By Andrew McCain | BUTS member
There are a handful of boring words that might best describe running 33.5 miles on sand. Words like “trudge, monotony, forever, owww, when, why, and of course f$ck” I may have whispered that last one quite a few times. But maybe I can more elegantly share my experience.
It was a windswept, other-worldly place at 6:45 AM as the sun rose to our backs. Driftwood strewn about the beach like obstacles, added to the giddy childlike disposition of our early-morning onset. We began running westward on the bay side of the island where it can feel like a place forgotten, and in some regards it is.
This far point of Fort Morgan, on the barrier island most associated with Gulf Shores, Alabama, is beautifully left alone. I recall looking back at Jack (Osborne), and Mark (Beggs) thinking “what a wonderful experience this will be.” Knowing full-well it would be a far more complex experience than “wonderful.” Running any ultra isn’t something you should take lightly, but doing it on the soft white sands of Alabama is something else entirely. There are few comparable races out there, but this particular route, to my knowledge, had never been attempted. I was proud to submit the route as an FKT, and be amongst the first to attempt it. The first to traverse Alabama’s Gulf Coast entirely on the sand (aside from 2 bridges).
The original, and official, FKT route begins at the far west point of Fort Morgan, Alabama, and continues for 31.4 miles to Florida. The soul of this run is this: “To run the longest possible stretch of Alabama’s Gulf coastline as much as possible on the sand.” But amongst the excitement of submitting an FKT route, there was an oversight. One simply can’t drive out, and park at the far west point of the island. You can either backtrack from the nearest beach access point, or start at the boat launch parking on the bay side of the island. Either option is an extra mile. We opted for the boat launch parking, and to loop around the point.
For the first few miles I was buzzing with excitement, not yet in any pain, or new running territory. I was enamored with the multi-colored sky, watching the day come to life, and simply running with two friends. Although I was not naive, or disillusioned about this run. I knew it would slowly break me down. I knew it was me vs. the beach, and if I went long enough, I would eventually lose. But I only had to make it to Florida. But really, I just had to make it 7.5 miles to our first aid station. Because that’s how you tackle big things; you make them smaller. It is an incredible feeling when you have people close enough to you that are willing to support you through something like this. Sarah (Jones), and Andrew (Dahl) would drive to each of the preassigned beach access points, and set up a pop-up aid station for us. I don’t think we would have been successful without their support.
I am a planner when it comes to things like this. I researched everything, spent hours combing through maps. I even kept up with the sargassum seaweed blob as the day approached. I knew what time sunrise was, where every restroom on the route was, had plotted where each aid station could be, and kept up with how the wind would behave. So, you’ll understand my disappointment in myself around mile 3 when Mark said “Yeah, the tide is coming in. It should be high around 11 a.m.” How had I forgotten to check the tide? Alabama, and the Gulf in general doesn’t have a large tide area. Rather, it is often a short steep cross grade of fairly packed wet sand down to the water. But as it turns out, freshly wetted sand is not hard packed at all. It is mushy . . . and the tide was coming in.
It was after the first aid station that it all began to set in for me, but not until after the second aid station that it started to seriously hurt. Roughly mile 13. After I had meandered through just enough sand in search of hard-packed, good running lines. After I had spent enough time in, and out of the water. After just enough high intensity moments when I had to burn extra energy getting out of super soft, or mushy sand. You see, sand running is basically a constant search for something that doesn’t exist: good sand. Because sand doesn’t give back, it only takes. She is a very selfish beach. There is zero, possibly even negative energy return from it, and that gets really old. All the while you have to stare at the sand to make sure each step is as efficient as possible with only the occasional break of a glance upon an endless horizon. I’m sure I could repeat the word “monotony” at this point.
The six miles between aid 2, and 3 would prove to be the most challenging. The beach was smaller there, the wind was against us, the tide had cleared any hard sand, and the endlessness was setting in. We were all feeling it. You can tell it’s getting tough when everyone goes silent. Aside from the random huff, or moan when the beach would take a little more out of one of us than she had the steps before, we were mostly quiet. Finally aid 3, just beyond the halfway point, came with our fist short bridge, and some relief on its hard pavement. We spent more time at this aid station than the previous two. This is where Mark decided to drop out to keep his ankle healthy for Western States. He would be missed. There were moments when I wanted to quit, and glancing over at Mark effortlessly shuffling across the sand kept me going.
Leaving aid 3 I physically felt a little better, but was dreading getting back on the sand. And then . . . something happened. The tide began going out, the ocean gradually unveiled hard sand, the wind dissipated, we had arrived at the more populated area of the beach, and made the decision to shorten the length between aid stations from there on. On top of that, a few close friends of mine were vacationing in Orange Beach at almost exactly our marathon mark, just a few miles away. There was new life in me, but Jack would continue suffering serious hip pain for another 10 miles or so. I was impressed by his drive to keep going. I honestly thought he would give up at aid 3 considering how much pain I could see on his face.
From there it was almost clockwork for me. Run on the hard sand by the water, get to an aid station, eat food, drink water, and talk Sarah into allowing me to have more caffeine. Though I had heard other’s stories, this is the only run I’ve started falling asleep during. It would unfold that maybe Jack just needed caffeine the whole time as well. After eventually consuming an energy drink he came back alive with his classic catchphrase “let’s fuckin go!!” All just in time, we were almost to the big bridge, and the final 1.5-mile mark just across it. We walked up the 80-foot-tall bridge, and jogged down the other side, happy to be on a hard surface again. We then met our crew, Mark, and Seana in the parking lot at the bottom of the bridge for our final stretch to Florida, Flora-Bama, bushwhackers, and victory.
Mark would later say “You did it again. Just like Tuscaloosa you sped off at the very end.” Mark, and Sarah planned to run the final 1.5 with Jack, and me. What they may not have known is just how tired Jack and I were of running on the sand. So, both of us independently, quietly reasoned to ourselves “the faster I run, the faster this will be over.” And so, we did. We got down to a painful 8:30 pace for the final stretch. With the pull of the finish line, a hint of competition between us, and the fact that I could actually see Flora-Bama, we were unstoppable for those 13 minutes.
After almost 9 hours we crossed into Florida. We had done it. We ran from the most western point of the Alabama island all the way to Florida. We turned a 31.4-mile route into a 33.5-mile run. And we graciously accepted Flora-Bama’s hospitality. Upon our arrival they greeted us with congratulations, water, electrolyte popsicles, and drink vouchers. What a wonderful experience it was indeed. I hope someday someone finds this FKT, and does it better. I don’t plan to ever attempt it again.
Back in November, Andrew ran to Tuscaloosa on Iron Bowl game day. “Running to Tuscaloosa was a 9 year old crazy dream, further motivated by a 5 year vow of no wings, 6 months of planning, 10 hours of pain, and a whole community of equally crazy people supporting it.” What’s next? An Ultra to Auburn on Iron Bowl day 2023. Andrew is also the organizer and leads Moss Rock Mondays and Taco Tuesday Trails at Moss Rock preserve.