A Half Marathon in Horse Country (Ocala, FL) – January 15, 2007

This past weekend I did another repeat race, the Ocala half marathon. Offerings also include a full marathon as well but since the full is a double loop (not my favorite iteration) with a strict 6-hour time limit, I’ve never been brave enough to attempt the full and have always chosen the half instead. I did this race in 2012 and 2013, finishing in 2:40 and 2:43 respectively. I remembered the course as an attractive jaunt through horse ranches, with rolling hills and peaceful countryside.

Although there were some changes this year, the race course is essentially the same and just as pleasant. My only complaints revolved around the lack of coned lanes for runners (while traffic was fairly light on Sunday morning there was a steady stream of vehicles on some of the more narrow roads and I felt I had to watch for cars every minute) and loneliness at the back-of-the-pack for miles 6 to the finish. I checked the number of finishers for previous years; it came as no surprise to me that this year there were only 188 half marathon finishers while in the past that number had been at least double. With the increasing popularity of half marathons, I am at a loss as to why the numbers had decreased so dramatically but this year there were long stretches of the race when I could see no one in front of or behind me.

The course is marked with bright red arrows on large signs that pointed racers in the appropriate direction. Markings were not as plentiful or useful as in First Light in Mobile, AL, but they were sufficient enough that I managed not to get lost.

Darcy and I drove down on Saturday, picked up my race packet at the Paddock Mall parking lot near Sears, and checked into our room at the Residence Inn about 5 minutes away. The race is chip-timed but the only timing mat is at the finish. There is no need for corrals with such a small field so there is plenty of room for everyone to cross the chalk line on the ground within a matter of minutes. The tee shirt is short-sleeve tech, so I told them to keep it or give to someone else. No point in taking something only to give it away. I wish more races offered a ‘no shirt’ option. We had a good dinner at the Miller’s Ale House, our go-to restaurant in Ocala, and then tucked in early for bed.

The marathon started at 7 and the half marathon at 7:15. Weather turned out to be perfect – about 55 at the start and 70 at the finish. No need for hand warmers or scarves, just a light jacket which I soon doffed and tied around my waist. For the first 4 miles I walked at a good clip with two friendly race walkers from Ohio but the soreness in my ribs and side from the fall in Mobile was still bothering me and I slowed down to adjust my arm movements to lessen the pain.

There were aid stations every mile or two, with water, Gatorade, bananas and orange slices, and very enthusiastic volunteers. Other spectators were rare. Police were at road crossings and on motorcycles. I had an unusual experience with one police officer who was directing traffic at an intersection. He had me wait (wait!) while he let two cars make a left turn in front of me. I am used to police holding up traffic so runners can cross and maintain pace so I was a little perturbed at having to come to a complete stop for these vehicles. It’s not like I was going to PR but it did make a jumble of my rhythm.

I crossed the finish line in 2:54, achieving my goal of under 3 hours, and received my medal decorated with a horse and horseshoe on it. There was plenty of food for runners – beans and rice, pulled pork, bagels, fruit, and cookies. This race is an enjoyable one and is recommended with certain caveats for walkers. Be alert for cars on the narrow roads, watch for the red arrows to direct you along the course, and expect to spend some time alone during the race, especially in the latter miles.

My Racing Goals for 2017

I usually don’t publicize my goals in case I don’t manage to reach them but, what the heck, I am making a change this year. In 2017, I turn seventy and that is a big deal to me (and probably to most people!). I get to move to a whole new age group, 70-74, or in some races 70 and up. I think many runners and walkers don’t mind getting older, especially if it puts them in a higher age group. Competition lessens the older we get, although there will always be plenty of faster people than myself. Still, it feels good to sometimes see that I am the only female in my particular age group.

So, for 2017, the year I turn 70, my primary goal is to do at least 7 ultramarathons, completing at least 70 miles in each one. Of course, these must be timed races, and the longer the better. I am seeking 48 hour races as my preferred choice but I will try several 24 hour ones as well. If conditions are excellent and I am in good form with no injuries and as long as the weather cooperates, I can occasionally handle 70 miles in a 24 hour race. Just to give myself as many opportunities as possible to achieve this goal, I will try to sign up for as many of these timed races in the southeast as I can find.

This will be a major challenge for me but I am determined to try and achieve it!

Playing Catch-Up: Three Marathons and a Half Marathon to Close out 2016 and Begin the New Year

Ever since I began concentrating my races in the southeast part of the US, I have found that I am mostly repeating races I have already done. This is to be expected, since many of my favorites have been around for a long time and they survive because they are exceptionally good races. When I come across an inaugural race, I do try to sign up, but it seems that brand new marathons and half marathons (at least those with longer time limits) are the exception rather than the norm.

Unless something is drastically different from prior editions of a particular race, I hesitate to bore readers or myself with a rehash of what’s already been written by myself and others. Hence, what follows is a brief recap of some of my favorite races.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day has traditionally been the week for the Savage Seven, Chuck Savage’s offering of seven marathons in seven days in a beautiful park in Ocala, Florida. This year Chuck also offered a half marathon option each day for those who preferred the shorter distance. I signed up to volunteer for two days which netted me two free marathons plus I paid for one half marathon on the day we traveled home. Darcy and I spent the holiday week staying at the Hampton Inn off Interstate 75 in Ocala. This was a quiet decent hotel but since it was right off the highway, my husband was bothered by the traffic noise. I, on the other hand, did not mind the car and truck sounds but I was extremely sensitive to the detergents used to clean the rooms, towels, and bedsheets. We ended up purchasing some inexpensive towels at Target to deal with this problem, admittingly something only a neurotic person like myself with a highly-attuned sense of smell would be annoyed by).

The weather all week was dry, a real positive, since running 5 loops in the rain can be daunting. The first couple of days were pleasant but as the week progressed, a cold front moved in and I went from wearing shorts to long pants and a heavy jacket. I did marathons on Tuesday and Thursday, finishing in 6:35 and 6:32 respectively. My volunteer days were Wednesday and Friday and though I helped from dawn to the end of the races, I did manage to walk one lap each day with a friend or two, Mike on Wednesday and Loree and Frank on Friday. I must admit that standing all day working the aid station was harder than doing a marathon. My fellow volunteers were wonderful and made the time pass quickly.

On Saturday, I finished the half marathon (2 ½ loops) in 3:14 and then Darcy and I drove home, hoping to arrive in time to do some last-minute grocery shopping for black-eyed peas and ham hocks, stop at the post office for a week’s worth of mail (mostly bills), and pick up some books at the library for the long weekend.

We discovered a new to us brew pub in Ocala, Miller’s Ale House, and ate there three times. There was a great selection of draft beer available; my favorite was a sampling of local IPA’s. The food was good as well, typical pub choices with a few more elaborate meals for heartier appetites. We will no doubt visit again when in the area

After finishing the 50 mile Cremator race twice, I joked with Race Director Tim Waz that I needed to take up a more sedentary pursuit like knitting. We both laughed but truth is I really do like to sew, quilt, embroider, knit, and crochet. While in recent years I have concentrated almost entirely on quilting, I am now devoting much of my free time to knitting, everything from hats and scarfs to socks and shawls. I take classes at a wonderful yarn store up in Thomasville, GA, called Fuzzy Goat and find the camaraderie of other knitters and the challenge of learning new techniques a great way to balance my more athletic pursuits. So, in between races, I knit.

My first race of 2017 was another favorite, First Light in Mobile, Alabama. I’ve written about this race numerous times (I think I have finished the full at least 6 times). This race is usually a double for Maniacs and 50 Staters, with Mississippi Blues in Jackson, MS, on Saturday and First Light on Sunday. This year there was also a 50 State Reunion in Jackson; however, because of dangerous icy conditions, the MS Blues marathon was canceled. First Light, however, was still on. Weather in Mobile was freezing cold, 25 degrees at the start with a wind chill of 15, but with plenty of sun and only light winds.

I think the weather deterred many from running on such a cold morning. There were only 310 finishers in the full (down from 373 in 2016) and the popular half marathon had 571 finishers instead of 746 in 2016. I could tell that many people had stayed home because the number of back of the packers (my customary place) was greatly diminished. I usually have lots of company around me during the race because people who have ‘doubled’ tend to be slower on Sunday than Saturday, but this year I was alone for long stretches. I never had to worry about getting lost, though. There were bright arrows marked in flour at every turn as well as posted signs and, despite the cold, course marshals and police were out in abundance.

This year was memorable for several reasons, one marathon-related and the other not. I was chugging along, moving as well as I could under 6 layers of clothes plus a small backpack (I never use one during a race but it came in handy this time to load and unload mittens, hats, eyeglasses, and snacks without having to unzip my outer jacket. Just as I crossed Mobile Street onto Dauphin for the final 4 mile stretch to the finish line, I stumbled and couldn’t regain my balance. I fell hard onto the pavement, hitting my right knee and both outstretched hands. My sunglasses and cap fell off and in my stunned state and totally off-balance because of the backpack, layers of clothing, and my stunned surprise, I could only get up with the help of a kind policeman who came running to my aid. He wanted to call in medical help but I thanked him and said “no, I’m okay” and continued on my way, limping and sore. I had also bruised my diaphragm and sternum and had trouble catching my breath; for the next mile or so felt nauseated and had to stop and take a break. However, it was a straight shot to the finish line and I wanted to get there as quickly as possible so I ignored the aching of my body and crossed the timing mat in 6:19.

After getting my beans and rice and pasta salad with corn muffing, I stumbled back to my hotel room to shower, take stock of my wounds, and relax. I fell asleep at 5 pm, and fell into a sound slumber only to hear the jarring ring of the hotel room phone at 7:30. It turns out that my hotel, the Holiday Inn (my favorite place to stay in Mobile – it is right at the start line for the race and is a decent choice for this hotel brand), had a water main break and I had to move my car from one side of the parking lot to another side so it could be fixed. I quickly pulled on some clothes and shoes and went down to move my car. Then I went back to sleep, this time until morning.

Both the Savage Seven and the First Light races are highly recommended for walkers.

Keeping Busy Over the Holidays: a local 5k Turkey Trot and a semi-local 50k

The Turkey Trot: Over the 10 years spanning my racing career I have always managed to find many races to keep me in shape and help me justify eating lots of calorie-laden holiday treats. This year, I cut back dramatically (on racing, not eating) and so have only two races to discuss since Crooked Road. The first is an easy fun 5k that attracts lots of Tallahassee residents. There is also a 1 miler, 10k, and 15k but most people do the 5k. I did the race last year with my son and granddaughter and enjoyed it so I felt it worthwhile to keep this new tradition alive.

The weather was a little warmer than in 2015 (good) but all the races were delayed about 40 minutes (not so good) to allow everyone a chance to get to the start line (understandable). Fortunately I did not have to return home to put a turkey in the oven this year. Instead we postponed our big dinner until the weekend and instead hosted a brunch. Most of that meal had already been prepared so there was little for me to do after the race except serve the meal. That made the delay more palatable.

My back was still sore so I did not try to race the 5k. Instead I just went with the flow of leisure walkers in the back of the last corral. By mile 2, I had warmed up considerably and ignored my backache to walk a little faster. It still took me about 46 minutes to finish, a PW for that distance but I was unconcerned. It was a lot of fun. All finishers received a turkey medal.

The Tallahassee UltraDistance Classic 50k: This was my very first ultra way back in 2008. I try to do it every year or at least every other year because it is such a well-organized low-key race. The course consists of 5 loops on a 6.2 mile paved roadway in beautiful Wakulla State Park, about 30 minutes south of Tallahassee. Traffic is held to a minimum, the road is wide, the 3 aid stations well-stocked with water, Gatorade, and treats (in 2 of them), the volunteers kindly and welcoming; it is just overall a great race. The only problem I have is dealing with the first long, very long, out-and-back; I sometimes think I will never reach that initial turnaround. But then I do and the journey back and out to the second turnaround doesn’t seem that bad.

There is also a 50 mile event and those runners must do 8 loops plus an extra section. There is a 10 hour cutoff for both races. Since it takes me at least 13 plus hours to do a 50 miler, I wouldn’t consider trying that distance at Wakulla but the 50k is a pleasure. I will probably never repeat my personal best here (7:03 in 2013) but no worries. As long as I finish within that 10 hour time frame, I am good.

This year the weather was perfect – cool at the 7 am start, sunny and breezy later in the day. Packet pickup is the morning of the race. Instead of a tee shirt we were given a visor (unfortunately it is not adjustable and since the elastic strap is too tight for my head I will probably give it away). Finishers received an attractive ceramic medal with a drawing of a cute baby manatee on it. For people coming from out of town, the historic Wakulla Springs Lodge is right on the course, with special rates for runners and walkers. A big plus are the real bathrooms across from the main aid station. This year I finished in 7:48:46; since my goal was to complete the race in under 8 hours, I was pleased. This race is highly recommended for walkers.

Crooked Road 24 Hour Ultra – November 19, 2016 (Rocky Mount, VA)

Usually on the weekend before Thanksgiving we travel to Texas so I can do one of the UltraCentric races in Grapevine, TX. This was the first year that our plans changed and we decided to stay local. It turns out that ‘local’ has many definitions. Virginia is several states away from Florida and too far to drive in one day so we ended up spending one night on the road both going and returning. Despite the distance, it was a good alternative to UltraCentric, especially when I learned that UC was canceled because the RD was ill.

We left on Thursday morning and drove as far as Greenville, SC. Our hotel was a pristine Holiday Garden Inn and we both had a good night’s sleep after having lunch, with a birthday burger for Darcy, at Red Robin. We made it to Roanoke, VA, by afternoon the next day. The race itself was at Waid park in Rocky Mount, VA, but we decided to stay in Roanoke at another Hilton Garden Inn, about a 45 minute drive away. There were closer hotels but not any that matched my loyalty programs. That turned out to be a wise decision because those other hotels had a ladybug problem that would have definitely caused me problems (not so much the ladybugs, but the possibility of perhaps other less friendly bugs).

We drove to packet pickup at the park on Friday afternoon and met up with friends Joyce and Ray. Joyce had done this race before and was very familiar with it so she walked the course with me to help allay my fears of getting lost. It is a 1.1815 mile course, and I usually like courses that are at least 1 mile in length so it’s easy to keep track of the miles. The shirt was long sleeve tech, so I promptly gifted it to Joyce. I had other friends doing this race as well – Judy from GA was there as were Don and Marion from Montreal, Canada. Later, when the results were published, I would find out that both Joyce and Marion set age-group records. What is even more amazing is that Joyce has completed over 100 miles in two 48 hour events within the last month and has another 24 hour on Thanksgiving weekend. Her stamina and persistence is astounding.

Me, I was not so lucky. I had a major problem as we stood waiting for the race to begin at 8 am on Saturday morning. Suddenly I felt a painful spasm in my lower back that caused me to turn to Darcy, who was standing by my side, and exclaim to him that my back just seized up. I am not sure if it was anxiety, the cold weather, or a combination of both, but my back continued to bother me throughout the day and into the evening. As the wind picked up and the temperature fell, I began to feel miserable. Because of the 45 minute drive to and from the race site, I had told Darcy to pick me up by 10 pm. I knew I would never be able to tolerate the early morning freezing cold that was predicted. However, by 7:30 that night, my back was worse and I decided to call it a day. My minimum goal was a 50k so I could count it in my Maniac statistics; I managed to do just over 36 miles, pretty pitiful for what was supposed to be a 24 hour event, but it still counts.

We headed back the next day, spending the night at a pleasant Fairfield Inn in Commerce, GA. We left early the next morning and arrived back in Florida by early afternoon. It was a long trip and my back is still sore, though I somehow managed to plod through the local Turkey Trot 5k with a personal worst on Thanksgiving morning. Today my back is better, thanks to my trusty old heating pad; evidently heat is helping to alleviate the spasm and relieve the pain.

Crooked Road is a good race on an easy-to-remember two-loop course. It’s mostly flat cinder-covered dirt so gaiters are a must. There is one fully-stocked aid station that offered hamburgers at lunch time and pizza at dinner and lots of goodies throughout. The RD and volunteers are welcoming and extremely helpful. The price is very reasonable; if you sign up early, it only costs about $40 plus processing fees. And it is a good idea to sign up as soon as the decision to do the race is made because it fills up fast. The only problem is the cold weather. The wind chill during the wee hours of Sunday morning reached was 22 degrees. That is way too cold for this Florida transplant! As long as walkers can tolerate freezing weather, this race is a fine choice.

Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon – November 12, 2016 (Fort Oglethorpe, GA)

This was a fun race. At one time, I had considered signing up for the full marathon here but I had reservations because of the 6-hour time limit. Even in those years when I could easily finish a marathon in under six, I was hesitant because so many things can interfere with doing well in a race.

So, to make things a lot less stressful for me, I signed up for the half marathon and built in some time to explore the historic park after the race. We drove up on Friday morning, arriving around 2:30 in the afternoon. I had already checked in to the Hampton Inn at Fort Ringold, GA, so we were able to settle in until time for packet pickup between 4 and 8 pm at Fort Oglethorpe Baptist Church, about 7 ½ miles from the hotel and a short walk from the race start and finish.

There weren’t too many unique restaurants in the area so we decided to have an early supper at a nearby Applebee’s. After eating, it was time to unwind and relax in our hotel room. Both half and full races were set to begin at 7:30 Saturday morning (followed by a 5k at 8 am) so I set my alarm for 4 am. That would give me plenty of time to digest breakfast and make our way to the start, about 8 miles away.

It should be noted here that the race organizers had arranged for shuttle buses to stop at participating hotels at 6 and 6:30. Although the Hampton Inn was one of those hotels, it turned out that the 6:30 bus completely missed our hotel and left some runners stranded. Since I often take shuttles when they are offered, that would have left me in the lurch but because of the expected cold weather I had asked Darcy to drive me so I could stay in our nice warm car until I absolutely had to get out. As we made our way out the door of the hotel, my friend Mellody called out to me and explained the situation. We were happy to have her join us for the ride.

The weather was perfect – a cool 48 degrees at start, around 65 at the finish – but I was still glad to have the warmth of the car since that is chilly weather for me. Finally both Mellody and I had to find the portapotty line. Then, right on time, a cannon heralded the start of the races and we took off. The course, which winds through the historic battlefield with numerous monuments to fallen soldiers, is mostly paved and shaded – there is only a brief foray across grass and dirt for the first and last mile.

Aid stations were set up every couple of miles, with bananas, orange slices, gels, water, and Gatorade, offered by cheerful volunteers, many of them youngsters. The racers as well as the volunteers were friendly and enthusiastic. For first 8 miles or so I kept pace with Deborah who helped make the miles fly by as we chatted. She was fast, though, and after the halfway point she took off, finishing about 15 minutes ahead of me. Mellody was doing the full and trying hard to make the 6-hour cutoff time. We saw each other around mile 7 and then she too took off, whizzing past me. I was sure I could finish in about 3 hours but I was relaxed about it – half marathoners had the full 6 hours to complete the race, so stress was minimal.

In fact, I have nothing at all to complain about and can honestly write that I enjoyed the course immensely. Full marathoners had to repeat the loop again, with a few extra sections, but I was relieved and thankful I had signed up for the half. It was a relief to not have the burden of a strict time limit. My mind and legs were very grateful. Even though I tried my best and left everything I had out on the course, I was happy I only had to follow that loop once.

I crossed the finish line in 2:56 (I am nothing if not consistent!) and was given a medal which – this year – commemorated the state of Florida and its soldiers. There was hot soup and pizza and fruit at the finish. We also received a neat souvenir blanket, much nicer than the usual foil sheet. I felt so good that Darcy and I decided to stop at the Visitor’s Center and watch a movie about the Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga. We then had a satisfying lunch at O’Charley’s to celebrate. All in all, a very good day.

This half marathon is definitely recommended for walkers, and if you are fast, you might enjoy the full as well.

Tom Walker Memorial Half Marathon (November 5, 2016) – Gainesville, Florida

This was my very first race, way back in October of 2005. I realize it is somewhat unusual to do a half marathon for an initial race but I didn’t know any better, so I trained assiduously for several months by power walking around a 3 ½ mile loop in a nearby neighborhood. When I could complete this loop four times in under 3 hours, a total of 14 miles, I felt reasonably confident that a half marathon was within my reach. In 2005, the race course was held in the historic town of Micanopy, about 10 miles south of Gainesville.

A few years later, the race was moved from the streets and roads of Micanopy to Boulware Springs Park, along the paved Gainesville-Hawthorne bike trail that crosses Paynes Prairie. The newer course is a pleasant, partially shaded, out-and-back that is used primarily by cyclists.

I returned to Gainesville to do this race because I had other reasons to visit the city. In addition to a doctor’s appointment, Darcy and I visited the Serenity Garden at Cofrin Nature Park to have a brick placed in the garden in memory of our son Ben’s passing 2 years ago. That was on Friday.

The race was Saturday morning, with packet pickup beginning at 7. It was chilly and I overdressed to keep warm as I waited for the 8 am start. Mosquitos were active and biting despite the cold and I spent a good portion of the morning trying to brush them off my legs. Both the 5k (with 51 people) and the half marathon began at the same time. During this year’s race, I saw no pedestrians or dog walkers, only runners and bike riders. This made it very lonely for back-of-the packers like myself. Most of the 237 participants were fairly fast runners, although there was an official run-walk 3-hour pacer; she finished just ahead of me, in 2:56, leaving me to cross the finish line in 2:57, officially the last person (known affectionately in racing parlance as DFL).

While this remains a significant race to me for purely sentimental reasons, I doubt I will do it again. The timing clock was stopped at 3 hours but there was no mention of a time limit on the race web site. I knew that there was one young woman who was behind me when I made it to the 6 ½ mile cone at the turnaround but she was not listed as finishing. That would have been a major disappointment to me. At the time, I had no idea that the clock was stopped just after I crossed the finish line. It was only when I scanned the results that I realized what had happened. For that reason I would not recommend this half marathon for walkers; it would be necessary to maintain a pace consistently under 13 minutes to meet the time limit and it is very lonely for long stretches, especially the last 8 miles or so.