|Now that's what I call trophies|
Background Six days. Why would anyone want to run for six days straight? That's basically been my attitude since, well, I first became aware it was a thing. True, it is one of the three fixed-time day-plus formats for which World Records are maintained (in addition to 24-hour and 48-hour) by the IAU. And true, it has a storied history going back to the late 19th century, where six-day was the NASCAR of the era, with enormous prizes, gambling, and scandals. But I see my friends do six-day races, and I think (1) that's a really long time to take out of your life (not to mention your family's) for one race, and (2) that can't be good for you. Which, OK, you can laugh at that, coming from a guy who's run ~150 marathons and ultras, with I think 12 of those being well over 100 miles, and accumulated many injuries along the way. But this is different, because of the sleep deprivation. There's a lot of evidence that cumulative lack of sleep basically means cumulative brain damage, invisibly shortening your life and worsening your end days. Six days of that is a big hit. (In all sincerity I feel that, on balance, my running is a big net positive for my physical, mental, and emotional health, and my life expectancy.) So what changed my mind? In a word: Joe. Joe Fejes and I have been fairly evenly matched rivals the past few years. We're only a couple months apart in age. I've edged him in over-50 records for 24-hour and 48-hour. But Joe has the overall, not just age-group, six-day American Record, 606 miles. And after I proved I could handle myself at 48-hour (at Snowdrop 55), Joe began to lobby me. "You can beat my mark. You can challenge Yiannis Kouros' World Record (644 miles)." Yeah right. After Snowdrop I was 100% positive multiday was not for me. I'd tested the waters, and they sucked. The suffering induced by the sleep deprivation on the second day... that was a kind of torture I'm just not made for. Not to mention, Yiannis Kouros?! And me at 52? Hahahaha! I couldn't help suspecting this was just Joe's way of getting a bit of revenge. Let's make Bob suffer! (He did say, "You can do it, but it will be a world of pain".) But I did begin to think. Joe told me 48-hour was actually harder than six-day, at least on the sleep deprivation front. To do well at 48 you have to get by on little or no sleep, but at a six-day race you will have to sleep a lot more. Some do well with a couple of hours per day, others with much more. Joe slept (or at least took sleep/nap breaks, which is really not the same thing) for almost 32 hours during his record run, really quite a lot! So... hmm. Well, it's at least worth playing with the numbers, right? Now it was a game, a challenge. There's a reason this blog is called "The Puzzle of Running". I love puzzles, and there's a big aspect of running for me that is solving puzzles. I've explored all the parameters for 24-hour; the challenge left for me there now is mostly execution. But for multiday races so many more things enter the equation, with sleep being the biggest. The main reason I am competitive, I believe, is all the analysis and planning I put into my racing and especially pacing. The greater the scope for analysis, and the less it's about pure speed, the better I do. Which generally means the longer the race, the better I do. An ounce of planning is worth a pound of VO2Max-optimized muscle. Or something like that. So I began to put together a pacing spreadsheet, just for the sake of the game. It's hard to know what is reasonable in terms of sleep and other down time without much multiday experience, but by reading lots of race reports and looking at comparative results I could at least get some plausible starting points. And it was possible to convince myself that 644 was, theoretically, doable... on paper. Everything would have to go right. Right from the beginning, that's a very tall order; the longer the race, the more you can expect that everything will NOT go right, and you will have to roll with the punches and adapt. So I worked out pacing plans for a number of goals. First, the WR. There was a narrow set of parameters there that worked at all. The next big mark would be 1,000 km; there were a few different ways to approach that, trading speed for sleep. No American in the modern era had run that; Joe's 606 = 975 km. But in the 19th century, James Albert Cathcart had run 1,000.61 km. (This mark is not on the modern record books, due to lack of certification, etc.) After that, Joe's 606. Then the over-50 American Record, 551 (also Joe's). All in all I made a table with no less than 30 relevant marks, the lowest being 800 km, which I felt sure was within my capabilities, and would be at least a podium-competitive mark in any race. If, as expected, I had to adjust my goals during the race, I had no shortage of candidates! One thing was clear: I couldn't sleep nearly as much as Joe did, because I would not be moving as fast. Joe ran essentially every lap. I would be doing a run/walk every lap. Tradeoffs! But so far this was just idle playing with numbers. Actually running a six-day race was something else. I asked around, and the consensus was that the EMU Six-Day Race World Trophy in Hungary was the place to go if you wanted a big number. That's where Joe ran his 606 (and later his 551). It's a flat loop, a little under a kilometer, with everything optimized for the runner. Everyone gets a cabin right on the course, with beds, kitchen, bathroom, etc. The timing is top-notch. The support is excellent, with constant ultra food and supplies at the aid station, real meals provided every six hours, and a 24-hour medical staff. But... the timing was not great for me, in early May. My wife Liz's spring adventure was being a National Park Service volunteer in Colorado during the month of April. So I also looked at Sri Chinmoy Six-Day, in late April, in New York. But (1) to put the required effort into a six-day, I really wanted the optimal venue, and (2) that would mean missing the Boston Marathon. Again. I'd run it 11 years in a row, but then missed the last two. I'd begin to feel like a bit of an idiot if I registered and then didn't run three years in a row. Then things changed when the Park Service revised Liz's schedule, pushing everything back a couple of weeks. All of a sudden EMU made sense. (Relatively speaking! With Badwater in July and Spartathlon in September on my calendar, I was still setting myself up for a pretty challenging gauntlet.) So... I was in! Exciting!!! And certainly intimidating.
Now it was down to logistics, with crew being the top priority. I was extremely fortunate to line up Mike Dobies, who crewed Joe to his 606, and my best friend Scott Holdaway, who's crewed me at many races. Mike is the consummate numbers guy and race analyst, and Scott knows my mental states better than anyone except Liz. Mike also gave me tons of intel on the race, as he's crewed there several times. The next aspect of logistics is nutrition. When I had thought about six-day in the past, which was not often, I'd thought of it as outside my wheelhouse nutritionally. I train low-carb so that I can fuel races mostly with body fat and require less calorie intake during the race. I think this is a big advantage for me at 24-hour, Spartathlon, and 48-hour. But six-day is a different regime. Marathons are about carbs, ultras are about fat; you can't store enough carbs. But for very long ultras it changes again, because you can't store enough fat either, or else you have to fat load, taking a weight penalty. So it's about getting the calories in. But this is exactly what I am not trained for. On balance, though, I decided my body fat-based fueling was still an advantage. It would last me at least a few days, and the slower overall pace, plus sleep breaks, meant that getting more calories in would not be the challenge it would be for say a 24-hour. Even so, with plausible numbers filled in it looked like I might burn ~12 pounds of body fat and another ~6 of muscle mass. I didn't have that fat to lose. So I would have to try hard to get in extra calories. And there are so many more aspects of logistics! My experience in 24-hour and longer races would help, but 48 to six-day is a huge leap. Perhaps foot care was next on my list of concerns. My blister-management "strategy" is generally to get blisters and run through them. That is painful but works, sort of, up to 48-hour. It wouldn't work for six days. But I ran out of time to fully do my homework here, and blisters were indeed an issue. My training leading up to the race went reasonably well, though I didn't hit my original mileage goals. I have chronic issues with left Achilles and right peroneal tendons, and the Achilles was limiting me. After having issues with leaning in a few races, I'd worked with my physiotherapist and was diligent with my core and glute exercises. Another concern was anterior calf muscle/tendon tears, which I had experienced three times after long loop ultras – and in the case of Snowdrop, during the race, limiting my performance the last several hours. Here I was crossing my fingers that the past bouts of injury had battle-hardened the tissue. These injuries were always in slightly different places, supporting this view, and Joe had had similar experiences. By this point I'd hit every major muscle on each side. Also I expected that the slower pace, with more walking and more sleep, would help. Nonetheless more eccentric anterior calf exercises would have been wise. Joe even pointed me to some. I didn't do them. There was just too much to focus on; I couldn't do everything. Unfortunately this oversight would turn out to be consequential. For the first time I did some focused walk training, after observing in my spreadsheet the huge difference that a fast walk would make. Here I would walk on a treadmill, typically starting it at 15:00/mile pace and gradually speeding up to 13:00. I think this helped quite a bit; I had perhaps the fastest walking pace at the race except for the actual, accomplished, race walker, Ivo Majetic. (Thanks to David Holmen for the suggestion!) As long training runs I did a local trail marathon, then Umstead 100 four weeks before EMU, with Boston the following week. I ran all of them at an appropriately low effort level, and felt that the effort and recovery were pretty positive indicators. I did have a brief scare with the Achilles during Umstead, but a little topical Voltaren gel took care of it nicely. On balance I felt well poised for a solid result. As race day approached, I wound up with a nasty cold after my long SFO -> North Carolina (Umstead) -> Nashville -> Atlanta -> Boston -> SFO trip. Not unexpected after so much travel, but annoying nonetheless. But it should be resolved just in time. The final week was spent perfecting my custom drink mix. I've had good luck with Maurten 160 in recent races; also Maurten was very kind in rushing me some mix gratis before Snowdrop as I had mis-planned delivery. But I'd decided I wanted something a little more concentrated, and with a little less salt. You have to mix Maurten at the right concentration, or it doesn't work correctly. My kitchen looked like a mad scientist's lab for several days as I adjusted concentrations of maltodextrin, sucrose, fructose, pectin, sodium alginate, BCAA powder, and salt until I got something that worked right, testing the magic hydrogel property with a bit of squirted lemon juice to simulate the pH change of the stomach. It was fun, but a lot more work than I'd expected. I tested it on a 20-mile track run with my planned EMU pacing and drink frequency. 20 miles isn't six days, but so far so good anyway. Then, there was the tedious work of preparing 94 drink-mix packets in little ziploc bags, each good for four 4-ounce drinks! Half my large suitcase was filled with shoes, and most of the other half with mountains of drink packets. Fearing TSA, I stuck an ingredient list in each large bag.
|Hopefully I have enough shoes|
I got into Budapest on Monday evening; race start was Thursday noon. Scott and Mike were already there. This gave us a day and a half to play tourist before taking the train to Balatonfüred on Wednesday afternoon. I wished I'd had more time, but as it turned out I had more time to be a tourist after the race than I'd expected. In our day plus Scott and I visited the Chain Bridge, Buda Castle and the surrounding complex, the labyrinth where Count Dracula was imprisoned (really), the Terror Museum, and the shoes along the Danube. Mike clued us in to the excellent public transit system and the local food scene.
|The view from the top of Buda Castle|
The Race – Day One
A word about nomenclature. The race consists of six 24-hour periods, "days", but those are exactly out of phase with solar / calendar days. During the race it was easy to get confused about what "day" it was, as the third morning was still part of the second race day. Anyway I'll label time here with race (noon to noon) days. Finally, noon, and we were off! I was really doing it: starting a run that would, if all went well, last for SIX DAYS. What the hell was I thinking.
For the first few laps I calibrated my walking stretch to keep the laps at 6:20. Each lap was 0.5759 miles, or 926.82 m. That's an average moving pace of 11:00/mile, but my estimated running pace was 9:20, with 2:32 walk breaks. My execution strategy was simply to run as slowly as comfortable, and walk enough to keep the laps at 6:20. The course is asphalt, pretty flat, but with some small variations that would become more noticeable as the race wore on. There was one very short hill that already counted as such even from the beginning, next to the bathrooms. That was a walk spot. Unfortunately my cabin, where Scott and Mike were set up, was near the start of a long straightaway on a very slight downgrade, the ideal spot to be running. But I'd planned to be walking when I passed the cabin, for crew communication and for drinking. Ah well. I played with the balance here throughout the race.
|Our cabin was right where it says "Joe Fejes"|
From the beginning, it was hot. Frustratingly, I'd been unable to find my arm sleeves as I packed. I'd planned to put ice in them. And somehow I had not packed my desert hat with the sun flap, ideal for putting ice in. Though I'd seen the forecast, I think I'd had a bit of weather denial. I was going to run a big number, therefore it wouldn't be that hot. Oops. The same mentality led me to not pack a cotton t-shirt. This is ideal for hot if it's not too humid: you keep it soaked, and it cools you very effectively. Here, it was humid (t-storms supposedly coming), but it still would have worked. I started in a singlet, but soon switched to short-sleeve as it held more water. I tried ice under the hat but it didn't work that well. Fortunately there was a sponge station on the course (right where it says "Julia"). You grab a sponge (I often grabbed two), soak yourself, and toss it in a bucket around the corner. Once I got into a groove here I actually stayed pretty comfortable, though it was frustrating when occasionally the station would be unmanned for a while and I'd go several laps with no sponges available. The afternoon unwound at a leisurely pace. Every third lap I'd grab a bottle of drink mix, giving me about 160 calories per hour. That's more than I usually get, but with the new drink mix I could tolerate it well. Other laps I'd grab a bottle of water to thirst. The 6:20 laps made tracking easy. I just kept the cumulative laps at multiples of 6:20, a whole minute every three laps, just when it was time to drink. Any time I stopped I stopped my watch. This way, it's easy to keep average moving pace calibrated to within a fraction of a second of goal pace. Overkill to be sure, but reassuring. The system is nice for as long as it lasts. But as I learned at Snowdrop, when it doesn't, you have to adapt and not mentally fall apart just because things aren't neat and tidy anymore. Other programmed tasks: every three hours, supplements; every 12, weight check. You can't win a six-day race on day one, but you can certainly lose it. I had my eye on who was lapping me frequently. Odani, as expected. Molnar. Thwaites occasionally, but not too often. Joe had predicted that Odani would go out fast and lead after the first day, and falter after that. I don't wish my competitors ill, but I do feel much more comfortable when I am several places back well into the race. That means that if I'm running even for a good mark, my competitors are either running faster than necessary and will pay for it later, my advantage, or they will do better than I could do anyway. Given that I was pacing for the WR, the latter was not a big risk. Others have a different attitude. Joe is very type-A, and likes to lead throughout. It's easy for me to see this as bad strategy, but the fact is, the mental game is everything in these races, and anything you can do to keep yourself engaged and positive is good. Nonetheless I think I'm fortunate that I get a visceral feel of comfort when others are ahead early. I'm where I want to be. Let my competitors have the pressure of holding on to their leads, while I hang back, take it easy, and wait patiently. For several hours I was looking for Schwerk; I had yet to identify him. In addition to having a large pile of incredible results, he's famed as a very tactical runner. He'd been in a tight race with Joe two years earlier. Eventually I saw him, I guess running a similar pace to me. But it wasn't long before he slowed quite a bit and acquired a large rightward lean, and was running with his arm in a sling! Mike would say he was playing possum, poor slow me, I'm no threat. I didn't see how he could last long running like that. But he kept going, and going, and going, rarely stopping at all. He's one of those who get by on very little sleep, catching you while you are down. I was shocked at one point to discover he was ahead of me. Sometime the first afternoon I got some walking form tips from Ivo Majetic, who was walking the entire race, at a good clip, going for an unofficial walking World Record (there were no walking form judges present). Using my arms more effectively, my walk got a bit better. (Charlotte later told me, "your walk is f-ing awesome", as I fretted about my pace.) At 7:00 pm, it was time for "dinner", and my first scheduled break. I planned major breaks (an hour and 40 minutes) every noon and midnight, except of course for noon at race start, and minor breaks (20 minutes) every six hours, or actually spaced about five hours between the major breaks. That way I'd have a break every meal time. The first day was special, because lunch was at 2:00 and dinner at 7:00 to accommodate the late breakfast and noon start. Anyway the provided meal didn't look that appealling, so I asked Mike to make me a grilled cheese sandwich, which was delicious. 20 minutes down was a nice respite. At some point in here it began to rain a bit, but it was never more than a light drizzle; the forecast thunderstorms never materialized. Otherwise, the evening progressed without incident. It was a bit of a relief when the sun went down, but it stayed warm and humid for quite a while longer. As it got dark I took my first NoDoz (200 mg caffeine), then another half of one a couple hours later. The effect of the caffeine was very noticeable. The loop got a lot shorter! I had to walk much more of it to keep the laps at 6:20. Finally it was midnight, another "meal", and my first chance to try to actually get significant sleep. For this I took my shoes off, and put my eye mask on and my earplugs in. I don't think I got much if any sleep. There's inevitable overhead, and it takes a while to get to sleep; it's hard to get comfortable as your body starts to let through those pain signals that are masked while you're running. It wasn't long before Scott was shaking me awake. Ugh. Time to rotate shoes (I had three primary pairs of Hoka Clayton 2s, and four backup pairs of different shoes). Another NoDoz. And... now, finally, at 2:00 am, it was perfect conditions. Back to my thin singlet. I found it almost impossible to run as slow as 6:20; I'd be walking a huge amount. I hemmed and hawed, consulted with Mike. Should I take advantage of the conditions, run 6:15s for a while, then make it up with slower laps in the heat of the day? I was determined not to get ahead of my pacing plan. But there was a problem. I can't easily count off three-lap blocks while adding multiples of 6:15. So I ran 6:10 laps, still very easy, for several hours. Then when the sum was X:30 or X:00 I knew it was time to drink. At 7:00 am it was time for breakfast and my next 20-minute break. Mike made me some bacon and eggs. Up again, more NoDoz, back at it, 6:20s again. The day warmed up quickly, back to short-sleeve to hold more water, lots of sponges. So far so good. As the race progressed I met and chatted with several runners on the course. The atmosphere was very supportive and energizing, from the other runners as well as their crews. Diana Kämpe saw my Spartathlon shirt: she'd run it last year, and would be running again this year. See you there! I eventually worked up the nerve to try to chat with Wolfgang Schwerk. I asked him about two of his records that are somehow not on the official IAU records list, most notably his 1,010-km 6-day at 52. That was significantly better than the recorded age-group World Record of 981 (609 miles). Which put me in an awkward spot. If I somehow managed to run 609, should I submit it to IAU as a record? This needs to get resolved. He was very frustrated at all of the "bullshit" he blamed "them" for, but I couldn't quite figure out who "they" were, race organizers, IAU, or someone else.
This time I took an Advil before going down, expecting that otherwise it would be difficult to lie comfortably. Again, I don't think I got much sleep. The idea behind the 1:40 breaks is that you really need about an hour and a half of good sleep to get much benefit, one sleep cycle. But with overhead, plus time to get to sleep, I really wasn't getting that. Scott wanted me to shorten the midnight breaks and lengthen the noon breaks, to run less in the heat of the day, but I was reluctant to make it even harder to get enough sleep during one of my major breaks. And really the heat wasn't bothering me that much as long as I stayed wet, at least perceptually. But no doubt it was taking an additional physical toll. On being roused, now I was feeling pretty beat up, and not very refreshed. It was time to switch socks as well as rotate shoes, and I could tell my feet weren't in great shape. I drained some blisters, but thought maybe I'd better let medical treat them and tape the problem spots (mostly the little toes). I'd taped them before the race but had done a lousy job. I also gave the New Balances a try to change things up from the Hokas. So, right away, I took a 20-minute overhead hit for foot care and massage. Boom. Most of my day-two budget. Well, I knew that the overhead in my pacing plan was optimistic. I would not worry unduly if I had to back off my WR goal. I'd just wanted to give myself the chance.
Still, I think that set the tone for the day; I was in a bit more of a negative space. The NBs weren't feeling great and I switched back to Hokas. It's pretty silly to be in day one of a six-day race and think "things are great; I'm going to run a World Record!". Like the bowler who was so excited about his perfect game that he blew the second frame. Yet, that's the state of mind I'd been in, and losing it was a change. Also, I've run several 24-hour races; my body and brain know what to expect there. Spartathlon takes a bit longer, but not much. But at Snowdrop, I'd had a dramatic change at the start of the second day. My Garmin died. I tried to actually speed up to try to hit the American Record. My head was very fuzzy and I just couldn't think straight. Day one, everything had been very regimented, and gone off like clockwork. Day two was a totally different world. Here I would have SIX days. And already I could sense the same kind of change. I was out of my comfort zone. Also by now I was beginning to second-guess my caffeine strategy. Was it really doing me any good? Or just keeping me from getting decent sleep, by borrowing time that would just have to be repaid shortly anyway? The caffeine lows were bad. I got back into a good groove and held it together through the afternoon, still on comfortable 6:20s, staying wet and cool in the heat. I'm not sure whether I forgot I had those 6:10s to make up for with 6:30s, or what; maybe I just lumped that together with the unused overhead from day one. Somewhere in here Odani had begun to have problems, just as Joe had predicted, and was gone from the course. Molnar had slowed quite a bit. I'm not sure exactly when, but Thwaites and I took over solid 1-2 positions. This wasn't really where I expected or wanted to be so early in the race. But from here on, I got more and more supportive comments about how strong I looked and how inspiring I was, which certainly helped my attitude. There is of course a certain amount of "renormalization" one has to apply here – I know my running form looks slightly silly, for example – and I'm sure everyone else received many compliments as well. As well they should have. They were running for six days! The 7:00 pm break was again a nice respite, and I did feel it helped. But things would very shortly go south. I started the next lap without my chip. Fortunately someone pointed it out before I'd gone too far; I went back to get it. Then on the very next lap, I happened to see an older gentleman take a bad fall by the side of the course, and stopped to help him up. I didn't think to stop my watch to count it as overhead. Which meant that I then had to hurry to catch up to pace. The lap was only 20 seconds slow, but I'd run too fast, and when I ran the next one at 5:46, I was working too hard. Somehow from there things quickly spiraled out of control. This was a price I was paying for being a slave to my watch; my careful pacing is a double-edged sword. I tried running 6:30 laps; that was no longer easy. What could I do??? This was ridiculous. I was not even halfway through day two. I'd been much farther ahead at this point at Snowdrop with no problem, running faster. But the difference is, I didn't have four more days ahead of me at Snowdrop, and my brain knew that. Endurance is enormously about anticipatory regulation. If you think you can't hold pace, then you can't. I was getting into a bad mental space, and it was having a huge impact on my sense of effort. I could recognize this fact, but do little about it. I found myself walking, asking Charlotte for advice. She told me what I knew: I just had to get hold of myself; it was just a bad emotional state that would pass. I knew that. But I didn't "know" that. Mike walked with me as well for a bit, and the three of us decided it would be wise to reset my goal back two steps, to the 606 American Record, skipping over 1,000 km. I don't recall now why that skip seemed reasonable, but it did, to all of us. 1,000 km still seemed too intimidating to me. A lap or so later I dove into the cabin to select a new pacing plan from my list on my spreadsheet and plug it in, on Mike's laptop. Now I would run 6:30 laps, take 25-minute and an hour 50-minute breaks, and get much more allocated overhead time per day. That decided, running was easy again. My brain could relax, with all that extra room. (As an aside, I think I understand a little better now what happened to me at 24-hour Worlds in Belfast last summer. I was pacing aggressively for a big PR. Everything was great, until 15 hours in, I began to sense I was using a bit too much effort. I backed off my pace, which didn't help; I backed off again, still it was no easier. Eventually I was walking, to try to get a reset. But for the first time in a 24-hour, I never really recovered. I think now that this was much more about my lack of confidence once I felt a bit tired becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy than it was anything physical. The brain is by far the most important organ involved in ultrarunning.) Then things were OK... for a while. As the second evening wore on I found myself more challenged. This was just like at Snowdrop. I just could not face the impending second night. All the little problems seemed to happen at once and add up. Adding 6:30s while keeping track of which laps to drink took more effort. I was constipated. The bathroom was swarmed with little bugs at night. I grabbed my MP3 player to get an energy boost, but it had the opposite effect. It was a new one I'd bought just before the race, and while it was very light and had lots of memory, the interface SUCKED. I could not use it at all in the dark, and the bone-conduction headphones cut out too much sound from the environment. Again, just like Snowdrop, when I'd gotten frustrated with my iPod shuffle the second night because it would only play stuff I wasn't in the mood for, or stuff I'd already heard. Thus the larger memory on the new player. But eventually I just tossed it in frustration. Not only was it not working; it was making the cognitive task of tracking lap splits plus drink times impossible. Finally, at 10:30, I just couldn't take it anymore. This was a much bigger meltdown. I stopped and told Mike and Scott what was up. Something had to change. I wasn't getting any quality sleep, maybe because of the caffeine, maybe because the breaks were too short. It was too early for my midnight break, but we decided I should go down for a few hours anyway. We could sort things out after that. Again, just like Snowdrop, where I had to take an unplanned hour-long nap – a huge hit relative to my goals there – before I could face the second night. It's funny. Navigating these mental and emotional spaces is really, to me, what ultrarunning is all about. You experience reality in ways you never do otherwise; you learn things about yourself you wouldn't otherwise. I've experienced the lows firsthand several times; generally, the knowledge that they will pass is enough to keep me going until they do. And every time this happens adds more confidence for the next time. It's much easier to keep going if you can trust your future self to keep going as well. Yet, here I was failing to do so in exactly the same way, in my second multi-day race. Knowledge wasn't doing me any good. The thing is, the brain is a physical thing too; it has physical needs, and I think they just weren't being met. Plus, the second-night sleep deficit is something I just don't have a lot of experience handling yet, and the thought that I might not be able to handle it adds in to the self-sabotaging expectation of failure on succeeding nights. The "sleep" break this time was one of the most bizarre, dissociative, and unpleasant experiences I've ever had, perhaps like a bad drug trip. First, I began to convince myself that I was done, that I was giving up and just couldn't continue. I felt enormous shame at this, especially in light of everything Mike and Scott were doing for me. But even more, I had totally lost my sense of identity and reality. I imagined conversations with Scott and Mike where I was trying to explain that I just couldn't reconnect to my brain or to reality; I couldn't figure out how. Who, what was I? There was a piece of existence I just couldn't get a handle on. Was I sleeping? How would I know? How does one sleep? In hindsight, I find this very fascinating, and perhaps a positive development. It reminds me very much of states I'd get into in college when I would be learning a new programming language and pulling lots of all-nighters. I'd begin to think in that language, badly, and for example be unable to sleep because I couldn't figure out how to evaluate the sleep function. This always indicated some kind of learning and consolidation taking place. This time, if I was learning more about how to handle these tough mental states, that's good news going forward. It's been a very long time since I've had such an episode. In a way it makes me feel more alive, to still be learning like that, in a way that fundamentally affects my brain. At the time, though, it was pretty horrible. When I "awoke", I was slow getting started. My feet hurt quite a bit; while I'd been "sleeping" I was thinking one reason my race was over was extreme plantar fasciitis. I applied some Voltaren gel, but already they didn't hurt quite so much. I had some food, and got going again. I'd been down for about three and a half hours. And... whether it felt like I'd slept or not, I'd definitely gotten a good reset. I realized that I felt fine; my mind and my body were back in the game. Of course it was the cool part of the night again, and it was hard not to run fast. I think this time I'd also forgone the NoDoz, feeling that it was just sabotaging my sleep. Mike had to slow me down as I was logging laps in the 5:40s. I guess at this point I was running without a plan, having already fallen off the sleep schedule for 606, but I don't recall now what I was thinking beyond just keep moving forward. I did actually have a buffer on 606, because the first day was run at 644 pace, so maybe I was thinking I was still on track for 606 here? I wish I could remember. I do remember that starting this morning, Mike and Scott kept track of my drink lap parity for me. So I wasn't tracking or counting; I was just running, and drinking when told to. That was a lot easier, though normally I'm much more comfortable when I know exactly where I am – I prefer to be mentally engaged with my pacing. Not this time. Around 5:00 am my left popliteus, or maybe hamstrings, anyway something behind the left knee that had been bugging me, became a big enough issue to try to get massaged out. It was tight and painful. But I don't think the work helped any. After that I ran 6:30ish laps for a couple more hours, until it was time for my midmorning break. I can see all the lap split data, but I don't remember anything about this break now. It was 50 minutes, not sure where that came from, certainly longer than it should have been. Maybe a leisurely breakfast. Alas, I didn't make notes soon enough after the race, traveling without my laptop. But right after this break was when my race ended, though that played out in slow motion. Just one lap after the break, I noticed an all-too-familiar pain in my left anterior calf. I stopped to look at the area with Mike, and uh-oh, there was a red patch there, just above the ankle timing band. I'd had this kind of thing too many times, but I'd never seen that bruising/discoloration during a race before, only the day after. To me this indicated a muscle tear, probably lower tibialis anterior. It wasn't something I could run through, with four days left, and trying to do so would just increase the damage and risk complete rupture. I walked to medical, expecting they would likely pull me. But they didn't. First they applied some cream and gave me some kind of anti-inflammatory cocktail. Then I was told I had to have it iced for 15 minutes. I tried to explain that I was in second place, and I couldn't afford that. There was a language barrier, but the response was clear: "If you go out like that, race ended. 15 minutes is nothing in this kind of race." Well OK then, 15 more minutes it was. Total cost, though, 38 minutes.
Noon again, time for a major break. Since the long, contorted break, this day had been quite different. No caffeine, and I felt fine, not tired at all. I think the forced medical breaks were giving me some useful rest, as I just lay on my back on the table. I napped for an hour 50, still on my sleep schedule for 606, though the medical breaks pretty clearly were taking that off the table. When I woke, I checked the numbers. Day one, 117.5 miles; day two, 82.5. Ugh. If I wanted to hit even 551, the age-group American Record, I'd have to average 88 miles for the remaining four days. Or for 900 km, 90 miles per day. It seemed unlikely. Yet, there'd been two big medical hits on day two, plus the extra-long sleep. If I could avoid any more major problems maybe it was still possible. It's not uncommon to see big day ones, low day twos, and then some recovery. Back to medical, more cream and icing, but now the cost was only eight and a half minutes. It was becoming routine. And as the afternoon wore on, miraculously, I stayed in great shape. No caffeine, and I wasn't tired at all. I had Mike run some numbers for me to catch up to the new reality. What do I have to do to hit 551 miles, or to hit 900 km (559)? A few laps later he handed me several options on a sheet of paper. The numbers were encouraging. If I averaged 6:43 laps while moving I'd have six and a half hours of down time per day. That broke down to about two hours mandatory in medical to treat the leg, three hours of sleep per night (as that seemed to work better than two shorter breaks), an hour of unknown medical overhead for new issues, and half an hour for miscellaneous overhead (bathroom etc.). Total down time on my initial plan was only about four and a half hours per day. Given that the medical breaks were double-duty, as I got useful rest then, this seemed eminently reasonable, downright luxurious. OK, 900 km it was. That would still be an age-group record, and likely competitive for the win. By day three the strain was showing on Mick Thwaites as well. I observed a pattern, which Mike confirmed. (Mike had sophisticated tracking spreadsheets set up, that did much more analysis than just who was ahead by how much.) When Mick would restart after a nap, he'd run very fast, sub-6 laps. These would gradually slow, to the point where I'd be catching up. Then he'd go down for a break again. At one point during the afternoon I lapped him four times in a single hour! And evidently at one point I caught up to just four laps down, in spite of my issues and slowing. So yes, if I could hang on, I was still very much in contention. I was somewhat dumbstruck by my newfound energy and attitude. Joe says day three is the toughest in a six-day, but for me it was the easiest (so far!), except for my injury. Mentally and emotionally I felt great, still not at all tired. 4:00 pm, back to medical. By this point, towards the end of my two-hour run periods the leg was beginning to hurt again. Kati, who treated me, asked what the pain level was on a scale of 1-10. 3-4, I said. I was supposed to go back at 5:00 for my next anti-inflammatory cocktail. OK, done, but no icing this time, so no real break... and now she didn't want me back for another two hours? Hmmm. I'd wanted that break! But I was still not very tired, feeling pretty good, apart from the gradually worsening leg. 7:00 pm, and now the process was too streamlined, in and out with cream and ice in only six minutes. And the pain level was greater. Here I began to try to get my laps a little more consistent, to get a feel for what 6:43 looked like. I walked exactly the same stretches for four laps, then asked Mike to average the splits. 6:52, that's what I'd been afraid of. OK, let's try running some of that... a few more laps... what, 6:22s? That couldn't be right; I'd only walked slightly less. Unfortunately those few faster laps had hurt quite a bit. So I had to go back to medical a little early, before 9:00 pm. This time, after the treatment, it was no better, and I stopped back in on the very next lap. What more could she do? Nothing. What do I do if I can't run? Rest. Will that help? Yes. I was doubtful, knowing how this kind of injury progresses. Resting just accelerates the inflammation as fluid is allowed to build up. But I had no other options at this point, so I took an hour and 15-minute nap. Back to medical on the next lap, more treatment, no effect. I tried to run, and was immediately hopping on one leg, the pain was so intense. It was painful just to walk the rest of the loop back to my cabin. Mike and I deliberated. What more could I do? One question remained: if I had to walk the rest of the race, was 800 km on the table? I walked a lap and timed it, just under 10 minutes. To hit 800 km at that pace I'd have only about three hours of down time per day total, including the required medical overhead. Not realistic. Plus, even walking was getting progressively more painful. It looked like my race was over. Trying to move through that injury would almost certainly increase the damage, putting Badwater and Spartathlon at risk, and would still not even let me reach my minimum goal. But I might as well sleep on it and see what it felt like in the morning. There was nothing more to be accomplished now. As I went to bed I updated Facebook to let people following know what was up, and that I was likely done. I slept all night, and when I woke up, I had a few Facebook suggestions. Why had I not tried taping? Why indeed. I had some Kinesio tape with me. After a little YouTube research Mike and I tried one taping method and I walked another lap. Still very painful. I thought about it a little more and realized that that taping was actually designed to enhance tibialis anterior activation, which was exactly the wrong thing. After poking around a little more we found a more appropriate taping, and tried that. There was an immediate effect as I walked around the cabin. But walking another lap was still just as painful, if not more so. That was basically that. I didn't hand in my chip yet, but I saw no effective way to continue. I went back to bed for a bit, then got up to watch the race go by.
Day Four Mostly I just sat by the side of the course and watched, taking some photographs. Around 3:30 I tried walking another lap, just in case. Nope, hurt even worse.
|Mike says Wolfgang is smiling because he knows he's beaten me|
|Congratulations to Mick and Kristina. Pic by Szilvia Őszi|
|Kristina Paltén showing how you win a six-day race. Pic by Szilvia Őszi|
|At Memento Park, the world's only cubist statue of Marx and Engels|
Takeaway Of course I didn’t plan on my race ending less than halfway through. And of course I feel angry and frustrated after so much time, effort, and expense. But I don't feel it was a waste, at all. I learned an enormous amount. The amazing thing about six-day is that you have time not only to learn during the race, but even to apply what you have learned – in the same race! In only two and a half days, my strategy (mental, pacing, nutritional, sleep...) evolved significantly. I went through a very rough patch on the second night, but by the third day I was in a much better place, with execution that felt sustainable. I wasn't a bit tired all day. I was solidly in second, with prospects of competing for the win, and hitting some records. I felt like I'd been tested and passed, giving me more confidence for next time. The real disappointment is not that I didn't reach my goals, but that I didn't get to experience how sustainable my new attitude and plan actually were. Possibly every day is a totally different world? I will have to wait 'til next time to find out.
I was gratified that so many potential problem areas were non-issues. Nutrition. Chafing. Cramping. Overall muscle fatigue. Leaning. Achilles. Peroneals. But it just takes one thing...
I did come away with a much better appreciation for what these numbers mean. On paper they are just numbers, but after running they become real. 644 miles, that's just another planet. 900 km seems to me like it should be within reach barring this type of catastrophic injury; there's a ton of room there for easy pacing and lots of down time (easy to say for someone who didn't even make it halfway this time, true!). But there is HUGE daylight between that and 606 miles. Of course it's the American Record, it should be tough, but I am now much more impressed with it. Kudos, Joe.
Back to my original question: why would anyone want to run for six days straight? I'm a little ashamed to have presented a picture where I tried it only for a shot at records and glory. The reality is a little more complicated. I love running, I love meeting new and interesting people, and I love exploring reality from new and challenging perspectives. But to take on something of this magnitude, I needed a little more, a little push. The goals, the records, are part of the meta-game for me. I use them to motivate my training and frame my races, but the payoff is actually the experience itself, not the prizes.
Thank You I’m incredibly thankful and indebted for the support of Scott Holdaway and Mike Dobies in traveling halfway around the world to crew me for so long. Anything I needed, it materialized. Any calculation I required, it was done and in my hands on a slip of paper. I must say we made a formidable team. Thank you to Liz for allowing this crazy adventure, and more generally all the training and focus these races require. Thank you to Joe Fejes for all the encouragement and advice, and for pushing me kicking and screaming into this new world. Maybe next time I'll live up to your predictions. Thank you to Mark Dorion for pre-race advice and a care package of backup shoes! And thank you to everyone else who offered advice and tips for moving up to six-day. I appreciate it. Thank you to Jenő Horváth, Zoltan Ispanki, and the rest of the EMU team for an incredible race experience. Thank you to Katalin Kiss and the rest of the medical staff for holding things together for a bit longer as I started to fall apart. Experiencing that third day was very valuable to me. EMU is truly the place to be for six-day. I'll be back.