Wakulla Springs Ultra Redux – 2003

By Gordon Cherr

(Editor’s Note: Gordon is a resident of Tallahassee, a long time member of the Gulf Winds Track Club, and a really nice guy. He offered both his home and his service to Al Barker, Prince Whatley and I during the second weekend in December as the three of us participated in the Tallahassee Distance Festival.) They gathered at my home after a long Friday night drive from Atlanta, drawn here for the Ultra. First my long time friend and running buddy Al Barker. Al is a bit new to the ultra scene, having recently finished his first 50-miler, and now being accepted into the field for the Western States 100 next June. Then Scott Ludwig. Scott is anything but new to the ultra scene, a veteran of more than 100 marathons and numerous ultras, he was recently 6th at the Badwater 135 (miles!), run from the furnace of the floor of Death Valley to the frozen reaches of the Mount Whitney Portal at nearly 8500 feet. Scott is also a streak runner, and if I am not mistaken, he has not missed a day’s run in more than 25 years. And their third training partner, Prince Whatley. They came into my home, unloaded their gear, thanked me for my hospitality, and said goodnight. Wake us up at 5:30. Three totally different personalities on the verge of a great challenge…the 50 miles of the ultra! Al looks drawn and tired, and I had forgotten how just the thought of 50 miles can weigh so heavily on one’s psyche even before the first step has been taken on race day. I mean, it is not sweat off my brown, I am only going to help these three meet their demons, assist with food and drink, and maybe jog the last few miles as a pacer if someone is fading hard near the end. Being a glorified cheerleader is not stressful. At least I do not expect that it will be. Good night, Al. Scott is another story. We sit in the darkened kitchen, drinking decaf and chatting the way long time runners do. Of shared friends and experiences, of aches and pains, of hopes and dreams, children and wives and jobs. Of anything BUT the relentless challenges of the next day. Ultras are so complicated. The further the distance, the more that can and will happen. You can train diligently and with great intelligence, and plan and improvise, hydrate and eat, but you don’t know anything until it is over. Every ultra is a learning experience and ultra runners are always on the learning curve, or so it seems. I do not know Scott well. In fact, I do not know him at all, but after the miles we will share tomorrow and all is said and done, I will know him well enough. It will be my gain for sure, and I will be honored to call him ‘friend.’ Prince is a total stranger, and obviously blessed with the gift of gab. He is, as it turns out, a salesman by trade, and that trade fits him well. He has the bulky, well-muscled legs of a power lifter, not the slim and aerodynamic legs of a long distance runner. But, if I have learned anything about ultras, it is that good ultra runners come in all shapes and sizes. No one is to be discounted on looks alone. And if you could peer into their chests you would find that one shared commodity. They all have heart, and plenty of it. Guts. Backbone. Drive. Determination. Heart. Prince will be breaking new ground tomorrow; he hasn’t gone the distance previously, not even close. I can read the uncertainty (not fear) in his eyes, but when tomorrow comes, Prince will have a great triumph. The day dawns early and we are at Wakulla Springs by 6:00 a.m. for the 7:00 a.m. start. Many friends I know, others still to be met later that day—race workers, lap counters, husbands, wives, children and dogs all mill about in tense anticipation. I have parked my pickup next to the start/finish line where laps will be counted. Al, Scott and Prince know the drill and have brought provisions sufficient to feed an army of runners. You don’t know what you might need, so you bring it all. Gatorade, water, Endurox, and some magical potions that I don’t even ask about. Pretzels, fig newtons, Gu, Carboom, crackers, Cheezits, a mountain of clothes, sunscreen, Bodyglide, Vaseline and more shoes than you might see at a running store. The back of the truck looks like a poor man’s makeshift smorgasbord, and before the day is done most everyone who runs the race, whether 50K or 50 miles, stops by for a handout. Not that there isn’t plenty of other food here. Race Directors Fred and Margerite Deckert know how to throw a party, and soon after the horn sounds I find myself gorging on bananas and oranges, cookies and cakes, bread and peanut butter, and a hot cup of coffee, courtesy of the Wakulla Springs Lodge. But the gun does go off and the runners are gone, heading out into the dark on what will be a very long and painful day for most. I’m thinking that Scott should do well in the 50-miler; I can only hope for the best for Al and Prince. I know that Al wants to run about nine hours or so. Prince, a realist today, only wants to finish…upright. Each lap at the ultra is 2.07 miles and the start/finish line is a great place to grab a chair and watch the race, and mostly the gradual disintegration of many runners as the day progresses. Some will be there running before first light until after the roads are completely dark and deserted. Moving, always moving ahead. That’s the key. Easier said than done. One personal drama or another, usually several at the same time, are unfolding, all day long and into the night. It is impossible not to cheer for someone trying so hard for so long, putting up with the grind, running and walking after the physical body shouts ‘quit’ at the top of its lungs, but the heart and head say ‘keep on.’ The first 50 mile runner is completing his first lap, and it is Fred Johnson. Fred is an accomplished and experienced ultra runner. I have the good fortune to run a bit with Fred and Dana Stetson on a few of their 5:30 a.m. jaunts on the golf course in Killearn. We run in the dark with flashlights and headlamps and I often find myself humming the theme song from ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ when we run on those dark mornings. Fred has talked a bit about this race. He was disappointed with his performance last year—he calls is ‘paralyis by analysis’—and I figure that he has another plan for this year. I mean, you don’t finish an ultra without a plan and Fred is big on plans, and right now Fred is cruising along at about 7:45 per mile. He keeps this up for the first few laps and by lap three or four I find myself yelling at Fred to calm down and slow down too, because I think that he is going out way too fast and a crash is coming, maybe in another two or three hours, but it is inevitable at this pace. Scott is running an easy second in the 50-miler, at about an 8:30 pace. Outwardly he looks cool and collected but this tells me nothing because even when he is wasted, as I will later see, Scott is cool and collected. I am getting happy feet from watching the runners go by. I can’t stand to watch and not join in, but I promised Al and Prince that I would pace them through the last two or three loops, although that isn’t going to be for maybe seven more hours. But on one lap Scott asks me to pull out some fig newtons for him the next time around and then when he next appears, he asks me to join him for a while. I am only too happy to oblige. We run the next six miles at that easy 8:30 pace, talking about this and that. Mostly we discuss how Fred is looking. Fred is putting about a minute on Scott every loop, and he looks good. But in my opinion Fred is going to crash after about six hours if he doesn’t come to his senses quickly and Scott knows how to go the distance. Scott makes the conscious decision to hang where he is. Experience dictates a waiting game. Actually ultras are dominated by finishing, and real racing is mostly nonexistent. Scott confides in me, even at this relatively early stage, that physically he is fine, but he does not feel mentally prepared for today’s effort. But he is going to hang in there and see what is what in several hours. ‘Several hours’…the perspective of the ultrarunner sure is skewed. I notice Gary Griffin. Gary is coming off of some major injuries and is not sure where he is. I mean, he signed up for the 50K, but started with the 50-milers, who start about 1,000 yards behind the 50K group. I guess that he is just used to starting there and he goes there out of habit. Gary is looking kind of puny when he comes by and I ask him if he wants some company. I can see that Gary is having a rough patch after about 20 miles and I hope that a little companionship will help him see his way to the other side. Rough patches are as common in ultras as they are in almost every race and every workout. It is hard to believe that you will come out the other side when you feel so crappy and you are fighting yourself to not stop and quit. But the fact is that if you make it through a rough patch, you will actually come out the other side feeling stronger than you thought possible. For a while, anyhow. When he sees and hears me, Gary breaks into that big country boy smile of his and says ‘of course, with you my friend’ and thoughts of walking are shelved for the time being. Off we go at his pace, talking about this and that and after a few more miles Gary says that he will go another lap too, because that will be one lap closer to home and maybe he’ll feel better, and maybe he’ll get another lap done, and then another and he might actually find the finish line. Indeed, when it is all over Gary does finish on his feet–and running, not walking–in about 5:10. And then he feels so good and full of running that he runs a few more laps for good measure, cheering and encouraging the others. See, experience in knowing that you can run or just walk even when your body is badgering you to stop, and that it will get better, can make all the difference. After countless miles and hours, Gary knows this, and with a little help for a few miles, he came home the winner that he is. Good effort, Grif! No, not a good effort, rather a GREAT effort. Meanwhile the day is wearing on and the runners are wearing out. I am watching Fred and Scott, and Fred has continued to lead, and not only lead but stretch his advantage. When Fred puts about two miles on Scott, he actually comes up behind and could lap him, and I have a sudden realization that barring absolute and utter collapse, Fred is going to win this race. All he has to do now is keep Scott in his sights, and soon the two are running together, which they continue to do until the last few miles when Scott begins to pull away, but is unable to meaningfully close the gap. Fred, I am sorry that I doubted you this day. Your race plan was executed flawlessly, and you ran with great determination and style. Fred deserved this win, he earned this win, and his indomitable spirit was apparent to everyone who watched the 50- miler. Great race, Fred. Scott had a great race as well. He runs a PR of 7:26 and it is impossible to be sad with that effort. He has no complaints and looks as calm now as he did before and during the race. Sitting in my beach chair, he is smiling and encouraging the others who still have so many more miles and hours to go. I can’t imagine why he is not sound asleep at this point, but he looks fresh, if that is possible. He and Fred are chewing the fat about something, and I am guessing that someone is discussing dinner. As it turns out I am later proven correct. Laps are passing and people are coming and going. Al and Prince have hung together for nearly 36 miles. I can’t stand it any longer and I jump in with them. Prince is yacking nonstop, and then he is trying to perform mathematical calculations in his head. Anything to get through the next few miles. He does not seem physically tired as much as being mentally tested, although I know that after 36 miles surely he is a bit winded. As for Al, he is too quiet and I know my friend does not feel well at all. He complains of an upset stomach, and as we get to the smorgasbord on the rear of the pickup truck he begins to gorge. I think that this is a very bad idea on a queasy stomach after about 38 miles, but Al will have none of it. Prince grabs a Carboom and some salted pretzels and says that he will wait. But it is obvious that he needs to go now, at his own pace, and I tell him to go, I will finish up with Al. As it turns out, Prince does go, and he goes strong too for the remainder of the race. He looks good, and smiles for the next 12 miles and kicks some booty in 9:27. What a great effort, Prince. I bet you are still smiling. I know that you are still talking! As for Al, he stuffs fig newtons and cheezits into his mouth, some double caffeine GU and drinks some Endurox. Then he goes looking for some fruit and snares a banana or two and down the hatch they go. Then more handfuls of cheezits and more Endurox and soon we are walking and then running, and I am hoping to be out of range when Al finally barfs this up. He is going through a rough patch now and I question whether he will make it. All thought of nine hours is gone; Al is on survival mode now. We run along at about an 11 minute per mile pace and I am trying to talk to him about anything and everything. Being a pacer is not as easy as it seems. You are relatively fresh and your charge is not. You can’t go too fast, but you need to keep him moving at all costs. Talking encouragement, talking trash, telling jokes, anything that you can think of. The miles are passing slowly for me, and I have only been out here for 16 miles. What about Al; he is on mile 44 by now. I remember that when Al is tired, really tired, his right foot slaps the pavement and makes a loud sound when he runs. Right now both of his feet are going ‘slap, slap, slap’ and we both start to laugh about it, and I can’t believe that he is laughing after 45 miles. And I can’t believe that he hasn’t ralphed up all the junk that he ate at the last stop, too, but he tells me that he is actually feeling better now that his stomach has calmed down. Hey, maybe, just maybe he is going to make it after all. Al and I have four laps to go, about eight miles. We are trash talking about everyone we know. Under his breath, Al is cursing out everyone else on the course, hoping that no one else will run him down from behind. Then we are discussing the Western States 100, which has accepted him, but as it turns out instead of questioning his sanity about thinking of running 100 miles, Al now wants to discuss his training. Soon we are down to six miles and things begin to look manageable except that it is getting dark out and there aren’t any street lights out here. I never thought to bring my headlamp or flashlight. And it is getting weird, too. At the far end of the course we are accosted by a motorist who is lost and wants directions to Woodville. I give him directions and he asks what we are doing. I tell him that Al is running 50 miles. His mouth just flies open and he says ‘Fifty miles…fifty miles…fifty miles—are you guys crazy?’ Why, yes we are and thank you! We continue on our way. Then we are down to two laps when we pass a disheveled, elderly-looking woman in the fading light of the parking area. She looks at us in the eye and says ‘keep your shoulders back, keep your head up, keep your chin off your chest and run tall’ and then she disappears towards the lodge. Now, I have only been running for 20 miles, so it is a bit too early for hallucinations. I ask Al if he saw that, and he says that he saw her too. OK, we are still OK. Just one lap to go and Al has emerged through the far side of the funk that earlier plagued him, and we are rolling now. The beginnings of a little smile of satisfaction starts to cross his lips and the running, believe it or not, starts to feel almost effortless. We make one more obligatory stop at the tailgate smorgasbord and soon we are running what seems now to be a 2.07 mile victory lap. Not 20 minutes ago the thought of another two miles seemed painfully insurmountable, but now I feel the beginnings of a good runner’s high setting in. I remember very little of that last lap except to applaud Al when he crossed the line to the whistles and clapping of those few remaining race workers and runners, who strayed to see him through to the end. Ten hours and eleven minutes. A job well done. Dinner was at Momo’s Pizza. Although we had run 222 miles amongst the five of us, we still could not finish one of those enormous wagon wheel size pizzas, with ‘everything’ on it. Several pitchers of beer didn’t hurt, either (for medicinal purposes only, I assure you). Al was almost dead asleep in his chair. Prince was still talking. Scott and Fred were quietly discussing running the Tallahassee Marathon the next day and trying to talk Prince into running it with them. For no particular reason I feel like a proud mother hen. As it turns out, Scott ran the marathon the next day in 3:58. Prince ran 4:23. Fred logged a few more miles with them before coming to his senses. And Al went to the Wakulla Springs Lodge for a breakfast of eggs, sausage, grits, toast and coffee, and he cheered them all on until he fell fast asleep in a lawn chair.