I signed up for Azalea Park in July immediately following my failure at Vol State (DNF’d at mile 153 with a knee issue). Having attributed that failure largely to a lack of training and preparation, I decided to sign up for a large number of races to hold me accountable in training and to ensure I am prepared for VS in 2015. Besides, I knew any race endorsed and supported by Susan Anger (the aid station specialist or A.S.S.) would be a good time, even if an inaugural event with first time race director Winston Fletcher.
I intended to use Azalea as a measuring stick for Ancient Oaks 100, which will be my first 100. I wanted to see that how much distance I could cover and use the race as a dress rehearsal (ironic wording) by fueling, going through the night, and figuring out issues that I could expect to experience a month later. Towards the end of the race, I also got the news from Mike Melton that I made the AO entry list.
Of course, Murphy’s Law is always in full effect. Despite signing up for a large multitude of races, I was still finding excuses to avoid training with my work and school schedule. Those excuses continued until the end of September when my world was jarred abruptly. For a little background, I was married during November of last year to my girlfriend of five years. Despite those five awesome years, the past year revealed many issues too great to be resolved. After several months of mutual unhappiness, things came to a head at the end of September, when an honest conversation acknowledged our relationship was over and irreconcilable. We were married less than a year. Not one for regret, I’m appreciative of the time we did spend together and I try to find the positives in any situation. Divorce has been a positive catalyst to move my life back into the right direction. One of those changes was that prior to October, I was running weekly mileages in the teens. However, I’ve taken this wake-up to throw myself back into running and surround myself with similarly minded people.
As it would happen, a few weeks after the final separation was the FUR field trip to Azalea Park. To give an indication of how bad my training was, the field trip was intended to be my second double digit mile run since VS in mid-July. The previous run was completed the week before. As for the park itself, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Running out there though, I was surprised at how hilly the course was. Yes, there’s only one BIG hill, but there are no flat areas on the course. Still, I ran surprisingly well and finished 10 miles at a moderate effort under a 10 minute pace. All I could think was that 24 hours out there was going to be tough.
Following the field trip, my training picked up. In the four weeks leading up to Azalea, I averaged over 40 miles a week (a huge improvement over the low teens), completed Mutual Mine 50k, 32.5 miles at the TapOut/30th Birthday Run, and 20 miles at the Enchanted Forest.
Was I ready for Azalea Park? Physically, absolutely not. Surprisingly, mentally and emotionally though, I embraced the challenge. I was trying to think of a distance goal heading into the race, but the main thing that I could think of was just to be moving or able to move at the end of 24 hours. Knowing that I was likely to get into AO, I figured that if I could get anywhere near 60-70 miles on the Azalea course, I would likely be ready for AO with another month to prepare (and heck, double my training). If Azalea was a disaster, I planned to give up my slot at AO to someone more deserving.
In preparation for the race, I tried to anticipate everything that I would need. I prepared a big box with all my race supplies including snacks (Ensure/Cliff Bars), blister kit, socks, etc. I loaded a cooler with water, Gatorade, and Dr. Pepper. Amusingly, I only used one Ensure and one Gatorade. The aid station had everything else I needed. I also decided to get a sleep pad that I laid in the back of my car with a sleeping bag and pillow for when I decided to go to sleep. I brought nearly every pair of shoes that I owned. I also packed my duffel bag with a few pairs of shorts, multiple tech shirts, sweatshirt, and comfortable clothes for after the race.
With my car loaded, I headed up to Palatka on Friday night to get a good night of sleep without the early wake-up that driving from Orlando would’ve taken. I stopped at the ABC Liquor Store down the street from the Holiday Inn, picked up a six-pack, and as I put it onto my passenger seat, it dawned on me that something was missing. My duffel bag with ALL of my clothing was not in the car. Somehow, I had forgotten my clothes at home.
Arriving at the hotel, I figured I would just run to Wal-Mart and make do with what I could find. Fortunately, Susan was a little bit smarter than me and asked Winston, the race director, to bring running shorts that I might be able to use. Planning on that as a fallback, I headed to Wal-Mart to find the single pair of shorts that might make it for running.
The next morning, I awoke just after 5am and got moving early so I could get to the park and grab a good parking spot to crew myself out of my car. In order to get the desired 2 mile loop, the course has a nice loop through the parking lot that enables a runner to easily crew out of their car. I got a great spot, chatted briefly with John Hingst, and just started to play the waiting game until the 8am start. During the waiting process, I could feel the Wal-Mart shorts starting to chafe. Well, time for the fallback option. I had already resigned myself to wearing the cotton race t-shirt. Now, it was on to borrowing a pair of shorts from Winston. I’m very, very grateful that he brought and loaned me a pair of shorts (and didn’t hold me to a lap in the red dress!). With the wet weather, I would not have survived very long in the other shorts. When I expressed my plight to other runners, it was amazing their generosity and willingness to help with providing whatever I might need, even Lauren Hadley offering up her larger sized woman’s shirt with a nice V-collar.
Just prior to 8am, we had the race brief provided by Winston and Mike Melton who was providing the race timing. Between Sue Anger and Mike Melton, Winston had definitely arranged an all-star cast to support his first-time race director efforts.
I did not have much of a plan for the race, except that I wanted to still be moving the next morning and held myself to a mandated first lap of walking to determine how I was going to tackle the course (along with keeping me from doing anything else stupid, at least this early in the race).
I completed my first lap in 30:50, keeping a 15:25 walking pace. Happy with that pace, I decided that I would run the 1.5 miles after the first hill on the course through the sharp descent where you begin the long climb back out of the ravine. My favorite part of the course actually became the .4 mile uphill as I referred to it throughout the race as my “guilt-free walking zone.” I walked that part of the course every lap.
I started the day running in a fairly new pair of Brooks Adrenalines which I have had mixed success in. The first few laps, they felt uncomfortably stiff, but into the third lap became a none issue as either my feet relaxed or the shoe loosened up. Keeping a comfortable pace, I was running the early stages of the race at about a 12 minute mile pace including walk breaks while watching the speedsters flying by (Steven Kellet, Dave Krupski, et al). I transitioned to a pair of Altra One2 about nine hours in, mostly to get into dry shoes, and the softer shoes felt way better at that point.
I didn’t start refueling or rehydrating until about 90 minutes into the race with 8 miles completed. At that point, I grabbed my new Amphipod handheld with Gatorade that I refilled every lap with either water or Infinit. I hate having things in my hands, but this handheld was extremely comfortable, and I do a much better job staying hydrated with a bottle in my hands rather than a pack or fueling only at the aid station.
I quickly realized that I was craving salt two hours into the race, even testing (licking) my arm to find that the salt taste was extremely poignant. I took an S-Cap on consecutive laps along with a healthy dose of potato chips, boiled potatoes, and some Infinit. I knew I was good when I dunked a boiled potato into way too much salt to the point my eyes were nearly watering. Interestingly, after fixing the salt issue early, I never used another S-cap the remainder of the race. I attribute that to a steady intake of Infinit, which I was highly impressed with, and lots of warm broth in the evening. Fortunately, the early lack of salt never really slowed my pace as I think I corrected the issue quick and early.
The next test would come a few hours later as I realized my happy mood was quickly slipping away. Knowing that I was good on electrolytes, I knew I needed to take in more calories. Always an issue for me, I had been trying to grab a small snack each lap, but apparently that wasn’t enough. I took half an Ensure plus some brownies, finished the Ensure on the next lap, and kept stuffing my face until my mood started to improve. Fortunately, I was also able to walk with Scott Maxwell during this time and I enjoy running or walking with Scott. He’s not out there running to kill himself and usually has some good stories to share.
The calories would be a continuing issue throughout the day, especially with the wet weather. I was having a lot of issues trying to fuel my run and keep warm with the rain. The cotton t-shirt wasn’t helping, either. In the middle of the afternoon I again called on Winston and not one to disappoint, he provided me a fresh shirt. It was cotton, but it was dry, and I pulled on my rain jacket over it. Much better. That shirt got a bit damp during the night, but would make it until the end of the race.
Moving beyond 20 miles, my pace started dropping to 12:30s and 13s. After 30 miles, I kept a few laps at the 14 minute mile range, and then walking was in full effect. I think running went firmly out the window about the 38 mile mark. My knee had started to tighten up where I could continue walking with minimal issues, but running was just too painful and I couldn’t get the muscles or IT band loose. Surprisingly though, the issues were with my right knee rather than the usual left. My best guess is due to the direction of travel and the sharp downhill curve. After about mile 40, it was becoming painful to even walk the sharp downhill curve so I accompanied it with a little bit of a hop and curse as I tried to stay to the outside of the curve.
Unfortunately, the second 12 hours were not nearly as productive. Knowing I was likely to be unprepared for 24 hours, I signed up only on a crazy whim. Leading up to the race, I highly considered changing to 12 hours or just dropping at that point. Of course, dropping is way harder than it sounds. With such a good first 12 hours, I figured 70 miles and possibly 80 were within reach without straining too hard. Why not, right?
Crossing that 12 hour mark totally destroyed my momentum. Wondering why I was still out there, I couldn’t help but consider quitting, especially with my knee being buggy. Hadn’t I accomplished what I wanted? I would rather run around with my family in town this week, do a few training runs with my newfound training partner, and run around the Enchanted Forest next week with my brother than hurt myself out there. Why destroy myself on a race that has no personal meaning whatsoever?
By the time I crossed 54 miles, the 2 mile lap had taken an hour and ten minutes. I sat for a long time at the aid station before starting that lap and laid down for ten minutes along the course thinking that it would be better because I couldn’t quit there. By the time I made it back to the aid station, things had clearly gone off course. Susan had me sit for a minute, and after a few minutes of discussion with her and Scott, it was decided that I should probably go get a little sleep.
I figured I’d sleep for an hour, probably wake up stiff, and then quit. I laid there for an hour. Then two. I was just sitting in the car watching runners go by my car as the rain continued steadily. My right leg was stiff. I was done, but I wasn’t about to go through the effort of putting on shoes, especially when the pair of socks in the car with me were slightly damp. I eventually mustered the motivation to walk outside and slip on my wet flip-flops. I walked up to the aid station to their concerned questions about what I needed. I didn’t need anything. I was done. I was quitting. Where do I need to turn in my timing band?
Of course, I had to head back to the timing tent back past my car and so I started heading in that direction. What the hell, why not just throw on my Lunas and walk a lap? So I swapped the flip-flops for Lunas, walked to the bathroom angrily, grabbed some food and soda, and just kept going. Why couldn’t someone just tell me that I should probably quit before I hurt myself or make my injury worse? For whatever reason, I can’t quit on my own. I needed someone to enable me, and I couldn’t find that person. Fantastic.
So one loop turned into two, and eventually I knocked out 14 miles in my Lunas. Walking the last lap with John Hingst, my knee spasmed painfully twice during the loop, once nearly doubling me over, and at that point I knew it was my last lap and I could finally stop. Such relief. Never have I been in a race where I wished the clock would just hurry up, until this one. It never did. When I stopped, there was 1:20 still left on the clock, time for nearly two laps to meet my original 70 mile goal. Nope, not worth it. The internal battle was over. I could stop.
From the beginning, this was a race that was filled with errors. I forgot all of my clothes! I didn’t take in electrolytes early enough. I was consistently behind in calories. I was late putting on my rain jacket on two instances, both times costing me much needed energy to keep warm, and the second time I actually said to myself that I should put on my rain jacket as I walked by my car only to keep walking and then getting dumped on halfway through the lap. Butt-chafing, first time, and that's the worst. I wasted too much time in the car.
However, there were so many positives. I’m not sure I’ve ever approached a race with such a positive, relaxed attitude. My goal was just to be slow and steady and for the most part I was. This is the first race that I can recall that I never one time questioned why I was running or sign up for this stuff. I always felt that I was in the place that I was meant to be and tried to enjoy the entire experience. I utilized the aid station well and was quick to ask for help when I needed it. No blisters, despite the continued rain. I think wearing the Darn Tough Socks in the beginning, which are great at wicking moisture, and wearing the Luna Sandals through the heavy rains helped.
I enjoyed talking to everyone throughout the race. I was fortunate to share laps with Scott discussing his Canadian adventures. I ran a lap with Lauren Hadley who had commandeered a stranger’s puppy, although I have to credit the puppy that appeared to be moving better than I was. Kathleen Wheeler shared some of her nutrition knowledge with me. Apparently the energetic Christine Richardville and I went to High School together and now teach at rival high schools. 21 year old Ethan Valiquette was doing his second timed event ever on his break from college before he prepares for finals. Charlyn Austria-Marasco was trying to complete her first 50 miles, and moved steadily for most of 24 hours to get there. Then there was Kevin Flaherty who constantly adjusted his goals based on how he was doing in the rankings, dragging himself out lap after lap and eventually compiling 82 miles for second place. However, the most amusing moment may have been in the early morning hours when Christopher Knight, who eventually won with 94 miles, came strolling out of the bathroom along the course talking about how warm it was and how he was nearly passed out sleeping in there. Then he resumed running.
I can’t say enough good things about all the support staff from race director Winston Fletcher, who literally gave me the clothes that I ran in, to Sue Anger for sharing a room at the Holiday Inn and then setting up an awesome aid station. Lauren Hadley pampered me from the aid station for most of the night with broth and lots of warm cheese quesadillas. Sue, Lauren, and Bambi Pennicuff also kept putting out these amazing wraps. I think the ingredients changed each time I tasted them, but they were always delicious. Bernadette DePerty Dubois visited during the day and brought these crazy good cookie concoctions that had literally every aid station food in them! Then there was Mike Melton and the real-time standings -- just absolutely awesome.
Azalea Park was fantastic race. A recent quote I’ve had circling through my head is, “in the valleys I grow,” and there are so many great examples in this race. I could’ve just DNS’ed right from the beginning or taken a negative attitude expecting things to continue going wrong, but I made the best of it, and enjoyed the hell out of the race. I only hope I can approach future races with the same positivity. I know I was a little whiny at the aid stations, but hopefully they’ll forgive me.
To anyone considering this race next year, it’s a tough course, but surprisingly runnable, and guaranteed for a good time. Hopefully, I’ll see you out there.