Sunday, April 9, 2017

Run4Water 2017: My Masterpiece

With Greg Armstrong and Sue Scholl. Pic by James Suh

In the world of the game Go, there is the concept of a player's "masterpiece" – a game where you play flawlessly, yet lose by a single point. This race was my masterpiece. For once, I executed it absolutely perfectly, in my opinion. I would not change a thing. But it was not quite enough. Background For the past two and a half years, my primary running goal has been to make the U.S. national 24-hour team and represent my country at the World Championships. I was originally inspired by my friend Mike Henze, who helped pull the 2010 team to bronze in Brive, France. My first attempt in December 2014 yielded 139.5 miles, 5.5 short of making the 2015 team. But it did show that I had potential, at least. I looked forward to 2016. But then, the IAU switched the World Championships to every other year – I would have to wait two more years. At Desert Solstice in December 2015, I ran 149.24, putting me in the number four spot, of six, for 2017. But there was over a year left to qualify, and I thought that likely would not hold. The two-year wait meant more interest for fewer (average) slots. As well, the level of U.S. 24-hour talent seemed to be on the rise. Since then it has been a constant game of learning what I can from the previous race, and applying the lessons to the next race. It's a slow way to learn, with a pretty big cost per data point. But as an older runner (now 51) without a surplus of natural talent, my only chance here is to run smarter and execute better than my competitors. Anything shorter, I am just too slow to be competitive at the national level. But 24-hour is about a lot more than talent and speed. Gradually, I have been able to put together races that go perfectly for longer and longer into the race. At Riverbank, five weeks ago, I was perfect through 16 hours, hitting 100 miles at 15:30 (a big PR), exactly on my planned paces. And I still felt good; nothing hurt at all. But then I suddenly became very mentally fatigued. I walked a few laps to try to get a reset, giving up some of my possible upside. I hung on through 20 hours with some effort, but by then the difficulty in focusing was extreme – though still with no real physical pain, which seemed remarkable to me. That, at least, was a first. I thought a shot of more sugar might help jolt me awake, but instead it made me puke, which sapped all my remaining mental reserves. I mostly walked it in after that. Rich Riopel ran 152.21, finally bumping me from number four to number five. Well, I was amazed my spot had held for over a year.


I didn't write a race report for Riverbank. So for completeness, here's the lap profile.

Riverbank had been, I thought, my last chance. There were only five weeks left to qualify, too close to try again after an all-out effort. But my performance there had left a bad taste in my mouth. Not because I didn't hit my goal, but because I couldn't convince myself that I hadn't given up too easily. The going got tough, and I didn't handle it. Those are the moments when we are supposed to truly live as runners, and test our souls. It had been crystal clear to me that here it was, right in front of me, everything I had worked hard for for years, on the line. All I had to do was hold it NOW, for just a few more hours. I would be the first American over 50 to break 150 miles. I would virtually secure my team spot. And yet, I really, really wanted an excuse to quit. And I got the excuse, when I puked.

After that experience, my identity and validity as a runner were in question. That's what really hurt. And yet – where is the line between physical failure and mental failure? The brain is not immune from the laws of physics. My feeling was that this was largely nutritional. I'm not supposed to be that tired and unfocused at any point in a 24-hour. I'm very good at the objective, analytical part of running, at least for certain types of events. And I generally feel like I'm good at the subjective part too; I'm tough when I need to be. But your brain can only do what it can do, too. Over the next couple of weeks, my recovery went quicker than expected; everything felt great. I had obvious nutritional and other tweaks to make after Riverbank – again, I wanted a do-over. (Riverbank had been my do-over from Desert Solstice in December.) And Greg Armstrong let me know there was still a space for me at Run4Water. The line-up of real challengers there was growing, and I couldn't help but feel my #5 spot was at serious risk. I went so far as to write a little program to estimate the chances that at least two guys ran over 149.24: it said 64%. Hmm. Well, what did I have to lose? So I made the decision to give it one final shot. The Race Run4Water is run on a .508-mile road loop in Lebanon, TN, around a middle school. It's not 100% flat, but pretty close. The slight variation might serve to change it up a bit for our muscles. The weather in Tennessee on April 1st could be anything, but would likely be warm and humid, maybe with rain. That's what I should have hoped for to secure my spot! It generally takes good conditions to see good performances. Nobody in the U.S. broke 150 for all of 2016, primarily I think because no race had really good conditions. But I was torn. I had really wanted a solid performance over 150 to give me confidence to shoot higher at Worlds. I was getting pretty tired of coming up short. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the closer race day got, the better the forecast looked. With the likes of Jon Olsen, Steve Slaby, Phil McCarthy, Greg Soutiea, Josh Finger, Olaf Wasternack, Joe Fejes, Adrian Stanciu, and a few other fast guys toeing the line, it looked like a day for potentially big numbers. One day later, and it would have been high 70s and thunderstorms. So, I had made the right decision. I had to step up here to keep my spot. If I finished in the top two I was guaranteed at least the 6th slot. If two people beat me, then I would have to pass Rich's 152.21. I dialed in my pacing plan so that if all went smoothly, I'd hit 153.43. If I felt great towards the end I could go for more, but that was not the priority. If three people beat me... well, let's not go there.
Pic by Cheryl Renee Crowe

8 am, and we were off. With this concentration of talent, I'd been hoping to see a fast start, with nobody wanting to get too far behind. That would work very well for me, as I waited patiently for the inevitable attrition. Almost everyone goes out too fast at 24-hour. But if I'd hoped all my competition would blow up early, I was out of luck. A few shot off way too fast, but others reined it in instead. Olsen was completely out of my equations – his talent and experience were far above everyone else's. (Incidentally Olsen was also the race director at Riverbank.) If he had no injury issues or bad luck, he would easily make the team; he was in charge of his own fate. Everyone else had to have a very good day, and were racing each other for that 6th spot.


Running early with Olaf. Pic by Joseph Nance

Still, after a couple of hours the order settled down, and I found myself 11th man, with all of my expected competition ahead of me. Perfect, exactly where I wanted to be. Most people in this position would feel scared, especially as the early pacing feels soooooo easy. But I knew that I was not going too slow. If I held this pace I'd hit a big PR, and a number almost certainly good enough to make the team. Any faster would be unnecessary risk. Ergo, most of my competition were taking unnecessary risks; advantage Bob.
In the week or so before the race, after I'd decided I felt good and committed to it, a few of my chronic muscle issues had begun to rear their heads again, so I was just a bit concerned about that. Indeed, in the first several hours lots of things felt not quite right. The worst was the left hamstring, where I tore the tendons a few years ago. But I know that this tends to settle down after 30 miles or so in races, so I just sat back on my pacing and didn't sweat it.
This is the kind of thing that can mess with your head if you let it. 24 hours is a long time to stay focused, especially when your margin for success is so razor thin. It's all too easy to convince yourself that it's just not going to be your day, and that feeling can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is true in any long ultra, but it's magnified at 24-hour, because you know that there's not going to be any change of terrain to mix things up, and you have to fight the sheer boredom and repetitiveness of a short loop. Unlike a fixed-distance race, the finish does not get any closer no matter how fast you run, and there's no such thing as a black-and-white finish vs. DNF to motivate you – your result is simply however far you ran. It adds up to a unique set of mental challenges. And really, mental toughness was my biggest concern coming into Run4Water. I had gone all out in very long races way too much recently: this was my third 24-hour in four months, with Spartathlon just a couple of months prior, all of them A races. You can only go to the well so often. Especially as I thought I had not been tough enough at Riverbank, I was afraid I just wouldn't be able to step up here. But the edge I had this time was the sure knowledge that this was it; it would all be determined here this weekend.
Shirt swap! Pic by Cheryl Renee Crowe

The laps clicked off, and the day progressed. Early on we heard what sounded like a tornado alarm. Tornado?? Well that would save my team spot! No such luck, though. I should mention here the perfect logistics Greg had arranged. Portapotties were immediately alongside the course, and crew access was ideal, near the timing mat. Volunteers were available for anything you might need. My morning crew of Tanya and Cheryl made things easy for me. My pattern was to run 4:36 laps (9:03 mile pace), and walk one minute every third lap. During the walk breaks I would drink and fuel. I'd grab a small bottle from my crew, then toss it in a bin just before running again, whence my crew would retrieve and refill it. Maximally efficient. Also the tracking page had a way to send messages to the runners; my crew called them out to me again and again. I went back and looked, as the messages are logged with the results. It seems I had a lot more support messages than anyone else. I had no idea I was so popular! Thank you, RunningAhead crew, Facebook friends, and Liz!


Greg Soutiea and Joe Fejes – strong competitors. Pic by The Wilson Post
Around 2 pm my afternoon crew of Kara and Tim showed up to relieve Tanya and Cheryl, as we switched direction from clockwise to counter-clockwise. The six-hour switches helped keep things fresh; it's like running a new course. Things were still going smoothly for me. The day was cool and overcast. We were supposed to get clear skies and mid-60s in the afternoon, but when we finally did, we still had a brisk breeze to offset the sun. A few people did seem to be affected by the heat, but I guess my sauna training plus the breeze meant that I barely noticed it. I came prepared with lots of ice and sponges, but didn't use them.


With Kara Dudek Teacoach and Tim Walters. Pic by Tracey Outlaw

I enjoyed chatting with friends and getting to know new people throughout the day; the first hours of a 24-hour are comfortable and social for everyone. Before the race I had finally met Roy Pirrung, an ultrarunning legend, with many age-group records, and also one of the first Americans to have run Spartathlon.


With Phil McCarthy, American record holder for 48-hour. Pic by Sinclaire Sparkman, Lebanon Democrat 
After 8 or so hours the early leaders started to drop off, and I gradually began climbing through the ranks. My 12-hour split was about 77 miles, right on target. Before much longer it was down to Jon Olsen, Steve Slaby, and Greg Soutiea ahead of me. All of them still had several laps on me; I wouldn't be catching anyone else soon. I had promised myself I would run my own race until at least 16 hours before considering the tactical situation with the other runners, but it was hard not to look ahead. Yes, it was still early, but... if everyone stayed strong, 153 would not be enough. I would instead have to hit Harvey Lewis' mark of 157.91 to stay on the team if I finished in 4th. That would be a huge challenge, even pacing to hit it from here – a 77 / 81 split. It would be virtually impossible if I waited until 16 hours to speed up. I considered asking Tracey Outlaw to run the numbers for me; I'd left him with my magic pacing spreadsheet. But then I came to my senses. It was very unlikely for all three ahead of me to hit 158. In fact Greg had already slowed and was now maintaining his 8-lap lead on me, not gaining further. He was no longer on pace to pass Harvey. Whereas if I sped up substantially now, the risk would be high that I'd blow up. As far as I can tell, actually, there had never been a single race in U.S. history with three men over 150, let alone 158. (Desert Solstice 2014 had three total over 150, but that included Katalin Nagy.) So, I just had to hang tight for now, and make sure I eventually caught somebody, probably Greg. Jon was in his own world, but I'd thought both Steve and Greg had gone out faster than necessary. Steve was only running his second 24-hour, and had loads of talent and speed that was yet to be optimally applied here, so it was hard to know what his potential was. But Greg had run several, with a big PR of 143+ at Desert Solstice in December. That race had seemed to go very smoothly for him, and he'd had to work hard for it; he had no obvious mistakes to correct, or untapped reserves to apply here, at least that I was aware of. To have a shot at the team he had no choice but to attempt another huge PR, but he was actually aiming much higher. He just had to beat Rich's 152.21, and beat me. The four miles he was ahead of me here would have to be paid for, I was increasingly sure. At 10 pm Kara and Tim headed back to Alabama (thank you!), and Sue Scholl, veteran of many ultras, took over as crew. She hadn't planned to stay all night, but wound up helping me through the end of the race, and beyond. Thank you, Sue! As a very experienced ultrarunner and crewperson, she anticipated my every need. As we approached 16 hours, still easy and smooth for me, I looked back to Riverbank, where it seemed a switch had flipped at that point. Here I took a preventative NoDoz, the first time I'd tried that in a race. Normally I get my caffeine from Coke, but that's not as much, or as big a hit at once. I think I have a natural advantage in this kind of race due to my programming background. I pulled tons of all nighters in college, and even much more recently at startups. I'm good running through the night, and also good focusing on tasks that would mentally exhaust others. However, lately I've begun to struggle more with tiredness; the years are beginning to add up. So I took no chances. So far, so good, still holding steady. Now I was in new terrain, farther into the race still completely on track than I'd ever been before. It had been dark now for several hours, and this hit me harder than I had expected. There were street lights, but long stretches of the loop were pretty dark. Not dark enough not to see where to run – you had to watch out for the occasional speed bumps, but that wasn't too hard. However, I was accustomed to more light, having run most of my 24s on a track. I had to fight a bit mentally not to be slowed by this. When you run through the night in a trail race, you naturally slow; no big deal, everyone does. But I didn't have the margin in my pacing plan here to slow any. From here on out, I know, it gets increasingly difficult. More than once I thought back to the words of Mike Henze, my friend from the 2010 team:
The two decent races I ran - They would have to pulled me off in a hearse to stop my focus and drive toward my goals. I did not care if I died - Nothing was going to get in my way.
I could hope that the pace would feel easy the rest of the way, and the only question would be how much extra to go for, but realistically I would probably have to dig deep at some point, and I wanted to be ready to step up when the time came. Besides, there's how your body feels, and how your mind feels. The mind looks for excuses, even when the body is fine. I had already gone through many emotional ups and downs during the race, but that is normal, and habit kept me moving forward steadily. Very gradually, I began to catch up to Greg. It took maybe an hour per lap to catch up. At this rate I would just catch him by the end of the race, but I could tell he was already struggling to hold on, whereas I was still holding back, prepared to speed up if necessary. And by about 18 hours it was all over for him. So – endgame. Everything was now clear. Jon and Steve looked good to stay ahead of me and qualify. Steve could still falter, but it was looking unlikely. Nobody else was within reach of Rich's mark, so all that was left in the qualification picture, on the men's side, was whether or not I could catch Rich. For the one race that mattered, the guy I had to catch wasn't even physically in the race. But his presence was certainly felt. On the women's side, it was already settled. Gina Slaby would easily clear 140, bumping Megan Alvarado from her 6th-place spot. Megan was also in the race, as was #8 Laurie Dymond, but they had struggled early and were now out of contention. Unprecedented, shocking, that 140 was not good enough to make the women's team, or 150 the men's team. At 19:23, I broke my own age-group 200-km record by over 13 minutes – or so I thought. Later I remembered that USATF only recognizes a track, not road, record here. 20 hours – I take another NoDoz. 21 hours – now I am beginning to feel it. I do some mental math, and decide it's time to use a bit of my cushion for safety. I will finally break that magic 150, at least, but there will be no padding of my record this time. I walk a little longer on the walk breaks. All is still well... until 22 hours. I have always believed that 24-hour performance is ultimately limited by cumulative muscle damage. You think you are in a steady state, running a "forever" pace, no lactate accumulation to worry about. But it doesn't work that way. Eventually all the microtrauma even from the forever pace adds up, and you have to slow down. By starting at as slow a pace as possible for my goals, with walk breaks as well, I had deferred this point as long as possible. But here it was. Gradually, my legs began to fail. I had to take increasingly frequent walk breaks. If I didn't, my legs would buckle. My model of what was going on here is that my pool of muscle fibers able to perform at the level of my demand had dipped below a critical threshold. (Addendum – Trent Rosenbloom points out that the level of muscle damage I describe here ought to be accompanied by extreme muscle pain and rhabdomyolysis, neither of which I had. So, maybe it's back to the drawing board for other explanations. Fatigue is such a complex phenomenon.) The pace chart shows the rest of the story. The tail there probably tracks some theoretical physiological curve of progressive muscle failure. I was now relying on that inspiration from Mike Henze, to keep pushing myself to the physiological limit. Everything was on the line here: I succeed, and the past years of work will all have been justified, all the failures wiped away in an instant. I fail, and it's all for nothing. It doesn't get any more stark than that.

My masterpiece.

Everyone else now knows what's going on; everyone is following as it appears my race is on a knife edge, and cheering loudly for me. Greg, Tracey Outlaw, Mike Dobies, and Bill Schultz are calling out lap splits I need to hit.

Pic by Karen Jackson
With maybe 20 minutes left, as I hit the timing mat and slow for a walk break, I collapse and grab the timing structure, just about taking it down with me. Back on my feet, keep pushing. Now, finally, I am beginning to lose faith that I will make it. I need at least 300 laps, and I'm going to be short. Greg tries to tell me no, you don't have to complete the 300th lap; a partial lap will do. But I don't believe him. I'd put all the relevant marks in a spreadsheet; I was sure 152.21 miles was 299.9 something laps. It was actually 299.34. So for the last two laps I think I am just fighting on principle, with no real chance, but Greg knows I still have a shot.

With Jester Ed Ettinghausen, who ran 133 for his 133rd 100+. Pic by Karen Jackson

As I cross the mat for the last time, 299 done, I have about a minute and a half left. It's not enough. Even knowing two laps earlier where the actual mark was would have made no difference. I am confident I gave it everything I had – and I think anyone watching would agree. The alarm sounds, and I collapse onto the grass. Greg goes back to wheel the partial lap, but there is really no need. I finish with 152.155 miles, 300 feet short.

Pic by Adrian Stanciu
Aftermath Greg, Sue, and others hover over me to make sure I'm OK. I just want to sleep. But people are worried about me, so after 10 or so minutes I let myself be helped up and back to the school. I am surprised to see a large crowd applauding as I enter, and am given a cot to recover on. I'm surprisingly unemotional about what has just happened; it's all too much to process. But there are a lot of not-dry eyes around me. It's humbling to have affected so many people.

With Case Cantrell and Bo Millwood. Pic by James Suh

Recovering with Olaf Wasternack. Pic by James Suh

How do I feel now about the years of effort, and coming up short in the end by the tiniest of margins? Above I said "I succeed, and the past years of work will all have been justified, all the failures wiped away in an instant. I fail, and it's all for nothing."
But in the end, it wasn't for nothing; I somehow found a third way. The unique circumstances here formed a crucible in which I was pushed to my absolute limits. And I didn't give up. If Rich's mark had been a hair higher, it would have been clearly out of reach sooner. A hair lower, and I'd have reached it, not really knowing if I had plumbed the absolute depths. But now I know. In a strange way, I feel fortunate to have been given this rare opportunity to create my "masterpiece". Moreover, running is usually a selfish activity for me, but in this case it seems clear that I had a big effect on many other people, not just at the race but watching online, providing a source of motivation for their own races going forward. And that is immensely gratifying. I've been overwhelmed with the outpouring of thanks for my performance. Finally, though it wasn't my primary goal, I did become the first American over 50 to break 150 miles. That is something I worked hard for and can be proud of. Thank You Thank you to my wonderful crew of Tanya Savory, Cheryl Renee Crowe, Kara Dudek Teacoach, Timothy Walters, and Sue Scholl (with further assistance from Tracey Outlaw and Bill Schultz) for your invaluable support. I'm indebted to all of you; you helped me execute this perfect race. Thank you to everyone who was there and cheered me on. Thank you to everyone who watched online and was inspired. Thank you to my family and friends, especially Liz and Scott, who have supported me in this endeavor over the long haul. Thank you to Greg Armstrong, for organizing an absolutely top-notch event in which to provide serious competitors one final shot to make the national team. Everything about the race was outstanding. Greg is a veteran of the 2015 team himself, and thoroughly understands all the concerns relevant to 24-hour runners. Race logistics issues were completely off the table for runners to have to worry about; everything just worked. And someone was always there for anything you needed. Moreover, I'm very appreciative of the personal interest Greg displayed in trying to give me every opportunity to solidify my spot. Here is my 3rd-place plaque, which Greg obtained on his recent trip to improve water access for 5,000 people in Uganda.

From Jinja, Uganda (source of the Nile)
What's Next? I'm going to Worlds in Ireland. What? Yes, I was short, and didn't make the team. I'm first alternate. Possibly a spot will open up, probably not. But alternates are allowed to run in the race as well, just not as team members. And for the first time this year, the World Master's Association is hosting competition for world age-group titles. I can now compete on a more level playing field, with the best 50-54 year olds in the world. Realistically, I would have been at best a strong backup member on the team anyway. Six are on the team, but only the top three scores count. With the amazing, unprecedented strength of this year's team (men and women), that was unlikely to be me. The age-group title is something I can get behind. I will have some serious competition there, but I am definitely going to be in the mix. And I'm incredibly excited about that. I'll close with these words from Mike Henze, who independently arrived at the "masterpiece" metaphor.
Speed and Endurance and the amount you have of each is the baseline for performance or the canvas. 
The race strategy and sticking to it gives you brushes and technique. The problem solving on the fly are the choice of colors.  
The true beauty is in how you put everything together and the human spirit and effort you give to the race.  
Sometimes you paint a crappy picture and sometimes a good picture - But each time you race it is a beautiful experience of self discovery.
Then if the stars align and you find that absolute conviction ... You paint a masterpiece.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Desert Solstice 2016

With Greg Soutiea (L) and John Cash (R). Pics by Aravaipa Running unless noted.

The usual disclaimers apply: I write these reports mostly for myself, to get down in as much detail as I can remember everything relevant that happened, for later reference. Others will hopefully find them useful as well, but there's probably more than you'd want here for a casual read.
Well. I managed to win perhaps the most prestigious 24-hour in the U.S. (at least, the men's division!), so I should be happy, right? Yes and no. Winning was not easy, and I'm proud that I was able to fight hard enough for it. Most importantly, I've preserved my #4 spot on the qualifying list for the U.S. national team for 24-hour world championships. It's not a lock – there are still three months left in the qualifying window – but it's looking a lot safer than it did before Desert Solstice. Three guys would have to run over 149.24 miles to kick me out, and nobody has managed that for all of 2016. Also, I've now run four 24-hour races, won three of them, placed second in the other (Desert Solstice 2015) behind Pete Kostelnick's incredible 163.68, set one course record, and set two American age-group records. That's all great! But. I came into this race feeling like I was in the best shape of my life. Yes, at 51, I am not getting any younger. But I was coming off a Spartathlon performance in September that was two hours better than last year's, and last year's was already pretty damn good, if I may say so. I hit higher training mileage this cycle than ever before. I had more experience under my belt, so I could dial this in to an optimal performance. My weight was good. I felt strong, with no weak links. Anything can happen in a 24-hour, but I was very confident of at least low 150s, possibly high 150s. I ran 144.71, four and a half miles less than last year. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me set the stage.


Prelude


Desert Solstice is an invitational track race, in Phoenix, Arizona, in December, with both 24-hour and 100-mile results and awards. It's limited to 30 people; you have to run a pretty decent time or distance to get in. It's become THE place to try to qualify for the national 24-hour team. Many records have been set here. Aravaipa Running puts on a top-notch event, optimized to give the runners their best possible opportunity to put up big numbers. This year's line-up looked especially intimidating to me. There were at least half a dozen guys who could plausibly run over 150. It was my job to make sure that if they did, I ran more. It was also a reunion, of sorts: several runners I ran with at Dawn 2 Dusk 2 Dawn (D3) in May, and/or Desert Solstice 2015, were here. It was a great pleasure to see them all again (as well as D3 race director Bill Schultz). It was also a great pleasure and luxury to have dual crew support this year, from both my wife, Liz, and my good friend Scott Holdaway (who also crewed me last year). They'd be able to spell each other. Pre-race, things went smoothly. We got into Phoenix on Thursday, to have a solid Friday to relax before the race on Saturday. I got in an easy shake-out run. So did Liz, and she happened to meet Bill Schultz at the track. I'd been looking forward to introducing them. Leave it to Bill to beat me to it! He finds a way to get to know everyone. Friday evening we had the traditional meet-and-greet dinner at a pizza and pasta place, and picked up our bibs. I got to meet several of the unfamiliar faces, whose qualifications I well knew from stalking their UltraSignup profiles. But it turned out that a few of the big guns (Zach Bitter, Anders Tysk, and Olaf Wasternack) had pulled out at the last minute, and would not be joining us. Huh. Joe Fejes had handicapped the race, placing me in 4th, behind John Cash (Joe's prohibitive favorite), Anders, and Olaf. So now I had "moved up" to 2nd before the race, I guess. Others I was worried about included Josh Finger, Greg Soutiea, and David Huss. Josh I had run with at Desert Solstice last year, and at D3. He's way faster than me, and it seemed like just a matter of time before he put together a solid 24. I got to know David a bit at dinner. Joe himself had the course record here of 156+, until Pete shattered it last year. Joe insisted he was not at racing weight to make a good showing this year, but I was not counting him out either. (We had quite a duel last year.) I also knew several of the women, but didn't meet race favorites Gina Slaby and Courtney Dauwalter until during the race. It was a pleasure to finally meet Tracey Outlaw, 24-hour enthusiast extraordinaire, and manager of the U.S. National 24-Hour Team Facebook group.
With Bill Schultz and Tracey Outlaw. Pic by Liz Hearn

Before I get to the race itself, let me digress some more. The story of a 24-hour race is told, in broad strokes, by its lap-split chart. A perfect chart would be a horizontal line, totally even splits. Most actual 24-hours, even when races are won and records are set, have pretty substantial positive splits, with significant slowing. This is the chart from my first 24-hour, New Year's One Day 2014. Here the laps are 1.065 miles. The pink band is where most of the splits should be to run a really good 24-hour, good enough to make the U.S. team. As this was my first, I didn't have high hopes there, but gave it a shot. You can see I gave up on this after about 8 hours. I then held steady for quite a while, but backed off a couple more times late. Still a solid run, 139.5 miles, course record by 12 miles, and good enough to get me into Desert Solstice. The only other noteworthy feature here is the slightly spiky alternation. That's because I had no crew, and stopped briefly every other lap to drink some Coke. A pretty simple story.


Next chart, Desert Solstice 2015, run on a 400m track. The spikes are due to my planned periodic walk breaks. This chart would be great, apart from that big problem about 10 hours in. Stuff happens in these kinds of races. Sometimes you recover. Here, I ran solidly for the rest of the race, at a slower pace. The dip back to a faster pace 18 hours in is where Joe Fejes challenged me, and I responded. As he faded, I eased back to my steady post-crash pace. Still a pretty comprehensible chart, right? The story of the race is right there; it's pretty clear.
Next, D3 2016, another track race. This is somewhat similar to Desert Solstice, with a big crash 8.5 hours in, walking 15 laps. This time, I was able to get back to exactly my original pace, and hold it... until I hit 200K, just setting an over-50 American Record. At that point, no men could catch me for the win (though three women did, led by Pam Smith!), and my original goals were gone because of the crash, so I lacked sufficient motivation to continue. (Did I mention, these things are really, really hard?)
Now. What does the chart for Desert Solstice 2016 look like? Hold onto your hats. Here it is:
WTF is that???!! If this is a story, it looks like a tale told by an idiot. What happened, and what does it all mean? Well, I am still trying to figure it out. But now let's get to the race, using this chart as a reference.

... And Fugue


Conditions were great on race morning, about 49°. We got there early and set up our table, and I meandered about chatting with old friends and making new ones. 8 am, and we were off. My plan this time was to run 2:13 laps (slightly slower than last year), walking one minute every 8 laps, during which I'd drink a 5-oz flask of water, Coke, or Dr. Pepper. Liz and Scott would keep a supply filled and chilling in a cooler. To try to avert the bonk in the heat of the day, I planned to back off 10 seconds per lap after 7 or 8 hours, for a few 8-laps sets, then revert to 2:13s. That would cost me 4-5 minutes, but that would be much better than having to walk several laps. This plan would put me at 78 miles at 12 hours. Then, if I still felt good, I was going to try to increase the pace to 2:11s, in the cool of the night, and gun for Harvey Lewis' team-qualifier mark of 157.9. If I could beat that, I'd be essentially a lock for the team. If not, I had a whole range of shorter goals. But I'm getting ahead of myself again...
Setup with Scott. Pic by Liz Hearn


Pic by Liz Hearn

Early on, it was apparent that this year's race was going to be very different from last year's. In most 24-hour races, most people start far too fast. Last year, a group of six or so men were on pace for 170+ after a few hours. Of course they didn't plan to hold that pace (I presume!), but still, it was way too fast. Indeed, they all fell apart except for Pete (ran 163+). There's a psychological dynamic here that it's hard to avoid. You see all these other guys who know what they are doing (or they wouldn't be here) running like they want to hit 160+. You think, oh my God, it's going to take 160 to make the team this year; I'd better keep with them! But that's a really bad idea. I am able to resist that pull and run my own race. That race dynamic works to my advantage. This year, I thought the roster looked even more intimidating; thus, I was expecting another race out of the gates. But that didn't happen. Whether it was because the last-minute drops left us short of critical mass, or because everyone was simply running smarter this year, I'm not sure. Anyway, there went one source of competitive advantage!
With Andrew Snope. Pic by Liz Hearn

Indeed, the only people running fast (lapping us all frequently) were Kristina Pham (going for several short-distance records), Jay Aldous (going for an age-group 100-mile record), and Gina Slaby (whom we will come back to!). I had my eyes especially on John Cash and Josh Finger. They were both running slightly faster than I was, but well within the bounds of what I'd see as smart racing. John, I knew well, is a smart pacer. How he did was probably going to be a function of how his stomach held up, assuming he came in in good shape with no injuries. Josh has tended to go out too fast, but he's aware of this and working to fix it.


Crewing is hard work. Pic by Scott Holdaway

The first several hours passed without incident, as we all became more familiar with each other's faces (or backs at least), paces, and running styles. I had a few more bathroom breaks (extra spikes in the chart) than I'd have liked, but that settled down. The main thing now was to deal with the impending heat of the day. Last year, the high had been 66, which was already enough to contribute to my early crash. This year it would hit 72. So I got ahead of that early and aggressively, by switching to an absorbent cotton t-shirt and reflective armbands, and keeping them soaked with ice-water sponges that the volunteers were ready to provide. Plus I had done sauna training for the past few weeks. Josh meanwhile donned an actual ice vest, something with some kind of cooling material that you pre-chilled in ice. Also I upped my water consumption. I never felt hot, but it can sneak up on you, so I took the cooling job seriously.

Keeping cool

Though I never felt hot, I was beginning to get tired by about 7 hours in. We seemed to have already hit peak temperature, as the sky was becoming overcast. So I figured it was time for the planned slowdown, from 2:13 laps to 2:23s. I'd been thinking 24 laps (three 8-lap sets). But I didn't feel especially reinvigorated after that, so I ran one more set before speeding up again. Total cost 320 seconds. It would be well worth it if it averted my characteristic big crash. But alas, it seems to have just deferred the crash. 2:13s got harder; I decided I'd back off to 2:20s for a while and hope to get some energy back. But those got harder as well. Eventually I was in another full-on crash, walking several laps. I guess, now, this was a low-glycogen bonk, not just an effect of pushing a bit too hard in the heat. It seems I have a rough transition from carb burning to fat burning, even though I'm very adapted to fat burning. After walking 7 laps I was able to start running again, but now was unable to hold even 2:30s; each laps was progressively slower. This went on a while longer until I gave up and walked some more (second crash, 13 hours in). Surely, that would be enough to get a solid reset, as had happened in my other races? Another strange thing going on here was that I developed a ridiculous backward lean. Everyone noticed it; even my crew Scott, who is not a runner, asked me what was going on. Of course, it's hard to run efficiently if you're leaning backwards. But I didn't seem to be able to do anything about it. I did feel a bit dizzy at the run/walk transitions, again suggestive of a bonk. And maybe the dizziness contributed to lack of postural control? I don't know. By this point my race goals were beginning to look not so reachable. But on the men's side, at least, nobody else seemed to be having a great day either. This is about when Josh dropped. I saw him sitting in a chair: "Taking a break?" "Yeah, for about 11 hours." I'd pulled to as much as 11 laps ahead of John, as he'd suffered through stomach issues. Now, after two extended walk breaks, that lead was down to one lap. Padraig Mullins was well ahead of all of us. But (1) he's Irish, so couldn't kick me out of a U.S. team slot, and (2) his 24-hour PR was 133. He was shooting for 140ish. So I expected him to slow later. And Jay Aldous was still leading the men, but he was going to stop at 100. For the first time, I switched to a fresh pair shoes during a race. (That's the big spike at 14 hours, an 8-minute lap.) It wasn't easy. I tried to sit down and bend over to do it, but cramped up. I had to have Scott change them for me while I was standing. My feet felt better after this, but again I couldn't hold even a 2:30 lap. This kind of collapse was unprecedented for me, and very puzzling. During this third extended walk break, I began to get apathetic. I chatted with Joe here (also not having a great day) while walking, discussed just walking it in to get a 100-mile time and stopping. On the women's side, things were different. Gina was still moving like a machine, lapping everyone else like clockwork. What was she trying to do? It wasn't until she was close to 100 that I heard she was going for the 100-mile world record. Wow! And apparently she went in shooting to make the 24-hour team, but switched goals when her pace was so easy. She made it by two minutes, running 13:45. I had a ringside seat to see history being made. Ann Trason's record had stood since 1991. 


Machine!
Besides Gina, Courtney Dauwalter was also ahead of all of the men, including Jay. She also looked very strong and steady, and was here for the full 24. If she didn't collapse she'd have a huge number, and a team spot for sure. But by and large, the rest of the women were having a day more like the men were having. Several were trying to defend or post team-qualifying marks, but it just wasn't the day for it. Melanie Rabb managed to turn in a solid 100 miles on a broken foot(!), but couldn't continue. I was glad I helped talk Dennene Huntley into continuing for the learning experience when her 200km goal slipped out of reach. As I approached my own 100-mile mark, much later than planned, I realized there was something else here to run for – the 100-mile podium. The trophies were on a table we could see from the track, and looked pretty nice. Jay had the win locked up (he managed to set the U.S. record for 55-59, missing the WR). Greg Soutiea had passed me a while back. And Padraig was also still ahead of me. Could I beat Greg or Padraig to 100? By the time I looked at the lap counts, there was too much ground to make up. Not only that, just then John passed me as well, so I'd be 5th to 100. Ah well. With that I lost a little more oomph and slowed again (16:30 on the chart).
Yay, 100!

After hitting 100, I again walked a few laps while I sorted out what, if anything, I wanted to accomplish during the rest of the race. I had a nice long conversation with Melanie. She'd been in the 6th and final team slot, but Courtney looked pretty solid to knock her out. Padraig stopped at 100. That left me in 3rd for the men's 24 behind Greg and John. Did I want to suffer for another 7+ hours for a third-place trophy? And Andrew Snope (running barefoot, and bettering his own Guinness World Record for barefoot 24-hour) was not too far behind me, so I would have to work. But there was still a chance I could get my mojo back, and no guarantee whatsoever that John and Greg would stay strong. Indeed, John must have puked 20 times already. Then he would walk trying to get some food down, then he'd be back to running strong laps with perfect form. Again and again. it was surreal. Earlier in the day, more than once, I'd counted him out. But he doesn't give up. And now is when it gets weird (17 hours on the chart). When I finally started jogging again, not too optimistic or enthusiastic about the rest of the race, the magic and mystery started. Now, finally, 2:30 laps were easy, and I found each lap split faster than the last. Now, one other change here was that I went to walk breaks every 7 laps, instead of 8; perhaps that helped? But I think it was mostly that my body had finally recovered enough, and had fully transitioned to fat burning. My eyes widened as I saw 2:20, 2:15... 2:07?? And I wasn't pushing the pace. Finally a 1:59. This was beginning to become alarming. There was no reason to run this fast, and certainly it would not be sustainable for the rest of the race. But that was the only speed I seemed to be able to run. I caught up to Greg and John, and passed them. I was repeatedly lapping them quickly now, not by choice. As good competitors, they were both encouraging and complimentary. You have to admire triumph of the human spirit over adversity and exhaustion wherever you see it. Still, I'm sure it must have been disheartening for them. For me, it was confusing. I COULD NOT slow down. Instead, I gradually lengthened the walk breaks. When Liz relieved Scott on crew duty around 4:30 am, I pressed her for advice on my predicament. She told me I had to find a way to slow down. I lengthened a walk break to a whole lap. After that, I was able to run a few 2:10s or so, better. But I couldn't really sustain it. Without intense focus it would shift back to 2:04 or faster. It really was magical. I would be walking painfully (but, by the pace chart, much more quickly than my earlier walking spells), then when it was time to run, a switch flipped, and it was smooth and effortless; I was in a zone. I always do best in the deep of the night, when it's coolest. It was effortless, but still hurt like hell. I could easily tell my body to run, and it would, fast, but painfully. The whole-body fatigue you get after running for 20+ hours is just something you have to accept and deal with in these kinds of races. But with my distance goals gone, I didn't want to have to deal with it any more than necessary to hold on for the men's win. I wasn't paying attention to where Courtney was, but she was still well ahead of all the men. She did have a rough last few hours, when I was lapping her quickly as well, but not enough to catch her. Had I tried, perhaps I could have kept the effort level up enough, perhaps not. Once again I was destined to win the men's race, with a woman winning overall. I just didn't care at all. (In the end she ran an outstanding 147.49, the 5th-best ever by an American woman.) Anyway, once Liz told me I was 10 laps up on John, and 12 on Greg, I started walking more and more. That was my only means of pace control. I went to walking a whole lap every 6 laps, then eventually every 5. I started walking the first 100 meters of every lap. So that's all the mess towards the end of the pace chart. It looks confusing, but is pretty much explained by my motivational and tactical state. I had hoped that after I'd established a large enough lead, John and Greg might call it a day, with at least John's distance goals also unreachable. It takes an enormous amount of mental strength to keep running when there is nothing worthwhile to accomplish, and every single lap is a fresh opportunity to take advantage of a welcoming chair. Whether they might otherwise have stopped or not, though, they were locked in a tight battle for second, and neither would yield. So, I couldn't let up either. Indeed, John was now running sub-2 laps as well, when he wasn't puking or walking. Greg, amazingly, seemed to have kept a steady pace and a positive, energetic attitude for the entire race. That's how you do it, in an ideal world. I'm told that the last several hours made for very entertaining race viewing, as John, Greg, and I gutted it out. Not only can the spectators see the battle unfold, but from the inside, we competitors can all see exactly how we are all doing, as the lap differences move up and down. Only on a long track race can you get something like this. But from my perspective, at least, it was a special kind of hell. Which of us can hold our hand in the fire the longest? With about an hour and a half left, my lead was down to 7 laps, and it became clear to me that at this rate John would catch me. I had just about resigned myself to that. You get stuck in a mindset that what you are doing is the best you can possibly do. I didn't want to accept that I might be able to, and have to, work harder to hold onto the lead. But Liz told me to just keep running. And with an hour left, I realized that if I ran at all, he wouldn't be able to lap me quickly enough. I cut out the whole-lap walks, and that was enough. As the sun rose, it began to sink in that I had done it. The day had not gone at all according to plan, but I had persevered and would come away with the win. Finally, with 10 minutes to go, and my lead at 5 laps, I allowed myself to walk the rest of the way. If I stood still, John would have to run five sub-2s to catch me. Wasn't going to happen.
Pic by Tracey Outlaw


Coda


So that's that! I survived. 24 hours will eventually get there, though it seems like it won't. But though the race was over, my body was not done throwing me some curveballs. After the awards, Aravaipa wanted to do a video interview with me. But I could barely talk. My tongue felt like it was made of cotton; I had a huge lisp. The really odd thing is, Scott reminded me that the exact same thing happened after Desert Solstice last year. Some weird depletion thing, I guess; of what, I don't know.

Dorky!

So, now what? I think it's pretty likely now that my 149 will hold up to make the team. The next best chance for people to put up big numbers is probably Jon Olsen's race in late February, Riverbank One Day. If I get bumped down there, there are a few options in March for me to take another shot. Of course I'd have to be trained, and I'd rather not peak until June. But I am signed up for Umstead 100 on April 1, planned as a training run for 24-hour worlds, so it's not like I'd be completely detrained for March.
In the meantime, I have to sort out all the weird things that happened to me this race. The two thoughts that seem most likely are (1) doing a one-day carb load before a race like this is a really bad idea, making my transition back to fat burning during the race really rough, and (2) maybe 100 calories / hour is really not enough after all. I'm working with a sports nutritionist, and we're putting together a plan to test various ideas here. From that perspective, I would like to have another try before worlds anyway, but really, training for and racing a goal 24-hour are both very draining things to do, not just for me but for others around me. So I think probably I will base my decision on whatever happens at Riverbank. A hearty THANK YOU again to Liz, Scott, Aravaipa Running, Bill Schultz, Tracey Outlaw, and everyone else who was out there supporting us all. It was much appreciated!