By Martha Cannizzaro
Controlled fires had scorched the forest. Predawn moonlight filtered through petrified cyprus trees. Ash powdered the earth.
Olen Dalton had returned to the Down To Run 50k Endurance Challenge at Jonathan Dixon State Park in Jupiter, Florida. It was his second time on the course. Dalton came in second for the 50k last year after he army-crawled the last quarter-mile. Photos taken as he dragged himself through the dirt and over the finish line were used as advertisements by Down To Run on their Facebook page. “Nobody even remembers first!” He was kidding, but not wrong. Expectations were set low for this year: “The goal is to survive… And finish.”
The partially swamp, mostly sand trail was shrouded in inky darkness when Dalton arrived at 4:30 am. He had driven an hour from his aunt’s house in Palm Beach, where the night before he had crashed on a nest of sleeping bags on her tile floor. It would have been an onerous four-hour trip from back home in St. Petersburg.
He parked as close as he could get to the finish line. “Well, it’s too late to back out now,” Dalton said. He hopped out of the SUV and stretched his lanky, sinewy body. At twenty-three he already has the quintessential runner’s build. His calf muscles protrude out, the size of bricks. When flexed, his thigh muscles draw a mixture of nauseated and impressed reactions. His skin has a natural brown tan from running in the middle of the afternoon almost every day.
He retrieved a bottle of Imodium out of the front seat, because you really “don’t wanna have to shit in the woods.” Dalton grabbed his CamelBak with two nine-ounce water-bottles out of the trunk. He checked for his two cases of salt tabs, three GU’s. Salt tabs help to replace sodium lost from sweat, GU’s (pronounced “goo’s”) are pouches of “energy gel” to replenish carbohydrate loss. Gear sorted, he entered the throng of runners that had arrived. Hundreds of runners had already gathered, with family and friends in tow. With a 5k, a 10k, and a 50k being staggered throughout the morning, almost a thousand people would convene.
“What’s driving you to run the 50K?” A peppy pony-tailed blonde chirped into a mic.
“I have no idea,” reflected a bleary-eyed runner in the assembling crowd.
Dalton filed into a short line to grab his bib, then tacked it to his chest. A kaleidoscope of hot neon Spandex swirled around the main pavilion. Magenta leggings, American flag short-shorts, orange-calf socks, 80’s headbands, teal compression capris, all whirled and blended into a garish Pop art pallet.
“50k ultra-marathon runners get ready! We are about to begin!”
The crowd surged as over fifty competitors jockeyed for position in the starting area. A massive, lime green inflatable archway marked the starting line. Dozens of family members and friends knit together and craned their necks. A few kids sprinted in a nearby field, in a tag-team race of their own. Dalton weaved through the runners, shoulders back, neck straight. His bright blue t-shirt and compression-shorts stood out against the riot of color. He was expressionless behind streamlined shades, his jaw tight with tension. The peppy announcer lead everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance, then started the count-down.
“Ten… Nine… Eight… Seven…!” The supporters yelled along.
“Six… Five… Four… Three…!” Dawn mist rolled over the dark trail.
“Two… One, go!” Dalton bounded out into a steady jog. He stayed in the front of the pack as the trail curved out of the field and into the woods.
The fifty-kilometer course (thirty-one miles) was comprised of a convoluted fifteen-mile trail into the woods, and then back out. Six aid stations were available to refill on water. Dalton disappeared into the forest, his feet kicked lightly off the hard earth. He drew even breaths of the muggy, morning air. Half a dozen runners opened hard and were out of view within the first mile. Three men ran in a loose group with Dalton, they alternated positions as the miles wore on.
The dirt trail devolved into swamp. Spanish moss draped across tree branches, the forest buzzed and hummed with familiar animal noises. It had rained the night before, so dark muddy puddles flooded the path. A muscled runner decided to go through rather than around—he fell knee-deep, cursing as he pushed himself off the ground. Dalton was still with his group of three when he made it to the fourth aid station a little over mile six. He spent less than a minutes at the pop-up tent, just enough time to refill. The terrain began to transition into soft sugar sand. Dalton’s Mizuno Catullus running shoes sunk into it like a fist pushed into a bag of flour. As he turned around yet another bend, he saw the Devil’s Sandbox.
“The Devil’s sandbox” is the infamous nickname given to a mile stretch of the course comprised of back-to-back sand dunes. Dalton pushed his way up them, unable to see the next peak behind the one he was climbing. He struggled over eight dunes, and pushed to the next aid station. Two other runners kept pace with him, and the group splurged on a few minutes to rest. They stood in silence guzzling water, they had all run out on the dunes. One young man had a volunteer dump a cooler of ice-water over his head. There was Gatorade and Coke, and even some snacks that went untouched: bananas, oranges, MnM’s, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Dalton focused back on the course and made it to the half-way point.
He pushed harder on the way back.
“I was feeling pretty confident. It’s really who can hang in there the longest,” he remembered later. He pushed up and slid down the Devil’s Sandbox again, calves and thighs hot with pain. By now the sun had fully risen, the temperature rose to the mid-eighties. He had returned to a more jungle-like section of the trail. Thick tree roots reached into the path, bumpy and gnarled. Suddenly Dalton’s face was in the dirt—He tripped. He always trips in an ultra.
The fall wasn’t hard, but his legs locked up. Every muscle flexed as hard as they could in an intense spasm. He was done, he wanted to quit.
Dalton brushed off some off the dirt that had clung to his sweaty body. A couple of runners rolled past him as he picked himself up and hobbled a few steps. Whenever he stopped his legs started to lock again, so he kept moving. His bib was tattered and hanging off his shirt. He managed to tack it back on, and his number, 162, was still legible. Two miles later his mood brightened.
“The attitude switched when I decided to not really go for distance or how many people I could catch, that’s when it became more fun. As much fun as an ultra can be on mile twenty-five,” he said. He enjoyed the scenery for the rest of the course. The sun inched closer to noon overhead, the sky’s grey clouds had matured into creamy wisps. Tree-frogs’ rhythmic washboard noises layered with bird chirps. Dalton knew he was near the finish. Ash mixed into the trail, he could see singed cyprus trees ahead.
The path opened back up to the field. Supporters lined the fence, they cheered and waved homemade posters (Go DANNI!!!). Dalton’s pace was steady, a wide smile broke across his face as he ran under the giant green arch. A large digital stopwatch displayed his time: four hours and thirty minutes. Radio-DJ laser sound effects pierced through the air and hundreds of people clapped and whooped as he accepted a gold, angular medal with an orange ribbon over his head. He had come in fifth overall, first for his age group. The peppy announcer eyed him with surprise, “it looks like you just ran a 5k!”
Dalton bee-lined for a picnic table under the pavilion to collapse on to. He sipped a room-temperature Coke and watched his oblique muscles twitch. Sweat had made teardrop trails through the grime on his legs. When he pulled off his sneakers and peeled off his five-finger toe socks, blisters had already begun to form. Every toenail showed signs of distress, all but one would fall off within weeks. Dalton was pleased, though; he had shaved two minutes off of his time from last year.
“I think after this race I’m going to attempt to qualify for Boston next year,” he said as he lounged in the shade. The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon; the competition has a formidable reputation. “We’ll see though. I’d have to run a 6:40 pace… But if you don’t think you can do it then you shouldn’t even try. If you have that mindset you’re definitely not going to make it.”
Feature photo from the Facebook page of Olen Dalton.