Last weekend I ran a race that by now feels like an old friend: Eagle Endurance’s Hallucination 6 Hour trail race. I won’t lie, I was tempted to leave my experience as a brief Instagram post, and nothing more. I’m still trying to rediscover my groove when it comes to race recaps. 2020 left me rusty, and to be transparent, now I’m simply struggling to find the time to write.
I’m not sure at what point in this new existence of ours that I’ll stop using the chaos of 2020 as an excuse for, well, pretty much everything. This “new norm” that has continued into 2021 has left me with little time or energy to blog, which I’ll be honest, breaks my heart. But, our coaching business is thriving (yay!), and demanding most of my time. I have middle school physics, geometry, and other subjects I don’t quite remember to supervise (virtual school: a blessing and a curse). And frankly, I’m really enjoying my own training right now. At 38.75 years old, I’ve finally reached that point in adulthood where I say “I wish there were more hours in the day!”
But let’s be honest, I’d probably just use them to run more.
Back to the race recap (you can do this, Heather! Focus!). I love writing these things because it’s always fun to look back and relive race experiences. Good, bad, strong, bonk, perfectly executed training cycles, and those where I trained like a total asshole…I love to document it all.
So 2021, let’s get on with it.
In a move that is very unlike the Heather of 2018-2019 (thank goodness) I signed up for the 6 hour option at the Hallucination trail race this year. Heather of racing years past would have said something ridiculous like “get the best miles per dollar rate, sign up for the longest distance available!”, and would have undoubtedly registered for at least the 12 hour, or if we’re being honest, probably the 24 hour.
Heather of 2021 has huge, almost inconceivable running goals, and realizes that in order to achieve them, I need to quit training and racing like the rules of exercise science do not apply to me. So, I signed up for the 6 hour race, and intended on logging my scheduled 25 mile long run at an easy, training pace.
(My apologies to race director Chad Haffa – he hates when we use his races as a “training race”…)
The Thursday night before Hallucination I felt…off. Which, at any other point in my life I would have written off to perhaps dehydration or a “long day” . But in the era of COVID, suddenly not feeling good is a cause for concern. I spent the next 24 hours feeling under the weather, which was not the norm as of late. I’ve been feeling stellar, thanks in part to smart training, focused nutrition, and more than adequate rest (long live magnesium citrate and tart cherry, my sleep thanks you!). I called off anything on Friday that required exposure to other people – just to be safe. Friday night I went to bed, not feeling any worse but not sure if I felt any better, and decided I’d make the call whether or not to race on Saturday morning.
At 5 am Saturday morning my alarm went off, and I felt great again. I told Geoff we were going to the race, and he reluctantly got out of bed. I packed – because some things will never change, and last minute packing Heather is one of them – and we made the hour and forty five minute drive South to Biggin Creek Mountain Bike Trail.
We arrive with maybe 15 minutes to spare. I check in, grab my bib, and Chad surprises me with the Hallucination “buff” of the year – complete with the Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching logo. I’m chuffed and frankly, kind of taken aback. It’s been less than a week since Geoff and I took the huge leap (for our little business) to sponsor one of our absolute favorite trail race companies, and to see it in living color was amazing.
The day is off to a great start.
The weather is questionable at best. The forecast was calling for low 40 degree temps (cold for us here in the Lowcountry) and nearly a 90% chance of rain. But at the start, the air feels a bit warmer than that, and there’s no rain to be seen – yet. Chad goes through his normal pre-race speech, and before I know it, the crowd of about 60 of us (perfect size to safely space out) is off.
The course is a 2.6 mile loop on part of the Biggin Creek mountain bike trail. Fortunately, it’s on the “easier” half of the trail. I’ve run this course many times before, between previous years Hallucination, the “Almost 9 Miler” and “Stede Bonnet” races. I know this trail – and I know I’m going to get caught up in the crowd on the single track for the first loop.
And I was right.
While I’ve made massive advances when it comes to knowing when to race, and knowing when to keep things “easy” because these are just training miles, there’s that tiny competitive voice in my head that will never NOT make itself known. So of course I take off down the trail, completely ignoring the fact that I had initially planned to do a casual run/walk pace. Granted, I’m still in Z2, but pushing that limit, and getting a little too ahead of myself, already passing people left and right. I eventually settle into a small train of people running at a pace that feels good (albeit, still probably a bit to fast), so I stick with them for the remainder of the loop.
At one point, conversation among this “train” reveals that the people I’m running with are all in for the 24 hour race. My immediate, coach/mom reaction is “they are running WAY too fast for a 24 hour event” (based on the heavy breathing I could hear all around me). To which I reminded myself to mind my own business, and focus on my own race.
And my own race was starting out way faster than it should have.
At this point, I realize that my first choice of shoes – the Hoka Torrents I had just ordered online on clearance a few weeks ago – are way too big. I’m kind of flopping all over the place, my gait and running form trying to compensate from the fact that I’m trying not to trip and fall. So when I get to the 100 yard out – and – back stretched across the field at the start/finish, I yell to Geoff that I need to change my shoes.
But that ridiculous competitive voice is still there, and she doesn’t want us to waste time changing shoes just yet.
Foolish, foolish voice.
I take off back down the trail for loop #2. The first stretch of the course is on an overgrown, rutted out dirt road through fields.
I’d guess this lasts about a half a mile until you take a turn into the single track. I neither like nor dislike this section, but I LOVE the single track. After our move in May, I’ve spent significantly less time on single track, and I hate it. So I’m like a kid in a candy shop now that my feet are on the smooth dirt of a well worn path winding through the woods. I’m grinning ear to ear…
until suddenly I’m face down on the trail.
Now, this isn’t my first trail running rodeo, I’m no stranger to falling. But this fall happened so fast, hard, and unexpected, that my instant reaction is to pop right back up on my feet and keep running. It takes me a solid minute of running before I actually process what the hell just happened. I look down at my knee, where I’m starting to feel took the brunt of my fall. My first thought is that I better not have ripped my brand new Lululemon tights – the one I had a massive objection to in the first place, because I cannot fathom actually paying that much money for tights. Alas, I needed something that would actually STAY UP while I ran, so I caved and bought them. (I got them for half the price on Poshmark, but nevertheless, I’d be really pissed if I tore them).
The tights are good. I keep going.
But now I’m pissed. I’m mad that these shoes don’t fit quite right and have caused me to fall already, and I’m mad that the only other pair I brought have the opposite problem – they’re too small. I’m also mad that Brian and Geoff have set up our tent a solid 50 yards from the turnaround point in the giant field – don’t they know this distance adds up overtime? I’ve got to get these two running again, they’ve definitely started to slack on their ‘understanding runners need more than just a tempting, warm firepit’ game. I’m mad that when I get to the tent, 50 yards out of my way, that Geoff keeps reaching for the wrong stuff, and I end up having to get it all myself.
In short, I’m being a total asshole, and I know it.
So I lube my feet, change my shoes, strip off my long sleeve shirt, and get the hell out of the tent to try and work on my attitude problem. It takes me a solid tenth of a mile to re-adjust my gait, I’m still tip toeing along like my shoes are way too big. But now they aren’t – and so I slowly start to FINALLY relax into my run.
And so it goes for the next twenty miles.
I have a really great day on the trail. I’ve got music playing quietly on my Aftershokz headphones, and I’m really just enjoying myself. I laugh that despite the fact that I have hundreds and hundreds of songs of all genres on this playlist, every single song that plays is a classic rock song I knew my Dad loved.
It sounds cliché and cheesy, but I feel his presence out there. Which is especially odd because he’s never set foot on that trail, never mind in the town of Moncks Corner, South Carolina. But it was at this trail, literally minutes before the 2018 Stede Bonnet race was about to start, that I got the unexpected phone call that Dad had suffered a fatal heart attack. Being 1,000 miles away from home and not knowing what else to do (and at the blessing and encouragement of my mom and sister), I ran that race anyway. I cried, and screamed, and grieved, and fell, and got back up – both literally and figuratively – and I ran, for 10 hours overnight. I felt him there with me that night, and though the pain has certainly lessened, and acceptance settled in over the last two and a half years, I feel him out there with me again. This time, it brings me peace instead of tears as I hum along to some Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young while I frolic down the trail (I told you, I have very random taste in running tunes).
Over those twenty something miles I:
- Change out of my (not ripped, thank the running Gods) tights into shorts. This surprises Geoffrey, as it’s actually kind of cold out. But there isn’t any breeze at all, and the forest is holding in some warmer air.
- Simultaneously grab gloves, my fingers are numb.
- Experiment with my nutrition. I’ve recently learned that the optimum number of carbohydrates per hour for an ultramarathon athlete is “up to” 90 grams/hour. NINETY. That’s absolutely unreal to me, because I’m hovering around 20. But, bumping that number up will likely help ward off the late-state “hangry” version of Heather that pops up from time to time. So I opt to shift from taking in 1 SIS gel per hour to trying one every 45 minutes. At some point in there I work in a honey stinger waffle as well. There were a few moments where my stomach turned for a second or two, but ultimately, this plan worked. I felt strong the entire race.
And I marvel at how damn GOOD I feel. My training is working, the focus on making sure rest and sleep is a vital part of my training plan is paying off. My day to day nutrition leaves me feeling amazing (thanks Coach Will!), and overall, my body is just HAPPY.
I can’t even begin to tell you how rewarding this all feels.
Around 4 hours and 10 minutes into the race, I’m coming back through the start/finish, and I decide to start doing some math. Any runner can tell you, this is a fruitless endeavor, especially after 4 hours of running. Math becomes exponentially harder as the oxygen required to help your brain calculate distances and paces is being shuttled to more important things, such as your lungs, heart, and legs. I decide to time this next loop to determine if I have time to finish three or four more laps (including this one) before the 6 hour cutoff.
It takes me exactly 31 minutes to cover the 2.6 miles. It’s now 4:41 into the race, and I’ve got 1 hour and 19 minutes left. It takes me awhile to figure out that I’d need to hover around a ten minute mile average to squeeze in three more laps. I COULD do it if I pushed. But…my legs are already feeling this trail – Biggin creek with it’s windy mountain bike twists and turns, as well as short, punchy little climbs, hurts. And this is a training run, so I settle on two more loops before calling it a day.
As I head out for my very last loop, I’ve got about 50 minutes to spare. I start trotting down the field when what appears ahead of me – but the girl who was holding first place for the 6 hour the entire race. I had given up on the idea of “racing” on the third loop after I gave myself a bit of an attitude adjustment, and a reminder that I was out here to log miles towards my 48 hour race in April. So I had NO idea who was between the two of us, or how close I was to her. I just knew that every time I saw her (the trail switchbacks so frequently that you can see people who are nearly a mile ahead of you) she looked really strong…and fast.
As I pass her the man she was running with (I would find out later, her father) asked me “Are you in the 6 hour race? How many loops is this for you?” I say this will be number eleven, and he says “Eleven for us too! We’ve got 50 minutes to cover it!” I reply back with something along the lines of “Excellent! PLENTY of time, no need to rush!”
…and then the competitive voice inside my head screams “GO!!!!” so I tear off down the trail.
I had fully intended to take this last loop easy, to take pictures, to truly frolic in the forest. But now, I’m gunning for that damn first place plaque, which JUST SO HAPPENS to have the Hart Strength and Endurance logo etched into it, for the first time ever. I want that damn thing. I really hate this character flaw, the one that gets us uninvited to game night, the one struggles with yoga because I’m “not winning” (I know, I know, no one wins at yoga). And now that side of me is flying down the trail, clearly well into Z3 & 4, ignoring my screaming legs, and every so often looking over my shoulder.
Towards the end of the loop, I come up behind friend and badass ultra athlete Karen Jackson. I let her know I’m passing, and gasp out something along the lines of “I was supposed to take this loop easy!” I have no idea how much further I have to run, but I know it’s less than 2.6 miles, so I just put my head down and keep pushing.
Eventually, I come out to the field, say something to Chad about “do I have to do the out and back to be done?”. He says yes, I push. Finish line: 5 hours and 41 minutes / 28.74 miles.
Geoff is there cheering for me, and being the competitive ass I am, I say to Chad “Did I do it?”
“Do what?” he replies
“Did I (whispers) win?“
He tells me there’s a 13 year old out there ahead of me. “Oh no” I declare “I passed her.”
Geoff starts laughing that I have taken the win from a very strong and fast young teenager on the very last lap of a 6 hour race. I do feel bad, but just for a second. Because if we’re being honest, I will demolish my own kids at a game of Monopoly and gloat while I do it. All is fair in love, war, Monopoly, and ultramarathons. Clearly, this girl will be a force to be reckoned with as a runner (I was still playing Barbies and building forts at 13, definitely not running) in the future. And I’m certain she’ll be kicking my butt at races in the future!
Regardless of time, distance, or placement, it feels so damn good to be back at this. I still do not for one second regret taking last year off (it was needed on so many physical and emotional levels) but I’m really so happy to be back doing what my heart loves.
Thank you Chad, for continuing to provide such fun races for our incredible trail running community. with an opportunity to both challenge ourselves physically and mentally, as well as simply hang out and laugh over inside jokes and stories of epic races past.
Thank you Brian, for sharing your salted strawberry SIS gel even though I think they are absolutely vile, and for getting me what I needed/when I needed it out there.
And of course, big thanks to Geoffrey Hart, for not batting an eyelash when I was being an asshole, for making me laugh by pretending (?) to be a creeper when I needed to change, and for trusting that I’m doing the right thing by my body and training this time around. I sure do love you.