Ha! There's my permission to WALK the whole 50K race if I decide
that's the best way to preserve my injured hamstring. The signs
clearly mention "hiking" not once, but twice.
Hopefully, I'll be able to run some and not have to walk the
whole thing. Yeah, I can use "time on my feet" for ATY training
but I really don't want to take ten or eleven hours to finish
the 50K (11:15 hours are allowed). At the other extreme,
I'm not looking for a 50K PR either. That won't happen again in
this lifetime. My PR is 4:50:40, set ten years ago
at the Aiken 50K. I'm not sure I could run a 9:10 pace
for a 5K right now!
OUR HISTORY WITH SUNMART
I'm glad I ran the 50-miler at Sunmart in 1998 and not the 50K.
It's a bit frustrating to return to a race you've run before and
not do as well the second time -- even a decade later, when your
expectations may not be as high.
Jim and I both ran the 50-miler that year and finished within a
few minutes of each other. Our times of 9:46 (Jim) and 9:53
(me) put us squarely in the middle of the pack. That race was a
nice accomplishment for both of us (it is still Jim's 50-mile
PR) and we have fond memories of it -- even though we hadn't met
each other yet.
By the next December we were a couple and we wanted to go back to Sunmart
together. I had recently finished my first 100-miler at Arkansas
Traveler and decided 50K was my limit while still recovering
from the longest distance I'd ever run. Jim entered the 50-miler
One of the race logos (this is embroidered
on the polo shirt)
I ended up withdrawing before the 1999 race because of an
overuse injury; the 50-miler in 1998 was my only run at Sunmart
before this year. Jim dropped down to the 50K in 1999 because he wasn't
as well trained as he wanted to be for the longer race. He finished
in 5:38, about an hour longer than his PR for the
distance but still placing respectably in the top 38% overall. Since I couldn't run, I had fun helping RD
Norm Klein (of Western States RD fame) and his wife Helen at the
finish area and crewed for Jim there when he came through on
We've just never gotten back to Sunmart until now, mostly
because in the intervening years we were running more
mountainous race courses. Bad knees, the new reality that I can
no longer run mountainous courses, proper timing and location for our goal race (ATY), and my
search for races with more generous time limits finally
brought us back to Sunmart this year.
WELCOME TO THE SUNMART RACES
Sunmart has seen a few changes over the years, too. I think it's
aged more gracefully than I have, though! But then, it's only 19
years old. (As ultra races go, that's pretty fair longevity.)
One of the biggest changes at Sunmart occurred after the 1999 race, the
last year for Norm Klein to direct the race. The race continues
to be generously sponsored by
Sunmart and Petroleum
Wholesale, which is a Chevron, Texaco, Exxon/Mobile, and Conoco
chain of convenience/fuel centers located in ten states
throughout the Southwest.
The current race director is
Roger Soler, who owns the
Soler's Sports chain of stores in San Antonio. Because the race
is so large (there have been about 800 runners and numerous
volunteers at least since we ran the race ten years ago), Roger
heads up a professional event management team to pull off a
smooth, safe, enjoyable event.
RACE PREP AT HUNTSVILLE STATE PARK
It was very interesting to watch all the race preparations from
our perspective as runners who were camped out at the race venue
for five days before the event. It appears to be a well-organized race.
We arrived on the Monday before the race. Signs like those at
the top of the page were already posted at every trail head to
warn unsuspecting visitors of the crowds that were coming.
mentioned in an
earlier entry, we deliberately
chose the campsite closest to the aid station located on the
Prairie Branch Loop Trail so one or both of us could let Cody
out of the camper a couple times during the race as we passed
nearby. We were only about 200 feet down the trail from the aid
station and even closer to the trail head in our cul de sac.
That meant we could easily see what was going on with "our" aid
station. For example, on Tuesday two Porta-Potties were
delivered to the trail head and left there for three days before
someone realized they were supposed to be up the trail closer to
the aid station.
When we got back from running errands this morning, they'd been moved.
While they were close to us they were very handy.
We have electrical and water hook-ups,
but not sewer. We're doing our best to take "Navy showers" and avoid filling up our
black water tank before we leave next Monday; it's really
inconvenient to have to move the camper to the dump station and
then set everything back up. Being able to use those portable
toilets a few times a day was great while they were clean. After
they are used hundreds of times during the race, we'll be really
glad they are no longer just a hundred feet from our door!
Apparently all the aid stations at Sunmart will have two portable
We ran by three aid stations on the course yesterday and the toilets
were in place. They're pretty handy to have on a training run,
Busy aid station the 50K runners will pass five times,
the 50-milers ten times.
Eight hundred runners, hundreds of crew folks, and dozens of
volunteers require a LOT of potties.
Tuesday when we drove past Raven Lodge, location of the
start/finish area, we immediately noticed a large
flank of portable toilets. On a subsequent bike ride I counted
38 of them; some are hidden in this view:
I wondered why the toilets had been delivered so early. I
quickly realized that such a major undertaking requires early
set-up at the park -- much earlier than for the Rocky Raccoon
It appears Roger Soler (RD) and crew have everything under
control at the park.
On Tuesday a work crew had
already erected a large tent at the start/finish area. They were
constructing the framework for a long "kitchen" to serve
the post-race barbeque and building the wooden start/finish
"archway" (it's not an arch but I don't know what else to call
Aid stations and tables were in place by Wednesday. Thursday
chairs, banners, coolers, beverage containers, and water were
trucked in. The aid station near us, shown below, has 180 gallons of water:
The course was also being marked Thursday as we ran, and one
part of the 50K course on the Triple C Trail was being graded to
remove leaves, branches, and pine cones from the trail.
Jim and Cody run over part of the trail
after workers "improved" it
(we preferred running on the pine needles
and leaves rather than sand).
We went back through the start/finish area this morning to see
how it was coming along. The large tent was full of tables and
chairs for the pre-race breakfast and post-race barbeque dinner.
The kitchen looked done; we were impressed with all the
propane tanks behind it. Several other tents and canopies were
in place for the aid station, finishers' awards, overall and age group
trophies, etc. One room in the lodge was full of medical
The whole start/finish area was decked out for the holiday
season with colored lights, white icicle lights, inflated
Christmas figures, festive paper on the archway, and large glass
ornaments strung overhead:
I'll show more photos from the finish area today farther down in
this entry to break up the text.
PRE-RACE ACTIVITIES FOR THE RUNNERS
As busy as crews were all week at the park, I can imagine all
the work that was going on forty miles south in Houston. Besides
its scenic course, Sunmart is also well-loved for its delicious
pre-race banquet at the Sheraton North Hotel and its generous
Packet pick-up was scheduled from 11 AM to 7 PM today. Runners
or their approved designees must pick up their race
numbers, timing chips, and schwag the day before the race, not
on race morning. They can also enter the race as late as this
evening or change from one race to another; those two
features are somewhat unusual for ultras nowadays.
We decided to arrive at the Sheraton about 3:30 PM to
avoid rush hour (hour???) traffic and have time to socialize
with friends we'd be seeing. We'd eat when the pasta buffet line
opened at 4:30, socialize some more, stay for the
pre-race briefing, and drive back to our camper after rush hour
traffic had died down. That all went very well, except that rush
"hour" traffic NEVER seems to die down in a huge metro area
plagued by road construction on nearly every freeway. But I
digress . . .
Registration was handled promptly and efficiently. Many of the
runners who were staying at the hotel or lived in town had
already picked up their numbers and goodies. Jim was able to
quickly change from the 50-mile race to the 50K. We got our
timing chips in a nearby room; chips are great for
everyone involved in large or complicated races.
We also received a tiny ticket for a large selection of goodies.
This part of the event hasn't changed a bit since we were here
9-10 years ago; Sunmart runners feel like kids at
Christmas with all the "stuff" they receive and it's
one of the promotional points they use to draw large numbers of
Some races are renowned for their schwag: Sunmart,
Western States, Leadville, Across the Years come to mind.
Although the quality of Sunmart's garments and giveaways for entrants and
finishers doesn't equal the quality of most of the clothing and
products at those
other races, Sunmart makes up for it in quantity! Jim and I
would never choose a race based on the content of the goodie
bags but it's nice when we receive good-quality running clothes,
equipment, and/or supplies that we can really use and not pay
any more than other races cost. (That applies to Sunmart and ATY;
States and Leadville are two of the most expensive
Duffel bag with the familiar horse-motif
Sunmart's sponsors are proud of their tradition of providing
lots of "premiums." This year's large zippered,
pocketed travel/duffel bag (shown above) is much nicer than the
bags we got at Sunmart nine years ago and twice as large as the
bags distributed at Leadville.
As in other races where the goodie bags aren't already filled,
runners go down the line and choose the items they want.
We each selected a technical long-sleeved running
shirt (black or gold, our choice), a short-sleeved mesh polo
shirt (blue or gold), hat in various colors with
the Sunmart horse logo, mesh backpack, day planner, work gloves, Hammergel,
nail kit, and the
18-page magazine-like 2008 Program full of race history
and stats, the names of the 2008 entrants, and 2007 finish
times. There were several non-running related items we didn't
Also included in the entry fee are the
finisher's medals and jackets (more about those after the race),
the traditional solid bronze stallion awards for overall and age group
winners (which can cause problems to overall winners who have
to fly home because they are so large and heavy!), the pre-race pasta dinner on Friday night and breakfast
early Saturday morning, the post-race feast, aid station food
for up to 12 hours, potties in the woods, and all the
volunteers' support during the race.
Jim and Cody walk by the aid station at the
start/finish/turn-around the day before the race.
I think all that is worth the $80 entry fee for either race ($90
after a certain date) even though we've never been fast enough
to win one of the horse awards. Sunmart attracts runners from
around the world. The race is often the International
Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) Trail World Challenge. Runners
from international federations compete with the open field for
the championship. Overall and age-group times are always fast --
even in the older age groups. The overall 50-mile course records
are 5:20 (men) and 6:14 (women); Ann
Trason's record time has stood since 1994. 50K course records
are 3:07 (men) and 3:35 (women).
One of the best things about Sunmart is that the slowest
runners are treated every bit as graciously and enthusiastically
by race management and volunteers as the elite runners. Even
walkers get respect.
After we picked up our numbers and goodies we talked with a
runner we know from Leadville, CO (Don Adolph), looked
over the goods offered for sale by Soler's Sports and other
vendors, and waited for the buffet line
to open. We were near the front of one of the four efficient
lines so the food was piping hot and fresh. There were several
kinds of vegetarian and meat pasta, salad items, hot vegetables,
rolls, beverages, and a large selection of desserts.
We shared a table with Sylvie Boisvert, an invited runner from
Quebec City, Canada, and Wynn Davis from Wisconsin. We knew
Wynn's name from his posts to the internet ultra list but hadn't
met him before. It was good to meet both runners. During dinner
we also met Deborah Sexton, a vivacious Texan who is also on the
list, and talked with old friends Winston Davis from Georgia and
married couple Larry Hall and Beth Simpson, who live in the
Wynn Davis and Deborah Sexton, new friends
we met from the internet ultra list
We thought we'd see another Georgia friend, Tom Adair, but there
were too many people at the banquet to find him.
Entrants weren't listed on either the Sunmart or Robert Soler's
web sites so we didn't know who would be coming until we got the
2008 Program. As we scanned the names in both races, we
realized we didn't know very many of the 800+ entrants! That
seemed unusual because we usually know many of the runners at
races from one end of the country to the other.
Then we realized we've been "running in different circles" (so
to speak) than the majority of folks who run this race. Many of
the entrants are from Texas and don't go around the country to
run ultras and/or do mostly marathons and 50Ks. Until recently,
Jim and I have been mostly focusing on mountainous 100-milers in
the Rockies. When we go to 100-milers, whether tougher ones like
Hardrock or Leadville, or "easier" ones like Umstead or Rocky
Raccoon, we know many of the other runners.
Going to Sunmart allowed us to make some new friends,
which is always fun.
Crews work Friday to get the start/finish
area ready for the onslaught of runners.
Since there was enough table space in the large dining room for
everyone to have a seat, we hung out until the pre-race briefing
at 6:30. We left before the featured speaker so we could
get a good night's sleep back at Huntsville State Park. The
drive that took us less than an hour in the afternoon took
almost two hours at 7 PM. It probably would have been worse if
we'd left the Sheraton earlier.
Oh, well. The huge advantage of camping 2/3 mile from the start
line was getting up much later than the runners who had to ride
up from their homes or hotels in Houston.
Visualizing the finish the day before the
race (good mental training)
We barely recognized the campground when we got "home." Every
campsite was filled! We knew the place would fill up for the
race, but we were still surprised because very few people had
arrived before we left earlier in the afternoon. It looked like
all the screened rooms between the lodge and campground were
full of overnight guests, too. It was quiet at night, though,
and we got a decent night's sleep before the race.
Next entry: the race
Ready or not, let's run,
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
Tater (in spirit)
© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil