For fourth-year exercise science student Sean Clayton and his running partner Nathan Frantz, South Carolina's 500-mile Palmetto Trail proved to be a grueling experience. Four days in, Clayton was unsure if he would be able to continue.
“I remember just getting back to the hotel and just being like we're like 180-something miles in,” Clayton said. “I’m like, ‘I have to wake up for the next seven days … and just do this over and over and over … I just don’t know if I can do it,’”
Despite his doubts, the pair fought through the pain and set a new record for the fastest time running the state-wide trail with a time of 10 days, 11 hours and 24 minutes over winter break.
The pain did not come due to lack of experience, though. Clayton had run other distance events prior to taking on the Palmetto Trail. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he ran his first 100-mile race as ultra marathons were the only big events still going on. Afterwards, Clayton said he was ready for a new challenge.
“After 100 miles, the next big thing is a 200-mile event, and those are super expensive just to get in,” Clayton said. “You’re looking at $1,500 and then you gotta fly out somewhere, then you have to have a crew for it … it’s a huge thing. So basically, since we couldn't afford that, I just started looking for a long trail that I could do, and I found (the Palmetto Trail).”
It was then that Clayton, 33, asked Frantz, a 37-year-old self employed construction worker, to join him on the Palmetto Trail.
According to Frantz, he and Clayton were only going to be the second people to run the whole trail for time. Because of this, the pair took inspiration from the first run when preparing.
“We read the blog of the guy that had done it previously, so we knew how many miles a day he was running,” Clayton said. “So we had an idea of what we needed to do each day (to break the record).”
The notes of the previous record also brought to light the true distance of the trail.
“When we first looked up the Palmetto Trail, it says on their website this is 350 miles of continuous trails, so we were under the impression that this is a 350-mile trail,” Clayton said. “The record is like 11 days, and I was like … 'We could smash that.' We start looking into it more … and we’re like, 'How is (the former record holder) running 500 miles?'”
The additional miles in connecting trails resulted in a unique style to the path.
“When you think of a trail, you think like dirt, off-road,” Clayton said. “A lot of the Palmetto Trail is actually road.”
While the two were able to break the record, Frantz said they don't plan to run the trail again. However, if he were too, he would pay more attention to the landscape of the trail before starting.
“Even though I looked at a map — I looked at a lot of maps for so many hours — I just assumed the parts they said were completed trail were actually trail,” Frantz said. “I will not take that assumption again. I will make sure that the trail is a trail, and I know what the road is — where actual pavement is.”
To better assist other trail goers, Mary Roe, the executive director of Palmetto Conservation Foundation, said the foundation is going to meet with the pair later in the month to learn more from their experience. However, there are already plans in the work for the trail.
“Next year, at this time, we'll have a trail that we're working on right now connecting our Fort Jackson passage to the Wateree Passage,” Roe said. “When that's complete, that'll be another additional 22 miles of new trail. So, people can hike or run from the Capital City Passage all the way to the coast."