June 7, 2014
I was scared. I usually feel nervous before a race, but it’s a different type of nervous: can I push through, what’s my plan for the night-time hours, what if I can’t get food down? For this race, I was obsessed with not getting lost, the water crossings, and the possibility of encountering wild animals: snakes, alligators, mountain lion, etc. Not to mention that unlike most races, there were no aid stations or bathrooms for this 62 mile adventure; we had to rely on our crew to meet us at various trail heads – sometimes 14 miles apart, sometimes shorter distances—to replenish our water and fuel. I had run JW Corbett 50K back in April, and so I knew to some extent what I was getting myself into. Hot, rugged, unforgiving trails and scattered trees with orange blazes as my lifeline to find my way through.
With Bonnie as my crew extraordinaire, we arrived on Friday evening at the unexpectedly charming Seminole Inn–an eclectic bed and breakfast in the middle of nowhere, complete with a parrot that ate peanuts from my hand and said hello as I was leaving. After a fun and excited dinner at one of the only local restaurants – Dee Stefano’s, and a stop at the somewhat spooky grocery store, where local zombies shopped, we were back to the room where it was time for me to prepare my gear for the inaugural Lake to Ocean 100K event.
Lake O to Dupuis – 14.0
Armed with RD Jeff’s laminated course cheat sheet, the pack of 24 runners was off at 6:30 am sharp, after Jeff’s 5 minute pre-race chat. I started off running and felt good. Shockingly, those first few miles were not bad – in fact, they were super run-able and enjoyable. I felt so nervous going into it, that it took me a few miles to calm down and catch my breath. I like to run with a water bottle or two at most; for this race, I wore a 70 ounce water pack, an easy access whistle handing from my pack, two water bottles, a waist pack with my phone, a bandana around my neck, gators, calve sleeves and tons of dryer sheets tucked here and there to keep the horse flies away. I could run a race or join the Girls Scouts on a survival trek.
Zsofia and I ran side by side and were with a group for the most part, chatting about this or that, and then somewhere around mile 4, we took a walk break only to be passed by Salt and Stephanie and then the Washington State race director guy came upon us – he had started off in first place, had gotten lost, and was supposedly back on his way. Eventually, the Washington guy would put in 28 lost miles and arrive back at the starting line to quit.
In those early miles, Z and I went off course and spotted an old rusty bath tub, which Zsofia decided we needed to take photographs in; this was the beginning of our leisurely trek. Then we were off again, getting lost for a few minutes here and there, always managing to find our way without too much difficulty. We never got too far off course, but it was definitely a focus game to simultaneously stare at the ground and look up at the trail blazes to find our way.
Around mile 12, we intersected the creepy trail guy, who snapped photos of us and didn’t want to disclose who he was for some reason. “Are you in the race?” Z asked. He was not. “Are you out hiking?” No. I think we may have asked him why he was out there and at some point he told us he worked for the Florida Trail Association. It was either that he couldn’t hear our questions; hence, the silence, or that he was creepy. He ushered us in front of him so that he could follow us, and it was then that Z and I decided to take off and run – away from him! At some point we realized we hadn’t seen a blaze in a bit, so we split up – she went ahead while I backtracked, and when I found the tree blaze we missed and blew my whistle to signal to her, there was creepy trail guy again, telling us to go ahead of him.
When we greeted our crew at the first stop, 14 miles in, it was clear that we were the last ones – Jeff Stevens had come out looking for us and asked if we had gotten lost. Not very lost we told him – a few minutes here and there off the trail. Clearly he was confused over what was taking us so long. But it felt good to just be hanging out on the trails. To not have to rush, to just enjoy it all, take in the abundant lush green scenery, the endless prairies, gossip, laugh, be outside and free. Life happens so fast; my daily pace at work is go go go. It was nice to slow it all down, to breathe easy, to get out of rush mode. Until our crews and RD Jeff told us that we had to hurry up. That we were going too slow. That if we wanted to finish, we had to pick up the pace. We were given orders to get faster on the next loop. To move! And so we did.
Dupois to Corbett/Southgrade
We headed out into the next section of the trail running. The sun was beating down by this time with no shade around, and after about 20 minutes of running, my head was throbbing. I had not eaten anything at the aid station, but I had filled up my water bottle with Gatorade, which I figured would save me. When I told Z that I needed to walk for a few minutes, she told me to think of Grand Tetons and how freezing I was there in the 19 degree weather. It was a great idea, but thinking of my other DNF was probably not the best visual this early in to a race.
We had about 7 miles to go until we would see our crew again, which on a normal trail would be a bit over an hour run. But in the heat and humidity, not to mention our state of mind, I was thinking we would make it in closer to two hours. We picked up it for these miles. Running a lot of the way, through the winding single track of pine flatwoods and cypress domes, and then walking, trying to make up lost time. This was a fun obstacle course section and we maneuvered our way with some speed. At one point Z took a fall, diving face first to the ground. When she landed, she told me, “Look at the frog,” and at first, I said, “What frog?”
When we arrived at the next aid stop, it was clear that we were back in the good graces of our crew. They told us that we had picked it up, that we were back on track, that we were no longer an hour behind the slowest runners. It was here that we intercepted Juan, and tried our best to convince him not to drop, to join us, although he was already happily sitting in his crew’s car, likely with air conditioning blasting. He protested that he would slow us down, that he was vomiting water. He didn’t realize that we would have gladly slowed down for him. I even offered him one of my precious Drip Drop, but when he was adamant that he was dropping, I was sure to take it back from him. I couldn’t afford to waste one on a deserter.
Southgrade to Hungryland
And then Z and I were off, venturing into what I knew was going to be one of the hardest sections – the dreaded JW Corbett ordeal. We started off on the somewhat familiar run-able rooty terrain, the sun beating down on us and then, there came the water. Dirty, mucky, slushy, bacteria-filled steamy water. Z searched for a way around it for those first few crossings and then, when she realized that the only way to stay on trail was to move through it, we began to slosh our way across. At times it was shallow and clear – as in, I can see you if you are in there, alligator and snakes; other times it was thigh deep, which meant I had to hold my breath and pray that I didn’t step on a water moccasins or alligator and startle it. The amazing thing about Corbett is that you alternate between swamps and winding, weaving dry single track that is blisteringly hot. Where does the water come from? How does it get there? Is the swamp water a Jeff Stephens creation? In the distance, we saw dark skies and welcomed the prospect of showers. We put in our wishes – I hoped for a heavy downpour, but a quick one. Z hoped for an ongoing drizzle.
Finally, 9 miles later, the scorching 90-something degree heat and rugged, technical trail unraveling us, we arrived at Hungry Land, but not without intercepting Christian, Barbara and Tim on the trail, who were a mile or so ahead of us, heading out on the next section. Some words of inspiration were tossed around, and then we were coming in to our aid stop. Yes, we had a 1-mile lollipop loop to run to complete this section, but first, it was spa time for Z, which consisted of Balazs serving her a blended iced drink, draping iced bandanas on her face and neck and taking off her shoes, cleaning her feet, and helping her to put on new socks and shoes. I was waiting for him to break out the nail polish and file, but it was likely that he was saving that for her next spa break. It’s a good thing he was very concerned about how much time we were wasting and how slow we were going and how we had to make it up on the trail, because he apparently was not factoring spa time into our race. I on the other hand never sat down at an aid stop, asked Bonnie to fill up my bottles, refilled my ice bandana, and was ready to go.
After spa time, Z and I went off on the lollipop loop and once Bonnie and Balazs were out of sight, we started to walk again. Walking was becoming a habit now. It wasn’t that we were lazy; it was that we were enjoying ourselves. Rushing seemed to take us out of our state of mind. Until our crew ambushed us on the loop, and then drill Sergeant Bonnie demanded that I move, which meant that I had to run the rest of the way. It was good to know I could still pick it up if I chose to. After the lollipop loop, Z went back for a mini spa session at Club Balazs and then we were off. We had strict orders: we had an hour to complete a little over 6 miles. I told Bonnie that in the heat, and considering the trail, that would not be possible. This course is interesting, in that if you have not run it, you can be delusional about it.
Hungryland to Beeline
At some point in our adventure, Z had gotten bitten by a horsefly (or maybe it was a dragon fly or a deerfly?) and her calf swelled up like a second calf. I would glance at it worriedly now and then, as it seemed to be expanding quickly. What do you talk about when you are taking your time and enjoying an ultra? We talked about our careers, our short and long term goals, and we got to explain a bit of our daily career struggles. In my life, I am generally so caught up in my nonstop, always-on everything, that it was calming and therapeutic to stop and explain my daily dramas without complaining or judging them. After nonstop career talk in which we undoubtedly figured out our lives, we discussed relationships, Speedos, our dreams, what we would do when/if we made important changes in our lives. Somewhere in the path of these conversations, I let go of so many of the little stresses that had compounded into major stress for me as of late. It’s amazing to me that in the midst of a challenging race, that I no longer was sweating the small stuff, and focused on the moment and putting one foot in front of another.
We also talked about FUR and how it had evolved in the last few years, how much we loved the Keys 100, although I remotely remember not loving it around miles 80-100 a few weeks back. We also pondered how we could keep our L2O crew happy even though we were resolved not to complete the race. We had agreed sometime along the way that getting in up to 50 miles was perfect for us. We didn’t want to be out there until midnight or after and for me, it was one of the first times in an ultra that I felt okay about not going on; I didn’t feel bad or guilty or annoyed with myself or anything like that. In a race, I am normally full speed ahead with no thoughts of stopping. Quitter – not me! I’ve run races injured, run them in less than ideal conditions – torrential downpour, unbearable heat; more often than not, without a crew, without a pacer, and I somehow always manage to get it done. So feeling okay to stop, wanting to stop, was a whole new experience for me, and I enjoyed it. I was looking forward to letting my crew off duty and going to cheer all of the other runners on.
This was probably the laziest section of the race for us, as the sun blazed, the temperatures in the high 90’s; we moved along the white sand and for some odd reason, the sand was more painful for me to navigate than the trail had been. The threat of the welcomed rain was no longer there; instead, bright, clear, pool blue skies lurked. In the distance, we were able to make out Beeline highway and as we approached, I believed we slowed down once or twice, hoping that it would be a given by the time we arrived that we could not finish the race in the allotted time. Just as we made our way out of the trail onto the highway, we saw them: Balazs and Bonnie were there, in Balazs’ truck, waiting to yell at us and hurry us along. “Move!” they said. “Get going!” they screamed as they drove on, so Z and I crossed over to the other side of the road and trotted our way to them. We were about 37 miles in at this point and while a part of me wanted to just get in the next section so that we were close to 50 miles, another part of me felt that I was done. Bonnie and Balazs were convinced that we could make it to the next aid stop – 9 miles – in less than the two hours we had to make the cut off. We let them dream, although we knew better. It was around 6:15 pm at this time and normally, I would grab my head lamps and a flashlight before heading out. For some odd reason, though, I opted to ask Bonnie if I needed my lights, but in her wishful thinking state, she and Balazs sent us on our way, telling us to hurry up and make the 8:15 pm cut off.
Beeline to Riverbend
The Loxahatchee Slough section was composed of technical, rooty, narrow single track trail which often had thigh-high weeds we had to pass through, some burnt out forest, snakes, wild boar that luckily fled from our whistle calls or, more likely, fled from our retched smell by this time – a wonderful blend of sunscreen, bug spray, sweat, and mucky swamp water.
We continued to discuss the prospect of our crew being upset with us that we were going to miss the cut off, but what I kept thinking was that without having seen the trail, they could be as delusional as they liked about telling us how long each section should take. There was rustling in the grass more than once which made Z, who was in front of me, stop short and caution me to watch the ground – as if I had a choice if I didn’t want to fall. When I asked her if she saw snakes, she replied, “Just watch the ground carefully.” At one point we intercepted an orange snake with a full belly, blocking our way. We tossed pine cones at it to make it move, but it wouldn’t budge. I called Chip, who has experiences with snakes, and he told me that we had to make it move or go around it. Obviously. Finally, the snake did slither away and off we went. As nightfall was approaching, our lack of headlamps was an issue. I called Bonnie, no answer. We called Balazs, no answer. Then Z texted Balazs and his response to our plea for them to bring us headlamps, was that he didn’t do snakes. Onward we went.
When we surfaced from the forest, we encountered the 41.1 mile bridge; our cheat sheet told us to cross the bridge and to enter the forest on the other side. With a brilliant orange-golden sunset looming and no headlamps to find our way through the trail, we paused. The bridge, concrete and large, was luxurious. No snakes or trail or wild life were there to fend ourselves from. We decided it was best for us to remain on the bridge and ask our crews to bring us headlamp; there were canal roads on either side, and so we figured our crews could likely drive in. Now it was up to them to get us headlamps for us to finish the section. Suddenly, they were the ones on a time schedule. Crew Bonnie and Balazs, after packing a survival pack for their five-mile expedition, which somehow Balazs had convinced himself was really only a three mile expedition, called us after two miles and told us they were heading back out of the trail. Apparently RD Jeff had explained they could drive there instead and we would have to walk two miles to intercept them. Who was wasting our time now? Who was making us miss cutoffs now? Who couldn’t cut it on the trail now?
Back on the bridge, Z and I did some yoga – down dogs and hip stretches and a bit of mediation.
At one point Z thought she heard a whistle and started to blow her whistle in response, although I told her more than once that it was a bird, not a whistle, and eventually, she too recognized the sound for a bird. The mosquitoes were out in full force at dusk, and I proceeded to cover my face with the dryer sheets that had been tucked in my pack. The buzzing in my ears from the mosquitoes was relentless. At one point, during a downward facing dog, my back pack flopped off of my back and fell apart. When we finally heard from crew B&B that they were now back in their cars, we started on our two mile journey in the dark to intercept them. There was a headlight in the distance that I swore was a car doing something or other illegal, but as we approached it, we found it was only a security light. And then FINALLY, we intercepted our search and rescue mission crew! They informed us that the trail we were fearful to enter in the dark was really a route behind houses, but they had forgotten that we met them two miles down the road and that the trail we were to enter was in fact the same rugged, stressful, treacherous trail we had been traversing all along.
The fun continued after our search and rescue mission – we checked in to our hotel, showered, and then ventured to the finish line to cheer the remaining runners in. We sat around eating our left-over race food because the hotel told us that no restaurants were open. Then it began to storm – rain, thunder, lightning—and I prayed for the runners out there to make it in safe and sound. The next morning everyone hung out at the hotel, sharing their race stories. This was truly one of my all-time favorite events – the folks who ran and crewed this race were all fun, all the time. To me, this is the magic of the ultra-running community, not to mention Jeff Steven’s ability to bring such a great group together and to put on a super challenging, super fun, well organized event that finishers and starters alike all enjoyed. Without Zsofia, I would have never have had the experience I had, and without crew B&B, we would have never have been safe, cared for, and rescued!
Sunday evening, movie night with my dad, I dragged him to see “The Fault in Our Stars,” which was a YA book that I loved. I know better than to go to a movie that deals with cancer, but sometimes it is a form of healing to me regarding the loss of my mom. The movie brought me back to the endless weeks and months and years of cancer talk – blood counts and platelets and chemo and clinical trials, and the shadow that hung above over us when we knew that my mother was going to die. When it hit five years, I felt in my heart that we had gotten all that the universe was going to grant us, and while I was grateful, I was hateful, too. I didn’t want to let go. I didn’t want to live my life without my mother. The movie brought up the pain and hurt of loss I lived through; as well as the gratitude I felt of getting the chance to spend time with someone that I loved. After the movie, missing my mom anew, I thought of my weekend, of taking my time to look around, to talk, to laugh with friends, and to live my life without all of the rush and stress, and I felt so grateful that for once, I let myself be without all of the expectations and pushing. It reminded me of so many of the nights my mom was in the hospital that I tossed my to-do list aside and sat there with her until midnight, gossiping and laughing. What I remember most when I remember, is sharing the moments with her before it was all too late. Perhaps in life, like races, that is what it is all about–sharing and savoring the moments.