Ultra Drenched

David Yon, December 18, 2009

Mama said there would be days like this, but I am not sure she ever contemplated it would last for 50 miles in 40 degree temperatures. I woke up early on Saturday morning to the sound of rain falling gently on my house. If I had really understood what was in store, I may have pulled the covers up over my head and gone back to sleep. In more than 26 years of running and volunteering, I am not sure I have ever been a part of worse racing conditions. But the Tallahassee Ultra Distance Race is all about commitment and almost every entrant and every volunteer resisted the urge to “roll over” and made the trip to the starting line in Wakulla Springs State Park.

To understand what really made this day difficult though you have to understand the nature of the event and the commitment between the lap counters and runners. Runners can choose between a 50 mile race and a 50K (31 miles). The first distance requires just over 24 laps around the 2.07 mile loop through the park and the second requires 14 laps around the same loop. Each runner is assigned a lap counter who is responsible for counting the number of laps a runner completes and recording the time on the clock when each runner crosses the lap line. Each lap counter may have as many as five runners. The greatest “sin” of all is to miss a runner coming through the start/finish area and thereby cause them to have to run an extra lap. The greatest joy of the event is to encourage and cheer for your runners as they complete each lap.

There was a little room for optimism early as the rain seemed to abate before the 7:00 a.m. start. The misty, cold conditions seemed very tolerable if not ideal. But the gun went off and then the heavens opened up. Maestro and Race Director Peg Griffin had carefully prepared a clip board for each lap counter; each included paper sheets to record each lap – a sheet for each hour of the race and a plastic cover to keep them dry. At least that was the theory. The runners eased away from their respective start lines and began their first laps as the rain became intense. The cloud cover made the start darker than usual and as the 50 milers crossed the 50K start line, it was very clear that counting laps was going to be a huge challenge.

The size of the crowd made it difficult for counters to pick out their runners as they huddled under the temporary tent shelters in an effort to stay dry and to keep their lap sheets dry. One of the tents, not very well designed, kept collapsing under the weight of water pooling on its surface. The volunteer came up with all sorts of ingenious ways to push the water off the roof – often drenching each other in the process. But the wind and the need to get out to where you could see your volunteer quickly turned everything into a wet mess. It was a sinking feeling as my lap sheets began disintegrating as I tried to record times. Ron Christen stood out in the worst of the weather and barked out race numbers on runners approaching the line. Someone went to the lodge and found a hair dryer to begin drying the wet lap sheets, hoping the scribbles that were written on them could be recovered, an old fashion way for director Peg to mine for lost data.

For the runners, the rain pounded them relentlessy. The biggest challenge was finding a way to stay warm and avoid hypothermia. In shorter races, the intense effort generally keeps the body warm enough to overcome the cold. But when one is trying to pace through 50K or 50 miles in wet 40 degree temperatures for three to nine hours, it is hard to maintain body heat. Every time it seemed the rain might slow a bit, another downpour would come, soaking everyone and everything, turning skin into imitation prune. There were a number of 50 milers who reached the 50K finish and decided that was enough time in the rain.

And yet, there were many amazing finishes on the morning. Dann Fisher from Manhattan, Kansas defended his title as the 50-Mile men’s champion with a time of 6:48:43 less than 30 seconds off his win of last year. As race director Gary Griffin said in his report “His ability to run so well while battling the elements was a tribute to his perseverance but also his patience — for at the 50K mark he trailed Ryan Thompson of Charleston, SC by 25 minutes. Ryan breezed through the 50K mark in 3:46 before Dann reeled him in during lap 22 of the 24 lap race.” Susan Lance, a regular in this even won the women’s 50M for the first time in a time of 7:58:10.

Cameron Wheeler, the 16 year old son of Ultra regular Kathleen Wheeler of St. Petersburg, took the lead early in the 50K race and held it to the last lap. Cameron held a 5 minute lead over his nearest challenger, Jon Williams, at the end of lap 13 (mile 27). But Jon blasted a 6:24 per mile pace for the final lap to catch Cameron in the closing strides and win by 15 seconds in a time of 3:43:22. Jane Johnson made her way through the deluge to win her second title with a time of 4:05:40. Jane was also third overall among a field of 53 finishers and only 5 minutes off the USATF 50-54 national women’s age group mark. The men’s master’s winner was St. Petersburg’s Joe Burgasser, who at age 71 lowered his USATF pending 70-74 age group record by five minutes to 4:16:56! Lisa Cox, in her first ultra effort, captured the women’s 50K master’s title with a time of 5:02:59.

And somehow, the hair dryer worked and the results were saved. That plus a warm dry set of clothes after a shower was enough to let even the volunteers relax.