A Race through Old Florida – the Tomoka Marathon in Ormond Beach, March 29, 2015

This was the 2nd running of the full and half Tomoka race series. I did the full last year and enjoyed it despite a delayed start and powerful thunderstorms that threatened to end the race prematurely. This year the course was essentially the same but instead of going up Old Dixie Highway at the beginning of the race and finishing along the Intracoastal Waterway, the direction was reversed. In a way this was fine with me but my favorite part is traversing Old Dixie Highway with its majestic oak tree canopy over the road. Since this part now came after mile 11, I was too tired to appreciate it. In addition, traffic was heavier by that time of the morning and I had to constantly watch for cars.

Darcy and I drove to Ormond Beach a day earlier than originally planned because we had to drop off my suitcase at a repair shop that was closed on the weekend. We enjoyed the extra time because there were several secondhand book stores for my husband to browse in while I had fun at the Byrd’s Nest Quilt Shop and a local yarn store. Our meals were at Cracker-barrel and a delightful and highly recommended seafood restaurant called Hull’s, located conveniently on W. Granada Boulevard, the main drag.

The host hotel for the race was the local Hampton Inn, which not only offered a special marathon rate but also had a free pasta dinner for all hotel guests. That was a nice surprise, although I was still full from our fish dinner and didn’t participate. My husband did, though, and even went back for seconds. The hotel also had a free shuttle that left at 5 am for the race start outside the Casements, former winter home of John D. Rockefeller, about 15 minutes away.

Unfortunately this year we did not have access to the nice warm interior of the Casements building but had to stay outside in the 45 degree cold until the race began at 6:30. That was a disappointment. Last year packet pickup had been held at the Casements but this year it was at the local YMCA, so there was probably no need to open up the building for racers, but it sure would have been more pleasant to stay warm.

The race began on time and we headed north through some toney neighborhoods along the Intracoastal, across the High Bridge (which again stopped me and several other participants as the drawbridge rose to let some boats through). A volunteer took our bib numbers so we wouldn’t be penalized for having to wait until the bridge became passable again. Then we turned south heading back to the finish line at Rockefeller Gardens outside the Casements, running several miles along Old Dixie Highway with a short out and back at Bulow Creek State Park and a longer one at Tomoka State Park. The last mile or two was across a busy bridge facing a headwind – that was a challenge but I could hear the announcer at the finish line and knew I was very close to the end of marathon/ultra #201.

I crossed the finish in 6:10 chip time. During the early miles I chatted with Harry and a few other Maniacs but towards the middle and end of the race, it was pretty lonely. I walked with Dan for several miles but forged ahead around mile 21; by that time I just wanted the race to be over. Although the course is fairly straightforward and hard to get lost on, I would have appreciated a few more signs just for reassurance that I was heading in the right direction. This was especially true in the Tomoka State Park section where I could not see anyone in front of me at all.

The marathon has a 7 hour time limit but with only 318 finishers, expect to be alone for much of the race if you plan to enter and walk.  Still, it is a beautiful part of the state, a pleasant memory of old Florida.

 

A Soggy Day in Georgia – the Georgia Marathon (Atlanta, March 22, 2015)

The weekend began well. Darcy and I drove up to Atlanta early on Saturday, excited about the race and staying downtown. I have done this race 3 times and always enjoyed the course. Yes, I know it is very HILLY but as a flatlander I have always appreciated the challenge. And yes, I knew that the weather forecast called for rain on race day, but hey, we have no control over the weather. I was prepared with an assortment of clothes to get me through.

After all, this race was to be #200 for me – and I was ready, or so I thought. We arrived at the Embassy Suites at 12:30 pm.   Here I will mention the name again – Embassy Suites in downtown Atlanta – as a precautionary note; stay here if you dare.   I was not surprised that our room was not ready so early; that was okay.   We left our luggage with the concierge and headed to Max Lager Grill for lunch. Then we were off to the expo at America’s Mart Atlanta. My first disappointment was relatively minor; the expo was much smaller than in previous years and Publix, the major sponsor, had no coupons and no food samples. The tee shirt was a fluorescent lime green, short-sleeve tech, with a small picture on the front and Publix logo on the back. The shirt was so ugly that I didn’t even bring it home with me. Likewise, the poster for the race. And the backpack had the Publix logo on it and nothing about the races (full, half, and 5k). I use these little backpacks a lot but why in the world would I want to advertise a big grocery store on my back? The backpack also did not make it home with me. Okay, so the expo was a disappointment but still not a big deal. After all, this was race #200. I was excited. We walked back to the hotel to check in.

WARNING! What follows is the long tale of our crazy hotel ordeal. Skip the next couple of paragraphs if you want to read about the race.

It was now 2:30 in the afternoon and official check in time was 3. The room was still not ready so I told the desk clerk we would wait in the lobby until 3 o’clock. At 3:02, I asked again for our room. I was again turned away. Apparently housekeeping hadn’t cleaned our room yet. So we waited. And waited. And waited some more. I stood by the desk waiting and listening. I saw that others were also turned away. Hmmm – something must be wrong here, I thought.

Finally, a different desk agent motioned to me that they had found something for us. We retrieved our bags and made our way up to the 6th floor. Our room faced Centennial Park. We started to unpack. It was then that I heard the thump thump thump of bass sounds coming into our room over loudspeakers in Centennial Park. Hmmm – what is going on? I had asked for a quiet room; I always ask for a quiet room. I made this reservation 8 months ago. How will I ever get any rest with this noise? Back down I went to explain the problem and ask for a different room – any room that was quiet, maybe one facing a cemetery. I was told that there was a weeklong concert to be held in the park and that the noise would continue throughout our 2 night stay. There was no other room available, at least not one that was clean. I offered to clean the room myself. Give me a dirty room and I will take care of whatever mess there is. No, that would not be feasible, I was told. There was a room on the opposite side of the atrium that faced a roof. But it was not clean. Yet. I said we would wait, in the lobby, until it was clean.

Now it was approaching 5:30 pm. I had begun the day at 4 am in a great mood. As the day wore on, I was getting tired and when I am tired, I get cranky. The hotel’s happy hour had begun so I lined up to get a glass of wine while we waited. I began to get my clothes ready for the race, pinning my bib to my mesh vest and pulling out of my suitcase the clothes I planned to wear. I ignored the strange looks I received from others in the lobby.   On the evening before a race I usually turn in around 7 so I can get up early to have my coffee. I made a contingency plan to dress in the ladies room in the lobby if need be.   Finally, a little after 6, we were told our room was available. At last! – We went up to the 2nd floor and, after finishing the last of my preparations, I fell into bed exhausted. A further note about the hotel – we had stayed here 3 times on previous visits and was treated very well. I realize I was not the only person who was waiting an unduly amount of time for their room. I also realize that in the big scheme of things, this was a really small issue – but I can say all that because I am now at home and well rested. If you are thinking of doing this marathon, I would suggest staying at one of the many other hotels around the area.

Now on to the race! The Georgia Marathon follows a wonderful course, taking runners and walkers through historic Atlanta sites like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthplace, the Carter Center, and the campuses of Agnes Scott College, Georgia State University, Emory University, and Georgia Tech. The neighborhoods, especially Decatur, usually get into the race scene with funny signs and lots of spectators. Well, this year the signs were up but the constant rain kept most of the spectators indoors. The non-stop roller coaster hills are hard on the quads but it was fun (in a masochistic way) to deal with them, especially since most of my races this year have been essentially flat.

I rose early, had my bread and coffee, dressed, and walked outside about 20 minutes before the 7 am race start. The race begins on Marietta Street, right near several hotels, and ends in Centennial Park across the way, so logistics are easy. Because of the rain, runners and their supporters were huddled in various building entryways. The corrals, even 15 minutes before the race, were deserted. Finally, someone sang the national anthem and people began to filter into their respective corrals. I expected to have to wait about 30 minutes until my corral, next to last, would cross the start line, but fortunately the announcer said that there would be no wave start this year. That was a good idea, and I am sure it was due to the constant rain. Several years ago I did the Country Music Marathon in Nashville and had to stand in my corral for 45 minutes in a driving rain. I was glad not to repeat that situation.

It took about 6 ½ minutes for me to cross the start line. The never-ending hills began right away and I walked up them and, whenever I could, ran down them. The rain was constant but not a deluge and the temperatures were in the mid-50’s so it was not freezing cold. I kept my eyes on the ground, partly to avoid potholes, and partly to keep the rain out of my eyes. The half marathon splits from the full at mile 7, and just as the half people turned left I heard my name called. It turned out to be Scott, a fellow Walking Board contributor. It was great to see him again. During the race, I saw Malissa, another friend and a Darksider. She’s a strong runner but occasionally gets winded in the later miles, so we kept leapfrogging each other throughout the race.

I have to admit that by mile 15, my legs were starting to scream. Running downhill started to hurt, so I just kept a fairly steady walking pace going up and down the hills. There were timing clocks throughout the course and I could estimate that I was on pace for a finish around 6 hours. The thought that this was marathon #200 kept propelling me onward. By mile 20, the 6 hour pace group passed me and I struggled to keep up with them, moving ahead when they slowed to walk and falling behind when they ran. At mile 24, I got a second wind and moved past them for good, and when I saw the finish line ahead of me, I ran the last few yards. Sure, my hamstrings cramped up right away but it was worth the pain to finish in 5:57:58! As I crossed the finish line, I hoped that the announcer would call my name out but he evidently was on a break just then. The music was so loud that I never saw or heard Darcy shout at me, so I walked, slowly, to get my medal and hunt down some food. Finally I saw my husband waving to me and we walked to a table way at the other side of the park to pick up a bag of food and check my results.

At that point, I just wanted to shower and change into some dry clothes. Darcy and I celebrated by having dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse right in the lobby of the hotel. After a good night’s sleep, we left for home early the next morning.

Some things to note about this race:

  • It was a good idea to dispense with the wave start. The first few miles were a bit crowded but at least we were moving instead of getting soaked
  • The police and volunteers were terrific – traffic control was never a problem and the volunteers were are most enthusiastic supporters
  • There was real stuff to nibble on the course, including jelly beans, orange slices, pretzels, and cookies, as well as Carb-Boom and the usual water and Gatorade
  • Be prepared for the hills – if you can’t train on hills, just take them slow and easy. If you don’t like hills, stay away from this course
  • The course time limit is supposed to be 6 ½ hours but the finish line remained open for almost 7 hours and there is even a pacer for extreme back-of-the-packers. As long as you finish with that pacer, you can finish the race and get an official time and medal
  • The post-race food was abysmal – you would think that Publix, THE major supermarket chain in the southeast, would be able to offer more than a banana, a generic granola bar, and a bag of pretzels.

 

Tobacco Road Marathon (Cary, NC) – March 15, 2015

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This race has long been on my wish list, so when I found an empty weekend it was easy to decide to register for it. The course traces an abandoned railroad corridor of the Norfolk Southern Railroad and was integral in transporting tobacco leaf from farms in Wake, Chatham and Durham counties to be processed at the American Tobacco Company. Railroads declined as did the growth of the tobacco industry and the tracks were removed in 1987. In 1995 the NC Department of Transportation bought the corridor from Norfolk Southern and officially began its development as the American Tobacco Trail.

The race is held on Sunday so we flew to Raleigh-Durham early on Saturday morning. A rental car is a necessity since the host hotel, the Embassy Suites, is several miles from the airport and the start and finish of the race are in Cary, NC, a short drive from the hotel. The hotel is a good choice because it is close to a number of good restaurants. Two we really enjoyed were Rally Point Sports Bar (their hush puppies are big and delicious) and Firewurst, a place that specializes in sausages and hot dogs but my favorite item was their sweet potato fries. They also serve local beer on tap. The expo is right in the hotel, making it especially convenient. In addition to a short-sleeve Carolina blue tech tee shirt, racers also received a nice warm hat.

In reality, the marathon does take a bit of planning, because racers have to get to the USA Baseball/Thomas Brooks Park (the start) or take a shuttle from the NetApp parking lot 15-30 miles away. It was also possible to buy a $5 parking pass that would allow runners to park at VIP parking right at the start, a good idea if Darcy had planned on waiting for me, but a waste for us since he was planning to just drop me off and return to the hotel for more sleep and a hearty breakfast. To avoid the hectic rush of traffic, I ended up taking the 5:30 am shuttle and waiting at the complex until the 7 am start. Fortunately, I found a heated indoor restroom and spent most of my pre-race time inside, with a dozen other freezing women.

At the end of the race, Darcy was able to easily find a parking spot at the baseball complex because all of the half marathoners and most of the full marathoners had already finished and left. My advice – if you are driving yourself, do buy the parking pass (there is a limited number and you must buy one when you register for the race – but if you are getting dropped off and then picked up afterwards, get a ride to either the baseball complex or the NetApp parking lot where you can pick up the shuttle. If parking passes are sold out, park at NetApp and take the shuttle to the race and back again afterwards.

Enough about logistics. The race itself was memorable, if only because it was a beautiful day, with cool temperatures that slowly warmed to the mid-sixties, and no rain in the forecast. The trail is part packed dirt with an asphalt lane, plenty wide enough for runners to greet each other on the two long out-and-back sections. There is only 2 ½ miles at the very beginning and 2 ½ miles at the very end that are on road. I had no worries about getting lost because of this; however, I did have to ask people where to find the finish line during the last mile or so because other runners were scarce, there were no signs, and only one volunteer to point the way.

Other than that, the race was a joy. The well-groomed dirt sections were easy on my feet and legs and there were plenty of aid stations with enthusiastic volunteers. The few road crossings were staffed by courteous and helpful police and posed no problem at all. I enjoyed doing a few miles with marathon icon Larry Macon and saw a number of other Maniacs, including Nick and Matthew.

When I finally crossed the finish line, my net time was 6:09, good enough for 2nd in my age group. The medal fittingly depicts a head-on steam locomotive with a cow-catcher. The age-group award was a plush towel that doubled as a seat cover; I could choose my color (I picked a bright blue). There was plenty of pizza and chocolate milk as well as a locally brewed beer. All in all, a good race.

 

Replay – A Stroll in Central Park, Cumming, GA (March 7, 2015)

Originally I was signed up for a 24 hour race in Savannah this weekend but it was unexpectedly canceled. Stroll turned out to be a wonderful substitute. Cumming is just north of Atlanta, an easy drive from north Florida, and the race is held in Central Park, a popular and well-utilized recreation area for the local population. Lia Knower is the race director and she puts on a great event – her volunteers, including a stalwart corps of dedicated lap counters, are terrific, and the regular aid station fare is highlighted with a pizza lunch. The course is a 1.03 paved loop on the perimeter of soccer and baseball fields. Lia stresses that the course is flat but, on the contrary, there are several definite inclines which are fun walking down but, since we change direction after 6 hours, not so enjoyable on the reverse stretch. I did like the fact that there are indoor restrooms – makes it just about the perfect race for me!

Since I had done this race last year, Darcy and I knew the location of the park, several good restaurants (Taco Mac and Cracker Barrel but there are more), and a good hotel, the Hampton Inn (although there are others close by as well) so we were all set. This was one of the very few times when I did not feel nervous before a race. I usually feel butterflies even if I’ve done the race before, but Stroll is so laid-back and relaxed that there was no pressure at all.

Packet pickup began at 6:15 am just before the race. We received a bib, tee shirt (short-sleeve blue cotton tee), and met our lap counters (thank you, Kristen and Ron!). The start line was a chalked line on the pavement and at 7:03 we were off. In addition to the 12 hour race, there is also a new 6 hour option that started at the same time and attracted quite a few runners and walkers. I haven’t seen results yet so I am not sure how many people did each event and how many miles they went, but by the end of the race I could tell from the mileage chart that I reached 43.26 miles. This was just one lap shy of my results last year. I will admit that I probably could have managed 1, maybe 2, more laps if I had tried a bit harder but my legs were sore and I was tired. I was happy to do 43+ miles and call it a day.

Six hour finishers receive a medal. Twelve hour racers get a wooden plaque and several weeks after the race, Lia mails out a sticker with each runner’s mileage on it. It was fun to see several of the runners from last year; all of the participants were friendly and supportive. This is definitely a plus for walkers as well as endurance runners. However, word is that the event will be in a different park next year (and the name will also change) but I am hopeful that the same positive attributes will be present in the new locale.

Cowed in Ft. Worth – the Cowtown (Half) Marathon (March 1, 2015)

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It’s been a crazy year for weather all over the States but in Florida we have been relatively fortunate. Although it’s been rainier than usual we’ve had no snow, no ice, and just a few frigid (for us) temperatures at night. Daytime temps have been quite decent. So it was a surprise to travel to Texas in late February in the midst of a winter snow and ice storm.

After an early morning drive to Jacksonville, we boarded a flight to Atlanta. Our connecting flight to DFW was due to leave at 11 am. As we stood by the gate, the Delta agent announced that our flight was overbooked by 8 passengers and an offer of 800 Delta dollars towards a future trip was on the table. My husband and I looked at each other and I could sense we were both thinking that was a pretty good deal. As we pondered, the gate agent raised the stakes to 1000 Delta dollars and then 1100. That did it! We volunteered to take a later flight so we could take advantage of such a good offer. That meant that we would get into DFW around 6 pm. With snow and ice in Dallas all day on Friday, we were uncertain whether we would actually make it to our hotel, the Residence Inn in Ft. Worth, the same evening. Fortunately, we had a terrific taxi driver who carefully maneuvered the cab around the very icy roads from Dallas to downtown Ft. Worth with ease. He deserved and received a very generous tip from us!

I don’t envy the problems faced by the race director; she certainly had her hands full this past weekend. The expo hours were canceled on Friday and shortened to only afternoon on Saturday. The 5k and 10k runs on Saturday were completely canceled. It was touch and go as to what would happen with the Sunday races.

The Residence Inn was one of the race host hotels, conveniently located in the Cultural District, only a short walk from the expo at Will Rogers Memorial Center. Our plan was to wait until the weather ‘warmed up’ to just over freezing on Saturday afternoon and then we would attempt to walk to the expo. We tried but the walk turned out to be impossible because of the icy sidewalks. On the less traveled streets, I could walk on the streets, but when we arrived to the major highways in front of the Center, the traffic was too treacherous to stay on the roads and the sidewalks had a thick glaze of ice. We got close enough to see the Center but couldn’t manage to get to it. We had to turn around and slide our way back to the hotel. Fortunately, packet pickup would open at 5:30 am on Sunday so we decided to just bide our time and wait until then.

Meanwhile, rumors on the Cowtown Facebook page abounded. The races were canceled – no, they were on – no, they would be ‘virtual’ – and so on. The race director was diligently working with the city of Ft. Worth and the weather service to keep us apprised of the latest info but I am sure she was hoping for the weather to warm up (it was supposed to) before making a final decision. It was not until later that evening that we learned that the full and the ultra would NOT be held but all racers who were registered for any of the races that weekend would be able to do the half marathon. The courses for the full and the ultra were through neighborhoods with lots of shady areas so the streets would continue to be dangerous to run and walk on. The half marathon course was on major highways and through the downtown area and the roads there could be sanded and de-iced.

Although I was disappointed not to be able to do the full marathon, I was also relieved. I had no desire to fall and break any bones trying to walk on ice. At 5:15 Sunday morning, Darcy and I took a taxi to the Will Rogers Center. We found our way into the building and I picked up my bib and shirt (white tech short-sleeve) with ease. Just a handful of people were at the expo with us so we took a seat at one of the round tables and I browsed the handful of vendors that were setting up their wares. It was wonderful to stay inside the toasty warm building while we waited for the race to start at 8 am (the starting time was pushed back an hour from an earlier 7 am time). While we were relaxing, Rob from Oklahoma whom I knew from the Walking site and UltraCentric stopped by and joined us. We spent the time chatting, mostly about races, while we watched more and more people enter the room

Around 7:40, we marched outside to one of the 8 corrals. I was dressed for the cold but even so I could feel my face and fingers start to chill. After the singing of the Star Spangled Banner, each corral was marched to the start line and the countdown begun. It took my corral, #7, over 30 minutes to cross the start, but the longer lead time allowed runners to be spaced out pretty evenly, and with over 6000 participants, that was fairly important.

Considering the abysmal weather over the weekend, the course itself was in good condition. There were just a few corners that were slippery on the turns and a couple of spots where the slush was precarious. I stumbled once and slid a few times but slowed down, watched my feet, and took my time. Only two places were especially troublesome to me. One was my favorite place, the Stockyards, because the cobblestones tended to be tripping hazards even in dry weather. The other was the long bridge around miles 11-12. Just the nature of the bridge freezing before the roads made this a little difficult. I crossed the finish line in just under 3 hours, which pleased me immensely. It was certainly not a PB, but neither was it a PW, and I remained upright the entire route.

Somehow the RD managed to get medals for everyone and they were impressive. We also got finisher shirts (green tech short-sleeve), and a plastic bag that we could fill with fruit, bagels, and other goodies. The weekend turned out to be a very good one, although not quite what I expected. I would definitely recommend the Cowtown races for walkers. The time limit for the half is 4 ½ hours, for the full (in normal years), 7 ½. Ft. Worth has some great steak restaurants but our eating was curtailed this trip because of weather. We had to rely on places we could get to easily – Tex Mex at Chuy’s and burgers and beer at BoomerJack’s Grill, both short distances from our hotel.