Five Points of Life Half Marathon (Gainesville, FL) – February 21, 2016)

Experience has taught me that the half marathon here is much better than the full for anyone that needs at least 5+ hours to complete a marathon. It’s not because aid stations close down (though they may be unmanned). There are plenty of cones to separate runners from traffic and course marshals remain at the ready to guide racers, but the long uphill stretch along Williston Road (miles 18 through 22) are lonely and boring, especially after the variety of scenery offered by the first 13 miles. The several times I have completed the full, I was alone for most of the last 13 miles. While the finish line was still open, there was no more food and the awards had already been distributed or packed up.

That made doing the half an easy decision. I drove to Gainesville on Saturday, had a pleasant brunch at the Hilton with Marylyn, my friend and former boss, walked across the street to packet pickup at the UF Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine Institute, and then had a much-welcome massage with Kathy, my massage therapist whom I now get to see only sporadically. I also had a chance to visit with Karolyn, my friend and former neighbor.

There are only a few booths at packet pickup so I hesitate to call it an expo, but considering the small size of the running field, that was reasonable. There was a single long line for everyone, whether one was racing the full, half, or relay, but the line moved quickly and smoothly. Everyone received a bright red bag (the race series is sponsored by LifeSouth Blood Center so the color is appropriate), a water bottle, some ads, and a bib with chip and our name on it. The tee shirt is a navy short-sleeve tech shirt with a picture of an alligator’s head rising from the surface of Lake Alice. In the eye of the Gator is a runner. How appropriate for Gainesville, home of the Florida Gators! While the shirt is 100% polyester, it has a soft cottony feel and I’ve already worn it several times.

I stayed at the Hilton on SW 34th Street, right across from the Performing Arts Center, site of the race start and finish. The hotel was pricey but I was only staying the one night and the convenience of walking out 15 minutes before the 7 am race start was worth the cost. I was up early on Sunday, ate a quick breakfast in my room, dressed, and checked on the weather outside. It was cold but not freezing, warmer than last week in Jacksonville, so I wore just one long-sleeved shirt with roll-up sleeves, my Half Fanatics singlet, vest, cap, and a light jacket with lots of pockets (the jacket came off and was tied around my waist after the first 4 miles).

Of course, there were already long lines at the portapotties (only about a dozen or so for 3000 people) so I quickly joined one and waited my turn. I then walked around the staging area, looking around for familiar faces. I soon found Bettie and Cheryl and gabbed with them for a few moments. Very soon it was time to find our pace signs out on the street. For some unfathomable reason, this race has marathoners line up in front of all the half marathoners, instead of having everyone line up by their pace. When I have done the full here, I would be bombarded by hordes of fast half marathoners rushing past me. Now that I was doing the half, I could casually line up towards the back and not have to worry about getting swamped by faster runners.

We took off on time and headed up 34th Street, turning left on Newberry, and right on 43rd. Police were on every corner and at every street crossing, cheering us on. One of my favorite parts of this race comes next – the “hills” of 16th Avenue, those same hills that Olympian Frank Shorter trained on when he attended the University of Florida. This part of the course was also where I trained for my first race, the Tom Walker half marathon. In fact, mile 6 goes right past the street where I used to live.

The remainder of the 13 miles takes participants downtown, past the historic Duck Pond area, through the tunnel under 13th street that leads everyone to campus, around the football stadium, down Fraternity Drive, and along Lake Alice. The final romp along Museum Road leads back to the Performing Arts Center finish line and passes by the bat house and university communal gardens. I was immensely happy to make a right turn at the end of the road and head to the finish line. I finished in 2:48, third in my age group.

After getting my medal (with the same alligator design as the tee shirt) and a slice of pizza (one benefit of doing the half – food is still available), I waited for fellow Maniac and 50 Stater Cheryl so I could give her my collection of tech tee shirts. I love to piece and quilt, but I don’t like to wear or work with polyester and I don’t enjoy machine quilting, so I have many shirts that just take up space in my closet. Some I donate to charity but those from my favorite races are too memory-laden to give away. Cheryl has a popular quilt-making business (Run With It Quilts) that helps fund her trips to races and she does beautiful work, so I commissioned her to make me a quilt. Her website is www.gallery123uniques.com, in case others have the same desire to have a tee shirt memory quilt made.

I highly recommend the Five Points half marathon for walkers and velocity-challenged runners. If you stay at the Hilton across the street for convenience (the host hotels are further away), it is possible to walk to the expo as well as the start and finish lines. Restaurants (except for the expensive hotel restaurant) are a short drive away; most major chains are represented locally (this is a college town, after all) but if you want really good pizza, try Blue Highway in Micanopy (10 miles away). For seafood, Northwest Grille up on 39th Avenue is fine as is Flying Biscuit on 16th Avenue for breakfast. And don’t forget to wear orange and blue!

Run with Donna 26.2 – Jacksonville Beach, Florida (February 14, 2016)

Billed as the National Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer, this race series (half, full, and ultra) consists of a course that runs through upscale beachfront communities beginning in Ponte Vedra and encompassing the neighborhoods of Jacksonville, Neptune, and Atlantic Beaches and then back again, ending with an uphill across the intracoastal waterway bridge to the finish line at the Mayo Clinic.

I did this marathon back in 2009 and thought it was time to try it again. I remembered the race as a lively romp through lots of friendly neighborhoods. There was even a section on part of a sandy beach with a clear view of the Atlantic Ocean – breezy but pleasant. I was extremely impressed with the number of people who had set up impromptu aid stations with drinks, snacks, and music. Even though I finished in just under 6 hours, there were enough runners ahead of me that I never had to worry about getting lost. This year some of those things had changed. There was no more running on the beach and racers were sparse during the second half of the course.

So this year, instead of my usual Austin marathon excursion, I decided to attempt Donna again. On Saturday Darcy and I drove to downtown Jacksonville for the expo at the Prime Osborn Convention Center. It is tricky to drive around JAX so I was glad that Darcy had done his usual homework and knew exactly how to get there and then to our host hotel, the Sawgrass Marriott in Ponte Vedra. The expo had the usual vendors selling running gear plus a number of health and medical booths with useful information (Mayo Clinic JAX is one of the major sponsors). It was easy to get my bib, backpack, and long sleeve tech shirt (pink, of course) and then wander around the various vendors looking at stuff and nibbling on free samples of chocolate covered popcorn and wine.

The Sawgrass Marriott is a golf resort, very pricey (with a daily resort fee) but pristine and attractive. There were a few perks for staying there. For one thing, the start line is a relatively short walk away from the hotel. We took the back way and climbed up a short ravine to the rear of a strip mall and from there to the start but there is also a way to walk along A1A – no sidewalks but an extensive grassy pathway. Another reason to stay at the Sawgrass is the post-race party for hotel guests. This included light hor d’oeuvres, two complimentary drinks, and entertainment, all conveniently located in the bar.

Darcy scouted out local restaurants but most of the sit-down dining options were beyond our budget, so we opted to shop for meal supplies at a nearby Publix and ate subs (Darcy) and cheese, crackers, and wine (me) for dinner on Saturday. Race morning was cold for Florida, in the mid-40’s, so I dressed warmly, even though I was concerned that six plus hours on the course might warm me up considerably. As it turned out, the day remained fairly cool and I only felt overdressed for that last half hour or so.

Notes on the race and course:

  • We started on time but it was a ‘pulsed’ start, so we organized ourselves into corrals by pace and then each corral was allowed to cross the start line. It was not a long wait, even for the last few corrals (I was with the 6-hour group) – only about 2 minutes between each pulse
  • Jeff Galloway was a guest speaker at the expo and runner, along with his wife Barb, in the marathon. If being surrounded by run-walkers is your definition of misery, the first 7 miles (until the half marathoners peel off) will be very unpleasant. It was difficult time getting around the run-walkers when they begin their shuffle/walk, especially when they form a wall of 4 or more around the pacer group leader. I was relieved when the majority made the turn at their half way point
  • The course was completely flat except for the last couple of miles when we climbed along a highway overpass and across a bridge
  • There were large signs with arrows all along the course, plenty of volunteers, police, and course marshals, and numerous aid stations with water, Gatorade, and gels. I was pleased to see that many neighbors still set up informal aid stations with real food. At one, I selected a peanut butter and jelly half sandwich carefully wrapped in a plastic baggie. The only treat missing was candy hearts (though I did see hard candy and chocolate kisses)
  • Most people do the half marathon (3622 finishers) while only 947 people finished the full

After mile 7, the crowd of racers thinned considerably. The route is shaped like a very elongated rectangle and It got pretty lonely until the turn-around at mile 12 ½ – at that point I recognized my friend Matthew and the next 8 miles went by swiftly as we gabbed about race schedules and food and travel. At mile 20, I tried to get him to join me in picking up the pace a little, without success, but I was ready to push hard for that last 10k. I crossed the finish line in 6:13, close enough to 6 hours that I was satisfied. The medal was in the shape of a heart on a bright pink lanyard. There was not much food left by that point – just bananas, mini blueberry muffins, and some hot soup – but Darcy had some chocolate milk for me back in the room, so I was set. We boarded one of the numerous buses at the Mayo Clinic staging area and were driven back to the parking lot at the start.

It was a satisfactory, if somewhat boring, race. The cause was certainly worthwhile and many of the details were handled well (there had been criticism in prior years about bus logistics but those appear to have been resolved). I doubt if I will do it again, at least not for a while, but I am happy to have finished it a second time. With the seven-hour time limit, walkers and back-of-the-pack runners should be able to feel confident doing either the half or the full. There were pacers for the 6:30 and 7 hour racers, a nice touch for those who might be hesitant about their ability to walk a full marathon.

 

A Challenging New Course: The Tallahassee Half Marathon (February 7, 2016)

This was my 10th Tallahassee half marathon. I’ve only been racing for 10 years, so it stands to reason that this race must be one of my favorites. Truth is, I keep returning because I can convince my son David, who lives in Tallahassee, to do the race with me. We start out together but he quickly takes off, finishing at least 20 to 30 minutes ahead of me. He waits patiently at the finish line for me and since I have the key to his car in my pocket, he really has no choice but to wait for his back-of-the-pack mom.

I always did the half marathon because the full had a strict 6-hour time limit and with a small field of under 300 full marathoners, I would undoubtedly be at the very end and pressing that time limit severely even during my faster and younger years. I also knew that my son would balk at a full marathon but could manage to finish a half with just a minimum of training (ah, youth!).

In prior years, the race began on the Florida State University campus and ended on the FSU track. The course was flat and fast but notoriously lacking in scenery. Part of it went along the St. Mark’s Trail but there were few spectators and not much to look at, although there was a long out-and-back that allowed runners and walkers a chance to wave at each other. I never did the race for the scenery but rather for the chance to have one-one-one time with my son, at least on the drive to and from the race.

This year things were very different. The course was changed completely and it now focuses entirely on downtown Tallahassee and its surrounding areas. This makes logical sense for out-of-towners because visitors can stay at downtown hotels (the nearby DoubleTree was the host hotel), walk to the outdoor expo at Kleman Plaza, make their way to the start in front of the courthouse, and then back to their hotel from the finish line. There are many excellent restaurants close by as well as a number of things to do before and after race day. Instead of a pancake flat course, the new route encompasses hills, lots of hills, some steep, others long and gradual. It reminded me a lot of the Georgia marathon course in Atlanta. I must admit that I really enjoyed the energy-sapping hills, despite the fact that they occasionally caused me to breathe rather heavily. Walking uphill and running downhill always seems easier on my leg muscles and my feet than strictly flat terrain.

I can’t speak firsthand about the expo since my son picked up my packet for me on Saturday. He noted that there were about 30 vendors plus a play area for children. Tallahassee was experiencing freezing weather the entire weekend so most people limited the time they spent at the outside expo. Shirts were light blue tech, short-sleeved, with a print of the city skyline on the front. This too was different than in previous years, when a cute little groundhog was the unofficial mascot of the race and appeared on both shirts and medals. Medals this year were larger and also had a cutout of the city skyline on them.

There were aid stations every couple of miles with water, Gatorade, pretzels, and gels. Volunteers were excellent and the neighbors and church goers who came out to cheer us on were very vocal and positive. The police and course marshals were extremely helpful and invaluable, especially at the numerous street crossings. The course was marked with signs and with arrows chalked on the ground. However, I mostly followed the people ahead of me. It seems there were a lot of people running at my walking pace so I never worried about getting lost.

I crossed the finish line in 2:49:49 chip time, good enough for 2nd in my age group. Of course, David had already finished (30 minutes ahead of me) and was cheering me across. Afterwards we joined my husband and granddaughter and David’s girlfriend for brunch at Azu, a favorite Chinese restaurant.

Although I heard both positive and negative comments about the new course, I must admit I liked it. Two days later my quads and hamstrings are still pretty sore but overall I enjoyed those hills.

There was a lot of camaraderie at this year’s event, more so than in previous years. I found many people were eager to talk and share their experiences. While I was glad to turn off at mile 12 and head towards the half marathon finish line, a part of me wondered what the other half of the new course was like. It was supposed to wind around the FSU campus and finish on a new special permanent finish line several yards from the half finish. Maybe next year I will be able to talk my son into trying his first full marathon and we can see for ourselves how the second half of the course unfolds.