Just Ducky: Run From the Ducks 8 Hour Race (Mineral Wells, Texas – September 28, 2013)

Since it had been 5 weeks since my last race, Run-de-Vous 100K in California, I was concerned that I had grown a bit rusty. While the 2 week hike in Cornwall was definitely difficult and quite a challenge for me, it was not the same as participating in a race. As a result, I was really looking forward to my trip to Texas to do this timed event. My goal was to complete at least 27 miles so I could count it as an ultra, and since I had finished at least 29 miles in other 8 hour races, I was pretty confident that I could achieve at least that number of miles.

My husband agreed to come along on this trip, so we left early in Friday morning for Jacksonville and arrived in Dallas/Fort Worth around noontime. After collecting our bags and our rental car, we drove to the Hampton Inn in Weatherford, an attractive and prosperous suburb of Fort Worth. We had our obligatory fajita meal at a local Taco Cabana and then, stuffed, we were ready to learn more about this event. The race was to be held in Clark Gardens Botanical Park in Mineral Wells, a small town about 14 miles from Weatherford. Packet pickup was early on Saturday just before the race but we wanted to get an idea of what the area was like, especially the surface that I’d be racing on (I’d brought trail shoes just in case) so we drove to the park on Friday afternoon to check it out.

What a neat venue for a race! Clark Gardens is a beautifully landscaped park with many native Texas plants, a beautiful rose garden, fountains, statues, gazebos, and plenty of wildlife (ducks, of course, but also peacocks, peahens, and lots of birds and squirrels, even a live snake). The Gardens were decorated for autumn, with pumpkins and scarecrows and fall leaves. My only concern was the maze of trails and paths that wound through the gardens. There was no course map on the race website and I had not thought to ask for one beforehand; I began to realize that I could get REALLY lost on this course if I took a wrong turn. Well – nothing I could do about it on Friday; I would just have to hope the course would be well-marked.

I slept fitfully on Friday evening and awoke around 3 the next morning, ready for my bagel and peanut butter with several cups of coffee. It didn’t take me long to dress and pack a drop bag. We left for the Gardens around 5 am and were greeted by Race Director Randy Gilbert who checked us in at the admissions area, gave me my goodie bag with two short-sleeved shirts (one tech, one cotton) and bib, and told us how to get to the start/finish area by the Oxbow Overlook. He reassured me that the course was marked with orange cones set in the center of the paths we were NOT supposed to take (and when the cones ran out, there were small pumpkins that served the purpose very well). Soon other racers began arriving and excitement began to mount. Even though this race is very small, with only about 25 runners, it is chip timed with an ankle chip. That makes it easy on the volunteers since there is no need for lap counters. There is one aid station replete with plenty of water and Gatorade and lots of yummy treats. My favorite turned out to be sweet potato chips (thoroughly addictive) but I also enjoyed the fun-size Snickers bars and pb & j quarters. Karen Riddle was assistant RD, helping Randy out and masterminding the aid station for most of the race (although my husband helped out during the final couple of hours).

Around 7 am, Randy and Karen called everyone together, gave us a few last minute instructions, and we all lined up in formation. I took my place at the back of the pack. Someone blew the duck whistle and I heard several quack, quack, quacks, from the volunteers and we were off. I struggled during that first loop to keep the runners in my line of sight but ended up essentially on my own after the first few minutes. The cones did their job, however, and helped me keep on track.

The weather was uncertain. Reports had called for thunderstorms and possible flooding. I was concerned that heavy rain showers might cause deep and muddy puddles on the relatively flat course. We were fortunate; it began to rain around 9 am but just a light drizzle. Throughout the course of the day, there were occasional showers but nothing overwhelming. My shoes and legs were muddy but there were no major puddles to deal with. Since the course is not shaded, too much sun could have been a potential problem, but the day remained overcast and breezy. Although I had my sunglasses I never wore them.

Each loop is 1.02 miles, so my plan was to do at least 27 loops; I wanted to try to finish 14 laps by 11 am. That would give me 4 hours to do 13 more, certainly a reasonable goal. In fact, I was able to complete 14 circuits by 10:30, giving me time to take a break, fill my water bottle, and continue on at a steady pace. By 1 pm I had almost reached my goal and began to feel good enough to press a little harder. My husband had taken over his duties at the aid station and cheered me on every time I passed by. Around 2:45 I had managed to finish 30 laps. The big question was ‘Could I do one more lap in the 14-15 minutes I had left?’ My toes were beginning to blister and I could feel my legs start to throb, but I figured I might as well try. I could hear someone shout out ‘3 minutes left’ and then ‘two minutes to go’ so I pushed myself as hard as I could, finally running (yes, running) the last couple of yards to cross the finish line with seconds to spare. I was elated; my final mileage was 31.62 and should count as a 50K.

There are so many excellent reasons to like this race:
• The lovely location is certainly one good reason. As I passed each section, I would think ‘this is my favorite part’ until I reached the next area and had the same thought. The course never got boring during the entire 8 hours
• The terrain is another reason – parts of the course were packed dirt, other sections were fine gravel, there was some grass (easy on the legs and feet), and some large stone pavers and short wooden bridges. There were no tripping hazards, an absence of big rocks and roots, and the course was essentially flat but not so flat as to cause shin splints. I wore running shoes (not my trail shoes) and my gaiters. Because of the small pebbles on some parts of the course, I would say gaiters would be a necessity but most of the runners did not wear them
• INDOOR RESTROOMS – a very important plus. These were clean, convenient, and accessible. They were located right across from the aid station.
• Although there were no spectators per se, the volunteers who surrounded the timing mat proved to be a peppy and vocal cheering section. Every time I crossed, I was greeted by name, told my lap count, and given several quacks for good measure. I even was privileged to carry the ‘duck’ – a gourd that really did look like a duck – around the course for a lap. Dani was especially enthusiastic, gave me a big hug when I completed my final lap, and was gracious enough to pose with me for a finish line photo
• This race is small and intimate – at some point, almost everyone will pass or be passed by everyone else – so it is easy to get to know the other participants. Although I was the only walker, I was not made to feel unwelcome; on the contrary, most of the runners were kind and friendly
• All of the proceeds from the race go to a good cause – the National Vietnam War Museum
Although we had to hurry on back to the airport, we did stay for the awards ceremony. The top three male and female finishers were recognized and given prizes. There were no medals for finishers but we were all given two raffle tickets. I had a winning ticket and received a pair of Dirty Girl gaiters, a prize I will certainly use. At the conclusion of the ceremony, we drove back to DFW airport and spent the night at the airport Hyatt; I was ever so grateful to hit the shower while my husband watched the Gator game. A quick dinner at the hotel restaurant during halftime and then it was bedtime so we could make our morning flight back home on Sunday.
This is a great race for walkers. While most of the race participants were local (I think I might have been the only person not from Texas), I think this would be a good destination race for people who want to experience a small friendly timed race in a neat little town.

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