Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Run For Africa

Run for Africa was my first 24 hour race. I found it to be much more difficult, mentally, than a point-to-point 100 miler. In a 100, I don't think about how many more miles I have to go, I just think of it as getting from one aid station to the next. The terrain is different between each aid station and you have the incentive to finish faster so you can get the race over with faster.

In the 24-hour format, all that changes. You know exactly what to expect and exactly how long you are going to be running. If you go faster, you'll get more miles in, but in the middle of the night in a thunderstorm, I found it very hard to be concerned about getting any extra miles in. In addition, our vehicle was conveniently parked at the three-mile mark, which made it very tempting to take extended breaks in the comfort of a nice dry and warm environment.

Run for Africa is a 24-hour trail race, actually set up as a team relay race. All of the proceeds go directly to support sustainable wells in villages in Africa. The race director, Will Harlan, himself an accomplished ultrarunner, agreed to allow solo runners compete in both a 24 hour and a 12 hour division. As a result, over 40 teams registered along with 15 solo runners, and the organization was able to raise over $20,000 for the cause.

The race was superbly organized. Prior to the race, Will was very helpful with questions I had and even mailed me a map of the course so I could go preview it. When we arrived on Saturday morning, the check-in was very smooth, and along with your t-shirt, you received a photo of one of the kids in Africa who your run was helping out. The pre-race meeting, a half hour prior to the race, was short and to the point and it was nice not having to arrive the night before a race to go to the meeting.

The race started at noon on Saturday and ended at noon on Sunday. The start/finish line was located in the middle of a grassy field where many of the runners had set up tents. The main food tent was there and although I didn't have a chance to take advantage of it, there was free pizza and beer for the runners, along with breakfast in the morning. Bands were playing throughout the day and evening on Saturday and it made for a very festive atmosphere. Then again, at 4:00 in the morning, in the rain, it was difficult to run by all those people sleeping soundly in their tents.

The course was a five mile loop with approximately 700 feet of elevation gain per loop. The first mile was the most difficult, as it climbed steep single track with wash-outs in areas, up to an aid station at about the 1.2 mile mark. Volunteers were there throughout the day, handing out water and Gatorade. Then you began a descent down gravel roads, with washouts in the beginning, but ending up on maintained gravel roads until it leveled out around 2.2 miles. The course then wound around beautiful Lake Eden, along with its many Canadian geese, on grassy paths. At the 3.1 mile mark, there was a fully stocked aid station with water, Gatorade, Cliff bars, bananas, etc.. The course continued around the lake and then wound uphill on gravel roads, and back down to the lake. You again passed the 3.1 mile aid station, this time at about 4.4 miles. You also passed right by the bathrooms and showers, which was very convenient so you didn't have to wait in line for the porta-potties at the start/finish area. However, it was also difficult stepping out of the rain and mud, listening to the hot showers running, and then going back out again. The course ended up with a loop around the field, where you checked in and started the process over again.

The first few laps of the course were very enjoyable. I met several other ultrarunners and we stayed in vicinity of each other for a long time, which made the time go by much faster. There were constantly relay team members passing by, some of which were elite ultrarunners themselves, who I usually only see at the start line of a race. (One was not running the solo event because he had just run across the Sahara!) The weather was overcast, but warm, for most of the afternoon, with occasional drizzle and sprinkles starting in the evening. By midnight, some of the solo runners and teams had stopped at the 12 hour mark and everyone became much more spread out. I went for long periods of time without seeing anyone. Tony (my husband) ran two laps with me at different times, despite his torn meniscus, and kept me company. After midnight, it started raining steadily, and then a thunderstorm moved in. My loops were getting slower and slower. I started out with 50 minute loops, which gradually lengthened, and had passed the 50 mile mark around 10:20 after a few breaks to change shoes and clothes. By 4:00 a.m., I was pretty frustrated. I was drenched, cold, everything hurt, my loops were taking around 75 minutes or longer, I still had eight hours to go and my goal of over 100 miles seemed unattainable. So, at mile three on the next loop, I climbed into the truck where Tony was trying to sleep, changed into dry clothes, turned on the heat, drank an Ensure and napped off and on for the next hour or so. As the sky started to lighten and the rain stopped, my spirits improved and I hobbled back out of the truck and onto the loop again. As I passed through the start/finish area, I learned that there were only 4 people left in the 24 hour solo and that I was leading in laps, but only by one. That motivated me a bit more and I finished shortly after noon with 95 miles.

Our friend and adventure racing partner, Alan Buckner, ran the 12-hour solo as his first ultra and finished before midnight with 50 miles. His longest race prior to that had been the Bartram Trail 21 mile endurance run three weeks before.

I can't say enough good things about the race director and volunteers. The aid station at 3.1 remained manned at all times despite the weather and the volunteers were handing out cups of water and Gatorade to everyone who came through. At the start/finish area, the volunteers checked on me every time I went through, asking if they could get me anything or if I needed anything. From my perspective, everything went very smoothly, despite having over 40 teams running plus the soloists. The results for the top three in each category were ready immediately after the race and some extremely nice prizes were given to the first place teams and soloists. The fact that 100 percent of your entry fee went directly to the charity made the race even more special.