It’s just you and the forest. You and the quiet. You and the trees…. and the snakes.
When you trail run, that’s the thrill. The solitude is what you seek. Perhaps you want to get lost for a few days out in the woods. Perhaps there’s a reason.
Chad Haffa may not be able to offer you that reason, but he can offer you that race. When it comes to trail running events, he has it down to a science.
There are 12 trail races that he puts on each year in the state through his company called Eagle Endurance. Two of the races occur right here in the North Mount Pleasant area of the Francis Marion Forest – Hell Hole Hundred and Swamp Fox. Hell Hole Hundred has distances of 212 miles, 140.6 miles, 100 miles and 16 miles. Swamp Fox has distances of 420 miles, 210 miles, 105 miles, 100K, 50 miles, 50K, a marathon and 14 miles.
Haffa bragged, “There are people that have competed in the Badwater Ultramarathon that starts in California’s Death Valley that can’t finish Hell Hole.”
You won’t see the likes of a crowded starting line like at the Cooper River Bridge Run at Hell Hole Hundred or Swamp Fox. We’re talking a max of 75 to 100 people that attempt these conditions — or should I say, subject themselves to these conditions.
“They get delirious out there. They are sleep-deprived. They become disoriented. It’s a tough course,” Haffa explained.
The Swamp Fox Ultra will be held November 8 to 14, 2021. The race traverses through two sections of the Palmetto Trail, the Awendaw Passage and the Swamp Fox Passage, all of which take you deep into the heart of the Francis Marion Forest. The course is a 52.69 loop.
Hell Hole Hundred spans the Jericho Horse Trail, taking place June 3 to 6, 2021. There are two courses you race depending on the distance you signed up for – one is a 16-mile loop and the other is an 18-mile loop trail. It’s in June, so it’s hot, hence the name “hell hole.”
The courses are flat, which you might think would make it easy, but quite the contrary. Flat means flooding and no elevation or variance to the course, making mental strength a highly important ability. There’s also the fact that runners have reported seeing plenty of feral pigs, alligators, coyotes, large spiders, snakes, larger-than-normal mosquitos and maybe just a few (hundred) horseflies.
Haffa requires that runners wear bright clothing and a GPS tracker for the longer distances so that he can drive out to find his participants on the course in case they run into trouble.
Chris Varnadoe ran the 210-mile Swamp Fox trail race in 2020 and the 105-mile distance in 2019 and 2018. He said that in 2020, it rained the entire time. “It was difficult because so much of the trail was flooded,” he said, adding that he started on a Thursday and ended on a Sunday.
Haffa starts the race and then leaves it up to each individual’s crew to assist runners. Varnadoe’s crew consisted of his daughter and his wife.
Haffa also offers “drop bag locations” along the route. He offers only one aid station with food. However, every six to seven miles he sets up a checkpoint that is equipped with a clipboard and checklist for the runners to sign in as they pass through. There is water at this checkpoint, as well as DocScotts Electrolytes. That’s it.
It is largely up to the participant to plan for their success, Haffa said. “Making a plan is a big part of these races. If you don’t bring an extra pair of dry socks and shoes, or if you don’t bring enough food or a head lamp, that is all on you, and you will regret it.”
GPS is certainly useful when Haffa notices a runner is veering off course, but if the participant is hallucinating he’ll pull them from the race. No arguing allowed.
Varnadoe said he doesn’t sleep during the weekend of the race. “I might lie down on the course and take 15-minute power naps, but for me, it is about time and finishing.”
Nathan Dewey has done Hell Hole five times in the last six years, starting in 2015. He did the 100-mile distance three times, the 140.6-mile distance once and the 212-mile distance once. In 2017, he ran Swamp Fox’s 105-mile distance.
“These races wear on you mentally and physically. I have experienced my lowest lows and my highest highs. But it is those highs that make it worth it,” he mused.
Haffa said he has many people that sign up with PTSD. “Veterans do these races. They want to come out here to clear their head. I have had people who have been dealing with some pretty bad grief too.”
Haffa started Eagle Endurance in 2010, because he said he saw a need for trail runs in the area. Swamp Fox began in 2017, and Hell Hole began in 2014.
It might not be a lot of people who are attracted to running hundreds of miles through the Francis Marion Forest, but for those who are, there must be a reason, right? The great novelist J.R.R. Tolkien said, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Perhaps these races are for those taking action on the great destiny they have ahead of them. Eventually they will finish and can claim their well-deserved reward – the thrill of life itself.
Haffa will add the Cooter Creek 50-Mile Trail Race to the North Mount Pleasant area in 2022.