Buckle up, kids. This is gonna get long.
This past weekend, I took a leisurely drive to Tampa — a little over a thousand miles from here — for the Gasparilla Distance Classic. This is a series of four races — 5K, 8K, 15K, half marathon — over the weekend, with several combinations of them bundled as challenges including the extra swag of a jacket and challenge medal. Very cool passel of stuff.
Anyone who’s read my ramblings knows that I love good food, and that Lambert’s Cafe is high on the list. Knowing that I was generally headed in a southerly direction, I lined up my travels to carry me through Sikeston MO, and a stop off at Lambert’s for dinner. If you’ve never been to Lambert’s, you should go. It’s a perfect blend of delicious home-style food, and some crazy sized portions. Select your meal, and while you wait, servers come around with “pass arounds” — fried okra, macaroni and tomatoes, black-eyed peas and fried taters and onions. With the exception of the okra, you have to have already been served your meal — those remaining pass arounds need a plate to land upon. For the okra, though, just rip off a paper towel from the roll at your table, and eat ’em with your fingers!
Lambert’s touts itself as the Home of Throwed Rolls, and they live up to that. Every few minutes, servers tour through the dining room, pushing carts of freshly made rolls. Raise your hand, and they’ll lob one at you, sometimes from over twenty feet away. I drop a little butter on my roll, and wait for the trailing server to come along with the sorghum molasses and apple butter. There’s truly no bread better than this.
For me, my loves are frog legs and hog jowls. Of the two Lambert’s I’ve visited (Sikeston MO and Springfield MO — there’s another location in Alabama), Sikeston is the only one with frog legs, so I usually get those. They’re Olympic swimming frogs too… The legs are huge! They’ve got a light batter on ’em, and really go down easy. Along with the legs, you get a couple of big sides. Through a delivery accident, I got cucumbers and onions, which I’d never tried before. Surprisingly, these were really tasty. The cukes sit in some kind of sweet liquid, so when they’re served, the onions don’t overpower them. I was really surprised!
After stuffing myself like a tick about to pop, I drove on to Paducah on the back roads of eastern Missouri and western Kentucky. It’s been a while since I’ve done that drive in the dark, and I was reminded just how driving down a quiet country road in the dark can be very refreshing. There’s little traffic on the two-lane between I-57 and Paducah — although a lot of speed zones as you cross through the little towns on the way — and that lack of traffic can make you feel like you’re the only person on the road. That’s kinda the way my races go!
In Paducah, I stopped at the Drury Suites. I kept thinking it looked familiar, and realized that this was the hotel we stopped at when we first brought Roxy to her new home. What’s funny is that some of the staff remembered us from that stay, and loved seeing photos of her at her seven-month size. That was cool, and made me feel right at home.
I got up early, and headed down the road, planning to land in Macon GA for the night. I figured that would make for a short drive on Friday. And once again, I had gastrotourism on my list for the day.
I grew up in Chattanooga, home of Krystal’s restaurants. To folks north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Krystal’s are similar to White Castles, but with some differences. Krystal’s have a much less soggy bun, not having been swimming in the onion soup that Castles uses. They also lack the five holes in the meat, and have a dollup of mustard. I like ’em better, but that’s probably because those are the belly bombers I was raised around. Whenever I head into the South, Krystal’s are on my list, and this morning was no exception. I crossed into Tennessee, and stopped at the first Krystal I found, in Clarksville. With a sack of breakfast bombers riding shotgun, I headed on down the road.
Nashville seems to be in a state of perpetual construction, and it’s rare that I get through there without some kind of delay. There was a little bit of a slowdown, but not as bad as I’ve seen in the past. I got through town, and saw signs pointing me down I-24 toward Chattanooga.
I spent most of my childhood in and around Chattanooga, and for most of my adult life, I’ve pulled off at Exit 155 to go visit The Mountain. This trip, I pulled off there, but only for gas, driving on into downtown Chattanooga. I don’t usually get this view of my former home, and it’s impressive to me how much it’s grown. I’ve moved away from Chattanooga twice — once in the 80s and once in the 90s — and now I look at the town, realizing it’s turned into an amazing Southern city, while still retaining its small town charm.
Just before I crossed in Georgia, I picked up I-75, my fourth interstate, and the only major one I’d need until I got to Tampa. North Georgia is some really beautiful country, with just the right mix of hills and valleys for me. You also start to notice changes in the trees, with denser groves of forests lining the road. It’s really a nice place, but there’s an element of NASCAR speedway to I-75 as you head toward Atlanta, passing through the carpet capital of the universe. Southward I continued.
Growing up in Chattanooga, you always heard about things in Atlanta, and it seemed like folks in Chattaboogie always looked south to Atlanta for what they should be doing. Part of that was The Varsity restaurant, and the next stop on the gastrotourism express. This is a hamburger joint that is steeped in antiquity, and serves up some awesome food. The only one for a long time was in north Atlanta, but their success has allowed them to spread out. I stopped at the one in Kennesaw, and had a tremendous burger, onion rings and an ice cold soda. I was lucky at hit this one at an “in between meals” time, so there wasn’t a crush, and was able to just kick back and enjoy the experience. It’d been decades since I’d had a meal at The Varsity; hopefully, my next one won’t be so long down the road.
I got to Macon, and stopped at a Sleep Inn. There were a lot of choices, but I really didn’t need anything incredible, just a roof, bed, and TV. And against that criteria, I had the best room on the planet. In reality, it wasn’t quite as great as all that, but it did what I needed for one night, and gave me great access to food for dinner. Stop number four on the gastro tour was Zaxby’s.
We don’t have Zaxby’s in Da Lou, and I’d never eaten there until our stop at one near Memphis on our drive to New Orleans last year. They have very good fast food, and certainly know their way around a chicken. I had a small dinner of some kind of honey-sweet boneless wings, and toddled back to the room for the night.
In the morning, I once again set my sights on a little gastro fun. Next door to the hotel was a Waffle House. I love Waffle House’s hash browns, and knew that I had to have some this morning, along with diner-style bottomless coffee. I was the only person in there, and was really taken care of by the staffers. One of ’em kept the jukebox fired up with soft jazz, which was a perfect start to my morning. I wrapped up my breakfast, and pointed the Lil’ Red Rubicon south once again.
I really enjoyed watching the transition in the landscape as I drove toward Tampa. The land flattens out, and trees change, with a gradual change to pines and palms the further south I went. It was a beautiful transformation, and one you’d never see from the air. This was the first time I’d been to Florida — the state of my birth — since my “I just kicked cancer’s ass” vacation in late 2012. It was so awesome to crack the windows, and smell the change in the air as the salt air started to filter in.
I stopped at a rest area just across the Georgia/Florida border, and got my free cup of orange juice. Tasty! This was the same weekend as the Daytona 500, so the rest area I stopped at had a small display commemorating the race. I think someone entirely unfamiliar with the race set this up!
I cruised into Tampa around lunchtime, and began meandering toward Harbour Island and my stay at the Westin.
(BTW, for folks in the Tampa area, just how many bears are involved for you to use TWO S’s for Bearss Road?)
I hit the hotel around 12:30, and knew I was early for check-in. I reached the counter, and was told there were no rooms available yet, and that I was 25th in line for a room. I expected that, so I left my bags with the front desk, and walked over to Convention Center to pickup my race materials.
I was really impressed with the packet pickup. The last big race I attended — the Route 66 in Tulsa — had really long lines, and it seemed to take forever to get my stuff. The Gasparilla folks had this ironed out, and I had my goodies in no time. They had a pretty good sized health expo, and although there was nothing I really needed, I think you could’ve picked up anything you might have needed for the weekend’s races.
On one wall, the race committee had hung up a huge banner, with the names of all the pre-registered racers. It became sport to try to find your name, and take a photo of it. This banner was about thirty feet long, with really small print, and while it took a while to find me, I did, and shot a photo for posterity.
I walked back to the hotel, figuring I was probably getting closer to having my room ready. Alas, that wasn’t the case. And I waited. And waited. And waited. And I wasn’t alone. Finally, around 2:30, I asked what my status was. I was 2nd from the top — woot! And I waited some more. One of the staff walked by around 4pm, and was surprised that I was still waiting. He went to check on my room, came back, and told me the cleaning staff were prioritizing the cleaning of rooms with more than one bed. He apologized profusely, and promised to get it sorted out. Fifteen minutes later, he had a room key for me — along with two lackluster drink coupons for the bar — and told me I was getting one of the best rooms in the building. Cool!
I went up to the room — along with two other groups whose rooms had finally been made ready. There was a sign on the wall bragging about this being a Starwood Preferred Customer floor, and I expected great things. I walked in, and frankly, was a little underwhelmed. It was just a room. Admittedly, it had a great view over the bay, but the room itself was just a room, and no where near the quality I was expecting. There was a note in the room indicating that there were big renovations taking place, and to “pardon their mess.” It was usable, but certainly not what I thought the best room in the place would look like. Guess I should’ve been happy it wasn’t one of the average rooms!!!
There was a group from Moon Joggers that were planning to meet up at the races, and I’d made arrangements to have dinner with one of them over at the Sheraton. I had a great time, and enjoyed some tasty seafood — one of the things on my list being in Florida. It was a great way to unwind, knowing the I had my long race ahead of me in the morning.
I typically don’t sleep all that well before a big race, and this race was no different. With an early start, I got myself ready, and aimed to get to the 15K start line early, which is my typical M.O. I got in the elevator, and already in the car was US Olympian Meb Keflezighi! He’s got a great story, and is an inspirational figure in racing. And frankly, he was a nice guy. It was cool to share the only part of any possible traveling where he and I would be neck-and-neck. 🙂
After crossing the bridge from Harbour Island, I made my way closer to the starting corrals, knowing I needed to get toward the back. To say folks were packed in like sardines was an understatement. I finally made it to the back of the pack, where the crush of runners let up. I stretched out in the darkness, and waited for the start of the race. It was hard to hear, and I gently heard the Star Spangled Banner being sung, and I stopped, doffed my cap, and sang along quietly. I know it’s hard to hear, but I’m always surprised at these big events when folks continue chatting and carrying on during our national anthem. It bugs me a little, but I do my part, and pay the respect I feel our nation is due.
I heard the signal to start the race, and five minutes later, I crossed the start line, hitting the course in a throng of turtles, just back of the 15:30 pacer. I really had it in my heart to keep up with them through as much of the race as I could. That lasted about fifteen minutes. 🙂
In truth, I knew I couldn’t pace myself to keep up with the pacers, so I just ran my race. At times I ran, at times I walked. Looking at my splits, I was actually pretty consistent right around 10min/km for the first 10k. That’s a good pace for me. However, after the beautiful sunrise over the bay, the temperature climbed. I really don’t do heat very well, so that was taking a toll. And I could feel a blister forming on the bottom of my left foot. As much as anything, this slowed me to a crawl, and my splits began to get worse and worse.
When I only had a few kilometers to go, I noticed the 5k racers had kicked off, and were coming down the outbound leg on the race course. The last kilometer was truly tough, but I finished it like a boss, and ran across the finish line like I owned it. And I finished just before the folks from the 5k were finishing. I didn’t get passed by the winners of the second race of the morning! 🙂
I grabbed my medal, and hobbled through the runner recovery area, gathered up fruit and yogurt, heading back toward the hotel. I was beaten up, but I was successful, and pleased with the fact that I had gutted out a race in more heat than I cared for, and with a blister that was impacting my walking significantly.
Thinking back on the race now, I was impressed with the number of water stops along the way. This probably kept me in the race, and I made sure to drink a couple of partially filled cups of water at each stop. Learning from Tulsa, I did grab a little Gatorade at one stop, but that didn’t hit me as well as I had hoped. It kinda just sat in my stomach. Blecch.
I was beginning to try to figure out what to do for lunch, and had made some plans to potentially hook up with some friends that had moved from Da Lou a couple of years ago. We made a plan, I took a shower, and hobbled downstairs in my Ugg houseshoes. I’ve discovered those are crazy good recovery shoes, and I’m not shy about wearing them out and about. Clyde and Shauna, along with Shauna’s father, Jimmy, picked me up, and we headed to Ybor City.
Ybor was a very cool place, steeped in the old world. Our target was the Columbia Restaurant. After a lengthy wait, we were seated, and prepared to embark on a multi-hour meal. We had their famous 1905 salad, prepared at the table, and a big ol’ pitcher of Sangria, also prepared at the table. I had some paella, stuffed with loads of great seafood — scallops, crab, calamari rings and bodies, and some dense fish. It was amazing! And it wouldn’t be a trip to Florida without some key lime pie, which was a stellar example of a great pie! After a lonely finish at the race, and faced with the prospect of sitting in my hotel room by myself, this trip out with familiar faces was just what I needed.
The next day brought the next race of the Cactus Lime Challenge — an 8k race. Now, having done the 15k, I was pretty optimistic, but I knew I had two things working against me. This race started at 9:30am, so the heat was already starting to climb. And, I still had that stupid blister.
I’d discovered, reading the race booklet from the health expo, that the 8k folks had to be off the streets by 11am. Now, I know that I could finish up on the sidewalk, but I really don’t like feeling the pressure of the clock on my runs. I was bound and determined to finish ahead of 11am, and not be swept off the course.
I bandaged the blister, trying to insulate it from any rubbing that might aggravate it, and after dressing, made my way downstairs. This race started in a different location than the 15k, and after some wending around, I finally found the starting corral area. The half marathon had started early in the morning, and the fastest finishers were already hanging around, sporting their medals, with more coming across the finish line.
While I waited, a lady named Bobbie walked up and started chatting with me. Apparently, she’d be been behind me in the 15k on Saturday, keeping pace with me. It was nice to talk shop with someone before the race, and kinda keep my brain off the race at hand.
We formed up, and the race started. I ran ahead, and thought I was gonna have a pretty good race. My blister was tame, and there were some spotty clouds. This was playing into my hands. However, the clouds disapated, the temperature rose to about 75°, and I started to wither. And after about 5km, my blister started to let me know it was gonna make life miserable.
For the second time in two days, I was hobbled for the last quarter of the race. Just like the day before, though, I gutted it out, ran across the finish line like I owned it, and got both the medal for the 8k, and for the Lime Cactus Challenge. And to top it off, I’d beaten the sweepers, finishing around 11:05am.
I pulled out my 15k medal — I took it with me for photos — and started clangy-clanging through the finish area. I had my photo taken with some pirates, and worked my way toward the recovery area. Columbia Restaurant was catering the post race meal, but the lines were long, and I was done, so it was back to hotel for me.
Once again, I was facing a question of what to do for lunch. I had a chat with the front desk staff, and they suggested having New York New York Pizzeria bringing me some food. I dialed ’em up, ordering a small meaty pizza, garlic knots and some hot garlic wings. The pizza was good, but I have to really scream about the wings. That hot garlic sauce was amazing! I think they started with a hot buffalo-style sauce, and added loads of diced garlic to it. Some of the chunks were enormous, and I really think there was almost an entire head of garlic in there. So very tasty! I got into the garlic knots, which were also tasty, and noticing the extra wing sauce in the container, I started using the knots to sop up the wing sauce. That was the most brilliant idea I’ve had in a long time! Needless to say, I was a happy camper, and was able to relax before beginning my big drive home on Monday.
I awoke ahead of my alarm, and figured I’d go ahead and hit the road. I’d packed up the night before, and was ready to go, so inside fifteen minutes, I was in the lobby, checking out, and heading toward the Jeep.
Tampa was quiet in the pre-sunrise morning. Getting ahead of their rush hour put me in great position to keep ahead of the rush hours to come on this long driving day. As with the beginning of the trip, I found a Krystal in north Florida, and got me a little breakfast. Yum!
I was also on a quest for a little citrus to bring home. I found a stand atop an exit off I-75, and picked up a sack of oranges and grapefruit. They also had some local honey, and given my love of the stuff, I picked up a couple of squeeze bottles to carry along with me.
Truthfully, the drive Monday was pretty uneventful. I hit rain in southern Georgia, which followed me all the way to central Tennessee. I drove through Atlanta around lunchtime, and scooted through with no issues. Chattanooga came and went shortly thereafter. I’d intended to stop somewhere in central Tennessee, but I was having a great drive, and it looked I could get through Nashville just before their rush hour. I got to the I-24/I-65 split right at 4pm, and after waiting to get through the construction traffic there, I zoomed on my way.
Finally, I decided to stop in Paducah. That’s only about three hours from home, but I was tired, having driven 700+ miles already, and knew I wanted to have some dinner somewhere. I checked into the same Drury Suites that I stayed in on the front end of the trip. I didn’t realize they had a dinner buffet included with the room, so I was able to get a quick, filling dinner before heading to my room and crashing for the night.
My last morning on the road started with me awakening before the alarm again, and getting myself on the road quickly. The drive from Paducah to Da Lou is short, and it goes by pretty quickly. It seemed like I only blinked, and I could see the Gateway Arch in the distance, welcoming me home after a long trip, and two successful races.
It’s a week down the road from the Gasparilla races, and I’ve had time to think about the race, and to ponder what’s next.
Knowing that I have a big weekend in Chattanooga coming up, I’d intended to keep up the longer miles. Unfortunately, I’ve been down with a cold ever since I got home. I ran in the snow on the Monday before the hot Tampa races, and the day after I returned, we had six inches of snow. That back-and-forth weather rollercoaster has left my head all tangled up, and mired my running shoes in the closet. I’m hoping that I can get back on the road for at least a few miles before I head to Chattanooga on Friday.
Someone asked if I would do the Gasparilla races again, and I really believe I would. There was an incredible amount of support during the race, and really good logistics. I love the pirate theme, and the fun medals. The course is crazy flat, and if I were ever to be fast, this would be a fast race for me. It’s a long way to go for a race, but there’s plenty of challenge with the race, and lots of opportunity for me to grow into it. If only they could solve that heat problem!!!
The inaugural Chattanooga Half Marathon is coming up next weekend, along with a 5K event to kick off the weekend. I have no worries about the 5k, but I truly don’t know what to expect on the half. I’m finding that my experience with the two 15k races and one half I’ve run have shown that I can complete the event, albeit with a slow time. The first 10k seems to go pretty well, but my performance falls off quickly around that point. I have no idea what next weekend will hold, but I’d love to exceed my expectations, and finish the half in better time, and better condition, than I did at Tulsa in November. In reality, it is what it is, and I have to keep my wits about me, and race neither the clock, nor myself, and just enjoy the experience!