2018 Daytona 100 Race Report
– a celebration of 15 years cancer free
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
-from Invictus, by Henley
On December 4, 2003 my wife guided me from a chair in the chemotherapy wing of the Mayo Clinic to our car for the 12th and final time. Standing 6’4” I weighed just 139 lbs. Scans showed that I was now cancer free, but I had never felt less alive. We had succeeded in so destroying my physical body that this unwelcome intruder had shown itself out. Thanks to hormone injections my white blood cell count had hovered just north of 1.0 for the past 6 months (with one notable exception that certainly had nothing to do with surfing a late summer South Swell). This whole process felt akin to burning down a house to clear it of squatters. This walk, like each of the past 6 months, was eventful with balance issues, shortness of breath, and vomiting. That last thing happened a lot – usually in the lushly landscaped beds of caladiums lining the walkways of the Ponte Vedra campus. I hate caladiums to this day; yet, a painting of them hangs in my office. I like being able to look at them and not feel nauseous. Most days I can. That took a while. This is me. So when the staff informed me that Bleomycin (the B in ABVD chemotherapy a standard best practice for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma) would compromise my lung function I nodded politely. Endurance sports, they advised, were off the table. Privately I vowed to prove them wrong. I was 27 and hadn’t run since high school, but they just told me I couldn’t anymore. Bloody, but unbowed.
On my own I researched morbidity rates. Terrible idea; why aren’t these data charts password protected? 15 years. That was the general consensus of as much more life as I could hope for. So 42…okay…I’ll take that. And just like that, I stamped an expiration date in my mind. Though I would deny this if anyone asked, I think regularly about those charts. I suspect many cancer survivors do the same. But what happens when that date passes? Well for me, that milestone was to occur just 4 days before the 4th running of the Daytona 100 ultramarathon. As I read the course descriptions and thought of the possibilities, I remembered barely being able to finish a 5K in February, 2004. I remembered crying in my car after that race because I was afraid they were right. Then I decided they were wrong, and I got to work. Over 15 years I steadily built myself into not just a runner, but an ultramarathon runner. Like Dad always said “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right”. I’m not fast. I don’t win. It’s not easy. But when I run, I think of caladiums. This chip on my shoulder has ushered me to finish lines at multiple 50K races, and even a 50 miler out west. Surely a 100 miler was possible. What better way to find out? What better reason than marking 15 years since my last treatment and 4 days past my sell by date? So I registered. Bloody but unbowed.
This thing was destined from the beginning as more than just timing went into this race selection. First of all, the course is identical to the roads I run around St. Simons Island everyday- flat, smooth, and fast pavement along the beach. Second, our oldest daughter had a volleyball tournament in Daytona that same weekend. I mean…we were already going to be there…so why not? And lastly, Dave and his crew at Zwitty Ultras allow runners to request their own bib numbers. So, 1203 (December, 2003) would be mine and a constant reminder that I wore proudly on my lucky, pocket torn shorts (yep, the ones from the keys miracle at Antelope Canyon). This really sealed it for me. I wanted this to be a celebration and I proudly explained my bib number to everyone I encountered.
Not much changed here from my training for Antelope Canyon. In fact, I even followed the same mileage build up program. Even though the distance was twice as long, I was banking on the terrain being much more user friendly. As before, I did several months’ worth of Power Speed Endurance (formerly CrossFit Endurance) run specific training before shifting to running only. This training heavily emphasizes form, cadence, and breathing; all things I had previously taken for granted. In practical application this looks a lot like a really tall skinny dude running down the sidewalk to the very fast beat of a metronome while breathing nasally…in sandals. Yep, I still run in sandals. Deal with it. Exactly 4 months before race day, I shifted to running only for my training and began building up miles. Most weeks included 3 midweek runs of short to medium distance with back to back long runs on the weekend. A local 50K coincided nearly perfectly with this program and served as a chance for Alyssa, Riley, and Pasley to “practice” crewing me and familiarizing themselves with the absurdity of the ultra-scene. On the way home I laughingly told them “Uncle Ken calls these things lunatic conventions” to which Riley quipped “he’s not wrong!”. Cool, so they get it. My peak mileage weeks were 65 miles and then I tapered for 3 weeks. I completely shut it down one week before race day and focused on resting and getting mentally ready. I was genuinely excited. Running had never felt easier, and I was confident. I told myself that I wouldn’t stop no matter what. I meant it. Bloody but unbowed.
The set up for this race couldn’t have been more perfect. The race started directly in front of the host hotel (One Ocean) in Atlantic Beach. Alyssa and the girls left at 5:30 as the volleyball was starting at 8:00 in Daytona. I tentatively planned to see them in St. Augustine at midday, but didn’t attach any certainty to that and focused instead on enjoying each mile. At 6:00 Dave the RD sent us on our way as we headed north for ½ mile before turning and going south for the next 97.5 miles! Following from previous race reports from this race and other flat races of this length, I decided to follow a 5:1 run-walk interval from the beginning. This meant that I would run at a comfortable pace for 5 minutes followed by 1 minute of fast walking. This was really hard to stick to at the beginning when all I wanted to do was run, but I held to it and was relieved I had later in the day. Several others seemed to be following similar plans so I felt even more comfortable with the strategy.
The first 12.5 miles took us through Jax Beach and Ponte Vedra Beach. As the sun was still beyond the horizon we were all treated to some pretty solid Christmas light displays. The sun finally broke out as we were passing the Ponte Vedra Inn and the smell of bacon nearly lured me in for breakfast. Aid Station 1 (AS1) was set up at Mickler’s Landing. I reached back and felt my hydration pack- all good, no need to stop so I pressed on feeling great. Entering a long stretch of highway through the Guana Preserve I met Jim from Syracuse and the next 10 miles flew by as we talked about other races, the advantages of Jelly Belly Sport Beans (so good), and the dangers of telling aid station workers the truth when they ask you how you’re feeling. AS2 was at mile 22 and captained by Bryce who was immensely supportive and helpful when I told him this was my first 100. Cautioning me against forcing anything he said “the race doesn’t start until mile 60” and I repeated that to myself for the next 40 miles. In keeping with the incredible people who make up this community of ultra-runners, it turns out Bryce is the same guy who set the record for fastest solo, unassisted row across the Atlantic Ocean this summer (www.nytimes.com/2018/08/06/world/bryce-carlson-rows-atlantic-ocean.html). No mention was made of this; my buddy told me the next day. Humble and grateful.
Just past mile 27, things took a turn for the worse. I had just put in my earbuds and Nelly’s “Country Grammar” (don’t judge) had me moving. I threw a salt cap in my mouth, took a sip of tailwind, and promptly choked on it and triggered my stomach. As Nelly was going “down down baby your street in a Range Rover” I was on the side of AIA vomiting out nearly 5 hours’ worth of steady hydration and calories. Caladiums. Yep. This is supposed to be hard. Now it’s an ultra. I cleaned myself up, popped a ginger chew, restarted Nelly, and got back to running. “Shimmy shimmy cocoa what…”. I’ve read before that completing races of this distance is about being able to solve problems. I reminded myself of that advice, thought of Bryce’s admonition, glanced at the upside down 1203 on my race bib, and got back in the flow. Bloody but unbowed
Coming off the Vilano Bridge into St. Augustine I was thrilled to see a really tall and a really short blonde in the distance. Alyssa and Pasley had made it! The waived me by as I ran into AS3 at mile 31 feeling new life. The aid station workers gave me some magical cherry flavored anti-nasseau chews that mixed brilliantly with Coke. This mixture settled my stomach for the next 20 miles. Alyssa and Pasley checked on me briefly before giving me the bad news that the volleyball was taking longer and they wouldn’t see me again until after dark. I asked them to drop my headlamp and reflective vest at AS5 at mile 50 and was off into St. Augustine. Weaving in and out of the tourists along San Marco was actually a lot of fun. I turned it into an imaginary slalom course and ran pretty fast through Old Town and over the Bridge of Lions. Ever since college road trips took me to St. Augustine this has been a special place to me. Running through it during this event only added to those good memories; a real highlight of the course.
The stretch from AS3 to AS5 took us about 19 miles through St. Augustine Beach, Butler Beach, and Crescent Beach including a stop at AS4 (mile 40) for some Coke and PB&J. I know this stretch of road very well and allowed myself to settle into a mellow groove. Ultimately, I dropped my intervals to 4:1 as the heat of the day was taking a toll and I thought of Bryce’s advice. I arrived at AS5 about an hour before sunset but put on my night gear nonetheless. It’s worth pointing out that this is the only time in the entire race that I actually sat down. I generally avoid sitting at all costs during these things; it’s just too tempting to stay seated. I sat down as it was here that I put on toe socks for added cushion. I typically do this at the halfway mark as a nice little treat for my feet. I love running in my Luna’s, but the extra cushion of some Injinji toe socks always lifts me up a bit. Shortly after this Aid Station we entered a 20 mile stretch called the Flagler Trail AKA the Flagler Sidewalk. I’m still not sure how this was any different than the sidewalk I’d been running on, but whatever, I told myself it was a change.
Running in the dark now at mile 60ish a car passed me and I heard a familiar voice call out “Steve?”. When I yelled out “Yes! It’s me” they all shrieked with more enthusiasm than I thought the situation warranted. With excitement in her voice Alyssa told me to keep going; that the next aid station was a mile further. When I arrived the relief was visible on all their faces. Apparently, the volunteers at AS5 never marked me on the roster and no one really knew where I was. The next day all three admitted that they had privately written me off for dead on the side of the road. Nice to know they were confident in me! I gave them my phone for a charge and asked them to meet me 4.5 miles up the road. An hour or so later there they were with my now fully charged phone. (This must be what it’s like having a crew). I thanked them all and told them goodnight with promise to text them at mile 95 so they could wake up and meet me at the finish. Little did I know I’d see them just one mile later at Rocky’s Pizza in Flagler Beach. Previous year race reports had mentioned this spot and I was prepared with cash in my pack. Sure enough in the midst of an active bar scene along the beach, I spotted Rocky’s and stopped at the window (literally along the sidewalk) to order a slice. Before I could tell the very confused looking girl at the counter what I wanted, I spotted Alyssa inside who told me they had already ordered for me. Score! Two minutes later I had a piping hot slice of cheese pizza and a Coke. I said goodnight again and set off into the night. The looks on the faces of all the drunks said it all. 6’4”, bald, shirtless, torn board shorts, hydration pack, headlamp, and slice of pizza. I’m surprised no one called the cops. Regardless, that remains the single greatest slice of pizza I’ve ever had, and I wrote as much in my 5 star Yelp review!
I’m not sure if it was the gluten, sleep deprivation, Kevin Gates, or a Red Bull I bought along the way, but the stretch from Rocky’s to AS8 at mile 81 is a total blur. I don’t even remember AS7. I do specifically remember falling asleep for a fraction of a second twice while running. The first time I “came to” in the middle of AIA; fortunately there wasn’t a lot of traffic and I guided myself back to the sidewalk like nothing had happened. I very clearly remember AS8 at mile 81 because that was when I first truly knew that not only was I going to finish this race, but that a sub 24-hour finish was possible. In fact, if I had just stuck to my pace it would have been well under 24 hours, but I made my second mistake of the day (first being the salt cap incident at mile 27) – I allowed myself to consider beyond the moment. My ego got in the way and I decided to push the pace and “lock down” this finish. Worst. Idea. Ever. The homeless women in Ormond Beach agrees for it was alongside her that I became severely sick for 10-15 minutes as a direct result of pushing too hard. Okay Mansfield, you done being stupid? Get moving. Humble and Grateful.
So I slogged on from there. After abandoning my ego and completely destroying what little relationship my stomach and I had left, I became acutely aware of how much the ball of my left foot hurt. I made a conscious decision to change my stride at this point (genius, I know) and became a heel striker for the first time in my life. At mile 83. In sandals. Oh boy. Those last 17 miles or so were just plain ugly. I must have looked pretty rough too because the gentlemen conducting late night business at a trap house in Daytona actually avoided making eye contact with me. I laughed to myself and just kept looking at the illuminated circle of light cast from my headlamp.
The final aid station at mile 95 allowed us a glimpse of the finish line as this year they were one in the same. From there we did a 5 mile loop through Ponce Inlet, around the lighthouse, and back up the beach for two miles. I’ve spent the past three weeks trying to make sense of those 5 miles and I just cannot. So I’ll simply say this- at mile 96 there was a very colorful and upright sitting housecat watching sprinklers like Vegas tourists watch the fountains at the Bellagio, the beach was infested with thousands of crabs that I was sure I was going to step on, and I had a nice exchange with a garbage can that applauded me and offered encouragement. Safe to say I was a bit tired and maybe not totally in my right mind.
Leaving the beach and running the extra 0.2 miles to Dave’s parents’ house for the “finish line” I tried to think about everything this day meant to me. I tried to think about my family and friends who were rooting me on and had supported me through so much. I tried to think of the hours and hours of training that had brought me to this point; of gratitude for this life and these abilities. I tried to think of those who were still fighting their diseases or who had lost their fights. I do think of all those things now and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for each. I recognize that without that fight with cancer, this never would have happened because I never would have considered that it might not be able to happen. Complacency terrifies me. So, yeah, I’m grateful for my cancer. Crazy as that sounds; it saved my life. Those all would have been nice things to think about there at the end, but honestly, I just thought about that cat.
Gear and Nutrition:
Luna Venado 2.0 Sandals
Injinji toe socks
Zensah Compression Leg Sleeves
Tailwind, Jelly Belly Sport Beans, Prince of Peace Ginger Chews
Ultimate Direction Wasp hydration pack
Still defunct RVCA boardshorts