It was my second time out to run DTR’s 50K Endurance Challenge, so I knew what I was in for, but as with all things ultra, my memory was selective. I didn’t remember the relentless quicksand nature of the sand dunes till I confronted them, I didn’t remember the sweltering heat, and I didn’t remember the course’s back section, full of relentless ups and downs until I was making my way along the hilly single track.
DTR Endurance Challenge starts off with a party-like vibe in the early hours of the morning – but not too early that you need to use a headlamp, which for me is always a plus. There was an electric guitar rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, and then the 50K group was off! Later in the morning, the half marathon runners, as well as the 10K and 5K competitors, would make their way along their respective routes. I knew tons of the Florida folks on the course but anticipated that this was going to be a solitary and serene adventure for me, as sometimes I need to carve my own path at my own pace.
The race starts off in a scenic single-track trail, and the camaraderie at the onset was contagious. Everyone clumped together as we navigated the initial twists and turns of the trail before runners started to claim their pace and charge forward. Florida runners are a courteous group, with lots of folks letting others pass, and as we all warmed up, we started to enjoy the runnable trails and the random wildlife sightings—I saw a family of deer! The course is extremely well marked for runners of each race, which is a huge plus for people like me, who tend to take wrong turns.
There’s a playful fun vibe to this race. The aid stations were full of fellow ultra-runners who had opted to support us for the day. Hose downs, ice, and treats awaited us at each station, not to mention good cheer and lots of go-get-it hooplas. It is easy to get lost in your own thoughts during this race as while you often see runners around you, the single track enables you to remain in your own little runner world. Until the sand dunes appear. If you think there are no hills in south Florida, then you have not run the sugar-sand dunes at Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Imagine trying to run uphill through steep quicksand? That’s what it is like to tackle the dunes. Once you get past them, it’s smooth single-track sailing on beautiful sand-pine scrub, with a bit of slushy trails mixed in which require some maneuvering, until you encounter the aid station from heaven—as in I was running out of water—which leads you to a stretch of road (think hot, blazing!) until you are back in the land of single-track trail. This section soon becomes a two-way traffic zone, which makes for great fun as mid-pack runners like me heading out to the turnaround point encounter the leaders of the pack—inspiration to get a move on! —before the trail becomes less populated again. Once you traverse the ups and down leading out to the turnaround point aid station, you are on your way for the final fifteen or so miles. Ups and downs, back at the stretch of road, back to the heaven on earth aid station, and then the journey back to the infamous sand dunes. Only this time you are ready for them, because you know what you’re in for.
Did I mention heat? It was a hot, sunny, April day, with humidity peaking. I was a soppy mess a few miles into the race, which was just the training I needed for upcoming summer races. On my way back, I got a much-needed hose down at the aid station after the dunes, and then I was off, making my way across the single track. The last few miles of the race, with a slight breeze waffling the trees, the rich greenery of the trails, were joyful. I arrived at the last aid station before the finish line, where RD Andrei Chaves and friends cheered me on, and I was on my way. When I hit the finish line, the crowds and cheering were electric. People were drinking, eating, dancing and hanging out. Which somehow makes race torture completely worthwhile. This race is a family affair. It’s a friendly and well-marked venue for someone to try their first ultra, a challenging training run for those with upcoming trail races, and a perfect event for those who want to experience the grandeur of Florida trails. And, you leave with a cool hat, awesome t-shirt, reusable backpack, a medal, and undoubtedly, some great new friends!