The water was dark, almost black. It looked like coffee or soda that had been sitting in a cup until it was flat. You could peer through the first inch or so and see a brown tint towards the surface, but the deeper you looked, the darker it got.
Of the five or six pontoon boats that ferried us out towards the ocean for the swim start, I was on the first one along with XTERRA fam, Josh Schaffer, Jim Dandro, Sam Chalk, and power couple, Jim and Tanya Houghton among others. I jumped into the canal for a quick warmup and someone shouted from another boat, “How’s the water, Marcus?” I have no idea why, but I responded with, “It’s like chocolate milk.”
I stuck my face in the water and looked down to where I thought my feet were, but I saw nothing. Between the black wetsuit I had on, coupled with the darkness of the water, it appeared that my body just disappeared into infinity. My feet could not be seen. The water temp was perfect, almost too warm for a wetsuit. Sleeveless for sure. Race Director, Pete Politus had us carted off on boats in an effort to prevent us from swimming against the tide current, one of many improvements he implemented from last year. He’d taken lots of feedback to heart, kept the good stuff and tried to improve the other. It showed.
The swim start was quick, happening almost instantaneous to the last person departing their pontoon boat. Our point-to-point 1000 meter swim came with very little need to sight as all you had to do was stay in the middle of the canal. I tried to keep my head down as much as possible and just put forth a good effort to get to the lead pack. Breathing to my right, I spotted Eric Milam’s drone hovering over the canal, taking video. Here’s a little snippet and some really cool pictures.
With about 200 meters left to go, I was in the lead which was a new experience for me. The water ahead of me was like glass which made sighting easy and the strokes smooth. Before I knew it, I was running for transition, first out of the water. Someone on the shore later told me that we didn’t beat the tide and it started flowing against us just after we left the docks. No biggie, it was still a fun swim. A quick transition and I was off on the bike in the lead.
I tried my best throughout the bike to maintain said lead, but I knew Josh and Sam would be hammering this course. The folks at the Myrtle Beach Tri Club have put tons of work into this plot of land and it’s amazing the technicality, climbing and pure fun that they’ve designed along with the help of SORBA. The Horry County Bike and Run Park, commonly referred to as the “Hulk” is chock full o’ fun. You’d think that it being at the beach, that all you’d get is flat and sand. This is DEFINITELY not the case. The trails are marked with names like “Aladdin”, named for the plethora of strategically placed carpet you’ll find. You’ll also find trails like “Tarzan”, “Tall Pine” and it’s namesake, “Hulk”. Some names are easier to figure out than others, but it was clear that Tarzan got its name from its jungle-like greenery and vines. You’ll even find cool signs like this:
All of the trails have their own personality and terrain features. The one that I found challenging consisted of twisty, switch backs that were difficult to navigate at a constant rate of speed. You were either going too fast or too slow. Through these type of sections, I spotted folks trying to catch me, but had absolutely no inkling as to how far back they were. Margo Pitts echo’d the difficulty about those tight sections, “The bike course was ridiculously fast with lots of twists and turns. My favorite was the short but steep screaming descents that quickly turned into flat sandy switchbacks. I was knocked off my bike and over taken by a friendly athlete during one of those tight turns.”
There were bunnies everywhere. I’d spook a couple out of the brush and they would dart across the trail and into the grass on the other side, only to find me coming around the switchback and spooking them again. It seemed like there were a bunch, but heck, it could have been the same two I kept scaring across the trails. There were a handful of straight-aways I used to get a glimpse behind me and see if anyone was there, but each time I looked, I didn’t see a thing. The course, being a 2-lap, 7-ish mile course meant that there was a possibility of catching up to the back pack. Sure enough, at the start of the second lap, we started catching folks. A little over half-way through the second lap, there was a long straight that I hammered down on the left side of a double-wide track. As I approached the end of it, I moved to the center and gave a peek over my left shoulder. No one.
As soon as I was off the straight, I started a short, steep switchback climb. When I turned left, there was Josh hot on my tail. “Where the heck did you come from?” I asked. Josh smiled and let out a chuckle. He had tucked in behind me on the straight and when I moved to the center of the trail and looked over my right shoulder, he was in my blind spot on the left. “You made me work for it,” he claimed. I responded, “Well, you know me.” As soon as we cleared a few switchbacks, I yielded the trail and he hopped up front just as we dove into the Hulk.
It seems we weren’t the only two chatting it up on the bike course. Margo Pitts made it first out of the water from the female side and was in the lead on the bike when Amanda Frost caught her. “I passed Margo on the bike. We were riding together for a while actually chit chatting about other races and how much fun we were having,” said Amanda. She also enjoyed the bike course stating, “The steep downhills really got your adrenaline going. The tight turns and loose sand made the course challenging. It was true single track racing but gave you ample places to pass.”
The Hulk trail begins with a steep drop, to which Josh threw a beautiful tail whip of his rear tire. Intentional or not, it was pretty. In the process, he landed just off the trail, but manages to recover it. I had flashbacks of my fun, little crash in Vegas one year and exclaimed with a laugh, “Dude, don’t do that.” He laughed as well and we rode on, enjoying the bridges and cool features. Going into tall pines, Josh was hammering it and managed to pull away from me a bit.
As I entered transition and threw my bike on the rack, Josh was just leaving, heading out onto the run. It wasn’t one of my quicker transitions, but I got out of there as quick as I could.
The run course was a flat, out and back, with a good portion of it on a gravel road (about half of the total run). With water stops at 1 mile and 2 mile going out, coming back you had them at mile 3 and 4. Once out on the road, Josh had a 50ish yard lead on me. The road was hot with the light-colored gravel reflecting the sun from below. It took me until the second water stop to catch him. We ran side-by-side for a while chatting about the race, competitors behind us and what-not. After the turn-around, we were able to see who was behind us and in what order. Just before hitting the gravel again, I saw Margo Pitts running up. “First female!” I said as she passed. Spotting Amanda right behind her, I realized it was going to be a battle to the end for those two. Margo later stated, “Nothing like an out and back course with friendly competitors cheering you to the finish. That definitely diverted my attention from the heat and gravel. I wasn’t sure of my standing until Marcus so warmly yelled ‘you’re the first female!’”
Josh and I continued down the gravel road, chatting it up. I eventually decided to make my move and picked up the pace a bit. Josh matched the pace, then I picked it up a little more and began to slowly pull away. I maintained it for a first place overall finish. It was a tough race with some stiff competition. Margo held onto her lead and came in first overall female.
I even picked me up one of ‘dem ‘dar Hulk trophies.
“I’m happy to be back racing XTERRA and what an amazing first race of the season it was for me,” Margo told me. I agree. It was a fun, fun race. Props goes out to Josh, a good friend, an excellent racer and all-around great guy. Loved racing against you, my friend.
(L-R), Peter Lilly (70-74), John Collins (50-54), Marcus Barton (45-49), Josh Schaffer (40-44) and Ian Davidson (60-64)
Again, I am very surprised at the great work done on the trails at the Horry County Bike and Run Park. They’re full of interesting features, fun riding and running.
If you’re on the east coast and thinking of a place to hit the beach on vacation, the trails here should be a reason for you to consider Myrtle Beach. Just be sure to bring your bike and running shoes. As for the race, you should hit it next year, it’s a great addition to the XTERRA circuit!
Thanks to Sherry Stone and Eric Milam for some great photos!
Race: XTERRA Myrtle Beach
Location: Myrtle Beach, SC
Date: May 3, 2015
Distances: 1000m Swim / 14 mile mountain bike / 5 mile trail run
Result: 1st Overall
Products used: GU Roctane and GU Brew, Inov-8 X-Talon 190, Schwalbe Racing Ralph and Thunderburt Tires, Cobb DRT SHC Saddle, ESI Grips, Crank Brothers Candy 11 Pedals, First Endurance Multi-V.