While Charleston has a strong running community, most of the races in the area are half-marathon distance or shorter. But, there are a few local ultramarathons, and you don’t have to go too far to find trail ultras ranging from 50k to 420 miles.
Most people aren’t familiar with the concept of ultrarunning. Running for hours on end seems both impossible and dreadfully boring, and the amount of training that goes into getting ready to run 50 kilometers (31 miles) or more seems insurmountable.
Most ultrarunners start out this way as well.
I got into running about six years ago. I lived in a large West Ashley neighborhood at the time, and I could run for miles on wide, flat, and well-lit sidewalks. While I had been an athlete for much of my life, I never really enjoyed running just for the sake of running. But, once I got off of the sidewalk and onto the trails, that’s when things started to change.
I still remember the first time I ran for 30 minutes straight. This was—and still is—a long time to run. It also broke down a mental barrier, and it was what got me into looking into long-distance races.
At the time, this meant half marathons and marathons. I still wasn’t aware that running ultramarathons was a thing. But, as there are relatively few running races of these distances in the area (and even fewer now that the Charleston Marathon is no more), my online searching quickly introduced me to the world of ultra-distance running.
Ultramarathons Are Becoming More Popular In and Around Charleston
For those who are unfamiliar, ultrarunning is predominantly done on trails, and the substantial majority of ultramarathons in the United States are run out west. They take place in deserts and on mountain trails with sweeping vistas, and runners will regularly log 10,000 feet (or more) of vertical gain over 50 kilometers or 50 miles.
But, as ultrarunning has grown in popularity, so too has the number of races—as well as the number of race formats. This has allowed ultrarunning to gradually make its way toward Charleston.
While Charleston more than makes up for its lack of mountains with its miles of beaches and subtropical flora, with a lack of long trails, Charleston isn’t an ideal place to run 50 kilometers (or more) at a time—at least not in one direction or one big loop. But, as new ultramarathon formats have gained traction, we have begun seeing some ultras in the area over the past several years. The main formats for ultramarathons are:
- Single-Loop and One-Way Routes – This is the traditional ultramarathon route design, and it is many runners’ preference. These routes allow runners to cover the entire race distance without covering the same ground twice.
- Repeated Long Loops – Repeated long-loop courses allow for ultramarathons on shorter trails, in more confined areas, and with fewer permits. Common formats include two 15-plus mile loops (for a 50k) and repeated 10-mile loops for all ultra distances.
- Repeated Short Loops – Short-loop ultramarathons can take place on courses ranging from 400 meters (around a track) to roughly five miles. A common short-loop format is 10 5k loops for a total of 50 kilometers.
- Time-Based Ultramarathons – Rather than running a specific distance, some ultramarathons challenge runners to go as far as they can in a certain amount of time. Typical durations for these races are 6, 12, and 24 hours.
- Backyard Ultras – The backyard ultra format was pioneered by Lazarus Lake, the founder of the Barkley Marathons and Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra. In these races, runners have a certain amount of time to cover a short-loop course (the official backyard format is a 4.167-mile loop per hour), and they keep running until there is only one person left standing.
I ran my first-ever ultramarathon about a year after completing my first 30-minute run. While I didn’t stay local (I chose the Foothills 50k at Table Rock State Park, which at the time was a three-loop 10-mile course), I have since run multiple ultramarathons in the Charleston area.
What are the Ultramarathons in (and Around) Charleston?
So, what are the ultramarathons in (and around) Charleston? What formats do they use? Here is a list of 10 ultramarathons in the area:
1. Frozen: H3 (January)
Frozen: H3 is an Eagle Endurance event that is run on the trails of the Francis Marion National Forest north of Charleston. The race typically takes place in January and has 50k, 50 mile, 100k, 100 mile, 140.6 mile, and 212 mile options.
2. Hallucination 6/12/24 Hour Trail Run (February)
The Hallucination 6/12/14 Hour Trail Run is a time-based ultramarathon run on the Biggen Creek Trail in Moncks Corner (also north of Charleston). This is a fun, roughly five-mile mountain bike trail filled with sharp turns and hills. This is another Eagle Endurance event that typically takes place in February.
3. Raven 24-Hour (February)
The Raven 24-Hour is a time-based ultra that takes place on the Town Hall track in Mount Pleasant. This is one of the few ultramarathons truly in Charleston. This is a USATF-certified and sanctioned race that elite runners use to try to qualify for the U.S. National Team.
4. Kings Highway Trail Races (February)
The Kings Highway Trail Races are usually run in February, though they were rescheduled to March 11 for 2023 due to poor weather conditions. The event takes place at Hobcaw Barony, a historic (and private) parcel of land located on Pawleys Island—about an hour and a half north of Charleston on Highway 17. This is another Eagle Endurance event, and along with the 50k ultramarathon, there are also 11 mile, 10k, and 5k races.
5. Peyton’s Wild and Wacky 5k Ultra (March)
Peyton’s Wild and Wacky 5k Ultra is another of the few ultramarathons that are actually run in Charleston. The race benefits the Peyton Johnson Moore Fund, and is organized by the parents of a young boy who loved to run and tragically passed away at the age of 13. This is a mixed-format event, with runners completing a 5k loop every hour for 10 hours. The race takes place in Mount Pleasant.
6. Cooter Creek 50 Mile Trail Run (April)
The Cooter Creek 50 Mile Trail Run is an Eagle Endurance event that runs an out-and-back route on the Palmetto Trail, starting at Buck Hall Recreation Area—which is about 40 minutes north of downtown Charleston. It takes place in April.
7. Wambaw Swamp Stomp (May)
The Wambaw Swamp Stomp takes place in May on the Swamp Fox Passage in Francis Marion National Forest. It includes 50 mile and 50k options, with all runners completing a 15-mile out-and-back and 50 mile runners completing an additional 10-mile out-and-back section.
8. Hell Hole Hundred (June)
The Hell Hole Hundred is the summer antithesis to the Frozen: H3. While runners have the same 50k, 50 mile, 100k, 100 mile, 140.6 mile, and 212 mile options on the same course, running in the lowcountry’s summer heat and humidity is a very different experience from running in January.
9. Swamp Fox Ultra (November)
The Swamp Fox Ultra also takes place on the Palmetto Trail, starting at Buck Hall Recreation Area. With ultra distances ranging from 50k to 420 miles, this race is unique in that rather than having access to stocked aid stations, runners must prepare drop bags that will be deposited at various locations along the route.
10. Last Chance Trail Run (December)
The last race on the Charleston area’s ultramarathon running calendar is the Last Chance Trail Run. This 50k follows the Swamp Fox Passage starting at the Highway 52 trailhead in Moncks Corner. It typically takes place in early December.
There is also a Charleston 100 that takes place in December (and an accompanying 50-mile ultra, the Itty Bitty 50), though this is advertised as a “self-supported, non-sanctioned event.” There is no fee for entry, and runners are “responsible for getting to the starting line, finish line, and eventually home” on their own. However, you can pay for a buckle if you complete the 100-mile out-and-back route through Charleston. More information is available on the race’s website.
If you drive a bit further, you’ll find more ultramarathons outside of the Charleston area, but still within driving distance for a weekend trip. This includes races in Myrtle Beach, Columbia, Greenville, points further west in the Upstate region, and various other locations across South Carolina.
What to Know About Running an Ultramarathon in (or Near) Charleston
If you are thinking about signing up for an ultramarathon in Charleston (or in the Charleston area), what do you need to know? Here are a few tips based on my experience:
- Charleston is Flat – Charleston is flat—like, really If you are looking for a race that will have you racking up vertical gain and barging down mountains with winding singletrack, then an ultramarathon in Charleston isn’t for you. But, if you are looking for a flat ultramarathon where there is a good chance that you will set a distance PR, then choosing a race in the Charleston area is a good option.
- Eagle Endurance Organizes Many of Charleston’s Ultras (and This is a Good Thing) – Several of the ultramarathons in the list above are put on by Eagle Endurance. This is a local, veteran-owned company that is well worth supporting. I have run multiple Eagle Endurance races, and they are always well-organized and managed.
- There Are Lots of Good Places to Eat Before After Your Race – Charleston is known for its restaurants, and there are lots of good places to eat before or after your ultramarathon. This includes waterfront restaurants and vegetarian restaurants—among many others. Mexican is my go-to the night before an ultra, and a relaxing dinner on the waterfront with a sunset view is even more enjoyable after spending a hard day on the trails.
Are you aware of other ultramarathons in the Charleston area? Which local race is your favorite, and which ultras are you running this year? Let us know @life_charleston.
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