Thursday, January 26, 2017

Snowdrop 55 Ultra: An exhausting, exhilarating, epic slog

…A simple bell. Purple. Made of metal, on a stand, maybe chest high for most people. Nothing special about it, or so it seemed. I walked by it many times without noticing it. Once I finally realized it was there, I walked by it many more times, never really looking at it. Until finally…I rang the bell. I took a deep breath and pulled. Hard. Back and forth I shook the clapper. Instantly the air was filled with joyful, laughing, triumphant music. Could it be? Could there be magic in that bell? My arm tingled, and at the same moment my leaden legs and feet came to life. They took off running, totally of their own accord, after plodding along at a slow walk for over two days. Yippee!!! Yes, I really was floating…how can you call it running if your feet aren’t touching the ground?


The longest race I’d ever done was a half-marathon (13.1 miles). The last time I ran a half-marathon was in 2012. (Well, I completed an additional half-marathon with friends in 2014, but I don’t count that. I was so out of shape I could barely jog a mile; I struggled to stay ahead of the sweeper truck on a rainy, cold, and miserable day, and I vowed never again to do a race without being reasonably fit.)

I signed up for the Snowdrop 55-Hour Ultramarathon because my brother Dave decided to run it. Dave started running a year or so after I did, in 2010 I think. I joined him for his first half-marathon, the 2011 Winslow Run. We both had a blast. Then Dave started running ultramarathons (races longer than 26.2 miles). I always figured I would run an ultra with him. Someday.

Then, at age 44, Dave got cancer. Specifically, Stage IV papillary renal cell cancer. Dave still runs ultras. But now he has to choose races with especially generous time limits. (In 2016, he finished the Prairie Spirit 50 and the Pumpkin Holler 50K, and was the Epic Ultras Featured Runner for April.) So, when Dave chose the Snowdrop 55 for his fall race, I had to sign up. If I were ever to attempt an ultramarathon, this was the perfect race to try. It would be in Sugar Land, Texas, about an hour from my house. It supports a great cause, helping kids with pediatric cancer, through research and college scholarships. And, instead of a fixed-distance race on a trail, this was a fixed-time race, round and round a 0.74668-mile jogging trail at a park. No danger of getting lost. No danger of getting stranded on a mountain in the middle of the night in a rainstorm, miles from the next aid station. When I inevitably flaked out, I would be right in the middle of civilization. Wal-mart and Denny’s were right down the road, all my stuff would be immediately at hand. I could take a break, even go home, whenever I liked. And, one last plus: the race would begin on December 30, Dave’s birthday. It was perfect!

Escape hatch: Click here if you want to bypass this ridiculously long race report and jump right to the results and the lessons learned. (A bit like cutting the course in a race…let your conscience guide you.)

I had no intentions of showing up for Snowdrop completely untrained. When we registered back in April, I figured I had plenty of time to lose my dissertation weight and regain my ability to slowly run 15 miles or so. But life and work intervened, and the training plan never materialized. Summer running was decent, but this fall I ran once or twice most weeks, some weeks not at all. Snowdrop did motivate me to get in a few longish runs that otherwise wouldn’t have happened, including a 20-miler in early December. (Dave said that if I could run 20, I could run 50…I couldn’t prove him wrong unless I ran the 20. After my 20-miler, he said, “okay, now you're trained!”) Dave also says that training is overrated. Guess there’s one way to find out!

So, the last weekend in December was to be my Someday to run an ultra with Dave. What did it matter if I was trained? But Dave couldn’t come to Snowdrop. Because of the cancer. Or the cancer treatment. I knew Dave would give almost anything to be able to do this, so I might as well give it a go. I knew I would regret skipping it more than I would regret trying it.

So, off to Snowdrop I went. The first step was packet pickup on Thursday afternoon, at the park where the race would be held. The goodie bag was awesome—shirt, hat, waterproof bag, blister cream, KT tape, headlamp, hat, gloves, blanket, and more—tons of fun stuff, all packed in a high-quality duffel bag. I had paid for a tent cubicle with the race registration. We were supposed to check into the tent cubicles at the packet pickup, but the race organizers said it was too windy to set them up—the Boy Scouts would set up the tents in the morning. That was fine, it would give my crew member (hubby Scott) something to do while I was running.

Dave kindly sent pre-race encouragement: “I hope you get enough breaks from the rain to get your easy 50 without too much splashing.” And, “Your feet might get macerated but keep going. Even huge blisters only hurt while running and maybe one day after. Drain them before they get big.” He even gave detailed instructions: “Take a pin from your bib and clean it. Then stick it into the thick part of the blister and right back out an eighth of an inch away. Then twist till the skin rips. That will make a big enough hole to drain it completely. Draining a blister half way is useless. No need to get all pretty with it; the skin will dry up and fall off anyway.”

Armed with that helpful wisdom, I packed my stuff for Snowdrop. I gathered all the warm clothes that I could possibly think of. When I ran my 20-miler, it was dark and about 50 degrees Fahrenheit and I didn't even need my jacket, so I felt well-prepared for the temperatures that were predicted. The pre-race meeting was scheduled for 6 o'clock Friday morning. It was dark and chilly, but the race director was super peppy and it was rather fun. She gave us our instructions and announced there would be something very moving at the start of the race. I was looking forward to that. In the meantime, I enjoyed listening to everyone’s excited chit-chat. I didn’t know anybody, but there were plenty of friendly faces and I felt right at home. So much to take in—my first ultra…I still can’t believe I got myself into this. Oh, what a fun surprise….Dave had told me his friend Karen would be here, and sure enough, she managed to find me and introduce herself! We had fun visiting and took a picture together to send to Dave.

Finally, start time arrived. I knew I would be slow, so of course I lined up near the back. The Snowdrop was a fantastically run race, almost nothing to criticize. But if I could make one suggestion, it’s that I wish races would put a big speaker near the back of the pack at the start line. It happens at pretty much every race. Everyone is talking, which is fine when nothing is going on yet, but because of the talking no one can hear the announcement that it’s time for the Star-Spangled Banner and any speeches or introductions. So the back of the pack always misses everything. By the time the national anthem was halfway done, everyone stopped talking and we could hear, but we totally missed all the stuff before that, including the part the race director said would be really moving. I think the race organizers probably test their public address system when no one is there, and they can hear it just fine from way behind the starting line. But you can’t hear a thing when people are talking. We back-of-the packers are just as respectful and patriotic as the fast people—we would never intentionally talk through the announcements or the national anthem.

I learned later, while walking with someone who knew, that there was an inspiring story about a runner who’d been hit by a car. There was also an explanation about an Eagle Scout’s project that would be constructed during the race. The Eagle Scout had figured out how many children typically die of pediatric cancer during a 55-hour period. He made a large white cross to represent each one of those children. He started with one line of crosses, and then every hour, all through both nights, he would come out and install another line of crosses. So the field of crosses just grew and grew. Instead of placing them on a grid, he laid them out in graceful arcs. It was beautiful and haunting, especially at night. (I forgot to count the crosses, and figuring it out from the photos was difficult…I came up with 300+ crosses, but there may be many more.)

We heard over half of the national anthem, and many of us sang along (very quietly, because we wanted to hear the wonderful singer). And then we were off! Every other race I’ve done, a bunch of people took off fast—that didn’t seem to be the case this time, I wonder why?

The race got off to a fun start for me, because the first person I talked with turned out to be a faculty member at a community college on the other side of town from mine. (Veroon, rhymes with maroon, he said—that helped, hopefully I got close on his name.) We walked the first few laps together and had a great visit—it is always fun to swap stories with other community college faculty, and find out how our institutions are and aren’t the same. He was doing the relay so he stopped after a few laps. I hoped to see him again that evening or the next day, but I never did.

The most awesome part of this race was all the neat people I got to talk to. If I’m going to spend 55 hours doing a race, I’d much rather it be round-and-round instead of point-to-point…you can walk laps with lots of different people, instead of them just passing you once and never seeing them again (not that I’ve ever done a point-to-point ultra, of course….shudder).

When I signed up for the race, I thought of it as a 55-hour race and assumed everyone would be competing to get as far as possible before time ran out. As I walked and talked during the race, I learned that almost all the participants thought of it as a 100-mile race with a 55-hour time limit. In other words, “finishing” meant 100 miles for most people, although some of them intended to do some bonus miles after they finished.

By the way, I’ve discovered that it’s way more difficult to write a decent race report for a 55-hour race than for a run-of-the-mill road race. It’s almost a microcosm of the dissertation-writing process—the thing you’re trying to write up is ridiculously big, so you have to somehow include enough detail to convey the flavor, without sucking the life out of it. The only option is to try to distill it into highlights, which means throwing chronological order out the window. (I can’t remember the chronological order anyway—too many hours of cold and exhaustion, plus notetaking was rather difficult.) It’s pretty much doomed to not make any sense.

After Veroon, I walked and talked with several other people. Eventually, I started interspersing a little running—I tried to run half of every other lap. I wasn't very well trained and I’d never done a long race, so I had absolutely no idea how many miles were realistic for me. I was pretty sure I could get to 30; when I did the 20-miler, I was very tired and ready to be done, but nothing really hurt. If I’d had a good enough reason, I could have walked another 10.

But a secret part of me wanted to get to 100 and get that belt buckle. I had no idea if that was possible, and I almost didn't want to admit that I was thinking of 100—it would be crazy to think I could go a hundred miles. I still remember the humiliation of the 600-yard run in the Presidential Physical Fitness Tests in elementary school. It was awful. I was always the last kid done, by far, and everyone would just be standing around waiting for me when I finally finished. I dreaded Presidential Fitness days, especially the 600-yard run. What bureaucrat thought this was a good idea? That public torment would make kids want to exercise more? Really? That 600-yard run always seemed to take forever, and I was miserable for almost all of it. Six hundred yards works out to be about…one-third of a mile. Yea. But I am pretty sure our school’s 600-yard course was at least a mile. How would they have measured it? Did the gym teacher walk around it with a measuring wheel? There wasn’t any GPS or GoogleMaps, and you couldn’t drive around it with a car odometer. They probably just guessed. (By the way, I was actually quite good at the flexed-arm hang portion of the Presidential Fitness Test—I wasn’t fit and I didn’t work out, but for some unknown reason, hanging from a bar was easy for me. But the joy of looking down at my classmates from the bar didn’t make up for the trauma of the rest of it. I still hated the Presidential Fitness Test.)

After a few laps, I stopped to chat with hubby Scott. He wore his official Crew badge with pride and seemed to be enjoying himself. He had checked into my tent, and got all my stuff moved inside. Instead of a cubicle in the “bunkhouse”, I had my very own tent! Apparently one of the two tent bunkhouses had got damaged, and the race organizers made a late-night trip to Walmart to buy a bunch of small tents to replace it. A big “thank you” to the unseen but greatly appreciated Boy Scouts who set up the tents for us. Mine worked great! Scott used the power inverter in the car to blow up my new air mattress. We were very glad we didn't borrow an air mattress from the friend who offered it, because it would have ended up getting muddy. Better to have our own.

I kept moving all day. Everything blurred together. I had no idea how long it would take me to get to the halfway point. If possible, I wanted to get more than halfway (to 100 miles) the first day—I was still entertaining hopes of getting that belt buckle. But I was already cold, and the temperature kept dropping. (A couple people told me how glad they were to have such fantastic weather, way warmer than last year! Yea, I felt like a wuss.) It was supposed to be cold and rainy all weekend. I wanted to get as far as possible before the expected rainstorm arrived. I kept walking, and running off and on, pretty much all day and night. They gave us lunch around noon, and dinner around 6 or so. The pasta and salad we got for lunch was delicious. The fajitas for dinner were okay, but mostly I was glad to take a break in the warm food tent. There weren’t enough places to sit, and my feet were sore. I was so grateful when I spot at a table opened up. It felt wonderful to rest my feet and get warm!! I took my time, and visited with another new friend over fajitas.

I especially enjoyed walking with people who had been actively involved with the Snowdrop Foundation for a long time. I heard over and over what a fantastic charity it was—low overhead, almost all the money going to the kids. Truly a labor of love. Scattered along the track were photos and names of some of the kids fighting pediatric cancers. Nice. Near the beginning, I walked with Debbie, who described how she had picked up some miniature chandelier ornaments for $1 each at an estate sale. Two of the Snowdrop volunteers got into a bidding war for them (apparently they resembled the chandelier in one of their houses). They each bought one for $250, and they decided that whoever ran the most miles at the Snowdrop 55 would get the rest. The little chandeliers were hanging outside of a couple of tents; Debbie pointed them out to me. So, those $1 ornaments turned into a bunch of money for the Snowdrop Foundation. Cool. Later, I walked with Frank, who told me more about Snowdrop’s various fundraising efforts, how they reached out to individual kids with cancer, and different ways I could get involved. No one seemed bothered by the fact that I had not gotten around to doing any fundraising, they just wanted to share Snowdrop’s vision and mission. My primary motivation in registering was to run a cool race with my brother—I was glad our registration fees supported a good cause, but the cause wasn’t the reason I did it. Now that I know more about Snowdrop, I would like to do more than just contribute a race fee. If I do this next year, I’ll give the fundraising a go. And I’ll keep my eyes open for opportunities to support Snowdrop in other ways.

(Here is my Snowdrop fundraising page, which I finally set up after writing this race report.)

So, I enjoyed walking with lots of interesting people. But it kept getting colder and colder. I discovered things that I should have already figured out. Such as: run/walking 20 miles when it’s 50°F degrees is completely different from walking (with no running) 48 miles when it’s 50°F. Even a very small amount of running generates a lot of body heat. Walking doesn’t. Plus being out there so long just gets you colder and colder. It seems to go on forever. Especially at night when it’s dark, and most people have gone to sleep, and there’s no conversation to distract you from how cold you are. I wore what I thought were warm pants but they weren't working, and I was freezing. Fortunately, I had a crew member! I stopped at the tent and asked Scott to find me a hoodie. I had only brought my thin running jackets, nothing as warm as I needed. So he went to Academy to look for a hoodie. He texted me about sizes—I thought an XL would be too big, so he brought me an L. Not big enough to fit comfortably over all the layers I was wearing, so back to Academy he went. He was a very good sport about it. I ended up with this awesome XL blue Nike hoodie. Extra-long arms with thumbholes!! Three weeks after the race, I still love it—it is SO comfortable. During the race, it was heavenly. Wow, what a difference that hoodie made. Along with the hoodie, I wore two pairs of gloves, arm warmers, a long-sleeved shirt, and a running jacket. I also had my baseball hat and my ear warmer headband. It took me a while, but I finally figured out that you could raise the hood on the hoodie, and that makes you a lot warmer. Yea, three college degrees, including one in engineering, and it didn’t occur to me to raise the hood on the hoodie. Sad.

As I trudged along, I admired the people who were still running. (In this paragraph, running = actual running, not walking. Elsewhere, running = propelling oneself forward via legs.) Some of these runners were amazingly fit. I had no idea it was possible for a human to run so long without a break. The first half of the day I noticed a guy (Jered, it turns out) who was wearing nothing but shoes and running shorts when most everyone else was bundled up. He was fast, and kept it up for a long time. I learned that he was a pediatric cancer survivor and had covered 175 miles at last year’s Snowdrop. Another guy I noticed, not because he looked fast, but because he just kept going round and round, same steady pace for hours, hardly any breaks. And actually he was pretty darn fast considering how long he’d been at it. I learned later that his name was Joe and he was the first American to run 600 miles in 6 days. He ran 250 miles in last year’s Snowdrop. Mind-boggling. And I never saw him with a pacer. There was a gal who didn’t seem as obviously impressive at first but then I noticed she kept running round and round and round also, at a pretty decent clip with hardly a break. Later, someone told me that she had been the national Ultrarunner of the Year a couple years back. Her name was Connie. I was totally blown away at how anyone could keep running so long. They hardly ever stopped, they just keep running and running. Round and round they went. Wow.

It got dark and I felt colder and colder. I was wearing long pants that had been sufficient for every running expedition I’d ever done in Houston, but they weren’t enough tonight. So, Scott went to Walmart and bought me a big pair of cheap men's sweatpants. They were a lifesaver—I pulled them over the top of my running pants and I felt immediately so much better. We discovered at this point how much I actually needed a crew member. I had no idea someone as slow as me would be so high-maintenance. It was such a hassle to get in and out of the tent and find things, and it was just really helpful to have Scott there. But he would need to sleep sometime. After he got me the sweatpants, I knew I would be okay for a while, so he went home to sleep a few hours and walk the dog. He realized I was going to need him tomorrow, so he got on the phone to work on dog-walking arrangements.

After Scott left (late Friday night), I mostly walked, but still occasionally would run a half-lap or so, mostly just to get warm. I didn't really feel like running, and I didn't want to go too fast because I knew too much running would kill any chance I had for the belt buckle. I really wanted to get to 50 miles the first day. The first 50 are bound to be easier than the last 50, right? I was likely to slow down the second day, so my only hope was to get past 50 the first day. Especially considering it was expected to rain all Saturday morning.

Each lap was 0.74668 mile. I had to do 134 laps to get to 100 miles, so 67 laps was halfway. Getting to 67 seemed to take forever. The laps crept by so slowly. How could I only be at 58 laps? I was at 52 several hours ago, right? Could the computer have missed a lap? (Once it did—my name didn’t scroll by on the little screen like it was supposed to. I mentioned it to the friendly timekeepers, who found the missing lap on the backup computer and adjusted my total.) Somehow, around 5 a.m., I finally made it to 67 laps. Although my feet were super-sore, I really wanted to do one more, so that I’d be closer to 100 miles than to 0 miles. But the rain had just started blowing in—only a light mist so far, but it would start pouring very soon. When the storm started, it would be really stupid to be caught way out on the other side of the track and go into my tent soaking wet, when I could have gone into my tent dry. No, I would be smart instead of greedy. Lap 68 would have to wait. As soon as I crawled into my tent and snuggled into my sleeping bag, the rain started. I texted Scott that I was okay and he should sleep a while longer. I was so exhausted I went right to sleep. I set my alarm for around 10 a.m. or so, and I think I semi-awoke, but it was still raining and I went back to sleep. I finally got up around 11:30, and did my Saturday writing session on my phone in the tent while it was raining. I still don’t have the willpower to break the stupid writing streak. (I wisely did my Friday writing at home, before heading to the race site.)

Gist of my incoherent Saturday writing session: “This sucks. Way harder than I expected. And it’s pouring rain. I am scared I have damaged my knees and it will probably be the knees that stop me, not the clock. They hurt. The belt buckle is not worth surgery. I have 26 hours left and it took almost 24 to get the first 50 miles done, so 100 miles seems quite hopeless. I slept way longer than I intended. Scott should have got me up earlier…but no, I should have calculated my splits and told him when to get me up. If I open this tent everything will be soaked. Can’t believe I slept 6 hours in my running clothes, how gross. There’s no way I will get to 100 miles, why on earth did I think I could? I am way too wimpy to walk 24 hours in a freezing rain. Okay, time to get up and get moving…if there’s even a tiny chance of finishing, I need to walk a while and see how I get on.”

I left the tent just after the rain stopped, around half past noon. Of course, I had missed breakfast, so I grabbed a granola bar and started walking. I didn't even try to run the second day. I just walked and walked. I worked out the time and knew my only hope was to walk nonstop until Sunday afternoon. I was only halfway to my 134 laps at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday. The first 50 miles took me over 22 hours, and that included some running. I knew I would not be able to run much the second half, so it would take longer. I would have to walk all day, then walk all night until sunrise, and then keep walking until it was over. If I slept at all, I would run out of time and miss out on my belt buckle. Saturday was lonelier than Friday…lots of people disappeared during the night. The track was soaking wet. I splashed through lots of puddles and my wet feet were freezing. But after a while, the weather actually warmed up a little, which was really helpful.

After my feet got soaked a couple of times, I took off my wet shoes, dried my feet, dusted them with baby powder, and put on new shoes and socks. I think this was Pair of Shoes #3. My dry feet felt so awesome, I wanted to keep them that way as long as possible. I started taking care not to walk directly in the puddles—I tiptoed through on the semi-dry places, or picked my way through the grass. That helped tons—my feet were damp instead of soaked, which kept them warmer. I kept walking, walking, walking.

The warmer weather felt so good. Eventually, long after everyone else shed their warm clothes, I finally ditched the sweatpants. I think I got so chilled from wearing the wrong clothes for so long Friday night, that it fouled up my thermostat. It made sense that the fast people didn’t need heavy layers, but even the slow walkers were wearing much less clothing than me. I just couldn’t get warm until well into Saturday afternoon. (I looked up the Friday night/Saturday morning temperatures…around the low- to mid-50s…that makes no sense—it felt like 35°F.)

I kept looking forward to the dinner signal, not so much because I was hungry but because dinner time was another milestone along the way. When it finally came, I didn't stop. I was afraid I didn’t have time to stop, so I just ate a granola bar. Scott checked out the dinner menu and told me he didn’t see anything I would like (hmmm….I believed him at the time, but maybe he only said that to keep me walking.) He went to Subway twice for me. The second time, he brought me two foot-long sandwiches. He got Subway to cut them into thirds, so I could have a manageable piece whenever I wanted. I put them right inside the tent door, and they kept me going all through the night (while Scott slept in the car).

It wasn’t long before the sun went down. It was warmer than the first night and there was no more rain. As it turned out, I had slept at the optimal time—I slept the entire time it was raining, and started walking immediately after the rain stopped. Beginner’s luck, maybe? Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the track gradually got better and better. I started to figure out where to walk. It was a porous surface, so the standing water started to drain, plus some of the dirty water went home on people's clothes. A few places were a little slick but I was so slow it didn’t matter.

I kept walking past sundown and into the evening. I don't even remember all the people I walked with, and I sure as heck don’t remember the times or the order. One of the most interesting was Don. He has run ultras in 17 countries (more or less, he couldn’t quite remember them all) and he holds at least one age group record for running certain distances. It seems he's run ultras forever—he is up to 14000 official race miles and that only counts races at least 50 miles long. Marathons don’t count. He finished the TransAmerica race across the U.S., the final time it was held. Don told me all sorts of stories. Pretty much every Don story would take at least two laps, so he was a great person to walk with. Feral cat stories might last four laps each. It was Don who pointed out Joe and Connie and told me about their awards/records. A week or so after Snowdrop, I got a cool surprise …I picked up my September 2016 issue of Texas Runner and Triathlete, which had been laying around unread, and guess what?...a feature story, an interview, with Don Winkley, Unknown Texas Ultrarunner and “the best Texas ultrarunner you’ve never heard of.” I am so glad I didn’t read it in September when it came, as it wouldn’t have meant anything to me then. It was so much more fun to flip it open in January and see Don’s picture and exclaim, “wow, I walked with that guy!” I learned from the magazine that Don started running at age 38, when he decided running was a better midlife crisis option than a mistress or a Jaguar. That makes all he’s done even more amazing.

I also enjoyed walking with Bill. He was trying to finish his hundred miles by Saturday night, because he was running a marathon in Kingwood on Sunday. He was a veteran and a kidney cancer survivor and seemed an all-around awesome guy. He was a fast walker too, so I made up some time when I walked with him. I missed seeing his 100-mile finish, but I heard it announced over the loudspeaker. I didn’t know Bill’s last name, but all the stuff the announcer said about him matched what Bill told me, so it must have been him. I looked for him in the food tent next lap, but didn’t see him. That’s okay; he was a pro at this and didn’t need any congratulations from me.

Here’s another out-of-order story, one of the highlights of the weekend: Don the Photographer. I met Don when he was taking pictures all around the infield the first day. He was wonderful, he had just the kindest face and demeanor. He noticed my bib number was 143, and he told me that 143 was a very special number and there was a riddle in it. He said it stood for three words and the first one was “I”. Every lap he would ask me what the riddle was. But I couldn’t figure it out. I kept trying “..one-four-three…. eye...for...three…. .I..forthright…” I kept trying to make sentences out of 143. I was completely baffled. He said that if I was still walking at 4 a.m., he would give me another hint. But long before we got to 4 a.m., he suggested I should just text someone. He said the longer the race went on the more difficult it would seem. So I should try to figure it out quickly. I think he really wanted to be there to see my face when I finally got it. So he couldn’t help giving me hints, even though it wasn’t 4 a.m. yet. He said that if I was married or had kids, it was very profound, probably the most profound thing of the whole weekend. Nope, that didn’t help. I was still completely stuck. During one of my breaks, I introduced Scott to Don, and I told him that Don had given me this riddle, and that my 143 bib number was supposed to be a very special number, but I couldn’t figure out why, and Don wouldn’t give me another hint until 4 a.m., which was still several hours away. And I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to figure it out even then. And Scott started laughing right away because he immediately got it. The riddle was extremely obvious to Scott. It wasn't obvious at all to me, but I was glad I finally know the answer. (Do you???) It had been really bothering me that I couldn't figure it out. Even after the riddle mystery was solved, I always looked forward to seeing Don. He is one of the kindest and most encouraging people I have ever met. (Don the photographer and Don the ultrarunner couldn’t have been more different, but I enjoyed them both.)

I walked with bunches of different people. I walked a while with my brother's friend Karen. Dave and Karen had met in a race and they had become instant friends, and I could see why. Karen was great. She had made the 100 miles last year, but she’d had some recent medical problems and wasn’t supposed to get her heart rate up. Sometime Saturday, she realized she wasn’t going to make the 100, so she aimed for walking her age instead. She ended up going a bit further than her age, I think she got 71 miles or so. Pretty good for a “B” goal! Dave had told me I should choose a B goal also—he suggested I should try to surpass 66.2 miles, so I could claim the family distance record (he got to 66.2 in a 24-hour race and said he will always regret the 5-hour nap he took—without that nap, he thinks he could have made 80 miles). I made 66.2 miles sometime Saturday evening. I knew Dave would be cheering for me when he saw me reach his distance mark. (Don’t worry Dave, it took me about 13 hours longer than you to get to 66.2 miles, so you’re still ahead.)

I also walked with Cathy. Scott and I saw her sitting at the picnic table when I went to change shoes and she was near tears. She said this is the point in the race where she always broke down, because this is where her husband would always tell her good luck, and he wasn’t there anymore. Apparently he headed out to run a 5K race a couple months ago, and he never came home. His heart. So hard. But Cathy is filled with grace and strength. And she got her hundred miles. I had finished a lap just before she got to her hundred and I saw her coming. Scott had been keeping an eye on her the whole time and checking on her, and so he told me when she was on her second to last lap. He wasn't going to go home until we saw her finish. So I took a break and watched Cathy finish, and gave her a big hug. I was so glad we met her. Cathy, hang in there…you’re so special.

Saturday night was New Year’s Eve. Scott was originally planning to spend the evening at our fellowship group’s New Year’s Eve gathering, but he decided to stay at the race with me instead. Neither of us had realized how much I would need a crew member. He asked some to walk our dog on their way home from the New Year’s party. My mom volunteered to dog-walk Sunday morning, and also to grab the lawn chairs from the house and bring them to the race. It had never occurred to us that we might want to sit on something during a 55-hour race. On one of his Scott’s Walmart expeditions, he bought a little folding stepstool for me. That was a huge improvement inside the tent. If there’s nothing to sit on, you have to crawl on the floor, which is rather difficult when your knees are stiff and sore from walking 50 miles.

I finished a lap at about 11:55 p.m. on Saturday, perfect timing for New Year's Eve. Everyone was pouring sparkling cider in the food tent. I opted to toast the new year with hot chocolate instead. Everyone was bubbly and smiling…it was fun. But I had no time to spare, so I started walking as soon as I finished my hot chocolate.

Scott spent most of New Year’s Eve night sleeping in the car. While he was getting some Z’s, he charged our little battery packs, so that I could keep my phone and iPod shuffling for 55 hours. The battery died while he slept, but fortunately we had brought jumper cables and a spare car, so it worked out fine. He said quite a few people were sleeping in their cars.

After the celebratory break at midnight, I kept walking and walking and just more walking. The night seemed so long. I have never walked that long in my life, not even close. The track was pretty empty most of Saturday night. The few people on it looked tired (except for Joe and Connie of course—I believe they rested part of the night, but when they were out there, they continued running strong). I made myself keep walking…staring at the sky hoping to see pink wisps of sunrise. It seemed to take forever, but eventually, the night gave way to grayish-pink streaks, and with them…FOG! How beautiful! I love fog. And this was a great place to experience it. No buildings, so you could see the foggy billows roll in. And not just see the fog, I could feel it. My sore feet couldn’t keep me from beaming with silly delight. When I watched the sun come up through that Sunday morning fog, there was nowhere else I’d rather be.

I walked all the way through, no stopping for breakfast. I got really excited when I got to 100 laps because that meant there were only 34 left. I have no idea what time that was. Somewhere in the night, my sense of time had completely abandoned me. I just knew I had to keep walking no matter what. Every so often I would go and change socks and baby-powder my feet. Scott had left me a giant back of clean socks. My feet had really ached a lot the first night too, but after I woke up they felt fine. Scott told me I looked much brighter and cheerier the second day, after I had slept through the rain, compared to how I looked Friday evening. That seemed odd to me, because I was really tired. But I really did feel like I got a fresh start on Saturday morning (well, afternoon actually….I started walking about 12:30), and I was able to walk quite a long time before I got tired and my feet started aching again. It was pretty motivating to be on the downhill side, and to actually see myself getting closer and closer to 100 miles.

While I walked, I kept working out the calculations to see if I really could get to 100 miles before the cutoff, and if so how much wiggle room I had. It seemed I had enough time to do it, but I didn’t trust myself. The evening before, we had calculated that I had about 5 hours to spare. But I had slowed down since then, and now I figured I had less than two hours of wiggle room, and I wasn’t even very confident in that. I had no choice but to keep walking. I didn't stop for breakfast or even a snack. They had bacon and eggs, which would have been just awesome, but I didn’t want to risk taking the time. I kept walking, the sun finally came up, and I gradually warmed up. After Scott woke up and took care of the car battery, I asked him to check my math, and figure out whether I could make it to 100 miles at my current pace. He said I could, and he promised to keep up with my splits the whole time, and to tell me if I slowed down too much.

It seemed I would never actually get to 134 laps. I was actually feeling fairly peppy, but my feet really ached. For the first time, I started to feel a little bored—I’d been walking such a long time. When I finally got to 120 laps, I got pretty excited…only 14 laps to go! That sounded great but gosh those laps were a slog. When I had about 10 left I was just miserable. I kept taking breaks every two/three laps to change socks and/or shoes. I have hardly worn my Sauconys or my Nikes since Dave converted me to Altras, but I was glad I had those Sauconys today. They hurt my feet in different places than the Altras, so it was nice to switch back and forth. The baby powder treatment always made my feet feel better, if only for a short time. (And, I must have done something right….not a single blister!!)

On Sunday morning, some people we were walking really strangely. It was obvious they were hurting and having an awful time. Some of those who looked the most miserable were the people who had been running really well early on. Some were getting worked on at the medical tent every couple laps; some were half-carried by other people; some were all crooked and scrunched up as they walked. It actually worked out to my advantage to be completely unfit and untrained. Because I was so unfit, I was very cautious and scared to run too much. Because I was so conservative at the beginning, I still felt pretty good for nearly all the last half.

After the sun rose on Sunday morning, it started to get festive. People were finishing, and all the people who had gone home or to their tents to sleep had come back to watch the end of the race. It turns out that there's a bell that everyone got to ring right before their last lap before 100 miles. Maybe they explained this at the beginning, but if so I missed it. I kept thinking if I can just get to the bell, I would be super-excited. I could hear people ring the bell and I could hear everyone celebrating at the finish line, but I felt pretty miserable. I kept slogging along, trying to ignore my aching feet.

Oh and here’s one of the coolest parts of the race. Becca. Ever since that (temporarily) lost lap on Friday night, I had been careful to look at the little TV screen to see my name scroll by and check my lap total. It was hard to see your name because it was on the far left, but you could see the hometown right next to the lap total. My hometown was Tomball and there weren’t too many Tomballs, so that worked out okay for me. I could see Tomball 120 laps, 121 laps and so I kept looking for that. But my brain was getting tired along with my body, and every lap it got harder to see Tomball’s progress.

Fortunately for me, there was this sweet gal at the finish line. I later learned her name was Becca. I don't know if she was with the race organizers, or with another runner, or just there to watch, but she took an interest in me. Every time she saw me coming, she jumped out of her lawn chair and blanket, ran over to the TV screen, and told me my laps. The timing booth people got to know me too, and they would holler, “good job Jennifer, you’ve got X laps.”

All this time, those two running machines Joe and Connie just kept running all night long. Just going and going. Jered too. Joe never had a pacer, he just ran by himself, round and round, splashing through the water and never seeming to mind. He seemed to be going the same speed he was at the beginning. I hardly ever saw him walk. Don, the guy who had run across the U.S. and who told me all the cat stories, said that Joe had decided to only do 200 miles this year (he did 250 last year), because he was obscenely unfit and overweight. (Joe’s words, I expect.) Someone walking with us disputed that assessment, but Don said Joe really was unfit and overweight, compared to when he ran the 600 miles in 6 days. Don said the 600 miles went to Joe’s head and he started eating too much.

As I kept walking, I got closer and closer to the end, but I was feeling tired and miserable and sorry for myself. I knew I was just being a wuss, because when I objectively evaluated my body parts, the only part of me that hurt were my feet. And the feet were really just a dull ache, no real pain and no sign of injury. My knees had given me twinges of pain starting around mile 40, which concerned me at first, but they didn’t get worse and actually improved as I walked more. The knees seemed pretty much fine once I got past 100 laps.

Karen (Dave’s friend, and now my friend too) had stopped at 71 miles, but she kept her timing chip on in case I needed her to pace me. She kept asking, “Jennifer, do you need me to go out and do a lap with you?” I felt miserable but I kept telling her, “not yet, maybe next lap.” It turned out I never needed her, and I just did my own thing. When I had five or six laps left, I whined to Karen, “my feet hurt” and I was just about in tears. I switched shoes and they still hurt but I kept walking. About four laps from the end I switched shoes for the last time. I kept thinking, “I can do this….three laps to the bell, four laps to the buckle”. Every time I went by the start line, my friend Becca was there to check my laps.

Here's one more cool thing about Becca, and this is out of order. When I was maybe about Lap 124 or so, I and I had passed the start line and was down at the far corner of the track, I saw Becca running toward me and calling my name. She ran all the way across the infield, through the mud, to tell me that if I kept doing 27 minute laps I would run out of time and miss out on my belt buckle. After I passed the start line, she had seen my 27-minute lap time and worked out the math. I reassured her that the last lap was so slow only because I had taken a bathroom break and switched my shoes….most of my other laps had been quicker. But wow… Who runs all the way across a muddy field to tell a total stranger that she needs to speed up if she’s going to make it? I was so tired and grateful I started crying…I didn’t even know her and she was so kind to me.

Don the Photographer and Becca were my ministering angels all weekend. What special people. (Even their names are special…my parents = Don and Rebecca.)

So finally, I came up on my bell lap, Lap 133. When I got there, I double-checked with the timekeeper, “you guys have it right, you’re not going to change your mind, are you?” and they promised me that no, they wouldn’t….there really was just one lap between me and 100 miles. So I ran over to that bell and rang it as hard as I could. Then I took off running. I hadn’t run a step since around mile 47, right before I went to bed in the tent. I ran all the way around the three-quarter mile track. My last lap was my fastest lap of the whole race. I ran past some walkers and yelled, “there's magic in that bell! …just keep going!” Don the photographer high-fived me about fifty yards from the end, and then he got out of my way so I could run in. And then….the most amazing surprise: two people (one was Becca) were holding up a finish line tape for me to run through. How cool is that? Yea, I got to break a finish line tape. Definitely a first for me.

Pretty soon after, they had a little ceremony for me and a couple others who recently finished. They had me stand in front of a big Snowdrop Foundation banner, and the race director presented the belt buckle. I can’t remember if she opened the container or if I did, but it contained a surprise: a 100 sticker for my car!! I just waved it around…I was so excited. I was still wearing my finish line tape (they let me keep it). Finishing was the funnest thing and I had an absolute blast. I was so thrilled. I couldn’t believe I was able to run the last lap after walking so far. I hoped the people I ran past didn’t think I was showing them up—some of them weren’t walking very well. I hope they knew that I didn’t mean to be unsportsmanlike or disrespectful; I was just so excited I couldn't contain myself.

Anyway, I had a really great time at the finish line. We took pictures, and then it was done. I plopped myself into one of the lawn chairs my mom brought. That made my feet very happy! I watched a few more people finish and get their buckles. I watched Connie and Jered finish; they ran fast laps right until the clock ran out. Exciting. (Joe and Connie both got 202 miles, and Jered got 179.) It finally started to sink in that I am a 100-mile race finisher. Unbelievable. What an incredible experience.

I looked again at the big Snowdrop Wall of Fame banner I’d seen at the race meeting. It listed the belt buckle winners from last year’s race. There was Joe with 250 miles and Connie with 200, and a couple other people at 200 or just under. And then there was a list of all the 100-milers, including my new friend Karen. And so next year, if they do the wall of fame again, I’ll be on it. Pretty cool. Anyway, that was my race report. If you managed to slog through the whole report, I’m sure you’re almost as glad to reach the end as I was to reach the end of my race.

All in all, a marvelous experience. I am so glad I did it. Next year will be even better. Dave, you’re coming, right?

My official results: 100.06 miles in 53:11:11, 90th place (out of 101 finishers of 100+ miles)

It took me just over 22 hours for the first 50 miles, then about a 7-hour break, then I walked almost 23 hours to finish.

Small lessons from my Snowdrop:

  • Bring a hard chair for the runner to sit on, one that is easy to get in and out of without bending legs. Or a box or a cooler. Anything. Also a small box or stepstool to sit on in the tent. No one wants to kneel or sit on the tent floor after running or walking 24+ hours.

  • Bring a chair for the crew member to sit on. How could anyone not think of this?

  • If you use your car for extensive phone charging, run the engine.

  • Clothes that work for run/walking 20 miles in the cold are not sufficient for walking 24+ hours at the same temperature.

  • If the runner has to bail early, she may be glad that she drove a separate car to the race. But if the runner actually continues to the end, she will not be in any shape to drive home. And the car has to get home somehow. (And if the freeway happens to be closed for a wreck on the way home, the exhausted runner may end up staggering embarrassed through a drugstore in search of fuel to wake her up.)

  • Plastic bags, with LABELS. Don’t put like stuff together. Put stuff that is needed at the same time together. For example, the baby powder goes with the socks, not with the toothpaste.

  • Even if you own several pairs of running shoes, buy more. Preferably different models and different brands. Make sure some of them have extreme cushioning.

Big take-away lessons from my Snowdrop:
  • Try something hard. Something you have no idea whether you can do. Something with a high probability of failure.

  • Just keep plodding. Even if you are severely lacking in speed or competence, you can accomplish a lot if you just don’t stop.

  • The best parts of a hard journey are the unexpected friends you meet along the way.

  • None of us knows what tomorrow holds. If there’s something you want to do Someday, do it now.










Friday, October 23, 2015

Hello, Friend Running

Hello Friend Running, nice to finally see you again.

Well, I know we’ve met a few times since I said goodbye to you last year, but for some reason it just didn’t click. Have you every scheduled a lunch with someone just to satisfy a nagging voice inside that said “you should meet up with so-and-so”? Then afterward it’s a relief to check something off the list, and you’re glad you did it, but the visit itself wasn’t anything special. That’s what my visits with you have felt like. I wanted to like you, Running, and I was supposed to like you, but somehow I didn’t like you very much. On the surface, you were polite, but you kept sneaking in little digs at my ego, and questioning my character. Instead of savoring my moments with you, I kept wishing the visit would end so we could both go home. You weren’t exactly a bore, but you were a somewhat unpleasant companion. Well, in a way you were a bore—but you weren’t a relaxing sort of bore, who obliviously drones on and on, allowing me to lose myself in my own thoughts. That sort of bore can actually be somewhat pleasant, especially when I am too mentally drained for a meaningful dialog. But no, you weren’t a relaxing bore—you were an annoying bore, a bore who expected me to actively participate in our exchange, regardless of whether I was enjoying it.

I wondered what I had ever seen in you.

After being away so long, I wasn’t surprised that our first few visits were awkward—I knew you weren’t one of those gushy sorts of friends who greets me with a big hug and tells me how great I am. Yes, I expected some initial tension, but I didn’t expect it to last so long. Had my extended absence had damaged our relationship beyond repair? I had expected to be gone 2-3 months, but was out much longer. When I finally returned, my visits were sporadic. Sometimes I would let weeks pass between our meetings. So I can’t really blame you for resenting me, or for wondering if I valued our friendship.

Then, on October 1, it finally clicked. It was a beautiful night, rather cool (which probably helped). I hoped to slog through three miles. Nope, that didn’t happen….. no slogging tonight! Instead, I ran five miles without stopping, and enjoyed every step. No more tension between us, just a relaxing camaraderie. And, not that pace matters, but I negative-split the whole thing, without even trying—each mile was faster than the one before. The last mile was at 11:45, a pace I haven’t seen since before my surgery—possibly my fastest mile since the dissertation.

So, was this a fluke, brought on by the first cool night after a Texas summer? I don’t think so. The miracle run of October 1 was followed by a couple others, not as fast but almost as enjoyable. That weekend, I logged 12 miles across a span of four days, a post-dissertation record. Three weeks later, we’re still getting along fabulously, almost like old times. The latest outing was a 6-mile jog on the treadmill. I actually enjoyed it, a big surprise—treadmill runs always seem harder than road runs.

Will it stick? True friends are treasures, and should not to be taken for granted. But I have a feeling Running isn’t going anywhere.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Writing Uphill with the Fitbit: Part I

My name is Biffet and I am a Fitbit. Eight days ago, I was adopted by a new owner. Well, maybe “adopted” is not the right word. She bought me, but thinking of myself as being adopted sounds cozier, so that’s what I’ll do. I was so glad to finally have a home—for quite some time, I had been locked in a glass cage in a small-town department store, along with about 40 other Fitbits. For a while, every Fitbit who arrived was adopted almost instantly. I overheard an employee say that her mom’s entire exercise class had wanted one, and were lying in wait for shipments, then snapping them up and taking them home.

Eventually, the store people figured out they needed to adjust their inventory, so they ordered a whole bunch of us. But as soon as we arrived, demand dried up. Apparently everyone in the exercise class already had Fitbits, and it’s not the sort of thing you need two of. So there we sat, pining for a way to get out of our cage. (Fitbits like to keep moving—they don’t cope well with sitting still.)

Then last Saturday, a lady showed up and walked straight up to our cage. She read the boxes, got a surprised and happy look on her face, then ran away. We were a little confused and disappointed—we were new and didn’t yet understand the routine. Soon, she returned, accompanied by a store employee jangling a bunch of keys. Our cage was unlocked, and the lady said, “I want one of those—the black Fitbit Charge HR in size Large.” And hooray, the employee reached in and chose me!! I was so glad I had thought to jostle my way to the front row a couple days ago, so I could peek out.

And yay, when I got to the car, I found a friend! Another Fitbit, just like me. But alas, it was a short-lived friendship. The lady said she had gotten a better deal on me, so she was returning the other Fitbit. (That’s how I found out I was purchased rather than adopted—a bit disheartening, but I am slowly learning to accept it.) Apparently my particular department store had a policy of paying people to shop. My owner had a wad of green papers that were a special kind of cash—cash that could only be spent at this one store. When she bought me with the special green cash, the store gave her more special green cash. It seems rather a strange way to run a store...I wonder how they stay in business? Maybe that’s why they have inventory problems. Anyway, my owner got paid to shop for me, yet she still referred to me as a rather extravagant purchase. Sigh...so many things I don’t understand.

Anyway, she took me home, got me out of the package, and plugged me in. She managed to install the phone app and the computer app without too much trouble. She was very glad it was so easy—she said it must be idiot-proof if she could do it. She’s a smart lady with a lot of college degrees, but apparently isn’t very confident when it comes to installing apps and programs. She said that was because she lives with someone who likes that sort of thing, and he always installs and updates stuff for her. She said it was hard to become skilled at things if someone else always does them for you. Makes sense to me.

While she was setting me up, she was intently watching a TV program. A bunch of horses walking around with tiny folded-up people on them. Then she laid the computer and phone aside, jumped up and down a lot, and even hollered a little. Then she just stared dumbfounded at the TV. I thought maybe she even cried a little, but that wouldn’t make sense. I heard something about a Triple Crown and 38 years since Affirmed. She said she wished she had been wearing me, so she could know how fast her heart was racing. (The HR in Fitbit Charge HR stands for Heart Rate.)

In only an hour or so, I was all charged up and ready to go. Yay! I am a fitness tracker, so I figured she would take me for a walk. That’s the whole point, right?

But no: she took me WRITING. Yes, she was so excited to have a fitness tracker, that she went to a restaurant and WROTE. The only steps I counted were back and forth to the soda machine, and one trip to buy dessert.

Then, we left the restaurant and went to a coffee shop. More writing. Actually, not so much writing, but sitting at a table recording survey data. She accused me of overestimating her steps—of counting a step every time her arm flipped over a survey. She simply had no comprehension of how many steps were involved in normal activities, like going to a coffee shop. (Well, maybe writing after midnight in a coffee shop isn’t normal for most people, but apparently it is for her.) Then, she got mad at me for starting a new day at midnight. This kept her from getting proper credit for the steps she took walking from the coffee shop to her car. She thought the day should end whenever she told it to, like her writing log. Or it could end at 2:00 a.m., if I wanted it to always end at the same time. But ending it at midnight was unreasonable. I sighed. This relationship was not off to a good start.

The next day was much the same. Writing. Bleh. Then Monday. More writing. What had I gotten myself into? Why did this lady want a fitness tracker? She said something about wanting to lose her dissertation weight, but she didn’t seem to understand that simply wearing a fitness tracker to coffee shops was not going to make that happen.

Then, Monday night, things changed. She took me for a long walk, with a friend and the friend’s Fitbit! Hooray! It was a beautiful night for a walk. It was fun to listen to the two friends talk. They talked about writing, among other things. They both have lots of papers they need to write. That was fine. From my point of view, talking about writing is preferable to actual writing. I asked my new Fitbit friend for advice about coping with this strange owner who wanted to write all the time. He said his owner was the same—she kept taking him writing instead of walking. His owner also mentioned dissertation weight—she doesn’t have any yet, but is afraid she will get some without her Fitbit. However, based on some things they both said and also on our own observations, we thought they both spent time doing other stuff they didn’t need to do, as a way to avoid writing. That doesn’t make sense—if they have stuff that needs written, and they talk about wanting to be good writers who actually finish things, why don’t they just write, instead of doing other stuff? And if they simply can’t stand writing, why don’t they walk around the block to avoid it, rather than always doing sedentary stuff?

But at least on this night, the two writing friends were walking. We gave them each a big pat on the back (well, really a vibration on the wrist), when they reached 10,000 steps for the day. (New Fitbits default to a daily goal of 10,000 steps.) Our owners said goodbye, and so did we. It sounds like I may get to walk with my new Fitbit friend occasionally—I hope so! If our owners insist on doing all this writing, we need to strategize about how to get them physically fit while doing it. It won’t be easy. (I will post another update soon....I am really hoping this weekend of writing was an aberration.)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Race Report: The Bryan-College Station Non-Marathon

In early 2013, I finally did it. I signed up for my first marathon, the Bryan-College Station Marathon, scheduled for December 2013. (Marathon distance = 26 miles and 385 yards). I had toyed with the idea before, but wisely decided I should finish my dissertation first. Now, it was time. The worst-case scenario had me finishing my dissertation in October 2013, and graduating with my Ph.D. in December 2013. It seemed fitting that my first marathon would be the BCS marathon, with a course meandering through and around the Texas A&M University campus. Like the marathon, the Ph.D. is a test of endurance — for me, a particularly long and slow one. If I failed to meet my August graduation target, then my marathon and my graduation would occur during the same week in December. That would actually be pretty cool.

I found a 6-month beginner training plan, counted the weeks backward from race day, and began training in July. My dissertation still wasn’t done (bye-bye, August graduation), so most training runs began after 10:00 p.m., when my favorite writing haunt kicked me out for the night. I stayed mostly on plan until August, when I went back to work. Then I started skipping most of the weekday runs. I persevered with the weekend long runs until September. I completed the scheduled 10-miler, then gave it up. It was simply impossible. My life had already been whittled down to four activities: working, writing, running, and sleeping. I only had hours enough for three out of four, and running lost out. Finishing my dissertation and keeping my job were far more important than running a marathon.

I cheerfully paid $10 to defer my registration to 2014. (Thank you, BCS marathon organizers—most races don’t offer this option.) Good thing, too. The day before the 2013 marathon, much of Texas was hit by ice storms. Race-time temperatures in College Station were below freezing, and I knew the runners were miserable. I was rather glad to be inside. I wrote 10.48 hours that day, divided between my favorite deli/bakery and my favorite coffee shop, all on Chapter 2. (That writing log sure is handy!)

So, 2014 was to be my marathon year. I finally defended my dissertation and graduated in May, leaving me over 6 months to train. Yea! However, my marathon plans were derailed again, by a major midsummer surgery. I had to say goodbye to running for over 8 weeks. I considered switching to the half-marathon (another shout-out to the BCS race organizers, for offering this option). Adding a mile a week to my long run would put me at a 10-miler two weeks before the race, right on par with many training plans. I made it to a long run of 6 miles, and thought better of it. I had nothing to prove, and there was no point risking long-term damage. I considered begging the race organizers for a second one-time deferral, but thought better of it. They had already been more than generous, allowing runners from ice-covered school districts to defer their 2013 registrations to 2014. Nope, I would write off the lost race fee as a dissertation expense, pick up my shirt and goody bag, and happily pay the registration fee next year.

Race day 2013 was frozen misery; race day 2014 was beautiful. The full- and half-marathon courses are both big loops, coinciding for the miles closest to the start and finish lines. My race day challenge was to travel by car from my apartment, just outside the race loop, to a church just inside. I tried breaking through the perimeter at three different points. At the third location, I eventually achieved success. This third choice of traffic jam was ideal, because it let me watch the race. I was westbound on Anderson, and the runners were eastbound. Based on the race’s start time, I was seeing half-marathon runners going about my speed. I was a little wistful — skipping the marathon was undoubtedly the right decision, but with careful pushing of the envelope, maybe I could have been among these runners, gutting my way through mile 12 of the half on a gorgeous morning. I admired the determination on their faces, and tried not to notice their running form. Hmmm, when I am running 11-minute miles (well, when I used to run 11-minute miles….I hope to do so again one day), it feels like I am zipping along at a pretty brisk pace — not world-class, but respectable. It definitely feels like running, not shuffling. Why do my pace peers seem to be shuffling?

My musings were interrupted by an air-horn. And flashing lights. Yea! Here comes a police motorcycle, escorting the marathon leader through the pack of slow half-marathoners. He was definitely not shuffling. I am by no means qualified to evaluate the relative difficulty of various athletic feats, but nothing seems more mind-boggling to me than the times of elite marathon runners. It was a huge deal when the first four-minute mile was recorded. That was ONE mile. How on earth do people run 26.2 miles at a pace below 5:00? In this small-town marathon, the winner’s pace was 5:25 minutes/mile. I have no idea whether that qualifies as elite, but it is downright amazing to me. All the runners and the spectators (both on the ground and in cars) gave him a well-deserved ovation as he sped by. I expected the second-place marathoner to be close behind, but I had to wait a long time. I wondered if I blinked and missed seeing him. After viewing the results, apparently not. The winner finished 9.5 minutes ahead of his nearest rival. Wow.

Of all the times I have been stuck in traffic for 45 minutes, this was by far the most enjoyable. I was sad when an officer finally waved me through a gap between runners. That’s okay, I saw enough to inspire me. Next year, shuffle or no shuffle, those cars will have to wait for me.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The 2014 Ten for Texas: A Story of Teamwork (and Redemption)

Here it is: my first race report since saying goodbye to running in late July.

This past weekend, I participated in the 10 for Texas. It’s a 10-mile race in The Woodlands, Texas, and it’s one of my favorites. I’ve run it twice before—until this weekend, my 2011 experience was the most memorable. Now, it’s a tossup.

Here’s my swag from this year:


On Friday, I reported to the packet pickup site at 2:00 p.m. Another volunteer demonstrated how to stuff race bags with shirts, hats, and coupons. However, I didn’t get much opportunity to put the lesson into practice—my bag-stuffing partner was an absolute whiz at it, and the bag-stuffing rate decreased whenever I stuck my clumsy paws in to help. So, while she stuffed bags like mad, I went to work greeting the runners. As each runner arrived, I pulled the correct (hopefully) race bib out of a numerically organized accordion file, and grabbed a race bag stuffed with the appropriate-sized shirt. I handed the bib to the sleep-deprived race organizer, who checked it in on the computer. It didn’t take long to learn my lines. “Do you know your bib number?” “You can look up your bib number on the wall outside the store entrance.” “Don’t forget the safety pins; they’re at the end of the table.”

(For my non-running or non-racing readers: Race bibs are different from baby bibs, though both are worn on the front of the shirt. Race bibs are just squares of coated paper that display the runner’s race number. In this case, they are also embedded with a timing chip, used to record the runner’s official time as he or she crosses the start and finish lines.)

Soon another volunteer arrived, making my job easier. Now I didn’t even need to grab the bags—I just told Lauren, my new partner, the shirt size, and she found the bag and gave it to the runner. Pretty soon, I had to learn another line: “We’re so sorry, we’ve run out of Small shirts. You can choose a Medium or an Extra Small.” Lauren knew the drill—as soon as she spotted a bib that said “Small,” she grabbed two model shirts, tossed one to me and held up the other. “I’m holding a Medium shirt, and Lauren is holding an Extra Small. Which one would you like?” The runners were amazingly good sports about it, with very few showing any disappointment or annoyance. Runners are an easygoing bunch, I think. Hmm, I wonder why…is it possible that running could have positive effects on one’s mindset?

I had a blast at packet pickup—the time flew. Lauren and I stayed until our host, the Luke’s Locker running store, locked its doors at 7:00 p.m. My surgically sliced abs performed well, and didn’t start barking at me until the fifth and final hour of my shift. I left the stored tired but happy. The tiredness was partly from being on my feet for 5 hours, but mostly from knowing I had to report to Hydration Station #3 at 6:30 a.m.

It was dark, with hardly any traffic, when I parked my car on the grass verge of Lake Woodlands Drive. Our hydration station was in the median, at a crossover. It was an out-and-back course, so we would see the runners twice, about Miles 3.5 and 7. Maybe a dozen volunteers (I didn’t count) were assigned to the station. Most of us didn’t know each other, so we set to work making new friends.

The race organizers clearly knew what they were doing, and had supplied us with everything we needed. There were eight tables, four or five Gatorade-filled coolers, and a big blue reservoir called a Water Monster. We had lots of cups, extra trash bags, rakes (to pick up the discarded cups), and three water pitchers (which would have been enough, if we had figured out our efficient water-pouring system at the beginning instead of the end). A plastic bin held bug spray, ponchos, band-aids, and other sundries. It also contained our bright yellow volunteer T-shirts, individually labeled with our names. After a quick shirt switcheroo (under cover of darkness, behind a fellow volunteer’s SUV), we were ready to work.

Before long, all the tables were covered with cups of Gatorade and water. We watched and waited, and finally saw our first runner! He was speeding along, and didn’t need anything from us. Others soon followed, until we had more than enough customers. We shouted “Gatorade! Water up ahead!” and “Water! Water!” At first, all went well. The cup-fillers were keeping up nicely with the cup-distributors. But then we got slammed—the runners were slurping the drinks faster than we could replenish them. I started out filling Gatorade cups, but soon switched to water, our more desperate need.

It was crazy. We filled water cups furiously, but still couldn’t keep up. “Why did they only give us three pitchers?” Fill cups until pitcher runs out. Sprint to Water Monster. Wait impatiently for pitcher to fill. Tell Water Monster to hurry up. Get mad at Water Monster for obeying the laws of physics. Meanwhile, some unfilled cups are temporarily abandoned, risking that the cup-distributors mistakenly grab the empties and offer them to the runners. (It happened, I’m sure.) The cups were generally laid out by a separate person, so the pitcher-wielder could concentrate on pouring and refilling. But sometimes the cup-arranger had to stop and shove the full cups toward the street side of the table, so the cup-distributors wouldn’t grab the empties. Then the cup-arranging would fall behind.

Eventually, we started to get traction. Our efforts were just as frenzied but not as futile. We were catching up. The improvement was mostly due to the slower runners being more spread out, but partly due to improvements in our processes. For example, I learned that I had been pouring all wrong. I had been tilting the pitcher down for each cup, then back up, then back down for the next cup. This wastes a ton of time. Instead, I needed to make sure all the cups were touching, then pour a whole line of them in one continuous motion, without lifting the pitcher. Who cares if the table gets wet? I wish I could take credit for figuring this out, but I learned it from another volunteer. I think she had worked water stops before, but maybe she was just a whole lot smarter than me. Yea, three college degrees, including one in engineering, and I can’t figure out the optimal way to pour water. Embarrassing.

We didn’t get to breathe for long. We had survived the westbound rush, but now the eastbound rush was beginning. (It was an out-and-back course… the runners u-turned a couple miles down Lake Woodlands Drive.) This meant a do-over opportunity, and we hoped to redeem ourselves. The well-stocked tables on the eastbound side had been robbed during the earlier chaos, so we were starting from scratch. That was just fine, because we were improving by the minute. Our previous disorganization had gradually been replaced by efficient teamwork. One person “cupped,” covering the table with long straight rows of cups. Two of us poured continuous lines of cups, working from opposite sides of the table to avoid collisions. One guy did nothing but fill water pitchers. As soon as my pitcher emptied, he handed me a full one. Water Monster still obeyed the laws of physics, but moved faster, thanks to someone discovering that the hose-tap released a larger stream of water than the thumb-press spigots. (Easier on the thumbs, too.) Through proactive communication, we avoided the full/empty mixups: “Pull from Table 2!” Then the cup-distributors used Table 2 and left us alone. When Table 1 was 100% covered in filled cups, we shouted “Pull from Table 1,” and got to work on Table 2. It worked beautifully.

After a while, we were well ahead and I finally had time to watch the race. I handed out a few cups of water and Gatorade, just to experience another aspect of volunteerhood. I am definitely not cut out to be a full-time cup-distributor. The task requires far more coordination than I possess—you have to hold a cup in your outstretched hand, and let it go at exactly the right time, without either dropping the drink or getting your hand tangled with the runner’s hand. Even trickier, you need to get in and out of position without tripping the runners or yourself. I managed okay with the slower runners, but when the leaders come through, I’d better stick to pouring water or cupping tables.

The best cup-distributor in our crew was also the youngest. Well, she may not have been the most efficient, but she brought a smile to the most runners’ faces. She was a beautiful young lady, about eight or ten years old, and she distributed three cups at a time—one in each hand, and one balanced on her head. If she stood very still and the runner was coordinated and not too fast, it worked well. I hope she didn’t try it with the leaders.

By this time, nearly all the work was done. The westbound (first) side of Hydration Station #3 had already been broken down, and the equipment was neatly stacked in the median. I didn’t even see it happen. One young man had raked cups for several blocks, all the way to the stop lights on either side of our crossover. He searched the bushes and pulled out every stray cup. The trash bags were filled, tied, and stacked. We cheered for the remaining runners, with an especially loud cheer for the last runner. With all of us helping, it took almost no time to clean up the eastbound side, rake the cups, stack the equipment, and empty the Water Monster.

As an extra-special bonus on a special day, I got to say hello to my friend Fred, as he grabbed some water on his way to the finish line. Three years ago, I had the honor of running the first couple miles of the 10 for Texas with him. At that time, he was 83 and the oldest runner in the race. He’s still at it.

What a marvelous morning. I was sad to see it end, and sad to say goodbye to my crewmates. Before the race started, I was determined to run the 10 for Texas next year. Now, I’d almost rather volunteer again, especially if it meant reuniting with my Hydration Station #3 team. Next year, we’ll know all the tricks from the get-go, and we’ll get it right the first time.