Sunday, August 4, 2019

Eagle Creek Trail Marathon and Gen Con

This past week, I traveled to Indianapolis to run the Eagle Creek Trail Marathon.  This race is run on the trails in Eagle Creek Park, which is in northwest Indianapolis.  I prefer road races, but this race fit into my race schedule nicely, and it gave me another marathon in Indiana.

When I first looked into the details of this race, I saw a notice on their website indicating it might be difficult to find hotel rooms, because it was the same weekend as Gen Con.  If you aren’t a board game enthusiast, you probably haven’t heard of Gen Con, but it’s the largest board game convention in North America.

One of my other interests is playing board games.  I mostly play a style of multi-player strategy games, called Euro games.  It’s a genre of games that became popular in Europe, because they’re designed to either be language-independent or easy translated into different languages.

I get together with a small group of friends nearly every week to play board games.  I also sometimes attend larger board game meet-ups, including the monthly Minneapolis Board Game Marathon.  (Please excuse their use of the word “marathon.”)  I’ve never attended a board game convention before, and this one is the huge.  Gen Con annually draws over 60,000 attendees.  It fills the Indiana Convention Center, Lucas Oil Stadium, and the ballrooms of several downtown hotels.  It also causes most of the city’s hotels to fill up months in advance.

Since I was already planning to travel to Indianapolis for the marathon, I decided to arrive two days earlier, so I could also attend the convention.   To attend, you need to buy a badge.  The convention takes place over four days.  I could attend all day on Thursday and Friday, but my marathon was Saturday morning, and I was planning to fly home on Sunday.  I looked at buying single day badges for both Thursday and Friday and found it was cheaper to buy a four day badge.  That gave me the option of attending for part of the day on both Saturday and Sunday.

The next step was to find a hotel.  The convention reserves large blocks of rooms at all the hotels.  They negotiate rates that are somewhat reasonable (for a weekend when every hotel room in the city will be booked).  Unfortunately, I was already too late to get one of these rooms.  All the downtown rooms were gone.  I was able to find an out-of-block room at a Hilton Garden Inn in the northwest corner of the city.  It was 13 miles from downtown, but it was close to Eagle Creek Park.  That was a reasonable compromise, but I kept checking to see if a downtown room would open up.  A few did, but they were two expensive.  Then I saw a room at the downtown Homewood Suites.  It was also expensive, but I could may for most of my stay with Hilton points.

I also had to get tickets for individual events.  There are thousands of different events going on at the convention, but you had to have tickets.  For some events, the tickets were free.  For others, they cost about $1 per hour.  Tickets all went on sale at the same time.  I had to rearrange my schedule, so I wouldn’t be in the middle of running a marathon when all the tickets went on sale.

Have you seen that episode of Big Bang Theory where the guys are all trying to get tickets to attend Comic-Con?  Yeah, it’s kind of like that.  Thousands of people are all at their computers trying to buy tickets at the same time.  The convention organizers made the process easier by letting you set up a wish list in advance.  You could prioritize your list, so if you couldn’t get into your first choice, you could try to get into something else going on at the same time.

I set up my prioritized wish list and waited.  When event registration went live, I immediately clicked on the “submit” button.   Then I waited for my computer to tell me where I was in the queue.  There were roughly 7,400 people ahead of me.  That’s not bad considering 60,000 other people were trying to register at the same time.  It’s actually pretty good, considering I was logged into a slow hotel wifi network with an old laptop.  I had to wait almost an hour to find out which events I got into.  I missed out on a few, but got into several others.

I was able to get a non-stop flight to Indianapolis, but I needed a rental car.  I probably waited too long to make my reservation.  The cheapest rate I could find was $63 a day, plus taxes.  Ouch!  I kept checking, and eventually found a car for $47 a day.  That’s still expensive, but it was better.

Wednesday, July 31

I arrived in Indianapolis at 3:30, picked up my rental car, and drove downtown.  In their infinite wisdom, IDOT decided this was the best time to do construction of the main artery connecting the airport to downtown.  The drive into downtown was slow, but I eventually got there.

I bought a five day pass to park in a lot that was south of Lucas Oil Stadium.  From there, the walk to my hotel would have been almost a mile.  I took their shuttle to the convention center and walked from there.  It would have taken less time to just walk the whole way, but I had luggage.

The convention didn’t officially start until Thursday, but most people arrive on Wednesday.  One of the streets near the stadium was already lined with food trucks, and it was a continuous block party for the next four days.

By the time I unpacked and went outside, a local brewery was tapping their first keg of a beer they brewed just for the convention.  A local pizzeria had a specialty pizza just for Gen Con.  Naturally, I had to try both of those. For future reference, pizza with bacon and tater tots is a winner.

Thursday, August 1

The exhibit hall didn’t open until 10:00 AM, but I had an “event” at 8:00 AM.  I was signed to play a game of Agricola.  I didn’t know who the other players would be.  I just had to show up at the right place and time.  The game was provided by the event organizer.

Agricola is my favorite board game.  It’s a worker placement game, where each player starts the game with two “workers” representing a couple who own a family farm.  Initially, their farm is an undeveloped plot of land with a wooden hut that’s just big enough for the two of them.

During the game, you take turns placing workers on action spaces that let you do things like acquire resources, plow fields, fence pastures, or build improvements to your farm.  In any given round, each action space can only be taken by one player, so you have to set priorities and take popular actions before anyone else takes them.

After certain rounds, there are harvests.  You get grain and vegetables from your fields, and your animals breed, but you also have to feed your family.  If you expand your house, you can grow your family.  Then you have more workers, but you also have more mouths to feed during the harvests.

At the end of the game, each player scores points for plowing fields, fencing pastures, growing crops, breeding animals, expanding and renovating their home, growing their family, and building other improvements.  They lose points if they didn’t use all the available space on their farm.  There’s also a harsh penalty if they didn’t have enough food to feed their family during any of the harvests.

I was playing with four players I had never met.  Our experience levels varied, and it showed in the final scores.  I enjoyed the game, but two other players outscored me.

After my Agricola game, I went to exhibit hall, which was inside the Indiana Convention Center.  Here, dozens (perhaps hundreds) of board game companies had booths.  It’s sort of like the expo for a major marathon, but instead of running gear, they have all the newest board games.

I started by visiting the booths of the companies that make my favorite games.  One gave me some promotional pieces for one of my games.  I also played a game they were demonstrating.

After a stop outside the convention center to get a quick lunch from the food trucks, I continued exploring the exhibit hall.  After buying expansions for two games I already own, I stopped to drop things off at the hotel.  Then I headed over to Lucas Oil Stadium for my next event.

My next event was at 4:00, when I was entered into a mini-tournament of a game called Puerto Rico.  In this game, each player has a board representing the island of Puerto Rico.  One part of the board has room for plantations, to produce five types of crops.  The other part of the board has room for buildings, to help process, sell or ship your crops.  Each player, on their turn, chooses a role.  For example, the Builder role lets people build buildings.  When one player chooses a role, everyone gets to take that action, but the player who chose it gets a bonus, such as getting a discount on the cost of a building.  The obvious choice would be the role that lets you take the action that you currently find most useful.  A craftier player will choose a role that helps them, but isn’t currently very useful to anyone else.  Once one player chooses a role, nobody else can choose the same role until the next round.  Each player scores points for the goods they’ve shipped and the buildings they’ve built.

This tournament was limited to 16 players, and it sold out.  They were planning to divide us into four games with four players each, which the winners of each game advancing to the next round.  Only 10 players showed up, so they divided us into two games with five players each.  The top two players from each game advanced.

Everyone was familiar with the game, but experience levels varied.  I came in second in my first game, so I advanced to the finals.  In my second game, I was played three other players who could all be considered experts.  One player completely ran away with the game, but I managed to come in second.  Considering the skill level of my opponents, I was happy with that result.

By now, I was getting late, so I had dinner and called it a day.

Friday, August 2

For the second straight day, I was signed up for an event at 8:00 AM.  This event was a game was called Caverna.  Caverna was created by the same game designer as Agricola, and the two games are similar.  In this game, your workers are cave-dwelling trolls.  You start the game with a plot of land that’s half mountain and half forest.

In the mountain, you can excavate to create caverns and tunnels.  Inside the caverns, you can furnish dwellings to make room for more dwarves, or you can furnish other types of rooms that help you obtain resources, produce extra food, or generate extra points at the end of the game.  Inside the tunnels, you can create ore and ruby mines.

In the forest, you can plow fields and fence pastures, but first you have to clear the trees to create meadows.  Then you can plant crops and raise livestock.

In some ways this game is simpler than Agricola, but in other ways, it’s more complex.  One new element is the ability for your dwarves to use ore to create weapons.  A dwarf with a weapon can go on expeditions and return with loot.

I was playing with three players who only learned the game this week.  I had a big edge in experience, so it’s no surprise that I won the game by a large margin.  It may be the highest score I’ve ever had in this game.

After my Caverna game, I made a brief stop at the food trucks for lunch.  Then I spent the afternoon roaming the exhibit hall, picking up where I left off on Thursday.

Some games have themes based on comic or science fiction characters.  There are also role-playing games that have their own characters and mythology.  Some people come to the convention in costumes.  They have a costume parade and a costume contest on Saturday, but throughout the convention, I was seeing people in costumes and makeup.  Here are just a few of them.

When I signed up for events, I was hoping to get into a game of Brass: Birmingham, but it filled up before I could get in.  If you show up at a sold out event, you can still get in if one of the players doesn’t show up.  I showed up just in case.  I briefly got my hopes up when only three players showed up by 2:00, but the fourth player arrived a few minutes late.  The game master (GM) who was running the event told me he was running an event for another game at 6:00, but nobody signed up.  He said if I came back at 6:00, and no players came for the other game, the two of us could play Brass: Birmingham instead.  That’s what happened.  After spending most of the afternoon at the exhibit hall, I ate an early dinner and then arrived at 6:00 to play Brass: Birmingham.

Brass: Birmingham is set in England during the industrial revolution.  Players earn points and generate income buy building coal mines, iron works, breweries, cotton mills, pottery, and manufactured goods.  Before you can ship your products, you need to create a transportation network by building canals or railroads to connect the cities.  Players who create these canal or rail links earn points depending on how many industries have been built in the cities they connect.

I generally prefer multi-player games, but Brass: Birmingham also plays well as a two-player game.  I enjoyed this game almost as much as a three or four player game.  I played one-on-one against the GM and won with the highest score I’ve ever had.

Saturday, August 3

Saturday was race day.  The race didn’t start until 7:30 AM, but I needed to arrive early to pick up my race packet.  I also needed to allow about 20 minutes to walk from my hotel to where my car was parked and another 30 minutes to drive to Eagle Creek Park.  I had to leave the hotel long before breakfast started, so I ate a cupcake that I bought at one of the food trucks the night before.

The temperature at the start was 65 degrees, but it warmed into the low 80s during the race.  That’s similar to the weather I had for my last four races.  I knew the heat would be a factor in the second half of the race.  The most important thing is that it didn’t rain, so the trails weren’t muddy.

The course was a 13.1 mile out-and-back, mostly on single-track trails through the woods in Eagle Creek Park.  Long sections of it were fairly runnable, but there were also technical sections with lots of roots and fallen trees.  There was a half marathon that just did this out-and-back once.  For the marathon, we had to run it twice.

During pre-race announcements, the race director told us there was a hard cut-off time of 3:15 for beginning the second loop.  He also told us that historically, about 20% of the runners starting the marathon drop down to the half marathon.

I wasn’t racing for a fast time, but I was signed up for a board game event in the afternoon, and I knew it would take a long time to get back to the hotel and get cleaned up.  If I could finish in 5:30, I would have plenty of time.  Anything slower than that and I would be pressed for time.

The first mile was fairly runnable.  After leaving the start area, we ran for about half a mile through some tall grass.

Under the grass, there were some ruts worn into the ground.  I took a funny step, and twisted my ankle slightly.  I could easily have been injured, but I’ve always had strong flexible ankles. It was uncomfortable for the next few steps, but the discomfort was temporary.

After the wide grass section, we entered the woods and ran on single-track trail.  This first section of single-track didn’t have many roots. In the direction we were running, it was mostly flat or downhill.

Then we came out onto a brief section of dirt road that led us into the first of four aid stations.  We would visit three of them twice per lap, so we had a total of seven aid stations per lap.

I ran the first mile in 7:55.  That seemed surprisingly fast for a trail course, but I was running where I could, knowing I would slow down on the more technical sections.  I commented to another runner that the course wasn’t as tough as I feared.  That would soon change.

In the second mile, the trail was for more technical.  We started coming upon fallen trees that were lying over the trail.  The faster runners were hurdling them, but I slowed down to step over them carefully.  I’ve run trail races where we had to climb over fallen trees, but only because the race was right after a bad storm.  In this race, I got the impression that the fallen trees are a permanent feature of the trail.

There were other obstacles, such as this gully.  I saw one runner leap across, but I had to step down into it and climb out.

The second mile was mostly technical, but had one section of paved road.  I picked up my pace on the road to compensate for lost time on the trails.  My time for the second mile was 8:00.  That seemed hard to believe.

The third mile was even more technical.  There were some steep hills.  Going downhill, I sometimes had to slow to a walk to make sure I wouldn’t trip on the roots.

I walked several downhill sections that other people were running.  To compensate, I ran most of the uphill sections that other people were walking.  There were a few sections were there were so many roots that it was treacherous even going uphill.

There were many more fallen trees in this section.  There were dozens of them.  I couldn’t even begin to count them.

I emerged from the woods to see the three mile sign and the next aid station.  My time for three miles was 34:10.  Either the mile markers were misplaced, or I took more than 18 minutes for the third mile.

After the aid station, we followed a driveway out to a paved ramp that took us down to a bridge.

This was a nice runnable section.  The bridge took us across Eagle Creek Reservoir.  We had views of the reservoir on our left as we crossed the bridge for the first time.

Another runner told me the trails on the west side of the reservoir were technical, but the trails on the east side were runnable.  After crossing the reservoir, I entered the trail on the east side.  I assumed I wouldn’t have anything technical until I got back to the west side.  I was wrong.  This side was easier, but there was still some technical stuff.

It wasn’t as hilly, but there were still a few roots.  There were also a few fallen trees.  They weren’t as frequent.  There were only about four or five fallen trees on this section.

After four miles, the trail got much less technical, but there were three sections of wooden steps.  In this direction, we had to go down the steps.  I wasn’t confident that they would all be the same size, so I didn’t attempt to run them.

The course wasn’t completely out-and-back.  Between five and six miles, we began a loop.  By six miles, the trail leveled out.  Now it was completely runnable.  I was still checking my watch at each mile marker, but I no longer worried about individual mile times.  Instead, I paid attention to my average.  Through six miles, I was averaging about 11 minutes per mile.

Next, we ran along a causeway that took us around part of the reservoir.  This section was a nice wide gravel trail that was fairly flat.

After leaving the causeway, we were back on single track trail. As we left the reservoir, we had a steep climb with lots of roots.  This trail eventually completed the loop, and we began running back the way we came.  For the rest of the loop, there would be two-way traffic, but we were starting to thin out.

On the way back, I again encountered the three sections of steps.  In this direction, I could run them without fear of tripping, but it was tiring.

The aid stations had water and Gatorade, but the cups were small.  As it got warmer, I didn’t feel like I was drinking enough, so I started drinking two cups at each aid station.

I eventually reached the short technical section on this side and then came back onto the bridge.  When I reached the aid station on the other side, I re-entered the toughest trail section.  Through 10 miles, I was still averaging 11 minutes per mile, but I knew the next two miles would be tough.

Up until now, I had been surprisingly nimble stepping over the roots, but I finally tripped on one that I didn’t see.  I stumbled forward off balance for several strides.  I managed to regain my balance just before reaching the next fallen tree.

I eventually made it back to the start/finish area.  I completed the first loop in 2:24.  I was on pace to break five hours by a wide margin, but I knew the second lap would be slower.  It was getting hotter.  Also, I wouldn’t be as nimble stepping over roots as my legs got fatigued.

As I made the turnaround, I saw Jen Metcalf at the aid station.  For most of the race, we were running close to the same pace.  We occasionally passed each other on the trail.

As expected, my second lap was slower.  In particular, I had to take short walking breaks on some of the uphill sections.  When I reached the loop on the east side, I told myself I was finally seeing everything for the last time.  Through the first six miles of this lap, my average pace was about a minute per mile slower than it was on the first lap.

When I completed the loop and reached the eight mile sign, I knew I had only five miles to go, but I reminded myself that three of them would be technical.  I was still on a fairly non-technical section, when I tripped and fell.

There wasn’t even a root.  I somehow managed to trip on the dirt and stumbled toward a tree on the right side of the narrow trail.  I couldn’t avoid falling, so I reached my arm out to try to use the tree to steady myself.  That was a bad idea.  I had too much forward momentum, and I crashed hard into the tree.  My right arm crumpled up between the tree and my torso.

I was slow getting up.  The impact made my hat fall off, so I had to pick it up and put in back on my head.  My arm hurt, but I didn’t seem to break anything, which is sort of amazing.  My arm absorbed most of the impact and was in an awkward position.

After standing up, it took several seconds to shake out the cobwebs before I could start moving.  I walked at first.  Then I ran slowly.  Jen passed me, and I followed her through the more technical trail section until we reached the bridge again.

It was a relief to be on pavement going across the bridge, but I was getting tired.  I had to work hard to keep up with Jen crossing the bridge.

By the time we reached the tough trail section on the east side of the park, I had regained my composure, but I had to walk the steeper uphill sections.  Just when I thought I was doing OK, I tripped again.  This time, I caught my foot on a root, and landed on the trail, skidding on the dirt.  It wasn’t as bad as crashing into a tree, but it was still a hard landing.

Jen stopped to help me up.  I had some scrapes, including a bad one on my right forearm.  I’ve heard trail running enthusiasts say, “if there’s no blood, it doesn’t count.”  This race counts.

Jen and I ran together through the next two miles. We were both near our limits. It wasn’t until the wide grass section with a half mile to go that I had the confidence to pick up my pace.  I finished in 5:01:59. Jen came in right behind me.

This race was celebrating its tenth year, so they had an unusually large finisher medal.  It’s seven inches tall and made of stone.  I’m not someone who seeks out large medals, but by chance, I did this race, the Texas Marathon, and the Little Rock Marathon all in the same year.

After finishing, I discovered I placed second in my age group, so I also got this award.  Jen placed second in her age group too.

After the race, I left quickly to drive downtown.  I had an event at 4:00 PM, and I needed almost an hour just to get back to my hotel.  Then I still had to shower and change clothes.  After the drive, my legs were stiff, but the 20 minute walk to the hotel was probably good for my recovery.  The shower felt good, but it took time to wash off layers or dirt, salt, blood, Aquaphor, and bug spray.

I apparently didn’t drink enough during the race.  I drank enough to get by, but I still got dehydrated.  When I tried to put on socks and shoes, my feet cramped up.

It was convenient staying at a hotel that was only two blocks, but there was also a disadvantage.  Any restaurant close to my hotel was also close to the convention center.  At any hour of the day, all the nearby restaurants had long waits to get a table.  I didn’t have time for that, so I went to the food trucks again.  Most of them had long lines too, which limited my options.

I was done eating before 3:00.  I could’ve watched the costume parade inside the convention center, but I didn’t think of it.  Instead, I went to the exhibit hall.  After about ten minutes, I realized I was in no shape to be on my feet.  I had to find a place in the hallway where I could sit down.  That’s when I discovered that Gen Con is a great place for people watching.  Seeing so many people walking by in interesting costumes, I finally remembered the costume parade, but by now it was too late.

My afternoon event was called Farmers of the Moor.  This is an expanded version of Agricola.  The game is made more complicated in several ways.  Before you can plow fields or fence pastures, you first need to clear forests and moors (peat bogs) from your land.  In addition to acquiring and breeding sheep, wild boars, and cattle, you also need to acquire and breed horses.  Finally, you need to have enough fuel to heat your home during each harvest.  Otherwise your family members get sick and can’t do any work.

One of the players was also in my Agricola game on Thursday.  He’s an experienced player, and he won this game easily.  I came in second.  I’ve never won Agricola with the Farmers of the Moor expansion, but I always enjoy playing it.

After my game, I ate dinner and then called it a day.

I had trouble finding a comfortable position to sleep.  I couldn’t put any weight on my right arm without discomfort.  It was sore from hitting the tree.  My right leg was also incredibly sore.  It wasn’t just the delayed onset muscle soreness that you experience after a hilly marathon.  This was soreness from where my leg hit the ground the second time I fell.

Sunday, August 4

I was signed up for a pick-up play event at 7:00, but I would have to set my alarm early.  I also would also have to miss the hotel breakfast for the second straight day.  Instead, I made a last minute decision to sleep in and enjoy breakfast, even though it meant missing my event.

The soreness in my quads from all the hills wasn’t too bad, but the soreness on the outside of my right thigh was getting worse.  I was moving slowly as I starting packing for the trip home.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to fit a marathon and convention into the same trip, but if I return to attend Gen Con again, I probably won’t do this race.  It’s way too technical for me.

Race Statistics
Distance: 26.2 miles
Official Time:  5:01:59
Average Pace:  11:31
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  381
Indiana Marathons:  5


  1. Congratulations on the age group placements, and the game wins. I have wondered about this race as a native Hoosier. You haven't dissuaded me, but it's not at the top of my list either.