The Seattle Marathon (Seattle, WA) – November 25, 2012

When I was pursuing my goal of completing a marathon in all 50 states, my choice for Washington state was the Rock ‘n’ Roll Tukwilla to Seattle Marathon in June. This was based on reviews I had read in and elsewhere, including the two race websites. While I am not a fan of the expense and crowds so prevalent in Rock ‘n’ Roll races, they do tend to have some positive aspects. Streets are usually closed for a full 7 hours and the large crowd of participants ensures that I will not get lost. I did the race back in 2010 and remember having a good if not spectacular time. I never really gave the ‘other’ Seattle marathon a second thought.

However, at the end of September my husband approached me with the idea of squeezing another race into my already rigorous 2012 schedule. His motive was clear; he was a Delta Silver Medallion Skymiles member and was very close to achieving Gold status. He knew quite rightly that I would not consider traveling anywhere unless I could fit in a race. I was skeptical and very hesitant to consider adding in another race; I like to plan my events months in advance and finding a popular race that was still open, along with a near-by hotel and decent airfare, seemed too much to ask for. I did remember seeinga brochure about the Seattle Marathon at a recent expo, so I checked the website and discovered that, yes, registration was still available, the host hotel had a room for us, and flights could be had from our regional airport for a reasonable cost. Everything seemed to be falling into place, so I went for it. I registered, reserved our room at the host Westin Hotel downtown, and bought the plane tickets. We were set.

The Friday after Thanksgiving we left Florida for Atlanta, followed by a 4 hour flight to Seattle (and both of us were upgraded to first class, a very pleasant experience). We arrived in Seattle just at rush hour; the weather was cold and drizzly. Our prearranged Shuttle Express took us from Sea-Tac to the Westin, where we checked in, deposited our bags, and made straight for the 4th floor of the hotel, site of the race expo. Surprisingly, it was not too crowded for a Friday evening and I was able to quickly pick up my bib, D-chip, long-sleeved lime green tech tee shirt (all sizes were available), and goody bag, and even spent some time browsing the booths and items for sale. I picked up some brochures about races I might do, including Victoria, Dublin, and a new ultra in Sweden.

By this time both my husband and I were famished. My husband had done his usual very careful research to seek out some of our favorite restaurants. He found that there was a Gordon Biersch Brewery a few blocks away from our hotel so we headed there for some burgers and microbrews. When we were finished, it was about 9 pm Pacific time – and midnight according to our body clocks. Time for bed!

The next day was Saturday and time to relax and do some sightseeing before the race on Sunday. After breakfast (a filling repast at Ruth’s Chris Steak House), we walked to the outdoor Pike Place Public Market to absorb the real flavor and atmosphere of Seattle. This has always been one of our favorite places to browse and shop and this time was no exception. One additional stop was Metsker Maps, along 1st Avenue. Both my husband and I are geography buffs and this store was nirvana to us. We were like kids in a candy store and had to exercise a great deal of restraint to avoid purchasing a host of maps, globes, and books. Another stop was at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese Store, where we sampled delectable cheeses and bought several blocks of cheddar for later snacking.

We returned to our hotel room around 11 am to rest for a bit. In digging through my goody bag, I realized that I had no ticket for the course tour I had signed up for, so I returned to the expo to ask at the information desk. What a surprise to see a huge line of people waiting for the doors to open. I was so very glad I had picked up my race things the evening before. The information desk was already open for business so I asked about the missing ticket and was sent to the Solutions table where they quickly resolved the problem. The bus for the tour did not leave until 1 pm, so I decided to go to some of the lectures offered by University of Washington School of Medicine, one of the race sponsors. The best of these was an overview of the course itself (where I learned that there were indeed some hills and that these would come during the last third of the course) and a discussion by the head of the medical team about hypothermia, dehydration, and other medical issues.

At 1 pm I headed to the bus pick-up spot, along with a number of other participants. We waited in the cold for about 20 minutes, until finally two school buses came by and we quickly filled them. This bus tour cost $18 (usually they are free) but nobody collected my ticket so I am not sure how strictly this was enforced. I had also paid for my husband to come along but he decided to stay in our room and watch the critical Florida-Florida State football game. I was definitely glad I took the bus tour because it was extremely helpful. Our guide was one of the course developers and he was very knowledgeable. It was useful to know what to expect and when.

I spent Saturday night getting my race outfit ready; it was not supposed to rain but it was expected to be cold, so I gathered together several layers of tops and a long pair of tech pants, as well as my mittens, handwarmers, hat, and, yes, sunglasses, just in case the sun actually made an appearance. I slept fitfully, not sure if I had made the correct decision in signing up for the marathon run rather than the marathon walk. The walk was to begin an hour before the run (and usually I would opt for the early start), but I was dismayed that as a walker I would not be eligible for age group awards. I decided to take my chances doing the run but I would have to finish in under 6 hours, and that always causes me a lot of anxiety.

At 7 am, my husband walked me the ¾ mile walk to the starting line near the Space Needle. We cheered as the marathon walkers took off at 7:15, followed by the half marathon runners at 7:30 and the half marathon walkers 15 minutes later (that was smart; the runners had a head start and the walkers did not have to worry about being run over by fast runners). Finally, it was time for the marathon runners and that included me. We took off at exactly 8:15. Each race was preceded by either the singing of the Star Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful. Another nice touch. I felt okay once we started moving and I began to run a little, walk a little, until we passed the one mile sign. From that point on until the last 1/3 of the course, I ran the downhills and walked the rest.

The course begins downtown, proceeds along interstate 90 on a floating bridge to Mercer Island, where we pass through a tunnel, turn around inside the tunnel, and then head back across the bridge. The half marathoners maneuvered their way back to town following the last half of the full course (so they did not miss out on the steep hills) while we full marathoners headed south along Lake Washington. On Sunday morning the fog was thick and I could barely see the lake. This was one of those times when I was grateful for taking the course tour because I knew the lake was there even though I couldn’t see it. We followed along this broad boulevard until we reached Seward Park, circled the park, and then returned along the same route. On the way back, the fog had lifted and the view was beautiful. This out-and-back portion was fun at first because I could see all the faster runners ahead of me on their return trip but when I was heading back, it was pretty lonely. There were a few people ahead of me and a few that I knew were behind me but otherwise I was alone. I did meet up with lots of Maniacs who were doing the Quadzilla (the 3 marathons that preceded this, the final and fourth marathon, of the sequence).

Once we reached mile 20, the hills began and these continued through mile 24. Part of this route took us through a shady arboretum and back towards the city. The last couple of miles were on city streets and, except for one final hill at the very end, the route was flat or downhill. The finish line was at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall. I crossed the finish in 5:57:42 chip time, just under the 6 hour limit, although there were a number of people still on the course behind me. I was 3rd in my age group, so both my goals of a sub-6 hour finish and placement in my age group were achieved. I was very satisfied.

The medal was rather small but attractive, with an engraving of the Space Needle on its face and ’26.2 marathon finisher’ on the reverse, along with the date. We were handed a bottle of water and then entered the heated hall where we could check our times (one of the few instances where this technology actually worked) and get a banana and some tea or instant hot chocolate. I was surprised that there was no other food but later learned that the ‘real’ food had disappeared several hours earlier. That was okay with me – my husband had made reservations for an early dinner at P. F. Chang’s. I was ready for a shower and a meal. The nap would have to wait this time. It was starting to get cold outside and I wanted to eat and then sleep in that order.

Other important things to note – there were plenty of aid stations and enthusiastic volunteers as well as a lot of medical support staff at 7 medical stations along the course. There were also roving bike monitors. I appreciated knowing the medical aid was available although thankfully I did not need to use it. As we passed the medical stations, the people manning them (doctors, nurses, medics) cheering and clapped for us – another nice touch.

All the events seemed extremely well-organized and efficient, much better than many events I’ve participated in. Walkers who can make the 6 hour time limit without a lot of angst should go for it. For those who need the extra hour, I would encourage them to try the marathon walk (rather than the run). The course is scenic and challenging and the city of Seattle definitely fun to visit.

The UltraCentric Experience – My First 48 Hour Race: November 16 – 18, 2012 (Grapevine, TX)

I may have been crazy or foolish or both when I signed up for this race, but after finishing two 12-hour and five 24-hour races, I felt I was now ready for a multi-day event. At the 24 hour Operation Endurance in Columbus, GA, last March, I had met Joyce and Ray from Virginia. Joyce had done the 48 hour event at UltraCentric last year and really enjoyed it. She planned to try her first 72 hour there this year. I was determined to give it a shot.

Because the 48 hour event began on Friday morning, my husband and I left early Thursday to fly to Dallas/Fort Worth so we could check out the race venue and get my chip and bib. We rented a car at DFW and – since it was lunchtime – we drove to the closest Taco Cabana for our fajita ‘fix’ – after all, we were in Texas (our 3rd time this year) and it is one of our traditions to eat Tex-Mex at least once per visit (and preferably more often).

After our meal, we drove to the attractive Dallas suburb of Grapevine. The race is held at Meadowmere Park in Grapevine, a 25 minute drive from Hyatt Place, our hotel. The course is a 2 mile ‘reverse keyhole’ course, with the start/finish at one point on the keyhole. Runners go around the short loop , along a straight but short path and then traverse a long out-and-back with a turnaround at the furthest point. On Friday, my husband and I walked the course so I could get used to the few twists and turns, but it was fairly easy to follow; even I would not be able to get lost here. The surface is asphalt, most of it broken up and scoured but aside from a couple of major holes it was eminently runnable/walkable without having to worry too much about falling. At night, portable lights were set up near the darkest sections, but I carried my headlamp and small flashlight and never had a problem.

A real plus here for me was the fact that this was not a traditional ‘loop’ course; we did not go around and around and around in a circle or oval. The latter usually makes me dizzy, especially at night, and I would have to stop and stand or sit until I regained my composure and balance. Here, the long out-and-back portion was easy to navigate and never made me dizzy. It also allowed for quite a bit of interaction between racers since we continually saw each other face-to-face as well as from behind.

At 4 pm on Thursday, packet pickup for the 48 hour people started and we were among the first in line. The timing device was a D-chip attached to a velcro ankle strap. My bib number was 401; those in the 72 hour race had numbers beginning with 500 while the 24 hour people had the 300 series. This made it easy to identify one’s competition (there was championship money at stake, so for faster runners this was indeed important). There was also a 12 hour and 6 hour category. The 3 shorter races all began on Saturday morning. No tee shirt this time; instead we were given a nicely-made fleece jacket, blue for women, magenta for men, with the UltraCentric logo on the left front.
There was one aid station that was set up about midway between each end of the course; that meant we would pass it twice during each loop. As a result, I did not plan to carry any water or food, except for a couple of energy bars. I was beginning to get excited the race and feeling more confident now that I had actually seen the course. We returned to the hotel and settled in for the night. I packed my drop bag with extra shoes, socks, warm clothes, vaseline, and everything else I thought I might need for the duration. Then I went to sleep, with my alarm set for 4:30 am. Naturally, I woke up earlier, excited and ready to go. After coffee and raisin bread, I dressed warmly and we headed out to the park, arriving around 7 am.

My plan of attack was to walk at a steady pace for as long as it would take me to get to 100 miles (50 laps). Once I reached that magic number of 100, I would take a break, perhaps sleep for a few hours back at the hotel or in the car, and then continue on for the rest of the hours that were left. Any mileage over 100 would be wonderful; it was that magic 100 that I wanted to reach. I took off with the rest of the 48 hour people at exactly 9 am on Friday morning. There were about 30 of us who started then, joining the 18 or so 72 hour people already on the course. The weather was brisk, in the low 40’s but the sun was trying desperately to come out. I soon took off my gloves and put on my sunglasses, grateful for the warmth. My friend Joyce had invited me to put my drop bag on her mat; she and Ray had their SUV and a canopied area right across from the aid station which made it very convenient.

That first day passed unevenfully. I was having a good time, feeling happy and not having any problems with legs, feet, or balance. My husband checked on me several times during the day and early evening and it was always good to see him and spend a few moments walking and chatting with him. Around 8 pm, as the sun went down and it began to get colder, I said goodbye to him for the last time that day. He planned to return around 8 the next morning. Soon after, the evening from Hell began; the weather turned FRIGID. I realized that I was going to be cold no matter how many clothes I put on. Still, I piled on my entire wardrobe – long-sleeved tee shirts, heavy fleece shirts, fleece vests, sweatshirt, jackets, warm hat, mittens with hand-warmers, and an additional jacket around my neck to serve as a scarf and balaclava. I was still cold. I kept moving because it was WAY too cold to stand still or sit. I took one break for about 15 minutes, when Joyce and Ray invited me to sit in their heated car so I could take some of the chill off me. Then I continued walking. That was how I spent my first night.

Dawn broke around 6 am and the sky began to lighten. It still took a few hours before the sun rose but at least I could see without having to use my headlamp. The promise of warmth was near. I continued walking. My husband came by around breakfast time and we stopped at the aid station to have a breakfast taco (more about the food later). He said I looked frozen. I was. But the day warmed up, the sun came up, and I continued walking. I told my husband I wanted to keep moving until I reached 100 miles. I continued walking. Finally, 30 and a half hours into the race, I completed my 50th lap for 100 miles. I was exhausted but also exhilarated. My husband had arrived just before that point so I said, “Now I can take a short break.” I stretched out in the back of our rental car and tried to sleep. No luck, I was too wound up, but at least I was able to rest and put my feet and legs up for a while. While I was resting, my husband said he heard me mumbling to myself and at first he thought I was talking to him. I wasn’t. I have no recollection at all about this, but I must have been slightly delirious. Not surprising, I guess.

At any rate, after that brief respite, I rose and said I would try to keep walking until 10 that evening and then return to the hotel to take an extended nap, with plans to come back to the course early in the morning to complete the race. At least that was my intention. However, as the sun went down around 6 pm, I began to feel chilled again, and by 7 o’clock I was starting to lose it. I passed the finish line for mile 104 and just stopped. Other racers came by and asked if I was okay but I’m sure they could tell by looking at me that I was not. One kind lady suggested I call my husband and see if he could pick me up sooner. That sounded like a good idea to me. I called, he came, and I went back to the hotel, brushed my teeth, and went to bed – in a toasty warm room. My legs were throbbing, so I did something I never do during a race – I took an Advil. That one little pill helped immeasurably. I fell asleep within minutes (my husband said I was mumbling deliriously again but I don’t remember – I probably was).

My alarm went off at 3:30 in the morning. I rose, dressed (in long heavy cotton pants this time – yes, I know cotton is not good to wear in races but I wanted WARMTH) and multiple layers, drank a cup of coffee, and asked my patient husband to drive me back to the park so I could continue the race. He asked if I really wanted to do this, warning me that it would be very cold there still. But I felt SO much better after a few hours of rest in a warm environment that I was indeed ready to go. It was about 4:15 when he dropped me off at the starting line once again and I continued walking. With only a few more hours of darkness ahead and just 5 hours left before the race ended, I was pumped and eager to try to get some more mileage in. I crossed the finish line for my final lap just before the airhorn sounded the end of all the races, finishing with a grand total of 120 miles and winning the women’s Grand Master Champion category. I think if I had not been so cold I might have achieved that 100 mile distance in under 30 hours and perhaps would have been able to continue on with only a few rest periods. But weather is always unpredictable. I was thrilled with my achievement here at Grapevine and thankful for the opportunity to do this race.

Now for some random thoughts about the UltraCentric:
• Food:
 This was the first ultra I have done where food was a major highlight of the event. Lonnie Gray, a trained chef with a catering company, Composed Cuisine, created menus that would rival many restaurant offerings. We had sit-down meals for those who wanted to partake, although many of us grabbed a plate or napkin with our food and continued walking. However, in multi-day events, sitting down to share a meal with participants and crew (and support people as well as racers were invited to partake) is a good idea for rest and camaraderie.
 Depending on the time of day, there were pancakes, breakfast tacos, grilled chicken sandwiches, several kinds of soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, fajitas, hamburgers, and hot dogs, as well as several kinds of homemade desserts.
 The meals were served as specific times; dinner was from 7-9 pm, for example. This meant that if you were not hungry at those times or if you were resting and missed a meal, you had to depend on your own resources or on the snack table with bowls of peanuts, pretzels, store-bought cookies, raisins, and the like. This was okay with me except that – in the wee hours of Saturday morning, I was very hungry and the bowls were empty – and breakfast wouldn’t be served for several more hours. I was glad I had my energy bars.
• Timing:
 Although we were told that there would be continually updated statistics for every runner, there was no way to tell how a runner was doing (aside from keeping track of one’s own laps) without asking the time keeper for a report.
 The time keeper tent closed down for the evening, so from sundown to sun up there was no way to check on one’s status. I heard many complaints about this.
 There was no electronic leader board, only a tiny printout of results, and this was usually several laps behind.
 I managed to keep track of my laps by counting them in increments of five and 25. I tried to put a peanut in my pocket for each completed lap but when it was cold I couldn’t handle the peanuts with my mittens and soon gave up on that idea.
• Camping/Parking/Drop bags: There was plenty of parking and lots of room for tents. There was supposed to be a 30 x 30 foot tent for drop bags but I never found one. More importantly, there was no heated tent where one could go to warm up. This was a major disadvantage for me, since I did not have a tent or car and could have used a place where I could get warm.
• Medical Tent: There was none, so I am not sure what would have happened if I had had a major problem with blisters or worse.
• Volunteers: They were excellent, as usual. I appreciated every single one of them.
• Bathrooms: Two porta-potties were on the course, but there were also REAL bathrooms in two places. I made use of both of them many times. They were unheated but I was very grateful for them.
• Participants: Hands down, this was one of the friendliest and most supportive group of racers I have ever met.

The aftereffects: My body was pretty sore, especially my legs and feet. I was tired, too, although the few hours of sleep on Saturday night certainly rejuvenated me. Immediately post-race, I noticed that my eyesight was a little blurry when trying to read fine print and I had some heartburn and hand cramping. About 3 days post-race, my legs still throb occasionally and I am still fairly tired, although I can see improvement every day.

Final thoughts: This race was a lot of fun and I am already planning to attend next year. I’m not sure if I will try the 48 hour or the 72 hour but I do hope to try again, but this time I will build in several planned and extended rest breaks, especially if the weather is cold.

Anthem Richmond Marathon – 11-10-12 (Richmond, VA)

Billing itself as America’s friendliest marathon, the Richmond race definitely lives up to its reputation. It’s very well-organized and a good choice for a Veteran’s Day weekend race. Usually on this holiday I do a double, with the Soldier Marathon in Columbus, GA, followed by the Peachtree City 50K, a two hour drive away. But since the Richmond Marathon had been on my bucket list for awhile, I decided this year to opt for Virginia instead of Georgia – and another chance to check off a ‘must-do’ race.

I left Florida early Friday morning for the two short flights that would take me to Richmond. The easiest way to get from the airport to my downtown hotel, the Marriott, was by taxi, a brief 15 minute ride. My room was ready so I quickly deposited my luggage, grabbed my wallet, phone, and race folder, and headed to the Omni Hotel, a 15 minute walk from the Marriott. The Omni was the host hotel and shuttle buses left every 20 minutes for the Arthur Ashe Center, site of the race expo. There was no way to walk to the expo (too far and on major highways) so it was important that the shuttles run dependably. Fortunately, they did, and a bus was waiting right outside the Omni entrance.

The expo was easy to navigate. Since I already knew my bib number (it had been emailed to me right before I left home), I waited just a few minutes at the packet pickup to get my bib with chip on the back. Next I made my way to the goody bag and tee shirt counter. The bag itself was an attractive one, not just a plastic sack, but except for an attractive 2013 calendar, there were no real goodies inside – just some coupons for local merchants. However, also included in the offerings was an informative booklet with maps of the marathon course as well as the other two races that took place the same day, an 8K and a half marathon. These latter races began at 7:00 and 7:30 am respectively (the marathon did not start until 8 am) and, while all 3 races began on Broad Street downtown, they parted ways early on. The race shirt was a long-sleeved tech number, black with an artistic rendering of the Richmond Skyline on the front. The medium I had requested was way too large but I had no trouble exchanging it for a small at the special table set up for shirt exchanges. It’s always hard to predict what size shirt to request when registering for a racel; if I choose small, the shirt invariably turns out to be doll-sized, while medium is often meant for a man, and a husky one at that, so I am always grateful when race volunteers are willing to let me exchange for a different size. At this race, the volunteer cheerfully suggested I try on a small and extra-small just to be sure.

After getting all the essentials, I was ready to do some browsing at the expo booths. There were quite a few Richmond marathon branded items plus several tables selling runner paraphernalia, energy bars, and such. I spent some time looking at everything and then headed back to the shuttle bus stop to start getting ready for tomorrow’s race. Had I arrived earlier, I could have signed up for a tour of the course but all the slots for later tours were already spoken for. As it turned out, a course tour wasn’t really necessary (if the course is very confusing, I like to be prepared in advance) but on this course it was unlikely that I (or anyone else) would get lost.

I caught the shuttle bus back to the Omni. Since the bus stopped right by my hotel on its way to the Omni, I asked the bus driver if he could let me off at that corner and he kindly complied. Back in my room, I began my pre-race preparations, setting out my clothes and pinning my bib to my vest. An early meal and I was ready for bed, anxious for the next day to begin. My nerves were pretty calm that evening but the next morning I began to have my usual pre-race jitters. I think I changed my clothes 3 or 4 times before finally deciding to dress in layers but leaving off my warmest clothes. Temps were in the mid-30’s to start but were supposed to warm up to the upper 60’s, so I wore my jacket and mittens with hand warmers but after about an hour I had to tie my jacket around my waist and pin my mittens to the inside of my jacket.

At 7 am I could watch the 8K participants run up Broad Street right past my window – neat! Around 7:15, I headed downstairs the hotel and followed a group of racers to the start. Some of them turned out to be Marathon Maniacs so we walked together to the spot in front of the Governor’s Mansion for a photo shoot with some other Maniacs. Then everyone left to find a spot in one of the 4 corrals. I was in #4, naturally, but the corrals were not strictly monitored. Everything was pretty loose and flexible, a nice change from the rigid enforcement and multiple corrals of much larger races.

It took me 7 minutes to cross the start line. People quickly spread out along the wide avenue (so that’s why they call it ‘Broad’ Street!) and I tried to find a good pace. Because it was so cold, my muscles were tight and it took several miles before I could feel my legs and feet. After that I managed to keep to an enjoyable steady pace. I didn’t see any course markings or signs (except for mile markers) but there were volunteers at every intersection and lots of people ahead of and behind me. I was not worried about getting lost, and since that is one of my biggest concerns during a race, I was able to really start to relax and appreciate the scenery. When I was in New Hampshire several weeks ago for the Ghost Train Trail Ultra, the leaves had already fallen from the trees (and covered the trail and the many roots!). Here in Virginia, the trees still had their colorful leaves and I enjoyed the spectacular fall colors.

Probably the best thing about this race is the course itself. It travels through attractive neighborhoods, small city centers, and – best of all – crosses the James River twice, first on the Huguenot Road bridge linking River Road to Riverside Drive, a beautiful area, and then across the Lee Bridge back to downtown Richmond, with the skyline of the city in the distance. As a walker who likes to run ONLY downhill (and then only when my legs are fresh and my hamstrings not cramping), I appreciated the many downhills in this race, at the beginning, middle, and end. I’m not sure how there could be so many descents without the accompanying uphills but that’s how it seemed to me and I was happy about it.

As I crossed the finish line, my name was announced and I was given a bottle of water and my medal. Food was minimal but there were enough bananas and bagels for back-of-the-packers like myself. A shuttle bus took finishers to the start line area and I took a seat on one that was getting ready to leave. My chip time was 5:43 and I placed 5th out of 11 women in my age group. Hooray!

Back in my room, I showered and changed, heard the final results of the Gator game (they won but not until the final minutes), and then called home. So far, a pretty darn good day. However, from this point on my adventure took a not-so-great turn. I desperately wanted my post-race nap. However, the people in the room next to mine decided they wanted to party.  A lot. Very loudly. Bunches of them. With lots of loud conversation and even louder music. It was like trying to sleep at a frat party. I decided to go down to the lobby and ask if I could change my room, preferably to one on a quieter floor. Unfortunately, the hotel was booked solid and there was no other room available. Turns out we had been invaded by a contingent of Marines who were having several major events at the hotel and in the city. I told the front desk that I would bring my book to the lobby and try to wait out my neighbors until they left for dinner or another party. And I did. I read on a comfortable chair in the lobby until my eyes started to close and I fell asleep.

Around 7:15 pm a security guard woke me. “You can’t sleep in the lobby, sorry, you must go to your room.” I told him I really REALLY wanted to go to my room and sleep but there was a noisy party next door to me making it impossible. He said, “show me,” so I did. We took the elevator up to my floor and as we turned down my corridor, we could hear the ruckus. It was even louder than before. The security guard called on his radio for backup and went to confront the Marines and their dates in the room next to mine. Amazingly, several of the soldiers began to argue with the guard in a confrontational manner, sounding more like irascible teenagers than adults.

The hotel manager and another security guard arrived. They reiterated that the hotel has a ‘no-party’ policy in place and that only the people who had reserved the room should be in the room. All others were to go to their own rooms or the lobby area. I couldn’t believe how rude and impudent the soldiers were to the hotel staff (and indirectly to me). As a person who spent most of her professional career working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, I was embarrassed and ashamed by the behavior of these young men. On the other hand, I really appreciated the efforts of security and the rest of the hotel staff, who did their best to get me a decent night’s rest.

I was finally able to get some sleep, but at 2 am another contigent of partygoers entered the same room and began to play some mind-numbing bass ‘music’ – it woke me up and gave me a pounding headache. I dressed and went back downstairs, figuring I could read and wait it out until 3 am when my alarm would have woken me anyway. I had an early flight (thank goodness) so I needed to leave by 4 am. But TJ, the head of security, saw me and asked if there was more trouble upstairs. I said yes and he went back up to square things once again. So, while I had a great time during the race itself, my memories of Richmond will be clouded by this unfortunate escapade.

On the topic of the race itself (which, after all, is the real point of this blog) – kudos to the race organizers for putting on a wonderful race. Walkers like myself will appreciate the 7 hour time limit, the casual atmosphere, and friendly volunteers and spectators. Aid stations were plentiful, especially in the last 8 miles, and all offered water and Powerade. A couple of stations had wet towels which felt really good as the temperature rose to the upper 60’s. There were bands and music and cheering sections – all added to the positive atmosphere of this race.

Ghost Train Rail Trail Race – October 27-28, 2012 (Milford, NH)

This turned out to be an unexpectedly exciting weekend. Yes, the race was definitely challenging, but it turns out the weather added an extra facet to the adventure. Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast with a vengeance. While New Hampshire and southern New England escaped the brunt of the storm (unlike New York and New Jersey), we did experience high winds and drenching downpours. Coastal areas of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts were flooded and many lost power. Fortunately, the storm hit New Hampshire AFTER the race. Unfortunately, the impact of the storm on air travel was tremendous, even for airports outside the primary storm area, and my flights home were canceled until Wednesday. But I managed to make it home without too many problems and I am very thankful to be back in cool but sunny Florida.

It was very inexpensive to enter this ultra; entering online at cost just under $40. This is also the only ultra in New Hampshire and, since this is held on trails in the small towns of Milford and Brookline in the southern part of the state, there are no major elevations to deal with (the mountains are all in the northern half of the state). The course consisted of a 7.5 mile out and back along the Brookline-Milford rail trail, beginning at the Department of Public Works in Milford and stretching out across wooded trails across several lightly traveled roads, with an asphalt portion at the turn-around at a camp and lake. There were 2 full aid stations, one at the start and one at the turn-around, and both of these had a complete range of sweet and salty snacks, sandwiches, and soups as well as various drinks. GU is one of the sponsors so if you were a fan of those products, you could really indulge. There was also a smaller aid station at about the 3.5 mile mark; this station had drinks and a smaller collection of snacks.

Runners and walkers could do as many of the out and backs as desired. Each complete loop totaled 15 miles and a number of runners were aiming for 100+ miles during the 30 hours allowed for the race. I was fairly sure I could do certainly 30 miles on Saturday and possibly 45, depending on trail conditions, weather, and how soon the sun went down. My plan was to complete at least 30 miles and then return on Sunday to do another 15. A separate 15 mile option was available on Sunday, and I did toy with the idea of treating each day as a separate and distinct race but decided instead to stick with my original plan of finishing the race as one ultra.

I had left Florida on Friday to fly to Manchester, NH. Before I left, my husband’s parting words to me were “keep an eye on this storm, it might be trouble.” After landing in Manchester around 4 pm, I rented a car and drove to Sheraton Four Points at the airport, my home away from home for the next 5 nights. Luckily, it was a fairly decent hotel in an area with several restaurants, a grocery store, and a Dunkin Donuts all within easy walking distance. Of course, I got lost while trying to find the hotel, even though it was only 3.5 miles from the airport, and had to call the hotel for directions (this was despite having a car with the Hertz GPS system – ‘NeverLost’ – HUH!) . After settling in, I ate my usual pre-race meal and put my things together for the race. Since this was an ultra, I had packed 2 suitcases full of lots of extra but necessary stuff: drop bag, flashlights and headlamp, warm hat, sweatshirt, vaseline, extra food, 2 pairs of trail shoes, etc. I set my alarm for 4 am but I was up earlier and was dressed and ready well before daylight.

The race didn’t start until 9 am on Saturday. Rather than just pace back and forth in my room, I decided to drive to Milford, about 25 minutes away, and just wait there. I figured that would give me a chance to get an idea of what the trail was like, meet some of the other participants, and just hang out. And of course I had to find the Department of Public Works (DPW), another challenge for me, especially in the dark. After driving around town for 10 minutes, I did managed to find the the right place and pulled in and parked. I signed in, received a small goodie bag with coupons for local businesses and some Halloween candy, and my bib. Except for the banquet of food and the large number of dedicated volunteers, this race was a relatively informal affair, more of a ‘fat-ass’ no-frills event. No chips, no tee shirts, no medals at the end – just the sheer enjoyment of running/walking/falling on the trails in the woods. Volunteers kept track of runners by noting their numbers at the start, finish, and turn-around. Everything was very loose, easy-going, and relaxed; runners and volunteers were astoundingly friendly and helpful. Of course, the latter tends to be true of ultras in general and trail races in particular, so no surprise there really.

Because it was cold (temps were in the 40’s), I was extremely happy to see that the DPW building was open, with real indoor bathrooms, and warmth! So what if the building smelled like motor oil, sweat, and big trucks – it was heated. As I waited for the start of the race, I chatted with several of the volunteers and runners. Soon I saw Cathy Troisi from Albany and Deb Ingram from Florida, along with several other Maniacs and 50 Staters.

At 10 minutes to 9, race director Steve Latour called all runners together and we crossed a little bridge to the trail head. Steve gave some last minute instructions and we all counted 5-4-3-2-1 and we were off. I waited until the runners had passed by and then headed out at a brisk pace. This first section was a neatly-groomed path covered with fallen leaves (prime leaf-peeping season was over). There was a tunnel under the road that was eery to walk through but I was used to those tunnels because of my familiarity with the PeachTree City 50K course. I began to think that this would be a pretty good race and I started to relax – until – whoops – I came upon some humongous rocks and roots that rose up along the path. I had to slow down considerably in order to stay upright. This section continued for about 4 miles and was my least favorite part of the race. There were also a few climbs and descents but these were not too difficult. After this, we left the trail and had to follow route 13 for a bit. There was a breakdown lane and a fairly wide section of flat dirt path that we could use to stay out of traffic and I sped up here. The remaining section to the turn-around was trail but not as rocky or rooty as the beginning section. Part of it was paved (hooray) and that gave me a chance to increase my pace. I went through a little bridge that marked the turn-around point and then retraced my steps back to the start. That first 15 miles took me 3 hours and 56 minutes. At the aid station, I shook out some rocks from my shoes and had a couple of peanut butter quarter sandwiches and some water. I also took off my warm hat and my mittens.

The second 15 miles took me longer, probably because I was tired from watching the ground all the time. Still, the day had warmed up a bit and I was feeling pretty good, so I decided to just relax and enjoy the experience. It was fun to see the other runners and walkers as we went back and forth over the trails and people were very encouraging. I completed this out and back in 4.5 hours. I decided to call it a day and told the volunteers that I would be back on Sunday morning to continue the race. I drove back to the hotel, showered, ate, called home, and then slept.

The next morning I was up early and back at the race around 6:30. My sister and niece were planning to drive up from Massachusetts to do the 15 miler, so I decided to wait until they arrived before I went back out for my last 15 mile stretch. They arrived a little after 7 so we took off around 7:30. Despite my feeling rested and buoyed up, I managed to trip and fall in that rooty section, but I was not hurt (well, my dignity was a bit injured, but everything else was okay). I’m not sure exactly how long this third time around took me but it was probably about 4.5 hours. Total miles completed was 45.

It was amazing to me that many of the runners stayed out on these trails all night long. The woods seemed very dark once the sun went down and would have been treacherous for me to try to navigate in the nighttime. Even though the course was well-marked during the daytime, and there were pumpkins with lights and glow sticks at night, it would have been impossible for me to manage to stay on course (and remain upright). I stand in awe of those tough competitors who did such a great job. This self-proclaimed klutz was constantly amazed as I watched these talented and graceful runners glide over the trail with such ease. If I tried to run or even walk fast over this trail, I would end up in the emergency room for sure. Regardless, I was thankful for the ability to test myself, however slowly, on this course.

I should note that this race had an appropriate Halloween theme and there were lots of ‘scary’ ghosts and goblins pointing the way.  You could tell that the race director and volunteers had a lot of fun with this race.

Bottom line – if you want the challenge of a trail race with lots of rocks, roots, and ups and downs, you willl probably enjoy this race. If you don’t mind walking trails in the dark, this race would be a wonderful challenge. I now realize that roots and rocks are definitely not my thing; the idea of navigating this trail in the night was way too daunting for me. From now on I will stick with dirt and pebbles and grass and asphalt and leave the rooty rocky paths to others who are far more fleet of feet.