Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to quite a few races all across the country, and even a few international races. Many times, I am able to work a brief vacation in around these races, but my primary focus is almost always performing well at the race.
My trip to St John USVI and the 8 Tuff race that accompanied the travel was just the opposite. This was a major beach vacation for myself and my wife and the race was just a fun thing to do. Certainly the fact that a large group of Cincinnati runners attend the race every year persuaded me to make St John our vacation destination, but it wouldn’t have been worth going just for the race. That vacation was the real reason to travel to St John.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t going to race hard. I knew I was in great shape, and well, let’s just say there’s no off switch for my competitiveness. This time, however, I wasn’t planning to lay off the sun bathing and adult beverages to save a few seconds on Saturday morning.
Before I get to race day, let me share a little about the trip because not doing so would be doing the experience a great injustice. First, a little background on the island. St John is part of the US Virgin Islands and as such is a US territory. It is quite small with a permanent population of only about 5000 people. It has no airport or bridges connecting it to any other landmass, so it must be reached by ferry.
My wife and I arrived on Sunday, nearly a week before the race was set to start. We flew into St Thomas, took a cab to the ferry, arrived in Cruz bay and picked up our rental car. No doubt, it’s a pain to get to, but that also makes it special. St John is remote and relatively undeveloped. It feels much less touristy than the major cruise ship ports you might have stopped at in the Caribbean. Tourism is obviously the economic lifeblood of the island, but we were never accosted by pushy street vendors or aggressive tour guides. If anything, many of the locals seemed to almost ignore us. They even appeared segregated and sometimes distant. There was an obvious dichotomy between the poverty of the native people and the affluence of those that came to vacation.
Much of the island is national forest that was donated by the Rockefeller family. It is wild and beautiful, and surrounded by pristine sandy beaches and clear blue water normally only seen on postcards. It is also extremely hilly and the roads are steeper than anything I've ever driven. Even though it’s a US territory, they drive on the left side of the road, which is a bit of a challenge to get used to. We stayed in a small cottage that was basically a one room, studio apartment, but it had a nice sunset view and was perfect for our needs.
On Monday, our first full day on the island, we got a relaxed start and then spent the afternoon at the north shore beach of Cinnamon Bay as we tried to get our bearing a little bit. Tuesday, because the wind and surf were high, we hiked some trails to the ruins of a long-abandoned sugar plantation. We saw several mongoose, tons of hermit crabs, and a deer. We went back to the beach on Wednesday but the water was still too rough to do any kayaking or snorkeling like we had planned, so we just lazed around instead. Thursday was a real highlight of the trip. We went on a sailing excursion that included some snorkeling and a very rare Caribbean whale sighting. The day before the race, we hung out with our 20 strong group of runners from Cincinnati on the beach, but avoided getting totally drained by the sun.
8 Tuff is an 8.37 mile road race that crosses the island from one coast to another. It climbs to an elevation of 999ft in about 5 miles and then comes straight back down. This year, 1400 people started the race. In our group from Cincinnati, we had the defending champion and also the course record holder. Having their insight on the race gave me a real advantage even though I was a rookie. I also had several opportunities to scout the course earlier in the week. I knew what I was getting into, but I honestly thought the 46:00 course record set by Chris Reis was out of reach. Chris has run under 65 minutes for a half marathon, and the defending champion Derrick Butler is a sub-30 min 10k guy. Both would admit to not being in peak shape heading into the race, so I thought I had a shot against them, but I didn't know if I had the leg speed on such a short course to challenge the record. You basically have to run 4:30 miles downhill at the end of the race to run 46 minutes. I don’t run many 4:30 miles anymore.
Adding to the difficulty, the race tends to be quite warm at a time of the year when Midwesterners aren't acclimated to heat. We got lucky this year as the temperatures were not too bad, probably in the mid to upper 70s. There was a neat flyover by a Coast Guard chopper, and we were off and running. Only the top 100 finishers from the previous year start up front in a special corral, but I made my way through the crowd and up with the leaders very quickly. The first 400m is flat, but there’s not much else flat about the 8 Tuff course. We started climbing and I settled into 2nd place just a few seconds back of defending champ Derrick Butler. I didn't want to push him early, and I wanted to see how my body was feeling. Going out fast is never really my style anyway.
I laid back for the first two miles where a large portion of the climbing is done. I pulled even with Derrick around the 2 mile mark and moved past as I tried to keep my own rhythm. The third mile flattens a little so I was a bit surprised that Derrick didn't come back to my shoulder, but I stayed away until mile 4 pitched up steeply. Derrick said he felt like he caught back up a little during the 4th mile, and I don’t doubt it, because I felt like I was struggling a little bit. But I know my legs really well, and I knew I had a lot of running left, so I just trusted myself to run on feel. At the 4 mile split, I was pleased to see I was 10 seconds behind Reis’ course record split, but I still didn't think I’d be able to match his speed on the way down.
The next few miles have several steep rollers and gain a some additional elevation, but the brief downhills gave my legs a chance to recover. I pushed forward and could tell I was getting away from Derrick. The last two downhill miles I just ran as fast as I could. I lost track of my splits compared to the CR, and had no clue what kind of pace I was running. The roads were extremely curvy so it was quite fun crossing the closed road hitting all the tangents. But the steep grade was starting to make my feet burn as I slid forward in my shoes (Saucony Fastwitch 2, oh yeah).
|Yelena Rogers Photography (from facebook)|
All of a sudden, I popped off of the downhill Centerline road and made a slight left signalling that I was near the finish, but I didn't know actually how close I was. I still had to make a u-turn back onto a ball field and then I could see the finish. I glanced down at my watch and was shocked to see 45:30. I kicked hard to make sure I dipped under the old course record with room to spare. 45:46 was my final time. Derrick and Reis weren't too far back, and budding ultra runner Marc Teismann was 5th place. Not a bad showing for the Cincinnati boys.
It shouldn't surprise me anymore, but I am always amazed how far strength will get you in running. I am still learning how little leg speed matters and how important aerobic fitness and running economy are to performance. Of course, 1300ft of climb helped my case a little as I've gotten plenty of climbing practice over the past year.
The people of St John were just great. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I've never had so many people want to congratulate me, shake my hand, or get a picture with me after a race win. My Cincinnati teammates were also quite excited about the $300 bar tab that I won and would surely share with them later that evening.
The rest of the afternoon was spent grilling out at the beach with the team and dulling the pain of our sore muscles with a few adult beverages. It was a great finish to a great week on a great island. Thanks for the memories St John!