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Ultra racing in Savannah at the 2014 Ledesma Sports Medicine Rails to Trails

Savannah’s historic Rails to Trails once the site of a railway that traveled from the city of Savannah to Tybee Island beach, has long had issues with erosion from an onslaught of water and waves from the river flowing in strongly with all the ship and boat traffic as well as the odd tropical storm and hurricanes that churn the rivers up like muddy brown coffee and suck the dirt from under foundations that were not built to withstand the long term impact of repeated wash outs.

MJ Geiger volunteering at the race
BJ English
The start of the race at Fort Pulaski
BJ English

Ironically less than five miles away from the worst of the erosion, sits historic Fort Pulaski which was designed by engineers to support the huge weight of the brick fort on what was a muddy island with no foundation for such a building, making some think that Savannah’s current engineers might do a little study on the fort design and put the same plan to work on the trails.

Recently the trail was closed to the public because it basically had washed away, causing trail runners to step down into a four foot sink hole and pulling on one lone thin tree which still clung to dry land and served as the only means by which to haul oneself out of the sinkhole and back on the narrow collapsing trail.

Michelle Daniels, Dan Hernandez and other concerned citizens had long been petitioning the city to maintain the trails better, even holding their own clean up day in which locals brought rakes, pruning sheers and giant trash bags to cut back briers and remove trash from the overgrown trails.

Not long after, Daniels and Hernandez worked with Ernie Ledesma of Ledesma Sports Medicine to sponsor a road race at the trails, but not just any road race. This race was an ultra in which participants ran either a 5k (3.1) miles, a 25k (15.5 miles) or a 50K (31 miles… and longer than a 26.2 marathon).

This year it looked like the race might have to be cancelled when the city closed down the trails to public use, but a rerouted race was devised, allowing people to run about a mile down the trail and then spend the rest of the run on the grassy ridges and roads that circled the historic Fort Pulaski.

Like last year, the race started in the mist and the fog, which made the history of the place seem to come to life. It was easy to imagine a soldier on the top of the fort, leaning on a cannon or a group of marching soldiers in their gray outfits, blending in with the mist.

The fog and mist were so thick that it coated everyone in a slippery salty film and blocked the view of the water, which made itself noticed by slapping loudly against the marsh shore, even though it could barely be seen.

In 2013 I ran the 5K course with a bum hip that kept locking up sending shooting pains into my knee and lower leg. It was the slowest most painful run I have ever been a part of, but I was determined to do it, having signed up for the race before I was injured.

I was embarrassed by my time, which looked more fitting for a race twice that long, but I had fun staying afterward and taking pictures and cheering the ultra runners on, thinking how unreal it was that anyone could run that far and that fast. I knew I could not do it.

Secretively I did not know whether to think ultra runners were crazy people or admire them for having the stamina to run great distances. Some of the ultra runners regularly put in hundreds of miles a week and ran in 24 hour races, up and down mountains and through deserts. I was not that crazy or that bold, but it seemed that I kept getting pushed into ultras and I actually kind of liked the people that ran in them better than the usual five kilometer races that were over and done with so quickly that you went into it thinking it was going to be a fun date but discovered it was more like speed dating where you met twenty potential mates and got tossed around from one to the other and went home feeling more lonely than when you arrived! It was not very fulfilling, even when you did manage to win a trophy in your age group.

Ultra runners are a different lot. They run mostly on trails not roads, though sometimes on both. They have huge tents set up and arrive well before daylight and stick around sometimes through the night, depending on the length of the race.

They bring a lot of food. People stay all day. The volunteers seem to care more about how you are feeling and go out of their way to walk with you or fill up your water bottle or fix a smoothie for you.

Mostly the runners are nice people who shout “good job” if you are running or “thank you” if you are volunteering and they have a way of pulling you into this world of long distance running, whether you really want to run that far or not!

So, despite not having trained nearly enough to run 15.5 miles, I dragged myself out of bed early on January 11th, thankful that it was not like last week when the temperatures were in the teens and my water pipes inside the house froze solid despite dripping them.

While the chatter on Facebook was about how excited everyone was and how they were looking forward to the race. I was thinking how much I dreaded having ever signed up for it.

I kept remembering last year in the 5K when I hurt so badly and had to limp under the arch and bite back tears of pain. Would the same thing happen this year? I’d tried to run on the treadmill earlier that week and pulled a muscle in my groin and now my left ankle kept popping out of place. The odds did not seem to favor me on this one either.

My friend Sherry joked that she was holding up traffic all down Highway 80 trying to find her way to the fort in the fog. To be honest I felt like I was doing the same thing, but in reality I think people were just following us because they couldn't see the road either!

Mary Jo Geiger, who was volunteering at the race got held up on President Street when a train blocked the road. We were all a little anxious about getting there on time, which seems to be another trait of road runners... we do not like to be late to things, maybe because we know that when the gang says the race starts at eight and you aren't there, they will leave without you!

The bathrooms were open and not crowded and the parking was close enough so you could collect your race package and head back to the car without having to add another five miles in before the race.

I had signed up for the 25K. The furthest I had ever run before in a competition was 13.1 miles. There was no way I was ready to run 15.5. The most I had run in the past three weeks was six miles. This did not look promising.

The race started with a lot of laughter. Margy Exley, who usually dresses rather nicely walked up in hiking boots with a bucket hat and over sized rain jacket. I didn't even recognize her under the brim of the hat!

Pam Manuel came stylishly dressed in a clear trash bag tunic with pink drawstring and courtesy umbrella bags taped to her arms! Jim Cave, otherwise known as the Cave Man found this highly amusing and made me take a picture.

I briefly waved at Dan and Michelle and a few other folks and then the race began.

The first mile was on pavement and then we headed toward the trails, my favorite part of the race. The ground was a bit spongy and muddy in parts. It was a little hard to breath. I was still coughing and dripping from the after effects of the flu, but my legs felt strong and the mist along the fort and the slap of invisible water was mesmerizing and made one wonder what was out there beyond the fog.

Both Pams, Claudia, Takis, Tara and Lisa who ran the race with me were long out of view. I was moving, but I was SLOW. I kept passing and being passed by one woman, which is always annoying. I finally slowed down a bit more to be rid of her as a group of three women came running up behind, chatting loudly.

One said she had gotten stuck behind someone dressed as Mario in the Bridge Run and that this person was listening to the same song over and over again on a radio with speakers and how annoying it was.

Another was talking about her boyfriend whom she had broken up with, apparently because he wanted to get married and have kids and she didn't. She was saying that she was going to be just like her aunt and have multiple boyfriends all her life, but never be committed to just one and that was the best thing for her. I rolled my eyes and tried not to listen, but it was like eating lunch in the break room at work with a soap opera blasting… even though you have no interest in it. It works its way into your brain whether you want it to or not.

The conversation turned to a pregnant women who was upset because someone said she was ugly and should not show her bare belly in public, but should instead cover it up. The girls said they thought the lady was lying because no one would ever say that and how could anyone not want to see a pregnant belly…um…. Probably the same people that are not fond of butt cracks and squashy cleavage breasts threatening to escape the confines of a too low shirt. There is a reason why they call those things private parts. Not that it is okay to tell someone to cover up or call them ugly, but a little modesty in the public eye is never really a bad thing to strive toward.

I tried to speed up to separate myself from the never ending conversation which centered around work and how hateful people were and how if you didn't like your coworkers you needed to get a hobby like running so you could get away from them… well that wasn't really working that well for me right now, but...

When they started in on gays and how one of their friends thought gays could change their lifestyles if they just believed hard enough in Jesus and how stupid an idea this was like you could not change who you were even if you wanted to, I sped up. I vaguely heard them say something that sounded disparaging toward me, but could have been wrong and just kept going as fast as I could to avoid having to listen to the constant chatter. I really wished I had worn my ear buds.

The 25K looped around three times. I managed to run the entire first loop without stopping and felt good, but got tired in the middle of round two and had to actually imbibe in an orange Hammer gel. I read it twice to make sure I was not allergic to anything and hesitantly squeezed some of it into my mouth. It tasted more like cheese than oranges so I read the ingredients again… no cheese, so kept taking small bits of it and letting it melt. It helped a bit.

I had to walk but tried to keep it brisk, but the Chatty Cathy gang caught up with me again. They were so annoying that I finally stopped at the portable john and let them pass me. Every time they came by they were either talking to one another or talking on their phones. I will have to give them credit for having the lung capacity to run that far and never shut up, but my ears were craving the sounds of nature and laughter, not a debate on whether making marijuana legal would cut down on crime since people would be so stoned they would be less likely to shoot someone… sigh…

It was nice to have friends working the food and water stations and cheering me on by name as I crossed the road. They were all helpful and kind and made coming up to the aid stations seem more pleasant. You not only replenished your water and food, but also your spirits.

The runners I passed were mostly nice and smiling though a few tried to force me off the two lane path and into the mud and bramble, which was fine by me as I just shouldered closer toward them and stared ahead like they didn't exist. I was in the mood for a fight as I thought, ‘bring it on… you got the whole road and you want my six inches… come on sister. My fists work just as well as my feet and I’m not afraid to use them’ (like that would ever happen)… The tactic worked though and they moved over just enough to prevent me from having to hit the bushes or hit them.

Why do people do that? It wasn't like I was any competition for them. Some of them had already passed by me twice. I didn't get it, but the upset that came from being challenged and treated like I didn't exist or have rights, helped push me forward when I wanted to stop, so I guess it worked out well in the end. It seems like conflict and injustice always lead to something better if you stand your ground and face it down.

Thankfully, those few mean people were the rare exceptions and by the end of round two I was actually feeling kind of euphoric. Even Dan seemed surprised to see me come by for round two! I couldn't believe I still had some energy left.

When I passed by the aid station, I loaded up on water, banana chips, orange slices and raisin bagels. I stuffed another gel in my pocket, not because I needed it but because I am greedy and wanted to take an extra one to try on my next long run. Those things cost a dollar a piece.

It really did seem to help energize my sore hips and tried legs a bit, though at one point my entire lower body went numb and I had to shake everything around to get the feeling back.

The wind seemed to pick up and kept blowing gusts of mist like steam coming out a pot when you lift the lid only cooler. A few times the wind blew so hard it was nearly impossible to stay upright, but it just made it more of an adventure.

My friend Helen had wished me well before the run. I told her I was going to have to do a lot of praying to make it through. She told me about a prayer someone had told her, “Lord if you lift up my feet, I will promise to put them back down again.”

The whole time I was running across the wooden bridge on the trail to the long paved bridge back to the fort on the third and final trip I kept repeating, “pick them up, put them down, pick them up and put them down.”

I guess some people thought I was crazy, grimacing and talking to myself, but it worked to keep me going.

At about mile 13.4 or so I was emotionally overwhelmed. I knew I had run past the half marathon distance and despite feeling stiff and sore, I knew I could do this, but the pain was intense. It felt like daggers in my hips, my hamstrings were tight, the arches in my feet were starting to cramp and my knees could barely bend. My feet were sliding along and several times I nearly tripped or lost balance, but it hurt too bad to walk and running, while painful seemed like the best course of action to get this thing over as soon as possible.

I was running like a little kid now… you know how kids run with that wide hip stance and short stride, almost like they are walking up invisible stairs. I noticed a few other people running the same way and knew it wasn't just me.

Most of my running club buddies had long since finished the race, except for Pam Denson, who I discovered was running the 50K not the 25K, which I guess made it good that I did not make fun of her for stopping to get a sandwich before she crossed the finish line for the third time, when she actually had three more laps to go... heaven forbid!

I was slow, but I was still moving. I had nothing to be ashamed of. My goal was to try to make it in under three hours and thirty minutes and it was three hours and eight minutes with less than a mile to go. I could do this!!!!

I started crying then. It was misty out, so it wasn't like anyone could see. I kept thinking how good God had been to me and how he had healed me time and again from wounds and injuries I thought would undo me for life. There were times when I wondered if I would ever be pain free and yet, here I was with a different kind of self inflicted pain that made me more aware of how blessed I was than if I was not hurting at all.

I felt kind of guilty getting so upset with the Chatty Cathy gang and how I had judged them for doing the same thing they accused someone else of doing… getting upset with a guy who played the same song over and over again and how annoying it was that they could not get away from it and yet they were telling the same lack-wisdom stories over and over again and driving me batty. The circle of life I suppose.

As my feet hit the ground in ever agonizing pain, I kept thanking God for his grace and his wisdom and hoped that I could run the good race, not just on my feet but when it came to matters of the soul as well and making the right choices in life and changing the things about me that needed to be changed rather than thinking it was the way I was and if no one else liked it, too tough, get over it. I could not be all things to all people, but I could try to be more understanding, forgiving and loving and certainly leave the judging to God.

Still I felt sorry for people who made bad choices in life and were callous about how their choices affected others not just themselves. I don’t know, maybe I was one of those people! I hoped not.

As I rounded the last curve I told myself that now would be a good time to remove that huge mote out my own eye before attempting to remove the tiny splinter from the eyes of others. Sometimes it is hard not to get involved in things you feel need to change, but sometimes you just create a bigger mess than if you just stayed out of it. Life is never easy. I still haven’t figured it out.

The mist enveloped me as I came into the last stretch of woods. The trees seemed to take on shapes of animals and birds and the mist was like the breath of God falling from heaven.

I could see the finish line up ahead. Each footfall was painful. I knew I should smile and wave to friends, but I hurt too badly and was afraid if I broke my concentration I would crumble up and turn to dust like in some fantasy movie when the guy is caught in a ray gun beam or something.

I felt like one of those gnarled trees along the trail. I heard a lot of people call my name and cheer me on, but all I could do was focus on moving and breathing.

When I recovered a bit, I got my medal from Michelle and stood around and talked to friends before grabbing my camera and Dan’s (his was a lot nicer than mine) and went back out on the trails to do the thing I do best. Take pictures not run!

It was a fun race. I learned a lot about how you can push yourself to go past the point where you think you would break. I talked a lot with God… in my head of course. I felt remorse for the sacrifice Christ made for our sins and how most of us don’t seem to really care about what a huge thing he did and so we go on sinning as if it was a right to which we were privileged rather than something we needed to try to control and view through truth not excuses and lies.

I guess I still have that huge mote in my eye. I am judgmental at heart. I don’t like watching people do stupid things or listen to them say things that aren't true or good. I don’t like being bullied to move over so that someone else who is in the wrong can take the right of way from me when I am minding my own business and not interfering in theirs. Still, this race… this run, made me reach deep inside, not just physically but spiritually and face some things I had stored away thinking I would address them one day, but never really finding the time. I guess that is why I like running long distances. It gives you lots of time to think and work things out.

It also makes you hungry! My Fitbit says I burned off 3,900 calories. I think I put half those back on when I got home. My food of choice was french fries, ketchup and orange juice. A day later I am still thirsty but oddly not as sore as I thought I would be, not that this is a bad thing!

The thunderstorms predicted on the day of the race, held off until after I got home. For that I am grateful, but it was nice to hear the rain and be safe indoors.

I am not sure if I will ever run another ultra again. Technically I did not run that far. I haven’t even run a marathon yet, but maybe I can do that too. Who knows? I still have a lot of things I need to work out in my life.

Running, especially running distances seems to help me work these things out. When my body is so tired that it can barely function, it seems my brain does weird things. I think deeper thoughts. I feel almost primal or native.

I am so grateful to the people who put on this race, the volunteers who sat in the cold and the rain and filled up water and set out food and kept us gong in the right direction. It really is amazing how a race that long can make everyone seem like family.

As we drove home we saw piles of rock and gravel that are going to be placed in the worst areas of the trails, so maybe next year we can actually run the full length of the Rails to Trails. I say we like I expect to be there and who knows, maybe I will. Maybe I will actually train for this one, though it seemed to go pretty good for not having put in even half the mileage for it.

Who knows what sustains us and keeps us moving; what driving forces keep us going when all sensibility tells us to stop and give up. If you are going through some rough spots in life, just quote the mantra, “pick ‘em up and put ‘em down, keep on moving, hit the ground, running, walking, moving on, pick it up and don’t fall down.” You may be amazed at where it will get you and who it might encourage to keep moving forward with you!

Ultra runners are an inspiration. You see people of all sizes and shapes and fitness abilities and they just keep moving until they get to the finish. That’s pretty awesome to see and it encourages you to do the same, so I guess ultimately that is the game plan for anyone who wants to do well in life and give back rather than take. You set a good example, encourage others and try to be positive while being real and you just keep putting one foot in front of the other until you get where you belong.

To see more pictures of the race, visit: savannahnow.com/latest-news/2013-01-12/slideshow-rails-trails-5k-25k-50k-ultra-marathon#.UtTDStJDvTo