“Soldier”ing on to the Southwest

We decided a few months ago to try our hand at 7 half marathons in 8 days.  With a lot of planning and support from our families, we got it mapped out.  Our adventure began on Nov. 10th when Rhonda packed up and headed to Gardi, GA to spend the night at Sue’s.  After an amazing dinner, we settled in so that we could have an easy start to Columbus, GA on Friday as we were running one of our favorites – The Soldier Half Marathon at Fort Benning, GA.  The trip to Columbus was uneventful (thankfully).  We went straight to packet pick up and then a quick shopping spree at Bed, Bath and Beyond followed by dinner at Mellow Mushroom.  With full bellies we were off to check into our room and prepare for the morning. 

Saturday morning came too early but this was to be our norm for the next week.  No time like the present to get used to it.  We found a decent parking spot and made our way to the starting line.  This time, Rhonda was prepared for the cannon start and didn’t hit the ground.  Using the Galloway 2:30/:30 ratio, the miles clicked off and we soon found ourselves running through the finish line.  We grabbed some drinks and snacks and made our way back to the car and hotel so that we could get on the road to Rhonda’s house in SC. 

Sunday morning came WAY TOO EARLY!  Wearing our Thelma & Louise tee shirts, we arrived at the airport at 0400.  Delirious from the lack of sleep, Rhonda realizes her choice of attire was not the smartest – a belt, tennis shoes, jacket, a laptop computer…..everything that takes time at the security checkpoint.  We got to the security checkpoint only to find out we were selected for pre-check which would mean no issues going through – unless you’re Rhonda.  As we get to the pre-check TSA agent Rhonda says “well that makes it easier since I am security’s worse nightmare today”.  The TSA agent looks from Rhonda to Sue and says oh crap and jumps back about 20 feet.  Rhonda, then realized what she had said.  Her and Sue bust out laughing and say oh no not that way…..as Rhonda stumbles with her words to explain.  The TSA agent, being a good sport is laughing and then we point out our shirts as to which he cracks up even more.  Yes, an eventful morning for the small airport.

We flew to Atlanta, grabbed a quick breakfast and then were back on the plane to Las Vegas.  The flight was interesting with the guy sleeping next to/in Sue’s personal space and the kid kicking our seats.  Once arriving in Vegas and getting the rental car we started our trek to St. George, Utah where we were staying.  We stopped in Mesquite, Nevada for lunch at a 50’s style diner – Peggy Sue’s.  Each ordering a meal (only to find out the portions are HUGE).  After eating we were back on the road to St. George.      We had some time to kill before packet pick up so we did what most people would do – we went shopping.  Packet pick up was located at the race site at Sandy Hollow State Park in Hurricane, UT.  We got our things and learned that Hurricane is pronounced “herri-kin”.   We headed back to St. George to get some rest and to soak in the hot tub.  Imagine our surprise when we got to the hot tub only to find there were no lights in the pool area……or at least no light switches.  We finally said oh well and got into the hot tub.  It felt so good on our bodies and as we were in there the lights (which must be on some sort of timer) finally started to come on.

Monday, Nov. 14th and we were running the first of 6 days in a row with the Mainly Marathons Southwest Series.  It was actually a very pretty place to run and to catch a glimpse of the super moon just prior to race start.  During the pre-race potty stop, we ran into a couple ladies we’d met at the Appalachian Series in October.  It is easy to see how this group of regulars becomes close friends.  We then ran into Phebe, a friend of Rhonda’s from SC.  Yes, it can be a small world.  The laps ticked off and we were soon finished running (for the day).  It was then back to the hotel to shower, change, pack up, and since we had extra time, did a little more shopping before heading back south to Mesquite, NV for the next couple days.

Once there, we did a quick drive by of our hotel and the race site for the next couple days and then what else – but more shopping.  This, however, was a Wal-mart stop for necessities such as water, breakfast foods, and other supplies; including a small coffee pot, as we knew the room we’d booked did not provide one. By that time we were able to check in and get our room set up for a very welcome two-day stay…a luxury when traveling from race to race for a full week.  A little relaxing, dinner, gear set up, and it was bedtime.

As usual, morning came too early on Tuesday, Nov. 15th, but we are becoming accustomed to our race morning routine and things went smoothly.  We even arrived on time, ha ha.  You see, this series had us moving back and forth between the Mountain and Pacific time zones, so it was confusing.  This course was set up at a community sports complex and pretty much had us meandering around soccer and football fields. There were also several areas of cement with sharp turns along the course, which we believe led to the beginnings of a few twinges that continued throughout the rest of the week.  Our finishing times were about 10 minutes longer than the previous day, but that could have been because of the awesome food that awaited us each time we completed a lap.  We love munching on Norm’s French toast as we head back out on the course.

Back at the hotel and after showering and a yummy breakfast of Belgian waffles with fresh strawberries and real whipped cream, how else were we to capitalize on the fact that we didn’t need to pack up and move out other than to take a rejuvenating nap?  Stinky running clothes were next on the list and luckily there was a laundry facility on site.  Clean and fresh clothes repacked, the next day’s gear set up, and some personal business for each of us out of the way and it was time to think about eating again.  That evening it was back to Peggy Sue’s; but we played it smart this time splitting a burger, fries, and a yummy chocolate malt.

The morning of Wednesday, Nov. 16th was a repeat of the previous day, with the exception of Sue’s constant whining about the absence of the French toast.  This is when Rhonda really started to feel the pain in her left foot.   Sue was also having some issues with her left knee.  Again, as in so many races, we were quickly reminded of the daily struggles those with ALS must face.  Those little reminders give us perspective and help us quietly soldier through.  We finished up in almost exactly the same time as the previous day, gathered our belongings and headed back to the hotel to shower and pack up.

Mourning the fact we didn’t have time for a nap that afternoon, we made the nearly three-hour drive across the desert to Laughlin, NV where we would be spending the next two days.  Although our hotel was in NV, the race site was just across the Colorado River, in Bullhead City, AZ; therefore we made the obligatory drive to scope that out as soon as we arrived.   The next stop was Wal-mart to replenish our dwindling supply of water.  As we waited for the elevator in the hotel lobby, Sue carrying a 35-pack of bottles and Rhonda with two gallon jugs, an elderly man standing next to us gave us the strangest look.  Rhonda just shrugged and said, “We like water!”  The look on his face was priceless and we both stifled a hearty laugh.

We seem to be getting pretty good at this routine and quickly had the room set up and the next day’s gear and clothing set out.  Dinner, down time of reading, talking with our families, and soon we were feeling the effects of an early morning, running and traveling; so it was lights out at 8:00pm!

Day 4 of the series on Thursday started out chilly, so we bundled up knowing we could easily shed layers later.  This is just one more perk of the Mainly series.  Although you are running several repeats of the same loop, it has its advantages; such as being able to stop at the “home base” and either leave or grab extra gear or clothing you may or may not need.  They lay out a tarp and most runners bring a bag for their individual needs.  It works well and you don’t have to plan to bring “throw away” layers as we do at many of the larger races.  Most of this course also ran along the scenic Colorado River and in a park with benches, native plantings, and descriptive markers.  Unfortunately as the morning progressed, so did the wind speed, making conditions less than desirable…particularly with blowing sand.  As one marathoner later described: “It was like a 26.2 mile full-body dermabrasion.”  Layers earlier shed were soon back on covering our full heads, sometimes with only eyes peeking out in an attempt to protect ourselves from this little sandstorm.  The final rubber band signifying another finish was welcome more that day than any other. 

We made our way back to the other side of the river and quickly lost an hour by crossing the state line. But it really didn’t matter since our afternoon agenda consisted of cleaning up, organizing, and the obligatory nap when staying in the same hotel for two nights.  We had planned on doing a great deal of race planning with the extra time, but the hotel wi-fi was basically useless, so that was a wash.  We followed pretty much the same routine again that evening and soon it was Friday morning, November  18th.

Knowing our schedule would be somewhat tight after the race to meet the hotel check-out time, we did our best to pack everything we wouldn’t need later that morning.  We decided to bring a load down with us when we headed to the car to leave for the race that morning.  Weighted down with coffee pot, water, miscellaneous food, and a few other things, we headed out.  Just before the room door closed, Sue asked, “Do you have the keys.”  Rhonda patted her pocket saying, “Yup, right here.”  This was a pretty big hotel with a large parking lot, so it took awhile to get to the car and our arms were getting tired just as Rhonda says, “Oh no! I don’t have the car key.”   Sue stayed at the car with our pile of goodies while Rhonda RAN back to the room, only to find out that her room key didn’t work.  RUN back to the elevators and down to the desk to get a new key.  RUN back up to the room.  RUN back down through the hotel and parking lot.  WHEW – she’d already run a race before we got to the starting line. 

Even with all that, we made it with time to spare before the race started.  Day 5 was held at the same location as Day 4, so we knew what was ahead.  And it was windy that day too, so not the most pleasant.  But we finished up and headed back to the hotel, got cleaned up, checked out, and on the road to Needles, CA.

We stopped for a leisurely breakfast on the short half-hour drive, then tried to plan what we could do with the extra time we would have before we would be able to check in to our hotel.  So after the routine quick check of race location and a short drive down the portion of Route 66 that is in town, we decided to look for a place to hang out.  Rhonda remembered seeing a sign for the Valdez Mexican Grill on our way into town.  Why yes, a margarita sounded pretty good right about then.  Hmmm…were we sure we wanted to go in?  The exterior of the building was dark and unremarkable and there was a huge adult book store sign on the adjoining building.  But the online reviews were exceptional, so we decided to take our chances.  It was like a complete turnaround the moment we opened the door.  What appeared dark and sketchy from the outside was bright and clean on the inside.  A late lunch crowd consisting of mostly families with children were finishing up their meals and we were quickly escorted to a booth on the back wall and immediately found complimentary homemade chips and two salsas in front of us.  You’d think we had not just eaten a large breakfast/lunch if you saw how we scarfed them down.  We were served our freshly homemade margaritas and yowee! Arguably one of the best margaritas ever…with a significant kick.  Eek   At some point we were going to have to confront the results of our eating habits this week.  But not that day!  Next up – Mexican Fried Ice Cream – Oh my!  YUM!!!  

After an hour or so, we decided we should probably leave and check in to our hotel. We were happy to have a good visit, lots of laughs, and significant down time that afternoon/evening prior to our last of these seven days of running.  Needles is a small town which appears to be struggling and the hotel was a pleasant surprise where we were quite comfortable. 

Saturday morning November 19th arrived and we were both relieved and a little sad that this would be our last run of this series.  Our bodies were telling us it was time to take it easy, but our hearts wanted to just keep going.  Although Rhonda’s ankle was feeling a bit better, there was still a constant nagging – especially when she ran, and Sue’s knees and hips were just asking for a short break.  Our luck, this course had the worst terrain we’d encountered thus far this week.  In the beginning we ran around a rather large parking lot, then out across a loose gravel area onto rutted gravel “roads” that lead to a train yard.  There was a lot more walking this day with our eyes focused down, so there weren’t any missteps that would lead to a twist or fall.  On top of that, both our Garmins measured the course nearly a half mile long.  Yes, we know all about GPS inaccuracies, but this was more than usual for either one of us.   It just wasn’t the day to be running even a little bit more. – lol

We had worn our 20for#20 tanks that day and after taking off our jackets ran past a woman who we had passed on all the courses in this series and also last month at the Appalachian Series, we heard her say rather quietly, “ALS? My father died of ALS.”   We stopped in our tracks and Rhonda asked, “What did you say?”  And the story poured out.  By the end of Pam’s story, there were tears streaming from six eyes and it had nothing to do with the physical conditions.  As always, we were in awe of the connections, the stories, the sheer number of people affected that we are learning about while on this 16 month journey.  In reality, we will always be on the 20for20 journey.

With our final race behind us, we picked up our last two pieces of the series medal and said our goodbyes until the Independence Series in May.  Back at the hotel, we cleaned up, donned our medals for photo ops, packed and hit the road for Vegas.  We stopped only a couple times…for lunch, snapping some pictures of Joshua trees, and for Rhonda to stock up on a little jerky.  We arrived at the Embassy Suites early and went in to verify check in time, but were pleasantly surprised when we were told our room was ready.  After settling in, we went downstairs and caught the hotel shuttle to the Strip.  Who can go to Vegas without at least wandering the Strip for a few hours?  Let’s just say we packed a lot of activity into that day with running, traveling, eating, sightseeing, and walking – lots of walking. Especially after calling for the hotel shuttle to pick us back up, we were told it was “down” and would be at least an hour, we decided to walk the distance back to our hotel. That may not have been the brightest move when we discovered we’d logged nearly 50,000 steps that day. 

Interestingly enough when all was said and done after a stay in Vegas and four nights in other casino hotels along the route, neither one of us gambled even one penny.  A glass of wine and dinner at the hotel and we were back in our room organizing and repacking for our morning flight.  Everything went smoothly on Sunday morning and to our surprise, we were again granted TSA pre-check, but luckily Rhonda behaved this time.  Our seat mate from Vegas to Detroit was a well-mannered young man who made the trip pleasant this time.  We had a quick layover in Detroit where we gratefully enjoyed the comfort of the Freedom Center, a hospitality center for military personnel,  which we were able to utilize with Rhonda’s retiree status. 

The last leg of the journey was soon upon us as we settled into our seats for the short flight to Greenville.  Once up in the air, we heard the little girl in front of us crying and her father trying to soothe her.  It didn’t take long to figure out what was wrong, when the poor thing suddenly and explosively began to vomit.  So much for Sue’s carry-on which she had stored under the seat despite Rhonda’s repeated suggestion to put it in the overhead bin.  We arrived shortly before midnight very happy to see both our husbands pull up to the curb to load up our luggage and weary bodies.  We made the short trip back to Rhonda’s house and quickly went to bed.  The next morning Sue and Bud loaded their car and we all said our goodbyes as they headed north to Michigan. We all look forward to meeting up again in January.

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