I am not an elite ultrarunner (I think by definition, ALL ultrarunners are elite runners). I've been at races where I was privileged to see Mike Morton and Karl Metzler compete. I know what super elite looks like and I don't belong in that conversation. I have running friends who I consider elites; Sung Ho-Choi, Brad Lombardi, Amy Costa, and others. I am not in that picture either. But I just won my fourth ultra and am feeling pretty damn good about it. The first 2 wins were at 50 milers several years ago and under less clear circumstances. When I won Ancient Oaks last December, I was elated, knowing that was likely the one, only, and last real victory of my running career. To do it again less than 6 months later has me on Cloud 9.
3 weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a long weekend with Justin Radley running (and not finishing) the Cruel Jewel 100M. Justin has an enormous wealth of running information, and one of the dozens of topics he mentioned was he was running the upcoming Lake to Ocean (L2O) 100K that runs on the eponymous trail from the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee to the Atlantic Ocean at Hobe Sound. Everything I've done this year has been geared towards toeing the line in Squaw Valley June 28 and being prepared to post a good Western States finish. Part of that preparation has been heat training to be ready for the canyons out there. Once per a week, I have been going out at mid-day dressed in multiple layers of long sleeve shirts, jackets and knit hats for a 1-hour run in the full sun. Sheer misery. I thought L2O would be a nice test of my heat training, and a good last, long training run before the WS taper begins. I emailed the race director Jeff Stephens and was fortunate someone else had just dropped out.
This race was special before it ever even started. This is the inaugural year for the race, which always increases both the novelty and adventure factor as the RD figures out what works and what doesn't. It was contained to a very small field of 24 runners, over half of whom I know fairly well. We had a big group dinner in Indiantown the night before the race where the excellent camaraderie of the Florida Ultra Runners was self-evident to the other unfortunates dining around us. Although several runners were upset when Andy Mathews predicted only 5-8 runners would finish the race. Saturday morning, it was pretty cool to stand for Jeff's pre-race briefing and know nearly every face around the circle.
We started off at 6:30 AM and tried to set a reasonable pace from the beginning. It was already in the high 70s with 97% humidity, my shirt was soaked 2 miles into the race. Andy (A1), Renee Tavokoli, and I ran together from the beginning; and chatted with a new ultrarunner, Mark Cudak who ran with us for a few miles. He told us this was his first ultra ever. I wished him luck even as I privately chuckled that he had picked an awfully difficult race to cut his teeth on. The course was challenging to follow, we had to pay extreme care to stay on track. The course is well marked, but being fairly new and little used, there wasn't a starkly defined single track of bare ground to follow for much of the race. I felt like I was having a good day staying focused on the markings, A1 & Renee let me lead most of this section.
We came into the first aid station 14 miles in, already a little washed out from the heat & humidity. Because of the length of the leg, I had started the race with a 100 oz Camelbak which I was happy to shed in favor of a cooler Nathan belt for the shorter legs forthcoming. A1 was a little slow through the aid station and I rushed him out by departing into the woods with Renee. But after a couple minutes, I held up and waited for him, knowing we wanted to run much if not all of the race together. I also knew A1 would be a good governor for me, he would not let me over-extend myself just 3 weeks out from WS. When he caught me, it was clear he was already suffering in the heat. I suggested salt or sugar, and he broke back down to a walk to eat and drink. I decided to catch back up to Renee thinking A1 would catch us easy if he was feeling good.
I had my only 2 falls of the race on this next stretch. It was really getting hot (still only 10AM in the morning) and my head was beginning to swim. I didn't see a big root, hooked it and went down hard. I broke the fall with my right hand on the ground, but managed to hit a spiky piece of wood that cut my palm open. I broke back into a trot, examining my palm for the extent of the injury (minor) and immediately went down again. Idiot. I worked hard the next few miles to keep myself in focus. Renee and I passed Chris Knight somewhere in here (still gassed from Wickham) and trotted into the Grade Road aid station at mile 20.8 with only Christian Stewart and the new guy, Mark ahead of us. Christian was already having trouble with the heat and took an extended break to cool off (Christian was eventually admitted to the hospital overnight as a precaution, last I heard, he will be fine).
Renee and I started leg 3 together. I noted to her we were running second & third in the race and we needed to keep it that way. By now we were deep into JW Corbett Park and sloshing our way through the swamps. We trudged through water that varied from ankle-deep to mid thigh. I never saw any alligators, but heard from others later they did. This part of the park was beautiful with bromeliads growing profusely from the trunks of trees with wildflowers colored lavender and white growing in the more open areas. Renee vacillated between being between 3 steps and 30 yards behind me. Somewhere around mile 24 I looked back and she was gone. I ran the race alone from there.
I came into the third aid station around mile 30 feeling ragged again. Here there was a 1 mile lollipop loop to be run which led back to the aid station, so I elected to do it first before refueling. I dropped the belt and ran with a single hand-held feeling much cooler. Mark Cudak took an extended break here to cool off before his lollipop loop so I was briefly in the lead. I came back to the aid station and hunkered down for food, fluids, and a shoe change before proceeding.
Jeff set this race up as crewed-only, no aid station support would be provided. Joining the race late, I did not have a lot of crew options, and was enormously lucky that Susan Anger agreed to crew A1 and I both, in the presumption we would be together or near each other most of the race. Susan leaves nothing to chance whether coordinating aid stations or crewing individual runners. Despite us telling her we would bring what we needed, she came prepared with gatorade, water, ice towels, chairs (with an umbrella or something over it), towels, wraps (turkey, avocado & cheese), everything. Over the course of the race, I used all of it. She laid ice towels over my shoulders, neck & head as I performed a full sock & shoe change to get the accumulated mud off my feet.
I saw Mark head out on the next leg as I finished up, he was back in the lead. But I knew I was leaving the aid station just a few minutes behind him. I was in full race mode now and badly wanted to catch him. But every straightaway I came to, he was not in sight. Which meant he had more than a couple minutes lead on me. I wanted to press hard, but the heat was really beating me up. By now the temperature was in the 90s, there were very few clouds, and the trail was wide open. I was over-cooking like an overdone pot roast. I finally came out of the woods and headed down the Beeline Highway towards the 4th aid station at roughly mile 37.
As I approached, I could just make out Mark departing on his next leg. I was crushed. I knew this meant he had a solid 10 minutes on me, he had actually widened the gap. Susan's car was not there. I knew with A1 lagging back, we had all agreed pre-race she would always wait for the slower runner, the lead runner would have to wait at the next aid station until she got there. I plopped down on the ground next to the highway in front of Mario's car. I tore off my race shirt. Screw it, A1 told me I shouldn't push too hard today. I'll just wait here until Susan arrives. The next leg is 11 miles long in the hottest part of the afternoon, I can't go on without my Camelbak anyway. 37 miles and almost 7 hours into it, I was ready to cede the race until fate intervened.
Mario called Susan to see her whereabouts. As I sat there, defeated, another runner began talking to me. I had never met him before, he was Rich White from Tacoma, Washington. He started the race amongst the leaders but made a wrong turn in the first section. He wound up back at the start line after 28 miles, dehydrated and done. But rather than pack it in, he stayed to watch the rest of the race. He asked me what I needed, to which I initially said "Nothing", I was just going to wait for Susan. But his wife and son filled my water bottles and he opened up his entire running kit for me. It was like having a running store suddenly appear next to the highway. By this time Mario had determined A1 had dropped out of the race and Susan was no her way, but 15 minutes out. Rich's encouragement had been enough to start my engine again. No way was I waiting 15 minutes, I was only 10 minutes back. I took some gel blocks from him and trudged out.
For a few miles I felt fairly foolhardy. I was attempting to nurse 70 oz of fluid through 2 1/2 hours of running on a day my sweat rate was extraordinarily high. But I told myself that Mark and the other runners were all experiencing the same conditions. If they can do it, I can do it. I managed to run 4-8 minutes at a stretch with only 60-90 second walk breaks to cool down just a little. There were times I literally felt like I was cooking, and that is when I would walk. I had been taking Endurolytes every 30 minutes from the start, I accelerated that to 20-25 here. I rationed water to myself hoping to make it 11 miles without running out. And then fate intervened in my favor again.
A wicked looking south Florida thunderstorm began to move in. I heard the lightning strikes approaching and actually picked up speed knowing the cooling rain was coming. I didn't skip a beat when lightning struck 100 yards or so to my left. Two minutes later, I felt a buzz in the air, and BAM, I watched lightning strike the ground not 100 feet to my right. I was thrilled, rain was coming. It started as a drizzle, then steady rain, and then a heavy downpour. I love running in the rain. We may not have the thrill of running in the mountains in Florida, but there is a special joy in flying through puddles with lightning striking around you during a summer thunderstorm. It rained for nearly an hour and I only stopped to walk twice, long enough to grab a salt pill and get it down. Running through the Loxahatchee Slough was the best I felt the entire race.
Just as the rain ended, I came out of the woods and up onto a levee. I looked ahead, and thought I could just make out Mark in the distance as the trail paralleled a canal. As the rain stopped and the sun returned, it was suddenly like running in a steam room, it got real hot. I tried to temper my newfound enthusiasm enough to not overheat prematurely. I soon passed the spot where I had seen Mark, checked my watch, and calculated that I had closed the gap to 7 minutes. I used the energy from that knowledge to plow through Riverbend Park, through the underpass on Route 706 and over a couple ladders to the next aid station.
Susan and A1 were there waiting on me, as were others, including Rich and his family. So was Mark. He was seated in a chair, shoes off with his crew treating blisters. He looked tired and worn out from the heat, but probably no worse than me. With 15 miles left in the race, I acted better than I felt. I sat in a chain the shade and chatted with everyone as A1 & Susan shuttled supplies from the nearby car and Rich handed them over. I had multiple ice towels wrapped around my shoulders, neck & head. I drank a coconut water and a Starbuck's espresso double-shot (I took in at least 2 small bottles of fluid at every aid station that day). A1 gave me updates on other runners and basically told me to go finish strong. I gobbled some more wraps from Susan, put on my Camelbak filled with 100 oz of water and carried another 25 oz of gatorade in a handheld bottle. The next leg was almost 13 miles and I would need as much as I could carry.
The last long leg of the race goes under I-95 and then through Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Growing up father north, I think of a park as a nice place with lots of trees. Not so much in southern Florida. It was mile after mile of open fields, darting around and over palmetto roots; all the while with the late afternoon sun blazing me from the left. Every time I thought the trail approached the woods and shade, it would veer back into the open. It was awesomely cruel. I ran this section in a really weird state of mind. On one hand, I knew I was in the lead, I could win the race if I stayed steady, and I kept telling giving myself a pep talk, saying I was a bad ass for getting this far, this fast. On the other hand, I had seen Mark run earlier, he was much faster than me. If he even caught sight of me, he would be able to pass me. Maybe other runners had gotten a second wind and were closing the gap. Previous failures, not just in running started to creep into my head. I spent those 3 hours in an odd state of panic; redlining my legs and my head with everything I had left.
Before the race, Jeff had given everyone a laminated half-sheet of paper with detailed instructions on how to navigate certain sections and turns. I had read it and re-read it throughout the race. It was an invaluable tool for me, I was never in serious jeopardy of going far off course on a trail had never seen before. It said at mile 56.5 "You will cross over South Florida's largest ancient sand dunes." Well that sounded nice. I've run across sand dunes before. Running in deep sand is not much fun, it makes your legs work that much harder. But sand dunes are 50-100 feet across, rarely longer, no big deal. I hope I don't miss them not paying enough attention. No such chance.
It was 2.5 miles of sand dunes with climbs and descents of 20-30 feet each. Jeff told me later there were 14 hills. I cursed the course on every climb and then pounded down the far side as fast as my feet would move. At that moment, I hated those dunes with every ounce of my soul and I was not going to let them slow me down. I wanted to get to the beach before dark. At the very end, I plowed through some brush and out onto Route 1. Looking down, I had burrs not just on my socks & shoes, but stuck directly into my leg. As I crossed Route 1, much to the delight of A1, Susan, and others at the last aid station, I was treated to a drive-by yell of "Get-out of the road mother-f****". With great joy, I dropped the camelbak for the last time. A1 picked the burrs off my legs and Susan gave me a fresh hand-held bottle of ice-water. I learned from them no one was close behind. I could walk the last 2.5 mile section and win. But I heard Susan bragging to a passing driver what was going on and I felt compelled to run.
Once I started running, the pavement felt shockingly good. I took a couple real short walk breaks but made great time. Not much can match the sense of elation I felt coming over the drawbridge over the Intercoastal and seeing the beach pavilion came into sight. Success! I had envisioned for hours the plunge into the ocean. I was worried though about sharks in the water at dusk. I've never been afraid of swimming in the ocean day or night, but wouldn't it be something to get bit after surviving 62 miles and 13+ hours of hell on land that day? I dropped my water bottle and watch as I approached the beach and headed down the sand as fast as I could still manage. I scanned the beach and saw at least a dozen fishermen setting up to do a little night shark fishing. With that knowledge I took 3 steps into the water and dove head first before it was 2 feet deep.
Jeff, Rich, Susan & A1 were right there to tell me. Jeff told me I had finished in 13:36, new course-record (a gratuitous bonus of winning the inaugural race). Mark finished in second in 14:50 a really impressive effort for anyone, much less a first time ultrarunner. Renee was third overall and first-place female in 15:43, she is scary tough out there. Only 7 of the 24 starters finished the race under the cutoff of 18 hours (3 more finished after the cutoff). The post-race beer at the finish was fabulous, and took the last bit of energy I had left.
There are too many friends to thank individually, I've tried to acknowledge the support I got throughout this report. I will call out Jeff Stephens for putting together an outstanding and challenging race. I hated the heat, but hope he will have me back. The sense of openness and being away from civilization on this course is unmatched in Florida races. Susan Anger's attentiveness and aforethought as crew is unmatched. I had heard stories, but never seen it this up close and personal. I will seek her out every time I can. Andy Mathews I treasure. I reckon we have run several thousand miles together the last 7 years. He knows just the right things to say to me at just the right time to keep my head on straight at a race, I will be counting on him in 3 weeks. As I said in the beginning of this race report, I am not an elite ultrarunner. But I will savor this feeling for as long as I can. It is with particular pride that both races I have won recently were overly-hot, sweat-soaked bloodbaths. It feels good to know I have excelled under ugly conditions. I may never win again, I didn't expect to after Ancient Oaks and don't expect it will happen again after this. But I head out to Western States in a couple weeks feeling really good about my preparation.