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I can’t even begin to tell you how thrilled I am to have run the first ever Sadlers Creek Stumble 24 hour race. The short version, because I know some of you like that: the course was incredibly runnable, though deceivingly difficult, with the perfect amount of difficulty peppered in, in the form of (mild) hills and occasional roots. Distances include 24 hours (choose your own adventure), 50K, half marathon, or 10K. The scenery was breathtaking, the finishers awards were unique, and as always, Matt Hammersmith of Upstate Ultras puts on an A+ event. 5 stars, would recommend. My newest favorite South Carolina race. Will definitely be back next year.
The long version (because it’s so much more fun to tell):
Friday morning Geoff and I made the trek across the state to Sadlers Creek State Park in Anderson, South Carolina. When we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised to see that there was a) gorgeous foliage still, and b) gorgeous foliage at all. As former Vermonters (where there is a ton of incredible fall foliage, but it’s gone by late October) that now live in Myrtle Beach (where the leaves just turn brown and die), this sight was incredibly unexpected, but welcomed.
We set up our campsite on the edge of Lake Hartwell, and then settled in for the night around multiple campfires with our friends from Summer Running Camp.
Saturday morning, I woke up to my alarm at 6 am. Lately, my tent sleeping experiences have been less than stellar. I LOVE sleeping outside, in tents, on the ground. I usually get my best sleep outside. However, the last handful of times we’ve camped, temperatures have dipped below 40 degrees, and I’m cold. I’ve lost all of my Vermont-cold-weather-credibility, and unlike my husband who can sleep through anything, I spend the night tossing and turning, and shivering between fitful bouts of sleep.
So naturally, I woke up, got in my car, and turned on the seat warmers. It was from the comfort of the warm Subaru that I prepared for the day ahead of me (I’m sorry mother nature for the unnecessary carbon emissions). To be honest, I spent more time trying to get the Christmas lights that I was going to decorate our site with working, rather than thinking about potentially running for 24 hours.
I had thrown around the idea of aiming to run 100 miles. The truth, however, was that I’ve yet to go sub 24 for 100 miles, and I wasn’t necessarily in 100 mile shape anyway. Race director Matt Hammersmith had generously offered up an extra 5 hours for those who wanted to hit 100 miles. Was it possible? Anything is, I guess. But I figured, I was there for the day. I was really craving a long, overnight run.
Why the hell not try.
But I promised myself – and my husband – that I would listen to my body and take the race loop by loop. I had nothing to prove, this wasn’t a goal race, and I certainly wasn’t going to let myself leave Sadlers Creek any worse for the wear.
LOOP ONE: Reconnaissance
Running a timed/looped ultra on a trail you’ve never set foot on always makes for an adventurous first lap. You have no idea what to expect as far as the course layout. You have no idea how long the loop will take to run. Your preconceived notions of pacing may be thrown off by things like terrain and elevation. Loop one is really just a giant crap shoot, but it also sets you up for the rest of the day.
This particular loop is a 6.55 mile course (or, 6.7 if you go by my GPS. It matters, over 24 hours, haha). The race starts on maybe a quarter mile of pavement, then turns into a windy, single track trail that heads into the woods. The majority of the course is on single track, though definitely wide, runnable single track.
I had planned on a 3 minute run / 2 minute walk interval, as I knew this would help preserve my not-race-ready legs and keep me in the game longer. However, I quickly realized that this 3:2 was simply not going to work on this terrain. While there were no massive hills on this course, it was certainly hilly. So I adapted my intervals to simply walking the uphills, running the flats (though there weren’t many) and the downhills.
The trail, itself, is wildly runnable. Sure there are roots and rocks, this is the east coast after all. But it’s a small amount of roots: the kind that won’t bother you for the first 12 hours of the race, but will definitely stub a toe or cause a face plant 20+ hours into the race. In short, you really don’t have to tip-toe a ton, you can actually run. And it’s nice.
The course weaves in and out of the woods, giving tons of lake views, and a handful of (paved) road crossings. At mile 3 (ish) the course takes a quick loop down a big, paved hill into the primitive camp site area, and then climbs back up the other side of the hill. More forest, a short (maybe 50 yards?) beach/sand run, then through another paved campground (conveniently, where we were staying so I could use my tent as an aid station) and then back to the finish.
As I run past the timing table, my husband is standing there with Matt. Geoff is running the 50K, and had gone out (understandably) faster than I had. So for once, we weren’t running together. Matt tells me I’m right on track for a 24 hour 100. I hadn’t planned that, per-se. I mean, the goal was to show up and run 100 miles in 24 hours, but I hadn’t been militant about following a specific pace or run/walk interval. I just knew that I felt good, so to hear I was on track was an added bonus. Refilled my tailwind quickly and got back out on the course.
LOOP TWO: I’m Only Good at the Downhills
I start loop #2 with Geoff. We joke about how we are often repeat offenders to race courses, yet this is our first time at Sadlers Creek. Therefore, we don’t know the course well enough to know what sections to anticipate – and dread. In fact, there is so much lake front property on this course, my normal internal compass and acute sense of direction is all messed up.
Thankfully, the trail is impeccability marked, and honestly hard to get lost on.
We hit the first climb, and Geoff takes off. I walk, and fall in step with another guy. We’re cruising along, walking the uphills, running the flats and downhills, when we come across a small tree across the trail. “Waaaaaasss….was that there earlier?” I ask, kind of confused. “No, he replies, I don’t think so. I’m glad you said that, I thought I was lost for a second!” It’s windy that morning, though nothing compared to what we were about to see.
We hit the first very long downhill, and I let the guy ahead of me know I’m about to pass on his left. “Go ahead!” he replies “I have 22 hours ahead of me, I’m not going very fast.”
“Me too,” I reply “but I’m only good at the downhills.”
And so goes the rest of loop two. Conservative running…except for the downhills. Thank you mom and dad for these long legs.
I finish the loop and hit up my personal aid station before heading to the start/finish. I’m consuming one bottle of tailwind (lemon flavor, 100 calories) and one SIS gel per loop (90 calories). So far, so good. Once I finish at the tent, I head to the start/finish. Matt tells me I’m in first place for females. “Don’t tell her that” my husband, who is also back at the start/finish, responds.
Competition sometimes makes me do stupid things in a race. But this time, I made myself a promise to run my own damn race. And I was sticking to it.
LOOPS 3 – 5: Excuse me sir, do you have a moment to talk about our lord and savior ultra running?
Like the good blogger I am, I spend loops 3-6 thinking about all of the details I’m going to share in this blog post.
Like the horrible blogger I am, I currently don’t remember any of them.
But the day is going well. I’m feeling good, and the scenery? It’s breathtaking. In fact it only gets prettier as the sun is starting to set. I find myself having one of those “I’m so grateful, and that makes me even more grateful” moments. I feel good. Everything is so pretty. I’m so happy that I have a body capable of running, and that I discovered a love for this incredible sport in the first place. I’m oozing with so much sappiness, I could be my own Hallmark movie. I want to scream my love for trail running from the rooftops. JUST LOOK AT THIS FOLIAGE!
At some point while at the start / finish, Matt tells me there are cheese quesadillas and I jump on the opportunity to shovel one into my grocery hole. I’ve spent the majority of the day drinking tailwind and eating gels. I’ve spent very LITTLE time at the transition, which is unlike me.. You can usually find me there running my mouth between handfuls of potato chips. But for whatever reason this time, I’m in and out of transition like the least amount of time spent there IS the race. Needless to say, the “real” food tastes amazing.
At some point, my husband, who decided he didn’t feel like running that day and dropped after 3 loops, says to me “I’m not going to tell you how much of a lead you have”.
“I don’t want to know.” I respond, matter of factly.
The truth is, I was a little curious who else was out there running the 24 hour, and who was a 50K competitor. We all had the same bibs, and save for the lead guys running the 50K, no one passed me after the first loop. I didn’t know who – if anyone – had started ahead of me. I didn’t know who was behind me. So while it was cool to realize I was winning – by apparently a bit – I didn’t want it to get to my head, or mess with my current race tactic.
Which, in short, was don’t be an asshole: run conservatively.
LOOPS 6-8: Wasted words on lowercases and capitals
Night time settles in, and I briefly contemplate – and I believe even say out loud to Geoff before heading back out – that I’m about to tackle more dark hours than we’ve ran in the light. Nighttime has notoriously been the deal breaker for me, my kryptonite and gateway to a DNF, right up there with low blood sugar.
But, my questionable secret weapon for this race is music. If you’ve read my recaps before, you know I rarely run with tunes. I’ve recently discovered- and fallen in love with – Trekz Aftershockz bone conducting headphones. The sound is awesome, yet you can still hear everything else going on around you, so I’m not the asshole blocking the trail because I can’t hear the person behind me saying “On your left!”
It’s dark on the trail, and there are only 43 of us doing the 24 hour race. Some have already dropped by now. It’s quiet and lonely…but I’m having my own personal karaoke hour. Well, hour(s). The playlist I have created over the last few years, just waiting for a moment like this, is a sight to behold. Mostly, because it makes absolutely NO sense whatsoever. In the course of an hour, you can hear everything from Rage Against the Machine, to Peter, Paul, and Mary, to Three Six Mafia, to everything from my emo phase (hello Brand New), to the Glen Miller Orchestra, to Bell Biv Devoe, to Gordon Lightfoot, to Alice in Chains, to Jimmy Buffet…I can keep going but I won’t. The point is, there is something for everyone, but mostly, it’s all for me, and makes me happy. I’ve always been the kind of person who associates music and songs with people and moments in life (I have a story to accompany almost every song on earth), and hearing so many of these songs that I haven’t heard in quite a long time keeps me wildly distracted for dozens of miles.
During one of these loops, I stop and grab my trekking poles. I say to RD Matt and friend Alex “I feel like a lame ass for grabbing trekking poles, this isn’t really that hilly of a course”. They both immediately shut down my hesitations by saying something to the effect of “you do whatever you need to do to finish this race, there’s no shame in that”. It’s so awesome to be surrounded by such amazing people that are out to lift you up and just have a good time. I love the ultra community, but I’ve noticed more and more “elitism” over the years. Anyway, without going too far into detail about that, it felt awesome to be supported. Supported by my friends AND my trekking poles. Those things were lifesavers on my low back, which has been giving me hell lately for other reasons.
I’m starting to get tired, and my stomach is doing some weird things. I decide to ditch the tailwind and add in some more food, like a giant cup of veggie ramen noodles. Geoff asks me if I want to know what kind of lead I have yet, and this time, I say yes.
An hour and forty minutes.
I’m winning by an hour and forty minutes. Woah. That surprises me, but at the same time, I realize I’m only 50 ish miles into a 24 hour race. ANYTHING can happen. As a runner who once quit a 100 miler at 90 miles while in 2nd place (you can read that ridiculous story HERE), I can assure you that an ultra of this distance isn’t over until it’s over.
Or you could just look at that time Jim Walmsley missed a turn at mile 93 of the 2016 Western States 100 and went from a record breaking pace / first place to 20th place, but this is my blog and I like to talk about me.
The point is: don’t count your tailwind chickens before the eggs hatch…or something like that.
LOOP 9: Ticks & Leeches
It had to fall apart, eventually. It always does. But if I’ve learned anything in ultra running, it’s that what goes up, must come down, and vice versa. This works for both hills and bonks.
My stomach started to turn. My headphones, which had died at the end of the last loop, were back at the camp getting recharged. My feet were burning from hot spots that were forming. The wind had picked up even more so, and it was so much colder. My pace had slowed, and I was having a hard time staying warm. It was very lonely on that course – and even the 3 mile respite through the primitive camping site was dark, still, and quiet. Everyone had gone to bed.
It was approaching midnight and I was just so tired. The kind of tired where you just want to cry and feel sorry for yourself, even though it was in fact you who signed up for this mess.
A lyric from a song on a Tool CD that has been in our car forever (because who listens to CD’s anymore, with amazing inventions like Spotify) popped into my head:
Hope this is what you wanted.
Hope this is what you had in mind.
‘Cause this is what you’re getting.
I’d been craving an ultra. I’ve been feeling an insatiable urge to run a ridiculously long distance. Sure, that included the atmosphere, the amazing trail community, the grilled cheeses and tomato soup, and the feeling of accomplishment at the finish line. But it also included this right here: the miserable feeling of being slapped in the face with a “bonk”. The physical and emotional struggle that comes when your body telling you to shove this ultra business and go to bed, and your mind is telling you that you aren’t strong enough to fight the insatiable urge to quit.
I’ve quit so many times.
This is what I wanted, and this was what I got. It’s so easy to look at smiling faces and shiny belt buckles in pictures on social media and think ultra running looks so fun, but this right here? This is a true, inevitable side of ultra running. Those who are strong enough to overcome these lows are the ones who succeed. This is the part I hate…and absolutely crave, all at the same time.
I was approaching mile 60. I remembered my last super long race, Frozen Hell Hole 100, I bonked just about at the same exact distance. I also remembered that my friend and pacer at the time laughing at me (in the kindest way) when I teared up, telling me I was bonking, and forcing me to eat. I did, everything got better, and I had a successful finish. (Thank you again, Eric). So this time, as I approached camp I gave myself a stern talking to:
You’ve done this before, Heather. THIS IS WHAT YOU WANTED. Walk into that tent. Tell Geoff that you are bonking, and that you need help, but you are NOT quitting. Cry if you need to. Take as much time as you need to. But shove some food into your face and get back out there.
Geoff was my unsung hero for this loop. I had pretty much taken care of myself up until that point, with refilling my nutrition, changing my shoes, etc. But when I came in there and said, just exactly as I promised myself I would: “I’m bonking and I need your help” he sat me down in a chair and got to work.
I ate a grilled cheese, cup of tomato soup, and a handful of potato chips while Geoff fixed up my feet. I changed out of my wet clothes and put on new layers. Way too many layers, in retrospect, but I was shaking and shivering uncontrollably. Geoff reconnected my newly charged headphones and got my music rolling again. I told him that I didn’t want to go out again, but I was going to. I had promised myself 10 loops and I was sticking to it. I wasn’t injured…I was just mentally weak in that moment.
And so, without wasting anymore time, I left the tent.
As I approached the start/finish, I told Matt this was going to be my last loop.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Nope, not at all.” I replied.
Competitive Heather (my pain in the ass alter ego) inquired about the competition. Matt told me that I still had a good 1:40 lead, but that the second place girls said they were going to keep going. They had left for loop 9 about 20 minutes earlier. It was close to 1 am, and there was plenty of time left for them to catch me, and pass me in distance, if I quit. I tell him that I’m going to go do this loop, get my official 100K with 10 loops, and then reevaluate.
So I take off.
Loop 10: You’ll probably regret this…but let’s go with it.
Not 15 minutes down the trail I’m SWELTERING. I had left the tent in tights, under armor sweat pants, a fleece long sleeve, and one of my Dad’s old rain jackets. Yeah, deep down I knew I was probably over dressed, but I was shivering so hard when I left transition that I figured I’d rather haul a ton of unneeded clothes for 6.5(7) miles than freeze.
I stop, take off my jacket, tie it around my waist, rearrange my hydration pack – basically get myself together – and then turn to head back on trail. And that’s when I see something up ahead on trail: no, not the dozens of deer, 3 armadillos, and 2 raccoons I’ve already seen that evening (so many green eyes glowing in the dark!) – I see headlamps. Two of them, headed in the same direction I was. I wonder if it’s the aforementioned 2nd & 3 place females that Matt said had just left 20 minutes ahead of me. In retrospect, it doesn’t make sense that they would have only gotten that far in 20 minutes, but I was pretty delirious.
I was also feeling significantly better, and in that moment, competitive Heather whispered: GO. GET. THEM.
So I took off.
I won’t lie, there want’s any “true” running at this point. I was tired and stumbly (get it? Sadlers Creek STUMBLE?) and didn’t trust myself to not fall at that point. But I power hiked like a son of a bitch. I was knocking out sub 15 minute miles for the most part, as fast as my legs would take me while still walking. People talk smack about treadmills, but power walking on an incline regularly has really upped my walking game. I felt strong, it was such a 180 degree turn from how I felt during the last loop. But also couldn’t help but think this was going to blow up in my face soon enough.
It took me about a mile and a half to catch the headlights. As it would turn out, it wasn’t the aforementioned 2nd & 3rd place females after all, but another pack of bad ass ultra ladies out for another loop. I talked briefly with one of them. she introduced herself, and as we chatted I told her “I’m sorry, I’m probably going to forget your name because I’m kind of delirious right now”. It was true. I don’t remember your name (I’m sorry!) but I want you to know that you telling me that I looked strong and was doing a great job got me through the rest of that loop. So thank you!
The wind has gotten gnarly, but I put my head down and keep pushing forward. As I get close to mile 6, there’s a massive tree laying across the trail. I briefly contemplate if I’ve been pushing so hard I took a wrong turn. I definitely would have remembered a tree this big! I look behind me and ahead, and recognize my surroundings. I’m definitely still on trail…and incredibly grateful I (and no other runners) were near that tree when it fell. (Turns out, the RD & volunteers heard the massive tree fall from the start/finish line)
Fast forward to the end of the loop. When I had left for this loop, Geoff asked me what I would need when I came back. I told him “nothing, I’m quitting after loop 10. Just get our bed ready.” So I can only imagine his surprise when I came barreling into the tent yelling “I FEEL AMAZING, I’M GOING OUT FOR ANOTHER LOOP! DON’T GET UP, I’VE GOT THIS, I’M GREAT!” grabbed a handful of snacks, and left in 15 seconds flat.
I get to the start/finish and pretty much do the same thing to Matt and the volunteer Charlotte. They were sitting by the campfire, obviously very tired, and I enthusiastically told them to stay put when they offered to help. I practically skipped over to the veggie broth, scooped myself a cup, and frolicked back down the trail feeling absolutely INCREDIBLE.
But that didn’t last.
LOOP 11: It’s times like these, time and time again.
I don’t get far into the loop before my body starts to shut down. A few weeks prior, one of our friends was telling us about a time he was pacing another runner, and she was literally sleeping while moving forward. I remembered thinking that couldn’t be possible. Almost asleep? Sure. But actually sleeping…and walking? No way.
Now…I get it.
Because I crave nothing more than to just close my eyes. In fact, I do a few times, but immediately force myself to snap them back open. The desire to just sit down on the trail for a moment is overwhelming. But I tell myself that’s a sure fire way to get hypothermia: as I’d likely fall asleep and who knows how long it would be until another runner finds me. I take a caffeinated ISI Gel, to no avail. An hour later, I take a second, hoping for a miracle, but it only makes my stomach turn. I’m moving so slow, it takes me 2 hours to cover the first 3 miles. Up until that point, I had been finishing the entire 6.5(7) mile loop in about 2 to 2.25 hours.
My entire body, sore, exhausted, and nauseated, is also experiencing a sensation I’ve never felt before. I can only describe it as almost a physical anxiety…like I absolutely shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, and so my body is sending signals to just freaking stop already. This, I realize, is not mental. It’s purely physical, and while wildy uncomfortable, I take comfort in knowing that I’ve given 100% this time.
But, despite that, I’m remaining positive. I know this is my last loop, 100 miles is most definitely, unquestionably, out…this time. I promised myself I’d “do nothing stupid” and this strange sensation is my signal that we are entering stupid territory. But, I’m halfway through the 6.5(7) mile loop, and I’ve just got to keep moving.
I stop. A lot. Every time my body craves water, I have to stop to take the drink. It’s like I can’t comprehend doing two things at once. And every time I do stop, I take a drink, and then lean into my trekking poles to stretch out my lower body and hamstrings. I am definitely not in ultra shape, but I thank my body for doing it none the less.
I start thinking ahead to various landmarks. Now, 11 loops in, I’ve finally found the things to look forward to – as well as the sections to dread. I think about them, and assign them numbers, as a way to distract myself but also visually see my progress. Landmark #5 was the aforementioned massive fallen tree. I turn to sit on it for a moment of relief. It creeks and groans, and I immediately jump up, remembering that this tree JUST FELL and likely isn’t stable…at all. So I try to get to the other side of the trail. Turns out the tree was about 300% more difficult to climb over this time around, and the stupidity of that alone made me laugh. I keep pushing forward.
I hit landmark 8 out of 10: it’s the climb off of the beach towards the start of the last campground. My music has been playing in my ears this entire loop, but I’ve been too exhausted to think much about it. Foo Fighters “times like these” comes on, and I remember how this song played at the end of stage 2 of the TransRockies Run 6 day stage race (I told you, I have a story for every song) and how it made me cry back then.
“It’s times like these you learn to live again
It’s times like these you give and give again…”
I think about the day I’ve just had, and I start to cry again. I showed up the previous morning with zero expectations of myself. I ran my own damn race. I ran alone. I ran strong, despite being less conditioned than I would have hoped. I mostly crewed myself. I recognized my weaknesses, and I overcame them. I always say to Geoff that I couldn’t have done this without him. This time he told me “yes you could have. I barely did anything”. And while I would never underestimate the power of a support person or crew, and I realize this seems trivial, the realization that this race was not a fluke overwhelmed me.
I DID this.
I’ve had a lot of instances in my relatively short ultra running career where I wondered if I belonged in this sport. If I’ve gotten in over my head. If I’d ever get any better. I’ve busted my ass over the last 2 years training for various races, and have seemingly had more misses than wins. It’s been frustrating. This race though? I was proud of – and frankly surprised at – what I was able to accomplish, despite being under-trained, as well as how far I’ve come over the last year as an athlete, despite some major setbacks. And that’s a pretty powerful feeling.
I crossed the finish line at 21:48, having finished 11 loops (72 to 75 miles, depending on whose GPS you want to credit, haha). Matt tells me I definitely have time for one more loop, but I know my body is done. I hand over my chip, and put on my trusty warm Dad jacket (one of my most prized possessions), and pull up a chair next to the fire. I sit there for the next 2.5 hours, looking like a lost, exhausted lumberjack. But a happy, lost, exhausted lumberjack.
Hilarious fun note: I sat in that chair for a solid 2 hours before my husband woke up and realized I hadn’t returned to the tent. He came walking up to the start/finish, and immediately starting asking Matt about how much time I had left, if I’d be able to count partial loops if I went over 24 hours, etc. The whole time I was sitting right there, and he didn’t see me. Everyone was looking at him, kind of confused, so when he finally stopped talking I firmly said “I won.” The look of shock and surprise to see me there was priceless. I guess you had to be there.
I finished first female, third runner overall (out of 43 runners attempting the 24 hours). I was awarded a really cool finishers necklace (some people filled them with sand and rocks from the lake, mine is filled with water)…
and a gorgeous first place trophy.
It currently sits on my desk where it will be a daily reminder: quit doubting yourself Heather. Hard work might not pay off immediately, or when you expect it to…but it will catch up to you eventually.
A HUGE thank you to everyone who helped make this happen. Matt for putting on a killer race, race mom Debbie for always making sure I was fed, Karyn, Tony, Alex, and others for cheering me on, the girl who yelled “I love your blog” during the first loop (you have no idea how much that means to me!), all of my fellow racers for being such motivating badasses, and last but not least, this guy: I could do it without him, but I hope I never have to.