They weren't even a part of the course. About 10 miles, from Mickler Road until we entered the beach somewhere around South Ponte Vedra. Yet these 10 miles made it clear that ultramarathons weren't just trail runs. That running on the roads could be just as beautiful and just as connected to nature as any trail.
10 miles of intense loneliness. 10 miles of straight roads crawling over rolling beach dunes. 10 miles of bird and wildlife noises to the right and the crash of waves to the left. 10 miles of the bluest endless sky overhead.
10 miles with the ocean ever present to the east. I couldn't see that vast expanse of water. A dune covered in sea grapes blocked the view. But I could smell it. I could feel its weight. The air carried the water. And the waves, crashing and crashing and crashing. The ocean was there, only feet away.
10 miles that stick in my brain, that I remember again and again. And we weren't even supposed to be there. We were only there because nature had dictated it. Nature had washed a beach away and forced the race director to reroute the race. Nature had demanded we experienced this bit of itself, despite human's best efforts for that not to happen.
10 miles of nature preserve continually to the west. Estuaries filled with endless wildlife. Birds noisily starting their morning. The distinct bang of a shotgun as humans entered to hunt. A lizard or two, or perhaps a hundred. I dreaded knowing later in the race I would lose this preserve, and run through city. But that was hours, maybe even another day, away.
10 miles of absolute, unequivocally perfect weather. Cool air, but not cold. Perfectly sunny, but no heat from the sun. No humidity, a constant light tailwind. Later in the day, it would get a touch warm. In the evening, a few drops of rain. At night, a bit of a chill. But for those 10 miles, utter perfection.
Yes, 10 miles on asphalt. 10 miles on that seemingly endless road. But 10 miles as connected to nature as any trail could ever offer.
And it was then I really understood what I'd seen some other ultramarathoners write about or heard them talk about. That ultramarathoning isn't synonymous with trail running. That there's something special about running the roads. No, not better than trails, but not inferior either. Different and wonderful and a worthwhile pursuit.
10 perfect miles, and we weren't even supposed to be there.
(This is my first of a few stories from the 2016 Daytona 100 Ultramarathon I plan to write. I thought this might be more fun and more interesting than a formal race report. And, boy, do I wish I had gotten a photo of the rolling roads on this 10 mile stretch.)