Thursday, February 07, 2008

2/2/08 Orlando Xtreme Marathon

With a 3 week (two weekend) gap after the Disney races, you'd think I could do a proper taper heading into this weekend's Orlando Xtreme Marathon. You'd think. The reality is that my mileage since late December has been down... I went from 80 mpw down into the 30s and 40s... fair enough to "maintain" most of my fitness, but certainly not much work there to improve. So instead of doing a taper, I started rebuilding my mileage back into the 60s. I've decided not to do the 80 and 90 mile weeks this year. I won't have the time, and it's not like 90 mpw was helping me run 2:45 marathons.

The Orlando Xtreme Marathon. Three things were extreme about this race, and none of them involved course difficulty. The course itself was a two mile loop and then a six mile loop (repeated four times) around a couple lakes in Orlando Wetlands Park. The course was FLAT and although it wasn't paved, it was nice-and-wide gravel/dirt/sand road. The race touted the soft running surface as something groovy and comforting for legs that had been previously beaten senseless with too much concrete and asphalt running. I suppose. However, the dirt roads were rutted in places, and my feet DO NOT like this. I tend to tense them up... almost balling them into little foot-fists (when I'm running a trail 5k, these are tiny little foot-fists of fury), and they got pretty achey during this race. All that said, it was an easy course.

It was also a scenic and peaceful course. The name "Orlando Wetlands Park" is 2/3rds correct, and the correct parts lay out the scenery for you. It is indeed a nice away-from-traffic park through wetlands. This means lots of little lakes and tons of birds. I saw an owl, hawks, herons, other waterfowl... and... well, I don't know what the big giant black vulture birds were. There were hundreds of big giant black vulture birds hanging out in the trees, on the little bridges, and on the shores of the lakes. MENACING looking. I didn't want to stop to tie my shoe. Heh. The incorrect part of the park's name is the "Orlando" part.

Welcome to Extreme Thing #1: Finding Orlando Wetlands Park. It's 30-45 miles outside of Orlando, officially in a place called Christmas, Florida - which isn't on most maps. It is located off the highway, and off the connector road... on an unmarked road (called "Wheeler", but you won't know this 'cause there ain't no sign) and behind a No Trespassing sign. I am glad that I came to scope out the place while I was at Disney a few weeks prior. Trying to find this in the dark at 5:30a on race morning would have been challenging.

The race itself didn't start until 7 or 7:30. So why would I be trying to find it at 5:30? Welcome to Extreme Thing #2: The parking situation. There's a tiny lot. Once it fills up, people have to park alongside the unmarked Wheeler road - and it had deep ditches filled with water on both sides. So I went early to avoid having to play Parking Bingo. It was a good thing, too... I got there shortly before 6a, and the lot was almost full.

Remember those birds? There were also turtles. And one last thing, which you might be expecting in a wetlands park (read: swamp) in Florida. Welcome to Extreme Thing #3: alligators! This was not like a trail run where you "might" see a bear. This was not like Sunmart where that park had signs warning about alligators, but none were around. This was the real deal. On each loop, I saw alligators trolling the lake. At least two - I dunno if I saw the same two every time, or different ones. The last loop was in late morning with the sun up high... and right there on the shore around M22... was an alligator lying in the sun. Twenty feet away from me, and no fence! In 157 marathons, this was one of the very few times I actually regretted not having a camera with me. I mean, I can snap a picture of myself with Mickey Mouse or a random race band whenever I want. But a wild alligator not in the zoo? WOW. Extreme, indeed.

The full marathon had about 30 participants. There was also a slightly bigger half, a 10k, and a 5k... but I bet there weren't more than 200 people total. January/February is marathon season in Florida. So many great choices. Only a few hardy souls wanted to go to this obscure race in the middle of nowhere.

Everybody else missed out. This was a very well organized set of races. Yes, the chip timing only had a mat at the end... and yes, the race only had bananas and oranges afterwards (last year there was hot food, apparently). BUT there was an aid station and a porta-potty every mile. And because it was a repeated loop, I was able to ditch my extra shirt on my car when I got too hot, and I was able to stash my water bottle at an aid station when I got tired of carrying it. And a porta-potty every mile.

I had no aggressive goals for this race - I just wanted to get in a long run in the sunshine. I came to the right place. It was 55 at the start of the race, and 70ish at the end... with bright blue skies. Certainly more pleasant than the snow and 35 degrees I left behind.

In a way, this was a do-over race. I was supposed to come to Clermont, Florida (which is also near Orlando) back in December for a new race creatively dubbed "The Florida Marathon". I had to skip it, and so I bumped the fare from that trip plus an expiring airline voucher to come do this. Essentially, this was a freebie long run in warm weather. Nice.

A long run. At my current level of fitness, this would be somewhere near 9:00 miles... or a 3:55ish marathon. I decided to throw some 8:00 miles in the middle. If I'm going to run a 3:30 race, then 8:00 miles are my friend.

The chronicle for the race is short and sweet: we started off... all 30 of us... and immediately got spread out. The half, 10k, and 5k all had different starting lines spread across the park. After the first 2 mile loop, I headed into the 6 mile loop that would be repeated 4 times. I caught up with slower half marathoners. I looked at birds and marveled at the gators. After two loops, the half marathoners were done and it got quite lonely. In a good way.

I stayed with my plan for the most part. 9:00 miles through M8, and then 8:00 miles between M8-M14. I wanted to do a couple more at 8:00/mile... but it was starting to get hot and my feet were really hurting from the trail.

Although I wasn't "racing" per se, nobody passed me during this race. Well, one friendly woman did... but as she passed me, she told me that she was running the relay. Relay? I didn't know there was a relay. Huh. After the race, I learned that this team had made their own ad hoc relay, and they were the only team running it :-).

I faded a bit towards the end... M22 and beyond were a lot closer to 10:00/mile than 9:00. Sigh. I should have been able to hold on longer. I wasn't out of energy, and it wasn't that hot. Maybe a little humid. I'm sure it was my low mileage during the previous month. That's ok. This wasn't a goal race.

Plus, as I mentioned before, I did come within 20 feet of an actual alligator around M22, and that was allllllllright.

3:51. Good enough for first in my age group. Woohoo. Small races are funny that way. I've run just about the same pace in other races and come in towards the end. In fact, once, I *was* the last person. Heh.

Next up: The Valentine Marathon, which is basically the same thing as the Easter Marathon, the Halloween Marathon, and the Christmas Marathon. These are held at a state park near Olympia, Washington. I've done all the other holiday races before, but this will be my first V. I was signed up for it last year, but my dog ate his leash that weekend and I missed it. I'm sure there won't be any surprises. Unless it is sunny. That'll be a surprise :-).

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