Last Updated on April 15, 2021 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP
Buckle up, my friends. My race report for the 2021 The Country Mile 48 hour ultramarathon might just be my longest one yet. But as so many of you in this community know, ultras are often about so much more than running. And it’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to experience the amazing highs and soul sucking lows that accompany a race of this distance. So…I have a lot to say.
If you’re here simply for a review of The Country Mile ultramarathon, here’s your short version: it’s dusty, there’s zero shade, and rain will turn the course into peanut-butter-esque mud. It’s beautiful, flat (save for one hill), the atmosphere was invigorating, and the swag is amazing (a belt buckle the size of your head). Overall it was an incredible event. I 10/10 recommend it, put it on your to-do list.
If you want a more intimate review covering all of the hilarious highs, and heartbreaking lows of this crazy sport – keep reading.
2020 tried to break me – and truth be told, I almost let it.
There was a night in early October where I made some backhanded comments over family dinner (fueled by some liquid truth in the form of vodka, if I’m being honest.) about how “nothing matters anymore, anyways”. The words poured out of my mouth effortlessly, and though I could see the discomfort in the eyes of my family as the words pierced the air, I felt nothing.
Nothing in my life brought me joy anymore. I was physically and emotionally broken, and ready to just give up. Later that night, I was (necessarily and lovingly) called out by my husband for my steady decline in mental health. I crumbled into a pile of tears (again, this was suddenly a common occurrence in my life) wondering what the hell was wrong with me.
The next day, I went for a run. It sucked, of course, because I hadn’t been taking care of myself, physically or emotionally. About a mile into the run, a thought popped into my head so loud, it almost felt like anyone standing near me could have heard it as well.
“What do you think would happen if you just tried believing in yourself for once?”
The thought that came out of nowhere continued to echo in my mind. I kept thinking about how my current life situation could change if I just shut off all of incessant negative thoughts in my head, the constant and relentless questioning of my worth, and just believed in myself. I thought about this over, and over, and over for the rest of the run. And when I came home, my husband told me about The Country Mile, Upstate Ultras newest race.
And even though I hadn’t run a race – never mind an ultra – in over a year with this broken, beat up body…I signed up. And that was the spring board that helped me jump out of the deep dark hole I had spent the last year digging myself into.
It seems so simple, and I absolutely do not mean to minimize the complexity of mental health. But for the last 6 months, training for The Country Mile was a beacon of light that helped me get out of my own damn way. Because I started believing in myself. I started training smart, and stopped second guessing my abilities. And the result was not only a happy, healthy, strong body, but a happier, healthier, stronger mind.
And so I set myself some big, scary goals.
“Set a goal so big that you can’t achieve it until you grow into the person who can”. – unknown
Fast forward 6 months. I’m feeling strong and ready for this race. On Thursday before the event, Geoff and I drive up to Greenville, SC to meet up with two of our earliest Hart Strength and Endurance clients, Regan and Christina. They’ve traveled all the way from New England (CT & ME respectively) and invite us to spend the night before the race with them at their Air BnB. We absolutely love meeting them and spending time with them.
(Three cheers for COVID vaccinations!)
I had spent the entire previous week “behaving” myself – eating well, avoiding alcohol, and focusing on getting quality sleep. But, one night in a new town with new friends, I let my guard down and have a handful of craft beers. Now, this might not seem like a huge deal to most people, and I’ll be honest, for most people it isn’t. But my downfall is twofold: 1) more often than not, alcohol impairs my sleep and causes insomnia, and 2) my addictive personality and genetic predispositions leave me having a hard time knowing when to “stop”. And so what could have been a harmless single beer, turned into four high ABV local brews that kicked my ass.
We’ve all got our demons.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a ton of fun (as can be seen on the SCUMBAG ultra podcast we recorded that night with the race director). But…I also didn’t sleep (I remember last seeing the clock read about 4 am, and then again 7 am when I got out of bed for the day) and woke up with a raging hangover. Of course I was secretly seething at myself while I tried to play it cool.
Eventually my sister Holly arrives in town from Alabama, she has volunteered to be my crew chief for the weekend. And the five of us (Geoff, Christina, Regan, Holly, and myself) head over to Beachwood Farms, the location of The Country Mile.
We score what I would consider one of the best parking/camping spots available, thanks in part to both arriving early AND our friend Eric bribing the race director with Subway in exchange for a sweet spot.
We spent the next 8 hours catching up with old friends, laughing, and trying to quell the nervous energy before the 8 pm start. And I, of course, am hydrating like it’s my job, trying to negate any damage from the previous night.
8:00 PM – 48 Hour Race Start
People keep excitedly asking me if I’m ready. I’ve never been more ready to run a race in my entire life. Despite my rookie mistake the night before, and that I was now going into this race ALREADY behind on sleep (and probably not with the happiest, healthiest gut), I knew the last 6 months of training had done their job. It had been a very, very long time since I pushed these sort of distances, and I was so ready. Those 8 hours of waiting Friday afternoon before the race might have been the second hardest part of the weekend.
Finally though, we get to line up, and Matt sends on our way. (Actually, I’m pretty sure he ran with us for part of the first loop). The Country Mile course consists of a 3.03 mile loop. The idea is to run as many loops as you can or want to in 48 hours (or 24 hours, if you signed up for that option. There was also a 50K and 5K race as well). I knew I was capable of doing big things, but I was ready to get past the anxiety of the “unknown” of that first loop.
There were a TON of people running the 48 hour option of this race, and I found myself struggling to “get away” from people. I’ve become so accustomed to Chad Haffa (Eagle Endurance)’s lonely swamp races that I was seeking the solitude I had experienced during training, and pictured as my race day experience.
As such, I ran the first 3.03 mile loop way too damn fast. But, what I remembered before the sun set on us during that first loop was there was a lot of flat, dusty farm roads, and one big ol’ hill (at least for us coastal dwelling flat-landers) in the middle of the 3 mile course.
Once I returned to camp finishing up the first loop, I was immediately scolded by both Geoff and our friend Karyn, who both separately told me to slow the f*ck down. I know, I know, I yelled as I headed back to the start finish line.
I’m off to a typical Heather start.
It was harder to really “take in” the course from the beginning, because we were running in the dark. But essentially, the first mile was practically a straight shot from the starting line towards the back of the farm. You took a left down what I would end up calling “frog alley” (which later would become a mud-pit, but we’ll get there soon enough), then another left that brought you past a bunch of sheds and barns. Back into the fields and down dirt roads, up and over a small – but deceivingly long (like three false summits) hill, back into the fields, and another right hand turn to the start/finish area. Before you could finish, you had to do a small loop through the tent/RV field, conveniently, right past our tent.
On loop #2 I slowed the f*ck down, as I was told, and settled into my race strategy. In retrospect, that “strategy” wasn’t as concrete as it should have been. You see, my goal – the one I had shouted from the rooftops – was to run 150 miles in 48 hours. I had told my crew that I was fully prepared to take up every second of that 48 hours if need be.
But in classic Heather fashion, I let other details get in the way of the big picture. I let the fact that it was supposed to rain all day Saturday convince me that maybe I should try to focus on knocking out the first 100 miles as quickly as possible. Which led me to wondering if I could set a 100 mile PR while I was at it – I was certainly trained and in shape for it, and the course was conducive for doing such (28:13 is my current 100 mile PR). I started focusing so much on the “100 mile” idea, that the strategy I SHOULD have followed – run the 150 in stages with solid blocks of sleep in between – went out the window. I started convincing myself that it “doesn’t count” if there’s a TON of sleep in-between, then it’s just a stage race (note: this is my own shitty self deprecating talk – I don’t feel this way about anyone else’s accomplishments).
Please note, I would NEVER let an athlete think – or do – these things. I am confident in my ability as a coach, but as an athlete myself, I’m often bumbling around like this is my first rodeo (it’s not). But I digress. I learn a lot about myself during each one of these races, and I suppose that’s part of the appeal. I’m a confusing human being, so gaining any insight into why I do what I do is always helpful.
NEVERTHELESS…I’m running, running well, and feeling really damn strong and happy. Good gravy, I love running.
Working on those night moves…
I run through the entire night by myself. I’m following my appropriate pacing and run/walk strategy. I even decide on my third loop to stop RUNNING down the back side of the hill that’s littered with baseball sized rocks, to avoid the possibility of twisting an ankle. I’m eating when I should, tending to my feet when I should, I’m doing all of the things right.
Somewhere around mile 30 I’m cruising along feeling good. I turn onto one of the dirt roads and see a person about 200 yards ahead of me. I’m looking at their posture and movements, and I’m suddenly SO confused. First of all, are they coming or going? I can’t tell if they are running away from me, or towards me. Second..is he or she…GOOSE STEPPING? The rigidity and what appears to be excessive over exaggeration of arm and leg swing have me kind of baffled. I’m focusing way too hard on trying to figure out what’s going on ahead of me when…
I’m on my hands and knees, stuff falling out of my hydration pockets all over the road, heart thumping in my throat. I have no idea what I tripped on, but I hit the ground hard and fast. Now, I’m no stranger to falling. I wouldn’t say I’m clumsy, but I’m certainly far from graceful. But this fall scared me. Perhaps because it was so unexpected – we’re running on FLAT dirt roads. But also because I hit the ground with such hard force – and that ground was indeed HARD. I get up, brush myself off, gather all of my stuff, and start walking.
And of course, do a quick 360 to see if anyone around me saw that nonsense.
I recover from the startling fall quickly, and even brag about it to race director Matt when I get back to the timing area. “You should have seen that yard sale!” I exclaim as I cheerfully check off another loop.
All things considered, I’m feeling fine and making it through the night solo with no issues. I had told my crew to get some sleep on the first night, I’d need them more for the second night. And it was true, I was managing just fine. Nevertheless, I was happy when 6 am rolled around, daylight started to return, and the hustle and bustle of the 24 hour & 50K runners arriving for the start of their race began.
I finish the first 50 miles in about 12 hours and 15 minutes. I’m feeling great and on par for a decent first 100…
…until all of a sudden I’m not.
My left knee that took the brunt of my fall is starting to not only protest, but scream. Ultramarathons hurt, there’s no doubt about it. But there is a difference between the dull “my body hurts because I’ve been running for a really long time” sort of pain, and the sharp, stabbing “something isn’t right” pain.
I resign myself to less and less running, and more and more walking. “It’s too early for this!” I keep telling myself. But each time I run, the stabbing pain gets worse. Seeing the rush of fresh, rested 24 hour and 50K runners flood the course doesn’t help my confidence. At some point, I stop for 5 minutes to elevate and ice my knee.
And shove pop-tart bites into my grocery hole.
Geoff joins me for a few miles, I’m going to guess around 54-60. Before the race I had promised myself – and him – that anytime anyone asked me how I was doing, I was going to say “I’m doing GREAT!” and I was going to convince myself that I meant it. Mindset is such a huge part of this sport, and I wanted to see if it could help keep me out of my own head. At one point around mile 57 or so I say to Geoff “I’m doing great…but I need to have a minute to cry”.
This has become a practical, albeit hilarious, habit of mine during ultra running. When I start to feel overwhelmed with emotions because shit is getting hard, instead of trying to bottle it up or push it away, I acknowledge it and let it out. It usually lasts a minute or two at most, and then I almost feel instantly better. I always warn new people in our group or crew that at any given point during a big race, I’m going to cry, but I promise I’m fine.
And I will be fine this time too. But in that moment, the exhaustion from sleep deprivation is catching up to me, and I’m beginning to realize that I might have blown my goal already. I am disappointed, and I tell Geoff so. Because I trained my ass off for this race, and now I’ve already messed up twice. I set myself up for failure by NOT sleeping Thursday night, and now I was too busy paying attention to someone else rather than myself that I friggin fell, and my knee is NOT happy with me. I’m more tired than I should be at this point in the day, and I’m in a different type of pain than I had anticipated.
Stupid bad luck injuries are never part of the plan.
Geoff says he totally understands – and then he suggests that maybe I try to take a little nap when we get back to camp.
Miles 60 – 75: Tornados & a Kneenus
We get back to our tents, and I tell Holly my plan. I want her to check on me after 90 minutes. If I’m awake, I’ll get up and run. If I’m still sleeping, give me thirty more minuets for a solid two hours.
It was wishful thinking.
I change my clothes and crawl into my sleeping bag. My eyes instantly close, but my brain absolutely refuses to shut off. It’s around 11:16 am, and the buzz of activity everywhere outside is just too overstimulating for my mind. I know the exact time, because I hear a hilarious interaction from the tent next to us. Our friend Karyn is trying to get Tony to get up out of his chair to head back out for another loop. I hear him exclaim something like:
“NO. This five minute break after every loop is the ONLY THING I HAVE TO LOOK FORWARD TO. We came in at 11:16, I’m not moving until 11:21.” I chuckle to myself, never have I related to something so strongly before.
I toss and turn and TRY to get some sleep, but take some comfort in knowing that just closing my eyes is better than nothing at all. Finally, about 70 minutes in I just get out of bed and crawl out of the tent. I’m wasting time.
So I head back out on the course. Fortunately, the 70 minutes of eyes closed plus a caffeinated SIS gel work wonders, I’m feeling good again.
The next 5 loops are relatively uneventful. Rain drizzles on and off. I take my jacket on and off seemingly three dozen times. I can’t decide if I’m hot or cold in the rain. I experiment with shorter runs here and there. I talk to people, and feel ridiculous every time I feel the need to “explain” why I’m walking and not running. But overall, I’m doing alright.
I’m about two thirds of the way through loop 25 (finishing up 75 miles) when the sky absolutely opens up and it starts POURING. It’s fine, but I definitely decide to dip into the tent and exchange my running jacket for an actual rain jacket when I finish the loop.
As I’m switching out jackets, I see the radar pulled up on my friend Jessica’s phone. “Ummm…how long is this supposed to last?” I ask the group as a whole.
Between Jessica, Holly, and Regan they determine that we have a good 90 minutes of gnarly weather ahead of us…and the worst is yet to come. In a moment of what I can only describe as “fuck it”, I decide to wait out the weather in the tent.
And that was it, the defining moment where my goal changed. I decided I was no longer going to chase after 150 miles. It had been a long day already, I was so far behind where I wanted to be. I had done a million things wrong already, but I knew I could still at least buckle. 100 miles was still something to be damn proud of, so that was my new “A” goal. And I decided to put all of my energy on getting there, while still remembering my mantra: “I’m doing GREAT!” (damnit!)
Plus I could no longer keep my eyes open.
Over the next 90 minutes a gnarly storm did indeed blow through, so bad that a burst of wind (some say it was a tornado) ripped a bunch of tents off of the ground and threw them into some of the strawberry fields. Thankfully our little corner of tent city survived. I dozed and shivered throughout the whole thing. Eventually, the rain let up enough that I was comfortable leaving our pop-up tent for our sleeping tent to FINALLY change out of my wet clothes.
Oh, and I get to reapply the KT tape to my knee. I go with an aggressive pattern….while my knee is bent as I’m sitting. I stand up and the swollen flesh over my knee cap pops through the KT tape making the most hilarious sight, it brings us to our proverbial knees. We determine that it looks a lot like the fleshy skin on your elbow, often refered to as a “Weenus”. And thus, we rename my knee a “kneenus”.
This is ultrarunning, my friends.
Now, fresh outfit, fresh hydration pack, and kneenus taped and ready to go, I headed back out for more fun.
Miles 75 – 91
As anticipated, the course turned into a regular slip and slide during the rain storm. While parts of the course were simply wet sand, others were now pits of sticky, slippery mud resembling the consistency of peanut butter. And the hill? Climbing it now became a game of taking one careful step at a time, making sure you didn’t slide backwards, then bracing yourself for the next step. I was kind of glad I had written off my 150 plan, because this would have definitely been another monkey wrench in my plan.
I wasn’t mad. I was no longer disappointed. I just kept reminding myself that I was out there on that course doing one of my favorite things on earth: suffering during an ultramarathon. Which, when I would stop and think of it, made me laugh. What an absurd sport to love so much.
And so I kept up a cheerful attitude for much of this section. I’m cheering people on, doing my thing, and feeling pretty great, despite the fact that I’m almost exclusively walking. At one point, we see Tony coming in to finish his 90th mile. I’m still around 84 miles and feeling good. I can see he’s miserable, so I creep up on his right side and say “Excuse me, sir? As soon as you finish 100 miles I’m going to need to you to get back out on the course and pace me for a few loops if you don’t mind.” He turned and looked at me with the most unamused face I’ve ever seen in my life. Haha, sorry Tony!
As we head in the opposite direction, I say to Geoff “I wonder if I’m going to feel that miserable soon. “
“Yep.” he replies.
I’m so tired. When I get back to the tent, I ask for a ten minute “rest” and no one objects. I think maybe Holly feeds me, but I don’t remember. I realize that I can’t actually rest, my body is so overstimulated, so I eventually get back up and convince myself to take more caffeine. I had just had a caffeinated gel the previous loop, but the half of a 5 hour energy shot that was still left on my snack table was calling my name. I slam it down and hope for the best, as we leave the tent once again.
Mile 92: “There’s no such thing as an ‘easy’ 100 miler”
Geoff and I take off down the course on the start of what would be my third to last loop. 33 loops are required for a 100 mile finish, and I’m starting #31. We see Tony coming in to finish his race. “It’s buckle time!” he says with an air of excitement and utter exhaustion. Geoff gives him a huge hug, and we both congratulate him.
But my excitement for our friend is short lived. I’m starting to mix up words (I call a tackle box a golf cart) and hallucinate (I see stop sign that isn’t there, and a troll creeping over the riverbank that’s actually just a bush…just to name a few). I’m struggling to remember to drink water because it takes too much effort.
We’re about a mile into the loop when all of a sudden I am utterly overwhelmed with the feeling that I just can’t do this anymore. I’ve never felt more tired in my life. I say to Geoff “now I remember why I quit at mile 90 of Knock on Wood that one time”. And instead of laughing at the memory or using at as motivation, I genuinely fear I’m about to do it again.
Now, I have two children, who didn’t sleep as babies. I’ve pulled many sleepless overnights in my lifetime. I know what it’s like to be utterly exhausted and still keep pushing forward. But this was a whole different level of exhaustion. My body felt as if it was turning inside out. I’d close my eyes and feel my whole face tingle. In those moments, it’s so hard to remember WHY you want to do this. It’s so hard to believe that this will be over soon, and you’ll be happy you pushed through. Every ounce of my being is screaming at me to stop, and I can’t think of a reason why I shouldn’t.
I’m feeling a bit panicky. I wanted nothing more than to just lay down in the road, despite the fact that it was just one giant mud pit.
Speaking of mud pit – as soon as we make it out of the big one by frog corner, I look at Geoff and out of the blue say “I need to hold your hand”.
“Do you need me to pull you?” he asks, confused.
“No,” I reply “I just need you to calm me down I think.”
He takes my trekking poles into his right hand and grabs my right hand with his left. And it’s not until I feel the comfort of his touch that I realize I’m having an anxiety attack. While that second half of the 5 hour energy did jack shit for keeping me awake, it certainly pissed off my central nervous system. I take a few deep breaths and feel my throat tighten a bit. I’m too tired to cry, but the feeling is there.
But his touch helps, and after about another half mile, just before the hill, I’m able to let go. I’m feeling so much better already. Still just as exhausted as before, but not nearly as overwhelmed by the task in front of me.
And that task was two more damn loops.
We get back to the tent and pick up our friend Christina. She has two more loops to finish her first ever 100K, and is really struggling being out there alone. I think this will be a great distraction to help us both get to the finish line.
But, my brain has suddenly gone into “you only have 6 miles left, let’s powerwalk this thing like you’re racing the old ladies in the walking club at the mall” and I take off.
I have absolutely nothing to report about those last 6 miles, because I put my head down and pushed. I blew right past our tent between the second to last and last loop, yelling to my sister that I didn’t need anything and I’d see her soon. And finally…finished my 33rd loop, in the most undramatic, casual way ever.
Third 100 mile finish in the books. Although it was NO WHERE NEAR a PR, I’m still happy to have earned that finish.
After many years in this sport, I’ve learned that no matter how confident you are in the decisions you make during a race, you’re almost always going to second guess yourself from the comfort of your couch a few days later.
And my experience at The Country Mile is no different.
I do know without a shadow of a doubt that I couldn’t have “run” through the pain of my knee, so I don’t feel any regrets there. I know I did the right thing in slowing down to walk.
But, I can’t help but wonder had I not fallen, if my race day strategy still would have worked. I’m leaning towards “NOPE, not even close”.
I think that in the future if I attempt a big distance like 150 miles again (and I will, have no fear…but not for a while, I promised my husband time off) I have to be extra careful with my sleep strategy, especially with a race that has a night start. I watched other athletes have great success by taking multiple hours to sleep each night, and then catching up on mileage the next day when they felt refreshed.
I do wonder if I should have kept going when I woke up Sunday morning after getting a couple of hours of sleep, feeling much better. I was barely even sore, and the day was shaping up to be beautiful. I probably could have logged at least half a dozen more loops in those 12 hours, if not more. But even though my friend Alex kept harassing me to get back out on the trail and earn my 150, in that moment I was truly content being done.
But now? Well…days later and after plenty of rest, it’s so much easier to think you could have pushed further.
All of that said, I’m more than pleased with the fact that I was able to finish 100 miles. More so, I was thrilled that the next day, and the day after that, and even now, I have very minimal signs that I even covered such a distance just a mere few days ago. I have zero blisters, zero sore muscles, zero lost toenails. Other than a bruised knee and a raspy voice, and some classic post-ultra-brain-fog, nothing hurts, which I truly believe is a testament to my training.
Ultimately, The Country Mile was about something so much bigger for me than JUST hitting an arbitrary distance goal. This race came to me at a time when I needed something outside of myself to focus on, something to cling to help me out of a deep hole. Mental health struggles are something I’ve dealt with in the past, and the chaos of 2020 only exacerbated. I know that running alone is not a cure all for these issues, and I’m constantly working on them in other ways. But this goal and this race was something to grasp hold on to when I felt like I was drowning, and gave me something to focus on while the turbid waters around me receded.
And 5 miles or 150 miles, for that alone, I’ll be forever grateful.
While I participate in this crazy sport for my own very personal reasons, I’ll be the first to tell you it takes a village to raise an ultrarunner.
I could not have done this without my sister, who volunteered to be my crew chief less than two weeks prior. Her selflessness and always positive vibe (and grilled cheese cooking skills) not only helped me get to the finish line, but helped others as well. She absolutely rocks at this job, and I’m so happy that she’s able to share these experiences with me.
Then of course there were endless friends whose smiles, jokes, laughter, and hugs (from the vaccinated crew) gave me life throughout the course of the weekend. Eric, Alex, Debbie, Karyn, Tony, Jessica, Christina, Regan, Stacy, Ann, Claire, Karen, Colin, Dave, and so many more. Too many to list. These people remind me of the good in the world, and inspire me to keep being better, both as an athlete and a human.
There was my beautiful soul of a friend Courtnie who drove 5.5 hours after a race of her own on Saturday night to come pace me, even though by the time she got to me, there was no pacing left to do. She is a saint. I would have been so mad at me, but instead of being mad, she just jumped right in to help take down tents and pack up our stuff.
Thanks to Matt Hammersmith for providing super fun events, and more so, creating a contagious energy at these events that makes them feel more like a family reunion.
And of course – Geoffrey. I know he doesn’t always love MY love for ultramarathons. I know he worries about me, and my inability to know when enough is enough. But nevertheless, I know he ultimately wants to see me succeed. And while I know that without a doubt I could do this by myself – I’m really glad that I don’t have to.
I love this community with every ounce of my being, and I’m so grateful to be a part of it.