Uphill Athlete Coach Alyssa Clark was the first female finisher and second overall at the HURT (Hawaiian Ultra Running Team’s Trail 100-Mile Endurance Run) race on 14th January 2023.
I remember the exact moment when my mind broke in the HURT 100 in 2017. I was coming down Pipes (the last downhill into the start/finish) on my fourth loop, and I was sure the entire bottoms of my feet were gone. I believed I had wiped them off; only raw flesh supported my every step. The friction of 80 miles had finally done me in, and I wasn’t coming back from the mistake of not caring for my feet earlier with blister care. There couldn’t be any way to run another 20 miles, right?
MY FIRST 100-MILER - HURT 2017
At 23 years old, I didn’t know what I was doing. Without realizing it, I’d landed 15th on the waitlist for what is considered one of the hardest 100-milers in the world. I’d only run 50 kilometers when told to start training because I was as good as in the race. The wise race director gave me some invaluable advice. “Everyone hits a moment in 100 miles when their brain tells them they can no longer move forward. It’s your job to silence that voice and just keep going.”
I trained like a maniac. I ran a hundred miles week after week. I ran the course every hour of the day and night. I did 12-hour training runs and 50-mile night runs. Anytime I was asked to run, I said yes. But on race day, at that 80-mile mark, every part of my brain told me I’d reached my limit. I sat in the chair and told my crew it was over. They gingerly pulled my shoes off and assured me my feet were not nearly in the shape I believed them to be. Changing socks, duct tape, and new shoes would get me 20 more miles. I wasn’t allowed to look at my feet. Only later, I learned I had resoled the bottom of my foot with new skin. But I got back on my feet and made it to that finish line – the 3rd female finisher in my first 100-miler. With the help of my crew, I’d managed to silence that voice that said no more.
While I considered my first HURT a point of pride, I knew I was not finished. There was too much to improve upon and many people I wanted to see again. I knew I could do better if I could apply that knowledge. I wanted to return home.
UPHILL ATHLETE TRAINING GROUP
I wanted to experience that course with five years of consistent racing and five years of lessons learned from mistakes.
ACCEPTING THE CHALLENGE
In a somewhat ironic twist, I was sitting in a hotel room in Chamonix with Covid, unable to race the UTMB Series’s TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) race in 2022, when I learned I was one of ten runners to be selected by the HURT board of directors to run HURT in January 2023. It felt like a sign – a gift from my Hawaiian friends that they believed in my abilities and wanted me to return to my roots. With some strong convincing and promises to my husband that I would not ruin our annual Christmas ice-climbing trip, I hit the acceptance button. My coach was cautious, as was my husband. HURT would only be about three months after the Moab 240, and the recovery/build period would be tight.
Fast forward through five-hour treadmill runs due to -35 degree temperatures, snow storms, microspike runs, and trying to regain any speed post-Moab. I felt cautiously optimistic as HURT approached. It was not my best build-up and felt clunky with travel, the ice climbing trip, and less downhill-specific training than I would have liked. However, I felt I was in a position to give a decent show and maybe, just maybe, see how close I could get to the HURT’s female course record of 24 hours, 6 minutes. My mind was in the right place. I knew I would succeed if I did what I believed I could and stuck to my plan.
MY ATTITUDE TOWARD A RACE
As I have now become a veteran ultrarunner, I’ve discovered a calmness and confidence when I know a race will go well, barring some weird and uncontrollable circumstances. I can call pretty early on how I will race, and there are far fewer surprises the further I get into my racing career. My main goal this year was to go all in on myself. I’d spent years hedging my bets and mentally sabotaging myself. I’d create excuses for not performing well to spare myself disappointment. There is a vulnerability that comes with toeing the starting line without any excuses. I realized I needed to face my fear of that vulnerability. Before Moab 240 last year, I recognized that to be my best, I could not keep playing it halfway. I needed to be all in or get out.
HURT 2023 RACE PLAN
I had a bold plan for HURT. I was shooting to break for 24 hours and had a fast and potentially dangerous strategy. I wanted to hold a more aggressive pace by minimizing the time in the aid stations – only relying on them for rounds of water and electrolytes. I arranged my nutrition so that I would pick up my next round every 20-mile loop. I have struggled with nutrition since the beginning of my ultra-running career, but I have finally figured out I can rely on Spring energy products to minimize stomach issues. I brought only Spring gels and consistently ate one every 40 minutes. Other than electrolytes and half a cup of potato soup, this was my only source of nutrition. It is the most consistent I have been able to eat, and I did not miss a single 40-min checkpoint. I can always get down my favorite flavor: Awesome Sauce. It has never failed me. I carried two 500ml flasks, one with water and one with electrolytes, and refilled them at every aid station (between 5.5-7.7 miles distance). I used two Vaporhowe 4-liter Nathan packs and switched them every 20 miles to minimize time. My crew had each pack ready, so I only needed to change the vest and nothing else. I had my projected splits screenshot on my phone, which worked until I managed to lock myself out of my phone for upwards of eight hours.
I’ve never been a fan of the start of races. I used to cry in the first 20 kilometers because I was overwhelmed by how much race I had left. But before HURT this year, I felt ready at the start. I was excited, willing, and eager to get to the meat of the race. The warm, humid air and sounds of the jungle pressed against us as we connected hands in silence, recognizing what we owe Hawaii for allowing us to pass on its ground. Then, we were off.
The curse of HURT is running the first loop at such a negative split that the later loops become a survival or a DNF.
HOW MY HURT RACE WENT
The first of the three significant climbs of the race happens right out of the start. I vowed to stay calm and collected.
Despite how possible that felt, I vowed to stay within 4 hours. I had not been on the HURT course since 2018, and each step felt like a homecoming. It took a little time for my feet to remember how to descend a particular part of the rock or to weave around the left side of a section of roots. I settled into around 8th place, 1st female, but I wasn’t concerned about my position. Plan execution was my goal. As the sun and the temperature rose, I forced myself to back off the last section and slow down to keep true to my 4-hour loop plan. Each aid station brought familiar faces and joy to be back with a group of people who cultivated my love for trail running.
Twenty miles flew by, and so far, I had kept to the goal of feeling fresh leaving the start/finish. After a quick change and some high-fives with my crew, I was out on lap 2. I was relieved to be done with the start and in my happy place of the race, the grind. Despite feeling hot at the end of the first loop, the temperature settled, and I felt cooler on the second lap. Crisscrossing other racers, I saw the race unfold before me and cheered on my fellow competitors. HURT is more a series of out and backs than actual loops, and I love how it allows me to cross paths with other races frequently. That sense of community it creates boosts me.
The second loop went by just as quickly, and I was still under the pace of my race plan. But, I knew the hardest two loops were ahead, and the places where races are made or broken were yet to come. With another fast pack switch and some ice down the shirt, I took off up the first climb of loop 3 with a local runner I know from living here. In the back of my head, I knew if I was going to run the projected time I was hoping to hit, I could be racing up amongst the top men. I caught my friend at the top of the climb and encouraged him to run with me.
Other than crossing other racers, I had spent the entire race alone and chose not to listen to music or podcasts. The company of his presence and another friend we caught helped make the first third of the loop fly by, and soon I was approaching my first pacer and crossing the race’s midpoint. I picked up my pacer, Patrick, and we headed up the last major climb of the third loop just as the sunset.
UPHILL ATHLETE TRAINING GROUP
HOW I DEALT WITH THE SECOND HALF OF THE RACE
As I started the second half of the race, concerns about being fatigued rose. Earlier in my career, I would have wallowed in how my legs were getting tired or my stomach was growing nauseous, but I have worked on changing that narrative. I quickly did a full body check. How’s my stomach? It’s great, and I’m eating consistently. How’s my sleepiness? I’m wide awake. How do my legs feel? Not 100% fresh, but certainly solid and strong. So, overall, everything was great. After this self-check, I put doubts behind me and celebrated showing my friend a trail I loved and just being out on the journey.
We flew into the fourth loop, the backbreaker of the race. I had said to myself over and over that no one remembers a great three loops. What mattered was how I finished the whole race. With a pacer switch and a quick bag change, I ran out of the aid station, determined to get through the fourth loop as smoothly as possible. At this point, I had not changed any clothing or shoes and was planning on keeping them that way. The only major change was that my stomach was no longer pleased with the variety of Spring gel flavors I was carrying, and only the Awesome Sauce flavor sounded feasible to me.
My mind and legs felt strong, and I began to play the game of when to start pushing. I was second overall but slowly getting behind the pace to break the record.
I was nervous about the red line because things were going so well. I didn’t want to throw away my race when a significant portion remained.
We played it safe and made our way around the fourth loop slower than I would have liked. However, I was safe in my position, and had conserved energy for the final loop.
Coming into the final start/finish aid station with 20 miles to go, breaking the 24-hour record I was targeting would be very tough. I told my pacer I wanted to be in and out of the aid station in 3 min, but in a minute, I was sprinting out, teeth bared, to try to give my best shot at 24 hours.
As I left the aid station, I said aloud, “Do you want to be good, or do you want to be great? What do you want to leave behind?”
We climbed steadily and descended well, but I was still off pace. The early morning hours brought cooler temperatures, but as my eyes fatigued, the trail became harder to see, and the risk of injury remained high, considering the technicality of the course. We stayed strong, but with 10 miles to go, we decided to do what we could but not risk my overall placement. For each step, I concentrated on good footwork and picking lines that reduced the risk of a broken ankle or fall. I told my pacer, Wookie, that I couldn’t get emotional until we were down Pipes. I couldn’t risk tears or lack of concentration until we were off the technical downhill. Picking our way down, the roosters crowed as the sun threatened to rise. I desperately wanted to finish in the dark as it just seemed like a cool thing to do.
Coming off the final part of Pipes, I said to Wookie through chokes of tears, “I can’t believe this is happening. I’ve dreamed for five years of returning to this race to do this. This race has meant so much to me; now we’re here.” I started sprinting. I rounded the last corners to the finish. I kissed the sign, rang the bell, and put my head into my hands. I believed in myself and accomplished what I knew I could. The joy and love of the race allowed me to find happiness in every step. I found love in a sport, a place, and a community that believed in me. As with such efforts, they are almost impossible to do alone.
MY LEARNINGS AND TAKEAWAYS FROM THE HURT 2023 RACE
- Put in the training to be your best. There are no shortcuts to a strong performance; it takes years of consistency and dedication to see results.
- Have an A, B, and C goal for any race that you do, and be prepared to adjust as needed throughout the race.
- Be confident in your training when you know you’ve put in the effort and time to be at the start. Know you can do this.
- Dial in your nutrition and have contingency plans for how you will feel later in the race. It might be a single food you know you can eat, but make sure you have plenty of it and can continue to eat throughout.
- Bet on yourself and trust your training.