Xterra Harbison Half Marathon Race Review

Jul 11, 2011 by

Xterra Harbison Half Marathon Race Review



Editors Note: This is a review of the 2011 race. I did not run the 2012 race.

This is my first race review.  The Xterra Harbison Half also had a lot of firsts:

  • The first Xterra Half Marathon at Harbison State Forest
  • My first trail race
  • The first time I’d used my New Balance trail shoes for a race
  • The first time I’d used a hydration back pack to carry water
  • The first time I ran off course in a race

As it can be with first-times, rookie mistakes were made by both me and the race organizers.  Here’s my summary.


The weather was just as expected for the start of the race – about 75 degrees and very humid, but mostly cloudy.   The dew point was around 75 as well.  There was fog on Lake Murray as I crossed the dam on the way to Harbison.  This made for very uncomfortable conditions.  The map showed we’d have 5 aid stations along the way, but an email from the race director advised runners to also carry their own water.  I was already planning this, having received a Camelbak hydration pack for Father’s Day to use on my longer training runs.  As an added heat precaution, I had tested Nuun electrolyte tablets with my pack in training, and decided to use those as well.  I also carried my own Gu Roctane gels.

Entrance Sign to Harbison State Forest

The Race: 2:30 Goal

The course seemed pretty tough for me, the novice trail runner.  The starting line was on a two lane gravel road, and we ran about 1/4 mile uphill before hitting the woods.  I knew the first 4-5 miles were “2 lane” trails, so I was hoping by the time we hit the woods, the field would have settled into its natural order, so much passing would not be needed.  This actually seemed to happen pretty well.  I didn’t have to pass too many people on the trail, and I don’t think I held up too many. So these first 4-5 miles went OK but seemed too fast a pace.  My GPS watch was not tracking properly due to the tree cover and terrain.  What I thought were 10:00 mile splits early were actually closer to 9:00.   By the time we got to the Spider Woman II “one lane” trail, somewhere between miles 4 and 5, we had a small group that was making good progress, but really not needing to pass.  This was good since this section was basically single file.  And, as expected, this 3 mile section was the toughest.  Being in a small group here seemed to push the pace, and I think we covered that section around a 10:00 pace.  At the end of that section, I was wishing the race was a 10K, but I still had 5+ miles to go.  At this point, the running got pretty lonely.  The pack that had stayed together through the tough section  started to spread out.  Occasionally, I’d come up on another runner, and we’d hang together for a bit, talking about humidity, GPS watches or hydration packs.  One man that I ran with a bit fell twice.  He seemed OK, but I eventually moved on past him.  About mile 11, we hit the last aid station, and I was looking forward to  finishing.  The station here gave us a cold wet rag for our faces and it felt great. I dumped ice water on my head and soaked my Buff head cover.  I knew my GPS had been acting up, but at this point, I knew I could make my goal of 2:30, if I just kept steady.

Bonus Miles

By now, I was occasionally (OK, almost always) walking up hills. I didn’t think this last section was  going to be  too difficult, terrain-wise, but my feet were developing  hot spots so I was ready to get this over with.  Unfortunately, this is where the day turn a wrong turn – or rather a missed turn.  Around mile 11.5 or so, we were supposed to hang a right to go back toward the start/finish line. At this point there were a couple of red arrow signs, one seemed to be pointing right, and the other seemed to be pointing straight.  The group of 5 or so that I was tailing went straight, and I followed.  Unfortunately, we were supposed to turn right.  After a mile, I realized the mistake and turned around. I met others who had done the same thing as our group, and they turned around.  When we made it back to the turn, there was a race official there.  Too bad he was not there 30 minutes before hand!  At this point, my feet and I just wanted to get this behind us.  I did a walk/run the last 1.5 miles and made it to the finish about the 2:48 mark.  I’m not sure of my official time because as of Monday night, I cannot find any official results posted.  At the end of the day,  I had run an extra 2 miles. My overall pace per mile was about 11:20, which means I would have been in the 2:25 neighborhood for the official 13.1.

Post Race

As I crossed the line, someone handed me a bottle of water. I’m glad he did.  The previous finishers and/or 5K finishers seemed to have completely drained all the water and Gatorade from the gazebo refreshment area.  One poor guy was not doing well and in need of water, but he could find any.  I didn’t see any one ready to offer first-aid, either.  There were some bagel quarters and cookies, but any fruit was gone.  I saw lots of orange peels but no oranges.  Not the best post-race spread.

One of the guys in the pack that missed the turn (and did not turn around with me) saw me, and said he eventually saw a truck and hitched a ride back to the finish once they realized how off course they had become.

Final Thoughts

I made a few mistakes, as mentioned. I probably ran too fast the first half of the race (as usual).  I also should have had the course map with me.  This being my first trail race, I did not know what to expect for course markings. On the positive side, my hydration pack with electrolytes was a smart move.  I did not get terribly dehydrated, despite the humid conditions.  Also, this was the longest run in the New Balance trail shoes and they did very well.

I’m sure the race organizers will get a lot of negative feedback, so I’m not going to slam them too bad here.  After all, I did not volunteer to help.   Thanks to Marathon Majic and Xterra for putting this on. This was the first time for this event, and there is always room for improvement. I am glad people are organizing events.  Organizing races is a tough endeavor, and trail run logistics look even worse than road races.  So, I expected some first time miscues.  Here are my suggestions for next time:

1. Work out something with the park to include the parking fee in the registration fee.  It is only $5.  The big problem with this was the car line it created at the drop box.  Many people did not heed the advice to have the slip filled out before hand.  The organizers did advise to fill this out before hand, but some did not listen.  Just try to eliminate this part.

2. Better course markings. Again, trail logistics are extremely tough, and I don’t know how others do it, but the small signs for 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 were too small.  I don’t remember seeing 5 or 9, actually.  Also, many of the white markers hanging from the trees fell.  Not sure if runners were pulling or they fell on their own.  Also, a couple of place could have benefited from an arrow instead of or in addition to the small landscaping flags.

3. Make sure enough post race refreshments are available. Already commented on this above.

4.  Different Color t-shirt for different length race.  The technical tees were a nice touch.  I liked the volunteer’s bright yellow color.  The other was white for both 5K and Half.  Do something to distinguish half shirts from 5K shirts.

I can’t say for sure I’ll be back next year.  If I don’t, it will be heat related, not organizer related.  Maybe I’ll volunteer.

The Author After the Race









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Xterra Harbison Half Marathon Preview

Jun 30, 2011 by

Since taking up running, I’ve rarely run off pavement. This summer, I decided to hit the trails as a way to get away from the direct sun. I have been doing a good bit of running around the trails that surround my neighborhood. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a new event in my area – the Xterra Harbison Half Marathon and 5K, scheduled for July 10 at Harbison State Forest (HSF). My first thought was ‘Who in the world would run in a half marathon in Columbia, SC in July?’ Day time high temperatures regularly push 100 degrees most days in July and it is not a dry heat. I saw the race started at 7am, so the temperature at race start will only be about 72 degrees with the usual July early-morning humidity near 100%. By finish time, the temp should still be below 90. Hmmmm….maybe I would be one of these people who’d do such a thing. I had never having entered a trail race before. Before committing,  I wanted to check out the course.

Despite living in the area for 18 years, I had never ventured to Harbison State Forest. I knew mountain bikers used it. I knew the local cross country kids trained there some. I knew where it was but that was about it. I couldn’t find a course map on the race website, so I emailed the race organizers. Victoria Seahorn returned my email pretty quickly and said the course maps were now on the site. I wasn’t interested in the 5K, so I printed out the map for the Half. The organizers had taken the map from the Harbison State Forest official site and marked the route on it. Since this made a bit of the detail of the original map hard for me to see, I printed off the non-marked map as well and put them in a plastic notebook page protector. I then headed out to the site with the idea of checking out at least half of the course. I did 10+ miles that first day, and I went back the next weekend to cover the final 3 or so.

After checking it out, I decided to enter.

Here are my thoughts about the course and how I’m going to approach my first trail event.

Thought 1:Course is pretty tough.

The HSF consists of 9 trails of various terrain and difficulties. For this race, the organizers have created a course the utilizes parts of several of these trails. You will encounter compact sand, some clay, gravel, small wooden bridges, pine straw, some rocky spots, and a lots of roots. Roots seem to be the biggest hazard. On the days I ran, it was very dry, and mud or slick spots were not a factor. If there were to be significant rain for a few days before the race, then there could be some slick spots. This is unlikely for Columbia. I don’t know how trails are rated for technical difficulty, but most of it seemed mild, especially the Firebreak Trails. I ran in my New Balance Minimus Trails and did not have any problems. There is a 3 mile section called Spider Woman II that is rated the most difficult in the HSF guide. It is very winding and narrow. Looks like it starts between mile 4 and 5. It was tough. It has over 300 ft of climb during this stretch. According to my GPS watch, total elevation gain over the course is 4000+ feet. Columbia generally a pretty flat place, but this course has plenty of hills. I was disappointed that there is not a great view of the Broad River along the way. There is a part of the Spider Woman II with a view through the trees.

For some additional information on the  HSF and similar routed run, check out the information at the Harbison 50K site.

Thought 2: Heat may be as big a factor as the course

Heat does a number of most runner’s speed and endurance, and I’m no exception. In the cooler months, my road half-marathon pace is 8:15-8:30/mile. On the days I ran HSF, it was mid morning with temperatures in the 80’s and very humid. My pace on the trails was over 12:00/mile.  The 10 mile day was the toughest workout I’d had in a long time. I’ve done 4 road half marathons, all in the fall months and all under 80 degrees. This will be the toughest half I’ve encountered. I have a goal of 2:30. Maybe my goal should be just to take it easy and just finish.

Thought 3: Caution
If you have not done half or full marathons or have not been training for 10+ miles in the heat, be careful about entering the half. Stick to the 5K. Also, if you have not been doing trail running, be careful. Your muscles will get worked much different than the road. As a mentioned before, this is one heckuva workout.

Final Thought: Logistics
The entrance to HSF is easy enough to find. It is not far from I-26. Once you turn into the park, there is some immediate parking to the left. I don’t think you want to park there. If you follow the main road in about .6 miles, you hang a left to get to the start/finish area. I’m hoping they’ll allow parking in this area. I don’t want to add any more distance than I have to that day!

Come join me!


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