Monday, May 2, 2011

Croom Fools Run 50k

I had an awesome experience at the Croom Fools Run 50k last month.

The race was located in the Croom Forest, a section of the Withlacoochee State Forest near Brooksville, FL. It was limited 250 runners competing in 15 mile, 50k and 50 mile races.

This was my first attempt at an ultra marathon and I could not have asked for a better race. The forest was beautiful, the race was well organized, the volunteers were awesome – now if they could have just done something about the heat.

The course is a 15 mile loop around the forest consisting of mostly single track hiking trails. 15 milers ran one loop, the 50k was two loops and the 50 milers started an hour early to complete three loops.

It was mostly flat or gently rolling hills with the exception of the last four miles of each loop which had one challenging hill after another. We were also forced to descend into several sinkholes for apparently no better reason than that they were there. I later learned that one of these was aptly named the “Pit of Despair” as it had a descent so steep it required handholds to navigate.

The aid stations were stocked with cold water, Heed, Mountain Dew and a smorgasbord of food options: oranges, bananas, cookies, chips, pretzels, and candy. I carried PB&J sandwiches in my pockets and ate two on the first loop, just nibbling on the aid station food along the way. On the second loop I decided to enjoy the offerings at the aid stations. The only thing I regretted sampling was a fist full of pretzels I tossed in my mouth all at once. They set up like concrete and I had a hard time swallowing them. I did suffer from a short bout of nausea after leaving the final aid station at about mile 26. I slowed down for a few minutes and fortunately it eventually passed.

I was surprised at how dissimilar this race was to my two prior marathons. The slower pace, fewer but much more elaborate aid stations, and a strategy that included some walking made this a much more enjoyable experience. In marathons I have always reached a point, usually around 22 miles where I just wished the race would end and finding the motivation to continue required a great deal of effort. I never reached that point in this race. I loved every minute of it.

The first loop was fairly crowded and it was usually difficult to pass due to the narrow trail. This was frustrating at times, especially during down hill sections when I like to open up my stride. I had to keep reminding myself to be patient because it was going to be a very long race. At mile 5, I looked at my watch calculated the distance left, and actually thought to myself - “Only a marathon to go. I can do that.”

I had one close call in the race at about mile 15 when I tripped hard on a root. I managed to stay on my feet but banged my toe pretty bad. In fact, I was afraid at the time that I broke it. Luckily I was only about a mile out from the half way point. Stumbling along for that mile I felt something moving around inside my shoe and convinced myself that it was my toenail. When I reached the aid station I took time to take off my shoes and examine my toe which thankfully still had the nail. It was throbbing but I decided I could still run and was determined to continue. The pain subsided after a few miles but I would occasionally get a painful reminder of the injury when I landed wrong on something hard.

While I was examining my toe at the start/finish aid station I glanced at the person sitting next to me, a 15 miler who was done running for the day and devouring a hamburger like it was his last meal.  He was holding it tightly in both hands slouched over it as if to protect it from being snatched out of his grip.  I looked longingly at that burger while I shook the sand out of my shoe and secretly wished a strong breeze would blow some of that sand onto it.  I don’t think he would have cared.

After dropping the 15 milers, the second loop was very solitary and I ran for miles at a time without seeing anyone. We always seemed to catch up to each other at the aid stations though and the camaraderie was very warm. At Aid Station 2, about mile 24, every runner had the same question on their lips when they arrived, even though we all already new the answer: "How much farther from here?" It was 7 miles. The reaction was always the same. “I can do that!” I saw this ritual repeated time and time again in the few minutes that I rested there. The volunteers were awesome and handled each question as if it were the first time they had heard it.

My race strategy for the race was pretty straight forward:

Start slow
Slow down to take in fluids every mile
Walk the inclines

I carried a 20 oz water bottle to stay hydrated between the aid stations which were spaced 3-5 miles apart. This worked well on the first loop, but by the end of the second, with temperatures in the mid-80’s I was quite dehydrated. I will definitely need to improve my hydration in a longer race.

With this strategy I was able to maintain an average pace of 10:45 for the first loop. On the second loop I lost a lot of time at aid stations and I also found that my definition of an incline changed significantly, I slowed down for anthills. My pace slowed to 13:39. Overall I averaged 12:08 per mile and finished the 31 miles in 6:16:51, right in the middle of the pack. I hoped that I would be able to finish under 12:00 per mile, but I’m still pleased with my time considering that this was my first effort and I could have easily made up the difference just by managing my aid station breaks better.

Instead of a medal, the finisher’s award was a coffee mug. I am a coffee addict, so I know this one will get a lot of use. The finishers party had an atmosphere like a family picnic. They offered burgers, hot dogs, pasta and all the junk food you could desire. It usually takes me a while to get my appetite back after a race. After an hour of trying to rehydrate I finally reached for the closest thing at hand – chocolate cake. It immediately perked me up and the grazing began in earnest.

I did take one gamble with the race. I decided to wear my new Merrell Trail Gloves for the entire race. I put 80 miles on them in training, but never more than 14 miles in a single run so I was not sure how well I would manage in them for a continuous 31 miles. As a precaution I had a spare pair stashed in my drop bag but didn’t need them. My gamble paid off and the Trail Gloves worked great. With the exception of my toe, I didn’t have any “bad” pain during the race, not even a blister. The only issue I had was with sand and debris finding its way into the shoes. I had to stop three times to shake them out. I think some lightweight gaiters may help solve this problem. I absolutely love these shoes.

I am hooked on trail running now and on ultras. I will definitely return to this race next year and attempt the 50 mile run.
These caveman feet served me well.


  1. Wow, sounds like a great race. I am interested in trying something like this, but I think I'll get the 26.2 on road under my belt first!

  2. Great job on the race, Bird - and terrific race report! Hugs on your accomplishment. :-)

  3. That was awesome! You sure do have great race opportunities it seems - too bad you have that heat to go along with it. The last two photos there - of your feet ... fabulous. I thank you for sharing!! Congratulations!

  4. That's awesome!!! Nice write up.