In the pre-dawn darkness, my Garmin watch sounded the alarm. It was time to get up, I had a race to run! As my eyes rolled open, it took me a moment to recollect where I was. My family and I were camping along the 70,000-acre J. Strom Thurmond Lake at the Petersburg Campground and they were all currently nestled close to me on our queen size foam camping mattress. As I inched my way out from under the warm blanket, I was careful not to wake my wife and three boys. Although my objective was to run 30 miles today my wife had her own endurance challenge to watch over our twin 3-year old’s and singleton one and half year old. I slipped out of the tent, but not before struggling to limit the kid stirring growl of the zipper door. Once clear, I took in the crisp Northeast, Georgia air with a deep whiff. The air was chilly, hovering around fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Not wasting any time, I ambled over to the trunk of our car and slipped on my race clothes and shoes. I threw on a light wool button up shirt over my race gear and mounted my Trek Mountain bike to make the 4-mile ride over to the race start location at the West Dam Recreation Area. The wind chill during the bike ride made the cool fifty-degree temps feel as though they dropped down another ten degrees. Soon, I felt my joints freezing up and as I squinted through tear-streaked eyes that fought to stay open against the now frigid air, I quickly found myself thinking, “How am I going to run 30 miles today?”. I reflected back to Homer’s “Odyssey”, in which he frequently used the phrase “fresh and rosy fingered” to describe his characters peaceful countenance upon waking up. For me, I felt much less poetic about my own disposition, more like “stiff and numb fingered.”
Within 10 minutes, I pushed through the discomfort and found myself at the entrance of the Petersburg Campground. After which, I then turned left on to HWY 221 and followed if for another 20 minutes of steady pedaling. Fortunately, by the time I reached the entrance, I had enough light to spot the directional sign for the recreation area. I turned left onto a narrow lane and kept a look out for any other souls up at this hour. Under the radiant glow of a few floodlights, I spotted a handful of individuals huddled around some pop-up tables and knew I was in the right spot. I stashed my bike under a tree by the parking lot then headed to the check in. Upon telling the team of volunteers my name, there was a slight shift in one of the race volunteer’s demeanor and he looked from his information sheet quizzically. The volunteer offered me a warm smile and a handshake while simultaneously introducing himself as not a volunteer, but the race’s director. He mentioned that he had looked at my profile on Ultra signup and expected a fast time from me today. I smiled back and told him I would do my best before retreating down to a beach area along the lake for some privacy.
As I scanned out across just one small section of the over 1,000 miles of shoreline along the lake I pulled out my phone to check in with my wife. Not getting an answer, I trusted that she and the boys were still asleep and hoped she would have an easy go of it for the next four hours or so by herself. With about 10 minutes to go from the race start, the race director called our attention, and all the runners gathered together in a small clearing. This area was to serve as basecamp for the race, hosting the start, restrooms, halfway point aid station, and the finish line. The race director laid out the plan for today, one that I was well familiar with after having continually studied the pre-race briefing e-mail. His update matched that of the e-mail but was still much appreciated; the trails were clear, the course was well marked, and there were aid stations at miles 2 and 6.5 along the 7.5 mile double out and back course as well as one at the start/finish area at mile 15. He closed the race briefing with a scripture and prayer. His scripture, a line from Hebrews 12, “Wherefore seeing we also are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”, served to stoke the fuel inside me and I felt my nerves fade away. The goal today was simple; to run my own race – to run 50 kilometers and not feel totally depleted by the end of them.
At the start line, I was in the middle of mulling over these thoughts when I heard a woman’s voice call out, “Okay, who is the Florida guy?”. I looked around, somewhat taken off guard. “Are they calling me out right now?”, after a full five seconds of no one saying a thing, I slowly raised my hand and offered a reply, “I’m from Florida”. The young woman who singled me out offers a smile and turns to her friends, “Okay, we’ve got our eye on you now”. It appeared they had also been checking the Ultra signup starter list for the event and saw my name at the top of the projected leaderboard. It felt good to have garnered a slight reputation leading into the race but only time would tell if it was actually warranted.
As soon as the race director gave the go, a slew of just over 40 runners set off on the open paved road. We were all headed to the start of the trail proper, roughly .35 miles away. Less than a minute in, a rabbit (fast runner) took off from the field. I heard the runners behind me, the same locals who had called me out earlier, say “He won’t last”. Looking at his form bounce away, I tended to agree with them. He was wearing a large t-shirt, knee length shorts, and only carrying a lone plastic water bottle for provisions. From appearances he looked like he was just a casual jogger going for a weekday stroll. However, I knew to respect all runners, regardless of their outward appearance. But rather than worry about keeping up with him, I focused my attention on just running my own race and keeping a pace that I was comfortable with.
By the time we arrived at the start of the trail officially, I was in second place and my mind shifted onto my surroundings and trying to find my rhythm amidst the forest. The trail was instantly refreshing and thrusted runners directly into a dense hardwood forest stacked deep with an abundance of loblolly and shortleaf pine trees along with various varieties of red gum, yellow poplar, black gum, oak and hickory trees. The path underfoot was well worn, overlaid with a carpet of freshly fallen pine needles and the occasional root jutting out several inches from the surface, a tripping threat that I would have to be wary of the entire day.
In the early autumn, the trees stilled displayed shades of resplendent greens making the early miles fly by. Given how nice the trail was, I thought about how this trail was the backup plan. Typically, in accordance with its namesake, the FATS 50K is held on the Forks Area Trail System (FATS), however just days prior to the event, due to road closures caused by Hurricane Ian the race was moved approximately 11 miles northwest to the Bartram National Recreation Trail. It was truly amazing to see how fast the race organizers were able to move the entire race operation to the new site and I was extremely grateful they had been able to find such a great replacement.
The Bartram National Recreation Trail, not to be confused with the Bartram Trail in north Georgia, is a 27-mile-long trail system along Lake Thurmond and was named after the famed naturalist and artist William Bartram. Bartram was a champion of the natural world who portrayed nature through personal experience as well as scientific observation. As I ran along on the trail, I found myself basking in this full nature immersion experience and felt I understood the allure of nature that Bartram spoke about in his writings , “This world, as a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign creator, is furnished with an infinite variety of animated scenes, inexpressibly beautiful and pleasing, equally free to the inspection and enjoyment of all his creatures. Perhaps there is not any part of creation, within the reach of our observations, which exhibits a more glorious display of the Almighty hand, than the vegetable world: such a variety of pleasing scenes, ever changing throughout the seasons, arising from the various causes, and assigned each to the purpose and use determined.” This race felt like a continuation of Bartram’s work. I am always thankful for people like Bartram and others who work to preserve land such as this.
As I came up to the first aid station, my mind shifted back to the race. With less than 1,000 ft of elevation gain, my main competitor today was going to be the distance itself along with the technical terrain. I found myself having to constantly scan the ground ahead of me for fallen sticks and large roots that, for some reason, my big toe was just naturally attracted to. With those challenges in mind, the overall route itself was fairly easy to follow. We were to repeat and out and back 7.5-mile route twice, which added up to a total of roughly 30 miles. Along the way, the relatively close proximity of the aid stations meant refueling should be easy to manage. Additionally, the aid stations were accessible by car, which left me optimistic for my wife and kids to be able to pull up at some point during the race.
I continued past the second aid station at the Petersburg campground, not stopping, and just after mile seven got my first look at the lead runner. He emerged from around a bend in the trail and came charging towards me. His stride looked strong and his form still tight. We gave each other a good morning wave and judging from when I hit the first turnaround point just a few minutes later, I estimated that he had almost a mile lead on me. Those were not the best odds if I was going for the overall win, but to me the race did not start officially until the last turnaround point around mile 22. I swallowed my competitive ego that wanted to try and pick up the pace and instead focused on keeping my speed steady.
For the return trip back to the race start, I put in my headphones and listened to a FreeTrail podcast episode presented by ultrarunner Dylan Bowman to pass the time. The podcast helped to take my mind off the sheer distance of the day and offered some inspiration from a fellow trail runner. Just a few minutes after passing the Petersburg campground aid station on my return trip, I saw a familiar sight through the tree line down a short but steep ledge. My wife and kids were all sitting in the trunk of our VW Atlas watching other runners go by. I yelled at them from a distance and get a surprised and enthusiastic yell back from my wife and kids, “go da da go!”. It was great to see them there, if only for a moment, and I hoped to see them again along the race. My return trip also allowed me to see the rest of the field, all of which greeted with me with smiles and “good job” cheers. I love the ultra-running community. There is something about running an extremely long distance that has attracted us all here on the day. If one was to ask the runners competing on the day, “why were they doing this?”, I am sure there would be some varying responses but to me, to put it simply we are all out here to experience and partake in the simplest expression of what it means to “PLAY”, to be doing something for the sheer enjoyment of what it does for us. There was no practical application or use for running 30-miles on the day, only that the desired outcome somehow would result in pure joy for the athlete themselves.
As I neared the halfway point aid station and second turnaround point of the race, I decided to go no music or podcast for the last leg of the race. When I got to the start/finish aid station my time was just over two hours and after having seen the leader zoom by several minutes prior I knew I was well behind him. I stopped for a moment at the start/finish area and dropped off my 1.5-liter hydration bladder, with the aid stations being so close, I resorted to using my two 9-ounce refillable bottles instead to save weight. I filled up one bottle with tailwind (sports drink) and the other with water and set off onto the trail once again. Overall, I still felt good. I had been running within my limits and felt that I could keep up the same pace, just under 8:00 minute per mile pace, for the remainder of the race. I tried to pick up my speed but the constantly winding trail made keeping up any faster of a pace very challenging. When my Garmin dinged at the 20-mile mark, I knew the race was about to shift from being just a physical endeavor to much more of a mental battle. I had not ventured above 20 miles in my training runs and knew that I was now treading new territory. The last time I had ran over 20 miles was during the Sweat, Swat, and Swear 50K that I had ran back in May. I tried to stomp out the mental angst by focusing on taking care of my body. For the duration of the race, I had managed to continue steadily eating and drinking every 15-20 minutes and my stomach was responding well to my rice crispy snacks, sport beans, and Cliff oatmeal bars.
I stopped by the Petersburg aid station to refill my bottle with tailwind and was in the middle of picking up some satsuma slices when I saw my wife for the third time of the day. I had seen her for the second time just a few minutes earlier at the Lake Springs aid station. Then, she was standing with the race volunteers by our car, however we had only barely noticed each other as she was busy talking with one of the volunteers and I had not expected to see her there. I judged from the absence of kids at her feet that they were all in the car napping, but still her presence alone was enough to send a wave of energy surging through me. I let her know that I was good with my provisions, and she told me that the first-place runner is about 5 minutes ahead of me. I told her it was more like 8 or 10 minutes just a few miles ago at the halfway mark, “Maybe he is starting to fade?”. With my wife spurning me on, I hit the trail with renewed vigor. I slammed down another easy mile on the adrenaline and in short order saw the young man in first place heading towards me. As we were about to come past each other he stopped for a moment and leaned on a tree. He stretched his legs for just a brief second then set off again. “Cramps man” he said, as we greeted each other again for a third time. It appeared that the runners at the start had been correct in their assessment. Having bombed in my previous two 50Ks and doing my own personal “death march” to the finish, I knew how difficult it could be to dial in one’s nutrition for a 4 plus hour endurance event. I felt for the guy and hoped he could pull it together for the rest of the race.
I continued to push on, getting to the turnaround point for the second and final time. Two race volunteers offered their hellos and checked off my race number. Disembarking the turnaround, I completed a stop start 180 degree turn and headed back to complete the final 7.5 miles. Now the race begins! Two aid stations lied between me and the finish and I set my eyes on getting to the first one at the Petersburg campground with as much speed as I could muster.
A seemingly quick few miles later and the trail spat me back out again into the open parking area and trailhead at the Petersburg aid station. My wife spotted me immediately and I greatly appreciated hearing her cheers. I also saw my kids, who were all busily playing with sticks along the trail. They all cheered for “Da Da!” and that again made me feel so energized. I ran past the aid station, having just stocked up on my prior pass, and continued along the sun-soaked forest doing my best to quicken my pace and catch the leader. Around every bend in the trail or tree, I thought I spotted the maroon shirt of the first-place runner. Alas though, it was my mind playing tricks on me until…I finally spotted the silhouette of the runner across an inlet along the shore. My eyes quickly tracked the path along the shore from my vantage point on the opposite side of the inlet and it appeared that I was less than quarter mile from him. I was previously, roughly 4 minutes or so back so to me it looked like I was steadily gaining on him. With the lead finally in my sights, I turned on the what speed I could muster, knocking back a steady stream of sub-8-minute miles. Within another mile or two, I turned around another sharp bend in the trail and spotted my target. His running form seemed much more forced than when I had first seen him roughly 3 hours ago. As I pulled up behind him, I said, through labored breaths something to the effect of, “You’re running so fast man, good job”, to which he replied, through equally labored breathing a “thank you” of his own. Not wanting to stick around, my competitiveness gets the better of me and I skirted around him and put in a burst of speed to break any elastic that might try to connect us.
Once a few minutes clear, I looked back and he was nowhere to be seen. Not knowing if he would make a comeback, I decided to keep the pressure on. At over 27 miles in, this was the best I had ever felt in a 50K, and I accounted it to my increased focus on drinking plenty of fluids and eating consistently. As I passed through the final aid station, I stopped for a moment to refill one of my 9-oz bottles with cold water and continued on. I drank a few sips of the water but used the majority of it to spray over my face and neck letting the cool water rejuvenate my salt laden skin. Somewhere between mile 28 and 29 the evil snake of race doubt and fatigue tried to rear its ugly head but at this point race I was able to sufficiently deal with it by knowing that I was so close the finish. My sole focus became just putting one foot in front of the other. I ran in this mental state of pure sport and panic until I reached the last section of the race. The home stretch, the final .35 miles from the trailhead to the race finish. Once I hit the hard pavement, my body took over and I found myself sprinting, or at least what felt like sprinting after running 30 miles, for the finish line. Just before making the final turn into the finishing shoot, I saw my wife and boys unloading from our car and begin walking to the finish area. I greeted them all with a big wave and sprint around the final turn. The race organizers and volunteers erupted with cheering, and I was now smiling from ear to ear as I broke through the finish line tape at 4 hours and 8 minutes. I felt absolutely amazing!
I rode my finish line high for the next half hour as my wife, kids and I all hung around the finish area. We waited while other runners continued to pour in, and I chatted with my fellow runners and the race organizers. The second-place finisher, the young man whom I had passed only 30 minutes prior, had come in around 4 hours and 21 minutes. We chatted by the finish, both enjoying some wonderfully made vegetarian chili, and he told me about his race experience. He had started cramping up from dehydration sometime during his second out and back loop. I told him I knew the feeling well.
After having our fill of post-race snacks and fellowship, my wife and I set about making a plan for home. We had a long drive ahead of us. As we walked to our car, I flipped over the 1st place trophy in my palm. It was great to win, but even better to just know that I could run a 50K and feel good about it afterwards, both physically and mentally. This race was a win on so many levels and left me excited for where running would take me next. For the time being though, I desired to enjoy some time to rest and recoup. I still had a lot of miles left in me for the future!
LOVE, LISTEN AND RUN
P.S. See below for a little highlight reel of our Camping Experience!