Monday, November 9, 2015

Race Report: Rock N Roll Savannah Marathon and Peachtree City 50K.

This weekend, I traveled to Savannah, GA to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Savannah Marathon.  The weekend didn’t go the way I expected, but I eventually finished a race.

This was my first trip to Savannah, but I could only stay two nights, as this trip was sandwiched between two longer trips.  I stayed downtown at the Hampton Inn.  A week before the trip, I got an email reminder from the hotel.  When I saw the dates of my reservation, I panicked.  I was flying to Savannah on the 6th and flying home on the 8th, but my hotel reservation was for November 5-7.  Normally, there would have been plenty of time to change the reservation (assuming they weren’t fully booked).  This was a rewards stay (i.e. I used Hilton HHonors points to get two free nights).  Rewards stays can’t be cancelled or changed within 21 days of arrival.  Oops.

I called the hotel.  Because it was a rewards stay, they told me I had to call the corporate number.  I called the HHonors Diamond hotline and they were willing to bend the rules for me, but they had to check with the hotel.  After a few minutes on hold, I found out the hotel was also willing to bend the rules for me.  It was a busy weekend, but they could find a room for me on the 7th.  I don’t think they would have done that if I wasn’t at the top level of their loyalty program.  Loyalty pays.

In the days leading up to this trip, I watched the forecast.  I saw it would get up to 80 degrees during the race.  Given the proximity to the coast, I assumed it would also be humid.  I’ve heard of a number of races that have been cancelled under similar conditions.  I was hopeful that Savannah is used to hot humid weather and would be less likely to overreact.

Then I got an email from the race organizers.  It informed us that it was going to be hot and had advice for coping with the conditions.  I considered this to be a good sign.  They knew it would be hot, but they weren’t cancelling the race.

Earlier in the week, I did a quadzilla in New Mexico.  During those races I was experiencing increasing discomfort in my right leg.  I had three days off to recover, but I didn’t know if that would be enough.  I approached this race the same way as those.  I would run as long as I was comfortable, but I’d switch to walking if running became painful.

Packet pickup was at the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center on Hutchinson Island, which is across the Savannah River from downtown.  This was the view from my hotel room.

To get to the expo, I had to take a ferry.  The closest place to board a ferry was a landing behind the town hall.

I chose a restaurant by walking down Bay Street and looking at menus.  I ended up having a BBQ pork pizza at a bar that specialized in BBQ.

The course was point to point, starting downtown on Bay Street and finishing at the south end of Forsyth Park.  The start corrals were right outside my hotel.  This race has a generous time limit, so I was able to carry a camera and take pictures.  I didn’t rent a car, so the race was my only opportunity to do sightseeing outside the downtown area.

In contrast to all my recent races, the weather was warm from the beginning.  The overnight low was 69 degrees, but sky high humidity made it feel much warmer.  Humidity must have been 100 percent.  There was fog everywhere.  I knew it would get into the low 80s by the end of the race.  For once, I didn’t have to worry about keeping my legs warm.  I wore shorts and a singlet from the start.  Knowing it would be warm when I finished, I didn’t need to bother with a gear bag.

In July, I started wearing an elastic bandage to protect my right leg from further injury.  That worked, but caused an imbalance in my stride that caused me to injure my left leg.  In August, I switched to wearing KT tape on both legs.  That worked wonders for my left leg.  My right leg was doing OK until I ran marathons four days in a row.  On the fourth day, pain in my right leg forced me to stop and put on a compression wrap.  The wrap is convenience, because it’s easy to adjust, but it’s hot.  In Saturday’s weather, it wasn’t really an option.  I considered going back to wearing the elastic bandage for this race but made a last-minute decision to stick with the KT tape.

There were 21 start corrals, with staggered start times.  Corral assignments were based on your estimated finish time.  When I entered this race, I was healthy, and I was running much faster.  My estimated finish time was 3:25.  That was a reasonable estimate when I registered, but I can’t run that fast now.  Based on that estimate, I was assigned to corral two.  You’re not allowed to start in front of your assigned corral, but you can move back. I started in corral eight, in part because the entrance to that corral was right in front of my hotel.  That had me starting somewhere in the middle of the pack.

By the time my corral crossed the starting line, roughly 20 minutes had elapsed since the leaders started.  The race is chip timed, so I didn’t think those 20 minutes would be important.  I was wrong.

The course is fairly flat.  I think the biggest hill is about 45 feet.  In the first mile, we went up a ramp, and I could see runners rising ahead of me.  Then they disappeared into the fog.  Did I mention the high humidity?

Because I was in the start area for so long before we started moving, my legs were initially stiff.  In the first few miles, I saw a few runners I knew.  Each time I saw someone I knew, I ran or walked with them so we could chat.  Before I knew it, my legs were feeling better.

The first time I reached an aid station, it was hard to get to a table through all the other runners.  I bypassed the first few tables and got a cup of water from the last table.  Hydrating was important in the oppressive humidity.  Some aid stations had water and Gatorade.  Others just had water.  When Gatorade was available, I drank two cups.

I didn’t check my pace until three miles.  I started a little slower than 10 minutes per mile.  After a few miles, I slowed to 11.  At that pace, I didn’t feel like I was working too hard, but I was covered with sweat.

I had to wait for the fog to burn off before I could take any pictures.  We went by this church after about five miles.

We passed a number of town squares and other green spaces.

Around eight miles, I saw a runner down on the side of the road.  There were already several people attending to him, including a police officer, so I kept running.  From what I could see, he didn’t look good.

Sometimes, as I was approaching an aid stations, I saw volunteers handing out little packets of salt.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a race.  I eventually noticed the aid stations that only had water were the ones preceded by volunteers handing out salt and/or gel packets.

By the time I ran 10 miles, I was noticing some minor pain in my right leg.  I regretted not wrapping my leg.  To minimize the discomfort, I shortened my stride.  I was able to keep running, but the short stride forced me to slow down.

Just past 11 miles, the course split.  Half marathon runners continued straight, toward the finish in Forsyth Park.  Marathon runners turned left to begin a long out-and-back.  In pre-race announcements, they told us we had to reach this point by 10:30 AM, or we’d have to switch to the half marathon.  I got there before 9:30.

If they were going to shut down the race because of the hot conditions, this would be the easiest place to divert all marathon runners to the half marathon course.  Since they didn’t do that, I assumed at this point we were safe.

Shortly after beginning the out-and-back, I was passed by a pace group.  It was the 4:30 group.  That surprised me, because I didn’t know they were behind me.  I was running slower than a 4:30 pace.  Then it occurred to me that they must have started a few corrals behind me.

Shortly after I saw the 24 mile sign for the return trip, I saw the lead runner.  Eventually, I also saw the second and third place runners.  They were far enough apart that they probably couldn’t see each other.  Eventually, I saw more and more of the faster runners coming back.  After a few dozen faster runners had passed, I saw the 3:30 pace group.  If I was healthy and in the same form as last year, that could have been me already on the way back.

When I reached 14 miles, I saw that I had slowed to 12:30 over the previous mile.  I wasn’t tired, and I wasn’t bothered by the heat.  I had to run that slow to keep from aggravating the groin injury in my right leg.

Next, I saw the 4:30 pace group coming back.  That couldn’t be right.  They just passed me.  How could they suddenly be six miles ahead of me?  Why were they so close to the 3:30 group?  I got my answer soon.

A short distance ahead – at a point where we were supposed to turn left – we were instead directed to make a U turn.  There were race officials and police there, and they weren’t letting anyone turn left.  I learned the race had been “black flagged.”  The race was being called because of the hot conditions.

Runners who had already made the left turn were able to finish the race.  I arrived about nine minutes after they started diverting runners back toward the finish.  I could write a whole post about my thoughts on cancelling races because of heat.  I won’t go into any of that here.  Whether or not I liked it, I wasn’t going to be able to finish this marathon.  For everyone diverted, the course was shorted by about five miles.  Adding insult to injury, we still had to cover roughly six miles to get to the finish, knowing it wouldn’t count.

As upset as I was about the situation, I was also upset with myself.  Because I started in corral eight, I started much later than I would have in corral two.  Had I started in corral two, I probably would have been able to finish the race.

After that, I took a few long walking breaks, while talking to other runners.  Some, like me, were going to miss out on long-term goals.  Others were doing their first marathon.  For one, traveling to this race was an anniversary present.  Everyone was upset and disappointed.  I felt like walking the rest of the way.  My only incentive to keep running was my desire to get to Forsyth Park sooner rather than later.

In those late miles, I compared notes with other runners.  I learned that a runner died.  I think it was the same runner I saw on the ground around eight miles. That, and the large number of runners needing medical attention, contributed to the decision to call the race.

We got from 20 to 23 miles surprisingly fast.  Apparently we also skipped another short out-and-back segment.  After talking to other runners with GPS, I concluded that I actually ran about 19.8 miles of the 26.2 mile course.

When I eventually crossed the finish line, there were volunteers handing out finisher medals, even though we didn’t really finish.  I didn’t take one.  I skipped most of the post-race food.  I had a power bar, a bottle of chocolate milk and a bottle of water.

I skipped most of the finish area and found my way to the tent for the Augusta Striders.  My friend Katie and some of her friends from Augusta were there.  They did the half marathon, so they were already finished.  As I was telling Katie what happened, I started brainstorming.  I tried to come up with a way to make up for this race.

The best plan I could think of was to see if I could fly to Atlanta later in the day.  There was a 50K race in Peachtree City Sunday morning.  Peachtree City is about 25 miles south of the Atlanta Airport.  I was scheduled to fly home Sunday afternoon with a stopover in Atlanta.  My flight segment from Atlanta to Minneapolis was late enough in the day that I could still make that flight if I ran the race Sunday morning.

As I was leaving the park, I bumped into my friends Claire, Peggy and Susan.  Their hotel was in the same general direction as mine, so we left the park together.  I didn’t have my phone with me, but Claire used her phone to do a flight search for me.  There were two flights from Savannah to Atlanta that I could still catch.

After walking back to the hotel, I sent a message to Heather, the RD of the Peachtree City 50K, to find out if I could still get into the race.  I was pretty sure I could register the morning of the race, but I wanted to make sure.

Next, I priced a rental car and hotels in Peachtree City to make sure I could get reasonable rates booking at the last minute.  I was happy with both the rental car and hotel rates.

Finally, I called Delta’s Diamond hotline.  I’m also at the top level of their loyalty program.  I explained that I wanted to fly to Atlanta a day sooner, while retaining the same flight segment home from Atlanta.  Both the 4:45 and 6:00 flights to Atlanta still had seats available.  I wasn’t sure how much it would cost to make the change.

The Delta agent asked me which flight I wanted.  I asked if there was a price difference.  He said, “I can make it the same.”  I liked the sound of that.  Their computer system wasn’t letting him do what he was trying to do, so he needed to call me back.  While I waited, I started packing.  When he called back, I found out he was able to switch me to the 4:45 flight on Saturday, and it didn’t cost me anything.  I think he overrode the pricing for me.  Again, loyalty pays.

I quickly made my hotel and rental car reservations and finished packing.  When I was done, it was a little after 2:00.  That gave me plenty of time to get to the airport.

Throughout this process, I avoided asking myself if I would be able to run another 31 miles on Sunday after running 20 miles on Saturday.  I knew it would be hard on my legs, but I preferred to focus on the travel plans.  If I could get there, I would find a way to run.

I had another program.  I only packed one set of running clothes.  I could rinse them out, but the clothes I wore on Saturday weren’t necessarily appropriate for Sunday’s race.  The weather in Peachtree City was going to be much cooler.  There was also a chance of rain.  Had I realized what I was getting into, I might not have tried.  Fortunately, I didn’t think everything through.  Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith.

When I got to the airport, I still hadn’t had much to eat since the race.  I had a late lunch in the food court at the airport.

By the time I arrived in Atlanta and picked up my rental car, it was after 6:00.  It was already getting dark, and it was starting to rain. Fortunately, I already knew my route.  I’ve driven to Peachtree City a few times before.  I also knew my way to the hotel.  It was a Hampton Inn where I had stayed before.

The last time I ran a 50K race, I took almost eight hours to finish.  On that occasion, I was pacing myself conservatively, since I had a race the next day.  This time I was running with tired legs after doing 20 miles the day before.  I had to assume I might need eight hours again.  The race started at 7:30, but there was an early start option.  I could get a 2:00 PM checkout at Hampton Inn, but even with the early start, I anticipated getting back to the hotel later than that.  I would also need time to shower and change into dry clothes after the race.  That would probably take until 3:00 or later.

When I checked in, I explained my situation and asked if I could get a 4:00 PM checkout.  The hotel was going to be fairly full on Sunday, so the employee who checked me in couldn’t make any commitment.  She told me to ask in the morning.

Next I rinsed out all my running clothes, pressed them dry between towels and hung them up to finish drying.  Hotel rooms are usually dry, so I was confident, they’d finish drying by morning.  I removed the insoles from my running shoes to give them a better chance to dry.

It was already past 7:00 when I went to dinner.  I usually go to Mellow Mushroom, but I wanted to try someplace new.  I quick Google Maps search led me to Brixx Wood Fired Pizza, where I had this Caribbean jerk chicken pizza.

I got back at 8:00 and went to bed at 9:00.  I needed to get up early again.  I still needed to register for the race, and I was taking the early start, so I needed to be at Luther Glass Park at 6:00.  Without knowing if I would need to check out in the morning, I also had to allow time to pack.  I set my alarm for 4:15.

When I woke up Sunday morning, the first thing I did was check the weather.  It was worse than I feared.  It was 54 degrees, and that was as warm as it would get.  The temperature would gradually drop into the 40s.  That wouldn’t be so bad, but it was raining, and it looked like there would be intermittent light rain throughout the day.  I didn’t have any warm clothes.  I had to race in shorts and a T-shirt.  I had gloves, but they weren’t good in rainy conditions.  I had some warm-up clothes that I could use as outer layers, but none of them would hold up well in rain.  I had a plastic rain poncho, but it wouldn’t cover my arms or legs well.  It was most helpful for keeping my head and torso dry.  I wore what I had and hoped for the best.  Eight hours in cool rainy conditions with inadequate clothes is my worst nightmare.  I much preferred the heat and humidity in Savannah.

When I spoke to the hotel manager, I got better news.  He was sympathetic to my situation, but mostly he appreciated my Diamond status with Hilton.  Again, loyalty pays.  In the reservation system, he could only give me a 2:00 PM checkout, but told me it wouldn’t be a problem if I needed more time.  That was a relief.  I knew I’d have a chance to change into dry clothes before driving to the airport.

Besides inadequate clothing, I also had inadequate gear.  I would be starting the race in the dark, but I didn’t have a light.  I was also out of KT tape.  I brought a roll that only had enough strips left for Saturday’s race.  Ron Clay solved my light problem by bringing an extra flashlight for me to borrow.  In place of the KT tape, I wore a compression wrap on my right leg.  I got the tension just right.  It allowed me to run with far less discomfort than I’ve had in recent races.  It never felt too tight, and it never came loose.  It stayed in place throughout the race.

Another runner helped me stay dry.  When Henry heard my concerns about inadequate clothing, he lent me a spare raincoat he had in his car.  In addition to keeping my torso dry, it had long sleeves that kept my arms dry.

Peachtree City has an extensive network of paved golf cart paths.  The course was a 5.18 mile loop made up of several of these paths.  There are tunnels under the major streets, allowing us to avoid most of the traffic.  For 50K, we needed to complete this loop six times.

I’ve run other races on this course, but I’ve never started in the dark.  I started with two other runners.  We each had flashlights and helped each other to find the course markings.  We started out walking at a fairly slow pace until there was enough light to see.  That got us about halfway through the first lap.

When there was light, I started running with a few other runners who happened to be passing.  They were doing roughly 12 minute miles.  That was a pace I could run comfortable with the compression wrap.  One of these runners was doing her first 50K.  Her name was Kelly.

Besides the aid station in the start area, there was also one halfway through the loop.  The first time I went by, it was set up, but nobody was there yet.  I filled a cup and drank.  Then I put the cup in my pocket to take it with me.  I didn’t want to waste cups, so I used the same one for the whole race.

I finished my first lap in 1:20.  At that pace, I would need eight hours to complete the race.  It’s worth noting, however, that I started out walking.  I was hopeful my next few laps would be faster if I was mostly running.

I ended up running most of the race with Kelly.  Her pace, conveniently, was just right for me.  It didn’t tire me too much, and it wasn’t hard on my leg.  Our next few laps were faster than the first one.

It wasn’t raining hard, but the rain was always there.  Sometimes, it seemed like the rain would stop, but then it picked up again.  Although my legs were bare, the rain coat kept me warm enough.  When the rain tapered off, I partially unzipped the coat to let out excess heat.  When the rain picked up again, I zipped it up again.  I was able to stay reasonably warm, although I can’t say I was every completely comfortable.

One of the tunnels had a deep puddle that was impossible to avoid.  Over time, other puddles grew and multiplied.  I couldn’t avoid getting my shoes wet.

Kelly occasionally took short walking breaks – usually when she needed to eat a gel.  I let her set the pace and walked when she walked.  Overall, it was a good pace for me.  A couple times, I needed to take bathroom stops.  Kelly went ahead, and I worked to catch up to her.  My ability to pick up the pace was limited, so it sometimes took a while.

By the time we reached our fifth lap, we were slowing down.  Our running pace was slower and we took longer and more frequent walking breaks.  Kelly was getting into the tough miles.  By now, we had covered more than 20 miles.

If you’re not familiar with the loop, it’s sometimes hard to know exactly where you are.  The most obvious landmarks are the tunnels.  There are six on each loop.  Three come within the first two miles.  The last three are fairly close together in the last mile of the loop.  With two laps to go, we had 12 tunnels left.  We started counting them down.

During our fifth lap, the rain picked up.  There was also more wind, and the temperature was dropping.  Henry’s rain coat kept the rain out, but my legs were exposed, and my gloves were wet.  I struggled with the walking breaks.  I needed to run to stay warm.

The fifth lap took as long as my first lap.  My overall time would be well under eight hours, but I wasn’t going to break 7:30.  By biggest concerns, besides finishing, were coping with the cold conditions and getting back to the hotel as soon as I could.

We did much more walking in the last lap.  I was inclined to want to run it, but Kelly had already reached the marathon distance.  She was struggling and needed to do more walking.  I was cold, but I didn’t want to abandon her to run the last five miles by herself in the rain.

In the middle of the loop, there’s a section alongside Lake Peachtree that’s more exposed to the wind.  We walked this section, and the wind was cutting through me like a knife.  My legs were cold, and my hands were almost numb.  Walking so much was killing me, but I didn’t want to say anything.

It was Kelly who said something.  She said, “I’m going to need to walk for a while.  Why don’t you go ahead?”  I was conflicted.  I had wanted to stay with her until the end of the race, but I was suffering with the cold conditions.  She only had about two and a half miles to go, so I knew she’d make it.  I started running.

I couldn’t run fast, but running generated more heat than walking.  I ran for the rest of the race.  When I passed the aid station for the last time, I didn’t stop.  I didn’t need anything else to eat or drink.  I just needed to keep moving.

There’s a short out-and-back section at the end of each lap.  On the first lap, it seems really short.  It seems longer on each subsequent lap.  I think Heather was secretly moving the turnaround point.  As I was finishing the out-and-back, I saw Kelly beginning that section.

Besides the six tunnels, there are also two small bridges. One is in the middle of the loop.  The other is at the beginning of the out-and-back, so you cross that one twice per lap.  As we passed, I told Kelly, “No more tunnels, two bridges. You got this.”  She smiled.  I knew she was OK from there.

I finished in 7:34:30.  All finishers received a medal and a mason jar with the Darkside Running Club logo.  The jar contained hot cocoa mix, marshmallows and a mint.  Most finishers also got T-shirts, but you had to enter in advance to get a shirt.

I couldn’t afford to stay in the finish area.  After taking off Henry’s rain coat, I was freezing.  I put on my plastic rain poncho for the walk to the car.  I was parked across the street in a nearby shopping center.  I walked to the car as quickly as I could and drove back to the hotel.

When I walked into the lobby, I saw the same manager I spoke with in the morning.  It was just a few minutes past 2:00.  He asked me how I felt.  I said, “Slightly hypothermic.”  He told me to take my time.  Everyone at the hotel was supportive.  They all knew my story.  To the hotel staff, I was "the runner."

When I got to my room, I couldn’t open the door.  I didn’t have enough dexterity in my hands to insert the key card.  One of the housekeepers helped me open the door.  Getting undressed was clumsy.  I couldn’t unpin my race bib from my shirt, but that could wait until later.

I originally planned to take a quick shower, but I realized it would take time for my hands to warm up.  I drew a hot bath.  It was hard to gauge the water temperature with my cold hands.  I had to guess.  I had to stay in the tub for about 10 minutes before color returned to my hands.  After that, I was alright.  I got dressed and finished packing as quickly as I could, but it was after 3:00 by the time I checked out.  My flight home wasn’t until 7:10, so I had all the time in the world to get to the airport.

This weekend took a lot out of me.  On Saturday, I ran in heat and humidity for four hours.  On Sunday, I ran in cold rain for seven and a half hours.  I had to run roughly 51 miles before finally finishing a race, but I stayed on schedule.

Saturday's race was cancelled because conditions were deemed too dangerous.  That was a one-size-fits-all decision.  For many people, the heat was dangerous.  For me, it was merely an annoyance.  By contrast, Sunday's conditions were merely annoying for most people, but were probably dangerous for me.

During Sunday’s race, I rarely noticed any discomfort in my right leg.  After taking off the wrap and warming up my legs, I started noticing considerable soreness.  I think I’ll need to wrap it for my next race.  Fortunately, my left leg is doing much better now.  I need to deal with it one race at a time.  This was my 298th marathon or ultra.  Istanbul will be 299.  Flying Monkey will be 300.


  1. What a weekend you had! Way to go on pushing through.

    I would be really interested to hear your full opinions on canceling races due to heat.

    1. I believe strongly that medical personnel should have the authority to pull a runner from a race if they're in distress. I believe that should be done on a case-by-case basis. I think one-size-fits-all decisions should be avoided, if possible. Unfortunately, in situations like this, it's usually the city that makes the decision to cancel or shut down a race. Race organizers need a permit from the city, and that gives city officials the authority to stop the race if it puts undue strain on city resources. The best response I've seen to unusually hot conditions at a race was the way the Boston Marathon handled it in 2012. They offered deferments, increased the supply of fluids at aid stations, and encouraged runners to adjust their goals. Ultimately, they let each runner make his or her own decision. That worked.

    2. I completely agree with you! I really hate seeing races canceled and all runners re-routed just because a few people can't respect their limits. I have DNFed two races when the weather wasn't right for me, but I'm really glad that other runners were still able to finish even though I couldn't.