The Hell Hole Swamp and I - we have a long history together.
We first met in the summer of 2017. Geoff had signed up for a 66 km ultramarathon put on by Eagle Endurance that included a few loops around the Jericho Horse Trail, and some out and backs up and down Hell Hole Road. It was June, in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, and the name "Hell Hole Road" could not have been more appropriate.
To say it was hot would be an understatement.
I was awaiting umbilical hernia surgery at the time, and couldn't run the race myself, but I was immediately intrigued, and knew I'd come back to experience this race for myself.
And I did - I ran some version of both the summer Hell Hole race and the winter Frozen Hell Hole race every year thereafter, each race ranging from 16 to 100+ miles.
I have run through 100+ degree mid day temps swatting away horseflies the size of my thumb. I have stomped through knee deep mud puddles in the middle of the night that were sometimes covered in a thin layer of ice. I've encountered snakes, hogs, alligators, spiders the size of my face, hunting dogs, and locals (both friendly and questionable). I've laughed, I've cried, I've DNF'd and I've outright won races in the Hell Hole Swamp.
But I'd never raced a bike out there*...until now.
(*Somehow our years of participating in the Swamp Fox Adventure Race have yet to take us to the Hell Hole area.)
At some point over the last year I have begrudgingly admitted that perhaps I am no longer just an ultrarunner who happens to ride bikes sometimes, but - dare I say it - an actual cyclist.
One who looks forward to group rides, instead of dreading them. One whose instagram feed is suddenly filled with targeted posts from GCN. One who actually signed up for a Strava account so I could own the "local legend" status on a segment or two.
So naturally, when I acquired a gravel bike, it felt only fitting that my first ever gravel race should be the Hell Hole Gravel Grind, so I could see the swamp I love from a different point of view.
The Hell Hole Gravel Grind, presented by Mount Pleasant Velo and Lauf, is in it's tenth year of operation, and offers a 2 day, 150 mile stage race, as well as one day 75 mile or 45 mile options. There's also a Friday night 6 mile prologue that I gather (but still don't entirely understand) can help you gain time on your competition for the Saturday and Sunday events.
The ultrarunner in me who has been conditioned to sign up for the longest event possible without really thinking about the consequences naturally wanted to register for the 2 day stage race. My dear husband - the voice of reason - suggested that maybe it would be a better idea to start a little smaller for my first ever gravel race.
We compromised, and registered for the one day 75 mile Fondo.
Saturday morning we headed to the start of the race at the Hell Hole Steel Shed in Jamestown, SC. To be quite honest, I was feeling pretty neutral about the whole ordeal that morning. I've arrived at this strange phase of life where I don't necessarily feel the need to participate in organized events unless I'm going to be competitive and try to actually race.
That's not to say that participating and not being competitive in a race is wrong, it's just that I've been doing "this" (waves around at the general endurance nonsense) for 20 years now. I can run or ride my bike or kayak (you get the idea) for free, anytime I like. I'm getting older, somewhat ornery, and occasionally frugal.
Further, I am a bike racing newbie in a sea of cyclists who have been doing this for decades. I have zero idea how to race a bike - and even if I did, I don't have the physical abilities to keep up with those who do.
That's not me trying to be self-deprecating, it's simply a fact.
Point being: I had no business being competitive or even pretending to be at this gravel race. But I was looking forward to how this whole event would play out.
We check in, get our swag (which is impressive: a t-shirt, a branded water bottle, a poster commemorating the 10th year of this race, stickers, coozies, some protein bars and some chain lube), and spend the next 45 minutes or so getting our bikes ready, and chatting with friends (shoutout to Heather, Chris, and Cooper).
At 8:45 we line up for the pre-race briefing. I'm fairly certain I hear little of it, because I've already mentally resigned myself to just following the voice in the "Ride with GPS" app that Chris suggested I download just the day before.
The race officially starts, we take off and ride just shy of 2 miles down a smooth, flat* paved road.
(*everything is flat here, so I'm not sure why I felt the need to add that descriptor, but I digress.)
Two things are happening: a lead pack takes off so fast that I can almost no longer see them, and everyone else is kind of meandering. Again, I'm certainly not in this race to win it, but I also want to push myself a bit, so being stuck behind a larger group this early on feels uncomfortable. Geoff and I pass by a handful of people, including our friend Cooper, who yells in my direction "It's a neutralized start!"
I want to yell back "I'm not entirely sure what that means!" but figure now is not the best time for a lesson in how all of this works.
Speaking of not knowing how things work: the "Ride with GPS" app isn't working the way I had hoped. I can't hear the voice cues, and I had forgotten to change the screen settings on my phone, which would shut off and turn black after ten seconds. Fortunately, I had uploaded the GPX file to my Garmin Enduro watch, which would have to be good enough.
Just shy of the 2 mile mark, we take a left onto the infamous Hell Hole Road. It's great for a while, I'm following closely - but not too closely - behind Geoff. He has chosen to ride his Surly Ice Cream truck, as he doesn't currently own a gravel bike. He's so much stronger than me as a rider that this beast of bicycle actually slows him down just enough that I can sort of keep up...and it does put up a killer draft.
The downside though is that he will blow right through and over holes, logs, and sand pits without flinching. I on the other hand, will hit these obstacles and fly into the ditch if I'm not careful, so I need to give enough space between the two of us so I can actually see what's coming up.
We're passing people, people are passing us...and then the Hell Hole carnage begins. We begin hitting larger and larger mud pits, each full of lost water bottles, tool kits, and occasionally cyclists with their bikes. In fact, at points people are going backwards on the course, likely looking for important things sacrificed to the puddles.
Eventually we turn off of Hell Hole road and things begin to settle down, terrain wise. We also quickly find ourselves in the place I knew without a shadow of a doubt I'd spend most of the day in: no mans land.
No where near the front, no where near the back, and in fact, no where near anyone else at all.
I'm OK with this, as I'm well versed in spending time alone (or with just a few people) in the Francis Marion National Forest. I tell Geoff that I need to back the pace down just a bit, and that I'm not really "feeling" it today. I spent 5 days earlier that week at a conference in Colorado Springs, and the combination of jet lag and altitude unexpectedly kicked my ass. I still hadn't caught up on sleep, and I was feeling it.
He assures me I'll rally. I'm skeptical, but I hope he's right.
Around 20 miles we fall in with some other riders...and at mile 24.5 we blow right by a turn. I have my head down, not really paying attention, and completely missed a) the fork in the road, and b) the course marking that says we should go left (we go straight).
Fortunately, the guy we were following noticed this almost immediately, but it was absolutely disheartening to turn around and see a huge pack of riders fly by us.
Garmin, you see, is pretty finicky in what it believes constitutes an actual turn, and as such, said nothing at all...leading me to believe we should keep going straight.
At this point I decide to finally fiddle around with the app on my phone, and I realize the reason I can't hear Betty's* instructions, is because I didn't have the volume turned all the way up. Oops.
*I name all GPS voices "Betty", and have since I owned my first massive dashboard Garmin GPS circa 2012.
While I still can't see her, I can now hear Betty's voice and the hilarious gameshow-esque "ding" that accompanies turns, and feel slightly more confident she'll keep us on course.
Just shy of 29 miles we hit the one and only aid-station near Witherbee Ranger station. Thank the cycling and swamp Gods (and the makers of SIS gels), I have indeed rallied, just like my husband said I would. And I didn't feel like stopping just yet, so I suggested we roll through.
We continue on, splitting from the 45 mile group, and eventually ending up on a section of Yellow Jacket road that I've never seen before. And this section? It's gnarly on skinny gravel tires...at least for me.
The road clearly hasn't seen much travel in a long time, which isn't uncommon here in the Francis Marion National Forest. The road is overgrown with grass, however, large holes have recently been filled in with rocks. I'm not sure at what point or size there is a distinction between "gravel" and "rocks, but whatever we rolled through on Yellow Jacket must be that fine line.
There's a moment in time that I think all athletes have when doing ridiculous shit, where they realize they are facing some level of danger, but are also feeling either too good or too tired to be cautious. This is exactly where I was in that moment. Pushing through those rocks felt akin to deep sugar sand, my front tire was all over the place. But I was also enjoying the momentum of our current pace, so I kept whispering to myself over and over "don't unclip, just pedal through" and practically held my breath until we finally hit the end of the road.
Bibs: A Love/Hate Relationship
Around mile 38 we finally decide to stop for the first time. I have been putting off a pee stop because I know what a huge pain in the ass it is to have to take off my hydration pack AND take off my jersey in order to take off my bibs so I can squat in the woods. Then, you have to put everything back on - keeping in mind it's sweaty and doesn't want to go on that easily.
Nevertheless, bibs are one of the most comfortable pieces of clothing I've ever encountered, and if I could find a way to make pants with no waist band an everyday cultural norm, I would do it.
We keep our stop brief, and we're back on the road in less than 2 minutes.
Headwinds and Headaches
The next 30 miles we encounter relatively smooth roads. We also face some gnarly headwinds.
I'm grateful for my beast of a husband and his equally as burly bicycle, as I tuck myself in right on his rear wheel and stay there as long as he'll let me. Occasionally he will drop over and ask me to pull for a while, and every time he does, it's like I'm getting slapped in the face by Mother Nature. My heart rate instantly sky rockets as I naively try to maintain the same pace I was holding while drafting.
Humbling is an understatement.
At some point we pass a huge, and I mean, HUGE snake right on the side of the road. Both of us see it at the same time, and Geoff yells "STOPPING" - instinctively knowing that my National-Geographic-wanna-be self who is obsessed with the "Snake Identification" group on Facebook would want to stop and take pictures.
Much to both of our surprise, I yell "Keep going! I'd probably just hassle it and make it angry anyway!", and we keep going.
Truthfully, at this point I'm starting to cross that threshold between "this is fun" and "I want this to be over". While I'm still new-ish to the wonderful world of cycling, I know that 75 miles is doable for me...I've done it before.
BUT, it's always either been as a part of an adventure race, or during a "for fun" type of training ride. In both cases, we've stopped numerous times during the ride, whether it was to look for a checkpoint, eat a snack, or take pictures of snakes or whatever else I deem instagram-worthy.
I've never been on my bike for this long without stopping, while pushing at a pace that is certainly above "leisurely", and my body is letting me know it's less than thrilled. My low back hurts, my neck hurts, and I have a tension headache.
And I'm reminding myself that I should probably go take this bike for a professional bike-fit if I'm going to keep doing this nonsense.
Which I probably will...because even though I'm in a world of discomfort and a moderate amount of pain...I'm still having fun.
We plow through our last ten miles, not necessarily because we're feeling strong, but because we're both ready to be done. Though we spent a lot of time in "no mans land" out there on the course, we seem to catch up to a lot of people in these last ten miles. I'm guessing many of them were in the stage race and were (wisely) saving energy for the 75+ miles they'd need to ride the following day.
Nevertheless, it was wildly entertaining to pass so many people who would first give a friendly "hello", almost immediately followed by a "woah, fat bike!" exclamation as a 40+ pound steel bike came barreling past them nearly 70 miles into a race. You could tell it was not something they expected to see.
At mile 72 ish we finally turn back onto the pavement that we started the race on. I look down the road and see a lone female cyclist, and she instantly becomes my rabbit. For all I know, she's in the stage race (she was) and isn't even my competition (she wasn't), but it doesn't matter, I will take this sliver of motivation to help get me to the finish line
We put the proverbial hammer down and quickly pass her, I curse at the headwind more than once, and before I know it, we're crossing the finish line.
Epilogue & Podium Beer
We finish in 4 hours and 49 minutes, which is much faster than I had originally anticipated when first seeing the 7 hour race cutoff and wondering if I could make it.
Geoff mentions that perhaps I podiumed, and I brush off this suggestion more than once. I had creeped the entry list before the race (thanks for helping create that bad habit, Ultrasignup.com) and saw a number of more experienced women in my category, and knew that there was no way I stood a chance.
Eventually though, I decide to pull out my phone and pull up the live race results as we're sitting around enjoying post race snacks. Because the truth was, I hardly saw any women out there...so, who knows?
Needless to say I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it on my screen: my name under the winner of the 40+ category. Not only that, but I took 2nd overall out of women doing the one day 75 mile race. I glance up from my phone with a bewildered look on my face, to which Geoff replies "I told you so" before I even share the results.
Now, granted, there ended up being only two people in the 40+ category that showed up to race, and last I heard, the other woman got lost (they did find her eventually). So I sort of won by default.
As a long time running coach, I have reminded clients and athletes hundreds of times that a win is a win, no matter how many people show up. It's funny that I often have a hard time taking my own advice, and can't help but feel that this was a fluke.
But as Geoff reminded me out on the course when we passed racers with mechanical issues or who had crashed, ANYTHING can happen during a bike race. What matters is getting to the finish line.
And out of all the people who signed up for the race, whether they didn't show up, switched to different distances, or simply had a less than ideal day in the swamp...I was the one who got to the finish line first.
So I accepted my podium beer and first place trophy with a big smile on my face. And I'll consider my official introduction to gravel racing a win.
The Hell Hole Gravel Grind was everything I hoped it would be: a beautiful adventure through the swamp. It w as well marked, well organized, and an all around fun time.
As always, while I could have technically done this race without my favorite partner in adventure by my side (or in this case, in front of me blocking the wind) I'm positive it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun (or as fast) without him.
Thanks for playing the (decade) long game Geoffrey, turns out I really like bikes.