Tuesday, January 6, 2015

New Year's One Day 2014-2015

The New Year's One Day is a 24-hour race held in San Francisco, starting at 9am on New Year's Eve, ending at 9am on New Year's Day. You run as many miles as you can in one day. I'd been wanting to do this race for a few years. I was inspired to think about the 24-hour format by my friends Mike Henze, who was on the 2010 US National Team (and did phenomenally at worlds), and Jen Aradi, who has several times been an alternate. But circumstances kept me from being ready to give it a shot, until now. Having three 12-hours and five 100-milers under my belt, and being mostly healthy, I figured it is finally time.

I was especially interested to see what the effects of my recent low-carb, high-fat training would be. In principle, I could burn much more fat during the race, reducing the need to take in lots of carbs. Fueling is a big deal in ultras; GI issues are the #1 reason for DNFs in 100-mile races. Also this training should make me more fatigue-resistant. In the few races I've done since starting the diet, signs have been positive. Most recently I ran a sub-3 marathon 3 1/2 weeks before the 24-hour, just shy of a PR. I didn't carb load, and I didn't take many in-race carbs. But really the marathon is not the right race to maximize the benefits of fat burning; it's a bit too fast-paced. The 24-hour should be perfect.

Heading into the race I was feeling pretty good. I was a trifle worried about my left hamstring tendons, that I tore a year and a half ago. They'd fully healed, but lately I'd felt them a bit on my long runs. My massage therapist had worked over my hamstrings thoroughly a few days before the race, but that actually left them more tender. So that was a potential race buster. There's always a last-minute scare heading into a big race, but so far (knock on wood), my fears have never materialized. The weather would be mid-40s to mid-50s, pretty ideal. But as race morning dawned, there was a high-wind advisory in SF; my weather app reported 36-mph winds. Ouch.

I had a range of goals for the race. Ultimately, I would be ecstatic to make the US National Team, and go to the 24-hour world championships this year in Turin. But for that I thought I needed 145-147 miles. That seemed pretty unlikely, but I had a pacing plan that would give me a shot at it, without going out too crazy fast and blowing my race. Next below that that, 135 miles would meet the national team qualification standard. I'd get my name on the list, but not in the top six to actually make the team. And my baseline goal was 200km (124+ miles). That, I believed, should be achievable, if nothing went really wrong. Oh, and the course record was 127.8, so that would be the next incremental goal.

As 9am approached we all lined up – not only the 24-hour runners, but a lot of 6-hour and 12-hour runners as well. I would be getting lapped a lot. The course is a 1.061- (later revised to 1.065-) mile loop, at Crissy Field, right on the bay under the Golden Gate Bridge. The views are to die for. Bridge, Marin Headlands, Angel Island, Alcatraz, Palace of Fine Arts (which as the race wore on my  mind kept spoonerizing to Phallus of Pine Arts, or Alice of Pine Farts), to name a few. You couldn't ask for a more pleasant setting. And the course was fast, almost totally flat, 40% asphalt, 60% dirt.

Ready to go, sporting my Cascade Crest hoodie
With little fanfare, we were off. I ran the first hour easy, a little faster than ideal, low 9ish pace, sub-10 minute laps. But about as slow as was comfortable. The wind was a big issue, but only for the first three hours. I was bundled up for a while, warm-up pants, longsleeve, jacket, hoodie, hat and gloves. They came off gradually.

After the first hour (per Mike Henze's recommendation) I started walking. The perfect place was making the return-trip turn, heading into the wind, also where there was a short bit of sand. I kept my walk breaks there the rest of the race. I tweaked the walk time, about 1:00-1:30 per lap, to keep me at 10:30 laps running as easy as I could. That would put me at 145.36 if I could hold it, plus a 5-minute cushion on that pace from the first hour. I held that pretty well for several hours, but the walks were getting down to less than a minute by about 7 hours in, and I made the difficult decision to back off. I really wanted to work for 145+ if there was any chance, but I knew it was remote, and I had to be realistic. I wasn't going to hold that the rest of the way. So better to switch early to something more sustainable.

I backed off to 11:00 laps (still conservative for hitting 135 miles, next meaningful goal), which felt pretty good for a while. More cushion in the walk segments, not having to worry as much about my every-other-lap half a gel and water. I'd set up a table and cooler, with lots of water bottles and gel flasks. It did cost maybe 10-15 seconds. But better than carrying stuff, I thought. I guess if I had a really dedicated crew they could stage my next hit on the table, take it from me 50 feet later, and re-stage it. But what a thankless job that would be. The first gel flask (6 gels) lasted 24 laps, or something over 4 hours. Then I went through a can of Coke for the next 6 laps, then on to the next gel flask.

But after only a few hours at 11:00 laps I began to feel like maybe that was too fast as well. I think this was my roughest time, 10ish hours in. Soooooo long left to run, and already pretty tired. I could see these progressive slowdowns happening until it was just a slog, missing even my reasonable 200km goal. Very depressing. And then a funny thing happened. I'm not sure what triggered it, but I just got into a different headspace. It had been dark for a while, but it cooled off, the people (participants and mundanes) thinned out, and I realized that I was actually holding 11:00 just fine... and I began to see the race differently. It was going to be a long night. Each lap was the same as the next, with little external stimulus to distinguish them... if I was running sustainably, what difference did it make if it was this lap, at 9pm, or one just before dawn? They were all the same. This one might just as well be that one. In other words, there is not an ungodly X hours left, there is only now, and now is not too bad. Which is the kind of trick I usually use, but here it was a bit different. In a marathon I might think "I just have to hold pace for one more mile, that's all that matters". Now, it was "I just have to hold pace for one more hour". And the hours clicked off. I realized that if I held 11:00 until 2am, then by symmetry, having run 10:30s for 7 hours to start, I could back off to 11:30, and still comfortably clear 135.

Pic by Keith Blom

Oh, and along the way, New Years happened. My on-the-minute lap timing had me finishing a lap exactly at midnight. There was a big celebration. As well, a lot of the 6- and 12-hour runners were finishing their runs (they started at different times throughout the day). I didn't linger long, but there was champagne, so I grabbed a cup, as that lap's fuel. Then the fireworks started!

Also along the way, after 8 hours or so I finally went through the aid station chute instead of the lane with our personal tables, just to see what was there, and saw that there was a leaderboard. I was in 3rd. Huh. Then a bit later I was in second, three laps back. Then later, two laps back. OK, leader is fading, he is mine. A bit silly to even bother thinking about who's ahead this early, but I was surprised not to already be in the lead. My battle was not with the other runners, it was with big miles. Hard to imagine multiple of us hitting big course records. But then the next update he was 5 laps ahead, huh?? And a couple updates later he was gone, and I was 9 laps ahead of the next guy. OK, whatever. (Turns out he switched to the 12-hour event mid-race.)

Approaching 2am, I set a 4-hour PR for 100 miles with a 16:50:47 split. I still felt good. Around 3:00 I spent 15 seconds or so digging up my pacing cheat sheet, which told me that 132 laps was just over 140 miles. I'd been doing the math in my head, and wasn't sure. 132 looked iffy. 130-131, if all went well, seemed reasonable. But 140 miles sure would be nice. I'd been hoping 132 would be just under, so it wouldn't matter. Anyway, I forget the calculations now, but around 3:30 I decided it would be best to back off again.

So 11:30 laps it was. Again, lots of extra breathing room, extended walk breaks. And here I really had to wonder. How much of this really is mental? A hell of a lot, I know. But when I am making these pacing tradeoffs... am I basing that on my expectations of what's physically possible for me, or what's mentally possible? It's very different from marathon pacing. This far into a 24-hour, everything is going to hurt. It's a given. So I'm going to want to slow down or stop, no matter how fast or slow I'm running. 11:00, 11:30, does it really make any difference? Couldn't I have just toughed it out? I don't know, maybe.

Anyway, so yeah, 11:30s. I was counting off the hours now until sunrise. I hadn't checked, I thought 7ish, surely I should get some twilight by 6ish... it took forever.

As 6am approached, how the final laps might play out became clearer. 6am was a lap boundary. That meant I could hit exactly 15 more laps at 12:00 per, for 131. Holding 11:30 laps would only save me seven and a half minutes. So to get 132 I'd have to not only hold, but speed up. I just didn't want it badly enough. I backed off to 12:00 laps, and now the walk breaks were luxurious, 2:00-2:30. The sun came up; every lap now I was counting down to the finish, visualizing painting over the big "8" laid out ahead of me with a "7" behind me as I passed, etc.

With the daylight I was suddenly a celebrity. The other runners had been complimenting me for some time, as I lapped them over and over doing a steady pace as they almost all walked. But now I was getting kudos at the start/finish for hitting 130 miles, etc. Everyone was cheering me on to keep going. It was empowering. I did feel a little guilty for coasting in at 12-minute laps, not really gutting it out for 140, but damn, I had worked hard, and I would be quite proud with the result. It was happening, I hadn't crashed, I'd done everything right, crushed the CR, handily surpassed the national team qualifying standard. What a feeling. 

Finally, 9am came. Game over, I win! Huge congratulations, everyone had to shake my hand. 15 minutes to relax, call my wife, then awards. More congratulations. Kind of surreal. Then, I painfully ferried all my crap back to my Jeep, crashed in the back for a couple hours in my sleeping bag, then drove home, in time to watch Oregon (a semi-alma mater) crush Florida State. And eat a ton of PIZZA. Screw low carb for a while.

My final total was 131 laps, 139.5 miles. A course record by almost 12 miles, and good enough for 10th place on the list of best performances by US men in the past 15 months. But four people will have to decline or pull out for me to make the team. Most painfully, I'm just half a mile behind #9, Joe Fejes, with 140. If only I had been a little stronger and pushed for that one extra lap! But regardless, I am shocked and humbled. I'm not remotely a national-class runner, at least I never have been before, at any distance. How did this happen? I think most people are just not stupid enough to run this far.

Other stuff... fueling, as the race wore on the gels got less palatable, even at only half a gel every 22 or so minutes, and I drank more Coke instead. I'd planned 150 cal / hour, but in the end I averaged almost exactly 100. Unbelievable. Prior to going low-carb, I'd normally try to get in 300 / hour. No GI issues, and all that blood that would normally go to digestion could go to my muscles instead. Really the low-carb training just about made nutrition a non-issue. No salt either.

Gear... really no issues. I stuck with the same pair of shoes (Saucony Fastwitch 4) and socks (Injinji lightweight) throughout. After chucking all the outer layers, I stayed in shorts and longsleeve throughout the day and night, no hat/gloves. Everyone else bundled up at night; it was a bit chilly. But the chill was bracing; it helped keep me awake.

Average pace... 10:18 / mile; factoring in walk breaks, a bit under 10 minute miles while running. 

Event... I can't say enough good things about Wendell Doman and Coastal Trail Runs. This was an awesome event. I don't know why it didn't sell out months in advance. You couldn't ask for a better setup to run big miles, with full support, in an incredibly beautiful setting.

Really I count myself fortunate that all the stars aligned here: fast course, great conditions, pretty healthy going in, smart pacing, enough guts, no nutrition or gear trouble. And already all the thoughts about how stupid running is and how I would never, ever do this again – that I know for a fact I was thinking most of the night – are fading away like vanished dreams when you awake. I guess I will never learn.

Messages sent to me during the race. Thank you!!!