Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Dawn 2 Dusk 2 Dawn (D3) 2016

200K American Record for over 50. Pic by Maggie Guterl

This report will be a little different. Normally, I write these things for two main reasons: first, to get down on "paper" everything I can remember, for my own benefit, so I can refer back later; and second, in the hope that others training for similar events can find something useful in my story. Telling an entertaining story is, sad to say, generally a distant third. (Hey, it's my blog; I can use it however I want.) However, the narrative structure is still generally in terms of a story, from training, to start, to finish. This time the focus is squarely on analysis: what happened, what went right, what went wrong, and most importantly, what can I (and perhaps others) learn from my experience? The "race report" itself is only a single paragraph. Really, everything else is a lot of angsty navel gazing. You've been warned. However, if you do make it through this, I would very much appreciate any feedback and thoughts on my conclusions. 24-hour is a tough game, that I'm still trying to learn how to play. And as I learned for the first time, it can be brutal, and it doesn't always end well. Before diving into the nitty gritty, I would be remiss if I didn't thank the race organizers, Bill Schultz and Josh Irvan, for putting on a top-notch race. Their dedication to the race shows throughout the year, and results in everything going right on race day, with tons of positive energy. On a personal level, this race was a real high point. I cannot remember any other race, ever, that I've gone into looking forward to meeting so many people. And I was not disappointed. I met a lot of ultrarunning legends, and made several new friends. Also, sincere thanks to Maggie Guterl and Mike Daigeaun for crewing, and to Pam Smith for sharing her crew with me. They made an enormous difference. And of course, huge thanks to Liz for putting up with my training.


Some background is necessary, to compare this performance to. You'll see why. In December 2015, I ran Desert Solstice track 24-hour. My long-shot goal was 159 miles, though really I thought I had to break 150, for a decent shot at making the 24-hour National Team. Also I wanted the 24-hour American Record for over 50, which meant breaking 144.6, and also beating Ed Ettinghausen and Joe Fejes, who were in the same race. Had I hit 159, it would have been evenly paced: 2:12 laps, with a one-minute walk every 8 laps. Well, I held that pacing plan for about 8.5 hours, as everybody else slowed, and I started catching up and passing people. Then, I blew up. I could tell the effort was increasing, but before I could decide that I'd really better back off, my body made the decision for me; an adductor cramped badly. I walked several laps, and almost dropped, but was finally able to start running again, albeit at a slower pace. Something like 2:23 laps, with 1:10 walk breaks every 8 laps. Surprisingly, I was able to hold this pace for the entire rest of the race, and even increase back to my original pace for about an hour when I was challenged by Joe late in the race. I finished with 149.23 miles, missing 150, but setting the age-group AR. This put me in the #4 spot on the National Team qualifying list, with, unfortunately, over a year left in the qualifying window for 2017 Worlds. (The top six make the team.) I would have to try again. Immediately after Desert Solstice, I had a minor Achilles surgery (Tenex procedure, or more technically, percutaneous tenotomy). This meant six weeks off, the first two or three in a boot. I thought I was being smart here; I planned to take several weeks off anyway – I was overdue for a break. Might as well kill two birds with one stone. Unfortunately I gained 15 pounds in the first four weeks; more unfortunately, I developed a blood clot in my calf towards the end. (This was scary, as it could easily detach and become a pulmonary embolism. That would at the least be excruciatingly painful, and could potentially kill me without warning. Fortunately, I caught it in time, and escaped the PE.) Recovery and weight loss were much slower than I had hoped for; several times, I just about decided that it was unreasonable to try again at D3 on May 14th. Ultimately I didn't hit the training volume or paces I had hoped for, but the final several weeks did go well; I peaked at 100 mpw, my highest-mileage week ever. I still really had no idea whether I was in shape to improve on Desert Solstice, but I was willing to try. So, D3. Like Desert Solstice, it's a track 24-hour. I had scaled back my ambitions somewhat, and tweaked my pacing plan. This time I would run 2:15 laps, with 1:00 walk breaks every 7 laps. If I could hold that, that would be 154.5 miles, putting me in third place on the qualifying list (likely good enough to make the team), and also beating the 24-hour track World Record for over 50 (though I think that wouldn't have counted anyway... to be discussed in my next blog post). I didn't really have a B goal, other than to PR, and break 150, which is admittedly kind of an arbitrary number. I'd say maybe it's like breaking 3 hours for a marathon, except that far more people can do that. (Joe says you aren't shit if you haven't broken 150.) Along the way, I would almost necessarily also set the 200K AR for over 50 if I made even my B goal: I'd missed it by just 5 minutes at Desert Solstice.

The Race

Race hasn't even started, and I'm already checking my Garmin.  Pic by Jeremy Fountain

So far, so good. With legend Connie Gardner. Pic by Jeremy Fountain

Pam and Josh killing it. Pic by Jeremy Fountain

Remarkably, D3 started almost exactly like Desert Solstice. I held pace for 8.5 hours, beginning to catch those that had been way ahead early, and then blew up and walked 15 laps. When I restarted running, I was behind where I had been at a comparable point in Desert Solstice, because my running pace had been slower, also I'd walked longer. Again, I almost dropped; I came closer than I'd ever come to dropping from a race early. Thanks to everyone who helped talk me out of it. My prospects were not good. I did the math (with help from Maggie and Mike), checked it three times, and concluded that I could still hit the 200K record if I could get back to exactly my original pace, and hold it for 10 hours. (My brain stubbornly refused to think about anything beyond that.) Given that I hadn't even held it for 9 hours, starting fresh, that seemed extremely unlikely. It would be a big negative split. But I had to do my due diligence and try. And lo and behold, I managed it, setting the record by just two minutes, at 19:44:20 (sorry, Ed!). And then... without even consciously deciding to, I stopped. I had my record, and I also had the (men's) win, as all of my competition who could possibly catch me had already dropped. I walked a few more laps, and called it a day at 126 miles. (In the end, three women finished ahead of me, leading to a lot of Internet discussion on how the women had dominated this race.)

Awesome handmade awards! Pic by Israel Archuletta

Chicked! Pic stolen from Pam Smith


Laps splits in seconds, start to 19:44.
There are three things I need to understand here. First, what is with this crash at 8.5 hours in?! That's a pattern I have to break. Second, there was the mental game from when I restarted running until I hit the record. This was very, very hard, in marked contrast to when I restarted running at Desert Solstice; that was a walk in the park by comparison. Third, and most important, I have to figure out what it means that I quit at 200K. I am not a quitter. At least, I never have been, and it's an important part of my identity as an ultrarunner that I don't quit. This was a 24-hour race; I just stopped. To take these in order:

1. The crash

This was clearly something physical, certainly at Desert Solstice, and almost certainly at D3. Am I crazy for trying to run even splits for a 24-hour? I start slower than almost everyone, hold pace, and start picking them off... then, boom. What happened? Well, in both races, I crashed in the worst heat of the day. It wasn't actually very hot at Desert Solstice; Weather Underground says the high was 66. At D3, it was high 70s. We started in with the ice bandanas early. I'd actually done some sauna training to prepare for the heat and humidity. Still, denial of actual weather conditions is not smart. You'd think I'd know that by now (I learned it the hard way at my first Boston, in 2005). But I had a kind of macho mentality that I could just hold the line. Really, I could tell I was not drinking to thirst, or dumping water on myself often enough, or using enough ice. But somehow it wasn't bothering me. Stupid. Also my pacing plan basically required that I hold pace, and I wasn't going to let a little heat get in the way of my goal. Clearly, what would have been better than walking 15 laps, costing me about half an hour, would be just SLOWING DOWN while it was hot. OK, I would have been short of 154.5. So maybe I should have factored in slowing down in the heat of the day when I made my pacing plan. Also, the #3 spot on the qualifying list is currently 153.2, so I had a little margin anyway.

Heat? What heat? La, la, la... Pic by Ray Krolewicz
A very important thing to think about here is what happens when you walk. My one-minute walk breaks (due originally to a suggestion by Mike Henze) I think work well. It is true that late in a race, the transitions between walking and running become rough. But they structure my run, and give me something to focus on and look forward to. My world becomes just the next 7 laps. The physiological effect of this pattern is hard to evaluate, I guess, but it seems to work well for me. But... I think something very different happens, at least to me, when I walk for substantially longer. Both at Desert Solstice and at D3, I tried to resume running at a slower pace, after a few laps of walking. My body said no way; it took several more laps. I think there was a real transition involved, that in the future I must avoid at all costs. I don't know exactly what happens, but it is not good. Yes, I got overcooked, but surely I could have cooled off just by slowing down, or taking slightly longer walk breaks, without losing half an hour. (Something similar happened to me at Spartathlon, as well.) I'll come back to this topic in point 3. Another question I have to seriously consider here is: was this a bonk? At D3, it kind of felt like it. It's worth asking, because of my fueling strategy. I train low-carb high-fat, to maximize fat burning ability, and get by in races on about 100 calories an hour, entirely from Coke. This gives me a huge advantage. I tell myself that's good enough, but it is really? The thing is... in both races, after recovering from the crash, I ran a steady pace for the entire rest of the race, still on 100 cal. / hour. If it was good enough then, surely it was good enough for the first 9 hours. Except, maybe there's something that happens when I initially run out of glycogen? I do a mini-carb load, eating a fair amount of carbs starting the day before the race. Maybe my body undergoes a rough transition from carb-burning to fat-burning? Would I do better with no carb load, just starting out on fat? It's something to think about. If nothing else, I'd toe the line a few pounds lighter. Also, I suppose, there is salt. I follow the school that says you don't need extra salt; in particular it has nothing to do with cramps. But when your race is falling apart, you will try anything. Both at Desert Solstice and at D3, I took a salt pill when I crashed. Did it help any? I don't know. Many top ultrarunners will tell you "yes, I've seen the science about salt, but it still works". But I think my main takeaway for point 1 is that I need to pay attention to the conditions, and factor in slowdowns in my pacing plan. Typically, this would lead to a negative-split race, as I start at one pace, slow down in the heat of the day, then speed back up when it cools off, for the second half of the race. It's true that nobody (Maggie excepted) runs negative splits for 24 hours. That doesn't mean it's not the right way to run them.

2. The mental game from 9.5 hours to 200K

As I mentioned, this was a striking contrast from Desert Solstice. There, in my race report, I said that after I'd crashed and restarted,
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.
Well, this time, I didn't have that option. If I ran "what my body said was comfortable" – more on that shortly – I would have missed the 200K record, and also come up short of my previous performance. In terms of race goals, there would be no point in continuing. It was conceivable I could still have won the race, but at the time both Joshua Finger and John Cash were well ahead of me and looking strong; they would both have to falter. That's not at all unlikely in a 24-hour race, and in fact they did both falter, later on. Still, I was there to improve my standing on the qualifier list. I let myself get into such a bad mental space that I was really ready to just say screw it, and be done with it. I didn't care about all the months of training and sacrifice. I did, however, care about how I would feel afterward. I knew that I would not be able to call myself a runner if I quit when I was uninjured, capable of running, and still had some shot at a meaningful result. So I eventually concluded, reluctantly, that I would have to try to hit the 200K record. I had every expectation that I would suffer for hours, and then eventually fail. I also had a ready excuse to quit early: I was registered for the San Diego 100, three weeks after D3. Why not cut my losses here and save it? The net result was that, though I pushed back to my original pace, and began to hold it, I was praying for a cramp to take me out. I really, really wanted a legitimate excuse to quit. This is not the right way to run, willing your body to fail.
Cooling rain! Pic by Jeremy Fountain

Fortunately, my body had its own ideas of what was possible. It didn't cooperate at all in my mental efforts to make it give out. In fact, as it cooled off, I could tell that the physical effort was decreasing; the pace was getting easier. This was extremely frustrating; I would have to continue. Those 10 hours were among the hardest I have endured as a runner. I wish I could understand why, or what to do about it. I just had the wrong attitude. Gradually, very gradually, as I got closer to 200K, my attitude changed, until with maybe two hours to go I was actually rooting for rather than against my body. I began to feel a sense of optimism and accomplishment. No doubt this was aided by the fact that I was catching Josh Finger and John Cash. Somewhere in there they both stopped. As fellow runners, I wished them both the best; nonetheless, it is empowering to outlast your competition, especially competition of that caliber. So now I had the potential of winning the race, and setting the 200K record. But, what then? My brain still refused to think about it. It took every ounce of willpower I had just to continue to 200K... so I told myself. More about willpower later.
With legend Frank Bozanich. Pic by Jeremy Fountain

Hanging in there... Pic by Israel Archuletta

OK, now I'm tired. Pic by Israel Archuletta

But now, back to "what my body said was comfortable". Had I not had to run faster than what was comfortable in order to hit the 200K record, I wouldn't have. But clearly, what I thought was comfortable bore little relation to what my body was actually capable of. Here, I was limited by my mind. How much was I limited? How much faster could I have run, physically? I hit my physical limit earlier, when it was hot. But when it was cool? I don't think I was really on the edge of any kind of physical failure. This is really eye-opening for me. Everyone knows that ultras, especially 24-hour and longer, are mostly mental. But man... if I could actually access anywhere near my physical limit... Of course, one big effect of training is that the mind learns better how to interpret signals from the body, and predict what the body is going to do. That's what creates your sense of effort. Gradually, you calibrate, so you are able to push closer to the edge. But here, my sense of effort was way off. Just as it had been off, the other way, before I crashed. The conclusion here is that, well, I survived this part of the race by being tough, but it would have been much better to have survived it by having the right attitude. How do I improve my attitude? Meditation? I don't know. Finally I want to emphasize that I don't judge anyone else for a decision to drop. If you drop, nobody can judge you but you. Only you really know whether you're stopping because you have to, or it makes sense to, or because you just gave up. If even you know. Which brings me to...

3. Quitting at 200K

This is by far the most disturbing part of my race. I am still not sure exactly what happened. As I approached 200K, I decided that after I hit it, I would do the math on the remaining time and paces, and figure out what to do then. But I didn't have to do any math to know that I would be 7 minutes ahead of where I'd been at Desert Solstice at 200K, and that I had been running slower at Desert Solstice than I'd run here for the past 10 hours. So I could slow down, and still run a PR. Yet... I didn't. I didn't even try. I let myself be overwhelmed by a series of events that culminated in me sitting in a chair, done. First, I had skipped my last walk break as I approached 200K. Why not? I could walk later. So first on the agenda was to walk a lap or two while I figured things out. As I hit 200K, there was a big sense of accomplishment and release. Not that, in the grand scheme of things, anybody cares about the 200K record; it's kind of obscure. 200K only ever seems to occur as a split in a longer race. But that was what had driven me for the past 10 hours; it was all I'd had to hang on to. Then, I started walking. But the longer I walked, the more it hurt, and the harder it got. As I mentioned above about walking, I think some kind of transition happens when you walk for too long. Your body starts to realize that it's been overtaxed, and it sees a chance to convince its stupid brain that hey, obviously the emergency is over; don't you realize, dummy, that we're kind of hurting? Maybe it would really be best to give it a rest? Well, that wasn't something I'd factored into my plan. The more I walked, the more it hurt, I mean really hurt. Then, my Garmin died. I still don't know why. I was sure I had disabled GPS; it should have lasted forever. All I really needed it for was a lap timer. You'd think I wouldn't even need that, but because I was counting in 7-lap sets, actually I did. Everything had hinged on hitting every 7 laps in about 16:10. Now, I had brought a spare basic running watch, just in case. I could have asked my crew to dig it out. But that was one more small hurdle. Finally, after walking a few laps, I began to get really cold. It had dipped into the 40s, and was windy. I'd run through the night so far in a singlet, and been comfortable, running. But not walking. Oh, and at 20:00, we reversed direction. This put an extra whole lap between me and my crew. When I finally got back around to them, I guess four or five laps after 200K, I just fell into the chair. I was given a sleeping bag to get warm. A little later Bill Schultz wandered up, and we discussed how I had already won; no men left in the race could catch me. Pretty soon, de facto, I was done. I eventually worked up the energy to walk to a little building where it was warm inside, and there was lots of food, and people to talk to. The rest of the race was out of sight, out of mind. So, there wasn't any single, easily identifiable moment at which I went wrong and gave up, but the net effect was that I had just quit. I was given one too many convenient excuses. Also, there's this notion of willpower. I felt like it had taken all I'd had to get to 200K. To think of continuing for another 4 hours was just ridiculous. But this is fallacious reasoning. Willpower is only a finite resource if you let it be. If it were something you could just use up, I would never have made it to 200K. I only did that by managing to focus on the current lap, or the current 7-lap chunk. Every set was the same. It didn't matter whether it was the first one or the last one; each individual lap was just one lap, which never seemed impossible. I knew this; at a certain level I knew that I had a very good shot at still running a PR. Later in my hotel room, I did the math in my head, and realized that I could have gone from 2:15 laps and 1:00 walk breaks every 7 laps to 2:20 laps and 1:15 walk breaks, and still run over 150. It was insane not to even try. I didn't beat myself up too much about this at first; I was too wrapped up in the glow of a new record, and a win. But over time it gnawed at me more and more. I was there to run a 24-hour race. I had a legitimate shot at a PR (and incidentally a new 24-hour AR for over 50), and I just... gave up. Not only did I fail in this particular race, but now I have messed up my model of myself as someone who doesn't quit. When the going gets tough, and I start to think "there's no way I can hold this for X more hours", one thing that makes it much easier is the sure knowledge that I can count on my future self not to quit. I just have to hold it now, and the future will take care of itself, because I know empirically that I'm not a quitter. Well, now, I don't.


I hate to end on a down note. As Pam says, when you fail, that's fuel for the fire. I hope so. Because I'm going to have to try again. I don't think 149 miles is likely to cut it to make the team, and that is my top running goal. The good news is that I think I can actually learn a lot from what happened at D3, and run a better race next time. Also I have a definite sense that I was very close here to a very good performance, even on suboptimal training. It felt like I was starting over from scratch after my surgery, clawing my way back to fitness, but I was definitely in there. In particular, that I was able to hold my orignal pace without slipping at all to hit the 200K record, when I wanted nothing more than to quit, I find very encouraging. My body and my mind did their job. Had the weather been just a little better, who knows. One of these days, I do believe I'm going to knock it out of the park.