Thursday, August 23, 2012

This Week: St. John, USVI

8 Tuff Miles - Part I
The three of us nodded knowingly to each other as we boarded the taxi. Since we were all headed to the same place verbal pleasantries were unnecessary. Our silent taxi ride was dark; clouds so thick we couldn’t see a single Caribbean star.
We headed toward Cruz Bay and the start of the 8 Tuff Miles road race, the Caribbean’s most popular foot race held on the island of St. John. The taxi dropped us off at Mongoose Junction which was across the street from the National Park building where the race would start. Already people gathered around the park. Some stretched, some jogged and others stood around in small groups chatting. My first order of business was to register and get my bib number. I needed to get that out of the way quickly because in 25 minutes a ferry from St. Thomas would be arriving with 500 more people also running the race. After putting on my bib and race timer, I stretched my hamstrings and calves. The atmosphere slowly lightened revealing there were indeed clouds in the sky.
As more people arrived I noticed everyone seemed to know each other and stood in small groups. Feeling anxious and nervous I needed some distraction. I happened to see another young woman standing by herself, looking around. I caught her eye and she nodded. I asked her if she was running alone. She said she was actually walking with some co-workers. Her name was Suzanne and she told me in her seven years on the island she had never entered in this race. When I mentioned I was from Colorado, she said she was moving to Denver, a transfer for her job at the National Park Service. She would be working for the Department of Underwater Archeology on Alameda Avenue. Funny, the one stranger I chose to talk to would soon to be my neighbor. As we talked, the ferry arrived. Soon waves of people were everywhere. Suzanne’s co-workers also arrived and she moved on with them. Alone again, I continued stretching knowing that my muscles needed it.
After several minutes a man and woman with bullhorns began telling us to move toward the start line behind the National Park house. A steel drum band began to play. A glimpse of a nearby participant’s watch told me it was 7:20, five minutes after the scheduled start time. Suzanne had said last year the ferry was late and the race didn’t start until almost 8 a.m. With people still filling in behind me, I wondered if we’d ever get this over with. Suddenly the steel band stopped playing. I couldn’t hear anything or anyone above the din of the crowd. Suddenly the steel band started up again and heads bobbed up and down in front of me. The race had begun!
I started running and immediately dodging people, weaving in and out. I ran past the band, a group of men so young they must have been high school students. I ran around the park and around the next corner to Mongoose Junction weaving and bobbing through the walkers and slow joggers ahead of me. The bobbing heads in front of me took a left turn. That turn was Centerline Road and the beginning of a two mile ascent. My jogging pace slowed to a crawl as entered.
 “Holy crap!” I muttered under my breath. Not even a mile into this race and it was seriously steep. I was still running, but it wasn’t much faster than a walk. Trudging along I made it to the first switchback. As if I were in a stairwell, the runners ahead were now above me.
The 8 Tuff Miles began over 15 years ago. St. John resident, race founder and director, Peter Alter, took up jogging as a New Year’s resolution back 1997. Shortly after that he attended a meeting by the St. John Action Committee. The Committee’s purpose was to find ways to bring people from St. Thomas to spend the day, and their money, on St. John. They planned to have events on the last Saturday of each month with fairs, music and markets. Alter suggested a foot race from Cruz Bay to Coral Bay. Those who didn’t think him completely crazy agreed to stage the first race the last Saturday in February. That first race featured only 21 entrants, but most were from St. Thomas, so the plan worked. The 8 Tuff Miles is now the largest attended road race in the Virgin Islands.
The 8 Tuff Miles website warned me that the first two miles were uphill, but I didn’t realize the scope of that statement until I hit the next switchback. Absolutely brutal. In the days before the race, I met several other runners, many of whom had run it several times before. As soon as I mentioned I was from Colorado, they all said,” Oh, this will be easy for you!” How wrong they were. The Mount Evans Scenic Byway in Colorado has a grade of 15% and most paved Colorado mountain roads are between 5-7%, but this was beyond that. However, I will admit that practicing at altitude helped. I was breathing great. As I struggled up the steep hill I enjoyed each inhale of warm, moist Caribbean oxygen entering my lungs. Now if I could just get my legs to keep up.
Approaching the first water station I overheard another runner say the station was about the first mile mark. My original goal was to run those first two vertical miles, but as I turned up yet another excruciating switchback a 6-foot tall guy caught up to me…walking. Sadly, I realized running was just not optimal so I started walking. The larger walking strides enabled me to gain more ground and I kept up with the old guy, for a while. With his legs twice as long as mine, he soon pulled away. At another switchback I pumped my arms and pushed my legs up and around the corner. I felt like I was in one of those illusion paintings with all the staircases that went into infinity. Finally at the summit, was St. John Hospital. At the entrance a small group of people cheered and held signs for the runners. I relaxed a little as I saw the small downhill before me. Wanting to optimize what little speed I had, I ran the downhill. What welcome relief to my neck to look down. At the right turn of the downhill was another water station that was sponsored by the Animal Care Center of St. John, appropriate because of a special runner that came up behind me. The tan and white pit bull mix followed us runners along on the road. I thought he belonged to a runner next to me as he ran steadily by her side, tail wagging happily. Then the woman’s running partner said startled “Hey, there’s a dog.” The dog then passed them to another runner. Every few yards a runner would notice the dog and say, “Hey, where’s your bib number!?” As I grabbed a water cup, a race volunteer stopped him and gave him ear scratches.
 “You need to be with us,” the guy said.
Gulping the water the road turned uphill again and I began to walk…and walk…and walk. This location contained several construction businesses, such as the lumberyard, the cement store, the woodshop, and each business had several people on the road with signs, cheering us on. I waved.
As I started running down the hill, a loud obnoxious screeching noise rose from behind me. It sounded like a steamroller and myself and several other runners started looking around. Flying over the hill came a guy with one hand on what looked to be the world’s ricketiest baby stroller. He had a look of concern on his face as he and his child sped precariously down the hill. One slip of his hand and that kid was headed for the ditch. This was not one of those stream-lined modern jogging baby strollers with the fat mountain bike tires. It was an old-fashioned aluminum four-wheeled up-right stroller that parents stopped using 20 years ago.
 “Look out! Comin’ through!” he shouted as he passed. I wasn’t sure which was worse; the danger that kid was in or the fact someone pushing an ancient baby stroller just passed me.
Join us in 2013 when we run the 17th Annual 8 Tuff Miles, Saturday, February 23, 7:15 a.m. Registration begins in October.