Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Green Swamp

The Green Swamp marathon was held last weekend just outside of Dade City, Florida. This event is part of the Dances with Dirt trail running series, which included the Gnawbone race. Most of the race took part in the Withlacoochee River Park, with all of the race off-road. The race was very small. They had several events, from a 10K to a 50 miler. The 50K (31 miles) seemed to be the most popular (72 finishers compared to 42 marathon finishers), and they started with the marathoners and did the marathon course, adding on five miles afterwards. I think both events would have appreciated finishing together. I went down the night before and camped at the park to be ready in the morning for the seven o'clock start. It was primitive camping, but I slept well in the hammock listening to Barred Owls and Whippoorwills, and woke up to a morning in the mid-40's. It felt good to get moving. I carried a little disposable camera to document my adventure.

Having done Gnawbone, I was a little bit more prepared with what to expect. All of the race was off-road, but not all of the race was on trails. The area had been very dry recently, so mud was not as much of a problem as loose, dry sand. Here you can see us avoiding the sand trap to the best of our ability. That was not always possible, especially when they sent us down rugged, sandy firebreaks. I stayed with a good group for the first ten miles or so. It was hard to keep track of distance, since there were not many landmarks other than the several aid stations. I set the timer function on my watch to go off every ten minutes to remind me to take a drink and didn't look at the time otherwise.

A gopher tortoise watches us pass. By mid-morning, the sun was up and shining down on us. There were scattered high clouds and an occasional breeze. After about ten miles, I dropped out of the group I was with to re-fill my water bottles. I headed on with a guy tagging along behind me. He didn't say much, but he seemed content just to shadow me. That kept me going for a while. I wanted to manage my pace to give myself energy to finish.

Joy and Megan had driven down in the morning and were going to be waiting for me at the aid station at mile 18.8. This point was the furthest east point of the race, with the course making its way back west and north to the finish. I stopped to grab some refreshments at the station. Without realizing what I was doing, I grabbed a paper cup full of mountain dew and chugged it. Not being accustomed to soft drinks or caffeine, I was hoping that would not be too much of a problem. Unfortunately, it was. I took walk breaks when my stomach dictated, but I still couldn't prevent throwing up a couple miles later. I knew that put me behind the eight ball with hydration and blood sugar, especially since I didn't feel like I could really keep anything down afterwards. What became more of an issue was my abs and chest muscles not being able to relax after vomiting, making it difficult to catch my breath, even while walking. Needless to say, I did not run much after that.

But, that might have been just as well. At that point in the race, the course left the trails and two-tracks it had been following and meandered its way across open fields, as in the above two pictures. That is not a picture looking to the right or left, that is the course. The course was marked with pink pin flags about a foot tall. A constant alertness was required to stay on course, which is one quality lacking in many marathoners after mile 20 lack. Many times I would yell after a fellow runner to head back to the trail. I was very happy to see the final aid station, which meant that I only had a mile to go. Here the trail became even more obscure. Almost the entire race after mile 19 was alone, only occasionally seeing another runner.

The Withlacoochee River is a major river in Florida, flowing into the gulf near Crystal River. The race was held much closer to its headwaters. I knew that we would have a crossing before the end, but it was quite welcome to wade through its cool water. It was more problematic to dodge all of the myriad cypress knees.

Here I celebrate finishing with my chicken dinner and trophy pint glass. Due to a small sample size, I won my age division with a finish time of 5:25. I was disappointed with my time and performance, but I was thrilled to be able to participate and finish an event like this. By no means, do I place much blame on the mountain dew. I could see the wall approaching inexorably from about mile seventeen on. My hope was that walking and refueling would allow me to push on at a decent pace. Alas, that was not to be. It was warm that day, getting up into the mid-70's, but that was not that hot. I was happy to avoid all leg and arm cramps. I still love trail marathons, especially because they represent the existence of an area wilderness that still has the ability to challenge us. That challenge, in and of itself, also is valuable. It is worthwhile to confront pain and limitations to remember those who live with them.

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