Last February, something possessed me to drive to Tampa for a long weekend, and run the Gasparilla Distance Classic, taking on the Lime Challenge (15k on Saturday, and 8k on Sunday). I have no idea why I did that, but I had a tough weekend, with big blisters coming up during the 15k, causing me to hobble my way through the 8k.
Despite the painful feet, I had so much fun that I signed up again for the 2017 Lime Challenge as soon as registration opened. I’ve had this on my calendar for months.
And then I ran the Mississippi River Half Marathon, and a lightbulb went off… if I could change my registration for Gasparilla to the half, I could qualify for the Half Fanatics by completing two half marathons in sixteen days.
Most years I’ve run, I’ve set some kind of goal. In 2014, it was to run a race a month. 2015 saw me run my first half marathon, and in 2016, I competed in my first triathlon. This year, I wanted to become part of the Half Fanatics. To do that, I needed to complete either three half marathons in ninety days, or two in sixteen days. Converting my Gasparilla registration would hit that target.
After a week of frantic communication right before the registration cutoff, I finally got the nod for the modified registration, and I was set!
The Road to Tampa
I set out from Da Lou bright and early on Thursday, planning to get to Dothan AL before the day was done. That’d leave a shortish drive on Friday, and give me plenty of time to get settled in once I got to Tampa.
I decided to take a different route this year, avoiding Nashville, Chattanooga, and Atlanta, and traveling kinda diagonal across west Tennessee and northern Mississippi, before hanging a big right, going south through Alabama.
I passed through farm lands, and crossed the very river I’d run across just two weeks ago. The clouds and fog hung in all morning, keeping the temperatures cooler, which was fine by me.
Along the Rockabilly Highway, I stopped for some gas in Henderson TN. I got out of the rental car, and noticed a note on the pump, indicating that the card reader wasn’t working. I walked inside, and waited for the clerk to show up. Once she did, I asked what she needed in order to turn on the pump. That’s when it got weird.
She asked if I was filling up, and of course, I said “yes”. Then she asked me how much I thought it would take to fill it up. Eh? I had no idea. It’s a rental car! She told me that it was only that pump that had a problem, so I figured I’d just move to another one. And then the wisdom came. She began to tell me how much safer it was to pay inside the store, because there were so many folks out there putting skimmers on the pumps.
I thanked her, told her I’d move to another pump, and then went about filling up. If my card gets nabbed, I have a pretty good idea where it might’ve happened! 🙂
The rest of the drive to Dothan was pretty uneventful, making for a long, twelve-hour day, full of Sirius XM glory, and my torturing the animals I passed by with my singing.
I saw signs for lodging as I was pulling into Dothan, and picked the Best Western from the lot. Basically, I just needed somewhere to lay my head for the night. I got checked in, and frankly, it was an old, tired motel, with a bed that was a little uncomfortable, doors that didn’t shut well, but an air conditioner that rocked.
Upon getting checked into my hotel for the night, it was time to find some dinner. I’d read about a place in Dothan called Rock N Roll Sushi, and wanted to give it a try. They had some very unusual rolls on their menu, and I knew that’s what I needed for dinner. I hit their website, and put my iPhone in control, guiding me to some grub.
Except that the address on their website was wrong.
I ended up in a really grungy part of town — I knew that because one house had “No Trespassing” spray painted across a front door and jamb — and couldn’t find the restaurant. I called, and they told me I was all the way across town from them. After some directions, I headed back across town, and finally found it.
And while the restaurant wasn’t amazing to look at, the food was stunning! I had smoked salmon nigiri and tobbiko nigiri, along with a couple of rolls. Knowing that I needed lobster to survive, I started with the ZZ Top roll, which had tempura lobster inside, crabmeat atop, along with crunchy crab, spicy mayo and eel sauce. It was huge, and was, by far, the best thing I ordered. I also had the Velcro Pygmies Roll. This smaller roll had spicy tuna, avocado, crunch flakes and topped with Pop Rocks… yes, real candy Pop Rocks atop! The sweet from the Pop Rocks countered the wasabi and soy really well, and the slight popping in my mouth was just plain fun. The food was awesome, and was definitely different from any sushi place I’d ever visited.
By driving as far as Dothan on Thursday, I set myself up for a relatively short drive into Tampa on Friday. I grabbed a little OJ and a pastry before heading out, and hit the road at sunrise. Along the way, I found a Lowe’s that was open, and ran in for some duct tape (more on that later!) before heading south to Florida.
Highway 231 out of Dothan is apparently a big run down toward Panama City. And with it being a pathway to Florida, there was a rest area just beyond the Florida state line. The welcome centers in Florida are renown for serving up fresh OJ as a little treat for entering the state. Unfortunately, since this one was a little off the beaten path, it would be closed for another hour, and I missed my chance for a little slurp of nectar from the Sunshine State.
By now, I was starting to think about my endgame for Tampa — where to stop for lunch, and when to stop for fuel so I wouldn’t have to worry about that first off on Monday as I began my return to the Midwest. I finally landed in Gainesville, mostly driven by an advertisement for Krystal’s. If you’ve read my race reports before, you know that I’ll go out of my way to go to Krystal or Runza. I stopped in, and sat down for a quick lunch, before heading across the street for some gas. After filling up, I picked up some Gatorade (I’d also forgotten that at home, still chilling in the fridge), and resumed my southerly charge.
Along the way, I’d noticed some differences in how the Apple Maps app and my Garmin were leading me. Most of it was semantics. The Garmin was intent on ensuring I didn’t accidentally take an exit I shouldn’t, while my iPhone showed me what I would eventually be doing as my next maneuver. The thing that made the Garmin stand out, however, was that it showed me which lane I needed to be in for my entrance into Tampa. I kept ’em both on as I hit the city, and felt like I had consensus on everything I was doing. 🙂
This year, I stayed in the Hilton Downtown, which is on the other side of the Convention Center from where I stayed last year. I didn’t have to fight any of the crazy traffic at the Convention Center, and pulled right up to the Hilton. I dropped off the car with the valet, and headed in to check in. I knew I was early (about 2pm), and hoped for best. If you remember, last year, there were many of us who waited several hours for our rooms to be available, with me finally getting mine at 4pm after a lot of squawking. The Hilton, however, had a room immediately available, and after thanking me profusely for our repeated business, I was heading upstairs to my room.
And it was a nice room. Big, comfy king bed, a couch, a real desk, and all the power outlets you could possible want. That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.
I walked down to pick up my packet at the Convention Center. I got turned around a little (of course!), and it turned into a little longer walk than I’d expected, and by the time I’d trodden into the Center from the 90° heat, I was sweaty and stinky. Like last year, the organizers had done a great job to ensure there weren’t long lines to pick up your bib and shirt. I was a little fearful that there could be some drama around my bib and shirt, since I was a late conversion to the half. But my bib was there (without my name printed on it — not a surprise, given the timing), and awaiting me was a “good ol’ boy” sized race shirt for the half. Woot!
I wandered around the expo, looking for anything cool and interesting, and frankly, I didn’t really see anything much that I hadn’t seen before. Of course, there were a lot of races being promoted from this region, along with local organizations and companies, none of which were things that would be helpful for me.
And then I ran across the folks from Krave Jerky. I’ve really started enjoying having jerky in the car for these road trips, and on a lark, I tried some Jack Link’s Tender Bites for the Mississippi River half two weeks ago. It was awesome on the course, sat well with me, and I really felt like I got a boost out of it. I get pretty bored with the sweet treats like Sports Beans, and other chewy sweet things. They’re nice, but I just can’t make a race of them. The guys from Krave seem to have figured that out too, and had samples there to try. I really liked the flavors and tenderness, and think I’ll need to get some in the house for future runs (never try anything new on race day!).
As I was leaving the Expo, there was a creepy little guy hauling a backpack half his size, asking folks if they had bibs that weren’t gonna be used. I’ve never encountered that before. For every race I’ve ever seen, having someone else run with your bib would get you blacklisted from running in that race again. And I can’t imagine what this guy’s deal was. Maybe he was too late to get registered. Maybe there’s a market for those just before race day (like scalped tickets for a concert). Regardless, it was slimy, and I just walked on by.
I walked back to the hotel, and called it night, staying in, watching TV, and just relaxing, knowing that in about 36 hours, I’d be taking on my next real test, and hopefully sealing the deal for my joining Half Fanatics.
With the change in my race plans, Saturday was a down day for me, and a chance to just relax before my big run.
Last year, after the 15k, I met some friends –Shauna and Clyde — for a late lunch. They relocated from STL to Tampa a few years ago, and Gasparilla is a great chance to catch up with them. I’d made the same plan with them for Saturday on this trip, and once again, we went to the Columbia Restaurant. This place is legendary, and has been around for over a century, sporting amazing Cuban-inspired food.
These guys make great sangria table side, so Shauna and I decided to split a pitcher… neither of us was driving, and I needed hydration for Sunday’s race. 🙂 Continuing my lobster theme from October’s cruise, I ordered Croquetas de Langosta, which was absolutely amazing, and light enough not to weigh me down to the point where I couldn’t have desert. And since I was in Florida, that meant key lime pie, and Cafe con Leche to top things off. With all that goodness, and a couple of hours of great conversation, I was able to take my mind off the upcoming race, and simply relax.
The half marathon started at 6am, and I knew I had to walk about four blocks, and build-in time for finding the tail end of line. I woke up ahead of the alarm after a fitful night of sleep, and started getting ready. Socks and braces and compression sleeves and bib… I felt like a gladiator getting ready for competition.
And, truthfully, it’s probably not that far off!
I walked down to the start line, and found that it was already very crowded. I think there were to be about 6500+ folks running the half, and every single one of them appeared to be milling around in front of me. I found a couple of guys that were also turtles like me, and we chit-chatted for a bit, which helped keeper my nerves down. Really quickly, the time came for the National Anthem.
Now, many races this size have someone actually perform the anthem, but in this case, it was a recording. However, the sound folks couldn’t quite get the sound system switched from the “pump you up” music to the Anthem, so after a few attempts to announce the Anthem, the DJ gave up… and then suddenly, the last three or four lines of the Anthem came through. Yeah, that was kinda messed up. 🙂
And then we were off!
The race course first wound through the neighborhoods on Davis Island. Even at that early pre-dawn hour, there were folks on the sidewalks cheering us on. I really love races where the neighborhoods are engaged and rooting the runners along!
And since the route on the island was a loop, I got to pass by a fire juggler twice. That was crazy awesome, and worth watching for a little bit. If I had any kind of skills, I’d be out there doing something like that for these long races. Maybe I should learn to play my ukulele while I’m running. 🙂
Finishing the island course meant that almost five miles were behind me as the sun was starting to rise. With the nice breeze from the bay, this was feeling like it was gonna be a great day.
The rest of the race was along Bayshore Boulevard — the same course as the 8k and 15k I ran last year. This is a beautiful route, with the bay on one side, and wonderful deco-inspired homes on the other. I really like the look and feel of this neighborhood… and the sea breeze off the bay!
The first several miles along Bayshore went along pretty well, but I could tell I was starting to weaken, feeling some soreness in my hips and feeling my crazy left-foot blister starting to rear it’s head. I’d duct taped it, trying to keep friction to a minimum, but as I’d find out later at the hotel, my tape tore, and started floating around in my sock.
The turnaround was about 15km in, and by then, I knew I was in trouble. I was walking slowly — but methodically! — up Bayshore, and that’s when the last of the pack finally passed me. I was officially the back of the pack, and had a police escort for the next couple of miles.
Behind the half marathon, an 8k was slated to go, and the course organizers helped ensure I was out of their way as they kicked off. The elite runners began passing me about ten or eleven miles in, with the competitive runners not far behind.
But here’s the cool thing. Even with all these speedy folks passing me by, many of them patted me on the shoulder as they went by, encouraging me to continue on. I’m sure they realized that I was out there as the last of the half marathoners, and was trudging forward by sheer force of will. I’ll never forget all those kind words as I worked slowly toward the finish line.
With about a half kilometer to go, there were three ladies at the end of an entrance ramp cheering folks on. They’d finished the half, and when they saw me, and recognized that I had a half marathon bib on, asked me if I’d like them to make me a mimosa. I’d been on the course for over four hours by this time, and that sounded like the best idea I’d ever heard. They reached into a cooler, began mixing, and I started drinking the best drink I think I’ve ever had. We toasted my impending finish line appearance, and they congratulated me on my determination. They were angels in disguise, and after a few minutes, I got my feet under me, said my goodbyes, and was on my way again.
Only a few minutes later, I crossed the finish line, and wandered toward the folks handing out medals. Just like in Mississippi two weeks earlier, someone tried to hand me the wrong medal (an 8k medal, in this case), and I explained as best I could that I was the last of the half marathoners to finish. They walked to the medal racks, grabbed a medal, and hung it around me. I was thrilled.
I continued through the finishers’ chute, grabbing only a water. I knew I was done, and needed to be heading back to the hotel to relax my poor feet. I had my photo taken with a pirate lass, and at the apex of the footbridge, I leaned my head against the top of the handrail, saying some small thanks, and becoming very overwhelmed at what I’d just accomplished.
Not only had I completed my second marathon in two weeks, but I’d qualified for Half Fanatics.
In pain, limping from my blistered left foot and painful hips, I walked the few blocks back to the Hilton, reveling in this personal victory. Back in my room, I fell across my bed, and slept for a couple of hours, finally showering, and finding some food. I was done for the night, and just sat back, letting my body complain and recharge.
Back to the Midwest!
Just like a race day, the night before a long drive isn’t usually my best sleep. I woke up before my alarm, got into my driving duds, and headed downstairs to checkout. The Hilton had been good to me, but it was time to head home.
I checked out around 5am, and started my drive northward, knowing that I wouldn’t be home for two days. Frankly, the drive on Monday was pretty uneventful. I put about two-thirds of the miles to Da Lou behind me, and settled in to a hotel in Tupelo for the night.
And once again, it was a fitful sleep. This time, however, my sleeplessness was not of my own making. About 3am, the heavens opened up, and a small thunderstorm cell rocked and rolled across Tupelo, awakening me. It wasn’t too long until my alarm was gonna go off, so I decided to pack up everything, and get checked out of the hotel, putting myself on the road for the last push for home.
I kept Darla apprised of where I was, and just kept pushing north. I was counting down the minutes and miles, playing all the crazy distance/times games that I do when I run, inching ever-closer to being home.
Just before lunch, I pulled into the driveway, and saw a banner on the front porch:
You could’ve knocked me over with a feather. I’d never expected any kind of recognition like that for these silly little adventures of mine over the last five years. To have someone recognize completion of this crazy goal was incredibly humbling.
I’ve recovered pretty quickly from this race, as compared to the Mississippi River Half two weeks ago. I still have my blister, and I definitely have enhanced the likelihood that I’m gonna lose a toenail that began blackening from that first race. My body has recovered nicely though, with very little residual pain, and that’s something I’m very thankful for.
I reached out to the Half Fanatics after I got home, and am officially a member now, #15914. I couldn’t be happier about adopting that number!
There’s been a lot of congrats from folks at work and Facebook. Many of them knew I was striving for this in 2017, and I’m of the opinion that it takes a community to run a half marathon. Whether they’re close by family or friends, friends from the internet, passers-by in a race who cheered me on, or angels with a cooler on a street corner who can tell when a man needs a drink… they all have their place, and make up part of the story of me achieving a pretty dang significant goal, and proving, despite having had a third of my colon removed five years ago, that I’ve got a lot of guts. 🙂
This race benefits a boatload of charities. In 2016, this race gave $360,902 to dozens of charities. You can read more about those donations here.