Sunday, February 28, 2016

Desert Solstice 2015

It's been ten weeks since Desert Solstice, and somehow, I still have not managed to write my race report. OK, here it is! As is usual, I've written far more than most will want to read (but hey, it's much shorter than my Spartathlon report). It's mostly for me, but aspiring 24-hour runners may find some useful tidbits here as well.


Desert Solstice is a small invitational race: 100 miles and/or 24 hours, on a track, put on by Aravaipa Running. It's oriented towards runners trying to set records and qualify for the USATF national 24-hour team. I've watched friends run Desert Solstice via the live tracking for the past few years, as they set American and World Records and earned spots on the team. It's always very exciting. This year, it was my turn. I qualified to be there with my first 24-hour race, New Year's Eve 24-hour, in San Francisco last year. I made the big leagues!
The story actually starts with that previous 24-hour, where I was trying to qualify for the national team for the 2015 World Championships. I ran 139.5 miles, but it took 145 to make the team. (They take the top six performances over the qualifying window. Mine was 10th.) It was still a solid debut, though, and I was hopeful I could improve and make the 2016 team. Alas, that's when the Powers That Be decided that 24-hour World Championships would go to every other year, alternating with 100K World Championships. So I would have to wait until 2017, a real disappointment. I'd just found something I was pretty good at, but now I had to wait two years! I guess I should be glad there are no Olympic ultramarathon events; I'd have to wait even longer (and have even more competition). World Championships are the next best thing. If you're on the national team, you are representing your country, wearing the same Team USA gear as the Olympians. I would be enormously thrilled and proud to manage that, and 24-hour is the only event at which I have any shot at all. Anything shorter, I'm too slow, and anything longer, there are no World Championships. So, I was eagerly awaiting Desert Solstice, as my best chance to qualify.
Along the way, I spent most of the year training for the Spartathlon, a 153-mile road race in Greece. What an incredible experience! I would have three months between Spartathlon and Desert Solstice. I wasn't exactly sure how that would go, recovery- and training-wise, but I was very encouraged by the example of Katy Nagy, who had run a fabulous 2014 Spartathlon, followed by 151+ miles at Desert Solstice (and then gone on to win the 2015 World Championships, as well as the 2015 Spartathlon!). At Spartathlon, I had the good fortune to run and chat with Connie Gardner, a veteran of many national 24-hour teams. She gave me great training advice, and encouraged me to aim high. Whatever mark I was going to make, she said, I would make it now, not in five years. You only get so many shots. At 50, I know, my time is running out, especially for things like the national team, where age is not considered. I was competing against everyone.
Training between Spartathlon and Desert Solstice had a few speed bumps – I managed my first sub-7 50 miler, but paid for it in recovery (damn Achilles). But thanks largely to Connie's advice, I still got there feeling pretty well prepared. I had dialed in my pacing, walking, and drinking strategy, and practiced it on the track to the point where my body knew exactly what to do. I had the confidence of a successful Spartathlon run behind me. I'd also gotten over my fear of running in small circles for so long. I can't stand treadmills; five miles feels like 20. Would the track be the same? No! Maybe I wouldn't have the Greek countryside to keep me entertained, but I would have plenty of people to chat with, whether they were far ahead or far behind, and logistics couldn't be easier.
As race day approached, the entry list filled with a veritable who's-who of road ultrarunning. Zach Bitter, US 100-mile record holder, this time going for the 100-mile World Record (11:28!). Pete Kostelnick, winner of Badwater. Katy Nagy, back to go for the US 24-hour record, which she had narrowly missed at Worlds in Torino. Ed "Jester" Ettinghausen, hugely prolific ultrarunner, and US 24-hour record holder for over 50. And on and on. Everybody there was elite – what was I doing there?? One name, though, was conspicuously absent: Joe Fejes, famed, and feared, multi-day runner. Who had beaten Yiannis Kouros, the Running God, at 6-day. Who was far out of my league, and who would likely be competing with me for a spot on the 2017 team. And who, by a strange twist of fate, would turn 50 just a few days before the race. (Strange, because Desert Solstice was a week later this year than normal.) I had turned 50 in October, and I definitely had my eye on Ed's 50+ 24-hour record of 144.623 miles. Was Joe going to give me a free shot at it? Well, as I had suspected, the answer was no. Sure enough, just two days before the race, after all the press releases etc. describing all the participants and their goals, Joe's name quietly appeared on the entrant list. Surprise, surprise.


I flew into Phoenix two days before the race, wanting to have a stress-free day to relax and mentally prepare. The next morning my good friend Scott Holdaway arrived, there to crew me, as he had at my two Western States runs. I did a short shakeout run to the track, wanting to check it out, but it was occupied with a football game. The evening before the race all the participants and supporters got together for dinner at a pizza restaurant, and got our bibs (with names, not numbers), timing chips, etc. It was a thrill to finally meet everybody!

All photos by Israel Archuletta

Finally, race morning dawned, and Scott and I made our way to the venue, and set up shop. They had tables set up for every runner; Aravaipa bends over backwards to cater to the runners here, and optimize the potential performances. I'd brought the kitchen sink, every kind of gear I thought I might possibly need. For fueling, I had a simple plan. I would drink 5 ounces of Coke, Dr. Pepper, or water every two miles, aiming for about 100 cal. / hour. I can get away with that because I've trained low-carb high-fat for the past year and a half, and dialed in my race nutrition to what works. With the track setup, this plan was easily achieved: I had about a dozen 5-ounce flasks, each labeled with what should go in it. I'd just grab whichever flask I wanted every eighth lap, timed with my walk breaks, and dump it on the next lap. Scott's job would be to keep them filled, and hand me the flasks and any other gear I requested. I learned from Pam Smith's Desert Solstice blog post that the right way to do this is to tell your crew on one lap what you would like, then they can hand it to you on the next lap, with no stopping required. Yeah, kind of a boring job for Scott. But he did get to witness some pretty amazing racing.


As the race started, I quickly found myself towards the back of the pack. My pacing plan was to start at a pace that was easy, but would be aggressive if I could hold it – though really nobody holds an even pace for 24 hours – and would leave room for lots of goals if I (probably) had to back off. 2:12 laps, plus a minute walk every eighth lap. That works out to 9-minute "miles", counting 4 laps as a mile, but actually it's a hair short. Or 159 miles for 24 hours. Kind of a ridiculous number, given my 139.5-mile previous run, in which I thought I had done everything right. Actually it was a number that totally intimidated me. Thinking in terms of my marathon PR of 2:58, that kind of jump was like suddenly running a 2:36. Yeah, not gonna happen. It would be insane to try. Thing is, that's not really a valid comparison. A 2:36 marathon would far exceed my lactate threshold. But a 9-minute mile is not remotely taxing cardiovascularly. Long ultras are mostly a mental game, and the effect, positive or negative, of the right frame of mind can be enormous. If I had a perfect day, 159 was not out of the question, or so I told myself. Aim high!

So far so good...
Hungarian superstars Nagy and Fejes. Are you intimidated? I'm intimidated.
Jester on!

But as I said, I quickly found myself trailing, even at this "ridiculous" pace. Of course, Zach was lapping everybody pretty quickly, clicking off 6:50 miles (always with a "good job" or some other motivation as he passed). Not far behind were Mark Richtman, as he knocked off one American Record after another for 60+ (looked more like 45), culminating in a 50K 60+ World Record; and Dave Carver, going for a 50-mile age-group record. Kristina Pham was on pace to beat Pam Smith's 100-mile track record. Katy went flying by again and again. I was a bit surprised at this – she had a guaranteed spot on the 24-hour team. To set the US record, she didn't need to run as fast as I was running. But then, different people have different pacing strategies. I am definitely in the start-slow-and-don't-fade camp. It wasn't long before all of my team-qualifier competition had pulled well ahead. Now, a 24-hour race doesn't really start until at least 100 miles in. If someone is on record pace after 6 or 8 hours, that just means they're setting themselves up to crash and burn. Still, it's surprisingly hard to avoid the mindset that, wow, there's going to be four or five guys in the neighborhood of 160 miles, what can I do? I mean, there they were, I knew their backgrounds, and they looked solid. Never mind that the course record here was Joe's 156.6!

Pete running away with it

Afternoon – uh-oh

But slowly, surely, I started to make up ground, as most people slowed, and I held steady. I passed Ed; I was closing in on Joe. One or two of the young rockets started to burn out. And then, disaster struck. I was dividing the race into 20-mile, 3-hour blocks, units I had done on the track many times in training. I'd finished the second block, and was winding down the third, when the going started to get a little tough. I had to make a decision on whether to dial it back or try to hold pace a little longer. In my previous 24-hour, I had also backed off 7 or so hours in, and that had basically cost me any chance of making the 2015 team. I wanted to be sure this time that it wasn't just a feeling that would pass. This was the heat of the day; that would certainly get better. So I decided to hold until 60 miles, and make a call then. But before I could get there, wham, my left adductor cramped. OK, game over, as far as any shot at 160ish. Wow, I'd thought I would have more warning. I walked a lap while I did some math. The next important goal was 154 miles, which would be the 50+ World Record for track 24-hour. (I later discovered this would not have counted anyway, as the IAU stopped distinguishing surface for records in 2015. The actual record to beat would be Kouros' totally ridiculous 165 road miles.) I started running again at a more conservative pace, still leaving room to hit 154. But not very many laps later, the same thing happened again, only worse. My muscles would not work at all to run.

Moving in slow motion for a while

I walked several laps. There went Joe; there went Ed; there went everyone. I thought my race was over at mile 55; I almost dropped. Part of me certainly wanted to. I'd had a great year; I had nothing to prove. I'd tried, my body had said no; too bad. But I wouldn't quite let myself drop without trying everything. I ate some solid food (grilled cheese made for me by request!). I took a salt pill, though I don't believe salt has anything to do with cramps. I took a Tylenol, the first time I've ever taken a pain reliever during a race. I was just about to get a massage (yes, this race does offer everything), when all of a sudden, poof, I could run again. Just as a switch had flipped off, now it had flipped on again. Don't ask me how or why.
Having this happen was like a free pass, in an interesting way. This type of event is mostly mind over body. You want to find the pace your body is capable of running basically indefinitely, but the real challenge is making your mind hold it for 24 hours. It's hard. But here, I mostly escaped that hard work after the first 8-9 hours. It just made no sense to try to hold something that was any kind of challenge. I had to go by what my body said was comfortable, or risk taking myself out of the race. I was now playing a different, easier, game.


After this, the rest of the race was almost a breeze, with one big exception, which I'll get to. For a long time I didn't even think about possible total mileage; I was just doing what I could do. But I knew my big goals were gone. I started gaining on people again; I was holding steady at my new pace, 2:23ish laps with 1:20ish walk breaks. More people dropped. Zach finished his 100 miles, missing the World Record, but bettering his own American Record. It's not every day you get to witness, let alone participate alongside, an 11:40 100-mile run. Wow! When he hit 100 I was not far behind him on the track. He stopped and bent over. I was going to give him a congratulatory pat on the back as I passed, but he'd collapsed by then. He stayed lying on the track for quite a while, with lots of attention. At 12 hours, I was at 76 miles. A PR, but not good enough. I knew the second half would be much lower.

Zach after throwing down a 11:40:55

Time passed. By now Pete was clearly running away with it; everyone else had significantly slowed. I re-passed Ed, and was gradually gaining on Joe again. (I should say here that, as is typical, Ed was coming in on just a few weeks' recovery from a record-setting 6-day race. That he was moving at all was pretty amazing.) The approaching 100-mile mark would be a critical juncture. If someone is ahead of you and looking solid, are they really solid to keep going? Or have they decided to focus on a good 100-mile time and stop there? You never know. Several people beat me to 100. That wasn't my race. And quite a few stopped then. It was down to just Pete, Katy, and Joe ahead of me who had kept going. As my own 100-mile mark approached, that gave me a little burst of enthusiasm. I was looking at about 15:55, or about an hour PR. What's more, I finally realized that I was still in pretty decent position. With 8 hours left, 10-minute miles would get me to 148. Not quite the at least 150 I thought I probably needed to make the team, but well ahead of Ed's 50+ AR. That would be a big PR, and a solid performance. Could I hold 10-minute miles? I was now running 9:45 or so pace, including walk breaks, and it hadn't gotten any harder in the past several hours.
Joe was now just a couple of laps ahead of me. It wasn't long before I caught up and finally passed him. I was still anticipating some interesting race tactics from him – really, I was apprehensive, based on what I had read – and as it turns out I was not to be disappointed. But in the meantime, there was still a long stretch of race ahead of me I had to hold on through. It was dark now, fewer people on the track, less conversation. Most people were wearing headphones. I never run with music, but this time I'd brought an iPod anyway, just in case. I never quite got to the point where I felt I needed to break it out, though. Intermediate mileposts are your friend here. It's the same track over and over, so you need something more than that. I started to do the math in my head on whether I could still hit Ed's 200K 50+ AR of 19:46. It looked maybe possible. But then Scott told me (he had access to a board showing progress toward all the potential records) that I was looking great for the 24-hour record, but I'd have to speed up a bit for the 200K record. Damn. How much? Too much. OK, so be it. That wasn't what I was here for, but there went a potential carrot; too bad. A little later I asked him what lap pace I'd need to hit 150. He asked the organizers, who quickly ran the numbers and gave him the answer. Again, I would have to speed up more than I was willing to. Damn again. I had really, really wanted to hit 150. But I was still thinking 148+ was doable, at least.

200K in 19:51. Missed the record by 5 minutes!

Uh-oh again

With about 5 1/2 hours to go, things were looking pretty good. I was still holding on. I'd pulled to 8 laps ahead of Joe. I was now un-lapping Katy, who had put literally dozens of laps on me. At some point I realized with a shock that I had caught up, and so she wasn't going to make the AR, which was a real shame. Turns out she'd had a hamstring issue. Scott was still hanging in there crewing; I'd expected him to go get some sleep at some point, but he stuck through the entire race. Wow!
And at this point it's time for the "big exception" I mentioned. There's a display board by the timing mat, so you can see your lap splits as you pass, and everyone else's splits and total laps too. Joe had been running 2:40s or so for quite a while. But then it occurred to me that I hadn't lapped him in a while, so I checked his splits. I saw a 2:27. Then a 2:23. A 2:15. And he wasn't taking walk breaks, either, like I was. Uh oh. This was an actual surge, a challenge. The glove had been thrown down, and I had to respond. My first thought, of course, was "you've got to be kidding me". I'd survived almost falling apart, come back, and held on to where I'd thought everything was settled: I'd get the 50+ AR, and a decent team qualifier, ahead of Joe. Now those were both in jeopardy, and I had to step up my game. I'm pretty good at doing math while running, but I couldn't quite work out how rapidly he would make up ground if we each held pace. How hard did I have to work to stay ahead? One option I considered was to just hold my pace until he got within maybe 4 laps, see how long that took, and then try to stick right behind him, at the same lap differential, for the rest of the race. This is actually a tactic Joe is known for; it messes with the stuck-to guy's head. So it was kind of an appealing thought to turn that around. But I was afraid that letting him get that close would be encouraging, and we'd wind up pushing each other to dangerous levels. Also I'd have to abandon my walk breaks, which were working well for me.
Instead I decided to draw the line right here: maintain my 8-lap lead. I figured the longer I could hold that, the more insurmountable the gap would appear as time wound down; at some point he'd have to give up. I kept up the walk breaks, but I sped up to 2:12ish laps. Back to basically my original pace, which had not been sustainable. I was terrified I'd cramp up again, and that would be that; I was walking a very fine line here. But I held it. Back to mind over body, crossing my fingers. I got a comment from the sidelines: "Bob! You're speeding up?!" "I have to!". Zach was back and watching the rest of the race unfold, and cheered me on here.

Hanging in there

We stayed like this for about an hour. During our entire "battle" we never spoke, and barely even saw each other; we were mostly on opposite sides of the track. The game was played via the changing numbers on the lap screen. Early, though, I thought Joe was going to lap me during a walk break. Later he said "I was laughing my ass off in the beginning of our "race" because you looked back a couple times and I thought you would falter." For a big chunk of this Pete and I were actually running together; he'd now slowed to my initial pace. Finally, I saw Joe's lap times slow again; I matched them, breathing a big sigh of relief. I wasn't sure how much longer I could have held that. Shortly thereafter he dropped. I totally respect that: he had little left to gain in this race (already being on the team qualifier list with a 145), but he had a 55-hour race coming up two weeks later. It was the smart move.

Morning again

And then, it was back to smooth sailing for the rest of the race, as I said above. Well, not quite. Connie had told me it would be hardest from about 16 to 20 hours, but towards the end it would get easier again. But this time, for me, it was the opposite. The battle with Joe had kept me focused during the "hard" hours. But I guess I'd paid a price. Now, with three hours left, at 131 miles, it was really hard. At this point I had 149 miles in sight if I didn't fall apart, and I was not going to let go of that. The worst thing here was my feet. I was wearing Hoka Cliftons 2s, same as at Spartathlon (but now with holes cut in the toebox). That had been enough cushioning for 153 road miles. Surely it was good enough for 24 hours on a track? But no, it felt like they were made of cement. Every step hurt.
Connie had told me to get to where I knew I could always knock out 20 miles in three hours, no matter how tired I was. And here I was. Three hours left; if I could run my original pace I'd hit 151. But I just couldn't make myself do it, in spite of all the training I had done exactly for this situation. This was I think my one mental failing in the race. It's funny how a challenge from a competitor can be more motivating than your primary race goal. I had to beat Joe, but 150 was just a number. I did get a few calf twinges in the last few hours, so perhaps I was closer to the edge than I thought. Of course, it always looks different in hindsight.
I tried hard here to think back to the last few hours of the Spartathlon, where I had flown down the long descent into Sparta. Over the last 13 miles, I had a faster split than winner Florian Reus, faster than Dawson, than Nagy – faster than everyone except Kim Hansen, the third-place finisher, who just edged me. (He gained nearly 40 minutes on second-place Dan Lawson over that stretch, clearly giving it his all, but still came up one minute short.) So I knew I had the ability to rally and push toward the finish. I always have a good kick. But try as I might, I could not recapture that feeling here. I couldn't pretend I was running toward King Leonidas and the glory of finishing the Spartathlon. I was just running the same damn circle over and over, with nothing waiting for me at the finish.

OK, I'm tired now.

And this is the real way timed races screw with your head. There is no finish line. It doesn't matter how fast or slow you run; 24 hours is still going to arrive at exactly the same time. (If I can nerd out here for a moment: in time-based races, performance scales linearly with fitness, but in distance-based races, it scales quadratically. By that I mean the following. If runner A runs 10% faster than runner B with the same effort, A should run 10% farther in a 24-hour race. But suppose they were running a marathon. A would be 10% faster for the same duration, but would finish faster, and therefore be able to run at a higher effort level for that shorter duration. A double win in performance as fitness improves. Meb may run marathons at a much faster pace than I can, but he only has to do it for 2/3 as long! You don't get that with time-based races.)

As time wound down, Pete and I were again running together. There were now few people left on the track: Ed was still hanging in with a power walk, also Stacey Costa. And that was it. With 20 minutes to go, Pete told me "Bob, I've seen a lot of crazy shit in the ultrarunning world. But I've never seen anything like the guts you've shown for the last 10 hours." Coming from him, I take that as a great compliment; it was the highlight of my race.

The end!

I finished with 149.24 miles, a new American Record for 50+ by 4.6 miles. A 76/73 split – a lot closer to even than I'd have ever guessed halfway through. Good enough for 4th place on the team qualifier list, but I have a feeling that won't hold, and I'll have to try to improve it. Pete ran an incredible 163.7 miles, the second-best performance in the world in 2015, and fifth-best ever by an American. Also I will boast here just a little bit more: it turns out that, age-graded, my distance just edged Scott Jurek's former AR of 165.7 miles. I still remember the excitement when he accomplished that in 2010. Of course that's how age-group records should work; they should all be close when age-graded. Still, it's kind of hard for me to fathom. But I don't expect to hold this record long. Joe will have several more shots to make the team and take the record, and of course Ed would like it back as well. I'm going to be on the edge of my seat following all the 24-hour races for the rest of the year. Jon Olsen is taking his first shot shortly; I think he is a lock for the team. Joshua Finger, who didn't have a great race at Desert Solstice, I think is also very likely to make the team. But here's the thing. There are several guys out there capable of breaking 150 miles, but being capable and making it actually happen are two very different things. A lot can go wrong in a 24-hour, and pretty much everything has to come together to get a big number. Even Joe, with all his dominant performances, has only done it twice. We will see what happens!


So... what did I learn? Well first of all, I need more strength work for my adductors! Fix the weak link. And I was a little greedy with my initial goal. Helpful hint: if you're setting your sights well above a World Record, maybe that's a little too high. If I'd started on pace for 155 instead of 159, what would have happened? Actually, I doubt I could have done much better. Overall I think my planning and execution were pretty good. It's hard to say you went out too fast when you started slower than everyone else, and you finished with 51%/49% splits. Shoes, I am going to have to do something, but I'm not sure what. The most interesting thing was the motivational change that occurred when Joe challenged me, and I stepped it up to what I'd already decided was unsustainable, and then again when the challenge was gone, and I backed off. I had already reconciled myself to accepting 149, instead of the 151 I "should" have been able to hit then. Parts of the brain outside of conscious control have their own priorities, and figuring out how to influence them and navigate the pain / reward space is really what makes ultras interesting to me. I still have a lot to learn.
Thanks again to Aravaipa Running for hosting such a wonderful event, to Scott Holdaway for crewing and encouragement for the whole 24 hours, and to Connie Gardner, Traci Falbo, Pam Smith, Jen Aradi, and Mike Henze for invaluable training and racing advice. And special thanks to Liz, for putting up with all the training.
Full results are here:

And for the numbers geeks, all the lap splits (fun fact: I had the slowest fastest lap, a 2:08):