The hot almost summer: Running the ECHO Half Marathon

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Florida sunrise: Photo by Megan AKA “Megalicious”

 

I was in a bad mood. Sore and tired from a rough race and delayed flight the night before – I was looking for a reason not to run another race this weekend.

Luckily, I looked for it with my friend Megan, who would not let me bail, no matter how hard I tried, and I did try.

  • The shirt and medal would probably be lame – it’s a small local race which was very inexpensive to enter. NO – she saw them at packet pickup – a pink shirt an adorable medal were waiting for me.
  • It was storming and the race might be canceled. NO – the storms had passed and had actually cooled down the temperature.
  • I was hurt (a neck strain and blisters) from running in the rain yesterday – I might get swept. NO – there is a 4 hour time limit, making it a walker friendly race.

So I drove to Osteen, Florida (which it turns out, is only 30 minutes from my house, right next to the Sanford International Airport) for the inaugural ECHO Half Marathon. Runners parked in a large field as the sun rose over the trees on the horizon. Familiar faces from the Orlando running community greeted me, as my spirits rose, a little.

The race started down the quite road, and soon turned onto the paved trails of Green Springs Park. The tree canopies here were beautiful, and as I looked out over the calm waters of Lake Monroe – I remembered why I love Florida so much.

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Miles 9-11.5 were very hot – but in fairness, it is June, and it is Florida. The race directors not only had ample water at every stop – there were 14 water stops in a 13 mile race. In addition there were Icy Pops and Cookies at mile 5, and Gels at mile 7. Although I did not see them – other runners told me there were Jello Shots along the way as well. I cannot confirm this, but I would not be surprised by it!

At the finish line, the medal, which was indeed beautiful – was accompanied by an assortment of food and festivities. Dunkin Donuts had donut holes and coffee, while BBQ was provided with unlimited free beer and Ice Cold Strawberries. Shuttles took runners back to the start line, while those who has stayed at the host hotel near the finish (shuttles were provided to the start line) made their way back.

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This race was started with the goal of raising awareness of the new East Central Regional Rail-Trail, which will eventually span 52 miles from Enterprise to Edgewater.

The organizers website explains that “The ECHO Grant has enabled the trails to be built. Local runners, walkers and bikers are utilizing portions of these trails every day thanks to ECHO. We want to ensure the publicity gets out about these trails and the importance of continuing the efforts to complete the rail-trail in its full vision”.

A friend of mine, who lives in the area noticed my Facebook check-in for the race and asked me about the trails, interested in biking them. He had been unaware they were completed. I realized in this small example, that the vision of this race was being realized.

It was a beautiful day, and I am glad I ran. Although I was still sore and tired, I left with spirits much higher than I had arrived with. I would run this race again and would recommend it to anyone looking for an often hard to find June half-marathon in the south.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Longer distance, better bling: Looking back “Masters of all terrain” Inagural race

Finding summer races in Florida is hard, the heat and humidity can be brutal, keeping the distance running season confined to September – March. Last year when the opportunity for a half came around in July, I jumped at the chance to do the Masters of All Terrain Inagural Race. This year, one June 14th, they have expanded to not only include a full, but 50K and 50 mile Ultra options.

After many people asked me about my experience in the first year, I decided to revisit that review:

You got what you signed up for here. The race was called “masters of all terrain” so the grass, gravel and dirt roads came as no surprise.

I found the course to be incredibly well-marked.  Red flags indicated the turns, and pre-race instructions told us to keep these to the right.  At the few turns where there could have been confusion  there was either a water stop or bright yellow tape that you would need to step over to go the wrong way. The course ran long, I measured it at 13.8 miles, even running the tangents as efficiently as possible. This would have been a bigger deal if we had not been told before the race started that this was the case.

Runners received both a  custom sport-fit T-Shirt and Medal at the finish line. The t-shirt is of good quality – heavy and soft, and the Medal is better than many I have received at much larger races. Those that “Run for Bling” were beyond satisfied. Age group certificates were given out three deep, and custom trophies were handed out to the over-all male and female winner. In addition there was a massage tent with 2 tables doing post-race massages, as well as an optional fitness competition at the end, with no additional fee to enter. Plaques were given to the “fittest man”, “fittest woman” and “fittest team”.

When it came to organization and support, there were some struggles, but nothing that is not an easy fix for the next event.

There was a 35 minute delay at the race start, which is a pet-peeve among seasoned runners.  This was due to the lines at the porta-potty’s. Much criticism was made about the fact that there were only 2 available for 200 runners. According to Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray, you need one porta-potty for every 50-75 race participants. Before the race began the race director said, “I should have ordered 4, next year there will be 4”.  That said, the lines were not longer than those I have waited in at Disney, and they really only got long 20 minutes before the race started, so there may be shared responsibility with runners who tend to come to smaller local races at the last-minute.

The bigger problem, was the water. It was a very hot day, and the volunteers ran out of water after I was at the 6 mile mark. I was told that runners behind me had nothing after 4. This is the “unforgivable sin” of race day. Runners will forgive a lot, but dehydration is a tough one to overcome.  It should be noted that because of the heat, everyone early on took water, and most took 2 or 3, and sometimes 4 at each stop, dumping them over their heads. This made a shortage for those in the middle and back of the pack. The reality is simple, there needs to be so much water that running out is not a possibility.  Like the former issue, I am confident this will not be an issue at future races.

The saving grace for the race director was this. Where some would have (which I have seen first hand) hid and laid blame, the director and his team were frantically going back and forth to runners with jugs of water from the finish line.  While I missed the water at miles 8 and 10, the gator with cold water arrived to me at mile 11, this got me safely to the finish line.
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So yes, there were some complications, but it was a beautiful day with great people from the running community. Runners are forgiving, especially when a director is new. Like I said, the things that went wrong are easy fixes, and June half-marathons, for those of us who wish to do them, are not an easy find. A good discount code, the promise of more water, and maybe slightly bigger bling will bring us back in droves!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning the quick step: 13.1 miles through the wetlands

I arrived at the Orlando Wetlands Park, located in Christmas, Florida (only about 40 minutes from my house) for race morning packet pick-up. Parking in the dark was daunting, but as the sun came up and cast it’s rosy glow on the row of parked cars, I was reminded how short the journey is to explore the native state of the central Florida ecosystem. 
This was not a race I had been planning to do… for months my schedule had me going to Hilton Head for a much anticipated run, but after several days of fighting a cold, I acquiesced to the reality that sleep needed to take precedent over driving all day Friday – so I found this local race on the Running in the U.S.A. site and registered the day before. 
I have done several races with EPIC Sports Marketing, so I had a pretty good idea what do expect – not a lot of frills, but a reasonably priced and well organized event. The fact that I could sign up just before the race for under $50 is almost unheard of at established races lately – and the quality of the T-Shirt for this event surprised me, although most of the races I have done with EPIC in the past have been 5Ks. Under the pavilion where friendly volunteers distributed race bibs was the assortment of post-race snacks – fresh fruit and breads, peanut butter, jelly and nutella all awaiting the famished runners that would soon return. 

As runners wove on dirt roads through the wetlands, I realized this was a great local run for trail practice, on terrain which was not too aggressive. A welcome break from hard pavement without the challenge of loose sand or tall grass. I marveled at my surroundings, content that my recent illness would require a lot of walking during this race. I had no reservations about taking it slow… this was one of those “run to finish” days…. and then I saw the sign…
Now, as a Floridian, I know there are Alligators, but seeing them is not one of my favorite activities. I found myself taking quicker and quicker stems as I watched the eyes bobbing just above the water line. These were not small alligators either, and the one pictured above was way to close to the bank for my liking.
As I curved around the water, contemplating all I knew about running from gators (which basically consisted of zig-zagging) I spotted a dozed trees in the distance with hundreds of birds perched on their bare limbs. Were these vultures? GREAT…. waiting for the gator to finish with me I supposed… my quick steps got suddenly quicker.

This was a double loop course, so this journey happened a second time, and I was incredibly happy to see the finish line and receive my medal for the 10th Annual Orlando xTreme Half Marathon…. having seen the creatures I encountered along the way – I believe now it is the perfect name for this race.
This isn’t the run for everyone, and I am not sure I will do it again, but I will continue to run many of the runs offered up by this race group, and am excited to see that each year they continue to add new races of varying distances to their schedule.

Runners in the mist: 13.1 miles at the Melbourne Music Marathon

In this world of simplistic photo manipulation… There may be the need to add #nofilter to the above photograph. These were the conditions through much of the race at the Melbourne Music Marathon.  
The heat this weekend was nothing to take lightly, as runners of every caliber struggled with hydration issues. Thankfully the organizers at this race had ample water along the course with stops almost every mile. 
One of the hallmarks of this race are the beautiful views from the bridges, however due to the fog, the view was obstructed, luckily the many bands and wonderful musically inspired running quotes lining the track provided entertainment along the course. 
There was a strong showing from the Half Fanatics and Marathon Maniacs at this race, which always provides and extra boost of encouragement throughout the race! 
If there were awards for sweetest and saltiest stops along a race course, the Melbourne Music Marathon might win both of them… sweetest for the official HARIBO Gummy Bear station… and saltiest for the Pucker Up Pickle Juice Stop!
I am not a huge fan of the bottle opener race medal trend, but this one was done with class and style. 
A short walk from the finish line was the post-race festival, with water, pizza, muscle milk, beer, and a dunkin-donuts station. It was a family friendly and welcoming event on this hot Florida “winter” day. 

Of fog and fellowship: Running 13.1 miles at the BEST DAMN RACE

It is this sunrise  that beacons runners to the west coast of Florida… that perfect glow over the calm waters behind a cascade of swaying palms… the serene beauty which provides the backdrop for a southern winter race.

Runners gathered anxiously in the sleepy streets of Safety Harbor, FL for the self titled “Best Damn Race”. The signature of this brand is that the entry fee is tiered starting at $1 for for the first 10 registrants, going to $5, $10, $15, $35, $55, and finally $65. They offer a 5K, 10K, 5+10K Challenge, and Half-Marathon at this event. The races are very family friendly and there is bonus bling for challenge participants. For many Floridians, a big draw for this event is the race day bib pick-up option. 

Much of this race was run in the streets of this small town, but they were well marked and supported. This being an exceptionally warm winter, the humidity provided an extra challenge.


This was my first year running in Saftey Harbor, however runners from the first year remarked that the race medal was upgraded significantly this year. 

As I pulled away the humidity and fog were diminishing visibility, with another coastal race in the morning, I was doubtful that the weather was going to improve. These are the challenges of Florida running, but with a nation covered in snow, sympathy for extreme heat is hard to uncover! 

A Sunday Celebration: 13.1 miles in the "Town that Disney Built"

As a long time resident of Central Florida, I remember the talk when the Town of Celebration was built in the mid 1990’s. Designed by architects commissioned by The Disney Company – the town was developed to be practically perfect in every way. 

The race director and visionary team for the Inaugural Town of Celebration Marathon and Half Marathon put together an event that held true to this very high standard. 

Often an inaugural race is plagued with difficulties, but this one ran like a well-oiled machine. Pre-race communication with runners was excellent, from how to switch between distances (at no cost) to where to park on race day. 

Arriving at 5:30AM, the volunteers were set up and handing out beautiful tech tees in an organized, indoor space. A mobile DJ played music and an announcer gave detailed instructions about the course. With no delay, the race started right on time. 
The course was varied and interesting. Much of it wove through the beautiful homes nestled throughout Celebrations 16 acres, on developed pathways, and over several miles of boardwalks. 

The instructions to stay to the right and pass on the left through narrow areas, given at the beginning and repeated on signs throughout the race was respected by runners. While the pathway was often narrow, runners of varying speeds were able to move through it without difficulty. 

In addition to the informative signs, there were a variety of funny ones, some made by spectators, and some put out by the race itself. 

My favorite – poking fun at the Disney Race so many of us ran just two weeks ago, is pictured above. 

None of the worries runners have with inaugural races were an issue here. 

  • There were plenty of bathrooms, at the beginning and throughout the race. 
  • There was A LOT of water, more than most, almost every mile. 
  • There was energy gel provided at one of the stops
  • There was enthusiastic volunteer support from beginning to end. 
  • The path was safe, well marked, supported, and interesting. 
  • AND THEY DIDN’T RUN OUT OF MEDALS

Speaking of which, the medal was beautiful, and the ribbon it hung on was stunning. 

At the finish line festival, runners were handed a food and beverage card. In addition to the water and soda found at any race – there were samples (of substantial size) from the many of the restaurants around the Town Center. My favorite was the Garlic Knot from Upper Crust Pizza Cafe, and of course some Starbucks Coffee

The finish line festival was still hopping when we made our way back to the car, but this wonderful event reminded me that I should visit this charming local spot more often. 

There are many races I would do again, this one I am excited to do again. I would recommend it to anyone… but it sold out fast this year… so those who are interested, may want to follow their Facebook page for the announcement about next years race, I have a feeling year two will sell out in record time. 

Reference:

http://architecture.about.com/od/plannedcities/ss/celebration.htm

White sand and blue skies: Running the Clearwater Halfathon

It was a chilly morning, and gathered in the glow of the dawn were thousands of runners ready to “Conquer the Causeway” in Clearwater, Florida. The race, scheduled for 7:05AM started off about 20 minutes late, so by the time the runners were moving, the sun was up and the warm gulf breeze was starting to set in.

The Halfathon, which is the Half-Marathon, is joined by a Full Marathon Option as well as a 5 miler, and a 5K. This is the third of four races in the Florida Gulf Beaches Road Race series, and will be expanded to include a 50K in January 2015. 
The race had very little ocean view… a quarter mile or so on the way out and the same on the way back, but the glimpse was enough to remind those of us that live a few hours away why this coast can beckon – the sand is white and the water is blue… and even on a cold morning such as this it looks so inviting. 
Runners soon learned that they would conquer the causeway multiple times, four times (twice over two different bridges) in the Halfathon. While challenging, this does provide some of the best views during the race. 
Much of the race was an “out-and-back” on a fairly busy road, much of which was a single track and difficult for runners to pass. This did not prove problematic during the halfathon, however several runners running the marathon (within the time limits) remarked that by the time they were headed back the police support had been pulled at the end and runners were getting lost, and the traffic was very heavy. 
The medals for the Clearwater Running and Fitness Festival, as well as all of the races put on by Chris Lauber, the Race Director (who often mentions the evolving designs are the artistry of his wife) are a huge draw for these events. They are both playful and high quality, and match the long sleeve heavy weight cotton tee. The shirt was one of two options, runners could also opt for a short sleeve technical tee. 
After the race, runners were treated to the normal post race snacks: Bananas, Beer, Water, Soda, Cookies, etc… but at the end of this line was a pasta station with two delicious options. As part of my, ahem, “blogging duties” I sampled both…. and both, I am happy to report, were quite delicious!

Once home I engaged in a new post-race ritual: The Detox Bath. 2 cups Epsom salt, one cup baking soda, and some essential oils are added to hot water. A 30-40 minute soak, while I re-hydrate and read restores my joints and leaves me feeling fresh, but very relaxed. 

This seems to be helping with all of my double race weekends… I was ready (and did) hit the gym on Monday with little soreness! 

Sand Dunes and Daydreams: The ZOOMA women’s half marathon

The expo for the ZOOMA Women’s Half Marathon was held in a quiet conference room at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island. Participants were offered a reduced rate at this luxury hotel, where the race would end and the post race party would take place. Although small, it did not lack in quality. The tech shirt was lovely, although it ran small. This has become quite normal, and most runners size-up. Even though this is a women’s race, they did offer a unisex shirt for men who registered, a nice touch. 

The adorable swag bag pictured below also included a very nice running hat and a pair of “Feetures” performance socks, which I run in often and love, so I was very excited! 

There was also a knowledgeable rep from Cabot Farms who was sampling three amazing new cheeses, Luna bars, Hint Water (which I would find out later is amazing) and Muscle Milk. Honest Tea was sampling all five types of their tea, as well as four new organic sodas, I fell in love with the Root Beer which has no calories and and sweetened with stevia! 


After the cerebral smorgasbord of  stimuli at the Disney races last weekend, this small, peaceful point-to-point course course was a welcome reprieve.  Winding for the first seven miles through the peaceful terrain of Fort Clinch State Park, and then grazing the coastline down A1A for the last six, the calm waters and towering sand dunes seemed majestic on this cold Florida morning.

The last quarter mile of the race turned onto the beach, and the soft sand made for a challenging finish. Water and Bananas were provided, but the real after party was a short walk away on the beautiful greens of the Ritz Carlton. The finishers medals were lovely, with a sun charm dangling between two palm trees. 

Yoga and foam rolling was available under the Muscle Milk tent, vendors with shoes and merchandise were set up as well. A love band sang well-known favorites, and a crowd was dancing in front of them, this was not a crowd that felt the party needed to end at 13.1 miles! 


The tear off ticket from the race bib was exchanged for a food box with hummus in a pita, pasta salad, and a cookie. Honest Tea and Cabot were both back with plenty of samples, I could not resist some more of each! The farmhouse reserve was my favorite, and I learned they are a co-op which I love! 


In addition to the vendors from the expo, Barefoot Wine Company was there sampling wines and bubbly. I chose the Citrus Fusion which was outstanding.  An organized shuttle system took us back to our cars at the starting point, ending a perfect day of running, laughter, and the generous spirits that make us keep coming back to these events. 

Running 48.6 Miles at Disney: The Dopey Challenge

The Dopey Challenge made its debut at Walt Disney World in January of 2014, with thousands of runners paying for the opportunity to run 48.6 miles over four days at the happiest place on earth.


Pulling up to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on a warm Wednesday morning, the lines were already beginning to form. Disney has the expo experience down to a science, with dedicated buildings divided into stations for those doing individual races, those taking on the Goofy Challenge (where runners complete the half marathon on Saturday and the full marathon on Sunday) and another for those running Dopey (which is the Goofy Challenge plus a 5k on Thursday and a 10k on Friday, for a total of 48.6 miles). 

The Swag Bag for Dopey included one short sleeve cotton tee for the 5k, and five long sleeve tech shirts for the 10k, half and full marathons, as well as one for Goofy and another for Dopey. The shirts run small. Knowing this from previous years most runners size up – however there was a convenient shirt exchange station for anyone wanting to size up or down on the spot. 

Runners needed only two bibs, one for the 5 and 10K and another for the half and full marathon. These bibs all featured Dopey, whereas people running single races received bibs with the featured character for that race (Pluto for the 5k, Minnie for the 10k, Donald for the Half-Marathon, and Mickey for the full Marathon).

Wandering the isles of the vendor expo, the reality that this day was finally here set in. It had been so long since registration. Last year when my running partner and I had run the Goofy Challenge we said “never again” but were among the first to register for Dopey when it was announced. 

Pulling into the EPCOT parking lot at 4:00AM the swarms of sleepy runners, 10,000 in total, made their way to the start line. There is no shortage of support at these races, with port-a-pottys, food vendors, and volunteers around every corner.


Knowing what was ahead of us, we made the decision to walk the 5K. Going without music, feeling no pressure to hurry, and enjoying the sites and sounds of the World Showcase – the 3.1 mile winding path really was just a walk in the park! Many around us seemed to have adopted this same strategy.

I have a Florida Resident Seasonal Weekday Pass, so my running partner and I decided to visit Animal Kingdom for a few hours that afternoon, and finished the day with a visit to The Rainforest Cafe, located just outside the gates. With tired eyes and full stomachs we went back to the hotel for an early night, falling asleep around 8PM.
Day two was the 10k, which we panned to walk as well, but ended up running the second half of the race, which left EPCOT and wove through Disney’s Boardwalk. It was a little cooler and our bodies were wanting to run. Spending a few hours at EPCOT after the race, we again headed back for another early night.

One of the benefits of staying at a Disney Property during the race is well-organized transportation to and from the race. Like most things at Disney World, signs are everywhere and help is around every corner. Walking to the front of the hotel at 3AM – rows of busses were in place ready to take us to the parks each morning, and back to the hotel immediately after the race with little wait-time.

Day three was the half-marathon, and the size of the crowd increased from 10,000 to close to 25,000 runners. Runners had their game face on for this race – although Disney continues to be one of the most relaxed races out there, where runners stop along the race for photos with characters, and even ride a few rides along the way. 

During the half I didn’t stop for character photos, but I took pictures at the 3, 6, 9, and 12 mile markers.

Look who was greeting the runners as they finished the half marathon!

That afternoon – my friends went back to the park and I stayed at the hotel to relax. Recovery for me came in the form of a long nap on a poolside Hammock.  We were in bed by 6:30, with our alarms set for one last morning at 2AM.

I ran 27 half marathons in 2013, but the last full marathon was a year prior at Disney. I knew I was not trained for more than 13-15 miles, so I knew this day would be a challenge.


The full marathon runs through all four parks, the first of which is the Magic Kingdom. It was still dark when we entered and the castle was lit up in all its beautiful glory. 

In addition to the ample water stations there are two stops with Bananas, the first of which is just after mile 8, and two stations with a variety of gels provided by CLIF Bar.

Next came Animal Kingdom, where as the heat of the morning was starting to set in. I always feel like I can run faster in the parks.

Heading into ESPN’s Wide World of sports many runners take the opportunity to use a real restroom and enjoy the cool towels handed out by volunteers outside the track. 

After mile 18, I walked the majority of the race, knowing I was safe to finish in under the 7:00 time limit. We entered MGM after mile 22 before making the fourth and final run through EPCOT toward the finish line.

It was a beautiful, sunny day – not nearly at hot as the 2013 race, and although I had not trained well, I took over 20 minutes off last years time. Unlike last year – I am already thinking about coming back in 2015 – which also happens to be the 15 year anniversary for The Goofy Challenge, which historically means fancy bling for that race. 

I was surprisingly not sore after the race, and know I could have pushed harder… but I have 55 races left in 2014 – including a return to Disney at the Glass Slipper Challenge at the Princess Half Marathon at the end of February. 

The Blue Moon Half Marathon

It is always a blessing when a race is driving distance from home and offers same day packet pick-up. For me, under three hours qualifies as driving distance, especially in the early morning hours when the roads are clear and the miles pass quickly. 
The Blue Moon Half Marathon in Ozona, Florida fit this criteria, and I happily Registered. 
When I had talked about this race to running friends, even those native to Florida, they all questioned where Ozona actually was. I had to admit, I had to look at a map to discover it was past Tampa, all the way at the Florida Coastline. 
 
Race morning I was running late, and hurried when I arrived. Luckily parking was close and the packet pick-up was smooth. I received a nice tech long sleeve t-shirt. Coming back from my car, I noticed the Village of Ozona sign. 1888? There is some history here…. later, I would look into it. Some of the facts from the Ozona History Information Page include
 
1700  Creek Indians move southward into Florida , Cuban fisherman set up fish camps, fugitive African-Americans slaves take refuge in Pinellas, many work in the Cuban fish camps.
 
1819  The U.S. buys the Florida territory from Spain , the fish camps are raided and destroyed, and African-Americans are captured and returned to slavery.
1860-1870  Original settlers live in Ozona area. Overland travel is extremely difficult. A trail exists from the coastal area we now call Ozona east to settlement now called Tampa . It takes two days to travel there, one way.
 
1888  Name change to “Ozona” as epidemics of yellow fever give “Yellow Bluff” an unfortunate connotation.  Citrus farming and commercial fishing are two primary ways of making a living.  With reasonably reliable travel (RR), tourists and northern visitors begin to arrive each winter season.
Two days from Tampa? My two hour drive from Orlando was looking better and better!
 
At one point early in the race I wondered what would cause someone to choose to live here… and then, around mile 4 on this two lap race I saw my answer. The beautiful blue waters of the harbor spilling out into the Gulf of Mexico. I do not spend enough time on this coast…

The blue waters surrounding me and the blue sky above were the perfect lure to the ice cold Blue Moon Beer at the finish line. Hot food and friendly conversation filled the garden serving as a finishers area. 
The relatively flat course had been a treat after the hills of South Carolina the previous day. I gathered myself together and began the ride home. As soon as I was in the dark, I discovered that the claims were true…. the medal does indeed glow in the dark! 
 
Another race on my quest to reach the sun completed… and a little more history about my adopted state learned. Not a bad day at all.