This was the second year of the Little Tybee Conquest run and Dan Hernandez put in weeks of hard labor to set up the race, but on Thursday, just days before the race, which is limited to 25 participants, a representative from the DNR gave Hernandez a phone call saying he wanted to pull the plug on the beach run which requires runners to pass three channels, swimming them in parts.
Thankfully the race went on as scheduled and even the thundershowers waited to boom from the heavens after everyone was safely back on the main island of Tybee and loading down their trucks to head for home.
Participants had a great time, though they were all worn out from running in deep sand and many got hamstring cramps after running followed by swimming in the cool salt water.
The original plan had the runners going through a trail that Hernandez and friend had hoped to clear on the island and it was this clearing which trimmed back mostly sticker bushes and thorny vines, with a few logs that blocked the trail moved to one side, that caused the DNR to have concerns, but they agreed to let the race go on this year anyway.
The event was very environmental friendly with boxed water, portable toilets that returned by boat and a conscientious pit crew that made sure all trash was carried off the barrier island that is accessible only by boat.
Runners arrived by 9 a.m. with channel guides and turn around crew being dropped off at 8:30 a.m. to be in place when runners arrived.
It was a long and lonely wait. Several volunteers did not show up, leaving one loan kayaker to guard the channel and keep 25 swimmers safe, though the competitors helped watch out for one another and the low outgoing tide actually allowed the faster runners to cross over on a large sandbar without having to swim on the return trip home.
Runners used some unusual swimming techniques to get across with one young woman using her running sandals as hand paddles and most people trying to keep their glasses and caps dry by holding them over their head while paddling with one arm.
Several less experienced swimmers laid on their backs in the water while paddling their feet as if running sideways, but everyone made it over and back safely without incident.
The kayak volunteer discovered that returning home for her was not so easy with nearly a football field length of sand separating the kayak from the ocean and many sandbars jutting a quarter mile out, turning a would be two and a half mile paddle back to base camp into a nearly five mile paddle in rolling surf.
The volunteer, who had just come from a motivational talk on how to psych yourself up to run a race when you don’t feel like doing it, said she put those learned skills to work.
“At first I just thought about how mad I was at getting left behind while everyone was back at the tent drinking beer and having a ball.”
“I gave all my reserve water to two runners who had run out and my granola bar for breakfast had long since worn off. I tell you, it took all the strength I had to get back to the main tent and for a while there I just wanted to pull the kayak over and sit on the beach and wait for a rescue boat, but then those dark clouds started looming and the rolling thunder that shook the kayak, was pretty much all the motivation I needed, though you would think someone would have seen me struggling against the current and offered to help.”
The volunteer said she felt a little guilty complaining considering how hard the race participants worked, but that it was kind of scary being on a sit on top kayak with no back up crew which was kind of ironic considering it was her job to make sure everyone else stayed safe.
In the long run, all volunteers, overnight campers who helped set up the site and put up a tent for registration and event coordinators made it home safely, though many were water logged and glowing red despite repeated sun screen application.
As the last boat pulled close to the shore on Tybee Island, a man’s voice could be heard over a loud speaker. At first it sounded like a radio announcement, but as boaters pulled closer they heard warning sirens as the voice announced, “All swimmers and boaters please leave the water immediately!”
The kayak volunteer, whose boat would not fit on the motorboat back said she was about 100 feet away from the take out point and cutting across the main channel when thunder and lightening made her teeth go on edge, black clouds hovered over the water and rain began to fall as power boaters in mass began to descend upon her and the one boat ramp off the water.
“I used to kayak with a guy named Bill Fulmer,” the kayaker said. He was always showing me these kayak signs to make with paddles to let other boaters know your intentions and I used to laugh at him, like who would ever do that?”
“I confess I held my paddle high in the air in my hand and waved it back and forth and then added my own sign language, pointing an index finger at myself and making a splitting sign to remind the speeding boats that they were a lot bigger than I was and needed to give way to the gal in the bright orange plastic thingy that was already bobbing on the now roughening water like a cork in a whirlpool.”
"While it is fun to ride the waves on a clear day, when you are trying to get home and catch up with the rest of your crew who are already unloading their gear, the last thing you want to do is get swamped by crisscrossing boat waves in a no-wake zone. It kind of reminded me of the old days at Kmart when they used to announce the blue light specials and everyone at the store rushed over in a mad frenzy, knocking anyone down who got in their way."
“To be honest, Dan [Hernandez] offered to paddle my boat back for me, but when I saw those dark clouds and the lightening, I figured I would never live with myself if he got struck by lightening because I took the easy way out. Besides, my boat is only rated for a medium size female and tends to sit low even with me in it! It wasn't really all that bad, but at the time I just felt left out of everything. I didn't want to spoil everyone else’s fun though. I should have brought more water and food. I didn't know I was going to be out there that long.”
Volunteers spent about six and a half hours monitoring the course. Runners received a shark tooth medal at the end of their run with plenty of food and drinks and a boat ride to and from the island.
One runner jokingly pretended to thumb down a passing fishing boat to hitch a ride back to the starting point and everyone laughed.
A man who was struggling on the return water crossing got a bad hamstring cramp and the man in front of him turned around to help pull him to solid ground so he could stretch the leg out. It was a good group of runners who learned a few things about how to dress and what shoes to wear when doing a combined run and water crossing on a sandy beach!
Hernandez said he got good feedback from the runners, many of whom wanted to come back and do the race next year, but he said that it took so much out of him to put the race together that he was not sure if he would do it again.
Hernandez crafted all the medals by hand using shark’s teeth that he and friends had collected off a nearby local beach to make the medals more authentic.
Hernandez is part of a group of ultra runners in Savannah, Georgia who like to do adventure type runs, going new places and seeking new challenges outside the typical road race with police escorts and standardized routes.
Little Tybee was certainly about as non-standard a race route as they come. It is a great place to run and go for a fun adventure on kayak in good weather or by boat, but there are some really big sandbars along the front of the island that protect it from the pounding waves of the Atlantic Ocean and the seas can get rough and the currents are swift.
If you go, it is best to go with someone who is experienced with the waters and can guide you safely through fallen trees, sandbars and oyster beds.
If you would like to see more wilderness and barrier island areas open to the public, you can do your share by not destroying native vegetation, taking out all garbage, even if you did not leave it, and leaving the island as if you had never set foot on it.
When crossing a channel that looks to be covered in just knee deep water, be cautious as there are many drop offs and the swift current can knock you off your feet if you are standing on slippery mud or sinking sand. It is always good to go with a buddy who knows the area and will keep you safe.