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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