Running for the win on Florida’s Toughest Trails


6am alarm rings and I try to crawl back under the covers on a chilly cold morning in New York. The temperature is in the teens but the sun is rising bright as I lace up my sneakers for a quick run before my flight to Florida’s Gulf Coast for a week of warmth and reflection.


Christmas is coming fast. The white powder that coats the leaves in the woods and green grass in the backyard adds to the excitement for my nieces. Tights replace shorts. Ski gloves warm the fingers. The frosty air is fresh and crisp. The crunch of the snow under foot is pleasantly relaxing.


Co Race Director Justin Radley of Gulf Coast Ultra Runners LLC met me at the airport hours later after the bright sun hid itself behind the salt water to the west of the Fort Myers. Watching a sunset from a jet is an incredible experience.


I hadn’t seen Justin since Fort Clinch. We had a nice meal at a cozy place with a fire and called it an early night. The next morning I dropped Justin at work and ran in the fog at Caloosahatchee Regional Park in Alva in Lee County, Florida. As the sky cleared I found myself along the Caloosahatchee River that drains the sunshine state’s largest freshwater lake into the Gulf of Mexico. The clay that makes up the mountain bike trails we would race on came from dredging.


Late afternoon the sun broke through I caught another run in the gorgeous neighborhoods of Gateway. Birds were chirping, flowers were in full bloom, and golfers were out. I found it hard to believe a day earlier I was shoveling snow so I could run.


Taco Thursday prepared by Jill was delicious. I hit the sack early again trying to get good rest for Saturday’s race. Friday we marked the trails and I strategically placed a ceramic panther I found on the Far East trail that scared me for some fun on Saturday. Friday afternoon we got the aid station supplies together, had some pasta and salad with Caleb & Brad, got awards from Fit2Run and made it in time to the Fort Myers Brewery for an IPA.


Friday night I boiled the potatoes and peeled the eggs before I took a pre race nap. Saturday morning I awoke tired with a sore throat but excited to run and work on my tan. The forecast was hot and humid but I was confident I could run about four hours without that much effort for the win.


Wrong! The 50K would be three 11 plus mile loops to ensure maximum runner enjoyment for happy runners like Danielle Zemola and an overkill of suffer fest for non heat acclimated northern cocky runners like myself.


I took an early and commanding lead with what Brad told me was a sub six minute opening mile through the winding bike trails in the open meadow as the sun rose to the east. I would grow that lead to near twenty minutes later in the race so the win was never in doubt. On the first loop I pushed hard. I skipped aid stations the way I skipped a proper breakfast. I wanted to run through fatigue to train my body to adapt for early 2014 races. I saw bunnies, raccoons, deer, and the panther.


When I finished the first loop through tunnels of overgrown swamp vegetation and Florida Oak Forests Justin told me I was 1:19. My split would be the fastest of the day for any runner in the ultra or 25K version but I felt like I had just ran a sub 1:07 effort. Trouble! Not heat adapted. I purposely ran lap two in a lower gear taking fluid in but the motor would not cool. I was overheating.


The twisty turns of the mountain bike trails required a lot of gear shifting but did not allow for much consistent running at a low RPM. The flat fast straight sections that on the first lap that I was able to increase my lead on became a red lining nightmare on lap two. The end of my second lap was so miserable that I even debated putting a white shirt on to shield myself from the sun and help cool my core. Instead I put a handful of ice down my pants and yelled to the camera guy that Florida should be for beaches not running.


I blew up bad but was able to keep moving albeit slow. The final lap took about as long as the lap Justin and I did when we marked the course Friday. At the end of the Far East the recon I had was that my comfortable lead was down to less than five minuets with about five miles to got. I stopped being a good for nothing lazy bastard and got up on my toes a little to win the internal boxing match in my head. As I sang the Scripts’ Be a Champion to myself I held on for the win by only a minute although I never saw the guy chasing me.


Second wasn’t Brad like we all assumed but a local ironman triathlete who obviously had the endurance and heat acclimation to close strong on me. When I finished I collapsed. I was not happy with my first win since March. The winless streak was over but I had run miserable. I raced well but I wasn’t really even relieved. The initial feelings I felt were of disappointment, doubt, and embarrassment. I was invited to Florida to showcase my talents as a runner but I barely won with a pedestrian time.


After the race and some icing of my sore left ankle and back I cheered in the rest of the finishers. There were a bunch of first time ultra trail runners that ran some impressive races. The aid station folks were incredible and the cold beverages and pizza at the finish hit the spot. I did get over my self pity and laugh at the Prestige Running Club International singlets motto on the backs “Boats & Hoes.” At sunset after the last finisher crossed the line I jogged out a bit to help Justin clean up the course markings.


Later that night the post race party took us to BurgerQue for a brew and a really fun Ho-Liday party at a house that was decorated like the North Pole. After some Blueberry moonshine my mood brightened even more. Sunday’s run was a bit slow and painful for my head but after a nap and some football we celebrated a successful race over fortune cookies and Dogfish 90 minute IPA.


Monday I ran the loop in reverse as a victory loop and to clean up whatever garbage was left which wasn’t much thanks to some very responsible runners. I did some children’s store Christmas shopping Monday afternoon before I put my toes in the sand at Fort Myers Beach. The reflection on my barefoot beach run was good for my soul and the tortoise I helped jump a curb became a new friend of mine. A quick dip in the Gulf was refreshing as I shelled a bit for some souvenirs.


The coastal birds were singing and the pelicans were hungry diving for fish. I thought of my Dad and Jen who I visited the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva many times with. I smiled through the tears thinking of them together walking the beaches of heaven searching for seashells together looking down on me.


Monday night I joined in on a full moon group trail run at the marsh in Leigh with Danielle. We continued our celebration of her first ultra at World of Beer with her friends playing Trivia enjoying fried pickles and a giant pretzel. In keeping with the Brewery theme we watched Drinking Buddies with Justin and Jill after.


Tuesday Justin and I did some recon at Prarie Pines Preserve where I saw a family of wild pigs. After a pool fight with a gator I joined Danielle for a run on the beach under the full moon with the sand pipers chasing her. We had and a greasy pizza after in a cozy Chicago Style Beachfront Pub. Wednesday morning after a week on my last Florida run I fell hard thinking of the cold ice I was returning to. Christmas with my family will be fun and I am excited to race in 2014. I hope to return to racing with a passion that I had in my younger years!


About rundavejames

Two Time USATF 100 Mile National Champion Two Time Coastal Challenge Rain Forest Run Champion Team Red, White, Blue #CoachDJ @rundavejames Premier Mozart100(r) Winner Athlete / Public Speaker
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One Response to Running for the win on Florida’s Toughest Trails

  1. Pingback: Running in the New Year! | sometimes I run :)

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