A Blistering Tale – the FANS 24 hour race, Minneapolis, MN, June 4-5, 2011

I may not be a very fast walker but I do think I have a lot of endurance, and how better to test that endurance than by trying a 24 hour race? FANS stands for Furthering Achievement through a Network of Support and it was begun in 1989 to help send inner-city students from the Minneapolis area to college. This is a fund-raising event and runners and walkers can get pledges to help the cause. However, it is not necessary to raise money. Just send in the entry fee and you can select either the 12 hour or the 24 option. Both categories have separate runner and walker divisions, and prizes are awarded in both divisions.

How could I resist? Well, I couldn’t, especially when I discovered that some of my acquaintances from the Walking Site Message Boards were also going to do the 24 hour challenge. So, early Friday morning my husband and I drove to the Jacksonville airport and flew to Minneapolis, checked into an aging but still attractive Embassy Suites in Bloomington, and took the light rail transit to Mall of America to look for a place to have lunch. We had both heard of this Mall but had never visited it before. It certainly is a sight to see. Multistory, with shops and restaurants plus an aquarium and Nickelodeon amusement park, it has something for everyone. We decided to stop at Crave, a restaurant that turned out to be a wise choice, with excellent food and service. Back to the hotel to rest for a couple of hours and plan our strategy for the evening.

While it is not essential to attend the prerace pasta dinner at the Nokomis Community Center, I thought it might be a good idea to go, if only to get my race packet and meet the other participants. Because there are no hotels close enough to the Center to walk, we took a taxi. The Center is also the location of the start and finish line along the shore of Lake Nokomis. We must be weighed at this dinner as well as every 4 hours during the course of the race, so our weights can be compared. If we lose more than 5% of our starting weight, we would be strongly encouraged to eat and drink enough to regain our original weight. The race directors here take their responisiblities very seriously and nobody complains as they get on the scale (maybe a few groans, but that’s all). As usual, I bypass the food at the pasta dinner, although my husband partakes. I see Mellody, Maryann, and Dan from the Boards and meet some high-achieving racewalkers, Ray Sharp and Ollie Nanyes, as well as a Darksider from GA who has done FANS before. It’s a lively group and we are all excited about the race. The dinner breaks up early so we can get a good night’s rest before the long day and night ahead of us.

At 7 am on Saturday morning, I take a taxi to the Center and wander down toward the Lake where people are setting up their personal tents and staking out their spots along the road that runs behind the Center. The primary aid station is already set up, with plates of food and drink, right beside the medical tent; I really got to know the medical tent and its helpful practitioners very well during this event. I find my friends and set my bag on their mats and we chat until just before 8 am. A few brief words at the beginning and we start on time, 8 on the dot.

The race runs counter-clockwise around Lake Nokomis on a 2.4217 mile loop (plus a one-time 1.656 mile out and back stretch at the very beginning of the race). All this math is already figured out for us, and as people pass by the main aid station, there is a big board set up with the loop numbers and mileage. Lap counters keep track of which loop participants are on and inform us as we pass by. This is good, because after a few loops, I can barely remember my name, let alone how many miles I have done. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The weather starts out quite warm, in the mid-60’s, and promising to get warmer and more humid as the day progresses, with sunny skies and no rain. Great! I’m used to such warmth and humidity, preferring it to cold and rain. I start out with a strong but comfortable pace, enjoying the sunrise and scenery. The lake is lovely, surrounded on several sides with sandy beaches that turn out to be heavily used by the locals , and on other sides by tall trees. It is just as I envision Minnesota to be – breathtakingly beautiful and pristine.

I was moving quickly, loop by loop, having a good time, when suddenly I felt an unpleasant sensation on the ball of my left foot. It felt like a walnut, about that size and shape. I guessed that it was a blister forming but since I had never before experienced one on the bottom of my foot, it took me quite by surprise. I was only on my 4th loop, about 10 miles in, and it was way too early to stop. So I continued going round, ignoring the increasing pain. A few loops later, I suddenly felt the pain ease off a bit; the blister had probably broken and I felt a sense of relief wash over me. I stopped at a bench to check and indeed the blister had popped (exploded would be more descriptive) and now blood completely covered my sock. I hobbled to the medical tent and asked for help. I was immediately attended to, with the blister cleaned and bandaged and duct taped. I made my way slowly to my duffle bag and changed into my extra pair of socks and another pair of shoes. Good idea to pack them.

Maybe that was the end of my blister saga, I thought. I continued around the lake, ignoring the lumpy sticky feeling of the duct tape on my foot. At least I had on a new pair of shoes and socks. Then I began to feel an uncomfortable sensation on the top of the bunion on my right foot. Again, I ignored it as long as I could, until I realized that I was changing my gait to accommodate it. That meant another stop at the medical tent where the medical folks lanced a huge blood blister, covered it with moleskin, taped it, checked and retaped the blister on my other foot, and sent me on my way.

With all this unexpected misery with blisters, I did get a real pick-me-up around 7 pm on Saturday evening. As I began another one of my loops, I looked up to see my husband waving to me and cheering me on. I gave him a big kiss and hug and said THANK YOU for coming! I really had not expected to see him until Sunday morning (it was a hassle and expense to mess with taxi rides) but he managed to figure out a way to take the light rail (plus a long walk) to get there. I also asked him to bring me another pair of socks and my sandals when he came to get me at the end of the race so I could change into something comfortable and clean for my feet.

I should also mention the invaluable amenities (in addition to the medical expertise) available to us on this race. There were two aid stations, the primary one at the start/finish that held major foodstuffs (ham sandwiches, pb and j sandwiches, pizza around 6 pm, candy, rice krispie bars, lots of other goodies, and a variety of beverages, including coffee in the wee hours of the morning) and a secondary aid station set up a little over half way across the lake. This latter aid station had water, soda, and Gatorade, plus a limited variety of sweet and salty foods, easy to grab as we passed by. It also had several shifts of tireless volunteers who cheered us on the entire time. One portapotty was set up just before this aid station. About 6-10 portapotties were lined up just past the start and finish line. And of course the tent with lap counters and another with medical personnel were also arranged in this area as well. The lake also had real bathrooms available in the beach area and one extra portapotty at a smaller swimming section. People who wanted to set up tents or other individual areas for their bags and stuff could conveniently do so right along the course. We were well provided for.

Back to my adventure. Loop by loop, I was making progress. I passed the 50 mile mark and was determined now to reach 100k (62 miles). I honestly can’t say when these landmarks were reached; I just know that as I passed each one, I felt a tremendous feeling of success. The lap counters helped us celebrate each milestone with loud cheers and the ringing of cowbells. At some point, I passed 100k and then decided I would try for 75 miles. For a good part of these loops, I was first on the leader-board for walkers, an amazing feat considering the trouble I was having with these #^%$@ blisters.

Darkness fell around 9:30 pm and I was beginning to get tired. It was not fatigue from walking but rather the general idea that I knew I it was past my bedtime. As the night grew darker and I had to use my handlamp (which I carry in my hand because wearing it makes me dizzy), I found it harder to recognize my surroundings. The only place that was well-lit was the cement portion which crossed over a bridge and highway; the grassy portions of the loop and the asphalt sections were now completely pitch black. My eyesight is never good in the dark so I expected to have difficulty at night. I was prepared for this. My plan was to go much more slowly and carefully on these evening passes around the lake, watching my steps and avoiding possible tripping hazards. I made slow but steady progress, stopping only to sit on a chair for about 15 minutes every few hours . Finally, around 4:30 am, dawn began to break and I felt a resurgence of energy. I could see again!! No need to carry a light, I could now rely on daylight.

From 5 to 7 am, I continued my way around the course; my times for each loop ranged (I am guestimating here) from 35 to 45 minutes. I made one final stop at the medical tent because I could feel another blister developing on the ball of my right foot. I think I caught that one before it developed into a major annoyance. However, after attaining 76.7 miles by 7 am, I decided I’d had enough. With a marathon in Alaska, my 50th state, in less than two weeks, it simply did not make sense to me to pull out all the stops here only to jeopardize my 50 state goal. For that final hour, racers could decide to do some short laps out-and-back to add to their totals, but I told the officials I was done; I walked very slowly and carefully up to the community center bathroom where I washed up as best I could, changed shirts, combed my hair (what a mess!), and sat down to wait for my husband to show up. A few minutes past 7:30, Darcy arrived, bringing me my sandals and socks; I quickly changed and we headed back to the hotel via taxi. Time for shower and a nap, then brunch at Crave’s at the Mall of America, and a much longer well-deserved sleep.

There is a breakfast on Sunday for racers and their families and a brief awards ceremony. Although I didn’t attend, I heard it was very well-done. If I am fortunate enough to do this race again, I would certainly try to make it. However, this year, I was too anxious to begin the repair process for my blisters to care much about food or rewards at that point. Even so, it turns out I came in third in the walking division (men and women combined) and I was so very pleased with that. I only wonder how I would have done if the blisters hadn’t been such a problem.

Some thoughts after my first 24 hour race:
• I was not as tired as I thought I would be after staying up all day and all night.
• But full recovery has taken me longer than I would have thought. Here it is one week later and I am still feeling an overall sense of exhaustion. I’m sleeping longer than I normally do and I don’t have my usual compulsion to get outside and walk 5 to 10 miles every day.
• It was much better for me to begin a timed race (or any race, for that matter) in the morning hours rather than in the afternoon or evening. I’ve tried it both ways and morning suits me far better.
• I think my blisters were caused by starting out with shoes that had already been well-worn. As I suited up Saturday morning, I noticed a worn spot in my left shoe exactly where the walnut-sized blister had formed later that day. So – lesson learned the hard way; I will be sure to examine my shoes carefully before deciding which ones to wear and will opt for newer ones with less mileage on them.
• Another issue was my socks. I was wearing the newer heavier version of Injinji toe socks rather than the smoother ones I usually wear. The combination of degraded shoe with rougher socks was apparently enough to cause problems. And then, of course, the hot humid weather didn’t help matters at all. For future races longer than a marathon, I will stick with my thin Injinji socks covered with a thin regular sock for extra protection.
• I will be sure to pack an extra pair of shoes and several pairs of socks (not just one) plus bandages and neosporin and other repair items for ‘just in case’ treatments.
• Everything else went smoothly so my other preparations must have been fine with the exception of the unexpected predicament with my feet.

The aftermath:
• My blisters are healing but much more slowly than I would like. There is improvement every day but still some sensitivity and soreness.
• I made a wise decision to stop when I did instead of stubbornly pushing through (which, to be honest, I did consider). I want to be in reasonably good form for the upcoming Alaska marathon next Saturday.

Would I recommend this race to walkers? I would say YES without hesitation. Both the 12 hour and 24 hour races would be a wonderful addition to a walker’s experience. The people who put on the FANS races think of just about everything to keep walkers comfortable, informed, and in high spirits throughout the day and evening. Timed races are special; there is no DNF (did not finish) possible since there is no set distance required, and fast and slower participants complete their races at the same time, so traditional back-of-the-packers don’t have to worry about being last and alone.
Would I do this race again? I am already making plans for next year!

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