Race day was Sat Feb 13th, with a chilly 5:30AM start under a spectacularly starry Floridian night sky. Simply stunning. Still dark, headlamps on we departed from the starting field into the woods. The roster in the registration tent indicated 38 hardy folk had signed up for this event and I was excited to be one of them. Knowing it would be a long day I set off slowly joining a group of similarly paced runners. I traveled alone and was running alone, but soon the conversations started up and the great getting to know every one started. It was going to be a long day at the office and soon I settled into my groove. I started by listening, people sharing stories of where they’d come from and their racing pedigrees. I tucked in behind two lady runners who were exchanging stories about their Boston and New York marathon experiences. Little did I know then but one of those ladies was going to eventually be the first female finisher, an interesting start to a long day at the office.
No one thinks of running 50 miles, and I don’t mean you mix it up with some walking. To run 50 miles you break it up into bite sized chunks. There were eleven aid stations along the route so mentally I was only holding in my mind “make it to the next aid station”, then re-set the clock. On reflection I am grateful to the event organizers that mile markers are not set out as in a traditional road marathon. That would be soul sapping! Again upon reflection without the constant reminder of progress I was able to lose myself in the immensity of the adventure and had very little sense or concern for distance covered. My gauge of ability to complete was perceived effort and energy levels.
It was five miles to the first aid station; I was now warmed up and ditched my sweat bottoms and it was still dark. Since I’d sand bagged stripping to my shorts I was no longer with my group but on my own. Upon leaving the aid station I inadvertently took a wrong turn since I’d missed the orange tapes marking the route. As soon as I sensed I was off route a new and surprising emotion over took me one of profound frustration like being a young kid again in the park and realizing you’d lost sight of your parents! Very unexpected but an emotion that was to repeat itself many times during this long day each time I got lost. 50 miles is a long enough distance to complete without adding detours no matter how scenic the trail.
At 7:00AM we were welcomed by daybreak and so able to better appreciate our surroundings. The early trails were soft and sandy, easy going, too easy. I was getting complacent and pow…tripped on a root…and wham…face plant on the trail. Wake up call. Luckily I was not hurt: quickly got up, dusted myself down then back on my way.
Around mile 10 I met a runner coming out of the woods after he’d gone wrong and was doubling back. This was my introduction to Mike who I would run the next 22 miles with. In getting to know him I learnt he was a running veteran having run numerous 50’s.
The day before it had rained big time as it had earlier in the week, so not surprisingly vast parts of the trail were flooded or just soggy wet. This was Green Swamp after all. Being a novice to ultra running at the first water crossing I decided to take off my shoes and socks. I can laugh about it now. Other runners ambled past me, splish, splash, as I sat there putting socks and shoes back on. I though it wise at the time but after getting going again within minutes faced another water crossing. Alrighty then, onwards and upwards, splish, splash. It was cold and my feet numbed almost immediately.
Around mile 15 Mike and I joined up with a runner also called Andrew, another veteran who apart from 50’s had completed a few 100 mile events. Again little did I know but Andrew would go on to be the eventual “official *” winner. So the three of us teamed up going at what I felt was a descent pace. Mike was beginning to wane and so it was Andrew and myself at the mile 32 aid station. It was now my turn to bonk and Andrew took off at mile 33. I would not see him again. Ambling into the last aid station I was informed I was in 2nd place. “No way” I thought. With 3 miles to go I thought I could kick back and so had a good rest, chatting with the helpers, another novice mistake. Andrew had blasted through knowing I was close behind. He smelt victory and wanted it. I saw coke and pretzels on the aid station table and wanted them more. Being totally happy with the thought of 2nd I got going again, turned left as marked into some technical scrubby trail and oh dear straight into “Lostville” Florida. “Please, no not now, so close yet…” After 10 minutes shuffling up and down the trail I found my way again on to the “straight and narrow”. Eventually my eyes were blessed in seeing the “To the Finish” arrow. Boosted by some latent adrenaline I crossed the finish line to be told I’d finished 3rd, the 2nd just 2 minutes ahead of me. Two minutes lost in the woods. But so what; goal to finish my first 50 mile was 10-11 hrs; actual was 9 hrs 35 minutes; and the thought of 3rd place was added gravy.
* Side bar: Due to the ruggedness of the course it turned out that two mega speedy runners had gone off the official route but deemed to have covered the required 50-miles and 90% of the official trail. So in the end I was in reality 5th overall (25 finishers) and 2nd in my age group. I remain a happy camper.