by: Ben Zelinskas
The race bible read, “Stay away from the water and do not throw food of any kind into the water or along the trail as it may attract unwanted wildlife. The canal road trail is rocky and uneven. Use extra caution with your footing and be aware of the change in terrain. Use headlamps/flashlights to illuminate the ground in front of you.”
Those were the words in my head as I set off into the dark night on a deserted Everglades access road in Southern Florida…
The Ragnar Relay Series is a collection of team running events in different locations around the U.S. – 12 people, 2 vans and a team willing to complete a 200-mile course. My interest was immediately peaked at the idea of an overnight race and a long weekend in Key West. I quickly accepted the invite not knowing the informal footrace would leave a lasting impression on me.
After a whirlwind of commitments to join, cancellations and last minute additions, our team, The Cocktail Crew, had finally been set. The relay had 36 “legs” – 3 per runner, all different distances from 2-12 miles, allowing novice and advanced runners to compete together. We would be running a 198-mile course that began in Miami, and finished in Key West, Florida. Running south out of Miami, we would navigate its crowded city streets, make a stop at Homestead Speedway, spend a short stint in the everglades, and hop from Key to Key in an effort to finish in Key West.
Upon arrival in Miami we had come to learn that we would be a runner short. The extra mileage would have to be made up between the members of a single van. Van one, my informal home for the next day and a half, assumed the extra mileage with little remorse.
There were three legs to be made up, one short, one of medium length and one long. I drew the long leg of the three; I would be running the 8.2-mile trek through the Florida Everglades (The Southern Glades Canal Trail). This was the most remote leg of the course and I would be running it in the middle of the night. There are typically enough runners and vans passing through adding light to the course to provide some surrounding comfort. But for the Cocktail Crew running one man down and struggling to keep pace with the race directors, this was a whole different animal.
We started the night strong but our team was beginning to weaken, falling further behind in the race. Fewer and fewer teams were present at each checkpoint and we were nearing the back of the pack.
As I waited at the Access Road checkpoint for the team bracelet, vans began to filter out and eventually found myself as the last remaining runner. At about 12:30am the transition was made, and it was just me. As I took off, course workers were tearing down the checkpoint. I watched van one and a paramedic’s unit speed down the rocky road in front of me, going ahead to the next exchange. I was not at ease. As ran down the access path, I was swallowed by darkness. The words in the race bible perpetuated in my head, “Do not throw food of any kind into the water or along the trail as it may attract unwanted wildlife.” My anxiety swelled.
With a wobbly headlamp, a fading flashlight and a reflective vest on, I felt like a homing beacon for all of Mother Nature and her wonders. Along the right side of the trail ran a wide canal with a shallow lip, dark enough to see the reflection of the stars on its surface. On the left was a steep bank spotted with brush that I interpreted as certain habitat to unknown swamp creatures. As I raced down the gravel road, I thought I could hear the murmurs of gators and large snakes laughing at me as if this idiot, me, is just who they had been waiting for – “Finally, the weak calf that couldn’t keep up with the herd is ours.”
I imagined a gator coming down off the hill and running me into the water. Or tripping over a large python and falling into it’s grasp. Every time I looked over my shoulder, my vest would catch my shirt, creating a rustling noise that sped me down the path faster. About 6-miles in my water bottle had gone dry. I was dripping with sweat, and there was still no end in sight. Finally I came up on another runner (2nd to last place!) and shortly after, the 1-mile mark sign. Civilization was close. I just had to hold on for a few more agonizing minutes. Finally I had reached a bend in the course that yielded some light on the other side. It was the checkpoint. I had made it to the nearly dismantled checkpoint, and to my teammates, who obliviously did not grasp the concept of ‘on-course’ van support.
I had finished the 8.2-mile trek in one hour and one minute, far faster than I intended and a new personal best for that un-meaningful measure of distance. I was tired, sweaty, and broken but relieved to be alive. I let this fact wash over me but it was immediately followed by the harsh reality that in 2.5 hours I would have to lace back up and run the 7.1-mile leg I was originally slotted for.