The Unraveled Teacher

The Bronze Man 12-Hour Ultra at Fort Clinch

I had three goals for The Bronze Man 12 Hour race: an easy, “realistic” goal, a more difficult but attainable goal, and the “unrealistic” goal. The easy one was just to push beyond my longest ever run of 33 miles (I went off-course at a 50k earlier that summer and covered two bonus miles.) The attainable goal was to hit 40 miles. The unrealistic goal was to run a full 50 miles in 12 hours. Of course, I began to focus heavily on the goal of 50 miles to the point where it was no longer “unrealistic.” To accomplish this, I would need to average just over 14-minute miles the whole 12 hours. The course loop was 1.09 miles long. My first two loops took more than 15 minutes each. I tried really hard in the third loop to drop that time and still came up short. My legs were heavy from the first steps I took. I was not feeling fresh and it showed in my times. It took only three loops for me to resign myself to the fact that, unless something miraculous happened, I would not be collecting 50 miles that night.

This was my first time running in Fort Clinch State Park. The course was a mix of sand and trails that, by Florida’s standards, were hilly. My dad had recently attempted a (daytime) run at the park and tripped on a root and fractured his femur. I ignored this ominous sign (as ultra runners are wont to do) and proceeded as blindly into this race as any I had attempted before. I’m actually a firm believer that ignoring any signs that point to possible failure or injury is what has garnered my small successes in the sport. Plus, there was something about there being a time cut-off rather than the traditional specified distance that was comforting. I didn’t need to worry about this race because everyone who crosses the start line is a finisher regardless of how far he may go.

The course was beautiful. Running around the dark silhouette of the fort, hearing the soft sounds of the ocean, seeing little droplets of misty water wiz by in the light of my headlamp like snowflakes in headlights, turning a corner into the marshy hammock of oaks, hearing the distant sounds of coyotes, ducking under low-hanging Spanish moss, jumping when an armadillo sounds like a bear, and catching a glimpse of a deer bounding through the woods all contributed to magic of the park in the dead of night. Running around the brick fort and into the woods with just a spotlight by which to see reminded me of Hogwarts and the Forbidden Forest. There’s a certain magic to night running that is only replicated in books.

Shortly after midnight, Dad showed up to pace me with his sore leg that definitely needed more time to heal. He ended up staying with me until about 4:30am when I hit the 50k mark. I still can’t believe he followed me for four and half hours through the same dark woods that had just tried to swallow him up and spit him out a few weeks prior. But, he needed to go and I had plenty of time to hit my easiest goal on my own. That’s when I sat down and took off my shoes at the aid station. I sat for too long. I clearly remember telling myself to get up and it just didn’t happen. Over and over, I told myself. There was a disconnect between my mind and body. My stomach growled. I grabbed a piece of cold pizza and that’s when Mike (the famous time keeper down here) kicked me out. He told me to eat my pizza while I walked through the next loop. That was some sound advice.

I didn’t have the energy to chew the crust so I thought I’d throw it out at the trash can on the path to the beach. These trash cans have heavy lids to keep raccoons out, and all I could imagine as I approached it with my gross, cold pizza crust was that there was already a raccoon in there waiting to spring onto my face when I opened it. This imagined scenario seemed more and more likely as I approached the trash can to the point where I stood there, heart pounding, wondering if I could work up the nerve to open the raccoon jack-in-the-box of doom. I was finally snapped out of my stupor by another runner passing me. This loop took me 21 minutes to complete, and at least three of those minutes were spent staring at the trash can in horror. The lack of sleep had finally set in. I started using my chocolate espresso beans (this has to be my favorite ultra snack ever) periodically to keep me from slipping into nightmare land again.

I stopped at the aid station on every loop until about 6:00am. There was a computer screen set up in the timing tent that showed all the runners’ accumulated miles, but it was off the course by about 20 feet and that was too far for me to wander. I hadn’t checked my miles since my dad left. All I knew was that I was somewhere beyond 31 miles. I felt terrible. I was certain I wasn’t going to hit my 40-mile goal. I did a lot of walking. My mile times were in the upper teens, and I was ready to go to bed.

I came in for my last loop just as the sun was getting ready to make his appearance at 6:45am. Given that my last several loops had taken me 18-19 minutes each, I decided to call it and wait at the finish line to see the other runners racing the clock. When I came in, I told Mike I was done. He looked at his watch, screwed up face and said, ” You’ve got plenty of time for one more! Go!” So I did.

Fort Clinch is stunning at sunrise. As I rounded the oak-lined bend that took me out to the beach and the fort, the sand was glittering orange from the waking sun. The Beatle’s line “Here comes the sun (doo doo doo doo)” played on repeat in my head as I headed around the fort for the last time. I switched my headlamp off and thought I had never been happier in my life than I was in that moment. I looked longingly at the fort as I moved past it and felt sad, like I was breaking off an old friendship.

The trails look so different in the sunlight. I was mesmerized by the patches of morning light resting on the path I had come to know so well that night. This was the easiest mile of the entire 12 hours I was out there. When I came into the finish, I had a couple minutes to spare. My husband greeted me just before I collapsed to the ground so I could take my shoes off. I immediately regretted sitting down because I needed to check my total miles. I pried myself up and hobbled over to the timing tent.

40.33 miles

I cried.

Then I got a cold sausage McBiscuit along with some warm Mountain Dew and sat on the pavement and loved it.

Not sure what matters in the world besides this McBiscuit

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