For my birthday race this year, I decided to do this timed race on the grounds of the Fort Benning. I was fairly familiar with Columbus, GA, since I had completed the Soldier Marathon there in 2010 and 2011 and because it is only a 5 hour drive from my home, it seemed like a reasonable way to celebrate my 65th birthday. Indeed it was!
It was sunny and bright on Friday morning as I drove up interstate 75 toward Tifton and then crossed over towards Dawson and on up to Columbus. I arrived at my hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn, around 2:30 pm, hoping to grab a late lunch in the hotel’s dining room. It was a bit disappointing to find out that the hotel’s restaurant was closed until 5 pm but I had brought quite a few snacks with me, so no problem – I settled into my quiet and pleasant room, made some tea, and nibbled on peanut butter crackers and granola. I rested, made my pre-race preparations (clothes to wear on Saturday, extra shoes, socks, and warm stuff for my drop back, reviewed the directions to the main army base, etc.), and then settled in to read and watch some mindless television programs. I had my usual dinner meal of homemade bread and peanut butter and ice water and tried to sleep. That was not easy despite my fatigue from the drive – I was too excited about this race.
One thing I had neglected to do before leaving Florida was check the weather for northwest Georgia. Big mistake, that – as soon as I arrived at the hotel, a rainstorm developed and, while I was thankful that I didn’t have to drive in the rain, I did begin to wonder about the weekend weather. After checking the local forecast on the television (which called for thunderstorms that evening and into Saturday), I realized that I had neglected to bring my yellow rain slicker that fits like a jacket and has lots of zippered pockets for things like tissues, Ipod, food, and such. All I had was a big loose one-size-fits-all poncho that had no pockets at all. Oh, well, I could tough it out.
Woke up around 4 am, had my bread and coffee, dressed in my usual racing gear, put on my relatively new pair of Saucony racers (with my latest version of Brooks Cascadia trail shoes and extra socks in my drop bag just in case), and headed out to the base. Packet pickup was to begin at 7 am but I was there by 6:30. Well, hey, I was excited and eager to start. However, the weather was not very accommodating. It began to rain – HARD – with thunder and lightening all around us. This race is run on a one mile running track, partly shaded with tall trees, and a large expanse of open space in the center and along one half of the track. The lightening was the scariest part of the storm and, although the race director earlier said that we would start on time, she quickly rethought that and realized it was safer to wait another half hour. That gave us a chance to talk to other participants and the time passed very quickly. I chatted with several people, including Joyce and her husband (he was there to crew for her but he kindly cheered all runners on as they passed by on each loop- that always gave me a much needed boost).
At 8:30 we were given some last minute instructions and we all took off – with rain still pouring down and the occasional clap of thunder, but with a minimum of lightening. Of course, the level field was now awash with water. There were huge puddles everywhere and mud everywhere else. It only took a few minutes before I was completely drenched, with water dripping from my glasses, my clothes, and my cap. Oh, well, I thought, I might as well just relax and enjoy it. I began to feel like a little kid again, splashing through mud puddles and watching the rain come down in sheets all around me.
I don’t like being wet and I don’t care for being cold, so it was not the perfect start to the day. However, I would much rather get the rain over with early in the morning rather than have rain at night with never a chance for sun and heat to warm me up and dry my clothes. The rain continued for another 3 hours or so, until finally, in the early afternoon, it stopped. Hooray!
This race also had a 12 hour and a 6 hour option, so for those people who were starting at 8 pm instead of 8 am, the weather was not an issue.
Well, nothing can be done about the weather, so everyone just pushed on through, although I met one Maniac, Ed, who told me he spent the first 4 hours of the race in his car waiting for the rain to stop. That wasn’t such a bad idea, but for a walker like myself, it would have dimished my chances of getting a good bit of mileage in so I am glad I just toughed it out.
Enough about the weather, on to the logistics. There was one aid station located just after the start/finish line. It had a full array of food and drink, one of the best ultra ‘buffets’ I have experienced (although I must admit that most ultras have a tantalizing selection of delicacies). I never went hungry and managed to down an amazing variety and quantity of goodies, including pb & j quarters, cheese quesadillas, humongous chocolate chip cookies, potato chips (okay, those were a bit soggy because of the damp but still), pizza, pasta, hot chocolate, soda, gatorade, coffee, and on and on.
The race was chip timed with rectangular chips attached to paper bibs that had our names and numbers on them. Unfortunately, the bibs were not water-resistant and the constant downpour made the printing run and the paper begin to disintegrate. I ended up having to hold the chip up to the sensor every time I passed through the chute. This was not a problem at all, just a bit different, and knowing my tendency to lose chips, I had to concentrate on its whereabouts throughout the race. It was actually pretty funny, come to think about it.
There were 4 portapotties on the course itself plus real bathrooms in the Smith Gym a short walk away. The gym was only open from 9 am to 5 pm so I made sure to visit there at least twice during those hours so I could have access to hot and cold running water and dry warm toilets. There were also real bathrooms in the bowling alley, available until 9 pm, but that was set a bit more off the course and I never saw any runners use those.
As for the course itself, there were two things I had a problem with. The first was the flat, VERY FLAT, track; I began to get shin splints after only 2 laps and these continued to be a problem with every successive lap I did. One runner I met had intended to do 50 miles in her 12 hour race but had to stop after 17 laps because she also had a major problem with shin splints. Me, I just pushed on through, which probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I am exceedingly stubborn (and perhaps not all that smart, either). I tend to do much better on courses with some rolling hills or at least some variation in terrain and elevation. I am not sure how I could have prepared for this or prevented it. Most runners, I think, would find a very flat course to be a real boon but for me it just turned out to be a problem.
The other thing which bothered me about the course was the gravel. It got into my shoes and my socks and was a real irritant. I wore my regular running shoes and Injinji socks for 18 hours and then changed into my Cascadia and Thorlos just for the chance to have clean stuff to wear. I had no problem, thank goodness, with blisters or any other issues with my feet, just the gravel. This could be prevented by wearing gaitors, and I plan to get some (and remember to pack them) for next time.
Now that I have complained about the things that went wrong, I have to emphasize that there were a tremendous number of good things about this race. First, it was held in a beautiful area in a safe and secure environment. The course is well-lit and I never had to use my flashlight or headlamp during the evening hours. But the very best thing about this race is the people. The race is put on by the Georgia Ultrarunning & Trailrunning Society (GUTS), Kena Yutz is the Race Director, and Perry Sebastian is the Keeper of the Timeclock. They were superb (Perry patiently told me which number loop I was on every time I passed by, thank you so much for that, Perry, it was a big help to me) as were all the volunteers who manned the aid station and helped with other tasks. A special thank you to the wonderful lady who gave me a bagel in the wee morning hours to help settle my queasy stomach. While I’ve found ultrarunners to be a friendly group (especially to walkers), the participants in this race were exceptionally so. Despite the rain, and the pebbles, and the shin splints, I had a terrific time.
At first I wanted to try to get 100 miles during this race; that would be a great birthday present for me. I soon realized that I would need to drastically revise that goal. I first hoped to get to 27 loops (so it would be an actual ultramarathon), then 50 k, then 50 miles (I managed to do that in 13 hours), then 100 k, and anything over that would be gravy. I think I probably would have stopped soon after reaching 100 k if not for the enthusiastic cheering from Perry and Kena and the other GUTS members and Joyce’s husband and other people along the course every time I passed by. I managed to complete 79 loops, probably just under 79 miles (final results are not yet posted), in 23 hours and 45 minutes. I was very satisfied with that finish. Since I discussed goals here (and goals tend to be a major focus of most of my races), I want to mention a comment that Heather, one of the 12 hour runners, made to me. When I asked what her goal was for this race, she replied that she had 2 goals: the first was to have fun and the second was to ‘not die.’ I think those are both admirable goals to have and from now on I intend to adopt those two goals as primary with any mileage goals I might have as of lesser importance.
As we crossed the finish line for the last time, we were given a dogtag medal with the name of the race and the date on it on a metal chain. How appropriate for a race on a military base! It was similar to the medals from the Soldier Marathon (also held at Ft. Benning in November every year) but not as big or as heavy. As I noted in my reply to Dan below, we also received a good quality short-sleeved cotton tee shirt with the name of the race emblazoned on the front.
There was a breakfast after the race but I was stuffed from all the munchies I had over the past 24 hours, so how could I eat anything? At my car, I took off my shoes and socks and dumped as much sand and dirt out of them as I could, then changed into clean socks and sandals and managed to drive myself back to my hotel (that was a challenge). After a shower and a nap and a call to my husband to fill him in on all the details, I felt much better – sore but refreshed. I spent the afternoon and evening dozing, watching reruns of Mary Tyler Moore on tv, and snacking and rehydrating. After a good night’s sleep, I drove home and intend to spend the next week taking it easy. At least that’s the plan! Operation Endurance turned out to be a great adventure and I highly recommend it. But next time I will be sure to bring gaitors with me. And if anyone has some good ideas on how to prevent and deal with shin splints, I sure would be interested.