How do I begin to tell the tale of this epic half marathon that took place yesterday? Since I’ve posted about the race venue on a page dedicated specifically to this race, I’ll start with how I prepped for it yesterday morning.
Raceday Morning Prep
Since the start time for this race was high noon, I didn’t have to get up particularly early, which as a non-morning person, was right up my ally! I got up somewhere between 7 and 8 AM and started in on my race prep right after my first cup of coffee and bagel (never too late to carb-load, I thought!).
This time I had made a list so I wouldn’t forget anything. We weren’t able to park at the race course, so I had to fit everything I needed into a small cooler and drop bag and bring it all to the start line. And since I’m pretty scatter-brained in general, I knew if I didn’t write it all down ahead of time I would undoubtedly forget something. When all was said and done, I actually overpacked and the only thing I forgot were safety pins to pin my race bib onto my shorts. But our race directors came to the rescue as they had an ample supply on hand before the start of the race. Phew! Near catastrophe averted!
So, how did I prep? I knew I needed to contend with many obstacles during this race, and some had little to do with actually running! But since this was something I needed to think about I did taper somewhat-I always like to race on really fresh legs, so two days prior I did no running at all, and three days before I walked one loop of the course briskly and ran two easy miles later in the day. Yes, by Saturday morning, my legs were feeling great!
I also knew the sun and heat index would be an issue, as well as the biting horse flies. After lots of trial-and-error, I opted for a white sleeveless tank (my Sand Spur race shirt), shorts (which I almost never wear!) and a hat with a large brim. I also wore a sunshield around my neck that was provided by the RDs in our swag bags that had cool little Sand Spur logos all over it. To complete the outfit, I attached my Sand Spur patch to my hat and my outfit was complete!
In addition to prepping for the weather, I also prepared my food and water by peeling a few mandarin oranges and placing some other easy-to-grab fruit items in plastic baggies, in addition to peeling the paper off the mini chocolate chip muffins I had purchased just for this occasion. It’s important during a long race to replace your carbs and doing it with real food is better, so the research says, than relying on sports drinks alone. (The mini muffins were just-in-case I needed a bad sugar fix!)
Before getting dressed I slathered every inch of my body with 30 SPF sunscreen with zinc oxide (sounds like a low number SPF but this stuff is the bomb for preventing sunburn!) and let it absorb into my skin for awhile. When it was fully absorbed I added a layer of 98.25% DEET Deep Woods Off, because the last thing I wanted was to be taken down by a swarm of horse flies. I knew from experience that I needed to apply it under my clothing because those bastards can chew right through fabric! I hated having to wear poison on my skin but it was the lesser of two evils…trust me on this.
Arriving at the Course
The race location was the incredibly beautiful Jupiter Ridge Natural Area. I arrived at 11 AM, stopped my car by the start line, unloaded my cooler, drop bag, and two folding chairs (one for Gina!) and then drove to the parking lot a mile away to park my car and take the shuttle back to the course.
After being dropped off by the shuttle, graciously driven by the Amazing Amy, I set-up my cooler and drop bag under a tent, unfolded my chairs, greeted my fellow runners, volunteers and race directors and started my final prep. This included making sure anything I needed to be able to grab in between my laps would be easily accessible: SaltStick electrolyte capsules, water, and fruit. I didn’t want to spend more than a minute off the course so I tried to ensure everything was in order before I left on my first lap.
Minutes before the race started I did my final prep, which involved doing a short warm-up run (ironic, I know, considering it was already 90-degrees outside), getting my music all queued up, and putting on my headphones and hydration vest. The pre-race meeting was about to start and I was ready to go!
And a few minutes later, we were off! I didn’t have a pacing strategy per se, I just knew what I had been capable of doing in my training runs under similar conditions and knew I didn’t want to start off too fast if I wanted to actually finish the darn thing. The field consisted of 36 runners, and I calculated the following by looking at their Ultra-signup profiles ahead of time. As far as I could tell:
- 28 had run at least one 50K (31 miles)
- 20 had run at least one 50-miler
- 10 had run at least one 100K (62 miles)
- 12 had run at least one 100-miler
- 2 had run at least one or more 100+ or 200+ miler!
- And many had completed numerous other half-marathons, marathons, and even triathlons of the iron man variety!!!
And of course, most had run several of these distances in their running careers and either placed in their age groups or outright won! The field was strong, to say the least.
And They’re Off!
This video of the start is courtesy of Jeff Mayer, who also created the amazing logo for this race, as well as the Sand Spur 50K/50M which is held in December. As you can see, I started out in the back of the pack, knowing full-well that in a race of this magnitude, if I didn’t fall behind by too much there would be ample time to move up in the ranking, so being near the end at the beginning didn’t phase me at all. It also prevented me from starting out too fast, which is so easy to do when you have tons of adrenaline coursing through your body!
The race consisted of four, 3.3-mile identical loops, taking place on 100% pure, white sugar sand, with a few 50+-foot sand dunes thrown in for good measure. (Click here for all of the gory details.) 1,200 feet of elevation climb in all. My goal was to run the first loop in approx. 40 mins, and if I had enough strength in me, to try to do the same for the second, before resorting to walking. “Surely the heat, humidity, and feels-like 105+ degree heat index would take it’s toll on my body before long”, I thought to myself.
So I started in the back of the pack and ran the first few hundred yards with one of my “Fab Five” compadres, Lisa (pictured first). You see, Lisa was deathly afraid she wouldn’t make the first cut-off (three hours for the first three loops) and we spent a few minutes encouraging each other one final time before she graciously said “Now go get ’em” which was my cue to move ahead without her, which I unabashedly did (it was a race, after all…). Thank you Lisa, for that unselfish sendoff!
So, a quarter of a mile into it, I started up my first sand dune-this one is roughly 40-feet high, with a fifty+-footer coming about a half-mile down the road. Unlike the 50K I ran last December at Jupiter Ridge, this time I decided to run (not walk) up as many of these dunes as I could for a couple of reasons. To begin with, I thought it might give me a slight advantage over my competitors because I figured many of them would walk up the hills. But mostly because I knew from experience that I would expend almost the same amount of energy running up them (in less time) than painstakingly walking up them (in more time), so I chose the option that would take the least amount of time.
About a half-mile in, I passed our first, albeit, unofficial, aid station. This was another member of our Fab Five group’s doing. Shelley (pictured last) had her kids and their friends set up a table with speakers (Fire, Ice, and Water-themed playlist) and lots of water, ice and refreshments. We unofficially named them the Pit Stop Crew and they were a welcome relief, especially on the way back, when the last official aid station was nearly a mile behind us. I was so psyched when I passed them the second time around and heard Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby” blaring through the bluetooth speakers!
But I’m getting ahead of myself…I’m still on the first loop and I haven’t even ascended the second dune yet! Yes, after making my second right-hand turn, Mt. Ridge was looming up ahead. Since the course is in the shape of a trident with three prongs, and since the race consisted of four loops around the trident course, we would have to climb to the top of this impressive 54-foot sand dune no less than 16 times from each of the four entry points!
But, the pronged-nature of the course also enabled me to see exactly what position I was holding at all times…if I cared enough to pay attention (which I didn’t on my first two trips around). Instead, at the beginning, I used the out-and-back sections to hand-slap/fist pump my closest friends every time we passed each other, to encourage them as much as I could…first it was the leaders after they made their first u-turn and started on Section 5 as I was still running down Section 4…yes, there were a lot of people ahead of me on this first loop-at least 25, to be sure! I am quite sure that I hand-slapped Roy every single time we passed each other-his smiling face and light-hearted nature and words of encouragement meant a lot to me, especially in the final loops (getting ahead of myself again!).
Now, for Fab Five member # 3, Gina (pictured third)…she is as consistently amazing as they get! Despite never having run an ultra marathon in her life, she earned second female at the first inaugural Sand Spur 50K last December, and throughout these few sections of the first loop, she and I exchanged places several times before she took off ahead of me to never look back again. My running technique is different from her triathlon-trained perfection. I run hard when the sand is firmer and downhill, and struggle when it’s soft and uphill, whereas she just keeps on going at the same pace no matter what the terrain is like. I made a little small talk with her every time we wound up together but I know she doesn’t like to talk while she races (which is unusual because when she’s NOT racing she does nothing BUT talk!!!), so I kept the conversation to a minimum to be considerate. (She knows I love her…she won’t take offense to this!) And BTW, throughout all of this, Fab Five #4, Darlene (pictured second), was also consistently ahead of me…prancing along the sand like a graceful gazelle every time I saw her. (Was I the only one killing myself out here??!!).
There was an aid station at the end of each prong but since I had a 2L hydration vest on I didn’t need to stop-I just had to cross the timing mat, make a u-turn, and head back the other way. I did accept a few icy cool sponge baths from the crew at station #2-which was the one with the misting tent (thanks so much Cody!!! Mr. Mister!!) because-why not? Everyone was more than willing to help-just like when a race car pulls into the pit, the crew springs into action, does their thing, and pushes you off without wasting any time at all. All I had to do was remove my hat, pull out one ear bud, tilt my head and stretch out my arms and do nothing else and voila, instant relief from the scorching temperature that seemed to be rising every minute we were out there with no end in sight. The volunteers at this race were top-notch to be sure!
I finished the first loop in 36:30, which was actually slightly faster than I had wanted but heck, it was a race-I’ll take faster over slower any day! After making my u-turn at the start/finish line and downing two electrolyte capsules and a piece of watermelon I was off for loop number two. At this point there were 19 people ahead of me and 15 behind me, so I had already improved my overall standings, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
I kept on running (not walking) in a similar fashion for loop number two, running up the dunes as best as I could and was pleasantly surprised to see that after getting to the top of Mt. Ridge for the first time on this loop, the timing mat was gone! This may seem like a little thing but it had been right in the middle of the apex and it was hard to maneuver your body over it and then try to remember which way you were supposed to turn in the high heat and humidity-plus it was a feat of agility that I just didn’t have the ability to maintain at that time. So…now we could cut the right-hand turns as close to the edges as we wanted to and mentally, it was a bit of relief that I appreciated very much! BTW the angels of Mt. Ridge were always there-encouraging us, telling us which way to turn. Thank you Marcella, Mark, and Jeff for bearing with unbearable temps to help us out on what must have been the most grueling of volunteer posts at the race, by far!!!
I went on to finish the second loop without incident in 39:20 and noticed that, among other things that were happening all around me, my friend Gina was getting further and further ahead of me. Which also meant that she was getting closer and closer to the leaders, which made me very happy. “She deserves a good finish”, I kept thinking to myself.
I made my u-turn at the start/finish for the second time exactly as I had done the first and was off for loop number three. I knew this was the make-or-break loop for me. It would be the hottest part of the race. I was sure the clouds and thunderstorms would start rolling in during the final loop and cool things down a bit. I also thought to myself, “If I can hold it together and finish this one with a decent time, then I could probably blast out the final one on pure adrenaline.”-–so that’s what I aimed to do. You see, in these types of races you have nothing but time to think about things while you’re grinding it out-and thinking is a nice distraction from the pain every step was causing in my overworked muscles by this point in the race.
I wish I could say that this third loop was as uneventful as the others but I was somewhat distracted by the sight of an ambulance heading towards the second aid station. I had heard that there was a female “runner down”, more than likely from heat exhaustion, and I prayed that the person would get the help they needed and be just fine by day’s end! (As it turns out, she was, thankfully.) But at the time, it was disconcerting to say the least but I knew our county’s emergency medical technicians were top-notch so I tried not to let it bother me too much while I was in somewhat of a hellish situation battling the heat myself at the current time. So I got my head back in the game and continued to grind it out. When I actually thought about what I was doing I was surprised to see that I had hardly had to stop and walk at all this whole time, which was unlike all of my training runs. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to try to get some semblance of traction on soft sugar sand and by this time, every muscle in my body was starting to scream silently in pain.
So, somewhere towards the middle of this loop, and having the advantage of being able to see how many runners were ahead of me and how many were behind me a realization started creeping into my head…by this time I knew Gina was lead female, and just how many females were there between the two of us at this time? I didn’t know for sure so I decided to start counting! And that’s where the nerdy, analytical, competitive side of me started to take over. Hmmm…was it possible that since I had passed a few women in the last couple of miles that there may only be two or three standing (or running) between me and a podium finish? Why yes…that’s exactly what I was finding to be the truth. And let me tell you, I really wasn’t sure if this was a blessing or a curse, but I’m definitely leaning towards the latter because now I knew I would have to dig deep for that podium spot with even more pain up ahead. Was I strong enough? Had I prepared adequately? Did I eat enough (I knew this wasn’t true-I didn’t take time to eat for drink much at all). Would the heat get to me like it was getting to my fellow runners? If I let loose now would I blow it and fall apart in the final mile? Only time, and a few sandy miles, would tell!
Loop number 3…41:25. Not too bad. But more importantly, I had two female runners nipping at my heels-two young, experienced, badass female runners, I might add! Both of these amazing ladies got to the start/finish turnaround for loop number four within a minute of me. One was just ahead, and one was right behind. “Holy Crap”, I thought to myself-no time to swap out my almost empty hydration pack-no time to eat anything-just shove an orange in your pocket, swallow your pills, grab a water bottle and get going woman. “These girls are 10-20 years younger than you-who are you trying to kid?” OMG, the adrenaline level was high now. And I was sure I had blown it by not eating during the first two laps…I hadn’t had ANY Tailwind or Gatorade the entire race and I was running out of cold water!!! And my muscles were tighter than a snare drum!
Oh yes, my friend Niki captured that epic moment on film…there I am in the middle, barely running but knowing I had to get out there and start killing it on this final loop! And there’s my podium competition running right behind me with the other one right behind her! OK…enough of the drama, but at the time, it was very real!
Now I HAD to give it all I had-there would be no coasting over the finish line on this one. I was in for at least 40 more minutes of sheer pain and suffering. What had I gotten myself into?
I cannot tell you in words how painful that final loop was. Today I spent a considerable amount of time reading all of the race reports from fellow runners and I know the pain was real for them too. I knew if I wanted to get on the podium and have a chance to earn an amazing hand-blown hourglass filled with sand from atop Mt. Ridge, no less, I would have to give it everything I had and more. Those women behind me were surely going to give me a run for my money!
I probably haven’t said this before but the first few hundred yards of the loop consist of the softest sand on the course by far and just getting traction of any kind at the beginning of a loop took a huge amount of effort and determination. And then came that 40-foot dune…well, I managed to get up it and turn right for Segment number 2. I made it halfway down this part of the trail before turning around to see how close both Tara and Caitlin were. Yes, I think it is only fair that you now know the names of my temporary nemeses. Oh they were right there, only steps behind me. “Damn! Such strong women! And I’m so weak and old!” But I wasn’t giving up.
I managed to keep them at bay (although only by a few yards) for the next mile or so and when I approached the third prong, disaster almost struck! I tripped on a root on the one part of the course that provided a tiny semblance of relief. The trip sent me hurtling forward with incredible speed and, not wanting to tumble to the ground lest I injure myself or, worse yet, take time to get back up, I did everything in my power to try to get back on my feet before falling completely. This took an incredible amount of lower-leg muscle control, of which I currently had practically none! This, in turn, caused both of my calves to seize up to the point of almost not being able to take another step. “Whoah, Nellie, was this the end for me?”
Well, it wasn’t, as I managed to hobble to the end of the prong, hit the water and ice station, do a very quick calf stretch before turning around to see two smiling faces heading right at me. I said to Tara, who I saw first, “Did you see me almost wipe out a minutes ago?” and she said, “No, but I can’t tell you how many times that happened to me!” and that made me feel better. And when I passed Caitlin a minute later she literally said to me “You’ve got this, Jeanette. This is your home turf. Go get it!” If I tell you I am tearing up just writing this now, I wouldn’t be lying. I cannot tell you how much it meant to me to hear her say that at that very moment. Thank you, Caitlin, for your gracious words of encouragement at a time when I needed it most!
One mile to go and there was no stopping me now! I was sure I had counted correctly and I knew I was currently in second place. In my mind I knew I had a chance to get second or third and honestly, it didn’t really matter to me all that much, but second was definitely worth going for.
Well, Tara had the same idea and with half a mile to go she caught up to me and we were now on the most difficult part of the course. This is what separates the men from the boys…the goats from the chickens, or whatever that expression is! I won’t belabor the point too much but suffice it to say, Tara and I exchanged places several times during that last soft stretch of sand leading up to the top of the last dune. I knew that last uphill was going to be challenging for me and I had to stop and walk some of it. Tara, with great strength and strategy, took advantage of my kryptonite and shuffled ahead of me by just a few steps while I struggled to walk as fast as I could to the top of the dune. She was full of fire and determination and when I saw her pick up speed I knew it was going to be a race for third for me now. I took a quick look behind me, saw that I had the edge, and stumbled down the back side of the last dune towards the finish. Tara crossed the line 30 seconds before me and then I crossed with hands up in the air and a look of sheer joy and satisfaction on my face. I had made the podium in the most difficult race I had ever had the pleasure of being a part of!
The first thing I did as run over to Tara and give her the biggest hug that I could muster. That girl had guts and I wanted her to know how impressed I was with her performance. She came out on top, but both she and Caitlin taught me a few things about life that I will not forget!
My final time was 2:39:43! Going into it with the expected 100+ degree heat index I was worried I wouldn’t get in three laps before the three our cut-off and I had finished four laps in less than that. And I was on the podium to boot!
PS The entire Fab 5 Finished in well-under four hours! Congrats to all-we deserve it!
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the men…they did pretty well too! These guys were inhuman, in a good way! They paced themselves well and held their leader positions throughout, and it was truly an honor to be on the racecourse at the same time as Cole, Robert and Roy. Congrats, guys, well-deserved top-3 finishes!