Running a Race Indoors

At the start of 2017 my objective was to finish the remaining 13 states in my 50 States Endurance Challenge.  I had most of my races picked out but I was having trouble finding a half marathon in Connecticut that fit into my jam-packed schedule.  Looking at the race calendar on the 50 States Half Marathon Club website, I found a race in Hartford, Connecticut in January – the Arena Attack.  January in Connecticut can be full of ice and snow.  That wasn’t a problem for this race.  It was going to be run indoors around the concourse of Hartford’s XL Center.

Although this race has been rated among the most difficult half marathons in the world by halfmarathons.net, I was not intimidated.  I am always looking for ways to vary my half marathon and marathon experiences.  I have run through amusement parks; around auto and horse racing tracks; through professional football and baseball stadiums; over a covered bridge; across a desert; up a mountain in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains; and through a mile-long underwater tunnel that also crossed an international border.  This was going to be another new experience.

The Arena Attack races were the idea of Scott Sutter of the Southern New England Athletic Association (SNEAA).  Scott ran track and cross country in college in South Carolina.  If the weather was too hot or rainy, the coach would make the team run interval workouts on the concourse of the field house.  Fast forward to 2012 when Scott remembered those indoor workouts.  He knew in the middle of winter the race calendar in New England is pretty empty.  Running on the concourse of an arena would be perfect for dedicated runners looking to get in a long run.  Let’s face it – runners are pretty nutty.  They will run anywhere they can.  SNEAA offers a 5K, marathon, and two half marathon heats as part of the Arena Attack.  Not surprising – all of the races in Hartford sold out.

When I mentioned to my running group that I was planning to run this race, they brought up several concerns.  Would the course be crowded with runners? What would the temperature be inside the arena?  Would the floor get slippery at the water stop?  Would it be boring running in circles?  None of these things worried me because Scott addressed them all in the pre-race guide.  I was focused on the positives.  I would be running on a flat course in Connecticut (can’t find many of those even along the coast).  There would be multiple bathrooms along the 330-meter course and I would never be more than a few steps away from any of them (and no lines!).  I would have to run 65 laps around the arena but it would be better than slogging out 13.1 miles on a treadmill in January and I could check off another state in my 50 States Endurance Challenge.  From my perspective, this was a win-win.

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It was funny to see runners passing under the photo on the wall of an outdoor race

Since the course is narrower in a few spots, the number of runners is restricted.  There were two heats for the half marathon with between 35 and 40 runners in each.   (The marathon was run concurrent with the two half marathon heats and was restricted to 25 runners).  I ran in the second heat of the half marathon.  Not only was this my first indoor race, this was the smallest race I have ever run.  When we got going, everyone quickly spread out and settled into their own pace. I never felt crowded like I do in a race with significantly more runners where we run on wide streets.  I also liked that the tile floor was laid out in stripes that were like lanes all the way around the concourse.  They were easy to follow.

img_7301The arena is home to the Wolf Pack hockey team and a number of kids’ hockey teams.  They keep the temperature inside the arena in the 50s so the ice rink doesn’t melt.  I think the ice also helps to keep the indoor air temperature down.  Scott had recommended runners wear shorts and singlets.  I followed his suggestion and was comfortable.  Although it seemed strange, I also wore a visor just to keep any sweat from rolling down into my eyes as I ran.

The water stop was one table set up with water, Gatorade, and bananas.  Marathon runners had separate tables where they could leave their own sports drinks and nutrition items.  During the pre-race briefing, Scott emphasized the need to prevent spills on the course.  Wet floors would be hazardous to the runners.  Kudos to all the runners – I never saw any spills.

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I passed this sign 65 times.

As we ran, there was music playing to keep the runners entertained.  Races like the Rock ’n Roll series have bands or DJs set up every mile or so along the course.  In actuality, runners only hear them when they get within about 25 yards of the band or DJ.  It ends up being occasional little spurts of music.  The rest of the time we are left alone to listen to people huffing and puffing as they run.  This race was different.  Since we were running around the arena, I could always hear the music.  It was a change for me because  I don’t run wearing earphones and listening to music.  I use my training runs to think about things I need to do, work out problems, or just take in the scenery.  I wouldn’t say that I disliked hearing music the entire time.  It was just another different aspect to this race for me.

In addition to the Arena Attack races in Hartford, SNEAA also holds another set of Arena Attack races in Mullins Center on the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  The Mullins Center is a little smaller so half marathoners have to do 67 laps instead of 65.   The Amherst edition of Arena Attack sold out too.

Overall, I have to say the Arena Attack Half Marathon was an interesting race.  The number of runners was small and everyone was sensible about the “don’t spill water” request.  I never had to stress out about finding a bathroom along the way.  Even better I didn’t have to carry my own water bottles.  The water stop was never very far away.  The availability of bathrooms and the water stop made this a very pleasant race for me.  The only suggestion I have to improve the race would be to liven things up a bit.  It might be fun to allow runners to suggest songs for the music playlist.  Maybe even have a little commentary every once in a while too (“this song goes out to Justin who is finishing up lap 38!”).

I would recommend anyone looking for a new twist on racing to consider running one of the Arena Attack races.  Running indoors is definitely a unique experience.

0 to 26.2 – Tips for New Marathoners

My laurel wreath and first marathon medal

I learned a lot of lessons while training for my first marathon

When I participated on the running bloggers panel at the Route 66 Marathon Expo, one of the questions we were asked was what advice we had for first time marathoners and half marathoners.  It is a good question, one that I would break into two parts – training tips and race day tips.  It occurred to me many people have probably set the goal of running their first endurance event this year.  Now that they have set their goal, they may be thinking about how to achieve their goal of running a marathon or half marathon.  Where do you start?  In this post, I will share my training tips.  I’ll write about race day tips later.

I am not going to bother to go over training plans.  I am not an expert in how to train.  In fact I still rely on a running coach to get me ready for a marathon.  Some running stores offer training programs to prepare for races.  There are plenty of training plans available on the Internet from running experts like Jeff Galloway, Hal Higdon, and Jenny Hadfield.  You can also train with charity programs such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training (TNT).  In exchange for fundraising, the charity provides a training plan, supported weekly long runs, and entry into a specific event.  I have run 11 races for charities. It is rewarding to cross the finish line knowing that I have helped someone else while participating in an event.  This spring I will be running the Boston Marathon for a charity.  Whatever training plan you use, I recommend that you follow it to the letter.  There is a reason why they tell you to cross train or stretch.  I have always done better when I don’t ignore the portions of a training plan that I don’t like.

Okay, now to the advice that you probably will only hear from me.

Know the Course – My first marathon was the Country Music Marathon in Nashville.  I watched the video of the course that was posted on the race web site.  By the end of the video, I was terrified.  What had I signed myself up for? I was convinced I would never be able to finish the race.

I decided to approach the course like it was an enemy I needed to conquer. To beat it I needed to know the course very well.  I printed out the course map, which included the elevation map (or as I call it, the EKG line), and studied it.  I knew every turn and hill along the course.   Each time I ran, I visualized myself running the race.  At the end of every training run, I saw myself crossing the finish line.  After each of my long runs, I would highlight that distance along the course map.  For example, when I finished my 16 mile training run, I highlighted the course map up to the 16 mile marker.  It was a visual reminder of the distance that I had already run.  If I could run it in a training run, I could run it on race day.

By knowing the course inside and out, I didn’t have any surprises on race day.  I knew exactly where I was all the time and what was coming up ahead.  I beat the course that had once terrified me.

Treat every training run as a dress rehearsal for race day – During your training runs, you should be doing everything exactly as you plan to do on race day.  That includes having the same breakfast you plan on having on race day; wearing the same running clothes and shoes; using the same hydration and nutrition you will have during the race.  By trying things out before race day, you will find out what works for you and what doesn’t.  If you travel to a race like I frequently do, confirm how you will get your preferred breakfast on the road.  Will you be able to get oatmeal at 4:30 AM in your hotel?  If not, then you might want to try other breakfast options while you are training.

Find out what sports drink they will have along the course and try it during a training run.  If you can’t handle the sports drink the race will have, then you will need to come up with an alternative hydration strategy.  You might want to carry your own fluids, which means getting use to wearing a hydration belt.

When I ran the Tokyo Marathon, runners were not allowed to carry any fluids.  We had to rely solely on the water stops.  I always carry my own hydration so I was concerned.  I needed to figure out how I would handle this on race day.   My strategy for training for this restriction was to practice only taking fluids during my training runs at the corresponding miles where the water stops would be on the course.  On race day, I was prepared and everything went smoothly.

I remember training for the Wine and Dine Half Marathon at Disney World.  Back then the race started at 10 PM at night.  I wasn’t sure how I would handle a race that started when I normally would be asleep.  To prepare for the race, I ran a couple of training runs at night.  I learned that I needed to adjust my pre-race meals plus take a nap in the afternoon.  I was prepared and it ended up being one of my all time favorite races.

I used a similar strategy when I trained for the Disney World Dopey Challenge (5K, 10K, half and full marathon over 4 consecutive days). I practiced running increasingly long distances over 4 days.  My Dopey dress rehearsal helped me understand how tired my legs would be each day.   I adjusted my post-race recovery plan to ensure I would be ready for the next day’s race.

Actors use dress rehearsals to ensure they deliver the best performance on opening night.  Runners can ensure they have the best race possible by using the dress rehearsal strategy too.

Run in all kinds of weather – While many runners love running in the rain, I hate it.  (I wrote about being a fair weather runner in an older post, Embrace the Weather.)  Given a choice, if the weather forecast is for rain or snow, I reschedule my run to another day or run on my treadmill (or as I call it, my dreadmill).

But who knows what the weather will be on your race day.  It isn’t like the race directors will move a race indoors if the weather is bad.  Not every town has indoor tracks.  Where would they get thousands of treadmills on a moment’s notice anyway?  I recall when the Mississippi Blues Marathon was canceled two weeks ago, someone on Facebook asked why they just couldn’t move the race indoors.  It just isn’t one of the contingency plans for a race.  Except for ice or thunderstorms, you need to be prepared to run in whatever weather greets you on race day.

Do you have any tips you would offer to new marathon runners?  What helped you get through your first race?  What did you learn the hard way?

Running Blues

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It is hard to believe but my most fun race adventure didn’t even include a race.  This past weekend I was registered to run the Mississippi Blues Half Marathon.  At the end of the weekend, I had traveled by plane, train, and automobile (no boat!) through 5 states yet I never put a foot into a running shoe.  Although I missed the race, I had one interesting adventure.

img_7228The Mississippi Blues Half was a race I was really looking forward to running.   Just like the Route 66 Half Marathon is considered to be THE race to run in Oklahoma, the Mississippi Blues Half is considered to be THE race to run in Mississippi.  I had heard many reports from other runners about how much they enjoyed this race.  I was looking forward to going to Jackson, Mississippi to not only run but enjoy the many clubs with live blues music after the race.   For weeks I kept hearing Bruno Mars singing the lyrics “Jackson, Mississippi” in his famous song “Uptown Funk.”  This was going to be a great trip.  Mother Nature, however, had other plans.

The weather forecasts in the week prior to the race kept changing.  Some days it looked like the weather was going to be bad.  The next day it looked like the bad weather would miss them.  Despite the changing weather forecasts, I decided to make the trip.

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Runner goodies

I arrived in Jackson two days before the race and headed to the Expo.  It was lively with a blues band playing.  In the runner’s goodie bag, there was a zip jacket, a harmonica, and a DVD on Mississippi blues music.  The finishers’ medal was on display; it was huge!  I was going to have wonderful souvenirs from this race.  Unfortunately, the ever-changing weather forecast had swung back to being ominous.

The marathon medal (the medal for the half wasn't much smaller)

The marathon medal (the medal for the half was only a little smaller)

The day before the race it rained in the morning so I headed to the Mississippi Museum of Art.  It isn’t a large museum but it was unique.  There was a special exhibit – the Mississippi Invitational – with the most unusual work of art I have ever seen – a sculpture made of cicada shells.  I remember as a kid picking cicada shells off the sides of trees in the summer.  They were very fragile and easily crushed.  Nate Theisen had created a sculpture that looked like a basket – 22 inches x 36 inches x 36 inches – using hundreds of cicada shells.  It was hard to believe the  delicate shells could be used for a sculpture.  (Check out Nate’s web page for a photo of the cicada sculpture.)

Someone at the Expo had told me in Mississippi, if you don’t like the weather, wait two hours and it will change.  They were right.  When I left the museum, the rain had stopped and the sun was trying to peak out through the clouds, though it was pretty cold.  I was feeling optimistic about Saturday’s weather for the race.

Merci Train

Merci Train

I walked over to see the Merci train car.  In 1949 France sent a train car filled with gifts to each state in the US (Washington DC and Hawaii shared one) as a token of thanks for the support they received during World War I and II.  Forty-three of the original 49 cars still exist.  As I made my way back to my hotel after seeing the Merci train, I noticed that it was getting colder.

As the afternoon wore on, the clouds got thicker and the ice pellets started to fall.   Things deteriorated quickly and the roads became dangerously covered in ice.  In fact many roads and bridges were closed.  With temperatures not expected to get above freezing before Sunday, the race organizers made the tough decision to cancel the race.  While many runners headed to the hotel bars to commiserate, I spent Friday night researching ways to get home.  I didn’t want to repeat my first 2016 race trip when I was stranded in Austin for 3 days after the race due to an East Coast blizzard.  It was time well spent because late Saturday morning I was notified that my Sunday morning flight home was canceled too.

On Saturday morning I went out to find the streets covered in a quarter inch of ice.  Walking was nearly impossible.  A few runners were going to run the race on their own, even printing out the course turn by turn.  They quickly abandoned their plans when they saw how treacherous it was.

img_7245With many flights out of Jackson canceled and roads covered in ice, I decided to take the overnight  City of New Orleans train to Chicago.  On Saturday evening I boarded the train and settled into my sleeper compartment.  I tried to sleep as we traveled through Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois but the Arlo Gutherie song “City of New Orleans” kept playing in my head.  My brain wouldn’t turn off my mental record player no matter how hard I tried.  In Chicago, I took another train to O’Hare Airport where I was able to get a flight home.  The entire trip was an adventure.

Coincidentally, the Disney World Half Marathon scheduled for the same day was also cancelled due to the weather in Florida.  Disney appeased all the affected runners by giving them the race medal, refunds, and park passes.   I would never have expected those things.

Many people posted complaints on Facebook about the Mississippi Blues race.  I think they might have heard about how Disney was handling their cancellation and expected the same treatment.  They complained about the timing of the race cancellation announcement.  They complained about not getting refunds for their entry fees or a free registration for the 2018 race.  They wanted – in some cases, demanded – their race medals.  Their behavior made me angry.  Expecting the Mississippi Race  organizers to respond in the same manner as Disney World did when they cancelled their half is beyond ridiculous. Disney has very deep pockets. I am sure that the Mississippi Blues race took a big hit financially.  One wonders how that will affect them long-term.

I live in the northeast where winter storms are the norm. Superintendents of school systems are always on the hot seat about whether or not to cancel school because of snow. They, like race directors, are going by the weather forecasts (and we know how inaccurate those can be). If they make the decision to cancel school because there is supposed to be bad weather and then it doesn’t happen, they get criticized. If they don’t cancel school and the weather is horrible, preventing kids from getting home, they get criticized. Sounds like race directors are in the same boat. When should they make the call to cancel a race?  I can only imagine the uproar if a race was canceled based on a weather forecast that doesn’t materialize.

Like every other runner, I am disappointed I didn’t get to run.  I feel very sorry for the race director.  He did the very best he could, given an unusual weather event in Jackson.  The race director does not control the weather.  I spoke to him on Saturday.  He displayed concern about my well-being and how I was going to get back home.  He was one of the most gracious, kindest people I met while in Jackson.

As I made my way home on the train, I had time to think about the weekend.  This was my first visit to Mississippi.  The hotel shuttle driver pointed out to me that Mississippi is the hospitality state.  I experienced that hospitality firsthand.  Everyone I met went out of their way to help me, answer my questions.  If I had stayed home, I wouldn’t have seen the locust shell sculpture or learned about Mississippi blues music.  I would never have taken the City of New Orleans train and experienced a sleeper compartment.  It may not have been a race but it certainly was an adventure.  Now if I could just get that song out of my head!

Interested in learning more about Mississippi blues?  Check out the Moonshine and Mojo Hands series.   http://moonshineandmojohands.com

Just 30 Minutes

While I am a big fan of running, I also realize that running is not for everyone.  Due to knee problems, my husband, for example, is not able to join in my running adventures.  He makes a terrific spectator, though, and can ring a mean cow bell.  For people like him, walking is the perfect way to keep moving.

I found this YouTube video by Dr. Mike Evans called “23 1/2 hours:  What is the single best thing we can do for our health?”  It is a very interesting video, about 10 minutes long but worth it.  If you haven’t guessed it already, the “thing” is exercise – 30 minutes a day. According to Dr. Evans, walking is the ideal exercise.   Walking (along with other lifestyle changes) helps deal with a number of maladies.  Things like diabetes, knee arthritis, dementia and Alzheimer’s, anxiety, depression, and fatigue.  Best thing yet – it is free!

I shared the video with a couple of people last week and they all had the same reaction.  They got up and went for a walk.  I just hope they keep doing it.

A few of my Volksmarch medals

A few of my Volksmarch medals

For people who still want to earn a medal, there are Volksmarches.  A Volksmarch is an organized, non-competitive 5K or 10K walk.  Participants in Volksmarches are given medals or other commemorative items when they complete an event. There are Volksmarch clubs all over the world.  Some clubs also organize hikes, bike rides, swimming and cross-country skiing events (collectively known as Volkssports).

My husband and I took up Volksmarching many years ago when he was recovering from ankle surgery.  The low impact exercise was perfect to keep him moving and help him regain mobility in his ankle.  Since we had recently moved, it was a great way to get to know our new home state.  We traveled to local events as well as some in neighboring states.  Going to a Volksmarch event was an excuse to get out and explore.  I was reminded of the adventures we had when I came across my Volksmarch medals while cleaning out a closet.  Looking at my collection of medals, I have to say some rival marathon medals I have earned.

Walking is the Rodney Dangerfield of exercise – it gets no respect.  People think that walking is a waste of time.  Done properly, walking can reap huge health benefits.  It is worth every moment you put into it.   So grab your coat, put on your walking shoes and head out the door.  Thirty minutes a day is all you need.  Every step counts.

Interested in learning more about Volksmarches? You can visit the American Volkssport Association (ava.org) and the International Federation of Popular Sports (Internationaler Volkssportverband – IVV) web sites to find more information about Volkssport clubs and events in your area.

Another organization that promotes walking is the Freewalkers (freewalkers.org).  This informal group organizes events and provides information to encourage walkers, such as training plans, checklists for walkers, and a useful guide on preventing blisters and dealing with them if you get one.  They even organize international walking trips.

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