End of the World Marathon and the Day After Marathon – December 21 and 22 (Humble, Texas)

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Humble TX 026Steve and Paula Boone, co-founders of the 50 States Marathon Club, sure know how to throw a party. They are also accomplished race directors (two of their illustrious progeny are the Texas Marathon on New Year’s Day and the Davy Crocket Bear Chase in April). When the hype about the Mayan Calendar and predictions of the world’s demise began to dominate headlines, Steve and Paula put together a double marathon weekend to celebrate (or mourn, if need be) the event.

The website warned pessimists to sign up only for the first race (after all, the world would probably end that day) while optimists were encouraged to sign up for the Day After (or both). People who hesitated at doing full marathons both days could choose the half marathon option on either day. Since I enjoy challenges of this sort, I signed up for full marathons on both days. My husband decided to accompany me; after all, this was a trip to Texas and that meant fajitas. Even though Houston Hobby and Bush International airports were closer to the race venue than Austin, we used this trip as another excuse to visit our favorite city in Texas. We flew Delta into Austin on Wednesday morning and spent the night at Embassy Suites Town Lake on South Congress, a short walk to Guerro’s, fajita nirvana for us. This particular Embassy Suites is especially clean and attractive so we try to stay there every time we visit Austin.

On Thursday morning we drove our rental car to Humble and checked into the Fairfield Inn, a 5 minute drive to the race site. Packet pickup was Thursday afternoon, although participants could also get their packets each race day morning from 6 am until the marathons and half marathons began at 8 and 8:15 respectively. The races were chip timed but each morning we had to get our chips (which attached to our shoes) right before the races started. When we arrived at 3 pm on Thursday, there was a line of people outside the doors of what looked to be a vacant office building. In actuality, there were several rooms dedicated to the race site and we entered the first room to get our bibs (white for End of World and yellow for the Day After). We then entered the second room where we picked up our swag. Truly there was an amazing amount of stuff given to us! Since I was doing both races, I received a black short sleeve tech shirt as well as a yellow one, black and yellow baseball-type caps, and enormous black and yellow duffle bags. We spent a few minutes thinking about how we were to fit all this good stuff in our luggage on the trip home but decided we would manage to squeeze everything in somehow.

One of the good things about doing a Boone-directed race is the generous time limit. The website stated that we had to finish in 9 hours but at least 2 people took 10 hours that first day. Not a problem. It was a difficult course. More about that later. We had a late lunch/early fajita dinner at Taco Cabana, a fast-food Tex-Mex chain, and then returned to our hotel to get some rest and make preparations for the race. I was not anxious at all, uncommon for me but I was sure this was in part due to the lack of rigid time constraints. I fell asleep quickly and did not wake up until 3:30 the next morning. The weather was very cold, in the 30’s, but no rain thank goodness. I dressed warmly, with long pants and fleece vest, mittens and jacket and warm cap. We drove to the start, which was the same place as packet pickup, arriving around 6 am. Because we were so early, Steve and Paula were just getting things set up, so both Darcy and I pitched in to help. Darcy ended up volunteering both days and had a great time helping out. I did what I could to assist, at least until Paula called all racers to the starting line for a pre-race briefing.

The course was described on the website as “four loops on hard packed dirt roads through the woods in Humble, TX.” However, Paula cautioned us during the briefing to be very careful on the course because there were rocks and roots and grassy swales and hillocks as well as pieces of rebar and several short but relatively steep inclines and descents. Wait a minute! Rocks and roots? Rebar? What happened to hard packed dirt roads? All of a sudden, I began to feel a bit queasy and my nervousness quotient increased. I made my way to the back of the burgeoning group of racers and stood off to one side so I wouldn’t get trampled in the mad dash to the start. The countdown began and we were off. I stepped gingerly on the tall grass that hid toe-catching holes and watched my feet carefully, trying to maintain an upright position. The course followed a circuitous trail in a construction area. During the 4 loops we circled back and forth, around and around, and out and back, with runners and walkers in front of us, behind us, and all around us. On the few occasions when I managed to look up and take a long view of the area, I thought we looked like long lines of ants following each other.

In keeping with the theme of the two races, there were funny signs at various points along the course saying things like ‘caution: alien trip wire’ and ‘dry quicksand area.’ The latter referred to one of the several locations that had sand several inches deep. Other areas of the course were full of sharp rocks and dangerous roots. I caught myself tripping frequently but somehow managed not to fall. Others were not so lucky. I personally witnessed several people tumble and I heard of others who fell hard and suffered cuts, bruises, and broken noses. There was one all-too-brief section of asphalt; I found myself looking forward to that road area so I could speed up, lift my eyes, and relax a little. The rest of the time I watched my feet and the ground. Although I was trying my best to hug the right-hand side of the trail, several times faster runners would ran right into me, hitting my shoulder, and that was disconcerting.

We had to do FOUR loops of this course. By the end of the first loop, I admitted to myself that I was not having much fun, although I tried to put a positive slant on the experience. I began to think that finishing this race might take me longer than 9 hours. The course was fairly well-marked but still hard to follow since we turned back around on ourselves so much and it was easy to take a wrong turn if we missed a directional arrow. Although I felt strong enough to complete all 4 loops, I was not certain I wanted to do it all over again on Saturday. Of course, if the world ended I wouldn’t have to think about it . . . .

During the last two loops, I walked with Nick from Kentucky, another Maniac, and the time passed much more quickly as we chatted and watched out for each other. I thought the trail was very hard and I have to be honest – I didn’t like it much – but I did like meeting new people and seeing friends I had met from other races, including several that had been with me at the UltraCentric in Grapevine. A LOT of maniacs were there, including Larry Macon, Jerry Lopez, Maryann Ramirez, Cheryl Murdock, Lois Berkowitz, Dave Mari, and Carol Goslin.

Several people complained that the course was longer than 26.2 miles and it indeed felt like an ultra. However, since I do lots of ultras, the distance itself was no big deal for me, and the difficulty of the course was more of an issue. The course was not a certified one; heck, these races were really just for fun, so 26 or 27 or 28 miles, it really made no difference, although the longer I was out there the more the opportunity to fall!

I crossed the finish line in approximately 7 hours (results haven’t been posted yet), a personal worst for me, but the medal more than made up for the embarrassing finishing time. It was large and heavy, with an elaborate design embossed on front and back, and it was encased in a red box with a yellow silk lining. Pretty impressive. I asked Steve Boone if the medals were the same for both full and half marathons and was told yes, they were identical. That was when I decided to drop to the half marathon the next day. I would only need to complete two loops and could take my time. We would be able to leave for Austin earlier in the day and not be so rushed. Since I was using these races as part of my training for an upcoming 72 hour race, I could take it easy and not have to worry about getting injured. I felt good with that decision.

So it was back to the hotel for a shower and then a late lunch at Taco Cabana. Afterwards I made preparations for the next day’s race and went to bed very early. Saturday was a repeat, more or less, of the preceding day, minus 2 loops. The weather was still cold, with a heavy fog immersing the race course during the pre-dawn hours, but it was supposed to heat up to 70 degrees later in the day. I dressed in lighter layers but still kept my mittens and hat on. Darcy and I did our volunteer stint (and Darcy stayed on for awhile and then returned to help out while he waited for me to finish).

Another good thing about Boone-directed races is that Steve and Paula really do listen to runner’s comments. They heard people complain that the course was ‘long’ and so they shortened it a bit on Saturday by cutting off a loop. They also must have heard comments about the technical parts of the trail and the holes lurking in the grass because it seemed to me that the grass had been cut or mowed down (or maybe runners had just trampled it completely) so it was not so dangerous. Still, I had to keep my eyes on my feet and the ground. If friends did not call out my name as they passed me, I probably didn’t see them. I finished my last loop of the day with Frank, another Maniac, and again, time passed much more quickly while we chatted.

It took me 3 hours and 45 minutes to finish (unofficial results). I received another huge medal, this time with a smiling face in the center. In addition, because I had completed both races, I also was given a commemorative coin, a smaller replica of both medals. Racers were also given little squeezie toys with our finishing positions on them. Post-race there was pizza and cookies and soda. I found an empty room to change clothes in and then I was ready for the drive back to Austin. Along the way we stopped in the small town of Elgin where we had some great Texas barbeque at Southside Market. We spent Saturday night at the Hampton Inn at the airport so we could get an early start for home on Sunday morning.

I highly recommend any race that is directed by Steve and Paula Boone but this particular race series was a once-in-a-lifetime event. I’m glad I had a chance to take part in it.

The 12-12-12 Marathon (Sarasota, FL)

I know, I know – I swore I would never do another race that consisted of loops under a mile long but here I was signing up for this crazy .44 mile loop course for a race based solely on a once-in-a-blue-moon date. Believe it or not, so many people wanted to do this race that there was a lottery to select the lucky 84 winners (72 full marathoners and 12 half marathoners). Last year I entered and didn’t get in. This year I was one of the chosen. Last year’s race was held on 11-11-11. Next year the date is supposed to be 11-12-13. I will try for that as well.  We’ll see.

This race is pure unadulterated fun. Most of the participants are 50 Staters and Marathon Maniacs, along with an assortment of first-time full and half marathoners thrown in for good measure. For the high-powered runners who want to win the race, it is a test of endurance. For the vast majority of us, however, it is low-key and relaxed, with no strict time limit (there is a generous 8-hour cutoff), no huge expo (in fact, no expo at all), and an easy-to-follow course around a park that – on race day – is limited to racers and their crew and families. The hard part? Doing 59 laps around the course! That’s five-nine, 59, fifty-nine – there is just no easy way to express the concept or to run that many loops without a lot of endurance and stamina and crazyness.

My husband and I drove down to Sarasota on an overcast Tuesday morning. It took us about 3 hours including a brief stop at Cracker Barrel for lunch. We spent the early afternoon touring the Ringling Circus Museum, Ca’d’Zan (the Venetian Gothic mansion owned by John and Mable Ringling), and the beautiful rose garden. I had long wanted to visit this complex and I only wished we had more time to explore but the afternoon sped by and it was soon time to go to packet pickup at Marina Jacks in downtown Sarasota. This was easy to find, located just down the street from our hotel, the Hyatt Regency. In fact, the hotel was close to both the marina and Whitaker-Gateway Park, the race site, so it turned out to be a good place to stay.

Packet pickup was fast and easy. I was given a white short-sleeve tech shirt, two bibs, and a ticket for the pasta dinner. As usual, I passed on the dinner, preferring to return to the hotel, eat my light meal of bread and peanut butter, and get everything ready for the race. I then turned in early with my alarm set for 4 am. But why two bibs?? The green bib with the race number on it was to be worn on the front of one’s outfit. This bib had a chip attached to it. The white bib had our names in LARGE UPPERCASE LETTERS and was to be worn on the back of one’s outer clothes. This bib had other information on it as well , including our home town and whether we were 50 Staters and/or Marathon Maniacs. For Maniacs, it included the number of stars (or for Half Fanatics, the number of moons). If we had finished the states, it included that information as well. Those who were running their first marathons or half marathons had that information on the bib as well. It sounds like quite a bit of stuff to go on a bib, but it all fit very nicely.

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The big question all of us were facing was the weather. A rash of thunderstorms had been crossing Florida, with some coastal cities in the middle of the state getting huge downpours. The town of Jupiter had over 7 inches the evening before the race. The forecast for Sarasota on Tuesday night was strong thunderstorms and for Wednesday it was supposed to rain most of the day, with thunderstorms likely as well. I hate racing in the rain but at least it would be warm and not freezing cold. Still, the thought of getting wet for 59 laps was not appealing to me. Because we drove, I had filled the car with a wide variety of possible outfits but finally decided on my crops and a tech shirt with my Maniacs windbreaker (which was also – I hoped – somewhat water- resistant). I didn’t take my sunglasses because sun was never even mentioned in the forecast.

It was quiet all night. I never heard rain or thunder or saw any lightening through the hotel windows. When I awoke at 4 on Wednesday morning, the streets looked dry. Sure enough, it looked like the rain had moved to the south of us. Race day temps were in the mid-60’s and rose to the 80’s, with the humidity rising as well. This understandably was a challenge for the many racers who had traveled from northern and western states, but it was perfect weather for me.

The race was to begin at 7:12:12 (makes sense, right?) but we all gathered at the park much earlier to take an array of photos. A frenzy of excitement and exhilaration spread through the crowd as we nervously talked and laughed until Race Director Greg Goebel called us to the starting lines (which were different for the full and the half). I lined up behind the full marathon runners. The race began just before 7:30 and we were off! Signs directed walkers to stay to the left and runners to the right as we moved around the half mile path but I quickly noticed that many people did not pay attention to that dictum (except me – I was the only consistent walker and so I religiously stayed to the left except for my final few laps when all of the fast movers had already finished and there was plenty of room on the path so I could cut the tangents).

There was one aid station with water and Gatorade as well as bananas, pretzels, M & Ms, and GU. This was located halfway across the course from the start/finish line. There was electronic chip timing and results were shown on a board but with a long time delay, it was impossible to check on one’s status without losing precious minutes. People manning the timing booth would graciously read out our lap as we passed by if we asked and the DJ, Dave Flanary, would also periodically announce our lap as we strode by a second timing mat. The rest of the time, Dave played upbeat music which probably drove the people living in the nearby condos crazy but was great for us.

Signs with the names of runners and intriguing facts about them were placed strategically on the course.   We were encouraged to take the sign with our name on it home with us – and I thought that was a grand idea and made for a welcome souvenir of the race.

Age groups were arranged in a funky way; there were never more than three people in any age category. Sometimes ages were duplicated across several categories. This was fine with me. It meant that everyone would place in an age group and get an award in addition to the finisher’s medal. There aren’t too many races that can make that claim.

While going around and around for so many loops was a bit dizzying, there were lots of positive things about this race:
• There were real bathrooms right in the center of the park and just a few steps off the course. This was wonderful!
• Although the short loop could have been very boring, it was made less so by the varied scenery in the park and beyond. My favorite section was the part along the bay where I could view the beautiful skyline and watch as pelicans and gulls jockeyed for food.
• Everybody knew each other’s name because of the back bib and so it became easy to recognize and give support to everyone. In this respect, it was more like an ultra or trail race than a road race

I saw a lot of fellow Maniacs and 50 staters, some I knew like Larry Macon, Dave Bell, and Carol Goslin, others I met officially for the first time, like Dave Mari (whom I knew only by his reputation as Maniac photographer). In addition, I met a lot of new people as well.

The only down side to this whole adventure was a negative experience with a few of the volunteers at the aid station. Two women were handing out water and Gatorade and were vocally adamant about the necessity of runners taking their small cups of water. I don’t usually drink early on during a race and I was becoming increasingly annoyed with their constant comments to me that I was going to get sick or even collapse because I wasn’t drinking enough. They continued harranguing me every time I passed the aid station and there was no avoiding them since I had to pass by 59 times. They even asked another runner to check on me to make sure I was drinking enough. I probably should have stopped and explained to them that this was my 126th marathon/ultra and I know how to monitor my fluid intake (as well as output) but I did not want to take the time away from the race. I train in the heat and humidity of Florida and probably don’t sweat quite so much as runners who train in colder climates. I hold most volunteers in very high esteem but these ladies were presumptious and annoying. The situation was alleviated when the women were replaced by several younger volunteers who minded their own business. Ironically, there was a medical tent with at least three health personnel who could have responded if necessary to any problems; none of the medical staff found it necessary to interfere.

But that was a minor problem. I enjoyed this race immensely and highly recommend it to walkers who can handle the multiple loops and want to have a relaxed racing experience..

My finishing time was not so great – results aren’t posted yet but I think I completed the race in 6:10 or so. It was good enough to get a second place age group award! Definitely a fun race.

Tallahassee Ultra Distance Classic – Third Time’s a Charm (December 8, 2012)

This was my very first ultra so I try to do it every year or two, if only for sentimental reasons. It is a great way to ease into the field of ultrarunning/ultrawalking for people who might want to get their feet wet in the ultradistance realm. Because the 50k is offered along with a 50 miler, slower racers have 10+ hours to complete the course; that eases the burden of trying to meet a strict time limit. The course consists of two out-and-backs plus a loop around a parking lot and Wakulla Springs Lodge. It is impossible to get lost. There are no hills or changes in elevation or roots or rocks to trip over. In short, it is a great introduction to the ultra world.

My weekend began with a drive to Tallahassee early on Friday afternoon. This gave me a chance to spend the evening with my son and his family. It was an early night, however, since I planned to get up at 4 am so I could arrive at Wakulla State Park around 6:15 or so. My son was kind enough to drive me to the park so I didn’t have to concern myself with finding my way in the dark or having to drive myself back after the race was over. The primary aid station is just past the start/finish line and adjacent to the indoor restrooms (YES, indoor restrooms!), very close to the lodge. We set up my folding chair and drop bag just past the aid station. I picked up my bib and pinned it to my capris and then stood around soaking up the pre-race atmosphere.

Just before the race began at 7 am, Race Director Gary Griffin called everyone together for pre-race announcements. This race is not chip-timed so we were reminded to be sure to let the timekeepers (who were stationed at 3 places on the course) know our numbers as we passed by so we would get credit for each portion of the course. People running the 50k had to complete 5 loops of the 6.2 mile course while 50 milers had to complete 8 loops. At the first and longer turnaround, there was a cone plus an aid station with food (sandwiches, candy, cookies, salty stuff) and drinks. The second turnaround was simply a cone and timekeeper. The main aid station had a full repast of food and drink. There was no reason to go hungry or thirsty here. Volunteers were patient, dedicated, and helpful, and I was exceedingly grateful to them. The other runners and walkers were very friendly and supportive. Because of the two long out-and-backs, we got to see a lot of each other. Friends and families of runners served as a great cheering section for all participants; I received a lot of positive comments as I passed through the parking lot and aid stations.

Weather was close to ideal for me – temps in the mid-fifties, overcast, slightly humid as the day wore on but never hot, never sunny, and thankfully never cold. The last two times I did this race I nearly froze at the beginning. Not this year, thank goodness – I quickly began shedding my jacket, long-sleeved cotton tee-shirt, and long-sleeved tech shirt, until I was down to a short-sleeve tech shirt and my mesh vest. It was easy to keep track of the loops (after all, there were only five of them), and I dedicated each loop to a favorite friend or loved one. My final loop was reserved for my pet dogs who have passed on – I like to think that Trinket, Cupcake, Chelsea, Nestle, and Texas were all walking with me once again.

I crossed the finish line in 7:12, one minute faster than 4 years ago but not as fast as my 2010 time (that year I had a PR of 7:06). The only sequelae I had as a result of this race (aside from the usual fatigue) was shin splints. Because the course was so flat, my calves suffered quite a bit and are still a little sore several days later. This year all finishers received a medal with a gator on it and the name and date of the race. In prior years I have received a manatee-decorated wood plaque and a sun catcher.

The Tallahassee Ultra Distance Classic, 50 k option, is a great choice for walkers who want to try their first ultra.

Tom Walker Half Marathon – December 1, 2012 (Gainesville, FL)

When I realized that I had nothing at all planned for the first weekend in December, I quickly signed up for this home-town race. Usually the Tom Walker Half Marathon is held earlier in the fall when I am traveling to distant marathons, so this December date seemed like a good opportunity to race in one of my favorite half marathons. Six years ago,this race was my very FIRST race of any kind and initiated my current obsession with racing. As a result, I have a host of positive memories about the Tom Walker Half. The race used to be held in Micanopy, a small town about 10 miles south of Gainesville, but it was moved to Bouleware Springs Park in southeast Gainesville several years ago and is now run on bike paths free from car traffic and noise.

After returning from the Seattle Marathon the week before and having completed 120 miles at the UltraCentric in Grapevine the week prior, , I was still very fatigued. The simple thought of doing a half marathon exhausted me, especially with an upcoming 50k set for the following weekend. Instead of participating in this race, I decided to volunteer instead. That turned out to be a good, practical, and extremely fulfilling idea.

I emailed the race director, Mark Ou, about my desire to volunteer instead of race. Mark is a Marathon Maniac and has been a member of the Florida Track Club for quite a while. He promptly assigned me to an aid station and sent out complete instructions with accurate and helpful maps. On race morning, instead of worrying compulsively over the weather and what to wear, I dressed in layers, packed some essentials in a small backpack, and drove to the race site at 6:45 am for the pre-race volunteer meeting. Dozens of eager individuals helped Mark unpack supplies, set up tables, and arrange registration must-haves. Although my primary assignment was at aid station #2, it was too early to begin my duties there so I made myself useful as a liaison, taking day-of-race applications and bib numbers to the timing coordinator who was set up at the start/finish line. Once the race began at 8 am, I drove to my aid station and joined the 4 other ladies who were already filling up cups with water and Gatoraid and setting up snacks of pretzels and candy.

This race is an out and back course, so runners and walkers passed our aid station around miles 4 and 9. It was quite a change to be on the giving side of a race instead of always taking. While I appreciate volunteers, at aid stations and elsewhere, and always thank them as well as police, it was good for me to experience the other side for a change. It made me appreciate volunteers even more! I also realized that standing in the cold weather, making sure needs were met and runners and walkers had whatever they needed, was a LOT of hard work. The women I worked with – Amy, Jayne, Rebecca, and Amy’s friend (who’s name escapes me at the moment) – helping the time go by quickly as we chatted about all kinds of things but races in particular. Several of them were involved in an organization called Girls on the Run, a 12-week afterschool program for pre-teen girls that works on building self-esteem and healthy living skills and culminates with participation in a 5K. It sounds like a worthwhile project and one I might pursue with the idea of perhaps volunteering as a coach or assistant.

It turns out that there were 236 finishers, an excellent turnout. Quite a few finishers were walkers and it was great to encourage them as they passed our station. I definitely will add volunteering at races to my ‘to-do’ list for the future.