Wild Sebastian 100M, Fellsmere, Florida 1,2

November 16, 2013 - When I shared a trail and got lost with Melissa Woods
in an event in New Jersey three months ago, I offered to be there to pace her
in her first one hundred mile attempt.  Racing is the best, but I like to balance
it with volunteering at events and pacing and crewing.  There is not an aspect
of this sport that I do not enjoy.  Melissa was determined to put her legs and
mind to the test in what time was left this year, so she plunked down the entry fee 
for this Florida event while in London and asked me to cover the second half with
her, which I was honored to oblige.

Meeting in Melbourne after a hectic day of travel for her, we filled up on carbs
before heading to the Marsh Landing Restaurant in Fellsmere for her packet
pick up and pre-race briefing.  The place was packed with folks aiming to go
25, 50, or 100 miles the next day.  I indulged in some local swamp water but
declined the gator tail as I didn't need that flopping around in my stomach the
next day.  The green juice seemed to go down easy and seemed to make folks
all the friendlier.  Wearing my Cascade Crest 100M shirt I met up with that event's
new race director, Rich White, wearing this year's shirt, and his wife Sam, along
with another guy from Seattle that had bonked at 60 miles at CC this year.  The
race director for Wild Sebastian wound through his spiel on the course and so on,
but I didn't hear much of it amid my own conversation, trying not to be loud or 
rude.  That darn swamp water was good.

Melissa paid attention anyway.  It's kind of nice being just a pacer; the 
pressure is off and when I'm no longer required to make a plan or think I rise 
to my best form. So, we mixed and lingered awhile before returning to the hotel
for her last minute preparations and anxiety management.  Did I mention how
tasty that tasty green swamp juice was?

Early, early we rose to drive to the race site.  Melissa said she didn't sleep at all;
I must confess I felt a bit sheepish telling her I slept like a baby all night.  The
pacing responsibilities that awaited me didn't seem to keep me awake at all.
Hmm!  The temps were in the low seventies and comfortable with low humidity.
The racers started off into the sandy Florida outback with grand expectations
and smiles all around.  With the day off essentially, I wandered back to the car
for the first of two naps before catching up on some reading.  Anticipating
Melissa's return to the start for the completion of mile 25 and the first of her
laps, I parked myself on the course in a folding chair and engaged in the warm
society of other expectant pacers, family members, and sundry spectators.

So far I was fairly well enjoying my commitment to pace.  People were very
engaging and I wasn't tired in the least as I sat there working on the start of a
nice winter tan.  With camera in hand I was ready for Melissa when she cruised
back to the start in good form with a cheery smile on her face.  You could tell that
the heat of the day was already taking its toll on runners, many of whom already
were slugging along after 25 miles, but Melissa looked good. After a bit of
support we got her turned around and started on her second go round.  I forget
whether she commented on the sugar sand, but I heard it from many another
runner that the sand was really bogging them down, forcing nearly everyone to
walk through it.  Melissa did say that I should be glad I was working the night 
shift as the course was uninteresting, to phrase it mildly.  She said she could
tough through the repetitive scenery for another lap but would be glad to run 
under the cover of darkness to head off the ennui.

What I already knew about Melissa is that she is a tough competitor and strong
runner.  At 25 miles she was second woman and made it clear that she was
gunning for the one ahead of her.  When she disappeared I knew she had every
resolve to maintain and carry forward with equal aggression to the first lap.  As
the day heated up to the mid eighties you just knew runners would be suffering 
out on the mostly exposed course.  I had no regrets about not entering the race
for the shirt and award for going 50 miles.  The sand and the hot sun made an 
otherwise level course a formidable challenge for all.

I kicked back in my beach chair and chatted with Sam, who I met at the pre-race.
The time passed quickly, especially after a second nap back at the car to recover
from some red hot fire ant bites.  When Melissa rolled in after 50 miles she was
clearly ahead of all women and all but one man, looking strong but a bit cooked
from the sun and sand of Florida.  After a brief break we headed out together
for lap three, not too much ahead of darkness.  Amid the twilight and the gloaming
she pulled me along at a pace I wasn't quite expecting.  The girl can run and
didn't seem to be out of zip in the slightest.  Any thoughts of having a pedestrian
second half were quickly drug out of me as her legs reminded me she was here to
race - she was here to win.  Aid station folks told us that she was first women and
only one man was ahead of her, and that he was worried about her catching him.
Melissa was relentless, but the sand knocked her down to a walk again and again,
allowing me time to recover and catch up with her level.

The sugar sand was unforgiving.  It was futile and even counter productive to 
attempt to stride through it.  Seeing how much she had to walk each lap gave me
all the more appreciation for just what a tempo she had kept to get this far so
quickly.  Being a vegan Melissa wasn't always able to find the food she wanted
to keep her going at that pace, but seemed to manage alright on what little she
did take in.  Her hydration pack was rubbing her back and making it sore along 
with some chafing under her sports bra, so I carried her pack for the balance of
the third lap before leaving it behind at the start. 

        This aid station volunteer was so shy about rubbing in some ointment, I just couldn't resist the photo op! 

With a change of shoes at mile 75 Melissa's feet seemed good, with just a couple
hot spots for blisters around the toes.  After a bit of triage we got some of the
rubbed places medicated, which worked for the balance of the night.  After a bit
longer break we headed out for the fourth and final go round with tentative
expectations about being able to finish in under 24 hours.  Given our progress to
this point it was certainly possible, but I didn't fuel that hope as I have been out
there beyond this point in a long run and it generally is not a place where you
find leg speed.  The sand would continue to be her nemesis, competing with
Melissa's fear of a wild boar jumping out of bush to compete for the right of way.
The combination of fatigue, both mental and physical, the long hours of
struggle, the energy deficit, and a full complement of fight of flight hormones
flooding the body, will exaggerate the worst fears of any normal person.  The 
demons one must face in such an endeavor and overcome to succeed can only
be known by one who has confronted them and either prevailed or succumbed
to their questionable reality.  

Amid this struggle with forces unseen and the relentless wear and tear of body
and mind, Melissa finally yielded with great emotion and stopped her effort at
around 83 miles, three hours ahead of the next woman, closing on the lead man.
After several heroic attempts to continue, her body just gave a resounding no
and demanded she cease and desist.  It is always a huge psychological blow to
engage in such a battle and come away feeling defeated.  As with the effort, 
finishing or not finishing what you set out to do, winning or not winning... it is all
mental.  100% mental.  With encouragement to judge what she accomplished
as opposed to what she left on the table, I attempted to push her in a direction
of growth and humility as a runner.  She was stellar in her performance.  If I could
speak for her husband Matt in absentia..."She was brilliant".  I was amazed at her
physical acumen and mental resilience.  Melissa is one tough young lady who has
so much of the right stuff already that finishing one of these is not a question of
if, but merely one of when. 

The experience was a richly rewarding one for me personally.  I am humbled
by her performance and how she faced the unknown and fought back.  I would
run with her any time for another one of these, anywhere... well, maybe not 
anywhere... probably not at Wild Sebastian again, probably not somewhere with
lots of sand, probably not somewhere where beasties can jump out of the bush,
probably not somewhere that makes your shoes so god-awfully stinky.  Now that
I think about it, maybe she should call me first; I'm getting a bit more discerning 
in my old age.