My favourite type of ultras are runnable courses in the sunshine, so when Daytona 100 popped up on my radar, a 100 mile point to point race from Jacksonville Beach to Daytona in the December Florida sunshine, it sounded like it had my name written all over it.
The race almost didn’t go ahead as just over 3 weeks before race day, Hurricane Nicole hit Florida, and large parts of the course were destroyed. Whilst I was working on plan B and finding an alternative race in the States, Bob Becker, the Race Director, was brilliant at keeping runners updated. And just one week later, and after some intensive road rebuilding work, we got confirmation that Daytona 100 was on – godbless America and those who mend her roads!
If you ignore their crazy gun laws and at times bonkers politics, I love lots of things about America, and I really love racing in America. Here are a few observations about being back Stateside and running Daytona 100.
Plan your pre-race food wisely
Of every country I’ve visited, I find America the hardest to be vegetarian. Everything (and I mean everything!) comes with meat. Our flight from Heathrow was delayed which meant we missed our connecting flight to Jacksonville. BA were brilliant and put us on the next flight, it just meant we had a 6 hour wait in Miami airport where I thought we’d get something to eat. We walked the entire length of the terminal (twice, to make sure I hadn’t missed anything!) searching for a vegetarian sandwich, at one point I saw a ‘3 cheese’ sandwich on a menu….but then realised it came with ham!
Jacksonville was no better equipped for vegetarians. I always bring my pre-race breakfast from home if I’m racing abroad, but had hoped to get a sandwich as well to eat something solid before I started consuming gels for 18 hours. In America you learn it’s possible to get a gun in an American supermarket, but you won’t find a non-meat sandwich!
My pre-race dinner is always a margherita pizza and an alcohol-free beer, I mean wherever you are in the world you can always get a margherita pizza….well apart from Jacksonville it transpires. I ordered off-menu and ‘built my own’ margherita pizza and the waitress serving us acted like it was the craziest thing she’d ever heard someone wanting a pizza with cheese only!
Remind yourself you know what you’re doing
I’ve raced enough ultras to know that it’s likely a large part of the field will head off fast, and Daytona 100 was no different. The perfect conditions at the start (18 degrees) and wide flat road meant I must have been overtaken by at least half the 150 strong field in the first couple of miles. I knew I was aiming for a sub 18 hour finish time, so I was either going to be part of the fastest 100 mile field ever, or a lot of people were going to blow up. (Spoiler, it was the latter and just five runners finished in under 18 hours).
I completely ignore what everyone else is doing for the first few hours of a long race, and whilst I never run to pace or heart rate, I know what 100 mile effort should feel like, and I reminded myself that I’ve been here before and know what I’m doing with my own race plan. And after the frantic pace at the start, runners seemed to realise they were in for the long haul, and from then onwards I started to pass people and move up the field.
Be careful what you wish for
One of the things I was looking forward to most at Daytona was running in the sunshine. Training during October and November had been a continuous cycle of detangling knotty ponytails and drying out soaking wet trainers, so I couldn’t wait to be back in a vest, visor and sunnies. I’d researched the typical forecast for December in this part of Florida and it tended to be around 20 degrees, so I decided not to do any heat acclimatisation as I knew I could run well in those temperatures without having to sit in a sauna overheating for three weeks prior to the race. As we hit race week, the weather forecast was looking warmer than I’d planned for, not super hot, but warm enough for a Brit coming from a UK winter, at 26 degrees, plus 90+% humidity.
It was too late to do any heat acclimatisation by this stage, but instead of planning for the hotter conditions, I was still really blasé about the temperatures, telling myself that I had raced well in temperatures 10+ degrees hotter than it was going to be in Florida….completely ignoring the fact that I’d raced well in these temperatures because I had heat acclimatised for it and had lots of cooling mechanisms at my disposal!
Therefore I was pathetically prepared for the heat on race day. From 9am onwards the sun beat down with no shade whatsoever. Many a time I thought of my Salomon Bob hat and ice bandanas sat all lonely in a drawer back home and thinking what I would give for them today! Tom was amazing at looking after me in the heat, meeting me more regularly in the second half of the race, and getting me ice and extra drinks, but as someone who normally prides herself on her levels of race organisation, Tom described it as like crewing himself today. Tom is at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to race organisation, and will be the first to admit he adopts a ‘wing it and hope for the best’ approach, so it wasn’t a compliment when he said it was like crewing him!
Time flies when you’re having fun
The best types of races are the ones where you’re enjoying yourself so much the miles fly by. And Daytona felt like this for the first 70+ miles. Yes it was a bit hotter than I’d planned for, but it wasn’t having a massively detrimental impact on my race, and for over 70 miles it almost felt too easy and like I was having too much fun.
For someone who barely takes any notice of her surroundings when she runs and is happiest running laps for hours on end, there was so much going on at Daytona to keep me entertained. From leaving Jacksonville as the sun came up, to running through Ponte Vedra and past houses the size of mansions (and desperately hoping I didn’t need a wee as this wasn’t the type of place where you could go for a sneaky wee!), to negotiating the busy December crowds in St Augustine, to crossing the stunning Matanzas Inlet, and to catching endless glimpses of gorgeous beaches and the clearest blue sea that was constantly teasing me, I found a lot of the course a total joy. I avoid looking at my watch as much as possible in long races (nobody wants to see they’ve still got 70 miles to go!) but it was one of those races where every time I did glance at it, I’d be surprised to see another chunk of miles had flown by.
If it’s not broken…..
One of the things I’ve always been pretty good at with running ultras is my nutrition – I know I can take a Mountain Fuel jelly every half an hour pretty much indefinitely (well for at least 30 hours as I’d done at Spartathlon/GUCR) and then I’d top up my calories/carbs with liquids. Earlier this year I started trying to take on more carbs during races, and as I can’t eat solid foods when I race, the only way for me to do this was through taking on more liquids. However I struggle to take on a lot of liquids when I’m running, and I couldn’t keep any liquids in me in the later stages of GUCR. At Tooting in September when I tried a similar high carb/high liquid approach, I was projectile vomiting from 4 hours in so knew I needed to rethink this nutrition strategy. I spoke to Paul at Performance Gains Nutrition and he taught me that I didn’t need to be starting the race with such a high carb intake and I could build up gradually, and that I should also drink to thirst instead of forcing liquid down me.
I went back to basics at Daytona and religiously took a MF Jelly every 30 minutes throughout the entire race and just drank when I was thirsty. As it turned out the hotter temperatures meant I drank a lot more than I’d put on my plan. I started off consuming around 60g carbs an hour when it was cooler, which went up to 90+g in the hottest part of the day (I’d practiced with 100g in training so I knew my stomach could tolerate this), but at times when I dropped back to say 70g I wasn’t concerned. Even running in temperatures much hotter than I’d trained and practiced my nutrition in, my stomach held up fine, which is a huge weight off my mind as I return to CT100 next year, and I won’t have any time to spare to be sick!
Hot flat tarmac is relentless
Whilst I love a runnable race, I find pure flat courses the hardest on the body. I found the 153 miles of rolling hills at Spartathlon easier than a pancake flat track 24 hour race. And whilst GUCR earlier this year is a flat course, the bridges broke up the flat and meant you are regularly using different muscles. Florida is flat. And Daytona 100 is flat. Apart from a track 100 miler, I think you’d struggle to find a flatter 100 miler in the world. But flat is far from easy. And hot flat tarmac is relentless on the legs. For the last 20 miles my quads felt like they were shot to pieces, and post-race it took 5 days before I could sit down on a toilet without my quads still screaming at me and reminding me what they’d done at the weekend!
Running 100 miles is always hard
Over the last few years I’d been mainly running longer ultras such as Spartathlon, GUCR and 24 hour races and the only 100 miler I’d run was CT100 which had ended at mile 96.5 with injury. Whilst I can’t say I was ‘used’ to running 100+ mile races, I did wonder if psychologically 100 miles would seem ‘easier’ without having to run another 30-50 miles once you got to 100 miles. Daytona reminded me that running 100 miles is never easy.
The first 70+ miles had gone like a dream, but the last 25 miles were hard. I’d been expecting it to get cooler once the sun went down, but it was still hot and humid, I felt like I’d overcooked it a bit in the heat earlier and just couldn’t cool down. My quads were shot, I’d previously felt like I was bouncing merrily along high on running life, now I felt like was shuffling along like a 100 year old Granny. I’d been meeting Tom every 10ish miles up until now, but asked him to meet me more regularly, although looking back I don’t actually know if I needed to meet him more regularly, or whether I was using it as an excuse for an extra couple of minutes crew stop!
This also coincided with the only part of the course I didn’t like and that was running through Daytona Beach at 9pm on a Saturday night. For the most part I’d seen very few people throughout the entire day, here it seemed half of Florida was having a Saturday night out in Daytona! People were either polite or bemused to see a fluorescent vest and headtorch wearing runner heading towards them, but weaving round people and trying to cross busy roads was too much for my frazzled brain. I met Tom at the mile 84 checkpoint and the normal simple act of crossing two busy roads at traffic lights was too much for me, so he had to physically help me across the roads, otherwise it’s likely that I’d still be stood there now trying to work out how to cross!
Up until Daytona Beach I’d run the entire course, but I treated myself to the occasional short walk break in the later miles, just to give my screaming quads a little reprieve from pounding the pavements. Once I’d passed through Daytona Shores I had just 6 miles to go and, whilst nothing is a given in long races, I started to believe my sub 18 hour goal was going to happen. I then realised I could be looking at a sub 17:45 finish time, which is a completely arbitrary figure, but I find it helps to set myself mini sub goals on the go when racing, otherwise the easy option would have been to shuffle the last few miles in and scrape under 18 hours.
The finish was at Ponce Inlet lighthouse and from a distance I could see it lighting up the sky, so I knew the end was metaphorically and literally in sight. I felt like I was flying over the finish line (although Tom’s finish line video later showed that this was far from the case!) in a time of 17:43:07, for 3rd female and 5th overall – 3 women finished in the top 5 and the male field had a significantly higher DNF rate than the female field, which I put down to women being able to adapt and handle the hotter conditions better.
Overall I couldn’t have been happier with how Daytona went – in hindsight I should have heat acclimatised and being better prepared for the heat, but from a running, race execution and nutrition perspective, I don’t think I could have hoped for any more to round out 2022. Congratulations to Jessica and Caryn, two amazingly strong US runners, for finishing 1st and 2nd, and a huge thank you to Bob Becker and all the race volunteers for such a fantastic race.
And finally the biggest thank you to Tom for being a dream crew as always (I’ll go back to my usual levels of race planning and organisation next time!) and to James for being the best coach and for helping make 2022 such a happy year of training and racing.