A Race for the Ages – Running in Circles on Labor Day Weekend 2015

This was a Labor Day race I won’t easily forget. A Race for the Ages in Manchester, Tennessee, brought together many famous names in ultrarunning history as well as many younger ultrarunners who are rising stars in the sport. The concept of this race was unique; instead of a fixed starting time for everyone, runners and walkers had as many hours to be on the course as their age, with the ending point for all set at 6 pm on Labor Day. The oldest person, 84-year old Dan Baglione, was first to begin the race at 6 am Friday morning. Every hour on the hour, runners took their places at the start line. After timekeeper Mike Melton introduced the participants, all runners of the same age began the first of many circuits around the 1 mile loop in Fred Deadman Park.

In my case, that meant I had to begin the race at 10 pm on Friday evening. Since I am definitely not a night owl, I knew this would be a major challenge for me. I would have preferred an earlier start; after all, I am usually fast asleep by 9 pm, but I was game to try my best. The drive from Florida to Tennessee on Thursday morning took me about 8 ½ hours, including a brief period of getting lost in South Georgia, so I was pretty well spent by the time I arrived at my hotel, a spanking brand-new Hampton Inn less than a mile from the race venue. Originally I had made plans to stay at an older Holiday Inn a few exits away but when I learned that there was a newer hotel that was closer to the park, I changed my reservations. That was a good move. The hotel was immaculate and convenient and a Cracker Barrel restaurant was within easy walking distance. Since I was by myself this time (my husband, a diehard Gator fan, was attending the first home game so I had no crew or support), it was especially important that everything be as easy and convenient as possible.

After an early meal, I packed my drop bags, planned my strategy for the race, and turned in early. I wanted to do as many miles as possible of course, but I had to do at least a 50k to add to my Marathon Maniac statistics so that became my minimum goal. After that, I wanted to try and reach 100 miles and if I was still upright and coherent I would then do as many more as I could manage.

Friday morning I was awake at 4 am and could not get back to sleep. I knew I would pay for this lack of sleep later but I couldn’t help being an early riser. Even though I had arranged for a noon checkout, I found myself ready to go by 10. I was concerned about about getting to the park and finding a good place to set up all my stuff and learning my way around the course. For better or worse, I checked out at 10:30 and drove to the park and found a nice shady spot under some trees.

I had plenty of time to meet and talk to other people who were busily setting up their tents and canopies. That was one of the best things about this race – so many runners and walkers and their crew, all eager to talk about races and their experiences. I met Karen and Colin from Georgia who turned out to be friends of my pal Joyce and her husband Ray. I especially enjoyed talking to Holley, a retired librarian from Colorado. Despite all the neat people and conversation, the time passed VERY slowly. By the time 10 pm rolled around I was extremely tired (I had been up for 18 hours) and not exactly in the right frame of mind to begin a race. Nevertheless, I was grateful I wasn’t any younger or I would have had to wait until the wee hours of the morning to start.

There were about 6 of us in my age group and as we took off around the park I enjoyed the 60 degree temperatures and cool breezes, so different from the hot sun and high humidity of the daytime. The 3 days and nights of this race soon blended into a mélange that now, several days later, are starting to fade to a blur. I won’t belabor the details but here are the major noteworthy points about this experience:

  • The course is mostly unshaded so the daytime sun was blisteringly hot. I prefer heat to cold but even I wilted under the hot temperatures. My favorite section was the too-short tree-lined path along the river
  • There were real bathrooms, with AC and running water, in 2 places along the course (and we passed one of those sections at least twice each loop)
  • The rec center was right on the course and people could set up sleeping bags in the large room there. This wouldn’t have worked for me because it would have been too noisy and light-filled but many people did take advantage of it
  • Instead, I slept in my car. This turned out to be not such a good idea for me since I had to fit my 5’ 5” body into my little Honda Civic. I slept uncomfortably and fitfully but the amazing thing is that I slept at all since I am such a poor sleeper. But exhaustion helps
  • There was a meal plan that runners could purchase if they did not want to supply their own food. Unlike most ultras I have been to, this race offered no other food or beverage (except for water and an electrolyte solution). I purchased the meal plan because I had no crew and did not want to stop and prepare meals. However it turned out that for picky eaters like myself, the food plan did not work as well as I had hoped. Most of the food did not appeal to me (mystery meat with gravy, chicken and rice, spaghetti and sauce, green beans, mashed potatoes, etc.) and were served as actual sit-down meals while I wanted to grab something and keep moving. By the third day I had severe pizza cravings
  • The loop had several out-and-backs so you could see lots of people and cheer them on. It was good fun to see some of my favorite admired runners, including Karen R, Karen J., Kay, Heather, Gary, and of course Joe Fejes
  • Mike Melton did the timing and his system, as usual, worked like a charm. Almost instantly after crossing the mat it was possible to see mileage, standings, and other essentials. Even during a brief thunderstorm that blew through on Saturday afternoon, there were no timing problems
  • If you wanted a buckle for completing 100 or 200 miles, or if you wanted to purchase a jacket, you had to pay for both in advance when you registered on Ultrasignup. I neglected to do this but fortunately we had the chance to mail in money later. The jacket is really attractive, like a motorcycle jacket, with the Race for the Ages emblem on the back and our name embroidered on the front

Somehow I managed to get to 100 miles – I don’t remember exactly when because time became very elastic – and at that point I decided to take a break every 4-5 miles and then stop completely when I felt I had reached my max. So it was that I made it to 130 miles by 1 pm on Monday and then called it quits. I collected my little stand-up finisher’s award, said goodbye and thanks, and made my way back to the hotel, grateful to take a shower and long sleep before heading back home on Tuesday.

What would I have done differently? Well for one thing, I would have kept my hotel room for the entire duration (despite the cost) because it would have been worth it to spend the hottest hours of the day in an air-conditioned room with a shower and a bed. I would have brought my own food and/or purchased meals from Cracker Barrel, stored them in the room’s refrigerator and heated them up in the room’s microwave. The hours of restful sleep and nutritious food would have given me more energy than I had otherwise. I would have left my chair and drop back at the park and just gone back and forth as necessary; the drive only took 5 minutes.

Despite the heat, my lack of sleep, and problems eating, I was pleased with my mileage. I had no real problems with my feet or legs, just one small blister on my bunion, and the typical soreness in my hips and knees that comes from being on my feet for so long. After the race, my biggest (and really my only) difficulty was the terrible cramping in my fingers. This began about an hour after the race and lasted for 4 hours or so. I tried massaging my hands but this was not so easy when both hands are cramping!

I have a feeling that this may become an annual event (Laz aka Gary Cantrell is the race director, the same RD who puts on the Last Annual Vol State) but it is certainly one race to do at least once and I was glad I had the chance.