Monday, March 10, 2014

DWD Green Swamp 50 Miler Race Report: My First Ultramarathon

It was the night before the race around 7PM. Josh, Victor, Crystal, and I were hanging out in our motel room sharing our ritual pre-race bottle of wine. A tradition we had started just 16 months prior before our first half marathon. That was the true beginning of this crazy dream, "To finish an ultramarathon" and we were on the doorstep. We reminisced over the journey and shared our apprehensions of the goal. It was lights out by 8:30 with my first alarm set for 3:45 AM.

After a restless night of anticipation, the car was packed and we were driving to the race. Crystal had prepacked breakfast bowls of fruit, yogurt, and granola along with a few hard boiled eggs. I normally don't eat and drive but I made an exception out in Pasco County, FL at 4:30AM. On the ride to the race, the thermostat read 39F. With a forecasted high of 74F, I looked forward to the beautiful day.  We arrived at the race a 5 AM, which gave us 30 minutes to get everything in order.

Those were the most rushed 30 minutes I can remember. I chose to wear a long sleeve shirt and a pullover for the first 5 miles. By then dawn would be among us and my body should be warmed up. I changed my original portions for my Phil's Bars from 190 calories to 150 calories. Since I was shooting for 300 calories/hr, eating every 30 mins would be much easier to keep track of. I also decided to take salt tabs once an hour instead of once every 40 min. as I originally had planned. I packed my running belt with 8 Phil's Bars, 12 S!Cap tabs, and 6 Tums. I couldn't find water anywhere at the start for my water bottles so Crystal dumped one of hers into mine. There would be an aid station within 5 miles and I wouldn't need much water to get there. 

They allowed drop bags at the start/finish, which was super convenient as we were to run by it at miles 5, 25, and 45. In my drop bag I had a backup pair of shorts, shoes, and socks along with a shirt just in case I needed it and all my backup nutrition. I also left my sunglasses in my drop bag at the start.

Victor, Crystal, myself, and Josh seconds before the start!
After a half hour that felt like 5 minutes, we were corralled like cattle at the starting line while someone from the race staff explained the course to us. My heart was pounding. Everything was happening so fast. I looked around and there were roughly 30-35 people starting with me. My buddy Josh called over for a picture.
And then we were off.....

The Race
 The first 5 miles of the race was a loop through the Withlacoochee River Park. The terrain through this area ranged from paved path to single track rooted trail. I started off excited and realized that I was keeping up with the front runners for a while. I looked at my watch and saw my pace was around an 8:00/mile. I asked the guys around me if they were planning on keeping this pace for a while. After confirmation, I quickly slowed down and decided to only worry about my race. I was surprised that I was able to slow myself down, but I had my own race to run. I slowed down to a 9:30 pace to warm up and feel comfortable in the dark. Within 2 miles, I was warm and had already stripped my pullover layer. I was running with a small group that helped light up the trail and the surroundings until we got back to the start/finish (Big Ma's).

Dances with Dirt Green Swamp Trail Map 2014
When I got back to my drop bag at mile 5, I took off the shirt I had been wearing, the head lamp, and put my sunglasses on my head to keep my hair back. The sun was starting to light up the sky and I could see decently. I grabbed a few GU's from the aid station to fill up my empty storage space in my handhelds and filled them up with water. I took a little longer than I had wanted, but would only need to stop for water over the next 20 miles so the extra time was worth it.

The next portion was the first of two 20 mile loops. The trail led us out of the park, over the river, and through the woods. These woods were interrupted here and there by fog covered fields. We were running on backwood roads that weren't passable in some parts unless on foot. Between the beauty of my surroundings, the nice cool temperature, and the moment of the race, I was feeling amazing. I spent a few miles talking to a few people, stopped to take a picture, and was really enjoying the environment.

Fields around mile 7 as the sun was coming up.
I was talking to a local guy, running his second ultramarathon, while running into Ranch Rd. aid station at mile 8. He decided to stop and I didn't need anything and kept on going. I didn't know it at the time, but he was my last companion for the rest of the day. I decided this would be a good time to speed up. I started to try to maintain a pace around 8:30-9:00 min miles.

I continued on through Traffic Jam, the aid station we worked last year at mile 12, and didn't need to stop for water until the FL 471 aid station at mile 17. When I got there I was 2 hours and 40 minutes into the race and feeling fresh. I was having no problems eating on time and taking my salt tabs as scheduled. I asked the race staff how far back I was and she said 15th or something  and 15 mins behind the leader. The race was just getting started.

The 3 miles to the next aid station (BFE) went by in a flash. As I was running up to it, I realized it was just a table with a stack of boxes with water. I was good on water and just kept going. It was starting to get warmer and I was having issues stomaching the density of the Phil's Bars. At 3.5 hours into the race I replaced my planned bar with some Cliff Bar Shots and the gummy fruit was amazing! By the time I reached Traffic Jam, I was getting low on water. I also knew that Big Ma's was only a mile further, so I decided to stretch my water until then. The mile stretch between Traffic Jam and Big Ma's is my favorite part of the course. It starts on a road and then breaks off through the woods for a quarter mile. Then there is a river crossing, which feels absolutely amazing! Finally you are back in the park and almost back to Big Ma's. Halfway done!

At Big Ma's, I decided that it was time to eat my last Phil's Bar. I filled up one of my water bottles with gatorade, one with water, and then stuffed my belt full of GU's. For the second half I would have to keep my calorie intake up using a variety of options.

For the second loop 20 mile loop I slowed down and tried to conserve what I had left for the next 25 miles. I experimented with 2 different GU's on three mile trail to Ranch Rd. The flavors were mandarin and strawberry-banana and both were absolutely disgusting. Not to mention they made my hands sticky. I needed to find a different solution. At Ranch Rd. I ate a few orange slices, topped off my bottles, and was off. While running to the next aid station, I started passing a lot of people. They were fast hikers and slow runners from some of the shorter races and were all super encouraging. I exchanged a few sentences with some of the nicest people in this section. Once I hit Traffic Jam at mile 33, I decided to switch to Coke. I knew it had a ton of calories, all sugar, and it was easy to consume. I drank a cup of it, topped off my fluids and moved on.

I was now in new territory, with the longest run before this being 31 miles. I was feeling good. I knew it wasn't going to last for much longer but I was enjoying it while it lasted. The next 5 miles to FL 471 aid station went by quickly. I stopped there and had a few cups of coke. My system wasn't upset by it and I was easily intaking my caloric goal. I was also at ease knowing I was already 6 hours into the race and my system had held up this long. I just needed enough juice to last me one more half marathon. A run I normally don't eat on. I decided to not worry about eating much solids from here on out.

Selfie at mile 39. 
I left FL 471 at mile 38 tired and optimistic. I just needed to make it back to the start and do a "quick" 5 mile loop. My spirits were up. Roughly two miles down the road my feet were in a good amount of pain. I started walking and that felt better. I remembered listening to podcasts and hearing over and over about the pain coming and going and coming and going. I just kept telling myself that this was one of those times that it was with me. I reached in belt and pulled out my phone for a selfie and forced a smile. Those 2 minutes with my mind somewhere else was enough distraction to deal with the pain. Game on!

The next 6 miles were slow and painful. I was averaging 10-11 minute miles but my muscles felt like they were sprinting. I refused to stop running, as it hurt more to start running again than it did to continue. All I could think about was how excited I was for the river crossing at mile 44.5. I reached Traffic Jam aid station for the last time at mile 44. I thanked them for volunteering and talked to them a bit about the previous year while enjoying a few cups of coke. I also splurged and ate a few handfuls of pretzel M&M's. Calories were calories at this point.
Traffic Jam Aid Station

I took off from Traffic Jam a little sentimental. It was just last year that Josh, Crystal, and I were working there with the dream of running the following year and here I was 6 miles from finishing. I felt no pain while the trail turned off the road and through the woods again. This time I knew there was a nice cold river ahead and I was read to get wet. I saw a bunch of people working on crossing it up ahead and planned my route from a distance. The water almost came up to my hips and I plowed through it. I was so excited get to the 5 mile loop and end this thing. I then heard my wife calling my name and taking pictures from the other shore. What an awesome surprise. I didn't need the lift but I'll take it!
Withlacoochee River crossing at mile 44.

Running up the shore as I hear my name called.
I reached the end of the second 20 mile loop in great spirits. I had been running for 7 1/2 hours and only had a 5 mile loop left. My shortest of short training runs are 5 miles. It was in the bag. The start/finish area was super busy. A bunch of people from the 10k, half marathon, marathon, 50k, and relay were hanging around. There was music playing and it looked oh so inviting. I drank another coke at the aid station and took off into the woods. I could hear a few words of encouragement as I left.

According to my watch, it took exactly .72 miles for me to completely fall apart. With 4 miles left I just wanted it to end. I spent the next 4 miles in what I like to describe as a walk/run with an argument with myself in between each transition. Part of me wanted to walk for the next 4 miles while the other part of me didn't want to lose any more time than I had to. I hadn't been passed by anyone since around mile 3 and I wasn't going to let it happen now. For the next agonizing 4 miles, I continued a run/walk. Starting around mile 49 I kept holding my breath, hoping to hear music from the finish line. At mile 49.9 on my watch, I ran through a campground and started to hear it. I then saw a sign for a trail pointing to the "Recreational Fields". I knew I was there. The pace of my feet and my heart quickened. I ran through an opening and out onto the field. I could see the finish line. People started to see me from a distance and started to cheer.

The closer I got, the more people cheered. I saw my wife to the left taking pictures. I just ran with a  huge smile and tears flowing down my face. There is no word or group of words I can use to describe the feeling in that moment. So much went into this goal and to witness it unfold was amazing.

Wrap up/Recovery
My official time was 8 hours 28 minutes and 12 seconds. I finished 5th overall and first in my age group! I am completely hooked. Recovery has been decent. My muscles recovered fairly quickly. My joints and tendons on the other hand have been much slower.There have been numerous ice baths and massage roller sessions. I hope to be running by the 4th recovery day. Next race is 9 weeks away!


  1. Congratulation, Kurt on an impressive first ultra! I was the guy in the yellow jacket you passed :) Love the photos (especially of the one running through the hip-high water).
    If you are looking to fill your calendar with an ultra in August, consider this one down the road in Lakeland:
    Again, congratulations and many more happy miles!!

    1. Thanks for reading my story and the kind words, Phil, and congratulations to you too! You looked strong every time I saw you! My August this year will be recovering between 2 races, but I'll add it to my bookmarked races. Hope to see you on the trail in the future!

  2. Congrats! on your first ultra. I'm an ex-marathoner (2:51PR) when I was in my 30's. Now at 64 started trail running and hope to complete my first 50K next year. Enjoyed reading your inspiring account. Sounds like you are hooked into the ultra world. 100 miler in the future?

    1. 2:51 marathon! That's inspiring! It's awesome to hear you are back in the running world. Even though I'm new, I am completely hooked. I do see a 100 miler in my future but not for a few years, I don't think. I really want to get comfortable with the 50 mile distance first. Do you have a 50k picked out yet?

  3. I am hoping for a 100k finish in November this year and your account is inspiring! I started running (with 2km!) last February.

    1. Wow. Training for 100k in 21 months! I can finally say I understand the drive, commitment, and sacrifices needed to make that happen. I hope your training is and continues to go well! Are you planning on running any milestone distance runs on your way to 100k? Or will that be your first race?

  4. Congrats Kurt! That is an amazing accomplishment!!!!!

  5. Listened to the UltraRunner Podcast, I love the ones with regular guys (and gals) doing their first ultras. Then I heard you are moving to St. Louis. Be sure to hook up with the SLUGs... and feel free to drop me line if you are looking for some trails in the area or some routes in the city... matth.bauer (at) gmail

    1. Thanks for reaching out Matt. I have definitely been planning on meeting up with the SLUGs once I've settled in town. Thanks for the trail offers. I'll be hitting you up for them I'm sure come summer!