“Where are you headed?” the customs officer asked.
“I’m off to race through an alligator infested swamp in South Carolina.”
He took a moment. I’m not sure it was quite what he expected from a girl in her VW bug, dashboard vase overflowing with daisies and sparkly, lime green birds, late into the night.
“Is this one of those endurance races where you end up covered in mud?” he asked.
“Na, the service road through the swamp is raised, as long as I don’t fall over, I should be ok.”
“Uh huh. Are you going alone?” I glanced towards the empty passenger seat and the cram packed back seat.
“Are you meeting someone along the way? Do you know anyone down there?”
“Why on earth are you driving alone, through the night, to go running through a swamp?”
“Who in their right mind would take a vacation to a swamp?” I replied. “I asked a lot of people to come, they all said no.”
“Well, you sure are different. Have a safe drive.” He handed me back my passport and I was on my way.
Now, to be fair, I don’t normally seek out gator infested swamps for my runs. When I turned 37, my friends and I compiled a list of 37 things to do while I was 37. One of them was to attend three unusual festivals. When I discovered that the Hell Hole Swamp Festival in Jamestown South Carolina had a 10km race called the Gator Trot, how could I resist?
Frankly it was the trophy that sold me – a gator’s head stuck to a plank of wood with a wee plaque celebrating the win. I’m no speed demon, but that was my sole motivation – I must have one of those trophies. It would look fantastic over my mantle. Or on my bedside table.
After weeks and weeks of busting my ass on the treadmill, and I was ready and pumped to go. I arrived in Jamestown, population 92 with an apparent dress code. “Residents of Jamestown must wear at least 40% camouflage at all times.” I think it’s to keep them safe from stray gators.
I have run a number of races, all fairly large-scale, flashy, bright. Regular email updates, training programs, big name sponsors, race expos and such. I had a hunch this might be different, but I had no idea what I was in for. It was lovely. I made my way towards town hall to find a woman with a clipboard and list to confirm my registration – no scanners, beeping machines, proof of ID needed. I may have spotted dot matrix printer paper. I picked up my race kit – a t-shirt depicting hillbillies beside a beat up pick up truck surrounded by gators and moonshine, and my race bib. “Where do I go now?” I asked.
“See that gas station, down over there? Turn right, walk down the road a quarter mile and you’ll see a pylon. Stand there for a bit and you’ll figure the rest out.” Yep, this was going to be completely different.
Sure enough, there was a pylon in the middle of the road. A handful of runners scattered about doing a series of yoga/acrobat stretches. I approached one of the runners. “What are the odds I’ll actually see a gator along the route, do I need to worry?”
“Well, the gators shouldn’t be a problem. It’s the poisonous snakes you’ve got to worry about. They come up to the road to bask.”
“Uh… ok. And you have wild boars in there too?”
“Well, there are a few of them, but it’s the cougars that will get you.”
This was going to be a very fast race.
I thought I heard someone say “Y’all can line up now,” but I was distracted by the mayor. Not that he looked like he had stepped from the set of Dukes of Hazzard, he sauntered to the front of the crowd with a serious hat and stern look on his face. It was the shotgun cocked over his arm. In one smooth movement, the gun was together, up in the air, and fired an ear-shattering blast. We all stood dumbly for a moment, then realized that it was time to go.
It was a stunning route. The runners had fanned out so I was fairly alone in the swamp – someone way ahead leading me, another behind following my tracks. The lush swamp was peacefully quiet, a million shades of green. Usually when I run, there is an ongoing dialogue in my head that pushes me forward. “Just keep going, make it up the hill, push push push.” This time, it was an argument. “Slow down, look around, this is gorgeous! Holy crap, I’m in a swamp teeming with things that can kill me, hurry the hell up!”
Self preservation won, I got a personal best. Not fast enough for a gator trophy, but I was thrilled all the same. At the awards ceremony, the speedy ones were celebrated with the alligator head plaques. I was so envious. Then I spotted one set to the side, my hopes surged. I had tipped off the race organizers that I was driving 16 hours just for the race, and desperately wanted to win a gator. I waited for the crowd to disperse and schmoozed my way into a conversation with the woman in charge. “I see you have a spare trophy..?” Sadly it was for someone else who had to leave earlier. “Ah, I was hoping to bring one of those all the way back to Canada with me…” I put on an extra sad face, gently kicking at the dirt. My lower lip may have even protruded a bit. I laid it on thick.
“Oh, you’re Michelle? Come with me, dear.” I trembled with excitement, trying to swallow down my hope. She led me back to town hall, waited for the other runners to disperse, and took me into a little room. She smiled as though she had a secret. “Anyone who drives that far just for an alligator head clearly deserves one.” She handed me my very own trophy. Glossy eyed, stinky, dried up alligator head, I’m sure it was grinning.
Finally, an actual trophy rewarding my lunacy. I’ve never been so proud.