I was kinda joking when I posted the mapmyrun route on our running club group page. I didn’t really think anyone would jump on the idea of running the island of Assateague from top to bottom. The island is a national seashore and so there are no houses, buildings (besides a few ranger stations, bath houses, and a store open in the summer), stores, or in many parts roads.
Gabe took the bait. I should have known. Gabe is always looking for the next adventure and looking back if the run is epic enough and crazy enough he will probably join in the fun. He ran The Patapsco 50k with me in October as well as a few out-of-the ordinary runs at Blackwater Refuge and around Salisbury.
This was to be no ordinary run by any means. First off is the distance. It is almost exactly 60k from the northernmost part of the island to the southernmost point of the island. Yes for all you Americans that is 37.2ish miles. It is not just the distance that can be a challenge we were also planning the run during February so the cold and the wind were factors in our planning. In fact we had to push the run back a week due to low temperatures in the teens with windchill factors between 2 and -2 degrees. The sand was also an issue. The winter causes the sand to be more packed and somewhat easier to run on, but it is still sand and there is still constant stepping in and out of sand. The distance between points of safety was also a consideration when planning our trip. We had a distance of 22 miles that were basically no-man land. Meaning you could not access the beach without The use of an Over Sand Vehicle (OSV).
3am. My alarm goes off only once. I spring out of bed. This was a morning I was looking forward to for weeks. February 7th, 2015 was the day we finally set to conquer the island. I threw on three layers of clothing knowing that the temperature would be around 28 degrees when we landed on the island. I ate a bowl of oatmeal and downed a pouch of applesauce. I also grabbed a huge bottle of water and walked out to my front porch. Gabe picked me up at 3:30 and we drove to Denny’s where we met up with Ken. Ken had a trailer on the back of his truck with a canoe. This is where the adventure really started to pick up. We jumped in the truck and headed to West Ocean City arriving at 4:30am. We lowered the canoe to the water and realized that only one of us could man the canoe until it was further out in the water. So ken paddled over to the dock and Gabe and I jumped on a random boat to get closer to the canoe. Ken brought the canoe right up to the boat and we slowly entered the canoe. Our combined weight nearly sunk the canoe. We were four or five inches from the water and if there were any movement at all in the water we would have gone under. We were blessed that the water was calm and glassy. A perfect night to cross the water and the distance was probably that of two football fields, but it was scary nonetheless. We made it safely onshore at the time was 4:45am.
We said goodbye to Ken and started up my Nike GPS watch at 4:50am. This was now officially my earliest run ever as we started around the top of Assateague under and nearly full moon. The first twenty minutes or so we eerily quiet and we began to freak ourselves out. We even mentioned how terrifying it would be to see people on the beach at this time at night. It was then that I saw what I thought was four huge guys crossing over the sand dune. “Gabe! Check out those four huge dudes!”… “Trent, those are horses” – the wild horses on Assateague are very common and often walk on the beaches especially at night. We thought it would be fun to chase them down and get a better look, but evenwith fresh legs they were able to outrun us and we were back on the edge of the water heading south. The sand was packed and the moon was light enough that we could turn off our headlamps and enjoy the beauty of the night. I enjoyed the night until Gabe told a story of a couple that drove their Hummer on the beach and flipped it over into the crashing waves. The guy in the Hummer died at the scene and the girl tried to walk to Ocean City and died of exposure. She would have never made it to Ocean City since she would have arrived at the beach we landed on and would have had to swim to Ocean City. The story made the night a little less inviting until the red glow of the sun began to rise above the oil-like darkness of the ocean. It was beautiful. The transition from night to day fueled us to run faster. It was slowing getting lighter around 6:30am and we were nearing our first aid station at mile ten.
The few miles before the aid station were run on the trails leading from the ranger station to the start of the Over Sand Vehicle area. Grant and his young daughter were there waiting for us. Gabe had dropped off our drop bags to him the night before, so when we arrived we were greeted with Gatorade, M&M’s, Cliff bars, dried pineapples, and yes RedBulls. It was now at 40 degrees and we dropped out headlamps and hats.
There is debate on whether RedBulls should or should not be used in ultra running. I don’t drink caffeinated drinks normally, but this wasn’t a normal day. We split an 8oz can and thanked Grant. We then ran over the dunes and back to the beach. Ten miles were behind us and 27 were still ahead of us. I am not sure if we were crazy before or if the Redbull went to our heads but we ended up talking about some insane things on the run like half-man half-horse beasts. Around mile 15 or 16 we found a tennis ball on the beach and started to kick it to one another for the next mile and a half. It was a fun way to pass the miles and created a nice fartlek workout for us.
9:45 we arrived at mile 22.75 or the second aid station at the border of Maryland and Virginia. The beach actually has a fence that separates the two states and it is not to keep Marylanders from crossing into Virginia, but rather to keep the horses from cross the borders. Andy and Michael were manning this aide station and drove Gabe’s truck onto the beach to meet us. Gabe filled his truck with wood and fire starting materials along with a note asking them to start a fire and set up the beach chairs.
It was awesome. A nice halftime treat. We had the chairs set up around the campfire and were able to stretch our legs and down some more food. We had the same food and drinks as the first aid station, although this time we were a little more liberal with the RedBulls. We also took the time to charge up the watch and put IcyHot on the legs. The guys were very helpful and brought us everything we needed. We filled up the fuel belts and left aid station two and entered into Maryland.
My legs were heavy, but we relentlessly moved forward. When we hit the magical marathon number of 26.2 miles we stopped and took a picture. We then focused on trying to find even ground to run on. The beach had a greater slant to it than it did a few miles before and we could feel it in our legs. After five plus hours of talk Gabe decided we needed some tunes. So we jammed to some custom Pandora stations and tried to avoid getting our feet wet from the waves. Our feet never touched the water the entire run… Except to save the tennis ball.
As we ventured south our buddy Chris was heading north. He started about the time we left water station 2. We began to see a speck of him at mile 27 or 28. As mile 29 approached we raised our arms in excitement as we knew Chris was close. He ran up with a baseball cap on and a backpack. “What is that for?” I asked pointing to his backpack… “Water and shells. The shells are awesome. Just wait”. He was right. In the five miles we ran south with Chris we all picked up four or five big concha shells. Shells can get heavy when you are running so I looked forward to seeing my wife and kids and unloading the shells. It was so awesome to see Chris and run with him. He lives for epic runs and so to have him be a part of this was icing on the cake… Plus he brought fresh legs and an added excitement to our run.
Mile 34. I was wasted tired. My legs were numb. I felt like I was lifting my legs with blocks of concrete on them. My arms tingled from the constant lifting and lowering with the shells. We had plenty of water but we couldn’t drink because our hands were full of shells. So we kept running and it was tough. The sand seemed to get deeper although it was the same. I never disliked the run but I did look forward to the end and at the toughest moment I saw Denise, my dog, and the kids on the sand. There was another couple a few yards ahead of them and those two groups were the only people we saw on the beach all day. I hugged the family and downed a cliff bar and then told them we had a few miles to go. They were a sight for a tired, sweaty, stinky, weary man. I love my family.
The last push. Gabe said something as we started the last few miles that amazed me… “I think I want to open it up a bit to see what I have left in the tank”… Then he took off like a bat out of hell. He was flying. It was then that Chris and I knew we were running with a machine. He ran… Or rather floated over the sand.
My running became somewhat of a shuffle after leaving Denise, but when Gabe took off it gave Chris and I some life as well and we picked up the pace. We felt alive. One with nature. Born to run on the beach. Gabe drew a line in the sand and cheered us to finish… However it was not the end. Chris said, “Guys keep going. Look at the map we aren’t at the complete bottom”. Chris had the map pulled up on his phone and he was right. We would have been short by half a mile and more importantly we would not have run the entire length of Assateague.
This time Chris ran ahead and drew a line and Gabe and I joyfully crossed over the line and fell to the sand. We had conquered Assategaue. We had run 37.5 miles from one end to the other and we didn’t want to run another step.
So we collected more shells – one for each member of our family – and the hitchhiked back on the OSV road to the parking lot where my family was waiting.
It was an epic running adventure I will never forget. We could have never completed it without the support of family and friends. Sometimes in life all it takes is a crazy idea and a crazy friend to make epic happen.