Tuesday, August 04, 2015

St Croix Point-to-Point 40 @ 40

Most of my adventures begin as a combination of dreams and fears and this was no exception. We've been vacationing on St. Croix in what US Virgin Islands since our honeymoon 18 years ago and I've always loved running there. In recent years I've run the St. Croix Marathon and the St. Croix Scenic 50 Miler as well as some smaller races and adventures.

However, the fact that St. Croix is 26.5 miles from tip to tip has been bugging me. It just begged to be run but I didn't know anybody who had done it. Meanwhile, I turned 40 this year so last winter I started dreaming about finding a good 40 mile route from Point Udall (easternmost point of all US territory) to Sandy Point (wildlife refuge on the far west end of the island) and running the island to celebrate my birthday.

We spent seven weeks on St. Croix this summer for my work sabbatical so it was the perfect time to fulfill dreams and overcome fears (there are three H's of running in the tropics: Heat, Humidity, and Hills). I used the WalkJogRun site to experiment with various routes. The process included these dead ends:

  • Run the most direct route down the center of the island (either the highway or Centerline road): Boring (and not far enough)
  • Tackle all the biggest hills and mountains on the island (Goat Hill, Lowry Hill, Beeston Hill, Hospital Hill, Scenic East, The Beast, Blue Mountain, Mount Eagle, Scenic West, The Crusher): More than 40 miles, but maybe next time?
And this final route:
  • Run Point-to-Point (Point Udall to Sandy Point, get it?) with some East End Hills, through Christiansted, out Northside Road, then up Scenic East and follow Scenic all the way to Hams Bluff, through Frederiksted, and down to Sandy Point until my watch beeps 40 miles.
So I planned my route, froze several gallons of water which I would drop along the course, prepared snacks, and even arranged to meet an acquaintance who wanted to run the first half with me. Then on July 26 I woke up at 3:40 am for a breakfast of banana and peanut butter and my wife Cindy drive us out to Point Udall in the dark early morning as we dropped food and water along our route.

Shortly after 5am, with the sun starting to rise over our shoulders, Pam and I donned our headlamps and headed west. Within 20 seconds I realized I had forgotten to apply sunscreen (who puts on sunscreen in the dark?) but Cindy was already too far down the road to get her attention, so on we ran. As soon as we left the Point Udall monument we hit the trail and passed by East End Bay, Isaac Bay, and Jack Bay. By the time we made it to Grapetree Bay the sun was up and our headlamps were dead weight.

From there we followed South Shore Road past Divi and Grassy Point until we came upon a seldom-used trail that my friends Mike and Bridget Klein introduced me to. The trail is overgrown, steep, and rugged (just how I like it) and eventually leads to the top of Seven Flags Road. From there you've got a great view of the south shore.

After a quad-busting run down that mountain we came out on East End Road on the north shore with a nice morning view of Buck Island. 

We had logged about nine miles at this point and were happy to unpack our first cache of water and food. Our water was in good shape (though not cold) but the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I had secured in a zip plastic sandwich bag was full of sugar ants. At first I thought that I had been sloppy and not sealed the bag, but upon further inspection I discovered those little buggers had eaten through the plastic bag and smothered themselves in the mango jelly. Disgusting! The good news was that I wasn't hungry yet and the views of Buck Island were great. Maybe I had been sloppy with the bag and the ants were just a fluke? Time would tell...

At this point the sun was rising fast and though a heavy layer of clouds was shielding us from the worst potential heat, it was still getting toasty. Our next cache of water and food was by the Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant three miles down the road. The water was fine and drinkable but my peanut butter and jelly sandwich at this spot was swarming with sugar ants AGAIN. I was a little more hungry and a little more annoyed this time, but there was nothing to do but keep running.

Three more miles down the road we had cached more food and water near the Savant restaurant (amazing food!) in Christiansted. At this spot I had stashed a sandwich bag filled with a homemade concoction of rice, freshly-diced mango, and coconut milk (recipe inspired by this book). Interestingly, the sugar ants have a strong liking for store-bought jams and jellies but no apparent interest in the rice mixture. The good news was that I was finally able to eat my first few bites of solid food after 15 miles of hot and hilly running. The bad news was that I discovered a hole in the seam of my water reservoir and it was leaking fast.

At this point my doubts were snowballing: no sunscreen, a Camelbak that doesn't hold water, and almost no food. It seemed like everything was going wrong. My planned route passed just one tempting mile from our rental house. Would I be able to make it all 40 miles or would I bail early? 

I've learned that to accomplish things like this you have to hold on to them very tightly if you ever want to achieve them. You have to be hungry, determined, and ruthless to get you through dark moments and to the finish line. At the same time, you have to hold these things loosely so you don't harm yourself, do something you regret, or feel shattered when you don't achieve your goal. After all, it's just a run, right?

We had an uneventful run through Christiansted, out Northside Road, through Five Corners, and paused at Chocolate BBQ where Pam peeled off after a tough 18 mile run. I enjoyed her company and our conversation, but was a bit jealous of the thought of her taking a swim in the pool and going out to brunch with friends. The miles weren't getting any shorter and the sun wasn't getting any cooler, so off I went running fast and strong down the curvy hills to North Shore Road.

I had just passed 20 miles when Cindy met me on the side of the road with a replacement water reservoir and a tube of sunscreen. This special delivery was a relief to my body and to my mind. I left there refreshed and replenished and with the ability to carry water again. I regained my confidence that I was going to be able to finish all 40 miles.

But these hills! I had run these same hills the previous day as part of a 10-mile training run and I was suffering from the back-to-back-attack! I made it to the top but it involved more walking than usual.

Two of the rewards of running the Scenic Road are strong breezes and great views. The shot below includes Salt River Bay and the site where Christopher Columbus set foot on US territory.

After a few more miles of climbing and running the mountain ridge I finally crossed over to Scenic West where the road gets...rougher and steeper. Don't let this nicely painted sign fool you!

In the next three, dusty miles I carved my way around Blue Mountain and Mount Eagle and finally came out at the top of the Beast. This is where things get really hot, dusty, and hilly.

In about a mile I was able to get my next supply cache: water, coconut-mango rice, and sunscreen. The water was hot, the rice was delicious, and I slathered thick white sunscreen all over my sweaty body like it was my only hope! (Note: I ate before applying sunscreen and decided that was a smart move.)

From there I had another big climb which put me at the lookout over the Carambola resort. I've always loved this view and took a few minutes to soak up the experience: blue water, green forest, red roofs. At this point a few Jeeps from Tan Tan Tours pulled up and one of the local drivers asked me if I had just hiked up the hill. When I explained I was 30+ miles into a 40-mile run across the island he gave me a big smile and just shook his head.

Just up the road and around the corner is a nice view of Hams Bluff and the lighthouse. It's indistinguishable in this cell phone image below, but it's out there.

After a few more dusty miles I came upon this interesting gate which is decorated with stop signs and horse skulls. My exhaustion and the ominous postings overcame my curiosity and kept me moving on, but if you know anything about this place please leave a comment below.

From there I descended "The Crusher" which is one of the biggest and steepest hills on the island. Even though it has a decent layer of concrete on it, the 27° incline make it a tough place to run up or down. I don't think photos do it justice, but here's a view looking back up the hill.

I finally came to the bottom of the hill by the quarry and was relieved to find more water, ice, and sunscreen that Cindy had dropped for me in the afternoon. I probably wouldn't have made it to the finish without this stash of relief. I loaded my hat with ice and headed south toward Frederiksted for the final push. Everybody knows the road from Hams Bluff to Frederiksted is pretty rough these days, but you don't realize how long and hot and hilly it is until you have to run it, in the heat of the day, at the end of a 40-mile run.

A cruise ship was in Frederiksted that afternoon so the huge influx of tourists made the run into town a little more interesting. Imagine lots of chairs, umbrellas, and sunburn swarming the beach. As I made my way into town the Siren calls of Frederiksted were tempting: a pina colada at Rainbow Beach, a shave ice at Freedom City, and a smoothie from Polly's were all calling my name but I ignored their songs, persevered, and ran right by Fort Frederik and the pier, down Strand Street, and toward the pool. The beaches were packed, the streets were full of both tourists and locals, but I ran on.

I finished my run just short of the pool with an 8:00 mile to sneak in a finish time of 9:59:48. Definitely slower than I expected for 40 miles, but it turned out to be one of the hottest days of the summer and I drank and doused my way through at least six gallons of water. Garmin gave me credit for 4,341 feet of elevation gain and almost the same for descent. Full route and pace details can be found here.

Cindy and the kids picked me up and drove my home where I cooled down with passion fruit juice and a dip in the pool. As a 39-year-old, turning 40 looked sad and significant. Now with 40 years and a tough 40-miler behind me I feel strong and healthy.

The only thing that really got to me were my feet. I don't think I've ever sweat so much in ten hours and I'm pretty sure it all soaked my socks and pooled in my shoes. I didn't have any blisters or chafing, but my feet were tender for several hours until they dried out and returned to normal.

My lessons from this run include:
  1. Dream big
  2. Don't be afraid to try
  3. Plan ahead
  4. Improvise when your plans fail
  5. Food first, then sunscreen

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At 6:37 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Amazing accomplishment! Congratulations on holding on even through the siren song portions.


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