The night before the race I laid alone in my hotel room scared. I’d completed two 100-milers previously but this one was going to be different. This was a point to point, unlike the looped courses I was used to. I also wasn’t going to have a crew to help. For some, this is a true 100-miler. I did the final preparations with my drop bags and turned them in. I knew what to expect with the weather, which I enjoy, unlike most Floridians and tourists. The terrain was also not a problem as I do all my training on roads and sidewalks. I noted gas stations, fast food spots, and corner stores I could stop at along the way if needed. I was concerned though because I’d been dealing with an IT band issue that killed my training from February to race day. So time on my feet was lower than usual.
So, there I was, 6:30 a.m. in the starting corral, anxious, nervous, excited, scared, confident, hell…think of an emotion, it probably ran through my body. The wave I was in started slow, so I ended up “taking off” around a 10:30 per mile pace. Some would say I was starting out too fast but normally I’m in the 8’s and 9’s, so I felt confident that I was pacing myself this time. Within a couple of miles, I started catching people from the earlier waves that went off in 5-minute increments. The first issue of the race popped up when I went into a gas station to grab some fluids and ended up standing in a 5-person line with a slow cashier. This led to me losing time, but I eventually caught back up to the pack that was running a similar pace.
The next few miles continued to fly by. I noticed the Burger King I planned on stopping at around mile 18, which was perfect timing because I was hungry. Either the AC wasn’t working, or I was just that hot, because it didn’t feel very refreshing in there. I wanted something light and easy, so I ordered some French toast sticks and a drink. As I tried filling my handheld, the cap fell and of course, rolled under their machine. Thankfully they let me use a broom to poke it out. Again though, this caused me to lose some time. Unfortunately, a couple of miles later, I would make a huge mistake.
I got to the first drop bag location at mile 20, but somehow totally forgot about it because I stopped, got some fuel, checked in and out, but never asked for my bag. This bag had my hat and cooling towel, sunscreen, PR lotion, and supplements. A couple of miles after leaving that aid station, it dawned on me that I made an error that would make the rest a little tougher than it needed to be. Thankfully the next aid station had sunscreen, but by then, I was already a little burnt. Once again, trying to think about too many things since I didn’t have a crew to help with that, I only sprayed my back figuring since we were going south, the sun was only going to be at my back. I’d end up paying for that mistake later. This aid station was in front of a convenient store, so I ran in to get a soda and Oreo ice cream bar. I should have bought two because it was delicious and refreshing.
Still moving well, but getting thirstier as the temperature continued to increase, I ran into a gas station, grabbed some stuff but was disappointed when I turned to head towards the register only to see a line of 12-15 people. How did I not notice this when I walked in?! I quickly left everything on a counter and left frustrated. Once again, I was wasting precious time. Thankfully saw the next aid station up the road. It was my friend Rachel’s station and they were awesome. Instead of asking what I wanted and me being overwhelmed trying to see everything they had, they just blurted out everything until I heard something I wanted. I was able to regroup and get going quickly.
Things still were going smooth as I approached mile 40 and this time made sure to ask for my drop bag. I lathered up in sunscreen, this time all over my body. While I was there I heard someone mention putting their night equipment at mile 50. I started freaking out inside. I didn’t know there was a drop bag option for mile 50. I was only aware of 20, 40, 60, and 80. So while I’m there, I start calculating my pace, which was on point at the moment, but realized I would need to unfortunately pick up the pace to make it to mile 60 before it got dark or I may be disqualified. The rules state you must have gear that keeps you visible at night, and you should have it by 7 p.m. latest. If a race marshal caught you breaking a rule, you could get a time penalty or even removed from the race. So, I quickly got up from the aid station, grabbed some potatoes and soda and took off.
This of course was against my game plan to go this hard, but the circumstances forced it. If I had known about a mile 50 location, I would’ve put the night gear there instead of mile 60. I would have had less pressure and stress. I could’ve paced myself better. I was beating myself up mentally and started getting emotional. What this also meant was that I was now going to be running hard during probably the hottest and most popular part of the course; Hell's Tunnel. This section is a paved bike path covered with tall shrubs on both side that block any air or breeze from getting in. At that time of day, the sun was directly above me, so it made it even worse. Everyone who knows me knows that I enjoy the heat, but even I admit that was extremely hot and humid. Now I know why that section has it's own name and welcome sign.
Every 2 miles or so, there were crew locations. Each time I passed them, seeing all the runners with their friends, family, and supporters, I felt depression overcome me. I wouldn’t call it jealousy, though it kind of felt like that. I just was disappointed because I was making so many mistakes that wouldn’t have happened, or could’ve been quickly resolved, if I had a crew like most of these runners. But, I also knew I wasn’t the only runner that was crewless, so that helped remind me to stay focused on my game plan.
The mile 50 crew was great. They got me in and out knowing I was in a hurry for mile 60. I was in and out, confident I would make it to mile 60 before dark. The only problem was, my feet were starting to hurt. Another error I didn’t mention early on is that in the hotel before the start, as I was putting DryGoods on my feet, that have always tremendously helped with blisters, I didn’t have much left. I stupidly just assumed I had a full can, but it was almost empty. So, I tried getting as much of my feet as possible but knew it wasn’t enough and I was going to pay for it. This really became an issue because earlier on, at one of the self-serve aid stations, I filled my handheld with water, and then bent over to get ice to put it in, dumping half of the water right onto my feet. Again, a lot of mental errors. So here I am, running harder than I want, on soaked feet, killing the skin.
We approached the 7-mile bridge and I felt a bit of relief mile 60 was on the other side. The sun was almost down but I knew I could get there before it got dark. I kept my foot on the gas to ensure I’d be okay. With about 2 miles to go, the sun had set, and it was getting dark. My feet and legs were beat, especially after running the descent on the bridge. I approached the end of the bridge where I saw a volunteer walking directly towards me. I started panicking that I was going to get penalized, because I already knew what he was going to ask. Sure enough he yells “hey bud, you have your night gear at this stop?” I replied “yes, that’s why I was booking it down the bridge to get here before it got dark.” His simple but heartfelt response of “whew” was all I needed to reassure that I made it just in the nick of time.
I put on my headlamp and instantly knew this was going to suck. My forehead was now sunburnt, so a snug fit of the headlamp aggravated the skin, and a loose fit cause it to bounce, making it even worse. So, I went with the snug fit. I put on my lighted vest, refueled and took off. This was the part I was dreading based on the first two 100-milers. It gets so quiet and lonely. Even with the constant passing of vehicles, it just felt depressing and dead. I had my phone with me and planned to use it during these hours to keep me upbeat with music, social media, etc. Except, another realization that even though my drop bag at the finish line had my portable charger, I stupidly left the cable for my phone in my bag in my truck. Why was I making so many simple mistakes this weekend? I had all this planned out but continued to screw up and make things harder. I shut my phone off to conserve battery and shuffled through the night. At this point, there wasn’t much running left because of the pain in my feet.
I caught myself starting to sleep as I walked. I doze off for a couple of steps and catch myself stumbling. This was getting dangerous and I was at times entering on coming traffic. I would have got on the sidewalk, but for this stretch of the course, there either wasn’t on, or it was all crushed rock which was beating up my feet even more. I needed the smooth, flat surface. About 30 feet in front of me, I saw a male runner push the female next to him into the grass area because an oncoming truck had entered the bike lane we were using. I heard him say “if that didn’t wake us up, I don’t know what will.” I battled this for the next chunk of miles until we got to the deer crossing section. This helped keep me distracted and alert because now I was looking all around for them. I saw one! I saw two eyes reflecting at me from my headlamp. As I got closer I saw its body and the curious but alert stance, incase I planned to chase it. Yeah, that deer didn’t have to worry about that! The next few miles I counted 11 total deer, some that were just 2 feet away from me, watching me walk by.
I got to mile 80, around 3:30 a.m. and quickly asked one of the volunteers if they could wake me up in 30 minutes because I needed some sleep badly. They laid me down on their tarp and gave me bug spray wipes but unfortunately ants didn’t mind that because they kept crawling on me and biting me. I’d doze off for a minute at a time, kill another ant, and fall back asleep, doing this for the entire 30 minutes. I saw the medic working on another runners feet but didn’t want to add more time waiting on him to finish, so I refueled and moved on. I felt awake and alert again, confident in my pace. 2 miles later, I was dozing off into oncoming traffic again. I quickly got myself to mile 85 where I saw some benches and a big wooden chair in front of a closed business a couple of buildings down. I headed strait for it, elevated my feet and knocked out. I lost track of time and assume that I got a good 10 minutes of sleep. The sun was coming up, so a rooster kept crowing. It was annoying me, but I was also grateful for it because I may have fell asleep for hours if not for the constant noise.
At this point, some crews started asking if I needed anything as I passed by because it was obvious that I was falling apart. At mile 89 a lady was outside exercising and said something encouraging to me, but I lost it. I started crying. My feet were hurting so bad, I could barely walk. My skin was burnt and felt like it was on fire as the sun hit it. I could barely keep my eyes open. I wanted to quit. I seriously was fed up. I fought myself mentally so much throughout the race and I was finally about to lose the battle. Then it got worse. In an effort to wipe my tears, whether it was the PR lotion on my hands, sunscreen, bug spray, or a mixture of them, I my eyes started burning tremendously. The volunteers and medic at the mile 90 aid station were concerned and helped me so much! While the medic helped get my eyes cleared and worked on my blisters, the volunteers kept handing me food and drinks, and sprayed me with more sunscreen. The medic looked at me with a serious face and asked, “you’re going to finish this race, right?” I replied with a nod, got up, and kept moving.
I honestly don’t remember the next 5 miles. I remember bits and pieces of it because I’ve run the Southernmost marathon twice, so now I was in familiar territory. One crew member kept running and offering me cold water every time he saw me. At this point, I wanted it to cool off my skin, I cared less about hydration. With 5 to go, I vaguely remember stopping into a gas station and getting the 2 hot dogs and a soda special. I ate one of the hot dogs but instantly felt full. I held on to it for a mile, hoping to see a homeless person to offer it to but didn’t see one so I tossed it in the trash. I was heading toward a sidewalk with shade when I hear a woman yelling “hey! Runner! Runner!” as I turned around she told me to stay on the bike lane because we had to cross the street soon. We were not in Key West with about 4 miles to go. She slowed down to walk with me and check on me. She asked if I was okay, and I told her I was having a hard time staying awake. She said it looked like I was drunk. She encouraged me and walked with me and told me she was about to puke so she stopped at a garbage can and I kept on moving.
There it was, off in the distance, I could see the finish area, I could hear the cheering, I could hear the live band playing, I could see the volunteer directing finishers into the chute. When I turned the corner, they yelled “runner coming!” and EVERYBODY started cheering. I’m getting emotional even typing this, reliving the moment. I thanked God as I approached the finish line and there was my friend Rachel, putting the medal around my neck and the belt buckle in my hand. I lost it, I couldn’t keep the emotions in. She hugged me and gave me such encouraging words. Other finishers came up to me and embraced me. I heard them telling each other things like “every time I saw him he was giving it his all”, “I felt bad every time I saw him running into gas stations”, “he was fighting the whole time”. Another runner came up to me and expressed how proud she was of me.
I had never had to overcome do much doubt and pain as I did during that race. I remember telling myself multiple times that this would be my last 100-miler, and I would just skip the 4th one I’m already signed up for. But as I sat under the tent facing the finish line, watching runner after runner cross and burst into tears, I knew we do this for a reason. It’s something we can’t really explain, but it’s in us, and we love to chase the challenge. Every time I would hear the crowd yell “runner coming!” I’d look up and join everyone else to cheer them on and congratulate them. The ultra-running community is amazing! I made a lot of new friends during this race, which I vaguely remember their faces, and definitely forgot their names. In that moment, I knew I couldn’t abandon the upcoming 100-miler. Everything will be in my favor again for that race, but during this one, I learned even more about myself than in any other race. When I look at the list of over 80 people who dropped out, including one who’s already done 15 100-milers this year alone, I knew I overcame tough conditions and wasn’t just trying to say nice things to myself for a moral victory. Would I do this race again? Yes. Would I do it uncrewed again? Yes, but only if I had to. We live and learn on how to get better. I would be overprepared next time and not assume.
In the end, it was a 29 hour and 12 minute journey. 37 minutes later as I went to relax in the water at the after party, I realized I had made one final mental mistake; I NEVER STOPPED MY WATCH!