Squeezing in Just One More Half: The Lake Minneola Half Marathon, April 24, 2016 (Clermont, FL)

As I write this I am lying on my bed three days after surgery, my legs elevated and right foot bandaged and iced. The surgery was planned and carefully orchestrated to fall in between the races on my spring calendar. Even with attention to meticulous timing, it was hard for me to avoid signing up for enticing races.   I had to weigh the pros of finally taking care of some long-standing foot problems with the cons of missing out on good races and losing the strength and training I had worked so hard to attain. However, I realized it was time to take the plunge before my foot problems became more severe.

But before I made a date for my surgery, I tried to squeeze as many races as possible into my schedule. I managed to do four races in March and three in April, including this excellent half marathon in Clermont, Florida, a small city just west of Orlando. Unless I experience a miraculous recovery, the Lake Minneola Half Marathon will have to tied me over until my expected return to racing in June.

The trip was a brief one. Since Clermont is only a four-hour drive via several interstates and the Florida Turnpike, we left on Saturday morning and planned to return on Sunday right after the race. Our first stop was at the race site at Waterfront Park at Lake Minneola. The weather in south Florida was already hot and humid and the lake was filled with swimmers and sunbathers enjoying the warm temperatures. Packet pickup was from 11 to 4 on Saturday at the Highlander Building right across the street from the lake. It took less than 2 minutes to get my race shirt (short-sleeve royal blue poly-cotton) and my bib along with one of the rectangular chips that must be attached to one’s shoe laces (it’s been awhile since I’ve seen those). There is packet pickup on Sunday morning as well.

We had reservations at the local Hampton Inn but since our room wasn’t ready yet we walked over to Carrabba’s for lunch. Since this race attracts mostly locals, there is no specific host hotel but the area has many options. The Hampton was clean and attractive but rather pricey; this was one of the reasons we decided to stay only one night. I suspect that the high cost of a room was due to the fact that it was bike week in nearby Leesburg. However, we were able to get a late checkout so I could return after the race for a quick and very welcome shower before leaving.

On Sunday, I was up and ready to go by 5:30. The race was supposed to start at 7, with a 5k at 7:40, but since I always like to get to the race site in plenty of time, we arrived by 6 am. Usually Darcy waits with me until the race begins, but he was feeling miserable, with a troublesome cold, cough, and sinus congestion so he dropped me off and returned to the hotel for more rest. The weather was in the upper 60’s and pleasant so I didn’t mind at all; I wandered along the lakefront and people-watched until the race began. There were real bathrooms plus additional portapotties.

Around 6:45, an announcement was made for people to line up out front. Everything seemed to be extremely well-organized; timing mats were placed down, banners with pace per mile were set up, and people chatted and laughed. The atmosphere was casual and relaxed and I began to enjoy myself immensely. The usual angst I feel before a race was not present. I realized that this was in large part due to the nature of a half versus a full marathon. Many people sported Fanatics and Double Agents shirts (and I had on my Fanatic singlet and Maniac cap).

The race began about 5 minutes after 7 (something about fog, I think) and we headed north through some relatively hilly neighborhoods. Yes, it surprised me too, that there were hills here in central Florida, but – because they occurred during the first 6 miles – they were a minor issue. The rest of the course was pancake flat and took us around the lake, through some well-heeled neighborhoods, and back again by the Lake. The trail is completely paved and in great condition, no cracks or tripping hazards. Several of the aid stations offered gel packets as well as water and Heed.

Around mile 6 a young woman caught up with me and said she had seen me at the Tomoka half. She complimented me on my steady pace and told me she had to run a bit to catch up with me. That made me feel pretty good since she seemed about two or three decades younger than me!

I crossed the finish line in 2:48 (right around my usual half marathon finishing time) and collected my medal, an attractive beverage opener on a narrow lanyard. Post-race food included pasta (with and without meat), fruit, and water. There was a table with several computers so people could check their times but it seems a technical glitch made that impossible. It was kind of funny, too, that as we crossed the finish line, the announcer read off our numbers but not our names or where we were from. In fact, the only complaint I could make about this race (and it is a very minor one) is that I had to wait a couple of days to see results posted online.

The half marathon has a 4-hour time limit, with several finishers who came in over that limit, though not by much. This year there were 486 finishers and they were evenly spread out over the course. I always had people I could see in front of me and behind me, which I find very reassuring. I highly recommend this race for walkers.

Definitely Peachy! The Georgia Peach Jam Half Marathon – April 16, 2016 (Cumming, GA)

In keeping with my intention to do more half marathons, I signed up for this race in Cumming, an attractive community about 40 miles north of Atlanta. I’ve done other races in Cumming and nearby Suwanee so I was familiar with the general area; still, I was surprised at how appealing I found the race venue to be. The location is the Big Creek Greenway in Fowler Park, a pristine nature site with a track, soccer fields, baseball diamond, basketball courts, and a skateboard park. Most importantly, there are several clean restrooms close to the track.

Darcy and I drove up on Friday morning and decided to check out the park before we went to our hotel. With a map of the course in hand, we walked the beginning portion, guessing (correctly as it turned out) as to where we would turn north for the first out-and-back section that led to the 3.9-mile turnaround. The course then continues south to another turnaround at mile 10 and then finishes the final 5k with a return to the track. It all seemed very straightforward and ‘easy’ – the course is either cement or boardwalk, with no rocks or roots or any tripping impediments.

Our hotel was the Hampton Inn on Ronald Reagan Boulevard. We’ve stayed there before when I raced A Stroll in Central Park in previous years and we enjoy the Southern hospitality of the staff as well as the cleanliness of the rooms. The hotel is also just a short drive to the park. After checking in, we had a filling meal at Rick Tanner’s Grille & Bar. The menu has an array of tasty dishes so it was hard to choose but I finally decided on the grilled bourbon salmon and cole slaw with a flight of seasonal Cherry Street Brewing beers. Darcy had pulled chicken and rice and an imported cider. We found the lack of loud background music to be a real plus at this restaurant and plan to make it a regular stop on our trips to north Georgia.

After a restful night’s sleep, I arose at 4 am to get ready for the 7:30 am start. Packet pickup is on race day from 5:30 am to 7:00. We left the hotel around 6, made our way to the Greenway, found a parking space (there is plenty of free parking all around the park), and walked up to the tables set up along the track. I was handed my bib with chip on the back and a short-sleeve light blue and orange technical tee shirt. With those Gator colors, I really wanted to wear the shirt, despite the polyester fabric. After the race, I pulled it on over my turtleneck and the women’s cut in medium fit just fine. I will probably save it to wear over my cotton shirts.

In addition to the real bathrooms, there were also half a dozen portapotties set up outside the track. The cool 50 degree temperatures made me eager to stay in our warm car and people watch until 7 am. At that point, I joined the throngs of other participants making their way to the race start at the fire station just up the road. I never did see an actual starting line, no timing mat, not even a line drawn on the ground. I took it on faith that someone knew where the actual start line began. At the final call to line up by pace, I moved to the very back of the crowd with the other slower folks. At 7:30 on the dot everyone began to move and we were off. I never did see any timing mats on the course, not even at the turnarounds or the halfway point. There was, however, a finish line with a timing mat. It kind of reminded me of Hatfield McCoy – a very casual and relaxed, not certified, just for fun race.

There is a 5k as well as the half marathon. Both start at the fire station, but the 5k begins 5 minutes after the half. At the start of the actual path, the people doing the shorter race turn left instead of right. That means there is absolutely no confusion or congestion among the two groups of racers. I found the boardwalks to be very easy on my feet and legs (and as long as the weather was dry, there was little chance of slipping). There are 2 street crossings, one at each end of the course, but police hold up traffic for runners. Although there are several turns along the path, it would be hard, even for me, to get lost, as long as I stayed on the path. I was feeling fairly strong during the entire race but once I made it to the 10-mile turnaround, I really pushed it, passing a very strong walker and several runners who were tiring. The very last segment leading from the trail to the track was a long slight uphill. That was the hardest part of the whole race! I crossed the finish line in 2: 51, under my goal of 3 hours. As I was handed my medal, I could hear the announcer reading the names of the first two winners in my age group. A kind volunteer handed me another medal and said to climb up on the podium with the first two finishers for a photo – turns out I was in third place for women 65-69!

Our post-race meal was at Taco Mac, a local chain restaurant close to our hotel and one we stop at when we are in Cumming. We had another good round of food and drink, flatbread pizza for me and a burger and salad for Darcy, along with another flight of local beers.

I always wonder if I will see someone I know at these out-of-town races, especially the smaller ones. As the race began, I thought it unlikely here. Most of the Darksiders I knew were doing the Walking Dead Ultra in Senoia, also on April 16.   So imagine my surprise when I was hugged at the beginning of the race by Winston Davis, one of my earliest racing pals. We had met at the Tallahassee Ultra about 9 years ago and I had occasionally seen him at races in subsequent years; however, our paths hadn’t crossed at all recently. It was so great to see him again! Although he used to be a runner, today he was walking at a pace a little slower than mine, so Darcy and I waited at the finish line for him. Seeing him was a real treat!

There are so many neat things to like about this race – beautiful tree-lined course, great organization, laid-back atmosphere, and those real bathrooms (but note, they are only at the beginning and at the 3.9-mile turnaround, so plan carefully). My only disappointment was that I never tasted any peach jam; apparently only the very top finishers received jars of that sweet treat.   But never fear – on the ride home, we stopped at The Nut House and I bought some homemade peach preserves to satisfy that itch.

This race is highly recommended for walkers. Everyone who can maintain at least a 16 minute per mile pace will get an official time.

Two Weekends, Two Half Marathons – Tomoka (March 26, 2016) and Savannah Women’s (April 2, 2016)

The Tomoka races – full and half marathons – are held in Ormond Beach, Florida, always on the last weekend in March. I’ve completed the marathon twice, during its inaugural year in 2014 as well as the following year in 2015 and I signed up once again to do the full. However, this year’s events fell on Easter weekend and I unexpectedly had to host an Easter Sunday brunch in midmorning instead of a much later dinner. That meant that we would be leaving the race as soon as I finished so I could arrive home to shower, change clothes, and prepare to do a repertoire of springtime dishes for the next day. A full marathon really tires me out, so I knew I would be exhausted. A half marathon, on the other hand, would be just as much fun, last only about 3 hours, and I would not be decimated. I emailed the RD to ask about dropping down and was told there would be no problem.

The RD was correct. I easily switched races at the small expo held at the local YMCA and received a new bib and number. The shirt was a short-sleeve gray tech and destined for the charity pile. Because the host hotel, the Hampton Inn, was sold out far in advance, I had to make reservations at a Courtyard in Daytona Beach. This was a little out of the way but not a bad choice since Darcy was planning to drop me off at the starting line at the historic Casements in Rockefeller Gardens on North Riverside Drive. Only guests staying at the host hotel are supposed to use the shuttle to the Casements but since there is plenty of free parking at a nearby elementary school, driving is not a problem and is certainly convenient when getting ready to leave after the race.

I’ve posted reviews of my previous experiences doing the Tomoka Marathon so I won’t repeat particulars here. The half marathon starts at 7 am, 30 minutes after the full. There is also a 5k that begins at 7:30. One of the reasons I enjoy the marathon here is because of the beauty of the course which follows parts of the canopy oaks covered Old Dixie Highway and runs through several state parks (dirt and small pebbles but no tripping hazards) and crosses a drawbridge. The half marathon course is pleasant enough and includes a section of Tomoka State Park but skips my favorite section along the Old Dixie Highway. Both races go over the Granada Bridge at the beginning and end – easy at the early miles but a challenge approaching miles 25 and 26. I crossed the finish line in 2:50; I felt great and when I reviewed photos taken during the race I could see that I must have been smiling the entire time. Well, why not? It was a fun race and 13.1 miles is so easy compared to 26.2. Everything is relative, I guess. We made it home in about 4 hours and I had plenty of time to shower, change clothes, and start food preparation – sausage hash brown casserole, deviled eggs, pulled pork sliders, cinnamon coffee cake, fruit salad, triple chocolate cupcakes, chocolate marshmallow pie, and a few other sides.

Definitely recommended for walkers. There is a 7-hour time limit, though if doing the full, it gets a little lonely at the back (most of the 330 or so finishers are done by 4 hours). However, I’ve not been last here (yet) and the course is well-marked, easy to follow, and there are plenty of helpful volunteers. I will probably attempt the full next year.

Next up was the Savannah Women’s Half Marathon on April 2, my birthday. Since we’ve been through Savannah on our way to somewhere else but never visited the city itself, I was looking forward to doing some sightseeing as well as the race. We left Friday morning for the 4-hour drive. Traffic was heavy and there were several accidents and some road construction but we managed to arrive in town around 2 in the afternoon.

Our hotel was the Hilton DeSoto, a beautiful building and the host hotel for the race. Our room was ready and we were able to settle right in. The lady at the front desk was exceptionally kind, especially when I told her I was doing the race for my 69th birthday. Later in the day we were surprised when I answered a knock on the door to find that she had sent up a bottle of wine and a cheese and cracker platter, gratis.

But we saved that treat for later because we had already eaten a huge and delicious meal at Moon River Brewery. We stopped by the expo, conveniently held right in the hotel, and I picked up my bib with no waiting. There is no tee shirt (thank goodness) but participants instead received a large grey and purple zippered tote bag. That was a nice change. The expo was slightly larger than the one in Ormond Beach and had a few unusual vendors, including one that sold all kinds of flavored popcorn and another that sold salt and other seasonings. I splurged and bought a turmeric seasoning blend to mix with sour cream or cream cheese; the sample dip was tasty and turmeric is supposed to have anti-inflammatory properties. Publix is the primary sponsor so they had a booth – no $5 off coupons (I keep asking) but free towels.

In addition to the half marathon, there is also a 5k. Both begin Saturday morning at the same time, 7:30, in nearby Forsyth Park. There is also packet pickup on race morning from 6:15 to 7:15 in the park. This was a good thing for many racers, because storms were heading through northeast Georgia, heading straight for Savannah and points north so traffic was snarled on many major highways and visibility was poor. Some people posted on the race Facebook page that they might not make the expo by its 8 pm closing time. I was glad we had arrived before the bad weather, but race morning itself turned out fine. It was cloudy but there was no rain (though there was a brief drizzle towards the end of the race), and temperatures were in the mid-60’s, perfect for me, since I didn’t need a jacket. I did wear a rain coverall just in case but took it off after two miles.

One thing I did was prepare a laminated sign that I pinned to the back of my racing vest. It said “today is my 69th birthday” and I had downloaded some pictures of a birthday cake and runners. Many many kind people shouted ‘happy birthday’ to me as they passed and that really made me feel special. I always try to find a race that falls near my birthday but this was the first time I was able to do one that was actually ON my birthday.

There were so many things to like about this race and this city. The course is well-marked and stays within the city boundaries, passing by and through a number of the beautiful squares and parks that make Savannah so remarkable. There were sufficient aid stations well-manned by friendly volunteers, police were at all intersections, and streets were closed so there was no worry about traffic. Around mile 4 I met up with Maniac and 50 Stater friend Liz and we spent the next 6 miles together. Since Liz was planning to do the All American Marathon in NC the next day, she was conserving some of her energy for that race. I, on the other hand, had no such excuse (in fact, I have a week off) so I pressed harder to see if I could finish in under 3 hours. I crossed the finish line in 2:55, pleased that I met my goal. Post-race sustenance included bananas, blueberry muffins, and bottled water in a canvas Publix bag. The medal was attractive, purple with a swirling replica of a fountain in the center. Beer was available but I was drawn to the freshly made mimosas – they just hit the spot!  Runners could get two so I shared with Darcy.

After the race, Darcy and I walked back to the hotel where I showered and changed clothes. No need to rest much after only 13.1 miles – I was ready to play tourist. We ate lunch at the highly touted Vic’s on the River (both Darcy and I found the meal overrated and much less tasty than our dinner at Moon River on Friday) and then walked along the river until time for our tour of the Juliette Gordon Low House. We joined the groups of Daisies and Brownies to visit the home of the founder of Girl Scouts (I had been both a Brownie and Scout so I enjoyed this; Darcy kindly tolerated it).

After that it was time for dessert. We took our place in the long line winding around Leopold’s, a famous Savannah ice cream parlor. It took 30 minutes to reach the counter but it was worth it. I had a sundae with the works and my favorite ice cream flavor, maple walnut (a seasonal flavor) and blamed the splurge on my birthday. Even though we were full, we just had to make a stop at Chocolat so we could buy some special chocolates for later. The varieties of chocolate delicacies are arranged here on shelves with card catalog file replicas to use as ‘shopping carts’ – how could a librarian resist that?

Savannah the city surprised me. I hadn’t expected it to be so lovely and so full of American history. I can hardly wait to return for another visit. I would love to do the race again and try some other restaurants, take a trolley tour, and maybe visit a museum or two.

The races, both the half and the 5k, are very walker friendly and highly recommended.