Flat ain’t easy.
Here’s the thing. After 6 years and 30 some odd races, I’m starting to become an old hat at ultras. Unfortunately, I’m also becoming forgetful in my old age as lessons I’ve learned in the past need to be relearned on a periodic basis. Like flat courses aren’t as easy as they sound. Let’s call that the first lesson that the LH100 (re)taught me last weekend.
Long Haul 100 is held in Cypress Creek Preserve about thirty minutes north of Tampa, Florida. The race has been held since 2011, however it seems like the course itself has been tweaked most years due to issues with the trails. This year the race was ten 10 mile “loops” with an introductory mile tossed in at the beginning. I put loops in quotation marks there because it’s really three separate out-and-back sections. The first is 1.5 miles (3 total), followed by 2.5 miles (5), and then a 1 mile section (2). After this last one, there is a 100 yard mini spur that takes you past the aid station where you turn around at the timing tent. All four sections start and end at the same intersection where you end up making right turns all day (and night) long. The course was well marked, though it would be pretty hard for someone to get lost.
At 7am, the race started at the gate to the park entrance. While the sun hadn’t risen yet, it was light enough to see without a headlamp as we ran down the paved road toward the trails. I chatted with another runner for a couple minutes before pulling to the side for a quick walk break. I was targeting an 11 1/2 minute pace to start things off which required a bit of walking to accomplish. I’ve tried to completely run flat hundreds in the past to disastrous results and hoped this would be a better strategy for me.
As everyone turned right onto the first spur or trail section, I wondered how long it would be before I saw the front runners pass me going the other way. Turned out not too long. I counted the runners and about 80 runners were ahead of me putting me right in the middle of the pack. There is a water only aid station here where you shout out your number as you turn around.
The second spur starts with a half mile road section, then turns left onto a sandy trail where you pass through the Hall of Pines. This section was among the prettier along the course, however the trails were rather uneven which become a hassle as the day wore along. There’s then a short section next to a road then back into the woods for a half mile till you reach the second aid station.
The third spur was probably my favorite and not just because it was the shortest. The vegetation was closest to what I think of when I think of Florida. The trail narrows down and nature really closes in around you. The only drawback is it’s much harder to pass other runners coming toward you. I can’t (or don’t want to) remember how many times I tripped coming through here. Probably the bigger shock is I was able to catch myself each time before hitting the ground. My wife always makes fun of me for the number of times I fall in races. She probably thinks I should get better at staying on my feet the more I do these races. I think the same thing.
I saw my wife when I got back to the hub. She was only hanging out for a lap before heading to Busch Gardens for the day with my son. I made the right to do the mini-spur that took you past the aid station and DJ booth to the timing tent where you turned around and started the next lap. The volunteers were awesome and would grab my bottle and fill it up while I walked up to the turnaround. By the third lap, they even had my order down so I didn’t even have to tell them what I wanted. Such service.
As I got back to the cross roads, Kate showed me where my drop bag was conveniently located about 10 feet from the course. I grabbed and chugged an Ensure Plus shake and then was down the trail. I like to keep my nutrition simple for my races (like me) so was only relying on the shakes, Coke, and orange slices for my first half calories and just the latter 2 for the second fifty miles with some chicken broth thrown in for good measure. This has been my go to for the past couple years, though in hindsight I should have supplemented with my S-caps (lesson #2) that were in my drop bag.
I was hoping to finish under 22 hours, which would be a new 100 mile PR for me. And my fantasy was to get under 20 hours. I was able to stay on pace through mile 20, however at that point I started slowing down due to the heat (high of 77 during the day) and, you know, having run 20+ miles. In hindsight, I pushed too hard once the sun was well and truly up (lesson #3). I knew I wasn’t walking enough at this point, but I was focused on maintaining pace. This was a semi-calculated decision knowing it could come back to haunt me, yet sometimes you just need to go for it. Tis better to have gone big and lost than never to have gone big at all. Though it’s possible I’m misremembering my Tennyson.
By the time I hit mile 50, my average pace had climbed just above 12 minutes per mile. So 20 hours was definitely out of the question and it was looking like a PR wasn’t going to be possible since I still had a couple miles to go to reach the end of lap 5. You see, each lap was a little over 10 miles and when you toss in the extra mile at the beginning, we were starting to accumulate a decent amount of bonus mileage without going off course. I ended up hitting the timing mat at 52.6 miles so I was looking at about 104 miles total for the race. I heard of other runners complaining about this, but it wasn’t really an issue for me. If anything, I was a little excited as it meant I would get to hit a distance PR.
I grabbed my headlamp and headed out for my 6th loop. I think it was here on the first spur that I felt the runners high for the first and only time during the run. It’s not something I typically experience, however the temperatures had cooled down and a wave of euphoria washed over me. I felt invincible. Like I could run forever. Alas, the feeling lasted a whopping 45 seconds and then it was back to the grind again for me. Sigh.
Being from Pennsylvania, I was a little worried about alligators. While I didn’t see any during the run, I did see a couple armadillos. The first one was well after dark. I’m cruising along and hear a noise off to my left. I stop, turn around, and there one was scuttling off into the brush. The second time one ran right across the trail in front of me. Neither of them paid me much attention so I returned the favor. They didn’t seem dangerous, but I’m not a zoologist so you should probably Google armadillos before you head to this race.
As I’m running along, I’m constantly doing math in my head to figure out when I’m going to finish. It gives me something to focus on to keep me moving forward with purpose. I saw my wife for the second time finishing up my 7th lap. At this point, I only needed 17 minute miles to get under 24 hours. I told her I was going to keep pushing for a lap before probably just walking it it. Turns out I only ended up “running” the first spur. I tried walking a mile on spur 2, knocked out a 15:15 mile, and decided there was no reason to kill myself considering I was making really good time walking.
So I walked it in. I learned relatively early on that there’s no shame in walking in a 100 mile race (lesson #4). Once midnight rolled around, I would guess that most of the runners were just walking and those that were running weren’t doing it for extended periods of time. At the end of loop 8, I now only needed an 18 minute pace to finish up inside 24 hours.
It was around this time that I noticed my headlamp had gotten pretty dim. This is a known issue for my headlamp, however I didn’t put extra batteries in my dropbag (lesson #5). It was enough light for these non-technical trails, however it would have been nice to see a little better. This was also the lap that my feet really started hurting. I got blisters in the normal places on my toes that weren’t bothering me too badly, however my heels were very sore. Apparently, some fine sand had gotten into my shoes and the rubbing really did a number on my feet. Next time I’ll need to wear some gaiters to keep the sand out (lesson #6).
As I hit the road at the end spur two, another runner was chatting about how many miles he had left and mentioned something about an 8 mile lap. I figured he was a little delirious so didn’t pay him much mind. Then I see a runner fly by me at the crossroads heading straight for the finish line and completely blowing off the 3rd spur. Now I’m wondering. Do I have another full lap left or only 8 more miles? I’m trying not to think about it too much though as it would be soul crushing to expect 8 miles but have to do 2 extra.
I cross the timing mat and yell out that I just finished my 9th lap. I said it loud hoping that Justin (the timer) would run out and tell me I only have to do 8 more miles. And sure enough, out he comes to tell me to just to do spurs 1 and 2. I asked him to repeat himself a couple times just to be 100% sure as my mental faculties had degraded considerably by this time – 3:50am.
Now the math was gloriously simple. Eight 20 minute miles would give me a 30 minute buffer on a sub-24 hour finish. My pace had slowed to the 16-17 minute range at this point so it was about as in the bag as these sorts of things can be. I tried to enjoy things and took it a little easier, but I was in complete grind-it-out mode at this point and just wanted to be done so I could sit down.
As I got closer to the finish, I started wondering if my wife would be there. I hadn’t seen her in 8+ hours and hoped she didn’t oversleep. I walked up to the finish and there she was off to the side with a chair. I’d tell you which I was happier to see, but she’ll end up reading this so I should probably just move along.
Overall, I feel a little conflicted about the race. Not the race itself as the organization and course were top notch. I would highly recommend this race to anyone looking for a flat Florida hundred. It’s always deeply satisfying to finish a 100 mile race and I really enjoyed myself. I met a bunch of great runners (Ryan, Thad, Elvis, Robert, Alex) who provided conversation and encouragement throughout the day. It’s just that my performance left a little to be desired based on my training leading up to the race. I was expecting a new PR and I didn’t achieve that though I did hit 100 miles at 22 hours 35 minutes or only a half hour slower than my best time. This can easily be explained by me not being heat acclimated and pushing a little too hard during the afternoon hours. So even though I was essentially thisclose, I still came away partially disappointed due to my inability to properly set expectations (#7).
Something tells me this is a lesson I’ll never properly learn.