Ocala Half Marathon, January 22, 2012 – A Race through Horse Country

In my quest to become a Half Fanatic (the section of Marathon Maniacs that is devoted to half marathon addicts), I decided to do the Ocala Half Marathon this past Sunday. Since I usually do the Tallahassee Half Marathon on the first Sunday of February, that would give me the necessary 2 half marathons within a 16 day time frame – enough to qualify for the lowest planet level of the Fanatics and good enough for me.

Packet pickup was at the Paddock Mall on Saturday so my husband and I drove down around 10 am to get my tee shirt and race bib. There were not a lot of signs directing us as to where to go so I looked for people with swag bags and asked them for directions. There were some tables set up here and there in the general area of the packet pickup but it was not an expo in the traditional sense. We spent a couple of minutes checking to make sure I had everything and then left for lunch at a nearby CrackerBarrel.

Even if I was not so anxious to join the Half Fanatics, it turned out to be a very good decision to do the half instead of the full. Although the finish line was supposed to be open for 6 ½ hours, it seems there was a push to have everyone finish well before that deadline. I later heard that walkers and slower runners were hounded by race officials to ‘hurry up’ even though they were on target for a 6 hour or so finish. Nothing like adding to the angst and stress of completing a marathon!

In addition, the Ocala race course was a double loop, and the thought of having to complete that second loop with fewer people and scant directions was just too much for me to contemplate. I know it would have driven me bonkers. I had no problems at all with the loop on the first go round: there were plenty of participants, the course was well-marked with red arrows for the half , and the aid stations were plentiful and the volunteers cheerful and ready to assist.

The marathoners started at 7 am and the half marathoners at 7:15. I found the people doing the half to be a relaxed and friendly group, and I chatted with several of the people at the back of the pack as we cheered the marathoners on and waited for our signal to start. Although the race is chip timed, there was no mat at the starting line (too expensive, I was told), so this was not a good race to go for a PR. Not a problem here for me; I was just aiming to have fun.

The warm weather was pleasant, slightly humid but not overwhelmingly so. I thought the scenery was terrific – I enjoyed seeing the sleek horses and carefully tended ranches. It was so different from the bleak sameness of the Warner Robbins course the preceding weekend. There were hills, lots of them, but nothing too steep and I found the rolling hills to be a welcome change from just flat road. I ran the downhills whenever I could because it felt so good – that pull of gravity downhill is wonderful.

The only real problem with this race is the lack of traffic control. The streets were open to cars and there was no shoulder to walk along. Well, there were some orange cones placed about 12 inches from the side of the road but if that foot-wide path was meant for runners, it was definitely not wide enough. Plus, sometimes it was not clear which side of the rode we were supposed to be on; runners strayed all over the road (me, I looked to cut the tangents whenever I could, as long as I could do so safely). I personally found the drivers to be courteous and patient, but as the day wore on I am sure that frustrations increased for both racers and drivers.

I crossed the finish line in 2:40 and was pleased. Someday I hope to do a half in 2:30, but as long as I finish in under 3 hours I am satisfied. However, as I stepped on the timing mat at the end, I expected to have a volunteer place a medal around my neck. Imagine my dismay when I was told that they had run out of half marathon medals! Oh, I was so disappointed! I walked to my car to put away my jacket and cap and then walked to the mall to freshen up. Well, the mall was closed (it was Sunday so it did not open until noon) so I walked back to the finish line to use a portapotty before heading home. On my way, I saw lots of people with half marathon medals around their necks. I walked up to a lady who seemed to be in charge and asked about the medals. Turns out it was the race director and she was very apologetic when I expressed my dismay about not receiving a medal. She said there were plenty of medals but one of the boxes had slipped under another box and appeared to be missing. The lost was found, however, and she kindly put a medal around my neck and congratulated me. I was so very glad I had walked back there! The medal is unique, the only one I have with a horse on it.

There was quite a bit of food at the finish line – granola bars, bagels with spreads, bags of chips, ice cold water in bottles (nice) plus $5 off coupons for Publix, our local grocery store. I headed back home, a happy camper, thinking this is a great half marathon to do every year.

Museum of Aviation Marathon, January 14, 2012

My curiosity was piqued about this race. It is within an easy 4 hour drive of my home and takes place entirely on Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robbins, Georgia. In addition to the marathon distance, there is a half marathon and a 5K. I had never done this race before and it sounded like an inexpensive way to get another marathon/ultra under my belt (#106). My past experience of running races on military bases has been very positive. There is usually a warm place to stay before the race, whether it be a hangar or a museum and it is often difficult to get lost (even for geographically challenged me).

I signed up for the marathon and left work at noon on Friday to drive to Warner Robbins. My hotel was a brand new Courtyard on Carl Vinson Parkway, just off Watson Boulevard, a long busy street with many stores and restaurants. I read and reread the emails sent by the race director about arriving early for packet pickup (which was only held on the morning of the race) and what to do and where to go when I arrived. Then I settled in for the night. I rose about 4 am to eat and dress and left the hotel by 6:15. It was an easy drive to the base, although I turned too soon (so did lots of others) and had to backtrack a bit to get back on the road and into the correct lane for the Museum of Aviation. There was plenty of parking but it was still very dark, so I tried to remember some landmarks so I could find my car again after the race.

Then I followed everyone else into the Century of Flight hangar to pick up my race bib and goodies. There was not much in the goody bag but I just loved the Hanes long-sleeved cotton tee shirt! It has a very colorful design on the front and I know I will enjoy wearing it. For security reasons, we had to leave our IDs with the folks at packet pickup. I had to make a mental note to remember to get my driver’s license before I left for home. An aside: as I was getting ready to pin my bib to my vest, the race director announced over the loudspeaker that we had to be sure to pin our bibs sideways because the chips on the back were attached in the wrong direction. Only a few of the bib numbers were put on correctly. It was pretty funny to see most of the runners with bibs askew; one of the photographers on the course commented that it was going to be challenging to decipher the numbers and match pictures with runners. They may get a headache from looking sideways.

We stayed inside the hangar until just before the race began at 8 am. A vocal group sung the National Anthem and then we made our way outside. It was very cold, far different than the heat in Mobile last weekend. I had dressed in layers, with my mittens and hand warmers, and remembered to bring my sunglasses because, despite the cool temps, the sun was supposed to come out (and it did) and there was no real shade on the course. The marathon was a double loop around the base. I kind of dreaded that second loop; it is always very lonely when the half marathoners finish their single loop.

The race began and I hung towards the back with several other walkers, Maniacs who had done Mobile and/or Jackson and had decided to just walk this race. After a couple of miles, I thought I spied a familiar hat on a person a few yards ahead of me. I ran to catch up to him – yep, it was Scott from the Walking Boards. He had on his safari hat that he had worn at Soldier. We paced each other for most of the first loop and a good part of the second – sometimes, he would gather steam and move ahead and other times I would, but we essentially stayed together until around mile 20. It was so good to have a friend to talk to, especially during the long more boring stretches of the course. I did not think this course was especially scenic or attractive, mostly hangars and buildings, with few spectators, but the last third of each loop was more interesting and had some residences and trees and a lake with ducks and geese.

Knowing my tendency to get a second wind around mile 20, Scott gave me the go-ahead at that point to take off; I was feeling that familiar rush of enthusiasm once I hit the last 6 miles. I did manage to pass a few people, and at the final 3 miles found myself with no one visible in front of me and just one person within shouting distance behind me. I was a little nervous about finding my way, since the signs with arrows for the race were small and easy to miss. However, I managed okay and finished the race under the 6 hour limit, 5:50:18, placing third in my age group. I received an attractive trophy for my efforts. Scott also did well, finishing in 5:56:33, the exact same time as he finished in Soldier. Well done, Scott!

I was just a little disappointed that there was not much to eat back in the hangar, just some tired looking bananas and oranges and some stale pieces of bread. However, the exhilaration of completing the race was very worthwhile and I was pleased with my trophy. I picked up my ID, found my car, called my husband to tell him I was on my way, and made it home just after dark. Another successful event!

First Light Marathon in Mobile, Alabama – January 8, 2012

There are just some marathons that I really enjoy and this is definitely one of them. It is within easy driving distance of my home (7 hours), it gives me a good excuse to stop part way in Tallahassee to visit my son and his family, and the city of Mobile is welcoming and gracious –southern hospitality writ large. And of course the race itself is well-organized, low-key, and just plain fun, with a varied course and lots of Maniacs and 50 staters in attendance. The only negative (and it is not a big deal at all) is that the race is not chip timed so it’s hard to think about achieving a PR. As a back of the packer, I tend to hang out at the tail end of the runners so it takes me a while to get across the chalk starting line. But since all the money from the race goes to L’Arche Mobile, a charity that helps disabled adults from the community, I certainly prefer that the funds be used wholly for that purpose; chip timing is expensive.

The drive from Tallahassee went smoothly and I arrived in Mobile around 11 central time. I made a stop at one of my favorite bookstores, Bienville Books, where I found a boxed inexpensive set of Jane Austen and a Bill Bryson book I hadn’t read yet. I always like to stop at this neat store and stock up on gently used books for my frequent plane trips. The race expo was held at the nearby City/County Building Atrium starting at noon on Saturday. It’s a relatively small affair but runs very smoothly. Cheryl from the Savage Seven had a booth with her quilts (she makes exquisite quilts from tee shirts) and we chatted for a while. Chuck Savage (who started the Savage Seven) joined us for a while. I then returned to my room to relax and get ready for the race.

Once again I chose to stay at the Holiday Inn downtown, and my room on the 12th floor had a great view. This turned out to be a wonderful place to stay because the GoDaddy football game was scheduled for marathon weekend and a big parade was to take place on Saturday evening right outside my window. I had a bird’s eye view of the entire parade, with its colorful floats and marching bands, all from the comfort of my air-conditioned room. What fun! The hotel was full of people wearing red and black, the colors of the Red Wolves of Arkansas State University, and they were gearing up for an exciting game against Northern Illinois. I heard later that the Red Wolves lost so there must have been some unhappy howling on the ride home for many of the Arkansas folks, but I trust they enjoyed themselves in Mobile nevertheless.

The race began right on time and we were off! This year, instead of the freezing cold temperatures of the last 3 years, the weather was very hot and humid. I was terribly overdressed but managed okay regardless. I ran just a bit for a minute or two every couple of miles but spent most of the time at a comfortable walking pace. I kept passing and then being passed by a racewalker who turned out to be from Minnesota. We struck up a conversation in fits and starts, the way racers do during a long race, and it turned out he was a 50 stater and had just completed the Jackson MS Blues marathon the previous day. He was doing fantastic for someone who had just walked a marathon the day before! The only major problem I had was around mile 19 when I experienced a major hamstring cramp and had to pull off to the side of the road to stretch it out. This took several painful moments and was kind of scary since it had been quite a while since I had to flat out stop because of a bad cramp. I attribute it to the heat and humidity and the fact that I was unprepared for it; I had only brought with me 2 S-caps (both of which I had taken earlier) and nothing salty to munch on. Lesson learned; from now on, pack half a dozen S-caps, whether I think I will need them or not, and bring along some pretzels, crackers, chex mix, or some other foods with salt.

The race has a generous 7 hour time limit, so it is ideal for walkers and slower runners. While there are not significant numbers of people on the course during the later hours, I was never completely alone and did not have to be concerned about which way to go, since chalk arrows on the ground and signs along the road were plentiful. I finished in 5:52:16, under my 6 hour goal, so I was pleased. Since awards go 5 deep in this race, I was able to place fifth in the female senior grand masters once again. Medals are wooden circles decorated with decals and hung on a ribbon lanyard. These are made by the beneficiaries of L’Arche Mobile and there are usually several of them at the finish line who graciously give these to the runners.

The post-race meal is BBQ beef or chicken, with rice and beans, cole slaw, and a bun, and there is plenty for latecomers. I took my meal back to my hotel room, peeled off the 3 layers of clothes I was wearing, showered, ate, and took a nap. Later that evening I had a hankering for a bit more food, so I had a light supper at the Holiday Inn dining room, went to bed early, and had a blessedly uneventful ride home the next day. Once again, Mobile put on a good race!

Across the Years 24 Hour Footrace, or How I Spent New Year’s Eve

I decided I was ready for another 24 hour challenge, so early Friday morning, December 30, my husband and I drove to the JAX airport for our flights to Phoenix, AZ, so I could participate in the venerable Across the Years (ATY) race. The Across the Years series, aptly named because the races begin at the tail end of December and end on January 1 of the new year, includes several timed races – a 72 hour (which began on December 29), a 48 hour (which started a day later), and the 24 hour, which technically begins on December 31 but could also be run for a 24 hour period on either the 29th or 30th.

After settling into our hotel, the Marriott Courtyard in Glendale (one of the host hotels and a bit cheaper than the closer Comfort Inn), we drove to the race venue at Camelback Ranch so I could take a look at the course and ask some questions. We spoke to Karen and Ed (the jester of MM fame). It was about 2 pm Friday afternoon, hot and sunny, and with absolutely no shade on the course, some of the 48 and 72 hour runners were suffering. Many had dropped completely or were taking a break from the heat, either in their tents or in RVs set up or parked along the course. Others were being treated for blisters in the medical tent. It did not seem very warm to me but then I had not been out racing for hours and hours either. I asked some questions about getting my bib and ankle chip the next morning (registration was from 7-9 a. m. each day) and about the location of bathrooms and aid tents, etc. One of my concerns had been the track itself – it was 90% dirt with small gravel and rocks and only a 10% road/asphalt surface. The dirt path was good news, easier on my legs and feet, but the gravel and rocks caused the race director to suggest the wearing of gaitors. Since I didn’t own a pair I was concerned about how well I would do without them. As I studied the runners passing by, I saw that many were wearing road running shoes sans gaitors, so I felt I would be okay as is. I did plan to wear my new trail shoes (the latest generation of Brooks Cascadia) since they rise higher than my road shoes and deal well with rocky surfaces. This turned out to be a good decision – the shoes were sturdy enough to withstand walking on small bits of rock and gravel, yet comfortable and light enough to get me through the entire 24 hour period without having to change shoes or socks.

Now we were ready for a hearty lunch and headed to Gordon Biersch Brewery for some sliders and beer and then back to the hotel to make my pre-race preparations. It was early to bed and, despite my usual race jitters, I slept well. We were both up early and left about 6:30 am. It was cold! We sat in the car until 7 am and I could get my bib and goodie bag. At dawn, as the sun rose and it began to warm up just a bit, we stood by the course to watch the runners already on the track make their way around and around. I found an empty chair, set it up across from the main aid station, and deposited my drop bag on it. Then I impatiently waited for our 9 am start. Finally, it was our turn and the new 24 hour people took off. A couple of loops and I assessed the times of my laps – they were not very good, 14 minutes and change; I’m not sure exactly why I was so slow, but in a way it was reassuring. There is no point in starting out fast in a 24 hour race.

I can’t complain about the weather too much since it was nice and warm during the daylight hours and, while the night brought colder temperatures, there was no wind and it was more tolerable than the 20 temps of last year’s race.

A funny thing did happen to me because of the weather, though. I had brought some raspberry colored sweats with me just in case it turned really cold. Around 9 pm, I thought it might be prudent to put the sweatpants on over my crops and the sweatshirt over my 2 shirt layers, so I sat in my chair, took off my shoes (this gave me a chance to shake out any sand and dirt that had crept in), and pulled on the pants. Then I pulled the sweatshirt over my head. My hands were too cold to retie my shoes so I had to enter the medical tent with its heaters to warm my hands so I could tie the laces. Then I took off on my next lap. However, now I was too warm and after a couple more rounds of the course, I realized that the sweats were too heavy for the 9 o’clock temps. Realizing that I probably should have waited until the frostier cold to come in the wee hours of the morning before adding the additional layers, I made another stop to take off the pants and sweatshirt. I took care to remove the ankle chip strap from around my sweat pants and put it on my ankle below my crops. I packed the extra clothes in my bag and continued on my way.

About halfway to the second aid station, I looked down to check my chip (obsessive compulsive person that I am) and – WHOA! I suddenly realized there was NO chip! What happened to my chip?? I looked over the ground around me as best I could in the dark but could not see it anywhere. We had been warned at the race start that we absolutely had to return the ankle chip or else pay a fee of $100. Oh, boy, now I was in for it. I turned around and began to retrace my steps back, yes back, to my chair to figure out where in the world my chip could be. I had neglected to bring a flashlight so I asked a lady sitting on the next chair using a laptop if she had a light. She was kind enough to use the light from her computer to help me check my bag and the grass around my chair. Still NO CHIP! Now I am thinking that I am out $100 and will have to call it quits for the race since I have no way to keep track of my time. I am in a state of panic. I try one more check through all the things in my bag. I pick up my sweatpants one more time and check each leg. Doggone it, there is my ankle chip in the bottom half of the inside of one leg, its velcro stuck to the fabric. I pulled it out and attached it firmly to my ankle and took off once more.

It soon became apparent that my hopes for reaching 100 miles in this race were unlikely to be fulfilled. I had lost at least 30 minutes with the chip fiasco, not to mention the mental anguish that accompanied it. In a way it made things a whole lot easier because at that point I decided just to relax and get through the night and the remaining hours as best I could without any real mileage goal except to try and better my previous total of 81 miles. The hardest section of any 24 hour race for me is always the time between midnight and 4 am. That may be true for most ultrarunners; after all, that’s when most of us are usually asleep. At around 4 am, I began to sense that dawn was close and I felt revitalized. The result was a new PR for me, 86 miles, only 14 shy of my 100 mile goal, so I was satisfied.

Good stuff about this race:
✓ the loop was 1.05 miles – perfect to feel that I was making progress (every loop was at least a mile – much better than the .9 loop at Northcoast 24 and light years better than than last week’s 1/4 mile track)
✓ we changed direction every 4 hours – this helped to even out any balance or overuse issues and also gave a different perspective on the scenery
✓ Camelback Ranch was a beautiful location, with grass, a lake with a small waterfall, and a wide dirt path with no roots or impediments
✓ the Ranch was also very secure – I felt completely safe, even at night when I was often alone
✓ chip timing was accurate and avoided the need for lap counters
✓ because the chip was on an ankle strap, I could have changed shoes as needed without a problem
✓ the automated timing system was extremely fast – as soon as I crossed the timing mat, my name instantly appeared on the electronic board, along with the number of laps, miles, kilometers, and time of my last lap; it was simply amazing!
✓ there was plenty of food and liquid at both aid stations; some of the treats were unusual (apple cobbler was one of my favorites) but there was also pizza, pb and j quarters, and cookies, pretzels, and such
✓ chairs were available to set up drop bags or to sit and take a break, so people like myself who did not have a tent (these could be rented but at a cost) could keep their stuff off the ground and readily available (it’s hard to bend down when you’ve been up and racing for a long time)
✓ the dirt course was easy on the legs and feet; I did not have a problem with shin splints or blisters
✓ just before midnight, a table was set out with champagne and sparkling cider for the runners and their families; there were hats and noisemaker as well. Fireworks were set off in areas around us and I could glimpse them going off every now and then
✓ we wore our bibs with our race numbers and name on a strap around our waist. Most runners turned these to their backside so people coming up behind them could identify them by name. The bibs were color coded, so all 24 hour racers wore blue bibs
But there were some things I didn’t like so much:
◆ the jacket I ordered in a ladies medium was too snug for me to wear while the long sleeved tech shirt had a very slippery feel to it and the only design element was a small logo on a corner of the front, I had paid an extra fee of $80 for the extra goodies so I was disappointed that I was not able to wear either garment. I didn’t get to look or try on either one until after the race was over and we were packing to leave Phoenix, so it was too late to try to exchange the items. On a more positive note, the spacious red duffle bag is extremely useful and the goodies included a warm pair of gloves and a hat. I’ve used all 3 items already but the jacket will go to my slender daughter-in-law and the shirt to Goodwill
◆ after 3 days, even the sweetest smelling porta-potties become rank. They were cleaned every so often but it was still hard to deal with. And the indoor bathrooms were wonderful until they overflowed and became unusable around midnight on New Year’s eve. For that reason, starting the 24 hour run on the 1st day would probably be a good idea. Okay, this was a minor element that most ultraracers deal with all the time, so it was not a biggie, just something to consider
◆ because many of the runners had been on the course for 2 + days when I arrived, they were pretty tired and not as ‘up’ as most ultrarunners are during a course. Since I tend to withdraw into myself in a race, especially in the beginning when I am trying to find a good pace for myself, this meant that for most of the 24 hours I didn’t exchange many pleasantries with my fellow racers and I missed that interaction, especially in the wee hours when the field thinned considerably as people left the course to nap or eat or change clothes

At race end, I collected my finisher’s award, a huge glass stein, and headed back to the hotel for a shower and nap before our late checkout. We spent the rest of the day and the evening with our Arizona friends Karen and David and then returned home on Tuesday – a long trip but an excellent way to begin the new year.