Last Updated on July 2, 2021 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
It’s been an incredibly long time since I’ve signed up for a race, last minute, on a bit of a whim. It’s also been quite a long time since I’ve run a brand-new-to-me race on a course I’m unfamiliar with, put on my race directors whose personal phone numbers I don’t already have saved in my phone (I’m looking at you, Chad and Matt). The 2021 Hunting Solstice Ultra checked off all of those boxes.
The Hunting Solstice Ultra back story:
A friend – who is also a client – was training to run her first 50K this summer. But last minute, the race director decided to cancel the event due to lack of interest. Obviously bummed, said friend headed to Ultrasignup to see what other races were available in the area, in a similar time frame. She found the Hunting Solstice Ultra, and shared it in our client group.
I don’t recall the exact number of seconds it took me to consult my calendar to make sure we were free, tell Geoff we most definitely needed to go to this race, and then subsequently sign us up. But it wasn’t many. (My ultrasignup fingers are fast and experienced.) Geoff and I have only been to Hunting Island State Park, the location of the race, once before. But it remains as one of the most gorgeous places I’ve visited on earth. I certainly wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to go back – especially if it involved running and helping out a friend. We were in.
The race included a 53 mile, 30 mile, and 15 mile option. Geoff and I opted for the 15 mile, so we could still be around to help our friend Courtine through the second half of her first ultra.
For those unfamiliar, Hunting Island State Park is located on a barrier island on the very Southern coast of South Carolina (about 2 hours South of Charleston, 20 minutes East of Beaufort). It’s an absolutely breathtaking, ocean front park, and as such…the campground was already completely booked for Father’s day weekend.
Though we may be way behind the ball here, Geoff and I had recently learned about a website called “Hipcamp“. It’s kind of like Airbnb or Vrbo but for camping: private land owners let you camp on their land for a fee. Some Hipcamp sites are nothing but a small site carved into the forest, while others are a glamper’s dream, with trendy yurts and all the amenities you can imagine. Well, we happened to find a Hipcamp site near Hunting Island State Park, and our friend Courtnie quickly booked us a reservation.
The site, “Friendly Fowl Farm” at Morning Glory Homestead, was about a ten minute drive from the park, and was an absolutely delightful experience. We spent the night listening to the many tree frogs in the Spanish moss covered oak trees, and woke up bright and early to head to the race.
We arrived to Hunting Island State Park just after 6 am. The race directors asked us to arrive early, as they anticipated a few hundred racers trying to get through the front gate line at the same time. That said, we had NO issues getting into the park. A friendly volunteer directed us around the gate and to parking (park admission fees were included in the race registration). We scored a practically front row parking spot near the Hunting Island Lighthouse, were the start/finish line of the race was staged.
We set up our tent area…
grabbed our bibs, race shirts, and timing chips…
and got ready for the day.
Some quick directions from the RD’s, and we were off.
The race course was a seven point something mile loop, covering basically all of the terrain in the park. We started with a one mile stretch headed South down the beach. I ran way too fast, caught up in the excitement of the crowd, while simultaneously taking pictures with my phone while yelling “BLOGGER’S GOTTA BLOG!”, as if that would excuse my obnoxious need to hop in and out of the pack of runners for a good shot.
The irony being, none of those pictures came out, because I insist on working with a phone I once dropped into a swamp while crewing for a 100 miler (true story). So here’s one, courtesy of my friend Courtnie instead:
After about a mile we hit a short stretch of pavement, then dipped into the woods for a few miles of trail. For those of you that have never had the joys of trail running in the coastal South East, let me paint a picture:
The trail is sand, littered with roots, and covered with a layer of brown pine needles. The air is still with oppressive humidity, you never knew the forest could lack any air movement at all. There are short punchy hills, deep thick vegetation, and at any given moment, snakes, alligators, or feral hogs.
And it’s absolutely gorgeous.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your opinion of trail alligators, I’m in a long line of at least a few dozen runners, with barely enough room between me and the person in front of me to see the roots under my feet. I know this “trail runner conga line” won’t last for too long, and I’m also not here to try and set a PR or grab a podium spot (ha, in my 2021 dreams…I’m definitely not in that sort of shape right now). For once, I’m not feeling anxious or rushed, rather, after the year we’ve been through, I find it quite enjoyable to be in a crowd of runners, enjoying the trails.
So I stay in my place on this long train running, passing people only when the 5 guys ahead of me running my same pace pass them first.
Buuuuuuut about 2 miles in the adrenaline begins to fade and I remember, oh yeah, I haven’t been running much since The Country Mile 100 in April. My heart rate is soaring, and excuse my awful, cliché description, but it’s sweatier than Satan’s sauna. I don’t know why I continue to hold on to this pace…perhaps it’s because the trail is pretty narrow and it’s a huge pain in the ass to pass – or be passed. I don’t want to be the buzz kill, so I keep pushing.
But, when the first wave of nausea hits my stomach, I yell ahead to Geoff to “go on without me, I need to slow down”.
And I stop and walk.
He does too…turns out I wasn’t the only one getting my butt kicked by the weather.
Fortunately, we quickly pop out onto a paved path, and see the first aid station. The table is absolutely STOCKED with snacks, and I feel silly diving right in, as I’m “only” running 15 miles. I loathe using the term “only” for any race, but when it comes to running 15 miles, I shouldn’t require much more than a gel or two. Nevertheless, I reach for a pickle (well, one is handed to me. COVID and all…), and then Geoff and I are off again.
We run on a stretch of wide, well packed, gravel trail. It’s delightful, but it’s still so freaking hot. I do believe this is the first time I uttered the words “I’m so GLAD I didn’t sign up for the 50K…” but it wouldn’t be the last. We’re now run/walking to try to maintain any semblance of running this race in this heat. The gravel trail leads to a bridge that takes us over a swash, and onto another beach.
“Boneyard Beach”, more specifically.
No, not because running is soft sand in 90+ degree weather will kill you (though it may), but rather because this beach is littered with the remains of old trees. You see, this barrier island is constantly and quickly (in the grand scheme of geology) eroding, and as such, trees meet their demise in the sea, and leave behind eerie, but gorgeous, sun bleached skeletons of their former selves. It’s an Instagram worthy scene, no doubt about it.
This section of the run is very short, just enough to a) take pictures to say you’ve run this beautiful section, and b) thank your lucky stars the section is short – running in ankle deep sand is no joke.
Then it’s back over the bridge…
and down another very well groomed trail.
Now’s a great time to mention that the course is impeccably marked. There were definitely trail intersections and places where one COULD become lost if they weren’t paying attention, but the combination of bright pink flagging and large arrows made the directions hard to miss.
Eventually we hit the paved section from the beginning of the race, creating a full circle…except this time instead of head North on the beach back to the start/finish, we head South down a very long beach access road.
And THEN hit the beach for a much longer stretch of sand running.
We hit the start / finish line and almost immediately head back out. It’s so hot and beautifully miserable out, and Geoff and I both have the “let’s get this race over with” attitude. NOT because it isn’t a great course – it’s absolutely an incredible race. It’s more so because neither one of us brought our A game to this race, and had I mentioned?
It was really hot and humid.
Loop two was a lot like loop one, just with a much slower pace. At the first aid station I walked the extra 20 feet to use the State Park’s visitors bathroom. The cool rush of air conditioning that hit me when I walked in the door was an absolutely delightful treat. Who knew bathrooms could be so welcoming.
I stopped for a ton of pictures, and even got busted doing so:
And then we pretty much gutted our way to the finish line. It made me feel better to see that we were NOT alone, the conditions that day were certainly taking their toll on many of the runners.
But honestly? When the course is this gorgeous…you don’t really care.
The highlight of the second loop is the long slog back down the beach to the finish line. By this time of day, the beach is filling up FAST with beach goers. And everyone seems genuinely excited to see us out there. Complete strangers are clapping and cheering us on. As a resident of a different, tourist driven beach town, I’m used to dodging oblivious people left and right every time I try to run on the beach (which is why I rarely do it). But at Hunting Island, on this particular day? The tide was low enough and the beach was big enough for everyone. It was an unexpected, but nice change of pace.
(What can I say, Myrtle Beach has hardened my expectations of humans.)
We cross the finish line and we’re immediately handed our finishers medals. Confession: as a trail/ultra runner, I’m used to getting homemade trinkets or wooden medals (or coins, at Eagle Endurance races), at finish lines. And I LOVE them. But being handed a legitimate, heavy, shiny, glittering (there’s glitter!) medal gave me a flashback to the thrill of road racing finish lines of my past life. It’s been a long time since I’ve been handed one of this big, gaudy things (said with love, while I don’t need a finishers medal to enjoy a race, I always love getting them) and it put a big smile on my face.
All this complaining about the heat might lead you to believe that I wouldn’t recommend this course. But you’d be wrong. The course itself was absolutely GORGEOUS. It was incredibly runnable, and the terrain seemingly changed exactly when you wanted it to. The course was well marked, and the aid stations WELL stocked with drinks, food, and smiling, friendly volunteers. The race swag was fantastic (when’s the last time I got a women’s specific fit tank top at a race? Answer: NEVER BEFORE.) And the race directors – Kerry, Dan, and Jason – were such wonderful hosts.
Lastly, you absolutely cannot beat a visit to Hunting Island State Park. As a self declared State Park aficionado (see what I do in my spare time) I can tell you it is hands down one of the most beautiful parks I’ve ever been to. And what better way to see it than through a running tour? More State Parks should offer such an option!
SO, if you’re looking for a challenging, ocean front race with a great atmosphere, incredible views, and great swag – definitely add Hunting Solstice Ultra to your “must race” list.
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.