16 Years (and 330 Miles!) on the Croom Trails
I marvel at how times flies. It seems like only a few short years ago that Peg and I moved to Tallahassee and spent that first summer sodding a barren piece of hard clay off Velda Dairy Road that was to be our home for 20-something years. That however, was almost 30 years ago. Then it seems as if it were only a few months ago that we showed up at the Baptist church downtown to run our first foot race – a 5K that went downhill on Park and then somewhere else and inevitably back up that hill on Park. Shoot – that was probably 1984 – about the same time we joined GWTC –and I guess about the time I met my first endurance junkies, Dana Stetson, George Palmer and others they were rummaging around with back then. That’s been 25 years ago now. They led me astray, and then in ’88 there was my first ultra – down at Wakulla, followed by a couple of 50 milers in Miami in the death-defying summer heat. Then in ’89 there was the first of eight annual adventures at the early summer Pennar 40-miler that traversed the Gulf Islands National Seashore from Pensacola Beach to Navarre and back. I used to say that I thrive on the heat, but just thinking about those two events – the Tropical 50s and the 40 miles of shadeless asphalt along the beach at Pennar – makes me want to run to the refrigerator. Yep. It seems like only yesterday that we were having all that fun in the sun, so to speak. Those days are gone now, and I miss ‘em. They were annual rites-of-passage, an annual test of one’s mettle, an annual opportunity to see if one’s brain can truly be turned into the consistency of a scrambled egg. You see, Tropical ceased to be after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and Pennar ended with the destruction of the coastal road to Navarre by Ivan in 2004.
Fortunately, there was one survivor – the beloved Croom Trail Runs that take place twice a year amidst the sand hill ridges of the Withlacoochee State Forest outside Brooksville. I was lured to my first Croom in the spring of 1993 by Dana’s stories of the event. He discovered it and spread the good news of a quality course, great race directors and volunteers, and an always competitive field. Was 1993 really 16 years ago? Say it isn’t so! The years were good to us down at Croom, and we even dragged a few other Tallahasseans into the fray once or twice: Kate McFall, George Palmer, Jeff Bryan, Fred Johnson and Andy Roberts, to name a few. Dana won it once, as did Fred. The Croom trails have treated me well over the years too, with the exception of the 2001 fall race. Peg and I had flown into Tampa from a 2-week vacation on the Oregon coast the night before the race. The temperatures were in the 90s, and made me so delirious that I dumped a cup of orange Gatorade onto my head to cool off thinking it was water. Not long after that I tripped and fell and had the pleasure of running the last 10+ miles covered with sand, securely affixed to my skin by the remnants of the Gatorade. Trust me on this one folks – you don’t want to do that. Jeff Bryan’s memories of the place are such that if you even mention Croom he curls his lip, says a few choice words about “the sandbox” and vows for the umpteenth time never to set foot in those woods again.
This past Saturday I was back for the 10th time. I was going it alone only because Dana had fallen off his roof and had wrecked his ankle. Actually, I wouldn’t have been there either except for the fact that the Apalachicola River set 4 feet of water onto the 50K route at Torreya State Park the previous week leading to the cancellation of that highly anticipated occasion. My previous 9 trips through the Croom woods had been for the Fun Run, i.e., the 50K. This time, in need of a mental and physical test in preparation for this summer’s Western States 100 in CA, I entered the Fool’s Run – the 50-miler – for the first time.
The race has grown. When Dana and I first started going it drew a crowd of 50 or so for the two races. Now, with a 15M added it quickly fills up at 250, and this year the 50-miler drew 83 fools who would run a 5M loop in the pre-dawn darkness and then three 15M loops in what was forecast to be 80+ degree temperatures. I don’t know about you, but as I’ve gotten older those first few weeks of summer heat after a placid winter aren’t as easy to bear as they once were, and Saturday was a vivid reminder of that fact.
Things went fairly well for awhile. In fact, they went very well for the small loop and two of the big loops, which is up through mile 35 if you’re keeping score. My plan was to run conservatively and work on my Western States pace, and hydration plans and whatever was going to be finish place-wise was just going to be. This was training. This was not racing. Somewhere around mile 35 my stomach decided to head south and the thought of even smelling the aid station drink or food of any type was going to make me turn as green as the new spring growth on the scrub oaks. The sun was beating down pretty good and the sand hills became steeper and the inevitable question of “why am I doing this?” began cycling through my dehydrated and badly-fried brain. But quitting was not an option — for Western States was looming ahead and certainly running 100M through a June day and night in the Sierra Nevadas was going to make this look like a picnic in comparison.
Somewhere in the midst of that third and final loop last Saturday I remembered a training run with Dana years ago. We decided one day to do three of the 7+ mile loops out at Munson Hills. It was midsummer, and well over 90 degrees by the time the third lap was upon us. We were both struggling and he said, “This is what we train for, you know?” What he meant was that learning to suffer and just getting through the discomfort are what the sport often is all about. Reminders of those words came to me on that final loop last Saturday. “This is what we train for, you know?” Eventually, as is most often the case, there was the finish line and an end to another day in the woods at Croom.
Has it really been 16 years since that first journey to Brooksville? Some great ultra races have come and gone since then but one of the best still remains – the Croom Trail Run. I look forward to the next one.
Editor’s note – Gary suffered long enough to win the Grand Master competition and finish 6th overall in a time of 8:19:37