Sunday, April 9, 2017

Run4Water 2017: My Masterpiece

With Greg Armstrong and Sue Scholl. Pic by James Suh

In the world of the game Go, there is the concept of a player's "masterpiece" – a game where you play flawlessly, yet lose by a single point. This race was my masterpiece. For once, I executed it absolutely perfectly, in my opinion. I would not change a thing. But it was not quite enough. Background For the past two and a half years, my primary running goal has been to make the U.S. national 24-hour team and represent my country at the World Championships. I was originally inspired by my friend Mike Henze, who helped pull the 2010 team to bronze in Brive, France. My first attempt in December 2014 yielded 139.5 miles, 5.5 short of making the 2015 team. But it did show that I had potential, at least. I looked forward to 2016. But then, the IAU switched the World Championships to every other year – I would have to wait two more years. At Desert Solstice in December 2015, I ran 149.24, putting me in the number four spot, of six, for 2017. But there was over a year left to qualify, and I thought that likely would not hold. The two-year wait meant more interest for fewer (average) slots. As well, the level of U.S. 24-hour talent seemed to be on the rise. Since then it has been a constant game of learning what I can from the previous race, and applying the lessons to the next race. It's a slow way to learn, with a pretty big cost per data point. But as an older runner (now 51) without a surplus of natural talent, my only chance here is to run smarter and execute better than my competitors. Anything shorter, I am just too slow to be competitive at the national level. But 24-hour is about a lot more than talent and speed. Gradually, I have been able to put together races that go perfectly for longer and longer into the race. At Riverbank, five weeks ago, I was perfect through 16 hours, hitting 100 miles at 15:30 (a big PR), exactly on my planned paces. And I still felt good; nothing hurt at all. But then I suddenly became very mentally fatigued. I walked a few laps to try to get a reset, giving up some of my possible upside. I hung on through 20 hours with some effort, but by then the difficulty in focusing was extreme – though still with no real physical pain, which seemed remarkable to me. That, at least, was a first. I thought a shot of more sugar might help jolt me awake, but instead it made me puke, which sapped all my remaining mental reserves. I mostly walked it in after that. Rich Riopel ran 152.21, finally bumping me from number four to number five. Well, I was amazed my spot had held for over a year.

I didn't write a race report for Riverbank. So for completeness, here's the lap profile.

Riverbank had been, I thought, my last chance. There were only five weeks left to qualify, too close to try again after an all-out effort. But my performance there had left a bad taste in my mouth. Not because I didn't hit my goal, but because I couldn't convince myself that I hadn't given up too easily. The going got tough, and I didn't handle it. Those are the moments when we are supposed to truly live as runners, and test our souls. It had been crystal clear to me that here it was, right in front of me, everything I had worked hard for for years, on the line. All I had to do was hold it NOW, for just a few more hours. I would be the first American over 50 to break 150 miles. I would virtually secure my team spot. And yet, I really, really wanted an excuse to quit. And I got the excuse, when I puked.

After that experience, my identity and validity as a runner were in question. That's what really hurt. And yet – where is the line between physical failure and mental failure? The brain is not immune from the laws of physics. My feeling was that this was largely nutritional. I'm not supposed to be that tired and unfocused at any point in a 24-hour. I'm very good at the objective, analytical part of running, at least for certain types of events. And I generally feel like I'm good at the subjective part too; I'm tough when I need to be. But your brain can only do what it can do, too. Over the next couple of weeks, my recovery went quicker than expected; everything felt great. I had obvious nutritional and other tweaks to make after Riverbank – again, I wanted a do-over. (Riverbank had been my do-over from Desert Solstice in December.) And Greg Armstrong let me know there was still a space for me at Run4Water. The line-up of real challengers there was growing, and I couldn't help but feel my #5 spot was at serious risk. I went so far as to write a little program to estimate the chances that at least two guys ran over 149.24: it said 64%. Hmm. Well, what did I have to lose? So I made the decision to give it one final shot. The Race Run4Water is run on a .508-mile road loop in Lebanon, TN, around a middle school. It's not 100% flat, but pretty close. The slight variation might serve to change it up a bit for our muscles. The weather in Tennessee on April 1st could be anything, but would likely be warm and humid, maybe with rain. That's what I should have hoped for to secure my spot! It generally takes good conditions to see good performances. Nobody in the U.S. broke 150 for all of 2016, primarily I think because no race had really good conditions. But I was torn. I had really wanted a solid performance over 150 to give me confidence to shoot higher at Worlds. I was getting pretty tired of coming up short. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the closer race day got, the better the forecast looked. With the likes of Jon Olsen, Steve Slaby, Phil McCarthy, Greg Soutiea, Josh Finger, Olaf Wasternack, Joe Fejes, Adrian Stanciu, and a few other fast guys toeing the line, it looked like a day for potentially big numbers. One day later, and it would have been high 70s and thunderstorms. So, I had made the right decision. I had to step up here to keep my spot. If I finished in the top two I was guaranteed at least the 6th slot. If two people beat me, then I would have to pass Rich's 152.21. I dialed in my pacing plan so that if all went smoothly, I'd hit 153.43. If I felt great towards the end I could go for more, but that was not the priority. If three people beat me... well, let's not go there.
Pic by Cheryl Renee Crowe

8 am, and we were off. With this concentration of talent, I'd been hoping to see a fast start, with nobody wanting to get too far behind. That would work very well for me, as I waited patiently for the inevitable attrition. Almost everyone goes out too fast at 24-hour. But if I'd hoped all my competition would blow up early, I was out of luck. A few shot off way too fast, but others reined it in instead. Olsen was completely out of my equations – his talent and experience were far above everyone else's. (Incidentally Olsen was also the race director at Riverbank.) If he had no injury issues or bad luck, he would easily make the team; he was in charge of his own fate. Everyone else had to have a very good day, and were racing each other for that 6th spot.

Running early with Olaf. Pic by Joseph Nance

Still, after a couple of hours the order settled down, and I found myself 11th man, with all of my expected competition ahead of me. Perfect, exactly where I wanted to be. Most people in this position would feel scared, especially as the early pacing feels soooooo easy. But I knew that I was not going too slow. If I held this pace I'd hit a big PR, and a number almost certainly good enough to make the team. Any faster would be unnecessary risk. Ergo, most of my competition were taking unnecessary risks; advantage Bob.
In the week or so before the race, after I'd decided I felt good and committed to it, a few of my chronic muscle issues had begun to rear their heads again, so I was just a bit concerned about that. Indeed, in the first several hours lots of things felt not quite right. The worst was the left hamstring, where I tore the tendons a few years ago. But I know that this tends to settle down after 30 miles or so in races, so I just sat back on my pacing and didn't sweat it.
This is the kind of thing that can mess with your head if you let it. 24 hours is a long time to stay focused, especially when your margin for success is so razor thin. It's all too easy to convince yourself that it's just not going to be your day, and that feeling can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is true in any long ultra, but it's magnified at 24-hour, because you know that there's not going to be any change of terrain to mix things up, and you have to fight the sheer boredom and repetitiveness of a short loop. Unlike a fixed-distance race, the finish does not get any closer no matter how fast you run, and there's no such thing as a black-and-white finish vs. DNF to motivate you – your result is simply however far you ran. It adds up to a unique set of mental challenges. And really, mental toughness was my biggest concern coming into Run4Water. I had gone all out in very long races way too much recently: this was my third 24-hour in four months, with Spartathlon just a couple of months prior, all of them A races. You can only go to the well so often. Especially as I thought I had not been tough enough at Riverbank, I was afraid I just wouldn't be able to step up here. But the edge I had this time was the sure knowledge that this was it; it would all be determined here this weekend.
Shirt swap! Pic by Cheryl Renee Crowe

The laps clicked off, and the day progressed. Early on we heard what sounded like a tornado alarm. Tornado?? Well that would save my team spot! No such luck, though. I should mention here the perfect logistics Greg had arranged. Portapotties were immediately alongside the course, and crew access was ideal, near the timing mat. Volunteers were available for anything you might need. My morning crew of Tanya and Cheryl made things easy for me. My pattern was to run 4:36 laps (9:03 mile pace), and walk one minute every third lap. During the walk breaks I would drink and fuel. I'd grab a small bottle from my crew, then toss it in a bin just before running again, whence my crew would retrieve and refill it. Maximally efficient. Also the tracking page had a way to send messages to the runners; my crew called them out to me again and again. I went back and looked, as the messages are logged with the results. It seems I had a lot more support messages than anyone else. I had no idea I was so popular! Thank you, RunningAhead crew, Facebook friends, and Liz!

Greg Soutiea and Joe Fejes – strong competitors. Pic by The Wilson Post
Around 2 pm my afternoon crew of Kara and Tim showed up to relieve Tanya and Cheryl, as we switched direction from clockwise to counter-clockwise. The six-hour switches helped keep things fresh; it's like running a new course. Things were still going smoothly for me. The day was cool and overcast. We were supposed to get clear skies and mid-60s in the afternoon, but when we finally did, we still had a brisk breeze to offset the sun. A few people did seem to be affected by the heat, but I guess my sauna training plus the breeze meant that I barely noticed it. I came prepared with lots of ice and sponges, but didn't use them.

With Kara Dudek Teacoach and Tim Walters. Pic by Tracey Outlaw

I enjoyed chatting with friends and getting to know new people throughout the day; the first hours of a 24-hour are comfortable and social for everyone. Before the race I had finally met Roy Pirrung, an ultrarunning legend, with many age-group records, and also one of the first Americans to have run Spartathlon.

With Phil McCarthy, American record holder for 48-hour. Pic by Sinclaire Sparkman, Lebanon Democrat 
After 8 or so hours the early leaders started to drop off, and I gradually began climbing through the ranks. My 12-hour split was about 77 miles, right on target. Before much longer it was down to Jon Olsen, Steve Slaby, and Greg Soutiea ahead of me. All of them still had several laps on me; I wouldn't be catching anyone else soon. I had promised myself I would run my own race until at least 16 hours before considering the tactical situation with the other runners, but it was hard not to look ahead. Yes, it was still early, but... if everyone stayed strong, 153 would not be enough. I would instead have to hit Harvey Lewis' mark of 157.91 to stay on the team if I finished in 4th. That would be a huge challenge, even pacing to hit it from here – a 77 / 81 split. It would be virtually impossible if I waited until 16 hours to speed up. I considered asking Tracey Outlaw to run the numbers for me; I'd left him with my magic pacing spreadsheet. But then I came to my senses. It was very unlikely for all three ahead of me to hit 158. In fact Greg had already slowed and was now maintaining his 8-lap lead on me, not gaining further. He was no longer on pace to pass Harvey. Whereas if I sped up substantially now, the risk would be high that I'd blow up. As far as I can tell, actually, there had never been a single race in U.S. history with three men over 150, let alone 158. (Desert Solstice 2014 had three total over 150, but that included Katalin Nagy.) So, I just had to hang tight for now, and make sure I eventually caught somebody, probably Greg. Jon was in his own world, but I'd thought both Steve and Greg had gone out faster than necessary. Steve was only running his second 24-hour, and had loads of talent and speed that was yet to be optimally applied here, so it was hard to know what his potential was. But Greg had run several, with a big PR of 143+ at Desert Solstice in December. That race had seemed to go very smoothly for him, and he'd had to work hard for it; he had no obvious mistakes to correct, or untapped reserves to apply here, at least that I was aware of. To have a shot at the team he had no choice but to attempt another huge PR, but he was actually aiming much higher. He just had to beat Rich's 152.21, and beat me. The four miles he was ahead of me here would have to be paid for, I was increasingly sure. At 10 pm Kara and Tim headed back to Alabama (thank you!), and Sue Scholl, veteran of many ultras, took over as crew. She hadn't planned to stay all night, but wound up helping me through the end of the race, and beyond. Thank you, Sue! As a very experienced ultrarunner and crewperson, she anticipated my every need. As we approached 16 hours, still easy and smooth for me, I looked back to Riverbank, where it seemed a switch had flipped at that point. Here I took a preventative NoDoz, the first time I'd tried that in a race. Normally I get my caffeine from Coke, but that's not as much, or as big a hit at once. I think I have a natural advantage in this kind of race due to my programming background. I pulled tons of all nighters in college, and even much more recently at startups. I'm good running through the night, and also good focusing on tasks that would mentally exhaust others. However, lately I've begun to struggle more with tiredness; the years are beginning to add up. So I took no chances. So far, so good, still holding steady. Now I was in new terrain, farther into the race still completely on track than I'd ever been before. It had been dark now for several hours, and this hit me harder than I had expected. There were street lights, but long stretches of the loop were pretty dark. Not dark enough not to see where to run – you had to watch out for the occasional speed bumps, but that wasn't too hard. However, I was accustomed to more light, having run most of my 24s on a track. I had to fight a bit mentally not to be slowed by this. When you run through the night in a trail race, you naturally slow; no big deal, everyone does. But I didn't have the margin in my pacing plan here to slow any. From here on out, I know, it gets increasingly difficult. More than once I thought back to the words of Mike Henze, my friend from the 2010 team:
The two decent races I ran - They would have to pulled me off in a hearse to stop my focus and drive toward my goals. I did not care if I died - Nothing was going to get in my way.
I could hope that the pace would feel easy the rest of the way, and the only question would be how much extra to go for, but realistically I would probably have to dig deep at some point, and I wanted to be ready to step up when the time came. Besides, there's how your body feels, and how your mind feels. The mind looks for excuses, even when the body is fine. I had already gone through many emotional ups and downs during the race, but that is normal, and habit kept me moving forward steadily. Very gradually, I began to catch up to Greg. It took maybe an hour per lap to catch up. At this rate I would just catch him by the end of the race, but I could tell he was already struggling to hold on, whereas I was still holding back, prepared to speed up if necessary. And by about 18 hours it was all over for him. So – endgame. Everything was now clear. Jon and Steve looked good to stay ahead of me and qualify. Steve could still falter, but it was looking unlikely. Nobody else was within reach of Rich's mark, so all that was left in the qualification picture, on the men's side, was whether or not I could catch Rich. For the one race that mattered, the guy I had to catch wasn't even physically in the race. But his presence was certainly felt. On the women's side, it was already settled. Gina Slaby would easily clear 140, bumping Megan Alvarado from her 6th-place spot. Megan was also in the race, as was #8 Laurie Dymond, but they had struggled early and were now out of contention. Unprecedented, shocking, that 140 was not good enough to make the women's team, or 150 the men's team. At 19:23, I broke my own age-group 200-km record by over 13 minutes – or so I thought. Later I remembered that USATF only recognizes a track, not road, record here. 20 hours – I take another NoDoz. 21 hours – now I am beginning to feel it. I do some mental math, and decide it's time to use a bit of my cushion for safety. I will finally break that magic 150, at least, but there will be no padding of my record this time. I walk a little longer on the walk breaks. All is still well... until 22 hours. I have always believed that 24-hour performance is ultimately limited by cumulative muscle damage. You think you are in a steady state, running a "forever" pace, no lactate accumulation to worry about. But it doesn't work that way. Eventually all the microtrauma even from the forever pace adds up, and you have to slow down. By starting at as slow a pace as possible for my goals, with walk breaks as well, I had deferred this point as long as possible. But here it was. Gradually, my legs began to fail. I had to take increasingly frequent walk breaks. If I didn't, my legs would buckle. My model of what was going on here is that my pool of muscle fibers able to perform at the level of my demand had dipped below a critical threshold. (Addendum – Trent Rosenbloom points out that the level of muscle damage I describe here ought to be accompanied by extreme muscle pain and rhabdomyolysis, neither of which I had. So, maybe it's back to the drawing board for other explanations. Fatigue is such a complex phenomenon.) The pace chart shows the rest of the story. The tail there probably tracks some theoretical physiological curve of progressive muscle failure. I was now relying on that inspiration from Mike Henze, to keep pushing myself to the physiological limit. Everything was on the line here: I succeed, and the past years of work will all have been justified, all the failures wiped away in an instant. I fail, and it's all for nothing. It doesn't get any more stark than that.

My masterpiece.

Everyone else now knows what's going on; everyone is following as it appears my race is on a knife edge, and cheering loudly for me. Greg, Tracey Outlaw, Mike Dobies, and Bill Schultz are calling out lap splits I need to hit.

Pic by Karen Jackson
With maybe 20 minutes left, as I hit the timing mat and slow for a walk break, I collapse and grab the timing structure, just about taking it down with me. Back on my feet, keep pushing. Now, finally, I am beginning to lose faith that I will make it. I need at least 300 laps, and I'm going to be short. Greg tries to tell me no, you don't have to complete the 300th lap; a partial lap will do. But I don't believe him. I'd put all the relevant marks in a spreadsheet; I was sure 152.21 miles was 299.9 something laps. It was actually 299.34. So for the last two laps I think I am just fighting on principle, with no real chance, but Greg knows I still have a shot.

With Jester Ed Ettinghausen, who ran 133 for his 133rd 100+. Pic by Karen Jackson

As I cross the mat for the last time, 299 done, I have about a minute and a half left. It's not enough. Even knowing two laps earlier where the actual mark was would have made no difference. I am confident I gave it everything I had – and I think anyone watching would agree. The alarm sounds, and I collapse onto the grass. Greg goes back to wheel the partial lap, but there is really no need. I finish with 152.155 miles, 300 feet short.

Pic by Adrian Stanciu
Aftermath Greg, Sue, and others hover over me to make sure I'm OK. I just want to sleep. But people are worried about me, so after 10 or so minutes I let myself be helped up and back to the school. I am surprised to see a large crowd applauding as I enter, and am given a cot to recover on. I'm surprisingly unemotional about what has just happened; it's all too much to process. But there are a lot of not-dry eyes around me. It's humbling to have affected so many people.

With Case Cantrell and Bo Millwood. Pic by James Suh

Recovering with Olaf Wasternack. Pic by James Suh

How do I feel now about the years of effort, and coming up short in the end by the tiniest of margins? Above I said "I succeed, and the past years of work will all have been justified, all the failures wiped away in an instant. I fail, and it's all for nothing."
But in the end, it wasn't for nothing; I somehow found a third way. The unique circumstances here formed a crucible in which I was pushed to my absolute limits. And I didn't give up. If Rich's mark had been a hair higher, it would have been clearly out of reach sooner. A hair lower, and I'd have reached it, not really knowing if I had plumbed the absolute depths. But now I know. In a strange way, I feel fortunate to have been given this rare opportunity to create my "masterpiece". Moreover, running is usually a selfish activity for me, but in this case it seems clear that I had a big effect on many other people, not just at the race but watching online, providing a source of motivation for their own races going forward. And that is immensely gratifying. I've been overwhelmed with the outpouring of thanks for my performance. Finally, though it wasn't my primary goal, I did become the first American over 50 to break 150 miles. That is something I worked hard for and can be proud of. Thank You Thank you to my wonderful crew of Tanya Savory, Cheryl Renee Crowe, Kara Dudek Teacoach, Timothy Walters, and Sue Scholl (with further assistance from Tracey Outlaw and Bill Schultz) for your invaluable support. I'm indebted to all of you; you helped me execute this perfect race. Thank you to everyone who was there and cheered me on. Thank you to everyone who watched online and was inspired. Thank you to my family and friends, especially Liz and Scott, who have supported me in this endeavor over the long haul. Thank you to Greg Armstrong, for organizing an absolutely top-notch event in which to provide serious competitors one final shot to make the national team. Everything about the race was outstanding. Greg is a veteran of the 2015 team himself, and thoroughly understands all the concerns relevant to 24-hour runners. Race logistics issues were completely off the table for runners to have to worry about; everything just worked. And someone was always there for anything you needed. Moreover, I'm very appreciative of the personal interest Greg displayed in trying to give me every opportunity to solidify my spot. Here is my 3rd-place plaque, which Greg obtained on his recent trip to improve water access for 5,000 people in Uganda.

From Jinja, Uganda (source of the Nile)
What's Next? I'm going to Worlds in Ireland. What? Yes, I was short, and didn't make the team. I'm first alternate. Possibly a spot will open up, probably not. But alternates are allowed to run in the race as well, just not as team members. And for the first time this year, the World Master's Association is hosting competition for world age-group titles. I can now compete on a more level playing field, with the best 50-54 year olds in the world. Realistically, I would have been at best a strong backup member on the team anyway. Six are on the team, but only the top three scores count. With the amazing, unprecedented strength of this year's team (men and women), that was unlikely to be me. The age-group title is something I can get behind. I will have some serious competition there, but I am definitely going to be in the mix. And I'm incredibly excited about that. I'll close with these words from Mike Henze, who independently arrived at the "masterpiece" metaphor.
Speed and Endurance and the amount you have of each is the baseline for performance or the canvas. 
The race strategy and sticking to it gives you brushes and technique. The problem solving on the fly are the choice of colors.  
The true beauty is in how you put everything together and the human spirit and effort you give to the race.  
Sometimes you paint a crappy picture and sometimes a good picture - But each time you race it is a beautiful experience of self discovery.
Then if the stars align and you find that absolute conviction ... You paint a masterpiece.