Friday, September 26, 2014

North Coast 24-hour US Nationals: a podium, but still a rookie!

It was my 104th ultra race but only my second participation in a timed 24-hour event, so what would you expect? A few learning rookie experiences...

Focusing on the USATF North California Mountain and Ultra Trail running Grand Prix, in which I won my age group again this year for the 8th time in a row, I don't race much outside of California. And, while I travel extensively around the globe for work, I'm not so used to traveling to races. Last time was for the US 50K road USATF Nationals where I won my brand new age group, the day after my birthday. I had passed on the 100K Nationals in April as I was still recovering from the nagging injury which bothered me through February and March plus, it was the weekend between American River 50-mile and Ruth Anderson 50-mile.

So, after 12 ultra races so far this year, including my first 24-hour event in June with 127 miles, I had 4 weeks to prepare for this 24-hour USATF Nationals in Cleveland, Ohio. I flew in on Thursday night to attend client meetings with 2 local financial institutions and get ready on Friday evening. I stopped by Edgewater Park to have a look at the course and parking lot and had the pleasure to meet a few other runners including elite Serge Arbona who already ran 156.5 miles on this course, had 6 24-hour events beyond 150 miles under his belt and was looking forward to add a new one.
Serge is 49 so, at this rate, he is going to blow away our M50-54 age group record and I thought it was my last chance to improve Ed Ettinghausen's one of 146 miles.

The path is really smooth and mostly flat, a great race track, with gorgeous views of Lake Erie (so large that is looks like the Ocean...).


Comforted by this quick recogn of the site, although slightly concerned about the strong wind coming from the lake, I went back to the hotel, downtown, 3 miles away from the start.
The race starting at 9 am, there was no rush to go to be too early. Surprisingly for a night leading to an important event, I slept like a baby for almost 8 hours, a good start!
I arrived at the Park around 7 am and there were already quite a few tents up in the crew area.


Look at this runner's table, this runner already had the beer ready to flow, although not the one my Quicksilver Running Club buddies are used to drink in the Bay Area! ;-) I had never seen root beer used as an ultra drink before.
I didn't have a tent and set my bags on the grass next to one canopy. Later, the two occupants, Mary Dasilva and Lauren Idzik, both from upstate New York. I was really impressed how organized they were with chairs, boxes, coolers, tables, packs of bottles, ... Certainly set for self-sufficiency for 24 hours! I thanked them for their offer and, since rain was announced for the night, gladly accepted it, saying that I will "move in" when it starts raining tonight.

For once, as opposed to our local races in California, there wasn't a single runner whom I knew among the list of 170 participants, so it was great to get welcomed by them and a few others, experiencing the most welcomed ultra camaraderie. Serge arrived around 7:30 which surprised me as he was supposed to sleep in his car on the parking lot. He set his table on the other side of the course and told me that he actually had a rough night because the Police didn't allow him to stay last night so he had to find another parking lot and couldn't get a good sleep, stressed that he was of getting kicked again from the place he found. Not a good start for him... Yet, he was positive and optimistic, a key strength for this type of ultra running event.
To finish my preparation before the start, I stopped by the restrooms to fill my bottles and made the first mistake of the day. I filled 3 bottles of my Gu2O mix then filled a 4th bottle with only water, only to find out the water was yellowish/brownish. And it tested really bad as well, yikes! Unfortunately, flying light with only a carry on, I had bought just enough Gu2O pouches for 150 miles (one bottle every 15 miles or so) and couldn't afford losing the content of the three bottles, I was just hoping it wouldn't upset my stomach and kidneys.

With that, it was time to go to the start line, with a couple minutes to spare. Oh wait, all the runners were gathered 200 yards from the start line, that was weird. I started jogging toward the area when I heard Race Director, Dan Horvath, blowing the horn (Photo credit Cameron Dedrick).
Oh well, we were on for 86,400 seconds, a few weren't going to make a big difference. (Photo credit: JohnnyDaJogger)
I joined the middle of the pack and made my way to the front and stopped progressing when I saw Serge, resolute I was not to pass such an experienced ultra runner. From what I could see, there were two runners ahead of him, running at a blazing fast pace, while Serge and I were already under 8 minutes/mile, oops!
The sky was clear, temperature nice for a jog in the park, but the wind had changed direction in the night, now coming from the land, against us as we were coming back to the start area. It wasn't as bad as last night but strong enough to feel the need to push to keep the pace. Thankfully, though, nothing to compare with the wind gusts we had in San Francisco in June for 17 straight hours!

I had to make conscious "efforts" to slow down and not pass Serge. We were clocking 7:30 laps (each lap is 0.90074) which I knew was already too fast, under the reasonable 9 min/mile pace. At some point, Serge made a quick pit stop and I slowed down even more so he can catch-up. But after a few more laps, I couldn't help myself and passed Serge who didn't seem to have a good day.
I kept going and passing participants, surprised that quite a few of them were already walking a few hours into the race, but realizing all the various and amazing personal challenges. There was this ultra runner, Charles Moman, who was in a major car accident 6 months ago and was told he might not be able to walk again and here he was, walking for 24 hours and more than 43 miles, an ultra! There was Leo Lightner who won his M85+ age group with 37 miles at 86 (and I bet he can go longer but he was the only competitor in this age group). On the other side of the age spectrum, this amazing girl, Angela Demchuk, 13, who had never run more than a half-marathon (already a feat in itself at this age) and, while keeping joking, smiling, laughing, providing encouragements to others, logged a whopping 58 miles for her first ultra; mind blowing! (Photo credit Jen Goellnitz.)
The entrants list had 35 names who didn't show any previous ultra results. With that, it was an unusual mix of experienced and "serious" competitors and a good group of participants who were leveraging the event to discover and experience how far they could go. Well, for sure, we were all here to see how far we could go in a certain time.
Back to the title, this format of event is still new to me and I've still hard time developing a strategy, in particular, how to decompose the intimidating challenge of running for 24 straight hours. For instance, 4 blocks of 6 or 8 blocks of 3. Without a crew, I didn't even have to set goals explicitly. Implicitly, I was hoping to run 75 miles in the first 12 hours and, well, as close to 75 miles in the last 12 hours... With a few laps in the low 7 minutes and almost none above 8 minutes, I was a few miles ahead of my plan by 6 hours. After noon, the temperature had raised significantly and many runners were suffering from that. I had trained a lot in the heat in California so that wasn't bothering me much but all the salt accumulated on my top and shorts was a concern for a few volunteers at the aid station. For sure, I had sweat a lot but I had drunk a lot too and taken one S!Cap consistently, every hour.
By 8 pm, 11 hours in the race, it was dark and the temperature had decreased of course, but not that much. As usual, I had started too fast and logged 80 miles in the first 12 hours. I stopped at the aid station to have a look at the rankings, I was in second place. Isaiah Janzen was in first with a lead of a couple of laps. He was part of those who had never run an ultra before so I wondered how strong he could keep up for another half day. When he lapped me, he knew who I was and briefly introduced himself.
My legs were feeling good but I felt the need to slow down the pace a bit and my laps were now closer to 9 minutes. I picked my headlamp when day light disappeared and, although I agree that it's not necessarily, it makes running and staying alert in the dark easier, which is important to keep the pace when you are getting tired both physically (distance and effort), physiologically (sleep cycle) and mentally. As we were progressing into the night, the rain came. I'm not exactly sure when, I think around 10 pm. It was a gentle drizzle which felt actually very good and helped washing out the salt from my clothes and body. Speaking of which, between the sweat and the rain on one hand, and the abrasion of the salt and the sand, I had started chaffing pretty bad in the afternoon (tights and butt). I had put more vaseline to appease but decided that I'll take care of it after the race, ouch...!

Deeper in the night, many runners had either left, such as my canopy hosts, or gotten into their tent for some rest or sleep. But a good number of "studs" kept going even it meant a lot of walking. I passed the 100-mile mark by 1 am, that is 16 hours in the race. At this point, I was running at about 10 min/mile and revised my goal to 140 miles. The chaffing was very painful but, more worrying, I discovered at 2 am that my urine had turned brownish. Darn, this never happened to me before and, based on previous accounts form others, I interpreted that as the symptom of blood in the urine. I did a few more laps but decided to stop at the medical tent to get my urine tested only to hear that they didn't take this responsibility. Disappointed, I went back on the course but decided to walk it to think about what to do next. 2/3 in the lap, Dan, the Race Director, was walking toward me, he was on the course to find me and walk with me based on the medical staff's concerns, what a dedication from a race director! An opportunity to mention how impressed by the calm and accessibility of Dan throughout the 30+ hours that he must have been up.

The rain actually started to pick-up as Dan and I were approaching the aid station. Dan was insistent that I go straight away to the medical tent but I told him that my stuff was not under a tent anymore and it was key that I get it protected from the rain. By the time we got to my bags, a storm and pouring rain were hitting us and I was completely soaked when we got into the race headquarters, so much that I was shivering pretty bad. Dan was even more insistent that I hurry to the medical tent but I had to change first, at least my top. It took at least 15 minutes before I stopped shaking. The MD in charge, Greg, examined me and, based on the fact that my kidneys didn't hurt, ruled the blood in urine issue out. Rather a good (as in very bad...) case of dehydration. He got me to drink some cranberry juice and a few cups of chicken broth. It took me an hour to get warmer, even though I was laying down under a heater. And 20 more minutes to decide to get back on the course. The chaffing of the first 17 hours was so bad that it made even walking excruciating. And there was still almost 6 hours to go...

Despite this pit stop of 1 hour and 20 minutes, I was still in second place which surprised me. For sure, I had missed much of the storm, which must have slowed others down too, Thankfully, it was only occasionally drizzling now. But my lead on 3rd place was down to only 3 laps. Surprisingly, I found myself running faster than before I stopped, about 9 min/mile. I even caught-up with Harvey and that upset him so much that he yelled in the dark and went on a crazy sprint. Sincerely, that looked weird but, like they say, don't take it personally... Here is Harvey's picture by Jen Goellnitz on Saturday afternoon (singlet):
I maintained that good pace for a few laps before feeling some fatigue again on top of the extreme pain of the chaffing. In addition, my urethra was so painful that I had to make frequent pit stops. The good news is that I was drinking a lot of water and soup and managed to get my urine clearer after a couple of hours. But, with three hours to go, I was left with my bad yellowish Gu20 bottles of the morning which I decided not to use. Given my condition, it was probably not a good idea to skip electrolytes for 3 hours, but I really had my doubts on the quality of that water. Harvey was running so strongly that he eventually passed me but 3rd was still quite an honorable position to be in. We were running in the daylight again, by a beautiful morning, and more runners and walkers were back on the course. I was now passed by runners with fresh legs while I was battling to clock 10 to 12-minute laps. The last hour was particularly stressful as I found I had a 4-lap lead on Matthew Garrod in 4th. I now wanted to keep the 3rd position as well as top Master so I just kept moving, now beyond 140 laps. I lost 1 lap to Matthew in the following 30 minutes, creating some suspense... In the last lap, #148, with 10 minutes to go, I experienced something really new, my body just refusing to run... I could barely put one foot after another, or lean forward, it felt surreal, albeit not in a good way. The tank was on empty, the battery was dead, many runners were now passing me, it was pathetic... But I was so resolute that I managed to finish the loop, plus a few yards in the remaining 3 minutes. I had covered 133.4 miles in a day, 6 miles more than in San Francisco in June, so a new Personal Best at this format. Yet, I was quite disappointed to be so far from my original goal although it made sense based on what had happened to my body during the night.

The physical and mental fatigue was so big that couldn't even walk back to the finish area. Ted, from Harvey's crew, helped me but we barely covered 50 yards. He went to the medical tent to get Dr. Greg Hom and Katie who made me drink a cold chocolate milk which I liked very much but I didn't keep. As I was sitting on a bench, one of the Park Rangers passed by with his car and I suggested that he gets me to the finish line. Yes, again, a pathetic way to finish. I took me another hour to call Agnès at home and tell her the story which wasn't told in the results or the nice photo montage she had posted on Facebook to our friends.
I left with quite some hardware in addition to new friendships and lifetime memories. A gold medal for winning my age group, a bronze one for 3rd overall and, for running more than 100 miles, a gigantic belt buckle, so large and heavy that I probably will never wear it but, as Agnès and Greg said, that will make an impressive paper weight! ;-)
The drive back to the hotel was short enough to be safe despite the tiredness. I went to bed at 1 pm and woke up at 6 pm, worked and social networked for a few hours then had a good 7-hour night sleep to get back on track for a client meeting in downtown Cleveland on Monday then a 3-hour drive to Detroit for 2 days of customer meetings there before flying back to the Bay Area on Thursday. Yes, running is only my second job, there is hopefully another one to pay the bills! ;-)

As of this Friday the complete results aren't finalized yet but we pretty much got the right number of laps. For his first ultra (!!!) Isaiah logged a whopping 154-mile distance, I'm sure this must be unheard of!

From the timing to the setup of the single aid station, the organization was very professional. Family and friends really appreciated the live rankings on my end, although they got a shot of adrenaline when the results went off in the final hour on the website. The volunteers were amazingly dedicated to each of our needs; if they happened to be short of what you wanted, they had it for the next lap, made to order! Without a crew I really appreciated the possibility to leave my bottle which I'd found refilled at my next passage, very helpful to keep the momentum and save precious time. During the peak of the afternoon heat the poor volunteers had to fight wasps making their job even harder. It was also amazing seeing volunteers taking successive shifts with the same efficiency.

I'm extremely grateful to the medical crew for their recommendations, their patience to handle my disappointment and impatience, and for getting me back on my feet in the middle of the night. Here are some of them, after the award ceremony. From left to right: Katie, me, Dr. Greg Hom who flew all the way from Florida to lead the team composed of local students he had worked with before and Dr. Andrew Lovy, 79, who not only worked the medical tent but also logged 36 miles and placed in his age group! Dr. Lovy spent years on the front line in Vietnam so he certainly knows what both service and ultra endurance are!


In retrospective, I certainly made a big mistake not taking care of the chaffing early enough. As for the dehydration, I'm really not sure what I could have done differently as I did drink a lot of both electrolytes and iced water before it happened, as well as took one S!Cap every hour. I didn't get any cramping, so the pace seemed adequate and sustainable, although I should manage to slow down more in the first 6-12 hours... I used 10 pouches of Vespa which allowed me to eat very little compared to such a prolonged effort. No foot blister and the Brooks Launch were the perfect shoes. Overall, not too many rookie mistakes, but enough to jeopardize any chance of record. 2nd 24-hour, there will be more...

All week I debated if I was going to race both the Stevens Creek 50K and Trailblazer 10K this weekend as I did these past 3 years with much success (winning the 50K 3 times). I procrastinated until this morning and the registration was closed for the 50K so that's taking care of the decision. I'm in the 10K on Sunday, hope for a decent performance in my age group, short of much track and speed training this year.

Since it took me so long (5 days!) to post this race report, I can mention a few other participants' accounts who did beat me at this game:

  1. John Hnat (100 miles for a major come back from back surgery!)
  2. Lynn David Newton (a nostalgic ultra career end; maybe the last ultra but hopefully not the last run or shorter race!)
  3. Alene Nitzky (a few struggles too for a quadruple Badwater girl)
  4. Diana Martinez (a new ultra marathoner, whoot!)
  5. Angela Maraldo McKinstry (congrats on your 3rd NC24!)
  6. Mary Mathews Nabb (yes, you have an impressive and very consistent "energizer bunny" stride! ;-)
  7. And we still wait to hear from the winner and amazing ultra debut of Isaiah Janzen on his blog...
Here are a few sources of pictures as well:
  1. Jen Goellnitz's album on Facebook
  2. Her high definitions pictures
  3. A few of Greg Murray's super pro pictures
  4. 2,700 pictures from "JohnnyDaJogger"
  5. The Race Director's album
And a series of livestream videos from Jim White (Cincy/NKY)

1 comment:

Diana Martinez said...

Congratulations on all your hardwear! Very impressive. I think this race is deceptively difficult. It looks all nice and flat and easy, but somewhere in the middle of it all, everyone runs into some kind of trouble, rookie or not. I'm amazed that you never quit, despite it all. You should be very happy with your effort! Congrats again! =)