December 8, 2007
The adventure began on Thursday (December 6th) when I flew into Dallas, TX, and was picked up by my parents and I had dinner with them and stayed at their house.
On Friday morning, they took me over to the Dallas White Rock Marathon expo at the Dallas Convention Center. I picked up my number (#364) and quickly glanced around the Expo (I’ve been to several, and this was nothing that I hadn’t seen before.).
From the Expo, Dad drove me to Love Field, where I picked up my rental car. The temperature in Dallas was mild, but a bit warm for December (maybe 65). I said my goodbyes (until tomorrow night) and then began the drive down to Houston.
On the entire drive down, the temperature got warmer and warmer. I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts and sweating quite a bit, even with the A/C on. It was about 80 degrees out and VERY humid.
About 3 hours into the drive, I noted the location of the park in Huntsville where the race was to be held (about an hour north of Houston). This is also the location of the Rocky Raccoon 100 mile race, which my friend Jasper Mueller completed a few years ago, as his first completed 100 miler.
I arrived in Houston, at my hotel, at about 5pm… just in time for the start of check-in (for the race).
A little digression at this point about the difference between ultras and city marathons…
When I decided to embark on this double, I continually harassed the Race Director of Sunmart to confirm for me that the race WAS going on and WHEN could I register. He assured me that it was still a go, but that they wouldn’t be taking money until early summer. (I was just trying to get the best price.)
For the Dallas Marathon, I kept looking for registration to start, and got an e-mail on May 30th saying that they were offering a one-day ‘super’ discount deal on May 31st of $85. Then it would be $90 until June 30th, and continuing to rise until the Expo when it would be $125. Needless to say, I got in with the $85 rate. For that money, I got a closed course, water stations, a cotton T-shirt and a finisher’s medal.
The ‘early’ registration on Sunmart did not close until probably 2 weeks before the race (probably just for logistics’ sake) and that rate was $80 (a better cost per mile).
The first benefit was the hotel room rate, which was $50/night for a King! (Fit for a king!)
At check-in, I received my number (#182; strangely 1/2 my Dallas Marathon number (364)) and then worked my way through the goody bag line. There was a table with choices of items you could take. Anything with the logo of the race did not have a year on it (and that was how they offered you variety).
The goody bag itself was a single-zipper canvas duffel bag with the logo on it. In it, I placed: a poncho, sunglasses, a disposable camera, gloves, a logo’ed polo shirt, a teddy bear that said on it, “Don’t Mess with Texas,” and a velcro address label/grip for the duffel. The entry fee also included some other items that I will mention below within the story.
The Race Swag (and medal) on Finisher’s Afghan
Once I got checked in, then it was just about time for dinner (included in the $80) at the hotel. They had spaghetti, ravioli (both meat and vegetarian options), salad, apples and oranges, coffee and water, with strudel and cookies for dessert. I didn’t know anybody at the race, so I just plopped myself down at a table with another group and had the usual pre-race conversation about what to expect.
During dinner (and after I finished eating), they had the (included) guest speaker.
I read that each year they tried to get a venerated guest speaker to address the runners. One year, it had been Arthur Lydiard, the famed “LSD” (Long Slow Distance) advocate and a coach. Runner’s World named him the ‘all-time best running coach.” He coached several Kiwis to Olympic Medals (including the speaker tonight) as well as the great Finnish runner, Lasse Viren.
In 2004, he was the guest speaker at Sunmart. In the morning, he was the official race starter, and then when back to his hotel room and died in his sleep.
The 2007 speaker did survive the weekend. He was introduced by Lorraine Moller, who was the Bronze Marathon medalist at the 1992 Olympics, and his name was Peter Snell.
He talked about his experience in running and in going to the Olympics. Snell did and does not have any experience in ultrarunning, but this was of great interest to me and to everyone in the room. He broke the Mile world record in 1962, and won 3 Olympic golds (repeat champion in the 800m!). His New Zealand 800m record, set in 1964, still stands.
After his talk, he signed autographs and talked to anyone who was interested. I just wanted to say Hi to him for two reasons… one, my sister knew him through something at her work; and two, we were both graduates of UC Davis (but weren’t there at the same time as he is between the ages of my parents).
I went up to my room to try and get some sleep. The race begins at 7am, but it’s at least a 50-minute drive to Huntsville (and I’m not going to arrive right at 7). The downside of this early start is that I am NOT on Texas time. Seven a.m. becomes five a.m. Arriving 30 minutes before 5:00am (PST) means leaving the hotel at 3:30am. Leaving the hotel at 3:30am, means getting up at 2:30am… and if I want 5 hours of sleep, going to bed at 9:30pm (didn’t happen).
I fell asleep at 11:45pm… and I was so worried about oversleeping, that I slept with the bathroom light on, with the door slightly ajar… so I only half-slept.
When I awoke in the morning, I was surprised to find that it was NOT cold outside… at all. As soon as I got in the car, I had to turn on the defrost because the humidity was fogging up the windows.
There was no traffic on the freeway (surprise, surprise, surprise) and it did take about 55 minutes to get to the exit for Huntsville State Park. There is rather a long road to drive on until you get to the part of the park where the race is staged… but I could tell immediately that I was at the right location, because the large Christmas decorations began to appear.
I wish I had a picture to show you, but if you have ever seen the large, inflatable Snow globes, or Jack-in-the-Box, or of similar ilk, then you know what I’m talking about. There were about 20 of these, all in a line. It was welcoming, in a strange sort of way.
Once I got parked, I got what I needed (some Clif Blox in my pocket; my drop bag (actually an old shoe box with Blox, Gu, Clif Shot and Advil inside; and my water bottles) and headed over to the start.
It was about 65 degrees out and no one was dressed for cold weather. There was a nice banquet tent set up, with several large heat lamps inside (which were off). Someone pointed out to me that the breakfast tent was open for service (included in the registration), and they were offering hot coffee, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, grits, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, French toast and waffles. (They also had a soda dispenser.) I don’t normally eat much before a race, so I didn’t partake.
There is a second race associated with this event, a 50K. They have the same time cut-off as we do, 7pm, but they start 45 minutes later (11 hours and 15 minutes is really quite generous for a 50K). So, there were a number of people milling around who were not in our race, too.
I placed my drop shoe box near the start/finish and wrote my name and number on top (with the hope that people wouldn’t steal my stuff), and then lined up (in the back) because the race was off just a few minutes later.
The course is a loop course, 12-1/2 miles in length, and we do it 4 times. There are only 2 time cutoffs – 8-1/2 hours for 37.5 miles, and then 12 hours for 50 miles. Essentially, you need to average 3 hours per 12.5 miles, BUT you have to be a little faster than that to make the first cutoff.
The course begins on a little concrete and then onto a lightly grassy wide road with some telephone poles lining it. You turn off onto a double-wide single-track, that wends around and parallels the main park road. The main park road is flat and this trail has some ups and downs and is VERY root-y.
After about a mile, you cross the park road and get onto a single-track trail that winds around a lot of trees, eventually depositing you onto a wide fire road (wide enough for 2 cars to fit comfortably). There is a slight uphill grade to another fire road and continues up and down until you reach the first aid station (probably around 4 miles).
You U-turn out of this aid station and come back down the fire road (waving to the scant people behind you and maybe some fast 50K runners). You continue on this fireroad for a few more miles to another aid station (maybe 2-1/2 miles).
Then you pop-up onto a levee above the aid station and above the large lake in the park (I’ve heard there are alligators, but I didn’t see any). Once you traverse the levee, you drop back down and begin working your way through a series of small elevated wooden bridges (without railings) that traverse the marshy area around the lake… I think I counted 18 bridges (some hundreds of feet long and lots of turns, and some about 10 feet long total).
I feel like I worked my way through the woods to the last aid station before the loop ends. There are a number of hairpin turns and also paths that are blocked off so you don’t go the wrong way. Momentarily, you find yourself back on the same root-y up-and-down single-track that parallels the Main park road, along the grassy telephone pole-lined path, and back to the start.
I finished my first loop in 2 hours and 26 minutes, so I was about 34 minutes ahead of the average pace, and 24 minutes ahead of the intermediate cut-off pace.
I refueled my pockets with Clif Blox, and continued out for another loop.
By about 10am, it was 75 degrees out and pretty muggy. The good/bad news was that there was considerable cloud cover (it might have been less muggy had we had sunny skies… but then it may have been hotter out).
I felt like I had gone out too hard on the first lap, so I pulled back a bit on my pace for the second lap, and finished it in 2:50 (5:16 net time – about an hour ahead of overall, 24 minutes ahead of the intermediate pace).
On the third lap, I felt I was going at about the same pace on the second lap, and had made it just past the levee section when… the cramps hit and hard.
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it fully, but I have never run an ultra where I didn’t have debilitating cramps in the latter half of the race. Cramps are inevitable, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. I always do my usual, which is to imbibe as much salt as I can stand (pouring handfuls into defizzed Coke, eating potatoes with salt, potato chips, whatever I can do, short of eating mouthfuls of table salt – yuck). Even then, I STILL cramp up.
Usually, I can walk through it… the cramps go away modestly and then if I stumble even a little bit, they come back with a fiery vengeance. I couldn’t walk through these cramps. It hurt a lot and I was moving at slug speed. My biggest nightmare was here; I was going to DNF this race as well!
A 50-mile female runner on her 4th lap slowed as she passed me and asked if I was OK. I said, “Not really. I have hideous cramps and I don’t think I can make the cut-off.” (Even though I had 3 hours and 14 minutes to finish 12-1/2 miles!)
She reached into her Camelbak for a bag of rock salt. “Take this piece of rock salt. Suck on it until your cramps go away… or for 5 minutes… whichever is shorter,” she said, “This will get salt into your system much faster than a gel or table salt.”
I dutifully sucked on that rock salt until it was all gone… about 40 minutes (!). My whole mouth tasted like salt and was somewhat sore… but the cramps were gone. I got to the final aid station about 35 minutes ahead of the cut-off and knew I had to push it, if I wanted to make that cut-off (the race instructions said that if you came in at 8:30:01, they would pull you). I wasn’t sure how far, but it was probably close to 3 miles, and I hadn’t been moving anywhere close to that kind of pace for the past 2 hours.
I high-tailed it as best I could and rejoiced when I saw the greened telephone pole section because I knew that I would make that stupid cut-off and be able to continue in the race (and my quest). I finished the 3rd lap in 3:07 (total time 8:23 – too close for comfort).
At this point, I felt like I had a finish in the bag, because I had 3 hours and 37 minutes to finish my last loop (12-1/2 miles, yay?), and I had just had the most horrible loop with 45 minutes of cramping. How could I not get through the last lap in a better time?
Through the first few aid stations, there was no problem. I felt good and was moving decently.
When I got to the levee aid station, I was offered a flashlight by one of the volunteers. I thought, ‘I don’t need this. It’s not going to be dark enough to matter,’ and I continued on. What a mistake! It was REALLY dark. REALLY, REALLY dark.
Although I didn’t have cramps at that moment, if I tripped too much, they could recur… and the whole freakin’ course is roots! I also thought that the glow sticks would light the way… but they barely indicated where I was going. The best I could do was to pick my way in the darkness until someone with a flashlight passed… and then I try and run at their exact speed so I could make use of their flashlight as well.
This worked to a certain extent, but as soon as I lost the person, I was moving even slower than I had with the cramps. The one part that helped a little was the raised bridges section, because you could run on these without tripping, and it wasn’t so dark that you couldn’t see the edges of the bridges in the moonlight.
By the time I got to the last aid station, I knew that unless I could find someone with a flashlight to run with, I would not make that final cut-off. So… I asked when I got to the aid station – “Does anyone have a flashlight I could borrow?” One of the volunteers said she had one flashlight (hers), but what if someone else came through the aid station that REALLY needed it. I said, “I think I’m the last person coming through here that has a chance of finishing under the time cut-off,” so she gave me her flashlight and wished me luck.
It wasn’t even as simple as that. I was carrying two 20 ounce water bottles – one in each hand – at least, luckily, they were attached with straps, so I could grab the strap of the second water bottle when I needed to direct the light more efficently. I could somewhat hold the flashlight with both hands strapped, but it was awkward.
For the last few miles, I began singing to myself to stay motivated… some opera arias (“Non so piu,” and “Voi che sapete” from Figaro) and some patriotic songs (“Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Star-Spangled Banner”). This was at fairly loud volume and when I caught a runner, she said, “Thank God you came along. I thought I was hallucinating and hearing voices!”
When I got back to the out-and-back paralleling the main road, I started to feel a little more confident. I remembered that it was about 0.6 miles to the end, and I had 20 minutes to cover teh distance. I started to giggle and laugh uncontrollably… possibly because 5 hours earlier, I had given up hope of finishing.
I finished in 11:51 and got my finisher’s medal and Afghan (I had the option of a Tyvek jacket, but I have so many jackets already, I thought an Afghan might be nice). I stayed and watched a bit at the finish line as 5 more people finished behind me (and another 4 finished over the time limit). Later, I saw that there were 88 DNFs out of 251 runners!
I went over to the food tent to get something to eat. I had a soda, and a Chicken Patty on a bun. They also had corn-on-the-cob, biscuits, gravy, hot dogs, hamburgers, brisket and baked beans. I also got them to wrap up a HUGE turkey leg for the car ride (and maybe at my folks’ house, too).
Most of the people I briefly conversed with said that they were looking forward to some deserved time off, and they could not believe that I was going to run a marathon tomorrow. I said I’d see how it went, but I felt like I could finish under that race’s 6-1/2 hour time limit.
I struggled a little with the drive home (seeing as that I had a compact car) and was a bit sleepy and had a couple of bouts with cramps. When I was about 45 minutes out, I called my sister (since my parents were not back yet from a dinner) and let her know I was going to arrive soon.
When I arrived, they had prepared their large bathtub with ice water. It was too cold to get in, so they warmed it up a bit and then let it cool off again once I got in. I sat and shivered for 30 minutes, hoping that this would reduce the swelling, let me sleep decently and have an OK day tomorrow.
I fell asleep by 11pm and was less worried about how early I would have to wake up, because the start was at 8am, and the drive should only be about 20 minutes. Of course, there was still the 2 hour time difference, BUT getting up at 5am California time is a far cry from getting up at 2-something!