Retrospective – The Extraterrestrial 51K – August 22, 2010

Every now and then I plan to post a review of a race I completed in the recent past – hence the title ‘Retrospective.’ Sometimes this will be a look back at races I’ve done several times, comparing my experiences and thoughts on how those particular races have changed (or not, as the case may be). Sometimes I will do a race just once and decide that once was enough (!) but it’s my goal to write about all the races I’ve done, primarily the marathons and ultra marathons, to help me remember so someday I can create scrapbooks of my races.

It was just about a year ago that I did the Extraterrestrial 51 K in Rachel, NV – this synopsis is adapted from a piece I wrote for Tales from the Darkside, the newsletter of the Darkside Running Club.

Most long distance runners and walkers can claim some pretty unusual experiences during their time on roads and trails and I am no exception. In August of the summer of 2010, I was almost abducted and I have the certificate to prove it! On a whim, I decided to sign up for the the Extraterrestrial Full Moon Midnight ultra in Rachel, Nevad, just outside the infamous Area 51. Here is a brief description from the race director:

Running along the fringe of the mysterious Area 51, this stretch of highway (375) has an overwhelming number of reported UFO sightings. So much so, that in 1996 the federal government officially named highway 375 the Extraterrestrial Highway. Not only is the ET Highway full of alien fun, it traverses some gorgeous scenery as well. At roughly 4000-5600 foot elevation, the high desert abounds with Joshua trees and other vegetation unique to the area. This road is also ‘open range,’ so don’t be surprised if you’re passing cows on course (from Marathonguide.com)

Since my husband is a UFO buff, I thought this would be a great destination race – I could get another ultra under my belt and Darcy would get a chance to visit the place that he had read about in so many of his books. We had a great time but it was exhausting. We left Florida early Saturday morning on the 6:15 am flight to Atlanta and then flew on to Las Vegas. It seems almost impossible in a regional airport as small as the one here in our small city but myhusband’s rollerboard (as well as those of two other passengers) managed to get left behind at the gate. He had a rolling backpack that would usually fit in the overhead bin of most planes, but in the small CRJ – 200s that fly out of our airport, the bins are way too small, so we had to pink-tag the carry-on bags and pick them up at the gate in Atlanta. Well, somehow, someone managed to not see the 3 bags that were left to be gate-checked. I was glad that it wasn’t my suitcase because I had all my racing gear stuffed in it. Anyhow, my husband’s backpack finallymade it to our hotel around 5:30 pm. We got a laugh out of how the airport staff managed to ‘misplace’ 3 pieces of luggage at a very small airport with only one plane and one gate open at that time of the morning.
We made it to our hotel, Hyatt Place on Paradise, right across from the host hotel, the Hard Rock. Since neither of us gamble and I cannot abide the smell of cigarette smoke, we were content to stay at a hotel that did not have a casino. The Hyatt was clean and quiet and turned out to be a good choice. We went to packet pickup at the Hard Rock around 4, just after it opened, and I got my chip, bib, and goody bag. Then back to the room to try to sleep. HUH! Sleep? No way, I was too wound up. I had forgotten about the time change, so I knew I would be totally exhausted during the race unless I got some rest, but what could I do?

At 8:30 pm, Darcy and I made our way to the buses lined up at the Hard Rock to take the 2.5 hour ride to Rachel. He stayed on the bus and rode to the finish line with other spectators and I got off the bus with the marathoners and ultra runners. Because the moon was almost full, it was beautiful, but still too dark for my aging eyes to see very well. I had come prepared for the cooler weather of the high desert, so I had worn my jacket, a ¾ length shirt, my Marathon Maniac singlet, my racing vest, and GLOVES. Yes, I brought gloves because my hands usually get cold. However, I didn’t need them at all. The weather turned out to be almost sultry, around 70 degrees, and I soon tied my jacket around my waist, rolled up my sleeves, pinned my gloves (and later my cap) to my jacket, and just enjoyed the pleasantly warm weather. I could handle the warmth, I could even handle the high altitude (which didn’t really seem to bother me), but the darkness – well, that was just plain hard to endure.
The race began right on time out in the middle of nowhere. There was one very long climb up a huge hill, a mountain really, and despite the steepness, I enjoyed the change in terrain because it gave my feet and legs a break. The only bad part about the hill was the fact that, at the top, the moon disappeared and stayed hidden the entire rest of the race. I had to use my flashlight during the 2nd half of the race because I could not see the road at all.

Hallucinations – yes, I had a few. Occasionally, I would think the people ahead of me were signs in the road. Even stranger, around miles 17 to 20, I thought I was surrounded by apartment buildings with windows with lights in them. I tried to shine my flashlight on these ‘buildings’ to prove that they were really stars, but I was still convinced I was in the middle of a city. Ahead of me there appeared to be stores and a downtown center. Really!

At mile 21, my ankles began to hurt and I couldn’t tell if it was because of the hard road surface or if I had simply tied my laces too tight. At this point I was beginning to think I would not be able to finish the ultra in the 8-hour time limit because I wasn’t able to go my usual pace – darkness and ankles were the two sticking points. But at the marathon turnaround at mile 23, I decided to forge ahead and try my best.
I headed towards the blinking lights of a police car at mile 26 – the turnaround for the 51 K. It looked like it was really close, but distances in the desert are very deceptive – it took me a long time to reach that turnaround. Once I did, however, I felt positive I would be able to finish in time and I even passed several other racers, including a few who were still trying for the marathon distance. Of course, it helped that dawn broke and I could see once again.

I finished in about 7:38 AND won my age group (okay, there was no other woman 60-69 crazy enough to try this distance out here – it still counts). That was a surprise! I received a neat hand-painted plaque as an award. All finishers received unique medals along with a buffet breakfast (but I had no appetite at that point).  While I was racing, my husband helped out at one of the aid stations and enjoyed visiting the Little Ale’Inn hotel and gift shop. I think he enjoyed the trip even though it was very tiring for him, too, and he didn’t even race. As a present, he purchased for me an official abduction certificate from the gift shop.

Tired but happy, we rode the bus back to Las Vegas (I slept most of the way) and once back at the hotel, I hit the shower, changed my clothes, and we headed out to the Paris Hotel on the Strip for a great champagne breakfast buffet. Back at the hotel, I slept deeply and woke up at 3 am to pack so we could leave for a 6 am departure. Because of flight delays, we didn’t return home until after 7 pm. No more lost luggage, though.

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Around the Lake 12-Hour Ultra, Wakefield, MA, July 29-30, 2011

There are not a lot of races during the summer months, especially in Florida, which means that unless I want to travel some distance northward I have an enforced rest and recovery period in July and August.  That certainly doesn’t appeal to me, driven as I am to push my limits, so I began thinking about how to capture another race in midsummer.  Last year, facing the same conundrum, I had decided to do the Around the Lake 12 hour race in Wakefield, Massachusetts, a pleasant bedroom suburb about 10 miles north of Boston.  It turned out to be a good choice then, so I decided to try it again this year.  The Around the Lake races are put on by the Somerville Road Runners and runners/walkers can choose from marathon, 12 hour, 24 hour, or relay options.  Four years ago, as a newbie to the sport, I chose the marathon distance at this race; last year and this year I decided the 12 hour was just the ticket.  All races begin at 7 pm Friday evening at the Lord Wakefield Hotel parking lot on the banks of Lake Quannapowitt.  Racers do an initial starting stretch along a parkway and then spend the rest of the time (up to 24 hours) circling the 3.17 miles around the pristine lake.  There is a very small portion of grass-covered rocky trail just past the start/finish line in the parking lot followed by cement or asphalt sidewalks all around the lake.  Across from and by the lake itself are business offices, a HoneyDew donut shop, several other cafes and stores, homes, a cemetery, baseball field (usually hosting a Little League game), and several park-like areas inviting to the locals for picnics and relaxing.  Lots of people walk the perimeter of the lake with their children and dogs in tow and it is usually an extremely pleasant environment, at least until 11 am or so when everyone except crazy runners and some late-night party goers stay out in the wee am hours.

Why am I so partial to this race?  I must confess it’s because my first professional library job was at the Lucius Beebe Memorial Library in Wakefield and I have fond memories of the library and the town.  Plus, my sister Margie and niece Emily live about an hour away and can drive in to visit with me.  That is certainly an added plus from my point of view, since I seldom get to see them and so I look for any excuse to race in New England with a chance to see them as a bonus.  Last year I flew in to Boston on Friday, walked for 12 hours until 7 am Saturday, and then flew right back to FL later Saturday morning.  Not only did I miss seeing my sister but I also found that not resting at all after an ultra and flying immediately afterwards is not a good idea.  My ankles swelled up like melons and I spent the following few days wearing sandals and sleeping with my feet elevated to get my ankles back to normal size. So this time, I decided to spend an extra day.

Airfare to Logan was not terribly outrageous and I found a flight from JAX that would get me to Boston via Atlanta by 11 am, plenty of time to taxi to Wakefield and get ready for the evening race.  I was able to use my hotel rewards points to stay at a nearby Sheraton.  While the Lord Wakefield Hotel is the most convenient place to stay, since it is perched right on the grounds of the Lake, it desperately needs to be renovated.  The hotel folks are helpful and friendly but the hotel itself sorely needs a facelift.  I was determined not to stay there again and the Sheraton turned out to be a good alternative.  It was only 3.4 miles away and my sister and niece found it easily as it was right off the highway. 

So I set my alarm for 1 am Friday morning and it went off right on time.  I was up and dressed and ready to leave the house for the 2 hour drive to JAX airport by 1:35 am.  An uneventful trip landed me at Logan and I took the 30  minute taxi ride to Wakefield.  Fortunately, I could check in early to my room and was able to relax a bit before my sister and niece arrived.  We had lunch at Restaurant 99, a chain of eating establishments popular in the northeast (all menu prices end in $.99, hence the name).  It was delicious, especially the baked scrod (a chance to eat fish again, hurray!).  Back to the room to get ready – my natural bossiness as the older sister came through loud and clear as I explained the evening’s schedule.  My sister, good sport that she is, cheerfully went along and humored me.  I got dressed for the race and all 3 of us went to the start.  Margie and Emily were going to walk a few times around the lake and then head on back to the room for a night’s rest while I would keep walking until dawn the next morning. 

Packet pick-up was at the Lord Wakefield from 4-6 pm.  No lines but lots of cars in the parking lot and runners milling around pinning their bibs and attaching D-rings to their shoes.  I excitedly joined them.  One nice surprise was this year’s shirt.  I don’t even remember getting a shirt last year, although I’m sure I did.  Usually I give all the tech shirts to my oldest son; most are too slippery-feeling for my taste.  This year, however, the shirt had a nice pebbly texture which I did not mind and the design was novel and attractive.  On the back of the white short-sleeve shirt, it says Somerville Road Runners in black letters with 4 black circles and the names of the 4 sponsors of the race in white within each circle.  On the front of the shirt, the text says “24 Hour Around the Lake” with the options listed just below; 24 hour, 12 hour, 24 hour relay, and marathon.  But then the neat part – 24 circles, about an inch in diameter, in shades of green and gray, are arranged in a grid underneath, followed by the date and place.  Okay, it took me a while to realize it, but there are indeed 24 of them, with the round shape representing the lake while the various hues exemplify the changing nightscape.  Neat idea well carried out.  I’ve already worn the shirt twice; it’s definitely a keeper.

On to the race.  At 6:45, one of the race directors gives a brief recap of the course and the rules and at 7 pm on the dot, we’re off.  The .84 add-on section at the beginning is always annoying to me because everyone starts running and I fear I will get left behind and lost (although it is really a simple loop – it is just my usual nerves taking hold).  I run to keep up, my throat gets dry, I resort to walking a stretch, then resume running, and before I know it, we are at the official start to begin the series of loops around the lake itself.  We bypass the chute this first go-around and head onto the minor trail portion.  I watch my step carefully here because there are a few treacherous exposed roots but then the sidewalk begins and the rest of the 3 + miles follows the lake (we are warned beforehand to always keep the lake on one’s right, and it really is impossible to get lost here, even in the dark, as long as those directions are followed).  There are 2 aid stations. The full aid station is at the start/finish, just past the timing chute, and has water, Heed, and a ever-changing buffet of treats.  I paid no attention to the offerings during the first 6 hours or so, except for water, because I relied on my energy bars and salty snacks that I usually carry with me.  However, around 2 am the peanut butter and jelly quarters (some on bagels, some on bread) looked enticing and I would grab several as I passed by.  There was also pizza, cookies, candy, fruit, and more, and as the evening turned into day I certainly took advantage of these goodies.  A second aid station with water and Heed was located just before the 2 mile marker on the other side of the lake.  There were about a dozen porta-potties at the start/finish, with 4 reserved for use after 7 am (and I am sure the 24 hour folks were pleased with that – certainly a good idea).  Although I had a small flashlight and my headlamp, I found the course lit well-enough for me  so that I used the flashlight only for the hours around midnight.  After that I had the course memorized well enough that I found the extra lighting unnecessary.

My goal was to circle the lake 16 times; that would give me a total of just over 51 miles.  Last year I only managed 14 loops in nearly perfect summer weather.  This year we began the race in a drizzle and the weather turned much nastier during the period from 9 pm to just past midnight.  The drizzle became a solid downpour at times and my clothes and socks and shoes and cap became totally drenched.  And blisters!  Once again, as at FANS, I developed blisters on both feet, this time closer to my heels.  It was not my shoes (they were fairly new) nor my socks (they were my normal injinji socks with a thin pair of socks over them) or lack of preparation (I had covered my feet with Body Glide) so the blisters must have been due to my soaking wet feet.  Anyhow, THIS time I had no race in the near future, with my next scheduled marathon not until Labor Day, so I dug in and kept moving.  By 12:30 am, the rain ceased and that was a welcome relief.  However, my clothes and cap stayed wet until well into the later morning hours.  My goal changed from 16 loops to 10 loops (approximately a 50 k).  I walked as fast as I could, dodging puddles (when possible) and trying to avoid losing my balance on sections of the sidewalk that had become slippery with the rain.  Eight loops constituted a marathon and I reached that distance around 1:30 in the morning.  Two more loops and I managed to complete that 50 K.  After that, my goal became simply to do as many more loops as I could before the 7 am cutoff time.  Partial loops would not count, so it was important to figure out my average time around the lake before I headed out for the last circuit.  As I went through the chute for my 12th loop, I noticed the leader boards for the 12 hour and 24 hour races set up beside the clock.  Wait a minute!  My name is on the 12 hour – and I am in third place for women!  How in the world could that be?  I must be doing better than I thought.  Even though my hardest hours during a timed race are the hours from 1 to 3 am, seeing my name up there on the boards spurred me on.  I began to feel a resurgence of energy, especially around 4 am.  On my Ipod the songs Morning has Broken and the Beatles Here Comes the Sun began to play – just what I needed in those pre-dawn hours.  I made it 14 times around, 45.25 miles, and earned 3rd place in the women’s 12 hour race.  I received a beautiful plaque with a replica of the 12 hour medal on it and a $25 gift certificate to the North Face .  I was third out of 19 women in that race (and as far as I could tell, the only intentional walker) so I was really pleased! 

A great race, well-organized and supported.  If you are looking for a timed race in the middle of summer, Around the Lake would be a good choice.