Sole Challenge 48 Hour Race (Chambersburg, PA) – May 26, 2017

This race was aptly named since it was indeed a challenge for me. Although I have previously completed several 48 and 72 hour races with only an occasional problem or injury, some timed endurance courses hold more stumbling blocks than others. Sole Challenge is a good example of one of the more problematic races for me, and I think it is largely due to the nature of the course.

When I did the 24-hour version of this race back in 2014, after 22 hours I was pulled from the course because I was wandering around disoriented and nauseous. Volunteers quickly placed me on the ground and elevated my legs on a chair, the correct solution to get blood moving from my feet to my head and thus alleviating my dizziness. I also had swelling and tenderness in a tendon on my left ankle that was so painful I could barely tolerate the slightest touch or pressure. My total mileage for the 22 hours spent on my feet was a respectable 68 miles, so while I was disappointed to not reach a higher total, I was still satisfied.

This year was the first time for the 48 hour race. My friend Joyce, who knew I was searching for decent timed races so I could reach my goal of 7 ultras with at least 70 miles in 2017, encouraged me to register. The race had a lot of positive things going for it: a paved course, real bathrooms, rural peaceful countryside, and nearby hotels and restaurants. And so I registered.

Pennsylvania is a long way from Florida, especially when you are used to staying close to home. Our only major trip this year was to San Antonio; all our other jaunts have been within 500 miles of home. This is partly because of the expense of traveling but also because my husband finds driving long distances to be exhausting mentally and physically. The cost of flying is ‘sky-high’ for two people and is no longer enjoyable. There are plenty of races in the southeast to keep me busy but timed road races are still relatively rare, so I cajoled and wheedled Darcy into agreeing to make the PA trip.

We left early on Wednesday morning. After an uneventful drive to Greenville, SC, a prosperous bustling town, we spent the night at a pleasant Hilton Garden Inn. On Thursday morning we left very early for the 10 hour drive to Chambersburg. Our hotel there was a clean and attractive Hampton Inn, about 15 minutes from the race site at Norlo Park.

One of the major complaints I had about this race was the lack of communication between the RD and participants. I had no information other than what was mentioned on the race website and Facebook page and neither had been updated for weeks. I emailed the RD about packet pickup and never received a response. Only when I messaged him via FB did I finally get an answer. I later learned that the RD had sent out two ‘final instructions’ emails but I never received either one. It would certainly have made life easier if he had responded to my email and made sure I was on his mailing list.

Darcy and I had a late lunch at Applebee’s and then I packed my two drop bags (one with 4 extra pairs of shoes and socks) and a cooler stuffed with seltzer and snacks, laid out my clothes for the morning, and tried to work out a plan for the next couple of days. Unlike those brave souls (like my friend Joyce) who plan to stay on the course for the entire 48 hours, sleeping in tents or in their cars, I like to shower, change clothes, and sleep in a real bed in a heated or air conditioned hotel room. I knew I could manage at least one 24 hour period awake and moving but beyond that I would need to recharge and get actual rest. The weather prediction called for thunderstorms on Saturday afternoon and evening and showers on Sunday morning so I decided to tough it out on Friday, the first night, and then when the storms moved in on Saturday I would return to the hotel and sleep. On Sunday morning I would return to the course and finish the final 6 hours or so in the rain if I had to.

Of course, this did not work out at all as planned. The rain, mostly a light drizzle, began on Friday and continued off and on throughout the weekend. I made my way around the 1.5 mile loop course feeling strong and determined for the first 12 hours. I was extremely glad I remembered to wear gaiters because – despite the asphalt course – there were tiny pebbles that would have caused me to stop every so often to empty my shoes. By noon, I was getting hungry but the small aid station had only water, sports drink, soda, and fruit, cookies, and pretzels. I ate some of the snacks I had brought from home but knew that real food would soon be a necessity if I were to stave off stomach problems. By 2:30 pm I was becoming desperate. I saw a runner on the course eating what looked like grilled cheese but as I passed the aid station there was still only tired bananas and cookies. It turned out that one group of participants had a grill and was cooking for their runners. I thought about begging some food from them, offering to pay with cash, but knew they would probably offer me some and I didn’t want to cut into their supply. I started to text Darcy about bringing me an egg and cheese bagel from Dunkin Donuts. Around 3 pm, I noticed several pizza boxes had been deposited on the aid station table. There was no person there, just the pizza, but I figured it was for all of us racers and took one slice to eat now and one to save for later just in case no more food showed up.

A paucity of food was one of my other major complaints about this race. Yes, eventually there were hot dogs and hamburgers but I would not have known about these options if Ray, Joyce’s husband, who was there for the duration of the race volunteering his services, had not kept me informed. In fact, Ray kept me hydrated and fed throughout the race. The lack of other volunteers was noticeable. There was nobody to let us know about things to eat and drink. On Saturday when I caught someone walking to the aid station with two boxes of pizza, I intercepted them, opened the top box, and took out a slice before he could put the boxes on the aid table. It’s not like me to be so bold, but I was hungry! After the race there was no breakfast food at all. Or maybe there was but nobody told me. As I said, communication was sparse.

As Friday evening wore on, I began to get sleepy but I knew I could last the night as long as it didn’t get too cold or wet. Whether I could hang in there until later in the day on Saturday was another matter. I did take a break of about 40 minutes, sleeping while sitting in a chair. The overall fatigue I expected; what was more problematic was the beginning of a deep blister on the sole of my right foot and the twinges of pain I felt in the tendon on my left ankle. That tendon pain was familiar; it was the same pain I had felt the last time I did this race. I did change shoes and socks at least three times during those first 23 hours. It got cold enough for me to put on a warmer jacket and exchange my shorts for long pants. By 7 am on Saturday, I had had enough. I called Darcy to come get me. I needed at least 48 laps to get 70 miles but had only managed to finish about 42 laps before I left to go back to the hotel for a shower and nap. I was back by 3 in the afternoon and stayed until 7 Saturday night. Despite some rain showers and the ever-increasing pain in my ankle, I completed 86 miles before calling it a night. At least I had reached my primary goal of 70 miles, so anything over that number I considered a major victory. We ordered takeout from a nearby Cracker Barrel and I indulged in eggs and French toast and chocolate milk.

On Sunday morning I woke from a deep sleep feeling refreshed. Darcy drove me back to the park at 5 am and I breezed around the course, limping a little and wincing from twinges of pain, but feeling much better than the night before. By 8 am at the close of the race, I had 98.431 miles in approximately 32 hours spent on the course. The RD handed me a medal and we said our goodbyes to Ray and Joyce and returned to the hotel for one more shower and breakfast.

Our trip home took two days since Darcy wanted to break up the long days of driving. We stayed at a Hampton Inn at the Roanoke Airport (with an excellent dinner at Carrabba’s) and then a Fairfield Inn in Commerce, GA. It was good to finally reach Florida!

My thoughts on this race are mixed. I really like the heated bathrooms and the course is set in a beautiful park in farm country. The race is chip timed with an ankle chip as well as one on our bib and the timing results as far as I could tell were accurate.  There was no easy way to see our results after each lap, so that was frustrating.  As far as the course itself, I think that there is something with the particular nature of this course that bothers my feet. There are several sharp turns that cause my feet to rotate slightly off-balance and may be the reason for the tendonitis in my ankle. The hard surface and long uphill grades as well as the relentless pounding on asphalt also caused problems for me. Communication from the RD was minimal (or non-existent in my case) and he lacked a corps of volunteers to help him with the essential things that make a race function optimally. In addition to the 48 hour option, there were also 6, 12, and 24 hour choices, as well as a certified marathon distance. That’s a lot to handle for what is basically a one-person show. Another problem was an apparent lack of financial backing for the race series. Although the registration fees are hefty ($200 for the 48-hour) and all the timed races were well-attended, there must have been other costs that ate into the fees. According to the race website, people who finished 100 miles in the 24 and everyone who lasted for the full 48 were supposed to get buckles but I saw nary a one.

I’m glad I did this race since it helped push me closer towards my 7 ultra/70 mile goal, but I doubt I will pursue it again. For those walkers who want to give it a try, it is worthwhile. If I lived closer, I would probably enter the 12 hour and aim for a 50k, thus alleviating any negative toll on my mind and body.

A Peaceful Day at Bear Creek Farm: the 8 Hour Darkside Race, Moreland, GA (May 13, 2017)

The morning was overcast with a distinct promise of rain. The forecast had called for scattered showers and thunderstorms but we were lucky. There was a gentle rain for a few hours in the very early stages of this timed race, but the weather soon cleared and remained cloudy and overcast despite rising humidity in the afternoon.

Back when the Darkside 8 Hour was held on a track, I had sworn never to do the race again. Walking around and around on a quarter mile track nearly drove me bonkers. Then the race was moved to its present location at Bear Creek Farm and everything changed. Moreland is a quiet hamlet near Peachtree City, south of Atlanta, a serene and bucolic location. The course is a paved 1.02 mile loop that circles some residences, horse stables, dog kennels, and utility buildings. There are a few challenging but relatively minor hills. Racers move clockwise for the first four hours and run down those hills; once we change direction, however, those uphills are daunting, especially to my tired legs. Still, it was wonderful to be able to lift my eyes to look at the scenery and not have to concentrate watching my feet.

On Friday we drove to Peachtree City and then on to the farm to make sure we remembered the way. The last time I had done this race was several years ago and there had been a road detour. This time everything was clear. It took us about 20 minutes to return to Peachtree City where we checked in to a local Hampton Inn. We had a late lunch at Carrabba’s, a short walk from the hotel, and then retired to try and get some rest.

The race was to begin at 7 am and we were supposed to be on site by 6:30 to get our bibs. Because we like to there in plenty of time, we left the hotel at quarter to six and arrived at the ranch 15 minutes later. That allowed us lots of opportunity to greet new arrivals including Mellody, Scott, Deb, and Ron. This race is inexpensive, in part because all the munchies are provided by the registrants. Our contribution was two packages of peanut butter filled pretzels; others brought cookies, chips, trail mix, and pickles. With the water and Gatorade provided by the RD, we were ready. There was plenty to eat, far more than at a marathon or 50k.

The aid station is set up under a large covered pavilion with lots of tables and benches. There is really no need for a chair or tent but I brought a chair just in case and set that and my drop bag under the pavilion. We met our lap counters and lined up at the timing clock for an on-time start. I probably went out too fast because my first lap was at a 13+ minute pace and I knew I couldn’t maintain that speed for 8 hours. I was feeling good, however, after that difficult trail race last week so I just relaxed and enjoyed the day. After a few hours, the rain ceased and I slowed but overall it was a great day.
Since we were leaving for home after the race, Darcy checked out of the hotel by 11 and spent the rest of the day sitting under the pavilion and watching us go around lap after lap. I knew by noon that it would be hard if not impossible for me to achieve a 50k so I decided to do 27 laps and call it a day. At least it would count as an ultra and we could leave an hour before the race officially ended to make the 5 hour drive back.

There are many good things about this race:
• Low registration fee (only $40 plus munchies)
• Peaceful setting
• Friendly participants
• Low-key atmosphere
There is really nothing negative to say, although some would be disappointed that there are no shirts or medals. This was my 233 marathon/ultra and I have too many medals and shirts, so that was not a problem for me. My lap counter was not very supportive (in her defense, she also was tending to a baby) and I had to constantly get her attention as I passed by the timing clock. I am used to lap counters shouting out my name, cheering me on, and telling me my current lap so I was relieved when she handed her board of runners over to another more enthusiastic volunteer. But that was a minor complaint. Overall this is a very walker-friendly race and one I will undoubtedly do again.

Tails & Trails Half Marathon, Tallahassee, Florida (May 6, 2017)

I decided to not do my scheduled race for this weekend, the Strolling Jim Marathon in Wartrace, TN. Fortunately, there was a half marathon right here in Tallahassee on Saturday so I registered for it without giving too much thought to the consequences. That was not such a good idea, as I found out on race day.

But first let me explain about Strolling Jim. My main reason to avoid this race was a last-minute email from the RD that stated there would be zero portapotties on the course. Otherwise the race was extremely appealing; there was no time limit and the entire course was paved rolling hills. I knew many of the other racers and it would be great to see them again. But I just could not deal with the idea of abstaining for 6 hours or more. I canceled our hotel reservation and planned to spend a relaxing weekend at home.

And then I remembered Tails & Trails, a local half marathon to benefit the animal shelter. The race starts and finishes at the shelter and takes runners through Tom Brown Park, across the Lafayette Bridge, and around the J. R. Alford Greenway. It seemed a good substitute for the Strolling Jim. I had signed up for it last year but couldn’t make it because of my two foot surgeries. This would be a good time to do it, or so it seemed. The course is shaped like a lollipop, with a long out-and-back, and marked by floured arrows and in some places by small orange utility flags. I had no idea what the terrain was really like and I did not know anyone who had done the race before. But how bad could it be? After all, some trails are paved, some are packed dirt or crushed limestone, and some are rocky and rooty. I was gambling, but it was ‘just’ a half so, really, how bad could it be?

I soon found out. I am sure that trail lovers would also enjoy this course but for a paranoid trail racer like me, it turned out to be was sheer agony. As we gathered at the start line at 8 am, the weather was chilly (unusual for May in Tallahassee) so I wore a light jacket plus gloves and hand warmers. The runners who were doing the 10k and 5k (including my granddaughter) waited patiently until their start 30 minutes later. There was a countdown and we took off, with me at the back. Two walkers were behind me until we entered THE TRAIL itself and then I found myself completely alone. By mile two I gave serious consideration to turning around and making my way slowly over the huge tree roots back to my car. Only one problem – the faster 10k runners were beginning to overtake me and I hesitated to confront them if I turned back.

So I persisted. I figured if I could get to mile 5 and crossed the bridge that connected the initial trail to the greenway, maybe the terrain would change and I could speed up a little. If the trail was still too dangerous for me at that point, I could then decide whether to keep going or turn around and give up. The race had a 3 ½ hour time limit and I knew I would not make it. I was averaging a 20 minute per mile pace, even slower as I gingerly treaded around every tree root.

There were some grassy areas and in a few places the trail on the greenway section was mostly sand and pebbles. But every time I built up a little speed, I was slowed dramatically by another rocky section filled with roots. It was a trail lover’s dream but a road racer’s nightmare. A course marshal on a bike warned me about the time limit. I responded that I understood but was already too far in at that point to just give up. I emphasized I was okay if I had a DNF. This would be a training walk and I didn’t expect anyone to wait for me.

Two hours had passed and I had only gone six miles. When I could muster enough courage, I stopped looking at my feet and looked up to appreciate the beautiful scenery – a lake, the forests, a jackrabbit crossing right in front of me, the great weather. As I finally passed miles 7 and 8 on the greenway, I realized I was on the return trip. Of course, all the runners had finished well ahead of me and I managed to get lost twice, in part because the volunteers directing runners had left (who could blame them?) and also because some of the directional chalk arrows had disappeared.

I did finish the race finally. I didn’t fall or break any bones. Although the timing mat had long been pulled up, some wonderful volunteers remained to clock me in at 3:55:18 and hand me a medal, a bottle of water, and a banana. I thanked them profusely and walked back to my car. I was pleased I had been stubborn enough to finish. Despite coming in last and getting lost several times, I finished first in my age group (no matter that I was the only crazy 70-year-old woman in my age group). From now on, no more trail races – ever, ever again!