After joining and starting to run with the Down to Run tribe in July of 2016 and gradually increasing my weekly mileage, I ran in my second ultra-marathon this weekend and knocked 59 minutes off of my previous time! And this was no easy course!! And so the race report begins…I imagine this might take almost as long as the race itself!
The race took place at Jupiter Ridge Natural Area, one of Palm Beach County’s most pristine natural environments-bordered on one side by the Intracoastal Waterway and the other by US1 and the Atlantic Ocean.
The race consisted of nine 3.45-mile loops on trails that were made up of sugar sand elevated dunes, grassy wetlands, gravel, concrete and a wooden boardwalk thrown in for good measure! Beautiful, is an understatement.
Since the park is only a few miles from my house, I had run the course many times before and quite frankly, I knew every inch of it like the back of my hand. I knew where the really soft sandy parts were and where the sand got a little more firm-how high each grueling uphill was and how much relief I would get running down the other side.
And since the weather had been quite dry of late I knew the sand and the spurs would be my enemy–but I was ready! I had selected the perfect shoes after testing out several different pair in the weeks leading up to the event. In the end, my Salomon Speedcross Pros and “Day of the Dirt” Dirty Girl gaiters repelled 100% of the sand, which is partly what contributed to my overall success.
Since parking was offsite, I asked my husband to drop me off around 6:20 AM. I knew race director Michael Brown would start the race promptly at 7 and I wanted to make sure I had enough time to set up my chair, cooler, drop bag, apply bug spay/sunscreen, use the porta-potty several times…you know, the typical pre-race routine for a middle-aged woman. It turns out I had plenty of time! Since it was still dark outside when I arrived and it was also foggy and overcast, it was a little difficult at first to see who was there and where to go. I set-up two chairs, one for myself and one for my friend Gina (a triathlete-extraordinaire who would be running her first 50K on this day. Apparently you’re not allowed to bring chairs to triathlons so I let her borrow one of mine!).
As daylight approached I realized that more and more of my co-tribesmen were there too, as well as the “elite 20” themselves. Living up to its name, I got pricked by several sand spurs while setting up my stuff, from where I have no idea as I don’t remember coming into contact with them at all-it’s as if they were floating through the air taunting me for what what surely going to be a grueling next couple of hours!
Since it was cool outside, I was wearing a light sweatshirt over my running tank-but I knew I wouldn’t be wearing it for long. I also had everything else planned out to a “t”. I planned on tracking my time, pace, and distance with my new Garmin Fenix 5S watch-a gift from my husband for Christmas. This would auto-post to Strava, when the race was over, which would make sharing my progress with friends and family easy. In addition I used a Nathan quick-draw handheld water bottle, that has a pocket big enough to fit my iPhone 8. I decided to use wired headphones as I didn’t know how long a charge would last on wireless ones and I didn’t have time to experiment with this prior to race day.
My musical playlists were all queued up too. I has a playlist with a variety of songs all in the mid-180 BPM range-nearly three hours worth. I planned on putting this one on “shuffle” for most of my laps to ensure my cadence (steps-per-minute) didn’t slow down when I got tired or bored. (Yes, you can get bored while running for several hours!) Honestly, I think this might have been the key to my PR. In addition to this main playlist, I had one set-up with a professionally produced album my son recorded for me of him playing the clarinet with a guitar accompaniment.
This was the best Christmas gift I have ever received, BTW…seven sweet holiday and latin songs played by the boy who made All-State as a sophomore in high school and then quit the band the next year! He kept up his private lessons and the CD he recorded and gave out as Christmas gifts was the result-an investment worth ten times what we paid for it! But I digress… I also had two custom playlists I had created with songs with running and walking cadences at just the right amount of time for me to switch when I wanted to walk the soft, sandy uphills, and run the firmer and downhill portions. You can never be too prepared!
I had planned on starting out moderately slow (11-12 minute miles) but it was a pretty fast field. The most important part of my overall strategy was to save my legs, and this meant walking (not running) up the 18 steep and sandy inclines that would make up the hardest parts of the race. The first half-mile consisted of a sandy trail followed by a gravel road-flat and somewhat “easy”…then came the next half mile of pure sugar sand with a 30-40 foot sand dune lurking at the mid-way point…I forced myself to run the flat parts but walk up the incline. I knew if I ran up the steep hill by the middle of the race my hamstrings and calves would be shot so I kept my wits about me, didn’t let the others around me sway my decision, and kept to my strategy. This meant that by the 1-mile mark, there were only a handful of runners behind me. I was near the back of the pack!
Race director, Jen Quellhorst, was at the 1.5-mile mark taking photos, and if you count the runners as they were photographed, you will see that I am in 15th place, out of 20, at this point. And I have to say, it was tough sticking to my strategy of starting slow, because I knew if I got too far behind it would be really hard to make up the time. But I was confident that the plan I had created would work for me in the long run (pun, very much intended!).
So after walking up the first two sand dunes and finding myself in 15th place, I kept chugging along, at 182-185 steps-per-minute…short, quick steps, ensuring I wasn’t overdoing it at the beginning…
After the first 3.45-mile loop (approx. 35-minutes in) I made a quick pitstop at my chair, took off my sweatshirt, swallowed an electrolyte capsule, drank some iced tea, refilled my water bottle and was off for lap #2. I continued to run at my fairly quick cadence for another lap, not making any progress in terms of “place”. I also hadn’t eaten anything since before the race. As I hit the mid-way point of my third lap and passed Aid Station #2 for the third time (where my good friends and supporters Marcella, Malika and Iris were volunteering), I noticed a few bags of unopened Lays Potato Chips amongst the water coolers and other tantalizing aid station fare. I felt a little bad at this point because I wasn’t stopping when I would run by, and they were all there, eagerly waiting to do something for someone…anyone…anything…so as I ran by the third time when they asked me how I was feeling, I said, “I’m doing great…I’ll probably eat something after this lap.” and one of them said “From here? With us?” and that’s when it hit me…yes, I would eat my peanut butter sandwich I had made for myself when I got back to my chair but when I came ’round to this aid station again, in thirty minutes or so, I would definitely have some potato chips. And that’s exactly what I did.
So, on Lap # 4, and each lap thereafter, every time I passed Aid Station #2, they all said, “Can we get you anything, Jeanette?” and I would reply “Yes…I’ll have some chips, please!” And Iris would break open a bag, hold it open for me, so I could scoop a few up without having to actually stop! And then at one point Malika said, OMG, hashtag more chips! And all of this banter back and forth really helped to keep me motivated as at this point I had been running for several hours and it was getting hard! And the chips-they were amazing! There’s nothing like some carbs and salt while running for a few hours to bring a person back to life!
Back to the race itself…I think on lap four I managed to pass two runners, which made me feel like my strategy of starting out slow and walking up the hills was paying off. And after passing Aid Station 2 on my fifth lap I came up on three runners that I also passed-easily and effortlessly, despite being on a soft and sandy part of the course. When other runners were hitting the wall and slowing down their pace considerably, I kept my cadence up by listening to that playlist…it really helped a lot. In a way, I felt bad passing people, especially because all I could think about was how embarrassing it would be if I got tired and wound up being passed by them a few laps later! But that didn’t happen. Everyone I passed never came back to pass me and in the end, I finished eighth overall. This means I actually passed seven or eight people after falling behind on that first loop. My strategy paid off!!
At this point I should give credit where credit is due. Jeff Mayer, who got me into this whole trail running-ultra racing thing in the first place, was ahead of me the whole time and finished with a kick-ass time of just over 5 1/2 hours, despite being plagued by injuries of all sorts all year long! Way to go Plantslayr! And don’t even get me started on Gina Donato…the iron-woman who never ran a distance more than 13 miles in her life! This badass chick passed me on the first hill (albeit with a bit of a waddle…ha ha ha) and I never saw her again! She stayed up at the front of the pack as if she had been running ultras her whole life! And let’s not forget to mention Lindsay Johnson, the woman who kicked everyone’s ass…finishing first overall female with a time of almost 5 hours to the nose! Absolutely unbelievable achievements, ladies! And I must also admit that I was LAPPED (yes, lapped!) by four runners-the three winning men (Robert Plante, Chris Gatten (one of the most supportive people I’ve met to date!), JJ Johnson (my Riverbend running buddy) and of course, Lindsay. Great job all of you-these people were all pretty much Jupiter Ridge virgins and still managed to bring it home when it all counted. I am humbled to have been able to run amongst such ultra-running royalty!
So…let’s wrap this up! Everyone who ran that day should be proud of themselves. Everyone showed up, everyone ran, everyone finished! Sometimes you get to a race venue and find out that Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong) has gotten the better of you. Kudos to Mark Huberti for hanging in there despite Murphy making an appearance. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible and amazing Justine Drew! Not only does this woman work harder than anyone I know she always finds time to do little, special things for people. She gave all of the runners, race directors, and volunteers little plastic vials containing a pair of tweezers, personalized with our names and a little sand-spur skull decal, so we could pluck the menacing creatures from our bodies before, after, and sometimes during the race.
Thanks Justine! I will also mention that she won the DFL award-which is nothing to be ashamed of because just finishing this race was everyone’s goal and she did just that! (Good luck at Disney in the Dopey Challenge!) Rue, Jacob, and Cody-all I can say is great work! Some of you are new to running and another one of you (not mentioning any names, Rue) has competed in more ultras in the last year that I can count on one hand, with a 100-miler lurking in your future…I bow down to your amazingness…
One more thing…one of the BEST components of this race were the inspirational signs the race directors thoughtfully created and posted along the entire length of the course. Each runner, race director, and volunteer, provided inspirational quotes that we could find comfort in reading as we ran around the course. The quote I provided was short and sweet. Being the oldest competitor in the race, I decided to go with “Age is just a number”. And on my last lap I decided to pick up my sign and carry it with me over the finish line. A true testament to how I was feeling at that exact moment! It was a spontaneous thought that enabled me to run my last half mile at a pace 2-mins faster than my previous two miles!
All in all, the Jupiter Ridge Sand Spur Ultra was an amazing experience and I am so grateful to have been able to be a part of it in its inaugural year. My goal was to finish-which meant beating the nine-hour cutoff, and I did it in just over six hours, far exceeding my wildest expectations. And making the podium as third female overall was the icing on the cake!