by Rich Flint
Croom is part of the Withlacoochee State Forest and was named one of the “10 Coolest Places in North America” by the World Wildlife Fund in 1999.
The race has three distances: a 16-mile, a 50K and a 50-mile race. I was originally signed up to run this race last year, but some life events caused me to defer to this year. The 50-mile run consists of a 5-mile starter loop followed by three 15-mile loops.
The event is limited to 250 participants with 125 maximum at the 16-mile run and is put on by Tampa Races.
The weather forecast for the race day was 80% chance of rain with humidity around 90% and temps from 65-80 degrees - typical Florida winter/spring weather.
The 50-milers started at 6 a.m., so a light of some sort is needed for at least the first hour and 15 minutes of running. It had been raining during the night, but at start time it was nice and 62 degrees.
At the start of the race, with most of the runners staying together in groups of two or three, the pace was slow mostly due to visibility. I stayed comfortably with the lead pack, most of whom had run the course several times and knew the way. At the end of the 5-mile loop we passed through the drop zone, but it was still too dark to ditch the head lamp, and the five or six guys and two girls I had been running with all stayed together and kept running.
As soon as we left the drop zone we hit about a quarter-mile stretch where we were running downhill over a heavily rooted trail, making it sometimes necessary to hop from root to root. After that, the trail widened, the pace quickened, and the group thinned out even though it was still mostly single track at this point, and running was comfortable and easy.
After a while only three of us were running together and talking. Around mile 10 or 12, I happened to comment "So who do you think’s lea." At that point I laughed out loud and looked at my watch. We were only running 9-minute miles, but that was far too fast for me to keep up for 50 miles. I told the guys I would have to talk with them later and slowed the pace.
It was around 3 hr 40 min when I made it back into the drop zone and was met by my wife Denise. She took my light and empty drink bottle and handed me a full one, gave me my ration of gels and kicked me out the other side. I had instructed her to ask about how much fluid I had been drinking and if I needed salt, which she did but I declined the salt.
That proved to be a mistake as I started cramping in the calves within the first three miles of leaving the drop zone. I slowed the pace even further and started walking more. I was only halfway through the race and I was feeling spent. (To back up just a bit, I always set two goals for my races. The first one is an unrealistic or a "if everything goes just right and I get a good tail wind" and the other a more reasonable one. This being the first 50 miles I had ever run and 20 miles further than I had ever run before, I thought to set any goal was foolish but this was the "fools run" so I decided that absolute very best for me
would be 9 hr but more likely would be 10 hr.) But at this point I wasn't sure I was going to make it through the entire race.
At the next aid station, which was about seven miles from the drop zone I asked what they had for salt, and said I was cramping. This older, wiry-looking guy grinned and pulled out a bottle of potassium pills and gave me two. They also gave me some Gatorade and some potato chips, and I was again on my way.
After about another mile, a young lady passed me then slowed down, and we talked for a while. She had run the race the year before as her first 50 miler. She told me she found that after the first 25 miles the pain doesn't really get any worse. I found that somewhat comforting. I could tolerate what I was feeling as long as it didn't intensify. About three more miles we came to the next aid station, which also happens to be the start of the hardest part of the course. It was set up right after the place known as "Devil’s Hole," a deep sinkhole that you have to climb down, then back up out of. I stopped at the aid station and asked what they had with sugar and the lady smiled, handing me a cup and said, “Mountain Dew?”
Just the thought lifted my spirits, and I drank 3 cups. The energy boost was almost instant, but so were the hills that made up the last four or so miles into the drop zone. By the time I got there, I was not at all happy.
Up to this point the weather had managed to cooperate with only a light sprinkle here and there, but the skies were getting darker and it looked like a storm was about to cut loose. Denise told me we were under a tornado alert. My feet were damp but not soaking, but I still decided to change into dry shoes, socks and shirt. I also took some salt, put on my hydration pack with some solid food for later, drank a little more Dew, then I told the wife I didn't want to do this anymore and headed down the trail.
I had just made it past the section of roots when the first of the rains started. It was a slow sprinkle at first, but by the time I had gone a mile it was pouring and I could hear thunder in the distance. After another mile or so it was raining so hard I could barely see a few feet in front of me, the trails had turned to rivers and I was running in ankle-deep water most of the way.
Oddly enough, in site of the weather, I was feeling good and holding about an 11-minute-mile pace. At the next aid station I stopped for them to record my check-in time, drank some Dew and thanked them for sticking it out, then headed on down the trail. By the time I made it to the aid station where they had given me the potassium pills, I was feelling so much better that I burst out of the woods to where they were and shouted, "HEY IT'S MY FAVORITE AID STATION PEOPLES!" They had been huddled under the small tarp that was over their table trying to stay dry but when they saw me coming they sprung into action asking me how I felt, what I needed, could they refill my hydration pack? (I have to say at this point, that everybody at the aid stations was amazing, but these guys were my heroes.They had pulled me from the pits of hell, and I had come out the other side running strong again.)
To put icing on the cake, I heard someone behind me say "There you are." It was my Denise, she had come down from the drop zone to meet me and give me a motivation boost and it worked. I was happy and smiling.
Did I also say they they had Mountain Dew at that aid station, too? I have to tell you that I seldom drink soda and almost never is it Mountain Dew, but I was drinking it like it was the elixir of the gods at this point.
It was still a tough seven miles to the end of the race, and my legs were on fire. I still had to make it through Devil’s Hole and all the hills, but I was feeling good and starting to do the calculations. If I pushed and everything went right I might, just might make it in under 9 hours.
During the worst of the storm, the winds where blowing so hard that debris was falling out of the tree. At one point a dead limb about the size of my arm hit the trail about 15 feet ahead of me. But now it was only a drizzle, and I was on a mission.
The aid station right after Devil's Hole was manned by only one person. He was soaked to the bone . His check-in sheet was so drenched, if he touched it it would have fallen to pieces. But when he saw me coming he was to his feet, ready and eager to do whatever he could to help. I have never seen such a great bunch of folks. I told him how much I appreciated them being there for us.
My watch had died at mile 42, so I was pushing as hard as I dared and making calculations based on assumptions but I was pretty sure I still had a shot at making it in under 9. As I came up out of the woods to the finish line, I could see the clock was reading 8: 57:15, and I crossed at 8:57:40.
I had run my first 50-mile race, I drank water, I did not die, and I even managed to smile a time or two.
Of course, none of this would have been possible had it not been for the love and support of my wife Denise, who knows how much these things mean to me and helps and encourages every step of the way.