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