almost always RunGoo (amazon affiliate link), and I LOVE that stuff. I also love not having to buy it.
So I jokingly bitch to strangers around me “great, now I have to race, first world problems” and then realize they not only don’t know me, but don’t know that I’m joking. I was joking…but also maybe a little tiny bit wasn’t joking. It’s starting to get hot…
I tell myself to do nothing stupid, but that it also wouldn’t hurt to hold the nice strong forward progress I’ve been making, rather than messing around at the aid stations or lollygagging down the trail.
And so I take off down the trail.
Back to the long 6 mile straight-away-stretch. Back over the fish guts bridge.
I feel awesome. Around mile 22, Geoff says “Alright hun, give me a kiss” which by now I’ve learned is code for “go on without me, I can’t keep up.” To give the dude credit, he’s been absolutely KILLING it in the gym this year, and despite incredible muscular hypertrophy, his beefcake self can’t keep up with me for longer distances these days. So, I give him a kiss, and continue down the trail.
I hit the Irishtown road aid station, to be met with “Where’s your husband? Did you drop him?” from the volunteers that know us well. I laughed and nodded, as my friend Kevin refilled my hydration pack. I wave goodbye, and take a left onto Irishtown road, to start the almost 6 mile stretch of roads that are now…completely unshaded.
Almost instantly I can feel the heat. At this point, the temperature had peaked 90 degrees, and I am so grateful for the occasional breeze that blows through. I’m grateful that I had decided to start acclimating to this heat by running midday for the last two weeks. And lastly, I’m also grateful for the fact that just a few days prior, I had decided to cut a good 5 inches of hair off of my head. These short braids felt SO much better than the sweaters I was sporting just last week. I put my head down, and I go. I’m following run/walk intervals to try and beat the heat, and so far, it’s working.
About two miles out from the second aid station, I catch up to another runner who asks what I’m doing, as far as the run walk. I explain to him I’m doing intervals to try and keep my body temperature lower, and my effort low, as this is supposed to be a training run for me. He asks if I would mind if he tagged along for a while. I say “of course not!” and start to ask my new friend a million questions. Of course, I already forget his name, but I do remember that this was his very first ultra/50K ever. So we chatted about the course, and I told him what to expect. We kept up a dialogue until *almost* the next aid station, when he told me to go on without him. I’m stoked to say, he DID finish. So, new friend whose name I can’t remember – CONGRATULATIONS! And welcome to the ultra-club!
Next aid station, I refill my water again. By now I’m drinking a lot more, it’s getting really hot. I also grab a clementine and spend a few minutes talking to my friends Dawn and Karen who are there checking on runners. I’m feeling hopeful – I’m about 4 miles away from the finish line, and I’ve just finished the last part of the hot, open stretch of the course. It would be all shade from here, right?
Wrong. Very, very, very wrong.
The last 4 miles were rough. Not only were they not shaded, but they were on a more enclosed trail (vs. the road) that wasn’t circulating air very well. There was little breeze, and the humidity was creeping. And, all of the water that I had been drinking was now sloshing around in my stomach, causing my stomach to lurch every few minutes. I decide to get this 50K overwith, then I can rest for a while, and go out for my “bonus” training loop when things cool off a bit.
Dried mud, knobby roots, dead deer, FINISH LINE.
As I come running into the finish line, past all of the tents, people are cheering LOUDLY. Not going to lie, it feels pretty awesome. In a looped course race like this, sometimes that happens…and sometimes it doesn’t, simply because spectators are busy taking care of their runners, or are distracted with something else. So, thanks to those of you who were paying attention, you made my day. As I cross the finish line, I look to see a woman I had never seen before wearing a Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching shirt. I’m super confused…and then realize it’s one of our clients (two of them, actually!) who had come down from North Carolina to volunteer for the event. I’m excited to finally meet her in person, AND excited when she and Krista tell me that I’m first place female for the 50K, and third place overall. Only two guys had finished before me.
Kickass. Even better: I WON MORE RUNGOO!
A few minutes later I see my friend Soleil sitting down and crying. I go and ask her what’s going on, and she tells me that half of her 100 mile relay team hadn’t shown up. I can tell she’s hurt and upset by the events that unfolded, and also overwhelmed at how they are going to get this 100 miles done with a team that certainly didn’t expect to run THAT much individually. I immediately tell her I’ll run a loop for her. “Are you sure?” she asks. “Of course I am. That’s what ultra family does for each other. Plus, I wanted to hit 50 miles this weekend, I was eventually going to go out anyway” I tell her. As the words leave my mouth I’m confident with my decision – it is after all, what ultra family does for each other – but I’m also thinking “please oh please don’t ask me to go back out RIGHT NOW!” She tells me her team plan, and asks if I’ll go back out around midnight.
I spend the next few hours eating and relaxing. I find out that the plan is once again altered, and I’m going to go out somewhere around 4 am. EVEN BETTER, more time to sleep! And eventually, sleep I do…
3:45 am Sunday morning:
“Heather? Are you here? Are you awake?” I hear the timid whispers outside of my tent. My alarm had gone off, but of course I hit snooze. “yes! I croak. Here I come!” and I crawl out of my tent. Soleil and Maya are standing there in the dark. They tell me that they have no idea where their current runner (Kevin) is out on the course, but he had said he would be back by 4:00 am. So I tell them that it’s fine, I’ll just get ready and go hang out by their tent closer to the start/finish line so I’m ready whenever he does show up. I get dressed, hit the port-a-potty, grab my hydration pack, and head on down. I’m still packing stuff into my bag when Kevin runs in at 4:00 am almost ON THE NOSE.
I still haven’t had any caffeine, I’m half asleep, but there was no time to worry about that. I slug a few sips of my caffeinated drink, shove some gels into my hydration pack, turn on my flashlight, hit start on my Garmin, and go. As I do, Soleil jokingly says to Maya “We might make it onto the blog!!”
Hell yes you will. Rule #1 of running with Heather: if I get cranky, feed me. Rule #2: I’ll probably blog about this.
It’s about 4:10 am. I take off down the trail and feel good. It’s not until about a quarter of a mile in that I realize how very alone I am in the woods.
Here’s the other kicker about Hell Hole: it’s desolate. You are in the middle of a National Forest, and not the type of National Forest that tourists flock to. No, this is a desolate stretch of swamp that most probably do not know exist. Further, by this point in the weekend, countless people had rung the chicken bell, signaling that they had to give up. If you do not either have a) a pacer with you at all times, or b) the ability to withstand HOURS of solitude on a trail, you won’t survive.
I ran the next 16 miles without seeing a single runner. And other than the two aid stations, there was not a single sign of human life. Not even a car at the one major road crossing. Nothing.
The first 7 of those miles were in the complete, pitch black. And while typically, I’m not afraid of the dark, I won’t lie: your brain does some crazy things out there. I wondered what I would do if something jumped out at me. Human? Alligator?(they’ve been spotted on this course before) Blair Witch? (it’s been 20 years since I’ve seen this movie, since this is not the first time I’ve mentioned her on this blog, clearly I can’t let it go.) I decide that one flashlight isn’t enough, so I stop and grab a second one out of my bag.
My husband insisted I packed three.
I decide that worst case scenario, I can throw one at my attacker (Boar? Angry squirrel? ) and still have a source of light in the other hand. Ridiculous, I know, but in the dark at 4:30 am on an uncaffeinated brain, it made me feel better.
I tell myself some jokes that my 10 year old taught me. I talk to my Dad. I jump five feet in the air when I startle a deer on the side of the trail, who does the same. Before I know it, I’m at the first aid station.
Kevin and his wife Anne are there. Kevin runs almost all of Chads races as well, and without fail, Anne is there working an aid station. For the last . We’ve yet to have an official $30 club member end of the year party, but when we do, I’m nominating Anne for volunteer of the century. Anne asks me what I need, and I tell her I’m just going to take that little mandarin orange on the table. I don’t need food, but I am not quite ready to go back into the dark alone. She offers me a sprinkle covered chocolate donut hole. I do not turn it down.
We chat for a bit. Alas, I realize I’m wasting time, and say goodbye.
Back into the dark. Now I’m on the start of the 6 mile road stretch. One may assume that this section would be slightly less scary, but one would be wrong. In fact, I’m more nervous on these roads. In the past, we haven’t had the best luck with some of the locals in this area, who for whatever reason, aren’t too keen on runners trapsing through the woods. There have been reports of verbal altercations. There have been aid stations and even drop bags stolen. And just the night before (Friday night) some asshole even knocked over the port-a-potty and stole the water at the second aid station before it was manned for the weekend. I say all of this not to dissuade you from doing an Eagle Endurance event. Chad is an incredible race director, and rectifies these situations as best he can, as quickly as he can, with no complaint. But, if you’re running alone down these roads at 5 am, it is something you should at least be aware of.
And I was painfully aware.
Fortunately, very soon the sun came up, and I was feeling more comfortable. Scratch that, I was feeling MORE than comfortable, I was feeling fucking amazing (sorry for the language mom). Despite the 50K the morning before, my legs and energy levels felt great. I was practically frolicking through the forest, which looked extra gorgeous as the sun rose over the trees.
I make it to the second aid station only to be greeted by friends who are volunteering. Hell, I was greeted with a run-out-to-meet-you HUG. That’s an aid station! I chatted for a few minutes, ate another little orange, and headed back out into the sun.
This last section, the section I loathed during the second loop of the 50K, is now the prettiest section of the morning. I stop and take more pictures than I should, before realizing that I’m not running this loop just for fun, but rather for a relay team who is waiting for me to finish their 100 miles. Put some pep in your step, Heather!
And so I did. And then it was done. My 2019 Hell Hole experience was complete.