Race Review: 2014 Wings For Life World Run (Sunrise, FL — 5/4/2014), or: “Fly along with me, I can’t quite make it alone…”

wings-for-life-world-runHere’s a touch of personal back story to give this race review what nine out of ten fictitious bloggers call “The Hook” — something to reel you in. As usual, this is a bit of self-indulgence that adds little except for some local flavor to the proceedings. Anyway, back when I used to play football in school we often had this absolutely terrifying exercise called “Wild Dog”. I wasn’t a fast kid; I was a lineman, so speed wasn’t my forte. Regardless, the “Wild Dog” exercise was simple: everyone had to quickly run a full lap around the football field, in full pads. Everyone, except for the fastest running back on the team. He was the designated Wild Dog. Then the obese, monosyllabic dude with the clipboard wearing blue polyester shorts we called “Coach” would blow the whistle, informing us to start running, fast. Then roughly 30 seconds later, Coach would unleash the Wild Dog, who was instructed to tear around the field and pass as many players as he could.

Every player the Wild Dog passed… had to run a second lap. Sometimes a third. This was obviously biased against us slow linemen, because we were usually the ones doing extra laps as a result. I’d label this as cruel and unusual punishment, but this was high school, and Coaches were not only allowed to be sadistic as hell but also chewed WAY too much Copenhagen tobacky. Ahh, the 80s…

WFL-WorldRun-landscapeThis brings us to the Wings For Life World Run, a race event taking place concurrently at 34 cities around the world. One event, one race, thirty-four locations. Everyone starts at the same time together, in such diverse and exotic locations like Verona, Italy, Barcelona, Spain, Cape Town, South Africa, Kerry, Ireland, Santiago, Chile… and Sunrise, Florida. That’s right — SUNRISE. A magical mystical suburban wonderland of strip malls, chain restaurants, big box stores and sensible shoes.

Did I happen to mention that I live right smack dab in the middle of Sunrise?

The prospect of running this race was a veritable no-brainer. Sponsored by Red Bull, the Wings For Life World Run donates 100% of all race registration fees and other donations directly to the Wings For Life spinal cord research foundation. I paid $50 to enter and every last cent of it went to find a cure for spinal cord injuries. This was a cause that anyone could get behind, plus the start line was maybe 5 minutes from our home. This would be an opportunity to do a whole lot of good, with a whole lot of people, all around the world. Simultaneously. While I would be running around my local streets, there’d be runners at the same time trotting about New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, Peru, Italy, Croatia, Poland, Portugal, and elsewhere.

This was a true Global Event that strove to do some tangible good for this world. I was in. No question.

Most_Dangerous_Game_posterIf that weren’t enough, the unique nature of the race allowed runners to avail themselves a different type of challenge. Simply put: there was no Finish Line. Instead, the Wings For Life World Run featured a “moving finish line” known as the Catcher Car. The Catcher Car is the “Wild Dog” running back I alluded to earlier. Precisely thirty minutes after Start Time, a white Wings For Life car with a sensor takes off from the Start Area. It moves at a relatively slow pace, but fast enough to start catching up with runners. When the Catcher Car finally passes you — your race is over. The sensor reads the information off the timing chip on your race bib, records your time and distance, and marks you as finished. As the Catcher Car passes you, a host of shuttles behind it picks up the finished runners and takes them back to the Start Area for their medals, post-race food/drinks, and entertainment.

Your job, as a runner, is to elude the catcher car for as long you can! That means run, dammit!! Now that’s the type of challenge that really puts a twist on your entire race approach. First of all, it’s damn fun. You’re always aware that, 30 minutes into the race, someone, something, SOMEWHERE back there is hunting you down. It might be going slow, but it’s going quite a bit faster than you. It WILL catch up with you. Your challenge is simply, how far can you go before you’re hunted down?

Kind of puts a new spin on things, as far as race strategy goes…

Anyway, that’s enough of my intro spiel. Let’s talk about the event proper. And more importantly how, out of the many racing, running, and endurance events I’ve participated in, the Wings For Life World Run has become the single most uplifting  and fulfilling event in which I’ve ever participated.

Ooh that was heavy. Sincere, but heavy. But let’s get to it.

The sad confession is that, while I was already registered for the event, I almost didn’t run it. The day before, I ran 6 miles around Sunrise and Plantation with my running buddy Kristi. We literally ran past the BB&T Center, where they were already setting up for the race on Sunday. To say the weather wasn’t cooperating was an understatement; it was miserable. We started running at 6:30 AM and it was already hot, muggy, ridiculously humid, and absolutely breezeless. By South Florida standards, it felt like the heart of a sweltering thick and oppressive summer. Kristi had just run the Big Sur Marathon a week before, and she remarked that she sweat more during the first few miles of our 6-miler than during the entire 26.2 miles of Big Sur! The thought of doing it again the next morning was not exactly pushing me into the Excitable column by any means.

Still, hope springs eternal. I went to pick up my registration around 3 PM at the BB&T Center. It was still typical summer weather… in spring. Bursts of heavy rain erupted every 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of thick, warm mugginess. My enthusiasm was fairly low, but I did manage to bump into Katarina, another fun running buddy (and Cards Against Humanity enthusiast) who was also participating in the run. We grabbed our registration packets and posed for our “we grabbed our registration packets, here’s proof” photo:

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Kat’s smile is genuine. I think. I needed A/C so bad, my face was mutating into a smile-like position…

We agreed to meet up at the Start Line the next morning. I was still ambivalent about participating, but I figured I might as well follow through with it. It looked like it was going to be such an interesting event that, even with the crappy weather and a forecast that was threatening thunderstorms in the morning, there was still NO WAY I was going to miss out on any of it.

Boy am I so glad that I stuck with the plan…

The next morning I woke at 4:30 AM, changed into my running gear, and drove the oppressively long 15 minutes over to the BB&T Center. That drive is normally 5 minutes tops, but since all the local streets were either closed entirely or reduced to a single lane, it was a bit of longer than normal trek. But I was at BB&T soon enough, and parking was a breeze. Within minutes I was deep within the hustle and bustle of the Start Area. And man it was hopping! Off the bat I saw several dozen media trucks and satellite receivers, heard the DJ blasting music, and was drawn to the large monitor that was broadcasting live footage of Start Areas all around the world. There was a strong communal feel that added a sense of real tight-knit camaraderie to an affair that involved over 36,000 runners worldwide. We were doing this together. Awesome.

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There were about 860 runners participating in Sunrise, so it never felt too crowded or overly frantic. I worked my way into the Start Chute, where Katarina found me rather quickly. We posed for the requisite Start Line Selfie…

Requisite Start Line Selfie

Requisite Start Line Selfie

… and chatted away while waiting for the race to begin. Katarina is a faster runner than me, so I knew we’d be starting together and then I probably wouldn’t see her again until we were shuttled back to the Reunion Area. She was also doubly excited as her home town of Ljubljana, Slovenia, was also one of the 34 cities participating in the event! So she had a lot to prove that morning. Soon after, at 6:00 AM EST, the countdown began and we were off! There was no National Anthem — this was a global event, after all. Just an excited announcer, a whole lot of cheering, and a bunch of high-fiving and fist-bumping as we crossed the Start Line. I fired off my Zombies, Run! mission, started my Garmin, and as I crossed the Start Line… the hunt was afoot.

Here’s a satellite overview of my progress, courtesy of my Garmin and Google maps:

My total course progress.

My total course progress. That big empty area to the left is the start of the Everglades!

Any worries I had about the weather being horrible, miserable, uncooperative, and just plain nasty evaporated almost immediately. Don’t get me wrong, it was humid. I mean, it was REAL humid — South Florida humid. But it wasn’t uncomfortable humidity. The temperatures were in the upper 60s, but there was a VERY cool breeze blowing. It felt great, almost refreshingly so. The thickness of the air was causing us to sweat profusely, but the consistent breezy coolness of the morning kept us from feeling miserable about it. It was that kind of South Florida weather that comes right before a thunderstorm, where the temperature drops, the wind picks up, and you feel that assuring coolness in the air. And it lasted the entire race. Awesome.

I really didn’t have much of a race “strategy”. I certainly wasn’t planning on tearing up the course like a madman; I just wanted to go out for a nice run with hundreds of other people on closed-off streets. My only “goal” was to do at least a 10K. Anything after that was just icing on the cake. As you can see by the pic, the route circled us around the BB&T Center for about a mile and a half, emptying us onto 136th St and then curving south onto Flamingo and Oakland. Again, these are streets that I’ve run hundreds of times over the past 3+ years. I was right in my element. Anyway, as far as strategy was concerned, I kept it to simple 5:1 intervals and endeavored just to enjoy the run.

And enjoy the run I did! In the early dawn sky, I noticed the Wings For Life helicopter filming us from above, wondering to myself how many Sunrise locals were being jolted out of bed by that particular annoyance. Oh well. All for a good cause! What I did notice was how well this event was organized. Traffic was being routed accordingly, local police not only directing cars but also cheering on the runners as well. There were PLENTY of hydration stops with cheering volunteers, with both water and Gatorade, often handing out bananas and energy gels. Markers were set up throughout the course letting you know which Kilometer you had just reached. This would normally mean a lot of mental coordination on my part, except I had the Garmin telling me what mile I was at all times. Metric system? Feh! ‘MURICA!!!

I wasn’t going particularly fast, but I was definitely carving up a steady pace; overall I averaged a 10:12 minute mile, running a relaxed 5:1 interval. I hit the 3 mile mark on Oakland and 115th — right across from my beloved Inn-Field Pub (best wings in town), and that’s when it hit me. We had passed the 30 minute mark. And this meant one thing and one thing only: the Catcher Car was on its way to hunt us down like the wild dogs we were!

"And so we enter... Endgame."

“And so we enter… Endgame.”

I saw several people suddenly picking up their speed around that point — as if, the race had suddenly become “real”. I made no conscious decision to speed up or alter my pace/intervals. I just kept going. Besides, one of the bonuses of the course was that I’d be running right past our home! Well, the development we live in, anyhow. I figured maybe if I got lapped I could just go home, take a quick dip in the pool, maybe grab a Fresca (or a Mr. Pibb), listen to an 8-track or two… Anyway, the course turned north on Nob Hill for just over a mile, turning left on 53rd street and then back south on Hiatus heading back to Oakland. I found myself passing the 10K mark at roughly 1:03, which was pretty much a strong long-run pace for me. I had reached my overall goal for the day! I decided to pick it up and see how far I could go; I knew the Catcher Car wasn’t going to be that far behind, so my pace went from 10:21 for Mile 6 to 10:07 for Mile 7. I felt a strong surge of second wind going through me. I was gonna beat this car now. Did they even KNOW who they’re talking to? I’m nobody’s prey! I’m MOE GREEN!

I passed Boots outside our development, waiting on the sidewalk adjacent to Hiatus Road. She had her camera out but didn’t see me coming until the last-minute. D’oh! I should have checked my phone for texts, but my head was so into the run I had inconveniently forgotten to do so. She snapped a few photos and asked where Katarina was. I pointed WAY off into the distance ahead of us. “Somewhere out there!” I responded. Boy was I helpful.

Soon I passed Mile 7 and was heading westbound on Oakland, discretely aware of the imminent arrival of the Catcher Car. The look of excited nervousness and last-minute determination was on all our faces. Everyone around me was really digging in. People were cheering all over the sides of the road; mostly local spectators who had NO IDEA what was going on that day. I had my phone out to capture some pics, but since I was still running hard (and eschewing all intervals for the last mile) I wasn’t able to grab any really good shots of anything. Sure enough, once I heard the loud cheers, laughter, more than a few screams and a sea of smiles on too many faces, I knew it was coming. I turned around, and there it was: The Catcher Car. Maybe about a quarter-mile behind me.

Here they come, on the run, with a burger on a bun...

Here they come, on the run, with a burger on a bun…

Here comes The Funny Part.

I turned back and really dug in. The last 3/4 mile I averaged a 9:44. We were passing a hydration station, staffed by a few dozen local teenagers. I yelled to my fellow runners, “This is it! POUR IT ON!!” This got a lot of cheering and clapping. There were a few winded people around me, and I tried to motivate them. “Don’t quit! POUR IT ON!!” More smiles and last minute pushes. I was building more momentum. “We can do this! POUR IT ON!!!” The energy was stronger, more palpable, more tangible, real. “POUR IT ON!” I repeated. I knew we could keep it going. “POUR IT ON!” I kept yelling. “POUR. IT. ON!!!”

Did I mentioned we were running past a hydration station? Because when one of the girls holding a cup of water heard me screaming out “POUR IT ON!!” over and over, she took my suggestion a little too literally and THIS happened:

Something like this...

Something like this…

She threw a cupful of water in my face. Thinking that I wanted her to pour water on me.

I swear I’m not making this up.

There were witnesses.

It was straight out of Intro to Comic Timing & Double Takes 101.

I had nowhere to go from that… so I kept running. And then the Catcher Car was there, just behind me. I kept swatting away at it, yelling “Get back! GET BACK!!” Sucker didn’t listen. The car passed me and my race was finished. Several of us were cheering and clapping. A trolley passed by directly behind the Catcher Car, congratulating all of us for our accomplishments. My buddy Lynn was watching the live feed at home and actually got to see the very moment I got passed, so hopefully I can find that clip of video somewhere and share it here. Stay tuned.

My new buddy Daniela.

My new buddy Daniela.

So how’d I do? I ended up running around 7.7 miles total, which put me at a global rank of 20,527 out of 34,417 ranked runners. I wasn’t concerned about my place. I just knew I went farther than I planned, never got winded or tired, and felt fantastic!

As I started my cooldown walk, I felt a real sense of fun accomplishment. I stopped the Garmin, smiled, shook hands with runners around me and felt the camaraderie in full effect. I started chatting up an athletic woman walking next to me named Daniela, who worked for Red Bull. We talked about the event, and I complimented the organization on how well it was run and organized, as well as the creativity of the concept. She told me she was friends with Brooke Thabit, a local surfer who had suffered a spinal cord injury in a diving accident. There were many Team Brooke members running that day. I was previously unaware of her story, but I was happy to see that so many people were out there, running on behalf of not only her but everyone living with spinal cord injuries.

Daniela had also informed me that famed Olympic athlete Lolo Jones had not only participated in the race, but was also going to be making an appearance at the Reunion Area. To say that I’m a Lolo fan would be putting it mildly. She not only has a very inspirational background detailing her hard-won road to Olympic and athletic success, she is also, shall we say, not entirely uneasy on the eyes? Or to put it in the local vernacular, “Hubba freakin’ hubs”… Anyway, we walked together for a bit until the shuttle came by to pick us up. There was a cooler filled with ice-cold water bottles, most welcome at that point. The shuttle made another stop and Katarina boarded as well. She finished about 0.2 miles ahead of me, and as we fist-bumped our success we started talking extremely at length about what a great race that was, and how much we both enjoyed it. Most people around us seemed to agree.

The shuttle took us back to the BB&T Center, where we got off and entered the Runner Area to receive our medals and grab some quick refreshments. Now here comes THE most affecting moment I’ve ever experienced in a race. The people giving out the medals were all in wheelchairs. These were men and women, many of them former athletes themselves, who were there to congratulate and reward everyone out there running for them. I’m not a particularly sentimental type but I was starting to get really choked up, especially when one of them looked right at me and cheered me on, telling me to come on over and get my medal, which he draped over my head and then thanked me for running. It was just an unbelievably great moment. I can hardly put it into words. Katarina and I stopped for a pic with them, which I’ll share with you now…

Katarina and I with our medal buddies.

Katarina and I with our medal buddies.

By now, I was actually a little chilly. With my body still sweaty and tired, the a/c on the shuttle bus having cooled us down dramatically, and the cool breeze blowing, I was starting to get a bit of a chill. As if to answer all our prayers, the sun suddenly emerged as the cloud cover dissipated. It somehow had almost instantly turned into a bright, sunny morning, with blue skies shining down upon us. Even the humidity had disappeared! It was warm, enveloping, and really pleasant out. It felt like a great spring morning. It was energizing, rejuvenating, and filled everyone with a feeling of accomplished happiness. I felt such an incredibly strong sense of ease and fulfillment. Katarina was feeling it too. We continued talking about what a great experience this entire race event had been, how touching it became, how good it made us feel. Maybe a little bit maudlin, but definitely genuine.

Happy Posing-With-Medal Dude!

Happy Posing-With-Medal Dude!

After we grabbed some bagels, bananas, and water, I went over to the media truck area and met up with my friend Marjory, an ex-girlfriend from WAY back when (call it the “Dishwalla and BoDeans” era) and one of the very few who doesn’t want to shoot me in the face with a bazooka on sight. Maybe. I hadn’t seen her in years; she is in the film/television production industry and was working the event as media. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to talk — she was working, after all — but we chatted for about 6-7 minutes and caught up. She also pointed out where Lolo Jones was signing autographs, at the Asics tent. After hugging and saying goodbye, I made my way over to the tent. There she was. Lolo Jones. No matter how good she’s looked on television or in print, I can honestly assure you that she looks 10X better in real life. I knew I was going to get tongue-tied. I didn’t care. I waited in line for maybe 3 minutes before I got up there to have her sign my bib.

I didn’t hesitate. “Lo! At long last!” Like I was some long-lost buddy or something.

She smiled up at me and said “Yo YO!” and we fist-bumped. The eyes on that girl. Mesmerizing. We VERY briefly small-talked about the run as she signed my bib, and then we posed for a pic together:

What an absolute knockout. She looks fantastic too!

What an absolute knockout. Lolo looks fantastic too!

I bid her farewell, and joined the crowd in front of the large monitor as it presented a live feed of all the races around the world. People cheered wildly when a Sunrise runner was currently in first place. Alas, but that didn’t last long. Still, there was a large sense of community and festivity going on, as well as plenty of food trucks and other entertainment. I stuck around for a while, then left to make my way home. I had a bunch of stuff I had to get ready for that afternoon as well as a Lady Gaga show that evening … also at the BB&T Center! There’s such balance in nature.

So overall, the Wings For Life World Run was an utterly amazing event. It was fun, well-organized, well staffed, for a great cause… and it was GLOBAL. I was part of something happening simultaneously all around the world. Thirty-six thousand runners running for those who can’t. Raising funds, raising awareness, doing something together, and having fun doing it. After the event I couldn’t believe I actually considered dropping out because “maybe” the weather might not have cooperated. Never again. I felt so positive after the race, that I only had one thing on my mind:

WFL-NextYear

Join me May 3rd, 2015. I’ll be running it again. Do it with me. You’ll be so glad you did. Here’s the video:

7 thoughts on “Race Review: 2014 Wings For Life World Run (Sunrise, FL — 5/4/2014), or: “Fly along with me, I can’t quite make it alone…”

  1. The event needed some better promotion in South Florida, that’s for sure. One of the many reasons why I was so enthusiastic to blog about it, not just because I loved it but because I want other people to do so as well 🙂 Next year 10 miles? YOU’RE ON! Seeya there!!

  2. Yup! I’m not registered yet, but the plan is to run the Full. That should be my next run after the Goofy Challenge! Blogger meet-n-greet!

  3. Pingback: When Running Is About More Than Yourself | Black Dog Runs Disney

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