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