Cottonmouth 100M - Milton, Florida
November 14, 2015 - 

The Cottonmouth 100 takes place on several "Florida Trail" hiking trails: the Juniper Creek Trail, the Jackson Red Ground Trail, the Hutton Trail, and the Wiregrass Trail with connector trails to Bear Lake and Karick Lake. These scenic trails take you along the gently rolling hills of the Blackwater River State Forest in Northwest Florida. Mostly surrounded in longleaf pines and wiregrass, the Jackson Red Ground Trail is a historic route used by General Andrew Jackson and his 1,200 troops in 1818 as they marched towards Pensacola and was one of the earliest trade routes of Native Americans and settlers in Florida. While on the Juniper Creek Trail, you remain within sight of the Blackwater River and creek for quite a distance with spectacular views from the bluffs at Red Rocks. This is an out and back course with low elevation change. Runners will traverse mostly single track trails with roots and covered creek crossings rating it a low to medium on the technical scale.

The description above gave me something to look forward to as the summer racing season wound down. This new hundred-miler would be a level, non-technical challenge at a time of year that is predictably mild in Florida. After a fall of leisurely preparation and mild racing challenge, I felt ready to have a good day. Over time and with experience the ambitions and rewards for pursuing this running life have evolved, so that what I use now to measure success has changed from previous expectations. For much of my racing career I have chased ever faster times or further distances to mark my progress forward; these days it seems that still being able to just show up at the start has redemptive value. How fast and how far I can go on any particular day is gradually losing value. The battle is less about exceeding and increasingly about enduring.

So I set off anew on this particular challenge with adjusted goals, using the tools remaining in my box of tricks to the best of my ability to enjoy the taste of the sweet wine of life for a bit longer. Thirty-two of us set out from the start/finish near Bear Lake within the Recreation Area of the same name. Having run with only one other runner there - Kelly Agnew from Utah - I was looking forward to a casual day with new friends and fresh scenery.

After dirt-bagging it in my car the night before at the start/finish, 46-degree temps greeted me as I toed the line as ready as I have ever been - no injuries of note, enough sleep, and no aches and pains. Beginning in 8th place I stayed there all day and into the night. After the initial four miles and some light chatter I was alone for the rest of the race. The long and short of it is that I ran for twenty hours until 2 am for 73 miles before I opted to stop, again with another incompletion.

I cannot say I have ever once enjoyed running a one-hundred-mile race, whether I finished or not. After eight years of toeing the line for hundreds I have never gotten to the point where I liked doing them. Whether because of age, accumulated injuries, mental fatigue, inadequate preparation, or poor stamina, I have never felt suited to go the distance. I've come to the conclusion that perhaps none of the above were the main contributing factor, but rather my long 37-year bout with Lyme disease. It has become increasingly evident that the Lyme bacilli that live within me in cystic form are stimulated into action by the complicated interplay of the epinephrine/norepinephrine response to stress, whether physical or emotional. In a longish run, at some point, the hormonal fluctuation triggers a Lyme response in my body which manifests as joint and tissue inflammation and severe pain, as well as physical exhaustion. I have managed this response for a long time. A race that lasts for 20 hours or more drives the body down into a deep, unpleasant, shadowy area screaming for relief. Sometimes I have overcome the urgent call for immediate relief, and more times perhaps I have yielded.

My Lyme cohabitor has recently taken up residence in both of my knees, likely eroding the synovial cushion that enables me to continue running the way I do. This time as well as my previous attempt at 100 miles three weeks previous I stopped short of my goal to save my knees, especially the left knee, from further aggrevation and damage. While the knee pain was concerning, I actually had better reason to stop because of a severely sprained and doubly swollen right ankle. While a finish was a high priority for me, enduring to come back another day and do it again was of even greater importance.

The first forty miles of my race unfolded according to plan at a very comfortable 5 mph tempo. No strain, no push, no heavy breathing, completely aerobic, just floating along without stumbles or falls. The day warmed up to a mild 60 degrees as I enjoyed my time running through long-leaf pine forests and palmettos, along a beautiful winding creekside trail that followed the Blackwater River and Juniper Creek. The sheer contrast to where I usually run in North Carolina kept my attention and I was able to monitor my stride length, posture, fluid intake, breathing, and attitude without conversational distraction.

The out and back nature of the course enabled one to keep tabs on those ahead and behind several times. Except for the eventual winner Ricardo no one was running away from me. The Ultragen and Cytomax that I used exclusively during the event kept my energy and electrolyte levels even; my steady intake of aminos made muscular repair an ongoing project so that my legs never got tired during the entire effort. Given my nutrient intake and recent adjustments to posture and stride length I was feeling like I finally was figuring out how to do this more efficently. And perhaps of even greater note, my can-do attitude never faltered the entire time. Keeping body chemistry even allowed for lucidity and focus without thoughts of self-doubt arising. Of note also, is that I took in very little caffeine.

After forty miles I kicked back on tempo, and then backed off more once it became dark. Running through the swamps required some careful negotiation to keep feet dry. Right before 50 miles I finally had to purposefully get both feet wet when there was no dry alternative. Night running became problematic, not just for me but for everyone else, as the trail became difficult to follow with its frequent directional changes and freshly fallen leaves that masked the forest floor. I personally stopped more times than I would care to count to backtrack and eventually stay on course. This killed a lot of time and could have been frustrating, but I just kept on, trying to average 3 miles an hour with my all-night shuffle in the dark.

After 66 miles it was becoming evident that I had problems with both knees, my right foot, and neck muscles (another area recently afflicted by Lyme disease in a big way). By 73 miles I was getting hypothermic in the damp 38-degree night air and experiencing an increasing amount of Lyme-caused pain so I opted to bail when I had a ride back to the start/finish. I hated to stop, knowing that I could probably manage 3 mph the rest of the way and just bear the pain, but earning another cool buckle and personal pride were not strong enough factors to keep me going.

I want to be able to do this a long time to come. A dnf is far better than a dns, ie. not engaging in a race just because I am likely not able to finish it. The couch potatoes and naysayers can gnaw on their remotes and insist I should have continued on and finished, but I see it differently. I am still in the game after 37 years of battling a very disabling infection because I have exercised discretion over valor at the expense of great sacrifice, and that is more than most can say.

I came away feeling good about the outing, despite falling short of my ambition. But things will heal and there are other challenges that await me at new venues that give me great pleasure to anticipate. I run because I am a runner and I love to run. If I screw up and let my ego get in the way of continuing to pursue my everlasting addiction, then I'll deserve to have them pat a shovel of dirt in my face. Three weeks and a bit of rest and I'll be back for another go at it.