When Jerry and I moved to Florida a little over 5 years ago, one of the first places we stopped was Gatorland in Christmas, FL. I held a baby alligator with it’s mouth shut and was absolutely terrified.
Little did I know 5 years later I would encounter a much larger alligator while running my first ultra marathon (50k or 31 miles) in the Florida Everglades. It happened around mile 23, as we had come to a section where the swamp was next to the trail. I was so concerned about finishing and pushing my body the last 8 miles of the race that I had completely let my guard down. About 5 feet in front of me was this guy, just hanging out by the side of the road. I didn’t hang around long enough but luckily, another runner spotted it at the same point in the race and snapped a photo.
The race experience was like no other. It started on Friday as we drove down to Fakahatchee Strand State Park in Southwest Florida. The race had two tables, one was for registration and the other was for donations/camp fees and other information on the State Park. I joked with my friends who were running Disney Princess this weekend that I had arrived at the race expo. The briefing was thorough with much of the regular race info and also included things like what to do if you encounter wildlife. We set up camp that first night with our friends, made dinner by the campfire, drank a couple beers and went to bed early.
The next morning we woke up at 6:15 to be on the tram to get to the starting line at 6:45 am. It was a scramble to get into our running clothes, get a little food and made sure we had our hydration packs and food all set up. The most disappointing part in getting ready was realizing my Garmin was dead and I hadn’t even brought a watch. I packed my phone but turned it off to conserve battery. We rode the tram to the starting line about 3 miles from the finish and in a few minutes we were off.
We immediately went into a wooded area. I started run/walking at a 30 second run/30 second run interval and was on my way. After several miles we came our first aid station and into the prairie. A 50 mile runner would later tell us he saw a panther in this prarie.
I was feeling pretty good and kept up my intervals for this mile and half and the prairie came back. At this point it was very sunny and the heat was wearing on me. I kept my run/walk intervals until I realized the girl in front of me was keeping the same pace with a fast walk. At about mile 10 I too started walking fast and soon reached the third aid station at 12.5 with a welcome port-a-potty and plenty of snacks. After leaving the aid station, I tagged along with the walker girl, Pam, who was also doing her first 50k. She talked about school, her family and her love of obstacle and adventure races. We walked together for the next 5 miles and soon reached the aid station on Four Stakes Prairie at about mile 18. The volunteers filled my hydration pack with ice so it would melt on my back. I left Pam behind as it was now blistering hot and walked as fast as I could to the next shaded area 2 miles ahead.
Within a mile I met Richard, who was running his second 50k. The first time he had heart valve surgery and wanted to test himself. This time, he had completed treatment for prostrate cancer and was determined to finish. I was so impressed by his strength, determination and outlook on life. I walked with Richard for about a mile and then sped up to the shade.
I stopped taking pictures because at this point, my hands were swollen pretty badly and I was concerned about my hydration. I had drank electrolyte replacer, water and salt tables and was still puffing up. At the next aid station, about 9 miles from the finish line, I sat down and had a grilled cheese sandwich fresh off the grill. It tasted like heaven and instantly revived me. The swelling went down some and I kept going and walking fast.
The next miles were somewhat of a blur. My feet were swollen and the bottom hurt from the rocks and roots, I was drinking water but couldn’t keep the heat off, and I had asked myself numerous times “Why am I out here?” I reached Gate 12, where the main road intersected and knew this would be a tough section. It was a dirt road with traffic and partial shade. I walked 2 more miles and reached the last aid station where I got my last fill of water and electrolytes. Without a GPS or a watch, I set a goal to run/walk the last 4. I tried running 20 seconds and walking 40 and felt good. As my interval timer keeps a count on the intervals, I knew at a pace of 15 min/mile I could finish in 1 hour. The road opened up and the heat was blazing hot. It was about 4 pm now and I had been running since 7:30 am. I just wanted to finish. I looked down at my interval and was about 2 miles. I kept going and before I knew it, I saw the turn for the road to the finish line.
My husband and our friends were waiting there to cheer me on and I put everything I had to finishing strong. My final time was 9:21:38.
The race was much tougher than I anticipated. The heat, the trails and the mental endurance needed were unlike any other race. But the race course, the volunteers and support, the runners and the Everglades were an unforgettable and a truly priceless experience. And they even had veggie burgers and beer at the end!
I’ll do another 50k in the future, but not anytime soon. Now I’m off to shower and be back in civilization.
More pictures of the Everglades beauty!