Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Race Report: Skydive Ultra

Trying to get back to my blog, what better opportunity than a race report on one of the most unique and inspiring races in ultrarunning, the Skydive Ultra, which was held this year on Jan. 30 in Clewiston, FL at the Skydive Spaceland. I have always had a fear of heights, and to combat that, skydiving is something that I've been wanting to do as long as I can remember, at least my entire adult life. So the chance to combine a skydive with a 100-mile race, especially when hosted by Eric Friedman, one of the great adventurers and philosophers in ultrarunning, was too much to pass up.

This was my very first trip to Florida as well. I flew into Ft. Lauderdale, picked up my rental car and took a quick trip to the beach before heading to Clewiston Friday afternoon. I forgot how blue the water can be down this far south.

The Race

I'll talk about the race first, although it took place after the jump. The course is a 7.25-mile loop that I would repeat 14 times for 101.5 miles. The start/finish was on the road right in front of the skydiving facility where they had a well-stocked aid station, portapotty, and plenty of parking along the road to self-crew from my car. The course was flat, mostly sand and grass doubletrack service roads through the surrounding sugar cane fields and alongside irrigation canals. Most of the fields were empty but there was some tall sugar cane in a couple of the fields we passed, which made me wonder, do they need to detassle sugar cane? There had been quite a bit of rain in the area recently, which made the sand hard-packed and an excellent running surface, but left some muddy areas in the grass, including one sizeable and unavoidable mud puddle, which maybe added a pound to each shoe by the end of the race. There was also a second aid station about three miles into the loop with fluids, fruit, broth and some very friendly volunteers.

The event encompassed a wide range of possible distance options: 10K, half marathon, marathon, 50K, 50 miles, 100 miles and 150 miles. Just to not go too crazy I decided to sign up for the 100 miles, although if I go back, I might have to do 150 to get that big-ass buckle! Any of the runners have the option to skydive or not. Due to the nature of the event and the uncertainty of the time required to do the jump (the jump is not timed and not technically part of the race), all runners don't start at the same time, but are chip-timed from whenever they cross the starting line. I started at about 9:20 a.m. Saturday with one other runner, Cortland Wheeler, who jumped from the same plane as me.

Early on, I was trying to get over the effects of the jump, get my legs and my head back down to earth. But I was moving well and enjoying the beautiful day. The course was not especially scenic, but I was enjoying the tall sugar cane, the company of other runners and race staff, and the recurring sight of other jumpers falling from the sky. Going in, I didn't feel well-trained for a really fast 100, and my legs were feeling it after a few loops, especially with the muddy feet. The grassy sections had "sweet spots" that were smoother and easier to run, but stray from those and the ground was more uneven and harder on the wet feet, accelerating the blistering process.

All through the race I had no idea if there were any runners ahead of me, but I didn't worry about it too much, as I didn't go down there with competition as my main goal. I don't recall any other runners passing me (except one, but he was pretty darn fast, so I figured he was running a shorter distance), but it was also a pretty big loop so there could be other runners at roughly the same pace. The course record was over 20 hours, and I was planning to get under 20, so that was what I was aiming for, especially after the halfway point when darkness came and I slowed down more. I realized I really am a trail wuss - I like smooth road surfaces and I hate wearing a headlamp!

Throughout the second half of the race I could feel more and more blisters forming, and it became quite painful. Any slight misstep onto a rock or the wrong part of a tire rut would bring an "ow" from my mouth. And I was losing energy, but the key is to keep for and technique. So I would lift my head, keep my back more straight, get good breaths, keep my feet aligned straight and I would get back to a decent running pace. All the while I kept counting down the laps, thinking how many more times I had to make that awkward turn, or run that long section along the highway, or of course run through that mud puddle.

So finally after 13 laps and just one to go, Eric says it'll be close with Michael Peragine, who apparently had started before me and who had already finished, but who I don't think I saw at all during the whole race. There's always reason to finish strong, but I also don't particularly enjoy the stress of knowing it will be a close finish with someone who'd already finished, especially since I didn't know if he had the advantage or if I did, and how close. I could handle losing by five or 10 minutes, but I don't think I could handle losing by 5 or 10 seconds. In the end, I crossed the finish line in 19:55:42, all things considered happy to get under 20 hours and under the old course record. But I didn't get under the new course record as Michael finished over an hour faster, it wasn't that close after all. It's all good, I was actually glad that it wasn't that close. And even if I'd known, I wouldn't have been able to beat him on that day, so I was happy with my second place and an unforgettable adventure.

The Skydive

So with 47 years of anticipation of my first skydive, once I committed to it, I tried not to think about it, lest I freak myself out. Prior to arrival at the race/skydive venue, I was required to watch a video about tandem skydiving and fill out several pages of forms, all of which seemed to mention repeatedly that this could result in my death. Honestly, that didn't bother me. It started to feel real Saturday morning when I got to the hangar and watch the other runners/divers putting on jump suits ahead of me and the little plane with a big hole in the side prepare for boarding. I met my instructor, Jeremy, who was very enthusiastic as he got me suited up and gave me instructions. He was also very good at telling me what to expect and how it was going to go down. So before I knew it, I was in a jump suit and strapped into a harness with an altimeter on my wrist and goggles around my neck. Jeremy was gamely trying to get me psyched up, but I was never one for the adreno-testosterone rock 'n roll hype. (Sort of like dirty talk, I can go along with it even if I'm not really feeling it.) I'd opted not to buy the video/photo package for $99, partly because I was on a tight budget, and partly because the only thing I'd really use it for is a facebook cover photo. But Jeremy had the camera in case I changed my mind after, so he was trying to get me to play to the camera, but I really wasn't feeling it. I was nervous definitely but actually kind of relaxed and zen about it.

It wasn't long after we saw the first group coming down from the sky that the plane pulled in front of the hangar for us to board. From then on it was all business with no time to really think about what I was about to do (although Jeremy was still occasionally trying to get me to get psyched for the camera). There were five pairs of us on the plane, sitting on long cushioned rails as we took off and gradually ascended. I was watching the altimeter rise, and it seemed to take a long time to get to 14,000 feet. On the way up, Jeremy pointed out nearby Lake Okeechobee, and when we could see the Gulf coast and the Atlantic coast at the same time, as well as Miami off in the distance. He'd gotten us strapped together, my goggles were on and we were ready when the red light came on, indicating time to jump! Now it was starting to feel real, as the first instructor opened the side door and out he went with his client. We had to scooch up the rail as the next pair went, and the next. Then it was our turn, and exactly as he described it, with no hesitation, out we went.

It's funny how our brains know things, but at the same time the brain ignores these facts. In skydiving pictures, you see people smiling, giving thumbs up, doing maneuvers and choreography and just apparently happily floating in mid-air. I suppose I was unprepared for the force of air that greeted me upon exiting the plane; it was quite overwhelming. And at times I forgot the instruction to breathe through the nose rather than the mouth, so I would sometimes get a force full of wind down my throat. I did remember the instruction to arch my back and keep my feet back up towards my butt, or my instructor's butt, so we had a proper freefall. But I was tense and my back started getting sore and my breathing felt uneasy and my head felt light. The fields were lying a safe distance below us, and Jeremy still had me do the rock 'n roll thing to the camera sometimes, but I was definitely not in a rock 'n roll mood at that point. Once we left the plane I honestly wasn't scared, but I regret to say that I didn't really take the opportunity to relax and enjoy it, I was more tense and uncomfortable. When the altimeter read 5000 feet I pulled the golf ball handle to release the parachute and it opened perfectly, but certainly with a jolt. Now, gently falling, I could take off the goggles and enjoy, at least if I weren't lightheaded and worried about becoming nauseous. Jeremy started taking us on a few spins, but I had to let him know that wasn't the best idea for me at that point. I did take the toggles to control the chute for a while, which was very cool. But for the most part I just wanted to be on the ground. Soon enough, we were approaching the landing on the field next to the hangar, and I was surprised how on-target we were and how close we were able to get. Apparently due to the lack of wind to slow our approach, we would be sliding in on our butts, which we did on the wet grass. But it was very smooth and the ride was over!

I've had people say I'd feel like Superman when I landed, I'd be on an adrenaline rush that would carry over to the early part of the race. But I was still a little lightheaded for a little while, my heart was beating hard, and it took me some time to process the whole experience. As I ran the race, I was able to put the feeling, the discomfort, into terms that I could relate to past experience and perhaps some of you (especially you New Yorkers) could relate to as well. It felt like I'd been out getting totally wasted and I was trying to get home on the subway, and I just wanted to get home before I threw up or passed out. I immediately came to the conclusion that while I had a great experience and I was definitely glad I did it, skydiving is not for me, and it was certainly a one-time thing. With a week and a half to reflect, I'm now not so sure it was a one-time thing. I want to try again, and hopefully I'll be able to relax and enjoy it more for the incredible experience that it is.

And an incredible experience it was all around. Jeremy and the folks at the Skydive Spaceland managed everything an a very fun, safe and professional manner. Eric Friedman and his volunteers put on a wonderful race, and I made a whole new set of friends in south Florida. Thank to everyone, and you just might see me down there again!