Last Updated on September 22, 2021 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
Nothing about the Dirt Dash Trail Race this year went as initially planned. But sometimes, the races that take a 180 degree turn from what you thought they would be, end up being better than you could have anticipated.
Initially, I had signed up for the full marathon (the Dirt Dash offers a 5k, 10K, half, and full marathon). In case I haven’t mentioned it lately, in theory, I’m in the middle of a training cycle for the 2022 Long Haul 100 in January. I say “in theory” because I am 11.5 weeks into my 28 week training plan, and my adherence rate to the plan is hovering somewhere around 8%.
As a coach, if I was my own athlete, I’d be giving myself a stern talking to.
It’s not that I haven’t been active – I most definitely have. I just haven’t been doing the running workouts I should be doing with Long Haul as my focus – both in volume and frequency.
The funny thing is that I’m not at all stressed or mad about it – at least not right now- despite what the coaching side of me might say. It’s been a hell of a few years (as many of you have gathered from my various non-running related posting lately) and frankly, right now I’m giving myself permission to just “be”, rather than beat myself up about falling behind on something that is ultimately supposed to be fun.
The thought that I only have 16.5 weeks until race day is definitely starting to feel urgent though. We’ll see what next week brings…
ANYWAY – I was supposed to run the full marathon, as that fit into my initial training plan. However, the longest run I’ve done this summer hovers around the 15 mile mark, and that was over a month ago. Recently, if I remember to run a long run, it’s in the 10 mile range.
But if I learned anything from the “Great Burnout of 2019” it’s that pushing myself to do distances I’m not currently trained for – even though I KNOW I can fake my way through it and pull it off – isn’t a wise idea.
So I backed down to the half marathon.
Mid September brings that awkward race time here in the South, where we still experience the ridiculously hot and humid weather of summer, but the daylight hours are quickly dwindling, a sign that Fall is imminent.
Because Dirt Dash offers a 5K, 10K, half marathon, and marathon on a really runnable dirt course – very different from Eagle Endurance’s normal double-to-triple digit distance races (not even kidding, he offers a 420 mile race if you are up for it), it tends to attract a lot of new faces. That includes newer runners and experienced (but don’t frequent the trail) road runners.
And while I can’t speak on behalf of the race director (he’d give me hell if I did) I imagine this is one of the reasons why the race started at 8 am, rather than 6 or 7. Newbies and roadies typically don’t have an arsenal of headlamps and the affinity for running through the woods in the dark like the rest of us dirtbags.
So, an 8 am start means that I DO NOT have to rush at all to get ready. We had spent the previous night camping onsite, and despite an almost sleepless night (I have no idea why) my body naturally woke up around 6:30 am.
My youngest has tagged along to run the 5K option. This will be his third Dirt Dash, and first race in a few years (I love when my kids WANT to run, but I never force it). We, along with a handful of friends who also camped last night, casually get ready for the race, and eventually line up when Chad (RD) starts yelling at us (lovingly, of course) over the microphone to get our asses to the starting line.
THE RACE: Loop 1 -miles 0-3.3(ish)
I have ZERO plans or goals for this race, other than to start, and eventually, finish. Somewhere in the middle, I hope to log some double digit miles, something I’ve been seriously slacking in lately. I’m not feeling at all competitive (for once in my damn life), and I’m fully prepared to just do whatever my body feels up to.
I ask my husband if he wants to run together. He says something along the lines of “let’s see what happens”, which I totally respect. We sometimes race together, and other times don’t. But we’ve decided over the years that unless there is a set in stone “YES, we are running this race together“, neither one of us gets offended if the other does their own thing.
It wasn’t in our wedding vows, but probably should have been.
Chad says “GO” and we take off, and my husbands “let’s see what happens” almost immediately turns into a “see ya, sucker!” as he leaves me in the dust.
I laugh, and without second thought decide I’m not going to try and keep up.
The course runs through a beautiful field and then ducks into the woods. As we pass a massive, gorgeous, ancient oak tree, I tell myself I’m definitely going to take pictures of this course…on the next loop. Each loop is approximately a 5K, so the half marathon requires 4 loops. I’ve got plenty of time.
I’m cruising along at a casual pace in a pack of other runners. A couple behind me is talking about how they are getting ready to head down to Dallas for a Spartan Ultra Beast. They start talking about Spartan racing as a whole, and I decide to try and hop in on the conversation. The next mile or so is the group of us discussing various obstacle course races, while I mention my time in Vermont during the early days of Spartan.
Eventually, the pack falls behind a bit from what my comfortable pace is, so I wish them good luck before I get a chance to regale anyone with stories of punishing Death Racers by making them sit in a cold pond at 2 am for 30 minutes while they repeat “I am a liar” over and over, or the year when I watched a friend nearly pass out from heat stroke while doing 200 summersaults in a row wearing a deer skin loincloth (over shorts, of course), or the time I helped facilitate making sleep deprived athletes do endless burpees and jump squats in a field wearing adult diapers and Tyvek suits.
Some stories are best saved for longer races.
I continue on, and soon pass the aid station not once, but twice, as this section of the course makes a loop. I’m carrying a 20 oz soft flask in my hydration pack (I don’t care how short the run is, I’m wearing a vest. It’s like my “mom purse” of running, carries all of my stuff) so I don’t need to stop.
Shortly after passing the aid station the second time, I am running in step with another woman. Eventually she breaks the ice and we start talking. She tells me she’s from Iowa, and is currently chasing the goal of running 50 marathons in all 50 states. South Carolina – which she’s never visited before – is state #41.
We run together and chat for probably just short of a mile, before we’re at the end of the first loop. I bid her farewell and good luck, and dip out to grab my aftershokz headphones from the car. I’m damn proud of myself for having taken this loop easy, and for having taken the time to talk with other athletes. But now, I’m feeling like I want some music.
Headphones acquired, I run through the start/ finish line only to find…my husband! He’s waiting for me, and says he wants to run a loop together. OK, sounds good to me! I’m not sure why his tune changed after just one loop, but since he’s my favorite person and all, I’m happy to spend some time with him on the trails. I put the headphones around my neck – I don’t need them yet.
Loop 2: miles 3.3 – 6.6 (ish)
We head into the woods to begin loop two, and suddenly my body is like “HOLY COW WE REALLY LOVE RUNNING!” I feel great. I feel strong. Stronger than I’ve felt in so, so long. I start pushing the pace, ever so slightly. Sure, there’s a part of me that realizes we’re not even halfway into this half marathon and this could blow up in my face, but hell…I’m going with it.
Geoff and I pass a handful of people in the first 1.7 miles of loop #2. Some are cruising, some are already clearly suffering in the ever increasing temperatures and humidity. I tell Geoff that when we get to the aid station, I’m going to stop and walk for a few seconds to eat something. Side note here: the new meds I’ve started taking for ADHD have left me with absolutely ZERO appetite, and some my caloric intake for the week as a whole has been abysmal. I figure that slamming a gel or two during a half marathon – something I’d normally never do – couldn’t hurt in this instance.
Around the 1.7 mile mark of the loop we get to the aid station, I slow to a walk, and Geoff – who has been kind of quiet – exclaims something like “OH THANK GOD” at the fact that we’ve stopped. He’s pushing.
Now, let it be know that I love my husband, I love him more than words could ever describe. He’s my best friend, my lover, the person I want to share my adventures with, my training partner, and the only human I can ever imagine spending my entire life with. But in that moment I am not ashamed to admit that I definitely snickered a little bit to myself. “That’s what you get for dusting me in the first 20 feet” I think (but definitely don’t say out loud. As the one who is usually on the “this sucks and my blood sugar just crashed” end of running and who has snapped at the words of my well meaning or joking spouse in the past, I know better than to open my mouth).
But hey, if you can’t have a healthy competitive streak with your spouse, what’s even the point of marrying a fellow athlete?
(Answer: not having to explain why you can’t put your car in the garage because it’s full of sports equipment. But I digress.)
I eat a gel, and we take off again. Geoff is kind of paperclipping a bit – he falls behind, then catches up, falls behind, catches up. Around the second time he fell behind, I put my Aftershokz on and hit “shuffle” on my random ultramarathon playlist I’ve spent years creating on Spotify. “Random” is an understatement, as in any given minute it can go from early 2000’s emo, to 1970’s yacht rock, to mid 90’s rap, to 1940’s big band music, to current Irish punk, and absolutely everything you can possibly imagine in between.
Except for country music. I have my limits.
Spotify has decided to grace me with the most random of random songs which I probably haven’t actually heard in many years, Billy Joel’s “Keeping the Faith”. OK Spotify, I feel you. This is a decent “middle distance race that I’m not really racing” tempo, I can roll with his.
And so I do.
Geoff catches up, and long live Aftershokz, I can both listen to my husband AND Mr. Joel simultaneously. I am in no way sponsored by them, but will recommend them to anyone. I’m settling even further into this “I FEEL REALLY GOOD!” groove, and I’m happy that I can have a background soundtrack to go with it.
Eventually we hit the big open field that comes maybe two tenths of a mile before the start/finish. The temperature is quickly rising to match the oppressive humidity (we are in coastal South Carolina after all) and with no shade, this stretch is painful. Geoff says he’s going to walk the field, and says to me “I’ll catch up with you in a bit. Maybe…or maybe not.”
I tell him I love him and take off.
I roll past our tent and see that my kiddo and our friend Dinah, who ran with him, have finished their 5K and they are hanging out recovering. I shout to my child “grab me a red-gel, buddy!” I easily could have done this myself (and would have saved time, because it turns out we had two different “red” gels in our box. The first he grabbed wasn’t the one I wanted, and being twelve, he felt that was a good time to argue that the one I wanted was actually more of a “maroon”) , but I could see his excitement in being a part of my race. It filled my runner mama heart with pride and joy. And besides, I wasn’t here to set a PR.
I eventually pocket the exact flavor gel I was looking for, give my son a quick kiss on the forehead, congratulate him on his race, and head to the start/finish. Halfway done.
Loop 3 – miles 6.6 – 9.9 (ish)
As I pass the huge ancient oak tree for the third time, I realize that I have once again made a blogger blunder. The classic “I’ll take pictures next loop” approach only has a 50% success rate for me. Sometimes, it works. Other times, I either DNF before the “next loop” happens, find myself too tired to care enough to take pictures by the next loop (both of these are ultra-problems) OR, find myself suddenly racing and don’t want to take the time to stop.
I suddenly realize I might be in situation #3.
To be honest, I haven’t seen any other females since I passed a few on the last lap. But I also didn’t see too many head out ahead of me at the start of the race. Granted I wasn’t REALLY paying attention because I truly had every intention to “just run”, and zero intent to “race”.
But here I was, still feeling really strong as mile 7 ticked off on my GPS watch. My ultra-brain thought “what’s another 6 miles? That’s nothing, we can do this! Suck it up sweet cheeks, we’re gonna see what happens!”. I make the conscious decision to not back off on what is now starting to feel like a Zone 4 effort (i.e., no longer “easy” but definitely not all-out “where the hell is the finish line” 5K pace).
I push ahead on this loop, passing another handful of runners (all guys, still no women to be found). In a race like this with four different distances using the same course, it’s hard to tell who is racing what. But at this point, it’s pretty safe to assume everyone left on the course is probably running the half or full marathon.
Eventually I’m at the big open field again – a sign that the loop is almost over. 3.3 miles goes by fast.
As I finish loop 3 – I slug down gel #2. This one has caffeine in it, and I’m hoping it kicks in soon, because suddenly I’m feeling the weight of the effort of the last 10 miles, and quickly remembering that the whole reason I run ultramarathons is because I loathe the lactate threshold effort that accompanies shorter distances.
But nevertheless…here we are.
Loop 4: miles 9.9 – 13.4 (ish)
Last loop best loop – right?
The heat and humidity (according to my Coros data, we were around 97% humidity and between 80-85 degrees), combined with the fact that I suddenly realize I’ve had, at best, 12 ounces of water over the last 10 miles, hit me like a ton of wet, hot, heavy bricks.
My head starts to spin and I feel goosebumps on my arms.
I laugh at myself, in a “you predictable dumbass” sort of way, internally shaking my head at the fact that once again, my “I’m going to take this race easy” plan turned into a “what kind of stupid games can I play with myself today in the name of maybe adding a virtual trophy to my ultrasignup profile?” approach.
Some things never change.
Nevertheless, I recognize that dizzy + chills is a potentially dangerous foreshadowing to overheating, so I stop and walk for about 100 paces, and drink some water. And yes, I look over my shoulder to see who is behind me.
I’m now in the woods again, and the shade provides some relief, so I ease back into a run. I spend the next mile riding that very fine line between “hold strong, you’re almost done” and “don’t let your husband stumble upon your body on the side of the trail”. At some point, I come up behind two women who are running the half as well (but are one lap behind), who are taking a selfie together. I push to try and photobomb, because that would have been hilarious.
I didn’t make it in time.
But still, they cheer for me, as they ask what distance I’m doing. “The half!” I exclaim as I pass them, to which they reply “AWESOME! YOU ARE WINNING!” and they tell me the only other female ahead of me is the badass 50 states woman who is running the full.
“Awww man, now I actually have to run hard in order to hold the lead” I exclaim with the same woe-is-me air that my kid gave when he found out that staying home from school sick in 2021 is no longer any fun, because thanks to the pandemic, virtual school is readily available 5 days a week. You’re video chatting with your classroom from your bedroom in your pajamas, tough luck kid.
Despite my joking voice, I’m secretly elated. I often podium at longer Eagle Endurance races because of the relatively small field of participants in ultramarathons on this side of the state. But as I mentioned earlier, Dirt Dash notoriously attracts a lot of the Charleston area road racers, since this “trail” race isn’t wildly technical, and short distance race options are offered. And some of those runners are ridiculously fast. Hell, just last year, the overall winner was a 15 year old female who ran a 1:32, again, on trail.
These ultra legs can never keep up.
But as always with endurance races, or any race for that matter, your competition is not who won last year, but rather, who decided to show up this year. And this year, me and my legs showed up.
And ultimately, we won.
Not before, of course, the last half of the last loop that included pouring a cup of water over my head so ice cold it took my breath away, jokingly (but also maybe not) trying to hitch-hike when the race director passed me on his ATV, and having to take a 30 step walk break in the sunny field so I didn’t pass out.
I crossed the finish line at 2:17:36 for 13.38 miles. First place female (out of 18, told you it was a smaller field this year) and 6th place out of 44 half marathon finishers overall. Far from a PR for this distance for me (which is a 1:40:42, something I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to replicate, but then again, word is women tend to thrive once they hit that 40-44 age group).
Could I have gone faster? Hell yeah, I know I’m capable of SO much more. But considering I have spent the last 5 or 6 months not really training, the last 5 or 6 years focusing on ultras (i.e. NOT FAST) and it was stupid hot out…I was (and am) mighty happy with my results.
Oh and I beat my husband by five minutes and 34 seconds. “LET’S SEE WHAT HAPPENS” INDEED! (Just kidding, love you honey. You will forever kick my ass on a bike and in the weight room, so let me have this one…)
The next day my quads hurt in a way that I haven’t experienced in quite some time from a short distance race, proof of pushing my legs in a different manner than they are used to, as well as my severe undereating and dehydratioin.
(I promise I’m working on that, I’ve got Coach Will of On Pace Wellness in my corner!)
Once again, Chad Haffa of Eagle Endurance did NOT disappoint (unless, of course, you’ve come to look forward to his flooded courses. This one was bone dry, much to his displeasure, I’m sure). The course was impeccably marked, trail but still super runnable, and absolutely gorgeous. The ROTC kids that volunteered at both the start/finish and the aid station were awesome, always quick to hand over a cup of water, as well as a motivating cheer.
Trust me, I have teens of my own, and while they are amazing kids, I know how annoyed with an air of “why did you make me come here?” they can sometimes appear.
The camping the night before was plentiful, with an easily accessible FULL, real, indoor bathroom with showers. I’m not high maintenance, and I love camping, but whenever I can get a real bathroom during a race weekend, I consider that a huge win.
The swag, as always, was awesome.
And the Eagle Endurance community? Simply can’t be beat. Until next time my friends…(and hopefully next time will lean a little more overall “aerobic”!)
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.