12:10 AM: Marathon Community Park – Marathon, FL
After a dark and desolate drive with very tired eyes, we’ve arrived at exchange #24. We could see runners along the ride for 2-3 exchanges on the drive down, but after that, most of the exchanges were set up and empty. There are currently less than 10 vans here at this major exchange, so we nab a pretty good parking spot and dig the tent and sleeping bags out of the trunk.
Danna, Lindsay and Jim opt to sleep in the van, but Jim helps Raffi and I carry our supplies over to a baseball field that will serve as our camp site for the night. Daphne and Hunter set up a tarp next our tent and sleep under the stars. Although the exchange is fairly quiet now, I know that things will soon begin to get noisy, so I’m glad I’ve brought my sleep mask and ear plugs. After setting up the tent, I hit a real bathroom and settle into my sleeping bag for a little more than four hours of sleep.
I wake a few times during the night and I can hear cheering in the distance, but unlike last year I immediately fall back asleep each time. More than anything, the lack of a pillow disturbs my sleep. The rolled up towel just isn’t cutting it.
5:45 AM: Marathon Community Park – Marathon, FL
Raffi wakes me and I remove my earplugs. There is a lot of noise now. The cheering in the distance is louder and more steady. Somewhere, the sound of a generator or a backhoe or something like that is adding to the clamor. I’m groggy at first and don’t want to slide out of my sleeping bag, but eventually, I get moving and gather everything in the tent.
After stowing the tent back at the van, I dress in my running gear, grab some baby wipes and head to the bathroom. The real bathrooms have quite a long line and there are about 20 people in line for the port a potties. My turn comes sooner than expected since my possession of baby wipes allows me to make use of the port a potty than has no TP. I spend some quality time there, then head back to the van.
Taryn’s arrival will be near 7:00 AM, so I’m debating whether I should wear the night safety gear. I check the Race Bible and the official rule says that legs beginning before 7:30 AM require the use of the safety gear, so I grab a headlamp, a butt light and a homemade reflective orange safety vest. I clip the butt light to the back of the headlamp strap and turn around to spot Raffi chatting with Meredith.
Meredith is the captain of our sister team: Fins to the Left, Cars to the Right. They’re a 9 person team with somewhat faster runners than ours and they’ve started 3 hours after us. They were projected to catch us at exchange #18 and we held them off that long. From our conversation, I gather that they still haven’t caught our team. The pressure is on my van to hold them off for another 6 legs. If we can do that, I surmise, we might actually beat them to the finish. Meredith and I talk a little trash and I head for the exchange point.
6:55 AM: Marathon Community Park – Marathon, FL
As the sun slowly rises, an announcer calls out #142 and Taryn makes her way into the exchange. I grab the bracelet and trot off into the distance. I’m not sure how I’m going to feel. I’ve got 12.5 miles on my legs already and about 4 hours of sleep. This is a 9+ mile leg that traverses the 7 mile bridge. I’ve been visualizing what it would be like during workouts. I’ve run this route many times in my head while on the treadmill listening to Boston’s “Don’t Look Back”. I’ve always known it would be around sunrise. The song pops into my head.
“…the sun is shining – and I’m on that road…”
I’m surprised to find that I’m overcome with emotion and my eyes begin to tear up. I smile at myself for being such a sap and the stiffness disappears from my legs, I pass another runner and spot the bridge ahead.
We’ve been instructed that we’ll be provided with a plastic flask to carry across the bridge since there will be no water available and vans are not allowed to stop on the bridge. I’m not too keen on carrying the flask the whole way since we’re not allowed to drop them on the bridge. I trot up the bridge and spot a small table with a large water jug. No one else is around. There are no flasks. I figure this is just a regular water station and jog right on by. About 25 yards later, I realize that I’m on the bridge and there will be no more water.
I turn around, spotting the runner behind me still about a quarter mile away. I sidle up to the bar and pour some water into the plastic shot glass and slam it. This all feels a bit comical as I pour myself another shot. I daintily sip this one as I watch the runner behind me slowly making his way up the road to the “bar”. I look the other direction and spot the tiny little island that is exchange #25 far in the distance. I toss the plastic cup into the trash bag next to the table.
“Alright, let’s do this,” I say to myself and Boston pops back into my head.
“…I don’t mind where I get taken. The road is callin’ today is the daaaaay.”
The 7 mile bridge is pretty much like any other bridge. It’s just 7 miles long. In the middle is a big hill and I’m focusing on that right now because the little spit of land where my teammates wait doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. I pass a few runners on the approach to the span and pass another on the way up. I focus on my breathing, try to relax and shorten my steps during the climb.
At the top, my hard work is rewarded with a puddle of puke. Apparently one of the runners in front of me wasn’t having such a good time.
As the bridge levels out, my legs are thankful that gravity is no longer working against them. I fall into a nice rhythm that picks up as the bridge turns downward. My pace increases nicely and I’m enjoying the fact that the worst part is behind me. It’s windy and the rush from the large cars driving by pushes my body toward the barrier, but I’m feeling in good spirits now, so I set my sights on the runners ahead.
I pass a few more people on the way into the exchange, bringing my total for the leg to 12. I hand off to Daphne and revel in the fact that I’m done! Meredith is there waiting for her brother, who has just started the leg and I’m happy to point out that I’m finished while she actually still has two more legs to run. We hop in the van and head to the next exchange.
8:20 AM: Bahia Honda State Park – Big Pine Key, FL
We pass Daphne and honk with our usual enthusiasm, but she greets us with a sad look. Raffi pulls the van to the side of the road and I jump out with an orange flag. I know her hips are still hurting from her previous leg on the gravel and I’m certain the downtime has only made them stiffer. I’m fully prepared to hand the flag to Daphne, send her back to the van and finish the remaining 4 miles of this leg myself. More than anything, I’m thinking we can put some more time into our sister team.
“How are you feeling?” I ask as she approaches.
“My hips really hurt, Brian, but I want to finish.”
I quickly realize that I’ve almost let my competitive spirit get the better of me. I give her some advice about using her knuckle to massage her hips to alleviate some of the tightness while she’s running. She gives it a try as she jogs past me.
“Just run your own pace,” I tell her. “We’ll see you at the exchange.”
8:30 AM: Gravel Shoulder – Big Pine Key, FL
We arrive at the exchange, which is just on a wide part of the shoulder of U.S. 1. This type of exchange will become very familiar over the next few hours. I change into my “street clothes” and we cross the street to meet Daphne. She arrives about 13 minutes after her estimated time, but we cheer loudly for her. After handing off to Danna with tears in her eyes, she’s greeted by a big hug from her best friend, Hunter.
I give her a pat on the back.
“You gutted that out,” I say, “that was awesome.” I’m very glad she finished it herself. It means more to everyone on the team than any competition with our sister team.
9:35 AM: St. Peter’s Church – Big Pine Key, FL
We’ve arrive at exchange #27. Daphne heads to a covered eating area with a towel to stretch. Lindsay loans her tennis ball and I show Daphne how to roll on the tennis ball to massage her hips.
“It’ll hurt like hell,” I say, “but it’ll loosen them up.” She gives it a try and the anguished look on her face indicates that my prediction is true.
I leave Daphne to herself and jog over to the exchange where Lindsay waits for Danna to finish. The exchange is right at the end of a small bridge, so it’s hard to see runners approaching, but I sneak up the road a bit and call out to the rest of the team when I see Danna in the distance. She hands off to Lindsay and we pile in the van again.
10:15 AM: Another gravel shoulder – Summerland Key, FL
Jim and I stand sentry as runners approach exchange #28. We spot several people who look like Lindsay in the distance, but none of them turn out to be her. A woman runs by with no number.
“I just live here,” she says with a smile as she jogs by. We all cheer for her anyway.
Eventually, Lindsay appears in the distance and we cheer as she passes by. She runs into the exchange and all the way through, passing off to Hunter who stands on the other side.
10:45 AM: Yet another gravel shoulder – Mile marker 23.5. Somewhere in the keys.
Hunter is searching for a 3 mile PR for this specific leg, so we wait in anticipation for her arrival. She arrives in PR time, hands off to Jim and laments the fact that the leg was actually shorter than 3 miles. Lindsay jokes that this is because she had to run part of it since Hunter was all the way on the far end of the previous exchange. Back in the van, we do some calculations and find that she was at least on PR pace.
11:00 AM: Sugarloaf Elementary School – Summerland Key, FL
We pull into the very crowded parking lot of Sugarloaf Elementary School and meet up with van #1. We proudly point out that we’ve held off the “Fins” team for another 6 legs and that it’s all on them to complete the task and take us to the finish before them. The exchange point itself is located on a very narrow shoulder across the highway from the school, so only the runners are allowed across. A police officer stands watch over the intersection as crowds of people gather to cheer for their teammates across the street at the exchange.
Patrick crosses the street primed and ready for his last leg. Soon, Jim approaches and hands off. We grab some water for Jim, take some pictures with van #1 and the “Fins” team, then hop in the van and head for Key West, looking forward to the luxury of some shower time before the big finish.
Will they finish before the “Fins”? Will they enjoy their showers? Who will stay up past 10 o’clock? Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion later this week!