Wakulla Springs Ultra Redux – 2003


By Gordon Cherr


They gathered at my home after a long Friday night drive from Atlanta, drawn here for the Ultra. First my long time friend and running buddy Al Barker. Al is a bit new to the ultra scene, having recently finished his first 50 miler, and now being accepted into the field for the Western States 100, next June. Then there was Scott Ludwig. Scott is anything but new to the ultra scene, a veteran of more than 100 marathons and numerous ultras, he was recently sixth at the Badwater 135 (miles!), run from the furnace of the floor of Death Valley to the frozen reaches of the Mt. Whitney Portal, at nearly 8350 feet. Scott is a streak runner too, and if I am not mistaken, he has not missed a day’s run in more than 20 years. And their third training partner, Prince (yes, that IS his name) Whately.

They came in, unloaded their gear, thanked me for my hospitality, and said goodnight. They asked for a 5:30 wake up call. Three totally different personalities on the verge of a great challenge…the 50 miles of the Ultra. AB looks drawn and tired, and I had forgotten how just the thought of 50 miles can weigh so heavily on one’s psyche even before the first step has been taken on race day. I mean, it is no sweat off my brow; I am only going to help these three meet their demons, assist with food and drink, and maybe jog the last few miles as a pacer if someone is fading hard near the end. Being a glorified cheerleader is not stressful. At least I do not expect that it will be. Goodnight AB.

Scott is another story. We sit in the darkened kitchen, drinking decaf and chatting the way longtime runners do – of shared friends and experiences, of aches and pains, of hopes and dreams, children and wives and jobs. We talk of anything but the relentless challenges of the next day. Ultras are so complicated. The further the distance, the more that can and will happen. You can train diligently and with great intelligence, and plan and improvise, hydrate and eat, but you don’t know anything until it is over. Every ultra is a learning experience and ultra runners are always on the learning curve, or so it seems. I do not know Scott well, in fact, I do not know him at all, but after the miles are shared tomorrow, and all is said and done, I will know him well enough. It will be my gain for sure, and I will be honored to call him “friend”.

Prince is a total stranger, one obviously blessed with the gift of gab. He is, as it turns out, a salesman by trade, and that trade fits him well. He has the bulky, well muscled legs of a power lifter, not the slim and aerodynamic legs of a long distance runner. But, if I have learned anything about ultras, it is that good ultra runners come in all shapes and sizes. No one is to be discounted on looks alone. And if you could peer into their chests you would find that one shared commodity. They all have heart, and plenty of it. Guts. Backbone. Drive. Determination. Prince will be breaking new ground tomorrow, he hasn’t gone the distance previously, not even close. I can read the uncertainty (not fear) in his eyes, but when tomorrow is done, Prince will have a great triumph.

The day dawns early and we are at Wakulla Springs by 6 AM, for the 7 AM start. Many friends I know, others still to be met later that day, race workers, lap counters, husbands, wives, children and dogs all mill about in tense anticipation.

I have parked my pickup next to the start/finish line where laps will be counted. Al and Scott and Prince know the drill and have brought provisions sufficient to feed an army of runners. You don’t know what you might need so bring it all. I see Gatorade, water, Endurox, and some magical potions that I don’t even ask about. Pretzels, fig Newtons, Gu, Carboom, crackers, Cheezits, a mountain of clothes, sunscreen, Bodyglide, Vaseline and more shoes than you might see at Sports Beat. The back of the truck looks like a poor man’s makeshift smorgasbord, and before the day is done most everyone who runs the race, whether 50K or 50 miles, stops by for a handout. Not that there isn’t plenty of other food here. Fred and Marguerite Deckert know how to throw a party, and soon after the horn sounds I find myself gorging on bananas and oranges, cookies and cakes, bread and peanut butter and a hot cup of Joe, courtesy of the Wakulla Springs Lodge.

But the gun does go off and the runners are gone, heading out into the dark, on what will be a very long and painful day for most. I’m thinking that Scott should do well in the 50 miler, I can only hope for the best for AB and Prince. I know that AB wants to run about 9 hours or so. Prince, a realist today, only wants to finish upright.

Each lap at the Ultra is 2.07 miles and the start/finish line is a great place to grab a chair and watch the race, and mostly the gradual disintegration of many runners as the day progresses. Some will be there running before first light until after the roads are completely dark and deserted. Moving, always moving ahead. That’s the key. It is easier said than done. One personal drama or another, usually several at the same time, are unfolding, all day long and into the night. It is impossible to not cheer for someone trying so hard for so long, putting up with the grind, running and walking after the physical body shouts “quit” at the top of its lungs, but the heart and the head say “keep on”.

The first 50 mile runner is coming through on the first lap, and it is Fred Johnson. Fred is an accomplished and experienced ultra runner. I have had the good fortune to run a bit with Fred and Dana Stetson on a few of their 5:30 a.m. jaunts on the golf course in Killearn. We run in the dark with flashlights and headlamps and I often find myself humming the theme song from Coal Miner’s Daughter when we run on those dark mornings. Fred has talked a bit about this race. He was disappointed with his performance the year prior, he calls it “paralysis by analysis”, and I figure that he has another plan for this year. I mean, you don’t finish an ultra without a plan and Fred is big on plans, and right now Fred is cruising along at about 7:45 per mile. He keeps this up for the first few laps and by lap three or four I find myself yelling at Fred to calm down and slow down too, because I think that he is going out way too fast and a crash is coming, maybe in another two or three hours, but it is inevitable at this pace.

Scott Ludwig is running an easy second in the 50 miler, at about an 8:30 pace. Outwardly he looks cool and collected but this tells me nothing because even when he is wasted, as I will later see, Scott is cool and collected. I am getting happy feet from watching the runners go by, I can’t stand to watch and not join in, but I promised AB and Prince that I would pace them through the last 2-3 loops, although that isn’t going to be for maybe seven more hours. But on one lap Scott asks me to pull out some fig Newtons for him the next time around and then when he next appears, he asks me to join him for a while. I am only too happy to oblige.

We run the next 4-6 miles at that easy 8:30 pace, talking about this and that. Mostly we discuss how Fred is looking. Fred is putting about a minute on Scott every loop, and he looks good, but in my opinion Fred is going to crash after about 6 hours if he doesn’t come to his senses quickly and Scott knows how to go the distance. Scott makes the conscious decision to hang where he is. Experience dictates a waiting game. Actually ultras are dominated by finishing, and real racing is mostly nonexistent. Scott confides in me, even at this relatively early stage, that physically he is fine, but he does not feel mentally prepared for today’s effort. But he is going to hang in there and see what is what in several hours. “Several hours”…the perspective of the ultra runner sure is skewed.

I stop after a few laps, I’m not really counting. Bill Hillison is cranking out lap after lap in the 50k. Bill’s stride eats up the distance. He looks strong and later he will collect the first place award. He is being paced for a while by Jerry Ongley. Jerry, trash those ugly yellow shorts, will you?

Matt Minno is chasing Hillison by a few minutes in the 50k. Matt is a deceiving runner. Hillison’s stride is graceful and long for a distance runner, while Matt has the shuffle down perfectly and his feet barely clear the roadway. Matt looks like he is going slowly but in the end, if you try to stay with Matt, you are in for a surprise. The man is really moving. Hillison wins in 3:51 and Matt is second, slightly over 4 hours. Good job, gentlemen. It is cloudy most of the day, but their smiles are sunshine to the rest of us.

Pat Judd, Jeff Bryan and Bud Fennema are cruising (if you can really do that for 31 plus miles), just to finish the 50k. They run together most of the way, talking as much as running. Then I see Gary Griffin. Gary is coming off of some major injuries and is not sure where he is. I mean, he signed up for the 50k, but started with the 50 milers, who start about a thousand yards behind the 50k group. I guess that he is just used to starting there and he goes there out of habit. Gary is looking kind of puny when he comes by and I ask him if he wants some company. I can see that Gary is having a rough patch after about 20 miles and I hope that a little companionship will help him see his way to the other side. Rough patches are as common in ultras as they are in almost every race and every workout. It is hard to believe that you will come out the other side when you feel so crappy and you are fighting yourself to not stop and quit. But the fact is that if you make it through a rough patch, you will actually come out the other side feeling stronger than you thought possible. For a while anyhow.

When he sees and hears me, Gary breaks into that big country boy smile of his and says “Of course, with you my friend” and thoughts of walking are shelved for the time being. Off we go at his pace, talking about this and that and after a few more miles Gary says that he will go another lap too, because that will be one lap closer to home and maybe he’ll fell better, and maybe he’ll get another lap done, and then another and he might actually find the finish line. Indeed, when it is all over Gary does finish on his feet, and running, not walking, in about 5:10. And then he feels so good and full of running that he runs a few more laps for good measure, cheering and encouraging the others. See, experience in knowing that you can run or just walk even when your body is badgering you to stop, and that it will get better, can make all the difference. After countless miles and hours, Gary knows this, and with a little help for a few miles, he came home the winner that he is. Good effort, Grif. No, not a good effort, rather it was a great effort, Grif.

Meanwhile the day is wearing on and runners are wearing out. I am watching Fred and Scott, and Fred has continued to lead, and not only lead but stretch his advantage. When Fred puts about two miles on Scott, he actually comes up behind and could lap him, and I have a sudden realization that barring absolute and utter collapse, Fred is going to win this race. All he has to do now is keep Scott in his sights, and soon the two are running together, which they continue to do until the last few miles when Scott begins to pull away, but is unable to meaningfully close the gap.

Fred, I am sorry that I doubted you this day. Your race plan was executed flawlessly, and you ran with great determination and style. Fred deserved this win, he earned this win, and his indomitable spirit was apparent to everyone who watched the 50 miler. Great race, Fred.

Scott too has a great race. He runs a PR of 7:26 and it is impossible to be sad with that effort. He has no complaints and looks as calm now as he did before and during the race. Sitting in my beach chair, he is smiling and encouraging the others who still have so many more miles and hours to go. I can’t imagine why he is not sound asleep at this point, but he looks fresh, if that is possible. He and Fred are chewing the fat about something, and I am guessing that someone is discussing dinner. As it turns out I am later proven correct.

Laps are passing and people are coming and going. AB and Prince have hung together for nearly 36 miles. I can’t stand it any longer and I jump in with them. Prince is yakking non stop, and then he is trying to perform mathematical calculations in his head. Anything to get through the next few miles. He does not seem physically tired as much as being mentally tested, although I know that after 36 miles surely he is a bit winded. As for AB, he is too quiet and I know my friend does not feel well at all. He complains of an upset stomach, and as we get to the smorgasbord on the rear of the pick up truck he begins to gorge. I think that this is a very bad idea on a queasy stomach after about 38 miles, but AB will have none of it. Prince grabs a Carboom and some salted pretzels and says that he will wait. But it is obvious that he needs to go now, at his own pace, and I tell him to go, I will finish up with AB. As it turns out, Prince does go, and he goes strong for the remainder of his race. He looks good, and smiles for the next 12 miles and kicks some booty in 9:27. What a great effort, Prince. I bet you are still smiling. I know that you are still talking!

As for AB, he stuffs fig Newtons and Cheezits into his mouth, swallows some double caffeine GU and drinks some Endurox. Then he goes looking for some fruit and snares a banana or two and down the hatch they go. Then he downs more handfuls of Cheezits and more Endurox and soon we are walking and then running, and I am hoping to be out of range when AB finally barfs this up. He is going through a rough patch now and I question whether he will make it. All thought of nine hours is gone, AB is on survival mode now.

We run along at about 11 minute pace and I am trying to talk to him about anything and everything. Being a pacer is not as easy as it seems. You are relatively fresh and your charge is not. You can’t go too fast, but you need to keep him moving at all costs – talking encouragement, talking trash, telling jokes, anything that you can think of. The miles are passing and they are passing slowly for me, and I have only been out here for 16 miles. What about AB, he is on mile 44 by now. I remember that when AB is tired, really tired, that his right foot slaps the pavement and makes a loud sound when he runs. Right now both of his feet are going “slap, slap, slap” and we both start to laugh about it, and I can’t believe that he is laughing after 45 miles. And I can’t believe that he hasn’t ralphed up all the junk that he ate at the last stop too, but he tells me that he is actually feeling better now that his stomach has calmed down. Hey, maybe, just maybe, he is going to make it after all.

I am now watching some of the other runners still out here. Some have such a long way still to go. Gary Lewis has been walking for hours now, but he is moving. He has been joined by his daughter and she is walking with her arm around him. He is really suffering, but she is laughing and so is he, and she gives him a little kiss on the cheek and they keep on. Every time we pass on this looping course, which we do twice every lap, she smiles a big smile and says something encouraging, and I know that Gary will make it come hell or high water because she will drag him in if she has to. As it turns out, she is just what he needs and he finishes in over 11 hours. He finished, the time is not important.

Now, I am watching for Kathleen Wheeler. How do some people run 50 miles with a smile? Her smile gets a little smaller in the late going, but she never lets up and comes home in 9:56. She went a very long way with no help and no company and I marvel at her fantastic solo effort.

I see Nick Mazza for several laps now too. With each lap, he looks like he is digging deeper and deeper into himself. I hope that he will be able to dig deep enough and that he makes it. He is doing the survival shuffle now, but I have little doubt because Nick always seems to finish at his own patient pace. And he does, again.

AB and I have four laps to go, about 8 miles. We are trash talking about everyone we know. Under his breath, AB is cursing out everyone else on the course, hoping that no one else will run him down from behind. Then we are discussing the Western States 100, which has accepted him, but as it turns out instead of questioning his sanity about thinking of running 100 miles, AB now wants to discuss his training. Soon we are down to six miles and things begin to look manageable except that it is getting dark out and there aren’t any street lights out here. I never thought to bring my headlamp or flashlight.

And it is getting weird too. At the far end of the course we are accosted by a motorist who is lost and wants directions to Woodville. I give him directions and he asks what we are doing. I tell him that AB is running 50 miles. His mouth just flies open and he says “Fifty miles…fifty miles…fifty miles, are you guys crazy?” Why, yes we are and thank you! We continue on our way. Then we are down to two laps when we pass a disheveled, elderly looking woman in the fading light of the parking area. She looks us in the eye and says “keep your shoulders back, keep your head up, keep your chin off your chest and run tall” and then she disappears towards the lodge. Now, I have only been running for 20 miles, so it is a bit too early for hallucinations. I ask AB if he saw that, and he says that he saw her too. Ok, we are still ok.

Just one lap to go and AB has emerged through the far side of the funk that earlier plagued him, and we are rolling now. The beginning of a little smile of satisfaction starts to cross his lips and the running, believe it or not, starts to feel almost effortless. We make one more obligatory stop at the tailgate smorgasbord and soon we are running what seems now to be a 2.07 mile victory lap. Not 20 minutes ago the thought of another two miles seemed painfully insurmountable, but now I feel the beginnings of a good runner’s high setting in. I remember very little of that last lap except to applaud AB when he crossed the line to the whistles and clapping of those few remaining race workers and runners, who stayed to see him through to the end. Ten hours and eleven minutes. A job well done.

Dinner was at Momo’s Pizza. Although we had run 222 miles amongst the five of us, we still could not finish one of those enormous wagon wheeled sized pizzas, with “everything” on it. Several pitchers of beer didn’t hurt, either (for medicinal purposes only, I assure you). AB was almost dead asleep in his chair. Prince was still talking. Scott and Fred were quietly discussing running the Tallahassee Marathon, which was the next day and trying to talk Prince into running it with them. For no particular reason I felt like a proud mother hen.

As it turns out, Scott ran the marathon the next day in 3:58. Prince ran 4:23. Fred logged a few more miles with them before coming to his senses. And AB went to the Wakulla Springs Lodge for a breakfast of eggs, sausage, grits, toast and coffee, and he cheered them all on until he fell fast asleep in a lawn chair.