As a runner, I'm always looking for ways to challenge myself. It's easy to say I can't do something but in reality, most of the times I can, it's just that I don't want to put in the effort and training to accomplish it. In January 2017 I completed my first ultra marathon, running 33 miles in just under the 6 hour cutoff. I swore I would never run another ultra but here I was, January 2018, Google searching local 50 mile races. I found a couple and decided to register for the Croom Fools Run in Brooksville, Florida. Little did I know that I was signing up for a race with a lot of elevation. Between total cost of the race and traveling, the amount of weeks to train, the type of course and the average weather, this race seemed to be the best of the choices.
Up until this decision, I was averaging 20 to 25 miles a week with long runs of 10 to 12 miles. I knew that was going to have to change with 8 weeks from the moment I clicked the register button until race morning. That weekend I went to our local hill training spot and ran 13 miles, followed by 8 fast miles later that night. From that point on I was able to average 40 to 50 mile weeks even getting up to 63 miles in one of the weeks. I also squeezed in a few 16 to 17 mile runs. My previous monthly record was 156 miles and I was already at 177. During that time I signed up for a marathon to run as a training run, but with the strength from ultra training, I ended up getting a 7 minute PR. 1 week before the 50 miler, I ran a half marathon and was 3 minutes from getting a PR again. This gave me the confidence that my training was where it needed to be for the main goal. During the training weeks, my goal was to spend as much time on my feet as possible. I did a lot of foam rolling and daily baths to soak my legs. One of my biggest adjustments was getting the Hoka Clayton 2 and Hoka Mach running shoes. They helped my body deal with the mileage and I ended up choosing the Mach for the race.
The Final Moments
Because of this site and my passion for running, I've met some very humble and down to earth runners, some being the top in their sport at one time or another. Days before the race I decided to send out a tweet to them and thank them for their inspiration to challenge myself. The replies I got back gave me the extra motivation as I remembered them during the rough times on race day.
I got to the race at 4:30 a.m. which allowed me a good hour to just relax and calm myself before the 6:00 a.m. start. Physically I felt fresh, mentally I felt nervous, emotionally I was excited. I knew I put in the training. I went over final planning with my lovely wife who was going to be at the start/finish area which I would cross 3 times with the 4th being the finish. The course for the 50 miler was a 5 mile loop that brings you back to the start/finish and then you run the 15 mile loop 3 times. The weather for the start was in the mid 60's but I know Florida weather well enough that I knew it wouldn't last long once the sun came out. The race director called us to the start line, gave us final instructions and sent us off in the pitch black dark of Withlacoochee State Forest. Headlamps were a must if you planned on running the first mile because you couldn't see anything without it.
The First 5 Mile Loop
Unfortunately during the excitement and anticipation my wife and I forgot about the 5 mile loop so as I took off into mile 1 I realized my wife was not going to be there. I knew my mental state would be one of my biggest battles and not getting to see her at the first opportunity already put me in a bit of a sad state but I was able to shake it off and focus on the long day ahead. The first mile was mostly downhill so I went out way too fast at a 8:58 mile. Thankfully the course started to get technical with single track trail on some soft sand. This forced me to slow down a bit. I was feeling good until mile 3 when the anticipated fall happened. We always say, it's not a true trail race until you fall. With just the lighting from my lamp, I missed one of the roots and boom, tripped but was able to keep myself up. My wrists were hurting but thankfully nothing felt broken. During miles 3-4 I was hanging behind a runner named Ryan who I made a quick friendship with. He gave me some tips on the course since he'd run the race a couple of times, he let me pass as I was still foolishly running faster than I should have, and we approached the end of the 5 mile loop.
Miles 6 Through 20
As I entered the start/finish area, I decided not to stop at my drop bag area where my wife was going to be with my cooler and fueling needs. Since she wasn't there to help, I decided to skip it and just refill my handheld with the aid station Gatorade. I quickly started the first loop and this section was brutally tough because of the roots and darkness. Of course, fall number 2 occurred and this one hurt a little more because it was on a decline so I fell even harder on my already sore wrists. Again I checked them and nothing felt broken. Around mile 8 it finally got bright enough for me to turn off my headlamp. The trail opened up to some of the most beautiful running scenes I've ever experienced. This area was fairly flat, just as Ryan had said and I was moving quickly. I hit the first aid station, devoured a banana, refilled my bottle and off I went. Once again, I was going way too fast, with my 12th miles being 8:39.
As you continue on there's more open trail and beautiful views. Lots of up and down rolling hills and elevation. Areas of soft sand, compacted sand, roots, dirt, grass, and more. Before you get to the second aid station there's a fun section of trail that had these little weeds that actually arched into the trail and they rubbed against your legs as you run. It provided almost a tickling sensation and made me laugh. I approached the station where I refilled my handheld, ate some of their oranges and continued pushing forward.
I knew the second half of the loop was the most technical and had the most elevation so I told myself to stick to the plan or pay for it later. I was enjoying the trail so much and feeling good that I stubbornly skipped the third aid station which would end up making the final 4-5 miles of the loop pretty tough as I would have to limit my fluid consumption so it would last. Thankfully the clouds were keeping the sun away so I wasn't needing as much fluid mentally but I knew I still needed it physically. Now came the climbs and these were pretty steep, at least for me being born and raised in flat South Florida. The climbs brought me to a power hike mode as I knew attempting to run up these would just waste energy and wear me down fast. As I neared the end of the loop and could hear people cheering on runners in the distance, I saw one of the cameramen and it reminded me to focus on having some fun and to enjoy this as much as possible. I finished the first 20 miles in 3 hours. My goal was to finish in under 10 so I was on pace and feeling good.
Mile 21 Through 35
I came into the start/finish area and there was the face I was desperate to see. My wife was happy to see me and gave me some words of encouragement. I took some gels to bring with me, devoured one of my tangerines, took some of my endurolytes and anti fatigue pills, downed some pickle juice to fight the oncoming cramps, refilled my handheld, gave my wife a kiss and started the second loop. While getting ready to continue, I remember telling my wife about my falls and her saying that someone else fell and broke their finger. I told her mine weren't that serious and I was okay. As I started the second loop, with the root filled section, I remember telling myself to be more careful this time. I was doing great until I said to myself "dammit, you forgot to put some bio freeze on your legs" and that slight distraction led to a brutal fall. I tripped, fell on my right side and rolled down the slight drop banging the back of my head against a big fallen tree. I quickly got up and kept moving while accessing the bruises along the way. Thankfully I just had a rash and some blood on my knee and elbow but everything else was fine. I was determined not to fall again!
This time I knew the course so I knew when I could push a little and when to ease up to conserve energy. Instead of averaging a 9:15 pace I was more towards my goal of 9:45. My legs were feeling a little better since I was back on the flatter half of the loop. Right before the first aid station there's a section that you MUST walk down or risk falling and seriously injuring yourself. This was probably one of my favorite sections because it was pretty cool and you were surrounded by the hills. Though it definitely looked like somewhere someone would try hiding a dead body. As I approached the aid station, the volunteers were "making music" or "attempting to" as they called it with vuvuzelas. It was making the dog with them go insane; I guess us runners liked it more. It definitely made me laugh and enjoy the moment some more. This time I had some of their M&M's, more of their banana's, refilled my handheld and decided to pass on the beer.
This time I had a couple of the 50K runners pass me which was refreshing because it gave me a chance to see other runners and to talk for a minute or two. I'll never forget the one who said "we're almost done" only to turn around, see that I had the 50 Mile bib, realizing I wasn't almost done and quickly apologizing to me. I laughed it off and kept on pushing. At the next aid station I ate some of their peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some apple slices and orange slices. Refilled my handheld and pushed towards the technical half.
I continued on and knew I didn't want to skip the next aid station this time because it was getting warmer and I was starting to feel the fatigue. I was now at the 50K mark and was about to start entering new territory with every mile being my farthest. Right before this aid station was another one of those steep drops but this one you could at least run a little bit of it, and then followed 3 quick rolling hills, leading into the aid station. I took some of the skittles, ate some more banana's, refilled my handheld and continued my journey. This time I decided to walk more of the uphills knowing that I was going to have to do this loop one final time and remembered how tough the climbs were the first time around. I motored up the ones I could, walked the ones I had to, and just kept telling myself I was going to see my wife again in a couple of miles. I came up on the cameraman and told him I looked forward to seeing him one more time in a couple of hours. I was approaching the final loop somewhere around 5 1/2 hours.
Miles 36 Through 50
As I entered the start/finish area one last time, I downed more pickle juice, took more endurolytes and anti fatigue pills, down a can of coke zero, devoured a tangerine, refilled my handheld, rubbed bio freeze all over my legs, soaked myself with ice water, kissed my wife and started the final loop. I was extremely careful this time on the rooted area where I had already fallen twice. This time I made it through safely and made myself laugh by realizing I fell twice on loop 1, once on loop 2 and now was on pace for no falls on loop 3. Thankfully, it stayed true. During mile 36, my mental state started to break down. My new friend Ryan from the beginning of the race had been right behind me the entire time but I could see his experience with the course showing as he now flew by me with some words of encouragement. Knowing my goal was to just finish under 10 hours, which I was on pace for, I fought to ignore my competitive side and try to stick with him. Good thing I didn't because my legs were dead.
When I made it to the first aid station I drank a bunch of the pickle juice they had, took more M&M's, refilled my handheld, poured cold water on my head to try and cool off and had a quick chat with the volunteer. He told me about his race in the mountains a couple of weeks before and when I said I was from South Florida, he said "well, this is your race in the mountains then". It was another well timely needed laugh that gave me an energy boost to push on. I want to add that I made sure to thank the volunteers every time I left the aid stations because they were amazing! I continued on, but was now forced to a lot of walk breaks. I felt like I had been in a car wreck. My entire body was feeling extremely sore and running hurt. I made a plan to walk every incline and run every flat and decline. When I made it to aid station 2, I continued with the pickle juice, eating some fruit, soaking myself with cold water and refilling my handheld. The volunteer told me "7 miles to go, piece of cake" and all I could do was laugh. It made me think of the joke I made with my friend Lou when he said that and I was hoping they'd have some cake at the aid station.
Every mile was getting slower and it seemed like I was barely moving. Compared to the speedy first loop and somewhat fast second loop, this third one dragged on forever. But I remembered my friend Nate telling me to "run the mile that you're in" and that kept me going. With every mile alert on my Garmin, I knew I was almost there. With every climb my legs cried for mercy. With every running step my body ached and wanted to go back to walking. I shuffled to the final aid station where I drank some sprite, ate some more skittles, drank the watered down pickle juice that they tried to make for me, soaked myself with cold water, refilled the handheld and told myself, "these will be the toughest 4-5 miles but they're the final ones so enjoy them and celebrate".
As I began the final miles, another 50 Miler passed me and we shared words of encouragement. I was averaging 11 minute miles at this point and was just happy that I was still moving and mentally positive. With about a mile to go, another 50 Miler passed me and tried to encourage me to finish with him but I told him I couldn't keep his pace. He replied with a "you're still going to get it done though" and I happily replied "yes sir!". That gave me the last bit of mental boost I needed and I pushed on. I had planned to make a joke with the cameraman and say "I'm sure you're a nice guy but I'm glad I don't have to see you again" but to my disappointment, he wasn't there anymore. I didn't realize it because mentally I was so exhausted, that all of a sudden I reached the top of the last climb and saw the finish line. I ran, or should say shuffled and dragged my feet as fast as I could to finish strong. I did it! I completed my first 50 miler! 8 hours, 37 minute and 2 seconds later. 2700 feet of elevation. 17 miles more than my longest run ever. I was almost 90 minutes faster than my goal time. I was overwhelmed with emotion once I sat down with my wife by my side and tears filled my eyes. Her words of "you did it babe!" finally sunk in and I was so proud of myself for overcoming my doubt.
As I sit back and type this, I find myself going back so many times as I continue to remember things I forgot to mention. There were so many moments that I don't remember when exactly they happened but at least mentioning them will add more visual to this journey. Like the two times I landed awkwardly and felt my right arch feel like my plantar fascia had ripped. Thankfully it's okay but those sharp pains were extremely scary to feel. I remember on the last loop feeling so hot that I took some of the ice provided and stuck it in my shorts. Within 2 minutes of leaving the aid station I was trying to remove the ice while keeping my running pace because the ice was starting to freeze, well, I'm sure you can guess where. There were so many beautiful sections on the course. Whether it was the open tree areas, the top of the hills looking down over the forest, the beautiful flowers, it was just so nice to be surrounded by nature. It's also the reason I decided to leave my music in my bag so I could enjoy the surroundings. I could go on and on, and I'll be tempted to come back and edit this so many times but I think it's perfect to leave it how it is. After 3 hours of writing and editing this, I'll assume these were the greatest memories from the experience.
Don't ever let anyone tell you that you cannot do something. If you put in the time and effort, properly prepare yourself, and believe in yourself, you can do it. I never imagined doing a 50 miler and now that I have, even only being 3 days removed and still extremely sore, I can say I would do it again and even consider a 100K (62 miles). I also can honestly say I doubt I will ever attempt an 100 miler only because I don't think it would be fun for me to train for it and run it. Who knows, maybe that will change, but what this 50 milers taught me is that if I ever decide to, I know I can accomplish it. I just have to have the desire and it will be possible. I thank everyone for all of their encouragement and support along the way. I thought of so many of you during the race. As always, my wife for sitting there during the long day, helping me with everything I needed during the race and making sure I was okay; I could never thank her enough. I hope you all continue to challenege yourselves and discover just what amazing things you're capable of accomplishing in life!
#Running #UltraMarathon #50Miler #50Miles #CroomFoolsRun #WithlacoocheeStateForest #Brooksville #Florida #TrailRunning #RaceRecap #Endurolytes #AntiFatiguePills #PickleJuice #CokeZero #BioFreeze #MichaelWardian #StephanieViolett #CamilleHerron #TheGingerRunner #EthanNewberry #MicheleYates #StephenJohnPhotography #HokaOneOneClayton2 #HokaOneOneMach #HokaOneOne