The Tallahassee UltraDistance Classic, Marathon Version – December 8, 2018 (Wakulla Springs State Park, FL)

I’ve lost track of how many TUDC 50ks I’ve done. It was my very first ultradistance race and it was where I had a personal best (7:03) several years ago. Every year I can count on seeing the same friendly faces of numerous running and walking friends (Mellody, Julie, Deb, Vicky, Gary, and others), along with several ultramarathoners new to TUDC who have heard about the race and want to try it for themselves (including Phil, Elena, and Kim). It’s just a 45 minute drive for me but for those who come from farther away, lodging is available right at the start/finish line.

We were fortunate this year because the weather was cloudy and in the upper-40’s to start and the mid-60’s at the end, with no rain and minimal sun. The course is entirely paved and consists of a 10k loops on roads closed to traffic. There is plenty of space to set up drop bags or use your car as a personal aid station. This year, a marathon distance was added and, to make it easier on myself, I signed up for the shorter distance. Those doing the 50 miler have to do 8 laps, those running the 50k must do 5 laps, but marathoners only have to do 4 laps with a brief one-time additional loop at the very beginning. That worked out fine for me. I enjoy seeing my friends and the park is a wonderful example of old-time Florida. But the course includes 2 out-and-backs and the longer one seems to go on forever. After 26.2 miles, I was happy to finish.

The volunteers are wonderful, the race is chip-timed, and there is plenty of food and drink at the three aid stations. There are also real restrooms at the start/finish. There is a 10-hour time limit for all races. The race directors try to find something different for a premium instead of the usual race tee shirt. Last year we received a wonderful warm hoodie. This year’s gift was a long-sleeved hooded tee shirt with the Creature from the Black Lagoon on the front (movie aficionados will recall that the underwater scenes in the 1954 movie of the same name was filmed in Wakulla Springs). Marathon finishers received a ceramic medal with the Creature and date on it.

Fortunately, I had no major foot problems, although my left big toe (the broken one) gave me some painful moments. When I do timed ultras, I purposely try to keep my pace comfortably easy and consistent because I want to last the requisite 24 hours or so. However, when I do a half or a full marathon, I push myself harder and walk faster – I know I can’t dawdle or I won’t make the time limit. Of course, at TUDC, I knew I could manage a marathon in under 10 hours but since I hadn’t done a marathon since January 3 of this year (when I completed the last of the Lucky 13 Ocala marathon string) I felt rusty. I wanted to try and finish in under 7 hours, just to see if I could. I was pleasantly surprised to cross the finish line in 6:39.

Next year, who knows? I may return to the 50k or stick with the marathon distance. In either case, the TUMC is definitely a race to do again and again

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A Long and Short Combo – The Stinger 24 Hour in Hampton, GA, and a 5k Turkey Trot in Tallahassee, FL

After a relatively good showing at Endless Mile 24 hour last month, I was cautiously optimistic about my second Stinger. It’s hard to believe that the Stinger is only in its second year because everything is so meticulously done, from an improved timing system this year to a well-stocked aid station, replete with pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, soup, potatoes, pickles, and bacon, plus chocolate cookies and candies, and just about anything else a racer could want. Best of all, there are lots of clean heated bathrooms as well as two porta-potties adjacent to the far side of the track.

The race takes place on a high school track that measures just under 400 meters so it takes 5 laps to constitute a mile plus. Packet pickup is at 7 the morning of the race and this year runners received a long- sleeve shirt (cotton-poly blend) and a fleece blanket. Nighttime temperatures are notoriously frigid in northern Georgia in late November so a blanket was welcome and I saw several runners with the blanket ensconced around their shoulders as they trudged through the early morning cold. I was familiar enough with the weather that I had no need for a blanket – this year I packed plenty of warm clothes. I simply added and deleted clothes as needed; at the coldest point, I was wearing a short-sleeve shirt, long-sleeve turtle neck, fleece shirt, light jacket, heavier jacket, really heavy jacket, and my heaviest jacket with fleece hood. In addition, I had mittens, hand warmers, hat, and scarf. Fortunately, it did not rain at all this year, though everything had a thick coating of frost by the time the race concluded.

The only thing I find difficult about this race is the abbreviated distance – it seems like it takes forever to complete a mile – but that is all in my mental attitude. We change direction every 3 hours, which helps a lot to keep us balanced (and to keep me from feeling dizzy!). Runners can set up their tents and chairs on the grassy interior of the track. Because there was no rain this year, I was fine with my usual setup of 3 chairs and a small cooler for my peanuts and club soda.

My goals – aside from my usual ‘have fun, don’t die’ – were to do a minimum of 32 miles so I could count it for my stats. I would then aim for 50 miles. Anything beyond that would be wonderful. My ultimate goal was 100k (62 miles) but I wasn’t sure if my feet could manage that. Last year at the Stinger I did 58 miles, good enough for 2nd place female. This year there were twice the number of runners in all categories (6, 12, and 24 hour races) so the competition was fierce.

I wanted to last the entire 24 hours, but fatigue and the cold (despite my all warm clothes) finally got to me around 5 am and I put in a call to Darcy to come get me. Until he arrived, I kept moving (it was too cold to stop or even slow down) and I managed to complete 66 miles, finishing as 4th place female.

My feet suffered the usual swelling and soreness but I don’t think I did any major damage to my feet and my recurrent stress fractures. Now, one week later, the only pain I have is in my left big toe (the one I broke) and that pain is not debilitating. Maybe doing one major race a month helps with recovery and healing (funny how it took me a decade to learn this).

Since Hampton is a very small town, we stayed 10 minutes away in McDonough at the Hilton Garden Inn. It was a decent hotel with a host of eating places nearby. We dined at Taco Mac but there is a Culver’s within walking distance and many more restaurants across the highway at the mall.

A few days of rest and I was ready to attempt a local turkey trot with my son and daughter-in-law (DIL). There is a 10k and 15k but the three of us did the 5k, along with about 3500 other runners, walkers, and strollers. It was a relaxed easy race through residential streets, only slight inclines, and lots of music and good spirits. My son took off at a 9-10 minute pace and well finished ahead of us, but this was my daughter-in-law’s first race so we kept to a 13-14 minute walking pace and finished together in 41 minutes. My DIL is not a runner (though she certainly could be – she is a dancer and very athletic) but for a first race, she did admirably. I finished 2nd in my age group out of 31 participants – that was a welcome surprise. After the race, I headed home to roast a turkey and fix the rest of thanksgiving dinner. After completing a total of 69 miles this week, I certainly enjoyed preparing and consuming a hearty meal!

Endless Mile 24 Hour – October 20, 2018 (Alabaster, AL)

This turned out to be my real comeback race. After the debacle at Southern Discomfort in July, where I was fearful of pushing too hard because of my continuing battle with stress fractures, I was uncertain whether I could handle even a marathon distance. I was determined to try for a 50k, even if it took me all 24 hours.

Weather in central Alabama is unpredictable. Two years ago I had expected mild autumn temperatures and was blindsided by freezing cold. Last year – when I did the 48 hour – I came prepared for the cold but instead enjoyed mild summer like temps during the day and cool clear but not frigid nights. On both occasions I was plagued by blisters on the balls of my feet. Between weather and foot problems, I never stayed on the course the entire time and left early before the race officially ended.

Well, I had the same experience this year. The weather on Saturday morning was rainy and overcast and then warmed up to 65 under cloudy skies. Since persistent rain was predicted for the entire morning, I felt relieved when the wet weather failed to show up. Instead we had just brief intermittent showers until early afternoon. By 6 pm, however, the wind picked up and the cold began in earnest. This time I was ready and began layering on my jackets (6 of them), scarf, cowl, hat, and mittens. For most of Saturday evening and the early hours on Sunday I was fine.

However, while I didn’t suffer from blisters this year, I did feel pain in my feet. Ever fearful of the threat of stress fractures recurring, I wanted to take frequent rest breaks, but I held off on my first chance to sit down until I had reached 24 miles. Around 4 pm Darcy brought me some coffee (at my request – I needed the caffeine to keep me going all night long) and that gave me a chance to change into long pants for the evening and rest my aching legs and feet.

I can’t remember exactly what time it was when I got to 32 laps but once I reached that goal, I was relieved. At that point, my plan was to push on until I just couldn’t go any further. I wasn’t sleepy at all and knew I could make it to the end of the race at 9 am on Sunday if everything continued as it was. However, that was not to be. Soon, my feet began to hurt and I very much wanted the chance to put my legs up and rest. The only problem was that the music from the aid station was extremely loud and I found it impossible to lie still with the pounding from the constant noise. At one point, I found a pavilion at the opposite end of the course where it was relatively quiet and I lay down on the extremely narrow bench, with my legs on the picnic table. Uncomfortable? Definitely! But it did give me a chance to rest a little in peace.

I also experienced some digestive problems, probably due to a lack of real food. There was no pizza for the 6, 12, and 24 hour options and that was a disappointment. I tried some soup, grilled cheese, and peanut butter sandwiches, but nothing seemed to help. Next time, I will ask Darcy to provide me a burger or egg sandwich from McDonald’s or Dunkin.

By 3 am, the wind picked up and began to chill me, right through my multiple layers. Specks of something (dirt? grass?) were blowing into my eyes, despite my glasses. I waited until 4:30 before I gave up and decided to call Darcy to come get me. Once again, I just couldn’t last at Endless Mile, but at least this time I did 57 miles, one more than my other 24 hour venture here. Just being able to do that 50k was a major accomplishment so I was pleased.

My previous posts about this race give detailed information about the course and the race choices so I won’t repeat that stuff here. Suffice it to say that the course is paved, easy to follow, partially shaded, and has only 2 inclines. The timing system was a little different this year and – for the most part – worked well. We stayed at a new Holiday Inn right in Alabaster (in previous years, we had stayed at a so-so Hampton Inn in neighboring Calera). The Holiday Inn was clean, quiet, and closer to the race site. It was also surrounded by restaurants like Olive Garden, convenience stores like Target and Walmart, and groceries like Publix.

My advice to walkers who want to try this race would be to come prepared for all kinds of weather, bring any essential food and drink, set up your personal aid station far away from the timing mat/aid station (if loud music is not your thing), and enjoy the people and the atmosphere.

Walking and Knitting – My Latest Pursuit

I know there are people out there who walk and read. That never interested me because I would inevitably walk into a wall or utility pole or car while immersed in my book. Of course, with my proclivity to fall even when I pay close attention to my surroundings, I could easily envision breaking several bones as well. I never took seriously the challenge of walking while reading.

However, in a recent class given by physical therapist and knitter Carson Demers, I learned about the extensive history of knitters who walked while doing chores, minding children, or working on farms. According to Demers, it was only since the Industrial Revolution that people had the leisure and luxury to sit and just knit. This piqued my interest, since I seldom look down at my handwork unless I am following a difficult pattern or concentrating on a new technique. I can crochet and knit while watching television – in fact, I have a problem sitting and watching a program without something in my hands to occupy me. When I was younger, I often read while I knitted; unfortunately, my eyesight doesn’t allow me to do that anymore. But walking and knitting? Why not?

In researching knitting and walking, I also learned about relay races that involve teams of knitters who walk an established course, often on dirt or grass, use double-pointed needles to knit (harder to do, in my estimation, than using circular needles), and who hand off their knitting to the next team member as they complete their turn. These races are mostly in European countries and that may be why here in America we have not adopted this practice. Maybe there just isn’t enough interest here either. But the whole concept intrigued me.

I began my experiment by carefully reviewing the common-sense tips offered by Demers for knitters who wanted to try knitting and walking. He suggests paying careful attention to the environment (practice in your home first and don’t try crossing streets while knitting), use blunt tipped needles, inexpensive yarn, and an easy pattern, wear comfortable shoes, and waist pack or cross-body bag to carry the yarn.

I took these suggestions to heart and began thinking about how I could try out this new challenge. At first, I thought that an old fanny pack or apron with pockets would work well to put my yarn in. However, I found that a small lightweight keyhole bag with a comfortably wide cotton strap was perfect. I had made three of these when I was in a recent sewing mood but had not used any of them. They were too small to use as purses, but each one can easily hold a ball of cotton yarn and lightweight plastic Denise circular needles. The plastic needles are essential; if I fell with them, they wouldn’t break or puncture my skin.

Next, I had to decide on a pattern. I wanted something easy so I chose a plain garter stitch dishcloth. I usually make these following charted designs or elaborate patterns, but for walking, simple seemed best, so I cast on about 35 stitches, did a few rows while walking around my house to test it out, and then hit the streets in my neighborhood. Wonder of wonders, I found that walking while knitting was a piece of cake. Even wearing my distance glasses, I had no trouble watching the road, only occasionally glancing down at my fingers to check my work. Of course, I chose a time during the middle of the day when traffic was light. My neighborhood does not have sidewalks so I have to use the road, but this is a good thing since there are not uneven pavements or tree roots interfering with cement walkways.

So far, the only really difficult thing about knitting and walking is enduring the strange stares from my neighbors and the delivery persons as they watch me, a somewhat eccentric older woman, who walks around knitting.  I’m not yet ready to enter a relay race but maybe after practicing a bit more – who knows?

Bluebird 5K – Labor Day, September 3, 2018 (Tallahassee, FL)

I know, I know, it’s only a 5k, but it was the first race after my poor showing at Southern Discomfort in July, and I was eager to do a race no matter how short the distance. On Labor Day weekend I was supposed to be in Manchester, TN, for A Race for the Ages, a race I had signed up for almost a year ago. I was devastated about missing that race, but I knew that – given my recent stress fractures –there was no way I could do a 71 hour race successfully. That left an empty weekend – and I correctly figured that a 5k was better than watching reruns on television.

This race, along with an accompanying 1 miler, is a fundraiser for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). It was begun several years ago to commemorate Brookie B., a young woman who died by suicide. The cause was special to us since our son Ben also died by suicide when he was 25. Since this is a community event designed to raise suicide awareness and prevention, it was possible to do the races with or without chip timing, depending on preference.

My whole family decided to race – my husband Darcy did the 1 mile race (and finished first in his age group!), and my son and our dog Shadow who did the 5k with me. Shadow is a black lab mix and very friendly. While we waited for the races to start, she made a lot of friends, especially with young children. The one mile event began at 8 am and Darcy took off. At 8:30, we lined up for the longer race, with David, Shadow, and myself at the rear. We had all opted for chip timing and I was eager to see if I had regained any of my ‘speed’ after being sedentary for so long.

The courses were trail so I was already at a disadvantage but the 5k was mostly grass, akin to cross-country, with only a few areas of rocks and roots. Still, in those areas, I had to slow down and pick my way carefully over the tree roots and stumbling blocks. David took off running with Shadow and I figured they would be waiting for me at the finish line. Imagine my surprise when – around the halfway point – I came upon them. David was standing patiently while Shadow stretched out comfortably on the dirt, taking what was a well-deserved break. It was only a half mile to the next aid station where we all drank our fill. That rest break and some water gave Shadow renewed energy and she took off eagerly, with David in tow. I followed closely behind and the 3 of us finished within minutes of each other. My time was 49:33, a personal worst for a 5k, but not so bad if I took into consideration attention paid to the trail and the dog.

All in all, it was a good race for a great cause and will probably be on my calendar for next year.

 

Interim Report: Warning – This is Depressing

I fully expected a clean bill of health when I returned to the doctor last Monday for a follow-up on my quartet of stress fractures. The pain had subsided, I was walking several miles every morning, and I felt ready to return to the racing circuit. I knew I’d be admonished to listen to my body, stop when pain reached a level of 3, and walk slowly to lesson impact on my osteopenic bones. Okay, I could do all that.

Imagine my surprise and consternation when the MRI taken that morning showed an actual break in my big toe plus 3 new stress fractures in different locations than the original ones. It seems I just can’t win! Even with rest, physical therapy, a healthy diet, and additional calcium and vitamin D, broken bones and stress fractures seem to be my destiny. It’s an understatement to say I was depressed.

The doctor was worried about the effect osteopenia would have on my racing and vice versa so he hesitated to give me any advice about drugs to strengthen bone or how to deal with the ramifications of postmenopausal osteoporosis. It was outside his area of expertise (which was sports medicine) so my planned visit next week to an endocrinologist seems timely. He did caution me to avoid high impact activities like running (walking was okay), to wear double rocker shoes like Hokas to minimize pressure on my forefoot, and to seek that ‘sweet spot’ of mileage that would feel ‘just right.’ That might mean walking every day or every other day or even every 3rd day, while I use the off days to lift weights or cross-train. All good advice but not what I wanted to hear. I want to do ultras, not a couple of miles every few days. I want to test my ability to see how many miles I can accomplish in a set time period, and not be satisfied with a measly 2 or 3 miles every day or so.

But reality has interceded. Against medical advice and dire warnings from my husband, I decided to try the 24 hour Southern Discomfort race this past weekend. I told myself I would stop at a pain level of 3. I reassured myself that I would be okay with cheering on runners while I rested and sat on the sidelines – even if I had to stop after 3 or 4 miles. I lied. I cannot watch others take part in a race that I want to do so much. It’s like watching people dance. I also cannot put only 75% into a race when my gut wants to go full throttle at 110%. At Southern Discomfort I should have stopped at 10 laps (about 12 miles) when my pain reached a 3 but I persisted for another 10 laps. Full disclosure – my pain level at that point approached a 6. Had I not spent the last 4 months with my left foot encased in a boot, I would have pushed on for the full 24 hours. Only 9 more laps and I would have achieved a 50k. Fortunately, the thought of ending up in a boot again scared me and I stopped at 20 laps, only 9 hours into the race.

I know that I made the right decision to stop at that point (although I should really have stopped earlier – yes, I know that, really I do). This morning both my feet are slightly painful (in the interest of full disclosure, my right foot often hurt but not as badly as my left, so I don’t know if I have stress fractures in that foot as well). I don’t think I did any irreparable damage, but I have decided to take a break (no pun intended) from ultras for a while. Instead, I am considering doing 5k events that have generous finishing time allowances so I can walk at a slower pace for a shorter distance. It’s also probably time to try medication to build up my bones, an idea I’ve resisted so far, but if it helps, I may be able to do ultras once again.

I’ve learned that it is essential for me to walk at least 30 to 60 minutes every day if I am to retain my sanity. It’s probably healthier too, and when I return to ultrawalking I will limit myself to 3 to 6 races a year instead of the 25 or more I’ve been doing over the past decade. I will certainly include Southern Discomfort on that future calendar. The heat and humidity of Georgia in July didn’t bother me in the least and this year it didn’t rain, at least during the hours I was on the course. Physically I felt fine, with no pain or fatigue at all, except for those nasty stress fractures. John and Kelli, the race directors, are a husband and wife team who do a tremendous job and the organization is superb. The course is a paved 1.1 mile loop, partially shaded and mostly level. Goodies include a soft cotton tee shirt, cap, bag (new this year), and finishers get a hand-painted emu egg with stand and a pint glass (for those who meet certain distance requirements). We stayed at a remodeled Hampton Inn near the Albany Mall and were pleased with the accommodations. There are lots of popular eating establishments nearby (we ate at Applebee’s and Olive Garden). The race, with 6, 12, 24, and 30 hour options, is definitely a keeper!

 

Relentless Forward Progress – with a Few Backward Steps

Last Wednesday was a busy but fruitful day; I had an MRI in the morning and a ten-week checkup with my physician in the afternoon. Results were mixed. The good news is that two of my stress fractures are completely healed while the remaining two show major improvement. I am now on a plan to wean me off The Boot and allow me a way to begin training again. Until next Monday I can be bootless while in my house but must wear it when I go outside. I can walk on my entire foot instead of having to limp on my heel and doing so without pain feels great.

On Monday I can walk outside (hooray! hooray!) but only for 10 minutes to start. If I do okay and don’t experience any pain, I can lengthen this time to 30 minutes, no more, until my next visit to the doctor in July.

Now for the bad news – the MRI also showed some nerve inflammation with my foot muscles. This can be caused by one of four things: diabetic neuropathy, bone infection, extreme exertion immediately before the MRI, or nerve entrapment. We were able to easily discount the first three. I don’t have diabetes, there was no sign of bone infection, and there was no way I could do anything resembling exertion before the MRI. That left nerve entrapment, and the only way to decisively diagnosis a disconnect between nerve and muscles is an electromyography (EMG) exam. This includes a nerve conduction study along with a needle EMG. This sounds very uncomfortable and painful to me (anything with needles is meets that description) but I was reassured that it is not too bad, and if it helps figure out my problem, I am willing to go for it. Whether a cure is possible depends on where the muscle-nerve disconnect is and what is causing it. I will have to be patient and wait until the middle of June for this test.

I was also referred for a physical therapy evaluation and to set up a treatment program so I can eventually return to racing. I am so excited about the prospect of getting back to my passion! I am focusing on the good news and trying to be positive about the confounding elements. And while I am nervous about having a relapse of these dreaded stress fractures, I am beside myself with joy at the thought of even a ten-minute walk outside!