If ever I’ve written a roller coaster of a race review, this right here is bound to be the winner.
Where to even start. “The Hulk” as it is affectionately known as among locals, is our home trail running turf, my sanctuary, my saving grace here in Myrtle Beach. So when we found out there was going to be a trail race here, of course we were going to run…otherwise the FOMO would have been utterly ridiculous. When given the options of a 5K, 10K, 20K, or an actual Hulk 50K…we didn’t even hesitate in signing up for the 50. My outlook on races and how to choose which ones to register for has gone from “what kind of swag will I get (medals, shirts, etc)?” to more recently “how can I get the most possible mileage out of this race registration?”. I like to keep my mpd high…that’s miles per dollar. Think a Prius over an SUV. But ultra running style.
Geoff and I didn’t really have a plan for this race, not that you are surprised by that bit of information. We know this course inside and out, as we run a full loop of the Hulk (approximately 7 miles give or take) at least 3+ times every single week. Knowing our average loop time, combined with the fact that we were considering this to be a “training run”, we thought a 6 hour finishing time would be our goal. Actually, I’m not sure how we came up with that exact number, other than Geoff suggested it, and I said, “sure, that sounds nice”.
Saturday morning we made the 5 mile car ride from our house to the race start. Local races are so incredibly convenient. Though we had stopped to pick up our bibs and t shirts the night before, upon arriving at the event, I noticed everyone was wearing timing chips. Confused, I walked up to the a tent, where a woman beat me to the punch and said “you can grab your timing chip here”, and then handed me a chip and a neoprene and Velcro strap. Oh that’s right, this race was being put on by a triathlon company. I must have had the confused “how do these things work again?” look on my face, as she immediately grabbed it back and started assembling it, all while I laughed and mumbled something like “can you tell I’m not a triathlete?”
We put our timing chips on, dropped my sweatshirt off at the car, and barely had time to say hi to a few friend before we were instructed to follow a volunteer down to the road, where the 50K distance would start. 13 of us lined up, 9 men and 4 women. I was absolutely NOT there to race, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to looking at the pre-registered list, then copy and pasting their names on over to Ultrasignup.com to check out some results. I knew there was one woman who came all the way down from New York to race and she had some pretty great race stats…and when I saw her in person (and saw her take OFF after the start) I had a feeling she was a trail shoe in for the win. But the rest of us? No idea.
That’s the crazy thing I’m discovering about the ultra world. Go to a local 5K and look around. See that super fit, young runner who looks like she means business? Chances are she’s your winner. But in the ultra world, age, gender, body type…none of them are direct indicators. People can really surprise you with their mental and physical ability to endure. Plus, 30+ miles is a long way to run, and a lot can happen during that time.
Anyway, we take a group pictures, there is some hilarious and nervous chatter among the group, and before we know it, it’s go time. About four people (including aforementioned New Yorker) take off, while the rest of us lag behind together pointing out trail hazards and cracking random jokes.
The first mile is a bit chaotic, as the 5K, 10K, and 20K runners immediately caught up to us. People from the shorter distances are passing like crazy on the left, while not really making their presence known, so I just start hugging the right side of the trail until I know they have all passed. Geoff leads the rest of us mere mortals, and I’m pretty sure I yell up to him about 10 times in the first 15 minutes to check his pace, because he’s going WAY too fast. Admittedly, it’s kind of hard not to, as our legs seem to have set pace on this trail since we run it so often. But that pace equates to a 10K, and we’ve 40 extra K’s to run today.
Finally, about 2.5 miles in, we run to the top of a big hill, my heart is pounding and my lungs screaming, and I yell “that’s it. I’m walking”. It’s 2.5 miles into a 50K and I’m huffing and puffing? Yeah, we’ve made a ton of ground on the runners behind us, but this is stupid racing if I’ve ever seen it. I get wanting to get away from the pack, but I’m not going to throw away my entire race that quickly. If I’ve learned anything in my 10 years of racing, it’s to not eat creamy alfredo sauce the night before a race, and don’t go out too quickly unless you want to hit the proverbial wall, and hit it hard. I let my heart rate come back down, and somehow convince Geoff to settle into a more Zone 2 endurance friendly running pace.
I notice right from about mile 3 on that I’m the second place female. I catch occasional glimpses of first place…and know that unless something happens to her, I’m not going to catch her. And I’m OK with that, as I didn’t come out to race. But I also catch occasional glimpses of third place. She’s a few minutes back, and despite the fact that I didn’t come out to race, my inner competitive voice is whispering “don’t you dare let her catch you…” I actually sort of envy people who lack any competitive drive, because mine can be a huge pain in the ass sometimes.
The course consists of three 10-ish mile loops. It starts with “The Hulk” itself, then hits the pavement for just a very brief time (few hundred yards at best), before heading into a new trail section, called “Black Snake”, exiting onto a long stretch of dirt road, then tucking into the woods for another new loop (I’ve heard this called everything from “baby Hulk” to “North Face”, but I tend to just point towards it’s general direction when referring to it, and call it “that new trail”. )
As we exit the Hulk and head into Black Snake, I notice that #3 is still back there. And while I don’t want it to bother me, it does. There is that nagging pressure to not lose second place.
Black snake is a brand new trail and it shows in the numerous holes and roots of newly dug soil. You have to run head down or you will end up face down. It’s a short stretch, maybe a mile, but feels so much longer because you are itching for it to be over. Baby Hulk (or whatever you want to call it) is actually quite fun, save for one sandy section that made my feet slide around in my shoes and just beg for blisters (thankfully I didn’t get any). We power through and finish our first full loop in about 1:50. This is spot on, right on par with our end goal of 6 hours. I look back and #3 is no where to be seen. I must have picked up a significant lead. I suddenly feel even more pressure to keep that lead.
As if the universe wants to remind me that I’m NOT here to race, this is exact same moment where Geoff needs to use the bathroom. I stand next to the port-a-potty pacing back and forth, pretending I don’t care. But I do. And this is where said lead starts to get smaller and smaller and smaller…until I see #3 just yards behind me as Geoff emerges from the port-a-potty. I suppress the inner competitive voice that wants to shout “did you really need to poop NOW?” at Geoff, and instead put my “this is just a training run” happy face back on. And I repeat it myself over and over. This is just a training run. Run your OWN race. Don’t worry about her. Run your own damn race. And by the way, your race is just a training run.
Off we go, to start lap #2.
For me, other than the pesky, nagging, inner competitive voice that will not shut up, everything wass going well. I’m taking a chew (either a Clif Blok or Gu Chomp) every 30 minutes, and a Hammer Endurolyte on the top of each hour. I’m religiously sipping from my hydration pack, because even though the sky is overcast, it’s incredibly humid out. I feel really good. Undertrained, story of my life, but good. I’m slowly gaining BACK much of the lead I previously had.
The only slightly negative situation I’m encountering is that my thighs are starting to chafe. Ah, the infamous chub rub. An affliction I have been fortunate to avoid for my entire life is now suddenly plaguing me due to recent weight gain. The burning at my shorts line is starting to become more noticeable and I don’t know what to do. I ask Geoff if he has any body glide. He says no. But they he says “I have some Vaseline in my crotch if you want it”. I know he is only half joking, as he truly does run with a lot of Vaseline in his undercarriage. And I don’t think he’s utterly shocked when I reply “Yes please”. All is fair in love and war…and running really, really far. So sure enough, he reaches down the front of his shorts and produces just the faintest amount of Vaseline on his fingers. I stop running and extend my legs, pointing to the now red patches of skin. Vaseline exchanged.
That, my friends, is true love. Disgusting, true, dirt-bag runner love.
So as I was saying, I’m feeling good. Even better now that my thighs aren’t attacking each other. But about two miles into loop #2, I notice Geoff isn’t feeling so good. In fact, he starts suggesting already that we take a Galloway approach (run/walk). I find myself absolutely shocked that he’s even suggesting such a thing, usually he’s the one dragging ME down the trails. I tell him we’ll start walking the uphills, but it is WAY too soon to not be running most of the course. I figure he’s just having a slight dip in energy levels. This happens to me all of the time, I’ll feel like utter crap, and then 20 minutes late get a second wind and feel fantastic again. It isn’t until about 4 miles into this loop that I realize it’s more than just an energy dip…he has found his “wall” and hit it full force.
And we aren’t even halfway through our race.
Geoff slows WAY down, but we still relentlessly move forward through the second loop of the Hulk. Lady #3, who now has a guy pacing her, is slowly making ground, until she is just yards behind us again. We leave the Hulk section, hit up the aid station just before entering Black Snake, and Geoff starts fumbling. I mean, straight up fumbling. He’s not doing well. I reach for the giant cooler to refill my hydration bladder, only to discover it is full of Gatorade, not water. And there is no water to be found. I start cursing under my breath, completely unsure of what step to take next. Gatorade sits in my stomach worse than alfredo sauce, so I just throw my pack back on, empty. I figure I’ll run to the next stop (only a few miles away) and hope for the best. I start wondering if I missed a really important memo that this course was self supported….
We turn to head back down the trail, and there she is, #3.
Literally, we are side by side in the road. My gut instinct is to sprint ahead of her on the trail and maintain my lead. In the same second that I consider taking off, I look over at Geoff, who is now standing there with no shirt, no hydration pack, looking like shit (sorry honey). And I know I have a decision to make.
I stop dead in my tracks, and the bratty, spoiled, competitive child in me says something completely snarky to Geoff like “let her go ahead, you’re not going to be able to keep up anyway” and I let her go. Geoff tried multiple times to tell me to run ahead and get her, but I just had a gut feeling that he was not just in a bad place, he was borderline in a dangerous place. So I refused. Politely a few times, and then with my total bitch voice.
“We are in this together, we are finishing together. So drop it.”
I swallowed my pride and made peace with losing second place even though I was feeling fantastic. Some things are more important than finishing times, and this was certainly one of those times. Geoff is in no shape to be out there alone, and I know he would never dream of leaving me when I was physically and mentally falling apart in the middle of a race. And as soon as I accepted the fact that I let her pass me, I felt a sense of relief. No more looking over my shoulder every sharp turn to see if I could spot her.
My focus quickly shifts.
We are 16 miles into a 50K, and I’m already having to start using my mom voice on poor Geoff, insisting that he eats when I tell him to, even though he wants nothing to do with food. Man do I know that feeling. But I also know that it is still far too early in the race to let it go. He won’t finish without some sort of nutrition. I force a couple of endurolytes into his palm and watch him take them. We run / walk through these last few sections. I found water to refill my hydration bladder (yes!) and we make it to the end of loop 2. Surprisingly, we are still on target for a 6 hour finish, finishing loop two somewhere around 3 hours and 50 minutes.
Back at the start, I contemplate telling Geoff to quit. I selfishly want to run much faster, and selfishly want the love of my life to leave this race HEALTHY. But then I think of how shitty it would feel if someone told me to quit. So instead I told him I wouldn’t be upset if he didn’t want to go on, that I could and would finish without him. He says he wants to try to finish, so I tell him I’ll be the “race mule”. Pack your snacks in my bag. I’ll carry all of the water, I’ll carry everything. I feel good, let me do the work.
We’ll get to the finish line.
The next 2 hours and 47 minutes transitioned from a little bit of running and mostly walking, to just a tiny bit of running and a lot of walking, to only walking. There were many, many stops, and many, many times I told Geoff “I don’t care if you don’t want ‘fruity’ things, eat this damn clif blok!” Every time he apologized, I reminded him that this was great training, it was just MORE time on my feet, right? Also, I told him my blog thanked him, for now I had a valid reason to take out my phone and start taking pictures. Sadly, the pictures would all be of Geoff’s bad day (don’t worry, he fully approved this entire post and all pictures). For a while, Geoff was able to maintain a 13:30 ish walking pace, so fast that I often had to gallop to catch up to him. But by the end, our mile pace dropped closer to 20+ minutes.
Being that this was our normal training trail, I saw so many shortcuts that I would normally hop right over in instances like this. Much of the trail is switchbacks, and it is so easy to get from point A to point B faster by cutting across. So many times I had to consciously remind myself “you can’t do that, this is a race, not a training run”. My gut instinct was “Geoff isn’t doing well, get to the finish as fast as possible”. But the reality was, if Geoff wanted an official finish (and he did) we had to cover every official step of that course. And we were going to.
One foot in front of the other. By now, people that were quite literally 1.5 miles behind us on the last loop have now passed us.
But we keep going.
We get to the final stretch of trail where Geoff tells me he wishes I could somehow tow him as he is quite literally falling asleep standing up. This scares me, because Geoff is a badass athlete who seems impervious to fatigue. As mentioned before, he is the one normally dragging ME along. But we are WAY too close to quit now, a mere two miles at best. I’m grateful he decided to grab his camelback at the very last stretch and put it back on. At least we have that going for us. So I start telling stories and just marching forward, hoping he’ll try and keep up.
I loathe the term “Death March” because I feel it’s insulting to people who truly did march/hike/suffer their way to literal death. This was simply an ultra, a self inflicted sort of torture. First world problems indeed. But…the words death march come to mind when describing Geoff’s last few miles. Walk a few steps, stop for a few seconds. Walk a few steps, stop for a few more seconds. The sun had finally come out, and it was getting really hot, really fast.
We finally make it to the finish line. I find myself initially disappointed that there is seemingly NO ONE around. Not even under the tent at the finish line. I feel almost defeated, as if it doesn’t actually count if no one sees you at the finish line (it does count, but having complete strangers seemingly as excited to see you at the finish line as you are to see the finish line, is fun.) No sooner do I say “well this sucks” to Geoff, then a crowd of ten or so people come running from their cars, cheering and ringing cowbells enthusiastically. A woman grabs the microphone and announces our names literally as we cross the finish line. It put a smile on my face.
The same woman puts a medal around each of our necks and congratulates us on a job well done. I head to my car (only a few feet away) to peel off my shoes and put on my flip flops. That is one of the BEST post race feelings on earth, freedom for your toes. Second best thing? The taste of an icy cold Coca-Cola. I never drink coke…except for post long race. I have no idea where this craving comes from, but it appears I’m not alone in that feeling.
We stick around to cheer in the rest of the runners behind us. Turns out, despite our less than stellar day, we still finish pretty solid in the middle of the pack. A tiny pack, but the middle none the less. With a finishing time of 6:47:17, nearly an hour behind what we had hoped to do, we still came in 7.5 th (you know, #7 & #8 when you cross the finish line hand in hand) out of 13 runners. I finished third female, Geoff 7th male. This means that we both took home awesome top 10 finishers pint glasses, which they were kind enough to WAIT until we had crossed the finish line to hold the 50K awards ceremony. Sorry you guys had to wait so long.
Oh, and there was this guy, who totally made my day when he crossed the finish line, pushed the Coke’s aside, and got in the cooler. I mean kiddie pool full of ice. I love runners. So great.
In the end, the race is what is. Or was what it was. The course itself was fantastic. Setup Events and the Myrtle Beach Triathlon Club did a stellar job turning our little trail into a well marked, well executed race. We have NO idea why Geoff bonked as hard as he did, nothing he did pre race was different than any other race we’ve done recently. That’s the crazy thing about running, most days are great, some days are particularly awesome, and every now and then nothing goes right. And when you race together with a partner, the chances of a bad day are doubled.
But it’s the risk you take to cross the finish line with your best friend and love of your life, and there is no one else on earth I’d rather cross finish lines with.