Saturday, April 13, 2013

Croom Fools Run 50K race review

Croom Fools Run in Brooksville, FL
I traveled down to Florida for a family reunion with my wife this past weekend. The festivities planned for the week included running a 50k with my older brother Bob & his wife Laura. I've mentioned them before in previous articles. They are the one's who run a marathon every month, or more, in pursuit of joining the 100 marathon club. It all came about when they told me they were running the Croom Fools Run 50k in Brooksville, Florida and this immediately struck me as odd. They live just outside of London. Why would they fly to Florida for a little known trail ultra? The answer was rather obvious when I asked them. My 3 nephews, their children, would be out of school on spring break so it was a great time to go. It also happens to be that my parents winter in Florida and "the boys" as we call them hadn't seen grandma & grandpa in awhile. My sister got wind of this and made plans to travel down as this was a rare opportunity to see our English family members. My wife and I wouldn't miss it for the world so we sold our kidneys and mortgaged our pretend house and booked flights. An impromptu family reunion was born!

Croom 16 mile (+/- ) loop with elevation data
This would be my first time running in Florida and it was Bob & Laura's first official ultramarathon. We all had a tremendous amount of unknowns to overcome. I loved this run but I did not love the amount of information available on  this runs website. The course map doesn't have mile markers nor is it drawn to any scale so I had no way of knowing how many miles between aid stations. All I could find was that the race had 4 aid stations including the start/ finish area dotted along a 16 mile loop that I would run twice. No word on what was to be served at the aid stations. No elevation information and very little information on the terrain we would run on. I know Florida is flat but I don't like unexpected surprises in the middle of a long hard run. I want to have an idea of what to expect in terms of terrain, sun exposure and fuel options. I tried to draw my own map on Google Earth to get elevation information. I tried to read past participants race reports to get an idea of what they thought of the race and I kept reading about hills, sugar sand, roots and "Croom Mountain". The mystery thickened because I had no way to gauge if these tales of hardship on the hills were exaggerated or accurate. I did find out, only while running the race, that water & electrolyte drink would be our only choice for the first half of the race. The food was not brought out until later during the second loop of the course. Luckily Bob and I were loaded down with all sorts of gels, bars and beans but Laura opted to travel light with no food or beverage of any kind.

Withlacoochee State Park in Florida
We arrived on Friday afternoon in Brooksville and hit the Holiday Inn Express just off I-75 to drop our stuff. We headed straight over to the Withlacoochee State Park to pick up our race bibs and check in for the race at the start/finish area of the course. This race gave away Hammer Nutrition products which were absolutely fantastic as well as the latest copy of Trail Runner magazine. The shirts were tech-tees and the parking pass was included in our pick-up pack so we were all set for race morning. We met a really nice guy who was participating in the 50 mile race the next morning and he calmed our nerves just a little bit by confirming that the roots were really bad in this area and the sand may pose a problem but he also said not to worry about the hills. That was a relief even though we suspected this. We paid attention to the terrain as we drove into the park trying to glean as much information as possible. All of the roads we had drove in on we're basically flat so we couldn't see how the trail would have any kind of real hills on it. After chatting with this guy for a while we decided it was time to head out and find us a good place to eat and then call it a night. After an absolutely amazing dinner at the Golden Corral, and I say amazing for many reasons I won't go into, we finally made our way back to the hotel and promptly hit the sack.

The wake up call came at 5:15 a.m. and by 6 o'clock we were meeting in the lobby as the 50 mile racers we're headed out on their run. We made it to the start of the race with about 20 minutes to spare which was perfect for standing in the long bathroom line.It just started to get light outside when the race started at 7 a.m. Bob Laura and I all started the race together towards the back of the pack. I do this quite often so that I use the slower racers in front of me to slow me down for the first couple of miles of the run while I slowly warm up for a long day of running. Our plan was to stick together as best we could and run 10 minute miles for the first 16 mile loop. If all went well we should be able to pick up the pace for the second 16 mile loop of this 50k. After a mile or so of rather uneventful running the trail turned down slightly and I noticed people were being very cautious about running downhill. I let my legs go and used gravity to do the work and consequently blew past about 10 runners. This scenario would repeat itself several times throughout the morning. Most of the runners on the course preferred to be cautious on the descents and walk the ascents. None of the course seemed very steep to me so I let my legs go on the downs and powered up the hills as I normally try to do. Bob and Laura stayed right with me and we quickly found ourselves in the back of the top pack. We averaged 10 minute pace until we reached the first aid station. Our plan was working perfectly. After that we had a little more room to run and our pace quickened to more like 9:30 pace. Around the 8 mile mark there was a second aid station that had a porta potty. Bob needed to stop and I capitalized on the down time by irrigating the closest bush. When I rejoined Bob I noticed Laura had gone on ahead at Bobs urging. He also told me to go on ahead as he would be here for just a minute or two. Did I mention the Golden Corral restaurant? I took off in hot pursuit of Laura to see if I could find her somewhere up ahead of me. This next section of trails had some small hills that were easily runnable. It took several miles but I finally caught up to Laura just after passing the third aid station. We ran along at a good clip of about nine minute pace for the next couple of miles. We both had taken note of the lack of hills and the sand that was indeed making it difficult to get traction. We were steady on the flats and we were passing people on the ups and downs just like we had through the first half of this loop. This section had the largest hills of all but still runnable in my opinion. Somewhere around mile 14 or so I had the most unexpected experience of my racing life. My left calf and my right IT band locked up at the exact same time as I kicked a gnarly tree root. This sent me into a crash that would rival the Wide World of Sports intro. I quickly bounced back up to my feet as the runner behind me and Laura both tried dusting me off and checking to see if I was going to be ok. I told them to go ahead without me as I knew I would need to try to trot along and get my bearings back. I was dirty, dusty, covered in pine needles and really shaken up from that nasty fall. A short while later I came into the start/finish area at mile 16 to find that Laura had just come in herself not that far ahead of me. Excellent news, I had not lost that much time. My wife was waiting for us and she immediately helped me get the dirt and pine needles of my sweat covered body and helped me refill my water bottles. Laura and I ate a little food and got ourselves ready to head back out on the trail figuring Bob must be right behind us but since we hadn't seen him in a minute or two we thought it was best to move on with our race.

As we begin to start the second 16 mile loop I immediately stopped in excruciating pain. I could not run at all, it was beyond my ability to fight through the pain of my right IT band. It was now obvious to me that every time I stopped my IT Band would tighten up requiring me to trot along until it loosened. I once again told Laura she might as well go on without me because I'm not going to be able to run at all. It hurt so bad I considered dropping out but rather than quit I started walking and trying to massage my right quad area. The beginning of this loop was slightly different than the way we had started the race. It had so many roots on it that it looked like the veins running through the biceps of a dehydrated bodybuilder on steroids. It made for near impossible running and so my walking didn't seem like such a bad idea. It took about a half mile of walking to get up to a slow pace but I eventually made it to the next aid station at about 11 minute pace. Laura had to be a long way ahead of me now and Bob should be coming right behind me any minute. I did a few stretches refilled my water bottles and started out on the next section of the race.

Just like at my last stop, it was the starting to run that was agonizing. I tried, ended up walking, tried again a short while later only to start walking again. About a mile or so into this section Bob came up on me. Mary had filled him in a little bit and he immediately asked me what was going on. I was walking and he started walking too. I explained that I wasn't going to be able to do much running and that he should go on ahead. He started out and said "lets just go slow". I fell in behind him and we trotted along for a mile or two. It was agonizing at first. I was grunting like a wild hog which was somewhat appropriate given where we were. The IT Band loosened a bit and I finally was able to catch a decent pace. We ran the next couple miles at 9 min pace and sailed into the half way point aid station. I had no idea that Bob had fallen behind. I assumed he would be along by the time I got my stretches in and my water bottles refilled. Wrong assumption. Looks like he hit a rough section.

I came out of that aid station able to run. I was cautious at first but as the trail flew by I pushed harder and harder until I was running as strong as the morning loop when I had to catch up to Laura. This gave me the idea that I could do it again but she had to be a mile or more ahead of me by now. I put the hammer down and went for it. My calf jumped up a couple times and my IT Band throbbed here and there but I was on a mission. I started to pass people and this fueled my fire. I blasted into the third aid station and asked the two "volunteers" who acted like they didn't want to be bothered by my presence if they saw a brunette with an English accent come through. "Name?" was the answer. I said "Laura". "10 minutes ahead of you" she begrudgingly said. I filled my bottles and flew out in hot pursuit. I still had no idea exactly how far to the finish and I wasn't about to ask those two joy kills. I figured 5 to 7 miles and making up 10 minutes in that short of a distance seemed impossible but you never know. This is the hilliest part of the course and my nickname is "The mountain goat" so lets make a miracle happen! I pushed as hard as I could. I passed 5 or 6 more runners when I got to the harder hills. No sign of Laura but I didn't care, I was going to smash my PR. I was dying through the last mile or so but as I came up to the finish area there was 1 more guy to pass. To get it done would require a near sprint. Got him in the last 50yds! I crossed the line in 5:02:29. A new PR by 1 hour!!!!!

 That last push put me over the top. I ran 20 yds past the finish line trying to slow down and then I started walking. And I just kept walking. The awards lady tried to track me down to give me my finishers coffee mug. "Wait!" "I have your award. You have to get your award!" she exclaimed. I kept walking and said "Give it to the girl in pink." as I waived her off. I was holding back puke and needed to be far away. I needed to walk and to breath and to recover. I did not have the ability to do anything else in that moment. I recovered a minute or two later and no, I didn't puke. I finally calmed down enough to rejoin Mary and Laura back at the finish line. The race director approached shortly after and said "First time running in Florida I hear!" I wonder how he knew that but I replied "Yeah, its hot down here!" It wasn't really but that's what  I figured I should say. He followed up with "They told me you were the first person to cross the line that doesn't get an award." "So I said to hell with that and got you this hat!" That's the nicest way to deliver an unnecessarily negative observation I thought but responded by saying "Oh, Thank You! That's very nice of you." The hat said Top Finisher but I guess that meant I was fourth place in my age group. I couldn't possibly be fourth place overall. Either way I came up short but I had a hat. I soon learned that it was indeed fourth in my age. Laura came in 10 minutes ahead of me almost exactly. The lead she had on me at third aid station was the lead that she kept meaning she ran the hell out of the hilly sections too! I couldn't be more proud. That is awesome for a first ultra!!!

The race was grilling up burgers at the finish line so I plowed through one of those while drowning myself in water. I checked my time vs the others in my age group and according to the people keeping record I was 2nd in my age group. That's great! The race director must have been playing with me. We cheered a few people in and swapped trail stories. Bob came in a short while later and we cheered him in, loud & proud. We all did amazing that day. Especially the foreigners (lol) who almost never run in heat and haven't even seen full sunshine in 7 months. (London!!) I got the lowdown on what happened to Bob. One minute he's there the next minute he's gone. He hit a wall or what I like to call a "dark spot." He had to push through and of course that took some doing so his pace suffered. He crossed the line in 5:27 and entered the ultramarathon club with an outstanding PR.

Normally the story would end there with me and my wife flying back to San Fran high on my 2nd place age group finish but it doesn't. The official results were posted a few days later and I was 4th in my age group as I had first deduced. I was the 6th male to cross the line and 11th overall. How weird is that!!!! Five males and five females crossed the line ahead of me. Of those five males, three of them were in my age group. Laura was the fourth female to cross the line and second in her age group with a 9th place finish overall. Bob was the 13th male to cross the line and also took 4th in his age group with an overall finish of 18th out of 67 finishers. Really well done in my opinion. We were all quite happy with these results.

See you in the woods,