“Living in Heaven can be Hell” – the Cremator 50 Mile Ultra, July 20, 2013 (Port Royal, SC)

It was an ominous start to the weekend. I woke up with a scratchy throat on Thursday morning but decided to stick to my usual routine. After my customary early morning walk I stopped by the gym for a weight training session. I felt a bit better as the day wore on. My thoughts were filled with this weekend’s event: the Cremator, my first official 50 mile race. Sure, I’ve done much more than 50 miles in a number of ultra races but those were all timed races without rigid restrictions or cut-off points. This race had a time limit of 14 hours and it was important to pass through each of the 7 check points by a certain time or risk being disqualified. I knew I had to keep my wits about me in this upcoming race and have a plan for getting through each check point without falling too far behind.

The Cremator does not come by its name lightly; the race is set in the low country of South Carolina where July is exceptionally hot, humid, and sweat-inducing. There are not many races of any length in the southern tier of states during the summer and there are few, if any, ultras, so race director Tim Waz decided to fill this gap with a tortuous heat-defying event. To be honest, though, I was looking forward to the heat; I was tired of starting a race wearing several layers of warm clothes, along with hand warmers and mittens – after all, I train in Florida and I’m used to the humidity. To do this race, it was crucial to have a crew chief, someone to watch out for you on the route and ensure that you didn’t succumb to hyperthermia or any other heat-related injury. I enlisted my husband as my crew person and he did a remarkable job.

We left around 7 am on Friday. My throat was still a little ticklish and I could now add a runny nose to my list of symptoms, but I felt no worse than on the preceding day. I was eager to get started, although I have to admit I was also quite nervous. I convinced myself that it was okay to be DFL – as long as I finished within the required time frame. The drive is a relatively short 5 hours up the coast so we arrived in South Carolina in plenty of time to drive the course – twice. This was a good plan, because despite the really straight-forward nature of the route, there were a couple of important turns. I wanted to make sure I understood exactly where I was supposed to go (I found out later that during the 2012 race, a runner did not make a turn and ended up running an additional 7 miles or so – something I could not risk). I wrote the instructions down and memorized them: bear right at the yield sign near the Naval Hospital, turn right at the lights following the signs to 21 south, cross the bridge, make another right to stay on 21 south and then go straight on the road to the biker bar at the 12.5 mile aid station/turning point, refuel, and go back to the starting point at Live Oaks Park and then do the entire route again.

Soon it was time to check into the host hotel, a new Hilton Garden Inn, within easy walking distance of the Higher Ground running store, site of packet pickup on Friday evening. After a late lunch at Olive Garden, we stopped by the store and I got my bib and tee shirt (black short-sleeved heavy-duty cotton) along with some last minute instructions, including the cell numbers of critical people to call if a runner decides to drop from the race. I was very nervous, even though I kept reminding myself that this would be my 139th marathon/ultramarathon and even if I didn’t finish, it was important to try. I could only get to sleep by taking a sleeping pill. I admit I was a wreck. My sore throat was a minor discomfort to me now. I had my mind on other things.

At 3 am I woke up, downed a cup of coffee and ate part of a bagel with peanut butter. I dressed (no jacket this time) and made sure everything I might need during the course of the day was packed and ready for Darcy to get to easily. We brought an ice chest with food and water and Gatorade; I had as many other supplies as I thought I would need. It was good to be able to pack everything into the car without having to worry about airplane restrictions or luggage requirements.

It was still dark when we arrived at the park for the start but plenty of people were already there at 5:30 am. We saw Garth Peterson and his wife Beth; Garth had done the race last year and turned in a great performance but this year he was having foot trouble. I later learned that he had to drop out early on because of his foot problem; that must have been very disappointing for him. We didn’t know anyone else so Darcy and I just watched as more people arrived and the excitement grew.

Just before 6 am, Tim called everyone together and made a few last minute announcements. Then we all headed to a line drawn on the street (the official starting line) and at 6 on the dot, we were off. Everyone took off running – except me, of course. I was glad I was familiar with the course because for the first 12.5 miles I was essentially alone. I met a number of people walking on the bridge and along the sidewalks, but all the racers were out of my view. The weather was slightly overcast, the sun had not risen yet, and the day was peaceful and quiet, with just the buzz of cars driving by. We were supposed to walk with traffic on the way to the halfway point and then facing traffic (on the same side of the road) going back. There was a sidewalk for about half the course; the rest of the way we had to walk in the street, in a bike lane that was exceptionally narrow in some areas.

I saw my first fellow racer on his return trip while I was still making my way to the aid station at the halfway point. We had 7 check points to reach at certain times, including an unmanned aid station at the 6, 19, 31, and 44 mile mark, but only the start/finish and the turn-around points seemed to be critical. My goal was to reach each one by a time that allowed me a slight cushion, and I managed to exceed that time every time by at least 15 minutes.

The weather was great; it was hot, exceedingly so, and plenty humid, but every now and then there was a cool breeze and there was even a little shade on the course. I remembered how my teeth chattered at Missoula last weekend and I thought about the people who had just completed Badwater (including my friend Parvaneh); this was not really so bad. My husband was wonderful as my crew; he met me every couple of miles and gave me a cold towel to wet down my face and neck, supplied me with fresh water bottles, and made sure I had everything I needed. I finished my first loop of 25 miles just before noontime and headed out for the second time around. I was a little slower (or so it seemed to me) but my timing was still on target. As I approached the turn-around point again, I was surprised to find out that I was not the last person. There was at least one person behind me, but I wasn’t sure how long that would last. Still, it wouldn’t bother me to be last as long as I finished within the time limit.

The sun was high now and the weather even hotter. I took S-caps every hour and tried to remember to eat a snack – peanut butter sandwiches, crackers, energy bars – whenever I could manage to get something down. In the early afternoon, it began to rain, lightly at first, and then a bit heavier, and the air cooled down quite a bit (to 80 perhaps!). I wasn’t crazy about getting soaked but at least there were no puddles to wade through as in Merrill’s Mile.

The bridge that had seemed so picturesque at the beginning of the race now seemed daunting to me as I faced walking up it one last time on my way back to the park. That seemed to be the biggest obstacle to me at that point but once I made it up and over the bridge, I felt relief. I saw my husband one last time at the Naval Hospital and then I took it on home, finishing in 12 hours and 53 minutes, just under 13 hours. Two people finished behind me. People cheered as I came into view and Tim handed me my medal and posed for a photo with me. I’m not sure if there was anything to eat at the end of the race – I wasn’t hungry at all and my first order of business was to get back to the hotel for a shower and a nap. I later learned there was a pool filled with cold water that people could soak in but I wanted to change out of my sweaty clothes and get clean and dry.

There were several notable things about the Cremator 50:
• It was admirably organized and designed. Tim Waz and his amazing team of volunteers were simply wonderful. They greeted runners by name at check points and addressed our every need
• There was plenty of food and drink at the aid stations and there were porta potties at the park and several places to ‘go’ along the way, including several gas stations (and if desperate, I could have crossed the road to Publix or McDonald’s)
• Yes, it was hot and humid but to me that was better than freezing cold
• The other runners were friendly and helpful and not at all upset that a walker was in the race with them; in fact, a number of them were very supportive (I’ve found that ultramarathoners as a group tend to be more accepting of walkers than other runners)
• The scenery in the low country of South Carolina is lovely. I enjoyed watching boats cross under the McTeer bridge along the Beaufort River. Walking along the marshlands by Frogmore, I passed by several unique little country stores and restaurants. People were friendly and welcoming. At one house across the road, a few women were having a garage sale and every time I passed by they yelled and waved at me. I felt like I had my own little cheering section
• There were a few snakes on the road – but they were dead

The only real negative part of this race, for me at least, was walking along the very narrow bike lanes on some sections of the course. While most drivers were kind and made sure to give me a wide berth, a few came so close to me that I could have reached out and touched them. That was pretty scary. I was very glad to be back on the sidewalks.

All in all, it was a great experience. Now we are back home, exhilarated but tired. This dang sore throat has turned into a nasty summer cold but it is giving me a good excuse to rest for a little while.

Can walkers do this race? Sure, as long as they can manage a 16 minute or so pace for the duration of 50 miles. Should walkers do it? As long as hot humid weather is not a problem, I say ‘go for it.’ It’s a great experience!

A Race in Big Sky Country: The Missoula Marathon, July 14, 2013 (Missoula, MT)


This was a prime destination marathon for me. In 2008 I had completed the Grizzly Marathon in Choteau, Montana, to count as the state of Montana in my 50 state quest. I was eager to return to the state because of its magnificent beauty, and the Missoula Marathon seemed like a perfect reason to visit again. It was also the site of the summer 50 State Club reunion meeting, so many 50 State Club members as well as over 120 Marathon Maniacs were planning to attend.

Our flight did not leave until late afternoon on Friday, but we left early enough to make a stop at the Apple store in JAX to replace my nonworking IPhone. It also gave us a chance to have a satisfying lunch at nearby P. F. Chang’s before heading to the airport. We flew direct to Minneapolis and then on to Missoula; we were fortunate enough to be upgraded to first class on both flights. That made our late arrival at almost midnight somewhat more palatable. It took us about 20 minutes to get to our hotel, the DoubleTree Hilton, on the hotel shuttle, and we checked in quickly, grabbed a warm cookie from the stack on the reservation desk, and made our way to our room. I don’t remember too much after that beyond changing my clothes, brushing my teeth, and falling into bed. Sleep came quickly.

I was up at 5 (ever the early riser) and had some coffee in the room while my husband continued to sleep. It was then I noticed that our room has a balcony with a small table and two folding chairs! I never noticed that last night when we arrived. With a full day ahead of us, I woke Darcy up at 6:30 so we could have a quick breakfast at the hotel restaurant before heading out to the Expo which opened at 8 am. A call had gone out earlier on the Marathon Maniacs Facebook page mentioning that the marathon organizers were looking for additional volunteers to help work at the Expo. I had offered to help and was assigned to give out tee shirts and bags from noon to 4. That meant I had to learn the ropes, find my packet, chip, and bib, visit all the booths, and deposit all my stuff back in the room before my shift began.

Fortunately, the Expo was a short walk from the DoubleTree – it was held outdoors in the Caras Park Pavilion, adjacent to the Higgins Avenue Bridge and along the scenic Clark Fork River in the downtown area. Everything was very well organized; racers first looked up their numbers on several big boards, found the associated numbers at the packet pickup table, and were handed an envelope with their chips and ties and bibs. Then participants made their way to the table where I and a dozen other volunteers handed out tee shirts and backpacks that doubled as drop bags. Tee shirts sizes ran very small – we had to field a LOT of complaints about that – but shirt exchanges were only allowed after 1 pm on marathon day. I had requested a medium and it fit, but barely. I enjoyed working at the Expo immensely. It was fun to meet the other volunteers, most of them from around town, and get some pointers on the race course. I also liked the opportunity to ‘give back’ a bit (since I am usually on the receiving end) and it felt really good to help out.

Close by the Expo was a huge farmer’s market, with stands that sold everything from homegrown fruits and vegetables and fresh baked breads and cakes to handmade jewelry and shawls. The vegetables were amazing and if I lived in town I would have stocked up. Darcy and I exercised a good deal of restraint, purchasing only some olive bread, cheese curds, Rainier cherries, and – for me, for after the race – a serving of rhubarb huckleberry crisp (which turned out to be absolutely delicious!).

The Expo itself was not especially large – certainly not the size of those in bigger cities like New York, Boston, or Chicago – but it had a festive flavor and there were booths selling running clothes, shoes, and other paraphernalia as well as tables for the Maniacs and 50 State Club and Jeff Galloway, who was there as speaker and participant. At the Maniacs table I purchased the latest book by fellow Maniac Malcolm Anderson called, appropriately enough, The Marathon Maniacs: The World’s Most Insane Running Club. This is a compilation of essays by Maniacs and my submission, “True Confessions of a Marathon Maniac,” was included in the book so I simply had to buy it. On the trip home, I managed to read the entire book (the book is only 216 pages and it was a long day with 3 flights) and found myself laughing out loud at some of the pieces.

The 50 State Reunion meeting was planned for 3 pm at the Runners Edge store about 3 blocks from the Expo. Since my tour of duty at the Expo was not over until 4, I sent my husband to be my stand-in for me until I could arrive. I was told that he did a wonderful job representing me when it was to be my turn to introduce myself and give my race statistics – so, thank you Darcy! I managed to get there just as the meeting was ending and Dave Bell, Vice-President, introduced me just before the conclusion.
There was no official pasta dinner but lots of good restaurants in town so Darcy and I headed to one of his top picks, the Old Post Pub, where we had some local beer, soft pretzels, beer cheese, and hamburgers. Then it was back to the hotel to get ready for the race.

This race has an early starting time of 6 am and all runners have to be bused to the starting line in French Town, 26.2 miles away. Shuttles started at 4:15 am and continued to make round-trips until 5:15 am. I always like to be on the first bus, so I was up at 2 am for my bread and coffee. I dressed and tried to relax until about 3:45 when we headed out for the 15 minute walk to the bus pickup at the parking garage on Main Street. Volunteers were already out giving directions and the first bus for both races, marathon and half marathon, were ready to take on passengers. It was important to get on the correct bus, since the half marathoners were also bused to the start but their race covers only the last 9 miles of the marathon course. There was little chance for confusion, however, since there were plenty of signs and people to ask. Bus drivers knew exactly where to go. This is not always the case, I’ve found. The Missoula Marathon gets lot of points for superb organization.

On the bus I met Sally from Missoula, a former runner who was planning to walk this race because of knee problems. We chatted a little on the bus and then later ran into each other about midpoint on the course. She had decided that this would be her final marathon (she was 70 years old – although she looked no more than 40) and wanted to concentrate on half marathons from this point on. She was hoping to place in her age group as a good way to finish her marathon career. It turned out that she was first in her age group – way to go, Sally!

We arrived at the starting line about 4:45 and after making a trip to one of the porta potties (there were lots of them, although as the later buses started to arrive, long lines began to form), I found a spot near a building and hovered there trying to keep warm. The temperature was about 48 degrees, cold for me despite my 3 layers of clothing and a cap and hood (plus my hand warmers). As we drew closer to the starting time, my teeth began to chatter and I welcomed the influx of people into the loosely defined corrals – body heat makes a difference. Just before 6 am, a lady sang the national anthem and at 6 on the dot the race began. A beautiful display of fireworks was our starting signal and it was tempting to slow down and watch them. This was not just one bang but a real fireworks display. I had to tell myself to concentrate on the race and start moving instead of watching the pretty colors.

It took my muscles a few miles to warm up but eventually I started my usual relaxed but steady pace. I saw a lot of people I knew, including Larry Macon, Lichu Sloan, and Lois Berkowitz, and then up ahead I recognized my friend Sheila from Canada. As I drew closer, I wondered if she was okay because usually she is way ahead of me. It turns out that around mile 2.5 she felt her energy suddenly disappear; she was still struggling a little and had decided to walk for awhile. We kept each other company for most of the rest of the course. I realized as I walked up the single notable hill at mile 14 that if I slowed down at all, my muscles would tighten and I would be in trouble. I turned around every now and then to make sure Sheila was doing okay (she was – she even stopped occasionally to take some photos, including one of her and two hotties – and I thank her for allowing me to use some of the pictures in this account). Once we got to around mile 18, we managed to stay together until mile 24, and had a good time chatting about good books and races and grandbabies.

At the 24th mile marker, I got a resurgence of energy and moved forward quickly. I was ready to finish the race and get my medal. A big motivator was the blister that was starting to form on my bunion. I was ready to cross the finish line. The final .2 miles was a slight downhill with a lot of spectators still around cheering me on. I finished in 6:03:00, a little slower than my usual sub-6 but still very satisfying to me.

After receiving my giant horseshoe shaped medal and turning in my chip, I gathered some food (pasta salad, cheese sticks, watermelon, bananas, nuts, energy bars, and cookies) and made my way to the photo area. This race offers a free picture of runners against a cool Missoula mountain backdrop and I really wanted to get one but there were computer and printer problems and a long line of people waiting. I decided that needed a shower and nap more than a picture so we opted to return to our room instead. Our evening meal was at the Tamarack Alehouse and Grill and was extremely satisfying and filling.

Several great things make this race stand out:
• The course is relatively flat but not annoyingly so. Sometimes a course that is deadpan flat can cause shin splints and leg strain. Not a problem here. There is one slight hill about midpoint on the course but it is not especially challenging or difficult and the view at the top makes the climb worthwhile
• The scenery is beautiful. Montana is a beautiful state, Missoula is a lovely city, and the entire course is breathtakingly scenic, amazingly so. I wanted to move there. I don’t think I could handle the winter weather but I loved it in July.
• There are not a lot of spectators along the route but there were plenty of people who came out to cheer us on. They were all friendly and welcoming, with positive comments for all of us. I was impressed. Some brought chairs and sat in front of their farms and ranches and houses and rang cowbells and held up signs.
• Aid stations were plentiful. Water and Gatorade divisions were clearly marked and gels were handed out at 3 of the aid stations. At least one or two and sometimes more porta potties were at each aid station.
• I never worried about getting lost. Orange tape on the streets and arrows on signs marked the course and there were lots of volunteers and police. They were polite and helpful. Even though there were occasionally moments when I could not see anyone in front of me, I never doubted I was on course. This is important when you are near the back of the pack.
• The course is open for a generous 7.5 hours. I think that was one reason why I didn’t feel it necessary to push for that under 6 hour finish. It was fun to relax and enjoy the race.
I cannot think of anything negative about this race; it is highly recommended for walkers.

Merrill’s Mile 12 Hour Race – July 6, 2013 (Dahlonega, GA)

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It’s good to be back on track, racing on a regular basis. Although I had enjoyed my brief hiatus from racing (with only one marathon a month in April, May, and June), my training suffered. Babysitting and leisure strolling in picturesque England took their toll. Now, with the 3 mile Melon Run on the 4th of July followed two days later by Merrill’s Mile, a timed race in the mountains of north Georgia, I feel like I am once again honing my walking skills.

There is not much to be said about the Melon Run. I try to do it every year I’m in town and it’s a pleasant way to celebrate the 4th. About 300-500 people show up at a local park, some with dogs and others with baby carriages. Most are runners but there are some walkers as well. I finished the three mile circuit in about 36 minutes, an average of 12 minutes a mile. Since I walk before the race, and then walk to and from the park, as well as actually participating in the race, I get about 10 miles or so under my belt. The reward is all the watermelon I can eat, in addition to water, cookies, bananas, and other goodies. Nice and low-key.

I was really excited about Merrill’s Mile. Timed races are relatively stress-free, although I manage to place a lot of expectations on myself. For this race, I hoped to do a minimum of 31 miles (to count in Marathon Maniacs statistics, any race over 8 hours has to be at least the length of a 50K), but I really wanted to cover between 40-45 miles.

This race is put on by DUMASS Runners (Dahlonega Ultra Marathon Association). I gave the organization a French pronunciation (Doo Mahs) until my husband pointed out the picture of a jackass used as a symbol on the logo and tee shirt. Oh, ‘Dumb Ass’ – I finally get it and feel quite silly (but I still like my pronunciation better although I can appreciate the joke).

We left Florida at 6:30 am on Friday morning, stopping only for a quick bite for breakfast at McDonald’s and a couple of gas fill-ups and potty breaks. Our hotel was the Holiday Inn Express, just outside of downtown Dahlonega; we checked in around 1 pm and began unpacking our bags and getting stuff ready for the race. I couldn’t get my ankle chip and bib until 4 pm, so we tried to relax and unwind. Finally, around quarter to 4, we headed out to the Hiker Hostel, site of packet pickup. The word ‘hostel’ makes me think of something just a step above camping out so I was pleasantly surprised at the attractive cabins and headquarters of this hostel.

Along with my bib and chip, I received a neat cotton tee shirt, with the cute little mule/jackass picture on the back. Other early arrivals included several people who had run Delirium and Operation Endurance. Soon my friends Joyce and Ray showed up; Joyce was doing the 24 hour race. On the one hand, I wondered if I should change my plans and try the longer race, but since I had only packed for the shorter version, I decided to stick with my original plan. That turned out to be a wise choice.

We chatted awhile and then Darcy and I drove to downtown Dahlonega for dinner. We had a good meal at the Porter House, hamburgers, sweet potato fries, and local beer. There was so much food that I asked for a container for leftovers and planned on having them after the race on Saturday evening.

The race site was at Camp Frank D. Merrill, an active military base, and the course was a 12 foot wide 1 mile crushed granite and dirt oval loop. Well, it was not really one full mile but rather a .9902 mile loop, so every completed loop was just shy of one mile. I had done several ‘mile’ courses that were really not full miles so I was familiar with the frustration that comes with having to do a few extra loops to get the full expected mileage. I much prefer courses that are longer rather than shorter, but at least I knew what to expect.

Race options included a 12 hour day, 12 hour night, and 24 hour; the 12 hour day and 24 hour both started at 9 am Saturday morning while the 12 hour night began at 9 pm on Saturday evening. The course was an oval and it was impossible to get lost – even for me. Everyone ran or walked in a counter-clockwise direction. Only full laps were to be counted.
The start/finish had a fully-stocked aid station with the usual ultra goodies plus some special treats. Volunteers at the aid station were especially attentive to our needs; every time I paused to consider what to eat next, someone was offering me a delicacy. There was another aid station at the halfway point on the course that had just water and Gatorade. Four porta-potties were our rest rooms for the duration. They were clean and the number appeared to be sufficient for runners and family members. I never had to wait in line.

Although the race didn’t start until 9 am, Darcy and I left for the race site before 7. We wanted to help Joyce and Ray set up their tent at a good location on the course. I brought a chair as well as a drop bag so I could set my things on the chair and use it to change shoes and socks later in the race. We followed the website’s directions to Camp Merrill, on a twisting rural road in the beautiful north Georgia Appalachian foothills, about 25 minutes from Dahlonega. The morning held the promise of rain but in the early morning it was dry, the temperature was in the low 70’s, and cloudy. Predictions were for intermittent rain the entire weekend. The preceding week had seen a lot of rain already, and the track had lots of puddles. Because of past experience with pebbles and dirt courses, I wore my gaiters. I was very glad I did, since otherwise the tiny rocks would have worked their way inside my shoes and socks.

We queued up behind the starting line, me at the very back, and as everyone began moving forward, I tried my best to skirt the worst of the puddles (they seemed to be deepest near the start line). Soon I was able to get into a regular rhythm, averaging about 14 to 15 minutes per loop. It was a nice easy comfortable pace and I was able to maintain it for a fairly long length of time. The only really negative part of the entire day was the rain, which began sometime in the morning and continued throughout the day and night. Sometimes it was a light mist, other times a drizzle, occasionally a deluge. My clothes would dry out and then it would start to rain again. I don’t think it stopped for longer than 2 hours at most. The puddles deepened and began to cover most of the course. It was impossible to avoid getting my shoes and socks wet. Eventually I had to stop and change into my spare pair; my feet were starting to blister and hurt. If I had brought additional shoes and socks, I would have changed again, but since I had just the one spare pair of each, I had to manage as best I could.

The timing seemed to be spot on, so even though I kept track of my loop count, I could double-check each time I passed the timing clock. Eventually I worked out a method of stopping every 5 loops to drink or eat something or go to the porta-potty. Once I passed 35 circuits, I relaxed a bit. I had managed to get at least a 50K and it was only about 4 o’clock. Now I could work on adding to that total over the next five hours. Darcy showed up at 7 pm and that cheered me up a lot. Only 2 more hours to go, the rain had ceased for a bit, and I was feeling pretty good (except for my wet and blistered feet). I decided to try to do at least 44 loops, maybe 45. Then the rains began again, this time accompanied by thunder and lightning. I am cautious about lightning; I decided that #44 would be my final loop. I completed that loop at 8:39 pm, right before the rain turned into a heavy downpour. It was time to pack up, get my dog tag finisher’s medal, and head back to the hotel. Final result: 43.569 miles.

My friend Joyce was still in for the duration and I felt bad about leaving her and Ray – but I was definitely glad to call it a day. The decision to make this just a 12 hour race was a good decision for me, especially since I felt I was just getting back into the swing of racing again. Darcy and I drove back to the Holiday Inn, where I showered and ate my leftover dinner (still good the second day), and went to bed. It was good to sleep in on Sunday morning and take our time driving back home, stopping of course for peaches, onions, and other treats at the Nut House on I-75.

This is definitely a good race for walkers to consider. People are friendly, the area is beautiful, and the course is well-groomed. The puddles – well, they are just an obstacle to be dealt with – but if the weather is clear and rain is absent, the course would have been fine.

Walking the Thames Path: The Beginnings of a Dream Fulfilled (June 11-24)

Every since I was a young girl, I had visions of spending days, weeks, even months, walking across England. For most of my life, my idea of walking along the many national trails through the English countryside remained very much a dream. Marriage, children, and work prevented fulfillment of this goal and so I postponed it indefinitely – until my recent retirement. Now I have the time, a limited budget, and a passion for walking, plus a lot of ideas.

My first idea was to sign up for a Road Scholar (RS) walking trip. RS used to be known as Elderhostel and until recently was limited to travelers over the age of 50. The organization has since relaxed its rules and now offers intergenerational programs as well as many that appeal to older adults. The trip I chose for my first foray into English walking was purposely moderate in scope because I wanted my husband Darcy to join me on the excursion. He is my marathon man and foremost supporter when I do races, but he prefers to meet me at the finish line rather than participate himself. The trip we selected had to have minimal miles to be covered each day and had to offer a chance to stay back at the hotel to relax if Darcy felt the route would be too onerous on a particular day.

‘Walking the Thames Path’ seemed to fit the bill. What follows is a fairly detailed summary of our experiences, both good and bad. The bottom line – we had a lot of fun but it was a very expensive trip and some things did not turn out as expected.

Day 1 – our plane left Florida at 11:45 am and our neighbor kindly offered to drop us off at the airport so we didn’t have to leave our car for 2 weeks or pay for a taxi. I was incredibly anxious about this trip and I cannot figure out why. I was nervous and worried and excited all at once. Things settled down once we arrived at the airport and checked our bags. We were on our way!

We flew to Atlanta where we had a layover of several hours, so we settled into the Delta Sky Club, munching on treats and trying to relax. Then we made our way to the gate around 5 pm for a 5:45 pm departure. While we were acting like ‘gate lice,’ hanging around waiting to board, the Delta gate agent announced a call for volunteers to take a later flight. Darcy and I looked at each other ; we both had the same thought – we could do that! Our ticketed flight would land us at Heathrow at 7:30 in the morning and we would arrive way too early to check into our hotel at the airport. A later flight would get us there around noon and would be perfect. So we took a chance – we volunteered to take the 9:40 pm redeye flight later that evening. As a result, we each got $750 in Delta dollars and $10 each for meal vouchers. That was a good deal!

Day 2 – The flight was long, 7 plus hours, but smooth and uneventful. I slept fitfully. We were served a wake-up breakfast before landing and then we disembarked, made our way through Customs, found our luggage (we each had checked a huge bag packed with enough clothes to last us 2 weeks), and managed to find the Hilton Hotel at terminal 4, just a short walk from the Delta gates. Heathrow is huge! It’s also very confusing, especially to newcomers. We found the hotel without a problem but there was not much around the hotel except parking lots – but we were there to sleep not explore. We checked in and received an upgrade to the executive floor and lounge. Wonderful! We did our best to stay up until at least 7 pm. There was a restaurant in the Hilton that had sandwiches and drinks so we ate an early lunch, watched some television, visited the lounge for a snack supper and a glass of wine, and then went to sleep.

Day 3 – I had arranged for us to meet the RS driver at the airport at 7 am so we had to rise early and take the shuttle from our hotel to terminal 5. Once there, we discovered that the incoming flight from Chicago with 2 other RS participants had been delayed for over 2 hours. That meant we had to stand and wait, keeping an eye out for the RS driver. Finally, Darcy located the driver, the other people arrived, and we all piled into a waiting car, bags and all.

The trip to Oxford, our home for the next week, took about an hour. We arrived at the Oxford Spires 4 Pillars Hotel at mid-morning but our room wasn’t ready yet so we stored our luggage and went for a walk with Roy, one of our tour guides, to Folly Bridge and into downtown Oxford. Roy showed us Blackwell’s bookstore and I went a little crazy buying maps and books. We then headed back to a buffet lunch at the hotel. After lunch, we were able to check in; our room was fairly spacious, very clean, and overlooked a meadow (some rooms looked out on the busy front street or the parking lot, so we were lucky). Then we walked in the other direction to Iffley, a small picturesque village on the Thames, where we stopped in at St. Mary’s church, originally built in the 12th century but restored during more recent periods, It had several lovely stained glass windows. We also explored Iffley Lock, the first of many many locks we were to see during this visit. Both the walks – to Oxford and to Iffley – took us along the Thames River, with narrow houseboats docked at the banks and university students rowing their boats. Dinner was served at 6:30; my entree was a bit disappointing (my cod was bland) but the appetizer (Halloumi cheese) and dessert (rhubarb crunch) were tasty.

The evening ended with a talk by Bill Leonard, author and guide, about Oxford past and present. Highlights follow: (I had to take notes so I wouldn’t fall asleep; he was not at all boring but 8 is past my bedtime)
• weirs control the river – the locks are for boats
• the college rowing races begin at Iffley; the church there is one of the finest examples of Norman churches; it is noted for its ‘anchoress’ (Annora), a recluse who lived in a small room (cell) beside the church and devoted herself to prayer
• Christ Church is one of 38 separate colleges that make up Oxford University; the college was begun by Cardinal Woolsey
• Exams have just ended and we might see students wearing white carnations (which means they have just taken their first papers), pink (midterms), or red (finals)
• along the Thames we might see gun emplacements known as ‘pill boxes’ – these were barriers made by townspeople during World War; it turns out that we did see quite a few of these along the river
And so we reached the end of our first ‘official’ day.

Day 4 – After breakfast in our hotel, we left as a group to walk into Oxford where one of the Christ Church College custodians gave us a guided tour of the college. We walked around the magnificent quadrangle which is dominated by a bell tower designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Distinguished college alumni include William Penn, John Wesley, Lewis Carroll, and W. H. Auden, as well as 13 British prime ministers. We had lunch in the Great Hall where King Charles I held his Parliament during the English Civil War and where the Harry Potter films were made. The meal was cafeteria style and students were eating there along with tourists like us.

In the afternoon, we were on our own. We decided to go back downtown to shop, hitting Blackwell’s once more and several other stores, including the Varsity Shop where both Darcy and I bought Oxford University tee shirts, and Hotel Chocolat where we both indulged in some decadent dark chocolate treats. In retrospect, we should have used this afternoon to visit several of the town’s museums, since our next free afternoon in Oxford was Monday and all the museums were closed. But at the time we were unaware of that fact and so we indulged in shopping. The evening meal was on our own (we were ‘free agents’ in RS parlance) so we stopped at Tedesco’s market and bought a bottle of wine and some snacks – red wine and chocolate turned out to be a great supper.

Before I go with the story of our trip, I should introduce the other members of our group. Overall, they were decent sorts. Four were or had been clergy. One of them (Dina) also had an advanced degree in music and sang opera and then went to medical school to become a radiation oncologist. She was most kind and extremely interesting. Her husband Jim had studied to become a Jesuit priest but left to marry Dina; he was exceptionally funny and I enjoyed sitting near him during meals because of his humorous commentary.

Marilyn and John were ministers from Colorado and friends of Dina and Jim. Kate was a retired documents librarian from UC/Davis and Pat was a retired librarian from University of Houston @ Clear Lake. Funny how there were 3 of us librarians on the trip. There is always someone on these trips whose avocation is botany and on this trip it was Kate (although Pat also was a flower and garden aficionado). For both Kate and Pat, this RS trip was the middle of several other jaunts they were on, some with English groups and some solo.

The general tenor of this trip was laid back and casual. While the emphasis was supposed to be on walking, it was really more like sauntering or strolling. Few could maintain my pace and most preferred to take their time getting from place to place. It was a bit frustrating for me, but it was definitely good for Darcy since he was often ahead of many of them.

Day 5 – We ate breakfast at the hotel and then boarded a coach for the 30 minute drive to Radcot Bridge, built in the 12th century. We then proceeded to walk about 3 miles along the Thames to the attractive village of Kelmscott, passing by Grafton Lock, and then had a delicious lunch of soup and bread at the Plough Inn. We ended up at Kelmscott Manor, home of designer, craftsman, and socialist William Morris (died 1896). Morris, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement, had a distinctive style and some of his designs are still in use today. This was the only day it rained heavily. We waited out most of the rain in the shelter of the Manor buildings but our afternoon walk to the town of Lechlade-on-Thames was fairly soggy. We stopped at a pub for a pint while we waited for our return bus trip back to the hotel. Dinner was at the hotel and I chose the vegetarian entrée this evening – eggplant pasta, along with the rhubarb crunch for dessert.

Day 6 – After an early breakfast we left at 9 for a ride to Henley-on-Thames, home of the Henley Royal Regatta , first held in 1829. Here we visited the River & Rowing Museum; I wasn’t particularly crazy about seeing this museum since I am not especially intrigued by boats and rowing, but I enjoyed the special exhibition on The Wind in the Willows (I enjoyed this book as a child and later bought a beautifully illustrated hardcover edition on Amazon for $5). Lunch was in the museum cafeteria – a mundane affair except that I had the chance to try ginger beer (strong on the ginger flavor, absent on the alcohol). After lunch, we walked about 6 miles to Hurley Lock, passing Medmenham Abbey (home of the Hellfire Club). The weather was pleasant and when we arrived at Hurley we sat outside and enjoyed a cream tea on picnic benches. We returned to Oxford by coach at 5 pm. Dinner was at 7 and was eminently forgettable.

Day 7 – This day began with promise: we walked to Folly Bridge where we boarded a launch for a 2 hour cruise on the Thames. It was a gentle ride and fun to see the river from the very different perspective of being ON the river. Lunch was at the hotel, a simple buffet offering. After lunch we were on our own, free agents once again, although our 2 guides were going for a walk to the Trout Inn at Godstow Lock, 4 mile away. Darcy and I decided not to go on this walk – we weren’t especially taken with the idea of drinking and then walking back – and it turns out the pub was not very good so we made a wise decision. We instead spent the day in Oxford with the intent of visiting some museums. Unfortunately the museums were closed (it was Monday) and the city itself was teeming with people. We did visit the Bate Museum of Musical Instruments but it turned out that the day was mostly wasted. I did very little walking and felt frustrated. We bought another bottle of wine; dinner at the hotel was mediocre but I was still pretty full from lunch. I had a hard time getting to sleep. I was beginning to get tired of eating at such a late hour than usual for me and we never finished our meal before 9 pm.

Day 8 – This morning we rode on the coach to Sutton Courtenay to begin a 7 mile walk to Dorchester-on-Thames. I found this day to be much better than yesterday. We visited the gravesite of Eric Blair (George Orwell) and then began our walk to the picturesque village of Clifton Hampden. We ate a packed lunch on the path. As we ate, we watched a wedge of swans fly over us, a thrilling site. Towards the end of our walk we took a short but very steep detour to the Wittenham Clumps, site of an Iron Age hill fort. At last we were doing some major walking! At 4 pm we met the coach at Dorchester for the drive back to Oxford. After a special menu dinner (better than usual), we retired to our rooms to pack for the transfer to Richmond the next day. Darcy and I packed up our suitcases and got everything ready in advance so we’d be prepared for the transfer.

Day 9 – We brought our suitcases downstairs right after breakfast, loaded them on the coach, and settled our bill with the hotel. Then we all set off for Runnymede Meadow, an hour’s drive, where we visited the memorial site where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. We stood on the acre of land within the meadow that was given to the USA in perpetuity and we paid homage to the John F. Kennedy Memorial which stands on the site.

Then it was time for the pleasant 6 mile walk to Windsor. We passed the ‘Copper Horse’ statue of George III on horseback that stands before the regal Long Walk to Windsor Castle. It is here, surrounded by horse chestnuts and plane trees, that we stopped to eat our packed lunch. As we ate, we watched a cavalcade of horses and cars proceed down the road and – to our surprise – watched as Queen Elizabeth, ensconced inside one of the cars, along with her entourage, left the castle on her way to Ascot. It surprised me that so few people were congregating around her (and as far as I could tell, there was very little security also, although I may have missed the more subtle British equivalents of our Secret Service). Of course, we had to visit the castle, including Queen Mary’s dolls’ house, the kitchen and scullery, and state apartments. Our motor coach picked us up at 5 and we rode for 45 minutes to our hotel in Richmond-on-Thames, the Richmond Hill Hotel.

We checked in and unpacked. Our hotel was originally a Georgian house built in 1726; in the early decades of the 19th century, three additional houses were incorporated into the building and several more wings were added in the 1880’s. It became the Richmond Hill Hotel in 1913. In 1939, the British army requisitioned the hotel to use as barracks for its regiments and David Niven was one of its denizens. The rooms were very small and spartan but had all the essentials. The floors creaked and we got lost trying to find our way through the maze of corridors, but the hotel definitely had a certain charm. Probably the best thing about the hotel was its location. Right across the street was a beautiful view of the Thames in a bucolic setting. Downtown Richmond was a short walk to the north. South of the hotel was Richmond Park, 2500 acres of woodland and grassland, with deer and rabbits and parakeets.

The major negative at this hotel was the food. While breakfasts were the traditional full English fare (eggs, sausages, bacon, potatoes, blood pudding, baked beans, toast, cheese, pastries, etc.) just as in Oxford, our dinners were barely edible. In fact, Darcy and I chose to eat at a nearby pub, the Roebuck, for several of our meals. We found ourselves becoming regulars at this pub, and soon the servers recognized us and we quickly learned which of the many excellent beers were our favorites.

Day 10 – On this morning we rode in a coach to Hampton Court, about 30 minutes from Richmond. Darcy decided to stay at the hotel; he had developed 2 bad blisters on his heels and was having difficulty walking any major distance. We kept in touch by texting each other. It was probably a good idea for him to stay behind because we did quite a bit of walking around the palace and gardens, up and down stairs, and along the maze. We had lunch at Tiltyard Café on the grounds of the palace and then walked the 6 miles back along the Thames to Richmond. It was a long but exhilarating day and I enjoyed it. For dinner, Darcy and I ate at ‘our’ pub.

Day 11 – This also turned out to be a favorite day for me. We started early in the morning to walk the 3 miles to Kew Gardens. Once there, we had a knowledgeable guide give us an extensive tour of the grounds – highlights included the treetop walkway and Kew Palace. After the tour we were on our own. I stopped for lunch at the Orangery Restaurant where I had a Bakewell Tart and Sicilian lemonade. Since Darcy’s blisters were still bothering him, he had taken this day off as well. Everyone else took the bus back to Richmond but I retraced my steps along the Thames Path to get another 3 miles of walking in. One of my concerns was the tide. From Richmond on to London, the Thames is subject to tides and walking along the southern side is sometimes flooded during high tide. The tide was out during our morning walk but had risen quite a bit on my return trip but fortunately I made it back in time. Dinner once again was at our pub.

Day 12– I now became acutely aware that our vacation was drawing to a close. We only had two more days left but they were filled with activity. It had rained Friday night and Saturday morning but by the time we left for the 40 minute ride to the Tower of London, the weather had cleared. This was a confusing day. We were dropped off at the Tower and people disappeared to do their own thing. In Oxford and Richmond, we had been given maps in our packets to help us find our way around but here in London, a confusing city, we were left without any guidance. Since Darcy had never been to the Tower before, we made that a priority and then purchased a London map to figure out the many bridges and sights.

We were supposed to meet for lunch (although the actual meal was on our own) but that too seemed more confusing than helpful. Darcy and I and a few others in our group opted for a light lunch at Southwark Cathedral tea room. Afterwards we had the services of an excellent Blue Badge London guide, Myra, who led us on a walking tour of the south bank of the Thames in London. We passed by many sights, including the HMS Belfast, the Globe Theatre, the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge, the London Eye, Cleopatra’s Needle, the Victoria Embankment, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, and Westminster Abbey. We returned by coach to Richmond, exhausted. Darcy and I skipped dinner at the hotel so we could have a final meal at our pub.

Day 13 – I was up early this morning to walk through the Deer Park. Yesterday I had met a man out walking his dog and this gentleman told me exactly how to enter the park – today I followed his instructions. I was rewarded by a beautiful quiet bucolic morning, surrounded by deer, birds, rabbits, and later in the morning lots of cyclist and runners. I was back by 8 am so I could join our group as we were driven by coach to Westminster Pier. Once there we boarded a river boat to take us to the Thames Barrier, the world’s largest movable flood barrier that was specifically designed to protect London from flooding if there were to be a destructive North Sea tidal surge.

We left the cruise at Greenwich where we spent the better part of the afternoon. Since it was nearing lunchtime, Darcy and I looked at the gastronomic possibilities and settled on a local tavern, the King’s Arms, where I ordered tea and fish and chips. Darcy had his favorite bangers and mash. After eating our fill, we walked through Greenwich Park and up the steep hill to the Old Royal Observatory. We paid the admission fee to allow us to stand on the Prime Meridian and visit Flamsteed House (John Flamsteed was the First Astronomer Royal) where I learned more than I ever wanted to know about measuring longitude. Afterwards, we walked through the National Maritime Museum, stopped for some fresh cookies from a local bakery, and waited for our coach to arrive for the return to Richmond.

It was time to pack for our return home, but first we had our final meal as a group. This time we ordered off a special menu and the food, if not glorious, was at least recognizable and appealing. Dina and Jim had bought a few bottles of good red wine that they shared with all of us and we were in a jolly mood as we said our good-byes. Except for me – I was sad at having to leave England.

Day 14 – Our plane was due to leave around 9:40 in the morning, so we had to be ready early – very early! At 5 am we were loading our suitcases into the motor coach and saying farewell to Roy. The trip to Heathrow was uneventful and we found the Delta ticket counter, checked our bags, and began the long 7 ½ hour journey to Boston, then Atlanta, and then home. Our last plane was delayed due to bad storms in the Midwest but we finally arrived about 10 pm. Our neighbor was kind enough to meet us and ferry us home, despite the late hour. It took me several days to overcome jet lag and feel somewhat normal again. On the whole, it was a very successful trip.

A few notes:
• It felt funny to travel without doing a race; I felt like I was missing something
• Our guides were good but not great; Roy was very affable and friendly but it was hard to understand his Manchester accent; Geoff was distant but approachable; neither offered a lot of information about the sights we were seeing (though they had some funny stories to tell) and since RS emphasizes the educational aspect of its tours, I was a bit surprised about that lack of expertise
• The guides also seemed somewhat confused at times about the actual paths we were to take; a few times we had to turn around and reverse our steps
• I didn’t care for the late (for me) dinner hours, the late breakfast hours, and the constant feeling that I had to socialize and make small talk with other members of the group; it was just hard to be constantly ‘on’ (the bane of being an introvert, I guess)
• We took way too much stuff in too big a suitcase; next time I would take less in a smaller bag and make everything do double duty. I did wear most of what I took, but I could have made do with less