Sunday, January 14, 2018

Eyes Wide Open at the 2018 Spring Hill Marathon

“I come to places like this to avoid people like you.” 

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!)
“You don’t like people who buy free beer?” I replied, “Shit, that’s just un-American.”

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!)
I woke up early to get to the race the first morning, arriving with ~300 runners tackling the marathon, half marathon, and 10k/5k courses. The color-clad and fit locals from Black Girls Run were everywhere, and in great spirits on this chilly morning. As the gun went off, we peeled out onto the bike trail and headed south (for the winter!).

(BGR was here in force!)
Total elevation gain was to be less than 200 vertical feet (less than my driveway), so it was no surprise a few runners went out fast. I was hoping to leverage their speed to lower my 2018 Boston qualifier time before the 1/31 deadline to adjust your times. I had run a 2:52 at Boston last year, but a sub 2:48 is required to have a shot at a race bib below 1000. Yeah, a fairly useless ego boost goal, but one that has helped push me to reach that top speed once or twice a year and occasionally nab a PR. It would be a stretch today though – my fitness base was okay, but I was holiday robbed of any specific training, and had lost a few days to a stomach flu five days prior. At my age, I’ve found I need to be firing on all cylinders for sub-2:50. But what can you do? Lace up and get ‘er done.

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 picked up the pace to 6 min/miles, passing a gracious Gary as we sprinted down the long straight sections on the course. It sure felt fast! The aid stations were every 3-4 miles, so I slowed to ensure I got enough food and hydration. The lonely turnaround sign arrived in 1:24:20, but brought a steady stream of new faces and cheers. The body types looked familiar – the fast triathletes and runners up front, the Boston Qualifer hopefuls right behind them, and then an army of every age, sex, body shape, and race you could imagine. We are all the same once the gun goes off, and there were plenty of high fives to prove it.

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 2:51:53 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)
Race Director Craig Levan hosted the awards ceremony, generously presenting $500 checks to the winners. The team from Black Girls Run had their own great awards and t-shirts, and when I asked if I could buy a shirt with my winnings, the organizer said “I can think of two reasons you can’t wear a shirt that says Black Girls Run”. Funny! Still, I was happy to make a donation online and support the cause.

(Back to the roadhouse!)
(The manatee...could very well be the pug of the ocean)
The rest of my winnings went to more rounds of buckets of beer and local seafood as I visited a few more roadhouses and shanti-shack diners along the water, sharing stories and hanging out with live manatee. The locals have a deep love of the land here, almost as deep as their love for Tom Petty (a Florida native...hats off when his songs are played) and local seafood fried in goodness. Join right in, and you will be welcomed.

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.

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