During the GORUCK Challenge last November when my legs betrayed me long before my will, and I felt I had let my team down by not carrying my weight (both literally and figuratively), I decided I needed to #GetBetter with my running and leg fitness. Too rapidly approaching my 50th birthday and really starting to feel the wear and tear in my knees of an overweight adulthood and old football injuries, I have a love/hate relationship with running. I love the benefits and the exhilaration of noticeable improvement, but I hate the actual monotony of putting one foot in front of the other and churning out the miles. Much of that mindset is head trash developed over years of trying to run alone — a journey fraught with loneliness, lack of consistency, and no accountability. Only through my association with F3 was I willing to give it another shot. Knowing I work better with a definite ending-point goal to work toward, I committed to join an F3 Columbia team for the Palmetto 200, a 207 mile, 30+ hour relay race from downtown Columbia to Patriot’s Point in Charleston.
About eight years ago during a dark time in my life, I lost a bunch of weight and got in pretty good shape by training for triathlons. That spring/summer, I completed 5 sprints and one Olympic distance Tri, and later that fall ran the Governor’s Cup Half Marathon. That 13.1 miles is the farthest I have ever run at one time, followed by 8 miles on the Owens’ Field track the Monday before the Governor’s Cup (who needs taper, right?) and then by a 10K as the running portion of that single Olympic tri. At no other point in my life have I ever attempted to run anything longer than that, so my decision to commit to the Palmetto 200 where I would run legs of 4, 10, and 3 miles in quick succession was met by my F3 comrades with well-deserved surprise and skepticism. Nevertheless, my commitment was made and the training began.
F3 in Columbia has a workout pattern that works: boot camps on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays and running groups on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. There are running groups for all levels of runners from beginners to ultra-accomplished, and the boot camps are crucial for developing core strength. I started my run training with “Amble” in Columbia and “Swagger” in Irmo. The runs are usually 45-minute out and back routes: you run the route for 22 minutes, then turn around and come back. Sometimes there’s a loop route. It all depends on who’s leading that day. The fast guys will get more distance, but everyone will finish together at about the same time. That together part is the crucial element. There were days I didn’t want to run. There were even some days I didn’t, but almost every M/Wed/Fri from December to this past weekend, I posted at one of the run groups because I knew others would be there to provide accountability.
Dredd (David Redding) once said that “the only way to be a faster runner is to run with guys who are faster than you and try to keep up with them. It sucks when you’re ‘the six’ (the back of the pack) but with consistent effort, you’ll be able to stay with them for longer and longer.” Employing that strategy, I kept working. Eventually I went from the guy who could hardly finish 2-3 miles in 45 minutes to being able to consistently get in 4-5 miles. Running with the groups was critical, and when time came for the Relay, I was physically ready to contribute to my team without embarrassing myself.
Despite my 2+ year involvement with F3, I was not fully prepared for what transpired during the race weekend.
The P-200 is divided into 36 segments (“legs”) of varying distance. Teams usually have 12 runners with each person running a leg then handing off to his teammate to run the next leg and so on for 200 miles. Runners who aren’t running travel ahead in vans to the next exchange point. Each runner on a 12-man team will run 3 legs over the course. Some of them are short (3-4 miles) and some of them are long (7-10 miles) and teams strategize about which runners get which legs. Some teams are smaller – 9, 6, or 4 members – which means runners get more legs each and longer distances.
A few weeks before the race, the F3 Columbia team “Columbia 6” lost a runner to injury. Rather than poach a runner from another team, they decided to just divide up the legs among the remaining 5 members, making an already difficult race even harder. We were impressed. Columbia’s advanced run group “Ramble” put together a 9-man team. Columbia had two 12-man teams, and F3 Lexington and F3 Lake Murray each fielded multiple teams. I think the midlands had a total of 8, and 18 F3 teams from all over entered.
Race day arrived and the running began, and almost immediately, we had a problem. Before anyone in our van had taken a single stride, Sean Rankin (Robber) got a call from his wife that his daughter had to be taken to the hospital with unstopping nausea. Without hesitation, Brian Kvam (SisterWife) turned the van around and headed back to Columbia. Arrangements were made for Robber to meet his brother along the interstate, and we left him at a gas station. He was completely distraught about having to leave us – his team – but we all knew he had to be with his family. In an act of pure unselfishness, Jonathan Vaught (Pipeline) stepped up and volunteered to run Robber’s first leg, knowing it would be more miles for him. This was my first observation of the F3 “I Am Third” attitude. Team before me. The Twitter well-wishes poured in for the Rankins.
Teams will typically decorate their vans with team names, members’ names, witty slogans, etc. We were no different, proudly (creepily?) posting “Free Candy … and Puppies” on the windows of our non-descript white van. Other vans were painted up with elaborate schemes, and some with very simple or very little lettering, but one thing was for sure: F3 dominated the participation. In fact, it became interesting to find a van that WASN’T F3 or our sister organization for ladies, FIA. The sheer number of F3 vans did not go unnoticed by the rest of the field – one group plastered “H7” in an obvious search for an identity. Observation #2 comes courtesy of Mark Tibshrany: “F3 owns the gloom.”
Observation #3 happened at the Santee State Park exchange zone. At the exchange points where runners hand off the baton (actually a slap bracelet) from one to another, vans and teams gather and wait for their runner. WITHOUT FAIL F3 teams were present in force to support and cheer on not only their team’s runners but also ALL of the other runners, F3 or not. At Santee State Park, a FIA runner was in an epic battle to the finish with a lady from another team. They crossed the finish at about the same time, and FIA made their exchange, but the other runner’s team was not there. She crossed the finish line and looked around, but they just were not there. The crowd started calling for her team (by their team number), but no one showed. A FIA team offered her a bottle of water, and she finally sat down at the exchange point with an awful, dejected look on her face. After about ten minutes, her teammates finally showed up and the exchange was made, but I will never forget her disappointment. That situation is simply not possible within the F3 culture, and an impression was made on the non F3/FIA people who watched what transpired.
Somewhere in the middle of the night when we were hungry, tired, and sleep deprived, Robber called to say his daughter had stabilized and his wife wanted him to come back to us, which he did. He picked up is normally scheduled 2nd leg along with Pipeline’s 2nd leg, but he opted to drive back to Columbia after those two so he could be there when his daughter woke up Saturday morning. That meant we needed to juggle legs to cover Robber’s scheduled 3rd leg. Step up SisterWife and Brant Cope (Decay) who juggled legs and took on more miles to cover Robber. Observation #4: Robber’s wife – and most of our significant others – is amazing. They are beginning to understand what this crazy F3 thing means to us and WANT us to be with our teams. Sometimes that means some sacrifice on their part, and we are extremely fortunate to have them. I hope we are doing a good job of meeting their wants and needs by being better husbands and fathers. Observation #5: more unselfishness from the team to cover a man down.
F3 espouses a “you against you” mentality where personal growth and improvement are held higher than winning, but inevitably, at events like the P-200 and the Mud Run, friendly competition emerges. For us, it was with the Lake Murray team “The Third Leg is the Hardest.” For the Cola 6 (now the Cola 5) it was Metro Charlotte’s “Ultra 6.” Following Twitter, we were able to keep up with the battle between these two teams of fantastic runners. But in the middle of the night, the Cola 5 suffered a devastating setback when Costanza (Gene Bell) had a medical episode and was forced to retire. Already a man down, the four remaining members of the team re-shuffled the legs to cover Costanza’s legs, and stay in the race. Jason Reynolds (Chaser), who could not race because he’s recovering from ankle surgery and was the team’s driver, even volunteered to run the shortest leg (3 miles) to give the others a little more rest. There was never any thought of quitting. There was never any talk of fairness or any grumbling – they simply did what they needed to do to finish the race. A medical team attended to Costanza at an exchange point, and SubPrime (Mark Tibshrany), Fountainhead (John Powell), Beano (Chris Forsythe) and Fannie (Heyward Cathcart) soldiered on, battling Ultra 6 in every mile. SubPrime took the baton for leg 36 – the final 8 miles across the Ravenel Bridge to Patriot’s Point – with a 4-minute lead over Ultra 6. Their runner (Haggis) caught him on the bridge as the runners passed into an un-viewable portion of the course. When they emerged, SubPrime had regained the lead and Cola 5 won by less than 10 seconds. 207 miles came down to less than 10 seconds, and our guys did it with a man down AND a medical casualty. The rest of the team joined them for the final 100 yards, including Costanza carrying an IV bag. The first to congratulate them? Metro 6. Hugs abounded. If there was ever a 30-second time frame that illustrated why I love F3, that was it. The guts and grit shown by Cola 5 was legendary and inspiring. It made ME want to be better. Observation #6: F3 is made up of amazing men who do amazing things without thought of personal accolade or recognition.
I am honored to be in your presence, and I am happy to report that I’m now a runner. If I can do it, anybody can, particularly with the support, encouragement, coaching, and opportunities available through F3.