Fifty miles, beautiful weather, and my father all equal an amazing day!
I signed up for the Iron Horse Ultra in Palatka, FL months ago with the hopes of doing better than last year and not having to slush through puddles and feeling like a drowned rat and spending the weekend with my dad.
My dad picked me up at the airport the day before the run where we then stopped by the family home to say hi to mom, sister, and nephew before taking our time to get to Palatka. Gorgeous drive with very little to see besides forest. I'd say that set the tone for the event since the majority of the race took place through trees.
You never know what the weather will bring. This year, I ran the Iron Horse ultra without rain, without puddle after puddle and wet feet. The weather was almost perfect. Started out in the low 40s and quickly climbed to over 70. Love the sunshine! Not so much the heat. But it wasn't too bad. Had I been at the beach I would have been in heaven.
Oh, did I mention I forgot my running hat at home? Talk about a pain in the butt. Luckily the team at Iron Horse had a visor for sale, which took some rigging with safety pins to fit my small head. It worked! Thank goodness.
The course of the Iron Horse Ultra is beautiful and ever-changing. The first six miles are paved rail trail. From the start you do a 1.75 mile out and then back for 3.5 miles then you have another 2.5 miles of pavement before reaching a dirt road. I love the 50 yards of packed dirt. Can we run on this all day?
The answer is no.
The next section is 1.5 miles of trail at a slight incline to Aid Station 2. This section is dirt, grass, sand, roots. It makes it for an interesting section where you tend to look down, especially when you start the second loop and your legs are tired. But this is still my favorite section of the trail. Especially when returning back to the start-finish line.
Aid Station 2 is the main aid station that you hit 3 times during the course of one loop. Each loop has many out and back sections; most of which return to Aid Station 2. Aid Station 2 is fully manned and fully stocked from sugary sweets, salty chips, fresh fruit and PB&J sandwiches. There is also several people recording the fact that you came through.
Here is where my dad met me and gave me my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. For a girl who cannot eat gluten, this is a serious treat and the only time I get to eat this type of real food. Ready to head East on a six mile loop (3 miles out and back), I told dad to feel free to head out to the hotel to relax and I would text him when I was headed back down to the start-finish.
The East trail is, in my opinion the most challenging of the entire run. I heard one group of runners comment that due to the changing terrain it was difficult to get a good rhythm. I concur!
While it is flat, the changing landscape is a killer. You first hit gravel, then a section of packed dirt that is dug in by trucks that travel through the forest. This part is actually nice. You kind of enjoy the trees and the greenery and your smiling because the day is just fabulous. Then you hit more sand and look for the packed sand so your feet don't slide out from beneath you as you try to run.
And then...sugar sand.
There is no aid station on the East loop, but there is a table with a jug of water and cups. I think everyone is grateful for this because it gives us a point to know that not only are you going in the right direction but a marker to know how far you are from Aid Station 2.
Speaking of markers. The course is extremely well-marked with pink tape hanging from trees and bright yellow pie plates. The pie plates have directional arrows on them pointing the way. Of course, the markers are only good if you look up and not at the sand.
After the six miles on the East loop I returned to Aid Station 2 and was surprised to see my dad. But wow, did that make me happy. We had a quick chat and I refueled then I was off for an eight mile (4 miles out and back) loop on the West side.
The West loop consists of a little more packed dirt and less sugar sand. Thank goodness. I love this side! But the first thing you notice on the West loop occurs about a quarter mile in when an odor hits you. You look around in search of the cause and that's when you discover the charred dirt and the remnants of a forest fire. Black dirt and life. It's amazing to see how mother nature can be so cruel and at the same time so strong and resilient. Kind of like the human soul, I think as I stroll past in awe.
After a rest stop, I get a handful of Pringles and a chocolate chip cookie and head back the four miles to Aid Station 2 where my father is waiting for me. It was really great to see him there. I tell him to get some food for himself as yes, Aid Station 2 is starting up the grill and is there for the runners and the crews. Only four miles from here and I have hit loop one and 25 miles.
Then we start again with the 1.75 miles out and back. On the out portion I am pretty much by myself; all the runners are spread out and I occasionally see one or two. In this section I notice these gigantic black birds. Lost of them! As I get a little closer I stay to the right as I am a tad fearful. Ever see the Alfred Hitchcock film, "The Birds"? Yeah, okay, I do not want to be eaten. "Please do NOT eat me," I chant as I draw near and realize the birds are lunching on a dead deer. Ick! Oh, yeah, I ran past that.
At 3.5 miles into the second loop back at the start-finish, I take 30 minutes to re-apply New Skin and add some toe caps. For whatever reason, my feet swell well beyond normal so no matter what I do I get blisters, even with double toes socks and yes, even after adding in toe caps. After changing socks and shoes and another restroom break, I get to spend a little time chatting with dad while he refills my hydration vest.
So far dad's day has consisted of getting up at 4:30 AM, driving me to the event, driving between Aid Station 1 and 2, sitting in his car for hours reading a JD Robb book I got him for Christmas, and greeting me every time I come thru and asking me what I need. While I can't believe he is doing this and only doing this because I'm out there, I am ever so grateful for my dad, for his support and his cheerleader attitude.
Then I am off for Aid Station 2 where dad will meet me once again. At Aid Station 2 it's getting darker now so I grab a headlamp and spare batteries, and the temperature is starting to go down so I grab a fleece and windbreaker.
The sugar sand is pretty in the moonlight, and at the same time more frustrating on your footing. And I swear I kept looking for the pink tape and yellow markers. Everything seemed to be a lot further apart the second loop. When I return to Aid Station 2 I know the blisters have started but they aren't bad. YET! So I grab a PB&J and another, heavier jacket, because yes, it is freaking cold, hug my dad and head out for the second West loop.
This is the section where I ran into a runner who was going to quit after her first 25 miles. We ran into each other on the out and back section near the start-finish and chatted for a few. I suggested she not make a decision until she hit Aid Station 2 again. So while I was out somewhere near mile 38ish or so I saw her coming back at me and we stopped for a few minutes. I was glad to see her and congratulated her on not giving up.
She said, "You tricked me."
"How'd I do that?"
"You knew if I made it to Aid Station 2 I wouldn't quit until I got back to the finish."
I grinned. "I only hoped. Congratulations on the 50 miler!"
Then she took off.
First things first. Potty break! After I wash up then you bet I took them up on the warm fire and the chicken noodle soup. Soup never tasted so good! I sat there talking with another runner and the volunteers for a good 10 to 15 minutes and it was like once again heaven had dropped just what we needed in the middle of nowhere. Then the volunteers wished me luck and I was off again.
Back at Aid Station 2 my dad met me. I stripped off the toes caps because they weren't helping and then he and I warmed up by the fire for a few minutes. I'm excited because only 4 miles and I am at mile 50. Woohoo!
I take off and dad is going to meet me at the start-finish. My goal was for 62 miles but as I trudge along the paved rail trail path and another blister pops inside my shoe sending a sharp pain into my foot I think there is no way. Not because of the blisters, but because of the snails pace I am moving because of the blisters.
I am moving so slow, thanks to blisters that I don't think I have time to meet the cutoff to hit that goal so once I make it to the finish line I have to decide to go on and get more blisters and not make the cutoff or call it a day and a job well done at 50 miles. It was 12 miles better than last year.
While my goal was 62 miles, I was very excited for the 50 miles. My dad was real excited too. He gave me the biggest hug and had to take my picture with the medal. That was the longest run I've done with him being there and it was the best day because I got to share the experience with him and he got to see what ultra runners and ultra running is about.
Ultra running is about a community of people who want to challenge themselves and encourage like minded people. Whether a fast runner or a slow plodder (like me); it doesn't matter. You are out there giving it your best shot and you are doing something very few people would even think about doing. Especially when most people will say, "I don't even like to drive my car 50 miles."
Ultra running is a journey. It's not just the distance, it's the people, the scenery, the becoming one with nature and the discovery of yourself. It's the ability to leave your everyday life behind you for hours and just be. It's the challenge to push yourself to do more each time or to do better; depending on your goal. It's taking the time to get to know yourself, and your body and to continue to grow and learn. It's respect for other runners, the volunteers, the race directors, the crews that are out there supporting their runner, and it's the self-respect for yourself.
There is so much to be gained and learned by running an ultra and absolutely nothing to lose. Even if you do not finish.
I got my medal for my 50 miles and dad packed me in the car and off to the hotel we went for a good night's sleep.
It's not until 2 days later that I realize I actually could have made the cutoff for my 62 miles, but my mind had been such mush that I couldn't calculate the distance and time. Ha!
Note to self: have someone else do the math for you. Oh, well, next time.
This was a race for the books, not just because of the beautiful environment, and the fabulous volunteers, and other runner. This race was for the books because I did it with my dad. While he had not been running with me, he had been my support and my crew for almost 20 hours by the time we got back to the hotel. I hope my father knows how much his being there with me meant and how this will be my favorite race for that reason alone.
And dad, next year, we will do the 62 miles! Cuz now I know how to multiply when my brain isn't fuzzed over from lack of sleep and blistered feet. Thank you for being there and sharing this event.