Little Tybee Conquest turns a gray day into a ray of sunshine; metaphorically speaking
Do you remember when you were growing up as a child and you wanted to do everything your friends did, even if what they did was not that safe or sane? That’s the way I felt when Dan Hernandez invited a group of runners and kayakers to explore Little Tybee one Saturday to check out the route for his Little Tybee Conquest, a nearly 11 mile foot race across the beaches and inlets of Little Tybee, requiring running, swimming and sweating.
Admittedly, my relationship with Little Tybee was a love/fear relationship. My first ever trip there was during the Sea Kayak races held in late May one year with a strong headwind, chilly waters, roaring seas so loud you had to scream to be heard two feet away and five to six foot waves which rose so high they made the shore line disappear along with my sparse breakfast.
I battled the waves and the winds for nearly an hour before succumbing to the worst sea sickness I had ever experienced in my life, leaning out the kayak to vomit as a wave knocked me over the side. If it were not for the help of two experienced sea kayakers who sang Michael Jackson songs to me to prevent me from panicking over the rough seas, and an eventual rescue by motor boat, I might never have made it back to shore.
Nearly a year later I went back with a friend during calmer seas and we had a great time, but a year after that we got stranded on the beach at night as the tide changed and ended up spending half the night there, cold and wet and bug bitten until a worried sister sent a rescue boat in search of us.
My history with Little Tybee was not the best and here I was going out on the open ocean again with a group of runners who were known for their wild adventures, clearing new trails through forests and briers and running for miles in hot humid conditions with little water. What had I gotten myself into?
Our trial paddle to the beach proved slightly foreboding with two kayak flippings and mildly rough water on the way home, but no real issues, but the day before the Little Tybee Conquest, the skies were dark, lighting strikes and flooding with dire warnings for more of the same on the day of the race made some of us want to call the whole thing off and just sleep in, but this is Savannah and you never know from one moment to the next what the weather will do.
I was not running in the race, being too arthritic to run ten miles and not having swum more than ten feet in a row the entire summer, but the crew allowed me to tag along and help with the race, which required running and wading through the first water crossing.
There were three water crossings all together, with the race starting about two hours before absolute low tide. The kayak volunteers set out to watch the latter water crossings which were more perilous, while land based volunteers with strong swimming skills manned the first and second crossings.
When volunteers crossed the first body of water, they were in chest high water, but a half hour later the water barely reached hip level, though the outgoing current was strong enough to pull your feet out from under you. Around a dozen runners took part in the event. Hernandez said he actually lost a good bit of money on the race, as many runners were a bit skeptical about the course or their ability to complete it and spaces were limited due to the environmental impact on the island, but he hopes to host the event again next year and attract a larger crowd or charge a little extra to prevent having to dig too deeply into his own pocket.
The race wasn't about making money, though it would have been nice if he broke even. Hernandez is all about the experience; doing races no one else has ever done. He and Michelle Daniels were instrumental in starting Savannah’s first ultra run, the Rails to Trails Ultra hosted by Ledesma Sports Medicine, a 25 and 50K race held at the old railway trails near Fort Pulaski, which attracted hundreds of runners and raised funds and awareness for restoration of the trails which are being washed away by high tides and currents and in great need of repair. Hernandez is also putting on a six and twelve hour race at the Whitemarsh Preserve on Wilmington Island, this September 21st.
Hernandez gave out beach towels to all runners and tropies to individual winners. The overall male and female winners were April Burns Groves and Luke Boswell.
Today’s race is an ultra in effort more than miles. Some runners are pensive about the water crossings, while volunteers worry that lightening strikes and heavy rains might ruin the trip for everyone and fears that someone will get injured, come close to drowning or be stung by jelly fish are ever present, but outside of a few off course runners and a misplaced pile of swim fins and life jackets, the troops made it out and back in record time.
Volunteers set up a tent and toilet and ultra runner Lara Zoeller sings the national anthem as seagulls fly and screech and incredibly land and look toward Zoeller as if standing to attention themselves. As Zoeller hits the high notes, it’s hard to hold back tears as one realizes how blessed we are to be on this protected barrier island participating in a challenge that pulls out the best in people and brings a rag tag crew of friends closer together as family.
Zoeller, who admits she is not a strong swimmer, but has run 100 miles in under 24 hours, was apprehensive about the water crossings and wisely decides not to take on the widest and roughest part of the challenge, but feels like she failed.
Everyone else feels differently though and we are all impressed that she makes it across the second water crossing and back, as Missy Sailer hands her a float and swims beside her encouraging her to keep on kicking.
There are several buddy teams that stick together and help each other out. It is less a competition and more a team event and everyone learns something about themselves and makes a few new friends in the process.
After the event and awards are presented, runners and volunteers hang around for a while and enjoy the overcast day. There has only been light rain showers the entire time we are on the island and it does not begin to storm until well after everyone is home and safe inside.
The portable toilet with it’s own tent proved popular with some, while others preferred to take a break in nature, though no trash is left behind and more trash is removed that washed ashore or was left behind by others, including a pair of Levi jeans, a lot of empty beer cans and even a Romney/Ryan political banner.
Some collect shells and take pictures. We watch a bonnet head shark fishing near shore. It is a small shark, barely three feet long, but everyone is fascinated by it and point and stare and try to get a picture as if visiting the local aquarium. We see crabs and fish, lots of sea shells, a few sand dollars and horseshoe crabs and are fascinated by the patterns in the sand that are left behind by waves.
If a shell is empty we keep it, if it is occupied, we put it back and marvel at the beauty in nature, even in the shapes of the fallen, twisted, wind and sand swept trees which look like strange exotic dinosaurs grazing on the shore. In one section of the beach it looks like a giant has left footprints behind, which is ironic considering Hernandez’s choice of a turn around sign has a silhouette of Big Foot on it!
The darker gray clouds in the skies look like waves or multiple dolphin fins and for a brief moment we even see the sun, which earlier that morning looked like a narrow slit in the eastern sky over the ocean.
Volunteers at the channel crossing decide to go for a swim and test the depth of the crossing which is now barely waist high, but the sand and mud still suck runners down and cause some anxious brief moments as visions of old Tarzan movies and quick sand come to mind, but luckily everyone pulls free.
Running on sand is a different feeling than running on pavement and the roughed up hardened sand makes bare feet wrap around each hill and dent to stay upright and feels a bit like walking on rollers, which some enjoy and others don’t! Those wearing running shoes leave tracks that look like giant peanut hulls or nutter butter cookie imprints behind, while some go barefoot and others wear Vibram shoes. The tracks in the sand leave an interesting pattern and make it difficult for slower runners and would be photographers in search of the perfect picture to get lost.
There are lime green flags that mark the first half of the course which runs through wide bladed marsh that whips lower legs and stings a bit. Even though we try to avoid doing damage to it, it seems to be doing more damage to us. No one is stung by jelly fish and the water is actually cooler than expected and feels good after a long run. No one gets dehydrated and everyone makes it out okay.
On the way home Captain Randy points out a pod of dolphins playing near the shore. They spy us and come to investigate, leaping and twisting out of the water. One has a pink belly which is rather striking. We are told that the pink belly is associated with an amorous dolphin and think perhaps the displays have less to do with our entertainment and more with a mating ritual, but we feign innocence and actually cheer and clap when the dolphins leap out of the water as if they are performing just for us.
As we drive home, we all marvel at how well the event went and how much fun we had on a day that would otherwise be gray and dreary and spent indoors. While there are a lot of bad things going on in the world right now and it is easy to be depressed by all the bad news and crazy weather, the race today just proves that if you rise to the challenge before you, even if you don’t accomplish exactly what you set out to do, you can still achieve something wonderful and experience something unique that is made even more special by sharing it with others.
Even if you don’t run, it is well worth the effort to get up early, get outside and experience new challenges and meet new friends. Your life will be enriched by your efforts and you will have many good memories to share with others and maybe a few surprises that will light up your day and chase those gray clouds away; metaphorically anyway!