Today, I did a race called A Stroll in Central Park. No, not that Central Park. This race was in Cumming, GA, which is northeast of Atlanta. This was a fixed-time race. You had either 6 or 12 hours to run as far as you could. I did the 6-hour race.
The course was a 1.03 mile paved loop through Forsyth County’s Central Park. There was a single well-stocked aid station that we passed every lap. Volunteers counted how many laps each runner completed. In this type of race, whoever runs the farthest wins. I’ve done many races with similar formats. I like the flexibility. You can manage your time any way you want. You can run, walk, take breaks, or stop.
I flew to Atlanta Friday afternoon and stayed at a hotel in Alpharetta. There were hotels closer to the race venue, but I didn’t want to have a long drive to get back to the airport Sunday morning.
My race started at 7 AM and finished at 1 PM. Runners doing the 12-hour race continued until 7 PM. Packet pickup started at 6:15. From Alpharetta, it was a 20 minute drive. I got up early, so I could be there shortly after packet pickup started.
It was 33 degrees when I got to the park, but it was a sunny day, and the temperature was forecast to climb rapidly throughout the morning. I was expecting a 20 degree temperature change, which made it difficult to decide what to wear. I wore layers. My base layer, for the late hours, was a T-shirt and shorts. At the start of the race, I also wore wind pants, two jackets, a warm knit hat, gloves and Gore-Tech mittens. I kept a bag near the start/finish area, so I would have a place to put my extra layers as I discarded them.
Six hours is short enough that I can run continuously, but long enough that I had to be careful not to start too fast. I started running at a pace that felt casual. It was like a training run, but easier. Of course, the hard part would be continuing for six hours.
I didn’t set any mileage goals before the race. My plan was to wait until the second half of the race before deciding what type of goal would be realistic. I’ve had some good results in fixed-time races, but I didn’t feel like I was fully recovered from my effort at Little Rock last weekend. I had to wait to see how the race unfolded.
Central Park is a multi-use athletic facility with tennis courts, soccer fields, baseball diamonds and a playground. We ran on a paved path that wound its way through the facility.
By the time we started running, families were arriving for baseball games. One part of the loop went right past the batting cages, and you could hear the constant dings of aluminum bats making contact with baseballs. As baseball games started, you would occasionally hear a hit, followed by lots of cheering. Later a soccer game started on a football field. There were also small fields for peewee practice.
At the end of each lap, I made sure my lap counter saw me. I resisted the temptation to look at my watch for as long as possible. If I knew my pace, I might be tempted to run too fast. It was better to pay attention to how I felt. I want the pace to feel casual for the first three hours.
Food and beverages were available every lap, but I didn’t need to eat or drink that often. I drank when I felt thirsty and ate small snack about once an hour. At first, I was drinking every third lap. Later, I started drinking every second lap.
After eight laps, I started to notice perspiration under my jackets. To take off one of my jackets, I needed to take off the mittens. I stuffed them in a pocket. I waited to see how my hands felt before removing my outer jacket. They got cold, so I kept the jacket on.
As I finished my 13th lap, I finally looked at my watch. My time for 13.39 miles was 1:58. That put me on pace for 40 miles. Although I still felt good, I expected to slow down later in the race. I also knew I would have some downtime. I would need to stop a few times to remove extra layers. I would also eventually need a bathroom stop.
The first stop came immediately. I unzipped my bag to put away one of my jackets. While I was there, I also traded my knit hat for a regular running hat. I was still wearing a Tyvek jacket and wind pants. They would have to stay on until it got warmer.
There were two buildings near the course that had permanent bathrooms. After two more laps, I ran into one of the buildings to make a bathroom stop.
Each time I stopped, my legs were a little bit stiff as I started running again. Early in the loop, there’s a section that’s slightly downhill. That section helped me get back into my rhythm.
I didn’t look at my watch again until I finished my 19th lap. My time for 19.57 miles was 2:59. I was now on pace for 39 miles, but I still expected to slow down in the second half. Also, I would eventually need to take off my wind pants. That would be a longer stop. With the race half over and 40 miles out of reach, I set a deliberately vague goal of upper 30s.
After a couple more laps, I felt warm again, so I took off my Tyvek jacket. I kept the wind pants, even though my legs felt warm. There was a cold wind on one side of the loop, so I took an incremental approach to shedding layers.
When I was confident that I would be warm enough, I stopped to remove my wind pants. Even with the flares unzipped, I could barely get them off over my shoes. As I started running again, one shoe felt loose. I made another bathroom stop and retied my shoes while I was indoors, away from the wind. When I started running again, my legs were stiff. The downhill section helped, but I could tell that I was slowing down.
During my 24th lap, I spotted a small shoe on the path. It’s not unusual to see an old glove or hat, but this was a pretty pink baby shoe that looked new. It’s not the sort of thing someone would leave behind. I looked up and saw a woman running with a stroller about 50 yards ahead of me. It could have fallen out of the stroller. I picked up the shoe and tried to catch up to her.
It was tough to catch up, because she was beginning the downhill section. Then I heard a plop. Something else fell out of the stroller. It was a children’s book. As I got there, I picked that up too. When the path leveled off, I was able to catch her. The book and shoe were both hers.
My 26th lap put me past the marathon mark. I forgot to check my watch, but it was more than four hours. I was starting to feel slow and sluggish. My next intermediate goal was 31 laps, which put me past the 50K mark. I was starting to pay attention to my splits. I had slowed down substantially. I now estimated that I would have time to complete 35 or 36 laps.
I was starting to notice discomfort in my big toe whenever I resumed running after stopping to eat or drink. It didn’t matter if I only stopped for a few seconds. It hurt each time I pushed off with my left foot. The pain usually went away after about 30 seconds of running, but it was disconcerting.
As I began my 32nd lap, my toe hurt much more than before. Then I briefly noticed a twinge in my right hamstring. (That’s the good one.) I tentatively decided to finish that lap and then stop. In a fixed-time race, you can stop whenever you want. I was past 50K, and having issues, so it seemed like a good time to stop.
After finishing that lap, I took a few minutes to eat some snacks. One of my favorite aid station snacks was whole pitted dates. With time to think it over, I decided to continue. Even with a mixture of running and walking, I could easily finish two more laps. I grabbed a few dates and started walking as I ate them. Then I eased carefully into running with a slow gait. I didn’t have as much pain in my toe that time.
When I finished that lap, I started another without stopping at the aid station. A few minutes into the lap, I caught up to my friend Marsha, who was walking. Realizing that I could finish one more lap whether I ran or walked, I walked with Marsha for the rest of the lap.
I finished the race with 34 laps. That’s convenient, because it put me over 35 miles. I hit my “upper 30s” goal, but just barely.
In addition to the usual food, there was now pizza at the aid station. For those of us doing the 6-hour race, it was a post-race treat. There was also a 12-hour run. For the 12-hour runners, it was a mid-race treat.
I didn’t win any awards, but all participants received plaques. I was kind of impressed that they had our names on them.