Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Six Days in the Dome 2019


It's now been five months(!) since the Dome, and somehow I am still processing it (and also, in some ways, still recovering from it). This one race I think will be more consequential to my running future than any before it. I see at least three major changes in store for how I approach races of 24 hours or longer; I am rethinking everything. But I guess it's way past time for the blog post, so here is what I have to say. This is an expanded version of what I posted on Facebook two weeks after the race. Yes, it's long! Background Back in 2014, a six-day race was held on an indoor track in Alaska, organized by Joe Fejes — "Six Days in the Dome". Yes, it was actually an inflatable dome. The advantages are obvious: climate control, plus a perfect running surface. This apparently one-off event netted several records. Notably, Joe himself ran 580 miles, for a new modern American Record. Modern? Yes, six-day races have an illustrious history in ultrarunning, beginning in the 19th century. James Albert Cathcart's legendary 621.75 miles is not on the modern record books, due to lack of verification to modern USATF standards. Why six days? Well, naturally, in Victorian times, six days was as long as you could do any one thing continuously, because of course you would have to rest on Sunday! Now, 48-hour and six-day are the two multiday formats recognized by the International Association of Ultrarunners for record purposes. Fast forward to 2019, and Joe is at it again. This time the "dome" was the Pettit National Ice Center, in Milwaukee, WI — not an actual dome, but again, an ideal indoor track surface, with climate control. Steve Durbin was race directing, with Mike Melton and Brandon Wilson timing. Top-notch setup all around. THE place to be if you ever had any notion of putting up your best possible six-day performance. Which I did, thanks to Joe suckering me, telling me I could beat his record (which now stands at 606!). I tried at EMU in Hungary in 2018, but stopped halfway through with a tendon injury. This would be my chance to make amends. But there was a problem: 24-hour Worlds, in Albi, France, would be just two months after the Dome, not leaving enough time to fully recover, train, and represent my country at 100%. Bill Schultz finally convinced me of the reality of this unfortunate fact. Prelude To explain how I got to the Dome after all, I have to take a detour. I did not write a race report for Dawn to Dusk to Dawn 24-hour (D3), in May. I tried several times to start, but it was too painful, and always came out as just whining. But for completeness in my blog, I'll summarize here. Feel free to skip ahead. I entered the race in the 6th and final position for the 2019 US 24-hour team, with 154 miles. I expected that would not be good enough... someone else at D3 would beat that and bump me from the team. So I had to defend my spot. 155+ would put me in 4th; three guys would have to beat me. That wasn't going to happen. Well, the lap chart shows the story. Just as happened two years previously at Run4Water, I ran perfectly through 22 hours, but was unable to hold on and put it away. There, I came up 300 feet short and was bumped from the 2017 team. This time my collapse was larger. I managed to hold on for 150, but that's it. Rich Riopel and Harvey Lewis both ran big numbers, and once again, I was bumped from the team on the last day, my goals for the previous two years' effort slipping through my fingers. It was a surreal nightmare. Once was heartbreaking. Twice? There are no words.
Afterwards, I agonized about what had gone wrong. It seemed as if I had a death wish, some deep desire to fail as spectacularly as possible. (I've written about this previously: see "The Imp of the Perverse", in my Spartathlon 2018 report.) Those present swore I had given my all, but how could they know? However, when I saw on video that I was already leaning at 22 hours, I realized they were probably right. It was all over then.
So, no 24-hour Worlds for me. But that freed up August for the Dome. I would have to miss Burning Man (sniff), but I could not pass up this opportunity. Goals I went in, as did several others, with an aggressive plan. I would start by pacing even for Joe Fejes' American Record, 606.24 miles, running 101+ per day. I thought that goal was unlikely to be feasible, yet I left myself options to go higher. Because, I mean, there is no more seductive thought to a male ultrarunner than the possibility (even remote) of breaking a Kouros World Record. And the six-day is generally agreed to be his softest record. So, as long as I was running well with no issues, I would add a mile each day. 101 + 102 + ... + 106 = 1,000 km, a really big number. Only six men have done that in the modern era, and none since 2007. Finally, if I somehow miraculously felt good on the last day, forgoing my sleep break with lots of caffeine and holding pace would net the WR of 644.24 miles. (See, on paper, it's easy...) More realistically I expected I would have to slow, and I had my sights on 900 km (559.24 miles) or Joe's over-50 American Record of 551.47 (for which, however, I would also have to beat Joe!). At the low end of my goals, I thought that barring disaster I should be able to pull out 500 miles, a very respectable distance. But a million things could still go wrong, so I would have to roll with the expected punches to earn it. I was under no illusions that "just" 500 would be easy. Only a dozen Americans had ever done it. Of course, there were reasons to set aggressive goals here, with an oversized flat track surface (443 m), controlled temperature (50-55 °F), and world-class medical and foot care available. Add to that my world-class crew (six people, including a Western States winner, a Vol State finisher, a 453-mile female 6-day runner, and an Army captain, for a little discipline!) — opportunities like this don't come every day. I'm not sure what I did to rate such a crew, but I am not complaining. I always put a lot of work into my pacing plans, and this time I took it to the next level. I prepared a crew manual with instructions for every contingency, and details of my pacing strategy for all my different goals, from 644 miles down to 500. I wrote a custom app for my Garmin with all the pacing plans programmed into it, and facilities for adjusting on the fly in a few different ways. The new variable to play with at six-day is sleep. Don't sleep much, and run/walk slowly? Or sleep a lot, and run faster? Both ways can yield success (cf. Geesler, Fejes!). I know that I'm not great on the sleep deprivation front at multi-day races, so I preferred to err on the side of more sleep. But setting big mileage goals puts pretty tight constraints on things. At EMU I had planned an hour and a half sleep every 12 hours, with shorter breaks every six. That had not worked well; an hour and a half was just not enough time for me to get any solid sleep. This time I decided to put all of my sleep in one block, at night, sticking to my natural circadian rhythm (even though we'd have constant lighting in the dome). For my A plan, I would have 3 hours and 40 minutes of sleep per night, starting at 1 a.m., and 7-minute breaks every 3 hours in between. That was a total of 4:22 of break time per day, with an estimated 38 minutes of overhead (bathroom, medical, etc.), for 19 hours of moving time. I think that's probably in the typical range for big six-day performances. But I discovered that this plan was pretty challenging for me as well, and next time I will have to continue to adjust. It's worth mentioning that even- or (gasp) negative-splitting at 24-hour or longer races is definitely not the norm. For six-day, conventional wisdom would be that it's just not possible. Moving pace aside, it was certainly not realistic to think that daily medical and other overhead would not increase throughout the race. My thinking was that I would roll unused overhead time early in the race into extra break time, front-loading the sleep, rather than use it to put more miles in the bank. How well did this plan work? Read on to see... Day 1 After a stressful Saturday night, putting the final touches on my Garmin app, and nearly locking my phone in the rental car as I returned it to the airport after hours, Sunday morning finally arrived. Arriving at the Pettit Center, I greeted all the people I'd be sharing the next six days with. Many friends, many legends I hadn't yet met, and many friends-to-be. Among them, several rivals. This would be a hard-fought race for those looking to win or set records.

Listening to pre-race instructions. With William Sichel, Brad Compton, and Liz Bauer.
The race started at noon, with Pam Smith and BJ Timoner crewing. Pam was fresh off a sub-8 100K in the 24-hour race, and had graciously offered to stick around for a few days. We quickly got into a solid routine, and the laps started clicking off. I would run one, then speed-walk most of the next one. For nutrition/hydration, I rotated every couple of hours between my own drink mix (similar to Maurten), Coke, and SWORD (the sponsoring race drink), drinking a few ounces every 20 minutes. I would sit down for real food at meal times, during my 7-minute breaks.

Running early with women's winner Connie Gardner
As expected, many runners went out much faster than I did, and I settled into about 20th place out of the 66 starters. As the day turned into evening, Ray Krolewicz told me "anyone in the top 15 went out way too fast". I concurred. Later I chatted with Greg Salvesen, ultrarunner extraordinaire and all around nice guy, as well as professional astrophysicist — something I had wanted to be when I was younger. After the race Greg posted that he'd managed to have in-depth conversations with every single runner during the race. Wow! I did not come close to matching that feat. I think I'm doing it wrong.

Before I knew it it was after midnight, and time for my first sleep. Already, I had moved up to I think 8th. I felt so good I was tempted to push it longer, but I had sworn not to exceed my planned daily miles, minimizing early muscle damage as much as possible, so I could still run later. Many runners chose to run through the first night, to put up a big day 1. Though everything at the Pettit was near optimal, I never managed to make the sleep setup work well for me. You could sleep by the side of the track, but it was too bright and noisy. You could sleep in a quickly accessible upstairs room, but there wasn't enough space there for people to leave cots set up. Or you could have a permanent setup in a dark, quiet room (apart from the one guy snoring LOUDLY every night), but it was a several-minute walk to get there from the track. I opted for the latter, though it cost a lot of overhead. After a couple days I had my crew relocate my setup to trackside, but that didn't work well, so we moved back. I tried going to sleep in my Normatec compression boots the first night, but they kept me awake, so I mostly didn't use them the rest of the race. It wasn't worth taking my shoes off for them during the shorter breaks. (Connie Gardner, though, I think fell in love with the boots, spending a lot of the last day in them!) I hate to be such a princess about the sleep setup, but, well, I am. Effective sleep is so critical to maximizing performance. As expected, the first night I had a lot of unused overhead time, so I gave myself a full four-hour break. Then, up and at 'em again! Fresh shorts, socks, shirt, and rotate shoes (three pairs of New Balance Beacons). I got an early morning tune-up from Doc Lovy, loosening tight hamstrings and back muscles. Doc Lovy is 84. He's been the team doctor for the USA 24-hour team for many years. And he was here running for six days... while stopping to help all the runners. I don't know when he slept, if he ever did.

Doc Lovy gets his 100
Sometime the first afternoon I'd mentioned to Pam that I was having to stop too often to pee, so I wanted to cut back on fluids. She was a little concerned that even though it was cool, the air was very dry, so likely I was more dehydrated than I felt. But we cut back from 3 oz. per drink (9 oz. per hour) to I think 2.5. This morning it was still an issue, and she pointed out that likely my bladder was irritated because it was too empty, and rubbing together. Doh! So the solution was MORE fluid, not less. And yes, I think I had been dehydrated. She also insisted on weighing me more often. When your crew is an MD, you listen to her medical suggestions. The first race day wound down as noon approached; I hit 100 miles shortly before that. I didn't get to carry the 100-mile flag on my final lap, though: a volunteer was holding it out as I crossed the mat, but pulled it away from me?! Turns out it was for Yolanda Holder, who hit 100 on the same lap. I'm glad I didn't steal it from her: this was her first sub-24 completely walking, making her an official Centurion. Congratulations! At noon, Dave Proctor led the way with 134.4 miles. He was nominally chasing the Canadian Record of 540 miles, but no doubt had his sights set higher than that. Joe was not far behind with 127.1, followed by Mick Thwaites (123.1), Johnny Hällneby (116.2), Budjargal Byambaa (111.9), Connie Gardner (106.7), David Johnston (104.6), and me (101.2), with my unorthodox slow start. For comparison, Joe had run 137 on day 1 when he ran that 606. Of all of us, I believe only Johnny had publicly laid out a goal of running the WR. He had even detailed his plan. (He was described thus on the Ultralist last year: "Johnny approaches these things with Bob Hearn-like planning, but with more humor, experience, and flexibility. It's tremendous to watch." And... I can't disagree.)

Day 1 lap splits (noon to noon). Lap time is on a log scale, to show long breaks.
Day 2 As the second day got underway, Pam and BJ were joined by my friend Paul Erickson. Already I believe I had the largest crew! By the end of the race I would begin to feel a bit guilty here.
Pam knows how to stay warm
I still felt great, so I adjusted my pacing slightly to hit 102+. The run laps stayed at 2:40, but the walk/run laps sped up, with a bit more running. As the afternoon turned to evening, some of the early leaders began to fade. It's inevitable. The only question is, which ones will it be? And before I knew it, I was in a mini-emotional meltdown myself. It started with horrible autotune "music" blasting over the speakers. I don't know why, but anything with autotune makes me want to gouge my eyes out. However, the bigger problem was something I've experienced several times before: the second evening is always really rough for me. My sleep plan here did not help; I would be running 20+ hours between sleeps. I would not do it that way again. I had hoped that being indoors with constant lighting would help — no such luck. But finally it was time for bed, and in the morning I was back at it with renewed vigor. The rest of day 2 passed without incident. Joe clocked a 103, now leading the way with 230.1; Dave Proctor had had sleep issues and dropped to 90.7. Johnny ran a 100.7, now in third; meanwhile Mick, Budjargal, and Dave Johnson had dropped dramatically. Budjargal in particular had looked like a perfectly smooth, light, efficient machine until well into the second day; it was easy to see him running away with it. But not this time. I hit my planned 102.5, the only runner with a negative split. Also I counted my blessings that Joe had come up a mere two miles short of reclaiming the over-50 48-hour American Record of 232 that I'd taken from him a couple years ago!

Day 2 lap splits
Day 3 So far so good, so time to up the pacing a little more. The walk laps got a little more running. I made a mistake here: I was supposed to walk less, but often I found myself running 2:30s instead of 2:40s, so I could walk a whole lap in between. My walking was actually getting faster as the race wore on: in training, I wasn't walking anywhere near a whole lap, even at my first-day (101) pacing. One of the neat things about six-day is that you can actually learn and adapt during the race, instead of having to wait for next time. And it did feel good to be running faster, as I was now passing Joe, I must admit. I'm normally pretty immune from this typically male chest-thumping behavior (women are supposed to be better pacers than men because of this), but the race with Joe was heating up, and I was excited. There is definitely a mind game that goes on during short-loop ultras, as you see your competition over and over. In fact my negative-split strategy as a whole was playing into that. I was well aware of how it would look when people saw I was running 101, 102, 103... . It ought to be intimidating. Silly me, there is no point trying to out-game Joe in a six-day. It didn't take long for this mistake to cost me, as I hit the first real problem in my race around 6 p.m., a little before Amy Mower arrived to join the crew party. I started having pain on the top of my left foot. Pam relaced the shoe to relieve the pressure, but half an hour later I had to stop to have medical take a look at it. They did some massaging and stretching, and when my sock was off it was obvious I had some blister issues as well. John Vonhof (who literally wrote the book on foot care) had taped my little toes pre-race, but now he treated all the blisters and added some more tape. The total cost here was over half an hour, but it was worth it. However, back on the track, it became clear that I couldn't run 2:40 laps anymore without pain. I spent the rest of the evening experimenting. 2:50 run + 3:30 run/walk seemed doable, but significantly slower than my planned pacing. We had a few crew powwows to discuss it. The one good thing about the foot issue was that dealing with it kept me from the evening emotional low; my mind was occupied elsewhere. Finally, bedtime again. This time, Pam had to come wake me — I had a vibrating alarm on each wrist (so as not to disturb the other sleepers in the remote sleeping room), but I had slept through both of them. Oops. Pam and Paul had been scheduled to leave when I woke, but stuck with me 'til breakfast, as we refined my pacing to get back on track. 2:50 / 3:14 seemed sustainable, and left me still theoretically on plan for a possible WR. Paul kept me honest, standing by the timing mat, making sure I wasn't pushing the run laps too fast. In hindsight, here I should have scaled the goal back to 606, at most — to have any chance at the A+ and A++ goals, things would have had to go perfectly for much longer than this. You can't keep speeding up when things start breaking. At some point in here I developed a slight left lean, which Doc Lovy quickly corrected. I'm not sure what I would do in a long race without him. As noon approached, it became clear I had way overspent my budgeted daily overhead time. Oversleeping hadn't helped. So, I ended the day with 97 miles, well short of the 103+ I had been pacing for. Still, that was more than anyone else ran on day 3, and I was now in second place behind Joe (325.2) with 300.7 miles. I was pretty happy to hit 300 in under 72 hours! The biggest day-three casualty was Johnny Hällneby, with 56.4. I am still not sure what happened.

300!

Day 3 lap splits. Foot injury at 55 hours.
Day 4 At this point I'd have to say my prospects looked good. My daily mileage trajectory was much more consistent than anyone else's. Joe was ahead but I was now moving faster than he was, having worked through my foot issue. I saw my slow-start strategy as beginning to pay off, as it generally does in shorter races. Somehow it did not occur to any of us to reset the pacing plan for day four: we left it at 2:50 / 3:14, which would be 103.61 miles. I held pace through the afternoon, but then the dreaded evening arrived again. Without the foot issue to distract me, the evening was emotionally tough. Brief exchanges with Amy on my walk laps helped a lot here. She had been through this, and had lots of great mental advice. Finally, bedtime. Then all too soon, morning again, time to run. Restarting after a sleep break can be a pretty brutal experience... your feet feel like hamburger, muscles do not want to move, mind does not want to think. The later in the race it gets, the harder it is to get yourself back out there. But miraculously (and I think it's pretty much like this for everyone), after a lap or two the pain fades, the fog clears, and you can get back to normal running. But I had not been running long at all when left hamstring tightness turned into significant pain. I couldn't run at all. The next several hours were filled with medical stops to try to diagnose and treat it. Finally Trishul Cherns' personal chiropractor, Craig Rubenstein, determined that it was likely a partial tear in the medial gastroc upper insertion, behind the knee. In fact, Dave Proctor had told me the day before that he'd seen some bruising there, so we'd been a little concerned. (I did not remember this at the time, but afterwards, rereading my EMU race report, I recalled that I'd had the same symptoms there, a year earlier. That race had ended for other reasons before it had gotten this bad. So, this is a recurring problem I will have to fix.)

Unfortunately, nothing we tried seemed to help a whole lot. Day four wound down with me still walking. I had only run 83.9 miles, well off my plan. However Joe had dropped to 76.9, so I was still gaining on him, and I maintained my lead over everyone else.
Day 4 lap splits. Calf injury at 89 hours.
Day 5 This is where it gets interesting. Eventually we settled on just icing the injury, taping on an instant-ice pack behind the knee. By this point Tiffany Kravec had actively joined the crew: she was assistant RD, but had volunteered in advance to be backup crew when my crew needed a break. Around here she'd decided she was needed and had stepped up in a big way, giving BJ and Amy a little breathing (and sleeping!) room. And after I'd been walking with the ice for a while, she convinced me to try running again. I was skeptical, but gave it a go. And what do you know, after running through some pain for a bit, it faded and I was able to run consistent 3:15s or so. However, I kept up the medical stops, trying anything I could to address the underlying problem. This kind of thing can get out of hand — medical breaks are very convenient excuses to rest. And after the breaks kind of jumped the shark here, Tiffany gave me a needed talking to. I was not going to hit my goals if I kept lollygagging around. That was not what I was here for. I was going to have to let my crew drive, something I had never really done before. She promised that though parts would suck, they would not break me. And... I gave up control. For many runners this is normal: they have not just crew, but "handlers", making all the decisions. That's not the way I do it. I feel like if I'm not driving, making the decisions, doing the math, then I'm not really participating. I don't want to be just the muscle. But there comes a point where you have to let go, and trust your crew. For me, that point was on the fifth day. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally beat. My crew knew what they were doing, and knew what was important to me, thanks in part to my detailed crew manual. So I was able to trust them and let go. The real turning point was when I TOOK OFF MY GARMIN (a good thing in more ways than one — I had developed an RSI from hitting the lap button so many times!). And, it was miraculously liberating! I began to synthesize in my head lessons from mindfulness meditation with the task at hand. My crew now had responsibility for all the decisions. My job was just to do what they told me, and report honestly on how my body and my mind were feeling. I had to adopt a mindful posture where my only concern was monitoring my state. When thoughts crept in that were not helpful I quickly learned to tag them as "incorrect" and reject them. It made no difference whether the thought might be logically correct: some speculation on when Joe might need to break, whether it might be better for me to get a little sleep now rather than later, concern about how much longer my calf had to hold out, whatever. Those thoughts were not correct, because thoughts are actions, and those thoughts were not the correct actions to take to advance my goals. (This is very similar to the Buddhist notion of "skillful" vs. "unskillful" thoughts.) Correct thoughts were to pay attention to how I was feeling, and in addition I developed three mantras: "Now is bliss" (because actually, running at the moment was pretty pleasant, if I let it be), "My crew loves me", and "Liz is coming". This was my emotional secret weapon: my wife Liz would be here soon, straight from Burning Man, after a long day of travel. The one downside to this state was that I completely cut myself off from the other runners; I was 100% inwardly focused. A few times someone would start to chat with me, and I would just say "I'm not here" and keep moving. I felt bad, but I didn't have the resources to spare. My self, literally, was not there. Later in the race, I apologized where I could. After a few hours of this, well, it was hard, but it was working. I could tangibly sense the magnitude of the burden that had been lifted from me. I felt like I had discovered the key to infinite power. I felt enormous gratitude for my crew: they were doing all the work of getting me to my goal. Also the mindfulness aspect I was executing resonated with my understanding of neuroscience, and with something Amy had told me the night before: you learn the skills you need for multiday racing by doing it. And I saw now how that was happening. This was like a very intense mindfulness retreat, where the stakes are so high you can't lose focus. In a flash I saw how my mindful running was being learned by my brain. It was skill memory, muscle memory, that you learn like learning to ride a bike, automatically in the basal ganglia, not cognitive learning that you have to consciously remember. I was not only executing the current race well; I was laying the foundation for even better races in the future. Win / win! However, the mental key to infinite power will still only take you as far as your body will go. That was none of my concern; it was for my crew to deal with. And as I began to fade and weave they made the call to put me down early for an hour and a half.


When I awoke and was back at it, it was easier: there had still been some intimidation at how long I was going to have to maintain this mindful posture. But now I could add "It's working!" to my set of mantras. And before too much longer... Liz was there! I gave her a huge hug, and began to describe my new enlightenment. I think maybe I freaked her out a little bit. Running for six days does certainly put you into an altered state of consciousness. In fact for many, myself included, that's kind of the point. Running long distances is a way of exploring aspects of yourself, ways of experiencing reality, that would otherwise be inaccessible. Somewhere in here running became too difficult, alas, not so much because of the calf pain as because of the aerobic cost. I realize now that my training did not support holding 101 miles for six days, and I have promising ideas on how to alter my training in the future, a step that I believe should help my 24-hour racing substantially as well. Thank you to Ray Krolewicz for an insightful conversation here. But for now, fortunately, my speed walk was still reasonably formidable. As night became morning, I had a few more short breaks, and I began to get very cold, now that there was not much running. I'd been comfortable in just a shortsleeve so far, but for the last day plus I was fully bundled up, with two shirts, two jackets, a vest, gloves, handwarmers, and two hats! I hit a fashion milestone with the outer layer, Amy's puffy jacket. This garnered some looks, but I didn't care. Not my most daring running attire, by far.


As day 5 wound down, there'd been no single large sleep break as with the first four days. My crew was executing more fine-grained control, giving me short breaks when I needed them. And we'd finally brought out the big guns, Red Bull and NoDoz. In spite of the injury, I'd run 77.8 miles on day five, well ahead of Joe's 68. Johnny, Budjargal, and Dave Johnston, to their credit, had mounted strong comebacks after their early problems, but were all still well behind. The question on everyone's mind now was, could I catch Joe? His lead was down to less than 8 miles.
Day 5 lap splits. Crew took over driving at 102 hours.
Day 6 Day 6 is a bit of a blur. Crew put me down for an hour and half around 3:30. After this, Dr. Carolyn Smith was available to help, and did some lymphatic drainage, increasing blood flow to my legs. I made some more attempts to run for short stretches, but it was a lot of work, and I mostly settled back into the speed walk. In the evening, my quads became very tight. Dave Proctor, who happens to be a massage therapist, was great company for many of us late in the race, after his own goals were long gone. He offered to work on me, and loosened things up nicely. He also contributed some tasty pecan pies! As the evening wore on the looming question was, when would Joe go down for a break? I was now within striking distance. But this is Joe's part of the race. He is a tactical master when it gets to anything like this point. Finally, around midnight, when he'd passed 500 miles, Joe took a break. But by that point I needed one too, and my crew was of the opinion that I had nothing to lose by breaking as well. If I pushed through, Joe would be able to start running again fresh by the time I caught him, and I'd need a break even more. So, I went down as well (as Joe assumed I would!). By 2 a.m. we are both back out there. To me it is clear it is all over — Joe has the cushion he needs to stay ahead. I shake his hand and we walk a lap together. But my crew is not too thrilled at this. They tell me I am moving better than Joe, and not only that, Johnny and Dave are gaining on me! I pick up the walk speed. After a few more laps it looks to me like I have a chance — Joe is moving very casually, stopping to chat with people, leaving the track to brush his teeth. He's down to 8 laps, just two miles, ahead. And Mike Dobies, his handler, is nowhere to be seen. I decide to go for it. I crank the walk laps up to 3:45, a few 3:30s in there (that's 12:42 / mile pace). I'm still not running, but I'm moving faster than many who are. Joe finally wakes up and moves alongside. I slap him on the back — "It's on!". But, this was just the way Joe wanted to play it. He was never in any danger. Once his big goals were gone he used just as much effort as needed to stay ahead of me. 


I gave chase for an hour and a half or so. It was hard work, but I could have kept it up longer. But I didn't. Joe convinced me he could easily counter whatever I had, and I basically conceded. Joe was thoroughly in his element; I was a novice playing his game. He had outmaneuvered me, even though I literally have a Ph.D. in game theory! But the race was not yet over. In psychology, there is a thing called the "endowment effect": we are a lot more motivated to hold on to what we already have than to acquire what we don't. Over the next few hours, I received a very strong lesson in how this manifests in racing. With about five hours to go, the most ridiculous and amazing thing happened. Dave Johnston started chasing me from 10 miles back. It looked impossible, yet he was flying. I did the math and realized that if I didn't work hard, his pace would be enough. I mean, it was a RIDICULOUS pace for the end of a 6-day. I saw laps (443m) as low as 2:08, most around 2:15. He made it look effortless, with a constant smile on his face. I was moving at a decent 4:30ish walk pace, and could no longer run. But I had to step it up. To catch me he would have to lap me 9 times an hour, quite a lot. I sped my walk laps up to 3:45, as fast as I could manage consistently, a pretty decent speedwalk. And... 7 minutes later, he flew by. "Good work, Bob." Damn. 6 minutes later, "good work, Bob". 7 minutes. 7. 8. 6. If we both held our paces to the end, it would be very, very close. And Joe had to keep up too! If by some chance he faltered, any of the three of us could win. Dave held what he needed for something like two and a half hours, while Joe stuck on me (as he had on Yiannis Kouros at the end of ATY, after getting a few laps up). Nobody there could believe it; it was like it was out of a dream. A nightmare for me, but Dave certainly made the finish exciting. Finally, he ran out of gas. WHEW! The point is that though it felt like I was going to rupture my Achilles, NO WAY was I going to yield second, not after all I had been through. And yet, the difference between first and second is infinitely more than that between second and third. If I could have channeled that kind of energy earlier when I was chasing Joe, who knows what might have happened? This is the endowment effect in action.
Men's podium and race director. Bob, Joe, Steve, Dave J.

With Johnny Hällneby and Trishul Cherns

And that's basically it. The last couple of hours, the race was effectively over. I walked it in to hit 530 miles, a number I would not have managed without Dave pushing me. It's not 606; it's not 551. But it's a number I have to be very happy with. It puts me at #7 on the all-time US six-day list. And more importantly, I now have a solid six-day finish, having worked through and survived several challenges, with the substantial help of my crew. I've learned an enormous amount. I have to be optimistic about the future.
Day 6 lap splits. Battle with Joe and Dave towards the end.

Tiffany, Amy, BJ, Bob, and Liz. Missing Pam and Paul.


It wouldn't be the same without Ken Michal


Summary Charts

My laps splits for all 6 days


For those who understand Mike Dobies' charts, this shows
the race among the lead men. Note: left axis is in miles, not km.

Mike Dobies' mileage chart for top men
Takeaway So what can I take away from this experience? A hell of a lot, I think. A million little things, experiences that will give me more grounding and confidence for next time. The knowledge that I can actually do this, and run with the big dogs. But the two big specific things are (1) the experience of handing over control to my crew on day 5, forcing me to run in a totally mindful state, and (2) that brief conversation with Ray Krolewicz about why it was so aerobically hard to run even very slowly late in the race. What was it Ray said? Simply this: "Well of course it's aerobically hard. Half your muscle fibers aren't working anymore; the other half need twice as much oxygen to do the same job." Doh! Why had that never occurred to me before?! I've always thought that 24-hour and longer races should be ultimately limited by cumulative muscle damage. That's why I start slow, to defer the inevitable collapse as long as possible. But somehow it had never clicked in my head that muscle damage could in turn cause oxygen delivery and utilization to be a limiting factor. Instantly, I understood that I was screwed. I've taken kind of a perverse pride in doing essentially no speedwork for very long, flat races. I figured any excess aerobic capacity, beyond what I need to run effortlessly at my goal pace, is wasted. There are no hills where I'd need energy bursts. Why put extra stress on my body training faster, and building a bigger, heavier engine than I would ever need? Mitochondria and capillaries make up about a third of muscle mass! I put my money instead on training specificity. So why was I screwed? Because now I needed that excess aerobic capacity after all. The fibers that were working had to do a job they were not aerobically equipped to do. Clearly, I had reached the point in the race where I was compromised by muscle damage. I explained this to my crew... they were not amused. Actually they were quite upset with Ray, because I now seemed unmotivated to even try running. But the fact is, while I was confident (perhaps overconfident) in my assessment of the situation, I DID continue to try running, though it was very painful with the calf injury. And I could never get more than about half a lap without getting out of breath. Now, I fully realize that the true story of what was going on in my body is not nearly as simple as the picture I've painted. The fact is, muscle damage due to overuse (aka long-lasting fatigue) is a very complex, incompletely understood phenomenon. For starters, there is both mechanical damage, due mainly to eccentric loading, and metabolic damage, due to activity beyond the muscle's capacity to sustain homeostasis. Since the race, I've done a ton of reading here, and some numerical modeling. But the basic logic still seems clear: when you have less functional muscle available, you need greater aerobic capacity to use it. At the beginning, I said "I see at least three major changes in store for how I approach races of 24 hours or longer; I am rethinking everything." So what are those changes?

  1. I have to train faster than race pace! This is obvious to most people. I'm a slow learner.
  2. Even pacing is not necessarily best! I will dive into this in more detail in my next blog post. But the basic point is this: using simple numerical models of cumulative muscle damage, treating it as the limiting factor, I've realized that my intuitions are completely wrong. Starting slow potentially wastes a lot of performance. Seeing this come out of the simulations absolutely floored me. Again, this seems obvious to most who run these kinds of races. Of COURSE you have to slow down later, so you'd better start faster. Again, I'm a slow learner. So, these two changes may be quite consequential to me, but I don't think I'm spilling any big secrets here for anyone else.
  3. This one is fuzzier, but I need to work much more on mindful running, allowing only "correct" or "skillful" thoughts. I always do this to some extent, but here I entered a qualitatively new zone on day 5. Everything clicked. The fuzzy part is that here, this coincided with handing over control to my crew, but in general the relation to who is in control is something I will have to think harder about.
Aftermath The cost in recovery time of a big six-day effort is not to be underestimated. I was warned, but still not really prepared. For starters, the first evening afterwards was very rough. Liz ran to the drugstore three times for bandages, ice packs, etc. By the next morning I actually felt decent, but by the time I got back to California that evening, well... you know cankles, right? We all get them after a hard 100. OK, but have you ever had cankles up to your waist? For a week? I was like the Michelin Man. I was carrying literally an extra 25 pounds of water weight. There were other unusual anatomical consequences I will spare you the details of. On the mental front, it took a solid two weeks before I could sleep through the night without being convinced I was still running laps. But the longer-term effects can be much more systemic and subtle. I was signed up for Big's Backyard, two months after the Dome. It was hard, but I took a DNS. I was nowhere near where I needed to be physically, and more importantly, mentally. It takes a LONG time to get your head back in the game. Several Dome runners did run Big's. None but Dave Proctor (who effectively dropped early at the dome) even made it to 24 hours — truly shocking. Even now, five-plus months later, I don't think I'm completely recovered mentally. So, caveat emptor. Or more pedantically, caveat cursor. Thank You Thank you to Joe for the impetus for putting this race together. It was a world-class venue and event that attracted world-class talent. Thank you to RD Steve Durbin, assistant RD Tiffany Kravec, and to Terri Durbin and Nation Kravec for additional help with organization and execution. Everything came off close to perfectly. Thank you to Mike Melton and Brandon Wilson for top-notch timing. Thank you to Doc Lovy and the rest of the medical staff for keeping me moving, and to John Vonhof for keeping my feet happy. Thank you to Trishul Cherns and Craig Rubinstein, and to Carolyn Smith, for additional work on my legs, and to Dave Proctor for that excellent massage (and pies!). Thank you to SWORD Nutrition for sponsoring the race. Most of all thank you to my fabulous crew of Pam Smith, Amy Mower, BJ Timoner, Paul Erickson, Tiffany Kravec, and Liz Hearn. I COULD NOT have done it without you. It was truly a team effort.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Lhotse 24-hour 2019


NOTE TO READERS:

For completeness I'm adding my Facebook post about Lhotse to my blog. This is not one of my typical Tolstoy-length posts, with abundant detail and analysis. The only thing new is that I've added my pace chart for reference.
My spring goal race, for which I’d trained very hard, sacrificed a lot, and felt in better shape than Desert Solstice, fell far short of my expectations. It’s ironic that I received this bounteous harvest of hardware (to put it mildly!) for that train wreck of a performance. To begin with I have to thank Wyatt and Julia Hockmeyer for flawlessly organizing the race, all of the volunteers for a helpful and friendly attitude, and Mark Cunningham and Warren Wood for comprehensive, capable crew support. They all gave me every chance to hit my goals. As did the weather, which was near-ideal for big numbers. A rare opportunity, squandered. Yes I won the race, and even set a new course record. I don't diminish the accomplishment. But 123.28 miles is not what I was there for. I was there to defend my #6 US team spot for World Championships, which meant running a minimum of 155.1. Not in the same universe. Because Jon Olsen also had a bad day, I retain my tenuous hold here for now, but after several top-level challengers take their shot at D3 in 8 weeks, I am not optimistic. (You can stop here if you want!) I had four main problems. 1. Bad pacing. I paced for 157.6 miles, which would have put me in the #2 spot and virtually assured me of making the team. Or maybe #3 depending on how Jon did. This was 3.6 miles farther than my Desert Solstice performance, a large jump from a very solid PR effort. Alternatively I could have paced for 155.1, putting me in the #4 spot. But if Jon (a former 24-hour World Champion) ran well too that would be #5, and only two people would have to beat me at D3 to bump me from the team. Tough decision, but I chose to be aggressive. I felt confident I could improve on Desert Solstice. I also had the thought that if I could run 157+ here I could legitimately target 160 at Worlds, a number I have aspired to for years. Now I know 157.6 was not achievable for me today. By the time I realized that the damage was done, and my race was effectively over. 2. Bad stomach. I seem to have become intolerant to my carefully engineered sport-drink mix. I’m not sure what I can do about this. There's a line of thinking that you can never "solve" nutrition in a race like this, because once you find something that works you learn to associate it with pain. 3. Bad mental game. At Desert Solstice I went through a bad patch where, for no real reason, I really did not want to be there, and felt an enormous desire to quit. I persevered and succeeded. Here it was worse, and earlier. I don’t know what to do about this either. There are people who say that you only have so many good 24-hour efforts in you. Maybe they are right. It is a very tough mental challenge, and exacts a cost. 4. Bad body. This was really the clincher. After Desert Solstice, recovery was slow, finally diagnosed as right hip flexor tendinitis/tendinosis. I did a lot of PT, and was diligent with my exercises for the past couple of months. In the last few weeks of heavy training the issue seemed to be completely resolved. It wasn’t. I have no way of knowing whether the tendons would have held out had my pacing been less aggressive, but I suspect maybe not.
Pic by Alicia Campbell
Here’s how it played out: Through 8.5 hours, Jon and I each consistently held to our respective pacing plans, both moving smoothly. I had already struggled a bit mentally as the hip-flexor issue made itself known approaching 8 hours. Fortunately, after the 8-hour turnaround, the pain disappeared. By this point Jon was 17 laps (4.25 miles) ahead of me, lapping me like clockwork every half hour, on pace for 170ish miles… then, surprisingly, Jon started having issues and slowed dramatically. I did not expect the race to get interesting until maybe 16 hours in. But by about 10 hours I had already taken the lead. 


On the one hand, this lifted a mental burden from me – it appeared that, at least, I would not get bumped today. This stilled some of those negative voices, and for a short while I was reenergized and optimistic. But on the other hand, this was not how I’d wanted Jon’s race to end. I’d hoped we could both make it to Albi for World Championships. I’d also hoped we could push each other to solid performances. Instead, with Jon out of the picture, this would become just a time trial for me, and time trials suck. And then, it was my turn. As my stomach and my head faltered, I tried backing off the pace for a bit to regroup. Instead I needed an unprecedented second extended potty stop by 11 hours. After that I walked a few laps to try to reset my stomach and my head, pretty much giving up on my A goal of 157.6. But when I tried to start running again, I couldn’t; the hip flexor would not allow it. Jon regrouped, and retook the lead. At this point I was very close to quitting. But after various forms of treatment and a little more time walking I was able to get moving again, and once more the pain miraculously disappeared. I was now completely off of any coherent pacing plan. My only focus was to stay in the game, by whatever means necessary, on the chance that I’d eventually be able to get back to solid running and still have a shot at 155.1. It’s happened before. This meant just running at whatever pace I felt I could comfortably manage without exacerbating the tendons further.
Becky Cunningham running by Mark Cunningham's comprehensive crew station. With Warren Wood.
As I held this easy pace and began moving well again I retook the lead, and it became apparent that Jon’s race was indeed over. Unfortunately this easy pace never got any faster, and over the next few hours any shot I had at 155.1 slowly slipped away. Maybe, at some point, I should have made one last concerted effort to get back on a successful pace, but I just couldn’t make myself – I was pretty sure that would just end my race. My last thought was to hold solid ’til 100 miles and see where I was. I hit that at 15:51, much later than planned, but early enough to maybe salvage a “good” race. With nothing else to focus on now, I decided to give it one final shot, start running at a pace that would let me hit 150. A somewhat meaningless number here, but one I could still be proud of. No other American over 50 has ever run over 145. But after just a few laps it was obvious that this wasn’t going to happen. Instead it now hurt to walk. I should probably have stopped here, as Jon did. With all your goals gone, sometimes it’s best to cut your losses and save it for another day. But I chose to stay… I think maybe because of all the mental effort to stay in the game earlier, I had gotten myself into the mindset that I was going to stick it out, with whatever goals were still achievable. There was holding onto the win, for one thing. I asked Wyatt what the course record was – 119. OK, plenty of time to walk it in to that if I could get walking again. The last 8 hours were spent alternately sitting by Mark’s propane heater, waiting for the tendons to settle, and walking in the freezing cold, with all my layers on. The slower I walked the colder I was, but the faster I walked the quicker the tendons said no. There was no possibility of further running. It was uncomfortable, tedious, and pretty pointless. But eventually the race was over, and that was that.




Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Desert Solstice 2018

Pic by Howie Stern

Well, uh... wow. This is a race that will be remembered for a long time. Of course the highlight is Camille Herron's 24-hour World Record. But beyond that, the deepest field ever yielded the biggest 24-hour results ever on American soil.
For me personally, the day went close to perfectly, and represents the culmination of years of effort to run a good 24-hour. But others also had incredible days, and it's a little surreal to have run 154 and finished off the podium! A very disorienting mix of success and failure. This report will be heavy on analysis, in addition to the story of my own race. There is a lot to take in and learn from. If you don't know, Desert Solstice is an invitational 24-hour track race, put on by Aravaipa Running. You run as many laps as you can on a 400m track in 24 hours. It's limited to 30 runners (this year stretched to 33) who have put up big numbers at 24-hour or 100-mile races, and it was a big honor for me to be invited once again. My Background My primary running goal for the past four years has been to make the US national 24-hour team and represent the US at the World Championships. In 2017 I ran 152.155 miles, becoming the first American over 50 to break 150 miles, but came up just barely short of making the team. The next chance would be for the 2019 team. I had a disastrous Desert Solstice 2017, stopping early at 93 miles with a backwards lean I could not shake. For 2018 I decided I had to branch out and try different things; it was too unsatisfying perpetually banging my head against 24 hours. I had very successful runs at Snowdrop 55-hour and Spartathlon, with EMU 6-day and Badwater 135 going less well and representing learning experiences for next time. But all year long I had my eye on Desert Solstice as my one chance for the 2019 team. Especially, my PR at Spartathlon boded well and left me optimistic as I began my Desert Solstice-specific training. With only 10 weeks between the two races I didn't have a lot of high-mileage weeks, but what I had was solid, and Spartathlon itself represented excellent training. As well, I had focused all year on increased core work and form drills to combat the lean.
2018 weekly mileage. Spikes are Snowdrop 55-hour, Umstead 100,
EMU 6-day (2.5-day for me), Badwater, Spartathlon, Desert Solstice
A few days before Desert Solstice I had a DXA body scan. Compared to just before my PR race at Run4Water, I was down two-plus pounds of fat and up one-plus pound of muscle. Again, very encouraging! Heading into my 9th 24-hour race, I felt I had a solid handle on how the race should go, and how to deal with any issues that could arise – except for the lean. There I had to cross my fingers and hope that I'd done enough work to prevent it. My pace plan had me at 154.5 miles if I could hold even pacing throughout, something I had never before quite achieved. Nonetheless I came into the race as confident as I've ever been of a good result, feeling like I was in the best shape of my life. As in past years, I would be joined by my wife Liz and my good friend Scott Holdaway as crew, and this time Pam Smith would be filling in as well while also crewing Maggie Guterl. What luxury!
The Lineup At Desert Solstice 2015, I finished second to Pete Kostelnick. In 2016 I won the men's race and finished second overall to Courtney Dauwalter. For 2018... I was ranked at the very bottom of the entrant list on Ultrasignup! This was the deepest field ever at an American 24-hour. The men's field was headlined by Zach Bitter, 100-mile American Record holder, going for his first full 24 since 2014; and Pat Reagan, who had taken Zach's course record at Javelina Jundred, stepping up to 24 for the first time. Pete Kostelnick, who has the course record with 163+, was returning – but likely not at 100% after a 5,000-mile self-supported run from Alaska to Florida. (Originally Jon Olsen, 2013 24-hour World Champion, was also entered, but he withdrew late, insufficiently recovered from Spartathlon.) One step down from these true elites was a plethora of runners any of whom could have a breakout race over 150. The usual suspects at 24-hour were Olaf Wasternack, Greg Soutiea, 2015 US team member Greg Armstrong, Andrew Snope, Desert Solstice 2017 winner Adrian Stanciu, James Elson (competing for a UK team spot), and myself. All of us had put up solid 24s in the past couple of years. In addition we had Badwater winners Zach Gingerich and Oswaldo Lopez, 2013 24-hour team member Nick Coury, and relative unknown Jake Jackson, who had won several races this year, with a 134-mile 24-hour. And then there were several more runners who were talented and could put up a surprise big number. Basically everyone here was a star, otherwise they would not have been invited. The women's side, at the very top, was even more exciting and competitive. The matchup between 24-hour American Record holder Courtney Dauwalter and 100-mile World Record holder Camille Herron had long been anticipated, and looked to provide the real drama of the race. Both would be going for Patrycja Bereznowska's 24-hour World Record of 161.55 miles. My money was that one or maybe both would beat all the men.
In addition we had Maggie Guterl, 2015 24-hour team member (and 4th at Worlds); former 24-hour American Record holder Connie Gardner; and Micah Morgan, running her first 24 but very accomplished at 100-mile, and fresh off a solid third-place finish at Badwater. Adela Salt, Stacey Costa, Chavet Breslin, Suzi Swinehart, and Emily Collins rounded out the likely podium contenders. Apart from the many World, American, and age-group records at stake, the main focus of the race would be the fight for national team spots. This is what the qualifying picture looked like heading in: MEN 1. Olivier Leblond (AUTO) 161.5698 miles 2. Steve Slaby 157.032 miles 3. Harvey Lewis 153.49 miles 4. Jon Olsen 152.993 miles 5. Greg Armstrong 151.2 miles 6. Adrian Stanciu 150.275 miles WOMEN 1. Katalin Nagy (AUTO) 155.729 miles 2. Megan Alvarado (AUTO) 140.569 miles (also 146.87 miles) 3. Courtney Dauwalter 159.327 miles (American Record) 4. Gina Slaby 154.271 miles 5. Pam Smith 151.372 miles 6. Whitney Richman 133.721 miles It appeared that 153.5 was the number for me and for the other men to beat to have a decent chance of holding a team spot through the end of qualifying in May (Zach and Pat would likely be shooting higher). In spite of the substantial competition, I was confident that if I could run my goal, that would certainly net a podium spot, and quite possibly the win. It's one thing to have the talent to put up a big number; it's quite another to actually do it. I liked my chances. If I could end the day in the #3 or #4 spot I would be happy. For the women the picture was a little more complicated. Courtney was essentially already on the team, but Camille was a legitimate threat to take a spot with a very big number. The remaining women were probably fighting for the soft #6 spot, though it was not impossible to have two or even three women (besides Courtney) over 151, bumping Pam. (Though Megan had only run 146.87 she was an auto for winning the National Championships, and could not be bumped.) Bear in mind, however, that until last year, the women's American Record at 24-hour was 152 miles. 151 is a really, really big number to beat; the level of talent now on the women's 24-hour team is nothing short of phenomenal. In fact, 150 is a big number for men or women. In all of 2016, not a single US runner of either gender broke 150. The Race
For all the preparation I'd put into this race, my day started frantically, as I made a last-minute decision to run in tried-and-true Clayton 2s instead of the lighter NB Beacons. It was only while I was changing shoes at the track that I realized I'd left my ankle timing band in my hotel room! Scott had just enough time to run back and get it, crisis averted.


Pic by Chris Worden


Maggie and Courtney. Pic by Tracey Outlaw

The first several hours of the race passed without incident, as I stuck to my slow-start splits, running 2:14s and walking one minute every six laps. As expected I quickly dropped to the back of the pack. As late as eight hours in I was 23rd overall (of 33), 15th male (of 20). Also as expected, Camille, Zach, and Pat went out fast, running 2ish-minute laps, Zach a bit faster. 2:00 laps is pace for 179 miles if they were to hold it! Most runners do not try to come anywhere close to even splits at 24-hour. We'll get back to this in some detail later in the analysis section. Less expected, Jake Jackson pretty much stuck with them through four hours. I wasn't paying that much attention to who was where at that point, but had I been, I'd have been pretty confident that Jake at least was going to have a short, painful day. Boy was I wrong.


Jake Jackson showing us how it's done. Pic by Tracey Outlaw

Pic by Tracey Outlaw

Zach motoring. Pic by Jubilee Paige

Courtney went out a little slower. She's very experienced at 24 and didn't feel the need to start that fast even to run a World Record. Unfortunately, she was the first of the headliners to fall. By around 100K it was clear that her legs were not going to cooperate, and I was very sad to see her step off the track. She'd had a huge year, most recently running for 67 hours at Big's Backyard Ultra just six weeks prior, and it seems this was just one race too many. Courtney being Courtney, she stuck around and cheered the rest of us on for the remainder of the race.
Veteran Greg Armstrong and Andrew Snope, who broke his own barefoot 24-hour Guinness World Record
Pic by Tracey Outlaw


Metronome Nick Coury rocking his pink Nikes. Pic by Tracey Outlaw
The heat of the day arrived, but it was not too bad, high 60s, and I had done plenty of sauna training. I put on my arm sleeves to wet them, and a desert hat filled with ice. I began drinking more water.


Pic by Liz Hearn
By about 10 or 11 hours in I had developed a huge grin. Though I have had races go perfectly through as long as 22 hours, somehow at Desert Solstice something has always gone wrong by 9 hours or so and I've had to regroup and lower my goal. So this was a breakthrough of sorts. However, things would shortly start to turn south. I began to get a little intestinal discomfort – I wasn't really sure whether it was GI stress or tired core stabilizers from the effort to lean a little more forward. Just something in the abdominal region that wasn't quite happy. I asked my crew to switch from my custom-engineered drink mix (similar to Maurten) to 50/50 Coke and water, just for a change. Also my right hip abductors began to get a little sore; I've had problems here before and had added more glute exercises this time around.


With legends Oswaldo Lopez and Pete Kostelnick. Pic by Howie Stern
The net consequence was that my attitude suddenly took a nose dive. It was late enough into the race that I should have pulled ahead of most of my competition; I hadn't. It was early enough that there was a huge amount of time left to endure. It was dark; I always have a rough day/night transition. Some part of my brain was beginning to say "This is going to hurt a hell of a lot and a lot of guys will beat you anyway. It's night; you really just want to go to bed". Now, intellectually I knew that my body still felt pretty good overall, better than it had here before, and almost certainly most of the guys ahead of me would not hold steady. That's just how 24-hour works. But try telling that to your emotions. They can be immune to logic. I held on and came through 12 hours at 77.3 miles, right on target. After an extended potty stop I hoped the abdominal comfort at least would be relieved. But by 13 hours my attitude was still in the dumps. I really, really wanted to walk, nap, or even quit, quit running for good. Because of course if I gave in and quit when nothing was really wrong I'd never be able to respect myself as a runner again. I asked Pam for advice but I think just alarmed her – "My body is good but I just want to quit. What do I do?" Still, communicating my emotional state helped me feel less alone in my suffering. By 13 hours, though, it was not going away and I decided to pull out the big guns: I took a caffeine pill. I had thought to save that until at least 16 hours.


Pam wins the tights contest. Pic by Eric Schranz

Half an hour later, out of the blue, I puked. And puked. And puked. For an entire lap. I walked two more laps to settle down and regroup. (Maybe my emotions had known best after all?) Well, here it was. At least it was a new phase of the race and I could move on; my brain was engaged in a different way. So much for Coke; back to my drink mix. I'd just drink a little less. But what was my plan now? I was "justified" in slowing down, but could I afford to? Scott was on crewing duty; I'd left him with my pacing spreadsheet that he could plug numbers into. Given where I am now, suppose I start running 6 laps in 14:00 instead of 13:50; where does that put me at the finish? Answer: 153.45. Ugh. Not good enough. But it would have to do for now. Maybe I could claw my way back over the all-important 153.5 later. Now I was truly running on a knife edge, with no margin for further error. However, it felt sustainable. The night cooled and I got into the mental groove of night-time running, which is actually a strength of mine once I survive the transition. Rather than try to nail average 14:00 sets of six laps, I contented myself with anything between 13:50 and 14:00, eating away slightly at that deficit on 153.5. Zach and Camille blazed through 100 miles. Camille split in 13:25, handily surpassing Gina Slaby's then-WR of 13:45:49 from 2016, which still stood as the American track record. And now, Zach began to have issues. In fact I found myself passing both Zach and Pat. This was not wholly unexpected: I think both of them can be top 24-hour runners, but there is a learning curve, and they had laid a lot on the line by going out that fast. As had Camille. Suddenly my mental picture of the rest of the race updated. If Zach and Pat faded, that would leave just Jake and Greg Armstrong ahead of me – so I thought. Actually I was confused about where Nick was. We were within a lap, but during my puking episode he had pulled ahead. Nick had run absolutely steady all day; I was very impressed. I hadn't seen him at all for hours after the start, then I think I must have gradually lapped him, running laps slightly faster but falling back on the walk breaks. But now I was a little behind and running at the same pace, having slowed slightly. (You can see this clearly in the colorful graph below. Apparently Nick was running 2:19 laps, which would put him at 13:54 per six laps, essentially identical to me now.) Jake and Greg were gradually slowing. Jake was so far ahead now that he would have to collapse for me to catch him. Actually I thought this not unlikely. He'd been about 7 miles ahead at 12 hours; that's huge, on pace for over 168 – with a PR coming in of 134. When I see that I think, that's a debt that has to be repaid; the second half is not going to be pretty. Meanwhile Greg was about a mile and a half ahead of me, and no longer faster than me. That could go either way. Greg was very experienced and came in with a recent PR of 151. Could he bust out mid-high 150s? Again I thought it more likely he would come tumbling back, but probably with a softer landing. Maybe I could catch him. The next milestone would be 100 miles; I looked ahead to that. And was confused when Nick split 100 miles first. I think this is a peculiarity of how the on-track display screen shows position. When we were on the same lap it showed us in the same position, even though Nick was actually ahead. As the night progressed I got more comfortable and continued to move well. Still, I didn't dare try to speed up. Logic dictated that the best policy would be to hold steady and wait for the guys ahead of me to come back. If nobody did, well, maybe I could kick closer to the end. I really, really wanted to run solidly to the end for once, which I had never done before. Speeding up now would be reckless. The next milestone to look forward to was 200K. Scott informed me that on current pacing I'd hit it at 19:22. Great, just what I wanted. I already had the age-group American Records for 200K both on road and track. The track record was soft, 19:37; I'd handily beat that. But I wanted to beat the road (and overall) mark as well; I'd just make it. When I did, that put me one minute ahead of where I'd been at 200K at Run4Water, when I had run 152 – after falling apart the last two hours. This time, things would be different. Liz was back on the track crewing from about 19 hours on; her smiling face helped pull me through.
New 200K age-group record. Pic by Liz Hearn
In the meantime, Camille had hit the open 200K American Record, previously Courtney's, but then suffered a bad patch after 18 hours. She sat on the sidelines for a while, then walked several laps. I think most of us thought she was done, but she gradually picked up the pace until she was running steady 2:30ish laps. I asked her whether the World Record was still possible – yes! And she would do it! Wow. I believed she would. She is amazingly talented and driven, but I had not been sure that all the new stuff 24 hours would throw at her would be survivable on her first run longer than 13 hours, especially after starting so fast. But she was enduring it. Meanwhile I had my own race to run. By now Zach was long gone, and Pat had been just walking for an hour or so; I would catch him shortly. My gut was beginning to get a little unhappy again; another long portapotty stop helped relieve the discomfort. However, shortly after 20 hours, another bout of puking ensued. In my effort to ease the abdominal pain I'd taken a HotShot, again being unsure whether maybe it was incipient cramps. I made the mistake of chasing it with my drink on the following lap, I think, and that was that. This was very demoralizing; I thought 153.5 had just gone out the window. I slowed a little further and soldiered on. Now Nick pulled to 2-3 laps ahead of me. As the final hours wound down it became clear that holding steady was not going to be good enough. Jake and Greg were still slowing, but not quickly enough, and Nick was still absolutely solid. My body still felt good. I was tempted to speed up with an hour and half or two hours to go, but I was too scared I wouldn't be able to hold a faster pace. I looked ahead, and realized that I could still salvage 153.5 if I could run 7 miles in the last hour. I thought I could probably manage that. At 23:00 on the clock I started running 2:00 laps, skipping walk breaks, skipping nutrition. Just run. That's how I've finished Spartathlon three times, and the past two I've been the fastest guy in the race over the last 13 miles, running 6:30ish pace – though downhill. What could I lay down here? No faster than 2:00, it turned out. I made myself run a solid half hour at 2ish laps before checking the numbers again. In that time I'd gotten a couple of laps back on Greg, but I was still four behind. And I had not seen Nick at all; he must be matching me. Most people are running on fumes by the last hour, but not Greg and Nick. So much for any hope of catching either of them.
Pushing hard for the final team spot. Pic by Tracey Outlaw
The numbers showed I now had 153.5 in the bag; I eased back slightly to 2:10ish laps. Once I hit 153.5 I saw I could reach my next goal, 153.85 miles: Martin Fryer's age-group 24-hour track World Record that's on the books. It would be of academic interest only, as new World Records are not surface-specific; Martin's record is grandfathered in. (In any case Stephane Ruel of France is my age and has run 161 on the track; he would have the record if it still existed.) Still, it was something. After that I had about a minute and a half left and saw that if I kicked in the last partial lap maybe I could break 154, so I did. Final distance: 154.051 miles. Fourth male, fifth overall, new 24-hour American Record for over 50. Nick had actually started running 1:45s towards the end, pushing as hard as he could to catch Greg. But Greg matched him and finished a scant 100m ahead. The crowd was following our three-way battle with excitement, yelling out my splits and distance to me every lap, but the real excitement towards the end was that Camille did manage to hang on and set a new 24-hour World Record, with 162.9 miles. Incredible! I'm honored to have been a part of the same race. Okie power for the win!
Camille Herron breaks the 24-hour World Record. Pic by Howie Stern


He'll live. I think. With Scott Holdaway, pic by Liz Hearn
Accidental renaissance. Pic by Liz Hearn


Bill Schultz and Scott helping me back for awards. Pic by Liz Hearn


With Pat Reagan post-race. Pic by Eric Schranz
Analysis There's a lot to learn from this race, or maybe to un-learn. Let's start with the overall picture of how the top runners paced, in this graph courtesy of Mike Dobies. You can see what tends to happen when you fly too close to the sun – you crash back down to Earth. Except when you don't. Click to enlarge and read the details, but basically this tracks how far ahead of even pace for 150 miles each runner is. Even pacing would be a straight line (i.e. Nick).
Tracking graph by Mike Dobies
Starting with Camille, you can see here that she was about 14 1/2 miles ahead of pace for 150 at 12 hours, meaning she was on pace at that point for 179. I.e., 2:00 laps. She held that until she came through 100 miles, then backed off to 2:14ish. That's clearer in this chart of lap splits (pink represents the zone where you want most of your lap splits to be, unless you are Kouros):
Here you can clearly see the rough patch at 18 hours, the gradual recovery, and the pretty steady grind for the last five hours to hold onto the record. Is this smart pacing? Well she's the one with yet another World Record, so it's not for me to say. But I am massively impressed that she was able to pull this off. I remain partial to the view that more even pacing would net her more miles, maybe a lot more, but a lot of pieces of my world view kind of broke during this race, so who knows. My thought has always been that, unlike shorter races, you can't effectively run a 24-hour by feel. You peg your effort meter at the "easy" end while still running too fast. Your body doesn't really grok that you intend to hold this super-easy pace for 24 hours. Especially if you've never done it before! I've done it nine times, and I don't trust myself to pace by feel. I think this works well where it's a question of picking the right fraction of VO2Max effort to use for the race. But 24-hour is not a race that is limited by aerobic capacity, normally. Of course you are never going to run a huge number without the aerobic capacity to make your average pace feel very easy, but that is not the hard part. Plenty of world-class 100K and 100-mile runners have stepped up to 24-hour and fallen flat on their faces. It takes more than speed. Instead, 24-hour seems to me to be limited by cumulative muscle damage and mental fatigue. In particular, cumulative muscle damage is a very nonlinear thing. Once a fraction of your muscle fibers are no longer able to participate effectively, the burden on the remainder is greater, meaning the weakest remaining ones will fail that much faster. A faster pace creates higher forces at a faster rate, a double whammy on cumulative damage. You can see that even here, a little. It took all Camille had to run 2:35ish laps towards the end, while I, a mere 3-hour marathoner, was still running 2:15s and finally 2:00s. But usually the failure is more dramatic when someone starts that fast. Anyway, this is how I think of it. It's a different regime; you can't just jump from 100-mile to 24-hour and run by feel. So I've always said... yeah, well! In summary, Camille split 89.5 / 73.4, or about 55% / 45%. Actually, that's a pretty typical split for a winning 24-hour performance, though it still looks too positive to me, looking at the lap chart. Let's compare to Patrycja Bereznowska's WR performance at Belfast last summer (1.027-mile laps):
This looks a little smoother on the whole, though rougher during the final hour. Her splits were 86.3 / 75.3, or 53.4% / 46.6%. Closer to even, with more absolute miles in the second half than Herron. Moving on to Jake Jackson, we can see that he hit 12 hours on pace for 169. As I said above, that should not end well, unless he is an undiscovered new star. Which it appears he may be. He faded, but in a more controlled manner than Camille, running 157.6 miles, with an 84.5 / 73.1 split, or 53.6% / 46.4% – similar to Bereznowska, actually, though the first four hours were faster. I would say that with more even pacing he could be well over 160, which our team at Worlds could certainly use... but again I may be projecting my bias here. Not only is it not 100% clear what the physiologically optimal pacing strategy is, but psychology comes hugely into play. Camille broke the 100-mile track record by 20 minutes on her way to 24-hour; certainly that should have provided a boost. Runners can take comfort in banked miles. Personally, banked miles ahead of goal pace terrify me – I like to bank energy – but others are different. Even if it's a physiological negative it can be a net positive when the mind comes into play, because the mind is paramount in this kind of race. Finally, it's hard to really judge what Jake was capable of here even with the pacing he had, because he didn't have much to run for towards the end. His win and team spot were virtually assured. Actually, he took over the #2 team spot by beating Steve Slaby's 157 miles, which could theoretically matter, but I gather that he was not aware of this during the race. He did pick up the pace somewhat during the last hour. Next, Greg Armstrong. I think this is maybe what a "typical" well-paced 24-hour performance looks like: a 79.5 / 75.6 split, or 51.2% / 48.8%, with a pace curve smoother than Camille's or Jake's, and a strong finish. Yes they both beat him, but Greg has run 16 24-hours, and this is his PR, so that's what one should look at. And then there's Nick. I consider myself a pretty even pacer, but my GOD, I have never seen a prettier performance than Nick's. It's just absolutely smooth from start to finish, until the last hour, when he mustered a huge kick. Should it have been sooner? I'm sure Nick is torturing himself with this very question. Here's his pace chart.
Folks, this is as good as it gets. That's a 77.1 / 77.9 split, or 49.75% / 50.25%, the legendary true negative split at 24-hour. To execute something like this requires confidence, patience, mastery of the details, and accuracy in judgment. "But", you may say, "I don't have all those things; I don't dare start that slow." But what is the risk? If you start a little slow, the worst that can happen is you run a negative split with too much left in the tank. That might cost you a mile or two. If you start just a hair too fast, that can cost you the whole race. I can count on zero fingers the times I have finished a 24-hour thinking "gee, I wish I'd started faster". Coming back to Zach and Pat, I'm not sure what I can say, other than to highlight once more the risks of starting too fast. Both of them are very experienced and talented runners, and the paces they started at no doubt felt ridiculously easy. But they weren't easy enough. 24-hour can be a cruel mistress: one minute your race is going perfectly; the next it can be over. I do have high hopes for both of them on their next attempts; they can be very valuable additions to the US team, if not for 2019 (Pat has said he will now focus on Western States training), then next time. Finally, back to my own race. Here's my pace chart:
That's a 77.3 / 76.7 split, or 50.2% / 49.8%, as close to even as I have ever managed. You can see the long potty stops at 12 hours and 19:30, and the puking and consequences at 13:30 and 20:15. Looking at Mike Dobies's graph above, you can see that the puking cost me both in absolute distance and in slightly reduced pace, especially after the second time. Without that, it's a real three-way race at the end; who knows how it would have turned out. As it was, I thought I had a slim chance to catch them. If we zoom in on the final four hours of Mike Dobies's graph, assume Greg and Nick hold steady, and that I can hold 2:00 laps for an hour, it looks like this:
But kudos to Greg and Nick for instead stepping it up. Believe me, I know how hard that must have hurt! I have a pretty good handle on how to fix the GI issues, I think. Ironically, one of my biggest strengths at 24-hour is my relative immunity to GI issues: I train low-carb, so I can burn more fat, and need fewer in-race calories. This time, I tried to go a little higher on calories. 168 / hour is not a lot for most people, but I train with no fuel at all on long runs, so my gut is pretty untrained. And honestly that is more calories than I need. I did my first 24 on 100 / hour. Second, I'm pretty sure that the actual trigger for the puking was the caffeine pills. This time I didn't use NoDoz, which I think has some buffering, but gelatin capsules with 200mg of pure caffeine powder. I think the unbuffered hit on my stomach was just too much. I'd never experienced this before; now I know not to do that again. With this fixed I think I am at 155-156. That I think is about my ceiling, unless I change something more radically in my training. Now that I'm basically there, that's what I intend to do. It will take some thought. Certainly I'll need to do faster long runs, perhaps try harder to increase my volume, I'm not sure. There is also the issue of my mental game, and the strong desire to quit or slow around 12-13 hours. That I am less sure what to do about. In a sense I don't have to do anything; I fought through it, which is what counts in the end, right? But it was very unpleasant, and there was a real risk I would do something stupid. Also, the slight amounts that I slowed cost me, and might not have been necessary. The mind is just too complicated – you can't beat your own mind, because it's as strong as you are! I have been doing mindfulness meditation, and episodes of mindful running, focusing intensely on all my bodily and mental sensations; I think this may be a route to further improvement here. Looking forward to Worlds, I now sit in the sixth and last team spot, with five months left of qualifying (as does Pam Smith, thanks to Camille). Conditions here were nearly perfect, and I entered firing on all cylinders... it would be hard for me to try again and beat this. There are a handful of guys who can potentially run more than 154 and knock me out. But will they? It is not so easy. I'm crossing my fingers I can finally meet my long-term goal and represent the US at the World Championships next October in Albi, France. But of course I also want us to have the strongest team possible. We'll see what happens! Thank You
Huge thanks are due to my crew Liz Hearn, Scott Holdaway, and Pam Smith. Especially, Liz and Scott have now crewed me here three times (four for Scott), and it makes all the difference in the world. It's a team effort. Thank you to Hayley Pollock, Jamil Coury, and everyone at Aravaipa running for once again putting on the US's premiere 24-hour race, this time with live, full-time commentary. That did NOT look like an easy job. But it was appreciated by all. You're raising the level of the sport here enormously. Thank you to all my competitors for making Desert Solstice 2018 a race that will go down in history. Finally, to my readers – if you made it this far, I hope you found something useful to take away!