By Rebecca Joyner
I’ve been wanting to run the Iron Horse 100K in Palataka, Florida, for a few years. Thankfully, a low-cost airline, a couch to crash on and reasonable race fee allowed it to finally happen this year.
The Iron Horse 100K is billed as a flat, fast, rails-to-trails course. As more of an ultrarunner than a trail runner, it sounded great to me. The online course map showed nine miles of paved rail trail, one out-and-back, and one lollipop spur per 26-mile loop. I had studied the map, splits figured out and made a true, type A pace bracelet just for the race.
I showed up in Palataka before sunrise and stayed warm in my car until the mandatory prerace meeting just before the start. Parking and places to set up were literally right beside the course. It was ideal.
The race had a new director this year, Winston Fletcher, and as such, an old version of the course was posted on the website. To allay confusion, he got out a big board with the course map and calmly explained how three miles of paved trail were taken out of the online version and replaced with trail because, “We are trail runners.” I wanted to correct him on that characterization, but it didn’t seem like the time or place. The race hosted three distances: 104 miles, 64 miles and 52 miles. Silly, trusting runners that we are, we thought we signed up for a 100-mile, 100k or 50-mile course.
The race started on the paved Putnam Blueways and Trails corridor and somehow, I found myself alone in the front for the first six miles. I’m used to some shorter distance jerk blazing out front. It dawned on me that I was that jerk and I was all alone. I didn’t care for it.
When I reached the first turn onto the trail there was a locked fence. I stood there a good 30 seconds not knowing if I was lost. I could see the other runners coming the same way, so I figured we were all in and climbed through the fence. I was glad when Patrick Hrabos, another “ultra-not trail” runner ran up a little while later to accuse me of locking the gate and share in the despair of bonus miles along with added trail sections.
The sand was pretty well packed for the first five miles and we ran under a power line easement which is always a good time. I think I’ll start a petition to end power line easements. I’ve heard they cause cancer. The first aid station was located where the course forks in three directions, the course markings were clear so we turned left even though everyone was telling us to go right. It made sense the second time through, thank goodness, you really did go left to stay right.
The first lollipop around was beautiful, hard-packed sand and dirt with some shade finally thrown in. Pat and I agreed if we could run this section all day, we’d turn to the trail side. Tall pine trees and low palmettos covered the forest and it was truly a beautiful day.
Coming back out of the lollipop runners took a different left turn at the fork and headed out on an exposed 11-mile section that had every kind of sand, dirt and weird rock I could think of. This is where the original map had showed an out-and-back, and I was looking forward to seeing all the runners coming back through.
Aid station three came into sight and I thought this was the turnaround, but it ended up being where the added mileage came in. The added mileage of sugar sand suckiness. I quickly learned to take the RD’s advice and just pack snacks for this section the second time around because trying to run it felt so defeating. Still thinking it was an out-and-back, I dreaded having to turn around and go through it again. Two miles of sand, three miles of sand, I was trying to do the math on how much this out-and-back really added when I popped back out at aid station three. Oh, the joy of a loop!
Although the temperature started in the mid 30s that morning, the day quickly heated up to around 70 with not a cloud in the sky. My confidence started to sag with the heat as I headed back up the paved trail to the start. Finishing up the first loop, I counted six miles of paved trail and 20 miles of sand. I took off the pace bracelet, got a buoy of false confidence that I “looked great” from the aid station folks and headed into lap two. I adjusted my pace expectations, felt more relaxed and was ready to tackle that sand one more time.
Nearing the finish line, you could hear the volunteers and crews cheering as runners came in. Those happy cheers pulled me into the finish where I gushed to the volunteers and RD for far too long. I finally settled in with an amazing grilled cheeseburger, got eaten up by mosquitoes and reflected on the day. I talked with Patrick after the race and found out the real names of “Beats Headphone Girl,” “Super-Fast 100 Lady” and “Cool Pacer Guy” that I’d been chatting with all day on the course. I am glad I went without a crew and encourage everyone to try it. I met a lot of amazing people I might not have otherwise.