Friday, May 5, 2023

Spartathlon 2022 DNF Report

This report is long overdue. But since it was only my second DNF in about 200 marathons and ultras, and my first DNF at Spartathlon — my favorite race — I think it's still worth writing up, so I'd better do it before starting on my 6 Jours de France report. (Plus Amy Mower is still clamoring for DNF reports for her new book!) It will be a new kind of writing for me. The short version is that I started the race injured, got a bit too confident and then started crumbling early, held on for as long as I could, but finally threw in the towel at mile 136 (of 153). Not too surprising, really. The long version is, well, a lot longer, and a lot more painful.


For background on Spartathlon, see my 2015 report. 2022 was a year of injury for me, also the first year since I started running in 2004, at age 38, with no PRs. It had to happen sometime. Still, it was a disappointment. I can't hold back Father Time forever — he is coming to call. It began with a lower-back injury, I think left over from being overloaded with baggage at Spartathlon 2021. But that didn't resolve, and the MRI showed lots of degenerative stuff going on. I thought for a while that was it — I was done, just after my best race ever, the 2021 Vol State 500K. How cruel. But the second cortisone epidural was magic, and I could run again. 6 Jours de France, in May, left me with a foot tendon injury that took all summer to mostly resolve. I would enter Spartathlon undertrained, so it would not be a PR year, but I would still finish. The Burning Man 50K, which I always use as an indicator race, four weeks before Spartathlon, was my slowest finish there by half an hour — not good. Much worse, later in the week I pulled my hamstring (let's not discuss how). I could not run a single step. It shortly became clear that this was damage to my left hamstring upper insertion, where I had torn it nine years earlier. Since then I'd been diligent with PT exercises to prevent reinjury, but clearly it hadn't been enough. These tendon injuries take months to resolve, at a minimum. How could I even contemplate running Spartathlon now? But after two weeks I was able to run some again, slowly and painfully. This was not as bad a tear as before. I managed a total of 31 miles in the four weeks before Spartathlon. A bit more of a taper than I'd had in mind, especially since there had been no real training to begin with! I flew to Greece feeling 50/50 on whether I should start the race, or switch to crewing someone.


I had more than Spartathlon to look forward to this year: my friend Pantazis Houlis was organizing a puzzle conference on Kastellorizo, the easternmost Greek island, a beautiful but pretty inaccessible place. I always like to arrive in Greece early and spend some time unjetlagging and unwinding on some islands. But this time I would be hosting a puzzle table and giving a talk, and the extra travel to get there was a bit taxing, so there wasn't much chance to unwind. I did a little bit of painful running, and we had an amazing astronomy night, with some of the darkest skies I've seen outside of eastern Oregon.

After that I had a couple of days on Rhodes, which I had also never been to, known for its amazing medieval old town. Then it was on to Athens. Once more I was overloaded, this time with a backpack full of mechanical puzzles. Ah well! On the flight to Athens I ran into Dean Karnazes — last year I'd run into him on Hydra before the race. Small world! But he was not running Spartathlon this year; he was here to help launch a new half-marathon on Santorini.

I arrived on Wednesday; the race started Friday. So I had some time to settle in and hang out with the rest of the US team, and the British team as well, in the same hotel as us this year, the Athens Coast. This was a new Spartathlon host hotel, kind of on the other end of Glyfada from the others, so it was a bit of a walk to the Oasis, where check-in was, and which seemed to be the nexus for runners. After running Spartathlon four times previously, and crewing once, I know a lot of people, so this is valuable socializing time for me. I knew many on the US team — some from previous years, some who I had interested in coming — but there were unfamiliar faces too that I was eager to meet. We had no real podium contenders on the men's side, but among the women were Marisa Lizak (4th in 2021), Micah Morgan (US 24-hour team member), and Camille Herron (needs no introduction). Their main competition would probably be Latvian Diana Dzaviza, last year's winner. If there was a men's favorite it was probably me, having finished four times, all under 30 hours. But I was just as likely to DNF, this year. Noteworthy also was US team organizer Andrei Nana, going for his 9th consecutive finish — apparently even less trained than I was. The British team is my second family at Spartathlon, so it was great to be in the same hotel with them. I did a shake-out run with Brit David Bone on Thursday.
With Spartathlon legend Seppo Leinonen

Also this year I had the responsibility of advertising the "Spartan Mile". This is run the day after Spartathlon, on the track in Sparta, only for Spartathletes (those who started the race). It's nominally a mile, nominally naked, as the ancient Greeks ran — in practice it's one lap (400 m), in underwear (but barefoot). This was started by the Swedes several years ago. Somehow I had inherited the job of organizing it. It's not an official race function, so can't be advertised on the website, but it's become a popular tradition. I made a few trips to the Oasis to hand out info cards to those in line for check-in, and left a stack on a table.

The Race

As usual, I finagled a ride to the start line in Athens, half an hour away, on race morning — avoiding the buses — this time with Amy Mower and crew. We arrived to find that this year, there were no portapotties at the start. In a race of this caliber, that's something I can't understand! As I have said in previous reports, this is the most dramatic start in ultramarathoning, at the Acropolis, in the shadow of the Parthenon. However the start is now a bit lower down the hill than it used to be; I'm not sure why.

Incomplete US team photo

My plan this year was simple: run to the comfort of my hamstring. I assumed my streak of sub-30 finishes would come to an end; I would be happy with anything under the 36-hour cutoff. Nonetheless, I'd printed out nominal splits for 30 hours, just in case. I'm an eternal optimist, and wasn't going to let go of this bit of ego easily. I told myself that my experience here would be the most important factor. I know how to run this race, and I know every part of it, what to expect, very well. I ran a mile or so with Marisa, but as she gradually drifted ahead, I knew it was unlikely I'd see her again. She disappeared for good when a train crossed the road, and I was the first person stopped. A minute lost, oh well!

As the first few checkpoints flew by (there are 75 of them, each with its own cutoff, spaced a couple of miles apart), I found that my comfort level had me actually running a bit faster than my 30-hour splits. Here I made my big mistake. I kept running to feel. My best performance ever came at Vol State 2021, where I threw out explicit pacing and ran by feel. Since then I've tried to incorporate this more into my racing. My brain should know by now how I should feel at various points in Spartathlon. About 15 miles in, I felt enormous waves of gratitude flow over me for being there then, still able to run my favorite race. It brought tears to my eyes. I ran with the flow. By the marathon point I was about 15 minutes ahead of where I should be for 30 hours, but I was not putting on the brakes. I began to have delusions of sub-29, maybe 28. My long-standing goal at Spartathlon has been to run sub-27 and/or top-10. I've run 27:01, and placed 16th. I was not so delusional today as to be thinking of those goals, at least.

And then it all came crashing down. My left calf cramped around mile 29. A cramp? This early?! That was ominous at best. I slowed down and alternated walking. But things did not improve. I had made the most basic mistake of all: starting Spartathlon faster than my fitness justified. I have always started slow here and finished strong. I don't regret trying something new, but this was not the year for it. I had misjudged the situation. The weak link was not my hamstring, but my training. 
By mile 36 I'd fallen behind my 30-hour splits. Any thought of that was now out the window; it was all about survival. By Corinth, mile 50, I was in pretty bad shape. I asked for someone to tape my calf, but there was some miscommunication, and instead I got a calf massage. Which was great, but when I then asked again for taping, I was told it was too late, due to the massage oil. Oh well! Unfortunately I saw Amy and her crew here — she had already dropped, due to foot issues, and was now flitting around helping people. I asked for my phone, which I'd left in her crew car. I don't normally run Spartathlon with a phone, but this was no longer normal. The next major phase of the race is from Corinth to the mountain, mile 100. My calf was not improving, and I continued to bleed time. Somewhere in the hills before Ancient Nemea (mile 76) — the region of the race where I generally begin to feel tired — I was really down on the thought of slogging out the rest of the race. It was now apparent I'd be running well into the heat of the second day, something I avoid by finishing in under 30 hours. And this was a hot year, with the second day supposed to be hotter. Also 30 hours is about my limit for running without sleep. I know full well that finishing in 28 hours does not present nearly the challenges that the 35-hour runners face. Well, this year that was going to be me, and I was not happy about it. I saw that I needed to get out of this negative mindspace, so I called Amy. I had thought to ask her to start crewing me, actually, as she'd offered to earlier. When things are going well you can run Spartathlon with no crew, but things were not going well. But by then she was already in Gytheio, at the hotel, which was actually well south of Sparta. It would mean a couple hours' drive. So I didn't ask. But unloading my negativity helped. She reminded me to just keep going, that things would change. I knew that and was doing it; still, hearing it made it easier. For a while. Fortunately, somewhere around mile 80-85, I connected with Arthur Moore, a South African runner here for his 4th finish. He was a big fan of my race reports, and we had a grand time running and walking and chatting together for a few hours. I felt I was holding him back, but he insisted not. He told me that the three runners he was sure would finish this year were myself, Andrei Nana, and Aykut Celikbas (from Turkey). Well, sorry to disappoint you, Arthur! Somewhere in here was my first puking episode — I thoroughly and completely emptied the contents of my stomach. From there on, I pretty much wasn't getting any calories in. Arthur and I stayed together until the mountain base, then I sent him up the steep trail ahead of me while I took my time with my drop bag. The mountain ascent, a 1,000-foot climb in a mile and a half up technical trail with steep drop-offs in the dark, is known as one of the more challenging parts of the course. Balance can be tricky here on tired legs; I'm amazed there have been no serious accidents. But it has never been a real problem for me. It's a chance to walk, and generally the top arrives before I expect it. Not this year. It took all I had to slowly, painfully make it to the top. I thought it would never end. I was totally spent, and sat down in a chair at the aid station, legs shaking. Just when I felt about ready to stand up again, someone started smoking, and that sent me over the edge. Round two of thoroughly emptying my stomach contents. The mountain descent, down loose scree, is always my least favorite part of the course. My feet were trashed by the bottom. For the next few miles, Andrei, American Jess Hardy, and I were running near each other. Jess eventually pulled ahead; Andrei and I would play leapfrog for quite a while longer. The horizon began to lighten, far earlier along the course than it had any right to in my experience. Scarily so, promising dozens of miles of blast furnace ahead. The 20 miles between the mountain and Alea-Tegea, on back highways, are always a no-man's land for me. I've gone off course twice here in the dark. Well, it wasn't dark this year. I slowly began baking, and began struggling to stay awake. I had to sit for five minutes at CP 56 (mile 113). After Alea-Tegea we are on the main highway to Sparta for the rest of the race. There's an 800-foot climb over five miles, then several miles of rolling before the final climb and long 13 miles downhill into Sparta. The climb was wringing everything I had left out of me. I sat for four more minutes at CP 63 (mile 127), around the end of it. As I was now approaching the cutoffs, they urged me to be on my way. I started down the road, but immediately emptied my stomach for the third time. That just about did it for me; I was considering turning back. But then Andrei came up behind me, still moving. I didn't see how he was doing it. But if he was still going, I would keep going too. At this point it was one CP at a time, inching closer and closer to the cutoffs. I didn't see how I could make it to the next CP, but I did. I was baking in an oven, barely awake, my body not responding. Finally at CP 67 (mile 136), with 32 hours elapsed, I sat down in the chair and didn't get up. I could still see Andrei in the distance ahead. It was five minutes 'til the cutoff, but I told them I was done. They took my tracker, and, I'd forgotten, both bibs as well. That stung. Time expired, and a few minutes later, Americans Tom Jackson and Zandy Mangold arrived at the CP. They were over the cutoff, but allowed to continue if they wanted. I learned later that by this point in the race, the policy is to let runners continue if they want to. Tom and Zandy wanted to. I thought they were crazy — clearly from here it was impossible. So that was that, my race was over. Funny thing, in my mind, the very next CP, 68, signals the beginning of the end. After that it's a slow hike up to CP 69, then 13 fast miles into Sparta. Did I give up just too soon? Maybe, but I don't think so. Had I continued, I think it's very likely that, like Chad Ricklefs, I'd have been pulled at CP 68, a major medical station. They gave him an IV, then sent him on to the hospital, where he was stuck for the rest of the day. That could easily have been my fate too. Or maybe not. Somehow, Andrei, Tom, and Zandy all finished. The next order of business was to get to Sparta, so I could at least watch the others finish. I tried to call Amy, or any other American, to come get me, but the cell service was too flaky. So, it was to be the Death Bus, the fate of most who miss a cutoff. I didn't have to wait long. I boarded the bus, and we started down the highway... and stopped at CP 68. Um, how long would we be waiting here? Oh, maybe a few hours. Um. No, that was NOT OK. I was not well and needed to get back to the care of my American teammates. Thankfully, they put me in a taxi to Sparta, for which I was very appreciative. Once in Sparta, I connected to a group at a restaurant near the finish line. But I was too hot and faint and decided I needed to see medical. Probably I needed an IV. However they didn't have time for me at medical; that was for finishers. I got hold of Amy, and she took me to her car and ran the A/C for a while. We commiserated about our DNFs. After two DNFs in a row, she told me she was now content in her awareness that Spartathlon did not suit her strengths; she wouldn't need to return. But she had finished in her first try, in 2019. (It was no surprise to me when this stance softened a day or two later — she did apply for 2023.) I barely stayed awake, but stayed at the restaurant long enough to see the last finishers — including Andrei, Zandy, and finally Tom, who I believe now has the record for the slowest official finish at Spartathlon: 36:10:35. This is possible because the start was 15 minutes early this year, with the cutoff and finish clock times unchanged, to make up for early course detours.


I learned that Camille had unfortunately dropped, after a run-in with a crew vehicle. Diana had repeated her win from last year, with an incredible 25:03, the second-fastest women's time ever — in a hot year, no less. Marisa was second with 25:34, the fourth fastest woman ever at Spartathlon, and the fastest American apart from Katalin Nagy. And Micah took the bronze with a very impressive Spartathlon debut of 27:24. On the men's side, the results were truly shocking. Not one, but two men surpassed two of Kouros' top-four finish times, for the first time ever. Like Diana, Greek runner Fotis Zisimopoulos repeated his win from 2021, but this year in an otherworldly 21:00 — which included going off course by seven kilometers! What might have happened if he had not? Kouros' best is 20:25. And Somiya Toru of Japan was not far behind in 21:18, a mark that would have easily won in any other non-Kouros year. It must be said, though, that we live in the era of super shoes, and also the course had much less support on it in Kouros' day, so a direct comparison with his performances is not possible. Sunday morning, we headed back from our hotel in Gytheio to Sparta in time for the Spartan Mile. It was a huge success this year, I believe the biggest crowd ever. The finish was hard-fought, with Israeli Chanan El Cohen winning with a time of 1:06 (one lap), as his neck-and-neck competitor face planted just before the finish line. After that we did a full mile for the die-hards, won by American Alex Ramsey in 5:58 (he gets bonus points for doing a literal mile, literally naked!).

It seems frivolous, but after the tremendous exertion of Spartathlon, the Spartan Mile is just the fun, light-hearted, joyful chance to connect that we all need. I rode back to Athens again with Amy and her crew, with the obligatory stop at the Isthmia Bridge Cafe (highly recommended). Monday evening was the awards gala, always a highlight of the trip. This year would be bittersweet, as I would not be called up to receive my finisher's medal and certificate. That was going to be hard. The gala was in a new location; it changes every few years. This is a nice venue. However as we settled in and proceedings began, there was nothing to eat or drink... the buffet dinner is always after the awards, but usually there are at least cocktails and then wine. A few of the Americans got a bit impatient and went out, bringing back pizza, wine, and other drinks.

The presenters go through each country in alphabetical order, calling up that country's finishers to the stage. It would be very strange to be a US non-finisher for once. But this year, now and then, an occasional non-finisher would be called up as well, an iconic runner from that country with several finishes, just to be part of the event, in honor of cumulative accomplishments. I began to wonder... did I have that status? It would mean a lot to me to be asked to join the team on stage. Well, I wasn't. And somehow, as I saw the US finishers on stage, and I wasn't among them, it all finally hit me like a load of bricks. I was losing it, crying uncontrollably. This was a part of my identity that was now irrevocably lost. I had some sympathy from my table mates as they guided me up to the buffet afterwards. After dinner, Sarah Moore (US runner) and Sarah Siskind (Julie Kheyfets' crew) plied me with some wine and a fair amount of tsipouro, an unassuming but potent Greek liquor I will have to beware of in the future. When the dancing began, the emotional rawness combined with the alcohol allowed me to participate fully and energetically — the most uninhibited dancing I've ever done. Usually here I sit on the sidelines until Zorba the Greek starts. That's relatively simple to participate in; just get in a line and jump up and down with everyone else. This year I must have danced a couple of hours, including up on the bar. It was exactly what I needed. Yes, there are videos. No, I'm not posting them here.


There's the obvious lesson here — respect my fitness and training, and respect the race. I've said before that "The list of DNFs includes a who's-who of top ultrarunners. This is a race that can chew you up and spit you out, no matter who you are." There are never guarantees here. Perhaps I shouldn't have started at all, but clearly my greedy, too-fast start was a big part of my problems. There's also the comparison with Tom, Zandy, and especially Andrei to contemplate. It seems they all wanted it more than I did. Or maybe my body did just give out... it's frustrating to not really know. But I do know that Andrei would have to have literally fallen over and died to not continue. I did not want it that badly, this year. However, my experience here was really nothing unusual... it's probably closer to the norm. Historically, Spartathlon has about a 40% finish rate. Most ultrarunners have experienced this kind of failure. But not me. So, I see it as an important part of my development, connecting me with the larger community of ultrarunners in a way I had not been before. It's one thing to see people fail and understand why, even to feel a little smug about being smarter than that. It's another to experience it. That gives one true compassion and connection, and for that I am grateful.

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.