The Northcoast 24-Hour Endurance Run, September 17-18, 2011

A good choice for my second 24-hour race, the Northcoast 24-Hour Run is held in Edgewater Park, close to downtown Cleveland and on the shores of Lake Erie.  Runners travel along an asphalt loop that measures 9/10th of a mile.  It’s essentially flat, with just a few slight inclines that seem to become much steeper after 18-20 hours but are barely noticeable at first.  There is one very short downhill portion (the only part I ran) that is at the end of the loop just before the start/finish line.  The Northcoast 24 was selected as the 2011 USATF 24-Hour Run National Championship Race.  This meant that I could view firsthand some supremely fast endurance runners close up and that was exciting.

I began my journey on Friday morning and arrived in Cleveland around 3 in the afternoon.  A short cab ride took me to my hotel, the Hyatt Regency at the Arcade in the downtown area, and I quickly settled in and began my preparations for the race.  I had brought a drop bag and some warm clothes and gloves.  For this, I was later extremely grateful.  I filled the drop bag with extra shoes and socks, gloves and scarf, sweatshirt and cap, plus assorted bandaids, snacks, vaseline, and such.  Packet pick up was in the morning and there was no official pasta dinner (okay with me since I seldom go), so I had my usual pre-race meal of homemade bread and peanut butter and managed somehow to get a good night’s sleep.

One of my major concerns about this race had been logistical – how was I to get from the hotel to the race start and then back again?  With my tendency to get lost very easily, I hesitate to rent a car and drive around an unfamiliar city.  So, once again, I found myself dependent upon the kindness of strangers (and thank goodness racers tend to be a very kindly group).  I mentioned my concern on the race’s Facebook page and several people offered their services.  Leon Rothstein from Boise, ID, was staying in a hotel very close by, had a rental car, and was planning to run for the entire 24 hours, so I will be ever grateful for his willingness to drive me there and back.  Thank you, Leon! (He also did great in the race, coming in second in his age group with over 112 miles).

Race morning dawned clear and cool, in the 50’s.  Leon met me at my hotel around 8 and we drove to the park, a short 5 minute ride.  We put our drop bags on a picnic table just past the aid station, amidst the tents and tables set up by runners and their family members and friends.  We picked up our bibs at the registration tables along with our goodie bags (inside were a candle, a short sleeve tech tee shirt, and several race flyers).  Chips were attached to the bibs and could be worn under a layer of clothing.  For those who were aiming for age group awards (that includes me) there was an extra paper bib to wear on our back where we put our sex and age group.  There was a short pre-race briefing and the singing of the Star Spangled Banner and we were off on our 24 hour adventure.


                                                                                           The Northcoast 24 Maniacs

Me, Kino, Steve, and Ryan

I approached this race with a certain degree of trepidation.  This would be the first time I was attempting a race of this duration without my husband along as cheering section and moral support.  Remembering how exhausted, blistered, and sore I felt after FANS made me a bit nervous about how I would manage post-race.  However, mixed in with these concerns was a generous amount of excitement and a willingness to test my abilities.  I was also entering this race with a sore left hip.  This was another first for me since I hardly ever have an injury or problem before a race, but ever since Tupelo a couple of weeks earlier, I had been having twinges of pain and some definite soreness.  Despite these concerns, I had lofty goals for this race; if everything fell into place perfectly, there was the possibility of reaching 100 miles.  Failing that, I would aim for 80 miles (to top the 76 I did at FANS), but I would settle for 100k (62 miles) if necessary.

It turned out to be a LONG 24 hours.  I’ll give my pros and cons about this race but I want to be sure and preface all my remarks by saying that this was an extremely well-organized and superbly run affair.  I have only positive things to say about the race director, Dan Horvath, and his numerous dedicated and stalwart volunteers and Dr. Andy Lovy, the charming 76 year old medical director (who also ran the race) and his excellent medical crew.  They did an admirable job and I have absolutely no complaints about how the race was organized.  That said, what follows is simply my personal thoughts and feelings. 

The Good:

  • I had a personal best with a total of 81.13  miles
  • I placed 2nd in my age group (only 2 of us, but even so)
  • My hip stopped hurting about half way through the race.  The pain just simply went away.  Maybe it was because I now had pain in my shins and blisters on my feet and just didn’t notice the hip pain anymore, but it doesn’t matter, because now, a day later, it’s still gone.
  • I met some great people, including some fellow Maniacs, and had a chance to see some outstanding runners
  • I lasted the entire 24 hours (at FANS, I stopped at 23 hours, in part to save my blistered feet for Alaska)
  • The loop was short, only 9/10 of a mile, and this meant the laps went by fairly fast.
  • Indoor bathrooms (as well as an array of portapottys)
  • Yummy selection of food and drink – I especially enjoyed the big sugar cookies, pizza, and pb and jelly sandwiches

The Bad:

  • The short 9/10  loop drove me crazy.  It was too short to feel like I was making progress. It also made me a bit dizzy.
  • Because the loop was not quite a full mile, it was hard for math-challenged people like myself to figure out exactly what my mileage was.  There was an automated board set up at the start/finish line that kept track of the clock and each runner’s  lap number and mile number but there was a time delay, so I often hung around a bit at the screen so I could check my mileage.  Several volunteers were also keeping track and were faster than the screen so they would tell me my lap number and then I would pester them to figure out the mileage as well. 
  • And because each loop was not quite a full mile, it often took several laps to make a difference in mileage.  This was discouraging to me.  I tried hard not to think about it.
  •  The short loop did not have enough change and variation in scenery to keep me intrigued.  It was fine in the beginning because it was all new and different but after a while it became boring.  Very boring. 
  • There was not a lot of activity in the park, even on a relatively sunny afternoon.  Several people (including some nuns dressed in black habits) were flying kites, some young folks had a barbeque and others played games, and a few people walked their dogs, but it was otherwise relatively quiet.
  • Quiet, except for the loud music played in several different places along the loop.  It was hard to listen to my Ipod.  It gave me a bit of a headache and there was no way to escape it.  Anywhere.  It was a very short loop.
  • COLD!!  It was freezing cold, icy cold, with the wind threatening to blow off my cap.  Turns out I wore everything I had brought in my drop bag – tee shirt, vest, sweatshirt, jacket with hood, scarf, and gloves.  I was thankful I had brought all this extra clothing but I was still painfully cold. 
  • The cold and boredom caused me to stop at the bathroom (to warm up) and the aid station (to eat and talk) much more than I needed to.
  • Around mile 50, I felt a blister on the ball of my left foot and another on my big toe on my right foot.  I ignored them as long as I could and finally gave up and spent about 30 minutes in the medical tent where the staff lanced my blisters.  This made me a little sick to my stomach so they gave me some ginger and sent me on my way.  The blisters began to bother me again around 20 miles later but I persisted without stopping; I was so close to passing my previous PR that I didn’t want to waste time 

Around a half hour before the race was to end, we were all given a rectangular block of wood with our bib number on it.  At the conclusion of the 24 hours, we dropped the block where we stood at that moment so partial laps could be tallied to our total number of laps.  I completed 90 full laps.  Even I could do that math – 90 x .9 = 81 miles.  Hooray! – I made my second goal.

As we passed through the finish line for that final lap, all the volunteers and medical crew and family and friends of racers stood on the sidelines and cheered us.  That was a good way to end the race, a really neat touch.  There was a huge breakfast served to everyone and then an awards ceremony.  Since Leon had a plane to catch just past noon, we did not stay for the awards, but that was fine with me since I was eager to return to my hotel for a shower and a long deep sleep.

I was extremely pleased that I was able to do so well at this race.  Aside from the annoying and painful blisters, some slight muscle soreness in my legs, and the achy hand cramps I get the day after a long race, I learned several things about myself, including what things I can tolerate well in a race and which ones I cannot.  It may be a good time to reassess my goals, including my major goal of attaining 100 miles in a single race.  If I cannot find a way to deal with these %$#(&+ blisters, I may decide to forego the longer distance for the ability to do shorter races (we’re talking marathons and 50k’s here, not really short races).  But I feel it is premature at this point for such a decision but it is certainly something I may need to revisit in the future. 

Another thing I realized about myself is my need for and enjoyment of variety, both in terms of scenery, terrain, and people.  I may think twice about committing to a long timed race on a very short loop.  Remembering the difficulty I had on the Darkside 8 hour race around a quarter mile track leads me to believe that going around and around and around tends to make me dizzy and a little bit crazy.   It’s a good piece of information to have.  Too much noise and loud music also pushes me over the edge.  I wavered about trying the Peanut Island 24 hour race in FL on New Year’s eve, but I now know that a race of that nature is exactly the kind I should avoid.

So, now I am actively resting and nursing my blisters so I will be ready for my next race, a marathon in WI, in two weeks time.

“Trample the weak, hurdle the dead” – Tupelo Marathon, September 4, 2011

With a slogan like that, it is pretty clear that the Tupelo Running Club means business, and cowards need not apply. Everything about this race – from the skull and crossbones surrounded by red roses on the tee shirt and medal to the candid responses from the race director to the dedicated cadre of volunteers – is meticulously thought out and well-done. So, how could I resist putting this marathon on my bucket list? Well, the truth is, I couldn’t. So, on Friday morning, September 3, I boarded the first of three planes on my way to Tupelo, MS, to experience this iconic race for myself. It definitely lived up to its reputation.

I arrived at the small regional airport in Tupelo around 3:30 pm. Phil Min, fellow Darksider and Marathon Maniac, had offered to pick me up at the airport and take me to packet pickup at the Trails and Treads running store on the way to our hotels. He was a gem, not only driving me to the race start on Saturday morning but also patiently waiting for me to finish the race so he could give me a lift back. Thank you, Phil, for going above and beyond – I do appreciate it. There was also a Maniac dinner on Saturday evening at Vanelli’s, a local restaurant, but I was beat and just wanted to wind down and go to sleep. Since I bring my own bread and peanut butter for my pre-race dinner and breakfast, I don’t usually eat out the night before a race, I hope to attend a Maniac meal some day, but this was not the time. Fatigue won out and I was asleep by 7. My alarm was set for 3 am; I awoke just before it went off and ate, dressed, and met Phil outside my Hampton Inn hotel at 4:15. It was a short drive to the starting point, the Mississippi Complex of the Tupelo Furniture Market. This was also the finish line, making it a convenient place to park.

The race began at 5 am on the dot. It was dark, of course, but a number of people brought flashlights (I had a small one) and there were some street and house lights to help illuminate the roads. The course is a circular out-and-back along country roads and residential neighborhoods. For those who chose to do the 14.2 mile race, the course continued straight on to the Furniture Mart, while those of us doing the entire marathon went as far as the turn-around point at the 13 mile marker and then reversed our steps back to the Mart. Highlights of the course for me – listening to roosters crowing and dogs barking, watching horses rolling around in the pastures near the road, jumping over intriguing roadkill (armadillos, possum, snake, frog), and chatting with the friendly people, most of whom passed me, but not without a kind word or two. Because of the out and back nature of the course, those of us at the rear were able to see and cheer on the front runners coming back towards the finish line. Altitude is not a problem but the course does have some rolling hills (which I like, because the change is good for my legs and feet); there were not many hills and they were not very steep, but they can certainly be felt, especially on the way back. The roads are not closed to traffic and the shoulder is narrow, but I found that most vehicles were extremely respectful of racers and gave us a wide berth. Traffic was not very heavy, mostly people heading to or leaving church, and not really a problem. Tupelo police were a visible presence, with several police cars watching over the racers and keeping an eye on things.

Weather turned out to be a challenge for me. Usually I am proud of the fact that I tend to bring sunny warm weather with me to races, but not this time. Tropical Storm Lee was hitting the Gulf Coast pretty hard this weekend and Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were faced with flash flood and tornado watches and warnings. Tupelo was just north of the most severe weather problems but was still besieged with rain – just a drizzle at first but a real deluge for a good part of the time I was on the course. I got soaked. My clothes and shoes and socks and cap got soaked. There was a half hour when the rain let up and I began to dry out – and then it began to rain again. I kept reminding myself that I only had to complete the race within the 6 hour time limit; it didn’t matter if I didn’t get a PR and it didn’t matter if I didn’t finish in my usual 5:45 or so, as long as I got that medal! So, I ran the downhills when I could, slogged through the puddles not caring if my shoes got soaked (heck, they were already wet), and just kept moving forward. Exchanged words of encouragement with Bonnie and Bethany and Diane. Kept moving forward to that finish line. By the time I reached mile 25, I was confident I would make the time limit. The race director had assured me that the finish line would stay open as long as people on the course were moving with alacrity and not struggling, but it was a matter of pride for me to aim for that 6 hour limit. I finished in 5:44:45, right where I usually finish; rain didn’t seem to make a difference, I guess, although I probably would have enjoyed the experience more if I had been wearing dry clothes! I placed third in my age group and was awarded an attractive handcrafted plaque as a prize.

There was plenty of food at the finish line, even for us back-of-the-packers: pulled pork, buns, cole slaw, potato salad, baked beans, soda, and water. I think at some point there was beer as well, but I was probably too late to get some. Extra shirts for only $10 were also available at the finish line (I bought another because I like the gray-blue tie-dyed long-sleeve cotton with the great skull and crossbones design).

If you need lots of spectators or a big expo or lots of bands, this is most definitely NOT the race for you. But if you enjoy beautiful scenery, a rural atmosphere, friendly volunteers, good organization, and a somewhat challenging course, you will find this race a pleasure, enjoyable even in the rain.

Even though I know better than to try new things on race day, I admit to not following that dictum in this race. Instead of wearing my cotton/poly crops, I opted for a new pair of crops that were supposed to be quick-dry. I brought both with me but decided to wear the new ones because of the threat (which turned out to be reality) of rain. That was a good decision. The new pants were not really quick-dry (they stayed pretty wet while it was raining) but when the rain ceased for awhile, they did dry out a bit faster than my others would have. The other new thing I tried was a product called Blistop. This is a spray that is supposed to prevent blisters. I had bought a small can at Walgreen’s and thought this would be a good chance to see if it really works. I have a 24 hour race coming up soon and I wanted to forestall a bad blister experience like I had at FANS. So, on race morning I sprayed Blistop on my feet, let the spray dry, used Body Glide on the rest of the problem areas on my feet, put on my Injinji socks, and then my Saucony running shoes. I had no idea what to expect. Maybe this was just an anomaly but I felt no troublesome blisters cropping up at all during the race and, when I took off my socks afterwards, not one blister anywhere. Amazing, especially since rain tends to make my feet blister more than usual. I will try this product again in a few weeks and see if it is really the answer for me.

In the ‘better to let it go but this is my blog so I’ll mention it anyhow ’ department : Despite the ominous weather looming on Monday, my return flights were uneventful. However, the flight attendant on Pinnacle Airlines on the trip from Tupelo to Memphis (her name was Joyce) insisted that my small rollerboard would not fit in the overhead compartment of a CRJ-200. Since I travel on these small planes WITH this small rollerboard ALL the time, I knew that my bag would fit and suggested she at least let me try. She would have none of it – and demanded that I gate-check it (which I did – this woman was much bigger than me). But it was annoying, especially since she was wrong. There, I feel better venting.