Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Six Days in the Dome 2019

It's now been five months(!) since the Dome, and somehow I am still processing it (and also, in some ways, still recovering from it). This one race I think will be more consequential to my running future than any before it. I see at least three major changes in store for how I approach races of 24 hours or longer; I am rethinking everything. But I guess it's way past time for the blog post, so here is what I have to say. This is an expanded version of what I posted on Facebook two weeks after the race. Yes, it's long! Background Back in 2014, a six-day race was held on an indoor track in Alaska, organized by Joe Fejes — "Six Days in the Dome". Yes, it was actually an inflatable dome. The advantages are obvious: climate control, plus a perfect running surface. This apparently one-off event netted several records. Notably, Joe himself ran 580 miles, for a new modern American Record. Modern? Yes, six-day races have an illustrious history in ultrarunning, beginning in the 19th century. James Albert Cathcart's legendary 621.75 miles is not on the modern record books, due to lack of verification to modern USATF standards. Why six days? Well, naturally, in Victorian times, six days was as long as you could do any one thing continuously, because of course you would have to rest on Sunday! Now, 48-hour and six-day are the two multiday formats recognized by the International Association of Ultrarunners for record purposes. Fast forward to 2019, and Joe is at it again. This time the "dome" was the Pettit National Ice Center, in Milwaukee, WI — not an actual dome, but again, an ideal indoor track surface, with climate control. Steve Durbin was race directing, with Mike Melton and Brandon Wilson timing. Top-notch setup all around. THE place to be if you ever had any notion of putting up your best possible six-day performance. Which I did, thanks to Joe suckering me, telling me I could beat his record (which now stands at 606!). I tried at EMU in Hungary in 2018, but stopped halfway through with a tendon injury. This would be my chance to make amends. But there was a problem: 24-hour Worlds, in Albi, France, would be just two months after the Dome, not leaving enough time to fully recover, train, and represent my country at 100%. Bill Schultz finally convinced me of the reality of this unfortunate fact. Prelude To explain how I got to the Dome after all, I have to take a detour. I did not write a race report for Dawn to Dusk to Dawn 24-hour (D3), in May. I tried several times to start, but it was too painful, and always came out as just whining. But for completeness in my blog, I'll summarize here. Feel free to skip ahead. I entered the race in the 6th and final position for the 2019 US 24-hour team, with 154 miles. I expected that would not be good enough... someone else at D3 would beat that and bump me from the team. So I had to defend my spot. 155+ would put me in 4th; three guys would have to beat me. That wasn't going to happen. Well, the lap chart shows the story. Just as happened two years previously at Run4Water, I ran perfectly through 22 hours, but was unable to hold on and put it away. There, I came up 300 feet short and was bumped from the 2017 team. This time my collapse was larger. I managed to hold on for 150, but that's it. Rich Riopel and Harvey Lewis both ran big numbers, and once again, I was bumped from the team on the last day, my goals for the previous two years' effort slipping through my fingers. It was a surreal nightmare. Once was heartbreaking. Twice? There are no words.
Afterwards, I agonized about what had gone wrong. It seemed as if I had a death wish, some deep desire to fail as spectacularly as possible. (I've written about this previously: see "The Imp of the Perverse", in my Spartathlon 2018 report.) Those present swore I had given my all, but how could they know? However, when I saw on video that I was already leaning at 22 hours, I realized they were probably right. It was all over then.
So, no 24-hour Worlds for me. But that freed up August for the Dome. I would have to miss Burning Man (sniff), but I could not pass up this opportunity. Goals I went in, as did several others, with an aggressive plan. I would start by pacing even for Joe Fejes' American Record, 606.24 miles, running 101+ per day. I thought that goal was unlikely to be feasible, yet I left myself options to go higher. Because, I mean, there is no more seductive thought to a male ultrarunner than the possibility (even remote) of breaking a Kouros World Record. And the six-day is generally agreed to be his softest record. So, as long as I was running well with no issues, I would add a mile each day. 101 + 102 + ... + 106 = 1,000 km, a really big number. Only six men have done that in the modern era, and none since 2007. Finally, if I somehow miraculously felt good on the last day, forgoing my sleep break with lots of caffeine and holding pace would net the WR of 644.24 miles. (See, on paper, it's easy...) More realistically I expected I would have to slow, and I had my sights on 900 km (559.24 miles) or Joe's over-50 American Record of 551.47 (for which, however, I would also have to beat Joe!). At the low end of my goals, I thought that barring disaster I should be able to pull out 500 miles, a very respectable distance. But a million things could still go wrong, so I would have to roll with the expected punches to earn it. I was under no illusions that "just" 500 would be easy. Only a dozen Americans had ever done it. Of course, there were reasons to set aggressive goals here, with an oversized flat track surface (443 m), controlled temperature (50-55 °F), and world-class medical and foot care available. Add to that my world-class crew (six people, including a Western States winner, a Vol State finisher, a 453-mile female 6-day runner, and an Army captain, for a little discipline!) — opportunities like this don't come every day. I'm not sure what I did to rate such a crew, but I am not complaining. I always put a lot of work into my pacing plans, and this time I took it to the next level. I prepared a crew manual with instructions for every contingency, and details of my pacing strategy for all my different goals, from 644 miles down to 500. I wrote a custom app for my Garmin with all the pacing plans programmed into it, and facilities for adjusting on the fly in a few different ways. The new variable to play with at six-day is sleep. Don't sleep much, and run/walk slowly? Or sleep a lot, and run faster? Both ways can yield success (cf. Geesler, Fejes!). I know that I'm not great on the sleep deprivation front at multi-day races, so I preferred to err on the side of more sleep. But setting big mileage goals puts pretty tight constraints on things. At EMU I had planned an hour and a half sleep every 12 hours, with shorter breaks every six. That had not worked well; an hour and a half was just not enough time for me to get any solid sleep. This time I decided to put all of my sleep in one block, at night, sticking to my natural circadian rhythm (even though we'd have constant lighting in the dome). For my A plan, I would have 3 hours and 40 minutes of sleep per night, starting at 1 a.m., and 7-minute breaks every 3 hours in between. That was a total of 4:22 of break time per day, with an estimated 38 minutes of overhead (bathroom, medical, etc.), for 19 hours of moving time. I think that's probably in the typical range for big six-day performances. But I discovered that this plan was pretty challenging for me as well, and next time I will have to continue to adjust. It's worth mentioning that even- or (gasp) negative-splitting at 24-hour or longer races is definitely not the norm. For six-day, conventional wisdom would be that it's just not possible. Moving pace aside, it was certainly not realistic to think that daily medical and other overhead would not increase throughout the race. My thinking was that I would roll unused overhead time early in the race into extra break time, front-loading the sleep, rather than use it to put more miles in the bank. How well did this plan work? Read on to see... Day 1 After a stressful Saturday night, putting the final touches on my Garmin app, and nearly locking my phone in the rental car as I returned it to the airport after hours, Sunday morning finally arrived. Arriving at the Pettit Center, I greeted all the people I'd be sharing the next six days with. Many friends, many legends I hadn't yet met, and many friends-to-be. Among them, several rivals. This would be a hard-fought race for those looking to win or set records.

Listening to pre-race instructions. With William Sichel, Brad Compton, and Liz Bauer.
The race started at noon, with Pam Smith and BJ Timoner crewing. Pam was fresh off a sub-8 100K in the 24-hour race, and had graciously offered to stick around for a few days. We quickly got into a solid routine, and the laps started clicking off. I would run one, then speed-walk most of the next one. For nutrition/hydration, I rotated every couple of hours between my own drink mix (similar to Maurten), Coke, and SWORD (the sponsoring race drink), drinking a few ounces every 20 minutes. I would sit down for real food at meal times, during my 7-minute breaks.

Running early with women's winner Connie Gardner
As expected, many runners went out much faster than I did, and I settled into about 20th place out of the 66 starters. As the day turned into evening, Ray Krolewicz told me "anyone in the top 15 went out way too fast". I concurred. Later I chatted with Greg Salvesen, ultrarunner extraordinaire and all around nice guy, as well as professional astrophysicist — something I had wanted to be when I was younger. After the race Greg posted that he'd managed to have in-depth conversations with every single runner during the race. Wow! I did not come close to matching that feat. I think I'm doing it wrong.

Before I knew it it was after midnight, and time for my first sleep. Already, I had moved up to I think 8th. I felt so good I was tempted to push it longer, but I had sworn not to exceed my planned daily miles, minimizing early muscle damage as much as possible, so I could still run later. Many runners chose to run through the first night, to put up a big day 1. Though everything at the Pettit was near optimal, I never managed to make the sleep setup work well for me. You could sleep by the side of the track, but it was too bright and noisy. You could sleep in a quickly accessible upstairs room, but there wasn't enough space there for people to leave cots set up. Or you could have a permanent setup in a dark, quiet room (apart from the one guy snoring LOUDLY every night), but it was a several-minute walk to get there from the track. I opted for the latter, though it cost a lot of overhead. After a couple days I had my crew relocate my setup to trackside, but that didn't work well, so we moved back. I tried going to sleep in my Normatec compression boots the first night, but they kept me awake, so I mostly didn't use them the rest of the race. It wasn't worth taking my shoes off for them during the shorter breaks. (Connie Gardner, though, I think fell in love with the boots, spending a lot of the last day in them!) I hate to be such a princess about the sleep setup, but, well, I am. Effective sleep is so critical to maximizing performance. As expected, the first night I had a lot of unused overhead time, so I gave myself a full four-hour break. Then, up and at 'em again! Fresh shorts, socks, shirt, and rotate shoes (three pairs of New Balance Beacons). I got an early morning tune-up from Doc Lovy, loosening tight hamstrings and back muscles. Doc Lovy is 84. He's been the team doctor for the USA 24-hour team for many years. And he was here running for six days... while stopping to help all the runners. I don't know when he slept, if he ever did.

Doc Lovy gets his 100
Sometime the first afternoon I'd mentioned to Pam that I was having to stop too often to pee, so I wanted to cut back on fluids. She was a little concerned that even though it was cool, the air was very dry, so likely I was more dehydrated than I felt. But we cut back from 3 oz. per drink (9 oz. per hour) to I think 2.5. This morning it was still an issue, and she pointed out that likely my bladder was irritated because it was too empty, and rubbing together. Doh! So the solution was MORE fluid, not less. And yes, I think I had been dehydrated. She also insisted on weighing me more often. When your crew is an MD, you listen to her medical suggestions. The first race day wound down as noon approached; I hit 100 miles shortly before that. I didn't get to carry the 100-mile flag on my final lap, though: a volunteer was holding it out as I crossed the mat, but pulled it away from me?! Turns out it was for Yolanda Holder, who hit 100 on the same lap. I'm glad I didn't steal it from her: this was her first sub-24 completely walking, making her an official Centurion. Congratulations! At noon, Dave Proctor led the way with 134.4 miles. He was nominally chasing the Canadian Record of 540 miles, but no doubt had his sights set higher than that. Joe was not far behind with 127.1, followed by Mick Thwaites (123.1), Johnny Hällneby (116.2), Budjargal Byambaa (111.9), Connie Gardner (106.7), David Johnston (104.6), and me (101.2), with my unorthodox slow start. For comparison, Joe had run 137 on day 1 when he ran that 606. Of all of us, I believe only Johnny had publicly laid out a goal of running the WR. He had even detailed his plan. (He was described thus on the Ultralist last year: "Johnny approaches these things with Bob Hearn-like planning, but with more humor, experience, and flexibility. It's tremendous to watch." And... I can't disagree.)

Day 1 lap splits (noon to noon). Lap time is on a log scale, to show long breaks.
Day 2 As the second day got underway, Pam and BJ were joined by my friend Paul Erickson. Already I believe I had the largest crew! By the end of the race I would begin to feel a bit guilty here.
Pam knows how to stay warm
I still felt great, so I adjusted my pacing slightly to hit 102+. The run laps stayed at 2:40, but the walk/run laps sped up, with a bit more running. As the afternoon turned to evening, some of the early leaders began to fade. It's inevitable. The only question is, which ones will it be? And before I knew it, I was in a mini-emotional meltdown myself. It started with horrible autotune "music" blasting over the speakers. I don't know why, but anything with autotune makes me want to gouge my eyes out. However, the bigger problem was something I've experienced several times before: the second evening is always really rough for me. My sleep plan here did not help; I would be running 20+ hours between sleeps. I would not do it that way again. I had hoped that being indoors with constant lighting would help — no such luck. But finally it was time for bed, and in the morning I was back at it with renewed vigor. The rest of day 2 passed without incident. Joe clocked a 103, now leading the way with 230.1; Dave Proctor had had sleep issues and dropped to 90.7. Johnny ran a 100.7, now in third; meanwhile Mick, Budjargal, and Dave Johnson had dropped dramatically. Budjargal in particular had looked like a perfectly smooth, light, efficient machine until well into the second day; it was easy to see him running away with it. But not this time. I hit my planned 102.5, the only runner with a negative split. Also I counted my blessings that Joe had come up a mere two miles short of reclaiming the over-50 48-hour American Record of 232 that I'd taken from him a couple years ago!

Day 2 lap splits
Day 3 So far so good, so time to up the pacing a little more. The walk laps got a little more running. I made a mistake here: I was supposed to walk less, but often I found myself running 2:30s instead of 2:40s, so I could walk a whole lap in between. My walking was actually getting faster as the race wore on: in training, I wasn't walking anywhere near a whole lap, even at my first-day (101) pacing. One of the neat things about six-day is that you can actually learn and adapt during the race, instead of having to wait for next time. And it did feel good to be running faster, as I was now passing Joe, I must admit. I'm normally pretty immune from this typically male chest-thumping behavior (women are supposed to be better pacers than men because of this), but the race with Joe was heating up, and I was excited. There is definitely a mind game that goes on during short-loop ultras, as you see your competition over and over. In fact my negative-split strategy as a whole was playing into that. I was well aware of how it would look when people saw I was running 101, 102, 103... . It ought to be intimidating. Silly me, there is no point trying to out-game Joe in a six-day. It didn't take long for this mistake to cost me, as I hit the first real problem in my race around 6 p.m., a little before Amy Mower arrived to join the crew party. I started having pain on the top of my left foot. Pam relaced the shoe to relieve the pressure, but half an hour later I had to stop to have medical take a look at it. They did some massaging and stretching, and when my sock was off it was obvious I had some blister issues as well. John Vonhof (who literally wrote the book on foot care) had taped my little toes pre-race, but now he treated all the blisters and added some more tape. The total cost here was over half an hour, but it was worth it. However, back on the track, it became clear that I couldn't run 2:40 laps anymore without pain. I spent the rest of the evening experimenting. 2:50 run + 3:30 run/walk seemed doable, but significantly slower than my planned pacing. We had a few crew powwows to discuss it. The one good thing about the foot issue was that dealing with it kept me from the evening emotional low; my mind was occupied elsewhere. Finally, bedtime again. This time, Pam had to come wake me — I had a vibrating alarm on each wrist (so as not to disturb the other sleepers in the remote sleeping room), but I had slept through both of them. Oops. Pam and Paul had been scheduled to leave when I woke, but stuck with me 'til breakfast, as we refined my pacing to get back on track. 2:50 / 3:14 seemed sustainable, and left me still theoretically on plan for a possible WR. Paul kept me honest, standing by the timing mat, making sure I wasn't pushing the run laps too fast. In hindsight, here I should have scaled the goal back to 606, at most — to have any chance at the A+ and A++ goals, things would have had to go perfectly for much longer than this. You can't keep speeding up when things start breaking. At some point in here I developed a slight left lean, which Doc Lovy quickly corrected. I'm not sure what I would do in a long race without him. As noon approached, it became clear I had way overspent my budgeted daily overhead time. Oversleeping hadn't helped. So, I ended the day with 97 miles, well short of the 103+ I had been pacing for. Still, that was more than anyone else ran on day 3, and I was now in second place behind Joe (325.2) with 300.7 miles. I was pretty happy to hit 300 in under 72 hours! The biggest day-three casualty was Johnny Hällneby, with 56.4. I am still not sure what happened.


Day 3 lap splits. Foot injury at 55 hours.
Day 4 At this point I'd have to say my prospects looked good. My daily mileage trajectory was much more consistent than anyone else's. Joe was ahead but I was now moving faster than he was, having worked through my foot issue. I saw my slow-start strategy as beginning to pay off, as it generally does in shorter races. Somehow it did not occur to any of us to reset the pacing plan for day four: we left it at 2:50 / 3:14, which would be 103.61 miles. I held pace through the afternoon, but then the dreaded evening arrived again. Without the foot issue to distract me, the evening was emotionally tough. Brief exchanges with Amy on my walk laps helped a lot here. She had been through this, and had lots of great mental advice. Finally, bedtime. Then all too soon, morning again, time to run. Restarting after a sleep break can be a pretty brutal experience... your feet feel like hamburger, muscles do not want to move, mind does not want to think. The later in the race it gets, the harder it is to get yourself back out there. But miraculously (and I think it's pretty much like this for everyone), after a lap or two the pain fades, the fog clears, and you can get back to normal running. But I had not been running long at all when left hamstring tightness turned into significant pain. I couldn't run at all. The next several hours were filled with medical stops to try to diagnose and treat it. Finally Trishul Cherns' personal chiropractor, Craig Rubenstein, determined that it was likely a partial tear in the medial gastroc upper insertion, behind the knee. In fact, Dave Proctor had told me the day before that he'd seen some bruising there, so we'd been a little concerned. (I did not remember this at the time, but afterwards, rereading my EMU race report, I recalled that I'd had the same symptoms there, a year earlier. That race had ended for other reasons before it had gotten this bad. So, this is a recurring problem I will have to fix.)

Unfortunately, nothing we tried seemed to help a whole lot. Day four wound down with me still walking. I had only run 83.9 miles, well off my plan. However Joe had dropped to 76.9, so I was still gaining on him, and I maintained my lead over everyone else.
Day 4 lap splits. Calf injury at 89 hours.
Day 5 This is where it gets interesting. Eventually we settled on just icing the injury, taping on an instant-ice pack behind the knee. By this point Tiffany Kravec had actively joined the crew: she was assistant RD, but had volunteered in advance to be backup crew when my crew needed a break. Around here she'd decided she was needed and had stepped up in a big way, giving BJ and Amy a little breathing (and sleeping!) room. And after I'd been walking with the ice for a while, she convinced me to try running again. I was skeptical, but gave it a go. And what do you know, after running through some pain for a bit, it faded and I was able to run consistent 3:15s or so. However, I kept up the medical stops, trying anything I could to address the underlying problem. This kind of thing can get out of hand — medical breaks are very convenient excuses to rest. And after the breaks kind of jumped the shark here, Tiffany gave me a needed talking to. I was not going to hit my goals if I kept lollygagging around. That was not what I was here for. I was going to have to let my crew drive, something I had never really done before. She promised that though parts would suck, they would not break me. And... I gave up control. For many runners this is normal: they have not just crew, but "handlers", making all the decisions. That's not the way I do it. I feel like if I'm not driving, making the decisions, doing the math, then I'm not really participating. I don't want to be just the muscle. But there comes a point where you have to let go, and trust your crew. For me, that point was on the fifth day. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally beat. My crew knew what they were doing, and knew what was important to me, thanks in part to my detailed crew manual. So I was able to trust them and let go. The real turning point was when I TOOK OFF MY GARMIN (a good thing in more ways than one — I had developed an RSI from hitting the lap button so many times!). And, it was miraculously liberating! I began to synthesize in my head lessons from mindfulness meditation with the task at hand. My crew now had responsibility for all the decisions. My job was just to do what they told me, and report honestly on how my body and my mind were feeling. I had to adopt a mindful posture where my only concern was monitoring my state. When thoughts crept in that were not helpful I quickly learned to tag them as "incorrect" and reject them. It made no difference whether the thought might be logically correct: some speculation on when Joe might need to break, whether it might be better for me to get a little sleep now rather than later, concern about how much longer my calf had to hold out, whatever. Those thoughts were not correct, because thoughts are actions, and those thoughts were not the correct actions to take to advance my goals. (This is very similar to the Buddhist notion of "skillful" vs. "unskillful" thoughts.) Correct thoughts were to pay attention to how I was feeling, and in addition I developed three mantras: "Now is bliss" (because actually, running at the moment was pretty pleasant, if I let it be), "My crew loves me", and "Liz is coming". This was my emotional secret weapon: my wife Liz would be here soon, straight from Burning Man, after a long day of travel. The one downside to this state was that I completely cut myself off from the other runners; I was 100% inwardly focused. A few times someone would start to chat with me, and I would just say "I'm not here" and keep moving. I felt bad, but I didn't have the resources to spare. My self, literally, was not there. Later in the race, I apologized where I could. After a few hours of this, well, it was hard, but it was working. I could tangibly sense the magnitude of the burden that had been lifted from me. I felt like I had discovered the key to infinite power. I felt enormous gratitude for my crew: they were doing all the work of getting me to my goal. Also the mindfulness aspect I was executing resonated with my understanding of neuroscience, and with something Amy had told me the night before: you learn the skills you need for multiday racing by doing it. And I saw now how that was happening. This was like a very intense mindfulness retreat, where the stakes are so high you can't lose focus. In a flash I saw how my mindful running was being learned by my brain. It was skill memory, muscle memory, that you learn like learning to ride a bike, automatically in the basal ganglia, not cognitive learning that you have to consciously remember. I was not only executing the current race well; I was laying the foundation for even better races in the future. Win / win! However, the mental key to infinite power will still only take you as far as your body will go. That was none of my concern; it was for my crew to deal with. And as I began to fade and weave they made the call to put me down early for an hour and a half.

When I awoke and was back at it, it was easier: there had still been some intimidation at how long I was going to have to maintain this mindful posture. But now I could add "It's working!" to my set of mantras. And before too much longer... Liz was there! I gave her a huge hug, and began to describe my new enlightenment. I think maybe I freaked her out a little bit. Running for six days does certainly put you into an altered state of consciousness. In fact for many, myself included, that's kind of the point. Running long distances is a way of exploring aspects of yourself, ways of experiencing reality, that would otherwise be inaccessible. Somewhere in here running became too difficult, alas, not so much because of the calf pain as because of the aerobic cost. I realize now that my training did not support holding 101 miles for six days, and I have promising ideas on how to alter my training in the future, a step that I believe should help my 24-hour racing substantially as well. Thank you to Ray Krolewicz for an insightful conversation here. But for now, fortunately, my speed walk was still reasonably formidable. As night became morning, I had a few more short breaks, and I began to get very cold, now that there was not much running. I'd been comfortable in just a shortsleeve so far, but for the last day plus I was fully bundled up, with two shirts, two jackets, a vest, gloves, handwarmers, and two hats! I hit a fashion milestone with the outer layer, Amy's puffy jacket. This garnered some looks, but I didn't care. Not my most daring running attire, by far.

As day 5 wound down, there'd been no single large sleep break as with the first four days. My crew was executing more fine-grained control, giving me short breaks when I needed them. And we'd finally brought out the big guns, Red Bull and NoDoz. In spite of the injury, I'd run 77.8 miles on day five, well ahead of Joe's 68. Johnny, Budjargal, and Dave Johnston, to their credit, had mounted strong comebacks after their early problems, but were all still well behind. The question on everyone's mind now was, could I catch Joe? His lead was down to less than 8 miles.
Day 5 lap splits. Crew took over driving at 102 hours.
Day 6 Day 6 is a bit of a blur. Crew put me down for an hour and half around 3:30. After this, Dr. Carolyn Smith was available to help, and did some lymphatic drainage, increasing blood flow to my legs. I made some more attempts to run for short stretches, but it was a lot of work, and I mostly settled back into the speed walk. In the evening, my quads became very tight. Dave Proctor, who happens to be a massage therapist, was great company for many of us late in the race, after his own goals were long gone. He offered to work on me, and loosened things up nicely. He also contributed some tasty pecan pies! As the evening wore on the looming question was, when would Joe go down for a break? I was now within striking distance. But this is Joe's part of the race. He is a tactical master when it gets to anything like this point. Finally, around midnight, when he'd passed 500 miles, Joe took a break. But by that point I needed one too, and my crew was of the opinion that I had nothing to lose by breaking as well. If I pushed through, Joe would be able to start running again fresh by the time I caught him, and I'd need a break even more. So, I went down as well (as Joe assumed I would!). By 2 a.m. we are both back out there. To me it is clear it is all over — Joe has the cushion he needs to stay ahead. I shake his hand and we walk a lap together. But my crew is not too thrilled at this. They tell me I am moving better than Joe, and not only that, Johnny and Dave are gaining on me! I pick up the walk speed. After a few more laps it looks to me like I have a chance — Joe is moving very casually, stopping to chat with people, leaving the track to brush his teeth. He's down to 8 laps, just two miles, ahead. And Mike Dobies, his handler, is nowhere to be seen. I decide to go for it. I crank the walk laps up to 3:45, a few 3:30s in there (that's 12:42 / mile pace). I'm still not running, but I'm moving faster than many who are. Joe finally wakes up and moves alongside. I slap him on the back — "It's on!". But, this was just the way Joe wanted to play it. He was never in any danger. Once his big goals were gone he used just as much effort as needed to stay ahead of me. 

I gave chase for an hour and a half or so. It was hard work, but I could have kept it up longer. But I didn't. Joe convinced me he could easily counter whatever I had, and I basically conceded. Joe was thoroughly in his element; I was a novice playing his game. He had outmaneuvered me, even though I literally have a Ph.D. in game theory! But the race was not yet over. In psychology, there is a thing called the "endowment effect": we are a lot more motivated to hold on to what we already have than to acquire what we don't. Over the next few hours, I received a very strong lesson in how this manifests in racing. With about five hours to go, the most ridiculous and amazing thing happened. Dave Johnston started chasing me from 10 miles back. It looked impossible, yet he was flying. I did the math and realized that if I didn't work hard, his pace would be enough. I mean, it was a RIDICULOUS pace for the end of a 6-day. I saw laps (443m) as low as 2:08, most around 2:15. He made it look effortless, with a constant smile on his face. I was moving at a decent 4:30ish walk pace, and could no longer run. But I had to step it up. To catch me he would have to lap me 9 times an hour, quite a lot. I sped my walk laps up to 3:45, as fast as I could manage consistently, a pretty decent speedwalk. And... 7 minutes later, he flew by. "Good work, Bob." Damn. 6 minutes later, "good work, Bob". 7 minutes. 7. 8. 6. If we both held our paces to the end, it would be very, very close. And Joe had to keep up too! If by some chance he faltered, any of the three of us could win. Dave held what he needed for something like two and a half hours, while Joe stuck on me (as he had on Yiannis Kouros at the end of ATY, after getting a few laps up). Nobody there could believe it; it was like it was out of a dream. A nightmare for me, but Dave certainly made the finish exciting. Finally, he ran out of gas. WHEW! The point is that though it felt like I was going to rupture my Achilles, NO WAY was I going to yield second, not after all I had been through. And yet, the difference between first and second is infinitely more than that between second and third. If I could have channeled that kind of energy earlier when I was chasing Joe, who knows what might have happened? This is the endowment effect in action.
Men's podium and race director. Bob, Joe, Steve, Dave J.

With Johnny Hällneby and Trishul Cherns

And that's basically it. The last couple of hours, the race was effectively over. I walked it in to hit 530 miles, a number I would not have managed without Dave pushing me. It's not 606; it's not 551. But it's a number I have to be very happy with. It puts me at #7 on the all-time US six-day list. And more importantly, I now have a solid six-day finish, having worked through and survived several challenges, with the substantial help of my crew. I've learned an enormous amount. I have to be optimistic about the future.
Day 6 lap splits. Battle with Joe and Dave towards the end.

Tiffany, Amy, BJ, Bob, and Liz. Missing Pam and Paul.

It wouldn't be the same without Ken Michal

Summary Charts

My laps splits for all 6 days

For those who understand Mike Dobies' charts, this shows
the race among the lead men. Note: left axis is in miles, not km.

Mike Dobies' mileage chart for top men
Takeaway So what can I take away from this experience? A hell of a lot, I think. A million little things, experiences that will give me more grounding and confidence for next time. The knowledge that I can actually do this, and run with the big dogs. But the two big specific things are (1) the experience of handing over control to my crew on day 5, forcing me to run in a totally mindful state, and (2) that brief conversation with Ray Krolewicz about why it was so aerobically hard to run even very slowly late in the race. What was it Ray said? Simply this: "Well of course it's aerobically hard. Half your muscle fibers aren't working anymore; the other half need twice as much oxygen to do the same job." Doh! Why had that never occurred to me before?! I've always thought that 24-hour and longer races should be ultimately limited by cumulative muscle damage. That's why I start slow, to defer the inevitable collapse as long as possible. But somehow it had never clicked in my head that muscle damage could in turn cause oxygen delivery and utilization to be a limiting factor. Instantly, I understood that I was screwed. I've taken kind of a perverse pride in doing essentially no speedwork for very long, flat races. I figured any excess aerobic capacity, beyond what I need to run effortlessly at my goal pace, is wasted. There are no hills where I'd need energy bursts. Why put extra stress on my body training faster, and building a bigger, heavier engine than I would ever need? Mitochondria and capillaries make up about a third of muscle mass! I put my money instead on training specificity. So why was I screwed? Because now I needed that excess aerobic capacity after all. The fibers that were working had to do a job they were not aerobically equipped to do. Clearly, I had reached the point in the race where I was compromised by muscle damage. I explained this to my crew... they were not amused. Actually they were quite upset with Ray, because I now seemed unmotivated to even try running. But the fact is, while I was confident (perhaps overconfident) in my assessment of the situation, I DID continue to try running, though it was very painful with the calf injury. And I could never get more than about half a lap without getting out of breath. Now, I fully realize that the true story of what was going on in my body is not nearly as simple as the picture I've painted. The fact is, muscle damage due to overuse (aka long-lasting fatigue) is a very complex, incompletely understood phenomenon. For starters, there is both mechanical damage, due mainly to eccentric loading, and metabolic damage, due to activity beyond the muscle's capacity to sustain homeostasis. Since the race, I've done a ton of reading here, and some numerical modeling. But the basic logic still seems clear: when you have less functional muscle available, you need greater aerobic capacity to use it. At the beginning, I said "I see at least three major changes in store for how I approach races of 24 hours or longer; I am rethinking everything." So what are those changes?

  1. I have to train faster than race pace! This is obvious to most people. I'm a slow learner.
  2. Even pacing is not necessarily best! I will dive into this in more detail in my next blog post. But the basic point is this: using simple numerical models of cumulative muscle damage, treating it as the limiting factor, I've realized that my intuitions are completely wrong. Starting slow potentially wastes a lot of performance. Seeing this come out of the simulations absolutely floored me. Again, this seems obvious to most who run these kinds of races. Of COURSE you have to slow down later, so you'd better start faster. Again, I'm a slow learner. So, these two changes may be quite consequential to me, but I don't think I'm spilling any big secrets here for anyone else.
  3. This one is fuzzier, but I need to work much more on mindful running, allowing only "correct" or "skillful" thoughts. I always do this to some extent, but here I entered a qualitatively new zone on day 5. Everything clicked. The fuzzy part is that here, this coincided with handing over control to my crew, but in general the relation to who is in control is something I will have to think harder about.
Aftermath The cost in recovery time of a big six-day effort is not to be underestimated. I was warned, but still not really prepared. For starters, the first evening afterwards was very rough. Liz ran to the drugstore three times for bandages, ice packs, etc. By the next morning I actually felt decent, but by the time I got back to California that evening, well... you know cankles, right? We all get them after a hard 100. OK, but have you ever had cankles up to your waist? For a week? I was like the Michelin Man. I was carrying literally an extra 25 pounds of water weight. There were other unusual anatomical consequences I will spare you the details of. On the mental front, it took a solid two weeks before I could sleep through the night without being convinced I was still running laps. But the longer-term effects can be much more systemic and subtle. I was signed up for Big's Backyard, two months after the Dome. It was hard, but I took a DNS. I was nowhere near where I needed to be physically, and more importantly, mentally. It takes a LONG time to get your head back in the game. Several Dome runners did run Big's. None but Dave Proctor (who effectively dropped early at the dome) even made it to 24 hours — truly shocking. Even now, five-plus months later, I don't think I'm completely recovered mentally. So, caveat emptor. Or more pedantically, caveat cursor. Thank You Thank you to Joe for the impetus for putting this race together. It was a world-class venue and event that attracted world-class talent. Thank you to RD Steve Durbin, assistant RD Tiffany Kravec, and to Terri Durbin and Nation Kravec for additional help with organization and execution. Everything came off close to perfectly. Thank you to Mike Melton and Brandon Wilson for top-notch timing. Thank you to Doc Lovy and the rest of the medical staff for keeping me moving, and to John Vonhof for keeping my feet happy. Thank you to Trishul Cherns and Craig Rubinstein, and to Carolyn Smith, for additional work on my legs, and to Dave Proctor for that excellent massage (and pies!). Thank you to SWORD Nutrition for sponsoring the race. Most of all thank you to my fabulous crew of Pam Smith, Amy Mower, BJ Timoner, Paul Erickson, Tiffany Kravec, and Liz Hearn. I COULD NOT have done it without you. It was truly a team effort.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading your report and all of the details that went into 144 hours of running at a high level. I'll probably never run a 6-day, but if I do I'll refer back to this as a primer. Congrats!

    P.S. Couldn't agree more re autotune.