Coming Home to Grapevine: the UltraCentric 72 Hour Race – November 19-22, 2015 (Grapevine, TX)

I’ve now had a chance to recharge and recuperate after one of the most powerful races of my life so far. Although I have done UltraCentric 3 times in the past, first the 48 hour and then two of the 72-hour races, this year’s race seemed the best yet, despite a last-minute change of venue.

One week before we were due to leave, we received an email from Robert Tavernini, the race director, stating that there had been a problem with the permit for Meadowmere Park in Grapevine. The park had been flooded earlier in the year but by early fall, everything seemed to be in order and the appropriate permit had been issued. However, due to an administrative snafu, permission was pulled at the last minute, putting the UC in doubt. Quick work by Robert allowed the UC to continue but in a different section of Grapevine. Instead of the usual two mile lollipop course, the race would be moved to Sunfish Drive at Silver Lake Marina. This new venue was paved, with restrooms, and open only to racers and their supporters but the course would now consist of a 0.51 mile loop.

In general, I make a habit of avoiding any race with a course loop less than 1 mile in length. I have completed 2 races, a marathon and an 8-hour, on a quarter mile track and thought I would go completely insane. Even courses that are just under 1 mile tend to drive me bonkers, so I was really not too happy about facing 72 hours on a half mile loop. But our plane tickets were purchased, hotel reservations made, and I had paid a lot of money to register. I was going to do my best, even if it meant I might need some intense therapy – physical and mental – when this was all over.

Darcy and I left Florida for Texas on Wednesday morning. Two brief flights later we arrived in Dallas-Fort Worth and after quickly picking up our luggage and rental car, we made a beeline to Rosa’s for fajitas. One of the reasons we visit Texas so often is to satisfy our fajita fix, but honestly, Texas has so many good races, both marathons and ultras, that it is hard to stay away even without the promise of great Tex-Mex food. I have made so many good friends at these races that returning to Texas is just like coming home. The UltraCentric is especially important to our family because of the gracious support we received last year from everyone after our youngest son Ben’s unexpected death. That helped us through a very difficult time.

After lunch, we stopped to check out the new race site. It was a flat oval shaped loop, with restrooms facing the lake, a timing tent at one end, a long stretch that paralleled a highway and had a slight camber along the right-hand side (and which became increasingly noticeable as time went on), and a miniscule downhill slant at the other end of the oval. I hugged the right side of the loop as much as I could during the early hours and days of the race but later moved to the center of the path on the side with the camber to avoid issues that began to plague me and other racers. In the future, if UC continues to be held here, it would probably be a good idea to change direction every 6-8 hours to give our legs and feet a break.

My goal was to reach 150 miles at this race. My PR for a previous 72 hour race was 137 miles at Across the Years. Last year I reached 126 miles here at UC. It seemed that something always intervened with my plans for reaching 150, either weather, fatigue, blisters, or leg pain. My strategy for this current attempt was to last through the first 24 hours and as long into the next day as I could manage. I would spend the 2nd night in a hotel and then try to last through the third night on the course.

So much for my plans. By 7 pm on Thursday I had painful aches in both my legs, mostly in my upper thighs. I wasn’t tired at all, especially after a cup of black coffee and an orange cream–filled Hostess cupcake (what I now call my ‘vitamin pill’) but I realized that if I kept pushing on through the night I would be exhausted by dawn. Then I would have another 12 hours or so before I could return to our hotel for a shower and some sleep. That idea did not appeal to me. I gave in to my desire for comfort and release from pain. At 10 pm, I called Darcy and asked him to drive me back to the hotel for the night. Sad to report that in all that time I only had completed about 48 miles.

At our room at Hyatt Place, I quickly showered, brushed my teeth, and went to sleep. I managed to wake just before my alarm, which was set for 3 am, and quickly dressed, drank some coffee, and ate my piece of bread. I woke my husband and he drove me back to the course, signed me in, and I took off. My willing and dedicated husband did this every morning for 3 mornings. Yes, that is correct. I spent EVERY night in our hotel room. The early pre-dawn hours, from 4 am to 7 am, turned out to be my favorite time each day. I felt rested, strong, and ready to move.

Friday was the day the 48 hour people began their race. I enjoyed talking with Larry, Matthew, and Kaye as well as constantly getting lapped by Roxy, an adorable Pomeranian. However, I only managed to last until 5 pm. My legs were completely shot and my calves were sore. My bunion was hurting as well, despite changing shoes several times. It was time to call it a day. Back to the hotel where I drank some chocolate milk and ate a light meal before collapsing into bed.

On Saturday morning, I rose early once again and woke Darcy for a ride back to the lake. I felt exhilarated and buoyant as I power walked during those morning hours. I managed to reach 100 miles by noon and then considered every lap after that to be another step towards a PR. Slowly the half miles began to mount up and passing my previous PR seemed a distinct possibility. As 9 am approached, the last set of 24, 12, and 6 hour racers began their journey and I was happy to see my centurion racewalker friend Rob attempt (and ultimately succeed) at another 100 mile distance. As the day wore on, my legs began to throb, and when Darcy stopped by to check on me mid-afternoon, I took the opportunity to lie down in the rental car and put my feet up for a 20 minute break. On Saturday I lasted until 7 pm but since I had reached 125 miles, I felt justified in resting until the next morning. The wind had been gusty all day but quieted down by evening. That night was supposed to reach the low 30’s and I knew the cold would make staying out past dark unpleasant for me.

When Sunday morning came, I was once again ready at 4 am to zoom around the course, rested and upbeat. The cold doesn’t seem to bother me as much when I am dressed warmly and have had the benefit of a good night’s sleep. I stayed on the course until the last few minutes and managed to PR with a total of 148.5 miles, just slightly short of my desired 150 goal, and good enough for 2nd place female. Darcy figured out that I was actually on the course a total of 46 hours. I spent 26 hours in my hotel or traveling to and from the course. Not bad, 148 miles in 46 hours. My friend Joyce won 1st place female with 154.7 miles, and her niece Kristen, in her first timed race, managed to get 103 miles.

In my previous posts, I have written a good deal about the UltraCentric so I will only note the remarkable features of this year’s race:

  • This race attracts wonderful friendly people and I enjoyed seeing my regular pals (Joyce – and her husband and support staff Ray – Angela, Kevin, Trent, Larry, Matthew, Kay) and meeting some great new ones (Spenser from London, England, Annabel from Sydney, Australia, and Roxy (and her human parent Harold). I missed seeing Terrie and Karen and Marie
  • Do I like the new course? Not really. I prefer at least a one mile loop. The main advantage of this venue is the proximity to hotels. It only took about 10 minutes to drive back to the course. The former course was at least a 25 minute drive, longer in traffic
  • The new course is noisier than the other one because it is directly on the DFW flight path. Jets flew overhead all the time and were more noticeable during the evening hours when traffic died down
  • The weather was great – in past iterations of this race, we have had everything from thunder and lightning to freezing cold, but this year the most challenging weather was a strong wind on Saturday. It was cold but never too cold, at least not during the hours I was on the course.
  • After a day or two, I began to lean towards my right side. This was not noticeable to me but Spenser (a running coach as well as a participant) mentioned it to me and I began to become acutely aware of it. That night in the hotel, I found myself listing to the right while brushing my teeth and sitting in bed, so I tried to make a concerted effort to stretch and stand straight. The rest of my time on the course I made a point of staying in the middle of the road to avoid leaning into the center of the loop. Other people complained of pain in one leg or foot as a result of the slanted pavement, so I was not alone in my concerns about this issue.
  • The race director and his support staff, notably Shelly and Celia but also a host of volunteers (including my husband) are exceptional. They do everything possible for runners and walkers to make the experience pleasant and notable. Steve the timing guy is another exceptional member of the team. He is always helpful and ready to cheer us on. I look forward to seeing all of them every year
  • UC has the best food at any ultra I’ve attended. All the meals were portable so I could eat while walking although there was plenty of room in the heated tent for us to sit and dine if we desired. Menu items included fajitas, waffle/egg/bacon sandwiches, hamburgers, potato soup, tortillas, scrambled eggs, chili and rice, pasta and sauce, pumpkin pie, brownies – and that is just what I personally ate. There was also the usual array of snacks, peanuts, pretzels, m & m’s, pickles, plus water, soda, and Gatorade etc. For me, the best way to avoid nausea and dizziness at an ultra over 12 hours in length is to eat genuine food on a regular basis. I now realize that this also helps me to maintain homeostasis and electrolyte balance and thus avoid nasty and painful hand cramping
  • I’m a city girl who enjoys her creature comforts. I don’t camp and find it difficult to sleep in a car (hence the problems I had at Race for the Ages). I like being clean and warm. I do much better racing in the wee hours of the morning than during the nighttime. Any future multiday race I do will find me staying in a hotel every night and resting up so I can do my best the next day. It’s fine for me to stay through the night for a 24 hour race but anything longer and I will be taking it easy!

 

Race 13.1 Tally – November 15, 2015

What a relief to do a half marathon rather than a full marathon or ultra! I began my racing career with a half marathon 9 years ago and still have a definite preference for that distance. However, once I discovered full marathons and ultras, I was caught up in trying to do as many of the longer distance races as I could, with my total now 211 and counting. But every time I have the good fortune to do a half, I am reminded of how much fun the shorter distance can be. In fact, I am now making a resolution to do more halves in the upcoming year. Yesterday was #30 and my goal is to reach 100 over the next decade.

So, in the midst of a full panoply of fall races 26.2 or longer, I decided to pick up this race in the residential Southwood neighborhood of Tallahassee, Florida. It was not too far from home so the driving distance was reasonable and I wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel. The company that puts on these races (20 in the southeastern United States this year) does a fairly decent job in finding local routes, setting up the courses with signs and volunteer staff, and contributing a percentage of the race proceeds to various community charities. Somehow they manage to pull it off, at least here in Tally.

Packet pickup was at Capital City Runners, a local running store, on Saturday and at the race site on Sunday morning between 6 and 7 am. In addition to the half marathon, there was a 5k and 10k. The half and 10k both began at 7:30, the 5k 15 minutes later. I stopped at the store on Saturday morning and picked up my bib with chip on the reverse plus a short-sleeved green tech tee shirt. The shirt never even made it into the house; I simply added it to the pile of clothes in my garage that is destined for Goodwill.

On Sunday morning, there was plenty of free parking in the business lots surrounding the race start so I was able to find a good spot and then made the first of several stops at one of the half dozen portapotties set up around the start line. There were not a lot of people milling around, especially considering that there were 3 races, so I was a little concerned about whether I would be last and alone for most of the race. I worried needlessly. There were several people that ran or walked (or some combination of both) at about my pace and we exchanged pleasantries as we leapfrogged around each other. The atmosphere was friendly and low-key, at least at the back of the pack.

The course took us through the pleasant residential neighborhoods of Southwood, around a paved nature trail, and then out to Capital Circle Highway for a long out-and-back stretch. That last bit was probably the most difficult part of the entire route, although the paved walkway was wide and in good condition. It was just that it came at the end of the race, miles 8 through 12, and there was not much to see. As I made my way on the outbound stretch I saw a sign that said “Tallahassee Regional Airport 6 miles.” Hmmm. a marathon would make it possible to go all the way to the airport and back, so it would be easy to add a marathon here, although it would be pretty boring!

There were aid stations about every 2 miles, each stocked with water and Gatorade. I had brought an energy bar with me and that along with some water was sufficient to get me through 13.1 miles. Although the weather was cool, 50 at the start, it quickly warmed up, and I pinned my hat and mittens to my jacket, tied my jacket around my waist, and rolled up the sleeves of my two tops. If this had been a longer race, I would have overheated but I was just slightly warm when I crossed the finish line at 2:50. My goal had been to finish in under 3 hours, so I was happy with that time. It had been a while since I had pushed myself during a half marathon (in Ft. Worth this past February I had to go carefully because of snow and ice) and I was tired during those final miles. If I plan to do more half marathons, I really need to plan a better strategy to conserve energy at the beginning so I can push hard during the second half.

The medal was large and colorful (predominately green, the color of race sponsor Publix) on a lanyard imprinted with the Race 13.1 logo. For refreshments, there were bananas, mini muffins, chocolate milk, and pizza. I walked to my car to drop off my jacket and a few bottles of water and then returned to the finish line to watch the last of the racers and to check my chip time. The awards ceremony was going on so I sat down to wait until I could get to one of the computers. Lo and behold, when my age group came up, the announcer called out my name; amazingly, I had won 2nd place and received another medal.

As I made my way to my car to head home, I met one of the runners who had been back and forth with me for most of the race. CaTrina was from Alabama and had driven up to Tally just for this race. She was also a Half Fanatic so we spent a pleasant 20 minutes or so discussing various races. Then it was back home for a shower and some rest.

Half marathons are so neat – I had no blisters, no real discomfort, just a good feeling of fatigue and accomplishment. And this race was a nice addition to my roster, one I will definitely do again next year.

 

Save the Daylight 24 Hour Race – October 31, 2015 (Englewood Beach, FL)

Finally a race here in Florida! No more getting up at 3 am to catch several flights to other states. We could relax, have a leisurely breakfast, and then drive 6 or so hours down the interstate to the coastal town of Venice, where we spent the weekend so I could do a 24 hour trail race in Englewood Beach, about 30 minutes to the south. I was a bit apprehensive about doing a trail race, especially during the overnight hours, but Justin the race director assured me that there were very few impediments on the trail, perhaps a few errant pine cones, but no single-track and no major roots or rocks.

Justin was right. The 3.3 mile trail was mostly crushed shells and dirt covered with pine needles and it was very flat (no surprise here in south Florida). There were two wooden bridges that turned out to be my favorite part of the race because I didn’t have to watch my footing at all. Otherwise, I did keep my eyes peeled to the ground because there were a few – just a few – roots and an occasional rock and I wanted to memorize where they were during the daylight hours so I could avoid them at night.

We drove down on Friday morning, stopping only for a snack halfway, and checked into our hotel, a new Fairfield Inn in Venice. The host hotel was located much closer to the course and offered a good rate for runners but we wanted a name-brand hotel just in case there might be cable problems. Darcy planned to watch football, including the Florida-Georgia game, while I was racing and no cable would be a major disaster. After checking in, we drove to the race site at Ann Dever Park, just past the Humane Society. I tried to convince Darcy to let us look for a puppy to adopt after the race but he just grimaced and shook his head despairingly.

There were other race options than the 24 hour and for a while I toyed with the idea of dropping to the 12 hour day race so I could avoid the trail at night. But I remained stalwart and stuck with the 24 hour, figuring I could always just rest a little during the darkest part of the night. Racers who completed at least 6 laps in the 6 hour, 12 laps in the 12 hour, or 19 laps (100k) in the 24 hour would get a 34 ounce glass beer mug in addition to a medal. My quest was on to do at least 19 laps and maybe one more if I could manage it.

We started at 9 am but because we turned the clocks back on Sunday morning, we ended at 8 am (it was still 24 hours though!). The course winds around the huge parking lot, by a covered pavilion where the official aid station was set up, alongside indoor restrooms (yea!), around a small lake, and then onto the actual trail where we followed a counterclockwise loop or two, backtracking to the pavilion and out again. The race was chip timed with a verbal backup system and there was an additional self-service aid station at the halfway point on the course that had water, electrolytes, sunscreen, and Vaseline. People could set up tents or drop bags on the pavilion benches or by their cars in the parking lot. It was an excellent set-up for a race.

My friends Joyce and Ray were there and I got to do several laps with Joyce. I also met and walked with several other interesting runners, including Bill (Slow Twin), race walker Scott (who has an ultramarathon podcast), and Lynn, a Facebook friend. The other runners were friendly and welcoming.  I am sure there were lots of animals hiding in the trees that lined the course but the only wildlife I actually saw were several huge turtles and a couple of black snakes.

The aid station had plenty of food, sweet and salty and filling, including burritos from Moe’s and candy corn (which I developed a definite hankering for). During the evening hours, Darcy brought me hot coffee and an egg McMuffin and I drank several bottles of seltzer, brought from home because I realized I have a decided hankering for carbonated beverages but can’t stomach soda, diet or otherwise.

The trail is pitch black at night so it is crucial to have a handheld light of some sort. I had brought two flashlights, extra batteries, and two headlamps so I was prepared. Even so, at one point I found myself startled to bang up against the retaining wall on one of the bridges. I must have fallen completely asleep for a few seconds (or longer) and sleepwalked into the side of the bridge. Now that had never happened to me before!

Another first for me, again due to the darkness, was completely missing the entry point to the trail not once but at least 4 times! The first time, Ray saw me wandering back into the parking lot and pavilion area and turned me around and set me back on track. I tried hard to pay attention every time after that but I still managed to miss the turn several times. I simply could not see the small orange flags planted in the ground that led the way to the trail and there was no arrow or light to point out the trailhead. But those were small concerns and easily fixed.

Fortunately I had brought several changes of trail shoes and socks because my feet did swell and ache quite a bit. By the time I had completed 15 laps I knew those final 4 would be a struggle. I had plenty of time to finish, but I was weary and wanting the race to be over. The good news – and what really kept me out there for 22 hours or so – was the fact that the weather was warm and pleasant and there were real bathrooms not portapotties. I had no reason to leave until I had completed that 100k. It took me until 6 am to reach that magic number, just about the time that Scott, also aiming for a 100k, also finished. Justin handed me my mug and medal and we posed for a photo which was then swiftly made into a colorful certificate with my name and mileage. I looked a complete disaster in the photo, sweaty and worn out, but it was certainly a neat memento to have.

One thing I would do differently is make sure I covered myself with bug spray. I was oblivious to getting bitten during the race but I discovered soon afterwards that dozens of gnats had attacked my arms and legs. I had itchy bites that drove me crazy until I got some strong hydrocortisone cream to smooth on the bites.

This race is definitely recommended for walkers, especially for those who are hesitant to do trails. I would suggest the 12 hour daytime race as a good option and one I am considering for next year (unless I change my mind and try the 24 hour again).