Wakulla Springs Ultra: Giving Thanks On The Road

By Gordon Cherr, December 9, 2000

As we pull into the parking area at the Wakulla Springs lodge on the morning of the “Ultra,” I am always struck by the same thought…”Geez, it damn sure is dark here.” I am convinced now as much as ever before, that Wakulla Springs, while beautiful and inspiring by day, is a spooky place best avoided after dark. Anyway…

The pre-race parking lot of the Ultra is unlike those at any other race in town. At other races, there are any number of excited appearing runners, kids, sweet smelling coeds from FSU, macho frat boys showing off their hairy chests, and then the stable, older guard of local runners, explaining to each other about why they will not run very fast that day, what hurts, how long they’ve been sick, or maybe they are “training through,” while at the same time, actually harboring private thoughts of trashing the competition.

But the parking lot at the Ultra is nothing like that. Instead runners, mostly older although not necessarily wiser, can be seen in the pale glare of the dome lights of the cars and trucks, going about their pre-race preparation, silently and thoughtfully. No smiles can be seen anywhere. There is no laughter. The atmosphere is deliberate and tense, in recognition of what each individual surely knows, in his heart and in his soul, will be faced sometime later that day. There is rarely any escape from the relentless mental and physical exhaustion of the Ultra.

Yet the small crowd, as many race workers (God bless each and every one of you!) as combatants, gathers around to share greetings and to renew old friendships in this most unique fraternity. Here, every year I see people I only see once a year, nowhere else. I meet people from far away, who have come here to test their mettle and stay the course. Sometimes you meet them before the race, but most you meet during the race because of the looping nature of this multi-lap course. You watch them as they start off, fresh but cautious. Those who are less than cautious…well, you may not see them for long.

You see people age before your eyes at the Ultra, lap by lap, hour by hour. Smooth strides become survival shuffles. Clothes litter the roadway, hats, paper cups. A lot of shiny gob on the asphalt. You can’t miss it. It is a wonder that no one slips and falls and breaks a leg or something. Ultra runners are worse than baseball players.

Race workers move around in shifts, giving encouragement, some telling jokes or making you grin inside with a funny comment. Their presence is always a comfort. So are the families who always show up at the Ultra. Interestingly, this year I see more wives running and daddies tending to children (usually having a ball, playing in the dirt of the parking lot), while dashing out with bottles of drinks and packets of Gu, as their wives and loved ones pass by. But, make no mistake about it; they do feel the pain, too. It is hard to see someone you love being eaten up by the miles. I told my wife, Sharri, who had never been to the Ultra, that after about two hours it was going to look like a war zone out there, that she just needed to ignore that, just keep giving me the Endurotabs and the Gatorade, and ignore my pleas and other lame excuses as the miles built up. I didn’t finish (again) this year, but the race went well. I measure that by the looks on the faces of those who do stay the course.

I saw Gordon Hawkins, who I see only once a year, every year, right here. He stayed the course and ran 50 miles. I remember when Gordon had color in his hair. Now it is white like mine, and he has an incipient ZZ Top silver beard to boot. But he looked like he had actually slimmed down some. And he runs exuding with an air of joy and contentment, and I envy him. Thank you, Gordon.

I ran a few miles with Eileen Eliot. She runs remarkably like Janice Hochstein, who I knew when she was a Gage (that long ago!). Small steps, she runs on her toes. Sharp armswing, no wasted motion here. Determination in every stride. Small women with fiercely competitive hearts pounding in their chests. It was obvious that Eileen was going to power her way through 50 miles to the finish barring unforeseen disaster or even in the face of unforeseen disaster, the level of resolve was so clearly etched on her face. She stayed the course and proved me right. One tough lady. Thank you, Eileen.

Dana Stetson and Gary Griffin make an interesting contrast. Gary runs from the inside out. His expression serene, you don’t really know whether he is on mile two or forty-two. Dana, by contrast, runs like an animal being pursued by his worst nightmare. Frothing at the mouth, snot running down his face, grunting and groaning, he carries the incredible weight of the world on his shoulders. You can see it in his eyes. They are wild eyes. He is surely no slave to fashion. They both stayed the course. Thank you both.

I do not know Nick Mazza. I mean, I know who he is, but I’ve never met him. I see him running in Killearn Estates now and then. Frankly, he looks like he is hurting bad when he runs. He even looks bad when he starts. But looks are deceiving. He knows how to finish. After 10 plus hours and 50 miles, he crossed the finish line, a winner again. Nick was still standing tall when many others had crashed and burned. He stayed the course. Thank you, Nick.

As for me, there were a lot of people who came down to run some with me, to try to help me stay the course. But it really wasn’t for me, it was for them. That is the lure of the Ultra, you see, it is strong. David and Mary Jean Yon, just off of half marathon efforts in Tucson, kept me company for about 8 miles. Thank you even if Mary Jean needs to take lessons on how to tell a joke.
And thank you Joe Dexter, who did his now expected Ultra costume extravaganza…I recall Katherine Harris (Nadine, throw away that red dress!), Marlon Perkins, Dick Cheney, and a ballot box. I’m sure there was more, but my brain was in oxygen debt at that point I suppose. There is an art to making people laugh when they really feel like death. Thank you, Joe.

Nick Yonclas and Scotty Mitchell ran about 12 miles with me. Yack, yack, yack. They talked about boats and trailers and purple martins and bird houses and Jeep Wranglers and what would be the best car for really fat people to own…. Anything to distract me from the task at hand. Guys, just clam up and run next time, OK? We three are lawyers and we slandered most of the local sitting judges at one time or another over a ten mile stretch. We discussed what has been masquerading as a presidential election. Suffice it to say, we were split 2-1 on that, and tempers did run a bit thin at one point. It is amazing about what comes up in conversation during an ultra, and I feel sorry if you run the race alone and not with a group of people. Eventually though, we did run out of things to say, then we were all amazed that Nancy Dracht could run every lap with a beautiful smile on her face, and she did, too. And she stayed the course for the full 50 miles. You just gotta be impressed with people like that. Thank you, Nancy.

Staying the course also was Steve Barraco, who was pacing Kristen Hooper, although at some point it looked like she was pacing him, instead. Ultras do that to you, you know. That’s the point. At Ultras you never know. Feels good one minute, disasterous the next. Good job.

This is a great way to spend a Saturday morning, running with a lot of people you don’t know all that well, and with some you know very well. By the end of the day, as the miles have stripped away every social facade you hide behind, you find yourself looking deep into your soul for survival. Coincidentally, you have also seen far into the soul of everyone laboring on that road with you. You cannot help it, it comes with the territory, win or lose. We pass innumerable times. We smile, we wave in kinship. We look deeply into our eyes as we pass on this road of life. Buddy, let me tell you, the Ultra is special.

Thank you to those I know and thank you to those I met on the road at the Ultra.