Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Race Report: 24 The Hard Way (2013 USATF 24-Hour National Championship)

First, let me make one thing clear: running as many miles as possible in 24 hours, on the same loop, over and over again, is its own special type of hell. If you're looking for a "good time," look elsewhere. The race ends only when either the clock stops, or you give up. Until that point, your reward for completing a mile is . . . the chance to complete another mile. Your reward for fatigue and pain is . . . more fatigue and pain.

So why, on earth, you may ask, would I want to do this? Well, I've been pretty quiet about running this race, because for me, this was a very personal endeavor. Here's why:

My introduction to ultrarunning was a 24-hour race (Around the Lake in Somerville, MA in 2007), and I was instantly and irrepressibly fascinated by what could be possible under such unusual rules. How many miles could somebody run in 24 hours? More importantly, how many miles could I run?

Since then, I've run ultras at many other distances, up to and including 135 miles (Badwater), but the 24-hour race always held a special appeal to me. In my mind, it continued to be a pure challenge of human limits, and one that I continued to want to test myself against.

And I did, several times, with mixed results. After a strong second-place, 111-mile performance at the Back on my Feet 24-Hour Race in 2008, under brutal heat and humidity, with virtually no shade, I failed, not once, not twice, but three times at the North Coast 24-Hour Race (the USATF National Championship race in 2010, 2011, and 2012), each time failing to make it more than 70 miles before throwing in the towel, deciding that being rewarded for my pain with more pain was no longer tolerable.

But after Badwater this past summer, and my huge comeback in the last 65 miles, I was soaking in the pool at the Vdara in Las Vegas with Chris, who's been around since I started this crazy ultrarunning thing, and when he asked me what was next, I paused for a minute. I considered the fact that I was pretty healthy and strong for once, and that the 24-hour riddle still felt distinctly unsolved. So then, with little hesitation, I told him, "24 The Hard Way - 2013 USATF 24-Hour National Championship."

So I trained with focus and confidence for the next few months, consistently racking up the miles, pushing the tempo runs, and concentrating on quality recovery. A week away from the race, I still felt a little uncertain about how this was going to go down. I would be flying solo, and with so many prior failures, history was not on my side. But on paper, I was going to show up rested, healthy, strong, and the wiser for my mistakes. Here was my opportunity; time to make the most of it.

I arrived in Oklahoma City and navigated all of the pre-race business with no major hiccups. I even got in some quality time at the Oklahoma City Monument (highly recommended if you've never been - a truly artful, tasteful, and meaningful memorial).

One thing that I didn't do (and here is where the self-critique starts) is set very specific goals. I had a vague idea in my mind that 120 miles would be decent (at least a PR), 140 miles would be nice (solid total, and 5 miles more than the minimum to make the US 24-Hour National Team), and 160 would be super-awesome (but probably too hard). But I didn't really cement these in my mind, and I didn't hang too much of "success" on their achievement. Really, I just wanted to run respectably for 24 hours, and not drop out early, as was historically the case.

And so, a few minutes before 9 a.m. on Saturday, 25 October 2013, all of the runners gathered on the bridge just outside of the Bluff Creek Park loop, the 0.9675-mile monster that we would all battle for the next 24 hours. Make no mistake about this: while Chisholm is a gracious race director and an excellent host, the course was definitely doing this "the hard way," and not just because of the asphalt surface (traditional for a 24-hour race). With 50+ feet of gain/loss per loop, the elevation change added up to about 5000 feet over 100 miles, which eventually becomes significant. The weather was overcast and in the mid-50s at the start, but it steadily got colder overnight, and, after the afternoon rain, this was not the direction anybody wanted the temperature to take.All of these conditions put together meant (to me, anyway, and certainly in retrospect) that this was a day to race against the competition, and survive, and not to set records or otherwise be a hero.

But of course, this is a championship race, and none of that stopped anybody from trying. So while I stayed within myself for the first 6 hours, running comfortably and barely pushing, the leaders were surging ahead. I was feeling okay, and getting comfortable with the loop, but I could feel (vaguely, since it is hard to tell where anybody is in a race like this) that I was losing ground. This was disheartening, and was further complicated by the fact that I couldn't quite get the nutrition right. My energy felt a little low, I had to pee too much, I wasn't eating enough, then maybe I was eating too much . . . On and on like that, and even though I kept going, the "comfortable groove" that I was hoping to settle into would never materialize.

All the while, I tried to suppress the negative thoughts. "Jeepers, that first hill feels like a mountain now." "Oh great, somebody else is passing me." "Yuck! Here's that spot that smells like poop again." But when you are forced to submit to the same stupid (albeit tree-lined and generally pleasant) scenery for hours and hours, you lose some mental resolve. It didn't help (alert: more self-criticism) that I hadn't been getting as much sleep as I would have liked in the week prior to the race. Not that I was falling asleep on my feet, but I just didn't have the mental energy to turn that negativity around.

But I kept putting one foot in front of the other, putting on a good show for the crews hanging around the start/finish in their makeshift tent-city, while each time I would cross the line and pass my lonely duffle bag, sitting in the grass on the side of the path, and wish just a little bit that somebody was there to encourage me, hand me fruit snacks, or even just tell me what lap I was on. Eventually, I started feeling bad for my bag, which got rained on, and then the rain froze on the bag overnight. Sometime shortly after that, I considered the possibility that I might have been losing my mind.

For everybody else's part, they were plenty courteous. Aside from one runner being rude to the start/finish folks when there was a lap count issue that affected everybody early on, and another runner who very aggressively requested AN ENTIRE CAN of Red Bull overnight, all of the other runners, including the race director, were encouraging each time that I passed. And that's all well and good, but I've heard all of that before. That brutally unbiased observer, to give me the straight story, wasn't there, and I found my resolve waning and drifting.

And so, struggling with the cold and low energy, at around 9 p.m., about 12 hours into the race, I stopped in the start/finish tent, and stared at the leader board. I was somewhere low on the list, with my 75 miles, and I imagined that everybody else was still going strong and charging hard. Laying down, under blankets and harsh floodlights, against the background hum of the generators, was what I knew how to do, and it seemed as though this would be yet another failed effort.

But I couldn't sleep, and I didn't feel that bad, so I got out there, this time in a jacket and long pants, and resumed running, about 45 minutes later. And just like that, I was back on track, knocking out the laps on the dark, dark path.

About four hours later, my energy started falling, and with it, my confidence. I wasn't going to be able to keep this up. I stopped again.

And again, 45 minutes later, I was up and running. I marveled that not once, but twice in the same race, I could make such a significant comeback. Better yet, my legs barely felt sore, and my feet were plenty comfortable in my Nike Pegasus 29+ "Team" shoes, in green and white, which I added yellow laces to as a tribute to G-PACT, my Badwater 2013 charity, and the disease which my little sister struggles with. So maybe I could do this.

And then, another four hours passed, and I found myself with no energy, and little will to continue. I had been trying to make six laps an hour, but it was getting difficult, and having fallen off twice already in the same race gave me no confidence in my ability to continue. I had no idea what mile or lap I was on. All I wanted was for the clock to stop and the race to end. I wanted to stop running.

My stomach was shut down. The same water that I had drunk an hour ago was sloshing in my stomach. I grimly contemplated that this must be what gastroparesis feels like, and was darkly amused that I had inadvertently managed to connect to the disease and the charity cause by inducing it in myself. At the same time, I reasoned that people, including my sister, could live (albeit uncomfortably) with it, so I may as well keep on running.

And that I did, pushing through the blinding low points with slow jogging or walking until the lights came on again. I was getting a vague sense that I might be passing people and moving up in the standings. That was encouraging. But I had given up on any mileage goal. I just wanted to keep moving forward, mostly to prove that this beast hadn't won again.

Finally, the last lap came around, they handed me a flag with my number on it, and I had the next six minutes to run as much of the loop as I could before time was called. Part of me wanted to slow down or stop. But a better part of me wanted to prove, one last time, that the 0.9675-mile monster hadn't gotten the better of me. I pushed one last time up the mountain, one last time down the hill, cruised one last time on the never-ending straightaway with the maddening hill near the end, and ran one last time under the Christmas lights, still generator-lit at nearly 9 a.m. Two minutes. Push push. Then, at last, the gun. Relief. Who knows how I finished. Who cares. I could finally stop running that loop.

I trudged unceremoniously to the finish area with another runner, chattering about the race as if it hadn't been pure torture that had just ended a few minutes ago.

And then, when I reached the finish line, and saw the results, I experienced an appropriate mix of elation and disappointment. My last surge had impossibly propelled me to third place overall, just seven miles behind the winner, and a mile ahead of Connie Gardner, of 2010 North Coast "why did you stop?" fame. But alongside that was the disappointment that I had made "only" 133 miles, narrowly missing the 135 minimum mark needed for US National 24-Hour Team consideration.

But joy won out, and I thanked the race director copiously, before I sauntered over to my duffle bag to lug it, by myself, to my rental car, where I would go on to change my clothes, sleep in the back seat of, drive to an Indian buffet where I would eventually stop eating due not to being full, but fatigue, sleep some more, repack my stuff, and ultimately drive to the airport to catch a flight to Detroit for a work trip. Cage the Elephant was generally right:"there ain't no rest."

Overall, a few days later, I have mixed feelings about this race. On the one hand, this is almost the most miles that I've run at one time, and certainly the fastest that I've ever run a distance this long. But my legs aren't trashed at all. This may be the first time after an ultra when I was back to normal running the next day. So I left something on the table. And with that "something" being 90 minutes of stoppage time, it's hard not to think that what I left on the table might have been the win, and the auto-qualifying spot on the US National 24-Hour Team.

But ultimately, I accomplished my basic goal - to legitimately push my limits in a 24-hour race. I survived, and, in spite of some errors, turned in a pretty solid result.

And going forward from here, I feel even more optimistic about the future. The good thing about leaving something on the table is that you know that there's more out there, and greater potential to reach. Based on this performance, I am now more confident that, if not this year, some year soon, I will be toeing the line at the 24-Hour World Championship Race, proudly wearing "USA" across my chest.

And beyond that, who knows. But there has to be something, and that's still a huge part of the appeal.

So on this, my birthday, and the start of a new year in my life, I'm excited about the road ahead - especially since, health and powers above willing, I will be running it.
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