It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Humidity – The Cremator 50 Miler in Port Royal, SC (July 19, 2014)

This ultra is the perfect race for someone who loves heat and humidity and prefers pavement over trail. I enjoyed the race so much last year that early on I decided to try it again. And this year, RD Tim Waz, in a perfect example of gleeful sadism, decided to offer a Double Cremator. People could choose to do 50 miles on Saturday and then return for another 50 on Sunday, thus earning a well-deserved buckle. I was tempted but sanity prevailed; I realized that with a generous 14 hour cut-off on the first day followed by a more restrictive 13 hour cut-off the next day, I would probably not be able to meet the 2nd day’s time limit. About 20 people did sign up for the double and since they are probably running it as I write this report, I wish them well.

I was very happy I settled for the single option. Although the race was every bit as enjoyable as last year (when I finished in 12:50), this year was decidedly different for me. Although the weather was cooler – yes, some of us do call 82 degrees cool – the humidity was noticeably higher. For some reason, this affected me adversely and I had a queasy stomach for the whole second portion of the race. Fortunately, most of the day was overcast and there was seldom any direct sun. I also had other problems. My quads, which never bother me, tightened up, and I could feel the beginnings of a blister on the ball of my left foot. The course consists of 2 out-and-back stretches, 12 ½ miles each way, along Route 21 along the beautiful sand marshes and quaint towns of low country South Carolina, and while the scenery was beautiful and the people friendly and supportive, it was definitely a struggle for me to complete the second loop.

Once again, my ever-patient husband served as my crew, meeting me every 2-3 miles to exchange water bottles, Gatorade, and cold compresses. There are fully stocked two aid stations, one at the start/finish line and one at the turn-around point, so food needs are well taken care of. Unfortunately I had little appetite because of my nausea so it was difficult to consume enough calories. It’s only been in my last 2 ultras that queasiness has become a problem so I will have to do more research to figure out a solution.

Final results are not yet published since the 2nd part of the race is currently taking place, but it looks like I finished in 13 hours and 20 minutes, considerably longer than my last year’s finishing time. However, I was extremely happy to be welcomed across the finish line by Tim and his band of wonderful volunteers. The medal this year is a handsome beer opener (yes, I can definitely put that to good use – this is one medal that won’t be decorating my medal tree).

Hiking the English Lake District: July 4 – July 12

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Hiking may not be my favorite pastime but for some reason I am continually drawn to the English countryside. It seems that hiking is one of the best ways to see all the small hamlets, large lakes, and magnificent mountains that dot the British Isles. That’s why I signed my husband and myself up for a weeklong hiking trip to the Lake District of Cumbria, home to literary greats William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, John Ruskin, and Beatrix Potter. Last June we both explored hiking along the Thames from Oxford to the London with Road Scholar and then in September I went on an inn-to-inn hike in Cornwall with a group from Timberline Adventures. This year we decided to join the Virginia-based English Lakeland Ramblers tour company for our excursion to the Lake District.

We left on Friday, the 4th of July, but because our flight to Atlanta didn’t leave until early afternoon, I had time to volunteer at the 3 mile Melon Run sponsored by the Florida Track Club. I worked the registration table, helping to hand out bibs to the almost 500 runners and walkers. If I’m in town I always try to do the race, but this year I decided to volunteer instead. Once the race began, I positioned myself at the last ‘hill’ just before the finish line to cheer everyone on. Then I walked back home, changed into my traveling clothes, and finished packing. We flew to a relatively quiet Atlanta; usually Hartsfield-Jackson is bustling and bursting at the seams with passengers but apparently the holiday is a light air travel day, and waited for our evening flight to Manchester, UK.

Just because I travel so much, it may seem like I enjoy flying, but I really dislike sitting for long periods of time in a small cramped space so flying cross-country or internationally really tests my patience and my muscles, especially my hamstrings and glutes. I cannot sleep on planes, either, so I was glad when the 7 ½ hour trip was over. We arrived in Manchester around 8 am Saturday morning (3 am Eastern time), picked up our luggage, and then walked to the Radisson Blu Hotel through a skywalk connected to terminal 2. How convenient was that! It reminded me of the Hilton Hotel at Heathrow, very convenient to the Delta terminal. Our room was not quite ready for us yet so we stored our bags with the concierge and had a full English breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Afterwards we took a walk around the hotel grounds to stretch our legs but the downside of staying in an airport hotel is the lack of anyplace to really go. Still, it felt good to stretch our legs and have a breath of fresh air. Around dinnertime, we walked back to the airport shops to buy some snacks and drinks; we weren’t really hungry but needed something to tide us over until morning. We managed to stay awake until 8 pm and then gratefully headed to bed for a good night’s sleep. I had learned that one way to deal with jet lag and red eye flights is to build in an extra day before our actual vacation begins. That way we are rested and ready to forge on ahead with our plans.

On Saturday our driver, Greg Bateson, met us at our hotel at 8 and drove us, along with another couple in our group, to the first of our two hotels, the Gold Rill Hotel in Grasmere in the southern part of the Lake District. Rich and Denise were from Austin, Texas, and were young, active, and in very good shape for the strenuous hiking ahead of us. The other couple in our group were from upstate New York and had arrived a day ahead of us so they were already settled into their room. Hazel and Christopher were in their late 60’s and early 70’s respectively but were also in excellent condition. They had done lots of hiking over the last 40 years and had just completed a weeklong expedition in Scotland. Darcy and I were the novices in the group and the weakest links in the hiking chain. But that did not bother us. We just wanted to have fun and enjoy the week; as long as I remained upright with no broken bones, I would be content.

From Sunday through Wednesday morning, we were settled in Wordsworth country. We were surrounded by sheep, cows, rabbits, and birds, slate stone houses and fences, farmland, lakes, and mountains (called ‘fells’ – fell running is a popular sport here). Every morning we had a cooked-to-order breakfast and every evening a delicious dinner. On Sunday afternoon, our first walk was to St. Oswald’s Church; William Wordsworth and his family members are buried in the churchyard. Just around the corner from the church is Sarah Nelson’s Gingerbread Shop. I have to admit that this was a highlight of the trip for me. The gingerbread is made from a carefully guarded family recipe and is astoundingly tasty. It is not like the cakey gingerbread so familiar to Americans but is more like a crisp yet chewy cookie (or ‘biscuit’ in British parlance) with a pleasantly strong ginger flavor. I am not a fan of ginger but these cookies changed my mind.
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The Gold Rill Hotel was spacious and clean, in a lovely setting with beautiful grounds and an outdoor pool. Darcy and I were up in the garret, in a large well-appointed room with lots of steep gables. We had to be very careful where we walked, especially at night, because we could easily bump our heads on the slanted gables. Somehow we managed to avoid any major lumps, bumps, and bruises.
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After our afternoon foray, we returned to the hotel for an orientation meeting and an informative talk about the Lake District poets and conservationists. Our principal guide was Janet, who was both knowledgeable and outgoing as well as an excellent driver (she managed our mini-bus on winding narrow roads and through mind-numbing passes with ease). Her talk on Monday evening was full of interesting tidbits and lore.
Monday was our first full day and one filled with several long hikes. We walked to the neighboring town of Ambleside, did a little shopping (and I visited a small bookstore where I found Darksider Scott Ludwig’s book about Badwater on the shelf – what a small world!), ate a hearty lunch of broccoli, mushroom, and Stilton cheese with apple pie for dessert at the Apple Pie Café, and then visited Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home for nine years. Back at the hotel we listened to Alan, the UK director of Ramblers, talk about the varied landscapes and industry of the Lake District.

On Tuesday, we took the mini-bus to Bowness-on-Windermere, then a ferry, followed by a short hike. We visited Hilltop Farm, one of Beatrix Potter’s homes, and then John Ruskin’s Brantwood. After lunch at the Jumping Jenny Restaurant (named after Ruskin’s boat), and splurging on what is reputed to be the best sticky toffee pudding in the country, we hiked up a zig-zag path near Brantwood. In the evening after dinner, we had to pack up our things so they could be transferred to our next hotel on Wednesday.

About the hikes in general: we were given the choice each day of taking a moderate or strenuous route. Anne, our other guide, led the more adventurous members of our group on the difficult hikes. Janet stayed with those of us who preferred the less strenuous walks. Guess which group I opted for? Even the easier hikes were difficult for me – the trails were mostly rocky and had large roots that were major tripping hazards for me. The mountains were steep and getting up and down (especially down) the rocky hillsides were a major challenge for me – definitely not as difficult as Cornwall but still harrowing. It definitely took me far outside my comfort zone. I used my trekking poles on each and every hike and was very grateful for them.

On Wednesday we brought our luggage downstairs (no elevator and we were on the third flood) for transfer to our new hotel, the Borrowdale Gates Hotel set in a more northerly section of the Lake District. Most of this day was spent on a thrilling drive through a number of steep mountain passes. Thank goodness for Janet’s skillful driving ability! Our only walk today was fairly brief and not very difficult. We walked to the Hard Knott Roman fort, the small hamlet of Boot for lunch, and the Eskdale corn (what Americans call flour) mill.

It turns out that Thursday was the most challenging day for me. After a drive to Castlerigg Stone Circle (a Neolithic site similar to Stonehenge), we hiked up a steep rocky mountside by Walla Crag and Ashness Bridge to the village of Lodore. After eating a packed lunch, we took the ferry across the lake to Keswick, a small market town about 4 miles from Borrowdale. It was market day in Keswick so I purchased some beautiful wool yarn (all those sheep!) in some glorious colors.

By Friday, Darcy was nursing some inflamed toes and sore muscles. Since even the easier hike on this day was supposed to be very rocky, we both decided to sit this one out. We had a pleasant walk along the footpath by the lake, managing to do around 4 miles on fairly level ground. We returned to the hotel and ate our packed lunch in the sitting area facing the garden and the mountains. It was a leisurely afternoon and a wonderful way to end the week.

Although the hikes themselves were challenging for me because of their rocky and rooty nature, I never really got much of a workout during the week. In order to maintain some level of fitness, I had to go out early each morning to walk along the paved country roads. Although I had to watch for cars because of the narrow roads, there was not much traffic at 6 am so I felt fairly safe. In fact, on Friday morning, my only real surprise was finding myself face-to-face with about a dozen cattle and a bull that were moving along the road – heading right towards me! That gave me quite a jolt until a woman appeared with a long pole and directed the cattle into the field on the opposite side of the road.

We had to get up early on Saturday so we could meet Greg, our driver, at 5:30 am for the drive back to Manchester airport. Our flights home were long and tiring but happily uneventful. I think I may have finally satisfied my urge to walk in the UK. Unless, of course, I decide to try the Cotswalds – maybe!

Pacific Crest Marathon (Sunriver, OR) – June 28, 2014 – ‘Sea Level is for Sissies’

This weekend we made another cross-country jaunt to the Pacific Northwest – it seems I am drawn to the cooler climate and lovely scenery of this area, especially when the temperature in Florida hits 95 almost every day. This time we flew into Portland and rented a car for the 3 ½ hour drive to Bend, Oregon. Even though I had lived and worked in southern Oregon many years ago, I had never been to Bend, so I was curious to learn about the area on the eastern side of the Cascades. Sunriver is a resort community about 15 miles south of Bend so rather than stay in one of the condo rentals in Sunriver itself we opted instead to headquarters ourselves in Bend and travel to and fro as needed.

The drive from the outskirts of Portland to Bend was very scenic; we passed by ski areas and majestic evergreens, crossed mountain passes with elevations over 4000 feet, and drove through the Mt. Hood National Forest (with snow-crowned Mt. Hood in the distance) and the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.

My choice of hotel was the Hilton Garden Inn in the Old Mill District, an upscale shopping and dining area. It was pricey but sounded ideal and it was – at least for the first 2 nights. Our last night at the hotel was a fiasco but I’ll expand on that later. We were exhausted after the long flight from Atlanta to Portland followed by the long drive to Bend, so we checked into the hotel and walked to a nearby microbrewery and restaurant. I must admit that one of the reasons I wanted to stay in Bend was to take advantage of several local breweries that surrounded the Deschutes River, so that first night we had a flight of beers and some tasty chicken quesadillas and a huge platter of nachos at the Rat Hole Brewpub. The atmosphere was friendly and laid back; it didn’t take long for us to get into a more relaxed frame of mind after a long day of travel.

After eating, we walked back to the hotel and called it a day. It might have been 6 pm Pacific time but for us it was 9 pm and past my usual bedtime. On Friday morning, after a sound sleep and a ‘free’ breakfast (we were given courtesy breakfast vouchers in lieu of extra Hilton points), we were ready to explore Sunriver. We followed the directions to the expo which was held outdoors in the Athletes Village. There were maps (not drawn to scale) online as well as in the 60 page booklet handed out at the expo but I have to admit that I was totally confused about where I really was the entire weekend. There were too many traffic circles and too many houses that looked identical. Fortunately, the race course itself was exceedingly well-marked so I never got lost during the race itself, but I otherwise I found the area very confusing. Had it not been for my husband and his acute sense of direction, it would have been a frustrating experience.

The marathon was just one of numerous events held during what is called the Pacific Crest Weekend Sports Festival. In addition to the marathon, the weekend includes a long course triathlon, endurance duathlon, half marathon, Olympic distance triathlon, Olympic distance duathlon, Tour de Crest bike tour (26 and 55 miles), 5K and 10k run/walk, kids splash pedal-n-dash, and kids 1-mile and ½ mile dash. All these events are held over the 3 day weekend, beginning Friday and ending Sunday. The motto of the weekend is ‘sea level is for sissies’ – and with elevations reaching over 4500 feet, it proved to be very true. I had not realized this when I signed up for the race, but even though I live in sea-level Florida, I have completed enough high altitude races to feel that I could manage the altitude as long as I didn’t push too hard.

I joined the long line for packet pickup for registered participants. Once we entered the registration tent, the line split into different groupings depending on the particular race. The marathon line was short and I was able to easily get my pink bib with chip attached. I was then directed to another line for a wrist band that would allow me into the food tent post-race and then to another tent for my gray-green short sleeve tech tee shirt. We spent quite a bit of time at the information booth in order to get exact directions for the auxiliary parking area so we could take a shuttle to the start on race day. Parking is very limited in Sunriver and is forbidden on the sides of the roads within the community so people were encouraged to drive to Penhollow Lake where there was ample parking and shuttle buses that would continually make the drive between the parking area and the Athletes Village. The only problem was that the printed directions and map were incorrect and it took awhile before volunteers could explain exactly where to go and how to get there. After we finally got the directions straightened out (at least so Darcy could understand them, I was still confused), we drove back to Bend for some lunch.

Our first stop was at the Deschutes Brewery where we intended to take a free tour. Unfortunately the tours were completely booked up for the rest of the day, but we were invited to stop at the hospitality room to taste a few glasses of the special brews on tap. That sounded good to us, so I tried several light beers while Darcy concentrated on the darker pours. Then we browsed the small gift shop and selected a couple of tee shirts to purchase. The brewery has a pub downtown so that was our destination for lunch. Darcy and I split a huge hot pretzel with melted Tillamook cheese and spicy mustard and then Darcy had a meatloaf dinner while I feasted on a mushroom burger and sweet potato fries.

Then it was back to the hotel to make final preparations for the race and get some rest. I slept fitfully, waking every couple of hours to check the time even though my alarm was set. I finally got out of bed around 3:30 am and began to quietly get ready. We were ready to leave about 5:45 am so we made our way to the car and drove to the auxiliary parking spot where we could pick up the shuttle. The race officials had put up large signs on the highway and at the proper exit to show us exactly how to get there. I guess all those questions we had on Friday paid off! We parked and walked to one of several mini-buses that were lined up ready to take on passengers. The drivers conferred among themselves and via cell phone about where to drop us off and how to get us to that point. Then we boarded the bus of the most confident driver, who would lead the way, and made ourselves comfortable for the brief ride.

All was well until my husband turned to me about 5 minutes into the ride and said, ‘the driver missed a turn and now he’s going the wrong way.’ We were sitting up front so I told Darcy to say something quickly to the driver or – despite getting on the first bus – we would be late to the start. I had to visit the porta-potty, too. So my geographically-gifted husband strode to the front of the bus and proceeded to give accurate directions to the driver who seemed grateful (and only a tiny bit embarrassed) for the assistance. We made it to the drop off point after that with no more problems.

The weather was in the low 50’s and I was cold but did not want to dress too warmly because the temps were supposed to reach the mid-70’s with some sun. I gripped my handwarmers and kept my hood up to ward off the chill. The marathon starting time was 7:30 am, followed by the half marathon at 8. There were a number of Marathon Maniacs present as well as several 50 State Club members and several people took photos of the Maniacs as we waited to begin. Promptly at 7:30 we were called to the start line and the countdown began. We started on time, with me near the back.

My legs were stiff for the first couple of miles so I had to take it easy until I warmed up. Several people ran past me and then slowed down to a crawl and I could hear them gasping for breath. It was then that I realized that they were having trouble because of the altitude. My lungs seemed to be okay but I thought that maybe the heaviness I felt in my legs might also be a result of the altitude. I began to relax and enjoy the clear day and beautiful surroundings. I knew that my finishing time might suffer but racing at 4500 feet elevation when I was accustomed to sea level might not be such a good idea. Once reconciled to that, the rest of the race passed uneventfully.

Around an hour or so into the race, the fastest half marathoners caught up with me and from that point on I was surrounded by rapid runners who sped by me on the way to completing their one loop. It was so difficult for me to finish the first loop and not turn off with the half marathoners! The announcer even called out my name, saying, ‘there you go, Marsha, starting your second loop’ so there was no way I could chicken out and stop at one loop. I kept moving. For most of the second time around I was all alone but instead of feeling lonely, it was very pleasant. The day had warmed up considerably and I reveled in the sunshine. There was not much shade but the course did weave in and out of several wooded areas, and that provided a little relief. Along the way I saw deer, a family of ducklings, a swan, Canada geese, and lots of birds. Following the arrows and signs, I had no problem staying on the course.

As I approached the final 10K, I finally saw some other racers, including one of my Maniac Facebook friends, Karin (whom I had never met in person before). I was SO happy to reach the finish line after this second loop! My finishing time was 6:16, good enough for 2nd in my age group. I received my medal, entered the food tent where the offerings were generous, and met up with Darcy for our shuttle ride back to our rental car.
Now I was ready for a shower and a meal. We decided to visit the Deschutes Brewery pub for our again dinner, with another hot pretzel for me and a Reuben sandwich for Darcy. I was beat, and since we had to get up at 3 am for the long drive back to Portland to catch our morning flight, I was looking forward to a quiet night’s sleep. It was not to be. We had to listen to an excruciatingly loud rock band in the outdoor arena right outside our window. I asked to change rooms but was told the hotel was completely booked for the night. I asked how long the concert would last and nobody knew. I spent an irritating evening sitting in the hotel lobby trying to read and stay awake until the noise ceased – which it finally did around 10 pm. Had we known about the concert when we checked in we could have made arrangements to stay elsewhere for that final evening. The result was a long, sleepy, tiring day on Monday as we made our way home, eventually reaching Florida around 9:30 pm.

This race had both pros and cons; a lot depends upon your point of view as well as your personal likes and dislikes.
The good –
• The paved course was very well-marked with large signs and arrows pointing the way
• Volunteers were present at every crossing and aid station and remained cheerful throughout the race
• Aid stations were every couple of miles and had cold water, electrolyte drinks, and some had cliff shots – and porta potties
• Scenery was lovely; we passed through evergreen woodlands, golf courses, lakes with people tubing, boating, and fishing, and mountains topped with snow
• Animals occasionally popped up – deer, mama duck and her family of ducklings, Canada geese, bluebirds, even a swan
• There was plenty of food at the finish line. I wasn’t very hungry but I could have eaten my fill of fruit (watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew), bread, macaroni salad, cookies, and strawberry shortcake with whipped cream and more
• No big rocks or roots on the course (but I was still glad I wore my gaiters because there were lots of small pebbles that were just looking to jump inside my shoes)
• There is no official time limit so walkers are actively encouraged to participate in both half and full marathons
The not-so-good –
• Tee shirt is generic; it says Pacific Crest Athletic Festival but doesn’t mention the marathon event (or any of the other races) nor does it say ‘finisher’ on it. With so many activities going on, it doesn’t surprise me that there aren’t separate tees for each event, but still . . . .
• The medal is generic as well – it is large and has a beautiful depiction of the mountains and lakes but there is no mention of marathon or finisher or the place or even the date. The lanyard also fails to mention the specific race or date. That is a little disappointing because someone looking at the medal would have absolutely no idea what it was for
• High elevation makes it tough to maintain a regular pace, at least for flatlanders
• It’s a double loop course, and I am not crazy about double loops, but the course is attractive enough that walking around it twice was not a real hardship
• There were only 119 finishers in the full marathon, probably the smallest race I’ve ever completed. That second loop was pretty lonely. It didn’t bother me much since the course was so well-marked that I wasn’t worried about getting lost but it was good to finally see some other racers as I came up on the last 6 miles or so
• The shuttle drivers needed more training. If Darcy had not helped our driver with directions we might have arrived late to the starting line
• The award ceremony was over well before many people had finished the race (this is always disappointing to me) and there was no mention of whether age group awards would be mailed.

Getting to the race site requires some extra planning and expense and probably an extra day and night if you are coming from east of the Mississippi. This race would be a good opportunity to spend several extra days in Oregon as part of an extended vacation, perhaps taking in the southern and coastal sections of the state in addition to walking the marathon. The Portland airport is well-organized and signage throughout Oregon is exceptionally good; I really liked the huge speed limit signs on the highways (easy on my aging eyes).
Would I do this race again? Probably not, but I am certainly glad I did it at least once. I would recommend it to walkers who enjoy a quiet race with lots of spectacular scenery and who do not require lots of spectators or company on the course.