Monday, February 22, 2016

Into the Swamp: 20 Hrs of Florida

Okay, so it was more like 21 hours of Florida but 20 sounds cooler as a headline. But I'm getting ahead of myself, I should probably start at the beginning. (No, not the beginning of my life. Did you think I was seriously going to go there?)

Disclaimer: You might need 20 hours to read this....IT IS LONG. OOPS!

Following PHUNT last month, I had been aiming to do a 50K that was relatively 'fast' and local. The weekend after PHUNT, I was signed up to do the Eugene Buckhert 50K down in Delaware. It was to have been 10 5K laps in a park. Didn't happen. Why? A 22 inch snowstorm the night before/day off the race.

Strike one.

Still wanting to find a 50K,  I looked at the Mid-Maryland 50K in where else but Maryland. It was a 2 hour drive from home and had day of registration. Gnarly. This course was 5 10K laps. However, in between the Delaware and Maryland races, I got a little chest cold. So despite getting better the week prior to the race, once the forecast showed 20 mph winds and single digit wind chills, I erred on the side of health. In other words, I didn't want a repeat of last year's winter bronchitis.

Strike two. (Instead, let the record show, I went to the movies to see Deadpool.)

Now, we're pretty caught up to where things get interesting. Glancing through ultras for the weekend of Feb 20th, NJ Trail Series Febapple races popped up. Another two hour drive from home. A chance to see people I know. Yet, to be honest, the day of registration price was a bit steep for me. Totally understand why this is the is incentive to register early. In the end, while considering it, it still was not tickling my fancy. You could say.....I was feeling 'eh' for it being what I needed.

And then, you could say fate pointed me in a different direction. In my daily mass of emails, I had one for a promotion from Frontier Airlines showing some cheap rates into Orlando. Remembering that I had seen on Ultrasignup some Florida races, I did some mapping and fare checking. Turns out, another 50K option reared its head....the inaugural Swamp 50K. The Swamp 50K was one of three races to be held at Graham Swamp Preservation Area on the MTB trails that are on the edge of area. A 100K and 10K were also on the slate.  Registration was still open but I had to act fast as you had to request an invitation and present qualifications to be accepted.

Thankfully, RD Dawn Lisenby accepted me in fast enough fashion that I was able to jump on some Frontier flight action. For 112 bucks, I was able to book round trip travel from Philadelphia to Orlando. (It was 88 dollars before I selected my seats.) The catch? I would fly out of PHL at 8:40pm Friday night and fly out of ORL at 8:55pm Saturday. Bonus catch: To avoid any baggage fee, I had to keep my gear to a personal item that could fit under the seat. Luckily, I had flown Frontier out to Minneapolis in September and already had experience with the biggest bag I could pack.

What I should emphasize here is that I booked my flight on 2/15. Yes, the Monday, the week of the race. (Only people aside from Peg, I told were my two bosses at work. Mainly, because I asked for a remote work day on Friday. This was totally covert.)

Considering my flight was not arriving into Orlando until 11:30pm on Friday and that I had around an 1 1/2 hours of drive time to the race location in Palm Coast, I had no plan to get a hotel room for the night. Instead, I opted to rent a minivan to sleep in that I could park somewhere without hassle. Thank you, Dollar Rent A Car for the 40 dollar total. Despite having slept in a vehicle for a race before, I was nervous this time as I was going to be in an area I had never driven before. (Last time, I was in Florida, I was 8.) All of Thursday and Friday, I was pretty nervous about it to the point I felt nauseous for the bulk of the time. Part of it is also, I have this fear of going through security.

Eventually, Friday evening rolls around and Peg (who I really could not have done this without her support and love) dropped me off at the PHL airport. Security was a breeze making me feel a bit better. However, my flight's departure was delayed 45 minutes. (Something that was not announced until it was our originally scheduled time.) This sucked. It meant, I was going to be getting into Orlando later and meant less sleep. Still, I had the flight to catch some Zzzz's. Nope. Despite having ear plugs in, I got maybe 30 minutes of shut-eye because of some young children doing what young children do on flights. Let's say, I arrived in Orlando tired and ready for some van sleeping. Well, being tired and behind schedule cost me some of my wits. At the rental car counter, I was asked about basic or full coverage and said basic. Instead, I should have said none. Why? It doubled my rental rate. I was too exhausted to deal with it so I just took it. (Looking back, I justify it by saying still was cheaper than a room.)

After going through all the mini-van options, I settled for a Kia Sedona since it felt comfy in the driver's seat. Sadly, I compromised on the sleeping comfort. The one vehicle with the best sleeper option, the Town & Country had the shifter on the dash and that was too much for me to handle. Driving out of the airport to Palm Coast was easy as pie. I got to relax using some cruise control pretty much all the way up to the 24 hr Walmart, I was buying a $15 comforter and two quarts of Gatorade at. (Now, despite the Walmart being near the race site, I was not sleeping in the lot there because an online search had mentioned this Walmart tends to not allow car-campers. I should say, I probably could have since a few vehicles in the lot clearly looked like sleepers.)

Eventually, I made my way to the Holiday Inn Express off of 100. Just avoiding a sheriff's car doing a sweep of the lot, I found the only parking spot away from the entrance I could. I pulled in, shut off the van and crawled into the back. Because I compromised on the van, I was bent around the middle row of seats. My legs came out between the middle of the middle seats angled towards the driver's side and my head was in front of the rear row towards the passenger's side. Ear plugs were in and comforter was pulled over. Time for shut eye. Due to nerves, expecting a tap on the window, it took me 20 minutes to fall asleep. It was now nearly 3am thanks to arriving late, the Walmart stop and finding the sleeping place. Once I fell asleep, I managed to get a solid 3 1/2 hours bringing me to 6:30 for an 8am race start. Upon waking, I drove over to the gas station next door and used the bathroom to freshen up. Plus, it gave me a chance to change into my race attire (mainly my racing shorts) without being too showy before heading over to Graham Swamp 5 minutes away.

Onto the race....

Upon arriving at Graham Swamp Preservation Area, I was met by wonderful volunteers holding down the fort at the start/finish aid station already working hard to support the hearty souls running 10 loops of 10K that started at 5am. Being that it was 7am now, the sun was starting to pop out but not enough to make it warm. Yet. After the RD arrived back at the staging area from a visit to the 'mid-way' aid station (ended up being 2.5 in, so not quite halfway), I picked up bib and t-shirt. Back in the van, I started listening to some music, rubbing myself with Tiger Balm (only the red variety for me), and taping the nipples. Once you chafe, you never forget the little things. Almost....

Aside from my shorts, I was going to begin the race sporting my Trail WhippAss singlet, Nathan Speedshot Plus Insulated, Smartwool socks and Montrail FluidFlex (the original model). My Speedshot was filled with Lemon Lime Gatorade instead of the usual Tailwind Nutrition since I did not have any single serve packs to take on the airplane. Baggies of white powder likely would have resulted in a delay back in PHL. So I was going old school. The pouch was filled with 6 Shot Blocs and an emergency Gu Gel.

Since this was a loop course, I was able to find a place in the shade to stash extra Gatorade, Blocs and Gels easy enough to access on each lap.

Before, I knew it, all of us 50K runners were called to the start for a quick course description in terms of markings. One ground for disqualification you don't really ever hear....going over the mountain bike obstacles can get you DQ'd. So in other words, don't do it. Let me say, if you think Florida is all flat ultra courses, run one on a mountain bike trail. For those who know it, it makes the 'Roller Coaster' section at Pennypack Park (home to many Uberendurance Sports events) nothing. This was like running 10k of roller coaster that wasn't just switchbacks but short up and downs. Less than a mile of each loop was straight. And even then it was roughly two sections of maybe 1/4 mile each. (It may be more but you get the point.)

For the most part, the red is what we ran....

As we started, I strode out to an immediate lead. I kept it pushing yet comfortable. A day before departure I stumbled upon an image of the MTB loop at Graham Swamp online and had seen a video of some riders on it. This kept me from being too stupid. I ran cool and collected. At least while it was still cool out I did. Later on, the temps would rise near 70 and there were a few patches on the back half of each loop that exposed us to sun. This worked for the 1st two laps where I had built a 5 minute lead. (My first lap would be the 2nd fastest lap of anyone in all the races all day.) Before I headed out for my third lap, I refilled my bottle with Gatorade (which stayed cool in the shade).

Lap three began the suck. I started to really struggle here. At the beginning of the lap, I started to feel irritated on my left heel. Apparently my sock choice was a problem on the course. Since there was a sandy element to a lot of the trail, it was getting up and scraping between my flesh and shoe. In other words, I had a small cut. Since I was only a third of a mile from the start, I had two thoughts: Go back and change socks or go on. I chose to suck it up and do the latter. Instead of increasing my lead, it was rather stable for the first 3 miles but decreased down to maybe a minute at the end of lap 3. So in 3.5 miles I have back 4 minutes. Hello, bonk! I felt fried. I made a decision here to pour some water over me and change my singlet into my blue NB top. I stuffed more Shot Blocs into my handheld pouch.

By now, I was officially being stalked. I expected to be passed by second place. And I told myself, if I was that I would not push myself more in the heat and do a lot more walking. Thanks to the switchback nature of the course, I got to view and talk to second quite a bit. He was calling me a beast and I was saying he's got this, while we both were saying how we were struggling. We basically went through the aid station on lap 4 together. I worked to stay ahead of him and by the end of the lap, I had opened some space again that I finished the fourth lap in the lead. But not by much....

Just off the trail....I did mention's proof

As I paused to drink more and cool myself with water again, I dropped into second. I was ready to let the man go, so much so when encouraged to go catch him, I may have said something to the effect, he's got it. Well, turns out his struggles were worse than mine at that point. It might have been a mile into the lap that I regained the lead I lost. I opened it up enough that I lost visual contact for much of the lap. Somehow, I had this! EXCEPT......

With around 1.5 to go, the gap looked a little too close. Regardless of how fast I wanted to go, I couldn't open up. I was spent and fried. All I could think of was hold on....just finish this race. Then, I hit the tree with a 5.5 mile marker. Knowing a chance existed I could be caught and did not want to lose in the last mile, whatever gear that was missing the rest of the day came on-line. I HAULED that last mile into the finish. My time ended up being 4:30:20. Second place, a runner named Frank, finished only two minutes back. In doing so, he broke his 50K PR by nearly 20 minutes!

At the end of the day, we both pushed each other on what is one of the most brutal courses around. Is it runable? Absolutely. However, all the switchbacks create a constant need for accelerating and decelerating that just pummel you.

Following the race, I had some great conversation, took a brief trip to the store and bought myself some Surge soda. (Thanks to Travis for letting me know I would find Surge in Florida!) Have to tell you, I was baked. My core temp was very high until I was able to suck down an ICEE. I ended up back at Graham Swamp for more conversation and to watch the 10K before 50K awards. Sadly, after the awards, if I wanted any time at the beach I had to leave. I made it to Flager Beach for about 20 minutes before having to drive back to the airport in Orlando. My time in Florida was coming to an end.

Victory Surge


Really got lucky with the drive back as traffic flowed and rental return was silky smooth. Security took 20 minutes and considering the volume of people was super efficient. Airport dinner....note to self: Don't do On the Border. Too much red pepper aftertaste. While leaving PHL was delayed, I arrived back 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Peg picked me up mere minutes after exiting the terminal but not before running into Jackie who was coming back from LA. (By the way, didn't see Jeff. Did you leave him behind?)

So in a span of 30 hours, I went from Philadelphia to Orlando to Palm Coast and back all while running/winning a 50K on 3.5 hours of sleep in a minivan in a hotel parking lot.

That's an adventure......

Post race FL selfie

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