70 years, 15 laps and counting…or maybe its 24 laps.

David Yon, December 2008

It is dark when the volunteers and runners begin drifting into the Wakulla Springs State Park. There is nothing ordinary about this race, the Tallahassee Ultra Distance Classic, where the short version covers 50K (31 miles) and the long one keeps runners on their feet for 50 miles. Long before the race starts, volunteers and runners mill about making each other’s acquaintance. A few will know each other before the race starts, but in most cases they begin as strangers. By the time the sun finally breaks the cold’s unfriendly grip on the park though, the friendships between runners and volunteers will be warm and toasty. The runners will circle a 2.07 mile loop in the park 15 times for the 50K and 24 times for the 50 miler. The loop has a long out and back finger that assures runners greet each other on almost every loop. Among other things, the volunteers must keep track of how many laps “their” runner has completed. The course design creates a closeness among the runners and volunteers that is unlike any other race I have run or worked. And while the daunting task of covering the mega distances keeps the numbers small, there is an extreme loyalty to this event from its participants. And race directors Mama Peg and Papa Gary Griffin have a way of making all feel part of the family.

There were 33 finishers in the 50K and 17 in the 50 mile. It is neither your everyday runner or volunteer who participates in this event. It is rather a committed group that wants to be part of something “different.” More than anything else this race takes patience and persistence. Jack McDermott showed both taking 3:36:01 to win the 50K, while Winston Davis, no less committed, finished 33rd in 7:51:17. Dann Fisher was the first 50 miler (running a 36 minute PR) with a time of 6:48:14, while Frank McLeod would not stop until he crossed the finish after 24 laps in and 11 hours, 41 minutes and 55 seconds. The first woman in the 50K was Kirsten Baggett who hung on tenaciously for a 4:52:44. Ann Burke was the 50 mile champ running for 8:50:31. And they all were cheered and encouraged on every lap.

Perhaps the most amazing performance of on the day belonged to Joe Burgasser who at age 70 smashed the 70-74 national 50K age group record of 5:16:30 with a time of 4:22:04. Yes, 70 years old. I was Joe’s lap counter and watched an amazingly consistent performance. Other than a slightly too quick second loop, he circled every other loop between 1 and 13 within 30 seconds or so of 17:00 minutes flat. With the record firmly in hand he did finally slow for the last two laps, first to 19:40 and then to 20:50. I will stop complaining about being 53.

In the Ultra there is none of the pain of oxygen debt that plagues the 5K or 10K runner. The early laps are relatively easy. But slowly, mile after mile of pavement pounding gradually raises the fatigue and the carefree feeling of the early laps fades giving way to a nagging haunting voice that whispers just how good it would feel to stop. Hamstrings strain, hips become inflamed, knees ache and blisters form. Despite efforts to refuel with food and drink at the aid station, the energy resources drain from the body. And in the worst case, even the toughest, such as defending champion Amy Costa, finally have to surrender to a stress fracture that simply won’t let them go on. The runner’s greatest enemy in this race is the Great Weariness that invades the body and chants the mantra of how good it would feel to stop and of how much better it feels to walk than to run. The Ultra is foremost about the ability to endure – to keep that relentless forward motion even if you have to back off the pace. And for those who run at Wakulla Springs it is also about learning to draw strength from your friends and lap counters; they are not about to leave you alone.