Flying High at the Air Force Marathon (Dayton, OH) – September 20, 2014

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Marathoners often enjoy a natural high when doing a race but it certainly helps when the race is on a great course with lots of polite and supportive air force personnel and volunteers. The Air Force Marathon had long been on my bucket list – it has a 7 hour time limit and is supposed to be very walker-friendly. This seemed to be a good year to check it off since I had an open weekend.

After two short flights on Friday, Darcy and I were in Dayton. The airport is a 30 minute taxi ride from the host hotel, the Holiday Inn Dayton/Fairborn I-675. I had not realized that Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was not really in Dayton but closer to the suburb of Fairborn. That meant a pricey cab ride to and from the airport and hotel. It also meant we didn’t see anything of Dayton itself, though the weekend was busy enough that we had minimal time to explore.

Once we settled into our hotel room, we walked the short distance to packet pickup at the Nutter Center on the campus of Wright State University. The expo was held in a large room with packet pickup at the ground floor level; booths were set up in the center of this section as well as around the perimeter of the mezzanine. It was crowded on Friday but we managed to get my bib, short-sleeve navy and orange tech tee shirt, and goodie bag with no problem.  I also must mention that – in addition to a tee shirt – there was also a neat patch for the marathon (I collect patches from places I travel and hope to incorporate them in a quilt someday) plus an orange marathon sports cap – more bling than I expected. I checked out the vendors, too, but didn’t see anything I wanted to spend money on except a few bags of sports beans with caffeine. Since it was now about 1 pm, we decided to find a place to eat lunch. Texas Roadhouse was right across the street and sounded appealing (other choices were more mundane – Taco Bell, Subway, McDonald’s). After lunch, we walked back to the Holiday Inn and relaxed. Well, Darcy relaxed while I set about pinning my bib to my vest and pulling out clothes, shoes, and snacks for the race.

Since we had stuffed ourselves at lunch, neither one of us felt much like eating dinner. Instead we went to bed early. The marathon was due to start at 7:30 but the first of the shuttles to the race start on the base was set to leave at 4:30 and I wanted to be on it. That meant I had to get up at least two hours earlier so I could have my breakfast and get dressed.

Weather on race morning was cool. No rain was predicted and the temps ranged from 50 degrees at the start to about 80 at the finish. The afternoon might have been slightly too humid for some but I enjoyed the warmth. I took the first shuttle at 4:30 and it left right on time – with me as the only racer! When we arrived at the start 15 minutes later, I had plenty of time to wander around, visit the porta-potties, and explore the area. The only problem was there was no place to sit or stay warm and out of the wind. There were plenty of porta-potties but they were on wet grass so my shoes and socks were sodden by the time the race began (though they quickly dried off once the sun rose).

I had expected the course to be mundane and unattractive but that was definitely not the case. I really enjoyed the pleasant scenery, wide lanes, and smooth roads; I even saw several dozen Canada geese pecking away in a field. After recently completing so many smaller marathons with under 400 people, it was wonderful to have people around me but not so tightly packed that I couldn’t move at a good pace. This marathon has about 3000 participants, a good number, so I was never really alone but it was not so crowded that I felt pressured. The course is very well-marked and the airmen and women enthusiastically and cheerfully directed us around every significant turn.

This race had all the markings of a PR course but I knew by mile 3 that I was going to have some trouble. Although I have been relatively injury-free for most of the 8 years I have been racing, every now and then something arises to give me trouble. For the last few months, pain in my left piriformis has definitely slowed me down. Early on in this race I could feel my gait change as I altered it to alleviate the discomfort. The miles passed and I exchanged pleasantries with a number of racers who passed or played leapfrog with me, and by mile 18, I could feel the pain dissipate, replaced by an all-over soreness in my legs. Instead of my usual push during the last 10k, I simply tried to maintain a steady pace. I did pass a number of runners who had slowed (in part no doubt due to the rising humidity) but that was more due to my consistency rather than speed.

The final 1.2 miles heads past the Air Force Museum, around a long stretch marked by flags, and down a runway with huge bombers and cargo planes on both sides. In the morning I had looked at this finish line and thought ‘what a rush that will be – to move along past those big planes!’ It seemed so exciting and I was so looking forward to it. Unfortunately, by the time I reached that point all I could focus on was the finish line at the very end. My mind and body was depleted; I just wanted to cross the finish line.

My time was 6:16, and I admit I was slightly disappointed I was not faster. However, considering my leg pain, I was relieved just to finish. The medal was impressive. For food, there were bananas and one pizza slice per person (plenty for me but it seemed a little chintzy for hungrier runners) plus water and Gatorade. I hung around after the race trying to scrounge a ride from Maniacs and people I had talked to during the race and was SO relieved that ‘barefoot’ Eddie was willing to drive me back to the hotel even though he was on his way to Cincinnati so he could make a flight to Omaha for the race there tomorrow. In exchange, I offered him a chance to shower which he was happy to take; I hope that was a somewhat even exchange.

Good things about this race:

  • The course was much better than I had expected – more attractive scenery, wide expanse of road so there was very little crowding, and not at all boring (which I had expected from races I have done on other military bases)
  • Part of the course went through the town of Fairborn and the streets there were lined with throngs of spectators
  • Polite and cute airmen and women positioned at every turn and at strategic places along the course.  I am old enough to be their grandmother and I wanted to hug them all!
  • The aid stations were a hoot!  Most of them had a theme and my absolute favorite was the extraterrestrials at mile 11
  • In addition to water and Gatorade, many of the aid stations had gels, bananas, cookies, licorice, and other treats.  Since I had forgotten my peanut butter crackers and lost my baggie with s-caps, I was grateful for the fruit and sweets
  • Plenty of medical aid was visible and available for those who needed it
  • The finish line was memorable – even if I was not able to truly enjoy it with more sore muscles
  • The marathon medal is great – attractive, heavy, and on a red, white, and blue lanyard

There were just a few things I did NOT like about this race:

  • The race finish is open for 7 hours but the website clearly states that timing begins with gun time.  That of course means that people who really need the full 7 hours are penalized from starting at the back.  In reality, it only takes about 5 minutes for those at the back (like me!) to cross the start line but it still doesn’t really make sense.  However, I did notice that people were allowed to finish past 7 hours, so I am not sure how strictly this is enforced.
  • The race start area was a scene of mass confusion – but maybe that was just me.  Many of the participants were returning racers (they were wearing shirts from previous Air Force marathons) and seemed to be comfortable with the atmosphere, but to me it seemed everyone was milling around in the corrals (full, half, 10k people plus bikes, baby carriages, family members) and moving in all different directions.  It wasn’t until the gun went off that people who were actually racing began moving slowly to the start – while everyone else was still in the way.
  • The PA system at the start was impossible to hear.  I strained to understand the announcements but between the poor sound system and the crowd noise, I could hear absolutely nothing.
  • But these were just minor irritations.  I only had one real complaint but is was big one and would definitely keep me from returning.  There was no transportation from the finish line back to the shuttle pickup point.  The shuttles only go one way.  They will take you to the start on the base but will not bring you back.  That means that racers have to have someone, a friend or family member, who will pick you up at the finish to bring you back to your hotel (or wherever else you need to go). The only other option is to call for a taxi to pick you up at the Museum near the finish line – and not only is that costly but it might also take a while for a taxi to arrive.  I was extraordinarily fortunate that barefoot Eddie was kind enough to drive me back.  It was hard to keep that mental anxiety about how I would get back from affecting my race just a little.  It seems that most people drive (there is plenty of parking), and I would highly recommend renting a car for those coming from out-of-town.  With that caveat, this race is a definite plus for walkers.
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Sioux Falls Marathon – September 7, 2014 (Sioux Falls, South Dakota)

So far this year I have found myself increasingly drawn to smaller races in beautiful mid-sized towns and metropolitan areas instead of huge races in big cities. Part of this is due to the great scenery that smaller venues have to offer but it is also because I am eager to try out new (to me at least) races. And since I’ve already done New York, Chicago, Boston, Marine Corps, Little Rock, New Orleans, Seattle, Portland, and most of the other major league marathons, it has been fun to seek out the not so popular but still very excellent races.

As a result, I found myself this past weekend in the lovely town of Sioux Falls, the largest city in South Dakota but still relatively small compared to New York, Dallas, Chicago, and Boston. The marathon is a recent addition to a popular half marathon that has been in existence for almost twenty years. The marathon, on the other hand, was begun in 2010 and usually has about 350-400 runners. I knew I was taking a chance with the 6 hour 15 minute time limit but since I was trying to get my second race in South Dakota (yes, I have decided to try for a second round of the states), it seemed like a good opportunity.

I left for Sioux Falls on Friday morning and 3 flights later arrived in the city around 4 pm. In the baggage claim area I met Jean and Jennifer, identical twins from Cincinnati who were also in town for the race. They were renting a car and since we were all staying at the host hotel, the Sheraton, they offered me a ride. The Sheraton does have a free shuttle to and from the airport but it was fun to share a ride and talk shop. I was able to check in and get a room on the Club floor which gave me access to the Club Lounge. This saved me quite a bit of money because I was able to eat light meals for breakfast and dinner plus snacks gratis. In fact, I probably earned a record for the least amount of money spent over a weekend on any of my trips – only $6 for a beer on Saturday afternoon!

Since it had been a long day of travel, I was glad to turn in early on Friday evening. On Saturday, I had a continental breakfast and took a walk around the area, checking out exactly how far it was to downtown. The hotel is located near the airport, about 2 miles from the city center, and I was thinking about taking a taxi there and back so I could visit some museums and shops. A taxi wasn’t really necessary, however, because there were sidewalks along the route and by following a simplified map distributed by the hotel I could figure out the way there and back. As it turned out, though, I didn’t even need to walk because I met Jennifer and Jean around 1 pm and we spent the rest of the day exploring downtown Sioux Falls.

But first I had to visit the Expo and packet pickup in the Arena, located right next to the Sheraton. Hours of the Expo were 11 am to 7 pm and I was one of the first to line up at the marathon counter. I received my bib with chip attached, safety pins, and a long-sleeved gray technical tee shirt plus a bright yellow backpack which doubled as a drop bag on race morning. Booths lined both sides of the large room and I spent some time chatting with the vendors. On the way back to my hotel room, I ran into the twins who were headed downtown. I readily accepted an invitation to join them. We managed to fit in a lot of sightseeing in a relatively short span of time. Some of the highpoints included the Old Courthouse Museum, the Pettigrew Home and Museum, the eponymous Falls (located in a beautiful park with an observation tower, café, and visitor’s center), and an arts festival and Germanfest.

I tried to turn in early on Saturday because the race began at 6:45 on Sunday morning and I wanted to have my coffee and bread at least two hours before. The start of the race was on the track at Howard Wood Field, just a short walk from the hotel. I was happy I could wait until almost the last minute before I had to leave the warmth of my hotel room for the 50 degree temperature outside. No rain was predicted (unlike the drenching I had last weekend in the Upper Peninsula) but the day remained fairly cool until the sun rose around 8 am. Someone sang the Star Spangled Banner, someone else gave a brief invocation, the one wheelchair participant took off, and at exactly 7:45 the rest of us followed.

The first third of the race follows streets and highways on the outskirts of the city and there is not too much to see – lots of industrial buildings, some homes, and lots of wide open spaces. By mile 9, we hit the first of several paved bike paths; this one was pleasant to walk on but there was no shade at all and the sun was beginning to make the day feel quite hot and humid. I kept leapfrogging with Henry Rueden who was finishing his 996th marathon! Most of the runners had taken off quickly and there were just a few people pushing my pace. Soon Henry took off and I didn’t see him again until almost 10 miles later, when I overtook him (though he managed to catch up with me around mile 25 and finished just ahead of me!). I was essentially alone for the next 5 miles but it was hard to get lost at this point – the bike path had few alternate paths and for the most confusing sections, volunteers pointed me in the right direction. I noticed the time as I crossed the 13.1 mile timing mat; it read 2:55 so I was on target for a 6 hour finish if I could maintain my pace.

Unfortunately, my legs began to tire and the irritating pain I had been experiencing in my left hamstring and gluteal muscles began to resurface. The next section of the race, around mile 15, led through downtown and that gave me some neat things to look at, including some of the buildings I had visited the day before. The course looped around the city, through Falls Park, where we crossed a bridge in front of the Falls, and then back through downtown. Here I could see some of the faster runners at the tail end of the loop. Then it was back on the trail system – only this time the trail, though paved, was not as smooth as the earlier one.   I had to watch for cracks and undulations so I wouldn’t trip. This was another portion of the course where I was by myself for several miles. This section was followed by my least favorite part, a stretch on a frontage road of a major highway. It didn’t last long but it was not fun. By mile 22, it was back to residential neighborhoods and then another bike path, this time similar to the initial one but well-shaded.

By the time I reached mile 25, I had passed a few runners, including barefoot Eddie and his girlfriend, and I finally crossed the finish line in 6:08:37. I was pleased that I had made it under the 6:15 time limit and had even placed 3rd in my age group. There was still plenty of food at the finish line, including chocolate milk, bagels, cookies, fruit, and some incredible ice cream sandwiches. Because the finish line is at the Family Wellness Center on Oxbow Avenue, racers need to take a shuttle bus back to the start and the hotels. Fortunately there were several buses waiting for us back-of-the-packers and we made the trip back in about 15 minutes. The course will be changed next year so that the start and finish will be in the same place. That should be a positive development.

This marathon was challenging and not a race I would recommend for the casual power walker. It is relatively flat so elevation and hills are not an issue, but the tight time limit and the lack of spectators can be discouraging. Next year, the race director is considering an early start for slower marathoners. If that is the case, I would definitely recommend the race for walkers.

 

Wet but Wonderful: the Marquette Marathon, August 30, 2014 (Marquette, Michigan)

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I always try to look for a race over Labor Day weekend to keep me occupied while my husband focuses on our first hometown college football game. So far I have completed two Tupelo Marathons and one Heart of America Marathon. This year I discovered a relatively small race in the Upper Peninsula town of Marquette. When I checked the FAQ last March, the time limit was listed as 6 ½ hours and the local airport serviced Delta and its affiliates. The town is medium-sized, with a population of about 24,000, and has several hotels, restaurants, and bookstores, plus Northern Michigan University. The course for the first several years had been a double loop but for 2014, it was changed to a point-to-point. This all sounded great so I signed up, made my hotel and plane reservations, and watched the weather predictions as we got closer to race day.

Just to be sure everything was in order, I revisited the race website in mid-August and double-checked the FAQ again. To my surprise and consternation, the time limit was now listed as 6 hours. Despite my best efforts, all my recent finishes have been just over the 6 hour mark. I realized that in a race with only a couple hundred marathoners, I would be at the very end and possibly all alone. Not only would this increase my chances of getting lost on the course, but I would also be forcing the volunteers to stay past their allotted time, something I hesitate to do out of consideration for their time and effort.

I began to reconsider whether I should do this race. Before I made a final decision, I emailed the race director about my situation to ask about an early start. Lo and behold, Jeri, the very kind RD, said it was not only possible but she would even drive me and another slower runner to the race start and would let us start an hour earlier. With that assurance, I went ahead with my plans to fly to Michigan on Thursday morning. It took three flights and most of the day to arrive in Marquette. The airport was tiny with no taxis visible so I had to call a local cab company to come pick me up. The drive from the airport to downtown took about 25 minutes. My hotel was a new Hampton Inn right on the shores of attractive Lake Superior. My first night was spent in a room overlooking the parking lot, right next to the ice machine and linen closet. When I realized that rooms on the opposite side of the corridor faced the Lake, I asked to switch and my next two nights were spent in a quieter room with a beautiful view.

After settling in on Thursday, I walked over to Marquette Commons at 6:30 pm to introduce myself to Jeri. She and a group of volunteers were stuffing goodie bags and getting everything ready for packet pickup the next evening. Jeri confirmed that she would pick me up in the Hampton Inn lobby at 5:30 in the morning for the 45 minute drive to Ishpeming, the marathon start. I was relieved that all was moving according to plan. Now fatigue from the long day’s journey was starting to have its effect on me so I stopped to get a pizza at Little Caesar’s, ate a few slices, stored the rest in my room’s fridge, and then went to sleep.

Packet pickup did not begin until 6 pm on Friday evening, so I had the whole day to explore. I began by walking several miles on a biking trail along Lake Superior. The weather was cloudy with a slight drizzle and temps in the low 60’s. During this leisurely walk I met a husband and wife from Austin, Texas, who were also doing the marathon. We chatted a bit and, as it turns out, we saw each other several times during the actual race as well as on the return flights to Detroit and Atlanta. Like I said, it was a small race, but it did seem to attract runners from around the country and beyond.

I ate breakfast at the hotel and my lunch was leftover pizza. When my husband travels with me, my food choices expand but when I am by myself, I tend to ‘eat cheap’ – I do not have enough appetite to eat 2 or 3 big meals a day. However, I can shop to my heart’s content without Darcy along and so I spent several hours looking at souvenirs, books, and clothes. One of the best parts of the day was my foray to the Marquette Regional History Center. This museum had a number of great exhibits, including a special display on tourism and recreation in the Upper Peninsula. I enjoyed learning about the history of the region, the Native American culture and background, and the area’s reliance on iron ore and mining.

At 6 pm I walked a couple of blocks to the Commons again for packet pickup. I was surprised to see a long line of people waiting to get into the building – and all of them were pre-registered for the marathon or half marathon. It turns out that this year showed a remarkable increase in marathon participants. In past years the number of finishers ranged from 163 to 196 but in 2014 that number increased to 278! Once I reached the check-in table, things moved swiftly. I received my bib with chip on the back, some safety pins, and a clear plastic drop bag filled with samples and coupons, as well as a long-sleeved light blue gender specific technical shirt. There were also some booths with gels and race gear as well as a vendor giving away apples, oranges, granola bars, and water/sports drink. Then it was back to my hotel room to get things ready and to try and sleep.

My alarm was set for 3 am but I awoke earlier to have breakfast – coffee and a bagel with peanut butter. The message light on my room phone was blinking; Jeri had left a message around 10:30 pm confirming our meeting time for Saturday morning. Relief washed over me as I realized that everything was all set. At 5:15, I wandered downstairs to the lobby. There I met the other early starter, Hajime Nishi from Japan, an advocate of ‘slow running’; he was doing Marquette as his 665th marathon. After finishing Marquette, he then planned to drive to Wisconsin to do the No-Frills Marathon on Sunday. Jeri met us right on time and we spent the drive to Ishpeming chatting about races.

It was still dark when we arrived at the race start, but Jeri had arranged for a volunteer to lead Hajime and me in a jeep for the first 4 miles or so. At 6:30 am, just as runners began arriving for the regular start, Hajime and I stood behind the chalk mark on the ground and when Jeri gave the word ‘GO’ we took off. Hajime’s slower running pace matched my faster walking pace perfectly, at least at the beginning. Later on, Hajime passed me and managed to stay several yards ahead for the first half of the race. At some point, though, I passed him and crossed the finish line about 20 minutes before he did. I was extremely glad for that early start because I was always in the center of the action, although for the last 8 miles runners were much more spread out and sometimes I could not see anyone ahead or behind me. Signage was excellent so I never worried about getting lost.

The weather was in the low 60’s at the start and there was an 80% chance of rain. The first 2 miles were dry so I had hopes that perhaps the weather forecast was wrong; maybe the rain would hold off until the race was over. No such luck! It soon began to drizzle, then pour, and it kept raining until I reached past the halfway point. For the next 5 miles, the rain stopped and my clothes began to dry off – until the rain started up again with a vengeance and this time it did not stop and the temperature dropped another 5 degrees while the wind picked up. But the weather was the only negative aspect of this race – in every other way, the race was excellent.

The new point-to-point course is beautiful (even in the pouring rain, it was lovely). The race begins in the iron mining town of Ishpeming, then runs through Negaunee, another mining town. Much of the course follows the Iron Ore Heritage Trail and is mostly paved although there are around 8 miles of crushed gravel and dirt (my gaiters came in handy here). I kept expecting to see deer in the forested areas but the rain must have kept them hidden. However, I did come across rabbits, chipmunks, and several (unfortunately) dead frogs. At mile 16, racers begin to come into the town of Marquette and follow along the borders of Lake Superior, first heading south past my hotel on a short out-and-back stretch and then north to Presque Isle on a longer out-and-back. At mile 25, runners head back to downtown, going up a long but gentle incline until finally there is one last turn and a few final blocks to the finish line.

Aid stations appeared about every 2 miles, with porta potties at most of them. Volunteers were special – they served as our primary spectators and cheerleaders as well as tending to our needs for drink and gels. The course was well-marked, with black arrows (for the full) and red arrows (for the half) and course marshals at crucial turns and street crossings. The out-and-backs were enjoyable because I always like to see and cheer on other racers; in fact, I unexpectedly saw Evelyn, a runner from Chicago whom I had met at the Athens Marathon a year ago. What a small world!

I crossed the finish line in 6:07:11 (after adding in that extra hour) so I was extremely glad for the early start; it turned out that I even finished 2nd in my age group. A volunteer placed the medal around my neck and I stopped at the food table for some chocolate milk. There was plenty of food left – fruit, cookies, chips, bagel quarters, but I wasn’t very hungry. I was damp, though, so my goal was to make my way back to the hotel for a hot shower and some dry clothes. Later, I walked – slowly – to the Northland Pub inside the historic Landmark Inn, where I had a tasty lunch of Portobello mushroom burger with sweet potato fries and a local microbrew. There were lots of good choices for places to eat and I was torn between several possibilities, including the highly recommended Vierling Restaurant. But these will have to wait for another visit. My flights home began early Sunday morning and I needed to pack and get some much-needed sleep.

This race shows great promise to become very popular, especially if the early start was widely publicized or if the time limit were lengthened to 6 ½ or 7 hours. I’m sure lots of Maniacs and 50 Staters would be eager to visit and do the race. Walkers should definitely consider the Marquette Marathon as long as they take advantage of the early start.

A postscript – on my return to Florida, I discovered that my checked bag did not make any of my flights. It turns out that the gate agent in Marquette checked me in as another person with my same last name, but different first and middle names. She obviously didn’t look at my boarding passes or my driver’s license. As a result, my bag flew to Las Vegas with this other person’s name attached and it took several helpful people in my home airport as well as Delta baggage control to call LAS and get my suitcase delivered the next day. I learned my lesson well – now I will make sure the name on that baggage sticker is mine and not someone else’s!