Monday, December 15, 2014

Ultrarunning Tropes

Aid Stations on High

Not as in a gift from Heaven.  This is the case where every aid station seems to be at the peak of a long climb.  So if you’re running smoothly and feeling good, you can be sure you’re nowhere near it.  Imagine the Sadistic Race Director placing the stations on the course: “They have to suffer to earn it!”

The alternative to Aid Stations Down Low.  For other types of course-induced suffering, see the Camber Chamber, and If Only I Could Use It.

Aid Stations Down Low

While it does correspond to the physical location, this primarily refers to the aid station location as it corresponds to the spirits of the runners.  Granted, there’s a certain overlap: When you’ve just finished a quad-pounding downhill and you’re facing a massive climb to get out of the station, it can be a tad difficult to put on your happy face. Then imagine it’s a cold night and the aid station features hot food, warm blankets, and seats around a giant bonfire.  Why would you drop anyplace else?

The alternative to Aid Stations on High.  For other course features that sweet-talk you into dropping, see Drive Them Loopy.  If it wasn’t the course itself, it might have been the Field Medic.

Aid Station Orchestra

A long stretch ends with an extended climb.  Because of the way the road or trail winds up the mountain, you can’t see much ahead of where you are at the moment. But you know you’re getting to the top when you hear the aid station ahead!  It must be no more than five minutes away.

Five minutes later, you still hear the aid station ahead.  Five minutes after that, you still hear it ahead.  In fact, you could run for a week and still hear the aid station ahead.  Whether it’s the way the mountain reflects the sound, or the outrageous pair of car-battery-powered speakers blasting into the night, this is the aid station you can hear for miles and miles and miles.

Similar to Circling the Drain except heard instead of seen, and Aid Station Ventriloquism except in this case it always seems to be just ahead.

Aid Station Ventriloquism

There you are, running along and hoping the next aid station is coming soon, when you hear it!  Off to the left!

After another minute of running straight, you hear it again, but to the right.  Then you turn toward it, but the sound is coming from behind you.  In fact, no matter whether or how the course twists and turns, it remains geometrically impossible to resolve the aid station sounds.  (Until that distant moment when you finally arrive.)

Similar to the Aid Station Orchestra, except for the apparent direction of the sound.  This might be caused by the geography, or it might be your grey matter messing with you like a Rebellion of the Mind.

The Camber Chamber

Trail runners love, well, trails.  But ultras are long races, and sometimes, the only thing that connects two good trails is a road.  (We’ll make believe for a moment the Sadistic Race Director isn’t just trying to punish us with more road sections.)

Now roads tend to be cambered to help the rain run off.  A runner can get used to that, I suppose, if we fantasize that all these trail runners are training extensively on roads.  Let’s say you can get accustomed to leaning left or leaning right, so long as it’s not shifting back and forth.

Enter mountain roads.  They’re constantly switching back and forth, curving left, then right.  For perhaps fifty yards, the left side of the road is flat and the right side leans down into the turn.  Then it flattens out.  Then the right side is flat and the left side leans the opposite into the next turn.  Then it changes again.  And again.  You can keep shifting sides to stay with a relatively level surface, but then you have to keep crossing the mess of loose gravel in the middle, not to mention you’re running twice as far by zig-zagging.

Other features that may (or may not) have been deliberate include Some Hunters Did ItTo Imperial, and Beyond!, and Strategic Use of Ice.

Circling the Drain

There you are, running along, hoping the next aid station is close.  And then — you see it!  Off to the side, and a little below.  The course descends a little and takes a sharp turn.  And there’s the aid station, still off to the side, and a little below.  Farther down you go, the course switchbacks, and there’s the aid station, off to the side, and a little below.  Some more gentle descent, another turn, and there’s the aid station — off to the side, and a little below.  The whole time you could practically reach out and touch it, yet it never seems to actually get any closer.

Similar to the Aid Station Orchestra, except seen instead of heard.  Contrast to Circling the Wrong Drain.

Circling the Wrong Drain

Right as you’re about to give up all hope, there it is!  The next aid station!  The lights are shining clearly through the night, just off to the side and quite close by.  You slowly weave and descend toward the station, catching glimpses of the light all the while.  Needless to say, it takes longer to get there than you expect.  Well past the time you should have reached the station based on your pace and the distance, you emerge into the clear, and…

It’s hunters or campers or some oddball’s cabin, not the aid station at all.  Keep on truckin'.

Subtype of Phantom Aid Stations.  For other lights that trick you into thinking an aid station is nearby, see The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Defensive Evolution

Aeons ago, you might have found pleasing dirt trails, with the occasional rocks embedded.  Over time, the rocks slowly grew and multiplied, until you might actually describe their trail home as treacherous.  This carried on until the founding of their natural predator: Nike.  As people developed the gall to run on trails, and the footwear to withstand it, the rocks were pounded, pummeled, and thrashed.  In fact, some were driven entirely into the ground!

Natural selection to the rescue.  The rocks that did not develop defenses were slowly lost, while those that did survived.  And the answer was simple: the rocks surrounded their trails with trees.  The weather grew cold; the trees dropped their leaves.  With the up-side of the hill to the left, and a small extra cushion of rocks to the right, the native trail rocks are perfectly protected by a good six inches of leafy camouflage.

It’s not that you can't run on these trails any more — it’s just that the rocks are safe.  They can quickly or easily trip up anyone running hard enough to hurt them.  Or worst case, the Rocky Rocks can toss off the offending runner entirely.  One way or another, this next generation of trail rocks will be safe for millennia to come.

See also If Only I Could Use This Downhill, though some of these sections are flat instead.

The Drive By

You may think you’re suffering now, but just wait.  At the moment you least expect it, you’ll hear a loud noise behind you.  Then it will approach, rapidly.  What’s going on?  It’s none other than the Sadistic Race Director, leaning out the window of an oversize pickup truck as he cruises the course.  Inevitably you’re on a narrow country road, so you need to jump to the ditch beside the road if you don’t want to be run down.  (Though by now, you may prefer it.)  Then he’ll ask why you’re not running faster.  Finally, having passed you, he’ll gun the engine and leave a cloud of dust in your way.

Often performed in a Camber Chamber.

Drive Them Loopy

Sure, you could arrange a lovely point-to-point course.  But that has all these logistical problems, like busing runners from one end to the other.

And yeah, you could make a loop that starts and ends at the same place.  But that’s just catering to the soft runners.  Even incorporating one short loop into a larger course doesn’t help, because they can get aid twice at the same place!

The true Sadistic Race Director will make a course with multiple repetitive loops.  By far the easiest way to get the runners to drop is to make them pass their own car every few hours.  The more often the better.  Three times is OK, while fivesix, or seven is starting to get somewhere.  Still, nobody would really call that “mind-numbing.”  Ten is the mark of an expert.  As a bonus, you can order way fewer finisher’s awards!

The only way to improve on that is to convert it to a 24-hour race, forcing the poor sods to run a 0.9-mile loop for twenty-four hours straight.

If you can’t arrange for loops, try harder; otherwise you’ll have to resort to Aid Stations Down Low.

Field Medic

Yeah, trail running has its hazards.  A moment of inattention, or an attempt to pass on a slippery slope, and you fall.  It happens to the best of us.  Now you’ve got some blood on your knee or elbow.  But after the first couple minutes, the injury fades from your consciousness. Because all things considered, it only hurts about a tenth as much as your legs anyway.

Then you get to the aid station, and someone insists on treating it.  No thanks.  But let me just clean it up for you.  No, really, I’m OK.  It’ll just take a minute, we’ve got the bandages right here.  I’m fine, thanks.  Here, look, the chair’s all ready.  Seriously?  Not only am I supposed to stop and let my legs tighten up, I’m supposed to sit down?  Like I’ll ever get out of a chair at this point?

Similar to Aid Stations Down Low, in that if you give in, you’re done.  They mean well, though, like Hey, I Just Work Here, and in contrast to Myyyyyy Precious….

Hey, I Just Work Here

Picture the runner, about to leave the aid station.  She asks, “what’s next?”  The aid station volunteer replies, “Five miles downhill to the next station.”

Now, aid station crew in general are helpful and dedicated.  But with this poor choice of question, the runner has stumbled upon the initiation pact of the Fraternal Association of Landmark Sequence Experts.  And there are two things she can count on:
  1. It’s well more than five miles to the next aid station
  2. It’s not downhill
Honestly, it’s not like they’re not helpful or friendly.  It just the pact, sort of like leave-no-man-behind, except it’s tell-no-runner-the-trail.  You’re better off not asking.

It’s virtually impossible to blame the RD for this one, similar to the Aid Station Orchestra and Running Backward.

If Only I Could Use It

Just imagine the Sadistic Race Director examining potential course routes.  “Look at this flat, fast section / gentle downhill.  What are we going to do about that?”  There are only two options: Beat the runners up so they can’t take advantage of it (If Only I Could Use This Flat), or find a better route (If Only I Could Use This Downhill).

For more advice on optimal course layout, see Aid Stations on High and Drive Them Loopy.

If Only I Could Use This Downhill

The easiest way to avoid soft runners excelling at a particularly gentle stretch of trail, is simply to find a better stretch of trail:
  • A field of treacherous rocks.  Not just some rocks in the trail, but you’re actually running entirely over rocks.  Big, loose rocks.  The steeper the downhill the better, unless you can arrange it to be a gentle downhill with a steep drop off to one side.  Bonus points if it’s at night.
  • A steep trail, with numerous switchbacks, and a substantial covering of loose dirt.  Anybody who runs too fast will slide right past the turnaround.  Perfect.  (Bonus points if there are thorn bushes to either side.)
  • A dirt trail with plenty of rocks embedded and more off to the side, exactly 1.5 runners wide.  Just enough to encourage a more aggressive runner to attempt to pass a more careful runner, but not enough for them to succeed without the rocks catching one or the other.
  • A rocky trail, if you cover it with leaves.  See Defensive Evolution.
Subtype of If Only I Could Use It.  See also If Only I Could Use This Flat.

If Only I Could Use This Flat

When you simply can’t avoid including a flat or gentle downhill in your course, you have only one option: crush the runners while they get there, so they’re left with no choice except to walk even the easiest parts.  Bonus points if you get them to walk backward just to relieve the pain.
  • To begin with, put it so late in the race that everybody’s exhausted.  Then:
  • Precede it with a long and brutally steep climb.  Just make sure there’s a couple hundred flattish yards in the middle so they think they’re done with the climb, then start it up again and double the length.  Only when they’re totally demoralized should they be allowed to reach the flat.
  • Or, precede it with a multi-mile steep downhill.  It must continue well past the point where it feels good.  If nobody calls it “an absolute quad-crusher” then you’re not trying hard enough.  Bonus points if they runners have to run back up the same hill later.
Subtype of If Only I Could Use It.  See also If Only I Could Use This Downhill.

If Rocks Are Good, More Rocks Must Be…

Yeah.  More rocks must be Gooder.

This is not just a matter of the Sadistic Race Director selecting a route with some rocks in it.  (Anything called a “rock garden” is clearly too small.)  This is when the entire “trail” is a field of rocks.  As in, you need markers every 10 yards to tell where you’re supposed to be going, because otherwise it’s just an indistinguishable pasture of rocks.

Now the rocks themselves may be shift-under-your-feet rocks, reach-out-and-grab-your-foot rocks, stub-your-toes-into-submission rocks, or oh-my-did-you-forget-your-shin-guards rocks.  By far the best, though, and this usually requires a climb, are the proceed-on-all-fours rocks.  This is when the runner has to climb from one rock to another to another, because there’s no apparent path forward and the trail markers go straight up.  (See Rebellion of the Mind.)

Bonus points if this category describes the entire course.

See also If Only I Could Use This Downhill, though as mentioned, climbs are preferable.

Late Start

No, not like, there’s an early start for runners who need an extra hour.  If you can’t finish in thirty-six hours, another one isn’t that likely to help.

This is when the whole race starts at 6 PM9PM, or midnight.  Just because, what kind of challenge is an ultramarathon if you’re not tired going in?

I’d say the Sadistic Race Director does this to compensate for an otherwise manageable course, except similar to the Drive By, it's more often just the icing on the cake.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

During a long, overnight race, the moon can be a beautiful companion.  Besides simply lighting your way, the spectacle of the clear night sky is a huge benefit to being there at all (instead of, say, home in a warm bed.  After enjoying a hot shower.  Wait, is any constellation worth this?)

And then you find yourself climbing a wooded mountain, in search of the next Aid Station on High.  Long, steep climbs are merciless enough to begin with, but now your mind is playing with you.  Should I have been there by now?  Surely I can’t be going slower than XX:YY per mile.  That means I should have been there by now.  And I really should be going faster than that, meaning I definitely should have been there by now.

Then you see it!  The lights of the aid station.  Up ahead, higher up, as the savvy runner knows to expect.  Just a few more minutes climb, and…

It’s still there, up ahead.  Higher up.  Keep climbing.

How high can this mountain be?  And why do the lights look just as far away as ever?

Then the trail curves, and you can clearly see the light — the light of the moon, that is.  What you thought you saw, it wasn’t an aid station at all, it was just a tiny peek of moonlight through the trees.

Which means you absolutely should have been there by now.  Keep on truckin’.

Similar to Phantom Aid Stations and Circling the Wrong Drain in that you’re not really there after all.  Caused by your mind messing with you, similar to a Rebellion of the Mind.

Myyyyyy Precious…

Aid stations are great.  And the volunteers are outstanding!  They light up the night, help each new arrival fill their hydration pack or bottles, prepare and distribute food, keep a warm fire going, and sometimes even dress up in coordinating costumes or post signs offering warm hugs to sweaty runners.  These are the people who guide every runner from one section of the course to the next.

Except for the one volunteer possessed by Sauron.  Whether it’s hot coffee on a long, cold night, or ice for your hat on a sweltering summer afternoon, this is the guy who has exactly what you need — but won’t give it to you.  “Have to save some for the next runner,” he says, attempting to sound apologetic.  But I’m sure he says the same thing to the next runner, and the one after that.  “Have to save some for the sweeps,” he probably tells the dead last runner.

Then he closes the station and takes it home.

Like the Field Medic or Hey, I Just Work Here, these are the things that add a little character to an otherwise unremarkable aid station.

Phantom Aid Stations

A runner often knows more or less how far it is to the next aid station.  After all, it doesn’t take too long alone and hurting in the woods before you start to think about hot food, a campfire, and some human company.

Then, just when you’re most looking forward to it and quite nearly convinced you’ve gone too far and must have missed it, you see the lights of the station ahead!

There’s just one problem.  As you run on and the course turns here and there, the lights shift either too much, or not quite enough; the geometry doesn’t seem consistent with the station being right next door.  But it’s overdue, and people actually hallucinate during ultras, so maybe it’s just your estimation that’s a little off.

You draw close, so close you can taste it… and then the course turns away, leaving the station behind for good.  It’s now been far too long, you way should have been there by now, and you start really assessing the odds that you missed a turn.  You might even ask another runner about the station, if by some chance you’re lucky enough to find one.

But no.  It’s just a trick of the mind.  Similar to Circling the Wrong Drain, except there was never any drain there to begin with.  Also see The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which is somewhere in between.

Rebellion of the Mind

You’re navigating the unfamiliar trail, weaving between trees and around rocks, diligently following the trail markers.  It’s a good thing the course is well-marked, because otherwise some of these twists and turns would easily go unnoticed.

Then the trail ends.  You’re in the middle of the woods, and there’s no trail marker, no place else to go.  You may spin around a full three hundred and sixty degrees, looking for a way out.

Then the horrible truth dawns.  There is actually a trail marker there, your eye just slid right past it.
  • Because your mind gave a cursory examination to the extremely narrow gap, and decided there was no way a human being could fit through that rock.
  • Or because you’re faced with a wall of rock, and your mind failed to even consider the possibility that the trail markers lead straight up.  (See If Rocks Are Good, More Rocks Must Be…)
It’s just your mind messing with you, similar to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Well, the Sadistic Race Director probably had something to do with it too.

Rocky Rocks

Not like the boxer; these are the rocks that always rock one way or the other if you have the gall to step on them.  If you listen closely, you can hear a little giggle if you stumble, and a belly laugh if they toss you off entirely.

A staple of If Rocks Are Good, More Rocks Must Be… and If Only I Could Use This Downhill.  Also found in any water crossing, especially Runners on Rinse.  If they get you, you might encounter a Field Medic.

Runners on Rinse

Some courses have a creek crossing or two.  After all, trails go through mountains and forests, and these things have creeks from time to time.  So as a runner, it’s not always reasonable to expect dry feet for the entire race.

Still, there are courses, and there are courses.  Some RDs might select a course with drainage pipes crossing under the fire roads.  (Evolution quietly whacks those RDs for not being Tuff Enuff.)

The Sadistic Race Director, on the other hand, realizes that mountains have altitude, precipitation, and creases.  What does this mean?  Every mountain is a veritable feast of crevices, each with its own small stream.  All that water on top has to drain somehow, right?

Yes, you can abuse the runners by sending them up the mountain and down, up and down, up and down again.  But there’s some pleasure in variety.  You can also punish them by sending them horizontally around the mountain, in and out of every fold along the way.  Rest assured, they’ll have to run through a small stream at the nadir of every single one.

Often combined with Rocky Rocks.  For maximum effect, position a photographer on the far side, just out of range of the splash.  And don’t forget the spacing: socks appear dry after about an hour, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?

Running Backward

You know those super-fast runners?  The ones who are always getting single-digit bib numbers?  Once in a while, they volunteer for a race.  Yes, it’s great to see them giving back.

On the other hand, the way you typically see them is on a narrow trail, far in between two aid stations, running at high speed toward you.  First you get the panic moment of “I can’t possibly be running the wrong direction, uh, can I?”  Then you see clearly enough that they have no bib.  Next you get the panic moment of “What am I going to do if this guy keeps running straight at me?”  A half-instant before the inevitable collision, they step aside and ask, “Pretty far back this year, aren’t you?”

It’s impossible to blame the RD for this one, similar to the Aid Station Orchestra and Hey, I Just Work Here.

Sadistic Race Director

What more is there to say?  The easiest way to get to know someone is to run a course they’ve designed.  If your opinion hasn’t changed after three of their courses, you’ll know they qualify.

This exclusively applies to the race courses they’ve designed, not any other aspect of their character.  Strange how they can be so different, huh?

Some Hunters Did It

If one runner goes off course, we can laugh about it later.  Or at least, when we pass that spot next year, we can say “I think this is where Bob went straight…”  On the other hand, if half the runners go off-course, then obviously Some Hunters Did It.  Which is to say, since the course is always well-marked to begin with, clearly there must have been tampering…

Other issues that may (or may not) have been deliberate include the Camber Chamber, To Imperial, and Beyond!, and Strategic Use of Ice.

Rhetorical Question: If a hunting blind gets messed up, do they say, ‘Man, the trail runners have been here again…’?

Speed Dating

As the Sadistic Race Director, you know your runners have come here to suffer, and you figure you're giving them their money's worth.  There's just one problem.  All these married runners keep showing up for your race, bringing their wives and kids, and turning your Tuff Guy/Gal event into some wishy-washy comfort-fest.

Fortunately, there's a simple solution: invite a blogger to run your race.  Then they can write up how the narrow trail runs along the edge of a sheer cliff, but don't worry, you run that section at night in the fog, so you won't notice it anyway.  Or how they got hit by lightning but carried on to finish the race.

Giving spouses material like this to read should cut down on your married entrants by at least two-thirds, thereby restoring the original "rugged bachelor" feel to the event.

Similar to the Drive By and the Late Start, this is one of the techniques other than the changing the course itself that an RD can use to shape their event.

Strategic Use of Ice

Have you ever noticed, if there’s ice on the course, it’s never a small patch that’s easily avoided?  Either:
  • It spans the whole trail, from a progress-blocking obstacle on one side to the progress-blocking obstacle on the other.
  • It’s on a steep road climb, and invisible to boot
  • It used to be a thick layer of snow.  Then the Sadistic Race Director walked the course, leaving six-inch deep footprints.  Then it all froze, effectively turning the footprints into land mines.
We all know the RD can’t actually control the weather, so this could be innocent, similar to To Imperial, and Beyond!, the Camber Chamber and Some Hunters Did It.  But you know how they tell runners to be prepared to take advantage of any eventuality?  Uh-huh.

To Imperial, and Beyond!

Some race directors, I don’t know, measured the course.  Kilometers, Miles, whatever they chose, we can tell how far it is from one end to the other.  Others, you can only imagine threw some bubble gum at the wall and then guesstimated (and apparently, they are not very good guesstimators).  If you’re an RD and there’s a certain type of mile named after you, this might be you.  If there are sections of your course called “forever,” or aid station captains who say things like “it says 6.6 but it’s really 8 and it feels like 10,” then this is definitely you.  (Exception: see Hey, I Only Work Here.)

Contrast to Sadistic Race Director, who does everything intentionally; this might be more innocent, similar to the Camber Chamber, Some Hunters Did It, and Strategic Use of Ice.  (Might be.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Race Report: 2014 NJ One Day

Against all odds, I found myself looking forward to the One Day this year.  I mean, it’s been a pretty crappy running year: more than an hour behind my PR at the Equinox 50, nearly two hours off at the Terrapin Mountain 50K, didn’t finish the Vermont 100 (let’s be honest, due to my own stupidity), and most recently, well short of my goal at the North Coast 24.  Plus, my training since the NC24 hasn’t been what it should have been — a pair of 10 milers during a week instead of a 20 miler, putting off training runs due to jam-packed weekends, and generally not showing the dedication to training that somebody in search of a result ought to display.  At 20-30 miles per week, I already train a lot less than most ultrarunners, and now I was even on the low end of that.

So then, it wasn’t the potential for a great performance I was anticipating.  And let’s be honest, packing is kind of a pain in the ass.  Fourteen sets of clothes, hats, arm sleeves, socks, spare shorts even though I’ve never once in my life changed shorts mid-race, food, salt, trash bags, iPod, cereal for breakfast the morning of, the list goes on and on.  I should just leave it all packed for next time, except it never quite seems to work out that way.

And if you stop and think about it, there’s a lot not to look forward to in the running itself — leg cramps, strange pains in the knee or ankle, forcing your unwilling stomach to accept ten thousand calories in a single day on your behalf…

All I can say is, I guess it was the “experience” I was looking forward to.  A nice run, tent city alongside the course, camaraderie, hot food in the middle of the night… I’m not very good at just relaxing and socializing during a race, but maybe this would be the year.

The 24-hour format is perfect for that.  The NJ course is a one-mile loop, paved except for a short gravel stretch and a spot where the “tangent” cuts through the grass.  They give you a timing chip, and the idea is to complete as many loops as you can in the 24 hours.  How you do it is your own concern — you can walk, run, rest, sleep, whatever.  Sure, you may log fewer miles if you nap, but it’s not like a trail race where you must complete the next eight miles before you reach an aid station and if you miss the cutoff time you’re done.  So if you stop and walk with a friend and chat for a while, no big deal.  There are also simultaneous 6-hour and 12-hour races, bringing new runners onto the course at various times.

My race started with a couple of good omens: I set up my table in my favorite spot alongside the course, and I saw familiar faces from previous NJ races.  This year, when I got out the GoPro to record a lap or two for posterity, I had actually brought along the flash card it records the video to!  The weather was exceptionally cool: high 30s while I set up, maybe low 40s by the start or soon after.  Didn’t feel humid.  Definitely a change for the better compared to my other races this year.

Then, as if to underline how I didn’t need to worry about my performance, there was the first 10 or 20 miles.  Phil McCarthy and Josh Finger lapped me at least once an hour, and a guy named Denis blew by every forty minutes.  I mean, he made me feel like I was standing still out there.  At that pace, I figured he was good for 150 miles for sure!  Other than Denis, though, I was OK with it.  If you finish 24 laps down from the speedsters, and they’re putting in 130-140 miles, that’s still a pretty decent showing.

But the early going wasn’t without its wrinkles.  Within the first five miles — honestly, five — my hamstrings felt a little sore.  I mean, it's not like I was hitting the wall near the end of a marathon.  This was feeling sore no more than five percent into the race!  Ridiculous!  I ignored it and hoped for the best.  Then the outside of my ankle started hurting.  Later, it was the inside of my knee.  Every time, I wondered, is this going to be the small pain from the road camber that bursts into a major injury?  Are the tight turns going to kill me?  Once, it felt like I had a rock in my shoe for half a lap.  Thankfully, all these eventually went away (or at least, faded into the background level of general discomfort).

Other runners asked about my goal from time to time, and all I could say was that it would be great to PR.  The same race last year was my best 24-hour performance ever: 126 miles.  Certainly respectable, but in the crowd I tend to run with, everybody’s goal is 135.  Each year there’s a 24-hour World Championship (the next in 2015 in Torino, Italy).  The US sends a team of six men and six women.  Those six are drawn from the best performances over the preceding year or more, and in order to make the list for consideration, the qualifying standard is 135 miles.  I declared my intention to run for 135 at my first 24-hour race, and my actual results have been 107, 111, 92, 122, 126, 107, and 105.

So that 126 is sorta close, if you just squint at the number.  But well short of the all-important 135 if you consider you have to not only run nine more miles, but also carve out enough time from your first 126 miles to leave you time to run those nine more.  I figure, two hours?  Realistically I wasn’t about to cut two hours off any PR, so I’d be pretty happy just to squeeze in one more mile.  But given my year, I wasn’t even really aiming for that — it just didn’t feel right to say “my goal is at least to surpass mediocrity."

In any case I could say what I wanted to about PRs, but by mile twenty, I started to feel a little off.  I hadn’t peed in quite a while, I was running a little slower, and I wondered if I needed more to drink.  I tried downing two cups of water the next time past my table, and that just left my stomach sloshing.  So for a while, I fought to get my hydration into balance without my stomach slowing my down just as much.  For no particular reason, I checked my place coming across the timing mat, and it was seventh.

About that time my super-crew Rob showed up, his morning obligations out of the way.  He’d hang out with me until 6 PM, run the six-hour race until midnight, and then crew the rest of the race.  It was great to have my own dedicated support, though I hoped I wouldn’t need it.  And early on, besides keeping my cups of energy brew and water filled, mainly I think I needed a new hat, and once to have him carry my phone over to the other side of the course so I could take a photo.  But at that moment, when I was trying to dig myself out of a hole, it was just great to have a friendly face.

That was when an amazing thing happened.  Josh Finger lapped me, but showed no great urgency in putting much of a gap between us.  Denis lapped me, only to fall in right behind Josh. Well, if he can do it, so can I!  I sped up just enough to catch them, and fell in behind Denis.  This went on for over half the lap, though we drifted apart around the timing mat as everyone headed for their own resupply at the various points.  My table was last, and when I left, they were a bit ahead again.  Still, it was on the slight downhill so it was easy enough to speed up and fall in behind.

“I’ve heard about a train before, but this is the first time I’ve been in one,” I told them.

“We’ll fall in behind you,” Josh replied, “'cause you’ll keep the wind off us best.”  There was a noticeable headwind on that part of the course during the day.

“Sounds great — it’ll keep you guys going nice and slow too.” He must have thought about that, because he didn’t let me lead after all.

They carried me through three very fast laps.  And the thing was, it felt great!  If anything, I didn’t feel like I was going as fast as I could have!  Well, the fourth time around, I discovered the truth of that.  Josh and Denis had fallen behind at the tables, and I figured I’d charge ahead and let them catch up when they could.  Then, midway down the backstretch, my hamstring punished me for my hubris with a massive cramp.  Thankfully I was able to stretch it out enough to stop the cramp, but I couldn’t walk (or even stand up straight) without it cramping up again.  I watched Josh, Denis, and a number of other runners whiz by while I stood still.

Fortunately, it only took a couple minutes before I could walk, and then jog, and then eventually run again.  I lost three or four minutes all told, which wasn’t fun, but wasn’t disastrous either.  I still had close to twenty minutes “in the bank,” compared to my goal pace of ten minute miles.

A while later, I ended up running with Josh again.  He said he had hit a bad spot, which I figured since I spent those laps keeping up with him instead of watching him fly by.  His solution was a 5-Hour Energy, and it seemed to have worked.  I told him I was almost ready to start counting down.  That is, instead of counting up to 135, once I got to lap 35, I could count down from 100.  Somehow, that made it seem more palatable.  I’m not exactly sure when I started thinking about 135 instead of just a “decent” finish, but I think it was when I was flying along in the train.

Josh had a bit farther to go.  He was aiming for 144, enough to actually make the national team, where I was just aiming to qualify for the pool of candidates.  I figured, just qualifying would be such an enormous step for me, I could worry about actually logging one of the top six results in the country, well, some other time.

Meanwhile, my 50K time was solid — a few minutes under 5 hours.  Not a PR, but the best I’ve done at that point in a 24-hour in what, the last 6 attempts?  Then it felt good when I first started counting down — though just for a bit.  It’s a milestone to be under a hundred to go, but it’s not actually that helpful to tell yourself ‘only ninety-eight miles left!  Just think, it’s like you’ve run two miles of a hundred-miler and you already feel like crap!’

But the point is, every little landmark I could find was a good one.  And actually, by counting down, I felt like I was committing to get there.  A count up could end anywhere; a count down had only one place to go.

Fifty miles was good too — just a hair under eight hours.  Again, not a PR, but not someplace I’d been in quite a while.  My earlier 50-miler this year, also on pavement, was something like 9:17.  Sure it was hillier, but that was closer to an all-out effort; I didn’t have to save up for 85 more miles.  This was already my best race of the year by a long shot.

Meanwhile, my nutrition and hydration seemed to be working.  I had a new mix in the big jug: 4560 calories of Gatorade powder, 1920 calories of sugar, 1920 calories of protein powder, and 3 gallons of water.  That was a lot less water than the warmer races, making the mixture a bit sludgier, but I expected to need less water with the cooler weather.  I also planned on 1200 calories of caffeinated gels, figuring a steady stream might be better than a desperate quest for coffee when the fatigue really kicked in.  Altogether I planned to try for 400 calories an hour, or 9600 over the course of the race.  It was on the high end of what my stomach can handle, but if I had to sit late in the race to change clothes or fix a blister, I didn’t want to break down and shiver my way to an early finish.

It still wasn't quite smooth sailing; the cramps hit me several more times over the course of the day.  Any time I decided to push the pace for one dumb reason or another, I got punished.  It’s not like there was anything wrong with the 9:40 or so that was my typical mile pace, so why did I bother trying to speed?  Probably because I didn’t like getting passed, or wanted to shoot for a better 100K time, or whatever.

Rob helped me change shirts in the late afternoon.  It felt like the first strategic decision of the race.  I had been running in a lightweight long sleeve shirt.  My choices were the medium-weight shirt, which I usually race in between about 30 and 40 degrees, and the heavyweight one, which I usually race in below 30 degrees.  It wasn’t supposed to be that cold overnight — high 30s at the worst — but there was still a little wind.  I was afraid that I’d be fine while I was running but if I stopped to walk a bit or to stretch a cramp, I might get too cold too fast.  I could just add a light jacket instead, but I didn’t need a sail in the wind.  I could change multiple times, but every stop was potential trouble.  So I went for the heaviest shirt and hoped I wouldn’t be too hot.

It seemed to work.  Shortly afterward, Andy Costa showed up to run the 6-hour with Rob, and they joked around a bit and filled my table to overflowing with cups for me.  Six hours worth easily, I thought, maybe closer to ten hours worth!  I hadn’t known that Andy would have a crew with him, and I probably needn’t have asked for all the cups to be laid out because she could have refilled stuff for me in a pinch.  Still, it was nice to see that I wasn’t going to have to waste time taking care of myself while they were busy running.  They started at 6 PM, just after dark, and nine hours into my race.

During the six hours that Rob was running, my table was a little lonely.  Rob and Andy cheered as they passed me, every hour or so, but it was nothing like getting a boost every lap.  Fortunately, a stranger picked up the slack.  I started to notice that every time I passed the timing mat, the same guy gave me a little cheer or an encouraging fist in the air.  Sometimes he was in a bench right after the mat, other times in a chair around the first bend, but he always noticed when I passed.  I told him I had 75 laps to go, and that didn’t seem to discourage him at all.  Nor did the fact that I was not really near the lead of the race at that time.  It was sure nice to get that little boost every time around the track.

It must have helped me keep up the pace, too, because I managed to sneak in 62 miles just under ten hours.  Probably an official 62.2 would have been over that mark, but whatever, I’d call it 100K in ten hours.  Pretty good!  And still on about my second-best clip.  That first time, I held close to a 9 minute pace for 84 miles and then faded, especially after 93.  I hit 100 at 17:03, then staggered through a few more laps, stopped to change shoes, and never got moving again.  This time, even if I was a little slower, I meant to keep going.  And heck, if I could avoid fading like that, I wouldn’t even be slower!

The next milestone was 67 miles to go, at which point I’d be over halfway to 135.  It looked like I was going to make that right around eleven hours, leaving me thirteen — an extra two hours — for the second half of the race.  I’ve never run even or negative splits in a big race, but in my best hundred milers the first half and second half have been within two hours of each other, so this was another good sign.

Well, except that it was starting to look like I might be just a hair over eleven hours.  Should that matter?  No.  A minute or two either way, what’s the difference?  Plus, the real halfway point was at 67.5, nowhere near the timing mat.  But did it matter?  Yes.  One of those dumb things about a completely arbitrary line on the clock.  I sped up to make sure I came in under eleven.  And what happened then?

Cramp, naturally.  What possessed me to think speeding up was a good idea?  Fortunately, I felt it coming just before it really struck, and I pulled over to the middle of the road, slowed to a walk, and massaged my hamstring like crazy.  I tried to straighten up and walk normally, and it immediately seized up again.  So I hunched over and rubbed it madly.  I could almost feel the temperature dropping while I limped along, waiting for it to let go.  I eventually had to quit massaging my leg when I started to get an arm cramp from the effort!

Finally I was able to move on, crossing the mat after all that in 11:04:56.  So then I told myself that I had really hit halfway at 67.5, surely under eleven hours.  Somehow I don’t think all these mental gymnastics helped my race that much, but such is life when all the blood flows to the legs instead of the brain.

I did make one important decision, though — I figured it was time for the tights.  I had been running in shorts during the warmer day, but I wasn’t about to be stuck in the cold if I ended up with more cramps and more walking.  As soon as I got around to my table, I made the change.  It was the only time I sat down for the whole race — I had to get my shoes off before I could get the tights on, then replace my ankle-band timing chip and get back into the shoes.  It cost me five or six minutes all told, but I was comfortably warm for the rest of the race, so I’d have to say it was worth it.

Just under an hour later, I hit the halfway point on the clock: twelve hours of the twenty-four.  I had put in a respectable 72.9 miles.  Which is to say, I hit 73 at 12:01 or so.  Sixty-two to go, so I needed just over five miles per hour, or a little better than a twelve-minute pace for the rest of the race.  I also felt pretty good because there are a number of 12-hour races where the winner ends up with fewer than 72 miles.  (For instance, at this race, the winner of the 12-hour division ultimately came in with 70 miles.)

Not too long after that, I stopped by my table, and there was another woman there chatting with Andy’s crew.  I stopped, as I had been doing all race, and drank a cup of my energy mix before heading back down the hill.  The newcomer looked up in horror: “Don’t do that!  That’s terrible!  You have no idea how much time you’re losing!  Go, go, walk while you drink, keep moving!”

I thought to myself, listen lady, I’m in the middle of just about the best race I’ve ever run, I’m well on my way to qualifying for the national team, and you’re criticizing how I run my race?  Go chisel rocks!  OK, maybe I wasn’t even that polite in my head.  But what I said out loud was, “Look, I’m doing just great.”  They both laughed at that, and I moved on.

A little while later, I noticed I was passing Phil McCarthy.  I mean, I had passed him back a few times since the middle miles, maybe even enough to even out our lap counts.  But all of a sudden, I was passing him a lot.  Josh Finger had disappeared, and judging by the fact that his table had disappeared too, I guessed he was back in the comfort of his RV.  I had even grabbed one lap back from Denis.  All those guys who had gone out so hard seemed to be crumbling.  Bummer for them, but of course, good news for me.

On one particular lap my mystery spectator didn’t cheer for me, and it turned out to be because he was busy helping Phil!  Phil left his table just ahead of me and we started the next lap together.  I asked if that was his crew, and he said yes.  I said he was a great guy — it was super to have the moral support every time around.  Phil agreed.  I wondered briefly if Phil would tell his crew to knock off cheering for the other runners, but of course he didn’t — being a great guy himself. I found out later his crewman's name was Dwight, so thanks Dwight!

All this brought me to 85 miles — fifty to go.  I told myself it was a hundred-miler, and I was halfway done.  My legs sure felt like they were halfway spent, but they were keeping up the ten-minute-per-mile pace, so I couldn’t complain.  The good news was, I was over the hill in every possible way — past halfway in miles, past halfway in time, past halfway in my hundred-mile countdown.

The bad news was, I felt a blister tear open on my big toe.  I get them there a lot, and it’s probably that I tie my shoes too loose.  It means my toes tend to crash into the front of the shoes.  But if I tie them tight, the top of my foot really starts to ache in a way that I can’t ignore as well as I can normally ignore blisters.  I’m still searching for the happy middle, and in the mean time, putting up with the blisters.

The question was, would I be able to put up with this one?  It felt bad, but there was no way to know.  Either I’d have forgotten about it in a lap, or I’d have to pull over and drain it and tape it and try to get moving again after sitting down for a time in the cold.  I had done that before, but any time I sat there seemed to be a non-trivial danger that I wouldn’t get back up again.  The worst case would be that I passed my table hoping it would be OK, and then decided afterward that it wasn’t, and had to hobble the bulk of a lap on top of it.  One way or the other I had to commit by the time I reached the table.

Thankfully, by the time I got there, the blister was forgotten.  The next milestone was 90 miles, which I hoped to make in fifteen hours, keeping to the six miles per hour pace.  I made it in 23:51, still nine minutes ahead of schedule.  I didn’t have twenty minutes in the bank any more, but I hadn’t fallen behind.

It made me nervous, though.  Erin has said many times she dreads miles 85, 90, and 95 because that’s where I always blow up.  I was right in the danger zone.  I re-dedicated myself to focusing on the mile at hand, and paying close attention to how I was feeling, how my hydration was going, and looking out for anything that could possibly go wrong.  It was getting tricky — my mind kept wandering to how great it would be be to finally reach my goal, and I had to remind myself that if I didn’t get through this and the next forty-four laps like it, I wasn’t going to reach my goal.  It wouldn’t have been the first time I thought I had it in the bag and then got sidelined out of nowhere.

I also knew this was where I had dramatically slowed down on my way to my previous 100-mile PR. But on this day, I was still moving with good pace; I had started to periodically pass Denis, the last of the three runners I knew to be well ahead early on.  One time by, I commented to him that it was a lot harder to take these laps back than it had been to give them up to him in the first place.  “But you’re doing it,” he replied.  Soon he slowed down more, and I started passing him more often as well.  I wasn’t sure who else had been in the group of six ahead of me, but it looked like I had caught up with the top three.  So I figured I was in fourth place, with probably some folks about the same speed going around the loop just as I was.

At 95 miles, my pace was still good, but just starting to slip the slightest bit.  I was definitely in PR territory: more than an hour and twenty minutes to get five miles and still PR!  I forced my mind back to the lap at hand, before I floated off into dreamland entirely.

Just after I crossed at 99 miles, I heard the PR bell behind me.  That was a giant bell you were to ring for a time or distance PR.  I was too far to see who it was, but at this point in the race we were past the distance PRs — people who ran 50K or 50 miles or 100K for the first time.  I had to assume it was a 100-mile time PR, for someone still ahead of me — nearly 10 minutes ahead.  But for this one lap, it was easy to focus, to carry myself step by step around the loop to the line.

I finished 100 miles in 16:33:56, a half-hour under my old PR.  It was the first time I’ve averaged better than a ten-minute mile for one hundred miles.  To me, it felt like an achievement on the order of a 2:30 marathon — spectacular for a normal guy, but still nowhere near the record books (which lay under 12 hours for 100 miles).  I’ve felt before like I ran a really good 100 miles, but this may be the first time I’ve really felt like a ran a really fast 100 miles.

Plus, it left me a lot of time to work with.  Seven and a half hours for 35 miles.  At that point, I could slip to a twelve-minute pace and still reach 135!  Of course, I didn’t want to actually do that, because then any little wrinkle could cause me to come up just short.  I gave the PR bell a solid ring, and headed on quickly.  I did stop at my table to text Erin the news, if nothing else to reassure her that I hadn’t crashed and burned at 85 miles.  (Though as it turns out I needn’t have, as the race was posting more regular updates than in previous years.)

Then, with a smile on my face, I embarked on the long dead zone between 100 and 135 miles.  I mean, it was the middle of the night, I had made the last PR I cared about before the end, and there really weren’t any milestones left.  A 50K to go?  Dawn?  I could reach, but really it came down to this: I just had to tick off thirty-five more miles, one at a time.

The first fifteen went pretty well, except insofar as I continued to slow down.  My lap times were already over eleven minutes, and by lap 105 I had slipped past a ten-minute pace average for the whole race.  Well, that was all OK since I didn’t quite even need twelve-minute laps, but it was a little discouraging how soon after a hundred the pace fell off.  And I was starting to feel like I was running in a fog.  Then it hit me — I had been so excited about my 100-mile PR, I forgot to take a caffeinated gel on schedule!  I took one each of the next two times around, and that put a little zip back into my legs.

When I stopped by my table at 115, Rob reported that I was the first place male by an astounding ten laps.  I must have sounded pretty surprised, because he went back to double-check and confirmed the next time around.  He also said I was tied with Maggie for the overall lead in the race.  I had heard people talking about Maggie, and there was one woman out there who was passing me pretty regularly, so I assumed they were one and the same.  But the way she was running, I wasn’t going to keep the overall lead — when she passed me, she blew by like I was standing still.  I couldn’t figure out how she kept up the pace at that point in the race.

Fortunately there was little need to race her; I had my own goal to focus on, and all the awards were broken down by gender, so the overall win didn’t mean that much to me.  Frankly, I would have been happy to finish tenth so long as I still reached 135!  I pressed on, running my own race, and tried to cheer Maggie as she blew past, again and again.

Rick, the race director, wasn’t about to let me off that easy.  The next time I crossed the mat, he rushed out of his little hut to join me for a moment.  “I know you said your goal is 135, but your average pace is 10:05 — only five seconds off 144 miles.  What do you say?”  I said, come on you numbskull, if I could actually run that pace it wouldn’t be my AVERAGE!  No, wait, that’s just what I thought.  What I actually said was, “One thirty-five.  I’m too slow now.”

And then I ticked off a few more miles.

Dawn arrived right around 125 miles, giving me more than two hours to finish the last ten miles.  While the sun and the visibility were nice, the day didn’t actually warm up much.  I had expected a blast of warmth, but it was OK.  I’d take anything that didn’t slow me down.  I was mostly over twelve-minute miles by this point, but not a whole lot.  It was going to get me to 135 with time to spare, so I went with it.

I still had the occasional freak-out crossing the timing mat, when the computer didn’t beep out loud for one reason or another.  It never did actually miss a lap for me, I was just getting nervous that I’d finish my 135, but the computer would have me one lap short so I didn’t actually make it!  What a waste of mental energy.  I of all people should know: Trust the Computer.  The Computer is Your Friend!

Rob was getting as excited as I was, judging by the fact that every lap I found him on a completely different part of the course.  Once by my table, once by the timing mat, once glued to the status screen, then back to the table, then standing next to a bench — he must have felt pretty good even after putting in thirty-seven miles of his own!  Some of the other bystanders had started cheering for me.  They said I looked great, and when I replied that I had one lap to go, they assured me I could do more.  But the only number in my head was the countdown.

As I crossed the mat the 134th time, I called out “Rick, one mile to go, yeah?” confirming the computer was still in agreement.  “You can’t stop there!” he called.  “Not stopping!  Just making sure!”  I really wanted to celebrate right now, but again I forced myself to make it through the lap at hand.  I had forty-eight minutes, enough to crawl the lap and make it, but the sooner I got it over with the sooner I could actually celebrate!

Mainly I think I spent that last lap trying to decide whether to sprint three, run two, or walk one final lap.  The problem was, my pain was mounting.  My feet had started to hurt, I could feel a number of blisters on my toes, my back was sore from being upright so long, my arms were sore from swinging, and my legs, well, let’s just not talk about my legs.  All the stuff that hadn’t been bothering me… it was back.  I think some part of my brain knew I had reached my goal, my long-shot, best-case, not-going-to-happen-today goal.  Once I was there, I just plain ran out of will.

I think I jumped a couple of feet as I crossed the mat for 135.  I took a quick look at the status screen to confirm, then rang that PR bell for all I was worth.  I walked one last lap, then gave my feet a well-deserved rest.

In the end, two women finished ahead of me, but I finished comfortably ahead of the rest of the men’s field.  Ryan, in second, had been ahead of me until 102 laps, then rested or napped and never caught up.  Denis quit after 100.  Josh came back to life for a couple hours to run the last ten with the lead woman.  Phil pressed on the entire time, finishing with 110 miles, which I found astounding.  It seemed like he had walked the last half of the race, yet still finished with one hundred and ten miles.  Unbelievable!

But it was my own performance that amazed me most of all.  As I write this, it’s more than a week after the race, and I still spend half the day smiling out of nowhere because I hit 135 miles.  My name has made the list of qualifiers for the US National Team, though I’m presently tied for eleventh — in other words, not very close to the top six who actually go to the World Championship.

But for some odd reason, I’m already plotting how to reach 144 miles next time.

It seems like it’s all in the goal.

Photo credits: Aaron Mulder, Erin Mulder, Rob Hoy, Glen Teitell

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Race Report: 2013 North Coast 24-Hour

At the finish, with the guy who got me there
Let me preface this report by saying Rob Hoy is an outstanding crew!  I feel like long races like this have two parts, and you need to be on top of both parts to really excel.  One part is obviously the physical task of running.  But the other is the logistics of having what you need when you need it -- in terms of food, clothes, lights, information, and so on.  A windy, rainy day doesn't help when the rain might soak your bag of "dry" clothes or the wind might knock over your trash can.  I was aiming high with a goal of 135 miles, and Rob was totally on top of all that stuff, freeing me to focus on the running.


Speaking of weather...  I had checked the 10-day forecast when race weekend came into view.  Sunny, sunny, sunny, then thunderstorms on Friday and rain on race day.  Yuck.  I told myself at least it wouldn't be too hot, but I sure wouldn't have minded if the forecast shifted everything around by a few days as the big weekend approached.  (It did not.)

The weather seemed nice enough when we drove to Cleveland on Friday, dry and cloudy.  That gave me hope!  If they could screw up on the thunderstorms, maybe all weekend would just be dry and cloudy...  But about dinner time, the rain started.  First gently, then, well, not so gently.  Rob and I huddled in the hotel for a final talk on Friday night, and you could hear the rain drumming the window.  Sideways.  Oh, well.  The one time I checked the race forecast with the weather app on my phone, it said the low for the night would be 32.  32!  I freaked out for a moment, before checking a regular weather site that showed a much more reasonable 54.  Stupid weather app.

In any case, I woke early on Saturday, unable to get back to sleep even though I knew I'd wish for that extra hour later.  Too excited, I guess.  I had been looking forward to this race for quite a while.  It started in May, when I did the 24-hour race at 3 Days at the Fair in NJ.  Now the point of a timed race is to go as far as you can in the allotted time, and rather than the fastest runner, it's the runner who puts in the most total distance who wins.  3 Days at the Fair went incredibly well for 90 miles, and then I got dehydrated and crashed and burned.  I tried to get moving again and staggered through one final mile in maybe 40 minutes, then gave up and headed home.  It was all the more frustrating because it was around 15 hours -- there was so much time left, I easily could have had a huge result.  And it was my fault -- it wasn't like the course was too tough or hilly, I was just too brain-dead to make sure I was hydrating sufficiently.

That's when I looked around for a fall 24-hour, and as soon as Rob told me he'd crew for me at the North Coast 24, I made up my mind.  I shifted my training a little to include some more long runs on pavement and tow path instead of 100% trails.  One day in July I did the entire length of the Delaware canal tow path (on the PA side).  After slogging through the heat and humidity for 60 miles, I figured at least I had the hydration part nailed.


So I was excited and feeling pretty well prepared as race day rolled around.  Other than the weather, there was just one final wrinkle: taper week.  Actually, that was two wrinkles.

The first was caffeine.  I'd pretty much made it through the first 38 years of my life without coffee.  I got a great laugh when Peter Wayner sent me this excerpt about coffee and the end of civilization.  But that was when I had, at most, three children.  Connor's arrival shattered my illusions, and within two months I was up to about a pot a day.  The problem was, I wanted to get a little zing from some caffeine at the race, particularly since I'd be running through the night in my perpetually sleep-deprived state.  So the only choice was to cut back before the race.

It would be a rainy run
Just not too far before the race.  Because I'm sure not drinking it for the taste!  So on Monday, I switched to tea and Mountain Dew, then less tea and less Mountain Dew, until I got under the equivalent caffeine of one cup of coffee.  Success!  Well, so long as you consider 'tired and irritable' synonymous with 'success.'  At least I managed to avoid the headaches that usually accompany withdrawal.  This all generated some skepticism on Facebook, but I didn't feel like it would be better to prolong the agony for more than a week or to go into the race needing a pot of coffee just as my baseline.

The other wrinkle was, now that I think about it, also due to Connor (two months old and not yet mobile on his own).  Monday before the race, I'd spent an unusually large amount of time carrying him around.  We took some walks around the neighborhood, we danced in the family room, we had quality time.  My back got a little sore from holding him so much, but whatever.

Then Tuesday rolled around.  Everything was fine until I actually had the gall to run a little.  I suddenly noticed a giant knot in my back, somewhere on the bottom right, which was pulling on my hamstring and making my right leg extraordinarily tight.  It felt fine on the uphills, but between the sore back and the tight leg, flat or downhill was no good at all.  And this course I was about to run -- totally flat.  I told myself it would be gone by Saturday.  That was, let's see, four more nights to recover.  Plenty.

Wednesday felt no better.  Well, I shouldn't say that.  By the end of my run, and with a little massaging, it seemed to loosen up a bit.  Now was that getting better, or would it just tighten back up as soon as I sat down again?

Thursday the right side was better, but the left side was bothering me.  What the...?

Friday my back was fine, until I started getting some aches and pains on the drive.  Now was that an actual problem or just the natural side effect of all that time in the car?  And if my back was better, was it better, better?  Or was it just going to flare up again during the race?

Bottom line: tapering sucks.

Race Morning

At least the coffee thing was over and done with.  You'd think I'd have prepped a cup in the little hotel coffee maker as soon as I woke up.  Or brought down my little chit for a free coffee when I took Cael and Sarah for breakfast.  Or taken advantage of Rob to get me a cup when I saw him all ready to go while I was still eating breakfast in PJs.  But somehow, I didn't think about it until I was otherwise pretty much ready to go.

After I dropped the kids off with Erin, I finally put on a cup.  While I waited for the little machine to brew, I vigorously lubed all the spots I thought might be subject to chafing.  On wet or humid days I can get it from my shoes, shirt, and shorts -- in other words pretty much everywhere -- and this was shaping up to be a wet and humid day.

The rain had been going pretty consistently all morning, sometimes harder or sometimes lighter, but never really stopping.  Thankfully it was light as we walked over to Rob's car and loaded my bags in.  I had one bag mainly full of dry clothes of various styles and weights, plus my usual running backpack with lights, first aid, Vaseline, salt tablets, and the other odds and ends that I've accumulated.  The clothes bag was extra-heavy because it had my stash of a hundred or so gels at the bottom, but those would come out soon enough.

My table was one of the last to leave after the race
It was a quick ride to the race site at Edgewater Park, and Rob seemed to have it all under control.  He pulled into the closest parking lot and stopped at the best spot for unloading.  We could see the tent farm going strong already, and picked a clear spot to claim for ourselves.  We brought over the various supplies for our aid station -- a ten-by-ten canopy to keep the rain off, a folding table, a big water jug he had already filled with ice from the hotel, camp chairs, empty cups, several gallons of water and a few bottles of Gatorade, my bags, a tarp to keep things dry, a trash can, and more.  It made a pretty good station -- I guess we've both done this before.

Shortly after we got the tent set up, Andy arrived.  He was another friend of Rob's, who I had also sort of bumped into at a previous race, and would be sharing the station with me.  Andy largely brought his own supplies and set up on one end of the table.  I took the rest for my giant bowl of gels, smaller bowl of salt caplets, water jug, Advil, and array of cups of water.  While we arranged the table, Rob velcroed his tarp to the back side of the canopy, giving some protection against wind and rain coming in off the lake.

We both checked in and got our bibs and timing chips, which we strapped around our ankles.  In light of the rain, I put on a jacket over my short-sleeve shirt.  And that pretty much did it for the setup.  Not wanting to spend one iota of extra energy, I planted myself in a chair to wait for the start.  Andy looked a little more lively.  It turned out that he had crewed somebody at the last 24-hour race I did, and had a station next to mine there.  When I crashed out at 92 miles, he helped Erin take down our station and pack all the stuff back into our car.  So we hadn't really talked at the time (me being busy trying to resuscitate myself in the car), but we had a connection.

This time, we were both hoping for more.  It was Andy's first 24-hour, though he'd won a 12-hour race before, so he has some speed.  I had certainly shown some speed at previous 24-hour races, I just hadn't managed to put it together and keep going for the whole 24 hours.  In three previous attempts I'd had a really good 17 hours, a really good 14 hours, and a lousy day followed by a decent night.  My goal all along has been to reach 135 miles, the qualifying standard for the US National Team.  (As is the case for virtually everybody who's gotten past the point of aiming for one hundred miles in a 24-hour.)  I felt like I've shown that I can do what I have to for 90-100 miles with plenty of time left on the clock, but something has always gone wrong -- weather, dehydration, whatever.

Runners, eager to start
Surely it's not lack of training (I say with more than a healthy dose of irony).  Andy told me about one of his friends who logs 150 miles per week, and when he scheduled a tough training run with Andy, he put in something like fifty miles in the two days preceding it.  Andy said he managed more like fifty miles a week total.  I kept my mouth shut, since it's a good week if I hit thirty miles.  I seem to be fortunate in that my combination of CrossFit, short track-type workouts, and a weekly long run keep me fit enough for ultras.  I'd be hard-pressed to justify it as sufficient training to qualify for the national team, though.  We'd just have to see.

The Start

With five minutes to go, we headed over to the main pavilion, and I was surprised to see the race director herding everyone back down the path.  It was a nine-tenths of a mile paved loop, and I figured we'd start just on one side or the other of the timing mats.  But this turned out to be the clever workaround for the odd distance -- by starting an extra couple hundred feet down the path, the total distance for 111 laps would be precisely one hundred miles.  It let people get a certified hundred-mile time, and meant anybody going for only that mark didn't have to run an extra half mile just to make sure they hit it.

My best hundred-mile time was at a previous 24-hour, and it was just over seventeen hours.  I had been on a pace to beat that handily at my 24-hour in May, but that's the one where Andy helped pack up my stuff at 92 miles.  So I hoped for a new hundred-mile PR today -- it would position me very well to hit my goal of 135.

I lined up at the front of the pack, and the guy next to me turned my way.  "What's your goal today?"  I knew there was one superhero there -- Harvey Lewis -- with a PR of at least 150 miles.  Somehow I got the feeling this was him.  "One thirty-five, of course."  He nodded and wished me luck.  When the horn blew, he was off like a shot.  Having not even warmed up, I was determined to keep myself to a comfortable pace in the early hours.  I didn't even try to keep up.

Woo-hoo!  Second place!
Still, I was a little surprised to find myself in second just behind Harvey as we crossed the timing mat for the first time.  I was hoping for a good day, but second place didn't seem realistic.  Plus there are usually plenty of folks who blow the doors down in the early laps.

Soon enough, another guy passed me like I was walking.  He caught up to Harvey, briefly charged way ahead, and then fell back so the two of them ran together.  They built a decent lead by the end of the second time lap, almost two miles into the race.  My first lap had been too fast at 7:35, but the second was getting more reasonable at 7:55.  My goal was to be between 8 and 9 minute laps (equating to nine to ten minute miles) for as long as possible.  I'd probably float up to the higher end of the range by twenty or thirty miles in, but I hoped to stick there for a hundred miles anyway.

Fortunately, the rain wasn't too bothersome.  It wasn't hard or slanted enough to reach past my hat to my glasses, which was the key measure to me.  I quickly warmed up too much to keep the jacket on, and after the second lap I left it at the table with Rob, also swapping my hat for a cooler visor.  This was the start of the clothing shuffle, which was very unusual for me, but would continue for much of the race.

First layer off...
To begin with, my shirt quickly soaked through, and I continued to warm up.  By the fourth lap I left Rob my shirt too.  Other than gathering my discarded clothes, I'm afraid I didn't leave him much to do.  Every lap I took a cup of water, and about four times an hour I took a gel as well.  I'd walk a little while I ate and drank, and then deposit the cup and wrapper in the trash can I'd left a little down the path from our table.  So long as Rob kept a few cups of water ready at the table, I was good.

Meanwhile Rob always had an encouraging word for me, which was great.  Meanwhile I wondered why I hadn't seen Andy -- I sort of expected him to catch up or pass while I walked, at least.  I certainly wasn't lapping him, so he was reasonably close, but behind.  Maybe just running a smarter race -- I was still in the high sevens or low eights for most of my laps.  But the start is always tough.  Some slow people run fast, some fast people run slow, every bathroom break seems to have an inordinately large effect on the timing...  I figured everything ought to settle down by twenty or thirty miles, and then we'd see.

Speaking of bathroom breaks, I had a couple in the first hour.  There was an array of porta-potties just off the trail at the far end of the loop, which was great -- the ones in the buildings were like twenty yards off to the side, with a big pond to soak your feet just outside the doorways.  Even with the rain my feet were staying pretty dry, so avoiding the walk and the water in favor of the porta-potties seemed like a much better option.

Second layer off...
Still, it was frustrating.  I've learned from my prior races and training runs that the first hour or two means nothing in terms of hydration.  I can pee ten times and then suddenly come up dehydrated.  So on the one hand, I hate to waste time standing still.  On the other hand, if I cut back on what I was drinking early in the race, I could be setting myself up for disaster a few hours down the road.  I was pretty sure dehydration was what sidelined me at the last one -- I just hadn't had the brain cells to realize it until afterward.  So I tried to ride it out, figuring it was better to lose time in the porta-potty than to get dehydrated.

After a while the wind and rain picked up, and my concerns shifted elsewhere.  The final turn before the pavilion seemed to be subject to brutal gusts of wind -- somehow much worse than anywhere else on the course.  The saving grace was that it was the only substantial downhill on the course as well.  So every time I went by, I just relaxed my effort and let gravity fight the wind on my behalf.  Shortly past an hour, though, the wind and rain combined started to get a little chilly.  I needed to be warmer, but just a little.

Singlet on, and quickly soaked through
The next time past the table, I dug around a little in my crew bag and found a Terrapin Mountain singlet.  That was a stroke of luck.  It had been in my bag when I was packing for the race, and I started to take it out, but then figured what could it hurt?  Now it was perfect -- warmer than no shirt, but cooler than a t-shirt, plus lighter once it soaked through.  It proved to have only one down side -- it was just loose enough that the wind blew it around and I got a bit of a sail effect as it flapped.  I ended up pulling the bottom tight and tucking it in to cut back on the flapping, and that worked well enough.

Rob, meanwhile, continued to be an excellent crew.  There was always water ready when I came by.  When I got out my backpack, the next time around he had wrapped it in a trash bag to keep it dry.  At one point the tarp came down and he just used it to wrap all our bags and stuff, leaving himself exposed to the wind and rain instead.  At the same time, he told me I was the easiest runner to crew for!  I guess we both seemed to be happy enough with the arrangement.

Sayonara to the Easy Part

So far, all the issues had been incredibly minor.  Even the rain wasn't really bothering me -- and it sure beat dry and humid.

The first serious wrinkle cropped up after about ten miles.  I started to get some unexpected pain.  It was in my right hip, and the inside of my left knee.  After a little consideration, I decided it was due to the curvature of the course.  It wasn't a perfect circle or oval -- the path just followed the contour of the park.  And it had several turns that were tighter than I'm used to -- tighter than anything I train on, in any case.  It felt like I was leaning into the turns, and over time it was starting to bother me.  I tried to fight the lean, but I could never seem to remember consistently.

Brief cameo by the arm sleeves
In the third hour, colder still, I added some arm sleeves.  But almost immediately it seemed to warm up, and I ditched them again.  Meanwhile, Harvey lapped me for this first time.  This I was fine with -- if he lapped me every two hours and I ended up about ten miles behind him, I should be right on my best-case goal.  Later in the hour, I caught up to Andy.  We ran together and chatted for a while.

Andy asked how I was doing, and I confessed that I was dealing with some unexpected pain.  The frustrating part was that it's not unusual.  I can clearly run a hundred miles, yet the pain often starts at ten to twenty miles.  What's with that?  If you can do a hundred, shouldn't the pain hold off for at least eighty?  He said it made him feel better to hear it, because he felt like he was having an off day too.  I wasn't about to go that far -- I intended to run right through the pain -- but it would have been nicer without it.

Shortly after four hours in, things changed.  My leg was hurting enough that I couldn't keep going like that.  My hip in particular was the problem -- the knee hurt, but didn't seem to have as much of an impact on the race.  My hip flexor, or something running along the outside of my hip, was bothering me past the point where I could ignore it.  I stopped at the table and took some Advil, which I hate to do during a race, but on the other hand it does seem to work.

Meanwhile Rob, not about to let me rest on my laurels, informed me that I was in fifth place.  I was happy to hear it, and it certainly encouraged me to not lay off.  But I didn't want to outrun myself either.  I had to keep a pace I could maintain, certainly until the Advil kicked in, and probably more importantly thereafter.  It's great to feel nice, but I had twenty hours of running left, and it was getting to the part of the race where it was more important to run at a comfortable pace than a fast pace.  Too fast now and I'd be sitting on the sideline while everyone I had tried to outrun blew by.

So with Advil in my stomach and this mess of strategy playing out in my head, I left the table.  Over the next half hour the Advil upset my stomach a little, thankfully not seriously enough to prevent the gels from going down.  Finally after four laps at the upper limit of my goal pace, the effect I was waiting for seemed to kick in, and I got past the stomach thing too.  Back in action.  I figured I'd take more Advil every six hours -- ten, sixteen, and twenty-two hours -- and that should cover me.  (Oh, how mistaken that would prove to be...)

Kids Playing = Good Spirits!

Still, this was the start of a high point for me.  I was feeling better, running well, in a great position in the pack, and then Erin and the kids arrived.  She had stopped by earlier but driven around the parking areas and then left before anyone got out -- I assumed to get Connor to sleep in his car seat.  Our minivan returned in due course, and Caelan and Sean got their sand toys out and went crazy.

World's biggest sand box
Edgewater Park was right next to a beach, and while most of the park was grassy, the side near the beach tended toward sand.  Erin found a parking spot next to a huge expanse of sand.  Not just sand, but wet sand -- the best!  When we were packing the car Cael had insisted on keeping the bag of sand toys in the back, and I didn't see any reason to bring them along, but I didn't fight him on it.  Thank goodness!  I think I'll be coming back to this race because I'm sure I'll have the full and enthusiastic support of my kids.

The first time they saw me coming by, Cael and Sean sprinted across the diagonal to meet me further down the trail.  I paused for some enormous hugs, which was great, and every time I passed for the next few hours, my spirits got a lift watching them play.  After a while Sarah came out to join the party, then as the rain cleared, Erin and Connor came out as well.  By the early afternoon they all seemed to be having fun at the park, and it made for some easy miles for me.  Sure, Harvey lapped me again, though I joked a little because he passed me and then immediately spent more time at his tent, so I briefly got the lap back.  Then I heard those rapid footsteps approaching, and called out "Come to take your lap back, have you?"  Indeed he had.  But I was still holding on well.

Look ma, no clean!
Eventually Erin and the kids got ready to leave, and I collected a final round of hugs.  The next time past the table, I told Rob 'I just got hugs from all my kids.  I'm good to go for another thirty miles!'  And I felt like I was.

Sadly, there was an unpleasant surprise in store.  The Advil.  Seven hours in and it was done.  Instead of getting six hours out of it, I got three (and that includes the half hour it took to kick in).  Once again, I was faced with the decision of more Advil or less run.  Well, that was easy.  I took another dose.  I wasn't real happy about effectively doubling up, but I didn't want to stop, either.

Other than the Advil, there was good news and bad news.  The good news was, I was second place male.  In fact I was back and forth a bit with Jill, the lead woman, for second place overall.  But all the awards were split out by gender, so all that really mattered was that I was second place male.  The bad news was, I wasn't sticking to the ten-minute per mile pace.  In truth, I only needed an overall average of 10:40 per mile to make my goal of 135, but I really expected to slow down in the final third of the race.  Bottom line, I felt that I needed to stick to ten minutes for at least half if not two thirds of it in order to leave myself a little room to slide at the end.

Again, there wasn't much I could do.  It would be stupid to press hard to bump up my pace, especially fighting what was getting to be pretty serious hip pain.  Instead, I'd have to work to maintain a 10 to 10:30 pace, and plan to fight the slide at the end.

Meanwhile I talked to Andy again, and he congratulated me since Rob had told him I was in second.  I tried to downplay it, as there was an awful lot of race left, and the places at seven hours don't mean that much.  But what can I say?  I was proud at the same time.

We also compared notes on goals.  Andy said he promised his older kids 50 miles each, and anything past that was for the baby.  I told him I was sure glad I hadn't made that deal, since I had three older kids!  I was still hoping for 135, but the way things were going it wasn't necessarily in the cards.  I was a little bummed that Andy seemed to be on his fallback goal of just reaching a hundred, but for his first 24-hour, that would still be pretty respectable.  And we were both still moving.

Creeping Doubts

A brief moment of sunshine

The question I asked myself was, for how long?  The pain was bad enough that I didn't think I'd be able to make another seventeen hours, Advil or no.  I could dose up and drag it out, but that probably just meant I'd be over-medicated when I bailed a little later.  I was starting to think the smart thing might be to stop before I really hurt myself.

Then Harvey came around again, looking as strong as ever.  He asked how I was doing, and I said "Well if my hip flexor holds out, I'll have a good race, and if not, not."  He must have heard which way things were leaning, because he said I should stretch it every lap.  It might have been good advice, but I had no idea how to stretch it.  I could swing my leg way out to the side, but that felt like it would be stressing it more than stretching it.

I talked to Jason for a while, a runner I had spent a few minutes with here and there as we went.  We had compared notes on other hundreds we had done, and the evils of tow path sections in long trail races.  This time he came up running strong while I was dragging, and I confessed to being in a bad place.  He said "You know it'll pass.  It always does."  Which in one sense was true -- every ultra seemed to come with its share of highs and lows.  But physical breakdown was a different matter.

Rob, meanwhile, pushed me to get a massage from the medical tent.  The problem was, I wasn't about to spend the time stationary.  Even if they made my hip feel better, there was no guarantee I'd be able to get moving again after stopping or (heaven forbid) lying down for a while.  Rob assured me it would only take two minutes, but I felt like I could waste that much just walking back and forth.  That said, massage didn't sound like a bad idea, so I took to rubbing where it hurt while I walked from our station to the trash can.  It helped a little.  One time past Rob gave me an ice pack to use on my hip, and maybe that helped too.  He said the medics would give me a freeze-pack, but I wasn't sure I wanted real cold for real long.

Still, I had to rethink my position on it.  It didn't escape my notice that while I was hanging my head and considering bailing out of the race, everybody else was finding ways to see me through.  I needed to start thinking like they were.  And the rubbing during my walk breaks kept me going.  For the moment, it was good enough.

Hanging on for Dear Life

The field had spread out a bit behind Harvey.  He was up there having a ball -- occasionally I saw him talking to folks or stopping to take a picture of another pair of runners for them.  His idea of a walk break was to walk about three steps and then start running again.  Must be nice!  Meanwhile, other than Jill, there were a few runners reasonably close to me.  Rob kept me informed.  There was one with a tent near ours, and another with a Hammer shirt. First one would gain on me, then another, then they'd fall back a bit -- everybody had their ups and downs.

Then I hit nine and a half hours, and the Advil wore out again.  Down from three hours to two and a half.  It was not a happy trend.  Once again it took a while for it to kick in, but it did help.

Nightfall was a nice milestone.  A lot of runners broke out headlamps -- in fact Andy had forgotten his so I loaned him one of mine.  I didn't take one myself.  There was just enough light from the surroundings to do without, and I preferred not to have the awkward weight on my head if I could get by without it.

Overall, I was barely hanging on to my time goals.  I had hit fifty miles just under 8:20 and 100K right at 10:20 (both of those reflecting a ten-minute pace).  But I knew the trend was in the wrong direction -- I had been fourteen minutes ahead at 50K, and now dead even at 100K.  My next milestone would be 12 hours, where I'd hope to hit 72 miles.

I suppose it wasn't bad -- I was at about 71.5 miles when I hit the halfway point, so I had only lost five minutes.  Big picture, I only had to put in 63.5 in the second half of the race to hit my goal.  An eleven-minute mile pace would do it for the second half of the race.  So actually, every time I beat a 10 minute lap, that was still time in the bank.  I just had to drag out the decline as much as possible.

On the up side Erin and the kids visited again, though it was shorter-lived since they were pretty tired and I was trying hard to press on without stopping.  It lifted my spirits again, in any case.  The next time I saw Jason, I was doing well and he seemed to be struggling a little.  He commented on my recovery: "I see it passed.  It always does."

Doesn't look like one of my better laps
But the leg thing was really causing problems.  I had taken more Advil, now approaching two hours per dose.  That was really starting to concern me.  At some point, the stupid stuff had to just work, right?  Especially if I had basically two doses active at once?

I was also having some chafing issues.  I had gone with a product that came highly recommended on the ultra list, but it hadn't survived the rain and humidity.  I cracked out the Vaseline and slathered it everywhere I could feel the friction -- pretty much everywhere between my belly and thighs.  Rob quickly turned his back, saying, "look buddy, crew duties only go so far..."  It was fine, I didn't need help on this one.

Finally, there were the blisters.  I could feel one on the little toe of my left foot, and one on the toes of my right foot.  Neither were big, but they were there.  It probably would have been wise to treat them, but I didn't want to spend the time sitting down, and I definitely didn't want to take my shoes off in the colder night air.  I worried about getting started again if I stopped.  I resolved to ignore the blisters, which I did more or less successfully until the last twenty minutes of the race.

147,320 Steps

Condition aside, I was still moving.  My next big milestone was 15 hours.  That would be midnight.  It was sort of an artificial spot, but I needed something between 12 hours and 100 miles.  Also, I was wearing a FitBit Flex, basically a glorified pedometer, and it tracked steps per day (midnight to midnight).  This was my chance to blow its mind a little, by inserting fifteen hours of running into my day.  The Flex does all its reporting through a Web site that gives little motivational badges for reaching 10,000 steps in a day, 15,000 steps in a day, and so on.  Silly as it was, I was sort of looking forward to seeing how far all that stuff went!

Plus, I had some pace references.  Last time I had hit 90 miles in 14:36, and I clearly wasn't on that pace, but if I had a good number at fifteen hours, that would make my goal easier for the last nine.  The ten-minute pace I originally wanted would be 90 miles.  Probably not in the cards, but I pushed to keep up the pace to whatever extent I could.

The first 15 hours, according to FitBit
At fifteen hours, I was still in second place.  My mileage was around 86, which confirmed the slowdown, but what can you do?  My goal was still possible, it would just have to come in a different way than I had hoped.  I assessed the leg pain again and it was pretty ugly, but so far the Advil had more or less kept it at bay.  I figured if I took more every two hours, I'd need eight pills to cover the rest of the race.  The jar was small and had looked pretty empty, so I asked Rob to count and find another crew who could spare a few if needed.  The next time around he reported that I had exactly eight remaining.

It was a few laps later, about 15:40 race time, when disaster struck.  The Advil ran out after less than an hour and a half.  I tried to push through the pain, but I couldn't -- it was affecting my stride, my speed, and my mind.  Massaging worked well enough when backed up by Advil, but not on its own.  I had done 100 laps, or 90 miles, almost exactly where I broke down last time, though for completely different reasons.

The 90-Mile Crash

I staggered in to our station, demoralized, but unwilling to give up.  I explained to Rob.  I was just unwilling to take the Advil every 80 minutes, especially as the coverage was only getting worse.  But I couldn't run without it.  So I needed my big bag of clothes, and I was going to put on more layers of warmer stuff, and walk if I couldn't run.  I wanted to change fast, before the sitting really sank in and I got the chills and couldn't go on.

The second day's pace wasn't as consistent
That was a big problem for me -- two out of three times I ended a 24-hour early, it was at least in part because I got chills so bad I could barely move, and certainly not brave a full lap.  I'm used to that at the end of a race, but if I let it set in now, I'd be in big trouble.  I had brought some heat packs, so I dug out a couple for my pockets, hoping that worst case I could break them open, stick them in my armpits, and press on.

Rob got me dressed and going quickly, and I was back on my feet and moving again before I could get too comfortable in the chair.  That only left one problem -- the wind.  Our tent was about halfway along the long stretch of the course near the lake.  The lake exposure was where the wind was worst.  I hadn't noticed it for hours, but when I staggered up the small rise past the last tents, it hit me full bore.  In moments I was shivering.  I tried to walk faster, knowing that I could build up enough body heat to overcome it.  The wind blew harder.  I was in pants, a jacket with hood, hat and gloves -- about the only thing left exposed was my face.  The wind blew hard on my face and I almost had to turn back.

I fought it for what seemed like ages, walking as hard as I could against shivers that wracked my whole body, when finally I rounded a corner and put my back to the wind.  In only a moment I was warm again, and that was the end of my wind problem.

Relentless Forward Motion

It was a terribly slow pace and my stride was awkward at best, but I was moving.  In the twenty some minutes that lap took, I had a lot of time to wonder what kind of idiot would walk for over eight more hours.  But I also knew there were people who came to this race with no intention of running at all, and walked every mile they put in.  I felt like I wouldn't even be living up to their standard if I bailed because I didn't feel like walking.  I calculated in my head how far I'd get walking at a thirty minute pace, which is about what I felt like I was doing.  It was going to be tough to even pass 108 miles to reach a PR, but I wasn't going to settle for less.

I reckon we'll be back to this one...
The good news was, small breaks no longer mattered.  I had to pee and couldn't care less.  I felt a little tired and stopped at the main aid station for coffee.  I had to walk extra-carefully out of the station while the coffee cooled, and it didn't bother me.  If there was any benefit to a lousy pace, that was it -- a lot less mattered.

Rob still encouraged me, commenting when my lap times improved a little.  To perhaps a twenty minute pace, a respectable walk I thought, especially for this point in the race.  Was that good enough for Rob?  "Yeah, when I hit trouble at the 20in24, I just walked the rest at a fifteen-minute pace and that was great."  I sighed.

I bumped into Andy a little later.  He was really struggling, and now I was too.  I told him I'd be walking it in from here, not yet willing to talk about quitting out loud.  What did Andy think of this?  "Well, anybody can walk at four miles an hour, so you'll do great."  What was with these people?!?

I pushed harder, and managed to at least approach a fifteen-minute pace, though it was by no means clear I'd be able to sustain it.  I ran the numbers in my head for 3.5 miles an hour, and it was a lot more promising than for thirty minute laps.  For some reason I seemed to have to pee more often when walking, but whatever, it didn't cost me that much.


In just a couple more laps, I noticed an amazing thing.  The hip pain had subsided.  What a difference a little rest and a long walk made!  I walked even a bit faster, and then surprised myself.  The next time around, two hours after I thought my race was over for sure, I dumped my jacked and started jogging again.  The first lap wasn't great, but I managed to put in seven very solid laps before the pain got to be too much again.

And in the middle there, I hit a hundred miles.  Harvey had hit it in sixteen hours flat and we were now past eighteen, well past my PR of 17:03.  But an 18-and-change hundred miler was nothing to sneeze at!  Here's the funny thing.  In my last half lap before hitting a hundred, Jill blew by.  Then seemingly in the last hundred yards, the guy in the Hammer shirt blew by.  Within a minute and a half, three of us hit a hundred miles, and I fell from second place overall to fourth.  Somehow, I hadn't given up my spot during the long walk, but with the lure of a hundred miles pulling everybody on, I started slipping down the ranks.

I got those places right back, though.  Jill had never run more than a marathon, and wanted a nice long rest after hitting a hundred.  Gregory, the guy in the Hammer shirt, said he deserved to walk a full lap for hitting a hundred (in a new PR, no less).  I figured if I had any chance of keeping a decent place, now was the time, and I kept right on running.

Still moving...
It didn't last more than a couple laps, though.  Gregory blew by again before long to put me back into third, and shortly I was reduced to walking.  My first lap after that was slow and awkward again -- it seemed like if I pushed my running time to the limit, I suffered a bit when I fell back to walking.  But I was at nineteen hours, and over a hundred miles.  Any shot at 135 was long gone -- even at my best I was nowhere near seven miles an hour -- but I had a decent place and I was still moving.  If I could do 3.5 miles an hour I'd still score a decent PR.

Plus, it hadn't escaped my notice that there were cash prizes for the top three in each gender.  Unless Gregory crashed hard the top two were out of reach, but according to Rob, I still had a lead of a couple laps on the fourth place guy behind me.  He said that was now a guy in a checkered shirt, which didn't sound familiar.  It wasn't until several laps later I realized he meant the guy running in running shorts and what looked to be a plaid button-down shirt.  About as far from a running shirt as you could get.  And he was pretty close on my heels.


Shortly after that, the plaid shirt guy seemed to crash.  I saw him walking extremely slowly and awkwardly with help close by.  Andy told me a little later the guy had been fighting cramps.  It looked like he was out of the race, though he eventually pulled it back together and finished with 110 miles.

In the mean time, around 20 hours, I was left in third place, with a comfortable margin over fourth.  Looking for a goal, I settled on 120 miles.  It wouldn't be easy, and it wouldn't be 135, but it would be a solid PR and respectable result.  I was walking, aiming for that 15-minute pace, but not always reaching it.  Still, with 120 in mind, I managed to jog another couple laps before the hip threatened me again.  It got me to 21 hours, and we were all starting to think about dawn.

The night had not been particularly kind to me.  I'd stopped for coffee once more, and later sent Rob get a third cup for me.  Normally I just rely on caffeinated gels, but the ones I brought this time came with an unpleasant consistency.  They were thicker than the regular ones, and harder to get down, requiring more water, necessitating more porta-potty breaks.  I had started to avoid them, and between that and not running so much, I was having a tougher than normal time staying mentally sharp.  Plus the hip and walking and watching my goal and my place go out the window.  I'd be thrilled to see the new day.

Still moving...
I made my plan.  I'd take my last Advil (and at this point they really were my last) with 2:30 left in the race.  I'd give it a half hour to kick in.  And then I'd run, however much it took to stay in third place.  I was assuming, though, that I was still and would still be in third.  I'd check with Rob when I hit that 2:30 mark.

It was a great plan, but Rob wasn't at the table when I hit 2:30.  I took the Advil and carried on.  I put in two more solid walking laps, and still having not seen Rob, detoured into the main pavilion to check the separate monitor showing the current standings.  Naturally, it took a while to get what I wanted.  By the time I found myself on the screen, it flopped to show something else, and I had to wait for it to circle back.  Finally it did.  Still in third, next guy five laps back!  I didn't recognize the name, but I decided I'd try to put in eight laps in the last two hours, which would guarantee me the 120 even if I didn't get a partial lap at the end.  I doubted anyone but Harvey could put in 13 laps in two hours at this point, so I shouldn't have to worry about fourth place.


I wasn't sure I could definitely put in 15-minute laps, so I jogged the first two to give myself a little buffer for the next two.  Walking the third put me at 22:34, plenty of time for the fourth in that hour.  But there was an ominous trend.

The sun rose, and suddenly runners were blowing past me left and right.  One guy I though had been close to me earlier was flying by, with his wife or something apparently pacing him.  (I thought that wasn't allowed, but I didn't fancy coming in fourth and then trying to get the runner ahead of me DQ'd.)  Another guy I didn't recognize blew by, but it could have been someone familiar who just changed clothes.  Then Harvey.  Then one more.  Seemed like half a lap and I was passed four times, and it looked like they had plenty of energy left.  I had to rethink whether anyone could lap me five times in two hours, because I certainly had some good candidates here!

Thankfully, Rob had good news for me.  Fourth place was, if anything, further back.  And no one else even that close.  All these super runners must have been coming back from a nap or something.  Whew!  Jill did pass me for the final time, but I couldn't find the energy to chase her down when we were in totally separate divisions anyway.

I made my four laps in the second-to-last hour, and very nearly five.  That just encouraged me to walk that much faster, trying for another five.  I ended up walking so fast I stumbled into a jog.  Past the limit of the Advil, and with twenty-three and a half hours under my belt, it didn't turn out to be much of a jog, but I was surprising myself.

And then my toe objected.  After twenty-three hours and almost forty minutes, I felt the little blister on my left big toe suddenly rip into a giant blister.  In the last freakin' half hour!  I couldn't believe it.  But I wasn't about to stop for it, either.  I just cursed my toe in my head for the rest of the lap.

Final Stretch

Can I claim I crossed the line JUST before Harvey?
With twenty minutes to go, all the crews seemed to be clustered around the timing mats and status displays.  Rob was cheering and snapping photos of the status display.  The race director asked my number as I crossed, and I had to pull down my pants to look at the bib on my shorts underneath.  I called back "one ninety-seven," wondering what that was all about.  But twenty yards down the path, someone came up next to me and pressed a small wooden block marked "197" into my hand.  This was the partial-lap token, I guess.

I easily made it around another time.  As I was approaching the final hill, someone was screaming frantically down the path behind me.  I couldn't make out the words.  But as I floated down the hill, it hit me.  "Haaaaaaarrrrrrvvveeeeeyyyy!!!  Come on, man!!!"

My last crossing
I wasn't sure why they cared, since he obviously had an enormous victory.  But I heard someone say "this lap is only one forty-nine point five".  Apparently nobody wanted to risk him coming up just short of 150 on the final partial lap.

Harvey crossed the mat right as I did, with just over eight minutes left.  The difference was, I was staggering, and he was flying.  I think his last lap was probably faster than his first, because he made it all the way around again with time to spare.  I did about three-quarters before I heard the horns and sirens indicating the end.

It was with a certain amount of elation that I stopped and put down my block on the edge of the track.  As did the runners ahead of me.  I got ready to walk the final tenth of a mile or so to the pavilion, when I noticed someone crossing the grass.  Finally free to cut the corner!  I walked over to the parking lot where Erin and the kids had been parked earlier, and Erin met me there with a giant hug and a blanket to wrap up in.  Delightful!

Rob contemplates; We're just happy to have breakfast.
In the end, I was thrilled with my finish.  Disappointed to yet again miss out on 135, but there were so many things that went well.  In four attempts, it was the first time I had really kept moving for the entire 24 hours.  Despite the rain, wind, and humidity, I had no problems with temperature or hydration.  After thinking my race was done, I managed to put in another 32 miles.  And even with the tremendous slowdown in the last third of the race, I hung on for third place male (and missed third overall by less than half a mile).  It's really hard to complain.

My final tally (including the initial and final partial laps) was 122.4 miles, for an overall average pace of 11:44 per mile.


Even though my hip didn't like the route very much, I have to say it was an excellent event.  The organization and support was outstanding, the other runners I talked to were great, there was hot food ready and waiting at the finish, the awards ceremony was prompt, they gave out giant medals (plus buckles for 100-mile finishers), it was all great.

And once again, Rob was an outstanding crew, who freed me to worry about the running instead of the logistics.  Or maybe I should say the walking.  Or whether I should be running or walking.  Well, you get the idea.

Two happy finishers, and a Thomas the Train blanket
Andy met his commitments to his kids, and even managed to help out with my kids at the finish line.

I ended up with four blisters on my toes, two pretty nasty, resulting in two toenails that are probably not long for this world.

On Monday, the day after the finish, despite the massive calorie burn of the race and recovery, my weight was up seven pounds.  It wasn't hard to see why -- all the swelling in my feet and lower legs.  When I tried walking, my stride seemed natural, but excruciatingly slow.  It seemed like maybe I just couldn't take more than really short steps.  And if I sat down for a while, wow, then I got tight.  But I could never sit too long, because every three hours I was absolutely ravenous.  And no matter how much caffeine I took, I was still tired enough to just fall over.

The second day was better.  By the third, I was only a pound up.

It's now day four and I'm already wondering whether I can squeeze in one more shot at 135 this year.

Photo credits: Rob Hoy, Erin Mulder, John J. McCarroll