2009 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  BACK TO THE PINEY WOODS
OF HUNTSVILLE STATE PARK, TEXAS

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 6

 
"Welcome to the Pineywoods at Huntsville State Park. Adventure, exploration,
and solitude await you in this beautiful mixed-pine and hardwood forest . . ."
 
- Texas Parks & Wildlife map for HSP
 
 
We're baaaack . . . not home, but what feels like our second home by now. (I need to write an entry about "what is home?") This is our third time camping here since last February and this time it feels like we've moved in for good.

I believe I neglected to mention that soon after Jim ran Ghost Town three weeks ago he decided for certain that he wanted to enter the Rocky Raccoon 50-miler, held in conjunction with the RR100-miler on February 7 at Huntsville State Park north of Houston.

Like Sunmart, which we ran here in December, Rocky essentially has no limit to the number of runners who can enter the race. Both events are popular, with hundreds of entrants enjoying southern Texas hospitality and warmer temperatures than most of the rest of the country in the winter. The only downside to Jim entering the race so late is that he may not get a shirt. That deadline was a day or two before he registered.


View of Raven Lodge from the dam  (2-4-09)

We'd already made campground reservations at HSP for the first two weeks of February back in the fall when we were making plans for our winter escape, just in case Jim decided to run Rocky. The campground fills to capacity during race weekend so we needed to get our dibs in early. We probably would have come back for two weeks even if neither of us ran Rocky. We'd still have fun in the sun and get to see lots of friends at the race. We know a lot more of the runners at Rocky than at Sunmart. That's an indication of how many 100-milers we've attended the past twelve years.

What we didn't realize in the fall was just how long we would stay at the park.

HITTIN' THE ROAD

The 313-mile drive from Mustang Island to Huntsville SP on Monday was quite pleasant until about twenty miles from our destination. That's when the truck demons struck again.

If you look on a map you can see the most direct way to get from Mustang Island to the Houston area is to go north through Port Aransas, the same way we began our loop around Corpus Christi Bay last week. However, that meant taking the truck-camper combo on the ferry across Aransas Pass and we weren't up to that challenge.

So we waited for morning traffic to subside and headed through Corpus Christi to TX highways 77 and 59, nice four-lane roads with more limited access than you'd think from looking at maps. Except for a few towns along the way, we felt like we were on a freeway. As on I-10 in southwestern Texas, I think we saw more RVs and campers heading the other way than we saw semis. There are lots of sunbirds out and about this winter.

All good things must come to an end, I suppose. Our idyllic little journey started to unravel when we hit the I-45 construction north of Houston in the 'burb of Conroe. It was as much of a bottleneck as it was back in December and we couldn't see much progress on all the road work. I feel sorry for anyone who lives near there and has to negotiate that mess on a regular basis. It was stop-and-go for several miles.

But then the REAL problems started.


I'm glad we missed the heavy rainstorm that rearranged the pine needles
on the trails a few days before our arrival at Huntsville SP.  (2-4-09)

I didn't realize until the overdrive light began flashing that Jim had noticed some shifting defugalties (one of his favorite words for "glitches") during the day. They weren't so apparent that my gut or ears noticed as we were driving along. After the light came on, with maybe twenty miles left to reach the campground, the shifting problem became very apparent to both of us and we were quite concerned that we weren't going to make it to the park.

We knew it had to be the transmission. Not only would we be in a real fix if the truck broke down with the camper attached, but we knew from our Odyssey van's transmission breakdown last summer that any of the fixes are extremely expensive. We lucked out with the van because our extended warranty (the only one of those either of us has ever purchased in our lives!) covered most of the bill for a "new" rebuilt transmission. But we had no such warranty on the truck AND we were stuck in an area where we don't live. We'd be at the mercy of strangers.

EASY PREY

It's always something. The F-250 has broken down at some inconvenient times (e.g., half an hour before LT100 in 2007 and the day before ATY in December) but we have been very lucky that it hasn't broken down in a remote or dangerous place* -- or with the camper attached. It's a constant threat, however, and we've been increasingly concerned about it as the truck ages (a 2001 model, it's now considered eight years old) and more things go wrong with it.

* The camper, however, has blown tires three times on busy freeways, making for very unsafe tire changes two of those times.


Can we get there before the truck self-destructs??  (2-4-09)

Long story short, we did make it to the campground on Monday afternoon and into a site we've used before (not our first choice) but it was touch and go. We were nervous wrecks by the time we got there.

Tuesday morning we drove about ten miles into town to run errands. While I was doing laundry Jim took the truck to the local Ford dealer to get it checked out. They were busy and asked him to bring it in Wednesday morning.

Jim didn't make it back to the Laundromat. The transmission died and he had to get towed back to the Ford dealer. The proprietor of the Laundromat blanched when I told him where Jim was taking it, and highly recommended an independent transmission shop "where all the locals go." Jim ended up having the truck towed there and felt comfortable with the business and personnel. Although the estimate to rebuild the transmission on-site made us cringe, it was considerably less than what we'd have to pay a Ford dealership.

Jim came back to retrieve me from the Laundromat in a rental SUV, which looked ironic parked next to our 5th wheel camper at the park. What's wrong with this picture??

 
Rental SUV parked in our original campsite (first week at HSP)

I'm surprised no one stopped and asked us during the next four days how we pull that camper with an SUV!

ALL OURS

But that's probably because we pretty much had the place to ourselves all week -- there were very few other campers until the weekend crowd arrived on Friday. Some were there for the race but I think most were Texas residents who simply love to camp. The park is full most weekends throughout the year, trail race or no trail race. Sunday afternoons to Friday mornings the campgrounds are almost empty and very peaceful:


View on a weekday from our second campsite (which we occupied for three of the four weeks)

We decided on Tuesday -- the day the truck died -- to extend our stay in the park for four full weeks if we could. Usually the Texas state parks allow reservations for only two weeks at a time, but since this one wasn't full the last two weeks of February we were able to reserve a site until March 2. We got a total of four reduced weekly rates (seven nights for the price of six), avoided paying $8 a day in entrance fees for the two of us, and were able to use our remaining two coupons (of four) for a further reduction of $16.

We really did well with that annual parks pass! Here's the math:

  • We paid $60 last February 1. The pass is good until the end of this month = thirteen months.
  • We will have stayed a total of six full weeks and two six-day "weeks" at three different state parks during this period of time.
  • Our $4 (Huntsville, Mustang Island) to $5 (Galveston Island) per person per day entrance fees were waived each of those days, for savings of a whopping $414.
  • We got an additional $32 off in half-price coupons (four stays of at least two consecutive days).
  • Grand total savings on our initial $60 investment = $386 ($446 - $60). Too bad our mutual funds haven't done that well the past year!

Texas residents who frequently use their state parks or visitors who stay longer than we did can do even better.


View from our campsite on a weekend = every spot filled (one weekend it was mostly tents and tent-campers)

We didn't extend our reservation because of the truck problem. It was more of an avoidance tactic! We decided it would be nice to stay one place for an entire month. The weather is great in comparison to most everywhere else, including Roanoke, in February (40s and 50s for lows, 60s and 70s for highs), the trails are fantastic to run and ride, shopping and services are fairly convenient, and it's a peaceful place to train as we wait for our next race, the Mississippi 50.

Huh? Where did that come from?

NEW STATE

Oh, that idea popped into our heads one day this week as we tried to think of ways to extend this trip. We never started with a date certain to return home. We wanted to play it by ear, see what the weather was doing in Roanoke near the end of winter, see how much fun we were still having, see if we were ready to kill each other after three months in such close proximity . . .

Just kidding!

No, not really. There's not much privacy in any size RV or camper and we're together pretty much 24-7. The most time alone we have is when we run, walk, or ride by ourselves or go into town alone. Some couples find they can't RV full time or for months at a time because they don't have enough time to themselves. So far, this hasn't been much of a problem for Jim and me. If we need time alone, we go take a walk or run an errand.


A peaceful escape:  the wetlands near the Raven Lake inlet  (2-4-09)

Anyway, recently we've been making more solid race plans for the year. Since neither of us is in any hurry this time to get home, we decided to add a new state to our list of marathons and ultras we've run: Mississippi. The 50K and 50-miler on March 7 are on trails somewhat similar to those at Huntsville State Park, the timing is good for our schedule, and it's literally on the way home. (I'll write another entry about our other race plans for 2009.)

Now I have even more incentive to get out and train on these lovely trails.

WHERE'S OUR TRUCK??

Until we were relatively certain we'd get the truck back today we were glad we'd made reservations for a month in case we got stuck here for a while. What a great place to get stuck, though!

There was more stress after we took the truck in for the repair. The transmission place said they'd have the truck ready by Thursday afternoon. Jim called that morning and was told sorry, they had to order another part: Friday around noon, they promised.

He called this (Friday) morning. Yep, it should be ready by early afternoon. Jim returned the rental vehicle to Enterprise at lunchtime so we wouldn't have to pay for any additional hours or days. He walked three miles to the transmission shop to wait for the truck, but it still wasn't ready. One of the guys drove him about fifteen miles back to the campground and promised to deliver the truck before supper.


All fixed?? Time will tell . . .

It was hard for Jim to concentrate on preparing mentally or otherwise for his race tomorrow but he got his clothes and supplies ready this afternoon, talked to me some more about crewing strategy, and went to the pre-race briefing and packet-pickup.

Five o'clock came. No call about the truck yet. Six o'clock. Still no call. Jim called the shop and the owner said the two guys who were delivering the truck should have been here by now. It was dark and we thought maybe they couldn't find our campsite. Jim went looking for them on foot.

Then he saw (and heard -- noisy diesel) our truck coming. Turns out, the young men were delayed by park police who wrote them tickets for exceeding the strict 20 MPH speed limit through most of the park! (They were driving our truck and another vehicle to take them back to town.) No, we didn't have to pay for that!

An hour earlier we had listened as Rocky Raccoon RD Joe Prusaitis strongly advised runners and their crews to adhere to that limit -- the police were going to ticket anyone they caught going faster. And they did.

Finally. The truck was fixed and back in our possession. And just in time, too. Jim has a 50-mile race to run tomorrow!! Not that he completely stopped worrying about the truck, though . . .

Next entry: all about Rocky

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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