A “Recovery” Race – Holston River 36 Hour, Bristol, TN (August 4, 2017)

This race was my fifth timed ultra in my attempt to reach my 70 miles/7 ultras goal for this year. Surely with 36 hours, I would be able to do at least 70 miles! However, I knew as soon as I viewed the course that it would be a hard event for me. I now prefer to think of Holston River as an opportunity to challenge myself, meet some friendly people, and recover from the previous week’s race.

Bristol, Tennessee, borders Bristol, Virginia, and is a very long drive from Florida. Because packet pickup was Friday afternoon from noon to 5 pm, with the race starting at 8 in the evening, Darcy and I left on Thursday morning and spent the night in Greenville, SC, at the Hilton Garden Inn. Greenville is a prosperous community with lots of shops and restaurants and is a good mid-point for a road trip. We had a filling repast at Red Robin (love those sweet potato fries), enjoyed a relaxing night’s sleep, and then left around 9 am for Bristol.

We arrived at the race site just before noon and toured the course before checking in. That’s when I realized that this would be a very difficult race for me. Although I knew beforehand that the terrain was a mix of crushed gravel, dirt, grass, and pavement, I hadn’t realized that some pieces of gravel were the size of good-sized chunks and extremely hard on the feet. The real deterrent though was a slippery incline and descent on the first out-and-back. I had to slow way down and step sideways to maintain my balance in that section, all the while trying hard to stay out of the way of faster runners. Since the race began at night, I would have to maneuver my way through the darkness on a course where I knew I would be unstable.

In addition to the first out-and-back, there was a circular dirt and grassy area, and another out-and-back that went alongside a riverbank. While that was my favorite section because it was brief, mostly packed dirt, and cool and shady, it would still be treacherous for me at night, since I would have to skirt the river to avoid falling in!   I thought seriously about dropping down to a shorter time (there were 12 and 24 options) but decided that I might need all 36 hours to just get in a 50k! The weather was cloudy before the race but rainstorms were predicted for Friday evening and there was no protected area where I could escape any torrents.

After mulling all this over at an excellent dinner at Aubrey’s, a local restaurant, I decided to do at least one or two laps (each lap was 1.5 miles) while it was still semi-daylight. That way I could tally a few miles and get a good feel for the course. If I thought it was too hazardous for me to remain through the evening, I would spend the night at our hotel (a Hampton Inn) and come back at first light to do the best I could. I cautiously managed to do two laps with few problems but by 9:15, darkness fell with a vengeance. My flashlight did little to help me see the trail and I realized my careful steps were holding up faster runners. I called it a night and returned early Saturday morning.

Daylight certainly makes a huge difference. Now that I was familiar with the course and its vagaries, I could make my way around each lap with more confidence. I kept going strong from about 5:45 am to 1 pm, when Darcy came to give me a break. I sat in the car with my feet up for about 20 minutes, ate some lunch, and changed shoes and socks. The gravel hurt my feet, especially on those blisters from last week’s race that still had not healed completely. I only needed a few more miles to get a 50k so I suggested that Darcy return to pick me up around 4. In those few hours, I managed to reach a total of 37.5 miles. I realized early on that 70 miles was out of my reach; as long as I could attain at least 32 miles, I could count it in my statistics. At 4 o’clock on the dot, with Darcy waiting nearby with the van, I handed in my ankle chip to the timekeeper and said my thanks and goodbyes to Netta the race director.

It was then back to the hotel for a shower and rest, then back to Aubrey’s for another good dinner. We left for home early Sunday morning, after a long 11 hour drive.

There are lots of excellent things about this race but I probably won’t do it again. It should be self-evident to me by now that I don’t like trails and I don’t like races that begin in the evening. Nighttime trail races are anathema to me. So why did I sign up for this one? I guess I thought that 36 hours would give me enough time and I didn’t realize how precarious the course would be for a timid trail animal like myself.

But now that it’s over, I am glad I did it. There are lots of terrific aspects to this race, so walkers who enjoy trails and are not deterred by nighttime racing might find Holston River a good choice:

  • The RD knows her stuff and puts on a great event. Everything and everyone works together seamlessly
  • Chip timing was accurate and a large computer screen made it easy to check one’s mileage each lap
  • There were lots of helpful volunteers
  • The one aid station had a variety of food choices and options for meals were written on a white chalk board that was easy to read. I think all large ultras should follow suit; it makes it easy to see what will be available and when
  • There was another aid station with just water before the first out-and-back
  • While there were plenty of porta potties along the course, there were also real bathrooms and showers. The bathroom stalls had shower curtains instead of doors but that worked fine. I am always so grateful for real restrooms and running water!
  • I brought both trail shoes and road shoes and wore both. Trail shoes aren’t a necessity but I knew they would help me master the dirt and gravel, especially if rain made the course slippery. But gaiters are a must to keep out those rocks!
  • On Saturday some people began using trekking poles and that seemed a good idea. Too bad I didn’t have mine with me
  • To keep registration costs low, there is an option to purchase a shirt (which I did not do) but it’s available
  • Runners were given a small cooler with a bandanna inside, good for filling with ice and putting under your cap or around your neck
  • The finisher award is a can opener; how fitting is that for a brewery race?
  • I also won a door prize – a pair of socks (yea, I can always use another pair of socks!)
  • The group of runners and walkers were about the friendliest I have ever experienced
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Southern Discomfort 24 Hour Race (July 29, 2017) – Albany, GA

The discomfort in this race refers primarily to the weather; everything else is as close to perfection as possible in an inaugural event. Weather in southern Georgia is hot, very hot, and extremely humid. The area is also prone to sudden thunderstorms and drenching rain showers. I was aware of the precarious weather situation and I signed up for the race anyhow. What really bothers me is cold, and if I am cold and wet, I am miserable. Hot and wet – well, there is a chance my clothes and shoes will dry and I’ll survive.

Albany is just a short drive north from central Florida so Darcy and I left around noon on Friday. I had packed my usual two drop bags, one filled with an assortment of shoes and socks, the other with a change of clothes and various accoutrements like Vaseline, Body Glide, S-caps, and rain gear and stowed everything in our car along with two chairs and a cooler. No hand warmers this time. It took us about two hours to get to our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn. I had stayed here about 7 years earlier when I did the Snickers Marathon but hadn’t been back since. The hotel was still as decent as I remembered and our room up on the fifth floor faced away from the park and was very quiet. We had a filling lunch at Loco’s, where I had a tasty beef sandwich, sweet potato fries, and thirst-quenching IPA and Darcy a hamburger with a fried egg on top.

This race has several options, including a 12 hour and 6 hour, but since I was aiming for my 4th 70 miler this year, I knew I needed to register for the 24. All three races were set to begin at 8 am on Saturday morning. We were encouraged to get to the race site at Chehaw Park by 7 am to get our bib with chip on the back and various assorted goodies. Naturally we arrived early and by 6:45 I was scouting out a place to set up my chairs. There are many picnic tables and covered pavilions in the park but none are especially close to the start/finish line or the aid station, so I opted to set up out in the open air. Big mistake, as it turns out, because when it rained, it poured, right on my stuff, even though I had covered it with a plastic cover. When Darcy came to check on me later that afternoon, we moved my chairs and drop bags up to one of the covered pavilions; I wasn’t sure if the rain would start again (it did but not as hard) and I wanted a dry place to rest and change shoes during the evening hours,

The course is a paved gentle 1.1 mile loop around the park. We changed direction every 6 hours and that helped break the monotony and give our legs a chance to climb or descend the mild 20 feet incline on the loop. There are two sets of real bathrooms available, one was across from ‘my’ pavilion while the other was closer to a playground area. The latter has more toilets but no locks on the stall doors (probably to keep the kiddies from locking themselves in) so I tended to use the other. To get to either bathroom, or the pavilion, or any picnic tables, required stepping along some grassy, mulchy area, with a few roots, approximately 70’ in each direction. This was not a problem since I stepped carefully and used my flashlight to make sure I didn’t trip.

While the temperature rose to about 85 degrees and the humidity increased even more, it didn’t seem so hot, primarily because it was overcast or rainy the entire day; the course is partially shaded as well. The one aid station has water and electrolyte drinks but we were encouraged to bring our own water bottles. I brought my small hand-held as well as my larger one and both came in handy. Food was plentiful – cookies, salty snacks, pickles, and for dinner there was tasty pizza. Volunteers were terrific and frequently offered to make me soup or grilled cheese sandwiches or whatever I required. However, I was simply not hungry most of the time, and I found it difficult to consume anything. I took a slice of pizza and ate just half. Darcy brought me a bagel egg sandwich and Dunkin Donuts coffee and I ate about half the sandwich, all the coffee, and that was it.

When the light rain began at around 10 in the morning, it was almost a relief but when the drizzle turned into a harder downpour, I began to get soaked. A blister began to develop on the side of my right heel but I was hesitant to change shoes and socks at that point because all my things were damp, including my chairs. Darcy checked on me around 5:30 pm and I used that opportunity to take a break, rest my legs, and most importantly to change clothes, socks, and shoes in the car. Fortunately, I had had the foresight to pack a bag with dry clothes and leave it in the car. That accomplished, I felt ready to last another 12 – 14 hours.

To get to 70 miles, I had to complete 64 laps (I love courses that are just over 1 mile) and I checked at each go-around to make sure I was on track to make that number. Not all the bib-chips worked all the time but the race directors, John and Kelli, were also the timekeepers and they kept a written record to double-check the laps. I can’t say enough good things about John and Kelli; for a first-time race, everything worked superbly. I’m sure it was a ton of hard work but the RDs made it look so easy.

I was tired as day retreated into night and the sky darkened. The rain ceased but the humidity rose so it felt hotter than it probably was. Around 4 am, it cooled off a little and I could feel a slight breeze but by that time, I had developed more blisters, including a troublesome one on the sole of my left foot. I reached 63 laps by about 5 am and managed to drag myself around the course one last time to finish around 6 in the morning. Yes, it took me nearly an hour to do that final mile, after a restroom stop and occasional stretching my calves and quads. As I passed through the timing mat on that last lap, John and Kelli and the stalwart volunteers who were still there in those wee morning hours cheered me on. John walked me back to my chairs under the pavilion and offered to get me some food and my awards. I deferred and gratefully told him I just wanted to rest until Darcy came to get me around 7.

What a relief to change my shoes once again and put my feet up! Darcy arrived just at 7 and we stopped at the aid station to say our goodbyes. Sally, a runner from south Florida whom I had met at Save the Daylight and 8 Hours of Hell, was just finishing her 100 miles as we left. Amazing, especially under those conditions.

My prizes included a finisher beer glass (to get one of these, runners in the 6 hour had to complete a 50k, in the 12 hour 50 miles, and in the 24 hour a 100k) and, for an age group award, a painting done by Dubya, the Black Rhino, and an ostrich egg and display stand. Now, that was a first for me – a painting by a rhino plus an ostrich egg! Chehaw Park has a zoo and the paintings were done by the zoo animals. Nice touch and so very different. All racers also received an attractive blue cotton/poly shirt and a hat. Quite a lot of swag for a 24 hour race!

Things to note about this event:

  • There is a $3 per person entry fee to get into the park but one admission lasts all day. One can pay using cash or credit card.
  • The course has no sharp turns and it is difficult to get lost, even in the dark
  • There is some lighting but a flashlight or headlamp is still necessary at night
  • Bring lots of bug spray and plan to use it generously. The gnats or midges are very hungry and I am still itching.
  • Results were posted the same day the race ended – Sunday. I don’t think I’ve ever had ultra results posted that fast before!

The hardest part of this race for me was dealing with the wet weather. The day after the race, my leg muscles were sore and I am still hobbling from the blisters on my feet. Next year, I plan to do the 24 hour again but I will set my stuff under a pavilion so I can change shoes, socks, and clothes as needed. But next year, maybe the weather will be perfect!