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South Carolina

Updated: Mar 12

GREENVILLE HALF MARATHON

Greenville, SC


With Love, From Parris Island


The last time I visited South Carolina was 16 years ago, when I found myself standing on the infamous Yellow Footprints at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. April 21, 2008 began at 3:00 A.M. for me, with a knock on my front door from my recruiter. Less than two hours later, I was on a plane from New York to South Carolina. I don't remember the flight, or the bus ride from the airport to Parris Island. What I do remember very clearly was how I felt getting off the bus and lining up on those Yellow Footprints, which cemented the reality there was no going back. There was no time to process anything, until graduation.


My memories of that time are a high-speed, low-drag, ten feet tall, and bulletproof whirlwind of sand fleas, running my fastest 5K in 21 minutes, endless push-ups and jumping jacks, Drill Instructors communicating in only one volume — yelling, obstacle courses, carrying other full-sized humans on my back, 20-second showers with 70 other women and only 10 shower heads, accurately hitting a target at 500 yards, blood, sweat, tears, and existing in a constant state of physical exhaustion and sleep-deprivation. The state of South Carolina is where I earned the title of United States Marine, after 13 of the most challenging weeks of my life, pushing our minds and bodies to limits we didn't even know we were physically or mentally capable of.



Very few things I've done in my life hold a candle to the pride I feel in being a Marine, and all of those memories came flooding back as my plane descended in South Carolina for the 2024 Greenville Half Marathon race weekend. South Carolina became the 15th state on my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. I later celebrated this milestone by finally pulling the trigger and becoming an official member of the 50 States Half Marathon Club. There isn't a set number of races required to become a member, but for some reason I'd decided in my head I wasn't a worthy "Fifty-Stater" until I'd hit 15. I was welcomed into the club with open arms, and I'm now excited to move forward in my journey with new friends all across the country!


I'd never been to Greenville, so I don't know exactly what I was expecting. I think I thought my experience arriving that evening would be similar to my two previous stays in Tulsa and Austin, where I was greeted by a dystopian level of desertion on the streets. This was the opposite, and I was delighted to find out that the city of Greenville had nightlife. I was staying in the heart of downtown, at the Courtyard Marriott, which was right across from the Peace Center Concert Hall. Hundreds of people descended on the concert hall around 7:00 P.M., getting queued up for that evening's show. The streets were alive with not only concert-goers, but the gamut of tourists and locals patronizing the Main Street shops and restaurants — an amount of pedestrian traffic I was more accustomed to seeing in downtown Chicago during that time of the evening.


In typical tourist fashion, I asked the receptionist at the hotel's front desk during check-in what all these people were doing out and about, and if there was something special happening. The response was something I actually did not expect at all, which was that former president Donald Trump and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley were in town that week on a planned stop on the campaign trail for the 2024 Presidential Election. As a result, Greenville had been hosting a higher-than-normal volume of visitors that week into the weekend, coupled with out-of-state travelers who were there for the same reason I was, which was the race. The former president and former governor being there posed a potential inconvenience for me, because I was already envisioning the coffee lines in the morning being super long.



Shortly after arriving, it was time for dinner. I wanted a sample of true southern hospitality and the pinnacle of southern comfort food when considering my dinner choice. Sassafras Southern Bistro beat out all the other contenders by a mile, and it won my heart and stomach the moment I sat down. My waitress was the absolute sweetest, and she expressed genuine interest in my reason for visiting, and was eager to recommend some of her personal menu favorites.


I went with the fried chicken for my main course, with seasoned green beans and the best macaroni and cheese I've ever had at any restaurant. I was also pleasantly surprised they included a single hush puppy on my plate, which left me wanting more (super sneaky and brilliant of them). Dessert was a bowl of beignets with peaches and vanilla ice cream, which meant the walk back to my hotel room was going to be extra long because I was so full. I've regretted quite a few things in my life, and this wasn't one of them.


Coffee, Crêpes, and Chasing Waterfalls

Friday, February 23, 2024


Bright and early on Friday morning, I set out in search of coffee. What I found was coffee and crêpes, at the cutest little Main Street café, Bonjour Main. The restaurant was decked out in flowers and bicycles, channeling a playful Parisian vibe. Gen Z TikTokers, in their infinite wisdom and colloquial prowess, would say, "It's giving Paris," intentionally omitting the word "vibes" at the end of the sentence. I will never understand this as a vintage Millennial, and "vibes" will punctuate the end of my descriptive adjectives until the day I die. I started my day with a bananas foster crêpe, scrambled eggs, and a perfectly frothy mocha.



Afterwards I stopped in at Starbucks down the street to grab a bagel and cream cheese, banana, and orange juice, which I stored in my hotel room fridge for race morning. It would be an early morning with a 5:45 A.M. bus departure to the start, so I knew I'd need a portable breakfast. Later that morning I did some sightseeing downtown, which did not include listening to the rivers and the lakes that I'm used to, because I went chasing waterfalls at Falls Park on the Reedy. Cue TLC's 1994 hit, "Waterfalls." I'm well aware I have just dated myself, because some people reading this are too young to remember this song or were born after it was released.


Falls Park is an oasis in the center of urbanization consisting of trails, green space, bridges, gardens, and most importantly, waterfalls, located in downtown Greenville's Historic West End. I did a loop around the falls, and stopped to admire the view on the Liberty Bridge. Liberty Bridge is a location where selfies and group photos are taken with reckless abandon, and I did my fair share of entertaining requests from strangers to photograph them posing with their group or by themselves in exchange for them returning the favor and taking my picture. I later learned Liberty Bridge was funded by $4.5 million worth of the City of Greenville's Hospitality Tax. The Hospitality Tax was a charge reflected on my hotel invoice when I checked out, so I can only hope that the next round of future projects in Greenville that will now include my $10 contribution will be as magnificent as the Liberty Bridge.



Picking up my race packet was next on my agenda, so I headed down to the Kroc Center. My path intersected with the part of the Swamp Rabbit Trail that would be Mile 13 of the race, and I stopped in front of the trail head to get a quick photo of the sign and mentally take in what it would mean to be in this spot again tomorrow. I watched two runners gleefully pass me, chatting away, and imagined what the trail would look like with all of us crossing that intersection the next day. I then took a deep breath and closed my eyes for a brief second, imagining spectators there, and finishing Mile 13 here in this spot, preparing to round the corner, run the final tenth of a mile, and cross the finish line.


When I was done daydreaming I headed inside the Kroc Center. For the size of the race, I was admittedly a bit surprised by the complete lack of an expo. Not disappointed, just surprised, because it was literally two tables set up in a gymnasium and a row of tables with T-shirts piled high. The volunteers were friendly, albeit the no-frills, straightforward process. I was handed a race T-shirt, my bib, and a drawstring bag, and sent on my way. I returned to the part of the course that was Mile 13, and decided I would walk Mile 13 back to my hotel. Course familiarization could only make me feel more confident, even if it was only for a mile.



Later in the afternoon, the dark clouds moved in, and the sky threatened rain until early evening. I rounded out the afternoon with more Main Street exploration, and stopped for lunch at Nose Dive. Nose Dive purports to be the home of the best burger in Greenville, and having no other frame of reference — and after thoroughly enjoying my Caprese burger and sweet potato fries — I had no grounds to disagree with their claim. Their fare consists of happy hour food, all of which I wished I could have tried. The Caprese burger was actually a turkey burger, served with tomato, mixed greens, mozzarella cheese, and balsamic vinegar, and some other magic sauce I couldn't quite place, but loved.


After lunch, I stopped in M. Judson Booksellers, a quirky coffee shop and book store. I could have spent forever in there, reading dust covers and excerpts from books at each table. They had a really cute concept for one bookshelf, called the "Blind Date" shelf, where readers could choose books with jackets covered in brown paper, and only a handwritten summary of the book visible. I thought this could be really fun, and had I had more time and luggage space, I may have been brave enough to take a chance on one of these masked books.



Later that evening, I headed down to Trio - A Brick Oven Cafe for pre-race dinner. If you have been following this site for at least the last 15 blog entries, you may be familiar with the post in which I asserted myself as a pizza connoisseur and decided to sample pizza in each of the 50 states during this journey. I absolutely enjoyed South Carolina pizza based on my experience at Trio. I went with a classic Hawaiian thin crust, and a crème brulée for dessert. The woman sitting next to me politely remarked that she and her husband "couldn't eat all that" when I recommended it, because they were running the race the following morning.


It brought me great satisfaction to tell her I, too, was running the race, and then proceeded to eat the entire pizza in front of me. There are so many misconceptions out there about nutrition for athletes, and I'm happy to clear them up with my own eating habits on display. Although crème brulée is one of my favorite desserts of all time, this one was huge. You can see from the photo it was nearly the size of a dinner plate, so I ended up leaving a little bit over in the dish.



That night, I fell into a restless sleep, and had a dream that myself and another woman were running a 5K. Trust me — I'm only rambling on about this because this dream becomes important later. So, I'm running a 5K, with one other runner. We were the only participants, and it would be me and her competing for first and second place. Running in a dream is weird, sometimes it feels like you're running through water, other times you're running and nothing is happening — and sometimes, if you're lucky, your feet leave the ground, you become weightless, and discover you can fly. Well, somehow, I ended up finishing first in the 5K. I could feel the tape breaking as I crossed the finish first, for the first time in my entire life. Before anyone could hand me a medal or award for winning a race for the first time, my alarm went off.


The Tortoise and the Hare: Does Slow and Steady Win the Race?

Race Day: Saturday, February 24, 2024


The Tortoise and the Hare is one of the most well-known and beloved fables in human history, and I could not think of a more aptly named title for this race recap, given what ended up transpiring between me (The Tortoise), and the Swamp Rabbit Trail (The Hare). I signed up for the Greenville Half Marathon in part because it is touted as "The Fastest Half Marathon in the South," and also because I wanted to run the Swamp Rabbit, which seemed beautiful from the photos I'd seen during my research phase. Admittedly, I was also lured in by the prospect of cute rabbit-emblazoned swag. The course was net downhill, and while I wasn't expecting a PR, I also knew I wasn't going to be in a huge hurry because I wanted to enjoy the scenery and document the race. Where I lack in speed, I more than make up for in self-deprecation.


The race was scheduled to begin at Gateway Park in Traveler's Rest, and the point-to-point course eventually would conclude on the TD stage at the Peace Center in Greenville. I had pre-purchased a bus ticket to the start for $20.00, and runners lined up on race morning for the early buses in front of the Peace Concert Hall, for a 5:45 A.M. departure. I once again thanked myself profusely for booking a hotel right across the street from the shuttle departure site, and what would later be the finish line. There was an option for a later bus, and being from out of town and not knowing what to expect at the start line, I decided to play it safe and get to the start as early as possible. I ended up regretting my decision (more on that later).


It was a 20-minute bus ride from Greenville to Gateway Park, and while on the bus, I admired the full moon while I ate my breakfast. When we rolled up to Gateway Park and unloaded from the bus, we noticed two things: the first was how completely devoid of light most of the park was, especially the area around the bank of portable toilets; and second, how cold it was. It was around 6:30 A.M., an hour before the race start, and the temperature was a crisp 36° F. The wind remained steady at a mild 3 MPH, however, it did not make up for the unpleasantness of standing around in a temperature only four degrees above freezing for the next hour. If I had only gotten on the later bus!



The consensus about the porta-john situation being sketchy at best was unanimous, in that no one wanted to do their business in complete darkness, or have to perform the delicate balancing act of occupying one hand by using their phone as a flashlight. We all stood around doing pointless stretches and warm-up exercises until a small orange sliver of the sun crested the horizon, and runners felt confident enough to use the toilet without dropping their phone or other valuable item into the blue liquid abyss.


I occupied my time talking with another runner who told me she was also running the 50 states, and she was currently 20 weeks pregnant. We instantly connected, and had quite a few things in common, such as the fact that she was from Indiana and so is my husband, and we had run a few of the same races. The other thing we had in common was we were both really cold, and we lamented the fact that there were no warming tents.


About 40 minutes prior to the start, we were still freezing cold, but both of us had to use the restroom. Neither of us wanted to try the porta-johns, since it was still too dark for our liking, so I suggested we check out the small building that we presumed were the facilities for the park. I assumed they’d be locked, and we’d have to resign ourselves to our fate, but we were both pleasantly surprised to find five runners – three women and two men – clustered together in the single-stall room. The five runners looked at us in sudden surprise when I swung the door open, expecting the stall to be empty, and then they all burst out laughing and explained they were huddled in there to keep warm. Reluctantly, me and my new runner friend joined them, and we found it to be much warmer and more tolerable than waiting outside, unsheltered.


“There is a toilet back here,” one of the women explained, and gestured at the brick partition separating the sink and the toilet, “but there’s no door. Just so you know.” The seven of us laughed and joked and passed the time talking about where we were from, and at least three of us were running the 50 states. Every time someone new would open the door, expecting an empty bathroom stall, all of us would collectively say, “We’re not in line, we’re just keeping warm.” Then we’d laugh when the newcomer would look a bit caught off guard, and reluctantly back away and decide not to join us.


There came a point during our time together in the Inner Circle where we had to address the elephant in the room: peeing in front of strangers. Each of us decided peeing in the brightly lit stall was better than the alternative outside, so we all agreed we’d be okay with using the toilet with the others present, so long as we gave each other privacy. When the women used the restroom, the men stepped out and shut the door, and vice versa. Being a part of the running community gets you comfortable with a lot of things you may not normally be comfortable with, and none of us were uncomfortable. Best of all, there was plenty of toilet paper, and a functioning sink.


Our bonding experience came to a close when it was time to shuffle to the starting line and get into our assigned corrals. The corrals were released in waves, and by the time I actually crossed the timing mat, it was approximately 15 minutes past the race kickoff. During the first mile, we headed north on Main Street for a little while before entering the Swamp Rabbit trail at Tolar Road. From there, we continued north on the trail, for about two miles, before looping around and heading south. During the first two miles, runners crowded each other on the paved trail, continuously jockeying for positions. I did my best not to get stepped on, or step on anyone else. We waved at the other runners who were coming at us from the opposing direction when the first couple of corrals completed their loop around.



We crossed Greer Highway and headed south on the Swamp Rabbit Trail, slowly but steadily making our way towards Greenville. The trail was lined with a canopy of trees for a good portion of the course, and between the trees I could see the many different restaurants lining the highway that we passed along the way. I found the course to have quite a few hills, especially the first 5 miles, though they may have been imperceptible to others. Around mile 6, there were two memorable things that happened – somehow a small pebble got lodged in my shoe, and I came up on a man running barefoot in a kilt.


Before addressing the rock in my shoe, I decided to learn more about my new barefoot friend. He was an Air Force veteran, and had been running barefoot since 2005. Running barefoot was something he wouldn’t change ever again after he started, and explained once your muscles get used to it, running with shoes on feels cumbersome. Eventually, we passed his house, with his wife and daughters cheering for him from their front yard.


In the distance, we heard what sounded like gunshots, presumably from hunters. It was goose season, from what I guessed. My new friend and I discussed our respective times overseas, and agreed it was not something either of us wanted to relive again. Having developed a passing camaraderie and mutual respect for one another, we parted ways after passing the Furman University Campus. I continued for about 2 more miles before I couldn’t stand the rock in my shoe any longer. Between miles 6 and 8, it had made its way around to the front of my shoe, and was agitating my big toe. To my left was the Trailside Retreat as we reached mile 8, and I stopped to dig for the rock in my shoe. Taking my shoe completely off was not an option — I didn’t want to spare much more time. With no luck reaching the rock, I decided to leave it alone and accept that I was going to carry it with me for the rest of the race.


There were aid stations approximately every 2 miles, stocked with plenty of water and Gatorade, and volunteers enthusiastically offering their support and encouragement. Somewhere around mile 9, my stomach didn’t feel good, and from that point I could only consume fluids without feeling a tendril of fire roaring through my intestines. I’d brought 6 Huma gels with me for nutrition, meant to be consumed every 30 minutes, and my plan had worked for approximately 4 gels. We passed through Swamp Rabbit Station at Berea, which marked the exact halfway point between Downtown Greenville and Travelers Rest. I thought the vintage railcar was fascinating, and promised myself to learn more about it later.


Prior to reaching mile 11, a cheerfully painted sign let us know we were half a mile away from the Swamp Rabbit Café. When we reached the Swamp Rabbit Café, two runners behind me darted off the course, and I watched them hurry to their vehicles. I never saw them again, so I’m still not sure if they ever returned to the course to finish the race. The smells of coffee and breakfast filled the air as I ran past the café, and I, too, wanted to leave the course, so I could eat whatever they were serving in there. The last two miles were slow and painful, and at that point, I was developing shin splits. The searing pain was a signal that it was time to retire this pair of running shoes after this race, and use them for walking or cross training.



Between mile 12 and 13, I was treated to a view of Greenville’s adorable giant steel rabbit sculpture, named Rusty. Rusty is the centerpiece of Unity Park, and of course I couldn’t pass by him without getting a photo. When we reached mile 13, I was wrapped in comfort with the familiarity that it offered, remembering my walk on this part of the course the day before. I felt calm knowing this was the home stretch, and also excited to cross the finish line. Volunteers and runners who had finished were coming at us in the opposite direction, looking for their friends so they could cheer them on for the final push. I got a glimpse of the medal on the necks of the finishers, and couldn’t wait for mine.


The temperature had risen considerably, and it was now in the mid-50’s. I was very uncomfortable in my long sleeve shirt, which had dutifully served its purpose during the earlier part of the morning. Reaching the final mile marker, and knowing I only had a tenth of a mile to go, I picked up the pace and was consumed by a final jolt of adrenaline. More spectators converged on the course, and everyone was cheering and yelling words of encouragement for our pack of runners.


The finish line was less than 500 yards away, and I decided to give it everything I had left in the tank. I sprinted at the fastest speed my fatigued muscles would allow, as if my legs were an over-governed high-performance engine. Directly ahead of me, I saw a pair of yellow pacer flags flapping in the breeze, as the two pacers steadily jogged towards the finish. A spectator shouted at me, "Come on! You can beat them!" With that final burst of encouragement, I continued sprinting until I overtook them, and suddenly felt everything descend into slow motion. With the photographer in sight, I raised my arms in the air victoriously, and smiled for the camera as I crossed the final timing mat.



I was not immediately christened with a medal, and I didn’t see any volunteers standing by to do so as more finishers came through the corral. Beside me, there was a table with a pile of medals — 5K medals. "Do you want to tell them the… news? Or should I?" One volunteer asked her counterpart. Confused, I waited patiently in the finish corral, and watched as several more runners crossed the finish behind me. “We ran out of medals,” the volunteer explained apologetically, “Somehow, we miscalculated… we didn’t order enough for the half. I’m not sure how this happened. We were sure we counted correctly… we’re so sorry. The medal will be mailed to you.”


As she spoke, I wasn’t even sure I heard her correctly, and was having a hard time processing what was happening while the blood pounded in my ears and tinnitus took over. They ran out of medals. I ran 13 miles… and didn’t get a medal at the end. I was upset, as you can imagine, and this is not something any runner really mentally prepares for. Overcome with emotion — I didn’t quite know how to label my emotions at that point — I exited the finisher’s area and stomped off. I looked around the festivities and tried to gain my bearings, wondering what I should do next. I knew I needed nutrients, and I was starving and thirsty.


While scoping out the options for food, I overheard a dejected runner say to her friend, “Hey, do you mind if I take a photo with your medal?” It dawned on me that I didn’t want to have no finish line photos, so I made my way back to the finish line. A kind volunteer let me pose for a photo with a 5K medal, and tucked away the part of the ribbon that said “5K.” Aside from the lettering on the ribbon and what was engraved on the actual medal, it was almost identical to the half marathon medal, especially from a distance.


You can see in the photo I'm smiling, but the smile doesn't quite meet my eyes. As the volunteer put the 5K medal around my neck, I got chills, suddenly recalling the dream I had the night before. I dreamed about winning a 5K... it was a premonition that I'd be wearing a 5K medal today. It was eerie, but if you're like me and believe in synchronicities like that, it made sense. After my photo was taken, I went back across the street to my hotel and cried. “This is stupid,” the rational part of me said, “Why are you crying?! They’re going to mail it to you!” Still, it was a let-down, because I couldn’t celebrate my finish that day with a medal. There would be no medal that I would carefully have to pack in my purse for the trip home. I suppose I was grieving my process of how I normally celebrated after a race. I just wasn't fast enough, and there's a reason why I wear the Tortoise emoji as a badge of honor on my Instagram profile.


Thankfully, this story has a good ending. I later met up with a friend, Chris, who lives in Greenville, and he did the kindest, most generous thing another runner has ever done for me. He would not let me leave Greenville without his medal, since I traveled all the way out there. Even though I argued I couldn't take it because I’d feel terrible, he insisted he could just get another one for himself later because he was local. “But you earned it!” I protested. “So did you,” he countered, and I couldn’t argue with that, and I was very touched.


We spent the next four hours at Gather GVL, where Chris introduced me to three of his awesome long-time friends — Allison, "Lids," and Faith — who made me feel like family by the end of the day. Gather GVL, which is praised on their website as "the 6th Best Food Hall in America according to the 2023 USA Today Readers’ Choice Awards," is the heartbeat of Greenville's West End, and is a vibrant outdoor food court constructed entirely of shipping containers. Each shipping container features a different local business, and the options span from burgers and pizza to international cuisine to beverage vendors. I ordered a Southern sandwich from HenDough, which was fried chicken sandwich with coleslaw and pimento cheese, plus fries, and within minutes it was all gone.



During the span of our time hanging out there, we must have experienced all four seasons. It got cold and windy, then the sun came out and baked us, and then it cooled off again and rained. It was so refreshing to just enjoy all of it and laugh with these complete strangers who became friends, over drinks and great food. The afternoon erased any negative emotions I had been feeling after the race, and I ended my trip on the highest note possible. Hands down, the best part about the running community is meeting the most amazing people and making friends for life.




LODGING:

Courtyard by Marriott Greenville Downtown

50 W Broad St

Greenville, SC 29601

Happy running and safe travels,

Stefanie


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