Sunday, September 25, 2016

Race Report: North Coast 24

I'm having a difficult time starting this post. Just the idea of a 24 hour race was so foreign to me even six months ago that I'm not sure where it came from. In January I ran my longest race ever, the Bandera 100K; those 9+ hours remained the longest run I had ever done. How did I decide to run a race that would be another 1.5 times that duration?

For one, Bandera confirmed for me that I did have some aptitude for the longer stuff; with a somewhat conservative start, I had gotten (relatively) stronger as the race went on, running some of my fastest miles past the 55-mile mark and moving up through the field throughout the race. My training partners' focus on longer races helped nudge me in that direction as well. Brian's runner-up finish at Burning River in 2015 was eye-opening, even though he had a wealth of experience at the distance; and Phil, despite having run his first 50k in January 2015, was already talking about his first 100, at Grindstone in October. I ran my first ultra in 2006. It was time to get on board.

The 24 hour format seemed to suit me, at least in theory. I've never minded races on loop courses; I was not put off by the idea of monotony. And I was looking forward to running at night. Most everyone I spoke to cautioned me that I would experience a lull in the early morning hours. But with my usual unpredictable schedule, heavy on night shifts, my body was not only primed for action at 3am, but was very familiar with 24-30 hours without sleep. Where others struggled, I could gain an advantage simply by continuously moving forward.

I didn't have the ideal training buildup that I'd had before Bandera; my bout with Lyme disease in May and June meant I didn't get into heavy training until about 10 weeks before the race. But once August rolled around I was in a rhythm; I was able to bang out several weeks between 95-110 miles, peaking at 120 two weeks out. Not quite as many hard workouts as I'd like, but some good quality track work with Laura and Phil. I'd say it was about 90% of the ideal prep I'd had for Bandera. It would have to do.

I flew to Cleveland on Friday afternoon and spent most of the day in my hotel room trying not to freak myself out too much. Joe Fejes' race preview picked me to finish 14th among the men, which sounded a little low until I read through everyone's credentials and realized, Geez, I might really be in over my head here. Just be patient and keep moving forward, I told myself, and let the chips fall where they will.

I took my first-ever Uber ride to the race on Saturday morning and met up with my friend and sometime training partner Jim Sweeney, who was gunning for 150 miles and a spot on the US team for next year's world championships. Jim's dad Steve would also be running, and his girlfriend Bri and stepmom Ginny graciously offered to help crew me in addition to Jim and Steve. The biggest concern early on was the weather. Threatening and overcast all morning, the skies opened up thirty minutes before the start. We huddled under our pop-up tent, hoping that we wouldn't have to start in the deluge. The forecast called for rain on and off all day, but mercifully it let up about five minutes before 9 am, and we started in a light drizzle that tapered off over the first few miles. That was about it for the rain the rest of the way.

Before the race, I had told anyone who asked that the goal was 100 miles, and that anything over that would be a bonus. Which was true; after the first 10 hours and 62 miles, I'd be in completely unknown territory. But I knew that I should be able to do 100 miles on a flat loop without too much difficulty. I didn't want to base my race strategy around just getting to 100. I set myself a pie-in-the-sky goal of 140 miles, the minimum qualification standard for the national team--just over 10:00/mile pace. To do this, I'd need to go out a little faster, knowing I'd slow down later. I decided that I could run as fast as 9:10-9:15 pace in the early miles without the pace itself doing too much damage. Anything faster than that, I risked blowing up from the pace, not just the mileage. My strategy, therefore, was 9:10 pace for, well, basically as long as I could, then reassess.  Jim had decided to start by running 9:45 pace for the first six hours, then planned to run negative splits through the evening and into the night.  I didn't trust myself not to slow down, so I settled into my 9:10 pace and tried to make the time pass.

I spent the early miles running with a variety of folks.  I ran a few laps with Megan Alvarado (nee Stegemiller), an accomplished 100-mile racer from Virginia, and Andrew Snope, a huarache-wearing pre-race favorite from Georgia with a previous 136-mile 24-hour to his credit.  When our pace started to creep down towards 9:00/mile, though, I backed off a bit and let them go.  I focused on fueling and on keeping the effort level as easy as possible.  Whenever I felt any sort of increase in effort, I backed off.  Ginny and Bri kept me well-hydrated as the day heated up, and the miles crept by.  Ten miles in 1:31, twenty in 3:03, thirty in 4:34...just running the 9:10s, not worried about place, trying to get through each 6-hour block with minimal effort and just move onto the next one.

photo: Stuart Siegfried
Running has never been a transcendental pursuit for me.  I enjoy the mental aspects of the sport, and I can certainly attest to times when I've been "in the zone."  But I didn't come to the sport seeking enlightenment.  I run because I enjoy it, because I've had some modicum of success at it, because I like the competition.  After five or six hours on this paved, 0.9-mile loop, though, I found myself in a very unusual headspace.  I realized I was not thinking about anything at all except my pace, my effort level, and my fueling; everything else had been stripped away.  My life was simply this loop and getting around it as easily as possible.  It was very Zen.

As we passed the six-hour mark I started to globalize a bit and these feelings fell away.  Pace became my all-consuming thought.  I had covered 39 miles in the first six hours, exactly wha I had hoped for. The next six-hour block called for something similar, on the order of 35-38 miles, hoping for a 12-hour total in the high 70s.  I continued on, keeping the effort level in check.  I spent some time running with Olaf Wasternack, third last year with 140 miles, and Harvey Lewis, the defending champion who had placed ninth in the last world championships (both were a few laps ahead of me). Jim caught up to me and we ran together for an hour; then he lapped me once to catch up on the lap I had gained on him in the early going and we ran together some more; then he took off a bit and lapped me again.  He seemed to be moving very well.

With Jim.
photo: Pat Dooley
I kept plugging along and fueling.  I had stuck with zero carbs over the first two hours, just taking water, salt tabs, and some breakfast sausage I had liberated from the hotel buffet, to get my body into fat-burning mode.  Now I focused on carbs, salt, and protein.  Every five laps or so I'd stop at the food tent and eat the following: a handful of pickle slices, a quarter of a PBJ, half a banana, a couple of grapes, and maybe some M&Ms.  Sometimes I'd have some of whatever hot food they were featuring at the time--hamburgers, pizza, grilled cheese.  Then I'd grab a can of Coke and a cup of ice, and walk about 200 meters drinking ice cold Coke.  And then I'd run.  This was my life.

I went through a mild down spell around the 9-hour mark, but not bad; as the sun set and the weather cooled a bit I felt better.  Another mild down spell coincided with the 12-hour mark.  I had lost track of Jim in the dark.  My pace had slowed a little bit, and while I didn't feel too tired, I became aware that there was an awful long way to go.  I passed 12 hours with about 75-76 miles covered, right in line with my goals, but suddenly the enormity of what I was doing hit me.  I sat down at our tent for the first time, eating some mashed potatoes and thinking, God, I don't think I can do another 65 miles.  Steve was struggling with some leg pain and was there with Ginny in the camp, and I outlined for them a new plan.  140 was out, but I could run 12-minute pace for the next, I don't know, whatever.  That would get me to 100 miles in 17 hours, which was slower than my pre-race ideal projection, but I though would still be pretty cool.  Then in the final seven hours, I could cover 30 miles for a 130 total.  Seemed doable.

I struggled a little bit through the next couple of laps, but about thirty minutes later I took a couple of steps just trying to open up my stride, and boom! everything suddenly felt amazing.  My first instinct was to back off, but I decided I had to start running eventually, and I might as well ride this wave for a little bit.  Suddenly, 80 miles in, I started clicking off 9:10s again.  Olivier Leblond, who had led from the gun and was lapping me for the eight or ninth time, caught up to me and immediately commented on how quick I was moving.  We shared several laps together before I stopped to eat something and he pulled away.  It was nearing midnight and the field was thinning out a bit, but I kept rolling.  Past 90 miles I was moving so well that I briefly flirted with the idea of 140 miles again; it was looking like I would be hitting 100 miles close to 16 hours, and 12-minute pace over the last eight hours might be achievable.

About two laps later I started to feel some fatigue in my quads, which was not unexpected.  More concerning was that I was suddenly experiencing burning pain in my right patellar tendon with each step.  This is a bit of a chronic issue for me on longer runs, so I wasn't terribly surprised, but the usual stride alterations didn't relieve it, which was problematic.  At 93 miles I stopped in the medical tent, desperate.  The student there stretched and massaged my quads, which helped, then started putting gentle distal pressure on my kneecap.

"What is that, rolfing?" I asked.

"No, myofascial release."

After a few minutes he pronounced me done and I sat up cautiously.  "I think I felt the knee release," he said, "you might be good to go."  I left the tent and took a few tentative steps.  No pain.  I opened up the stride a little bit.  No pain.  I started running normally.  No pain.  Alright.  Here we go.

Not running quite as quickly as before, but still moving very well.  I did some quick calculations.  140 was definitely out, 130 was still in play.  More importantly, I was fast approaching my first 100 mile mark.  I decided I was going to push through 100 miles to see what my time would be.  Beyond that, with my chances at 140 gone, the final total didn't matter all that much.

I kept cruising through 100 miles in 16:34, still feeling pretty good, and quite proud of myself.  At that point I sat down for only the second time, just wanting to savor the accomplishment for a bit.  I started moving again a few minutes later, but much of my momentum was gone, and I struggled to find my rhythm again.  I made it another two laps feeling OK, but by the third time around I was developing some significant pain in my right IT band and my left quad, and I hobbled back into the medical tent.  They worked their magic again, and my IT band was much better, but the quad was beyond rescue.  OK, then.  Time to start hiking.

So, for the next seven hours, I walked.  I walked and walked.  I began to get a sense of where I stood in the field.  There were five men I knew were ahead of me: Olivier, Adrian Stanciu, Serge Arbona, Kevin Grabowski, and Jean Pommier.  There was Olaf, who I knew had been several laps ahead of me, but I hadn't seen for a few hours, and I suspected might be off the course.  And there were two people who were within ten laps of me still on course.  One of them was barely moving faster than I was, and it soon became apparent that he was almost done.  The other, John Bertram, was still running.

Hours passed.  It became apparent that I was going to either finish sixth or seventh.  If I stopped, John would catch me and I'd finish seventh; a couple of other folks might catch me too if I stopped completely.  If I kept moving, John was the only person who could get me.  No matter how slow I was going, if I just kept moving forward, I'd finish no worse than seventh, probably sixth.  So I just kept moving.  Every time I came around and finished another lap, I considered whether I wanted to finish sixth or seventh, and I just kept moving.  Adrian became my best friend, offering a thumbs-up or a few words of encouragement every time he lapped me; he even stopped once or twice and walked with me for a few minutes.  He was struggling but moving better than anyone else save women's leader Jenny Hoffman, who was simply laying waste to the women's field.

With less than two hours to go I was almost certain I had sixth place locked up, but every time I thought I was safe, John would trundle by, cutting another lap off my lead, and I would do the math again, thinking, God this is gonna be close.  With an hour left the lead was down to three laps, and I considered stopping, but no, he could run 2.7 miles in an hour.  Keep moving.  With thirty minutes to go, two laps.  I could probably stop, but could he do two 15-minute miles?  Probably.  Keep moving.  Finally, at 23:47, I finished my 137th lap, knowing I still had a two lap lead and my spot was safe, and I stopped.

The immediate aftermath of the race was not pretty.  I could barely stand up for the awards ceremony, and I nearly passed out in line at Einstein's Bagels about two hours later.  But Ginny and Steve brought me back to their hotel room, where I had a glorious shower and a two-hour nap, after which I felt remarkably better for the flight home.  Within a day or two, I had no more muscle soreness than I'd expect after any long hard race.  My feet, however, were a different story.  I donated three toenails to the podiatrist on Tuesday, and it took a week for enough swelling to subside that I could see my ankles again.

(The blue toenails are painted.  The red toenails are not toenails.)
Despite that, this was an amazing experience and a satisfying end to my racing year.  It was my third second-place age group finish in a national championship in 2015 (though, of the five people ahead of me, four were actually in older age groups, so that's kind of cheating).  I didn't quite reach the magic 140-mile goal, but I now have a respectable 100-mile PR and a wealth of knowledge to take into my next long event.  Except for some short, fun, local races, I'm done for the year; the next big one will likely be Rocky Raccoon in February, which I'm already a little excited about.  Thanks to Ginny, Bri, Steve, and Jim for all their help last weekend; thanks to Brian Polen and the team at Vertical Runner for a great event.  Much thanks to my sponsors for a successful season: MPF/RNR (and all of the companies that support our team); inov-8, and Orange Mud.  And huge thanks to my family, including my wonderful wife Jodi, who thinks I'm an idiot but tolerates it anyway.