Before I talk about the race, I want to give testament to the power of friendship. Friends I don’t know well yet– people who literally flagged me down one weekend as I ran past their group– have added a tremendous, caring new dimension to my life. If not for those friends, I never would have signed up for the Double Bridge Run. More than that, my life was missing something that I didn’t even know was missing until they filled the void. I hope I can be a part of that magic for someone some day.
Double Bridge Run Recap
I signed up for the Double Bridge Run only a week and a half before the race. I hadn’t run a race in years, mostly because of my chronic back and neck pain. The last 5k I did was almost five years ago led to living a nightmare of back pain and insomnia. It’s hard to have an experience like that and get excited about trying again. The Double Bridge is a 15k— almost 10 miles— and as far as I know, it’s the only race of that distance in Pensacola.
The Double Bridge Run is exactly what it sounds like— a run over two bridges. I’ve drive those bridges (the 3-mile and the Bob Sikes) countless times over the years, but since they’re both unsafe for pedestrians, I’d never been on them except in a vehicle. I’ve always been curious what it would be like to run the bridges. Mostly I just wished the city would’ve planned protected pedestrian lanes. I never considered signing up for the race, largely because of chronic pain but partly because I don’t like crowds or early mornings. The Double Bridge definitely draws a large crowd, although its start time of 7 a.m. isn’t the worst. A few of my friends convinced me to sign up since it’s the last year this version of the 3-mile bridge will exist. Construction is well underway for a replacement bridge. Between friends’ encouragement and the ending of an era for the bridge, I signed up for the race and tried to get excited rather than fearful.
Running has been a wonderful gift in my life, but the past decade has been very, very challenging. Chronic pain— especially in my back and neck— have kept me from doing the things that make me feel alive, and running is definitely one of those things. After getting a fresh round of help in Atlanta last spring, I finally got some insight that was life-changing. I’ve not only been able to run again, but in the past several months, I’ve quickened my pace and lengthened my distance. The longest I’ve done lately is a half marathon, although it wasn’t an official race— just a circular route around the bayou done for no other reason than I wanted to celebrate my ability to run.
I knew the 15k distance wouldn’t be a problem, but I was still very nervous leading up to race day. I had no idea what to expect, and since a big part of my ability to live with relatlively low pain levels is routine, it’s hard to convince myself that it’s a good idea to break routine. Mornings usually look like this for me: sit up slowly, get out of bed carefully, drink 20 ounces of water, then make my way to the coffee pot and fill my cup. While the coffee cools a little, I gently move my back and hips around to get them ready for function. My SI joints are usually off after lying down all night, so I often use my foam roller before I finish my first cup of coffee. If my back and neck are agreeable, I eat a protein bar, then head out for a solo run. If my back and neck aren’t right, I keep foam rolling, dynamic stretching, and doing mobility work until I’m able to run. Extensive routines like that aren’t easy to fit in before a race that starts at 7 a.m.
I set my alarm for 4:45 a.m. to give myself the best shot at getting through my routine before the start of the Double Bridge Run. For the most part, it worked, and after picking up two of my friends, I found myself in pre-dawn traffic on the way to the starting line. It was surreal, and not just because there’s usually no traffic at all at that hour. I couldn’t believe I was on the way to a race after all those years of chronic pain and corresponding disappointments. Pain can be very isolating, so to be not only returning to racing but to do so with friends was a little overwhelming. Even good things can take a minute to process.
We had a few hangups with post-race bag-check, and there were woefully few portapotties at the park where the race started. Once those minor issues were handled, I found myself surrounded by friends and strangers waiting for the cannon to fire and signal our start. As our corral slowly made our way toward the line, I still wasn’t sure what to expect. I almost always run alone, and the crowd was a bit intimidating. My friends were awesome, though, and I smiled at their caring energy and positive vibes. Within a few seconds, the cannon blasted and we were off.
I didn’t have a pace goal or really any concrete idea of pace since so many variables were in play. A couple of friends and I decided to loosely stay together, which was easier said than done as the race wound through downtown Pensacola on the way to the 3-mile bridge. The police blocked traffic, but our running lane was still sometimes tight for as many people as were racing. We passed people, got passed by others, and mostly just moved like a giant unit along Bayfront Parkway. My friends talked about sticking to a 9:30-9:45 per mile pace, which was good with me, but even without looking at my watch, I could tell we were going faster than planned.
The 3-mile bridge section wasn’t as wonderful as I’d thought it would be. The bridge is concrete, and I underestimated how rough on my body it would be to run on concrete. As we pounded along the bridge, I realized I never train on concrete. Asphalt, grass, dirt, and trails. Never concrete. And yes, there’s a huge difference. Concrete is extremely unforgiving, which isn’t a good thing for someone with a bad back and neck. The sky was heavily overcast, so the view of the bay wasn’t spectacular, but that was ok. What surprised me most was the traffic. Only one lane was blocked for runners, and it was bumper-to-bumper cars right next to us for the entire three miles. I guess I’d incorrectly assumed that there wouldn’t be much traffic early on a Saturday morning.
As we neared the end of the bridge, my group of friends separated even more than we already were. I stayed with a friend and her husband, and what was an easy pace for them was quite difficult for me, but I reveled in the challenge. I can run pretty fast these days, but not for 9+ miles. As we hit the asphalt in Gulf Breeze, I noticed we passed people every few seconds and figured we must be gaining speed. My back started to hurt and a bit of radicular pain tingled in my left groin, so I concentrated on tightening my abs and shortening my stride. It worked well enough, and soon we were on the ramp to the Bob Sikes Bridge.
By then, I was in a hurt locker, although not so much from my chronic pain issues as from pushing the pace out of my comfort zone. The ramp out of Gulf Breeze is miserable. It’s steep, extremely slanted, and makes an almost hairpin turn. Luckily, it’s also short, and after only a bit of misery, we headed straight for the Bob Sikes. A cheering section gave me a little extra pep, but I was still at my max capacity. My friend asked if I wanted to catch a woman in purple who was well ahead of us. I told her to go, but that I couldn’t. She stayed with me instead, which I appreciated more than she’ll ever know.
Bob Sikes is a steep bridge both ways. The downhill, though rough on the knees, was a welcome reprieve after the uphill slog to the top. We could hear an energetic high school band near the toll booth. The yellow arch of the finish line looked deceptively close but the band gave us motivation. Nobody wants to give up in front of high school kids– especially high school kids who got up early to play their drums for a bunch of adults.
The last half mile or so was pretty brutal, despite a wonderful cheering section. As we neared the end, a group of people on spin bikes encouraged us to sprint while they did spinning sprints. I didn’t have a real sprint in me unless I wanted to puke, but I did pick up the pace just a little until we crossed the rugs that signaled our chips had registered their last time. When all was said and done, I averaged an 8:57 per mile pace. No records broken, but for the hell I’ve been through with chronic pain for so long, I was very happy. I got a great finisher’s medal and celebrated with friends at the race’s after-party.
I don’t know if I’ll ever sign up for a road race again, but I’m glad I did the Double Bridge Run. The day after the race was brutal. My left knee, which is arthritic from an old surgery, was very inflamed. My back was so badly beaten that I had trouble walking. But, as the day wore on, I used my foam roller, Sacro Wedgy, Denner Roll, and every other tool in my arsenal, and I started to feel better. The next day, I did an upper body and core workout and walked 3 miles. Today— two days after the race— I was able to run 5 miles on trails without much issue.
When I look at where I’ve been and where I am now, things still don’t feel entirely real. To go from not running at all because of my back and neck to running a relatively fast 15k in a few months— I don’t even have the words. I’d love to do an ultramarathon one day, but only if it’s on trails. My days of concrete running are definitely over. But my days of running are hopefully only just beginning.