January 16, 2016
52 miles around a lake somewhere between Baker and Milton, Florida
For the third year in a row, I entered the Bear Bait ultra races, with this one being the biggest turnout. I didn’t run the first edition of this race so I am unable to compare it to my experiences, but since I first showed up to run the infamous flooded course back in 2014, this race has grown significantly. Its been pretty neat to see more runners each year as well as the volunteers, advertising, and other efforts that go into putting on an ultra marathon. The great thing about this one is that it still has retained its community feel and local charm. The race directors are active runners (I ran this race with Bo before he took over last year), and the volunteers are all incredibly aware, helpful, and thorough in making sure every runner that passes through is taken care of. Finishing each lap to a chorus of cheers is the perfect motivation to press on, even on weary ultra legs.
3:30 AM, rise and shine
Bear Lake is about an hour away from my apartment, give or take. I had already picked up my packet at Run With It (and a few Hüma gels) earlier in the week, so all I had to do was show up before the 6 AM race brief. The past year, I have cooked breakfast the night before so I just throw it in the microwave and eat as soon as I wake up. All of my gear was in the car, but I still had to put some body glide on, and Vaseline on my toes. I just wanted to show up to the pavilion and only have to worry about checking in and grabbing a spot to set up my gear. At around 4:30, my girlfriend Whitney (who wrote about her race experience here) and I walked out the door and into a foggy mist.
5:45 AM, check in and set up
The drive up to the lake was a bit surreal with all of the dense fog hovering over the road that cuts through the forest. We ran into some traffic as a lot of others heading to the lake were arriving at around the same time as we were. There were 50 more runners this year than there were last year, so I definitely wanted to get there with a bit of time to spare and see how things would be set up to accommodate everyone. There wasn’t really that much crowding, and everyone seemed to be able to set up shop without any issues. It also wasn’t as cold as the year before, so I think there was less milling about inside the building itself. I put my gear down on the picnic table facing the finish line, which is where we would be passing through to get credit for each lap. It seemed like the ideal spot to be able to stop in, refuel and get myself ready to roll, and continue onto my next lap. It was in the mid 40’s and a light fog was hanging over the lake, great conditions for the start of our day. We listened to the safety briefing, which was short and sweet, and a short speech by someone representing the Emerald Coast Fisher House Foundation, which receives all of the money generated from this race. After the briefing ended, Bo let us know that the race was about to start. I pulled off my sweats and tried my best to put on my game face (aka cracked a few stupid jokes to lighten the mood). It was time to start running. “I’m not prepared for this”, I thought as I walked away from Whitney and over to the side of the pavilion where the starting line was.
6:15 AM, go time
I started the race in a long sleeve top (the same one I used as a base layer in Greenland for the Polar Circle Marathon), gloves, and a cold weather beanie, as well as my headlamp. I got pretty warm on the first two laps, I wish I had started the race with a short sleeve top instead. That being said, the first lap was as fun as it always seems to be, and despite it being a narrow trail once we entered the forest, I never really felt cramped for running room. It was easy enough to pass, and any speed demons running by did a good job of yelling out ahead to announce themselves. The larger roots are all painted white, and even in the low amount of light I don’t think I saw anyone fall (that comes later when your legs are shot to hell haha).
Before you even get into the forest, you run up onto a levee as you leave the camping area. I have run distance races in some pretty scenic and remote parts of the world, and to this day one of my favorite race views is looking to my right on the first two laps of Bear Bait and seeing that mist hanging over the lake as the sun begins to awake. This particular day was the bets one yet, with the fog making it so you could never tell where the lake ended and the sky began. The few logs close to shore actually looked like they were floating in midair. I hope someone snapped some good photos of this!
As I mentioned before, the race this year featured 50 additional runners, so most of the 50 mile runners I spoke to assumed we might see some congestion on the trail for the first few hours. We started the race with the 50K runners, with the 25K runners beginning shortly after we left. I would say by the time we finished our first 4 mile loop, things had spread out enough and the runners in the two shorter distances that were shooting for fast times had already made their moves ahead of us. I was running with two of my friends, Mary and Dale, and I think we might have been the only runners in the pavilion area when we climbed the hill and through the arch that was serving as a finish line/check in area. After our first lap, we all three shed some of our gear before heading back out. I took off my hat and gloves, although I wish I had switched to short sleeves after the first lap instead of the second. You don’t need many miles before your body warms up enough.
The race progressed very smoothly, and the four mile loops made it simple to keep track of our progress as well as mental motivation for counting down our remaining laps (just get it to single digit laps! – Mary). I did unfortunately kick the bejesus out of a few roots, and it appears like I will be losing BOTH of my big toenails sometime in the near future. Which is too bad since my toenails were finally almost free from the black marks inflicted last February during the Destin 24 Ultra. Sigh. I really never had this problem the prior two years, maybe switching to Hoka alters my stride just a bit? I do know that the toe area of these shoes are quite different in shape than my Nike Lunarglides that I ran in before.
By the time we got close to 24 miles, we had stayed steady with our pace the entire race. The sun had finally burned off all the fog and there were a few open areas that I was getting warm on, so I switched into my jersey that was more of a tank top style. Mary and I also switched socks at this point, the few muddy portions of the course were getting our shoes soaked. My two big toes were a bit tender from my foot vs tree nonsense, and I was afraid to look at them as I peeled off my wet socks. Oh well, pretty toe nails are over rated. I ran one more lap with Mary until I slowed down a bit at mile 28. At mile 32 I was feeling pretty tired and was definitely walking the uphill portions of the trail, and the mini hill that led onto the levee and into the forest. I would be on my own until the end of the race.
I guess this stretch of the race was all about getting to mile 40, just to feel like I was on the final stretch. I had a few laps over an hour long over the next portion of the race, but let me tell you what, crossing the check in line feeling beat is not going to stop you from cracking a smile as everyone starts to cheer you on. I really, REALLY, appreciate everyone offering words of encouragement. I saw a lot of familiar faces, and made some new friends while I was out there this year, and it definitely helped me keep going around that lake as the hours went by. I also think having two active ultra runners as the race directors is a really cool thing, and the fact that both are at the check in area at all times, saying something to every single runner that passes by, is a big deal. They know that trail better than anyone, so that is definitely a benefit to have them there with you as you try to asses what you have left to accomplish while under duress.
At mile 40, the time had come to chow down on some real food. I should have done this earlier, because as soon as that grilled cheese with bacon was demolished, it was like giving Super Mario the super mushroom. I started actually running again, and all of my laps were under an hour from that point on (my awesome girlfriend took down all of my splits, which I have put at the end of this post). I put Danzig on my iPod set to repeat, and took off. At mile 8 I drank some warm chicken broth and was feeling like a new man. I think everyone that has run an ultra knows the “second wind” sensation, and I definitely felt it kick in after eating some real food. Before I left on my next lap, Dan the race director asked if I would like a pacer. I had never ran with a pacer before so I said sure, I definitely could use the company. I had not seen another runner since about mile 40. I had no idea where I was in regards to my fellow runners. I knew 22 of us had signed up for the 50 miler but things were feeling pretty lonely at that point.
I was about a mile from the end of this lap when my pacer arrived. His name was Frank, and I can definitely say we were cut from the same cloth of ultra running. After retrieving a head lamp for impending darkness, we set off on the last lap of the race. We ran the entire time, with a lot of conversation about running and travel. Definitely took my mind off the fact that I had ran almost 50 miles. Speaking of 50, this race is actually 52 miles because the laps are all 4 mile loops. So when we passed mile 50 I jokingly asked if I would get hit with a DNF if I walked back to the check in. Another funny thing about this last lap, was that someone had finally said enough is enough and made a stick “bridge” over the long muddy water area on the course. So, I appreciate whichever ultra running engineer did this and saved me from getting wet one last time. Unfortunately, this did not stop me from tripping and falling twice. It had to happen at some point I guess. Thankfully, I used my water bottle to land of top of and didn’t get injured.
About half a mile from the end of the race, a phenomena occurred. I heard Frank say “someone is passing”, and couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t seen anyone running for so long it had begun to feel like I was the only one left on the course. It was almost pitch black at that point and sure enough, I could see a head lamp bobbing in the darkness behind us. This guy blew past us and it was like time stopped.
Now, anyone that has known me during my time spent distance running knows that I always try and finish a race sprinting. I have to be feeling completely dead to not try and at least pick my legs up and run through the finish line. Blame it on being a track and field athlete that had to finally hang up his spikes and put on regular running shoes. Needless to say, my rule is no one passes if the end is in sight. If anyone is going to out-kick me, I want to make sure they earn it and I go down in a blaze of glory.Well this runner could feel that I picked up my pace and was right behind him and he also started to run faster. The fact that it was totally dark now and I could barely make out the trees lining the course made it feel like we were sprinting through a winding tunnel. I could make out the pavilion lights between some of the branches as we were on the last part of trail before being deposited into the camping area at the base of the hill. Finally in the open, I kicked like I was back at FSU track practice and ended the race on an emotional high, endorphins at full throttle. Thanks to that runner for giving it their all at the end of the race, it’s a unique opportunity to have a 52 mile race end like that. That is what makes this sport fun to me!
5:56 PM, the endThere were still people at the finish line cheering everyone on, and I went and embraced my girlfriend in a sweaty Bear Bait hug. She had done a remarkable job crewing for me the entire day, I definitely would have been hard pressed to finish this race without her. Having someone at the end of an ultra marathon was really great, and I appreciate her babysitting me and keeping me positive. Special thanks to the race directors and all of the volunteers, this is a great race because of you all and how much work you put into making sure things run smoothly. I will see everyone again at another version of the Bear Bait, which I am sure will be better than ever.
Also, the next day after plugging in my GPS watch, I saw where my time was at mile 50 and I had run a new PR by 13 minutes. Very glad I picked things up the last part of the race! Read Whitney’s post about crewing for this race
– Christopher “Nole’Core” Caravello
…And At The Battles End, She Is Great
Lap 1 (mile 1-4) 40:33
Lap 2 (mile 5-8) 39:59
Lap 3 (mile 9-12) 40:34
Lap 4 (mile 13-16) 42:03
Lap 5 (mile 17-20) 43:14
Lap 6 (mile 21-24) 45:39
Lap 7 (mile 25-28) 46:51
Lap 8 (mile 29-32) 48:35
Lap 9 (mile 33-36) 59:28
Lap 10 (mile 37-40) 1:08:54
Lap 11 (mile 41-44) 1:02:02
Lap 12 (mile 45-48) 58:51
Lap 13 (mile 49-52) 53:10