A Race That Almost Wasn’t: EVERGLADES ULTRAS

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By Bob Becker, RD

On Friday, March 13, some of the early arrivals—about 100 runners—sat under a big tent waiting for race orientation to begin before Saturday’s main event. Approximately 50 miles of trails through the Everglades had been flagged, nearly 100 signs placed, trails trimmed back and aid stations set up to support 50 miles, 50k and 25k the following day. Twenty minutes before the meeting was to begin at 5 p.m., a message was received from the state capital in Tallahassee that every special event being held in Florida State Parks was to be shut down and canceled, effective immediately.

This was the ninth year for Everglades Ultras, which is held in Florida’s largest state park, the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve. Support from the park management staff has been phenomenal over the years, so when we were told that the park manager would go to bat for us in an attempt to secure an exception, we knew that he would do everything possible to make that happen. It wasn’t a guarantee that race weekend would continue but the orientation session began and after the usual welcome, runners and volunteers present were told that the race might not happen after all.

Lucien Boulet at Ballard’s Cabin. Photo: Jay Staton Photography

Though all special events were canceled, Florida State Parks would remain open. For us, that presumably meant that people were free to run or walk or bike on those trails on their own, if they wanted to. After literally months of work, the park had already been prepared for our race. One possible option, in the likely event of cancellation, was for runners to get out there the following day and run the course on their own, recognizing that the course was marked and water was already in place. I promised to notify everyone by email blast just as soon as we found out about the possible exception for our event. That news came at about 7:30 p.m., when we were told that we would be allowed to race the following day. As it turned out, Everglades Ultras was apparently the only exception throughout the state of Florida’s park system on March 14.

At Ballard’s cabin. Photo: Ursula Gibbons

On Saturday morning, the 50-mile race began in the dark. Gradually, as the sun came up and hours went by, the day became very warm and then quite hot. The heat was definitely a challenge for nearly everyone, but the fabulous condition of the park and beauty of this extraordinary course made it excellent for racing.

Legally, the State of Florida owns Fakahatchee, but we all know that it’s really Mother Nature who sets the rules. Some years the park is very wet and limits where we can effectively run and other years, like this one, the park is sufficiently dry so that point-to-point and loop courses can be created. Fakahatchee boasts the largest variety of orchids and bromeliads in North America, and it is part of the Florida panther habitat. Runners have, in the past, actually seen panthers, black bears and bobcats, the rare Florida mink, and other wildlife and wading birds while running through the exotic swamp lands, grassland prairies and wooded uplands of this terrific resource. This was one of those years, with many animal sightings.

Runners on East Main Tram. Photo: Ursula Gibbons

Race marshals ride UTVs on all active trails to monitor runner safety and remove the occasional critter—i.e., alligator—sunning itself on a trail. While we have never had an issue with reptiles in the park, seeing alligators is common, as is the occasional snake. These sightings add to the excitement and mystery of this unique racing experience.

There were 267 registered runners on race day, with another 20 having previously dropped out. Of those 267, 209 (78%) started the race and 197 finished, including 40 of the 48 50-mile starters. Most stayed for the post-race gathering under the big tent on the shores of Lake Harmon, enjoying burgers and beer and more. This year, the awards were hiking sticks, each unique with a custom-designed Everglades Ultras medallion. Congratulations to all our winners, especially the male and female winners of the 50-mile race, both of whom were running their very first 50-mile event: Ashley Slaughter, 27, of Miami Beach won the men’s race in a time of 8:31:31, and Michelle Malia, 26, of New York City, whose winning time was 9:26:01.

Results  50 Miles | 50K

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16 Comments

  1. Justin Schott on

    I had a backcountry ski trip planned for the same weekend and was supposed to fly out that same day. I had been looking forward to it for months and it was the last chance to hang out with my best friend in the mountains before he would become a father. I thought about the potential ramifications, what it would mean if I was involved in spreading COVID, and what kind of example I was setting to say it was ok to get on a plane for that. I looked at pics of epic powder runs from the locals and am still bummed that I missed this but still proud of the decision to stay home.

    On March 12th the writing on the wall became clear nationally. Anyone who was still pretending COVID wasn’t an issue was putting others’ safety at risk–this is still the case today when people disregard stay at home orders and other health guidelines.

    This race was legally allowed to run, but I question the ethics of that and the privilege that may be underlying that decision–that healthy people with means are not as vulnerable personally, and can thereby act in ways that put their communities at risk, particularly vulnerable groups. It seemed like a decision that was bent on steepening the curve rather than flattening it.

    It makes me cringe to see members of the ultracommunity who put racing or getting out on trails above public safety and who appear rather cavalier about the consequences of their actions. Squeezing this race in while others took responsibility for stopping the spread of COVID is not something to be celebrated or condoned.

    • “Most stayed for the post-race gathering under the big tent on the shores of Lake Harmon, enjoying burgers and beer and more.” Were pictures taken? Was social distancing in effect? What data do we have that persons (runners, support crews, race and park management) under the big tent were part of a superspreader cluster? If so, how far was the spread broadcasted? Every race event should have a cadre of contact tracers. We should known as a community what effect we are having and can hsve.

    • Physical Distancer on

      I’m having a hard time with the criticism that the race was held considering how the President and Florida Governor seem not to be taking the dangers of the virus as seriously as competent leaders should. Spring Break anyone? Considering the lateness of the declaration, cancelling would pose as much hardship as continuing. If the race were held the day before the declaration would that have changed anything? We didn’t learn the seriousness of the virus until this time period. If our national and state leaders had shared the information that was previously available to them it’s likely the race would never have taken place.

  2. Justin and Bob's Mom on

    The race organizers followed all the rules they were told to follow. The racers had a great time, and behaved cautiously with the information that was available at that time. Remember that bars, restaurants, etc in the area were all still open the day of this race so there’s plenty of other places to go point fingers before you decide that a relatively small group of people running in the woods are worth your time.

    • 207 runners possibly with crew, pacers along with race staff and volunteers is not a small number, even from what little we knew at the time.

      I only have the article to go by but if it’s true, the organizers didn’t follow the rules they were told to follow. The state shut events down. The impression I get from the article is that “Mom said no so we went ahead and asked Dad for a green light and got it”. A lot of us made irresponsible choices in the beginning, I totally get it. This was one of them.

  3. Tuan Nguyen on

    I was a volunteer at this race. No crew or pacers are allowed for this one.

    Even though there was 209 total runners, the starting times for each event (50 Mile, 50K, 25K) were staggered by 1 – 1/2 hours apart. Runners trickled in throughout the entire day and many of the 25K runners (which was the largest field) left before the 50K and 50 Milers even finished.

    Even if the event was officially cancelled many of the runners said they still going to run the course anyways. Many had traveled out of town and were already financially invested in the event.

    Not saying if it was right or wrong to still continue the event but everyone seem to have taken everything seriously and with precaution.

  4. Kinda bummed about this race. I had back surgery in January and emailed the RD twice about a deferment. Never heard a word back. Very disappointing.

    I would really like to run this race in 2021 but not so sure now.

    • Update, the RD, Bob Becker, reached out to me. Apparently he had tried twice before to reach me and for whatever reason we failed to connect.

      Bob has graciously offered me a 50% discount for next year’s race. I have accepted and am looking forward to running amongst the Gators, snakes, bears and cougars next year.

      • Hi Ron,
        is there a chance to look at the 25 and 50K PDF? I came across the entire event and the site just now (July). I would like to try it out before joining the live event in the future. Please let me know you could help. ps..i sent an email to Bob, but no reply, yet.
        I’d be very thankful for your help!

  5. Man, I was so proud and happy to get to run this 50 miler, which was my first! All involved did a fantastic job, especially with what we knew on March 14th. It really does make me sad that almost every single joy we have or have recently had is becoming tainted with finger pointing. I would never put anyone’s life in jeopardy intentionally. I don’t believe anyone involved in this race had any selfish ambition. In fact, these race organizers, volunteers, and runners are a big part of why I’m alive today. I’ve found a community of selfless, kind, nonjudgmental people who have pulled me out of the depths of depression and anxiety. So please, let’s let this race be one that was “almost never, but thankfully did” happen. Hind sight is 20/20. ❤️

  6. Yo Momma never told you how to read? I asked what do we know how things were conducted and whether there were any adverse reactions. Simply as that. I think that it is called, “Fact Finding.” We now know that crew or pacers were not allowed in the big tent event. Ok, that tells us something that many of did not know. I still think that with ultras having a relatively small band of runners that doing contact tracing will tell us a lot more about how we can safely practice the art of ultra running until we get a reliable vaccine going. For example, if it was discovered that a string of infections occurred, then how? Under what conditions promoted such a wide transmission? Given that knowledge, we could all agree that certain practices could be implemented to allow for safe races or not. We need to have the coronavirus conversation amoung ourselves about what will make for safe practices. We aren’t barbers or restaurateurs. We do our thing outdoor! Out in the open – in fresh air. Isolation? Hell, ultras are made for self-isolationists. But we need to convince others – the public, the permitting agencies, ourselves – as to what constitutes good, safe healthy practices so ignorance does not dictate whether we can practice our sport or not. Hope we are in agreement about that?

    I get tired about reading how other trail users get so upset that a runner is not wearing a mask. But, we all do so out of public consideration and politeness for now. We need to establish what constitutes good, safe practices. That’s all that I am saying.

    Bob Fabia

  7. Mike Melton on

    I was involved in working this event, as I provided the timing and scoring for the races (as I have for every edition of the Everglades Ultras races since inception). Race Director Bob Becker takes his responsibilities as RD very seriously, and he puts runner safety at the top of the list, especially for this event since it takes place in such a remote location. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that ‘we should have known better than to have the race’, but on March 14 there were still a wide variety of competing narratives out there, and information about the coronavirus and our collective response to it was still very much in flux.

    Part of the reason (in my humble opinion – I did not hear the official statement by state officials) the park was able to get permission to hold the race is that if the intent of cancelling all park events was to prevent the possible transmission of the virus via close contact, the reality was that horse had already left the barn by 4:00 PM Friday afternoon. Most of the runners were already on-site, and had already had close contact with each other (I arrived late, in the middle of the night after working a local 5K – the last of its kind in my local area – that Friday night), so any potential viral transmission had most likely already taken place.

    I don’t believe that we ‘were told by Mom no so we asked Dad instead’ – this was a case of logically presenting the facts to Mom and having her agree that we had solid evidence to allow our event to take place without further negative impact. Remember that the park remained open to visitors for the entire weekend, and every one of those runners on site were free to run inside the park boundaries at any time during that weekend. Other than the small groupings at the start, and the even smaller groupings at the finish, everyone was pretty socially distant for the entire length of the race.

    The three races – 50-Mile, 50K, and 25K – started at different locations within the park, at different times, and the finishers were spread out over a 9-hour period (meaning we had on average one finisher crossing the finish line every three or four minutes), so there was never a gathering of all the runners at any time during the entire event.

    Even in the ‘big tent’, the most common sight throughout the day were two or three small groups of runners (two to six individuals) sitting amongst the chairs scattered throughout the tent. There was never a grouping of more than 25 or 30 people at any one time under the tent throughout the day, in my recollection (although I was located in my own timing tent next to the finish line about 50 feet away from the big tent).

    Certainly one thing that could be done now would be to survey the runners and find out who, if any, had any symptoms or tested positive in the four weeks after the race. That might provide good data to gauge the impact such events might have in possible dissemination of the virus.

    I’m proud to be associated with high-quality events such as Everglades Ultras, and I’m happy I was able to help make this year’s race the best it could be.

    • Jim Phillips on

      Mike’s comment is spot-on!

      I’m a newer, slower, older participant in the Ultras, having done the 25k twice and the 50k this year. I’ve met some terrific people during the events and while clearing the trails. At the top of the list is Bob.

      To suggest that he acted irresponsibly is offensive. His commitment to the race participants and broader community is beyond question. Based on the available information, I believe we ALL acted responsibly regarding this years event.

      Participants were practicing social distancing before the term came into widespread use.

      The Park itself was still going to be open. It was clear from comments during the Friday information session that many runners were going to go ahead and run the trails anyway, on Saturday, if the race was cancelled. Saturday was very hot and humid, and without the support, including closely spaced water and ice stations, many of us would have had trouble.

      Seeking permission to go ahead with the event was reasonable. Granting that permission was reasonable. Is anyone saying that this group was responsible for any known spread?

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