Cause for Celebration: The Inaugural Town of Celebration (FL) Marathon and Half Marathon – January 26, 2014

This past weekend my husband and I traveled south a couple of hours to Celebration, an attractive planned community close to Orlando and Disney World.  Since I am always eager to take part in races that are reasonably priced and walker-friendly, this new marathon held a lot of appeal.  It turned out to be pretty close to perfect.  With a few tweaks to fix a couple of issues, Celebration may become a destination for runners and walkers looking for a winter race.

We left on Saturday for the easy drive down south, arriving at the host hotel, the Bohemian, around 12:30 pm.  Although the hotel has valet parking, we preferred to self-park, and the valet mentioned that some of the city lots still had some spaces available for free.  We snagged one and left our car there for the entire weekend.  Everything we needed was within easy walking distance: the expo, start and finish of both races, and several very good eating places.  The Bohemian is a Marriott hotel, so we picked up some rewards points for our stay, and – although we had to change our room because of some loud ventilation noise – the room we eventually moved to was fairly quiet, clean, and had a small balcony with view of a scenic lake. Even with the marathon rate, it was still kind of pricey but its location made it definitely worthwhile.

We walked to the small expo where several local vendors were selling gels, shoes, and clothing; Publix had a booth and were handing out small covered plastic snack bowls.  Packet pickup took a few minutes – bibs for the marathon and half marathon had different color stripes to distinguish each race and chips were attached to the back.  Shirts were short-sleeve technical, white and green, and gender-specific; however, they ran large and I later exchanged mine for a ladies small after the race.  We also were given a green tote bag with some ads, a sample of Bio-freeze, and running calendar in it.

After leaving the expo, my husband and I headed a couple of blocks over to Celebration Town Tavern, a seafood and burger restaurant with generous portions of hearty food and a casual atmosphere.  The Tavern prided itself on New England/Boston specialties so I indulged in a mug of delicious clam chowder and a lobster roll while my husband had an enormous meat loaf sandwich.  Once we ate our fill, we strolled over to the start and finish lines where officials were beginning to set up portapotties and pylons. Then it was back to the room to get my gear ready for the next morning and then try to relax.

Only one thing worried me about this marathon; since it was a double loop course, I was concerned about getting lost on the second loop once all the half marathoners left us.  Second loops often find me alone and bemused, trying to keep up with faster people way ahead of me (and not always succeeding). I had asked the race director about signage on the course and was assured that there would be green taped arrows at every turn and signs and volunteers to help direct us.  That indeed turned out to be the case, although I did have to keep my head down to make sure I could spot and follow the arrows.

Both the half and full marathons began at 7 am on Sunday morning.  Weather was perfect – high 50’s to start, 70 degrees by 1 pm, and cloudy.  I was cold at the start but a light jacket was all I needed to keep my arms warm.  No mittens or handwarmers were necessary. During the day, it never got too hot or humid and the sun never appeared at all.  I had carried my sunglasses in my vest pocket but never put them on.  I didn’t think I would see anyone I knew here but it turned out that I did indeed see a lot of my friends, including several Savage Seven runners like Liz, Frank, and Harry plus a lot of Maniacs and 50 Staters (Deb, Jim, Dave and many others).

The course is very flat and follows along the downtown streets of Celebration, through extremely attractive neighborhoods, and along several major roads that were open to traffic but coned, except in one area right after the full split off from the half.  In that section, we were moving along a major thoroughfare with cars parked to our left and moving vehicles heading towards us on the right.  We had to edge close to the parked cars to keep from being hit.  This was the only section that appeared to be dangerous and definitely needs some improvement.  The best parts of the course were along wooden boardwalks that wove through woods and alongside lakes.  It would have been great to have the course entirely on these boardwalks – I loved the springy feeling of my feet on the wooden planks.

Mile markers appeared at every mile without fail – and so did aid stations.  It was wonderful to have so many well-equipped and organized aid stations, with so many great volunteers who stayed throughout both loops.  I must mention that these volunteers, young and old, were exceptionally well-trained.  All of them knew how to offer beverages, holding the cup in the palm of their hand instead of by the rim (one of my pet peeves).  There was water, Gatorade, and Clif gels at the aid stations, but I also appreciated the impromptu neighborhood aid stations set up by some gracious homeowners who handed out licorice sticks, candy, and grape juice (and vodka, but that’s another story).

It was hard to watch the half marathoners peel off towards the finish line as I turned to head out on my second time around, but I discovered that my husband was able to find me and cheer me on a couple of times along the course as I wove through the downtown streets.  The hardest miles for me were 13 through 18, but once I hit the 20 mile marker I felt a resurgence of energy, especially since I was once again on boardwalks for a while.  I crossed the finish line in 5:54, exactly my finishing time at Baton Rouge last week.

A volunteer placed a finisher medal (attractive with a colorful lanyard) around my neck and gave me a bottle of water.  Darcy found me and took a few photos and then I looked for some refreshments.  We had been promised an array of goodies (more than ‘bagels and bananas’) from area restaurants, and there had been an assurance on the website that these treats would be available for all finishers, regardless of speed.  Unfortunately, that was not the case.  They did bring in some pizzas and that was very welcome, but it would have been great to have tried some of the restaurant specialties.

My only quibbles are with the lack of cones on a short busy segment of the second loop (a safety issue) and the unfulfilled promise of restaurant treats for back-of-the-packers.  The first could be addressed by altering that section of the course or by moving us to the sidewalk for that portion (though there should be a volunteer there to give us instructions).  As for the food issue – just don’t get our hopes up.  I would have been perfectly satisfied with pizza or bagels if I hadn’t been aware that there were more tempting goodies earlier.  With a generous 7 hour time limit, this race is a good choice for walkers and slower runners.  It is a perfect choice for walkers who wish to do a half marathon.

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The Louisiana Marathon in Baton Rouge, LA – January 19, 2014

Calling itself “a running festival with lagniappe” (lagniappe means a little something extra – I had to look it up, too), the Louisiana Marathon offers runners and walkers warm Southern hospitality with a French Creole accent.  The event’s is only three years old so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but previous comments on Marathon Guide and from fellow racers led me to believe that it would be a good experience.  The fact that the Marathon Maniacs were holding a reunion meeting at the expo was an added bonus.  While I had previously attended a number of 50 state club reunions, Maniac reunions so far had eluded me.  This would be a chance to try out a relatively new race in the company of fellow Maniacs.

My husband and I could have driven to Louisiana from Florida but I was able to find a reasonably-priced Delta flight from Jacksonville so we opted to fly.  Many of the people who lived in surrounding states did indeed drive, since Baton Rouge is easily accessible from many states via Interstate 10.  Our flight left early Saturday morning and arrived around 11:30 am.  We were staying at the host hotel, the Hilton Baton Rouge Capital Center, and an added plus (part of the promised lagniappe) was the hotel’s free airport shuttle that met us within 10 minutes of our phone call.  The hotel was in a prime location, close to the expo at Baton Rouge River Center and an easy walk to both the start and finish lines.  At first I had booked the room with my AAA card but the marathon rate offered a better discount, so I canceled the first and reserved a room with the latter.  There were at least two other hotels on the same street as the Hilton (Hotel Indigo and a Hampton Inn) but I am not sure if they offered better rates.  Many people who drove opted to stay several miles outside of downtown, to take advantage of cheaper rooms.   Although our room was on the second floor, it overlooked the Mississippi River and was scenic and quiet.

After checking in, we walked to the expo at River Center to pick up my packet.  The gray short sleeve tee shirt was gender specific and actually fit.  There were a number of vendors selling shoes and running-related items and several tables advertising races in other Louisiana cities.  My bib had my name on it and a wristband that detached from the bib.  The wristband would allow finishers to select 10 food and beverage items from the Food Village at the end of the race.  In theory, this should have worked well; however, in practice it was not useful for slower runners and walkers (me) who found most of the food booths closed by the time we made it across the finish line.  An exception was the VIP tent which was open to Maniacs.  This tent was hard for me to find (there was no signage so I just had to keep asking people for directions) but it had a large amount of delicious food still available.

I stopped by the Maniac table to say ‘hi’ and purchase a pink MM diva shirt.  I have found it best to try Maniac clothes on before buying them since some items run small; whenever there are Maniac products at an expo I try to take advantage of the opportunity.  The Maniac reunion was set for 4 pm in River Center and since it was still fairly early, after picking up my packet and shirt we headed out for something to eat.  My husband – as usual – had done his research on dining options. We decided on nearby Lucy’s Retired Surfer’s Bar where we had burgers and fries (sweet potato ones for me) and beer.  We finished just in time to make it back for the meeting.

The meeting was called to order by the three ‘main’ Maniacs who had founded the group.  They treated us to a humorous PowerPoint show about the early years of the Maniacs, some specific Maniacs were recognized, and then each of us had a chance to introduce ourselves.  As another bonus, members were given a watch cap in Maniac yellow and black plus a yellow wristband that we could show to receive a reunion medal at the finish line.  As it turned out, there were more Maniacs than medals, but that situation should soon be rectified by reunion coordinator Angie; she somehow managed to answer everyone’s questions and resolve problems with a great degree of finesse.  The race also had a half marathon component and there was a good representation of Half Fanatics and double agents (myself included).  The best part of the reunion for me was meeting so many Maniacs and Fanatics all at once; it was fun to see friends Mellody, Pam, Cheryl, George, Ray, Doug, and Dave, and meet so many other members. The meeting adjourned around 5:30 so people could attend the pasta dinner (with Bill Rodgers and Matt Long), but Darcy and I headed back to our hotel to turn in.  We were both tired and I was anxious to get my stuff ready for the race.

On Sunday, I woke around 3 am, ate my breakfast, and then began to obsess about the weather and what to wear. There was no rain expected, thank goodness, but the temperature was supposed to be chilly at the start, in the mid-40’s, and then warm up to around 60.  I changed pants 3x but finally decided on my usual crops and dressed in layers with mittens and handwarmers.  The race began at 7 and our Maniac photo shoot was set for 6:30, so I had plenty of time to ‘relax’ (as much as I can ever relax before a race) before walking to the start.  Corrals were on the honor system so I lined up behind the 5:30 pacer and waited for the gun to go off.  It took only a few minutes to cross the starting mat and then I kept to the edge of the street walking at about a 14 minute pace.  Since I had just completed 48.6 miles at the Dopey last weekend, I was not planning to run in this race at all.  I was ready for a nice easy pace.  I kept that goal throughout, running only on the few downhill sections.

I found this race enjoyable for a number of reasons:

  • The course is fairly flat but never boring.  The first 3-4 miles as well as the last 2-3 miles were on city streets that had lots of swales and potholes.   At the race start, several announcements were made to warn people to be mindful of these tripping hazards.  Many – but not all – were marked with orange paint but I found that as long as I kept my eyes on the ground in these tricky areas I could remain upright
  • The out-and-back between miles 15 and 22 gave me a chance to see other participants and cheer them on
  • There was a lot to look at, especially in the first half; the course took us on the Louisiana State University campus, around several attractive lakes, and through neighborhoods of lovely homes lined with stately oak trees that provided shade as well as beauty
  • While there were not massive numbers of spectators, I was impressed by the many people who came outside to watch us pass by.  I was asked several times where I was from and, after replying that I was from Florida, they thanked me for coming and choosing to do this race
  • Mile markers were huge and decorative and they were always followed by an aid station.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen so many aid stations in a race.  It was wonderful!  There was Powerade and water at each and plenty of volunteers to hand whichever we needed.  Several stations had gels, blocs, chocolate candy and other goodies
  • Turns were marked by orange tape on the street.  It was important to watch for them, but there were enough racers in front of me and behind me that I wasn’t really worried about getting lost
  • The medal is large, attractive, and double-sided, with a colorful lanyard
  • After receiving my medal from a volunteer, I was immediately handed a bottle of water (nice)
  • The results table was set up close to the finish line so I was able to get a printout of my splits and finishing time right away.  Online and email tracking was also available and that made it easy for my husband to know exactly where I was and how I was doing on the course
  • There is a generous 7 hour time limit

I crossed the finish line in 5:54, under my goal of 6 hours.  My husband met me at the finish line and we sought out the VIP tent but, as mentioned earlier, it was difficult to find.  I was glad we persisted because most of the food booths in the runner’s village had already run out of the promised Louisiana culinary specialties.  Only the beer tent and an excellent offering of jambalaya were available for back-of-the-packers were still available.  However, Maniacs were provided with a selection of delicious chicken and side dishes and an open bar.  After eating our fill, we returned to our hotel to relax (and for me, a shower and nap).  Later that evening, we had huge salads in the Kingfish Grill of the Hilton (there are not many restaurants open on Sunday afternoons in the city center).  Our flights home were not until later that evening, so we once again visited the hotel’s restaurant for their buffet breakfast Monday morning.  The Louisiana Marathon turned out to be a great race in neat city.

Definitely recommended for walkers.

The Dopey Challenge: 48.6 Miles – Disney World, January 9-12, 2014 (Orlando, FL)

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Very early in my racing career, a friend told me about the ‘Mickey Marathon’ at Disney World in Orlando.  Just a few months earlier, October 15, 2005, I had completed my very first race, the Tom Walker Half Marathon in Micanopy, FL, and became totally enamored with racing.  When I learned that Disney World held both a marathon and a half marathon in January, I enthusiastically signed up for the half marathon; in January of 2006, I finished the race and received my Donald Duck Half Marathon medal.  I was hooked.  The medals are so large and impressive, especially compared to some of the smaller more nondescript ones I had managed to accumulate during my first year of racing, that I when I decided to try to walk my first full marathon, I made sure that it was the ‘Mickey’ at Disney.

Then, in 2008, I signed up for the Goofy, a duet of both races, the half on Saturday and the full on Sunday.  That resulted in three big medals, three technical shirts – and lots of bragging rights.   But some people, not to be outdone, decided to go for one more race, the family 5k that was held the Friday before the longer events.  These people (and I feel sure most of them were Maniacs) said they were doing ‘the Dopey.’  The Run Disney people must have caught wind of these high-achievers and decided to expand the races over the 2014 marathon weekend to include a 5k, a 10k (new this year), the half, and the full – and people who chose to do all 4 races would collect (after completing the series) SIX medals (one for each race plus the Goofy – since they were doing both the half and the full – and of course a special Dopey medal).

Usually on the second weekend in January, I drive to Mobile, AL, to do the First Light Marathon, one of my favorites.  However, I decided to pass on Mobile this year so I could accept the Dopey Challenge for its inaugural running.  Seven thousand runners and walkers signed up for the Dopey; I’m not sure how many actually finished the whole series but it sure seemed like there were quite a few of us.  There were many Marathon Maniacs as well.  The race series turned out to be a great, if expensive, decision, and I returned home on Monday tired but satisfied.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  My husband and I began our journey to Orlando on Wednesday and arrived at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, site of the health and fitness expo, around noontime.  There were hundreds of people even this early on the very first day, but, hey, I reminded myself, this is Disney, I’d better get used to it.  Signage was excellent and there were plenty of volunteers to direct us to the proper spots to get my six tee shirts, two bibs, and a goody bag.  Five of the tee shirts were long-sleeve technical shirts in a variety of colors, one each for Minnie, Donald, Mickey, Goofy, and Dopey.  The 5k shirt was a short-sleeve cotton tee in lime green, with Pluto on the front.  Sizes for the tech tees were gender specific so they actually fit.  For the non-gender specific cotton shirt, Disney wisely sized women down a size automatically so those shirts fit as well.  Pretty smart!

I was disappointed in the expo.  In previous years, I remembered there were dozens of booths and tables with all sorts of enticing things to buy and displays of races from all over the country and the world.  I could find all kinds of new and unusual items I wanted or didn’t realize I wanted until I saw them on display.  I would always locate the Injinji display so I could stock up on my favorite socks.  This year there were no Injinjis, displays for just 2 other races (other than Disney ones), and very few items of interest.  The one item I really wanted to try was the New Balance 890 version 4 shoes, since the other NB 890’s are so comfortable and lightweight.  Imagine my surprise when I was told – on the first day of the expo – that they were all out of my size.

Each day there were a number of talks and panel discussions on everything from sports bras to good running form to race nutrition.  The only talk I really wanted to hear was the 2 pm talk on the Dopey.  We were supposed to wear the first of our two bibs (with chips on the back) for the 5 and 10k races and after we completed each of the shorter races, we were to visit the Dopey tent to get our wrist bands attesting to our finish.  For the half and full marathons, we had to wear the second Dopey bib and visit the Dopey tent once again at the conclusion of our half marathon to get our next wrist band.  We kept the 3 wrist bands on our arms until we completed the full marathon, at which point we received our 3 remaining medals (Mickey, Goofy, and Dopey).

Because of the generous time limits – 3.5 hours for the half and 7 for the full, beginning after the last person in the last corral crossed the starting line – I was not at all nervous about these races.  I knew I wouldn’t get lost, there are too many people and lots of signs and cones.  There are also plenty of portapotties and water stations.  My only concern was whether I could tolerate the long hours of waiting until the start of each race.  Bus transportation began about 2-2.5 hours before the start of each race, and since I always like to be on one of the first buses, it meant I had a lot of standing and waiting.  That, for me, was the hardest part of each morning.  Watching runners dressed up in costume as Disney characters made fun and more palatable.  Still, my muscles were pretty tight for several miles.

Weather was fairly decent all four days.  Orlando in January can be pretty unpredictable; during my three previous Disney World races, I experienced freezing cold weather as well as hot and humid.  This year we had some rain and drizzle during the 5 and 10k races but nothing intolerable.  During the half marathon, the temperature rose to the upper 70’s with high humidity but I enjoyed that.  The coldest day was Sunday; my teeth were chattering by the time my corral started, but for the majority of the race the temps were comfortable, with sun and a cool breeze.

All the races began and ended in the Epcot parking area.  The courses for the shorter races stayed in the Epcot area while the half marathon wound around to the Magic Kingdom, through Tomorrowland and Cinderella Castle (neat!), and then back to Epcot.  The full marathon followed the same course as the half for the first 8 miles, except for a brief detour around the Disney World Speedway, and then proceeded to Animal Kingdom.  Some people even decided to ride Expedition Everest (the park was not open yet so there were no lines).  Then it was on to Wide World of Sports where we did several miles around the track and around the infield of the Atlanta Braves spring training baseball diamond.  The final 3-4 miles took us into Hollywood Studios, around the Epcot resorts, and finally through Epcot itself to the finish line.

There was plenty of water and Powerade for finishers and we were all given a box of food (chips, cheese, Craisins, a protein bar, and a banana).  Buses back to our resort left promptly each day, although after marathon, we had to wait quite a bit to get through several traffic jams.

It was a relief each day to cross the finish line for each race.  If I had my way, I would have chosen to do the longest race first, followed by the half marathon, and then the shorter races.  That would have been easier on me mentally and possibly easier on my body as well.  However, I managed to come through all four races with minimal wear and tear on my muscles.  The only problem I had was with small pebbles getting in my shoes during the races.  These excoriated my toes and became very painful.  If I had my gaiters with me, I would have worn them.

Since my goal was to finish each event with a decent time (because of crowds I did not expect a PR in any of the races), I was pleased with my finishing times:

  • 5k – 38:23
  • 10k – 1:19:40
  • Half – 2:52:00
  • Full – 5:59:05

We stayed at the Beach Club Resort at Epcot and were very pleased with our room.  Cast member Taylor helped us get a quiet room on a higher floor (originally we had a room near the elevator on the 2nd floor) so I was able to get some rest before the races.  Our attractive room had a refrigerator and coffee pot and was light and airy.

For snacks, we had brought with us a cooler with string cheese, crackers, chocolate milk, a bottle of wine, and granola bars.  This helped us with between-meal munchies, but every day we had a reservation for a real sit-down meal at a fun restaurant.  We concentrated on breakfasts and lunches, since dinners were much more expensive.  Our list of restaurants included:

  • Big River Grille & Brewing Works (on the Boardwalk)
  • Biergarten Restaurant (a German buffet with floor show – in Epcot)
  • Crystal Palace (a character breakfast buffet with Pooh and friends – in the Magic Kingdom)
  • Rose & Crown Pub (lunch – in Epcot)
  • Akershus Royal Banquet Hall (in Norway section of Epcot – a Princess buffet)
  • Cape May Café (a character breakfast buffet – with Minnie, Goofy, and Donald – in the Beach Club Resort at Epcot)

We enjoyed every meal – food and service were excellent.

After each race, we visited the parks, concentrating on one a day except for Friday even though we had Park Hoppers and could have jumped around if we wanted to.  It was just easier to take on one park each day.  Since I don’t like fast rides or roller coasters we selected the more sedate rides and shows: the Great Movie Ride, It’s a Small World, Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise, and the like.  These were all my old favorites so it was fun to revisit them.

The good:

  • Courses are fun, with entertainment, music, characters, and attractions
  • Aid stations are plentiful (even the 5k had 2 water stations) and in the marathon several offered gels and bananas
  • Lots of medical stations, with Vaseline, Biofreeze, and personnel to help out
  • There were plenty of volunteers and cast members to help out, cheer, and provide directions and information
  • People are friendly and easy to talk to while waiting in the holding area and in the corrals.  This helps while away the time
  • It is impossible to get lost
  • Time limits are generous
  • You can’t beat those great medals
  • Even with the thousands of people, there is terrific organization and crowd control
  • It’s Disney!

The bad:

  • Lots and lots of people.  Not everyone gets placed in the appropriate corral, either because they don’t know their pace (Disney is a first race for lots of people) or they expect to do better than they have in the past.  As a result, slower runners and walkers will act as a break.  People also do this race in groups and it is hard to maneuver around them.  I found myself trying to keep my usual steady pace, only to come up short behind slower runners who are tightly packed
  • There is some shoving and pushing and stepping on heels.  At least most of the people who barreled into me apologized but several did not.  I heard complaints from others about the same behavior.  Fortunately this did not happen often
  • The course is occasionally narrow in parts, with various obstacles.  Verbal warnings and signs alert racers to speed bumps and tight corners, but progress is slowed as a result
  • Expo did not have the variety of resources I expect to see at a big event
  • It’s expensive – but rather than cut corners, it is best to bite the bullet and try to budget your expenses for a great experience (see suggestions below)

There are several things to remember when planning a Disney race weekend:

  • It’s a good idea to sign up early for the event you wish to do.  Almost all races sell out quickly and the most popular ones can fill up within a few weeks.  If you hesitate too long, you may find yourself out of luck
  • The races are horrendously expensive; even with my Disney Visa discount, the Dopey Challenge cost over $500.  I’m not saying it wasn’t worth it but the sticker shock is considerable
  • Race weekend is expensive – be sure to take into account not only the cost of the race or races but also the added expenses of park tickets (you will want these and so will your family members), hotel accommodations, and meals.    Sure, you can save money by staying off-property and snacking in your room – but to fully savor the Disney experience, it’s best to stay at a Disney resort, take advantage of Disney transportation, and enjoy the myriad tasty meals available at exceptionally good restaurants.  But it all costs – a lot
  • Make your dining reservations as early as you can.  We made ours months ahead of time and had no waiting at all.  In several cases we arrived early and were able to get seated right away
  • This is one time when I do wear my tee shirts and medals (yes, all 6 of them) after the races.  People will stop to congratulate you and other participants will commiserate with you about the aches and pains and sore legs and feet.  It’s all part of the fun!

Definitely a must for walkers – especially if you enjoy Disney.

Four of the Savage Seven: My First Triple Plus One (Christmas Week 2013 in Ocala, FL)

This was the first time in several years that I stayed home over the New Year’s holiday.  Sure, there were plenty of races to do in different parts of the country during this period, and I was indeed tempted to sign up for at least one.  For the last two years I have traveled to Arizona to do the timed races at Across the Years in Glendale.   This year I decided to stay home and take it easy.  However I found the series of races known as the Savage Seven just too tempting to ignore. 

The Savage Seven was Chuck Savage’s brainchild.  Back in 2010, Chuck decided it would be a great idea to do 7 marathons in a row, one a day, with all the races in the same location to make logistics easier.  It would be an ‘easy’ way to rack up a week’s worth of marathons during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  He approached several runners to determine if there was sufficient interest and indeed found that Marathon Maniacs and 50 Staters agreed that it would be a wonderful challenge.  The first set of 7 was held in Ocala, FL, on December 26, 2010, with 13 runners.  Five of these runners completed all seven races while others did just one or two.  In subsequent years the Savage Seven was held in Pensacola and Winter Park.  This year the races returned to Ocala.

That was lucky for me, since Ocala is an hour away from my home.  I decided that four would be a good number – sufficient to keep me well-trained between my other scheduled races.  I originally signed up for December 26 through 29 (which would be a quadruple – 4 in a row) but later changed my mind to the 2 days after Christmas and the 2 days before the New Year.  That would give me the weekend off.  Then I changed my mind several more times, in part because of weather concerns (I wanted to avoid any day with a 100% chance of rain).  Chuck was cool with my indecisiveness; he said I could do any 4 days I wanted.  Ultimately, I chose to do Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Monday, omitting Sunday, the rainiest day.

The races take place on the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway on Route 35/Baseline Road, east of Ocala proper.  To make sure I could find it in the dark on race morning, my husband and I did a dry run the week before.  That was wise because I would have found it almost impossible to see the trailhead entrance in the wee morning hours if I hadn’t known where it was beforehand.  Since each race started at 6:10 or 6:15 am, it was critical to have a headlamp or flashlight for the first of the 5 loops around the park.  Weather can be unpredictable in north central Florida in late December.  Some people had come from as far away as Washington state and Maine; they had hoped to be greeted with sunshine.  Unfortunately, it drizzled – or poured – every day and the sun peeked through only occasionally.  Temperatures were cool, in the mid-50’s at the start and the 60’s at the finish.  It might have risen to 70 degrees on Monday.  At least I could leave my mittens and handwarmers at home.  It was never cold enough for those items.

There were two aid stations, one at the start/finish and one at the turn-around.  Both had water and Gatorade as well as fruit and cookies.  The first few days, real food was sparse, but subsequent days had sub sandwiches and pizza.  Runners did a couple of short loops in the parking lot at the very beginning of each race for 1.2 miles and then did 5 laps around a 5-mile out-and-back through the park. The certified course was all asphalt and plenty wide enough for casual dog-walkers, cyclists, and racers to harmoniously share the trail.  There were a few mild ups and downs but most of the course was essentially flat.

There were lots of good things about this series of races and a few things that drove me bonkers. Positive elements included:

  • Laid back relaxed atmosphere and good organization
  • Short-sleeved cotton tee shirt with attractive design on the front
  • A medal for after every race, with a different color lanyard and the day’s number embossed on the back; there is also a special award for those who finished all 7 days (I didn’t see this)
  • Great volunteers who cheered us on, kept track of our laps, and were in general exceedingly helpful
  • Indoor restrooms (hooray!) close to the start/finish line (and a portapotty at the turn-around)
  • Generous 8-hour time limit
  • Friendly and courteous participants who made each day’s race a fun event.  I enjoyed talking with Liz, Ila, Cheryl, Betty, Mike, Harry, Nick, and Frank, and numerous others. 

I can think of only one negative thing: the winding curvy course through piney woods.  Some people said they saw deer, and a bear was supposed to be in the neighborhood, but the only animals I came across were birds and a few squirrels.  I tried to cut the tangents but the road curved so much that it was difficult.  After a while, I grew immensely tired of just seeing pine trees.  I am still trying to figure out how I can do 12 hour, 24 hour, and 72 hour races around 1 or 2 or 3 mile loops without a problem, but trying to do five out-and-backs along a curvy trail drives me crazy. 

My times for each race were not very pretty – I finished in 6:19, 6:25, 6:36, and 6:35 – but I was satisfied simply to finish.  These races were definitely not about setting PRs or winning (although some people were very fast) but about having a good time and racking up the miles.  Next year, the Savage Seven is supposed to be held in Ocala again, and if I am in town I will definitely sign up for 1 or more, maybe even all 7.  This series is definitely walker-friendly and highly recommended.