“What are we doing today?” – Mikey, my instructor shouts over the noise from the little plane about ready to take off, I guess it’s a reasonable question under the circumstances. There’s probably only a handful of people in history who have ever been brave/stupid enough to be able to shout back:
“YEAH BABY! I’m gonna strap myself to a complete stranger, jump out of a perfectly good plane at 14,000 feet, drop like a stone for two miles, float to the ground and then run 100 miles”
I must admit as a typical middle-aged, middle-class, fairly reserved Englishman, this alpha-male, type-A behaviour is not like me, but once again I’m in the USA – this time for the Skydive Ultra and the energy of my hosts from across the pond is infectious.
I’d first heard of the Skydive Ultra a couple of years ago, somebody, somewhere posted a link to it and I still remember seeing it and my first impression being “WOW, how cool is that? One day I’m going to go and do that race” The concept is pretty simple – you register, get into a plane, skydive, land and then run! There’s several distances from 10k to 150 miles with staggered start times, the course is a 7.25 mile loop around the airfield and surrounding farmland in Clewiston – a little town in mid Florida, USA.
OK – so it’s an awesome concept isn’t it? A bit more digging uncovered that the skydive doesn’t actually constitute part of the race, your race time doesn’t start until AFTER you land and cross the start line. And the 7.25 mile loops are flat which isn’t really my thing – I’m a mountain runner, but something just got under my skin – it’s such a unique, niche event and it looked like a lot of fun. If I remember correctly, I entered just after the 86-mile Ridgeway Challenge back in August the previous year and yes, alcohol may have been involved.
Getting to the USA was an endurance event in itself, I was going to fly to New York a week before the event, see the Big Apple and go jogging around Central Park before catching the Amtrak train down to Miami. However a massive snowstorm across the Eastern USA put paid to that and I spent a few days re-arranging flights and hotels to eventually get me to Miami late on the Tuesday before the race. I found Miami to be just another generic big city, I was impressed by the number of people out jogging though and managed a couple of short runs near my hotel in the mornings.
On Friday I headed back to Miami International Airport to pick up a rental car and then detoured to a Miami running shop to grab some essential supplies. It was then an easy couple of hours drive up to Clewiston for the race. I drove to the skydive centre to check it out before heading back to the hotel via Walmart for some last minute essentials and then to Wendy’s for a “Baconator” meal which was introduced to me by Texas John after The Bear 100 in 2013, it’s become a tradition for me now when out in the USA as sadly, we have no Wendy’s in the UK.
Registration and check-in was about a mile from the hotel at a “tiki bar” which is an open-air thatched shack-style building. Clewiston was buzzing with a strange mix of skydivers, ultra runners and fishermen in town for a bass fishing competition that weekend. The skydive ultra had already combined two of those sports – I wonder if there’s a way to combine skydive ultra running with bass fishing? Maybe jump into the lake, grab a fish and start running, or do a lap and then you have to catch a fish before starting the next lap?
So I checked-in, grabbed my swag bag and bib which was pretty cool. My race number not only had my name and distance on, but was also printed on the type of cloth you use for cleaning glasses, not that I wear glasses but I’ve just used it to clean my iPad screen after getting nasty, greasy finger marks on it.
I’m not a fast runner, my 100-mile PB is 21:43 set back in 2012 during a 24-hour event on a 5-mile looped course. I definitely didn’t believe I was in that condition coming into the Skydive Ultra – but there is a special buckle/award for going sub-24 hours for 100 miles so that was my goal. The course is a bit long, (I finally made it 102.9 miles) so it means an average pace of just under 14 minutes/ mile. Whenever I’ve gone for a sub-24 100, my goal is to get to halfway/50 miles in around 10 hours- so that was the game plan.
I slept pretty well and got up at 05:00, put the TV on and got ready while being amused by the hysteria around the USA presidential race starring Donald Trump. Normally I’d eat 400-500 calories worth before a race but decided to stick with coffee today, at least until after the skydive. It was still dark as I checked-out of the hotel for the short drive to the race start, getting there I saw 3 flags flying at half mast – one of which was the Union Jack, not a good omen – what did they know that I didn’t? Later-on I heard that there had been a helicopter tragedy where 14 US marines had been killed and it was also the anniversary of the Challenger disaster but no-one was 100% sure.
The race HQ started livening-up, the 150-mile race had started at 17:00 the previous day so there was a bit of activity as the occasional runner came through. A medical team were doing an experiment where they wanted to perform an electrocardiogram test (EKG) before and after the event to see what effect running 100 miles had on the heart. I had a bit of time to kill so went and signed-up. They took my pulse then stuck loads of electrical contacts all over my torso and wired me up to a computer, I’m not particularly hairy in the chest department but had to be shaved to ensure the contacts were good so am now sporting some random, square bald patches on my chest! I was all good fun though and the medical team were great to talk to, I asked them not to tell me if anything was wrong or abnormal as it wouldn’t make any difference – they seemed to understand that philosophy.
At 07:30 the 100-milers headed to the hanger to register for the skydive – I thought I’d done all the paperwork the day before at registration and told the admin staff that it was all sorted. I was booked on load 2 at about 08:15 with Mikey, my instructor who came and found me and sorted me out with a jump suit. Then I got called back to the admin office… It turned out I HADN’T done all the paperwork at registration and needed to sign yet more disclaimers and also provide ID which was going to take at least 20 minutes. I sighed, told the admin staff to give my place on load 2 to someone else while I ran to the car to get my ID and that, as Arnold would say “I’ll be back”
Not my normal look for a 100-miler, jumpsuit and parachute harness
I ran to my car in my jumpsuit, past bemused runners and spectators to grab my ID and then back to the HQ, did all the paperwork and was re-booked onto load 4 at about 09:15 – again with Mikey who was now already on his first jump of the day. The event was chip timed so it didn’t matter when I actually started – I was pretty relaxed about the whole situation to be honest, it didn’t really matter if I was delayed, I was still going to get to jump and then run.
So – I think this is where we came in at the start. Mikey came back from his first jump and found me again, we went through the plane exit procedure, chute release, he did a video interview and then the little plane came around and it was time to load-up and then put-up or shut-up.
I’ve done a skydive before, about 15 years ago in Australia and I remember every second of it, the fear and especially the sensation immediately after jumping. This time was different, I’ll still remember every moment but it was a much calmer, relaxed experience. I’ve thought a lot about it since and I think that I have a very different perspective on life these days. Tandem skydiving is a lot like a roller-coaster – you have no control and are on a ride, it’s not like being up on Crib Goch in Snowdonia, alone in the woods in Transylvania or deep in alligator territory in the middle of the night, (which is where I’d be later) – now, that’s scary! My philosophy is that if you can’t affect the situation there’s no point getting stressed about it, to quote Hunter S. Thompson, “Buy the ticket, take the ride”
My Garmin log for elevation vs Heart Rate on the skydive, (57-145 bpm)
The skydive was a lot of fun, I’m not sure what else I can say about it really? We were very lucky with the weather it was a clear, sunny day with amazing views to the coast. It was nearly 10:00 after landing and sorting out all the admin and other stuff so I decided to start at 10:00 with the 50k runners, all of the other 100-mile runners were out on the course – some had started at 07:00 as they weren’t skydiving. I liked this option as it meant that I wan’t chasing anyone as relative positions were irrelevant – there was no way of knowing who was in the lead.
Bang-on 10:00 we were off with Eric, the race director telling me off on the megaphone for wearing my customary all-black kit, saying it would be hot and to put on a white t-shirt. Little did he know I had slathered myself in P20, the best sunscreen ever – this stuff is amazing, even in 100+ degrees it’s kept me protected all day.
The course is a flat, squarish loop of about 7.25 miles around farmland, fields of sugar cane, US Highway 27 and the airfield with an aid station after about 3.5 miles. The first half is very runnable on open dirt tracks then a long section parallel to the road (HWY 27) before heading into the sugar cane and around the airfield back to the start. Nothing spectacular, but at least it kept twisting and turning to break up the monotony. There was a tiny muddy section – literally around 2-3 metres but apart from that it was dry, a bit uneven in places but very runnable compared to the swampy, boggy, mountainous stuff I’m used to.
The 7.25 mile course – from 14,000 feet
For 100 miles, I had 14 laps to do and I really wanted to finish under 24 hours. A long time ago I was told that to go sub-24 you should aim to get to halfway in around 10 hours to allow for slowdown in the second half which is generally also at night, this has always worked for me so that was the plan.
I started at a comfortable pace, around 9-10 minutes/mile – it always takes me a few laps to settle into these things and this was faster than I was planning to run for the first half. When I got the Aid Station at 3.5 miles I noticed that there were a load of plastic cups on the table, people had written their name on them so they could re-use them throughout the race – a great idea. I grabbed a cup, filled it with Coke, drank it then wrote “UK GUY” on the cup before placing it back on the table much to the amusement of the volunteers. Maybe it was that, or the Union Jack buff sewn onto my pack and/or the Union Jack buff dangling from my backpack that gave me away but, from then on – I was known as “UK Guy” by the staff at Aid Station 1 and various other people who had seen that cup.
Finally, it was time to start getting down to business… After all the jokes, banter and jumping out of planes at 14,000′ there was 100 miles to run – and that takes some commitment and focus. I’m not going to lie, it was tough and I had moments of doubt. However, halfway came in 9:52 and then I knew it was in the bag. By now it was dark and most of the other distances had finished, it was getting lonely out on the course with probably only 15-20 people running through the night. Most were running in little groups of 2-3, but I like to run alone on these long events so had a quick chat with people as we passed but mainly it was just me.
The Florida swamps are a pretty creepy place to be in the daylight, however when it gets dark things get really weird. There’s rustling in the sugar cane, chirping crickets and croaking toads all around, the mist comes down blanketing everything in a strange low level fog – it really is like being in a horror movie. I wasn’t thinking about any of that until I caught up with a runner navigating using their iPhone as a torch.
“Hey there” I said, “Do you want to loan my torch?” I offered as I was using a little hand torch but also had my headlamp just in case.
“Yes please” she said, “I’m scared of the snakes”
So I gave her my torch, she promised to leave it at the start/finish area as I switched on my headlamp and ran off ahead.
A few minutes later as I caught up to another runner and my mind wandered back to that conversation… did she just say SNAKES? as I caught up to the runner I asked:
‘Hey – are there snakes around here?”
“Oh yeah – real poisonous ones, and Burmese Pythons…” (*)
“What about alligators?”
“Hell yeah, the volunteers at Aid Station 1 saw them earlier, that’s probably the rustling in the sugar cane”
But it was going to take a determined alligator to stop me from getting that sub-24 buckle, I made a silent pledge with the ‘gators that I wouldn’t turn them into a belt for my new buckle if they didn’t try to eat me. Snakes – I’ve had dealings with them before in the USA and I was pretty sure I could handle a little snake or two.
(*) Writing this blog, back home in the safety of Cardiff, Wales I decided to Google “Florida Snakes”. Apparently Burmese Pythons are becoming a bit of a problem in Florida – here’s a picture of one! If I’d have known about this at the time then I think I might have been a little bit more terrified.
A Burmese Python caught in the Florida Everglades
The night wore on, as did the laps. At around 04:00 the skies cleared and a low level mist blanketed the course, the stars were amazing and even the frogs shut up – or maybe this was the time the Burmese Pythons got up for breakfast? Sunrise came in various shades of orange and red as I was on my final lap which was pretty special.
The race ended-up going almost exactly to plan and I crossed the finish line in 3rd place with a time of 21:55, Eric handed me my big sub-24 100-mile finishers buckle. I wandered back to the car wondering what to do with myself for the next few hours before I could check-in to the hotel. I headed off to the medical tent and got my post-race EKG stuff done, had a shower and chatted to a few people about races, snakes, alligators and stuff like that. The adrenaline started to wear off and the post-100 pain and stiffness started setting-in, I folded down the back seats in my rental car and lay down for a while trying to get comfortable.
Eventually, even lying down was too uncomfortable so I had to get up and walk back to the finish area, I chatted to a few more people, had a bit of food and a beer while waiting for the final 150-mile finishers to come in – there were 3 friends running the 150 and after the last one finished, Eric the RD announced “Who’s up for a 150 finisher Beer Mile?”
So these 3 chaps did a beer mile, the rules of which are – you “chug” a beer, run 1/4 mile then “chug” another beer – repeat 3 times! It was amazing – one of the guys went off at 5km pace – and he’d just finished 150 miles.
I made plans to have dinner later on with Arvel from Hawaii who I’d met at the finish, limped back to the car and headed to the hotel via the liquor store for something to temporarily numb the pain. 36 hours later I was back in the UK having had 3 or 4 hours sleep in 72 hours, everything finally caught up with me and I passed out for a straight 15-hours.
Looking back it seems impossible that all that actually happened, but I’m pretty sure it did – at least I can see the buckle sat next to the ones from my other 100’s. I also feel like I ran 100 miles last weekend – stiff, sore and still slightly jetlagged. I wrote most of this blog on the plane home from the USA on Monday night while the memories were still fresh in my head, one of the reasons I write these blogs and race reports is to preserve that experience and I do come back and read and re-read them from time to time.
The Skydive Ultra is a very niche event and compared to other, more conventional ultras there’s virtually no race reports, blogs or articles out there. For that reason I’m going to add an extra few paragraphs below which might be useful for anyone else considering entering in future years.
Yes, it’s an expensive event – especially if you’re coming from Europe. I think I spent around £1,200 in total which included the race entry, skydive, flights, car hire, hotels, transfers and spending money in the USA. But if you were going to do a UK 14,000′ skydive it would cost around £300 – start adding in the travel/hotel etc… and I bet there’d be little change from £500. Add-in a 100 mile race and you’d be up to £700 – I spent years doing stuff on the cheap and I ALWAYS regret not doing it properly, if you’re going to do something epic – it’s worth the extra expense to do it properly.
The race course itself is nothing special, but lapped courses rarely are and I’ve done a few of them in the UK. Personally, I’d have liked a few undulations/hills to break up the relentless flat but you can’t have everything and there just aren’t any hills in the area so it would be impossible to get them into this course.
I’d absolutely recommend the race, if you can afford it you won’t regret it. It’s Florida in January, warm and sunny – take the kids, go and see Disneyworld, the Kennedy Space Centre, Universal Studios. Book that holiday of a lifetime and forget to mention to everyone that you’ve accidentally booked a race at the weekend until you get there.
Here’s a few more photos, all photos taken during the skydive are courtesy of Eric Friedman, taken from the event Facebook page.