The last time I did a night run, it was 2015. I did the 4-mile loop at Ragnar Appalachians with a few Team Red, White and Blue members. It would be my last activity with the Morgantown chapter, as I moved the week prior. 

My headlamp went out, there were rocks you had to climb with all four limbs. As I came to the finish, a course marshal said “Nice mud legs” as I fell enough times that the bottom half of my legs were covered in wet dirt.

When Jay described the Hoorah 2 Heroes Law Enforcement Hill Raiser Challenge as a technical trail, I thought of Ragnar, but worse. The race was held in two parts, Saturday night and Sunday morning. After hearing stories about the first Hill Raiser, I wasn’t keen on doing the night race. But I was intrigued.

It wasn’t until I ran with H2H member Randy one dark, snowy morning that I convinced my inner trail monster, Scooby Doo’s Velma Dinley, that I might be able to run both parts of the Hill Raiser. It still took me about a month to gather the courage to contact Jay and switch to the two-day race.

Like all races, you should test your gear prior to the actual event. I made the mistake of buying a hydration bladder for the race but didn’t test using it prior to the night race. If I had, I may have learned that the bladder freezes in cold weather.

Saturday night, I brought my required kit to check in and was given a number and chip with zip ties. As I wore Salomons, which don’t untie, the zip chords were nice and necessary.

The race had about 40 participants, five of which were females. The cutoff was 2 hours and 45 minutes. For a 6-mile race that was plenty of time I thought. Little did I know how I’d need that long time limit.

It was windy and cold Saturday night as Sean and Jay held our pre-race briefing and ceremony. H2H and its challenge is about community and honoring all heroes — veterans, police officers, first responders, teacher and parents. Sean told us our goal as runners was to honor the officers whose names at memorialized along the course route. We honor them and our fellow athletes by doing our best. After getting pumped up with a three Hoorah salute, we went to the start line near the base of Stewart’s Hill.

My plan was to walk up the hills and run the downhills and flats whenever possible. I wore my Skirt Sports Lioness skirt because it had three easy to access pockets. I didn’t want to have to stop and go through my bag to find things. My hydration bladder hose was in place and my homemade protein balls where still balls instead of mush. I was ready.

Going up Stewart’s Hill.

To be honest, while being only 400-plus feet Stewart’s Hill is a beast. There are ropes to help you save your legs at many of the course’s steep hills, but this hill … The climb was so intense that I walked down the back to recover.

My goal was to stick around the guy with the music and woman with the yellow sweatshirt and bright glowing safety vest. I was able to stay with them during the day race, not so much at night.

But my first misstep came shortly after we left Stewart’s Hill. We were going downhill into a gulley and I missed the route markers. Soon my shoes were flooding from storm runoff from the night before. As there were a few snowflakes in the air, this wasn’t a good way to start the race.

I found the markers and climbed out of the stream. Eventually, I lost the pack of runners I was following. It was because we hit a flat and then went downhill again. Soon I saw the reflective vest and glow sticks in the night. 

“Good job Nicole,” said one of the course marshals. I worked out with H2H (not as often as I would like), so some of its members know me. Having someone in the course like that made a world of difference to me, especially during the night race.

Eventually we made it to the next hill, which started with a rope climb. I was OK, but was already considering ditching my wind-proof jacket. My hat was making my head too hot and it itched. I was semi-panicked. I was dehydrating faster than I should be and was overheating.

Many of the hills seems to go on forever. You’d go to a checkpoint and find you’re only half way up. I only looked for the course markers. I couldn’t look all the way up some of the hills without wanting to quit.

At the first straightway, maybe somewhere in the second mile, I figured out my hydration bladder was frozen. I had a SPIBelt Hydration companion in my skirt, so I drank that. I tried my protein balls, but the texture made me want to throw up, so I spit it out. I guess those will be dessert treats instead of race fuel from now on.

From Ron Pradetto photography: Smiling through the pain.

As I came up to the first photographer,  I smiled a little. 

“How you feeling?” the course marshals asked.

“Crappy,” I said. “But I’ll finish. One foot in front of the other.”

And I went on to Stewart’s Hill. We went down Stewart’s to go back through for another loop. As I went to the top, the top male finisher made his way to the finish line. I’m screwed, I thought as I went down the hill and back through the downhill I got lost in before.

This time, I successfully navigated the final part and ran into the sweeper, Jason.

He’s completed Spartans and all kinds of other awesome races, so he knew what he was doing. We went to the bottom of the hill where I asked a course marshal for water. It was divine.

By this time, we had only two more hills left. After checking our time with race director Jay, Jason helped me go through the last part of the course. We got lost going up Fleming Hill, but it was OK. Because we were so close to the finish, I was determined to make the cut off.

Me legs were heavy, and my pace was one foot slowly in front of the other, like I was marching to my funeral. My calves were on fire. I was hungry. But I felt the cold wind now, which meant I was getting rehydrated and cooling down, which was good, but not good since it was so cold.

The gulley between the last two hills goes through a watershed used for the Highlands’ runoff. There was loose-you-shoe mud in spots. In the dark, it was hard to see any dry patches. I ran through this section as I felt better, though I’m sure my pace resembled a snail or turtle. Jason ran ahead and meet me at a checkpoint. As we made our way through the course, the cold marshals exclaimed for joy and got ready to leave their posts. I was happy for them and tried to thank everyone out there for their work.

Then it was up one more big hill before we got the Stewart’s. My quads were now revolting, almost silencing out my calves. But as I made it to the top, I knew I was close to the finish.

So I ran as much as I could and tried to pick up my pace a little as I went down Stewart’s Hill. My legs felt like rocks, and I fell. I had a hard time getting back up, but I managed to do it somehow. After all, I could see the finish. I was going to finish and drink all the hot cocoa I could find, I said to myself as I went to the finish line chute. 

The sweeper Jason and I cross the finish line of the night race.

There were cheers from below as I finished the hill and ran to the finish. All the course marshals were back at base and cheered me in. I was last — DFL. But I did it. After gathering some hot water (they were out of hot cocoa) and pepperoni rolls, I got into my car and headed home for a few hours of sleep.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to do the morning race, so decided to try to sleep and see what happens.

I felt fine Sunday morning, so I went back to the Highlands. I was still scared, because Velma, my inner trail monster, didn’t want to experience another crappy, dehydrated, hilly race. So I packed a water bottle filled with Nuun cherry limeade and Nuun plus that fit in my hoodie along with my SPIbelt bottle which had Tangerine lime flavor. A friend gave me some Honey Stringer waffles and other energy chews. I had the proper fuel. I knew this race would be better than the last one and headed out. 

I was able to see the course Sunday, which made a lot of difference. I didn’t get lost. Having fuel made a difference. It was still rough, but I felt better during this race compared to the night one.

There were still times when I wanted to quit, but I knew how much of the course was left. I know that if I didn’t give up when I felt really bad, I couldn’t give up now.

It was even better seeing my friend from Team RWB and H2H on the course. Team RWB member Tiffany stayed with me for a while before jetting off to win first female finisher of the day race. Even when Eagle Joe Foster (top H2H finisher male) gave me an “Eagle Up” as he passed me (he finished an hour or so before I did), I felt that extra encouragement push me further along the course.

I was able to stay with the back of the race party this time, and finished more strongly.  It felt like I was a lot faster, though my time showed otherwise. I didn’t get lost and didn’t stop to mess with my layers. I smiled, a lot. I knew I had this. I would finish. 

Posing for friends at the top of one of the hills near the finish.

It felt awesome to cross the finish line a second time. I did something that scared me. I had encouragement from those around me. I was eating eggs, muffins and sausage and feeling decent.

Tiffany and I with our awards at the Hill Raiser Challenge.

I ended up earning my piece of the barn and top female H2H runner. I was surprised, but very honored. I think I drank something out of my “cup of victory” every day this week. 

I highly recommend this race to anyone willing to go outside of their comfort zone. It’s challenging, but if I can do it, there is a great chance you can do it too if you train properly.

During the awards ceremony they revealed the names of some officers whose names would be gracing the course. It was an honor to see their friends and family members get recognized and know where exactly that part of the course was.

The Hill Raiser Challenge honors law enforcement officers who died. It honors the human spirit and our ability to push through barriers. It honors its runners who compete the challenge because the awards are always earned, never given.

This will probably be my last race as a resident of Appalachia, and I couldn’t see a more fitting way for it to end. I did my best and had a great time. Hopefully, I’ll be up in West Virginia for the 2018 race.

The participants of the Hill Raiser Endurance Challenge. From Ron Pradetto photography.