Last Updated on January 27, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
As I write this post, I’m having a hard time believing that it’s been four years since I first ran the Paris Mountain 50K (now the Paris Mountain 50K / North Lake 25K) . We’ve now lived in South Carolina (again) long enough for me to have run a race, but completely forgotten what the course was like.
Time flies when you run – a lot.
In 2015, fresh to the Carolinas, Geoff and I headed up to Paris Mountain in Greenville, SC, to run Upstate Ultra’s Paris Mountain 50K (read that recap here). It was a beautiful course, and I gave the race director hell for the most hilarious and confusing course markings I’ve ever seen. We became friends, and have since been huge supporters of Matt and Victoria Hammersmith and the entire Upstate Ultra series.
Unfortunately, his races are mostly 4.5 + hour drive from us, so we don’t make it to the Upstate as much as we want to. But when Matt put the 2019 Paris Mountain 50K & North Lake 25K on an early registration sale of $25 (yeah, you read that right, only twenty five bucks) Geoff and I immediately signed up.
Fast forward to October. I haven’t had the summer I had planned (I pretty much became the poster girl for over training syndrome, and sealed it with a torn calf muscle in June), but we weren’t going to miss a weekend in the mountains. Thankfully, Matt was quick and gracious to allow me to drop from the 50K to the 25K distance.
THE LONG VERSION:
(scroll waaaaaay to the end if you want a short, concise, review of this race. Otherwise, brace yourselves: this is a true Heather race recap in all of it’s glory)
Friday afternoon, after unpacking everything from our Ragnar / Vermont adventure, we repacked the car and headed to Paris Mountain State Park. Originally we had a large crew planning to join us at the campground, but everyone except for our friends the Killory’s bailed. No worries, more amazing vegan soup for me (Dinah makes the BEST camping food).
The forecast for the weekend was 100% rain, as we would be catching the Western corner of Tropical Depression Nestor that had quickly formed and hit the Carolinas. Therefore, we enjoyed the cold – but dry – weather Friday night.
Saturday morning I woke up with Geoff. He would be tackling the 50K, which started at 7:30. The 25K wouldn’t start until 9:30. Geoff and I drive down to the race start (it was a good mile and a half down the mountain from our campsite), picked up my bib and t-shirt, and said hi to a number of friends I haven’t seen since trail running summer camp. I wait around until the start of the race, kiss Geoff good luck, and head back to the campsite to change into my race gear.
I change no short of five times. I have no idea what to wear. We’re in that weird autumn transitional weather where 56 degrees feels really cold, because it was 90 degrees just a few weeks ago. Yet if it was February and 56 degrees, we’d all be in tank tops and shorts. I finally decide on capris, thinking ahead to the rain that isn’t just “potential”, it’s pretty much guaranteed for that day.
Two of our Myrtle Beach friends who stayed in a nearby hotel show up, and the two of them, plus Dinah and I, head down to the race start at Shelter #3. As we are standing there waiting for the race to start, I get a tap on the shoulder from a woman I haven’t met before. She introduces herself, and then her sister and friend, and they tell me that they are readers of this blog. Actually, I think she said “my sister is star struck and wants to take a picture with you”, and I, in turn, fumble on my words and become awkward as hell, because I don’t feel worthy enough to cause anyone to feel star struck. This blog life is crazy, and I never get sick of it. We take a picture, and they tell me they used one of my training plans to prep for this race. Rachel, Heather, and Donna, it was so awesome to meet you. Thank you for making my morning!
Alright , let’s get to the actual race, shall we?
9:30 am arrives, Matt says “GO” and we all take off. I have absolutely zero goals or plans for this race, other than to make it to the finish line in one piece, and hopefully enjoy myself along the way. I’m not in “good” shape right now (before anyone gets mad at me, it’s all relative to each individual. I’m not in the version of “feeling good on a mountain trail course” shape that I’m accustomed to). But, I know I’m capable of gutting out 15 trail miles, even if they aren’t pretty.
And the first three miles? They aren’t pretty. Well, the trails are, but my running and attitude isn’t.
I’m caught up in a conga line of runners that, if we’re being honest, is running a bit faster than my comfort zone. And while the first mile and a half of the race is definitely runnable, it’s still ever-so-slightly uphill as we begin the ascent up the Sulphur Springs trail, and my flatlander body is FEELING it.
The logical course of action would be to either slow down, and / or incorporate some walk intervals. The stubborn asshole side of me won’t have it. While I know I’m obviously WAY out of my league to even try to imagine a podium position, I still have a hard time running my own race, and not getting caught up in what everyone else is doing.
My heart rate is through the roof, I’m way overdressed, I can feel all of the extra weight I’ve put on this summer, and I’m begging for a climb steep enough that it causes the entire field to slow down for a walk. Except that doesn’t come, and instead I keep coming up behind people going just slow enough that their pace somehow hurts even more, so I have to pass them. I hate having to pass them, I want to run slower.
I’m cursing myself for being so out of shape. I’m hating that I’m too hot, my heart rate is too high, and this is all too hard. I’m fearing that this is going to be the longest 15 miles of my life, and I’m just angry. In retrospect, it’s ridiculous, but while you are running, and things aren’t going well, it’s far too easy to get inside your own head.
Eventually we start a gnarly, steep climb that does indeed bring everyone to a halt. For whatever reason, the logical side of my brain shouts loudly to just stop, pull over, and collect your proverbial shit.
So I do.
We’re about three miles into the race. I find a spot to easily pull off to the side of the trail. I shed my long sleeve, and laugh as I realize that during my 5 outfit changes, I ended up with an exact matching INKnBURN outfit. Not that I am one to ever really care about fashion, but I tend to try and mix my crazy prints with a solid. Not today: I look like an obnoxiously bright chameleon on this gloomy day. My youngest kid (11) who does not care at all about the imposed social norms of our society (he will wear his bathrobe to the grocery store, not because he’s lazy but because he believes it to be a useful accessory) would be really damn proud.
I take a deep breath, and give myself a pep talk. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow I am. It doesn’t matter that I’m not in the shape I wish I was in, or in the shape that other people have come to expect me to be in. I tell clients all of the time that running is a lifelong journey. This is simply where I am in my journey RIGHT NOW. And frankly: I need to stop being such a drama queen and get over myself.
And just like that, I’m having a good race again. I push my way up the rest of the climb, and I’m delighted to find some runnable trail again. In fact, nearly the entire mile from 4-ish until the aid station at mile 5 -ish is a gradual, non technical downhill, and I start flying. I come into the first aid station with a smile on my face. I eat an SIS gel, and head back up the trail.
It starts raining, and continues to rain for the rest of the race. I put my long sleeve back on, but fortunately the trees provide just enough shelter that the rain doesn’t soak us. I struggle with maintaining body temperature in cold, wet, conditions, but I’m perfectly content.
The next 5 miles include a lot of ridgeline running that I remember from the 2015 event. I laugh, remembering how Geoff and new friend Jessica and I were woefully lost, as Matt had told us to switch trail directions on our second loop, but then changed his mined last minute, and runners were all over the place going in the wrong direction (don’t worry, he’s way more experienced now and one of the best RD’s out there, haha).
We make the climb to the fire tower, and then start another long descent. Downhill seems to be my forte on this day, so I politely excuse myself to the front of this small pack that I’m with and take off. I gain so much distance on them, that I start to wonder if I’m lost. The trail is impeccably marked, so I really don’t understand how I could get lost, but I go nearly 10 minutes without seeing another soul in front of me, or behind me. Finally I see two women ahead, and breath a sigh of relief. If you’ve ever thought you’ve been lost on trail, you know the relief that comes with realizing you are not, in fact, lost on trail.
We run across a causeway next to a lake, and I remember this from a few years back. I’m enjoying my time on the trail, when all of a sudden the trail intersects with a paved road.
But now comes the fun part of the course: unlike the first year we ran, this year we’ve got a ONE MILE uphill, paved climb that ascends approximately 500 feet. I’ve gone from shaming myself for my lack of fitness, to praising myself for all of those endless hours I spent climbing on the treadmill last spring. Forget muscle memory, this is an “embrace the suck” learned technique, and I’m good at it. I pass at least five people up this climb, pushing at a sub 14:00/mile while walking. I eventually catch up to a dude who is playing his music out loud. Normally, this is one of my giant pet peeves on trail, but he’s blasting “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince, and I’m not mad about it.
We finally hit the aid station at the top of the climb. I had taken my second SIS gel just before the climb, and I have plenty of water in my hydration pack still, so I turn on my heels and immediately start flying down the road. I won’t lie, a mile of downhill on pavement is not the easiest on your legs. But without any rocks or roots to worry about, I lean into the descent and fly. At one point I look down at my watch and see a 7:30 pace. I laugh, and wonder if I’d ever se that pace at mile 10 of a mountain trail race in my life again. I pass a few more people, look at my watch to see we’ve passed the 12 mile mark, and feel confident that this race is “almost over”.
HA. Famous freaking last words.
The paved section ends and we head back on trail. Almost immediately we hit this insanely steep climb that is so steep, wooden stairs have been built into the side of the trail. These sort of climbs hurt anyway, but there’s a special kind of hurt that you feel in your quads trying to climb steep wooden stairs after having just barreled down a one mile long / 500 feet of descent paved road. The guy in front of me starts cracking jokes about how much this sucks, and I can’t help but laugh with him.
We climb and descend, climb and descend. These downhills are much more technical, and the tiptoeing around the rocks and roots leaves me feeling tired. But I’m also feeling really happy.
Eventually we hit the other side of the Sulphur Springs loop trail, and I know we have to be ALMOST done. The backside (or maybe it’s the front side) of this trail is a giant switch-backing mountain bike trail, complete with deep berms on the corners. I can’t help but think of how much fun this would be on a bike, and make a point to tell Geoff we really need to come back here, but with our bikes. Another mile or so downhill we go, and my legs are starting to tell me they’ve had enough. I agree legs, and aren’t we glad we backed down to the 25K?
Yes, yes we are.
I know we’ve GOT to be close. My watch now reads 15.6 miles, and this is only a 25K. I pass a guy and ask him what his GPS says…admittedly mine had been acting a little odd that morning. “14.3 miles” he replies.
Fortunately, we are now on the gradual downhill that I loathed at the start of the race, when it was a gradual uphill. I’m running along, passing more people as I go. Despite a crappy start to this race, my body has clearly remembered that we aren’t new to this sport, and my tolerance for discomfort is actually helping me pull ahead. I pass a couple of women, run maybe another 200 yards down the trail, and stop dead in my tracks.
I’m at a t-intersection, and there are no trail markings. I look both ways. I try to even see if one trail is more beat down than the other. There is nothing to help me discern which way to go. I say an audible “FUCK”, and then I turn to face the trail I just came off of and I wait. I’m too close to the finish to make a wrong guess. The two ladies I just passed catch up, and they don’t know where to go either. Fortunately, not far behind them were two more ladies who were local, and told me to go left.
We’re about half a mile from the finish line, so I just put my head down and keep moving forward. The two ladies who told us which way to go are clearly pushing HARD, as I hear their labored breathing. I tell them they are doing an amazing job, and to just let me know when they want me to move out of the way so they can pass. I’m proud of myself for putting the obnoxious competitive voice aside, for once. One passes, one does not, and before I know it, we are on the paved short climb to the finish line.
I cross the finish line (in 16.64 miles, for what it’s worth with my wonky Garmin), grab my patch from the volunteer, and almost immediately run to my car to change out of my wet clothes before I get too cold.
I finish with a time of 3:29:33, 69 of 131 overall, 26 out 60 females, and 6 of 14 in my age group. Normally I don’t stress about stats, but looking at these really put my bad day into perspective for me. I was pretty much smack dab in the middle of the pack all around.
Not all hope is lost for me, haha
THE SHORT VERSION:
Paris Mountain 50K & North Lake 25K is a beautiful, challenging, yet runnable course. The inclines and elevation gain (approximately 3,300 +/- feet of gain per 25K loop) on some rooty, rocky, technical trails are enough to make this course a butt kicker. Yet the course is paired gradual, long downhills on smooth trail that allow you to truly open up and RUN. The course was well marked, and easy to follow. And the post race party included plenty of food, as well as made to order pancakes. 10 out of 10 stars, will definitely be back a third time.
Go run one of Matt’s races: https://www.upstateultra.com/