The Tallahassee Ultra Distance Classic – Wakulla Springs, Florida (December 14, 2013)

This event consists of two races, a 50k and a 50 miler, with an overall time limit of 10 hours. It is the perfect race for the walker who wants to ‘move up’ to an ultramarathon distance. In fact, it was my very first ultra and it remains one of my favorites. I try to do it whenever I am in Florida.

Both events are put on by the Tallahassee Gulf Winds Track Club. Race Directors Gary and Peg Griffin have all the details down to a science: a corps of dedicated volunteers, yummy aid station goodies, well-marked course, and neat finishing awards – all the essentials for a wonderful experience. The course is a paved 10k ‘loop’ with several out-and-backs – 50k people run it 5 times while 50 milers do it 8 times, with an additional section at the beginning. It is hard to get lost, especially with the encouraging signs posted at significant points.

I drove to Tallahassee on Friday so I could spend some time with my son and his family. On Saturday, we rose early for the 30 minute drive to Wakulla Springs Park. Someday I will take the time to really explore the park and springs and watch the manatees, but on race day I am focused totally on the race. I brought a chair to set up just past the main aid station and put my drop bag with a change of shoes and socks and other essentials on it. People who drove could park in a lot adjacent to the course so access would be available on every circuit. The Lodge has rooms for those who need to spend the night and its parking lot also adjoins the course. Another plus for these races are the indoor restrooms at the start/finish line.

Packet pickup was easy and well-organized; bibs were arranged alphabetically by last names. There is no chip timing. Instead, racers meet their lap counters before the race and are encouraged to shout out their race number after finishing each lap. Lots of people return every year to do these races and I was happy to see several familiar faces – Mellody, Deb, Vickie, and Diane. I expected to see a friend I met in Athens but since she was flying in from Chicago, I wasn’t surprised when Evelyn didn’t make it. There were lots of grounded planes in the Midwest.

There was a brief race briefing at 6:45 and then Gary took the 50 milers to their starting point while the 50k racers line up behind a chalked line drawn on the pavement. Right at 7 am somebody said ‘Go.’ We all took off, walkers at the back, and began our journey through the park. The course is all paved and extremely flat, and since this is Florida, elevation is nil. The road is closed to traffic and bordered by tall trees. The hardest part of the course is a very long out-and-back between the second aid station and the next turn-around.

December weather in Tallahassee can be very cold but this year it was relatively warm, with temperatures in the high 50’s to start, a welcome change from the frigid temps of previous races. However, this year we had rain and thunder that began after about 4 hours into the race. It was impossible to stay dry, even though I had donned my yellow rain slicker. Despite the showers, I somehow managed to finish in 7:03, a personal best for me in a 50k.

These races are highly recommended for both walkers and runners.

The Honolulu Marathon: Another Day in Paradise (December 8, 2013)

While most of the United States this past weekend was in a deep freeze complete with snow, ice, and wind, I flew from sunny Florida to tropical Hawaii to participate in the 41st Honolulu Marathon on the island of Oahu.  I love warm weather so this was an ideal choice for me, although I have to admit that the race and my trip did have some negatives.

I left Florida on Friday, building in an extra day before the race just in case; with such a long flight, I didn’t want to take any chances on missing the race.  Whenever I travel west of the Mississippi I try to add that extra day if my budget allows.  I had registered for Honolulu early this year when there was a half price special for mainlanders.  I then looked on the Marathon Maniacs Facebook page to check on recommended hotels.  That was how I decided upon the Marriott Courtyard on Waikiki Beach; it was supposed to be within easy walking distance of the expo, the bus to the start line, and the park near the finish line.  Indeed it was, although if I had it to do over again, I would select a hotel closer to the finish line.  More about that later. 

When I checked on airfares, I was astounded to see that it would cost about $1000 for an economy ticket.  Given the popularity of Hawaii as a tourist destination, I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised, but I was.  I decided to use my Delta frequent flier miles and save money for the hotel and other expenses.  Once all that was settled, I concentrated on the many other races that were on my calendar and put Honolulu out of my mind – until last week that is.  All of a sudden, the race was upon me and I had to read up on the course and what to expect.

This trip was a solo one for me.  My husband, never a fan of sunshine or water, decided to stay home and relax.  I flew to Atlanta, spent a couple of stress-free hours in one of the Sky Clubs, and then settled in for a long, 10.5 hour flight nonstop to Honolulu.  The good news about this otherwise boring flight was my bulkhead economy comfort seat with extra legroom and an absorbing movie about Steve Jobs.  Still, it was a very long flight.  Delta no longer serves meals to economy passengers on flights to Hawaii but they did have food to buy.  I had some coupons for snack boxes so I nibbled on a couple of those.  There is a 5 hour time difference so it was only around 4 pm when we landed but my body was still on Eastern Time and it felt to me like 9 at night.

After picking up my checked bag, I looked for the SpeediShuttle vans that were advertised on the airport website.  Dozens of other travelers were also looking for them.  I found a SpeediShuttle representative, paid for a round-trip passage, and then joined a long line of people waiting to board.  Each van could hold about 9 passengers and I took a seat in the front of one of them, next to two women from Chicago who were also planning to do the race.  Everyone was staying at different hotels in Waikiki Beach so the driver of our van made notes on the places he had to stop. As we headed out, it was 4:30 in the afternoon and traffic was at a standstill.  I guess that was to be expected for Friday rush hour but in addition to the long lines of cars, our driver seemed unsure of where the hotels were actually located.  He finally managed to drop off the other passengers, leaving just three of us, all marathoners, still in the van.  It was now 6:30 and dark.  The two other women had paid for the pricey ($75 a ticket) Friday evening race luau but because of the long delays in finding our hotels they were unable to get there in time.  Finally the driver found their hotel but mine was not on his radar.  We drove around and around and I was beginning to think I would never get to my hotel.  I moved into the front seat of the van, looked at my map, and began to give the driver directions to the Courtyard.  Me, give directions? In a city I had never been in before?  In the dark?  It was pretty funny once I could look back on it from the inside of my hotel room but while we were searching, it was not so amusing.  SpeediShuttle was definitely a misnomer.  Eventually, though, we arrived at my hotel and I was able to check in and make my way to a room on the 17th floor.  The room was tiny but functional and clean.  I was hungry and tired and impatient.  I walked to a nearby grocery store and bought a large bottle of spring water and a tiny bottle of wine, then crossed the street to McDonald’s and bought a chicken sandwich.  I ate, drank, and slept.  Tomorrow was another day.

My plan was to have a light breakfast and then find the Convention Center, site of the expo.  The lady at the hotel desk gave me an easy-to-follow map of the area and explained how to get to both the expo and the zoo (the locale for meeting the buses to the start line on Sunday morning).  The Convention Center was an easy 15 minute walk away and I found it without trouble.  People were lining up outside the Expo doors and at 9 am on the dot, we were allowed inside.  We had earlier been sent an information sheet with final race instructions and a tear-off form with our running number. I walked to the appropriate table and picked up my bib with chip on the back and a plastic bag that was meant as a drop bag for clothing.  There were souvenir tee shirts, caps, socks, and other race items for sale and I ended up purchasing a couple of marathon tee shirts, one cotton and one tech, just in case the finisher shirts we were to get at the end of the race did not fit me.  I had learned my lesson from Dublin. 

Now I was juggling several bags plus my backpack with my glasses, camera, and map.  I walked around the expo, taking pictures of the many booths with signs in Japanese.  This race is extremely popular with people from Japan and more than half of the entrants are from that country.  As I approached the exit, I was stopped by some expo photographers who were snapping pictures of people in front of a marathon backdrop.  I handed my camera to one of the photographers and he snapped a couple of pictures of me with my camera.  I think he handed it back to me but I can’t be positive.  He also took several professional photos of me.  Then I left.  I juggled my bags and backpack and put on my sunglasses.  As I walked to the bridge to return to my hotel, I looked for my camera so I could snap a few pictures.  That’s when I realized that the camera was missing – and I couldn’t remember what had happened to it.  I quickly retraced my steps, looking all around at my surroundings to see if I had dropped it somewhere.  I re-entered the expo and asked the photographers if someone had found it.  I checked with ‘lost and found’ and left my name and number just in case.  But my camera never surfaced.  

So this report has no pictures.  It was pretty disillusioning to think that a fellow athlete may have stolen my camera.  Since expos are open to all, I prefer to think that the culprit was a petty thief who benefited from the trust of runners and walkers.  Still, I had traveled to races in Rome, Athens, and Dublin and all over the United States without a problem so I was disenchanted that something like this would happen in the island paradise of Hawaii.  From that point on, I kept one hand on my wallet and cell phone at all times, even during the marathon.

I returned to the hotel to deposit my bib and shirts away and then walked in the other direction to the zoo in Kapiolani Park.  It took about 20 minutes to get to the parking lot where the buses were to leave.  By this time I was pretty hungry so I walked around town looking for possible places to dine.  When my husband comes with me, I usually follow his suggestions for meals.  He does his research thoroughly and checks out reviews and menus.  On my own, I look for places that are convenient, quiet, and not too expensive.  I ended up at a P. F. Chang’s near some upscale shops; I had a yearning for Chinese food so I indulged.  The leftovers went in the room’s refrigerator and turned out to be a good post-race meal for me.  My only other restaurant meal turned out to be a not-so-great French toast breakfast on Monday before I left for the airport.  This trip was not a culinary adventure.

The Honolulu Marathon begins at 5 am, no doubt to avoid the heat and humidity of the day.  Buses to the start line begin leaving at 2 am and continue until 4 am.   Since I’m an inveterate early bird, my plan was to rise at 1 am, have some coffee and a granola bar, and walk to the buses by 2.  Getting up that early was not a problem because I had not yet adjusted to the time change.  However, the mile or so  walk to the zoo led me past an array of bars and restaurants and condos that were still open.  I thought I would see other runners on their way to the buses but that was not the case; I was probably the only sober person on the street at that hour.  I walked by boxes and cartons on the sidewalk and wondered who would put their suitcases and belongings outside – and then realized that there were people sleeping INSIDE those boxes.  It was very sad and very strange.

I made it to the park without incident and took a seat on one of the first buses to leave for the start line at Ala Moana Beach Park.  The ride took about 25 minutes.  Because I was so early, I had my pick of the many portapotties that lined the area. I watched as volunteers and racers arrived in succeeding waves of buses.  Eventually, 22,000 of us would line up according to pace in the street.  At least that was theoretically what was to happen.  However, a lot of people who do this race seem unfamiliar with traditional racing etiquette because many slower runners, joggers, and walkers lined up in the faster corrals.  I discovered this because there were numerous bottlenecks during the race, even on the wide streets and even very late into the race.

Before the race began, I met a number of people, including several Maniacs, and met up again with the two women from Chicago who had shared the shuttle with me.  We chatted in our corrals right up to the start of the race.  There was an amazing show of fireworks before the race, one of the best I’ve ever seen.    It only took about 15 minutes for me to reach the timing mat.  I tried to get into a steady even pace but the crowds of people who were determined to run, jog, or walk in tightly-knit groups of two, three, four, or more made it impossible to maintain any kind of regular rhythm.  I decided to relax and just enjoy the experience but I was definitely concerned about the rapidly rising humidity.  I knew if I took too long to complete the race, I would be extremely hot and subject to leg cramps. 

The early miles of the course wound through downtown Honolulu; in the dark, with Christmas lights on the trees and decorations on the storefronts, it was magical.  Then we headed through Waikiki Beach, around and up Diamond Head, and then on a very long out-and-back along the ocean front.  I reached the half-way point at my usual time of 3 hours and was feeling pretty good.  The turn-around point was just after mile 17; as I headed back towards the finish line at Kapiolani Park, I saw numerous racers who still had not yet reached the half marathon point.  I felt happy to be on the other side of the road but concerned about those who were behind me.  It was now very hot and I saw several people in the medical tents needing attention, a few with IVs, and passed by one lady on the ground who was receiving CPR.

Aid stations were plentiful but very crowded and disorganized.  Instead of volunteers handing out cups of water and Gatorade, the cups were set on tables and it was necessary to wade through people to grab a drink.  It took me a while to figure out that the water was in the white cups, Gatorade in the green, because there were no signs and no verbal instructions.  A handheld water bottle in this case would have come in handy.  In addition to drinks, there were gels and pretzels and hard candy.  There were also cold sponges at several stops – they were wonderful!

The final few miles are downhill and great for running but my legs were starting to seize up, first my right hamstring and calf and then my left.  I stretched a bit and slowed my walk down to about a 15-16 minute pace to work through the cramping.  I could see the finish line ahead of me and was very happy to cross it in 6:09:57.  Immediately after the finish line, a volunteer circled my head with a long necklace of cowry beads.  I wondered if this necklace was in place of a medal, since I could see no one giving out medals.  I also saw no food or finisher shirts or directional signs, so I asked a volunteer who pointed out a tent on the other side of the park.  That’s where a volunteer handed me a red tech tee shirt AND a medal.  Opposite was another tent with food; the sign said ‘bagels’ but the food was actually doughnuts (and very tasty ones) and bananas.

After all this wandering around in the park, my sense of direction, always tenuous, was now completely overwhelmed.  I had to ask several policemen how to get back to my hotel, but I reached the Courtyard and my room.  My main focus at this point was to shower and relax. 

Since my flight did not leave until late Monday, I decided to spend Monday morning walking (slowly!) back to the park to pick up my certificate and finisher booklet.  I was also able to exchange my medium tee shirt for a small, so I could wear it on the planes back home.  All in all, it was a good trip, despite the loss of my camera and the frustrations of large crowds.  The race is definitely walker-friendly and an excellent choice for the slower walker who does not mind high temperatures or high humidity.

Things to note if you do this race:

  • Don’t expect a PR.  The weather works against you because the heat is oppressive, the shade absent, and the humidity high.  Trade winds may help but during this year’s race there was no wind at all.  
  • Don’t expect a PR because people will walk, run, and jog in bands of two, three, five, and more.  They will not allow you to pass by them.   They won’t let you walk between them.  They don’t understand why you might want to get ahead of them.  This will throw off your pace dramatically.
  • Try to stay at a hotel close to the zoo and finish line at Kapiolani Park.  You will not have to dodge weaving drunks and carousers in the wee hours of race morning.  Even though this adds another mile or so when walking to the expo, that would be during daylight hours and thus not so lonely or treacherous (important if you are a woman traveling alone).
  • Consider paying for a taxi rather than the SpeediShuttle, or look into one of the other shuttles at the airport.  This is especially important if you need to be somewhere (like a luau) by a certain time.
  • Finisher shirts are generic, not gender-specific, so select a size accordingly.  I wear a women’s medium so I traded the generic medium for a small.
  • Enjoy the scenery along the course.  The best part of this trip was the actual race.  I loved walking around and up Diamond Head and the views of the water, beaches, and sailboats were magnificent.