About 9pm Saturday night, the race director sent out the message that due to projected heavy rain, lightning and wind, Sunday's races would be moved back an hour, with more delay possible. Around 2am a massive storm rolled through, shaking the house, lightning. It was blown out by 3, and I expected we'd have good conditions in the morning. It rained a bit more on the drive up to Clearwater, but by the time I showed up the clouds were starting to clear.
My goal was to run a steady effort. I didn't bring a watch, and the race director had made it known that the mile markers wouldn't be in place. He was worried they could turn into dangerous projectiles in the case of high winds.
As we lined up, he asked everyone to listen carefully to an announcement. He got straight to the point- the accompanying marathon and 50k were being cancelled since that part of the course was submerged. A couple people booed, and he was clearly stung. "Really?? People are booing me?" he asked. "Just one person!" someone near me shouted. The wind was really starting to pick up, giving the moment a chaotic and exciting feeling.
We started out with a quick half mile through downtown Clearwater, then turned onto the ramp of the bridge. It's a 75 foot climb that is normally pretty easy at the start of the race, but this time it was directly into the wind. The gusts were from 30-40 mph - I've never run into wind so strong. I picked out a 6'3" guy ahead of me and drafted off him mericlessly. He didn't seem too pleased, but I could tell scruples would be of no use today.
At the top of the bridge, I moved up and drafted where I could on the way down. At this point the course runs a couple miles on a short causeway to Clearwater Beach, a little strip of land jutting out into the gulf. I fell into place behind a guy going about my speed, and suggested we take turns breaking the wind. He was amenable, and we took turns leading out to the Sand Key, which is roughly perpendicular to the last bridge. The Sand Key Bridge is about the same height, but this time the wind was behind us and I went up it like a rocket. On the way down, I was a little worried about face-planting into the pavement.
The next section of the course is a bummer - you get routed into the parking lot for Sand Key and pick up about a mile running the perimeter. Two other guys caught up, and we now had a nice little pack. Wind wasn't much of an issue at this point, and we got a nice clip going. One of the guys looked strong and I worried he might pull away, but I resolved to stay with him as long as I could. Exiting the parking lot, the furthest point of the course lies ahead - running toward the tip of Clearwater Beach. It's a long stretch through a canyon of high-rise condos. The wind occasionally smacked us around, but for the most part it was at our backs.
Our pack fell apart on this stretch, and the one who stayed with me was a young guy I hadn't really noticed before. He had a strange shuffling gait, and his arms were swinging around a lot. He stuck directly behind me and kicked my heel at least a dozen times over the next few miles. It wasn't all his fault - at times a gust would blast us head-on, and my speed would drop dramatically. I didn't mind him drafting, and felt pretty steady. I was grateful for the company.
At the end of Condo Canyonland, we turned around and were now returning into the terrible wind. We had about a two mile slog back to the base of the Sand Key Bridge, grim and slow. But it was nothing compared to climbing that bridge. The wind that had sent me down like a rocket slowed my pace to a near walk. I have no information, but if I was running faster than 10 minute pace up that bridge I would be shocked. I somehow dropped the kid behind me, temporarily. I was going so slow I have to guess that he did actually walk.
Then it was back through the touristy section of Clearwater Beach, slowly turning out of the wind. The kid reappeared, and was starting to lose my good graces. He was doing a fair bit of unintelligble muttering during the race. It may have been my imagination, but it sounded like he was saying: "Not yet...not yet...wait til later..." Sand particles from the beach were flying at us, so I ran with my head turned to keep it out of my eyes. My companion passed me and ran into a section of the road submerged in water. He sent huge splashes over both of us - I had a vague sense it might be an intimidation tactic, but he also seemed a little off - who knows. Whatever the case, I had spent most of the run in the yellow, running steady and keeping my last gear in reserve. Now we turned on the approach to the Clearwater Bridge, with the wind fully at our backs with about two miles to go. I started running hard, and with the massive tailwind it had to be sub 5:20 pace. My friend disappeared and I didn't see him again.
As I got to the base of the Clearwater Bridge, I started getting a side stitch, probably from running too hard, but it stayed in the background. My friend Sean was coming back to me, but I didn't have enough runway to catch him. Going up the bridge in this direction was easy, and halfway down there is a corkscrew pedestrian path you get routed down. Then it's a short hop to the finish line, where my wife and daughters were waiting for me. My girls charged me in the finish area, which never gets old.
I had lost all sense of time out there, but I figured my finish time was going to be 1:25-1:27. I was pleasantly surprised to finish in 1:22:06. That time would not normally qualify as a pleasant surprise, but given the way everything has shaken out lately, and the day's conditions, I was happy with it.
I knew I had run on a day that would go down in the local running community's lore. The stories I heard from friends were hilarious - the sheer absurdity of the conditions made this feel more like some survival exercise than a road race. I guess I can see the appeal of the crazy trail ultras my sister does better now. This is one of my favorite races ever.