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!