So this one was hard to predict going in. I'd never done a timed race like a 24-hour before, and I'd never run more than about 32-33 miles on pavement. Still, I had lofty goals. Since I finished the Vermont 100 just under 20 hours (averaging 5 miles/hour), with an extra 4 hours, I should be able to put in another 20 miles, or 120+ total. 130 would be great! Of course, that was not taking into account that my average pace at a 100-miler is made up of a fast start and a slow end -- I wasn't running 12-minute miles for the last few miles at Vermont, as Harris (my Vermont pacer) can attest to. In fact, my goal for the last leg there was simply to not walk the entire thing. And this race was made up of 0.86 mile loops, which would also be a new challenge -- in the past, I've found the 3 loops at HAT Run to be about the most I really care for.
Now add to that, the weather forecast for this one looked ominous -- 30% chance of rain at the start and through the day, going up to 50/60% overnight. It did look like we'd finish shortly before the actual thunderstorms, but only by a pretty narrow margin. So on the one hand, not a hot, sunny day. But on the other hand, rain. At least it turned out to be nice while my dad and I drove up to the start at the NJ State fairgrounds (perhaps 2 hours from the Philly area) -- cloudy and "just right" temperature-wise, with no rain yet.
We met up with Melissa (my crew for this one) at the race, checked in, and then found a spot to set up. We brought a canopy to keep the rain off (though not one with sides like some other folks had -- jealous!), and a table and some chairs. We weren't able to claim the most obvious spot -- as we tried they told us there were going to be catering trucks parked there for a party that evening -- but we found a nice place right around the corner, still along the course and not too far from the main start/finish area and aid station.
I took a moment to apply a liberal dose of vaseline and body glide. I still haven't forgotten the chafing in the rain at Bear Mountain, a few years back. (In hindsight, I could have done more -- maybe just bathed in the stuff!) I went over everything with Melissa again, though she seemed to have it all down anyway, and then visited the start/finish area to see if they were giving out the bibs yet. I got one with about 5 minutes to go, and just hung out near the start with the other 24-hour runners. The occasional 48- or 72-hour runner went by, mainly walking. I hoped to keep from walking substantially as long as possible, but who knows?
Looking around, I didn't really know anyone else in the 24-hour race. I had tried looking folks up online, without a lot of success. About the only one I could identify was Anna Piskorska, who was wearing a US (24-hour) National Team shirt, and looking like she was ready to tear up the course. I heard a few more names as they handed the bibs out, but my thoughts were really elsewhere and none of them stuck. And then, without much fanfare, there was a final 5-second countdown and we were off!
A few people exploded from the line, and I tried to hold back. It's one thing if you need to beat a mob onto a tight stretch of single-track, but at this race, 24 hours on a course easily wide enough to accommodate 6 or 8 people side by side, there was really no excuse to go out too fast.
Still, within about a quarter mile, I ended up running with Anna, out ahead of everyone else. We talked a bit, and it was nice to benefit from some of her experience, plus it kept my mind off just running in circles. She said I should enjoy my first 24-hour, because after a few you pretty much know what your goal is and who you're competing against and you just have to focus on getting it done. Well, I was enjoying it so much I would have missed a turn and run right on down the fairgrounds if she didn't stop me! Oops. She also pointed out that the course wasn't entirely flat (though it sure felt that way in the first loop) or pavement (there was one section where the shortest path was through the grass, and I took that route on each and every loop); I'd want to pay attention to that stuff later. She also mentioned "the wall" that was out there waiting for each of us... somewhere. In any case, Anna was aiming for 130 miles for the day, and I thought maybe I'd just to try to hang on to her coattails and see where that left me.
It didn't work. After a couple laps, she stopped at her aid station, and didn't catch up again. My dad and Melissa may have mentioned that I was going a little too fast, but it was like an 8:30 or 9 minute pace, which didn't seem unreasonable. I can do that for a good long time. So I found myself, at least temporarily, in the lead.
As the early race went on, I could tell that my crew strategy was paying off. Other people were stopping at the main aid station, or at their own tents or tables along the course. That meant time standing still. Instead, when my water was up, I'd just hand my empty pack to Melissa, and she'd hand me back one with water, gels, clear of trash, and all. It doesn't get any better than that! I walked a bit to get the pack back on, but it was forward progress, not standing around. I felt bad when I was picky and came around again asking her to take it back to get the air out of the bladder or loosen the straps or whatever, but she did it all and kept me right on track.
Going through 20 miles, there were a few surprises. I had run into various aches and pains, which always seems to happen earlier than it should. I mean, if you're in shape to run 50 or 100 miles, why are you getting sore after 15 or 20? It's not right! But I sort of remember that happening at every long race, so I just hoped none of the individual problems were going to get worse.
I had also passed another runner a few times who appeared to be in the 48-hour and still going, and when she ran, she was always way up on the front of her feet -- what that whole barefoot movement seems to be recommending. It made me think a bit more about my own form. I wasn't going to run 24 hours on my toes, but I shouldn't be doing it on my heels, either.
Another surprise was that Anna hadn't caught up -- and in fact, I was two laps ahead. I never seemed to actually pass her, so I assume it happened while she was stopped for one reason or another. But her crew and tent were right across from mine, so our "people" were keeps tabs on us. I was sort of operating on the assumption that I'd crash later in the race and she'd blast on by, but I figured I'd hold onto the lead as long as I could.
And the "flat" course. It wasn't very long before I started resenting the little bitty hill that went alongside the grounds building. It was short, and not very steep, but noticeable. It wasn't like it really took all that much out of me, but it was there. Up until this point, I had been taking a walk break every half hour, just to give my legs a little rest. But I decided to just walk that hill instead. So every lap from there to the end, I walked that little hill. Plus, it turned downhill immediately afterward, which made it easy to break the walk and start running again. It was a nice break, and on the tough loops, I could just look forward to getting to the hill, and my walk break.
The marathon mark passed around 3:52 -- not a PR by any stretch, but I was running a lot more comfortably than at any marathon I recall (even the 3:45 ones!). I was starting to worry about tedium in trying to run another 120 loops, and quickly decided to focus on shorter-term goals. Marathon, 50K, 50 mile, 100K... then a big gap to 100 miles. Past that, hopefully the excitement of running further than ever before would carry me on. But for now, 50K.
I got a little excited as the 50K mark approached and it looked to be a race PR. (I think I went faster in training once, but it was on a 33-mile route just measured loosely with Google Maps.) It was also about this time that I had my first hallucination of the race. :) My dad had told me at maybe 1:45 into the race that Erin and the kids were on the way over. It was a two hour drive, and now past 4 hours in, so I kept wondering whether I'd see them next time I passed the crew tent, and they just weren't there. So I round the corner leading to the last stretch before turning onto the finish line corridor -- and in the distance, I saw my sister! I mean, maybe it could have been anyone, but she was clearly wearing a "Hope College" sweatshirt, which only my parents could have provided. OK, maybe I could only make out the "HO" at the beginning, but really, what are the odds there would be someone else, the spitting image of my sister, wearing a sweatshirt just like what my parents would have? Suddenly the delay was explained. They had to go pick her up at the airport on the way! Boy, what a dastardly little plan to surprise me!
Then about 50 yards later, it became clear that the woman in question was quite a bit older than my sister. On a later lap, I was able to read the whole "HOLY" on her shirt (I never did catch HOLY what). Oh, well. I love you anyway, Cora, even if you didn't make it to the race. :)
So I was pretty excited to officially pass the 50K mark in a PR -- about 4:38 (extrapolating a bit from the end of the 30.88-mile lap). That was my first PR this year. If you're wondering why there haven't been more race reports, it's because it's not all that motivating to talk on and on about how I ran the same race 10 minutes slower than last year. :) Anyway, I told Melissa and she asked if I wanted her to Facebook it. I said sure! And now I turned my thoughts to reaching 50 miles.
Surprisingly, one of the things that helped a little with the loop course was my dad and Melissa wandering around. Sometimes they've be cheering me on from the finish line. Other times they'd be at the tent. Or one each. Or Melissa would be scrupulously taking notes near the scoring table. (Of what? My splits? She later said something about trying to learn the names of the other runners.) Anyway, just the small variety in where they were made each lap a little different, and that helped, for whatever reason. But wherever she was, Melissa was always totally on top of my gear. If I needed a fresh pack or hat or whatever, she always had it ready.
Though I did hear about it occasionally. At one point there was a little very light rain. Not even enough to mess up my glasses, but just a hint of what was to come. I asked for my Grindstone visor -- I wanted to have glasses protection available even before rounding a full lap, but didn't want to heat up my head with a full hat. Then I just had the problem of what to do with it. I could easily hang it from the front of my pack, but then it just bounces off my chest. I could hang it from the back, but much less conveniently since it doesn't have a velcro closure like my hats tend to. I could wear it, but somehow having the visor there was annoying -- it seemed to make me hotter somehow, and cut off my vision a little. So I just put it on backwards. Convenient if needed, not to bothersome in the mean time. And what do I get from Melissa next time around? "Nice visor! Not sure exactly why you're wearing it backward -- it's not fashionable that way or anything..." Sigh. :)
By this point, I was pretty solidly into the 9+ minute pace range. The days of 8:30 had gone, last seen at maybe 22 miles, not to be seen again. But that was still great -- I wanted to keep around 10 minute miles as long as possible, and then under 12 minute miles as long as possible. I hoped not to fall much further, but we'd have to see what developed.
Erin did show up, with my mom and the kids, and that was fun. I got smiles and hugs from the guys, and they explored the fairgrounds with mom and grandma and their red wagon. For a while there, I never know at what point of the course I'd hear a "Go Aaron!" from the sidelines! Again, it helped break it up a bit.
Then there was the time I came around the turn toward the tent, and Sean (1yo) bolted directly toward me. I had to stop short so I wouldn't bowl him over, and he hugged my leg, and I ruffled his hair before carrying on. Then as I leave the area, behind me, I hear: "Sean! Sean, you can't go with daddy! Sean! Come back here! Sean! Someone get him!" They sounded more and more desperate as they went on. I got a big old smile, imaging Sean doing a lap behind me.
I don't think they had all planned to stay that long, but it was quickly becoming obvious that I was on track to a 50-mile PR as well. Close, but definitely possible. As everybody hung around lap after lap, I thought maybe they were waiting to see it. Sure enough, the laps rolled in, and I came through 50 at about 7:41, definitely under my Bull Run Run PR of 7:52. Woo-hoo! It was starting to look like a PR kind of day, and Melissa stopped asking about Facebook each time. :)
Well, I enjoyed the cheers and attention, but not surprisingly, the family departed shortly thereafter. Since Melissa had agreed to stick it out all night for me, I didn't need them there for aid, and we had agreed it made more sense for them all to have a more normal day and get some sleep and then come back for the finish.
The bad news was, I stopped at the bathrooms here and there, and every time, standing still and then getting moving again, my head swam a bit. Not unusual, but I had hoped to hit that at 80 miles not at 50 miles. It really made me think my biggest problem at Western States was standing still while talking to the doc, instead of sitting down when it became clear he wasn't going to let me off easy. C'est la vie.
The good news was, it was a pretty short gap from 50 miles to 100K. My 100K PR was close to 11 hours, so I had plenty of time. In fact, I was able to keep up the 10-minute pace, and came through 62 in about 9:39. Awesome! It was nice, someone had scribbled "you're doing great!" in chalk near the last turn, and every time I passed it, I thought to myself, yeah, I really am doing great! I think I may have had a similar conversation with Melissa, too.
Now we came to the long stretch between 62 and 100 miles. This part had a whole variety of challenges. Nightfall. Rain. And more. There were some nice parts too. I had identified John Price one time when he crossed the finish line just ahead of me (there was a screen that printed out each runner's name, time, and distance as they crossed). This is the John Price who had just run across the country and then come straight to 3 Days at the Fair to do that too! We walked and talked for a bit. Given the state of my feet post-race, I still can't really fathom multi-day efforts, much less running an ultra every day for months! Plus I met a few more ultra-listers in person, or at least matched up some faces with names.
I also talked to Phil McCarthy a bit. Not knowing who he was, I thought he was a 24-hour runner (as he was moving pretty well compared to the other multi-day racers). I felt like I was running a little faster than he was, though whenever I took a longer walk break he seemed to motor on by. But he let me know he was in the 48-hour, had completed 135 miles already the first day, and was over 200 total. Wow! That blew my mind. I told him how amazed I was at 200 miles already, and he said something like "thanks, but I've got my eye on greater things today." I didn't understand what he meant at the time. But even in the short time we talked he was really encouraging.
Still, I was breaking this down into 1-hour increments at this point. I had hit 65 in about 10:10, so I wanted to hit at least 70 by 11:10, and 71 would be better. It would tell me whether I was still on the 10-minute pace or slipping to 12. I think my legs were getting more blood flow than my brain -- I feel like I ran about 3 laps chanting "70 or 71 in 11:10" in my head. Maybe I should really look at an iPod. (But hey, I did hit 71 in 11:09!)
Now another problem that came up was that Anna had really turned on the jets, starting at maybe 10 hours. Every time I saw her it seemed she was going faster, and pulling away rather than falling back. Occasionally I'd catch up a bit (I assumed, due to an aid stop), and then she'd start pulling away again. What could I do? I didn't want her catching up while I was still feeling decent. So I ran faster too. I'm sure that helped me make those 10 minute miles. But I was a little worried. Did she just start feeling better all of a sudden? I was happy with my day, but not feeling better in a way that would make me spontaneously speed up like that. If she kept it up, her victory was inevitable. All I could do was wait and see.
Meanwhile, Melissa announced that she had managed to sneak into the 12-hour race, so she'd be able to run with me starting at 9 PM -- for the last 12 hours of the race. I hadn't even known she'd brought running clothes! This race had a no-pacer policy, and I wondered whether it would really be an asterisk-kind of performance if I did really well but basically had a pacer for half the race. But heck, if I really felt like I needed a pacer I could have paid for someone to enter the whole 24 hour race with me. I thought about telling her no, or trying to put some kind of conditions on how many laps she'd do, but then I thought what the heck. We'd probably both feel better running together than having her sit and wait, and she was going to be a paying 12-hour entrant... So go with it.
Meanwhile, would I keep up 6 miles per hour? I hit 76.3 miles in 12:02, so I was still on track. That set a pretty decent 12-hour mark, too! (I've never done a timed race of any kind, but I know the winner of the Labor Pain last year didn't go that far. Of course that was a trail race, but everything I'm comparing this to is a trail race. If I could make these times on trails I'd really be on fire!)
Also, Anna seemed to crash at 12 hours. Next time we talked, she said she made her goal of 70 miles in 12 hours. Now I thought I understood -- she pushed really hard to hit that goal, and was suffering a bit afterward. Bummer. But I'm sorry to say, I didn't complain at gaining another lap or two over the next hour.
And it was nice to run with Melissa. It was a little intermittent -- she'd take a lap or two off when I needed a fresh pack, and sometimes I felt like I was only going 4 or 5 laps between switching. But she kept my mind off the monotony, and the weather, and so on. The party also helped.
Oh, did I fail to mention the party? It was in a barn right alongside the course. I didn't actually look in much, but I saw the folks outside walking in, staggering out, or sitting and smoking just outside. It was described to me a hoedown for all the hillbillies within 30 miles. Early on, it sounded like square dance music. Later, an auction. Something went for $3500! I wondered what. Still later, it turned to more pop-style dance music. The last time I'd see it before they shut down, there was a crapload of empty tables, a DJ, and about 10 kids bopping around the dance floor. But for now the place was hopping, and it kept the night alive, rain or no rain.
Speaking of weather, we got hit with at least one brief downpour. I put my jacket on, and then the rain largely backed down to "drizzle". I saw others take their jackets off again, but I didn't feel like bothering -- it had cooled a bit since sundown, and I wasn't too hot with the jacket, so whatever. I was still running well -- on track for an amazing sub-15 hour 100 miler! Well, until I suddenly realized that 12 hours plus 4 hours wasn't 14 hours at all. I can only plead blood to legs, not brain. When I realized the error, Melissa said "yeah, I thought that sounded a little off..." But she graciously had kept her mouth shut. :)
Math aside, the first real problem of the race came at 92 miles. I finished a lap, and suddenly couldn't run another step. Well, you know, whatever, I figured I'd walk 10 minutes and see if I felt better. (This happens to me moderately often in a 100-miler.) I didn't. I walked the whole lap. Rick (the race director) at the timing table asked what happened -- I expect observing my split suddenly going from 9 or 10 minute laps to 16+. I told him "well, I found the wall!" He sounded surprised, and assured me I was still doing plenty well.
I didn't want to really switch to walking, so I forced myself to jog again. It wasn't good -- 12 or 13 minute laps, so 14-15 minute miles. I couldn't really go faster. But by this point, I was close enough to 100 miles, I could drag myself in. First I told Melissa I'd sit down for a while at 100 and see how I felt. But then as I was able to at least keep up the slow jog, I decided that was dumb, and I'd just walk a lap and then see. Maybe I'd walk-one-run-one or something.
As we got close to 17 hours, Melissa told me to speed it up if I wanted to squeak in under 17. At that moment, it didn't seem worth it. It wasn't like I'd be that much happier to get 16:59 than 17:01, and it would really hurt to push enough to save a few minutes. Sure enough, I came around for 100.36 miles, and Rick called out "17:03:09!" Good enough -- still a PR by more than 2.5 hours! Maybe next year I'll chase the sub-17. :)
I walked the next lap as planned, and then managed to get back up to my shuffle. Not fast, but forward motion. And no one-on-one-off, I managed to keep it up! I didn't really have any concrete goal now. I had hoped for 130 miles earlier, but with this drop-off, it seemed unlikely. If I got a little further I could probably walk it in for 120, which would be nice. Nothing in the middle there was really all that inspiring, and no one was really pushing me to do better at the moment. Hmm. Occasionally I walked a bit, and it wasn't always in a straight line. People I had passed dozens of times were passing me now. Anna's aid tent had been packed away and removed (?), though she was still out there plugging away.
The end came during the 106-107 mile lap. My feet were pretty sore, and I decided to walk one again. The problem was, that didn't make them feel any better. While I suppose in truth I was sore all over, what really stuck out were whatever little tendons or muscles go up the outside of the bottom of your shin -- I think they pick your toes up off the ground each time or something. And the ball of my right foot. The shin thing, it was just pain, I could ignore it. But the foot thing, that was trouble. That was, I guessed, too much pounding the hard ground. I was already walking, and it didn't help. I tried adjusting my gait, and it didn't help. I couldn't find a way to get around it. The grassy section felt better, but I'd be adding a lot of distance to walk in the grass all the way around (since the inner edge of pavement was the certified route, the only fair way to walk the grass was way on the outside of the road). Actually, there were some sections with no real grass option. I was at a loss.
I decided to sit for a while and see if a rest helped my foot. We crossed at 18:57:57 for 107.2 miles, and made our way around to the tent. I sat down, and Melissa got me some blankets to keep warm. It was raining harder by this point. I saw Anna go around, and then again. Melissa asked if I was ready to go back out, and I said not yet. But eventually, I figured if it wasn't better, it wasn't going to be. I dropped the blankets and headed out. One step into the rain and I was cold. Two and I was shivering. Three and I could barely move my legs, and the shaking was starting to threaten my forward motion. One more, and I gave up. I chattered "I can't do this!" to Melissa, and she hustled me into her car and cranked up the heat.
I hated to stop with almost 5 hours left, but I didn't have a super-warm outfit along. I needed tights, sweats, thicker shirts, and the whole works. I mean, the car said 58 degrees, but the rain made it feel like 40. Very shortly my dad called Melissa to say they were all on their way back over again, and I got on to explain that I was done and they might as well turn around. But they said they'd come and help me out, so that was nice. Eventually I migrated back to my car (parked a bit further away, off the course), and Melissa got me some hot food. The rain continued, pretty bad at times. I slept a little too, brief snatches. Then my parents arrived a little after dawn.
By then I was as bundled as I could be with the supplies on hand, and I got out to go to the bathroom, help break down the aid station, and so on. I stopped by the timing table to explain to Rick why I was leaving early. Race time was about 21:30. Anna had just passed 107.2 miles, so she was going to win the day. Rick asked, wasn't I staying for the awards? I replied, "haven't they passed me by now?" To which he responded, "who, exactly?" It turned out the awards were by gender, and Suzuki (next male) was about 15 laps down and walking (possible he could do it in 2.5 hours, but not by walking). Jason was maybe another 5-10 laps back. So it looked like (but was not certain that) no one else would catch up. As I left, Rick was talking to someone about the participation. "Well, it was the first year for the 72-hour, so there will be more next time. Plus with Phil breaking the American Record here, that will help." Whoa. As I walked away, I was thinking about Phil, chasing greater things today.
So then, of course, we waited. I checked back in at 23:00 in, in case Suzuki was making good time again. I figured in an hour, I could stagger through another lap if I needed to. (Not that it would be that attractive to record 108 miles in 24 hours instead of 107 in 19!) But at 23:00, I was still clear. Huzzah!
As a bonus, since we were all just sitting around waiting for the finish anyway, we got to cheer Phil in. I had to go back and ask whether he had broken the record yet, and it turned out he still had 4 laps to go. So we counted down each time he passed, and it was clear he was thrilled! Well, hell, I was thrilled too! What a race! We gave Phil the extra big cheer on the record-breaking lap, and he may have paused for a moment, but then kept right on going. "Not gonna make it so easy for the next guy, huh?" That got a big smile too. I could barely stagger in a straight line, and he was still logging 8 and 9 minute laps. Wow! He got a big crowd when he came through the last time, and at the award ceremony too. But he still had a nice word for everyone.
So as I guess I had suspected early on, I crashed and Anna took first for the 24-hour. Congrats to her! And while I spent a lot of brainpower during the race comparing laps and speeds, at the end of the day, Anna was great to run with, to talk to here and there along the way, and afterward. Now while I might have liked to log more miles (and I know Anna would have liked to as well), I can't really complain about my results for the 19 hours I was out there. A boat load of PRs, and first place male to boot! Next time I guess I need to avoid the crash-at-92-miles thing, the foot thing, the sitting thing, and the no warm enough clothes thing. Just a few little notes!
But I had the crew thing nailed -- big thanks to Melissa, without whom this would have been a worse race in so many ways, from more stops to less company to more uncertainty and everything. And to my family, for showing up to support me at yet another ultra, even getting out the door at like 3 AM to do it.
I only really have one gripe. Anna wore a variety of "US National Team" and "Team USA" shirts, jackets, and etc. throughout the race. And Erin, as some of you may know, is a closet jacket-o-phile. So now it's looking like 130+ miles has to go solidly on the bucket list, along with a top 10 at Hellgate. A couple weeks ago, I would have been pretty depressed about the whole thing. What a difference one race makes! Back to training, I guess. :)