Operation Ocala AAR Pt. 1 - Easy Right?
Updated: Jun 14, 2021
The Green Beret Fitness Operation Ocala 65 Miler. The goal is pretty simple; start from Rodman ATV trailhead in the Ocala National Forest (ONF), walk across the entirety of ONF following the Florida National Trail south, and finish the approximate 65 miles in under 24 hours. Easy right?
I first heard about this event when a Tallahassee Ruck Crew friend asked my girlfriend if she would do it with her. This was around the beginning of December and the event date was scheduled for February 27, 2021.
Naturally I was asked if I wanted to join them but the answer was a confident no at the time. The event was less than three months away and we had a vacation scheduled from Christmas through New Years. I knew there was going to be damn near no training done those couple of weeks. In my mind there wasn't enough time to be fully prepared and I hate jumping into stuff I don't feel like I've had a chance to properly prepare for. Add on to this a hamstring/hip injury that was really preventing me from training the way I wanted to. All that was really just an excuse though because Jessica and I were signed up for a GORUCK 50 mile Star Course in May and I kept on training for that. I did promise her that I'd make the trip down to Ocala to be support for them however. My plan was to just camp out in the Jeep and hammock at the checkpoints and be there for them if they needed any extra supplies or wanted to leave some behind and just in general to be there to cheer them on.
Fast forward a few weeks and things are going good. Targeted stretching is helping my injury and I'm rucking with Jessica and her teammate occasionally just to get some miles in. Jessica and I would also typically do some longer rucks on the weekends. At some point, probably on one of those longer rucks, Jessica asked if I would jump in halfway and finish the event with her in case her teammate wasn't able to finish for any reason. Of course I would; the last thing I was going to do was leave her alone in the woods for an unknown amount of miles by herself.
Sometime in early February we were looking over the required and suggested packing list. It was a must to make sure Jessica had all the necessary items early so that we could make sure they all fit in her ruck properly. That's definitely not something you want to be scrambling to do just before the event. It's somewhere around this point where the FOMO (fear of missing out) really started to kick in. I knew 50 miles was completely doable and with 24 hours the extra 15 miles shouldn't be a big deal. I tossed around the idea for a couple days but eventually caved: Screw it, I'M IN. T-Minus 17 days.
The next couple of weeks were spent finalizing the gear we were required to have and most importantly what food we were going to bring with us. The food question was sort of unique to me. The previous 50 milers I've done were all in urban environments. We could stop at gas stations if we wanted some snacks, cold water, or even get coffee. We also had a support crew that could meet us halfway through with "real" food and a change of clothes or shoes. Operation Ocala was largely going to be self sustaining so we really had to think about what food we should pack. I honestly got a bit carried away thinking back to all the different snacks I've enjoyed on long rucks. There's no bigger morale boost than chowing down on a yummy snack at 2 in the morning. Looking back though, I brought a lot of the food home with me. Although it was nice to have a variety of choices, some of it was just unneeded bulk. I'll go into further detail about the food and gear we brought along in another post.
The Thursday before the event I decided it was past time to get my trail maps in order. I knew from listening to Jessica and her teammate plan and from watching some YouTube videos that trail maps were definitely going to be needed. Gregg from GBF sent out a few links to some interactive online trail maps as well as some downloadable topo maps. Thankfully Jessica's teammate printed out all the topo maps and put together a checkpoint list with mileage. Using a bunch of back and forth double checking I traced the route on the paper topo maps, marked the checkpoints and spots of interest with the approximate mileage, and numbered each one. There is also a really nice ArcGIS iOS app called Field Maps. Conveniently someone had already mapped out the entire Florida Trail. Using the Field Maps app I could get real time GPS location on the exact same paper topo maps I had printed out. Two is one, and one is none; in this case none would get you lost. I also had Jessica print out an excel spreadsheet so that we could easily calculate our pace based on mileage vs overall elapsed time. I didn't trust Strava running on my watch because it had done some funky things in the past when it needed to be charged. Our goal pace was roughly 17 mins/mi which was a comfortable rucking pace for all three of us. I knew we'd likely be slower than that through the woods, especially with wayfinding. The "drop dead" pace was somewhere around 21 mins/mi. As long as we could sustain somewhere below that (with stops) we'd make it in under 24 hours. T-Minus 2 days.
Friday started off as pretty much any other Friday. We all worked that day and left for Ocala at around 3 in the afternoon. Leaving Tallahassee we really lucked out. Not 30 seconds behind us on I-10 a semi-truck crashed blocking both eastbound lanes for hours. If we would have gotten stopped behind that it would have been after midnight before we arrived at our hotel. On the way down we decided to stop for dinner at The Cheesecake Factory in Gainesville. I figured it'd give us plenty of choices for stuffing our faces before what we were about to embark on. Not to turn this into a restaurant review but I'm pretty sure all of us would agree that it wasn't worth it. I think I'd rather have just had a Five Guys burger honestly. Then on to our hotel which was in DeLand Florida. From I-75 in Gainesville we had to drive all the way across Ocala National Forest which took forever. To think we were going to have to walk this whole thing tomorrow... DeLand is still about 20-30 minutes by car to Paisley Florida, the endex point and where the shuttle picks us up. Once at the hotel we got some last minute things organized in our rucks, took showers, and headed off to bed. I was hoping to get as much sleep as possible but didn't get to lay down until about 11; 0530 was going to come quick. The next morning on the way out of the hotel we grabbed one of those muffins hotels always have and bottle of water. They're free so why not. Luckily the hotel was right next to a Chick-Fil-A and a Starbucks so of course we stopped by both. I'm a sucker for the chicken, egg, and cheese bagel from Chick-Fil-A and a Caramel Macchiato at Starbucks. Food and caffeine in hand we were finally headed to the shuttle pick-up point. T-Minus 2 hours.
The shuttle pick-up point is the same point endex would be 24 hours later. It's an old gas station right next to a pretty good pizza place out in the country. We were probably the last to arrive that morning. After checking in and getting our participation t-shirt we stood around and shot the shit with people we knew and a few others we didn't. There was a lot of nervous energy around. Soon enough Gregg called us all up to go over the pre-event safety brief. We covered all the basic topics: it's hot so drink plenty of water, we'll be adding a dead drop of water, don't split up, if you do split up let us know, please share your iPhone location with me, etc. The ruck weight requirement was 25 pounds including water, food, and required items. This is definitely less than I trained with which is normal, but I wasn't used to water and food being included in the required weight. Another thing I didn't expect was Gregg to say that the ruck weight wasn't going to be checked - we were running on the honor system. He did provide a scale to check though and I came in a little over 25 pounds. Perfect.
Side bar: some people brought legitimate hiking backpacks stuffed to the gills. I'm not sure what their weight came in at but it had to be well over the minimum. Maybe that was all they had but it certainly had to make the event worse.
After the safety brief we were told to load up our rucks on our shuttle which was a private coach bus. At least we were going to be riding in comfort. After we boarded we were informed we would not be provided with bathroom service on the short 1 hour ride so we'd be stopping at the nearby Circle K gas station for our last minute relief. The ride up to Rodman ATV trailhead was just shy of an hour and skirted around the forest we were about to attempt to walk through. If what we were about to do hasn't sunk in by now this bus ride would do it for us. This was going to be a VERY long walk. We must have been running a bit behind because this bus was hauling ass down the back roads. We eventually arrived safely at the trailhead and things moved quickly. We piled off the bus and grab our rucks, some hit the tree line for a pee break. Gregg soon circled us all up again and pointed out the trailhead where our little adventure would begin. "This will be 24 hour event, not 24 hours and 5 seconds. You have until 9:01 AM tomorrow to make it to the endex point.... 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO". Well I guess here we go.
Continue reading part 2 here.