Monday, April 2, 2012

Sunrise 2 Sunset Relay: Into the Heart of Darkness

Lake Okeechobee in the middle of the night out in the middle of nowhere is a heart stopping place.  You can see the myriad of stars splashed across the sky away from the city lights.  You can listen to the loud grumbles of alligators lurking in the nearby water.  A very long night lay ahead for 1 driver and 9 weary runners.  Some of us had cleaned up at Uncle Joe's fishing camp before setting out for 27 miles of running atop the massive levee that surrounds the lake.

The runner's would only have the company of the bicyclist and no access to support from their teammates.  Water stops and food had been readily accessible on the earlier legs.  Running the dike required the biker and runner to carry what was needed.  We weaved our way through the back country roads to Clewiston.  While much of the time earlier in the race had been spent taking fluids, eating massive amounts of junk food, sandwiches and talk, now people were getting quiet and trying to relax and if possible sleep.

It was during the drive I experienced a personal meltdown.  I couldn't find my Garmin watch.  I had taken it off during my shower and grabbed it as I exited the room.  I had set it down on the mini-van seat as I arraigned my belongings.  Somewhere in the madness the watch had gone missing.  All I could think about was the butt chewing I would get from the Czarina for losing it.  I made a frantic search which was fruitless in the darkness of the night.  It made for a lot of unwanted anxiety and I reluctantly dug through my bag grabbing my old Garmin which I had as a back up in case my newer one lost power.

Andrea finished her leg and Maria tended to her nasty blisters.  She had it down to a science.  John and Maria had a foot kit that contained all sorts of goodies.  I realized that I hadn't brought enough supplies.  I had brought toilet paper which proved quite popular.  But I should have brought more food and a couple of extra shirts.  The amount of food, water, and Gatorade was amazing.  All manor of lights, vests, and running supplements were also at hand.
I took the 21st leg from Dana at 12:30 in the morning.  It was really dark and the asphalt trial had plenty of cracks to trip on.  Dana immediately climbed onto the bike and joined me for a nice 3.75 mile conversation.  We talked about Caleb and his unimaginable battle against cancer.  The scars and the hurt from it seem very, very fresh but I could sense the admiration Dana had for her brave nephew and for her sister who turned her son's fight for life into a good cause.

I didn't push the pace running along at 8:45 per mile, trying hard to keep track of any danger spots on the trail.  The biggest fear was coming across a gator because you could certainly hear their guttural croaks coming from the lake.  As I listened to the strange noises coming from the nearby waters Dana shared with me her love of running, her love of her family and it helped ease my tiredness from a run that seemed to stretch on forever.  Finally we came upon the exchange spot somewhere between Clewiston and South Bay and Jill took over the lonely duties of running.

Dana got off the bike and I joined her with Andrea in the Jeep.  I've never seen anyone so full of energy.  Andrea was ready to sleep and Dana chatted away.  I was exhausted and wished for the reserves that Dana was showing.  We made our way to the next exchange point and waited for what seemed an eternity.  I couldn't sleep and got out of the Jeep to wander outside in the cool night air.  John, who was driving the mini-van was waiting up on the levee with Jamie.  He was such a trooper, continually offering aid and sharing bits and pieces of his life and experiences with me.

The stretch along the dike seemed endless.  A number of teams had overtaken us in our journey on the levee trail.  We were all exhausted.  Mike kept asking where the hotel was.  He was getting a little punchy from all the running and a stint on the bicycle.  I don't know how the others were managing it but they all seemed positively determined to see it through.  I just knew that I had to be ready to do another 5 mile leg sometime around 4 in the morning through Pahokee, Florida.  It's a shit hole of a town along the east side of Lake Okeechobee, known for producing great football players and sugar cane.

The exhaustion finally showed itself as Jamie handed off to Mike shortly after 3 a.m.  Mike took off like a mad dog.  It seemed like the sweat was flying off of him as he sprinted away and I was genuinely concerned that at that pace he would keel over from the effort.  Then he did something peculiar.  As he came off the levee and onto the main highway into Pahokee, he slide across the road to run with traffic.

The rules stated that we were supposed to run facing the traffic.  Fortunately at that time of night there were almost no vehicles on the road.  Each of our vehicles pulled up to Mike, pleading with him to cross back over to the other side of the road.  He steadfastly refused as the churned the way at a manic pace.  After a mile or so of this we pulled up and reminded Mike that we could be disqualified if he ran on the wrong side of the road.  He finally relented and eased his way back across the highway.

At this point I realized this journey was just like flying to Europe.  I can never sleep on those long trips that generally last 20 hours.  You're trapped on a plane and it's impossible to get comfortable.  I end up feeling like a zombie.  The only difference on this trip was breaking it up with runs.  I was also quite hungry but worried that any food might lead to nausea and vomiting because I was so exhausted.

At 3:48 a.m. I took off on my jaunt through Pahokee.  After a mile I realized I was in danger of going into full bonk mode.  A bonk for a runner is when you feel like you've lost all of your energy reserves.  Weakness sets in throughout your body and running turns into a slow slog.  Mike handed me some Chomps at 2 miles and as the big, chewy morsel melted in my mouth the feeling started to subside.  I was clipping along at 8:40 pace and realized I would survive the run without a disaster.  I happily handed off to Maria who faced a daunting 8.75 run along a narrow stretch of highway in the pre-dawn hours.

Big trucks and buses were beginning to move up and down the road creating a real danger for the runner.  Mike jumped back on the back to lead Maria through the darkness but quickly froze in his sweat soaked shirt in the chilly night air.  I replaced him after a mile or so and I had my hand at dodging the semis along the roadway.  It was one of the scariest things I have ever experienced.

Finally a little more than a mile into the ride our driver and Maria's boyfriend John asked to take over biking duties.  It didn't last long as Maria found it too distracting as she feared for his safety.  Suddenly Jamie and I found ourselves with driving duties in the mini-van with Jen stretched out on the back bench trying to sleep and Mike doing the same.  John had fled to the Jeep packed with women.  The hours of driving had taken its toll on him.

The long miles Maria was putting in took its tool.  Two teams caught her near the end of the run just as the sun was coming up.  We were leaving Lake Okeechobee and heading east toward Jensen Beach.  As I stood out of sight to relieve myself behind an abandoned building I worried about the carnage the coming daylight would bring.

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