Ocala Half Marathon – January 20, 2013 (Ocala, FL)

I was supposed to do a 12-hour trail race in the mountains of north of Atlanta this weekend, but I chickened out. The thought of another rocky and rooty (and muddy) trail race so soon after the two I did in Texas last month was just seemed overwhelming to me. Asphalt was much more appealing. The warm and dry climate of north central Florida also pushed me to stay a bit closer to home. Last year I had walked the Ocala Half Marathon and enjoyed it, so I decided to sign up, albeit a bit late, for the half marathon as a training race on this holiday weekend.

Packet pickup was on Saturday so my husband and I drove to the Paddock Mall, site of the exceedingly small “expo” – not really what runners think of when they hear the term expo. It is just a few tables set up inside the mall near one of the larger stores, with a couple of local venders and tables with bibs and shirts. However, despite its small size, the process of getting one’s necessary stuff is smooth and efficient. The bib has a chip attached to the back and runner’s names on the front. Because I had signed up so late, my name was absent, but no bother. I just wrote it in with marker. The half marathon tee shirt is polyester, short –sleeved, royal blue with a nice large horse design on the front. I wish it had been cotton so I might actually wear it.

We spent some time shopping at the mall, had lunch at a nearby CrackerBarrel Restaurant, and then drove home. Sunday morning I rose at my usual 4 am, had breakfast, and dressed. One of the good things about a race I can drive to is the leisurely pace of race morning. I left my house around 5:45 for the 45 minute drive to Ocala and then sat in my warm car until around ten minutes to 7. The full marathon was to begin at 7 and the half at 7:15. I wanted to watch the marathoners take off and then position myself at the back of the start line for the half marathon.

Why didn’t I do the full marathon here? There were two reasons. It’s a double loop course and I have sworn off doing double loops. That second 13 miles is way too lonely for a back-of-the-packer like myself and it is much too easy to take a wrong turn when I am by myself. The second reason is the strict 6 hour time limit. I know I probably could have made the 6 hour cutoff with several minutes to spare but I dislike the stress involved with trying to meet the time limit. I will no doubt continue to do some marathons with a 6 hour limit but they will have to be ones on my wish-list of races (and minus a double loop).
As a result, the half marathon seemed like a good choice and it was (although it almost feels like cheating to do only 13.1 miles).

The course begins and ends in the shopping center, but most of the course is on rural roads that wind through idyllic horse farms and cattle ranches. Large oak trees line the roads and provide ample shade, although it is usually fairly cloudy and the temperatures in Ocala are rarely hot and humid in January. This year the weather was ideal – in the 50’s to start and the 60’s at the close. There are rolling hills, plenty of aid stations with water, Gatorade, gels, and bananas and oranges, and lots of enthusiastic young people manning the aid stations cheering us on. Otherwise, spectators were sparse. The roads were coned off but it was confusing as to which lane runners were supposed to be on – sometimes it was the left lane, other times the right. Drivers were confused as well and I saw some interesting maneuvers by drivers trying to avoid runners. Still, for the most part, traffic was light and drivers were very courteous and careful.

I crossed the finish line in 2:43, a few minutes slower than last year but still a respectable time for me. The medal is attractive but the lanyard is exceptionally so.

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Publix provided fruit, rolls and spreads, sandwiches, blueberry muffins, and cookies at the finish line, and all racers received a chilled bottle of water. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday morning. I would definitely recommend the Ocala Half Marathon to walkers who enjoy a rural atmosphere and pleasant scenery.

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First Light Marathon (Mobile, AL) Revisited – January 13, 2013

It’s always easy to write about races I like and First Light is no exception. I keep coming back to Mobile, for the race, primarily, but also for the graceful ambience and gentility that permeate this small Southern city. Although this was my fifth First Light Marathon, I think I enjoyed it more this time than on my four previous visits.

My excursion began on Friday afternoon with a pleasant drive to Tallahassee so I could spend the evening with my son and his family and babysit my 4 year old granddaughter Julia Kate. Staying in Tallahassee helps to break up the long 6 ½ hour drive into two easy segments. The next morning, after a pre-dawn coffee and bagel with my son while the rest of the family slept, I headed west to Mobile.

This is the third year I have stayed at the Holiday Inn on Government Street. Although there are many hotel choices in this city (the marathon had even arranged special rates for runners at the downtown Hampton Inn), I prefer staying at the Holiday Inn because the race begins immediately in front of the hotel. When temperatures are frigid, this is a real boon. I can wait until the very last minute to venture outside. This particular Holiday Inn is also very clean and quiet, has a restaurant inside, self-parking outside, and comes equipped with a microwave and refrigerator in each room.

I arrived in Mobile around 10 am central time and was able to check in to my room right away. After depositing my suitcases and paraphernalia in my room, I headed to one of my favorite bookstores, Bienville Books on Dauphin Street, a few blocks away. I had a list of authors and titles that I hope to find there; in addition to new bestsellers, Bienville Books has an array of gently used fiction, nonfiction, and collectible first editions as well as regional items and several genre specialties. An hour later, I had spent $35 for a dozen or so books, definitely a productive visit. There were no worries about how to pack everything in overloaded suitcases since I was driving. I simply loaded the books into the trunk of my car.

The race expo opened at noon in the atrium of the Government Plaza building downtown. Several young women in elaborate pastel colored gowns posed in the foyer to greet visitors. Over the past few years, the expo, although still quite small, has expanded and now includes a number of sponsors and exhibitors, including Publix Supermarkets and several local running stores with any last-minute supplies that a runner might need – gloves, energy bars, socks, and so on. Actual packet pickup is fast and straightforward; one table has bibs (inside a functional backpack-style carryall), another has long-sleeved tech shirts (royal blue this year), and a third has older shirts available for purchase. There are maps of the marathon and half-marathon available as well as samples of chips, sunflower seeds, and trail mix. No chip timing here and no money prizes. This is a relaxed and relatively low-budget race, with all proceeds going to L’Arche Mobile, a supportive community for people with intellectual disabilities.

After the important business of getting my bib and shirt, I suddenly realized how hungry I was. There are plenty of places to eat in Mobile but I had always wanted to try a restaurant called A Spot of Tea, located on Dauphin Street just a few blocks away from the bookstore. This restaurant offered an array of sandwiches and soups. I ate my fill and still had enough to take back with me for a snack the following day. The rest of the afternoon was spent productively exploring the Museum of Mobile. I had visited this museum on a previous visit and enjoyed the displays so much that I felt it was time for an encore.

Although I don’t usually attend pasta dinners, I did manage to go to this one. First Light is very popular with 50 Staters and Marathon Maniacs and many like myself return year after year so I wanted to check out who was there. I was hoping to see old and new friends and sure enough, at the several tables reserved for Maniacs, I saw a number of fellow club members, including Betty, Carol, Steve, Sheila, Wendell, and Phil. The evening passed pleasantly and it was soon time to head back to my room to make preparations for tomorrow.

On race morning I was up early to eat my bread and drink my coffee. I waited until 7:05 to go downstairs, however, since the race did not begin until 7:30. I posed with other Maniacs at 7:10 for several photos and then made my way towards the back of the throng of participants, looking for familiar faces in the crowd. Sure enough, I saw Larry Macon and Jerry Lopez and we chatted about upcoming races until the Star Spangled Banner was sung, the signal for the race was sounded, and we took off.

Larry Macon, me, and Jerry Lopez before the start

Larry Macon, me, and Jerry Lopez before the start

The weather prediction for race day was hot and humid with a chance of afternoon showers. The rain did not materialize until much later in the evening, but the hot and humid part was spot on! By race start, temperatures hovered in the mid-60’s with 100% humidity. This was just fine with me – I like the heat.  I wore a short-sleeved tech shirt and my Maniacs windbreaker for the first couple of miles and then tied the jacket around my waist for the rest of the day. No mittens needed and no scarf. I was completely comfortable. However, a lot of people were definitely feeling the brunt of the heat and by midpoint in the race I began to pass a number of people who had slowed down because of the escalating temperatures.

This race series includes a half marathon, a relay, and a 1.2 mile fun run in addition to the marathon and is one of the few remaining races that includes a category for racewalkers. I was tempted to sign up as a racewalker but resisted; my racewalking form is pretty abysmal and I wanted to be able to run the downhills if I felt able. The time limit for the marathon is a generous 7 hours and the race director has been know to allow an early start for those who request one. Half marathoners split off from the marathon just after mile 8; after that, there are times when it gets a bit lonely in some sections but there are plenty of chalked arrows on the streets, signs on posts, and volunteers pointing the way so it is pretty hard to get lost (even for me).

On the course

On the course

While First Light is primarily a city marathon, run on asphalt streets, there is enough variety of landscape to keep things interesting. The course passes through several neighborhoods, by a number of lovely ante-bellum mansions, along several parks and golf courses, through Spring Hill College and the University of South Alabama, and by the Botanical Gardens and Mobile Museum of Art. The final 6 miles are the hardest for me because they are along busy city streets with nothing much to gaze at. Although it seems like the four miles on Spring Hill Avenue will never end, eventually we turn on to Lafayette and then the final stretch along Dauphin Street, with the tall buildings of downtown and the finish line at Bienville Square visible in the distance. The good news is that those final miles are mostly downhill; however, by that time I am way too tired to run at all. But what a rush to finally cross the finish line and be rewarded with a L’Arche Mobile member placing the coveted wooden hand-crafted medallion around my neck. Then it is on to the food table and some great barbeque and cole slaw. Only preliminary results are posted so far but it looks like I finished in 5:45 hours, placing third in the senior grand masters category for women.

This race is especially noteworthy for the excellent volunteers and police who actively cheer on runners and walkers. There are not very many spectators, at least not compared to much bigger races, but the ones that do come out are extremely enthusiastic. In lots of races, spectators cheer only for their friends and family but in Mobile, spectators graciously cheer for all participants. Maybe it is that renowned Southern hospitality but I felt like I was warmly welcomed and encouraged every step of the way.

This race is definitely recommended for walkers. Do either the half or the full but be sure to put it on your race schedule and include some time to explore the city and its offerings.

Across The Years Revisited: the 72 Hour Version 2012 (Phoenix, AZ)

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ATY 2012 022It’s been exactly one week since I started my longest race to date, the 72 hour Across the Years at Camelback Ranch just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Last year I experienced the 24 hour race at the same venue and enjoyed it so I decided to return to try my hand at the 3 day race. My recent attempt at the 48 hour UltraCentric in Grapevine, Texas, gave me the confidence I needed to try the longer event. At UltraCentric I achieved 120 miles so I was confident I would be able to manage at least 150 miles given the extra day.

We left JAX early on Friday morning, flew to Atlanta, and then on to Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. Our rental car was ready so we drove to our hotel, the Marriott Courtyard in Avondale, where we stayed last year. This hotel is very clean and quiet with accommodating staff and is located just off the loop-101 freeway, a few exits away from Camelback Ranch. We checked in and then drove to the ranch so I could get my bib, ankle chip, and goodie bag. This year I had rented a large tent with a cot so I would have a place to put my stuff and get some sleep. These tents were to be set up for us and available by Friday afternoon. I wanted to put dibs on a tent in a good spot and check out the course.

Everything looked pleasantly familiar. I liked the idea that I knew the rules, the course layout, the location of the aid station and portapotties (and real indoor bathrooms), and other essentials. There were a few changes from last year; for example, to help hold congestion to a minimum, a chalk line was drawn along the narrowest section of the course so runners could stay to the left and walkers to the right. Unfortunately, few paid attention to this new ‘rule’ (except for me, since I tried to stay out of the way of runners) but most of the time this didn’t really matter. Another change was the omission of a full second aid station halfway across the course. This year only water in jugs was available so participants could refill their water bottles. While I brought a couple of handheld bottles, I never used them; since the course was only 1.0488 miles long, it was easy to wait until I reached the main aid station to get something to drink and eat.

Once again I was both surprised and disappointed in my goodie bag. Last year, the otherwise nice red windbreaker jacket , size medium, was so small that I had to give it away. Remembering that, I requested an extra-large size this year. Unfortunately, this year the jacket was a thin purple fleece, so large that I could use it as a blanket. I didn’t know anyone who would wear anything that large – in purple – so I ended up cutting out the embroidered ATY insignia when I returned home and eventually plan to sew it on a plain sweater. The long-sleeve tech shirt was gray, plain except for a small emblem on the left shoulder. A purple hat and pink gloves completed our goodies. All of this was put inside a decent-sized blue duffle bag. After all the neat stuff we received at the Humble End of the World races just for the entry fee, I thought this seemed like a waste (especially since we had to pay $100 extra for the bag and its contents).

After our visit to the ranch, we had lunch at Gordon Biersch Brewery at a shopping mall nearby and then drove back to our hotel so I could pack the two drop bags I planned to take on race day morning. I had also packed a lightweight sleeping bag so I could set it on the cot for a nap. In addition, I had brought 4 pairs of shoes, 4 pairs of Injinji socks (and a few Thorlos as well), long pants, short pants, a variety of tops, both long and short-sleeved, fleece jackets and sweaters, mittens, handwarmers, hats, a scarf, and a heavy rain-resistant jacket with hood. I ended up wearing just about everything I brought, including all the shoes and Injinji socks.

Saturday morning dawned cold and frosty. I was up early, dressed, ate, and was ready to go around 6 am. Even though we were only 10 minutes drive away, I wanted to get to the race site early to arrange things in my tent. There was a brief race meeting at 8:45 am and then we lined up for the 9 am start. The whistle blew and we began circling the course. One of the good things about this race is that we change direction every 4 hours, so we get a chance to see the course from a different perspective. This also helps modify overuse injuries and gives legs and feet a respite from continually moving in the same direction.

It felt great to be moving and I was enjoying the brisk day with promises of sunshine and warmer weather. The course consists of 85% dirt with pebbles and small rocks and 15% asphalt. Race instructions noted that gaiters were recommended. This was also true last year and I worried because I had none. I had no problems with rocks and pebbles last year. This year, however, I had MAJOR difficulties. Every step I took found tiny pieces of stones in my shoes and socks. I kept moving forward regardless. I did bring gaiters with me this year but had left them in my suitcase in the hotel (so much for planning in advance). I decided to ignore the irritants as much as I could and stopped only twice that first day to empty out my shoes. In hindsight, I should have phoned my husband to bring my gaiters at his next visit (he would come see me every 6 hours or so during the day) so I could put them on and mimize the problem. I didn’t and I paid dearly.

By mile 24, I could feel a nasty blister forming on the ball of my right foot. This reminded me of the blister episode I experienced at my first 24 hour race at FANS in Minneapolis. Around mile 40, I stopped at the medical tent to have the blister lanced but the EMT thought it best to leave it intact and cover it with Second Skin and moleskin. That seemed to do the trick, for a while at least, and I pressed on. Night came and the weather became very cold. My original plan was to walk for the first 24 hours, with a brief nap around 1 am. By midnight the cold was very intense and my body started to slow from extreme fatigue. At 12:30 I decided to take a nap in my tent. However, the constant noise (music from the start/finish line, beeping from chips, voices from runners and crew) kept me from slumbering. Even more problematic was the cold. Although the tent was warmer than outside, and even though I had covered myself with the sleeping bag, blanket, and every piece of clothing I had, my teeth were chattering and I was shivering. It made more sense to keep moving and generate some heat to stay warm.

By dawn, I noticed a lot of floaters in my eyes, something that occurs when I am very tired. They were more of a distraction than a major concern but they did interfere a bit with my normal vision. More disconcerting was the change in my gait caused by the resurgence of the blisters. I tried to minimize their effect by putting weight more heavily on my left foot and dragging my right. This resulted in severe pain in a tendon on the front of my left ankle. This was definitely not a good sign. By 1 pm on Saturday, I had only reached 88 miles and walking was tortuous. I dragged myself into the medical tent (again) and asked the EMT for some advice. My immediate idea was to leave the course at that point, return to the hotel, elevate my legs, and rest, and then continue on the next morning. The EMT agreed, also suggesting I use compression and icing as well. Fortunately, my husband had come by to see how I was doing and he was quick to concur with the new plan. We stopped at a nearby CVS to get an Ace bandage and I spent the rest of the second day and night in bed with my feet elevated, periodically icing my sore wrapped tendon, and getting some much-needed sleep in a warm hotel room.

It’s amazing what a good night’s rest can do. By 4 the next morning, I was up and gingerly testing out exactly how much weight I could put on my right foot. It didn’t feel perfect but it did feel MUCH better than it did the day before. I woke up my husband and asked him to drive me back to the ranch so I could continue the race. I found my gaiters and put them on over a new pair of shoes. It was bitterly cold but I was warmly dressed and ready to shed clothes if needed. Meanwhile, I felt eager to restart the race and try to make up for lost time. My goal for Monday was, first, to get to 100 miles, then to aim for 120 miles (to equal what I achieved at UltraCentric), and then if possible to do a few more miles before heading back to the hotel for some sleep and warmth. I achieved all these goals by 5 pm that evening. During the last few hours on the course that afternoon, I wondered how best my husband and I might celebrate New Year’s Eve. I decided on a little ‘party’ in our hotel room. We found a Safeway Supermarket, stocked up on all the essentials (wine, cheese, chips, bagels, and dessert), and headed back to the hotel where we toasted the New Year at 7 pm and then promptly fell asleep.

The next morning I returned to the course at 5:30 am and managed to get in another 15 miles before the whistle blew at 9 am signaling the end of the race. This was a total of 137 miles, a greater distance than I had ever before achieved. Originally, I had hoped to get to 150 miles (or maybe even more) but I knew that sometimes things happen beyond our control. Even with the best plans, things can go awry. With every race, I learn a lot and try to incorporate what I learn in my next race, but there are good days and bad days and I have to adapt. It’s all part of the fun of taking part in these races.

All participants received a heavy glass stein with Across the Years emblazoned on it. As a result of achieving at least 100 miles, I also received a neat brass 100 mile buckle (my first buckle). A few other passing thoughts about this race in particular:
• There was plenty of food and drink available but not much that really appealed to me. It could be that I was spoiled after the Cordon Bleu offerings at UltraCentric but I just couldn’t get too excited about M & M pancakes, hard gingersnaps and Oreos, sushi, and bean burritos. I ended up snacking on trail mix for most of my time on the course
• Some really impressive runners blazed by me setting and breaking records – Joe Fejes and Vikena Yutz, male and female winners, come to mind. Both are Darksiders and managed to provide encouraging words to me and other participants
• Indoor bathrooms were a blessing. I didn’t use the portapotties at all. It was wonderful.
• The course is well-lit at night but I still had a flashlight with me for a few spots that remained relatively dark
• The setting is a beautiful one and I never felt unsafe or concerned about being on the course by myself at night.
This race series includes 24 and 48 hour options as well as the 72 hour, and next year there is supposed to be a 6 day (yes, that’s correct – SIX DAY) race as well. Timed races tend to be very walker-friendly and this race is definitely a good choice for walkers. Just be sure to bring warm clothes and gaiters!