“Oh dark thirty,” is a military and colloquial term used by those rising early in the morning or late at night before the sun rises to accomplish some task that can only be accomplished at that hour.
On Saturday, January 12, that task was to rise at 5:30 a.m. to drive the nearly 45 minutes to Tybee Island, or rather to McQueen’s Island for the Ledesma Sports Medicine Rails to Trails 5k, 25k and 50k Ultra.
In case you aren't familiar with running or the metric system, a 5k is 3.1 miles, making a 25k 15.5 miles and a 50k 31 miles.
It is tough enough for most people to walk one mile, yet alone run 31 of them, yet close to 200 people did exactly that, arriving early to the picnic area outside Fort Pulaski while it was still dark and somewhat chilly.
The high temperature for the day was expected to be near 80 and the gnats, which usually only come out in fall and spring, were actually buzzing about taking advantage of the scantily clad runners as they stood in line for the only available portable toilet before the doors to the main public restroom area were unlocked.
By 8 a.m. the sun was visible through a thick layer of fog as the ultra runners lined up under the Fleet Feet arch balloon while Ernie Ledesma, PT and main sponsor of the race, sang the national anthem as Fleet Feet owner, Robert Espinoza solemnly held the American flag.
As the ultra runners followed the lime green flags toward their destination, the 5k runners lined up on the road awaiting their start just 15 minutes later.
Runners were treated to an assortment of rare marsh birds flying in formation and visibility cut to just a few hundred feet by the rolling sea fog that made the open water seem more like an infinity pool of fog that spread out from the marsh edge into... well... infinity.
If you were an enemy attacking Fort Pulaski, the sight of the race, then this would be a good day to invade as no one could see you coming. Even the fort was so shrouded in dense fog, that it looked more like a stack of bricks in the distance.
The ultra runners headed over the bridge leading away from the fort and down along the old railway that had been converted to a walking trail along highway 80 to the beach.
The race itself was the creation of Michelle Walker Daniels and Dan Hernandez who were concerned that the historic railway was not being properly maintained with budget cuts and which was beginning to erode where the trail met open water and be overgrown with grass and brush from lack of upkeep.
Earlier in 2012, they had sponsored a clean up day at the trails, which is constantly filling up with plastic trash that floats up from the water, migrates from the road and is left there by uncaring visitors to the trail.
In parts the trail is almost completely washed away and Daniels has been working tirelessly to get grants and funds to help rebuild the trails and fortify the banks to prevent them from washing into the salt water river permanently.
The 50k runners ran the 6 mile stretch of the rails to trails twice, down and back, for a total of 24 miles with three more miles run twice on the built up trails that intersect the property.
The running was rough for those not used to uneven surfaces and the damp air clung to clothes and hair making some look like they had run through a shower.
Rest stations with water, food and medical supplies were scattered along the course, as were portable toilets.
The overhanging palm trees, white gravel roads, red berried yaupon holly, tall cypress and ever present fog made the trail seem like an old roadway deep in the Mexican jungle.
Even the spider webs, glistening with fog drops looked like tiny Christmas lights reminding runners that even though they were sweating, it was indeed winter in the south.
Many ultra runners did more walking than running with some seeming to be in agony, but still moving.
The problem or advantage of running the trails is that once you start down one three mile stretch, there is no way off unless you keep going. The only access roads to the highway are in the very beginning near the Fort and midway down.
I had thought about going the full six miles down to take photos of the prayer flag area and see where the road had washed out completely, making people have to jump down into a ravine and back up again, but decided, after struggling to make it through the five kilometer race with a bad hip, that walking three miles down and back to the mid-point would be sufficient.
While I only put in 11 miles that day, runners and volunteers were constantly complimenting me and encouraging me to keep on going, with multiple, "good job" greetings and "thank you" nods as I marveled at the age range and their dedication to the sport.
Two young girls who had ran the 5k decided to join their fathers part way in the ultra and everyone was smiling.
It was a family affair with a more familiar atmosphere than your usual short distance races, where you run for thirty minutes, wait another thirty for everyone to finish, grab an award and then head for home or out to the grocery or home improvement store as if nothing special really happened that day.
Ultra marathon runners typically spend hours running and even more hours cheering on everyone else. It can be a full day affair with runners coming back soaking wet from sweat and spending days recovering from tight weak muscles. This kind of running isn't for everyone and especially not for those prone to injuries.
Runners had the option of packing their own snacks and care items in packs and hanging them in strategic locations along the trail. Some stopped to talked to volunteers and refuel before moving on and some just kept moving, steady paced without wavering.
Twenty eight year old, tall and lanky, Kathryn Schubert from Gainsville, Florida won the women's 50 k race with a time of four hours, twelve minutes and twenty three seconds, while local runner, Chris Ramsey made the trek in three hours, thirty two minutes and fourteen seconds.
Jim Sinclair, a Savannah Strider, took first place in the men's division for the 25k, with Taylor Stephens, also of Savannah, taking first place in the women's.
The average age of the ultra runners was near 40 with several younger runners, expecting to do well, having to drop out of the race but still putting in a good performance and a great effort.
While there were a few snafus for the inaugural running of the R2T, the overall comments were more than positive, they were absolutely glowing and it is hoped that the event will be a repeat next year.
You don't have to be an ultra runner to enjoy the Rails to Trails and parking is actually free, compared to the $2 an hour you have to pay at Tybee just to walk along the beach in winter.
The best place to park is by the fort, where there are more off road parking spaces, but the most convenient place is at the midway point where two permanent portable toilets sit.
You need to bring your own water and wear sun screen even in cloudy weather and make sure you take home any trash you bring and if you are feeling generous, bring a trash bag with you and cart out some of the junk that other people leave there.
The trail is suitable for bikes, but you need to use caution in areas and there are a number of cactus plants and other prickly bushes and poisonous leaves that need to be avoided so going barefoot is not really an option.
The trails are a real treat and a perfect place to walk with a friend if you are trying to work out a problem.
You can also walk the raised trails around Fort Pulaski, parking in the parking lot for a mere five dollars which gives you access to a heated and cooled building with real toilets, drink machines and a water fountain.
The picnic area allows for fun family outings as well and it is a picture paradise for photographers.
If you want to support your local rails to trails you can visit: www.facebook.com/SaveOurRailsToTrailsSavannah
For more photo of the event, you can visit: savannahnow.com/latest-news/2013-01-12/slideshow-rails-trails-5k-25k-50k-ultra-marathon
And, if you are looking for a great sports medicine or rehab facility, don't hesitate to check out Ledesma Sports Medicine at: http://ledesmasportsmed.com/ where they also offer free running injury evaluations and suggestions on how to recover from them!