For those of us who love adventures and all things ultra-running related, it will make perfect sense that a group of us from Florida took two planes, a transporter (credit to Eli Papatestas – this would have been a taxi or a shuttle to me, but “transporter” was reminiscent of how superheroes traveled), a ferry and then a tram, to arrive on Bald Head Island in North Carolina, to our weekend home on Sea Lavender Court: My Three Dunes. Our house was picturesque, with its very own enclosed tree house, balconies, and magnificent views of the Atlantic Ocean. At first, we were in heaven, until the smell presented itself: to some, a wet shaggy dog smell; to others, a drowned barn smell; in reality, it was likely a dead animal in the vents.
The Last Supper
There was the pre-race meeting at the Bald Head Island Conservatory, during which RD Chris Kostman took “before” mug shots of us all, followed by the hip-hop cocktail party at one of the island’s funky stores, Coastal Urge. Luck was clearly on the south Florida crew’s side, as Becky won a multitude of raffle prizes, including the grand prize of a pink decked-out little girl’s bike, which she gifted to a little girl whose dad was a fellow race participant.
A full day of travel and activities led to hunger, and with only three restaurants on the island and a house full of nine hungry folks, we opted to shop at the island’s only grocery store—Maritime Market—and eat at home. It fell to Eli and Drew, who developed a new-found “bromance,” to whip up the last supper: pasta, Italian bread, salad, and broccoli. Although five of us in the house were running the following morning, pre-race nerves fell to the way side – we ate, sat around, ate some more, and at some point, we all got into organization mode re our race-day outfits, gear set up and so forth, and said our farewells for the night.
The Infirmary – Race Morning
We had planned to have a foot-taping party in the morning in the upstairs living room area: I came equipped with spools of Leukotape to spare. We were all up early, and at first, things were looking good: it wasn’t as cold as the previous day, and it wasn’t raining. Then Melanie, who was suffering from a migraine, appeared, followed by Jerry, who was vomiting and could not get anything down in terms of food or drink. I sat on the living room floor taping up my feet, hoping for the best. Three of us – Becky, Bonnie, and myself—were ready to run, which meant we were moving forward with race-day readiness, and we would have to wait and see how it worked out with our not-so-well buddies.
We arrived at the race start at Old Baldy Lighthouse in two golf carts – this was a no motor vehicle island—and were greeted by hoards of runners, many of whom we knew. Of the 70+ runners, 21 runners were from Florida. There was Bob Becker, Brad Lombardi, Frank McFinney, and other usual suspects. Chris gathered us all around, gave a brief good luck, follow the signs talk, we paid a brief homage to our great country, and then we were off!
The course seemed easy enough to follow: we were to spend 12 miles on the road touring the island, with roughly 1.5 of those miles on a trail, and then, we were to move onto the beach, where we would traverse the remaining 39.4 miles. There were three Check Points – CP 1 (Baldhead Island Conservancy) which we hit at 3 miles, again at 4, and then at 12, before we headed out onto the beach. We would hit CP 1 two more times – once after our first 19.7 miles on the beach, and then again at the finish. CP 2 was mid-beach and CP 3 was at the far end of the beach, at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area Park Headquarters. My thought going into it: there was no way for me to get lost and no wild animals to be on the lookout for; this was my kind of race! My dad was to remain at CP1, so that I would get to see him throughout the race, and not have to worry about him getting lost anywhere either.
The best news of the morning: sickness seemed to take a back seat and all five of us started the race! Melanie was going to take it one step at a time, and speedster Jerry was going to give it a go. As we started the race, the Bald Head Island drone followed us all as we made our way past Old Baldy and onto the slick wooden bridge.
I had the good fortune to run the first 10 or so miles with Jerry, who was moving strong. We chatted about this and that, laughed, took in the majestic beach houses lining the route, greeted the early-morning risers who cheered us on, and acclimated to the fact that we were in a race. I entered the trail section alone as Jerry had picked up speed and pushed on. This section was not something I had anticipated. At first, I was excited – roots, rocks, leaves, branches meant fun and games and change of scenery. Until the branches started to require lots of ducking to avoid head injuries and the tree trunks to be climbed over appeared, and the mass of bushes and brush that we were meant to move through surfaced. At some points I thought: really? The RD really wants me to climb through that? But the hot pink ribbons above, guiding us on, didn’t lie. There were stairs at some points and then mini bridges to cross and leaves which meant more hidden roots and branch sections that were best suited for midgets to pass through. This was a long 1.5 miles for me. Twice, I lost my footing and almost plunged forward, before I caught myself. There were moments when sunlight appeared and I thought: it’s over! Yippee! Time for the beach section! But those were fake breaks and on and on I went through the bush until the awaited exit appeared.
A quick stop to change sneakers at CP1, an all is well moment with my dad, and then I was off to the beach. I was thrilled that the sand, for the most part, was runnable. And the views when we entered the beach: turquoise water wading into the shore, endless spans of off-white sand and pool-blue sky with the sun shining down on us. The temperature in the 50’s, it was one of those days in life that you felt lucky to be alive, not to mention having the good fortune to be running a race on a beautiful island amidst a group of friendly folks. With everything stacked up to being great, for some reason, just then, I didn’t feel great. I felt restless, moody, not in the mood to run, and yet without patience to walk. I played the wave game: I jogged as close to the water as I could, darting each time the waves drifted up the shore. For a while, that was a good distraction to keep me going. But my mood persisted: I needed a few moments to get to myself, shake it off, and slowing down, walking, runners passed me one by one. I have been here before: this need to stop rushing, to slow it all down – my life, the pace I move at, all the moving parts that were darting in and out of focus in my brain. Having worked too many 12-hour days the week of the race, getting on and off planes for meetings earlier in the week, scrambling to get final edits in for my novel, I was tired, I needed a break. But then something kicked in—reality, perhaps, or the realization that I was here, now, that I was in a race and like all commitments in my life, I was going to honor it, get through it, and get myself over this sick-of-everything hump.
And just like that, my unpleasant mood dissipated, and I was moving again, happy, running along, finding my groove and then I hit CP 2, where the two miracle women aid-station volunteers helped me to some snacks and I was on my way. It was then that I turned around and saw housemate Bonnie, who became my race partner from that point on until the end of the race. We chatted and fell into a routine, running when we could and walking when the mushy, lumpy sand forced us to. This was the not-good-sand-for-running section of the beach, and we were forced to slow down and trudge ahead as best as we could. We searched for CP3 in the distance, and when we intercepted with Jerry, he assured us that it was just beyond the volleyball courts. CP3 meant it was time to turn around and make our way back to CP2 and then CP1. Ultra races are about one step at a time, one small goal at a time, and I was grateful to have Bonnie for company. One of my favorite aspects of ultra races is the people you meet along the way, and the conversations that you share. It’s one of the few times in my life that there is nowhere that I need to be other than where I am, and that I really get to ask questions and listen to another person, without time restrictions, without email intrusions.
After departing from CP3, which was filled with more friendly, helpful, amazing volunteers, we intercepted with housemate Becky, and then we were off, following Becky’s 9 minute jog, 1 minute walk routine. We were coasting along, all in great spirits, the sand’s run-ability improving by the minute. It was nice following a routine – running until Becky said, “stop!” and then basking in the 1 minute to slow it all down. We collided with Melanie at some point, and were thrilled that she was feeling good and moving along strong. She was going to go for 50K and call it a day. Onward we went, past CP2, on our way to CP1, which meant only one more lap to go.
Our final lap was full of anticipation –we were almost done! Well, we had 20 or so miles to go, actually. We were a threesome for a bit, until Becky sent us on. Then Bonnie and I settled into a 5:1 groove, which we held the rest of the race – we ran for 5 minutes and walked for 1. We were quiet at points, rambled on at others. There comes a time in a race when it is really about getting it done.
With less than two miles to go, nightfall set in, and with it, came lightening and rain drizzle. If there’s anything that can make me move faster during a race, it’s lightning, especially when I am on a wide-open, no shelter beach. We jogged our way in, picking up speed and then, it was over! For me, one of the most amazing aspects of races is that as soon as they are over, it seems like no big deal, like I could have gone on forever. Thankfully, I didn’t have to keep going. Soon after in came Becky and Frank and Bob Becker. Jerry had finished hours before with a great time of 9.5 hours and Melanie had finished earlier in the day from the 50k. Our house was five for five, which meant that it was time to cheer the rest of the runners in and then go home and celebrate.
The Day After
For me, one of the best parts of running a 50 miler versus a 100 miler is that I get to sleep in a bed and don’t feel so beat up; and, it also means more time to hang out the next day, which is exactly what we did. Our Sunday started with a group breakfast with all the other runners at the Maritime Market. It was fun to see everyone bright and early and to be in hang-out mode. This was a super friendly race with a warm and happy vibe; everyone was approachable, and in good spirits—a mix of sleepaway camp and a resort weekend. After the breakfast, we experienced what-do-we-do-when-we-have-nothing-to-do syndrome. This was pleasant, but disorienting. Jerry and I shopped a bit in one of the two clothing stores on the island; then Becky, Jerry and I walked around town, to the antique store, down the roads. At some point in the day, Jerry and Eli both swam in the Eskimo water and a group climbed up the Old Baldy Lighthouse. In short, we did a lot of nothing, which was exactly what Bald Head Island seemed to promote: floating in space time.
The Last Dinner, Part II
On Sunday night, our house of nine had the good fortune to dine at Mojo’s with RD Chris Kostman. It must have really been our lucky night, for somehow it came up that Chris too was a grammar fanatic! Once again, our favorite topic of formal emails— that is, emails complete with Dear so and so, and paragraphs and formal sign offs and such—was getting air time. Also up for debate: full-sentence texts (which I insist on) and the importance of professionalism and getting to the point right away in an email versus going on and on. Jerry (bcc) also pointed out how ridiculous it was to cc large groups when responding to unimportant emails and we all got on board the no-cc train, agreeing with him. I am not sure how or exactly when in our group dinner it came up, but Chris let us know that he didn’t approve of sentences that started with “which” unless they were questions, and our discussion of the Oxford comma—one of my favorite debates!—came up, too. I am a strong defender of the very necessary Oxford comma, and was grateful that Chris understands the importance of it, too.
Perhaps more important than our heated debate over grammar, though, we had the opportunity to learn a bit about Chris’s athletic accomplishments and his personal history, all of which I believe left us feeling even more excited at being a part of this great weekend, and enabled us to glimpse the amazing energy surrounding the Badwater races. If I was ever determined to run Badwater 135, after that dinner, I felt that much more determined to toe that start-line in the near future (I’m hoping my number for that race will be 56).
Back at the house, the Florida debate crew stumbled onto a new topic to consider: food. We got caught up in discussions over how long apples were stored before we ate them, how long blueberries were stored; the health index of various foods (was brown rice really healthier than white rice made for a lengthy debate), and so on. I don’t know if I will ever be able to bite into a 5-month stored apple with the same gusto again.
The Journey Home
Aside from the overwhelming dead animal smell in our house, I think we all were able to envision ourselves leaving our lives behind and living the golf-cart life on Bald Head Island. There was a spaciousness and a beauty to the island which set it apart: it was easy living, comfortable living, time for everything living. We set out for our long adventure home early on Monday morning. Back to the tram, across the water on the ferry, the transporter trip to the airport, then one plane and then a second plane. As we journeyed back, we were still caught up in various debates about travel, life, iTunes accounts and I got to reflect on how amazing the whole ultra-running experience and community has been for me and my dad the last few years. At 82-years old, he has been to over 20 of my races, and never missed any of my 100 milers. I hope to run a lot more, and I hope that he will be there for me as I check in at various aid stations along the way. Ultra running is about so much more than toeing the line on race day; for me, it is about all the details that get you there, and the people you share the journey with.