That was the opening line of this giant of a man, fully clad in motorcycle leathers, as he approached my table at a honky tonk biker bar in the rural everglades of Spring Hill, FL. He was correct that this skinny runner was out of place - the gulf coast of Northwest Florida is rooted in American soil, yet unlike any America I know day to day. Rural towns, miles of double wide trailers, trash talking Trumplandia on every corner, more Walmarts and Dollar General stores than Starbucks, and a horizon void of mountains in all directions. It’s completely unlike my home in California. And it’s exactly why I came.
|(UMF of America...note the hand below it!)|
As a hush fell, I scooted my plastic bucket of Budweiser beers towards him and inched down to the edge of the picnic bench. This redneck olive branch is impossible to resist, particularly for Harley-riding bikers in the Florida humidity, and within a few seconds his friends filled the table. He sat down and cracked one open with a smile, and I noticed his jacket sported the patch for “UMF of America”. I had to ask what it meant.
“Ugly Mother Fuckers of America. It’s a crazy social club, and we have fun riding and BBQ’ing to raise money for St. Jude’s Childrens Hospital.” he explained. I was shocked and impressed all at once, a reaction he was clearly used to, and enjoyed tremendously.
“Did you have to apply, or did you get an honorary membership based on your Facebook photo?” I asked to the roaring cheer of his friends. “Sorry, I get a little ugly myself after a few beers. It sounds like a very cool organization.”
“You know, you might be okay after all…but you’ll need a few more buckets before we consider you for membership,” he chuckled, winking as he downed his beer. This guy is cool. Like, seriously cool. All I had to do was reach his level of ugly long enough to connect.
Welcome to the real America. These days, the most foreign land I know.
It was work travel that opened this door for me, starting 2018 with a trip to Orlando for a conference. I do my best to find a marathon/ultra in town beforehand on these trips, and I had the choice of running the Disney World Marathon and its predictable army of smiles (both real and illustrated), or truck two hours west to the rural everglades of the Spring Hill Marathon. The Spring Hill Marathon was a small local race that promised a lot of new adventure – a fast and flat out-and-back course, an annual celebration for Black Girls Run (a fast growing international running group for black women), and smack dab in the center of this rural community. Throw in the hyper-real experience of an Airbnb stay, and adventure was sure to be had.
Cindy, my Airbnb hostess, was amazing. She had retreated to her “vacation trailer” in Florida after a divorce two years ago, one of the few areas she could afford to live when personal disaster strikes (a common relocation theme here). Two years of hard work later, she had built a new home from the frame out, saving daily for every tile and fixture, and installing them one at a time while she lived in the garage with the only sink with flowing water. The house was now immaculate, and knowing the sweat and blood she poured into it to get it to this level made it all the more special. The baloney, ranch dressing, and Bud Light hors d’oeuvres were also a nice touch.
|(Lining up for the start with Angela's Angels)|
|(Getting ready to roll!)|
|(BGR was here in force!)|
Ryan Farnan, a collegiate cross country runner from Florida eyeing his first marathon in a few months, went off like a banshee at a 5:30 min/mile pace, leading the half marathon and pulling 3-4 of us from the pack. I ran behind Gary Krugger from Flagstaff, AZ, who was leading his 300’th-ish marathon despite a flu-inspired cough. As we passed the turnaround for the half marathon (mile 6.5, 39:00), there were four of in the marathon about three minutes apart. Not too far behind was a very close race for the Women, with first time marathoner Gretchen Macmillan and Tampa runner Sally Watkins within a minute of leader Alessandra Scodinu.
|(Enjoying the miles on a flat Florida course)|
I was on a negative split pace, but at mile 23, I had to slow down to fight off some dizziness, perhaps reaping what I sowed with those buckets of beer. The last few miles were at a “hang on” 6:50 min/mile pace, so I suspected a new PR was not in the cards. I finished in 2:51:20 for first place and a new course record, a mere 44 seconds bettering of my BQ time, but with a smile nonetheless. Greg Krugger (3:08) took second, just ahead of Joseph Materese (3:08) and Shane Magnan (3:11). Sally Watkins (3:33) took an hour off her marathon best to win the Women’s division, and immediately began making plans for Boston. Her secret? A year long training plan followed to the mile. Alessandra Scodinu (3:39) and Gretchen Macmillan (3:41) filled out the podium. (all results)
|(Greg Krugger and I relaxing at the finish)|
|(The Women's marathon podium)|
|(Some fun swag...and a check!)|
|(A thanks to Race Director Craig Levan)|
|(Back to the roadhouse!)|
|(The manatee...could very well be the pug of the ocean)|
This is a fascinating slice of America, unique and still a bit strange to me, but significantly less ugly once you take the time to connect. Thanks to Race Director Craig Nolan, Black Girls Run, the UMF of America, and my gracious Airbnb host for helping me experience it first hand.