I was supposed to be in Austin, Texas, this past weekend to do a 24 hour race but that event, like the Augusta Canal race last month, was canceled. That left me with two big holes in my racing calendar. It was too late to find a race to fill the April void, but I had several more choices for May. I decided to sign up for 3 of the New England Challenge races. Chuck Savage – the same person behind the Savage Seven Marathons held between Christmas and New Year’s Day every year- had put together a series of 5 races in 5 of the 6 New England states. Die-hard racers could even fit in the 6th state by doing the Shires of Vermont race on Sunday. Although I was tempted to try all 6, or at least 5, my racing schedule for the remainder of 2014 was pretty intense and demanding. I wanted to make sure I was well-rested and injury-free for those races already on my calendar, so I only signed up for the first 3 Challenge marathons.
A few quick notes about the Challenge races overall before I go into more detail about each one:
• The races meet all the requirements for the 50 States Club and for Marathon Maniacs but they are not certified courses
• Runners and walkers can choose between full and half marathon options
• Each race is held in a different state, usually about 100 miles apart
• They are relatively small races, with a cap of 100 participants for each full marathon and 25 for each half marathon
• Aid stations resemble ultra aid stations (rather than typical marathon aid) and offer lots of food and drink choices, including peanut butter and jelly quarters, pickles, pretzels, bananas, chocolate milk, and cookies and more
• Part of the Challenge (for me at least) was traveling 100 miles to the next state and then finding the new race location
• Because of the driving time, there was not much opportunity to sightsee or play tourist (unless you are a 3 hour marathoner) but it is a great and cost-effective way to check off 5 or 6 states in a single week
• Each race begins early, at 6 am, so there is enough time for everyone to finish and drive to the next location
• Packet pickup is at the first host hotel or every morning from 5 am to the race start
• Time limits are 7 hours for each race but these limits are flexible (within reason)
• The race website is full of information about each race, with suggested hotels and directions to the next race, plus maps
• If you are a Maniac or 50 Stater, the chances are excellent that you will see people you know at these races
• Even though these races consist of multiple laps around a course (usually in a park), there was no need for lap counters or chip timing. Instead, participants were given a rubber band to put on their wrist every time they completed a lap. It was an easy and practically foolproof way to keep track of laps (although the rubber bands felt kind of tight after a few laps)
• My only real criticism is the lack of porta-potties. Two just aren’t enough for 100+ people
Of course I wasn’t aware of all these things when I signed up. My only previous experience with races of this sort were the Savage Seven races in Pensacola (I only did one and it was around a track) and in Ocala where I did a triple, skipped a day, and then did a fourth. But the Ocala races were all held in the same park and the drive was a short one hour from my house. The New England Challenge required longer drives and the locations varied from day to day. It definitely turned out to be more of a true Challenge.
Now for a day-to-day recap of this racing adventure: On Mother’s Day, Darcy and I flew from Jacksonville to Portland, Maine. After getting our checked bags, we picked up our rental car from Hertz, and then drove right to the race site so we could make sure we knew where it was and how to get there. I also wanted to look at the terrain to see if I needed to wear gaiters (I did). We then drove to our hotel, a Marriott Courtyard at the airport. This was not one of the host hotels but it was fairly close to the race site and turned out to be very clean, with a microwave and refrigerator. For dinner, we ate at a nearby restaurant, the Sebago Brewing Company, which was decent but not impressive.
This first race, the Pine Tree Marathon, was held at Back Cove Park in South Portland. We had to do seven laps (plus a short out-and-back) of a 3.62 mile course that encircled the cove and was connected to each arm of the cove by a cement bridge. Most of the course was hard-packed dirt with small pebbles. There were no major tripping hazards, but lots and lots of small rocks that could easily find their way into shoes. For me gaiters were a must. Several racers told me they had to stop several times to empty rocks out of their shoes.
We arrived at the race site early so I could get my race bib (we had the same bib and same number for the entire series) and tee shirt (light blue short-sleeve cotton). The weather on Monday morning was cold at the start, about 48 degrees, but it soon warmed up to 72 with sunny skies. It was easy to figure out the circular route and there was a fairly decent line of sight so we could see almost completely around the course. There was no real shade on the course so at times it felt quite hot and humid (but that was fine with me). The one aid station was at the start/finish line, along with two porta-potties. I was able to keep a relatively steady pace for the entire 26.2 miles, although I did have to make several pit stops. After the 7th lap, Chuck presented me with a medal with the name of the race and the shape of the state of Maine and a runner on it on a blue lanyard. Each day we received a similar medal with the name and shape of the day’s state on a different color lanyard.
I finished this race in 6:19, typical for me in a loop course of this kind. I had a couple of glasses of chocolate milk and then we took off for New Hampshire. Perhaps we left too quickly because after only twenty minutes on the road, both my legs began to cramp. Darcy wanted to wait until we reached a rest area but I was in such severe pain that we had to pull over in the breakdown lane; I immediately jumped out of the car so I could stand up and stretch. I must have looked a sight, leaning against the car hot and sweaty in my Maniacs shirt and cap, but stretching seemed to do the trick. My cramps subsided and I was able to make the rest of the trip without incident.
We arrived in Nashua, NH, around 4 pm and made our way to the Granite State race venue at Mine Falls Park. This park was much harder to find and we did get lost for a few minutes. Even after we found the park, we were not sure exactly what this course would be like because the primary aid station (there are two in this race) and the start/finish line were in a parking lot and it wasn’t clear where the actual race would be held. That was probably a good thing, because if I had known what this race would be like, I might have changed my mind about doing it!
After figuring out the location of the park, we drove to our hotel, a nearby Hampton Inn, dined at Bertucci’s, a local Italian restaurant that had excellent antipasto, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, and then settled in for the night. Tuesday morning was cool, 52 degrees but it felt much colder, and it never warmed up beyond 62 degrees. We arrived at the park around 5:40 am and Chuck explained the course design which loosely resembled a figure-8 and encompassed a short segment of tank trail but was mostly dirt with good-sized rocks and roots. The only paved section was at the turn-around in a downtown section of Nashua. The second aid station was located here. I memorized the route on the first go-round, but several people did take some wrong turns; it was very easy to miss the correct route.
We did a quick .8 mile on pavement at the very beginning and then had to do five laps of 5.08 miles on the actual trail. As soon as I started up the tank trail, I knew it would be a tough time for me. And sure enough, as I headed back to the start/finish on the first lap, I tripped and fell hard, hurting my left hand, tearing my pants, and skinning my knee. At least the hand I hurt was my left one and not my previously broken right hand. A thoughtful runner, Eileen, saw me fall and helped me up, making sure I was okay. Hey, this was not my idea of fun! When I got to the aid station, a volunteer was kind enough to fill a rubber glove with some ice so I could ice my swollen hand while I made my way around on the second lap. That helped keep the swelling and pain to a manageable level. On the way up to the second aid station, there were a couple of large puddles that I had to wade through (some people could jump over to the other side but not me), resulting in wet socks and shoes. My gaiters came in handy on this race, too.
My eyes were glued to the trail for the remaining laps and I slowed down considerably to make sure I did not trip again. I was so glad to finish the final loop. This marathon took me 7 ½ hours to complete, perhaps a personal worst. I had no inkling beforehand that the terrain would be so precarious (for me) or I might have spent the day sightseeing instead!
After getting my well-deserved medal and a cup of chocolate milk, I stretched a little (hoping to stave off those cramps) and then Darcy and I left for our next destination, Warwick, Rhode Island, near Providence. The drive took about 1 ½ hours, stopping once at Dunkin Donuts to get something light to eat and a bagel for tomorrow’s pre-race breakfast. Once again, we drove to the race site, Warwick City Park. This park was easy to find and I remembered that several years ago I had finished a 6 hour race in this same park to count for the state of Rhode Island when I was pursuing the 50 states. Our hotel this evening was the Radisson at the airport, an older hotel but still quite decent. I had stayed here previously; the big draw here for me was the hotel restaurant, Libations, but on Tuesday evening, we dined at Legal Seafood next door. I felt I deserved a big meal after such a punishing trail race. The clam chowder and baked scrod were scrumptious. Even my husband, a confirmed fish-hater, raved about his shrimp dish.
The weather on Wednesday was supposed to be cool and cloudy, so I dressed warmly, perhaps too warmly. But I had been cold all day on Tuesday so I wanted to be prepared. Just in case, I did bring my sunglasses and that was a good idea, because by 8 am the sun was out and it did warm up. This race, the Red Island Marathon, consisted of one 1.9 mile out-and-back and then 9 laps of a 2.7 mile paved (hooray) loop. There was a short dirt section but there were no rocks or roots to speak of. The solitary aid station was in a dirt parking area with some pebbles. This was the one race I did not wear gaiters and they really weren’t necessary; even so, by the end of the race I did manage to get some irritants, including a tiny piece of bark, inside my shoes.
The Red Island race was my favorite of the three Challenge races. Even though there were several rolling hills which seemed very steep by the 5th loop, I just loved the paved course. The course was mostly shaded and I enjoyed being able to look at the trees, the water of Narragansett Bay, the birds, and other people without worrying about falling. My finishing time was not great, 6:30, but I attribute that to overall general fatigue. When this race was over, we drove back to the Radisson and I took a shower and a nap. It was good not to have to drive 100 miles to Connecticut, but there were many Challengers who did exactly that and then went on to complete the series in Massachusetts on Friday (and even some who plan to do the Shires of Vermont Marathon on Sunday). I was just happy to survive the three races and then relax with a delicious dinner at Libations, indulging in homemade French fries, lobster chowder, and lobster sliders. We headed home on Thursday. Maybe someday I will attempt more than three marathons in a row but I’ll make sure there isn’t a trail involved.