In June of 2014 I ran the inaugural Hell Hole Hundred (H3) in the low country of South Carolina. The race is put on by Chad Haffa of Eagle Endurance events on the Jericho Horse Trail, running through the Francis Marion National Forest. On paper the H3, in all of its various distances, *sounds* easy. It is flat and not overly technical double and single track trail with some service roads. The 30 hour cut-off for the hundred mile is generous enough. I finished (FINALLY) in 28 hours and 41 minutes the first year, 3rd overall... out of 5 finishers. Most runners had many hours earlier thrown in the towel completely or taken the "drop down" option to a shorter distance. I collapsed in a chair and, as Chad handed me my buckle, I declared "I never have to do that again."
Forward one year to 2015 and Chad has decided, apparently, that 5 finishers out of an original 19 starters was too many. He introduces the El Diablo option, 140.6 (you know, just to bug the heck out of the triathletes) miles, starting at 6pm the Friday night prior to the standard H3 events. There were no finishers in 2015. The reasons are another race report all together, maybe I'll get to that one day.
I'm not one to take a DNF lightly, especially on my what I consider my home turf. So there was simply no option in 2016 but to return to El Diablo and finish. Again, there were eight or maybe nine starters. Again, there's a race report that needs to be written. In the end there were two finishers, myself & Nathan Dewey.
Nathan & I were acquaintances through Chad's races by that time. Nathan had been working his way in to the ultra running scene in Charleston, had volunteered at the first H3, ran the 100 mile option in 2015 and now couldn't resist the 2016 El Diablo edition. We had volunteered at Chad's Wambaw Swamp Stomp earlier that Spring where we really got to know one another better. We did not spend a lot of time together during El Diablo. Our plans just didn't line up and he finished about 4 hours earlier than I did. We had 43 hours to complete the race. I cruised in with a comfortable 7 minutes to spare.
The shared experience of being the only two to complete El Diablo would become the ground work for a developing running friendship though. And it wasn't long after the finish of El Diablo that Chad announced Devil's Doorknob. I guess, again, two finishers out of 8 (or 9) was too high a percentage. I signed up almost immediately & began recruiting friends to join the madness, er... fun. There was a lot of initial interest. It took until February's Hallucination 24 Hour for me to really twist Nathan's arm enough to get him to sign up. I waited until he was exhausted from trying to win a 24 hour event to wear him down. His main objection to DD being the crew requirement and how he'd find adequate crew for the entire 72 hours allowed. I convinced him that Chad, knowing us and our abilities, would allow us to share crew as long as we had at least one responsible adult out there at all times, especially prior to the start of the regular H3 distances on Saturday. So we agreed if we could each get one or two people to commit at least some time to us up until Saturday, we could "wing it" the rest of the way.
As time drew near there were no other takers besides Nathan and me. We talked regularly, both by phone, text & at events prior to El Diablo about plans, strategies, and of course crew (or our lack there of). We talked with Chad about whether or not there should be intermediate cut-offs and what those cut-offs should be, something that would really come in to play during the race.
For various reasons the people we would normally have called on for help would be largely unavailable that weekend. As late as the week of the race, we had some commitment from Nathan's father-in-law and a less-than firm commitment to be their around their work schedules from Will LeMieux & Lidia Bonete. We were perhaps going to wing more of this than we thought. We were planning our own water drops and trying not to alert Chad to the fact that our crew plans were somewhat fluid, at best. We also had agreed that we would stick together the first night but beyond that we'd just have to each do what was best for ourselves.
Somehow in the couple of days leading up to the race, however, we found ourselves with not just a crew, but an all star crew. A group of friends and family rallied around us, from almost out of thin air. After a call for volunteers and the offer of free races, Dawn Brown decided to come up from Savannah & volunteer/crew Friday & Saturday. Will, being Will, pretty much gave up all other life, except getting Lidia back to work on Friday, from late Thursday through the finish. Lidia gave her whole weekend except the day she had to work to be there. Not only did Nathan's father-in-law pitch in, but his father came from many states away via motorcycle to help at the beginning. Last, but certainly not least, just prior to the weekend, Bo, considering his available vacation days for the year, decided he really wanted that 100 mile buckle, signed up and then committed to come with us Thursday and help until Dawn arrived Friday so he could sleep & run the 100 on Saturday. Friends really don't let friends do stupid stuff alone.
Devil's Doorknob began at 6pm Thursday night. We were required to provide our own support from the start until Friday at 6pm when the El Diablo runners & runners of the night 60k would start. Even then there was only minimal race-provided support until the Saturday events. We also were required, as a safety measure stipulated by the Park Service in order to allow the 211.9 event, to wear a Spot tracker at all times.
The race would consist of 13 loops of 16.3 miles each. Yes, we asked for an out & back to make it an even 212. We were denied.
Nathan & I decided an appropriate way to start the race would be by drinking an Effortless Grapefruit Session Ale, because, you know... we wanted to show Chad we weren't sweating it, at least not yet.
With much fan fare, we set off down the trail at 6pm Thursday night, trying our best to think only of the mile we were on, not the miles to go or the hours ahead.
Bo and Nathan's dad, Mike, teamed up in the beginning. Since Nathan & I already planned to make at least the first night together, there really was no reason for them to split up. I think they had fun together, Bo being a veteran ultra runner & able to share his knowledge with Mike was welcome, I'm sure.
The dark hours of the first night were spent mostly avoiding spider webs. We did our best to leave them in tact and joked about the other runners who would have no idea on Friday & Saturday nights.
Will & Lidia also showed up Thursday night. They are such selfless friends, giving every free minute to make sure we were successful.
By sunrise Friday morning Nathan & I had been up 24 hours already. Foolishly neither of us made any real attempt to get rest prior to the start. People were starting to show up in camp though & set up tents for the other distances. Seeing new people always brings a rush of energy though. Dawn was making her way from Savannah to relieve Bo so he could rest up for the 100. I believe it was after lap 4 on Friday that Nathan's wife Katie & the kids showed up with popsicles. As we made our way down the trail toward our campsite I could hear the kids calling out "we're coming to you, Daddy!" We took about 30 minutes before heading back out again. It was a much-needed break & I'm sure a pick me up for Nathan to see his wife & kids. They're a sweet family & I'm sure she knows it, but Nathan credits Katie and her strength & support as being the reason he gets to do what he does. We talked about our families a lot.
Nathan & I were doing well together and more or less decided we'd continue on together, maybe until the El Diablo runners started that night, since we were still the only two out there running and we were making adequate progress together. I had been certain we would be timing one of our returns to camp around the start of the 140.6 and that Nathan might naturally pick up with Carl Kidwell who was back for redemption from the year before. It did not work out that way. Still, all I could think was the fresher, faster runners would catch us and we'd have company before long.
The first of our intermediate cut-offs was at 6 loops. We had to finish them, 97.8 miles, in 30 hours. It is worth back-tracking for a minute to discuss how we arrived at the cut-offs. The 72 hour overall cut-off had been determined when the race was created. The intermediate cut-offs were decided via an email exchange between me, Chad, Nathan, Will and possibly a couple of others for additional input. We agreed, essentially, to run our first 100 miles at nearly the same pace required to complete the 100 mile event. As we made our way about half way around loop 6, I heard the first seeds of doubt from Nathan. He asked only if I was worried. To which I replied, simply, "no." We finished the lap with less than 30 minutes to spare. So we were at almost midnight Friday night, and we'd seen no additional runners.
Here's the thing about our cut-off agreement. Some would say 30 minutes is chasing the cut-off. In this case, the first two cut-offs were tight. Then the back end was loaded with time to rest and/or slow down. The next cut-off was after loop 9. We would have to be finished with 9 by the 45 hour mark. That is 146.7 miles in 45 hours. Again, the same overall pace as the runners "only" doing 140.6 miles. But, once you reach that 146.7 mile mark, you have at least 27 hours to complete just over 65 miles. In my mind there is little reason to worry about having a cushion on the two intermediate cut-offs. Just make them and you should be home free to take a nap, get some food, change of clothes, and get back out there. I'm not sure Nathan had ever had to worry about a cut-off before. This was new to him. Still, at the 30 hour mark he was hanging tough. Just a few more hours & we'd have daylight and fresh runners!
In the middle of the night sometime we did finally see one runner, Kevin Jones, who was doing the night 60k, on his out & back. Other than that, the only knowledge we had of others on the course was from the manual check-in sheets placed at the unmanned aid stations.
The Saturday races got under way while we were on lap 8. We were expecting to see people right away. To stay on pace for the 9th lap cut-off we had to move pretty efficiently, if not down-right fast, though. Add to that the fact that I took it upon myself to push a little on #8 to give us plenty of time for #9. And it was quite a while before we saw any one. One fast runner did come hauling by us late in the loop yelling "good job 211! Good job!" Nathan & I looked at our bibs & shrugged at one another wonder what in the world the guy was talking about. It was several more minutes before we realized he didn't know our names or bib #'s but had figured we were the runners doing 211 miles. I think he was a 100k runner.
Nathan's watch had died and I knew he wasn't aware of the exact time or our pace. We both were tired. We'd run through two nights, just the two of us, interrupted by only brief periods with our crew at the couple of access points available. We had both been awake for over two days. I thought we could bring in #8 in about 4.5 hours, which was maybe a bit faster than we'd been on the previous couple of laps but it would give us 5.5 hours for loop 9. We could move less than 3mph (a walk) and make it as long as we didn't fool around at the aid stations that were now manned by some amazing volunteers. I did not vocalize any of this, however. And as we approached Highway 41 on lap 8 I turned and looked back. Nathan was quite a way back. Hands on hips, I motioned with my head to get a move on so I could talk to him. "If we have to run that pace on the next one, I don't think I can do it," were the first words out of Nathan's mouth when he got to me. I explained why I'd pushed it and he seemed relieved, having been unaware of the time. I was sure he bought into it.
Although we had agreed to the cut-offs prior to the race, I had to admit that I had not completely done the math on the 2nd one. I was confident we would make the next lap under the 45 hour mark. But Nathan was not. I came in to the start/finish and made one appeal to let the 8th loop be our cut-off. We had made 130 miles in under 40 hours. Didn't that show sufficient progress? Since we were the only two runners and the cut-offs had been pretty much self-imposed (there had been no mention of intermediate cut-offs until SOMEBODY brought it up, ahem, Nathan), I thought there was a chance he'd give in. In my gut I knew he would not. And he did not. What I didn't know is our crew had been doing the math during the night & had also made a plea to change it. The answer was the same. "They agreed to it."
We made a brief pit stop at our tents before heading out for the all-important #9. We were walking this lap. There was no real reason to expend more energy than necessary to finish. Once we crossed that line for lap 9, we had 27 hours. It was like a whole new race. And yet it was still 27 hours, and likely was going to take most of it. 27 hours. Another entire day. But we didn't talk about that. We just moved forward, now in the heat of the day.
Nathan Lehman, leading the 100, passed us early in lap 9 and slowed down to visit a minute. He told us how good we looked, as did Howie at his aid station.
We hit the wide open service road. The service roads, while smooth and flat and runnable, are completely exposed with no shade. In the June heat & humidity of SC swamplands, it's miserable. We were shuffling along on the service road when we heard voices behind us. Without looking I was certain Bo & the next wave of 100-milers were about to catch us. We welcomed the visit. Bo was with Glenn Kasper, Annie Randolph and maybe a couple of others. Bo looked in my face when he reached us and appeared to nearly break down. I asked what was wrong & said I was the one who should be in tears. He said "you look so tired!" I chuckled and looked at Nathan. He immediately knew what I was thinking and said "Bo might be the only one telling us the truth." All we could think about at this point was just finishing that lap so we could take a nap. The 100-milers said their goodbyes and moved on.
Every section of the Hell Hole loop has its own distinct personality. Each section sucks in its own unique way. About 2/3 around the loop you come to the Yellow Jacket Rd aid station. It's on a dusty dirt road. When you turn off of the road you hit some of the most annoying trail out there. It doesn't look bad. But it's miserable. There isn't much shade. There is grass growing over much of this part of the trail. Chad is even nice enough to come out & cut it. But this grass grows in these little tufts. There are ruts all over the place, many of them hidden by the tufts of grass. You're constantly on uneven ground, turning your feet, trying to avoid rolling an ankle. It gives way to some swampy, rooty, trail that never completely dries out. And the bugs on this section are relentless. It's really best not to stop once you leave Yellow Jacket. You'll be immediately swarmed by mosquitoes, gnats or, as the name suggests, yellow jackets. No section is "terrible." Hell Hole's terribleness is greater than the sum of its parts.
Here we were on the last 1/3 and Nathan was fretting again. I'm not sure why. We cruised in with about 7 minutes to spare. Nathan never looked up. He headed straight for the tents while I chatted with the volunteers at the start/finish for a moment & gave Chad my Spot tracker to change the batteries. Chad chased Nathan down to retrieve his as well. We had talked about taking a two hour break. But Nathan said no words as he headed straight for his tent & a nap. I went to mine. What happened next was nothing short of humbling. Our crew, of Will, Lidia & Dawn went immediately to work removing our shoes, washing our feet in cold water and wiping us down as much as possible to make it easier to sleep. I was too tired to argue or say that all that wasn't necessary. I still tear up thinking about what they did for us, with no hesitation. I wanted to confirm a wake up time but decided to get a nap and if I'd not heard from him by 5:00 I was going to at least wake him long enough to find out if he was coming with me or not. That would be a solid two hours plus how ever long it took to get moving again.
I slept restlessly in my tent. I was in the shade with the windows down for airflow and the temperature was not uncomfortable. I just couldn't settle my body down. I'd wake up, change positions, doze off, repeat... Almost as if an alarm had been set I heard voices and raised my head to look out the tent. Nathan was sitting up, smiling, talking to Will who appeared to be doing something to Nathan's feet. Earlier in the race Nathan had developed a blister. (My walking pace is not for everyone and we went to the old leap frog method where Nathan would run ahead and then walk his pace until I went past him and he'd run again.) Will told him the best way to deal with it was to drain it and put what amounts to a wick all the way through from one side to the other to keep the fluid draining. He had gone so far as to go to the store and purchase a travel sewing kit and fixed Nathan's blister himself. He was tending to it again to prevent further damage.
I had been expecting Dawn to let us know she'd be leaving any time to head back to Savannah. She had usher duty at her church the next day and had committed only to stay until Saturday evening. While we'd napped Dawn called and made arrangements for someone to cover her at church. She was staying until the end. Dawn is an amazing friend. She's also a task master. She refused to let me shave my legs. Or even take a picture pretending to shave my legs. She ran guests out of my tent while I was getting ready to head back to the trail, saying "if you wanna talk, you better walk."
By about 20 minutes to six we were ready to hit the trail again. It was not until much later that I learned Nathan went into his tent with no plans to return to the trail after lap 9. I tell people often, don't quit until you've taken a break and at least tried to recover. You might regret it two or three hours later when you realize there is still time on the clock but you can't unring the bell. In this case it's a literal bell. A chicken bell. A cast iron bell with a rooster on top that I loaned Chad last year. He wanted to require anyone quitting the race to ring a bell as a sign the course had beaten them. I offered up the chicken bell that had hung in my hardware store for many years and annoyed me so much that I took the ringer part out so people wouldn't clang it in the store. He asked to borrow it again this year. I told him it was still in the trunk from last year & would gladly bring it again. Further incentive for me not to quit. I would not be ringing the bell I provided for quitters.
Now that we had a fresh clock and new attitudes, we headed out with the company of Glenn Kasper who had earlier rung the bell himself on the 100 miler. We thought we were flying down the trail. Glenn pointed out that he was walking. Don't kill our buzz, Glenn. It was cool though, because Nathan & I had resorted to making up all sorts of questions to ask one another when we ran out of natural conversation. Having a new person with new things to discuss was a treat, as it appeared we would never run with any of the others during the race. Pretty much we never did, except a brief period during the late night hours with a couple of 100k runners.
The first section might be the most runnable, at least to me it is. The bugs are bad in the early morning and just as the sun is setting but other than that, they leave you alone there. The trail is dirt and some parts of it are wide enough to run side-by-side. There are roots but not too many. There were some blow downs from weather that we had to deal with and a bunch of what I call trail trash. It's not garbage. It's just those little broken sticks and small branches, tiny rocks, the kind of stuff that jams in your foot when you least expect it. If you run in traditional shoes, it probably gets in your socks and rubs like a burr under a saddle. There's a couple of foot bridges and a concrete section where snakes and other wildlife like to hang out in the day. But we were headed into the night. Mostly we had to deal with bugs & fading visibility as we started back out.
Mostly laps 10-13 were a blur of section-to-section, aid station to aid station. At some point we realized, and I'm not sure when, that we were better off together than alone. Friends don't let friends do stupid stuff alone.
During the night Howie gave over his aid station to Bruce & Brandi Choi. They're no strangers to the swamp and still think I'm crazy for running there. They made us some Ramen noodles that were right on time. And I think they cooked some eggs at some point too, though that's a little fuzzy. Will made instant grits still in the packet for me more than once. Bret Welborn alway brings out coolers of "fancy ice." It's the soft ice from Sonic you can buy for $5 for a cooler full or something. He left coolers with our names on them. I saw a sock monkey on the trail. We went back to look for it but couldn't find it. Nathan thought he saw an alligator. I laughed because I'd pointed out the rut in the trail a lap earlier but in his exhausted state he forgot. We're pretty sure pterodactyls live in the swamp just beyond Yellow Jacket. We heard them more than once.
We kept checking the manual check-in sheets and asking aid station volunteers & our crew about the other runners. More than two and half days on the trail and we'd seen only a handful of runners. I'd seen Bo once. We still had not seen Carl, or any of the other El Diablo runners, for that matter. Paige & Jesse Ausec, possibly the cutest couple in ultra running, were doing the 100 mile and we had not seem them at all. The best we could figure was that many of us were moving the same exact pace on different parts of the trail and neither catching nor being caught by anyone after that early wave of Saturday morning starters.
Then something magical happened. We were not the only ones wondering where everyone was. On one of the sign in sheets Paige & Jesse had left a note for Nathan & me. At the next unmanned check point we left a note for them. Then others started to do the same. Annie & Kevin Randolph were both running but not together and left notes for each other. Some people left general messages of encouragement to all runners. Some were very specific. Bo said he was mad. I said he'd be fine (and he was, finishing 2nd overall in the 100 in just under 24 hours). Everyone was longing to reach out to friends and fellow runners in some way and the notes just flowed out. It is one of the most incredible but completely organic and spontaneous displays of love & support I've ever seen. No, people weren't out there trying to text or call their friends (not that it would be easy anyway with the poor reception in the swamp). They were leaving hand-written notes on unmanned check-in sheets. It is one of my absolute favorite memories from any race ever.
We saw the check-in where Carl had begun the last section of El Diablo & Nathan got a little emotional. It's easy to do when you're that tired and you've been on that long of a roller coaster. We got word of Nathan Lehman's win in the 100 and then Bo's 2nd place. After his finish Bo caught a ride out to the Yellow Jacket aid station to see us before going back to camp to nap so he'd be able to drive us home. We asked every chance we got about Paige & Jesse. We did eventually attempt to send them a video of encouragement. It didn't load until the race was over. They finished just like we knew they would. And by 1pm Sunday afternoon, we were again truly the only runners left.
Before we had even finished lap 12, Bo was up and they had broken down as much of camp as possible for both of us. We had our crew meet us at the start/finish instead of at camp for the first time the whole race. We weren't even going to take the time to go over to the camp area. It was time to slog it out & get the race over. I did decide we had taken zero pictures of the trail the entire race. We were so focused on the task at hand, we had noticed and commented about much of the features of the trail but had not taken the time to document it other than in our own minds. We started our last loop around 10:15 Sunday morning, the time we had originally hoped to be done with the race. At this point there would be no escaping running in the heat of the day one more time, no matter how hard we tried. So, with plenty of time to finish, we enjoyed our last 16.3 miles, taking as many pictures as possible along the way.
As we made our way toward Highway 41 for the final time, Bo appeared on the trail, like a little mischievous elf, laughing and then running away. I suppose he was checking to see just how far away we were. We thought he was showing off, running, after a sub-24 hour 100. Many hours (maybe a day) earlier when conversation would run dry I started playing what little music I had on my phone to make the time pass. We had decided that we would cross the finish line side by side to the tune of "We Are The Champions."
Indeed we did just that, and there was Bo, along with Dawn, Will & Lidia. Katie had come out and my son Kyle & his fiancé, Abbie were there. And of course, Chad was there. We looked at him and said "this must be your easiest event. It has a 100% finisher rate."
Thank you, to all of our crew and families who supported us at Devil's Doorknob and who continue to make this kind of stuff possible. Thank you to Chad Haffa for again creating something to challenge me like never before. And thank you, thank you to the volunteers who really show up for the love of the sport and selflessly give up hours and sometimes days to make these events possible.
View full race slide show below
Post script: I made a deal with the devil, so to speak, for the good of the low country running community. I donated the chicken bell to Chad in exchange for his assurance that Devil's Doorknob will be the longest event at the Hell Hole races. I also made a pact with Nathan that the only event we will compete in next year at H3 is the #pimpmyaidstation contest. We have big plans for the Yellow Jacket aid station. Andrew Taylor would approve.