I Should Have Steered Clear of Clearwater – the Clearwater Distance Classic Halfathon, Clearwater, Florida (January 17. 2016)

Sometimes races go well and other times they don’t. Sometimes the race is poorly organized, volunteers are sparse, and the community doesn’t know or care about the event. Other times the weather plays an integral role in whether a race is successful or not. This past weekend in Clearwater, many of these factors came into play. Despite efforts by the race director to work things out, the race turned out to be problematic for some slower marathoners, including myself.

I had registered for the full marathon because there was supposed to be an early start for walkers in both the full and half marathons. This would have given me a full 7 hours to complete the race. The website even has a special page just for walkers, giving information and specifics. Unfortunately, a band of severe weather came through the area on Saturday evening. While the worst of the storms hit south of Clearwater, predictions warned that there was a major chance of heavy rain, wind, and lightning during the early morning hours of Sunday, right before the race was to start. Around 8 pm on Saturday, the race director sent an email to racers explaining that the race start would be delayed an hour. There might be further delays but no one would start earlier. Absolutely no mention was made about the early start for walkers. The email also stated that there would be no more notice of any changes and the RD would be unable to respond to further emails and Facebook posts.

When I checked the race Facebook page, the email notification was listed but again, no mention of an early start. When questioned directly by myself and another walker, we were told by the volunteer coordinator that there would only be one start for all, with the exception of a 5-minute head start for wheelchair racers. Okay, so I would get to sleep a little later in the morning and then would have to do my best to finish within the 6 ½ hour time frame. But it bothered me that an entire segment of participants were ignored and given absolutely no consideration.

At 7 am on Sunday, Darcy and I left our hotel, the Residence Inn Clearwater Downtown, to walk to the race site at Coachman Park several blocks away. We had picked up our packet there on Saturday afternoon so we knew it would take about 15-20 minutes. There was no expo and no giveaways, just a bib with chip and a tech tee shirt which I left there (how I wish races would return to cotton shirts!). As soon as we arrived, I joined the dozens of people lining up for the portapotties and then hunted for an information table so I could ask about whether we would be given extra time to finish on the back end of the race. There was no one who could answer my questions so we looked for the start line. We got there just as someone announced that the early start people were now taking off. What?!? I thought there was to be no early start! I ran to catch up with the others, wondering why there was such an abysmal lack of communication with an entire segment of participants. I later learned that some walkers missed this ‘early start’ and had to fend for themselves when orange cones marking the course were picked up before they finished. There is really no excuse for this. The RD only needed to mention in the email update that there would indeed be an early start for walkers 30 minutes before the regular start.

I managed to catch up with several of the early starters and recognized Jim, Bettie, and Henry. We chatted and then I passed them as I began to fall into a comfortable 14 minute pace. I was starting to enjoy myself, despite the strong winds, when a bike rider caught up to me and asked if I was doing the marathon. When I replied in the affirmative, he said that I should be aware that both the marathon and the ultra-marathon had been canceled. I responded with “I don’t think so.” That’s when he stated he was with the race committee and that everyone now had to do the half because of street flooding on the full course. Policemen and course marshals reiterated that point every time I passed them.

Okay, so this would be a half marathon instead of a full. I could live with that, especially since I am trying to increase my count of half marathons. In a way, I was relieved; the wind was so bruising that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be out fighting the elements for 6-7 hours. I was also afraid I might get hit on the head by flying fronds from the palm trees, especially as we navigated an otherwise pleasant park. But surely the street flooding would have been evident before the race started; the rain had stopped well before 4 am. Better communication between the town, police, and race organizers would have helped.

Because of the extremely windy conditions, mile markers could not be set up on the course. Every now and then there were numbers chalked on the ground but I couldn’t be sure if they were for our race or not. Some runners found this very freeing but I found it rather disconcerting since I had no way to pace myself realistically. Given the blustery weather, I could certainly understand why the mile markers were omitted; they would have been blown away and become dangerous projectiles. This was probably the windiest race I have ever done. I had enormous difficulty maintaining my balance; several times runners bumped into me and each other because it was hard to avoid this. At least everyone was polite and had a good attitude about the situation.

Even if the weather had been pleasant, there were parts of the course that were problematic. Some sections of the course were narrowed to a slim 12” along an out-and-back of a 2 lane highway. This meant that passing was perilous. I tried to stay as far to the right as possible while avoiding the slippery slanted section of the road.

The turn-around was around mile 7 (I guess) and our return to Coachman Park was almost entirely facing a strong headwind. The final section of the race was over a bridge and around a spiraling downhill section that would have been exhilarating had I not been so completely decimated by fighting the furious winds. I crossed the finish line in 2:57, amazed that I managed to finish in under 3 hours in such difficult conditions. Only people who had signed up for the half marathon received half marathon medals. I was thus given a full marathon medal, despite the fact that I only completed the half. It would have made more sense to order extra half marathon medals and mail them to full and ultra participants later. Why would I want a medal for a race I didn’t earn? But at this point I didn’t really expect too much.

Clearwater is a lovely beach town and the course in pleasant weather is probably strikingly beautiful. Unfortunately, I couldn’t appreciate its beauty because I was fighting to stay upright. Our hotel was fine and we ate at several good restaurants (Angie’s for breakfast and Abe’s for lunch and dinner).  Weather is always unpredictable but developing a contingency plan just in case of emergency is essential. In this aspect, the race organizers only partially fulfilled their obligations, leaving walkers in the lurch. For this reason, I cannot recommend the race.

First Light Marathon, January 10, 2016 (Mobile, Alabama)

This is one of my favorite races. It has so many things to recommend it – a pleasant course in a neat little southern town, friendly people, and a great post-race meal. Proceeds of the race support L’Arche Mobile, an organization dedicated to the growth and development of people with intellectual disabilities; members of L’Arche Mobile community decorate the wooden medallions and give them to racers as they cross the finish line.

In the 10 years I have been marathoning, I have completed 7 First Light Marathons, more than any other race. That in itself says volumes, since I rarely repeat races unless I like them a great deal. Extensive reviews of First Light can be found on my earlier blog reports so I will only mention several relevant changes of note.

The most intriguing change was the introduction of chip timing. Usually this race is begun with runners and walkers lining up behind a chalk mark on the street. I have always enjoyed the more casual atmosphere and never really minded the fact that I might lose a few minutes waiting until I crossed the start line. This year the feel was still very relaxed, perhaps even more so, because there was no need to rush to begin. However, there must have been some technical problems with the timing apparatus because it took several days before unofficial results were up on the website. As of Thursday, chip times were still not available. Despite the delay, I actually did better this year than ever before, with a gun time finish of 6:03. Usually my times at Mobile range from 6:15 to 6:25, so I was pretty happy.

Weather here can be very unpredictable in January; I have experienced everything from freezing cold with 10-degree wind chill to a hot and humid 85 degrees. This year it was a bit cold for me, with starting temps in the mid-40’s and it rose around 10 degrees during the day, with overcast skies and a brisk wind. However, it was not unbearable and I was dressed appropriately, with several layers, mittens, and cap.

Lots of participants did the Back2Back Challenge, racing Mississippi Blues Marathon in Jackson, MS, on Saturday and then First Light on Sunday. That meant I had a chance to see many of my Maniac friends, including Angela, Cheryl, Larry, Jim, and Matthew. Maybe someday I will try the Challenge but for now I enjoy being able to spend a leisurely Saturday browsing one of my favorite bookstores, Bienville Books, instead of traveling from one city to the other.

First Light has both full and half marathons and offers a racewalking category for both races. My racewalking form leaves a lot to be desired (I call myself a power walker) so I usually just enter as a runner, but this year I decided to enter as a racewalker. I saw several very strong and fast walkers pass me at the beginning of the race so I was fairly sure that I would not place for an award. When the times were finally announced, I was surprised and pleased to find that I was third female; that was very satisfying.

With a 7-hour time limit, this race is very walker friendly. The only major concern is the hazardous condition of some of the roads. There are cracks and potholes in some areas, making it essential to keep an eye on the ground to avoid tripping.

Addendum to the Savage Seven races

I forgot to mention in my last post about these races that Chuck Savage, the RD, had dislocated his shoulder and messed up his arm and hand while doing a pre-Christmas training run.  His demeanor was brave but I am sure he was in a lot of pain, and I knew he was very disappointed that he couldn’t do any of the heavy lifting and organizing tasks so necessary in putting on a marathon series.  Chuck had surgery during race week and since I finished my third race before he returned to the park, I am using this opportunity to send him best wishes for a speedy recovery!

Three of the Savage Seven – Ocala, Florida (December 27-29, 2015)

Originally I was supposed to do a 24-hour race in Pensacola after Christmas but that race was unexpectedly canceled. That left a big hole in my schedule: an entire 2 weeks without a race. Of course, I could have taken that time to relax and recuperate but after the calorie overload I experienced during the holidays, I really wanted to find at least one race to justify such indulgence.

That’s when my husband reminded me of the Savage Seven (S7) down in Ocala. As I wrote about last month in my essay on marathon challenges, the S7 consists of seven marathons beginning on the day after Christmas and ending on New Year’s Day. The races are held in a lovely park along the Marjorie Harris Carr Greenway in Ocala, a town midway between Tampa and Gainesville and famous for its horse ranches. I have done several of these races in previous years and written about them in past postings on this blog. Last year I volunteered on the first day and then flew to Arizona for the 72-hour Across the Years race. Usually I just drive down from Gainesville, returning the same day. If I were to do a race or two this year, I would have to stay in Ocala, since the drive from our new hometown would add at least two additional hours of travel time.

That turned out to be a non-issue. I signed up for 3 races, beginning on December 27, and made a reservation at Homewood Suites for 3 nights. We left home after breakfast on the 26th and drove to the hotel first where we checked in. Then we timed how long it took to drive from the hotel to the race site, about 20 minutes. The first day of marathons was finishing up so we chatted with Chuck Savage, the RD, and several of the volunteers. Only a few people were still out on the course, my friend Deb among them, but most people had finished and were resting up for the next day. Florida was experiencing extremely warm and humid temperatures for December and, because of the heat, Chuck agreed to let runners begin an hour earlier than the usual 7 am for the second day of racing. I was glad that we stopped by because otherwise I would not have known about the early start. In fact, the heat was such that on the following two days we started at 5 am, two hours earlier. This was fine with me, because my favorite time for walking is very early in the morning and it was great to have warm weather.

While I am not a fan of multiple loop marathons, I do them anyway, and this 5+ mile course (we do 5 loops) is a pleasant venue, shaded in parts, completely paved, and, though popular with locals, never very crowded. There is a playground nearby and real restrooms. I enjoyed seeing many of my friends, including Mike, Cheryl, Liz, Bettie, Jim, Frank, and Chuck, and because of the nature of the course there were a number of times to talk or wave at each other as we passed. Volunteers were wonderful, especially the young man who made sure everyone’s lap was counted as we made our way around the loop over and over again. My finishing times were not spectacular but they were better than in previous years, probably due to the steady temperatures and lack of rain.

Our meals on this trip were not especially notable; we ate at McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, and Crackerbarrel. However, on the way home we drove up highway 441 so we could stop at Blue Highway, an iconic pizza place in Micanopy, where we shared a wonderful antipasto plate and I had a delectable pizza and Darcy enjoyed a huge sausage calzone.

Official times are not posted yet but should be in the following range for me: day 1, 6:23; day 2, 6:40; day 3, 6:52. That brings my total count for 2015 to 17 marathons, 7 ultramarathons, and 4 half marathons, with a lifetime total of marathons/ultras of 216 and 31 half marathons. I hope to add to those totals in 2016. Maybe by the time I am 75, I will be able to brag about reaching 300 marathons/ultras and 100 half marathons. That gives me 7 years to work on these goals!