The Inaugural Tomoka Marathon (Ormond Beach, FL) – March 29, 2014

It’s always an adventure to do an inaugural marathon because the chances are good that something will go awry. Despite that, inaugural races are compelling because the race director is often willing to be flexible with time limits, race discounts, packet pickup, shirt exchanges, and other stuff important to racers.  I signed up for the first Tomoka Marathon because there was a 6 ½ hour time limit, a registration discount for Marathon Maniacs, and the destination was an easy 2 hour drive from my home.

This was a quick little trip to Ormand Beach, near Daytona. My husband and I left on Friday afternoon and drove straight to packet pickup at The Casements, the former winter home of John D. Rockefeller.  This venerable old building has an intriguing history, not only as Rockefeller’s home in the early 20th century but also as a college for young women, and then a retirement home and hotel.  It is now on the National Register of Historic Places and open to the public.  Getting my bib and gender specific tee shirt (short sleeve green technical) was simple and quick.  The timing chip was a rectangular IPICO one that had to be returned (unlike the ones at Seabrook that could be kept as souvenirs).  Hours for packet pickup were generous and included the Thursday before and the morning of the race.

Once that was done, it was time to check into the host hotel, a local Hampton Inn about 5 miles away. Shuttle buses were scheduled to bring runners and supporters to and from the race site on a continuous loop from 5:30 am to 2 pm on race day.  It was also possible to drive to the race start; parking was available but taking the bus was easier and more efficient.  The buses were waiting for runners to board just past 5:15 (the Hampton Inn was kind enough to open their breakfast bar at 5) and left on time.

The start line was right in front of The Casements while the finish line was located several yards away. I was up early after a fairly restful night, boarded the first bus, made the obligatory trip to a porta-potty, and then waited inside the building talking to people and trying to relax.  The weather was an issue here.  Reports called for thunderstorms early in the morning and later in the afternoon.  I wore a rain jacket plus a slicker, but as we lined up outside just before the 7 am start, it was cloudy and overcast but dry (although it had rained the previous evening).  Temps were in the low 60’s and that was pleasant.  The race was supposed to begin at 7 but evidently there was a problem closing the streets to traffic and the gun did not go off until 7:30.  Meanwhile, runners and walkers were getting impatient, especially slower participants like me, because there were 2 hard cutoffs in the race and we were unsure whether those would be extended for 30 minutes to accommodate us.

It was good to finally move! We began by heading south on a short out-and-back, then crossed the long Granada Bridge over the Halifax River (the only ‘hill’ on the entire race), and then headed north to Tomoka State Park.  Miles 4 through 8 are an out-and-back within the park itself and consisted of a sandy trail with some rocks and sticks and several big puddles left from the preceding night’s rain.  Naturally, several rocks worked their way into my shoes but fortunately did not turn out to be a major problem.  Had I known about this section, though, I probably have worn my gaiters.

When we finished this portion of the course, the half marathoners split off from us and returned back over the bridge to their finish line. Full marathoners turned north and continued in that direction until mile 14.  As soon as I reached the half/full split and made the turn, I was by myself.  I knew there were many people ahead of me but I couldn’t see them.  There were at least 3 people behind me because I had passed them in the park.  Usually this would be an anxious moment for me because I would worry about getting lost, but I had studied the course layout and it was pretty straightforward.  I knew I had to keep on the same highway until mile 14, then take a right turn, and stay on that road until the first cutoff (4 hours 15 minutes into the race) at mile 17.  Then the course turned right again, heading south, until the second cutoff at mile 24 (6 hours into the race), and then moved east for the final 2.2 miles.  I was pretty sure I could manage.

I needn’t have worried. There were volunteers at every critical turn to guide me. There were also plenty of aid stations, about one every mile or so, and they were staffed by more cheerful volunteers who handed out water and Gatorade, gels, and even some snacks like peanut butter and jelly quarters and cookies.

Miles 8 through 14 turned out to be my favorite part of the course. I liked the quiet and peacefulness of the area, with just the sounds of birds to keep me company.  I passed one walker during this section and she also mentioned how beautiful this area seemed.  Traffic was light in the opposite direction (and at least in this portion was curtailed going northward) and drivers in general tended to be courteous and supportive of racers.  While there were lots of oak trees in the park, I enjoyed the vistas along the road even more; they seemed very typical of ‘old Florida,’ with pines, palm trees, creeks, and marshes.

At mile 14, I made the requisite turn, passed another person, and then was alone once more until just before the turn at mile 17. There I had to cross another bridge before heading south.  This time the bridge was a drawbridge – and it was UP!  I thought ‘oh,  this is good, if it stays up, I will be able to catch several people who had been stopped by the bridge’ but just as I got within several yards of them, the bridge came down and the road opened up.  I did manage to meet up with these runners just past mile 17 and amazingly I made it only five minutes after the original cutoff time.

I’m sure the rest of the course was very scenic but by mile 18 it began to drizzle and then rain with a vengeance and, at that point, my primary concern was to finish and not get struck by lightning! The sag wagon kept circling runners at that point, trying to get us to ride to the finish line, but I managed to just keep moving as fast as I could and studiously avoided eye contact with the driver and the police at intersections.  I later learned that the police wanted to call the race early because of a severe thunderstorm warning but the race director said ‘no’ and besides, none of the runners would stop.

The deluge continued right through my final miles to the finish line. I was completely drenched, my shoes felt like they were wet bricks, and my clothes and hair were sopping wet, but I finished the race in 6:03, just a little over my usual goal of sub-6.  After getting my medal (I really earned this one!), my husband brought me some dry clothes and I changed in the ladies room at The Casements.  The post-race meal was pancakes, sausage, and coffee, not the usual fare, but good nonetheless.  After eating our fill, Darcy and I made our way through the storm to our car and drove home.

As inaugural races go, this one was better than most. The only real problem was the long delay at the start; in future years, traffic control may improve.  If the weather had been better, the worry about the cutoff times would not be an issue to walkers who can manage a 6 ½ hour finish.  There were two wonderful aspects to this race.  The first was the course itself –walking through what I consider the real Florida was impressive.  The other wonderful part of this race was the volunteers – they were, in a word, magnificent.  They stayed at their stations despite the really nasty weather, through all the crashing thunder and lightning, right up to the last runner and walker.  Back-of-the-packers like me definitely appreciate those stalwart volunteers who stay at their posts to help us out, despite bad weather and boredom.  The Tomoka Marathon volunteers all deserve gold stars!

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Seabrook Lucky Trail Challenge (Seabrook, TX) – March 15/16, 2014

I had heard extremely good things about the Seabrook trail races and since I am always up for a challenge (and an extra medal), I thought this would be a wonderful spring trip back to Texas. I could choose from two challenges: the Pelican challenge (a half marathon on both Saturday and Sunday) or the Trail Challenge (the half on Saturday and the full marathon on Sunday). Naturally, I decided on the Trail Challenge and as soon as registration opened last October I signed up.

Our flights to Houston-Hobby, Texas, were uneventful and Delta even upgraded both of us on the longer trip from Atlanta to Texas. Darcy and I picked up our rental car from Hertz and then drove to a nearby Taco Cabana for lunch. As soon as we had our fill of fajitas, we drove on to On the Run @ Clear Lake, a running store that was the site of packet pickup. My packet consisted of 2 colorful bibs with my name printed in large letters on both. (Just a parenthetical note here – I really liked having the large typeface because during the races I was able to actually see and call out the names of other runners as we passed each other). For timing, there were two old-fashioned square IPICO chips (one for each race). In addition to a short-sleeve gender-specific tee shirt (black with green), we were given a black polyester cap and a pair of sports socks; all items had the Seabrook Lucky Trail Marathon logo on them. These were nice to have, but I was really looking forward to the three medals and I was not disappointed.

We stayed at the Hampton Inn Houston NASA-Johnson Space Center, one of the host hotels. It was a short driving distance from Rex Meador Park, the race site. Our only problem during the three nights of our stay was the paper thin walls. On the first night, we could hear one of our neighbors snoring and the on the second, we were woken up just before midnight by a loud party in the room next door. A call to the front desk remedied the latter; security gently reminded the partiers that they could continue their celebrating in the lobby. That gave me a few more hours of sleep.

The race series on Saturday consisted of a half marathon and relay while the races on Sunday included a half, a relay, and a full marathon. The time limit for the Saturday races was 4 hours. On Sunday, the time limit was 6 ½ hours, with an early start for marathoners needing more time. I opted for the early start – it gave me a chance to take it easy and not stress over meeting a stricter time limit. It turned out to be a good choice because I was really tired after completing the half. The first mile of both courses is on wide city streets; participants then move onto the Seabrook trails and essentially (with one brief foray crossing another street) stay on the trails for the rest of the time. Half marathoners run two loops of the course and marathoners run four loops. I was not crazy about the multiple loops but I was resigned to the idea. I knew it would be a challenge and I really wanted those medals.

Weather on Saturday was close to perfect. The temperature at race time was around 60 degrees and rose to about 70 during the day. A slight breeze helped to keep us cool, despite the rising humidity. We started promptly at 7:15 am, just as day began to dawn. Once on the trails, it was peaceful and tranquil. The number of runners was manageable and that was good because the trails were often narrow and the out-and-back nature of the elongated loop course meant that people were constantly coming up behind me as well as running towards me. It was not really a problem on Saturday. I took my time because I wasn’t sure of the terrain on the first loop. During the second loop, I was more confident but still watchful. Signs with arrows were set up to point us in the correct direction at each turn and there were at least 3 aid stations (with water, Gatorade, and bananas and oranges) on the loop in addition to the one at the start/finish line. Volunteers were magnificent – I can’t say enough positive things about how helpful and supportive they were. This was especially true on Sunday when the inclement weather and wild winds made staying at their posts a real problem. They were real troopers!
I finished the half marathon in 2:55, placing 2nd in my age group. At the finish line, I celebrated with green beer (after all, it was St. Patrick’s Day weekend); there were also hot dogs and hamburgers but we decided to treat ourselves with fajitas at Taco Cabana again. We did stay for the awards ceremony and I received a glass beer stein as a prize.

Now that I was familiar with the course, I was not especially worried about doing the full marathon on Sunday. My main concern was the tedium of walking multiple loops. However, I knew the trails were well-groomed and the scenery pleasant, so it would no doubt be more of a mental challenge then a physical one. I was prepared or so I thought.

On Sunday the weather was still quite warm but was expected to turn much colder later that evening. It had rained Saturday evening and there was about a 30% chance of rain on Sunday. Since the early start began at 6 am (giving us an extra hour and 15 minutes), my husband and I headed out around 5:30. We met up with some other Marathon Maniacs, including Jess and Teresa, and took a few photos. Just before 6, we headed to the start line and were ready to go. A couple of volunteers served as guides to lead us on the course (several people were signed up only for the marathon) and in the darkness it was good to have their expertise. I did use my headlamp but I was glad when the sun finally rose and I could put it away.

Around 8 am a line of storms began to come through and we were treated to thunder and lightning as well as rain. Mostly the rain was light and drizzly but occasionally it came down much harder. The main problem was what last evening’s rain had done to the trail during the night. It was now a muddy mess, similar to what I experienced during the Delirium Mudfest back in February. My shoes, my legs, my clothes – all were a big mess. Thank goodness for my gaiters! They kept the tiny pieces of gravel from entering my shoes and causing blisters and abrasions. I noticed only one other person wearing gaiters and thought that very strange considering the pebbly nature of the course. I was just so grateful for remembering to bring them with me.

It was hard to get those four loops under my belt, especially the second and third ones. The trails on Sunday were much more crowded and – even though I hugged the right hand side of the trail – there were a few times when fast runners clipped my shoulder or elbow. By the time I began heading out for the final loop, the crowds had thinned out some. I was worn out, muddy, and exhausted, but I threw caution to the winds and really pushed myself around on this last lap. It was at this time I met up with Charlene, another early starter, who was anticipating entry into the Maniacs when she completed this race. We stayed pretty much together for the last couple of miles and ended up crossing the finish line together. I was pleased to welcome her into the Asylum.

My finishing time was 6:24, definitely not my best, but I was very happy to be done. This time I got a marathon medal plus my special trail medal. All three medals are very big, extremely colorful, and well-worth all that mud I plodded through! I waited around to see where I placed in my age group, but the results combining early and regular starters had not yet been compiled so we left. It turns out I won my age group (okay, so I was the ONLY one in my age group, but still). I decided to make the stein I won for the half do double duty and serve as my award for both days.

I would certainly recommend these races for walkers, but with the caveat to wear gaiters and be mindful of the crowded trails on Sunday. For those who want to do a half marathon, the Saturday event is probably the wiser choice because of the smaller number of participants. But for walkers desiring all the bling that comes with completing one of the Challenges, definitely take the early start and bring a light.

A Stroll in Central Park 12 Hour Endurance Run: March 8, 2014 (Cumming, GA)

Surprise! This is not a race in New York’s Central Park. The park in the title refers to a popular recreational area in a pleasant suburb just north of Atlanta. I had first met Lia Knower, Race Director for the Stroll, at the 8 Hour Hot to Trot race in Lithia Springs, Georgia, several summers ago. We were both struggling through the heat and difficult trail, although to be quite honest, I was the one cursing the roots, rocks, and climbs of the trail, while Lia was managing quite well. During out time on the trail, I mentioned how I preferred races on asphalt to those on trail (even though I consistently sign up for trail races, regardless) and Lia told me about the Stroll, a timed race on asphalt in the springtime. It sounded great to me so I made a decision to do the race next time I had the chance.

Last year in March I was in Rome for the marathon in the eternal city but this year I decided to fit the Stroll into my schedule. It turned out to be a good decision even though I had to deal with some unexpected blister problems. Since Cumming is only a six hour drive from home, Darcy and I left on Friday morning and arrived in plenty of time to check into the local Hampton Inn and then drive a few miles further north to explore the park and scope out the course. The course is a 1.03 mile asphalt route around several large fields. It’s advertised as pancake flat but in reality there are several quite definite inclines and descents. They are probably not considered hills by Atlanta standards but to Floridians and other flatlanders, they are definitely noticeable after the first couple of loops. I actually prefer the change in elevation because courses that are too flat often cause me to have shin splints.

Packet pickup was not until early Saturday morning, so after examining the course we drove back to town for a bite to eat. Our restaurant of choice turned out to be Taco Mac Sports Grill where we devoured some burgers, sweet potato fries, and beer. We also shared some pepperoni and cheese flatbread. Then we headed back to the hotel for some rest. I was just a little bit nervous, mostly because I wanted to do really well here and try to complete at least 45 miles. In 12 hour trail races, the best I can usually do is between 40 and 43 miles. On pavement, I can often get to 45 miles and I was hoping for at least that and maybe a little bit better here. That was not to be, unfortunately.

Saturday morning dawned clear and cool, 33 degrees but with no wind. After an early cup of coffee and a roll with peanut butter, I dressed and waited patiently until 5:30 am when I woke my husband and told him we needed to get started. I was starting to get jittery and anxious to begin. The drive to the park only took a few minutes but since everything looks completely different in the dark, it took us awhile to figure out exactly where to park and set up. Lia and her corps of hardy volunteers were already there putting up tables and getting the aid station and timing table arranged. I got my bib and tee shirt (short-sleeve green cotton tee), and decided where to place my plastic bin full of extra stuff – shoes, socks, food, Vaseline, and all the other essentials necessary in a timed race. Just in case, I threw in a rain jacket, mittens, and hand warmers, but I didn’t need any of those, thank goodness. I met some friendly runners, Rob and Amanda, who were doing their first ultra and generously encouraged me to set up my things close by.

About 10 minutes to 7, Lia called us all together and gave a few brief announcements about the race. We all lined up behind a crack in the asphalt, the official starting line, with me at the very rear. At 7 on the dot we took off. Naturally, I was worried about getting lost on the course; after all, I do have a habit of losing my way even on one mile loops. One of the nice things about Central Park, however, is that it is all but impossible to get lost. There is a clear line of sight and it is easy to see other people ahead of you for a good distance. And of course once I got a couple of loops behind me, I was fine.

There were about 41 participants in this race; seventeen had signed up for the inaugural 6 hour event and 24 for the 4th running of the 12 hour. Even though that sounds like a small number, the park was very busy and that was an extremely good thing. I think it’s wonderful to have public parks and recreation areas that are so heavily used by the community. All day long and well into the early evening, there were soccer games, baseball games, batting practice, and informal playgroups all going on at the same time. Individuals and small groups of runners, walkers, families, and plenty of well-behaved dogs shared the course with us. I enjoyed watching all the activities and smiling and chatting with people as I went around and around and around. The time went by quickly and I was never bored.

Because this is a heavily used public park, there are many REAL restrooms located around the course. One of these is just steps off the course. This is a definitely a real plus in a timed race. It is wonderful to have running water and real bathrooms.

The race is not chip-timed but there were several wonderful and patient lap counters who managed to keep track of all of us and all our laps. There was also a chart set up of the laps and mileage equivalents. I do like races that are just over a mile in length because eventually those additional fractions of a mile add up to a whole and that is a bonus. The single aid station had plenty of water, soda, and Gatorade as well as peanut butter quarters, ham and cheese quarters, candy, cookies, pretzels, and other assorted snacks. At 1 pm, pizza was delivered and I happily chose a big slice to eat on my way around the next lap.

The weather stayed perfect – almost 70 degrees with some sun and a cool breeze. I gradually shed my jacket and mittens and then my lighter jacket and finally spent the remaining hours in just a comfortable long-sleeved tee shirt, rolling the sleeves up and down as necessary. In at timed race, I always like to reach certain stages by certain times and this race was no different. My initial goal was to get past the marathon distance by around 6 hours. I missed that by just a bit. Then I wanted to complete a 50k by no later than 9 hours. I did that handily but I was starting to have a major problem with my feet. I could feel the unmistakable pain of at least one blister begin to develop on the ball of my left foot. The bunion on my right foot was also starting to burn. I tried to take my mind off the pain by concentrating on all the games and people around me. Several runners had slowed their pace and were occasionally walking so I had a chance to touch base with some of them. I shared a few laps with Scott when he took a couple of walking breaks (the rest of the time he flew by me on his way to well over 50 miles) and spoke with Malisa who had to slow down a little because she was also having some blister problems.

Around 4 pm I decided to change my shoes. I was afraid to take off my socks because I didn’t want to get discouraged at what I might find. I simply changed to a slightly larger shoe, hoping that would make at least my bunion more comfortable. It did, but the blister on the ball of my foot was still aching and troubling me. Heck, I only had 3 more hours to go and I had already reached 32 laps. Anything I could accomplish over that number would be fine with me, so I kept moving forward. Darcy had checked on me around lunchtime and I was fine. He returned around 6 to find me hobbling. By 6:40, my laps were getting longer, much longer, and I didn’t feel up to trying another circuit. I finished with 44.29 miles, not quite my goal but close enough.

I’ve been trying to analyze why blisters were such a problem in this race. My shoes were fairly new but I’d worn them in races before, the weather was perfect, there were no rocks or pebbles to get in my toes, and the course was smooth, so the only possible explanation was the coarseness of my Injinji socks. Instead of wearing the smooth Injinjis that I usually wear, I had put on a slightly heavier (and maybe a bit rougher) pair. That may have caused blisters to form and erupt. I could trace a similar problem the first time I did the FANS 24 hour race. I guess I will need to use those coarser socks only on much shorter races. Meanwhile, my feet are starting to heal and I am looking forward to trying this race again.

There are no medals given in this race. Instead, everyone gets a nice plaque with their name on it when they pick up their bib and shirt. After the race is completed, Lia plans to send out mileage results to each of us so we can stick them onto the plaque. This is similar to what is done at the FANS events. This race is definitely recommended for walkers, especially those wanting to try an easy and well-supported smaller ultra.