Running For Rivers presented by RES: An Endurance Adventure

Parts of this post have appeared on the American Rivers website (americanrivers.org)

By Keith Hanson

Nearly one year ago, I thought it would be a cool idea to attempt a run across South Carolina, all in the name of river and freshwater resource conservation. I realize this may sound glib, but it was actually many years in the making; it was the final decision to attempt the run in 2017 that took place nearly one year ago. Since my first true ultra-marathon in 2014, the artfully conceived and perfectly executed Badwater Cape Fear 51.4-miler on Bald Head Island in North Carolina, I have always thought about doing my own adventure. As I continued to race, the thought kept creeping to the front of my mind. In fact, because I really started running ultra-marathons during a time of impressive growth for the sport as a whole, my desire to craft my own adventure grew stronger and stronger as the crowds at each race seemed to get larger and larger.

Why South Carolina? There are rivers in every state, plenty of rivers that cross state lines, so why South Carolina – the approximately 23rd largest state by population (depending on which estimate/ranking system you use; today about 5 million people live in SC) that is roughly 30,000 square miles in size? Well, I’ve lived and worked in South Carolina since beginning graduate school in 2009. Before that, since about 2001, I visited family out on Folly Beach every summer. Furthermore, for the last 3 years, I have worked throughout South Carolina to conserve and manage marine, estuarine and freshwater resources - resources that are critically important to the economy, ecosystems, and cultural heritage of South Carolina. I also love to get outside and run, hike, and bike every day, and doing that along some of the states most beautiful waterbodies has brought me great joy.

Once I made the decision to attempt my run, I reached out to American Rivers, who were excited to partner with me. We named the project Running For Rivers, and later came to an agreement with RES, LLC to be the presenting sponsor. RES is the largest, most experience ecological offset provider in the United States. The adventure would have been nearly impossible without their generous support. As a biologist and ultra marathon runner, this project brought together two of my greatest passions, the conservation and management of freshwater, estuarine, and marine resources and getting out in the wilderness next to rivers and streams. Additionally, rivers are a huge part of many ultra marathons. If you think about some of the famous races, many are defined by iconic rivers: Western States 100 (American River), Leadville 100 (Arkansas River [Lake Creek]), and Burning River 100 (Cuyahoga River) to name a few.

Over the year of route planning and logistics, it was clear that the route was going to be close to 300 miles. I made the decision to round it up to an even 300 miles. I then decided to attempt to tackle the 300-mile journey in 3 days (72 hours). Very few people have ever accomplished that distance in that time, but it is always important to dream big and go after goals that may seem “impossible.” People like Joe Fejes and Yiannis Kouros have done it, but in controlled environments on tracks or 1-mile looped courses. However, those 2 names should have been a big indication of what I was actually getting myself into. Ultimately, branding is very important, and “300 miles in 3 days” had a nice ring to it. Throughout the process, there was some mumblings that this may have been a very unrealistic goal, but only one person really came out and said it to my face.

On Thursday Nov. 2, at 10:07 a.m., I began running toward the ocean from the NC/SC Border (Eastern Continental Divide), near the Middle Saluda River. This was after a crazed 4 hours or so of getting ready and driving up to the start line. We were supposed to kick off right at 10AM, but in typical Hanson fashion, we were late. After some photos and a team meeting, I just started running. The first few miles were pretty good with some of the crew near me and absolutely beautiful weather. A few cars zoomed by me, but most of them moved over a few feet, so no big deal. After about 8 miles on the road, it was clear to me that something was wrong. I had trained hard (and smart) for 4-6 months, but I was feeling fatigued and my quads were already hurting with 292 miles left. At about mile 10, I left a very quiet gravel road and stepped onto a busy 2-lane secondary highway where vehicles were flying by me, barely giving me an inch. Then it started to get hot. It felt like I was running the KEYS 100 again, which was a little unexpected for November in upstate South Carolina. Much of the next 2 days were characterized by few sidewalks, lots of traffic at high speeds, and generally just feeling “off.” The constant onslaught of high-speed traffic (often with distracted drivers) was much more draining than I had anticipated.

Around mile 20, I arrived in Travelers Rest, a beautiful little town north of Greenville with a rich history of outdoor sports and running/cycling. It was here where I transitioned from the busy highway to the famous Swamp Rabbit Trail (SRT), a 19.9-mile multi-use greenway system that runs along the Reedy River. Most of the trail is perfectly flat, as it is on a historic rail bed, so it was easier on the legs and just an all around relief. Another great thing about the SRT was that my crew chief Lauton was able to jump on his bicycle and accompany me for nearly the entire trail. It was nice to be able to hand him my water bottles and food and just run without having to carry anything. It was also nice to have someone to chat with (and complain to about traffic – if you need someone to commiserate with you about how terrible traffic is, talk to a cyclist). After about 12 miles on the SRT we arrived in downtown Greenville for a scheduled press event. My entire crew was there along with folks from American Rivers, RES, and other sponsors such as Orvis Greenville and ReWa who helped make the run possible. The Mayor of Greenville also sent a representative, which was super cool. As I ran across the Liberty Bridge, over the mesmerizing Reedy Falls (Reedy River), I started to feel a bit better. The thought that all of these people had come out to welcome me to Greenville was awesome. Unfortunately, this feeling was short-lived. Once I shook hands and greeted everyone, waves of nausea started to wash over me. During the press conference, as I sat on a cold metal folding chair listening to others speak, I tried so hard not to throw up on my own shoes (I didn’t!). I stood up and spoke for a minute or two, then found relief back on the metal folding chair.

Immediately following the press event, I felt so terrible that I had to take a break. As is typical with runners, I decided it would be totally appropriate to start disrobing in public and lay down on a public bench. After a few minutes of moaning and feeling bad for myself, my crew knew I needed to eat. They shoved 2 homemade burritos with guacamole down my gullet, which turned out to be pretty good strategy. I had made a ton of burritos a few nights before the run, but these were the only two I would end up eating (maybe I ate a few more; I really don’t remember). It’s so typical of ultra races to prepare a bunch of food and buy snacks, only to crave absolutely anything EXCEPT whatever you made/bought.

After about 30 minutes of damage control and my crew and other onlookers listening to me whine like a small baby, I laced up my shoes and Lauton got back on his bike to hit the road. After some initial navigation issues in/around downtown Greenville, we were able to get back on track. The next 9 miles were relatively uneventful, save for a very large and hungry looking German shepherd (woof). Around mile 40, we entered the Lake Conestee Nature Park, another natural gem in/around Greenville, SC along the Reedy River. We were met there by Founder and Executive Director, Dr. Dave Hargett. Dr. Hargett and I posed for some pictures together and chatted for a minute or two, then the crew and I proceeded to the parking lot to rest and refuel. At this point, I was still feeling terrible and couldn’t shake the feeling that I was crashing and burning 40 miles into a 300-mile run. As night fell on our parking lot party, Lauton and I got back on the trail for the last mile or so before we arrived at another small parking lot, which represented the end of the Swamp Rabbit Trail. The remainder of the run would take place on/along roads and highways.

At this small parking lot around mile 41.5, I put on a bunch of blinky lights and reflective gear, picked up my pacer-extraordinaire Justin, and began a slow, painful jog into the night. It only took a few hundred feet to have our first “near miss” and be screamed at by a real AMAZING HUMAN. It was ironic, but not at all funny, that this car felt it necessary to drive as close to us as possible so they could roll down the window and say, “you’re going to get killed out here.” My only thought was, “yes, because you have made the choice to drive this close to us, you’re going to hit and kill us.” Maybe that was there goal.

Justin and I had a slight reprieve with a mile or two of sidewalk. However, this was not like the sidewalk most of us are probably used to, this was more reminiscent of ski-moguls. Every few feet there was a huge dip/hole or large hump. GOOD TIMES. Justin and I continued to run through the night, eventually leaving the sidewalks of Mauldin. We ran through a few small towns as the night seemed to get darker and darker. Just before the night seemed the darkest, we arrived in what seemed to be the CUTEST town in America. We had run into Fountain Inn, a small town just north of I-385, southeast of Greenville.   The town was already decorated for the holidays, with tons of lights strung through the trees. At that moment, I wish I lived in Fountain Inn; I wished I were running the entire 300-miles in Fountain Inn. Unfortunately, the joy of Fountain Inn quickly turned into true despair just a bit later on SC-14 in/around Gray Court.

When I planned the route, I had identified a number of secondary rural roads, where running was going to be easy once the morning and afternoon “rushes” of traffic were over. Unfortunately, I totally failed to account for 3rd shift workers and a giant industrial plant on SC-14. This section of road was rough: the end of the travel lanes was the end of the paved road and anything beyond that was unkempt/un-mowed long, chunky grass with tons of litter. As Justin and I began running down this section of road, we noticed a few cars, but nothing too bad. The speed limit was 55 and these few cars were cruising by, but moving over a bit and giving us a tiny bit of room. However, as we got closer and closer to 11 PM, it got worse and worse: tons of cars started coming and they were flying! None of these cars wanted to get over at all; not budge an inch. This was certainly the worst 45 minutes of the entire run. Sure, it was dark, but Justin and I were wearing tons of blinky lights and reflective vests. So there was NO reason that these cars shouldn’t have seen us from far away, slowed down (even a little bit), moved over, and tried not to kill us. There were very few cars coming in the other direction, so there was no reason these hundreds of cars couldn’t have moved over. It sure seemed like these cars were more comfortable with killing two runners than slightly crossing over the center line when no cars were coming in the other direction. Justin and I basically had to power hike through the long grass for the entire section, with a few short jogs. It was truly terrible.

After feeling bad for most of the day, this 45 minutes just kicked me while I was down. Justin was a champion and kept a happy, motivated face on the entire time, though I suspected he was as frustrated and mentally fatigued as I was. After consulting with a crew after this section, we decided to keep going for a few more miles. We eventually made it to mile 69 and called it a night. We packed up and drove to a nearby church, who’s pastor had given us permission to stay the night in the parking lot. It was about 1AM in the church parking lot when Crew Chef Kenny made up some delicious Ramen Noodles. I ate, changed clothes, and Justin and I packed ourselves into a small, custom-made trailer with 2 bunk beds. The rest of our crew, my beautiful fiancé Laura and her cousin Mel, slept in our SUV. Lauton and Kenny slept in the bed of Lauton’s truck. And Communications Director Dan, slept in his Toyota hybrid. It was the most religious nap I’ve ever had.

I was the first to wake up around 6AM and I was hurting. I hobbled around and woke everyone else up. After a few minutes to shake off the rust, Kenny starting cooking up some more Ramen for me (yum). The decision was made that Dan would accompany for a few miles so Justin could wake up and get some calories in. Justin ended up driving Dan’s car to drop us off at the starting point for the morning and around 7AM on Friday morning, Dan and I started running… again.

Dan and I ran, and we ran some more. Dan would end up joining me for about 15 miles from sun-up to about mile 85. By this time, the sun was up and blazing again, but lucky for me, Justin was ready to pace again for another section. That section would end up being about 65 miles for him. The next 15 or so miles were a hot, sizzling blur. At one point, I felt the sudden and all to familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach that I needed a bathroom… immediately. Just as I thought that, a port-a-potty materialized out of thin air. I totally thought it was a hallucination, so I casually said to Justin, “hey, I need to use the bathroom, is there a port-a-potty anywhere?” He confirmed that what I was seeing was real, and we ran down the gravel road of this Garden Center to talk to the owner and use the port-a-potty. Lauton was shadowing us in his truck for this entire section, so pulled a U-turn to drive after us to see what the problem was. All things considered, there wasn’t really a “problem.” A few miles later, we were greeted on the side of the road by Andres, crew doctor, pacer, and all around maniac.

Andres could clearly see that I was hurting, but assured me that the crew was just up ahead. Fortunately for me, he wasn’t lying and I was able to sit and eat for a few minutes. Since Andres was fresh and ready to roll, he insisted that I not sit for more than a few minutes so we could start running. After some more moaning, I got up and was ready to go. To my great surprise, Justin was going to continue along with us. As we started to leave the crew, Justin and I described to Andres how bad the traffic was and what a mental toll it was taking. It would only take a few hundred feet for him to learn on his own how bad it actually was.

Andres, Justin and I ran through the evening and the sunset. We all ran with blinky lights, reflective vests, headlamps, and more. Andres also ran with pepper spray, in case of angry dogs (or humans). For much of the first few miles on this 4-lane road, we were constantly waving at cars to move over; very few did. However, one semi-truck saw us from hundreds of feet away and easily moved over into the next lane. It was such a small, easy gesture, but at that point I was so appreciative that I waved and bowed to the driver. The driver then held up a beer and tipped his bottled towards me. Though the 4-lane road was light on traffic, many people were unwilling or unable to change from the lane closest to us to the lane over, even when there were no other cars in sight. If you cannot change lanes, at speed, with a few hundred feet notice, with little/not traffic, YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE A LICENSE.

Having a new pacer always provides a little shot of energy. So, I was feeling better and we were doing more running than walking. Justin and Andres were working together to keep me on track and keep from walking too much. Their teammate was absolutely essential to me staying alive and moving forward. There were a few times where one of them had to grab my arm and pull me out of the way of traffic, so it is not an exaggeration to say they saved me. After many miles of this, we arrived at another church parking lot where the crew was all set up and had pizza. YUM PIZZA! I sat and ate for a bit, but kept moving after about 10 minutes.

It was about dark by then and the 4-lane road was tapering down to 2 lanes. Crew Chef Kenny was in Lauton’s truck to shadow us for the next 10-15 miles or so. So, the 3 of us ran while Kenny drove a few miles up. There were also 2 documentary crews following us for the entire run, so they were also out on this pretty quiet road. For all the headlamps, blinky lights, trucks and cars with the hazard lights on, very FEW people bothered to slow down, and only 1 car ever stopped to ask us if we were ok. This is true for police/sheriff’s as well. In fact, law enforcement was just as guilty of driving by at high speeds, not budging an inch. It is a law to slow down or move over for law enforcement vehicles on the highway. This should be a law, or at least cultural norm, for when runners are on the road too. It is not. We would stop at one more church for a few minutes, but continue on.

We eventually ran into a Bi-Lo parking lot where the crew was situated at mile 120, about 25 miles outside of Columbia, SC. It was around 10 at night and we had made the decision at the last stop to get a couple hotel rooms for the night. We packed up and headed to the Hampton Inn near Harbison State Forest, where I have competed in the Harbison 50-km trail race in 2015 and 2016. I used to live in hotels as I worked a traveling job in 2012 and 2013, so I have seen them all. However, this Hampton Inn was the Holy Grail. I checked in and went right upstairs to shower. Laura and Mel were so amazing and unloaded the car and brought a bunch of things into the hotel, all while I showered. They even brought old pizza into the room, which I devoured. We had 2 rooms, so everyone was able to shower and relax a bit. I showered, ate, and passed out in the bed. Justin and Andres chose to sleep outside in Andres trailer with the 2 bunk beds.

Everyone was up around 5:30-6 and made it down to the Hampton Inn breakfast, which was like the Holy Grail of breakfasts. We all fueled up and headed back to the Bi-Lo to start for the day. We had made the decision that I was going to run 30 more miles on this day (Saturday), and end at mile 150 in downtown Columbia. By this time, my right hip/right groin was really bothering me. It was bothering me the previous day too, but was really hurting. I ignored it the best I could. The merry group of idiots started running again around 7AM heading towards Columbia. The crew leap-frogged and Lauton shadowed us in his truck. By this time, the crew was a well-oiled machine. Unfortunately, the runner was the tin man.   We ran and joked and laughed and almost got hit by cars and trucks. We stopped at churches, at terrible food, and drank coffee. Around mile 135, I really started to feel out of it, so had to stop and sit on Lauton’s truck to eat and drink a bit more than usual. I also requested my music for the first time, so Laura ended up having to drive my iPod back to me. Once I turned on the music, I felt like a new man. I started running again, almost with a normal gait. The music allowed me to bury that pain and fatigued as deep as possible, and I just ran. In fact, there was one point I was running so hard that Andres had to sprint up and tell me to slow down because he and Justin couldn’t keep up. Apparently I was running 6 min/mile pace.

We arrived at mile 145 downtown Columbia at the Columbia Diversion Dam and Fishway. Gerrit Jobsis of American Rivers and Laura Johnstone from RES were there waiting for us, as well as a local Columbia runner who came to run a few miles. We all took some photos and I took a few extra minutes to enjoy the Broad and Columbia rivers and the beautiful shoals. Then we started down the 3-rivers Greenway for our last 5 miles of the run. We headed through busy Gervais Street, ran by the Capitol Building, and through the University of South Carolina campus. While on USC’s campus, there was some sort of event going on with a big table of drinks, cookies, and other things. Andres, Justin, and I ran right over to the table and asked if we could grab some stuff. The gentleman in charge of the table was quite generous and told us to take whatever he needed. He also asked us “where did we ride from?” We let him know that we were running, not riding, and that his snacks were greatly appreciated.

We continued to run down Devine Street and popped into Strictly Running, a local running store where I held an event about one more before the run. I sat in the air conditioning and the manager handed us some Gatorade. At this point, we were about 1 mile away from the 150-mile mark, so we got up and kept moving. We made our last turn and Justin and Andres peeled off from me to go to the finish line. I met up with Kenny, who was riding Lauton’s bike and he led me to the finish line, which was at Gerrit Jobsis’ house. In fact, the crew had bought some streamers and made a finish line in Gerrit’s driveway. I ran down the street, turned the corner, and headed up the driveway to finish Part 1 of Running For Rivers. After a few minutes sitting out on the sidewalk, we all went inside for beers and barbeque. Eventually, we all drove to Charleston, SC where I would do a radio segment and give a presentation on the importance of rivers to 250 6th graders on Monday morning before heading home.

Ultimately, I pushed hard and grinded through so many rough miles and a lot of pain, all while passing near or over the South Saluda, Reedy, Little, Bush, Broad, Congaree and Saluda Rivers. I made it 150 miles to Columbia, SC in about 53 hours. After very tough circumstances and heavy heart, I made the decision to stop. The 150 miles would have been impossible without my amazing crew and pacers, which included my fiancé Laura and her cousin Mel, my endurance logistics masters Lauton and Kenny, ultra-running maniacs and comedians Justin and Andres, and communications director Dan. I would not have been able to make it more than 20 or 30 miles without the crew; they were truly amazing.

I could write 10 or 20 pages about how amazing the crew was, but I will save that for another time. I will just say that this is absolutely a team sport and I am nothing with my crew.

Additionally, the adventure would not have been possible without all of the support and generosity from RES, American Rivers, Badwater, Orvis, NipEAZE, Crevar Chiropractic, and all of our other sponsors.

I guess this is Running For Rivers Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2 in the Fall of 2018.

- Keith

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