Orange Blossom Half Marathon (March 11, 2017) – Haines City, Florida

This race is the second in the Triple Half Marathon Challenge from Sommer Sports. The first was the inaugural Lakeridge Winery Half back in January, a race I enjoyed tremendously though it did experience a few first-year difficulties like not enough parking spaces. It was the second year for the Orange Blossom Half (along with its 5k and 10k races) but my first attempt at it.

We drove down to Lake Eva Park on Friday to pick up my bib and shirt. The timing chips are the old-fashioned kind that tie on a shoe and must be returned after the race, but that’s not really a problem as long as I remember to get a volunteer to clip the ties. The shirt is a gray cotton-poly blend with a big orange blossom on the front. So far, this race series gets an A from me for the quality of its shirts. They do tend to run small so next time I would probably request a larger size.

After getting my race packet, Darcy and I drove to Winter Haven to check into our hotel, a Hampton Inn. Because Haines City is so small, there are no well-known hotel brands within the city limits. Winter Haven is a 25-minute drive farther south so we had to plan our trips judiciously to save time. We decided it was wiser to check out early Saturday morning so Darcy would only have to make one trip to Haines City. After dropping me off at Lake Eva Park for the start of the race, he then spent the morning eating breakfast and reading the paper at a nearby McDonalds.

It was chillier than I expected, about 59 degrees at the 7 am start but it quickly warmed up to the low 80’s. The humidity rose as well so I was glad I wore shorts and a short-sleeved top. There were 4 portapotties (not enough) but the restrooms in the Aquatic Center were open for us to use. The start was delayed about 10 minutes to allow for latecomers to park. After the singing of the National Anthem, we were off with a horn blast.

Overall this was a very pleasant experience. The course meanders through the rural roads of Haines City, with orange groves on one side and waste treatment systems (‘sludge lagoons,’ per my industrial hygienist husband) on the other. The air was permeated with the aroma of sweet orange blossoms and I was tempted to stop and pick one but I restrained myself. Aid stations were about 2 miles apart and offered Gatorade, water, and enthusiastic volunteers. It was hilly (for Florida) but nothing like the steep hills in Tallahassee. The terrain was mostly paved, although there were several miles of clay, sand, and dirt. I was glad I wore gaiters. The miles were marked with signs and red arrows and course marshals were present at every turn; that is always a relief to me, since getting lost is always a possibility.

I finished the race in 2:55, under my 3-hour goal. I didn’t think I would place in my age group because I saw a lot of women about my age, but surprisingly I came in second (which illustrates how very bad I am at guessing people’s ages). The medal is an attractive heavy wreath of oranges and orange blossoms on a creamy orange and white lanyard, and my age group award mirrors the same design. At the finish line, we were given bottles of water, chili, chips, cookies, bananas, and beer from Orange Blossom Brewery.

There were 290 finishers in the half; I came in at number 244, so there were almost 50 people behind me. There is a 4-hour time limit but I believe the finish line stays open longer. Although I was concerned about getting lost on the course, the race has excellent line-of-sight with lots of straight roads and helpful markings, so I needn’t have worried.

The only negative is the lack of shade on the course, a potential problem in the heat; otherwise, this is a pleasant choice for walkers.

Two Halfs and a 5K: Tallahassee, Gainesville, and the Bahamas (February 2017)

February might be a short month but it was a busy one for me. I completed two half marathons that I have done many times before, the Tallahassee half on February 5 and the Five Points of Life half in Gainesville on February 26. In addition, my family and I took a relaxing Disney cruise. We are dedicated Disney cruisers and enjoy the casual atmosphere, especially after I’ve finished a race or two. One of my favorite memories is jumping on the Disney Wonder after finishing Goofy back in 2009. I felt I really deserved that vacation!

The Tallahassee half marathon followed the new course that was introduced last year, only this year half marathoners finished on the colorful ‘official’ finish line downtown. The race is extremely hilly and those hills seemed even steeper than last year. That may have been due to my slowing down as I get older; in any case, they presented a definite challenge. Even so, I much prefer the new course and apparently so do many others. Over 941 people joined me in running and walking the half and enough people were around my pace to keep me confident in finding my way around. I finished in 2:53:46. My legs were sore for several days post-race but that soreness eased rapidly and I enjoyed this race immensely, my 11th Tallahassee half in as many years.

I’ve completed the Five Points of Life races, both the full and the half, numerous times. Occasionally the date conflicts with another favorite race of mine, the Austin Marathon, but if I am in the area I usually sign up to do the Gainesville race. Since the full has a 6-hour time limit, nowadays I feel more comfortable registering for the half. This year I discovered that the half has a 3 ½ hour time limit, kind of surprising since the full marathoners cover the same ground as the half except for an additional 13.1 miles tacked on so way not make the 6-hour time frame for both? This year the 2nd half of the marathon was changed to avoid the long trudge up Williston road with those miles now more scenic and less boring).

At any rate, the half is fun, though occasionally hilly (but nothing like Tallahassee!). However, signage could be a lot better. There were no directional signs that I could see anywhere along the course although there were police and volunteers at almost every turn. Almost every turn – I got lost (!!) along with my friends Harry and Giles and several others inside the football stadium where we missed an exit and had to do some extra mileage. Now, I have done this race lots of times and my instinct was to turn right but I followed everyone else as they turned left. I wasn’t absolutely sure, only had a gut feeling, but I was concerned that if I went one way while everyone went the other, I might be accused of cheating, so I stayed with the others. Next time I will persist! There are about 600 people who do the half but most of them are much faster than I am so if not for Harry and Giles and a few others I would have been by myself for most of the latter 7 miles. I finished in 2:56:40 (lost a few precious minutes in the stadium, I guess) but I was happy to finish in under 3 hours.

For those coming from out of town, staying at the Hilton right across the street from the start and finish of the Gainesville race is most convenient. Checkout is at noon so I had time after the race to shower and eat my pizza before driving home.

I hardly ever do short races but the 5k on the Disney private island in the Bahamas was a nice change from walking around and around in circles on the ship. The race is untimed although there is a timing clock so I could see that my pace was about 12 ½ minutes per mile and I finished in under 38 minutes. Of course, the weather was perfect, the course was paved and completely flat, and the scenery amazing. Lots of people of all shapes and ages signed up for the race and it was great to cheer on people who probably have never done a race in their life. We all got vinyl Mickey medals at the finish line. If I am fortunate enough to take another Disney cruise to the Bahamas, I will look forward to doing this 5k again!

 

Lakeridge Winery Half Marathon (Clermont, FL) – January 22, 2017

This was an inaugural half marathon and the first of a special series of races held in the Clermont area just north of Orlando. Last year there was a discount available to people who signed up for all three of the halfs in the series – this one at the winery, the Orange Blossom half at Haines City in March, and the Lake Minneola Half in April in Clermont. I enjoyed the Lake Minneola race so much when I walked it last year that I decided to take advantage of the series and try all three in 2017. Successful finishers of the series are supposed to get another special 4th medal.

I liked this race quite a bit. There were a few snafus, and one can read complaints about traffic, a late start, running out of shirts and medals, etc. on the race’s Facebook page.  Fortunately, I didn’t experience most of these problems, and that may have been due to arriving at the race venue very early so parking was not a problem. We also managed to pick up our bib, chip (the old-fashioned kind that ties on your shoe and must be returned), shirt, and wine glass on Saturday, the day before the race. When I asked the volunteer at packet pickup if there was anything else we needed to do, she said ‘be sure to arrive early because there are 2200 people registered for all three races’ (in addition to the half there is also a 10k and 5k). Forewarned, we duly arrived an hour and a half before the start on Sunday morning.

For the sake of brevity, here’s what I found good and bad about the event.

The good stuff:

  • The tee shirt is a long-sleeve white cotton/poly blend with a design of the winery on the front. I’ve worn it once already and plan to do so again. Though we were promised gender specific shirts, those were unavailable but we were warned in emails about the problem and our sizes were changed to reflect the alteration. My lady’s medium became a men’s small and fit just fine.
  • At packet pickup I was given a huge wine goblet, again with the Lakeside Winery logo on it. It was a good idea to give it out before the race instead of at the finish line – less breakage.
  • The course was not closed to traffic but cars were few. Some people complained about the presence of cars on the course but after doing the Ocala half last weekend (with lots of traffic on narrow roads), this seemed not really an issue to me.
  • I enjoyed the varied terrain on miles 2 through 12, a mixture of sand, clay, and asphalt. The clay and sand were easy on my legs and feet. I was glad I wore trail shoes and gaiters though.
  • Signage was appropriate with bright red arrows pointing us in the correct direction
  • The loop course had 3 short out-and-backs where we could see other runners and walkers.
  • Yes, the course was hilly but none of the hills were steep and they went down as well as up!

Things that could be improved:

  • Traffic and parking before the race is the first problem that needs to be resolved. The start time for the half marathon was pushed back half an hour from 7:30 to 8 to allow people lined up on the road leading to the winery time to arrive. I can only imagine the angst of people still sitting in their cars as the minutes ticked by.
  • There were not enough portapotties, only 10 for a sizeable crowd. There was a building with about six extra men and lady’s rooms but that was still not sufficient, and eventually women began to use the men’s bathroom. When will planners learn that women need lots of toilets and men mostly just need trees??
  • The race website is clear about the nature of the terrain so there were really no surprises. I knew to expect grass and clay as well as road. However, it’s still hard to know what that means to a fall-adverse person such as myself. It turns out that the only part I did not like was the uneven grass section because it was strewn with rocks, twigs, and roots from the start through mile 1 and from mile 12 to the finish. That meant I had to slow my pace and watch my feet carefully during those miles.
  • Food at the end was minimal. The pasta salad was tasty but that was it, unless you wanted to pay for real food and drinks at the outdoor restaurant. I was given a bottle of water but no glass of wine, kind of strange at a winery, but I had chocolate milk waiting for me in the car thanks to my husband. However, the selection of food and drink options really needs to be expanded for finishers.
  • I never did find out about an award ceremony for half marathoners. It turned out I placed 1st in my age group and I think that meant I should have received a bottle of wine but I only found out about that on Facebook.

When we go to Clermont, we stay at the Hampton Inn there. The rooms were recently renovated and very improved, though that hotel was always quite decent. There is a Carrabba’s Italian Restaurant within walking distance so we had a good early dinner and then repaired to our room Saturday night. There is also a Panera Bread, Applebee’s, and Zaxby’s nearby as well.

After I finished the race (in 3:01:50), we drove home, stopping at Blue Highway in Micanopy for our usual pizza, calzone, and antipasto. Blue Highway makes the best hummus I’ve ever tasted and their other offerings are delicious as well. Although the restaurant has sites in Gainesville and Ocala, we like the hippie atmosphere of the historic town of Micanopy so we always try to make a pilgrimage there.

Bottom line – this race is a very good choice for walkers. Just be sure to pick up your packet on Saturday afternoon, arrive very early on Sunday (at least one hour before the race start), and wear trail shoes and gaiters.

 

A Half Marathon in Horse Country (Ocala, FL) – January 15, 2007

This past weekend I did another repeat race, the Ocala half marathon. Offerings also include a full marathon as well but since the full is a double loop (not my favorite iteration) with a strict 6-hour time limit, I’ve never been brave enough to attempt the full and have always chosen the half instead. I did this race in 2012 and 2013, finishing in 2:40 and 2:43 respectively. I remembered the course as an attractive jaunt through horse ranches, with rolling hills and peaceful countryside.

Although there were some changes this year, the race course is essentially the same and just as pleasant. My only complaints revolved around the lack of coned lanes for runners (while traffic was fairly light on Sunday morning there was a steady stream of vehicles on some of the more narrow roads and I felt I had to watch for cars every minute) and loneliness at the back-of-the-pack for miles 6 to the finish. I checked the number of finishers for previous years; it came as no surprise to me that this year there were only 188 half marathon finishers while in the past that number had been at least double. With the increasing popularity of half marathons, I am at a loss as to why the numbers had decreased so dramatically but this year there were long stretches of the race when I could see no one in front of or behind me.

The course is marked with bright red arrows on large signs that pointed racers in the appropriate direction. Markings were not as plentiful or useful as in First Light in Mobile, AL, but they were sufficient enough that I managed not to get lost.

Darcy and I drove down on Saturday, picked up my race packet at the Paddock Mall parking lot near Sears, and checked into our room at the Residence Inn about 5 minutes away. The race is chip-timed but the only timing mat is at the finish. There is no need for corrals with such a small field so there is plenty of room for everyone to cross the chalk line on the ground within a matter of minutes. The tee shirt is short-sleeve tech, so I told them to keep it or give to someone else. No point in taking something only to give it away. I wish more races offered a ‘no shirt’ option. We had a good dinner at the Miller’s Ale House, our go-to restaurant in Ocala, and then tucked in early for bed.

The marathon started at 7 and the half marathon at 7:15. Weather turned out to be perfect – about 55 at the start and 70 at the finish. No need for hand warmers or scarves, just a light jacket which I soon doffed and tied around my waist. For the first 4 miles I walked at a good clip with two friendly race walkers from Ohio but the soreness in my ribs and side from the fall in Mobile was still bothering me and I slowed down to adjust my arm movements to lessen the pain.

There were aid stations every mile or two, with water, Gatorade, bananas and orange slices, and very enthusiastic volunteers. Other spectators were rare. Police were at road crossings and on motorcycles. I had an unusual experience with one police officer who was directing traffic at an intersection. He had me wait (wait!) while he let two cars make a left turn in front of me. I am used to police holding up traffic so runners can cross and maintain pace so I was a little perturbed at having to come to a complete stop for these vehicles. It’s not like I was going to PR but it did make a jumble of my rhythm.

I crossed the finish line in 2:54, achieving my goal of under 3 hours, and received my medal decorated with a horse and horseshoe on it. There was plenty of food for runners – beans and rice, pulled pork, bagels, fruit, and cookies. This race is an enjoyable one and is recommended with certain caveats for walkers. Be alert for cars on the narrow roads, watch for the red arrows to direct you along the course, and expect to spend some time alone during the race, especially in the latter miles.

My Racing Goals for 2017

I usually don’t publicize my goals in case I don’t manage to reach them but, what the heck, I am making a change this year. In 2017, I turn seventy and that is a big deal to me (and probably to most people!). I get to move to a whole new age group, 70-74, or in some races 70 and up. I think many runners and walkers don’t mind getting older, especially if it puts them in a higher age group. Competition lessens the older we get, although there will always be plenty of faster people than myself. Still, it feels good to sometimes see that I am the only female in my particular age group.

So, for 2017, the year I turn 70, my primary goal is to do at least 7 ultramarathons, completing at least 70 miles in each one. Of course, these must be timed races, and the longer the better. I am seeking 48 hour races as my preferred choice but I will try several 24 hour ones as well. If conditions are excellent and I am in good form with no injuries and as long as the weather cooperates, I can occasionally handle 70 miles in a 24 hour race. Just to give myself as many opportunities as possible to achieve this goal, I will try to sign up for as many of these timed races in the southeast as I can find.

This will be a major challenge for me but I am determined to try and achieve it!

Playing Catch-Up: Three Marathons and a Half Marathon to Close out 2016 and Begin the New Year

Ever since I began concentrating my races in the southeast part of the US, I have found that I am mostly repeating races I have already done. This is to be expected, since many of my favorites have been around for a long time and they survive because they are exceptionally good races. When I come across an inaugural race, I do try to sign up, but it seems that brand new marathons and half marathons (at least those with longer time limits) are the exception rather than the norm.

Unless something is drastically different from prior editions of a particular race, I hesitate to bore readers or myself with a rehash of what’s already been written by myself and others. Hence, what follows is a brief recap of some of my favorite races.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day has traditionally been the week for the Savage Seven, Chuck Savage’s offering of seven marathons in seven days in a beautiful park in Ocala, Florida. This year Chuck also offered a half marathon option each day for those who preferred the shorter distance. I signed up to volunteer for two days which netted me two free marathons plus I paid for one half marathon on the day we traveled home. Darcy and I spent the holiday week staying at the Hampton Inn off Interstate 75 in Ocala. This was a quiet decent hotel but since it was right off the highway, my husband was bothered by the traffic noise. I, on the other hand, did not mind the car and truck sounds but I was extremely sensitive to the detergents used to clean the rooms, towels, and bedsheets. We ended up purchasing some inexpensive towels at Target to deal with this problem, admittingly something only a neurotic person like myself with a highly-attuned sense of smell would be annoyed by).

The weather all week was dry, a real positive, since running 5 loops in the rain can be daunting. The first couple of days were pleasant but as the week progressed, a cold front moved in and I went from wearing shorts to long pants and a heavy jacket. I did marathons on Tuesday and Thursday, finishing in 6:35 and 6:32 respectively. My volunteer days were Wednesday and Friday and though I helped from dawn to the end of the races, I did manage to walk one lap each day with a friend or two, Mike on Wednesday and Loree and Frank on Friday. I must admit that standing all day working the aid station was harder than doing a marathon. My fellow volunteers were wonderful and made the time pass quickly.

On Saturday, I finished the half marathon (2 ½ loops) in 3:14 and then Darcy and I drove home, hoping to arrive in time to do some last-minute grocery shopping for black-eyed peas and ham hocks, stop at the post office for a week’s worth of mail (mostly bills), and pick up some books at the library for the long weekend.

We discovered a new to us brew pub in Ocala, Miller’s Ale House, and ate there three times. There was a great selection of draft beer available; my favorite was a sampling of local IPA’s. The food was good as well, typical pub choices with a few more elaborate meals for heartier appetites. We will no doubt visit again when in the area

After finishing the 50 mile Cremator race twice, I joked with Race Director Tim Waz that I needed to take up a more sedentary pursuit like knitting. We both laughed but truth is I really do like to sew, quilt, embroider, knit, and crochet. While in recent years I have concentrated almost entirely on quilting, I am now devoting much of my free time to knitting, everything from hats and scarfs to socks and shawls. I take classes at a wonderful yarn store up in Thomasville, GA, called Fuzzy Goat and find the camaraderie of other knitters and the challenge of learning new techniques a great way to balance my more athletic pursuits. So, in between races, I knit.

My first race of 2017 was another favorite, First Light in Mobile, Alabama. I’ve written about this race numerous times (I think I have finished the full at least 6 times). This race is usually a double for Maniacs and 50 Staters, with Mississippi Blues in Jackson, MS, on Saturday and First Light on Sunday. This year there was also a 50 State Reunion in Jackson; however, because of dangerous icy conditions, the MS Blues marathon was canceled. First Light, however, was still on. Weather in Mobile was freezing cold, 25 degrees at the start with a wind chill of 15, but with plenty of sun and only light winds.

I think the weather deterred many from running on such a cold morning. There were only 310 finishers in the full (down from 373 in 2016) and the popular half marathon had 571 finishers instead of 746 in 2016. I could tell that many people had stayed home because the number of back of the packers (my customary place) was greatly diminished. I usually have lots of company around me during the race because people who have ‘doubled’ tend to be slower on Sunday than Saturday, but this year I was alone for long stretches. I never had to worry about getting lost, though. There were bright arrows marked in flour at every turn as well as posted signs and, despite the cold, course marshals and police were out in abundance.

This year was memorable for several reasons, one marathon-related and the other not. I was chugging along, moving as well as I could under 6 layers of clothes plus a small backpack (I never use one during a race but it came in handy this time to load and unload mittens, hats, eyeglasses, and snacks without having to unzip my outer jacket. Just as I crossed Mobile Street onto Dauphin for the final 4 mile stretch to the finish line, I stumbled and couldn’t regain my balance. I fell hard onto the pavement, hitting my right knee and both outstretched hands. My sunglasses and cap fell off and in my stunned state and totally off-balance because of the backpack, layers of clothing, and my stunned surprise, I could only get up with the help of a kind policeman who came running to my aid. He wanted to call in medical help but I thanked him and said “no, I’m okay” and continued on my way, limping and sore. I had also bruised my diaphragm and sternum and had trouble catching my breath; for the next mile or so felt nauseated and had to stop and take a break. However, it was a straight shot to the finish line and I wanted to get there as quickly as possible so I ignored the aching of my body and crossed the timing mat in 6:19.

After getting my beans and rice and pasta salad with corn muffing, I stumbled back to my hotel room to shower, take stock of my wounds, and relax. I fell asleep at 5 pm, and fell into a sound slumber only to hear the jarring ring of the hotel room phone at 7:30. It turns out that my hotel, the Holiday Inn (my favorite place to stay in Mobile – it is right at the start line for the race and is a decent choice for this hotel brand), had a water main break and I had to move my car from one side of the parking lot to another side so it could be fixed. I quickly pulled on some clothes and shoes and went down to move my car. Then I went back to sleep, this time until morning.

Both the Savage Seven and the First Light races are highly recommended for walkers.

Keeping Busy Over the Holidays: a local 5k Turkey Trot and a semi-local 50k

The Turkey Trot: Over the 10 years spanning my racing career I have always managed to find many races to keep me in shape and help me justify eating lots of calorie-laden holiday treats. This year, I cut back dramatically (on racing, not eating) and so have only two races to discuss since Crooked Road. The first is an easy fun 5k that attracts lots of Tallahassee residents. There is also a 1 miler, 10k, and 15k but most people do the 5k. I did the race last year with my son and granddaughter and enjoyed it so I felt it worthwhile to keep this new tradition alive.

The weather was a little warmer than in 2015 (good) but all the races were delayed about 40 minutes (not so good) to allow everyone a chance to get to the start line (understandable). Fortunately I did not have to return home to put a turkey in the oven this year. Instead we postponed our big dinner until the weekend and instead hosted a brunch. Most of that meal had already been prepared so there was little for me to do after the race except serve the meal. That made the delay more palatable.

My back was still sore so I did not try to race the 5k. Instead I just went with the flow of leisure walkers in the back of the last corral. By mile 2, I had warmed up considerably and ignored my backache to walk a little faster. It still took me about 46 minutes to finish, a PW for that distance but I was unconcerned. It was a lot of fun. All finishers received a turkey medal.

The Tallahassee UltraDistance Classic 50k: This was my very first ultra way back in 2008. I try to do it every year or at least every other year because it is such a well-organized low-key race. The course consists of 5 loops on a 6.2 mile paved roadway in beautiful Wakulla State Park, about 30 minutes south of Tallahassee. Traffic is held to a minimum, the road is wide, the 3 aid stations well-stocked with water, Gatorade, and treats (in 2 of them), the volunteers kindly and welcoming; it is just overall a great race. The only problem I have is dealing with the first long, very long, out-and-back; I sometimes think I will never reach that initial turnaround. But then I do and the journey back and out to the second turnaround doesn’t seem that bad.

There is also a 50 mile event and those runners must do 8 loops plus an extra section. There is a 10 hour cutoff for both races. Since it takes me at least 13 plus hours to do a 50 miler, I wouldn’t consider trying that distance at Wakulla but the 50k is a pleasure. I will probably never repeat my personal best here (7:03 in 2013) but no worries. As long as I finish within that 10 hour time frame, I am good.

This year the weather was perfect – cool at the 7 am start, sunny and breezy later in the day. Packet pickup is the morning of the race. Instead of a tee shirt we were given a visor (unfortunately it is not adjustable and since the elastic strap is too tight for my head I will probably give it away). Finishers received an attractive ceramic medal with a drawing of a cute baby manatee on it. For people coming from out of town, the historic Wakulla Springs Lodge is right on the course, with special rates for runners and walkers. A big plus are the real bathrooms across from the main aid station. This year I finished in 7:48:46; since my goal was to complete the race in under 8 hours, I was pleased. This race is highly recommended for walkers.