THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES
Let’s see now… when we last left our merry band of intrepid athletic explorers, Group 2 had completed our fifth leg of the race. We were now in Marathon, FL, at just before 3:15 PM. The sun was still hanging pretty high, the heat was strong, but we were all in good spirits and strong form. We handed our batons of to Group 3, who made their way to the next stop: right before the Seven Mile Bridge. The rest of us hopped into our vans and headed to the hand-off point, snapping a few pictures and excitedly waiting for Group 3 to arrive. Group 1 jockeyed into position and got ready for their toughest challenge of the day: the Seven Mile Bridge journey.
A few moments to reiterate some info about the Seven Mile Bridge leg. Automobiles are forbidden from stopping on any bridges on Overseas Highway, which means that whoever is running on the bridge is running ALL SEVEN MILES. No stops. No shade. No hand-offs. No water stations or medical tents. Your only support crew is what you take with you. Now seven miles in and of itself is an easy distance for experienced runners, but bear in mind that this stretch is coming at (1) 3:30PM in the afternoon on a blazing hot day, and (2) after having run an additional 8 miles earlier that day. So no easy feat. Thankfully the three of them completed it like the bosses they are, and I want to give a special shout out to Jimmy, R.J., and Mike for beating that challenge like it owed them money.
MEANWHILE: the rest of us got all lazy and loungey! While waiting for Group 1 to complete their sojourn, we hit a park at the end of the bridge, one that was replete with beaches, picnic areas, and showers. This was as good a point as any for a wardrobe change and snack time, but this had to follow a much-needed dip in the Atlantic Ocean. Sweaty, stinky clothes were peeled off our lithe, athletic forms and most of us hit the water. To call it “refreshing” would be an understatement the likes of which we could equate to calling Shakira “cute”. The water temperature was absolutely perfect. Cool but not cold (thanks Gulfstream!), gentle, and totally enveloping underneath a blue, cloudless sky. It was a joyously communal moment, and one that was most definitely needed. It felt like absolute paradise. PARADISE!
There we were, sitting down in a fairly shallow area, water up to our chests. Having a good time. I start to feel… something. A little itchiness around my toes. I figure the salt water is seeping into some small tears in my feet. No biggie. It’s supposed to be healing, right? I continue to ignore and chat with my buddies, but the itching slowly starts to turn into a slight burning. The “slightness” quickly becomes stronger, and now I know something is wrong. Standard disclaimer here: I am allergic to insect bites. Not massively so, but even a small nibble is amplified exponentially. I jump up quickly and exited the water, as the burning was getting stronger. I’ve been in and out of the ocean my entire life, familiar with jellyfish and man-o-war stings, and this wasn’t anything like that. This was sea lice doing their work.
One look at my foot made me worry that this might cause some impedance to my running. It was red and bumpy, starting to form a rash on the top of the right foot. I was also feeling it — albeit less so — on my upper right chest. I made my way to the outdoor shower to rinse off. Puneet and Sarah were there, also feeling the same irritation. Since meat tenderizer wasn’t available, I basically had to suffice with a thorough rinsing and some first-aid ointment. The burning eventually subsided, but the itching stayed with me for the next two days. As of this writing (six days later), my foot is still a little bit red and blotchy. BUT it didn’t affect my running ability. That’s the good news. And thankfully, they only attacked about four or five of us. So consider that one a dodged bullet.
After my shower I changed into a fresh clean set of running attire and joined several mates at the picnic tables, eating a turkey & ham sandwich with some pasta salad, washing it all down with some pomegranate flavored coconut water. While we chatted a very proud rooster and his hen made their presences known throughout the park. He was a big one, and I took it as a transcendentalist shout-out from the universe to acknowledge our endeavors. I mean holy moley, once our Group 1 warriors finished and met us at the park, we only had 40 miles to go! Easy! This was gonna be a cinch!! OK so I got attacked by sea lice and my foot looked like an extreme close-up of the Wendy’s girl. We were still gonna finish up with a style, wit, and panache the likes of which would make Oscar Wilde blush!
OK here’s where the story takes a turn for the frightening, confusing, unknown, and angry. VERY angry. Things get really, really serious. And as a word of gentle warning, I’m going to drop quite a few four-letter bombs on all ya’ll. I don’t mean to bring down the make-out room, kids, but here we go…
SHIT GETS REAL
Group 4 took off from the park, which meant that after Groups 5 and 6 completed their runs, our group (Group 2) would get the hand-off (Group 1 received a much-needed break after doing the bridge). Our hand-off point was Mile Marker 34. We parked our van off the road, at a gravel entrance near Camp Sawyer on Summerland Key. I don’t remember the exact time when Group 6 met up to hand-off to us, but it was probably around 5:45 PM. Another of our vans arrived to pick up Group 6, parking next to the van in which we had arrived. Mel was the first of Group 6 to arrive and handed off to me. With the slap bracelet around my wrist, I hit my music, started my Garmin, and took off down the road, starting my sixth leg of the day.
I am going to try to describe what happened next to the best of my ability, but everything that happened from this point on is filtered through a murky haze of recollections that was put together after-the-fact, Rashomon style.
I was probably about 30 yards down, certainly not much farther than that, when I first heard it, even through the music pumping in my headphones (I remember the exact song, for some reason. “Sin Wagon” by the Dixie Chicks). A loud, tire screeching noise that cut through the early evening swelter. I quickly peered around to see what was going on. A silver Ford Fusion, heading southbound right by our hand-off point, was fishtailing out of control. Right where our runners were supposed to be handing off.
“Oh freakin’ no…”
I stopped and watched in shock. It seemed to happen in slow-motion and ridiculously fast, all at once. The Fusion rear-ended a blue Titan and sent that truck careening almost into the northbound lanes. But it didn’t end there.
A black SUV — containing kids heading to the scout camp — was turning right into the Camp Sawyer entrance. The Fusion, unable to stop even after rear-ending the Titan, smashed right into the SUV… and to my horror I watched it go airborne.
Right next to our vans.
OUR VANS WITH RUNNERS IN THEM. And several of them outside right next to them.
The SUV was now on its two driver-side wheels, the passenger side elevated at a 45 degree angle off the ground. It hit one our vans on the driver side, smashing the windshield, crushing the grill and the wheel well. I watched helplessly as our van reacted to the sudden impact, not knowing if there was anyone trapped behind the wheel there, or if people were getting tossed around inside. I didn’t know anything at that moment, but shock, fear, and concern for my friends. The SUV bounced off our van and finally came to a stop in the grass about 15 yards away.
Meanwhile, the Fusion continued its frenzied path. After rear-ending the Titan and sending the SUV into the air — THAT is how fast and out of control it was — it came to a screeching halt by smashing into the front of our OTHER van, right near the fender on the driver’s side. This Fusion managed to hit THREE cars, rendering two of them instantly un-driveable (the SUV and the first van).
I ran back immediately. I had to. I had no idea if anyone was hurt, injured, crushed, who knows what. I couldn’t see everything. There were people — FRIENDS — standing at that very spot just mere moments ago. I was engulfed in fear and panic. Those next few minutes were a blur. Everyone was out of the vans. We checked with our group as well as passengers in the other three cars to make sure nobody was injured. Emergency phone calls were made. Confusion reigned supreme.
Here’s some of the aftermath. I’m holding off captions. I don’t think they’re needed.
When the shock began to wear off, there was an immediate sense of relief that everybody was fine — and thank GOD everyone was; it could have been an absolute disaster. One of the passengers in the SUV had an injured shoulder, but emergency rescue was on their way. But the relief that came from knowing we were all physically OK dissipated when our thoughts turned to what was going to happen with our race now. We had no means of transportation, no way of shuttling runners from one leg to another. One van was totaled, the second was also hit; it was unknown how driveable that second van might be, since the Fusion was still smashed up against it and we couldn’t test drive it until after the accident investigation took place and cars were towed away. We had a third van that was still on its way from picking up runners from its last leg. That meant we had one working van right now, but we also had to coordinate the transportation of 18 runners and 4 support people. And nobody could go anywhere ANYHOW, since the accident scene was still fresh and had to be investigated.
It was a total mess of a scene. Confusion reigned everywhere. I was a witness to the accident, so I spoke with FHP after they arrived. Since there were so many passengers and people involved, the investigation was taking a really long time. Confusion turned into restlessness and boredom. Tempers were starting to flare with some people. I started handing out Fig Newtons because I literally had nothing else to do. I called Boots to let her know what was going on. She was already down in Key West and had checked into our room at the inn. She was understandably worried, got in the car, and drove up to meet us. I also started posting updates on Facebook from my phone, with pictures of the accident scene. In retrospect I probably shouldn’t have done that at that time; despite my assurances that everybody was fine, and that nobody was injured, it still worried a lot of people. My sense of tact could use some tweaking.
Calls were made to Enterprise car rental as well as to the Race Director, to find what all our options were. We didn’t know how long this was going to take, or whether we could procure replacement vans anytime soon (or at ALL), or whether we’d have to lose Brett since he was told he’d have to accompany the towed vans back to Enterprise and get mired down in paperwork, or whether we’d be disqualified since we might be losing sanctioned race vehicles, or anything. Tempers were flaring. People were starting to get angry, annoyed, fed up, and absolutely done with this entire ordeal.
I should know. I was one of them.
Every little thing was starting to get me angry. Millheiser Men are world-renowned for their ‘somewhat’ scary tempers. Everyone was trying to figure out what our next move was, with disagreement everywhere. One member of our team shouted something obnoxious at the Fusion driver while he was being interviewed by a State Trooper, and that got me plenty annoyed. The Trooper turned to me and muttered sarcastically, “That was so entirely classy.” I agreed with him. Boots had arrived and surveyed the extent of the damage with me. I was ready to leave, just say Fuck-all to the race, the commitment, everything, everyone. At that moment, I just didn’t care. That glare-n-scowl that comes when my meltdowns begin was in full swing. We were stuck there, with no idea was happening next, nowhere to sit, really. Eaten by insects. Sniping.
I was done. Didn’t even want to deal with any of this. My car was there. I needed a beer and a shot and somewhere away from this place. I could be in Key West in half and hour and be done with the whole affair.
Except… except I’m not a quitter. I may not like the things that I start, but I always finish them. That voice inside my head kept reminding me of this, no matter how much I tried to drown it out.
After about two hours and change sitting around listlessly in this emotional maelstrom, we finally had a picture of where we stood. One van was gone. Pat gave the second van a test-drive after emergency personnel told us it was OK to move it. The second van turned out to be very OK to drive. So now we had two vans. We also had my car, and Ilene’s husband showed up with their vehicle. I was still massively pissed off over everything, pretty much not talking to anybody, but I agreed to run my sixth leg of the race to help the group out. After that, all bets were off. I was convinced after that leg I’d say fuck-all to everything and everyone.
Just before 8PM, our race picked back up. Meredith, Ilene and I took off from Mile Marker 34. I really didn’t want to deal with anyone anymore. Headphones went in, I buckled down and hit the road for the next two miles. I told Boots to meet me at Mile Marker 32. In my mind, I was already over this race. Done. Aggravated beyond hell. We finished Leg 6 averaging about a 10 minute mile. The vans were waiting, I stripped off my bib belt, got in my car, and told Boots to drive. Just go. I was FINISHED. And I exploded with rage inside the car.
But of COURSE I wasn’t finished, and I could never quit. I knew this all too damn well. I cared very much about the people I was running with. These weren’t just teammates, these were friends. Leaving the race meant that they would have to double-up on legs, making already tired and stressed-out people even more exhausted and aggravated. This could also potentially disqualify the team from the entire race! No way in Hell I could ever do that to buddies. I’d never be able to look them in the face again. Shit. I wouldn’t be able to look MYSELF in the face again. I’ve never been a quitter. I committed to this event, to my friends, to myself. I looked forward to this all year. To be thirty-two miles away and drop the fuck out? Is this the legacy I wanted to leave for myself? Not in a million freakin’ years. Not even close.
Boots helped remind me of all of this. She was a godsend. And I knew all of it too. The desire to drop out left me almost immediately, leaving me feeling foolish at first… and then, STRONGLY recommitted. I got my phone out and texted Sarah and Mark, letting them know to tell the team I was definitely still in, and in it to win it. I was still running and still a teammate. My next scheduled leg was to start at Mile Marker 22, and I’d meet them there.
And that’s when I felt strong, when I remembered why I started this adventure in the first place. Yes, for the love of all things holy and to take a tack from my first full Marathon experience last January, SOMEONE CUE THE ROCKY MUSIC.
Later on, people were genuinely thanking me for sticking around. That was entirely too sweet and gracious of them. I should have been thanking them instead.
Boots & I stopped at a convenience store, where she grabbed some dinner and picked up some more water and Gatorade. I ate again, this time a chicken and dried fruit salad from Publix. We sat in the car by MM22 and listen to Howard Stern for about an hour. My anger and frayed emotions were replaced with laughter and serenity. Ilene showed up soon after and we chatted for awhile, and put on our night gear, as it was about 10:15 PM. I had my headlamp, reflective vest, and blinking LED lights around both arms. I probably looked silly as hell, but I didn’t care. We were approaching endgame!
R.J., Mike, and Jimmy soon came around for the hand-off, and at 10:23 PM we hit the pavement for Leg 7 of the race. Meredith ran with me while Ilene took off ahead of us. We had a really solid chat session during that two mile stretch, which was nice since I was starting to feel the exhaustion. We all had been up since 4AM (or earlier), with 12 miles of running behind us and 4 ahead. My calves were pretty sore and energy was rapidly depleting, but we maintained a solid pace, albeit a slower one at a 10:40 minute mile (and let’s face it; I was slowing Meredith down, but she ran with me anyhow). The roads were plenty dark and plenty narrow, so I was doubly glad to have the headlamp on me. Twenty minutes later we were at the next hand-off point at MM20. Boots was cheerfully waiting at the car for me as I slapped the bracelet onto Jamie’s wrist. I high-fived several buddies who were happy to see me still racing (while I was still feeling slightly embarrassed about the whole ordeal).
Back in the car, another trip to a Circle K while I drank a chocolate milk and basked in the A/C and Howard Stern on the radio. This was gonna be real easy. I only had one more leg to go! We eventually made our way to MM10. I felt a lot of excitement coursing through me, but I have to admit, I was pretty thoroughly exhausted and had a near two-hour wait to start. By the time Group 1 rolled around and handed off to us, it was 12:40AM. No matter though. Ilene, Meredith and I took off on our last leg of the race. And it was a most JOYOUS leg. I no longer cared about pace, time, anything. I was just glad to be there, and to be finishing upright and proud, at a comfortable, easy pace. Meredith finished fast and strong, taking off way ahead of Ilene and I. No matter. Ilene and I agreed to drop our intervals to 5:1 on that last leg, sometimes even 5:1.5 or maybe even a 5:2? Ahh who cares. I was in a great mood, almost a little goofy. The entirety of that leg was on smooth paved paths off the side of the road, so it felt safe, fun, and easy. And strangely, perhaps even sadly, it was over too quick. At MM8 the vans were waiting for us, cheering and clapping our last leg. Lots of hugs and high-fives as the baton was passed… and I was elated. No more legs to run, and I had fulfilled everything I set out to do. No quitting. No surrender. I was goofin’ out with pride.
Goofin’ Out With Pride… a little cheeseball, but that could be a nice subtitle to my experience. I’ll take it.
All that was left now was to meet up with the entire team a quarter-mile from the Finish Line at 2:15AM, where we would all run and cross the Finish Line together at Higgs Beach. Boots and I drove into Key West, stopped at our room at the Author’s Guest House Inn, toasted with some Blue Moons (which never tasted better!), got back into the car and made our way to Higgs Beach. Our timing was perfect, as we met up with the team just a few minutes before Group 6 made there way down to our meeting point. Amidst much cheering and general joyous hoo-hah, all 18 of us ran that last bit together and crossed the Finish Line as a proud group of sore, exhausted, but MIGHTY powerful champions!
Total time: 20 hours, 36 minutes.
And that, my friends, was that; an ordeal that involved an incredible amount of mileage, stamina, sweat, patience, integrity, pain, itchiness, grit, vim, vinegar, seltzer, chocolate babies, clown shoes, iron monkeys, and camaraderie that made every last bit we went through — EVERY last bit — more than worth it. Eighteen runners and four support members, as well as fans, friends, family, and some of great pep talking (I’m talking about you, Audrey! For reasons we both know I can’t discuss, your amazing and much-needed participation in our adventure has to go publicly unrecognized, but I think I can say for all of us that you helped turn everything around for the positive at our darkest moment), and we prevailed and triumphed. And finally, none of this would have been possible without the amazing organization, leadership, resilience, and general running captain awesomeness of Brett, who steered us to the Finish Line when it looked he might not have been able to do so himself. Thankfully, he didn’t have to accompany the towed van and was able to continue guiding us towards victory! Muchas thanksias Brett for all your guidance!
The Finish Line had burgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, potatoes, beer, soda, water, anything and everything for a tired and hungry group of runners. After pics and chowing down, we all trekked back to the Inn to bathe in the pool, shower, enjoy a celebratory cocktail, and finally pass out in a big comfy bed. I gotta admit: I was happy but annihilated. I enjoyed another a beer, then took a shower (a COLD one!), climbed into bed, and by just after 4AM I was out like a bulb.
The rest of the weekend was an enjoyable time in Key West. Boots & I woke the next morning around 11AM, walked to Duval and had an amazing lunch and cocktails at Willie T’s (complete with Bloody Marys and Key Lime Mojitos, and both drinks were AMAZINGLY good), made our way back for a much-needed late afternoon nap (I was still pretty tired), and by sunset we drove out to Mallory Square for the sunset.
On the pier there we ate THE best conch fritters I’ve ever had in the continental US (but not *quite* as good as the ones I’ve had throughout the Caribbean), met up with our buddies and had a most entertaining dinner at Turtle Kraals, celebrating our success with drinks, food, and laughter. Afterward, Boots, Sarah, Puneet, Mark, Gay, Mike, Sheri, Meredith and I walked down Simonton to Bobby’s Monkey Bar for Sunday night karaoke. Sarah and I had the brilliant idea of signing Sheri up (unknowingly) to sing Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” and Prince’s “Kiss”. Mark serenaded us with Jimmy Buffett’s “Fins” and was joined by Gay for a duet on the Foo Fighters’s “Learn To Fly”. Boots was a peach singing kd lang’s “Miss Chatelaine” and rocked the house with Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me”. And yours truly? I think I acquitted myself respectably with Van Halen’s “Ice Cream Man” and Air Supply’s Yacht-Rock classic “Lost In Love” — the latter of which so compelling, I even got a local woman onstage with me playing tambourine and singing along.
As we drove home the next day, I couldn’t help checking out all the Mile Markers on Overseas Highway heading northbound. Remembering where we had stood, where we had run, where we relaxed, slept, ate, and yes, where we went through panic and confusion. I’ve been up and down US1 through the Keys more times in my life than I can begin to count. And yet now, what was once just a long, tranquil, slow two-lane stretch is forever changed into something wholly… other. One hundred miles of a transformative, communal experience that really brought friends together and showed the resilence of the adventurous human condition. Not to get all maudlin on everyone gang; no matter how poetic I might attempt to be about this subject, in the end I was just Goofin’ Out With Pride. And on that note, I take my bow. Vaya con pollo, mon freres.
And as always, here’s the video: