Pilot Mountain to Hanging Rock: More than an Ultra

On October 2nd, 2021, I attempted and finished my first 50K ultramarathon distance. A lifetime longest effort for me. And something that’s been on my mind and heart all summer since we finished our mural and I discovered an ultra covering segment 7 of the MST here in NC that follows the Sauratown mountain range from Hanging Rock to Pilot Mountain. I signed up at a time I had a lot of fears coming up, and was feeling very disconnected from my body and exhausted from life — even all the good. I wasn’t prioritizing my own physical and mental health. I had lows so low I spiraled out and honestly scared myself. I knew something had to change and I sensed running was a part of my puzzle that I couldn’t go without much longer. 

Approaching the finish line of Pilot Mountain to Hanging Rock (course was reversed for 2021 and known as Hanging Rock to Pilot Mountain).

I knew this wouldn’t be a “race” for me, but something else, something far deeper. It would be the outcome, the result of all the life lived in recent years and a summer of doing all the miles. It would be for Sarah — the individual and the partner. And it was. I was back and forth on whether I’d mentally and physically be ready for this and if I even wanted to do it in an organized setting, with other humans. It came down to one question for me I asked myself right up until start time and honestly kept close to me the whole day while I was out there — is this giving me more than it is taking from me? I didn’t want to push my body to oblivion. I’ve done that before. I wanted this to be a Forest Bathing experience, a flow, a result of enduring life’s most testing seasons. Even though I knew it would take everything I had.

It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever put this much into something and given myself permission to be okay not doing it. To know the journey was enough. That it was never about the day. Always about what hours out on the trail by myself gave me. The confidence. The strength. The breathing room. The belief in myself. The grounded sense of being Sarah. Of being okay.

My husband Andrew and “Marshmellow” (our home on wheels) supported me the entire way, swapping out my bottles of hydration every handful of miles and having anything I could need ready for me. 

Mile 19 was the first time I stopped. I took a proper timeout. I sat on the bumper with Andy, ate applesauce, told him the lows of the day like falling and busting my knees in the first mile and the crowded start I’d feared, and my highs of camaraderie, and having moments early on I felt like I was flying. I peed in my own potty and remembered my bigger why. I gave myself room to follow how I felt. And then I kept going.

Giving myself this permission to stop and reset was huge for me. For a moment I got caught up in seeing people go on before I was ready, but then I remembered — Sar, you never cared about that. This is all you. 


Enjoying our rest break with Marshmellow, our home on wheels.

I walked the remainder of the heated road section to Pilot Mountain State Park where we reentered the trails for the final third of the course. Finally it was desolate. And quiet. The light peaked through the trees. After leaving the asphalt my aching hip eased up to be able to slowly step into a run again and hike the uphills (that with loose rock kept feeling steeper and steeper). I was chafed. I was tired. My legs hurt. But I knew there was no way I was quitting. Much like our mural it was the zoomed out experience of existence being lived out. This is what it was always about. I found my breath I’d been looking for all summer (and I didn’t lose it). I wasn’t in a hurry. I was just here.

I had two more brief pitstops with Andy at the last aid stations, ate a couple pickles, did bumper stretches and was on the home stretch miles. We had walked the finale mile a week before so at that point I knew it would be over soon and tried to just breathe it in as much as I could. 

Honestly despite the almost 9 hours of enduring, I didn’t want it to end. My eyes welled up as I approached the finish and gave it what I had left.

I did it for me. I’m so proud of her. 

Sarah McWilson is one half of HAND IN HAND. She and her husband Andrew are partners in marriage and murals. They journey full-time in their home on wheels “the Marshmellow” creating public art for community. Follow their shared journey on Instagram @handinhandcreative or read more of Sarah’s honest feelings @sarahmcwilson.

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