Operation Endurance 12 Hour Race – March 19, 2016 (Columbus, GA)

It was supposed to rain, but it didn’t. It was supposed to be overcast and cool but instead the day turned out partly sunny and warm. I was glad on both counts. Columbus is a small but intriguing little city on the western border of Georgia right across the Chattahoochee River from Phenix City, Alabama. I had been there three times, twice to do the Soldier Marathon in November and once to do the 24-hour version of Operation Endurance back in 2012. All three times I had traveled there by myself and was totally focused on the races rather than exploring the surrounding area. This time I was with my husband, which freed me from worrying about logistics and gave both of us time to look around.

Columbus is about 3 ½ hours from our home, so we left around 9 am on Friday for a leisurely drive through rural roads. Our first stop was the Visitor Center at Fort Benning so we could get our visitor passes without having to stand in line early on race morning. There are a number of hotels in and surrounding Columbus, and the race does not have a host hotel (most participants are local), so I chose a hotel a few exits off Interstate 185 just north of the city center in a quiet business park. Since our room was not ready yet, we drove to the downtown area for lunch. Darcy had done his restaurant homework as usual and selected the Cannon Brew Pub on Broadway, a quiet place with excellent food and a selection of craft beers. I filled up on onion rings, sliders, and ‘sunspots’ (sweet potato fries) with a Special Ops IPA while Darcy had the ‘Burger after Midnite’ (hamburger topped with a fried egg a la Red Robin) and City Mills Wheat draft.

Then it was back to the hotel where we checked in so I could begin to get things ready for the race. Since this was to be another 12-hour race very similar to last week’s race in Suwannee, packing was relatively easy. Most of the non-clothes items I simply kept in my drop bag, things like Body Glide, Vaseline, toothbrush, wipes, tissues, etc. I only had to wash and repack my clothes and socks and decide which shoes to wear.

Despite the threat of rain, on race morning it was clear and dry and it remained that way throughout the day and early evening. That was a genuine plus. Darcy and I left the hotel at 6:45 Saturday morning and it took us only 20 minutes to arrive at Fort Benning. Getting to the race site on base turned out to be more difficult; after first overshooting our destination and finding ourselves at a dead end, we turned around and finally found the elusive gym. Look for a sign for the Paul B. Smith Fitness Center (not Smith Gym). There is plenty of parking in front of the building and there were tents for the aid station and a tent with tables and chairs for runners who did not have their own tent to set up their belongings. I brought my chair to set my drop bag on and originally set it under this spare tent. However, my friend Mellody was also doing the 12 hour and she and her husband had brought their own tent. She invited me to use hers and I gladly took her up on her generous offer.

The race itself is held on the Stewart Field running track and is just under one mile in length. The surface is fine grained gravel so gaiters are useful. I remember not wearing gaiters my first time here and regretted it. This year I was prepared. In addition to the 12 hour race, there is also a 24 hour plus a relay. The field of racers this year was smaller than normal since the race is usually held the last weekend of March. In 2016, that meant the 24 hour race would end on Easter so the race was moved up one week.

The course is flat and there are no tripping hazards if one discounts the occasional pinecone and seed pod. There is one aid station with water, Gatorade, soda, and lots of sweet and salty foods, plus pb & j quarters, cheese sandwiches, and (yum!) pizza at 6 pm. Best of all, there are real bathrooms in the gym (a short walk off the course), which is open from 9 am to 5 pm on Saturday, plus 4 portapotties close to the aid station. I strategically planned my excursions to the bathrooms, making sure that my last visit was just before the gym closed.

We took off on time, 8 on the dot, and worked our way counterclockwise around the track for 12 hours with no change in direction. That was fine with me; I have decided that I don’t enjoy changing directions. The second way always seems longer to me for some reason.

I was still a little tired from the 35 miles I did last weekend, but overall I felt pretty good. I decided that as long as the weather stayed dry I would try to stay the full 12 hours, and fortunately that is what transpired. The weather held and I remained strong despite some fatigue in my legs and swelling in my ankles and feet. I suppose I could have changed shoes but I was moving steadily and didn’t want to stop. My first goal was to reach 13 miles, then 26, and then 32. Once I hit that magic 50k mark, I would try to do as many more laps as I could manage. I know I slowed a bit at that point but still kept moving, with a final lap count of 43 (42.785 miles). During the race I had time to talk with several other people, including RD Vikena Yutz (who was women’s champion several times at Across the Years) and Mellody, my walker friend from the Walking Boards. This year the race was chip timed but unfortunately some of the chips were faulty, including mine, so I continually had to check my lap number with the very patient Perry and his cheerful timing volunteers.

The 12-year option here seems to work well for me; I like the course and the indoor bathrooms, the other racers are friendly and welcoming, and the race is well-organized. I left the race with plans to return next year. Highly recommended for walkers.

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A Stroll in the Park 12 Hour Endurance Run: New Version – March 12, 2016 (Suwanee, Georgia)

In past years, this race was held in a public park in Cumming, GA, called Central Park and the race was titled appropriately enough A Stroll in Central Park. Alas, the venue was changed this year so the name of the race was changed as well. Now it’s simply A Stroll in the Park. A lot of other things changed as well. Instead of a paved 1.03 mile loop with real restrooms, the new course is now a 1 mile crushed gravel loop in Chattahoochee Point Park in Suwanee. At least I was initially told that the loop was all crushed gravel. When I arrived at the park on Saturday morning to get my race bib, Race Director Lia apologized to me for misrepresenting the course. She had to add a quarter mile section of – oh, no! – trail. While most trail runners would not even blink at the rocks and roots on this section, for a pavement lover like myself, it was a little disheartening.

Still, I decided to give it my best shot. I only had to get 32 laps for a 50k to count the race for Maniac statistics and that should be eminently doable over a 12-hour time period. After a good dinner at Taco Mac and a semi-restless night’s sleep at the Hilton Garden Inn at Johns Creek, Darcy and I arrived at the park around 6 am. Packet pickup was due to begin at 6:15 and the race at 7 am.

In my packet was my bib, a red cotton (halleluiah!) short-sleeve tee, and a plaque with the name of the race, the date, and my name on it. A few weeks after the race, Lia mails out our race results on a sticky gold label that fits perfectly on the plaque. I have two so far and was looking forward to adding a third. Everyone was given a plastic cup that we could write our name on and use throughout the race. For me, trying to find my cup with my name always takes up more time than I am willing to spend, so I usually carry my hanteen and just fill it up whenever I need to.

The weather was 60 degrees at the start but was expected to rise to 80 with no rain. Perfect weather for me! I wore shorts and a short-sleeve quick dry cotton tee with a nylon long-sleeve shirt and a light jacket at the start but quickly took off the jacket and long-sleeves. I was perfectly comfortable the entire day and could change items quickly if necessary since my chair and drop bag were close by.

This is a low-key race – no chip timing – but some absolutely wonderful lap counters. We were encouraged to introduce ourselves to our lap counters before the race and to shout out our numbers after each lap. Since there were only about 50 racers, it didn’t take long for lap counters to become very familiar with all of us. My lap counter was Wyly and she turned out to be my biggest cheering section.

We began right on the dot of 7 am heading counter clockwise around the park. When we reached the end of each lap we had to make a right turn and head down a rocky rooty trail to a bridge, turn around, and head back to the start. The trail portion was only about ¼ mile but I began to dread it. I would get a good pace going on the dirt and gravel portion only to have to slow down and carefully watch my feet so I could maneuver around the more treacherous sections.

In the two previous years I have done this race, I stayed for the entire 12 hours and managed to complete between 43 and 44 miles. This year, however, I knew that I would be content with simply managing to achieve a 50k. Anything over 32 miles would be great. I realized that the trail portion would become ever more difficult for me as I began to fatigue. I tend to lift my feet less when I’m tired and did not want to take a chance on falling and breaking something.

We changed direction after 6 hours and that gave a different perspective on the course, although I always tend to prefer the original direction (even on the old course). There is one aid station with the usual sweet and salty ultra choices. For some reason, I didn’t see any peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the promised noon pizza didn’t arrive until after 4, just as I was ready to leave, but I managed to snack on a cheese sandwich and Easter peeps. I did see a little girl eating a popsicle and asked where she got it. She said one of the adults had given it to her so I asked at the aid station and was told they didn’t have any popsicles. After a couple more laps, one of the aid station volunteers asked me what flavor popsicle I wanted – it turns out that someone had gone to the store and bought a box of popsicles just because I wanted one. Now that is (much appreciated) service!

There was another difference between this new venue and the previous one – in this new park, there are two ‘restrooms’ that are really just a step above portapotties. Central Park had real bathrooms for men and women, with running water and towels and such. The older I get, the more important such practical luxuries are to me.

When Darcy came to check on me around 1 pm, I had just made the marathon distance. I reiterated my decision to stop after 32 laps and asked that he return in a couple of hours. Around 4 pm he showed up with a chocolate milk, ready to take me back to the hotel, but at that point Wyly encouraged me to do another lap so I could finish 35 miles. Darcy patiently waited until I finished that last lap and then we said our goodbyes and left. I was more in the mood for a shower and nap than a meal so we opted for a grocery run for subs and junk food before heading back to the hotel for the night.

Although I probably won’t do this race again, I would highly recommend it for walkers who are not intimidated by trails. It is well-organized, the race director and her volunteers are terrific, and the other racers are very friendly and welcoming. Even the short trail section is really not that bad, but for a wimp like myself, it is daunting. If the race ever returns to Central Park, I will be sure to follow.

Reunion at the Beach: Myrtle Beach Marathon, SC (March 5, 2016)

This entire weekend was packed with fun and activity, from our arrival in South Carolina on Friday to our departure early on Sunday morning. Darcy and I left Florida around 6 am on Friday to make the 9-hour drive to Myrtle Beach. We picked up a quick breakfast at McDonald’s and made it all the way to our hotel, the Fairfield Inn, by 2:30. There were a number of host hotels for this race (the Fairfield Inn was just one) and all offered shuttles to and from the expo and the start and finish lines. A shuttle wasn’t really necessary, though, because everything was just a short distance away, certainly no more than a mile, and there was plenty of parking available, and most of it free, though the expo at Sports Center charged $5 per car.

My first Myrtle Beach Marathon was back in 2011. The year before, the race had been canceled because of a freak winter snow storm, but I had figured that would probably not happen two years in a row so I signed up. My memories of that first experience were favorable; it was a very enjoyable course in a pleasant beach town. When I realized that the 50 States Marathon Club was planning to have its first quarter reunion of 2016 at Myrtle Beach, it was an easy decision to sign up again.

After checking into our hotel, we walked around Broadway at the Beach, an extensive boardwalk that encircles Lake Broadway. There are shops, attractions like zip-lines and an aquarium, and lots of restaurants.   Darcy had done his homework and selected Rooster’s for our afternoon meal. I tried their local draft beer with flatbread pizza, Darcy had cider and a burger, and we both inhaled some great onion rings. Satiated, we drove to the expo (though I was more than willing to walk so I could burn some of those calories). The reunion meeting was set for 4 pm and we were right on time.

If you’ve never attended a 50 State Marathon Club reunion before, you might be surprised at how well-organized and enjoyable they are. I’ve been to at least 5 reunions and they have all been extremely worthwhile. Of course, my favorite was the one held in Atlanta at the Georgia Marathon in 2012 because that was when I was officially recognized as a certified finisher and given my trophy. But all of them are certainly worth attending. I enjoy meeting other 50 Staters and sharing entertaining stories and experiences in a relaxed atmosphere. I’m sure there is a tremendous amount of work involved in setting up and coordinating a successful reunion, so I offer sincere thanks to Steve and Paula Boone, Dave Bell, Lois Berkowitz, Barb Wnek, and any others whose names I may have missed for putting on such a great event.

The reunion ended around 6 pm and we all posed for a group photo before Darcy and I headed to the main expo area so I could get my race packet. This was straightforward. A volunteer looked up my number and I was given my bib, shirt, and bag with information booklet. The shirt was short-sleeved grey tech, with brightly colored numbers and letters on the front.

Both the start and finish of the marathon, half marathon, and relay are close to Broadway at the Beach Since all races were set to begin at 6:30 am and it was pretty chilly that early in the morning, Darcy drove me to the start so we could park in one of the many parking spots close by. After a quick trip to one of the numerous portapotties, I sat in a snug warm car until about 15 minutes before race time. Then I joined the hordes of runners and walkers who were starting to line up along Grissom Parkway. Only racers were allowed inside the corral area so Darcy kissed me goodbye, wished me luck, and drove back to the hotel to sleep.

Meanwhile, I lined up behind the last pace group sign, 5:30, and tried to stay warm while I people-watched. The National Anthem was sung at 6:15 and runners were exhorted to line up with full marathoners on the right side of the parkway and half marathoners on the left. At 6:30 on the button, a horn sounded and we took off. It only took about 2 minutes for me to cross the starting line, even with 1800 full participants.

The race was as much fun as any marathon distance can be – the course itself is an elongated rectangle, essentially pancake flat, all on road, with an entire lane coned off for runners. Although I prefer some hills and elevation to break up the monotony and to give different muscles a chance to work, I didn’t have any difficulty with shin splints or blisters. Because of several out-and-back portions, it is easy to see fellow racers and cheer them on. Despite a brisk wind, my favorite section was along Ocean Boulevard. That may be because I could occasionally view the ocean at different points, but also because those were the miles I spent chatting with Guinness marathon record holder Larry Macon. The later miles also were pleasant; talking to fellow quilter Cheryl made the miles practically fly past.

I crossed the finish line with a chip time of 6:06 and placed third in my age group. The medal is in the shape of a pair of gold flip-flops, very fitting for this beach race. Post-race food included chocolate milk (hooray!), fruit, bags of chips, and bagel halves. There may have been some hot soup too but that was gone by the time I finished. No problem, I was ready for some real eats after my shower. Darcy and I had a filling meal at Good Time Charley’s before I called it a day. All in all, a very rewarding race, with the bonus of a great 50 State Club reunion.

The marathon has a 7-hour time limit, few turns, and a number of back-of-the-packers. Highly recommended for walkers.