Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Little Run In The Sea Of Grass

We met in a little dirt, dark parking lot that sat on the line between the mass of humanity that is South Florida to the east and miles and miles of endless swampy Everglades wilderness to the west. It was clear immediately. The special combination of heat and humidity so unique to South Florida had arrived overnight for the first time this year. The thermometer on my dash read 80 degrees, at 4AM. The air was so thick with water you could see it floating by in the one street light down the road offering us a touch of visibility. Today was going to be tough.

The FKT4Heroes 100K Loxahatchee Loop

Katie Dodge, Marco Hilty and I were taking on a 100K loop around the Arthur Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Preserve in Palm Beach County, Florida. We don’t have many official FKTs in Florida, just a smattering here and there. But this loop felt like just the kind of thing to put on the map. Almost exactly 100K in one giant circle. Mostly desolate. Very few opportunities for water. Total, 100% sun exposure if you aren’t lucky enough to get clouds. Crushed gravel and absolutely flat. I wasn’t aware of anyone that had run the full loop, though bikers do take it one with a bit of regularity and I’m certain some intrepid souls have done it on foot before. The idea was not our own. Two running friends had talked about it for some time, but had not had occasion to take it on. The coronavirus life slow-down offered the opportunity. So I began planning, the team to run came together, volunteers to support us materialized like magic (this run doesn’t happen without the incredible help from Kristy Rini Breslaw, Ralph Breslaw and Helena Radshaw), tricky sections of the course were rece’d, the decision was made to try to raise a few bucks for local businesses who would then contribute goods to COVID frontline workers, and the day arrived.

The loop included almost no access to water, though we’d be near Everglades canals for nearly every step. Brackish water filled with alligators and water moccasins does not make for ideal running fluid. There were a couple places that a car could access, and Ralph was to make the trek to those few spots to save us from our empty water bottles and empty bellies. Kristy and Helena were to spend the day on their bikes, providing water in some of the more desolate sections of the loop.

Wildlife would be abundant, yet was unlikely to be spotted. The Everglades is teeming with flora and fauna. Most of it is very shy. Alligators were a given. Snakes were likely. Bobcats a possibility. Panthers are out there, but nearly invisible. Bugs. Birds. Deer. And most dreaded, horse flies that love to bite and couldn’t care less about bug spray.

The Run Begins

Back in that dark, damp, dirt covered parking lot; we met and got ready to start. We targeted a 4AM start time to get miles in before the sun got on us. The entire week, the forecast had called for an overcast day with meaningful chances of rain and thunderstorms. The day before the start, that all changed. Little cloud cover, no rain and the hottest day of the year so far. And it was clearly that. Within 10 minutes of starting, we were drenched as if having run through a shower and our shoes squeaked and squealed with wetness.

Off into the darkness we trotted, nothing but the spot of our headlamps on the dirt trail in front of us. Here and there, the eyes of an alligator or some other animal would light up on the canals to our left and right. A few stars. No moonlight. Little else could be seen. But all along, we could hear animals rustling in the reeds, alligators grunting feet away, frogs croaking their disapproval of our presence. We didn’t belong, and they let us know.

As the first couple hours passed, Kristy and Helena passed us on their bikes. A quick check in with us to make sure we were good, and they were on their way to the first meeting point at about mile 13. Behind them, the first licks of sunlight began to rise in the east. An Everglades sunrise is unique and absolutely remarkable. The humidity does something to the light. It’s just...different.

The miles passed slowly and easily. We ran at a very gentle pace, with regular walk breaks. For Katie, this would be a new distance PR. For Marco, a match of his longest run. I had run longer on several occasions, but had recently fallen into a cycle of DNF’ing many of my long efforts especially in heat. We took it very easy. We drank heavily. Sweat dripped endlessly.

As the sun rose, the humidity began to break just a bit. For about an hour, we’d get to run with a bit of relief from the weather. But the relief brought with it the horse flies. Fortunately, only about 30 minutes of horse fly bites had to be endured, then they disappeared for the rest of the day.

Our First Turn, Our First Aid

We arrived at the first opportunity for aid with Kristy and Helena waiting water and other drinks in hand. We were also greeted by race photographer extraordinaire Chris Thompson who would end up taking some wonderful shots throughout the day. Thank you to Chris! Most photos are of courtesy of Chris.

After we restocked on supplies, we headed back out into the wilderness. This was the first real turn on the course, sending us north after heading mostly west to begin. Kristy and Helena were riding ahead to the first tricky section in seven miles where we would have to head around one of the water management dams and a variety of trail directions.

North we plodded on what would be the least interesting part of the trail. Less a trail and more a dirt road recessed a bit below the water lines, which were held behind some berms to our right. To our left, farmland and an access road to the dam we had just left. This would continue through to the point were we met Kristy and Helena and then beyond.

At some point, we encountered our first true challenge of the day. Someone noticed a stream of water leaking out of Marco’s pack. His brand new water bladder had formed a leak and he was losing water quickly. My handy-dandy Trail Toes blister kit included some bits of tape that we used to close up the hole as best we could. It wouldn’t be watertight, but it slowed the leak. And Marco was able to pinch it off further by placing the bladder upside down. Disaster averted, we continued on.

On the occasion that we saw the Everglades water, we got our first glimpse of the thousands of gators that had been surrounding us all along. They were visible in nearly every body of water. Sometimes just eyes and the tip of a snout. Other times, the full length of their spiny bodies moving slowly and effortlessly through the water. Always, they were aware of us and when we approached, they’d submerge slowly like a submarine in a war movie disappearing into the depths of the swamp. How many were actually out there just below the surface, who’s to say?

On one occasion, we passed a small pond just to our left. I noticed a little baby gator, no more than 18 inches long. We stopped and saw that there were dozens of tiny baby alligators swimming in this small pond. Then, with clarity of mind, Katie suggested that perhaps the mother gator was lurking nearby and might be less than happy with us so close to these little ones. We continued on quickly.

The day was heating up. We praised glory when a small cloud would cover the sun. We lamented the beating of the rays when the cloud would move on to save some bikers up ahead instead of us. We drank way more fluids than had been anticipated.

The Boat Ramp

After some time, we arrived at the boat ramp stop. This was nearly the midpoint of the loop and our first opportunity to really resupply from stuff we had left with Ralph the day before. We took a nice, long break here to fully refuel and repack. Ice bandanas were loaded with as much ice as they could hold. Food was slammed down. Shoes were changed (though I didn’t touch my feet because they were feeling wonderful.) Marco’s wife arrived with a new bladder for his pack. A few minutes to just sit in the shade and prepare for more heat.

Then we were off again, now heading west on the prettiest portion of the course. Large bodies of water on either side of us with fish jumping and dozens of gators constantly visible. Birds everywhere. A wonderful seven mile jaunt west. I was feeling so good and strong, though I noted that I really wasn’t eating enough. But my legs, they had just warmed up at this point. Things were going great.

After this seven mile run to the west, we turned north and back toward home down Flying Cow Road in Wellington. This would be the one portion of the day off the trails and on road. There is a trail that completes the loop, but there is frustratingly a fence across the trail with no way around it! One can access the trail up that that fence from either side, making it rather useless. But it did force us onto the road for about seven miles. That said, the asphalt offered a nice change of pace, more efficient than the dirt trail.

Somewhere along the previous seven west miles, my major meal of the day had burst open in my pack and run down my back. It was a light brown, baby diarrhea colored thing (actually a Spring Wolf Pack) and Marco asked if I had poo’d my pants. For the remainder of the run, I’d be known as “Poopy Pants”, perhaps my new trail name. It never dawned on me that now I had also missed out on the 400 calories I had planned to eat in that meal.

In the middle of the road stretch at the Wellington Environmental Park, we connected with Kristy, Helena and Ralph again. This was another opportunity to refill, access to a bathroom, even a water hose to spray off with (though the water was too warm to offer much relief.) It would be 13 miles from here until we saw them again.

The road became a dirt road. The dust from passing cars a challenge. Finally, the dirt road led to access back onto the levee system and our old familiar trail at about mile 42. Around this same time, I realized I hadn’t been eating or drinking. For how long, I couldn’t tell you. But my bottles were mostly full, one of my largest calorie sources was smothered across my back side, and my pockets were still too heavy with other food. Katie also began to suffer, needing to walk slower on the walking portions due to discomfort, but running strong on the running sections.

Finally, realizing I was holding Marco and Katie back, I told them I was going to walk for a bit longer to try to cool down and get in some more water. Then my old heat nemesis became apparent. I hadn’t been eating or drinking because I hadn’t been processing what was already in my stomach. My belly was bloated and distended and I was full of stuff just sitting there. Marco and Katie would pull ahead, then I’d reel them back in. Back and forth for a few miles. Finally, I was reduced to just a walk while they continued their steady progress. I knew I didn’t want to hold them up. I decided I would walk to the next opportunity for aid, about 4 miles away, and see if they were still there and see if the slower pace allowed me to process food and water.
A quick side note: I’ve never figured out heat and nutrition. Literally, 100% of my long efforts in heat have ended up with my stomach shutting down. In a 50K, I can force my way through to the end. Longer than that, the hydration and calorie deficit has led to a hole I can’t dig out of. I may simply not be built for Florida running.

Back to the loop, I could continually see Marco and Katie ahead. They slowly crept away, but occasionally would drift back toward me. But it was clear. I was not improving and would be a weight holding them back from finishing. Could I walk it in? Probably, but I wasn’t even sure of that. I hadn’t had any meaningful food or drink in a couple hours and the day had just gotten hotter and hotter. The only decision I had to make was whether to tell Katie and Marco I’d be dropping or to not tell them so that the decision did not weigh on them. Kristy showed up on her bike and slowly pedaled back with me to the final aid stop at about mile 50. My day was done. My DNF habit further reinforced.

Bednars and Beyond
While my run was ending, the day and the FKT attempt was not yet finished! I arrived at Bednars to find Marco and Katie still there resting and waiting for me. I shared that I was done, but that I was so excited for them to make this thing happen. It will be up to one of them to share the story of those final 12 miles.

However, I have some final thoughts to share on this loop and attempt. First, while disappointed that I couldn’t accompany them, it was the right decision and I am truly happy that Katie and Marco toughed out an extreme day to finish this loop and to hopefully put the FKT on the map officially! Katie was clearly in real agony when she left Bednars, yet she continued on without a second thought and without much complaint. Marco was devoid of really any complaint the entire day, just a stoic athlete moving forward through it all. Second, we raised more money than a thought we would, and I’m so happy to help our great local Fleet Feet DelrayBeach running store and the frontline workers they’ll be able to give shoes to.

Katie and Marco did push through to the finish in 14 hours, 5 minutes and 18 seconds. The FKT has been ratified making thisthing official! Marco cursed me out (a little) at the end for the idea. Katie sat miserably and quietly in the trunk of her car after finishing. I have a feeling they’re both feeling a significant sense of accomplishment today, several days later.

The last 12 miles, from Katie’s perspective

Going into the last 12 mile stretch felt automatic. There's something magical that happens to most ultra runners, once you surpass the 26.2 mark for the first time, your mental capacity shifts somehow and 10 miles don't feel long, 20 miles don't feel long and even when things do start feeling long they just go by fast and you are not feeling as miserable getting to the next milestone on any given run. This was definitely the case for me.

Having Marco to run with was nice, as we kept coming up with different strategies to just get to the next mile. First, Marco had the idea to jog for as long as we could until too uncomfortable/hot. That got us about 2 and 1/2 miles in. At that point, we were entering the 50s. I looked back and couldn't believe where the miles went.

Then, we went back to our go-to strategy of walking every half mile. In my head, I tried to do four rounds of run/walk before stopping to stretch my screaming hips and calves. Each half mile took forever, and yet I was always surprised when a few miles went by.

With about maybe 4 miles left, I was stretching every mile. The heat did not bother me, but this run was a good reminder that I needed more time on my feet. Muscle fatigue/tightness was my limiting factor throughout the day.

When we hit the last three mile stretch of paved trail, we decided to run faster just to mix up the feeling in our legs. We ran a strong mile at 10 minute pace, when our cyclist friend Rick joined us to push us home. After some walking and another stretch break, it was time for one more push. Marco kept reminding me that everyone was waiting for us! So we started the last mile push back to the finishing point.

It was so cool having more people involved throughout the day than originally planned. It helped keep us accountable and prepared for each section of the trail. Additionally, it was the major factor in getting me past my "comfortable" ultra range of 30 to 40 miles. 

Photo courtesy of Rick Slifkin
Unless noted otherwise, photos courtesy of Chris Thompson and Chris Thompson Visuals

1 comment:

  1. Great run and report congratulations to the whole team.