A Test of Endurance at Fort Benning, GA: Operation Endurance 24 Hour Race – March 25, 2017

Wow, this was quite a great weekend on so many levels. It was my first attempt to do 70 miles in an ultra for this year, the first step in my goal of completing 70 miles in 7 ultras in honor of reaching 70 years of age in 2017. I was quite nervous the evening before the race. Although I have done this race in previous years and knew what to expect, I wasn’t sure I could manage so many miles, especially since I had only finished one marathon early in January and then had become accustomed to doing 13.1 miles in my most recent races. Half marathons are not a good way to train for an ultra and I wondered if my endurance had suffered as a result.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried, but as we left for Columbus, GA, on Friday morning I wasn’t so sure. Our first stop was the visitor center on the army base so we could have a background check (required of everyone entering the base) and get our temporary visitor pass. This makes it a lot easier on race morning when there might be a time crunch. We then drove several miles up the road to the Hilton Garden Inn, located in a bucolic setting around a lake filled with Canada geese. We’d stayed there several times before and it never fails to please. After checking in, we headed downtown to the Cannon Brew Pub, another favorite of ours, where we filled up on burgers and beer.

Back at the hotel, I laid out my clothes and packed two large drop bags with six pairs of shoes and socks in one and rain gear, extra shirts, Vaseline, Band-Aids, jackets, and other paraphernalia in the other. Then I filled my ice chest, not with ice, but with snacks and seltzer. That was about all I could do to get ready. I tried to relax by watching television and knitting. It was about 11 pm by the time I finally fell asleep.

Morning came quickly. I rose about 4 am to drink my coffee and eat my bread. I dressed, read a little, and then woke Darcy at 6:30 so we could head out to the base. We arrived around 7 and began to unload our vehicle. We set up two chairs near the start and right under the tent with tables and chairs available for runners to use. I checked in, got my bib (chip on the reverse) and short-sleeve cotton/poly shirt, and chatted with Race Director Vikena (Kena) and Timekeeper Perry and several of the volunteers.

I decided to be very upfront with my goal, something I am usually hesitant to do in case I fail. But I knew I would need every bit of help I could get, especially if the predicted rainstorms came and I got wet or cold (or worse, both wet AND cold). I told Kena and Perry that I wanted to get at least 70 miles and if I started complaining and wanted to stop, to please tell me to stop being such a baby and to suck it up buttercup, etc. etc. They told everyone else about my upcoming birthday and how I wanted to get to 70 miles and before I knew it I had an entire cheering section of volunteers and racers who would encourage me throughout the race.

My friend Judy soon arrived and set up her chair next to mine. At a few minutes before 8, we took our place behind the runners and got ready to go. Kena gave some last-minute instructions and we were off. The weather was cool, in the low 60’s, and pleasant. I soon removed my jacket and tied it around my waist. As the sun rose, I donned my sunglasses. The course is fine-grained dirt, sand, and gravel on a flat oval loop track. Gaiters, for me at least, are a necessity and help keep out the debris. The distance is just under one mile, so to achieve 70 miles, I had to do 71 miles. The course is well-lit at night and there is some shade during the day, a good thing since it was fairly hot in the afternoon.

There are so many good things about this race and I have written about them extensively in my previous race reports. During the day (from 9 to 5 on Saturday) the gym is open and racers can use real bathrooms in air-conditioned comfort. For those who do not want to leave the course and for those times when the gym is closed, there are six portapotties close by the start/finish line. The one aid station has a wide variety of salty and sweet snacks as well as sandwiches throughout the day and pizza at night. Concentrating so hard on reaching my mileage goal, I neglected my rule about eating properly and as a result experienced some digestive issues. The always helpful volunteers kept me supplied with broth and Ramen noodles; the salty soups seemed to help a great deal.

Around and around and around I went, calculating the laps as the hours ticked by. I realized by 8 pm, 12 hours into the race, that I had completed almost exactly the same number of miles, 41, as I had reached last year in the 12 hour race. That made me hopeful. I was a year older and had experienced two foot surgeries since that prior race but it seems I hadn’t slowed down all that much.

By 9:30, the first raindrops fell, just a light sporadic drizzle that soon ended. The breeze picked up a little but once the rain ceased it was pleasant. I felt like I could go on like this forever. Sure, my legs were tired, my feet sore, and I had dirt inside my gaiters, but nothing so painful that I wanted the race to end. Then at midnight the rains began again, this time in earnest. My shorts got soaked and the rain pricked my skin. Bug bites on my legs started to itch. I changed my shoes once because the instep on one foot was starting to hurt. My Hokas are loose and comfortable so they were my go-to alternative. And if they didn’t help, I had four more pairs to choose from.

One high point occurred during the early evening: Kena had left the course and returned with a beautiful birthday cake for me. It was a charming and thoughtful gesture and a tasty one as well. Although I’ve baked and purchased lots of cakes for my boys and husband, I myself hadn’t had a birthday cake just for me since I was a little girl. Thank you, Kena! I shared the cake with whomever wanted a sweet treat.

Another memorable experience was meeting and racing with Goose, a young boy, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, who did an amazing job, completing 40 miles in 12 hours. He never seemed to stop moving, at all, and I had the privilege of walking with him when he occasionally took a walk break around the course. The two of us portrayed the young and ‘seasoned’ ends of the racing spectrum.

At 6 am on Sunday morning I had finished 72 laps – 71.71 miles – and decided that would be sufficient. Although I had 2 hours to go before the race officially ended, I was cold, wet, and very tired. I texted Darcy and he responded that he was on his way to get me. Hurray, I am one race closer to my goal, only six more to go.

Once back at the hotel, I showered and we had breakfast and then headed home. Of course, afterwards I had second thoughts about quitting so early. Maybe if I had stayed those last two hours I might have achieved 75 miles or more. I guess that will have to wait until next year!

This race is highly recommended for walkers as well as runners. One of my favorites!

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Blue Angels Rock N Fly Half Marathon (March 18, 2017) – Pensacola, Florida

This was another enjoyable weekend, although the logistics were somewhat convoluted. The theme for this year’s races (a half marathon plus a 5k) was ‘Soul Train’ with music and video on two jumbotrons at the start and recorded soul music along the course. It all sounded like fun and indeed it was once the race began.

Packet pickup was Friday afternoon at a restaurant in the Seville Quarter downtown. We could have waited until Saturday morning at 6 am to get my race packet on the Naval Air Station but I always prefer to get my bib and chip the day before whenever possible. It makes race morning preparations so much easier and less stressful if that is all taken care of before the race starts. Finding our way around downtown Pensacola, however, was not that much fun; the streets were confusing and even my husband, a geographic whiz with maps and directions, was getting frustrated. We finally found a metered parking space and walked to the location of packet pickup. Because we were too early (the hours were 3-7 pm) I managed to find a great knitting store a few blocks away. My patient husband followed me into Dixie Knits where I spent some productive time selecting yarn and needles while conversing with the owner of the shop and the several women who had gathered for a Friday afternoon knit-along.

At 3 o’clock we followed the signs to packet pickup to get my bib, chip (the kind attached to one’s shoe), and a dark purple poly/cotton short-sleeved tee shirt. Then we drove to the naval air base to make sure we found the easiest route for race morning. Our hotel, Homewood Suites, was near the airport since there were few of our favorite chains located close to the base or in the downtown area. There was a Miller’s Ale House a short distance away and that was our go-to place for dinner Friday evening.

It took about 20 minutes on Saturday morning to arrive at the base. The weather was near-perfect on race day, in the upper 50’s to start and mid-70’s at the finish, with some sun and occasional clouds. The gym was opened for same day packet pickup so bathrooms were also available within the building. Closer to the starting line, there were about a dozen portapotties as well. As Darcy and I waited in the start area, I met up with friends Mellody and Vicki. There was complete silence at 8 o’clock as we watched the color guard, listened to the national anthem and invocation, and then watched as 3 jets did a flyover.

Half marathoners and 5k runners all began together to make their way along a completely paved and mostly flat course. The only uphills were gentle slopes, hardly noticeable to those accustomed to the hills of other Florida races (like Tallahassee, for instance). The course followed along a cemetery with headstones in precision-like arrangement and then wends along a 6 mile out-and-back stretch that brought us back by the start line at mile 9 and then through a back-lot area. This section is not very attractive but by that time, who cares? My thoughts were only to follow the loop around and head to the finish line.

The medal is heavy and colorful. Food at the finish line includes pizza, bananas, water, and beer (although I never did find the beer tent). I’m sure there was an awards ceremony but we were eager to return home so we did not stay to find out. Maybe that was a bad idea since my 2:52 finish qualified me for third place in my age group, but I didn’t realize that until later that evening. No worries, just finishing in under the 4-hour time limit was satisfying enough.

This race is recommended for walkers. The course is easy-to-follow with good signage and volunteers, plenty of vocal and supportive people at the 10 aid stations (water, Gatorade, and gels), and enough racers to never feel alone yet not so crowded to feel claustrophobic.

Orange Blossom Half Marathon (March 11, 2017) – Haines City, Florida

This race is the second in the Triple Half Marathon Challenge from Sommer Sports. The first was the inaugural Lakeridge Winery Half back in January, a race I enjoyed tremendously though it did experience a few first-year difficulties like not enough parking spaces. It was the second year for the Orange Blossom Half (along with its 5k and 10k races) but my first attempt at it.

We drove down to Lake Eva Park on Friday to pick up my bib and shirt. The timing chips are the old-fashioned kind that tie on a shoe and must be returned after the race, but that’s not really a problem as long as I remember to get a volunteer to clip the ties. The shirt is a gray cotton-poly blend with a big orange blossom on the front. So far, this race series gets an A from me for the quality of its shirts. They do tend to run small so next time I would probably request a larger size.

After getting my race packet, Darcy and I drove to Winter Haven to check into our hotel, a Hampton Inn. Because Haines City is so small, there are no well-known hotel brands within the city limits. Winter Haven is a 25-minute drive farther south so we had to plan our trips judiciously to save time. We decided it was wiser to check out early Saturday morning so Darcy would only have to make one trip to Haines City. After dropping me off at Lake Eva Park for the start of the race, he then spent the morning eating breakfast and reading the paper at a nearby McDonalds.

It was chillier than I expected, about 59 degrees at the 7 am start but it quickly warmed up to the low 80’s. The humidity rose as well so I was glad I wore shorts and a short-sleeved top. There were 4 portapotties (not enough) but the restrooms in the Aquatic Center were open for us to use. The start was delayed about 10 minutes to allow for latecomers to park. After the singing of the National Anthem, we were off with a horn blast.

Overall this was a very pleasant experience. The course meanders through the rural roads of Haines City, with orange groves on one side and waste treatment systems (‘sludge lagoons,’ per my industrial hygienist husband) on the other. The air was permeated with the aroma of sweet orange blossoms and I was tempted to stop and pick one but I restrained myself. Aid stations were about 2 miles apart and offered Gatorade, water, and enthusiastic volunteers. It was hilly (for Florida) but nothing like the steep hills in Tallahassee. The terrain was mostly paved, although there were several miles of clay, sand, and dirt. I was glad I wore gaiters. The miles were marked with signs and red arrows and course marshals were present at every turn; that is always a relief to me, since getting lost is always a possibility.

I finished the race in 2:55, under my 3-hour goal. I didn’t think I would place in my age group because I saw a lot of women about my age, but surprisingly I came in second (which illustrates how very bad I am at guessing people’s ages). The medal is an attractive heavy wreath of oranges and orange blossoms on a creamy orange and white lanyard, and my age group award mirrors the same design. At the finish line, we were given bottles of water, chili, chips, cookies, bananas, and beer from Orange Blossom Brewery.

There were 290 finishers in the half; I came in at number 244, so there were almost 50 people behind me. There is a 4-hour time limit but I believe the finish line stays open longer. Although I was concerned about getting lost on the course, the race has excellent line-of-sight with lots of straight roads and helpful markings, so I needn’t have worried.

The only negative is the lack of shade on the course, a potential problem in the heat; otherwise, this is a pleasant choice for walkers.