Friday, May 27, 2022

6 Jours de France 2022

I came into this race with big goals. I had been champing at the bit to try 6-day again since I ran 530 miles at the Dome in 2019. I learned a lot there, and I feel I've become a much better multiday runner since then. My course record at Vol State last year, especially, gave me confidence I could aim higher. So I made a plan for the American Record, Joe Fejes' 606.24 miles. I can't say I thought it was likely I'd hit it, but I thought I needed to try. The next fallback goal would be 900 km (559 miles), then PR (530+ miles), then the 55-59 age-group American Record (Joe's 501.77 from the Dome last year). Barring disaster, I felt at least the last should be possible, and likely something in the range of 900 km. In addition to mileage goals, I'd be looking to win the race. My chief competition would probably be Olivier Chaigne, who had won here several times previously.
But the performance goals are only half the story, or maybe less than half. As I've run more multidays, I've unlocked very powerful emotional and spiritual experiences during and after races. The goals help motivate and structure the effort, but I've realized that in the end, it's the experience that counts. I was excited and curious to see what new perspectives and insights this effort would yield. One side benefit of this attitude is that I was able to continue without too much depression when all of my performance goals were gone. 6 Jours de France takes place on a pretty flat asphalt loop in a beautiful campground in the Ardèche region of southern France, near Vallon-Pont-d'Arc (it's a new course this year). Each loop is 1,131.28 meters. It features a long straightaway that you run in each direction, so you are always seeing people. The course is largely shaded, though there are some exposed patches. Overall this is the best 6-day course I've run on; I'd rate it above EMU. (If you don't mind being indoors for six days, the Dome would come out ahead. That's a very different experience.) My crew Mike Dobies and I also had a bungalow in the campground, which was almost perfect — it even had air conditioning! The only problem was that it's about 60 m off the course. So Mike set up a table right on the course, but he was always running back to the bungalow to clean bottles, prepare food, etc., and I had a little extra distance whenever I would take a long break in bed. But it wasn't bad at all.

Most of the 70 entrants were French, with a handful from other countries. Ivo Majetic and I were the only Americans. Uniquely, this race distinguishes walkers from runners: there are judges to ensure that the walkers do not run, and separate awards for walkers. This actually reflects the history of 6-day races, which started as purely walking events in the late 19th century. Occasionally there were accusations that someone had cheated by running. Later, the "go as you please" style of racing predominated.

Checking in, with Mike and Olivier

Day 1

The race started at 2 pm, later than I would have preferred. It was going to get hot here in the afternoons, but today at least was overcast and not too bad. We gathered together for a start photo, all wearing the official race shirt, then we were off.

Race director Gérard (Gégé) Ségui in front

The plan for 606 broke down into these daily mileage targets: 106, 104, 102, 100, 98, and 96 miles. I planned 19 hours of moving time each day, with 4 hours of break and an hour of overhead (bathroom, medical, gear change, etc.). If I hit my daily cumulative target early, I'd allow myself to walk, but not run, 'til the end of the day. Today's goal of 106 miles translated to 7:33 laps (10:44 mile pace). My strategy here was to run / walk from the beginning, running as slowly as comfortable while keeping good form, and walking (quickly) just enough to get the right lap times. I've worked a lot on developing a fast, efficient walk over the past several years, and that's paid big dividends. For the first few hours, as I settled in, it seemed that both my run and my walk were becoming more efficient — I needed to walk more and more to hit 7:33s. I quickly fell to 10th place, as others went out faster, and nobody else was walking at first (except for the walkers!).

I spent a bit too much time — or focus — doing this

I had an issue right away, as a judge kept complaining to me about something (in French), pointing to my bib. I had it off to the side, not in front, like most of the other runners, because it didn't interfere with my stride that way. I thought needing it squarely in front was rather picky! Turns out, I'd been given a walker's bib (yellow) by mistake, instead of a runner's bib (white), and the judge was trying to DQ me for running! Fortunately, Mike figured out what was going on, and cleared things up via Google Translate. (I'd done about a month of French study on Rosetta Stone before the race, but that wasn't nearly enough.) By about five hours in, the course no longer seemed 100% flat. There were clear areas that were "uphill" and "downhill". Even though the grade was very slight, it made sense to put the walking on the "uphills", and the running on the "downhills". Most of the other runners adopted similar patterns. Dinner was served around 7:45. Some of it I liked, some I didn't. Mike made me a grilled cheese to supplement. By 9, as the sun had set, I was beginning to get into a negative mental and emotional space. The magnitude of what I had signed on for here was becoming more real. Evenings are always challenging for me when I run through the night, but typically it's the second evening that's the worst. I'm well aware that moods are like the weather in these kinds of races. If you wait, they will change. I soldiered on with my laps. But I was eagerly awaiting my planned four-hour sleep at 2 am, and wondering how I would make it there without significant breaks. By 11 or so, the mental weather had changed, and I was feeling more comfortable and in control, dialed into night mode. Also around now I'd pulled into first, though I wasn't aware of it. I was mildly curious, but wouldn't pay any real attention to placing until much later in the race. I am not one who is cursed with the need to be ahead of everyone else early. When Mike told me I was in the lead, I was surprised — I'd figured Olivier would likely lead through the first day, and maybe I'd catch him by the end of the second.

Olivier Chaigne ran smoothly and under control the entire race

When 2 am finally arrived, I went down for my four-hour sleep. I wouldn't have this luxury the rest of the week, as I wanted to split my break time across afternoons and nights, to avoid the worst heat of the day. In my previous 6-day races, I had planned my sleep strategy in detail. It never worked as planned. This time the goal was to play it by ear, sleeping when I was tired, but actually the options were pretty constrained. I wanted two decent breaks per day, one in the afternoon, and with the "days" ending at 2 pm, that pretty much set the normal schedule at around 2-4 pm and 2-4 am for major breaks. I slept well, and was out and running again as the sun was rising, after some foot care. I'd fallen back to fifth place while I slept. Around 9, Mike made me some scrambled eggs and cheese. I'd thought the race would provide three meals a day, but the French don't really do breakfast, and neither did the race. 

Mikey's diner

I was doing well, looking forward to the end of the first day and running slightly slower laps the next day. Since it was still early, I'd used little of my allocated hour of overhead for the first day, so I took 20 minutes to lie in a chair with my compression boots. And... that was basically the end of my race, though I didn't realize it until much later. I'm pretty sure I was taken out this time by stupid user error. We'll come back to that.

Day 2

At 2 pm I was at the planned 106 miles. I went down for another two hours, feeling a bit sorry for myself that that was as long as I had. But I was delighted to have made it through the first day on plan with (I thought) no real issues. Of course, the real challenges would likely start around day 4. Today's 104 miles meant 7:42 laps, theoretically more walking, but in practice slower running and walking. I'd already noticed that at night I had to run much more of the course to hit my splits. The course wasn't very well lit, and even with a headlamp, something in my perceptual world changed things to where I was just moving slower. I've noticed this before. At sunrise, all of a sudden the same effort yields much faster running and walking, and the run/walk points shift around. Attitude is really everything here, and to a large degree we are subject to what our circadian rhythm and hormones dictate. I'd run Day 1 in Saucony Kinvaras, with a 4 mm drop. Today I switched to Brooks Hyperion Tempo, with an 8 mm drop. Both of these were new shoes for me. I'd planned to run in NB Beacon 3s, but a few weeks before the race they'd started giving me Achilles issues, and I'd had to scramble to find alternatives. Both the Saucony and the Brooks had felt great on 20-mile track runs, but this was uncharted territory for them. As the day wore on, I began to have lots of little niggles, various things that bothered me. To a certain extent I think my brain was already looking for a way out, catastrophizing. I was tired and sore, and I knew it was only going to get worse from here. I took a HotShot to address what felt like an incipient adductor cramp. I massaged the psoas area with my hand as I ran to alleviate some tightness there. My right peroneal tendons were bothering me, I thought due to the slight down-right camber of the course. My stomach was bugging me a bit; I took a Zofran. And I began to feel some pain in my left ankle, in the tibialis anterior tendon area. That was something to pay extra-special attention to, because it had taken me out early in my first 6-day race, at EMU in 2018. Since then, I had taken many steps to ensure the problem wouldn't recur. The biggest were running in lower-drop shoes (I had Hokas with heel lifts putting the drop well over 10 mm at EMU) and diligent daily eccentric strengthening exercises for the tib. anterior. I'd had no issues there since EMU, including at Vol State, which should create similar stresses. I applied some Voltaren gel to the area, and took some Ibuprofen. One thing that was NOT giving me trouble was my lower back. No pain there, or referred pain down my left thigh. Those had shut me down for months after Spartathlon, before a second cortisone epidural had made the problems disappear — after that, I was grateful to be here at all. So, lots of stuff was bothering me, but nothing was really at red-alert level yet. I did switch back to the Sauconys, and things felt better after that. This afternoon I had the bright idea of sending Mike to the campground restaurant for some pizza. Turns out they were only open for takeout from 5-7 pm, so we waited until 5, then he brought me a pizza. This worked well, and I'd repeat it every evening. Just grab a piece and go. This was the beginning of a pattern — I ate a lot more real food at this race than at prior 6-days. I've tended to get most of my calories from liquid nutrition: my own sports-drink mix, Coke, Sword, etc. But at Vol State last year, running screwed, that wasn't really an option. I wasn't going to carry a ton of drink-mix packets and mix them up on the run. I ate real food when it was available, and that was enough. So I began to shift my fueling strategy here as well. Eating something I like is something to look forward to, unlike having to down another bottle of liquid calories. And at 6-day speeds, my stomach generally has no problem with it. As the day turned to evening, it began to get mentally tough again. I was not in a good place. I felt like to be honest, I had to keep pushing for 606, but it was like staying on a knife edge. I didn't want to keep doing it. That meant I had no business being out here. I should quit now, acknowledge that I'm not a real runner, swear off running for good. Yeah yeah yeah. We've all heard and felt that before. But it was a very powerful feeling. It was worse than that: giving up on the race was like giving up on life. I might as well commit suicide. I wasn't up for what living actually entailed. It's like solving a Zen koan trying to figure out which feelings are real, true: the ones we have during the race, when we are in it and aware of what it actually is, or the ones after the race, when the pain and suffering have faded, and we are ready to sign up for the next one? And, how the hell was I going to make it to 2 am? It was sooooooooo far away. Well, I didn't make it to 2 am. By around 1, it felt like the left tib. anterior tendon-area pain was getting worse. I told Mike I was going to have to bag the 606 goal. To keep the pain from getting worse I was going to go down now for my sleep, early, and go down for three hours. It felt like giving up, like I'd been waiting for an excuse to quit, and I'd found it. But it also felt legitimate. The pain WAS increasing, and it wasn't something it seemed smart to try to push through. 606 had always been a stretch. Even though it would mean much, much more than any of the lesser goals, I had to listen to my body and back off. The sleep was tortured, as I felt like I'd given up too easily. After three hours I hadn't had much actual sleep. But it was apparent then that the tendon pain was real, and it was worse. I was all too familiar with that pain, and that redness. It was a nightmare scenario: just like EMU four years ago, my race was over on the second day. What the hell. I had done MASSIVE work to prevent just this from ever happening again. I knew there was no point going back out feeling like this. My only chance was more rest, though it seemed like a slim chance. I know how these injuries go. They take weeks to resolve, and no in-race treatment can help. So, it was back to sleep for another three hours. When I woke, it was the same. I was not yet ready to hand in my timing chip: certainly, at some point, I'd do my due diligence and get back out there and see how I was actually moving, and see what medical could do for me. But there was no hurry, and I figured that realistically, my race was most likely over. Mike and I sat and discussed what had happened, and options. Laid out some potential new plans for reduced goals. I was also thinking, if I stop now, hmm, could I try again at the Dome in June? Or maybe run HOTS or Vol State? But that was getting ahead of things. 

I know that discoloration all too well.

After 10 or 11 hours, Ivo's wife Laura stopped by the bungalow to see what was up, and said people were worried about me. We filled her in. Finally, after 13 and a half hours off the course, and no real improvement, I figured I might as well get back out there and see what I could do. I walked a lap, working out the unavoidable foot pain one experiences at 6-day after going down for a while. Then I began to run. It hurt. But it didn't hurt a whole lot. I kept running. The pain didn't increase. OK... I was kind of in free-pass land now. I would do what I could do. If the pain stayed manageable, great. If not, I'd have done what I could do. As an aside... this kind of thinking I think captures what one needs to try to achieve in these kinds of races. It's rarely actual issues that take one out. It's the fear of the future, of what this pain will turn into, of how hard it will be to keep going for the rest of the race. Focusing on the present, if one can do it, is almost always a cure. I've worked hard on this over the years, not specifically for race performance, but for wider life benefits, practicing daily mindfulness meditation. But applying it in a race is still a challenge. Except that now, my fear of the future was gone, as I had already given up. Everything left was gravy. OK. So, how is it that using the compression boots late in day one had ended my race? Here's the thing. We had tested using the boots with my shoes on before the race. It seemed to work well. The boots have six chambers, that inflate sequentially from foot to thigh, flushing fluid out of the legs. It feels like a nice massage. My new boots let me set the pressure to high levels. I set them pretty high when I used them during the race. My feet had hurt, but they had hurt anyway; I ignored that. My legs felt good. But I realized now that I had done something incredibly stupid. I had left my timing chip velcroed on around my ankle. And it had just happened to be on the left ankle, positioned over the tib. anterior tendon. The MOST VULNERABLE part of my anatomy. I hadn't been that aware at the time of localized pain there, but it was after that that the pain gradually built. I'm pretty convinced now that that stress (the compression is very powerful), jamming that chip into my tendon, hypersensitized that tissue, making it much more vulnerable to the eccentric stresses of walking and running. How to end your race with one careless mistake. I ended the day with a measly 42.9 miles in the bank.

Day 3

I had a plan now: 531, for a PR (and an age-group American Record). I'd mapped it out. Even with all the lost time, I could do it with somewhat reduced paces (today was 7:50 laps) and with 6 hours per day of break instead of 5. I just had to not let the pain get any worse. If it did, I could back it down further to just beat 501. With the increased break time, I began allowing myself some short breaks in a chair every few hours, 10-15 minutes each. It was quite hot and humid today (and would stay in the 80s, clear, and somewhat humid for the remaining afternoons); once, I went into the bungalow for 15 minutes of cooling.

Makeshift cooler, with water, Coke, sports drink, and custom "Bob drink mix" on tap

As the day wore on, I became friends with my tendon pain. I was accepting it, not fearing it. Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. It gave me a curious kind of energy. Evening was not that intimidating. No longer being on that knife edge for 606 helped a lot. I looked forward to 2 am without much apprehension, but again, I didn't get there. Around 12:30, all of a sudden the pain became much more intense. One walk / run transition was like a knife stabbing my ankle. Running was no longer possible. So again I went down early, for three hours. This time, when I woke, I got back out there to test it. But there was no improvement. I could walk, but could not run any amount at all without the pain increasing. After 9 laps I decided that again, the best thing I could do would be to rest it some more. So I slept for another three hours. The PR goal was now gone. This early in the race, I didn't see any point in walking it in painfully the rest of the way. So again, it looked like my race was over. Yes I was here for more than performance goals, but I didn't think I would reach any of those magical spiritual spaces without significant running effort. The last thing to try before throwing in the towel was the medical tent. Why had I not tried that earlier? Because I was convinced there was nothing they could do. Well, they said they could tape it. OK, why not. I'd tried that last time, at EMU, without success, and honestly I saw most taping jobs as a kind of voodoo. But. As the doctor did his work, a light bulb turned on. I saw what he was doing with the taping, and I thought, OK, maybe. This was actual structural support, designed to create an additional spring between my upper shin and my foot, essentially supplementing the eccentric work that the tib. anterior normally did. I could feel resistance when I plantarflexed. That meant less load on my tendon; the tape would absorb some of the force. 

I walked a lap; it didn't feel much better. Then I added back some running. And... I could run again. It wasn't 7:50 laps, but it was ~8:10s, much better than the 11-12 for walk laps. As 2 pm approached and the day wore down, I looked forward to doing the numbers at the transition to see what I now needed to hit 502. Would I have a cushion? Or would I be on the edge? Actually, my Garmin did the numbers for me; I'd written a custom pacing app. I just set the number of target laps per day and planned break time, via menus, and it told me total mileage and necessary lap splits. 

Running again

Day 3 ended with 81.5 miles, much better than day 2, but still pretty paltry, with a lot of time off the course.

Day 4

I did the numbers, or my Garmin did, and I wasn't thrilled with what I saw. I couldn't slow much. Day 4 was going to be hard work, and if it was successful, days 5 and 6 would have to be just as good. But I did feel like the race was in a new phase, now being more than half over. The finiteness was becoming a bit more real. Being back on a somewhat normal schedule now, I could start with my two-hour nap in the heat of the day. Unfortunately it passed in an eyeblink, without much sense of actual rest. I took an extra 15 minutes, but I don't think it helped. I worked hard through the afternoon and early evening, holding pace with 8:20ish laps. I sat down for 10 minutes for dinner around 8, and took a 10-minute nap a couple hours later. I was back in a challenging headspace again this evening. Again, how was I going to make it to 2 am? I didn't have much extra time for breaks. I became more and more aware that the problem was all in my head. Yes my tendon hurt, but not much. Yes everything was sore, but not too sore. Running right now, at the pace I needed, was OK. All I had to do was apply my mindfulness lessons and be present in the moment, stop worrying about the future, stop thinking about how long it was 'til my next break. But understanding this intellectually does no good. And then... BOOM. I understood, at a direct level. It was like I had solved a complex puzzle, more than just getting my head into the right space now; I had solved it for good. I saw the foolishness of anxiety about the future. It was self-sabotaging. All I was afraid of was myself, what I would choose to do in the future. I wasn't afraid of the actual pain or injury or being forced to withdraw. I was afraid of failing for no valid reason. I felt immense joy, energy, compassion for everyone else out there, an expanded sense of self. The emotions were overpowering, flowing out from my heart. THIS was why I was out here! I was filled with gratitude that I'd been able to push through to this point. I was now living in the present, enjoying every step, running free and happy. My lap times dropped back below 8 minutes; I had to restrain myself. As had happened late in 6 Days at the Dome, I had once again discovered the key to infinite power. I told Mike "Well! I just had a breakthrough. Maybe I can explain it to you later.". Shortly afterwards I suggested that he set some bottles and pizza out for me and take a nap for an hour or so. I was in an internal space now, listening to music, feeling insights flow through me — I didn't want to be distracted by stopping the music and checking in every lap, and it felt like a waste for him to just be waiting for me to need something, when I knew I wouldn't need anything for a while. The music felt extra rich and deep, and appropriate for what I was experiencing. The stars were in alignment. I began to think, why go down at 2? Why break at all? It made more sense to ride the flow state. But I was also aware that "infinite power" only means my mind is free. My body still has limitations, and ultimately my mind is also supported by my body. I still had to respect reality. And by 2, I was feeling the physical need for some rest, so I went down for two and a half hours. When I woke, it was a new context, a new day; I wasn't quite in my same enlightened, energetic state. But I was no longer intimidated by what I had to do. Yes, I had work to do, and it would be 9 hours until my next major break. But that was OK. At 9 am, the 48-hour race started, and we had new people on the course. Somehow I'd thought that it was going to start after the 6-day. The course was still not too crowded, but when the 24-hour started a day later, it might be. As the "day" wore on, and 2 pm approached, the tendon pain began to increase again. I tried not to be too concerned about what that meant. I would close out the day with my planned 129 laps, still on pace for 502 and that age-group AR. After that, I'd have a long break, and we'd see. Day 4 clocked in at 91.4 miles, not bad, running injured. And 21 miles more than Olivier ran that day. Of course, I'd had a lot of extra time off earlier.

Day 5

After another two and a half hours off, unfortunately, the pain had not improved. I could no longer run my target splits; in fact, any running at all seemed not to be sustainable. So... OK, walking it was. All my performance goals were now gone. I could still look to holding on to a podium position by walking out the last two days, perhaps. But what made me sad was that I felt it would take more running to recapture the deep experiences I was after. For now at least, that was off the table. Walking was not too painful, so I didn't see any point in stopping. I'd just do what I could do. Walking did give me the chance to chat with other runners and walkers, at least. I finally met Israeli multi-day runner Galit Birenboim-Navon, there running the 48, in preparation for EMU 6-day this fall. We walked a few laps together a few times, and had some great conversations. Later I'd walk several laps with Richard McChesney, who would go on to set the New Zealand record for 6-day walking. I never had a sustained walk with Ivo Majetic, but we exchanged status and well-wishes frequently. I walked enough with Luca Bonnal to learn that he had literally started running last November! He'd run his first 24-hour race two months ago, and there seen t-shirts for a 6-day race. "How does that work?" "It's just like 24-hour, but for 6 days." "Oh! Sign me up!" And here he was. Incredible. As the day turned to evening, I began to realize how different was the toll of walking vs. running on my mind. Or maybe it was carryover from the previous night's breakthrough. I just wasn't getting tired, wasn't eagerly anticipating the next break. I got into a pattern of a 10-minute break about every three hours. I'd lie down by the course with eye mask and ear plugs, and get some concentrated rest. It seemed to be enough. Logically that didn't seem sustainable, but it was fine for now. Also I began eating A TON. I was always hungry, always wanting more pizza, another grilled cheese, more pasta. Mike was kept busy in the kitchen! I weighed myself every 12 hours. My weight dropped quite a bit the first few days, but rose over the last few days. By 3:30 am, I felt I was getting a bit loopy, so decided to go down for half an hour instead of 10 minutes. That may have been a mistake. I got no rest, and my feet were throbbing. 10 minutes off is OK, but longer than that, and the endorphins start to fade, or the blood begins to pool, or something happens anyway, and the pain that had been shut off due to activity returns with a vengeance. After another couple laps, I felt worse off than before the break. Mike and I decided OK, maybe I did need a real sleep. So I went down for 3+ hours in the bungalow. And... that was BY FAR the most painful part of the entire race. I got zero sleep, and the pain in my feet was otherworldly. I was in a hellscape where it seemed clear that the Ibuprofen I'd been taking had actually been a pain enhancer, rather than a pain reliever. When it was time to return to the course, for the first time I was fearful of continuing. If the pain was that bad now, I could not imagine what it would be like after another day plus out there. But I got back out and started walking. After a very slow, tortured lap, I was back to 11-minute laps, and the pain had faded. For now. Now, I began to worry, just a bit, about holding on to second place. Stéphane Leroux, in third, was 30+ miles back, but he was running with a vengeance. This had pretty much been his pattern the whole race: he was either out running full-speed, with no walking, and a huge grimace, or he was off the course. Now, for several hours without a break, he was out there running full speed. Five days in! It didn't make sense that he could keep that up long enough to catch me. But it didn't make sense that he could be doing it at all. Mike pointed out that rather than trying to catch me, he was likely trying to hold on to third. You can see the interesting situation in the graph at the bottom of this post, around hour 114. Saïd Bourjila (who would go on to run a Moroccan national record) had been running strong for hours and had almost caught him. Now, they were pushing each other, which was a really bad dynamic for me! I thought back to my experience at the end of the Dome, when David Johnston had started running 8-minute miles with about 10 hours to go, and looked like he might catch me. I fought harder to defend second then than I had trying to catch Joe for first earlier, which is silly. But that's the endowment effect in action. We are more motivated to work to hold on to what we have than to acquire what we might want.

Stéphane Leroux and Saïd Bourjila battling for third

Fortunately for me, after a few hours, they seemed to reach a détente, and spent some time walking together. Neither giving up any ground to the other, but what a relief for me! The race was now winding down, and I could think in terms of it actually ending. This was the next-to-last morning. Wow. I walked with no breaks until lunch, around 1, then sat for 10 minutes. 

Live music was a nice touch

I closed out day 5 with 60.5 miles, not great, but it had been all walking.

Day 6

Except for the first day or two, every afternoon had been quite hot and humid; today was perhaps the worst, and for once I was not sleeping through it. At 3:15 I took a 15-minute nap in the shade, which helped. The day turned to evening, and I sat down for 15 minutes for dinner. At this point, things began to get interesting again. Olivier was slowing; he looked potentially catchable for the win if I could somehow run again. And because of Leroux's push, I'd been gearing up mentally to try to run again if need be. Also, though no feasible amount of running at this point would help me reach even my lowest goal, nonetheless I did need to test out running again for another reason: I'd been reduced to walking the last two days at the Dome as well. There was an injury issue there too, but when I could run through the pain, I discovered that even running at a very slow pace was hugely taxing aerobically. Puzzling that out made me rethink a lot of things. I've changed my training and pacing philosophy since then; I was eager to know, apart from the tendon injury, can I still run? If not, I'd have to question ever running big numbers at 6-day. So I tried... and quickly became aware that the little hot spot on my right heel that I'd been ignoring was much harder to ignore while running. I spent some time in the bungalow doing foot care, but I'd waited too long; it was now a deep blister under the heel pad, inaccessible. Ugh. OK, let's try to run through that. I added the running back bit by bit, not too much, not too fast, not wanting to inflame the tendon any more. I got back to decent lap times again. I could run! And my legs were fine with it; eager to run. People were surprised to see me running again. Olivier picked up the pace. My reality began to shift; oh yeah, this was a running race! Running is so different from walking. The laps flew by. My mind began to drift back towards my enlightened state of the 4th evening. But the blister was a real pain. Mike had to get the race director to wake someone for the med tent to see what they could do. But by the time they were there, after an hour and a half of running, the tendon had suddenly become much worse. I had several little blisters treated, but the one under the heel pad didn't seem to be fixable. By that point, it didn't matter... I couldn't run anymore, and walking was now painful. Well, I'd tried, and at least my legs had been up for it, which was encouraging for next time. But walking it was, if I could even sustain that now. The evening progressed similarly to the previous one, with no long sleep breaks. Just short breaks every few hours. And lots of food! I did nap in a chair for an hour at 2 am, and slept soundly. Fortunately, the foot pain was now not as bad, or else my body was just sufficiently tired to let me sleep through it. As the final hours wound down, somehow, it became a real slog. I tried, but was unable to muster a rapid walk. The 11-minute laps drifted towards 13. The people that were leaning and limping were passing me. I couldn't figure out what it was. Mike figured it was just that I really had nothing whatsoever to motivate me at this point. I was tracking for 450+ miles, 725+ km, nice numbers, but those didn't require pushing, and there were no reachable bigger nice numbers. And I was now solidly in second. At 9 am the 48-hour and 24-hour races ended. Entire long races had come and gone, and here we still were! I took a few more short breaks, but they didn't seem to help.

Incredibly slowly, through increasing mental fog, 2 pm finally approached. I decided I'd walk my final complete lap (partial laps are counted) carrying the American flag; there were flags for every country represented in the race by the side of the course near the timing mat. I'd seen a few others carry their flags. As I picked up the flag, an enormous wave of emotion swept over me. There was a lot of encouragement and applause. I couldn't keep tears from my eyes, for the entire lap — this is not normal for me. I was overwhelmed. As the lap neared its end, I decided to run. I replaced the flag, and continued running, hard. My tendon hurt, but at this point I didn't care. This was going to be a partial, but I finished the lap, my fastest of the race, running smoothly and energetically, in about 6 minutes, then continued running hard for another half lap after that, until time expired. 

Finished, timing chip dropped

Day 6 total: 70 miles, again mostly walking.

The End

I finished with 452.3 miles, or 728 km. Well below my lowest goal, but I still counted it as a success. I stuck with it when things got hard, and gave myself the opportunity to learn a lot, and to have a powerful breakthrough experience. Olivier Chaigne was first with 760.5 km, and Stéphane Leroux held on to third with just over 700 km.

With crew par excellence Mike Dobies.
Pic by Galit Birenboim-Navon

I do have to wonder... apart from the careless mistake I made that led to the injury, what about my approach for this race? I had tried to be less structured than in the past, but in the end, I was largely motivated by big numbers, a slave to my planned pacing. Whereas at Vol State last year, I consciously abandoned any attempt on the course record, and ran more freely. That liberation was enormously powerful. But I couldn't quite let myself think that way here, until my breakthrough on day 4. Why not? Somewhat related, I'd considered running here without crew. When Mike offered, I had to make a tough decision. Running without crew at Vol State had forced me to be more self-reliant, and kicked me into a tougher, more confident mode. That was valuable. But if I wanted any shot at all at 606, I thought I needed Mike there to help optimize everything. He did a ton... he was basically my manservant for a week, making my life easier in countless ways, saving minutes here, minutes there. I'm very grateful. But I still have to wonder. What if I try a 6-day with no explicit goal, no crew, just run with my heart and trust my feelings? I guess what it comes down to is that that's a really big leap of faith, for such a training commitment, and especially time away from home. But next time... maybe? I also came away from this race with a new respect for just what 606 miles means. On paper, it's just a number. But even though I fell off my plan for it early, already I had a much more visceral sense for what it really meant. It's hard to convey just what that kind of performance requires. Most of us can relate to digging really deep to finish a race. But how many can dig really deep, again, and again, and again, for six days, staying right on that bleeding edge, and never faltering? When the body and the mind are failing in innumerable ways? It seems super-human, requiring not just top-notch training, fitness, planning, and execution, but relentless, unquenchable drive. Joe's performance here is really under-appreciated, one of the all-time great American ultraruns. He ran it in 2015, and no one has come close since. It remains the best 6-day performance in the world since 2007. Hats off to you, Joe.


Here's a graph of the top men's pacing (including Richard McChesney, who was in the walking division). What's plotted is how far ahead or behind one is of even pacing for 500 miles, at any given time. A horizontal line would be dead-even pacing for 500 miles. Down-right diagonals are time off the course (my big hit was hours 33 to 47, hoping for my tendon to recover). You can see here how everyone's pacing slowed during the race — this is normal. Had I stayed on target for 606... well, I didn't. 

Graph courtesy of Mike Dobies

Here's the daily mileage for the top men.
Courtesy of Mike Dobies

Finally, here are the top US 6-day performances for men 55-59. I didn't hit my goals, but I landed in pretty good company!

Thank You

Thanks to race director Gérard Ségui for squeezing me into the race at the last moment, and smoothing out all the logistics for me. He even personally picked up Mike and me at the train station in Montélimar, and drove us the hour to the race site. Thank you as well to all the other race organizers and volunteers for an extremely well-organized and welcoming race! I hope to return next year (in April next time, it should be cooler!). Enormous thanks are due to Mike Dobies for his flawless crew support. Mike knows how this all works. (He's crewed Joe several times, including at his 606.) "Mikey's Diner" had a very convenient location on the course, and was open 24 hours a day! Alas, the business model wasn't really sustainable, with only one customer, and one who doesn't even pay, at that. Mike was also an excellent traveling companion, for a few days before the race in Lyon, and a few days after in Geneva. Thanks to Case Cantrell (scripts) and Mike (spreadsheets and charts) for extracting and graphing lap splits from the tracking page, which only showed current number of laps and distance for everyone. Mike kept me apprised of the tactical situation during the race, once it became relevant. Thanks to my medical team for getting me to the start line in one piece, in spite of the lower-back injury that had kept me sidelined for months. This includes Manoj Mohan (back consulting and cortisone injections), Jamie Yang (PT), Angie Weinberger (massage), and Lyresa Pleskovitch and Nasim Gorgani (shockwave and chiropractic). It was a huge relief to get through this race with NO back issues!

Thanks to the race medical team for patching me up! My race would have ended much earlier otherwise.

Finally, thanks to Liz for humoring me once again, with all the time away from home! I wish you could have been here too, at least before and after.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Vol State 500K 2021: Walking the Fine Line

It's been four weeks since I finished Vol State, and I am still processing it. Just maybe, I've figured out how to add the one missing piece to my racing, moving me up to a new level. Or maybe this was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. All I know is, I consciously took a step back from the ego-oriented goals this time, aiming to focus more on the experience than the result, and as a consequence I unlocked what was far and away my best performance ever. Running without a crew ("screwed"), I topped the old screwed record by 10 hours, and the overall (crewed) record by 3 hours. I can still hardly believe it.
As usual, there's a lot more here than many will want to read. I try to write as much as I can remember, for my own later reference. This time I'd have preferred to emphasize the really important things about the race, but I have spent long enough now writing and editing; it is what it is. A lot is mundane, but may still be valuable to those looking to run Vol State, or who are just curious about the entire experience, and not only the highlights. If you want to skip to the "good parts", scroll down to the evening of Day Three. Alternatively, my interview on The Adventure Jogger podcast really captured the meat of the experience in a way I'm very happy with, with little fluff. I dive into different aspects of the race in my podcasts on The Pain Cave (joint discussion with Bev Anderson-Abbs) and Chasing Tomorrow, and talk more about my other running experiences that led up to this on Inked Up Runner (video). One more comment about my blog: I am several races behind. I've learned a lot in the past couple of years that I haven't yet found ways to clearly articulate, to my chagrin. It's a bit late now for individual reports, but I may perhaps try to summarize what I've learned in one post covering all the missed races. But mostly, what I have learned has moved me more and more towards understanding how incredibly important the mind is in ultrarunning, to a degree I would not have suspected before. This race bears out that view in spades.


I ran Vol State last year in 3 days 12 hours, the 4th fastest time ever on this course — but not enough to win. I chased Francesca Muccini the whole way. She destroyed her own women's course record, running 3:10:49:40, earning her second King of the Road title. It was the most incredible multiday performance I've ever witnessed. I learned a lot from that experience. I felt prepared to come back this year and challenge the overall course record, Greg Armstrong's 3 days 7 hours. But as race day approached, things changed. Greg was in the race, but withdrew. I'd been looking forward to racing him, to us pushing each other to peak performances. I began to consider the idea of running screwed instead, focusing on the journey and the experience instead of the record and my ego. 

Really this stemmed from my post-race experience last year. Something about the effort left me in a state of extreme mindfulness and genuineness. For more on this see "Takeaway" in last year's report. But suffice to say, I got a lot more out of the race than just a place or a time, something enormously valuable and completely unexpected. And the possibility of unlocking a similar state this year was more motivating to me than shooting for records.

Having decided to run screwed, habits took over, and I put a lot of effort into preparing to do it right. There are no official aid stations on the course; running screwed means you are entirely self-sufficient. There are, however, "road angels" — locals who know about the race and set out coolers, or sometimes have more elaborate setups. But often the road angels are not out yet for the race leaders.

I hemmed and hawed over which pack to use. I did lots of runs in the one I selected, the Nathan VaporAir 2.0 7L, stuffed the way I imagined I'd stuff it for the race. I ruthlessly shaved an ounce here and an ounce there. How about sunglasses? Normally I have to switch from my prescription sunglasses to my regular glasses at sunset, and back at sunrise. Carrying an extra pair of glasses was a bit of a pain, and took up valuable space and weight. So I got a new pair of glasses, with transitions lenses. One less thing to carry. That was typical of my mindset. As race day approached I had a pretty lean pack going, but was still undecided about some things. Poncho (1.5 oz) or lightweight rain jacket (3 oz)? Emergency blanket, yes or no? 2L bladder, yes or no? Nighttime lighting: is a headlamp and one blinky for the back sufficient? 

3.0 pounds

Most importantly, I was undecided on shoes! At the last minute, I decided to go with the tried-and-true Beacon v1 (my last pair), though I knew there would be pain (last year it was not pretty). For a bit more cushioning, I added an extra layer of insoles from another pair. I glued in the first insoles with RunGoo, and taped in the second pair with double-sided tape, so I could remove them if I wanted to. All of these uncertain decisions, I'm happy to say, went the right way. In fact, the doubled insoles might even have helped with drainage in the rain, an unexpected bonus.

The Miata (NB Beacon v1) or the Mack Truck (NB More v3)?
One aspect of prep that worked out well this year was spending time in Tennessee before the race. I had a family reunion two weeks prior in eastern Tennessee, then just stayed with my parents in Nashville, hitting the sauna every day. I'm sure that helped a lot. Last year, I'd jumped in cold, with no heat training. Imagine my surprise when Greg re-entered the race, about a week out! I had been thinking I was the favorite, even running screwed, and that maybe I could manage both the full screwed, self-reliant experience and the King of the Road. But now I would probably have to work a lot harder for that. Greg was running screwed as well, at least. He was now the clear favorite, but we would have a race. Also at the last minute, Bev Anderson-Abbs entered, also screwed, fresh off a DNF at HOTS with a knee injury. That seemed to have been dealt with. Bev and her husband Alan would also be definite competition, but neither had run under four days here before, and I felt reasonably confident that I could, even screwed (this reasoning got me into hot water last year, though, with Francesca!). Being a screwed runner meant that I rode the bus from the finish to the start on Wednesday, the day before the race. We see the entire course, backwards. Normally, John Price (14-time finisher, and author of the guide book many use) calls out important landmarks, with bits of race history, and comments on especially relevant convenience stores or hotels, and stretches that are likely to be dry. I made a point to sit next to him, to learn as much as I could. Yes I already knew the course well, but only from the crewed side.

Laz and Carl at the "last supper" (China buffet, again)

My auspicious fortune

Last year, I had a detailed plan in a spreadsheet. This year I tweaked the spreadsheet, but it represented less of a fixed plan. Initially I think it was set up for 3d 14h (Greg's screwed record); if I felt like it, I could update elapsed time at a given location during the race for an updated projection (I never did). With Greg in the race, I wasn't sure what my goal was. Also it looked like it might be cooler than I'd expected. I might have to try to take advantage of that, because Greg would. What was he shooting for? 3d 14h? 3d 7h? Sub-3? Likely on the faster end. He looked lean and fit. As you can tell, I wasn't completely succeeding in putting ego aside and focusing on the experience. As it turned out, the ego component was useful (we would be inert lumps without it) — I just found a much better balance, putting the ego in the back seat, but still listening to it here and there.

Click to zoom in. This is the most accurate LAVS elevation profile you will find, calibrated to match the official course GPX.

Day One

The appropriate watch face for LAVS

It's 7:30 Thursday morning. We're standing on the Missouri side of the Mississippi river, in Dorena Landing. Laz lights his cigarette, and we pile onto the ferry back to Hickman, Kentucky (where we just came from). The race has officially started. But for the first mile and a half, and roughly 19 minutes, we're still milling around socializing, stretching, making one last portapotty stop, as the ferry slowly makes its way back.

The Burning Man 50K / LAVS club: Steve Landis, Bob Hearn, BJ Timoner, and the infamous Ray Krolewicz
With King Greg (pic by Jameelah Abdul-Rahim Mujaahid)

The ferry docks, and we are off! Greg takes off in the lead, a small pack sticking with him but unwilling to pass. I was at the trailing end of this pack, and gradually fell farther behind, as I took frequent walk breaks. Ahead of me, I think, were Greg, Becca Joyner, Daniel and Ariela Flory, Andy Pearson, Kimberly Durst, and the Abbses.
Early leaders. Greg is in front, shirtless.

It seemed a little cooler than last year's start, so I was moving faster and not too worried about it. Last year, I'd planned to average 4.5 mph (13:20 / mile) for most of the stretches, but it had been all I could do to go as slow as 5 mph (12:00 / mile) to start. This year, when I was fresh, an easy run / walk was much faster. For most of the race, I had an idea of about what pace I wanted to move at; I'd run more if I was slow, walk more if I was fast. But I was just running comfortably to start. The 17 miles into Union City passed reasonably quickly. I stopped there at Marathon Gas and refilled my bottles with water and Coke. I looked to replace the PayDay bar I'd finished along the way — the perfect race candy bar; it doesn't melt — but I couldn't find one, and settled for a Zero. Time cost, 4.5 minutes. I'd had no idea, when planning, what the cost of an average stop would be. To be conservative, I'd estimated 15 minutes. But 3-4 minutes to buy fluids and food turned out to be typical, with another minute or two to transfer the fluids to my vest bottles and shuffle any remainder into the back. If I got ice, it was slower: ice fit into the bottles, but just barely; I had to feed the cubes in one by one. Still, I think I went with the right bottles, soft flasks. In the past, larger-diameter, hard-sided bottles had bruised my ribs.

At the stinky bridge (pic by Laz or Carl)
It wasn't far from here to the "stinky bridge", mile 21, where Laz and Carl sat recording everyone's splits. When I passed, it was not too stinky this year. But I did get a few whiffs from the rendering plant a mile down the road, where the stink comes from, as I passed that. Now the day was warming up, and I was slowing. I'd averaged 10:29 pace to Union City, faster than I'd planned, but it had felt easy and under control. But by the time I got to Martin, mile 30, I was definitely feeling the heat and slowing, averaging 10:55 for the segment. A couple miles out, I passed the Abbses, looking for a hose at a church, it appeared. In Martin I stopped at McDonald's, and got a burger and fries and more water to go. Stupidly, it did not occur to me to get ice from the dispenser! I regretted that later, as the heat increased. It took a while to get the food down as I walked.
Approaching Dresden.
This pic was by someone from the Farmer's Market, which, alas, I missed!
Martin to Dresden, mile 40, was quite hot, and my pace slowed further. To my great surprise, just outside of Dresden, I caught up with Greg! I had figured he was far ahead. But the heat was affecting him. Entering Dresden, I was out of water, hot, and tired. My calves felt on the edge of cramping. I was planning to stop and rest at the farmer's market, which somehow I had missed last year. And... somehow I missed it again. Even though I had double-checked its location on the map in advance. When I was leaving Dresden, I pulled out my phone to check, and I was 0.8 miles past it! I was not about to turn around, but neither could I make it to Gleason, another 8 miles, without water. What to do? I saw a woman in her front yard, and begged for water. She let me refill from her hose, and as a bonus, sprayed me down. Saved! I was beginning to get the screwed experience. Just as I was stopping, I saw Andy Pearson go by. I'd assumed that after passing Greg, I'd been well in the lead, but I think Andy had been stopped at the farmer's market, so already ahead of Greg. I noticed somewhere in here that my fingers were swollen; rings wouldn't budge. Uh, that's not good. Also I hadn't been peeing, at all, though I had been drinking a lot. Signs of hyponatremia, potentially dangerous. I didn't have any disorientation, nausea, or headache, so it wasn't too bad yet. But I was going to have to do something. Most runners would reach for the salt — I've been sweating a lot, and salt is too low; add more salt! But in fact this does not alleviate exercise-associated hyponatremia (and sweating increases, not decreases, salt concentration anyway). The problem is that the stresses on the body cause an inappropriate water retention, called SIADH, disrupting the body's normal very effective homeostasis in maintaining solutes in the right range. It had been a while since I'd read the science, but I was pretty sure the best thing was simply to remove the stress. Cool off and rest. Still, I took one salt pill, as I'd realized I hadn't taken any yet.

It was a hot trip to Gleason, but the water got me there, shortly behind Andy. The thermometer showed 90 — cooler than last year, but hotter than forecast this year. And I think it was more humid this year, very humid the whole race. I was now more than ready for my break. The Gleason Fire Department was converted into a fully stocked road angel station. Andy was relaxed with his feet up. Really, this was THE perfect place for my break. Not for the last time, what had seemed like a setback (missing the farmer's market) worked out for the best. I chugged a Dr. Pepper, geared down, selected a thick air mattress, and positioned my head in front of a fan. As I was about to put on my eye mask, Angie James, who was tending the station, asked if I needed to recharge anything. "Well, the problem is I need my phone for an alarm." "No problem — here's an extension cord!" I mean really. They had showers and bathrooms too. It doesn't get any better. As I napped, and especially as I tried to rotate to get my head out of the breeze once I'd cooled off, everything began to cramp. Legs, gut. Turning around was quite slow and challenging.

After an hour nap, I was up and getting ready to go, feeling much better. The taping job I'd done on my feet before the race had already come off when I'd removed my shoes and socks. I guess I need more practice! I didn't try to reapply it. It was awkward enough when I could contort my legs without cramping. Later that evening I'd regret doing nothing here, though. I wolfed a slice of pizza, and grabbed another one for the road, and a few mini PayDays, tossing the unopened and now-melted Zero bar. As I got ready to depart, I saw that the sign-in list now had several more names on it. A lot of people had come and gone while I'd napped. Alan Abbs was still here, not looking too thrilled with life, but Bev had left him behind and moved on. Back on the road, I was feeling good. I think my stop here was good strategy. Yes, I'd gotten a little overcooked, but I'd planned an afternoon break in the heat anyway. Now my body was back in the green, plus I'd gotten in a nice nap heading into the evening. Most people had taken a shorter break and pushed through. Everyone was feeling it by now to some extent, so I think I had an advantage. (Later, at the finish, Bev would tell me that when she saw me in Gleason, she thought I might be done!) As the sun lowered, I geared down for the evening. I put away the hat, pulled out the headlamp, and took off the white long-sleeve wicking compression shirt. It hadn't worked too well during the day. Ideally it would be stuffed with ice, or at least kept wet. But without a crew, ice was a rare luxury, and keeping it wet took lots of water that I could have been drinking. And that didn't help that much anyway, with the high humidity. I replaced it with a very light shirt cut down to the profile of my pack, to prevent chafing. Last year I'd discovered that running with as much exposed skin as possible was best for nighttime. At the 7:30 evening check-in, I was at 55 miles. Greg and Andy were at 58, with Bev and Becca at 56-57, and the Florys also at 55. A pretty tight lead pack. In McKenzie, mile 56, I passed the Florys at their crew van, then caught up to Bev as we stopped at the same Shell station to resupply on the way out of town. (The road angel we'd both looked for by City Hall wasn't set up yet.) She left first as I shuffled fluids. When I caught up to her again, we were just turning south onto Highway 22, where we'd be most of the night. It was just open, 4-lane highway now for quite a while. Gradually it darkened, and I turned on the headlamp, to join the fireflies winking on and off. A loud chorus of frogs and cicadas completed the scene. The frogs were startling at first, them I remembered them from last year. A strange "...oh..." like someone was right behind you. On the way to Huntingdon, for maybe the first time it occurred to me how really important it is, as a screwed runner, to mind your Ps and Qs. Most vitally, as regards water! As I looked ahead to what might be open in the next couple of towns, I realized that the answer was: nothing. I did have a list, however, of all the road angel stations people had mentioned setting up in the Facebook group. The next was 6 miles out of McKenzie, at mile 62. Supposed to be marked with glow sticks. But I saw nothing there. Maybe it was on the other side of the highway? Becca was running over there, just ahead of me (but would not need it, as she was crewed). More likely, as would become the pattern for the rest of the race, I was too early. Anyway, I was running low by the time I pulled into Huntingdon, mile 67... to see Greg lying on his back on a sidewalk. I stopped to ask how he was doing. The day had not gone to expectations for him. I lamented that there was no water... he pointed out a cooler right behind us! Saved again. He had also looked for the mile 62 cooler and not found it. Somewhere between Huntingdon and Clarksburg, it began to rain. And rain. I pulled out my poncho. Oops — I had done nothing for my feet after the tape came off. I made a careful effort to avoid puddles. The skies lit up, and before long there was continuous lightning in every direction, sheet lightning and forks. It was a fabulous light show. Sometimes the forks would follow a crazy path halfway around the sky! I was a little uneasy, but none of the strikes seemed to be close by; the thunder always lagged by several seconds. Still, if it did reach the point where I felt I needed to take shelter, the opportunities would be few and far between. Probably most people took preemptive shelter. I saw one runner, or at least someone with a headlamp, huddled under a church as I passed. I guessed it was Andy, as I think only he and Becca were ahead at that point, and she presumably would have been sheltering in her crew van. I took this opportunity to call my wife, Liz, and describe the amazing scene. The storm went on for a couple of hours, for a while with quite strong wind, then gradually faded away. I had a note that there would be a cooler with water and snacks halfway between Huntingdon and Clarksburg, under a shade tree. That wasn't too specific, especially in the dark, so I wasn't too hopeful. But there it was, well lit. I kept the stop short, under a minute, not bothering to refill everything. I just quickly drank a bottle of water and grabbed a couple of granola bars. That was foolish, as I was low again coming into Clarksburg, mile 76. Again, everything was closed, so I decided to try my luck with vending machines. I wasted several minutes at three successive vending machines, none of which worked. Argh! I had declined to carry any change, because of the weight, but these machines took cards and bills. One perhaps was empty, and I think the bill readers didn't work on the others because my bills were damp from the rain. They were dry in the Ziploc, but I got them wet just handling them. Oh well... on to Parker's Crossroads. Somewhere in here, I took a NoDoz. I pulled into the Shell station at the crossroads, mile 82, at about 1 am, and reloaded with plenty of water and Gatorade. Then back on the road, moving well. It was another 10 miles to Lexington, and as the night wore on I began to get tired. Last year, I'd needed several breaks the first and second nights. I found a bench in front of a convenience store, wiped off the rain, pulled out my eye mask and earplugs, and set a timer for half an hour. It was maybe not exactly sleep, but something in that direction. I felt somewhat refreshed at the end, anyway. On to Lexington, refilling at the Little General right at the turn east onto Highway 412. This is about where my 24-hour check-in was last year, at 7:30 am. This year, I was 3 1/2 hours ahead of that pace, feeling good! This was very promising. But the night was not over. In spite of my nap, I was very tired, and wanted to sleep. I knew that I just had to last until the first hint of dawn, and then I'd be magically invigorated. So I started shouting, yelling, singing, anything I could think of to get me through the next hour or so. I yelled some loving-kindness meditations. It was a strange mixture of energy and exhaustion. But about 5 am I could see a little light on the horizon, and boom, my brain was back in daytime mode. My Garmin record says I only stopped in Parsons, mile 107, for 2 minutes. I must have refilled my water somehow, but I don't have a clear memory; that seems really quick. Half an hour later, it was time for check-in: I was at 109 miles. Wow, 17 miles farther than last year! And I felt great. How many people had passed me while I'd napped? The highway had clear views far ahead and behind, and I'd seen no one. Hmm. Well, now it was time to find out. The tracking sheet updated, and... the Florys were well back in second place, mile 97. Bev and Becca were at 92, Greg at 87, and Andy at 84. It wasn't over by a long shot, but this was not how I'd expected the race with Greg to go. I was now in the driver's seat. If I had no disasters, I now felt pretty confident at least of the win; I could begin to look at that screwed record.

Day Two

Now I began to look ahead to my daily hotel stop. The big question was, where? The next options on the course would be Linden and Hohenwald. I'd get to Linden before the heat of the day, but it would be a long way to Hohenwald, with a lot of uphill, after having mostly pushed through the night. I called the Commodore in Linden to see if they'd let me check in early — yes. OK, great; that's my next target. Knowing I didn't have to push all day made it easier to keep going. But first, there was the Tennessee River crossing, mile 113, and Fat Man's Truckstop on the other side. I was ready for a bit of a break, so took an extended, 19-minute stop to eat a sausage muffin sitting down, and gear up for daytime running. I dug out and applied my sunscreen — I'd decided to stick with the cutoff shirt rather than going back to the long-sleeve. I thought I'd be OK if there wasn't too much direct sun. The forecast for most of the race was overcast and rain, and we'd had a fair amount of both so far, but some sun.
Pic by Carl Laniak

Next up, Linden, mile 125, but there was a big hill to climb on the way. As I was hiking up it, Laz and Carl drove by, took some pics, and cheered me on. "You are blowing it out of the water, man!" Thanks guys; a positive mindset is always a plus. Finally I made it to Linden, about 11 am, tired and hungry, and checked in to the Commodore. It's a cool little boutique hotel. It would be nice to go back and spend a little longer there sometime. I ordered the special from the adjoining café, mac & cheese with hot dogs, and asked them to deliver it to my room. It arrived just as I'd geared down, showered, and was getting into bed, perfect. I'd first plugged in electronics and washed my clothes in the sink, and hung them to "dry" (not likely). Alarm set, earplugs in, eye mask on, zonk. Two hours of pretty decent "sleep". I woke a couple minutes before my alarm, and started gearing up. Toe blisters drained, check. Otherwise my feet looked pretty good! But now I was careful to slather them all over, not just the toes, with Squirrel's Nut Butter. I put on my second pair of shorts and socks, and safety-pinned the first pair, still damp, to my pack. I tossed the long-sleeve in the trash. It was a nice shirt, but it wasn't working, and I'd rather not carry it another 189 miles. Check-in to check-out, just under 3 hours, as planned. Great! On the way out of town I hit the Shell station and reloaded with fluids. It was another 3 miles to Sanders Market (I didn't stop) and the beginning of the long, gradual climb to Hohenwald. Laz calls this "16-mile hill", but I've carefully plotted the elevation data, and I call it 11 (actually, it's very similar to the big climb before Linden, but nobody talks about that). 500 feet over 11 miles is no big deal, but it does get a bit old. It's a pretty constant low grade until it gets steeper in the last couple of miles. As I started the slow climb, the skies opened up again. So much for drying my clothes! I put them back in the pack in a Ziploc, and pulled out the poncho again. This was great! Not as intense as last night, but enough cooling for very comfortable running. But gradually the rain died down, and then gradually the sun came out. And gradually I began to feel something in my right lateral hamstrings. And gradually it worked its way into my knee and glutes. Walking more didn't seem to help much. This was frustrating, but as Hohenwald approached, I began to look at the math for where I might be at the next check-in. If I could keep a decent pace, It looked like I might manage 41 miles, for 150 total, even with a stop for food. Now, I began to look ahead and get really excited. First, I thought 150 would be a bit of an exclamation point for those watching. But I also figured I could probably manage another 50+ during the second night; there was a lot of fast road past Hohenwald, and hopefully I could keep the breaks to another half hour or so. That would put me in Lewisburg, mile 201, by morning. Last year I had left Lewisburg just before the 2.5-day check-in! Theoretically, then, I could finish up to 12 hours faster than last year. Except that (1) I'd plan to then stop for 3 hours in Lewisburg, and (2) the last 24 hours last year were VERY fast, due to powering through thunderstorms, and giving all I had to try to catch Francesca. I didn't expect I could match that this year. Still, that suggested to me for the first time that there was a serious chance at the overall course record, 3 days 7 hours, running screwed. So... I got a bit greedy. I pushed maybe just a bit harder than I should have through Hohenwald, mile 144 (stopping at Subway to grab a sandwich for the road). I called Liz, told her how I was doing. She said, "Bob, don't be greedy! You're there to win! Forget about these records". Yeah. Well, I hit my 150 at 36 hours. Even with the three-hour break, I'd gained another mile on the Florys, and Greg had now sadly dropped. One of the great things about following a Lazarus Lake race online is Laz's periodic updates. They are sheer poetry. For Vol State, they came every 12 hours, some time after check-in. I wasn't taking the time to read them during the race, but Liz would read some to me. This bit made me laugh out loud:
sometimes the strategy is different than you expect.
here is a strategy that works really well if you can execute it:
just blow everyone’s doors off!
From Hohenwald to Hampshire there's a big descent, a big climb, and another big descent. The descents are steep enough to where I really felt like I ought to run the whole way with no walk breaks, otherwise I'd just be wasting fast road. So I did... and my quads got pretty tired. Approaching Hampshire, things no longer felt so rosy. For one, I had neglected to stop at the Natchez Trace campground for water. It looked to be too far off the course, and not obvious where to get water anyway. I'd loaded up in Hohenwald, but not enough to get me the 29 miles to my next opportunity in Columbia. I was counting on the normal road angel spot being available in Hampshire. It wasn't guaranteed they would be there at all, let alone for the leaders. But more importantly, my quads now felt shot. I don't remember feeling that way here last year. I realized that as the race approached, I'd somewhat neglected my eccentric quad exercises. Oops. Now, my hubris had caught up with me. Why had I gotten greedy? My whole plan had been to put ego aside and just experience running the race screwed, stay in control, and see what happened. Fortunately, there was a cooler in front of Mack's Market in Hampshire (mile 162). And neighbors with snacks. It's not wise to rely on road angels, so I got away with something here. However, I'd also been told I could probably get water from a hose at the church (which I'd have to find), so I did have a bit of a backup plan. But coming out of Hampshire, my quads felt well and truly done. I couldn't run at all. So I walked, and walked, and tried to figure out what I could do. Nap somewhere by the side of the road? I was tempted, but didn't see any likely spots. Walk to Columbia and get a hotel there for a couple hours? Take some Advil and mask the pain? That didn't seem like a promising idea, with nearly half the race still to go. But in the end, that's what I did. Slowly, I was able to run again. I'd long since given up any hope of hitting 200 miles by 48 hours. I'd just do what I could do. Finally, around 2 am, I pulled into Columbia, mile 178, and restocked at a very sketchy convenience store. I figured there was no guarantee of any resupply until Lewisburg, another 22 miles, so I stocked up. And realized a mile down the road that I'd left a liter bottle of water sitting on the ground, after shuffling fluids. Ugh. Leaving Columbia, it was late, and away from the city lights, very dark. There was a new moon, so zero moonlight this year. The next 10 miles or so were the roughest part of the night. Again, it was time for singing, yelling, slapping myself, anything to stay awake until dawn. The silliest was perhaps singing "Cuuuuullleoka, Cullee-culleoka, Cuuuuullleoka, Cullee-cullee Coo", to the tune of "Alouette" (or, as Liz knows it better, "Little Bunny Foo Foo"). For some reason it didn't occur to me to take a nap for this second night, or maybe I was just intent on pushing through after losing so much time walking. But I passed on opportunities to nap at the Bench of Despair, mile 184, or the Nutt house, mile 187. The Nutt house is the most elaborate and anticipated road angel station on the course. I wasn't sure they would be set up yet this year — the Nutts were out of town for a few days, and had left it in neighbors' hands. So I was pleasantly surprised to see the tents, chairs, etc., as I arrived. I signed the logbook, opened a bin full of supplies, and replaced my headlamp batteries. Then I opened the cooler — empty! Ah well. I was a little low but not desperate. 

The infamous Bench of Despair
By Culleoka, just past the Nutt house, I was looking ahead until dawn. Not long now. And I could see that somehow, I would still get my 50+ miles, even with all that walking. I'd be in Lewisburg by morning check in! My enthusiasm rose again. Before the first crack of dawn, about a quarter to 5, the roosters were crowing. I guess they have better eyes than I do. But by 5 I could see it too. It was like a switch flipped; I was awake and alert again. I was beginning to gain a new perspective on sleep deprivation. I often say that this is my biggest weakness as a multi-day runner. Especially, making it through the second night is always hard for me. But I had just pushed through with not a single break. It was not fun, and yes it had been hard work, but I'd done it, and was now on the other side. Was it really just that I believed I needed more breaks than other runners? The mind is incredibly powerful, for better or for worse, and nowhere is this clearer than during an ultramarathon. As I approached Lewisburg, I called ahead to the Celebration Inn, where I'd stayed last year, to try to get an early check-in. And... there was a convention, and there were no rooms. But. But. ... I needed my three-hour break! I considered alternatives. The nearest other hotel in Lewisburg was 0.8 miles off the course. Nope, not gonna take that hit, there and back. I called a 24-hour gym, to see if I could take a shower, then maybe I'd nap by the side of the road somewhere. But no, the hotel stops were valuable, an essential part of my plan. I decided to soldier on to the next option, in Shelbyville, 22 miles farther. I was really not thrilled with this plan, feeling like I had earned my break; also, Shelbyville was specifically disrecommended as a hotel option. 

Day Three

As I came through Lewisburg (checking in at mile 201), I realized that actually, I felt fine. I was energized for the day. The weather was comfortable. I had to consider the possibility of trying to push through to the finish with no sleep, and shoot for that much-debated mark of sub-3 days. I was only 113 miles from the finish, with 24 hours to go. Surely I could manage that, with that big a goal ahead of me? Last year, I ran 111 in the final 24 hours. However, I had a hotel stop right before that push, and good conditions. Beginning that effort on no rest was very different. Well, I'd push on to Shelbyville, and see how I felt there. In the meantime, a sausage biscuit with cheese and tomato to go from Huddle House hit the spot. I ate it slowly as I walked out of town. It wasn't long before the day started warming up. I was going to be very hot and thirsty by the time I got to Wheel, mile 212. But there was supposed to be an open market there. Fortunately, along there way, there were a couple of road angels. One set up with a canopy and a cooler, another drive-by. Had I realized how hot it would get, or that the market was actually well past Wheel, I'd have accepted more from the road angels. It was a bit silly, but this happened more than once. I had an agenda, I am going to restock at X location, and I'm probably OK 'til there. A road angel comes along, with everything I would want at X. But no, I am good, because X is coming up! As if they were interfering with my plan. But actually the interaction with the road angels was a big part of the experience, let alone the fact that it was more efficient than going into a convenience store and waiting to pay at the register. Around 9:30, a couple of miles before Wheel, I see someone else pulled over ahead, waving to me. Another road angel? No — it's Francesca Muccini, last year's King of the Road, out on the course to cheer me on! Thanks, Francesca, great to see you!

Finally I get to Wheel — no market. It's another 2.4 miles before I get to the Pit Stop Market. I stocked up, sat down outside to shuffle fluids. The proprietor sat down next to me to smoke a cigarette (ugh) and chat. I was hoping we would get some rain back. She told me bad weather was coming this evening. Great! No, not great — 80 mph winds, and hail. Well, hmm. Yeah, that would not be great. I was now on a mission; I had that overall course record in my sights. Having to take shelter would suck. Well, we'd see what happened. I wasn't seeing anything about weather like that in the WhatsApp group chat the runners were using, but then they were all well behind, and the weather this year seemed to be very localized. Wheel to Shelbyville was a real low point for me, when I most missed having a crew to restock me with ice every mile or two. The sun was directly overhead, and very hot. It felt like I was moving at a snail's pace. I'd be shocked to look at my Garmin and see I'd moved less than a mile in the eternity since the last time I'd looked. Looking back at the split data, I'm very surprised to see that I averaged a pretty typical 12:21 / mile pace over this stretch. But those were not pleasant miles. Like pushing through the night with no breaks and sleep tugging at you. Sometimes the experience is just not fun. But by staying in the moment, just handling the not-fun part now, the task eventually takes care of itself. But when I finally pulled into Shelbyville (mile 223), a little after noon, I was more than ready for that hotel. There was no conceivable way I was going to try to push through this heat all afternoon. I checked into the Magnolia Inn with some relief, in spite of the unsavory reputation it has in LAVS lore. Fortunately, they gave me a non-smoking room immediately. It had a shower and a bed, and was maybe not the greatest, but was reasonably clean. OK then! After gearing down, it was time for my 2-hour nap. As had happened on my third-day nap last year, the state I entered into was not exactly normal sleep. It was some sort-of restful non-ordinary state of consciousness, filled mostly with elaborations on the rumors I'd heard about the Magnolia. I'll omit the details. But when I "woke", I felt ready to go. I was a bit unhappy to see that it was still clear and sunny out. But at least the sun was lower in the sky, now at my back, and evening would arrive in a few hours. I restocked at the Exxon leaving town, being sure to get extra water, and headed off towards Wartrace. I was excited again, and felt I'd made it through a rough patch relatively unscathed. Once more, what had seemed like a disaster, the hotel in Lewisburg being full, had worked out for the best. Had I stopped there, I'd have had a much longer continuous stretch through the heat of the day. So probably, in my enthusiastic state, I worked a bit too hard over this next 10 miles. It was still hot, yet I averaged faster than 12-minute pace. In Wartrace ("the cradle of the Tennessee Walking Horse"), I stopped at Marathon Gas. I hadn't touched my extra bottle; as it turned out, I'd carry it without touching it for many more miles. Well, better too much than too little. On the way out I grabbed a corn dog and some roasted potatoes. I wolfed the corn dog quickly as I walked away, but the potatoes lasted forever. One little piece would go down very slowly, I think because I had no saliva for it. Leaving Wartrace, there's a message painted on the road: "Bad dogs next 40 miles". OK then. Actually this stretch of road is quite pleasant this time of day. Last year, it had been the middle of the night, and I was hallucinating. But neither year did I have any dog trouble. Oh, and no 80-mph winds or hail. In fact, sadly, there was no more rain for the rest of the race for me, apart from a light drizzle a couple of times. There is a 400-foot climb here over 4 miles, but it's not too steep until the end. After that it's a long, gradual downhill for about 12 miles into Manchester. I was loving life through here, enjoying the evening and the beautiful countryside, feeling good. When 7:30 pm rolled around, I'd run 42 miles, and was at 243. 40 miles ahead of where I was last year at 60 hours! I couldn't quite believe things were going this well. But then I still had the third night to get through, and the two big climbs. Soon, I saw some people by the side of the road calling my name — did I know them?? No, but they knew I was coming. It was the Whispering Oaks Campground, a favorite road angel station. I'd arrived before realizing it was close. I gladly accepted a bottle of water, chugged it, tossed it back, and kept moving. Approaching Manchester, I gave Liz a call. We were deep in discussion when I realized I'd missed a turn in the middle of Manchester. OK, back on course, no problem. Then I turned too soon... it was too hard to navigate while talking, so I told Liz I'd call her back once I was out of Manchester. The problem was, I was going by the map on my Fenix, and I was now a bit off course. I had been paying so little attention that when I got back on course, I wasn't sure which direction was forward and which was backward. Now I realize that this was because both ways connected back to Highway 41; I was just on the short detour to hit the county courthouse. Embarrassingly, I lost about 6 minutes here before I was convinced I was in fact going the right way. Leaving Manchester, at mile 251, I restocked at a Gulf station. Back onto the Hillsboro Highway, with nothing to distract me, I called Liz back. Had I adequately restocked? Yes, plenty of fluid. I think. I'm not sure how long it will have to last me, but hopefully there will be something in Monteagle or Tracy City (nope). How about food? Oh, I still have some potatoes left, and I think one more mini PayDay. What? That's all??? What about FOOD? Well, I'd already had "dinner" in Wartrace. I felt fine. Liz was not pleased. As I headed into the third night, in a way this is where the race really began for me. My body and mind were now quite softened up from the sustained effort. I'd pushed through two nights with little to no rest. Could I do it one last time? The highway was long, straight, empty, and monotonous — it was not long before the rumble strip began to take on interesting colors and patterns. It took a real effort not to get lost in that. To avoid spacing out and weaving into traffic, I talked to Liz some more. An eternity later, the big climb up to Monteagle approached. I pulled out the big guns, a 5-Hour Energy. Boom, I was fully alert within a minute. I thought that was necessary for this steep, narrow, twisty road with lots of switchbacks and little shoulder. Alert I may have been... but this is also where the most intense non-ordinary states of consciousness began. The Monteagle climb was the emotional and spiritual crux of my journey this year. The sheer effort, feeling 100% present and alive, opened me up, as wave after wave of insights washed over me, and I felt an enormous connection to the environment, the landscape and countryside around me, and all the people in or associated with the race. I won't try to express all of the feelings here. But the strongest was the raw, visceral sense that being here now, DOING, was what it was all about. The goals, the records, the ego, were totally beside the point. They served a purpose, but that purpose was to get me here now so that I could DO. The climb was hard, after 270 miles, but step by step I made it. At the top, I could relax and start running again. But I was quickly disconcerted that I got nowhere near 5 hours of energy. I was fading again, and had to call Liz one more time, though it was now very late even in California. I really, really wanted a nap. But I realized that all I had to do was just push through until dawn, and I would have a very special race under my belt, the biggest accomplishment of my running career. A half-hour nap would have no guarantee of rejuvenating me, and would mean I'd then have to work harder. Eventually I decided on a 5-minute nap. That would not cost me much, and might help a bit. I remembered how much a 1-minute nap had helped Courtney at Moab 240! So I sat on a bench and set my phone for 5 minutes. It helped some, I think. In Monteagle, everything was closed. I found a vending machine — of course, it didn't work. So I pushed on to Tracy City, another 6 miles. Another non-functional vending machine. This was beginning to annoy me. It was a long way to Jasper, and my next opportunity for water or food. I was anticipating returning to full alertness with the dawn, and then pushing on to the finish. Dawn came, but it was not quite so straightforward this time. I was still connected to the space I'd been in on the climb to Monteagle — in fact, I was consciously trying to hold onto those insights. I was in a different kind of reality, with its own cohesion, not so simply put aside. My sense of self was expanded; I was ceasing to fully identify with my physical body. I now understood better the mental state I'd been in last year, on waking from my nap in Lewisburg. As my crew worked on my feet, I'd said "This 'race' thing... I have a body, and I have to move that body along a particular trajectory? And bodies need food and water... OK..." It sounds like simple confusion, just not being fully awake, but even after the race last year I'd realized it was more than that. Now, it was clearer. My sense of self had been expanded. I was connected to a bigger picture of reality, of the race. On a certain level, I knew that the one thing that mattered was where my body was along the course at a particular time. On another level, that seemed like a very strange, arbitrary variable to pick out as relevant; Vol State was so much more than that. I wanted to tell Laz that I didn't get the connection between "self" and "race". But OK. I slowly worked out from first principles the relationship between where I was on the course at a certain time, odd as that seemed, and the fields I had displayed on my Garmin. I knew what I had to do, not by common sense, or intuition, but only by a careful string of logic and reason. I hoped I hadn't made a mistake. This, I believe, really captures the entirety of what this race was about for me. Walking the fine line. In the obvious sense of maintaining awareness of what was sustainable for my body and mind, not pushing too hard, not failing to give enough. But more than that: my insights and expanded sense of self were not only part of what I was seeking with this journey; they also gave me strength, and kept me from feeling the immense burden of 314 miles on a tiny, insignificant, solitary self, lost in the vast wilderness. Because I was now so much more than that. But I also had to retain enough hold on that self to function, to continue to run and stay on course and on pace. It was a delicate balance. At one point, as I was lamenting how far I still had to go for more food and water, my brain slowly parsed the object that I was looking at by the side of the road: a sign that read "Vol State runners". With a tarp and a cooler behind it. It was exactly what I needed! As it turns out, this road angel setup would later save Bev as well, and more runners, I believe. I restocked on fluid, and eagerly chowed down on some jerky and chips. It was another 5 miles before the big descent into Jasper began. I hung on, walking the fine line, to get there. Again I slowly parsed the object hanging in my visual field: it resolved into the Mountain Mart sign. That means I'm at the top of the descent. Cl
ick! I'm connected to the world again, engaged with pretty ordinary reality, modulo fatigue and excitement. And I realized I still had half an hour before morning check-in. That meant I would get more than the 50 miles I'd been shooting for. The record now seemed like a done deal.

I cranked down the hill (not quite as fast as last year: looks like 8:52 pace over the initial, steepest 3.7 miles). At 7:30 I was at 295 miles, so 52 through the night. 19 to go. The math was now clear: I could come in under 3 days 5 hours even walking; 3 days 4 hours would be unlikely mostly running, with the climb up Sand Mountain still to come. At least a two-hour overall course record, without crew. I could hardly believe it.

Day Four

Coming into Jasper early Sunday morning, I looked for road angel Steve Smalling's house on the left, but was unsurprised to see nothing set up yet: I was now 7 miles ahead of the crewed record split, and many hours ahead of the screwed record split. And after all, only screwed runners need road angels. I pulled into the Exxon at mile 297 and restocked. Donuts for breakfast! Somehow I was in and out in 2 minutes.

As I ran past the Super 8 in Kimball, mile 300.5, Laz and Carl were out front watching, recording and cheering me on. I was grinning ear-to-ear. This was now my victory lap. Mile 303: Blue Bridge! Time for my only selfie, and the call to Carl to tell them where I am (unnecessary in this case). Crossing the bridge, I drink the last of my water, but I don't care. I'm almost done! Uh... yeah. I push on through New Hope (or as Laz calls it, No Hope). This seems a lot longer than it was last year. I'm almost done, right? I just need to get to the finish, secure my time, and claim my thrown and my glory. (It's called the "thrown" because after 80-odd filthy and stinking runners have sat in it, it's thrown away. But I would be the first filthy and stinking runner this year, so my thrown would be clean!) I pass the last opportunity for restocking, a Dollar General, at mile 305, without really registering it. I knew there was one towards the end, but wasn't clicking that this was it or that I needed it. I was still amped-up and pushing. At mile 308, Laz is waiting at the turn up the final, big climb. Another 1,000 feet in 3 miles. He says he'll see me at the finish. OK, let's do this! Last year I walked the hill at 15-minute pace; I try to do the same. It seems a bit harder. Gradually, I realize that I'm thirsty. Also the sun is coming out, and it's warming up. I'd better get this done before it's too hot. Then, I'm very thirsty. Why had I not restocked?? I begin eyeing all the bottles lying by the side of the road. Is there anything drinkable left in any of them? Or are they all, as Ryan Ploeckelman would presume on my podcast on The Adventure Jogger, trucker urine? Yeah, that doesn't look like the right color for Dr. Pepper. The climb is interminable this year. I am getting more and more tired, hot, and desperate for anything to drink. I pass into Alabama, yay! But the climb goes on. Much later, the climb is done, and I make the turn onto Castle Rock road. Last year I ran hard from here to the finish, in 27 minutes. That was not going to happen this year. I was now looking contemplatively at the tiny bits of water left from the rain in the rumble-strip depressions. The road from here is rough and rolling. This section is called the "meat grinder": your feet are toast long before you get here, and it's adding insult to injury. At this point, I was getting quite angry with Laz. Why would he do this to me? Didn't he know I was out of water? What was he going to do if I just collapsed by the side of the road? How long until someone found me? But I pushed on. I'd been tracking my Garmin's idea of when I would finish. It had gone from 12:10, in Kimball, to as early as 11:38. It never quite got to where it looked like I could push it below 11:30, the 3-days-4-hours mark. Now it was creeping back up. On and on. Into Georgia, and Castle Rock Ranch. A sign by the side of the road declared ONE MILE TO GO!! NO KIDDING. I checked my Garmin. It's 1.4 to go. Very funny, Laz. At the field where everyone parked their cars before the race, Wednesday morning, an eon ago, I turned left. Now, I knew, it was actually one mile to go. As another sign declared. A bit farther, another left turn, another sign saying one mile to go. Nice. Now I was really angry, but able to push harder, with the end so near. One final "one mile to go sign". And then I was in the clearing, with a tree catching my hat and pulling it off as I flew past (it took a while to find the next morning). I made it to the rock, and touched it. DONE! I sat down in my thrown, as Laz told me my time: 3 days, 4 hours, 9 minutes, 10 seconds. Just over a 3-hour overall record, 10-hour screwed record. But all I cared about was water. I knew that the first thing you said when you finished was your "finisher quote", that would be recorded and go on Facebook. I'd thought about what mine should be. But before that, all I could say was "I need water". Somehow, I had envisioned a big scene at the finish. News crews for my incredible feat? Why not? But at the least, food and drink. There was nothing. There was Laz, and one chair (my thrown). "Water... ummm, I don't think I have any." I could not believe it. I was going to die without water. That was all that had pulled me towards the end. But he did manage to dig up a half-full half-liter bottle. That would do for now. And, that became my finisher quote. 

King Bob (pic by Lazarus Lake)


Laz drove me back to Kimball, treated me to McDonald's, and got me checked into the Super 8. Back in my motel room, the change in my reality was abrupt. And the first thing that hit me was the country music clearly playing... that wasn't there... again. The same thing had happened last year: I was annoyed that someone was playing loud country music late at night. I opened the door to my room... nothing outside. Huh. Finally I identified the source: my bathroom fan. Turn that off, music stops. Turn it on, it starts. Ooooookay. And it was the same this year, except this time it was the A/C noise my brain was pulling the music out of. Clearly, I was in the same kind of physiological brain state as I had been after the race last year. Would I get the same kind of overwhelming "enlightenment experience"? Well, maybe. I knew it wouldn't be exactly the same. Every journey is different. It was the same, but different. Not as much of a shock. I've changed a lot in the past year. Some of the things that felt like insights flowing through my mind felt familiar, but I seemed to see them more clearly this time, connecting things I hadn't connected before. But I waited too long to write a lot of them down.
The power of napping

I tried to sleep, but only managed about a half-hour actual nap, per Oura ring. Reflexively, I was looking at all the accolades flow in over Facebook, email, messaging, while also being annoyed I was distracting myself from non-ego enlightened space. But it was way too much to take in anyway. I wound up not responding to anything at all for a few days, just for sanity. I could not even make a quick "thank you" or summary or "more to come" post. I just couldn't process what had just happened. I began to doubt whether any of this was real. Too many pieces of reality didn't seem to fit. I was sure the A/C was blasting heat, instead of cool. And still that country music. My fingers were doing weird twitchy things on their own. My phone was behaving oddly, bad cell connection maybe, but when I tried to turn on wifi its behavior just didn't seem quite consistent. Maybe I needed to charge it? I plugged it in... no charging. OK that's not right. And this thing about crushing the crewed record, screwed... that had to be a delusion, right? I began to seriously entertain the idea that I was really lying in a ditch by the side of the road somewhere, fantasizing that the race was over. Or maybe I was someone else entirely, there was no race, I was just dreaming, or psychotic. But clearly, what had seemed to be reality wasn't really cohesive enough to be real. There was one last chance. Maybe the phone was just wet. I had a laptop in my suitcase. I plugged it in... no power to it either. OK that's very bad. Reality is broken. But then I jiggled the plug, and it started charging. I turned on wifi, and the Internet was out there and behaving consistently. Whew! Existential crisis averted, I connected with Laz and Carl for dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Paul Heckert joined us. As Paul puts it, he finished at the same time I did. Unfortunately his finish was at mile 86, where Oprah caught him. He'd just arrived back in Kimball. I lamented that there were no rental cars available in Jasper, leaving me unable to go back along the course the next day and cheer on the other runners, as is traditional for the King. But Paul had his car and was happy to drive, cool! Off to bed and some well-deserved sleep. But I slept a total of less than two hours, with zero REM sleep (per Oura), then was comfortably awake by 2 am, trying to mindfully surf my special mental state. This was also consistent with last year's post-race experience. I have a half-baked hypothesis here, also about the experience multi-day runners seem to share of waking up in the middle of the night for weeks after their race, being convinced that the race is still going and they have to get up and move. Aerobic exercise promotes brain plasticity. A multi-day is a LOT of aerobic exercise. What patterns do our brains wire into this newly plastic state? Well, the need to not sleep, and the reality that the world consists of an endless journey that must be continued. But I know of no research here that would confirm this idea. It occurred to me to check with Carl about where Bev and the Florys were; they should be coming by soon. I stepped out of my room to watch the street; Laz came out and joined me. But we had just missed them. I got a ride with Carl up to the Rock to see them finish, early Monday morning. The Florys came in together, just under 4 days — wow! Both sets of parents had been crewing, and were also at the finish. Laz told Daniel and Ariela that honestly, nobody had expected that from them. That potential wasn't obvious in their UltraSignup history. I was somewhat gratified when they explained that they'd used my race report from last year as a guide! However they did it, I was impressed. Ariela was only the second woman ever to finish under 4 days, after Francesca, last year. They were all looking forward to my report from this year... yeah, I'll write one, but I'll have to think about how to make it different. Laz remarked that of course it would be completely different, because I was running alone this year. But the thing is, I never felt alone. Especially by the third night, my perception of the race was much broader. Everyone was with me. Bev arrived an hour later, missing the sub-4 mark by a scant 49 minutes. But she had crushed her own women's screwed record by 7 hours. (Her finisher quote: "I hate crewed people even more now".) An incredible performance, especially after running 170 miles at HOTS just two weeks earlier, and getting injured. Laz was incredulous. He'd seen photos of the bruising behind her knee. Did she have a new bionic leg?

Ariela, Daniel, and Bev in their throwns
Back in Kimball, I met up with Paul for our trip backwards along the course. I was really looking forward to that, connecting with everyone, and encouraging them, but I was not looking forward to what would happen to my feet sitting in a car all day. That was really the worst possible thing for them. They weren't as trashed as last year, but they were not pretty, and I knew they would get worse before they got better. First stop: Mountain Mart. I'd heard good things about it, but never been inside. It was pure Tennessee back country. Want some guns and ammo to go with your pizza? This is the place. But the pizza was INCREDIBLE. Or maybe anything would have tasted incredible to me then; I don't know. The first runner to look for was Andy Pearson, but somehow we missed him. Next we caught Henry Lupton, then Becca Jones, then Kimberly Durst (on her way to finishing a ridiculous double, HOTS plus LAVS!), and on and on. We missed a few people, but met up with most of them, taking photos and encouraging them. While in the car, with the music off but the window down, the wind again turned into music for me. First opera, then something with trumpet. My brain was still tuned to a slightly different reality.

Henry Lupton

The last people we saw: Jeff Manwaring, Hunt Brumby, and Tasha Adkins-Holland. They all finished!
We missed Terrie Wurzbacher, fighting off Oprah, but she finished too, with Paul's help.
Connecting with all the runners was a valuable part of the experience for me, and I'm grateful to Paul for enabling it. It was indeed a long day, and my feet indeed were unhappy. But by 11 pm we were in Nashville, at my parents' house, and then I could truly begin to rest and recuperate. 


I don't have a tidy summary here. Was this a breakthrough? Or a fluke? Not entirely a fluke, I believe. I've taken definite positive steps both in handling sleep deprivation, and, much more importantly, in running with more joy and presence, and less structure. I'm not abandoning what I used to consider my primary strength as a runner, my analytical approach. But I've added a new (to me), important piece; the analytical part is now just a tool, not the driver. Paradoxically, caring more about the journey, the process, and less about the result, yielded enormous benefits not only in the experience itself — the part that really counts — but also in the results. Have I been running with one hand tied behind my back all these years? I can't wait to find out what comes next.


What would one of my reports be without numbers? Here are some. • First half 37:33:00, second half 38:36:10 (49.3% / 50.7% split) • 10.64 hours stopped, 65.51 hours moving • 5.6 hours napping, 5.06 hours overhead • Of the overhead, 2.5 hours essential, 2.56 stops due to no crew • Total average pace 14:33 / mile, average moving pace 12:31 / mile • Run / walk, by time: 45% (29h 15m) / 55% (34h 53m) • By distance: 55% (172 miles) / 45% (140 miles) Here are all my splits, paces, and break times along the course:
My GPX is available here. Finally, here is a histogram of how much time I spent moving at any given pace (10-sec bins). This is the first time I've done this kind of analysis; it was cool to see those two peaks pop out.

Thank You

Thank you to Laz, Carl, Jan, Sandra, and Mike, for creating the opportunity for so many of us to find things in ourselves we never knew were there. Thank you to Brian Purcell for the ride from Nashville to Kimball. Thank you to Paul for the post-race drive. Thank you to all the other runners and walkers for your inspiring efforts. Thank you to all the road angels, and to Francesca for coming out to cheer us on. Thank you to Regina and Bill for showing me the ropes last year. Thank you to Greg for leading the way, setting the bar high, and being a true sportsman all along the way, with advice, encouragement, and gracious congratulations. And thank you to Liz for the late-night phone calls, and so much more!