188.1 miles raced in 2010
Race: Iron Horse 50 Mile Endurance Run
Place: Florahome, FL
Miles from home: 2229 miles
Weather: 30-40s; cool; partly cloudy
The weather for this Iron Horse 50 Mile race, while unusual and definitely not ideal for much else in Florida, was quite perfect for me to run in. Partly cloudy skies, cool temperatures and low humidity- just how I like it. This weather was not too much unlike last weekend in Huntsville which made my DNF at Rocky Raccoon all the worse. Rarely does training, weather and course all come together like this. For it to happen twice in two weeks was actually a little nerve-wracking. In my mind, I HAD to do well here.
I was able to start off my trip to Jacksonville with a book signing at the Jacksonville Running Company the Friday before the race. While the unrelenting rain kept many patrons away on a normally busy day, those in attendance were delightful and fun to speak with. Many were gearing up for the Run with Donna Marathon the next weekend and were quite excited to swap stories and the like.
Friday night before the race called for a race briefing by race director Chris Rodatz, who provided humor and directions to the runners in attendance. We all got to learn a little bit more about the course and had our interest piqued in a few areas. The one thing which grabbed my attention were the old railroad trestles on this Rails to Trails course. Rotting and ancient, Chris had himself nailed down 2x4s side-to-side to create a plank for runners to traverse the trestles. However, he painted a picture which was not unlike the various rope bridges we have seen in Indiana Jones movies. You can imagine we were all quite curious what we had in store for us!
I had attended this meeting, and later dinner, with my friend Kelly Luckett and her husband. You may recall I wrote about Kelly, an amputee runner, here. Kelly was attempting her first 50 mile race which would make her one of the first amputee runners ever to do so. Her pluck and determination were both inspiring and admirable. When we parted ways for the night, I had visions of both of us conquering this 50 mile beast.
Unfortunately, I could not fall asleep. Nerves, typical restlessness of myself at night (I am the consummate night owl) or whatever else kept me up until 1:30 AM. With a wake-up call at 4:30 to accompany Kelly and her husband (who would run with Kelly for the entirety of the race - a mentally and physically exhausting feat in and of itself for him given his 3:40 Marathon PR and their projected pace of much slower than that) on the 40 minute drive from our hotels in Orange Park to the race start in Florahome, these three hours of sleep were not nearly the amount I was hoping to get. However, it could be much worse (and it was indeed for some, which I will get to later.)
The race course consisted of a short out and back to the west for a total of three miles before heading east for 10.5 miles. Runners would then turn around to complete one 25 mile loop at the starting line before heading out again for the second loop. Weather conditions were a tad cool to start things off but would get a little warmer as the day went on. Footing, in spite of a torrential rain the day before, was all but exquisite and just a few seconds after 7 AM, we were on our way.
Hopeful time between aid stations (actual time)
There were five points on this course that I designated as places to break the race down into smaller parts in order to make it more manageable in my mind. These points consisted with the aid stations set up by the race itself and allowed for runners to not think about the entire race all at once.
A few yards into the race and already two runners were ahead of me. Upon speaking with them both, I found they were running the 100k (there was also a 100 mile option going on this day as well) so their pace and effort meant nothing to me. When they began to pull away, I definitely was intrigued to see if they would keep the pace but knew this race was only about completing the course in a competitive time and getting last week's monkey off my back.
Are we completed the first turn-around (marked with signs that said "T/R" - which I learned is southern for "Turn 'Round") I could see I had a slight lead on just about every other runner out there. Another man had slipped past me in this first little bit but he too was running the 100k. I wondered if these guys were all new to the distance as they were setting blistering paces.
Hitting the starting point again, I shed my outer layer and now was into a groove with just a singlet and a t-shirt underneath. Still feeling a little chilly and waking up, I was ready to see what the course had in store for me. We had already crossed one of the aforementioned railroad trestles and while they did not provide the best footing available, they were not the death traps some of us had feared. We now settled into running on what would be the remainder of the course - hard packed dirt and pine needles with large-stoned gravel intermittently dispersed underfoot.
For the most part this footing was adequate, but the stones were indeed large enough to twist an ankle or provide enough rolling to give one some sore ankles afterward. Poor Kelly twice hit the dirt when her prosthetic running foot caught the gravel. But even with a bloodied knee she soldiered on.
I hit a porta-potty at the second aid station on the course and upon emerging finally felt both awake and good, as if I might actually do well today. The next stretch was spent simply looking at one of the 100k runners in front of me, never getting any further away but never getting any closer either. I wondered if I was too slow, he too fast, or a combination of both.
Nearing the turn-around at the end I was shocked to see that the two lead 100k guys had not slowed and in fact seemed to be picking up speed. I was able to catch the third 100k runner in front of me after the turn around when I ran across the longest of the trestles and he walked. However, as he did not stop at the aid station and I did, he again put some ground between us.
I was happy to have made up a little time on this short out and back as my time was a little off the 6:29:59 I was hoping to hit prior to that. However, I soon lost a little more on the longest stretch of the course between aid stations (5 plus miles.) It was nice however to see all the runners heading towards us and pleasantries were being exchanged amongst all of us. It was hard to believe that we were already 18 plus miles into this race with many more miles to go.
Hitting the last aid station before completing the first loop and I could see I was getting back on track but know that the time was not nearly as important as the completion. But when you are leading a race, it is hard to shake that thought process.
As we neared the end of the first loop, I noticed the temperatures had not picked up very much, the sky was still cloudy, the air was still cool and low in humidity and I was hoping I had run properly in order to negative split. My time of 3:17:04 put me close to pace.
Having passed the third 100k runner when he stopped to walk at mile 20, I was now in no man's land. As far as I could see in front of me there were no runners to chase. And believe me, you could see forever. The blue tents marking the aid stations would appear on the horizon and then 10 minutes later you still would not have reached them. They were like mirages in the desert which you could never get to. As such, I did my best to just use the 100k runners in front of me to pace myself. After a stellar beginning 3-mile loop to kick off the second 25 mile section, I knew I was closing in on them. The gap between them coming back and me going out was shrinking exponentially.
However, I may have pushed the loop a little too hard as almost immediately afterward I felt a slowing in my legs. I tried to tell myself I just had an approximate 30 minute run, followed by a 40 minute run, which then led into a 20 minute run before I then only had a 40 minute run and I could end with a 30 minute run. Somehow this seemed comforting! Yet, when I got to the aid station two-plus minutes behind my goal, I was a little bummed. I had caught one of the 100km runners in front of me which, while I was sad to see him on the sideline with his hands-on-knees and not looking good, still gave me a competitive boost. I found out he later pulled out due to cramps. Thomas was his name and if my memory serves me right we will meet again at the Umstead 100 next month.
When I left the aid station I knew once again I would be running completely solo. The 100km runner leading his race was simply not in sight and with runners who were way behind me coming at me in the opposite direction it was hard to gauge my speed. Closing in on the aid station before the turn-around, however, solidified that the slowing process was continuing. Arriving 5 minutes slower than I had on the previous loop, I could tell this section had taken much more out of me than I wanted to give.
Seeing the lead runner not so far ahead at least helped my ego a bit. I was quite amazed at the pace he was holding and was extremely pleased he was running the 100k. Then I recalled runners had the option of dropping down from one distance to another and my previous laissez-faire attitude was lost. I had to make up ground on him! And make up ground I did on the next little section but at too much of a cost. With 9 miles left in my race, I knew I was most definitely paying for my quickened pace. If he dropped down to the 50 mile distance, then so be it.
The sun had finally come out and when it flitted in between the branches it was a welcome feeling. I was not generating the same amount of heat as previously and was definitely cooling. I had taken off all of my shirts except one. I was now more than ready to be finished and put on something warm and comfortable. I hit the last aid station and found the 100k runner was just a few minutes in front of me.
My energy was definitely fading and with both a sub 6:30 and sub 6:40 time out of reach, I would walk a few steps here and there. The gravel had definitely gotten the better of me a few times and my ankles (more specifically my right one - perhaps from the slight camber of the road) were aching. When I saw Kelly up ahead nearing the completion of his first loop, I welcomed the opportunity to walk with her a bit on one of her breaks.
She was in good spirits for sure, even if she was more tired and slightly further behind than she had hoped to be. We walked together and spoke and she told me how she had fallen and how hard it was for her to find any consistency with running before of the footing. I minded not one bit the break here as I knew I was miles ahead of the next competitor. But after a while, my legs, wanting to be done, finally spurred me forward.I wished her good luck and took off!
As I pushed on and hit the final hundred yards, I realized how tense and nervous I had been all day. Now here I was, not only completing the course but leading it from wire-to-wire. I had no one to run with, no one to pace with and virtually no one to chase. The nagging feeling of tiredness which crept in, inevitably and understandably on the second loop, would not normally have given me pause. But after the DNF of last weekend, it was hard to establish if it was normal tired or soon-to-be-stopping-with-no-energy tired. However, a few minutes later, I was crossing the finish line, taking first place and breaking the course record by 50 minutes. (Two years later they would pave a few miles of this course, making it invariably easier and therefore solidifying I would retain the course record forever.)
It was a good day indeed.
Unfortunately, Kelly finally succumbed to both exhaustion and the rapidly-dipping temperatures and had to pull out at mile 46. She simply could not keep her core temperature up in the chill of the night and wisely stopped before anything permanent was done to her system. Nevertheless, I was quite impressed with her effort. While the course was mostly flat and mostly runnable, I would not call it easy. First of all the constant flat nature really wore on the legs. The footing was a tad off in places and coupled with a prosthetic leg, I cannot imagine how tiring that must have been for Kelly. So while falling 4 miles short of her goal, Kelly was still quite happy with what she accomplished - as she should be indeed. I have no doubt she will come back to this distance and capture that 50 mile crown.
I also made a new friend with a runner who had been socked in by storms in Atlanta, drove the 6 hours from the airport in Atlanta to Jacksonville rather than wait for a plane, arrived 40 minutes late, ran 50 miles, gave me a ride back to my hotel and then decided to go back and do the remaining 50 miles. On no sleep. Amazing. When I posted this I do not yet have his finishing time but will update this for sure when I do.
This was, all in all, a very nice race. The aid stations were well-manned, the course was 100% free of any traffic and with the out and back nature, runners could see every one else along the course. This provided for lots of camaraderie amongst runners in all three races with more "Looking Good!"s than you could shake a stick at.
My final time of 6:52:50 was pleasing to me and allowed me to set my sights on the next two big races on the calendar: my 100 mile "training run" at Umstead next month and the ridiculous 204 miles in 48 hours at the American Odyssey Relay in April. This race provided me with all that I needed, both physically and mentally, and was worth every penny spent on such late notice.
Sometimes, things work out just fantastically.