What was in the plan for this year then? Well, ironically, a need to start slower and more conservatively. With the loop course certified at 1.061 mile, I was aiming at starting with 9:30 laps, which corresponds to a 8:57 min/mile pace. Even this was faster than needed to improve the American age group record (144 miles, right on 10:00 min/mile pace), but I still don't believe I can sustain an equalized pace through the night. And I also needed to factor in potential breaks after 12 hours.
Simple enough of a plan, right? Reasonable enough? Let's see and keep some suspense...
The first deviation from my plan actually occurred a week before. I had asked our local ultra fellow and star Jon Olsen for some 24-hour specific advice and he was kind enough to share a couple of tips. The first one was to indeed start and run slow, but break the rhythm with sprints from time to time in order to activate different muscles. The second advice was to change my training regimen by including days with 2 runs, to teach my body how to run on tired legs. To prepare for the loop format as I did last year, I went to the track on Saturday morning and ran 80 laps at an easy and comfortable 7:15 min/mile in the heat (~20 miles). Although I should have been tapering, I thought that I'll give a try to Jon's training tip and go for another long run in the afternoon. However, after 7 miles on the rubberized track, I could feel a blister forming under both my feet, yet kept going. The one under my right foot was 2-inch long and it even walking was an issue despite popping the blister, so I didn't go for another run that weekend. I ran 5 kilometers on Monday morning, and 5 in the afternoon, but that was still very painful, so a good excuse to taper for good. With that, I was really worried that the blister would fall apart at some point in that 24-hour race. I taped with Elastoplast, hoping the sticky bandage will stay in place.
And here we are on race day. Waking up at 4:45 to get breakfast 3 hours before the 8 am start, leaving the house at 6 am with Alex (my 2nd son) driving Greg (my 3rd son), my teammate Pierre-Yves and I, and getting to San Francisco's Crissy Field around 7:10. It was foggy and chilly but thankfully not as windy as last year when we got 20-25 mph wind gusts for 12 hours! With 3 different formats proposed by Race Director, John Brooks, 6, 12 and 24 hours, there was a mix of many "ultra" familiar faces, especially on the 24-hour, and others who wanted to test themselves on a timed event.
Like any ultra, it's important to decompose the race into segments. 1 hour is too short, who can think in 1/24th, but 2 hours make 1/12th, which is both meaningful and close enough to 10% increments.
8-10 am - As mentioned earlier, my main goal at the start was to start as slowly as possible, close to 9 min/mile. I let Chikara go, someone had told me that he was aiming at getting a Team USA qualifier, which meant at least 140 miles. Jon (Olsen) was taking it really easy for a 12-hour, he was shooting for a 75 to 80-mile training run. I try to shorten my stride as much as possible and felt like not moving, yet finished the first lap in 9:05, a 8:18 min/mile pace, darn! At least it was one minute slower than last year, progress... Despite my efforts, I ran only one lap at 9:30 and ended up running 13 laps in the first 2 hours, that is 3 minutes or 2% too fast. We were still running under the cloud which was covering the Golden Gate as well.
10-noon - Still cloudy, but the temperature had increased significantly. All my laps were now in the 9:15-9:30 range and I completed 13 more laps by 12:01. If I recall, Chikara and Jon lapped me just before the 3-hour mark, I was actually pleased by that.
Noon-2 pm - I was still running, or shuffling, smoothly and my slowest lap was 9:42. With that, the next 13 laps took me 2 hours and 3 minutes, for a total of 39 miles or 41.38 miles just over 6 hours. That was still too fast but at least I was slowing down a bit more. The top of the Golden Gate was still masked by the cloud but Crissy Field was all sunny now!
2-4 pm - The sun was hitting hard now but the breeze kept the temperature under control. For this reason, I didn't even think of stopping by my table to put some sun screen on. After 6 hours, it became easier to slow down with even a lap at 10:27 for another pit stop, another way to say I started feeling tired. Yet, by 4:02 pm, I had logged 12 more laps.
4-6 pm - 12 more laps got me to 6:05 pm, this time quite a few laps over 10 minutes, I was bummed by that. I was really disappointed that my legs felt so tired, in particular both adductors which never happened to me before. And this despite doing a few sprints here and then as recommended by Jon. I was still ahead of my plan and I didn't want to run 80 miles in the first 12 hours as I did last year, so I tried to remain positive, thinking that the slowness will be beneficial later.
6-8 pm - The pain in the adductors kept increasing, making even short strides hurt. My laps oscillated between 10:31 and 13:31 and I completed only 10 of them before 8 pm, the mid-race mark. Yet, I was now at 77.453 miles, so closer to my goal. But what I didn't like at all is that I was now in pain and my stride was ridiculously short and painful. I decided to make a deliberate long stop at 12 hours to eat some mashed potatoes and regroup.
8-10 pm - My crew, Alex and Greg, was more interested in getting their own dinner so I didn't find much motivation on that end. I left after 10 long minutes and was completely devastated when I realized that I couldn't even run anymore! My adductors were cramping so bad and were tetanized. Again, this had never happened to me so I had no clue how to handle this. After walking a few hundreds yards, for the first time, I finally thought of stretching them by splitting my legs as much as possible (and I don't have much flexibility, so that requires some effort... ;-). I was super relieved afterwards as the pain had gone completely, and this allowed me to complete the next few laps at around 12 minutes each. With the break and this incident, the count was now down to 9 laps in 2 hours, yikes!
10-Midnight - By just keeping moving despite the pain and the fatigue, I managed to log 9 more laps by 12:01 am. I was now done with 91 laps or 96.5 miles. Still not too bad, but now getting off track for an age group record unless a quick rebound. Speaking of rebound, Chikara was having some lows as well but I couldn't keep track as he kept lapping me back at some good/fast speed. And my crew went to bed after dinner so I was pretty much on my own. Our Club President, Greg Lanctot, had told us on Friday that he'd come around 9 pm, but he actually arrived after midnight. And I was badly missing and counting on his pep talk now...
Midnight-2 am - Our Team Captain, Loren Lewis, had arrived to support us through the night, which was super nice of him. As I was now crewless, he helped me by refilling 4 bottles. My legs were really tired but I kept moving and, with a lot of effort, logged 9 more laps in these 2 hours (splits ranging from 12:32 to 15:05 minutes). However, by 2 am, I had covered 106 miles (100 laps) but I had lost any appetite to push further. The record attempt was lost and I could feel that I could not even hold onto The Jester, Ed Ettinghausen, who is in my age group.
2-4 am - These two hours first started with my thinking of finishing. If it wasn't for Pierre-Yves, with whom we carpooled in the morning, I think I would have asked the boys to drive me back home, which would have been a mistake. But my right and left adductors were so trashed that I couldn't run anymore. I ate more mashed potatoes and asked Greg and Loren for their help to get changed, which was quite an adventure given the tightness of my muscles. After about 20 minutes, I left, decided to walk for a while. I tried to walk with Jeremy but even that was painful. Besides, I was 200 yards from the start area when I realized that I put tights on but forgot to put my shorts back on with my bib and timing chip. Between this long stop, this return to the start, and some slow walking, that 101st lap took me almost 53 minutes, ouch! So much that, on Sunday, John Brooks sent me an email to check if the computer had missed me during that hour... This time, only 4 laps in these 2 hours...
4-6 am - What I like the most in ultra running is the running part. And I hate walking... But I couldn't see what else I could be doing at this stage with my trashed adductors so I kept moving forward, albeit really slowly. I completed 5 laps in these 2 hours, about 20-21 minutes to walk 1.06 miles, and 2-3 minutes/lap to eat something and stretch more. The only positive thing is that the day light was slowly coming back and I wasn't the only struggling...
6-8 am - At the end of lap 109, I actually saw on the monitor that Karl Schnaitter had just completed in 109th lap as well and we left the aid station together, walking. After 300 yards, I told him "only 2 hours left, let's to this!" and started jogging. I actually thought he was following me but, to my own astonishment, the longer I was pushing my stride, the less pain in my adductors. I was so excited to have pleasure to run again that I started accelerating, and accelerating, and... Oh my god, my GPS was now showing a pace under 8 hours, how cool and refreshing! A couple of laps later, I lapped Karl, and took back one of the two laps Ed had put on me during my night walk. Although it didn't feel as easy as the first 2 hours, on the contrary, I gave it all but managed to clock laps as fast as 8:17 and no more than 9:24. With that, I lapped Ed a few times more, and also Chikara but I was convinced he was at least 10 or more laps ahead of me by that time. At this point, I started thinking that I could at least match the age group record I had set last year with 120 laps. After 120 laps, I actually had 20 minutes and 20 seconds to complete one more lap. Since I did lap 121 in 9:24, I even had more time to complete another one, for 122 laps or 129.44 miles. That was by far the most exciting finish of any ultra race I ran, I was the first surprised by how much I did rebound in these last 2 hours, and was so glad I decided to keep going when even Greg thought I had done enough with 210 laps. Bottom line: 2.1 miles more than last year, 3.9 miles less than my run at the Nationals last September, a so-so performance, but all I could give and get given the circumstances.
I took 2nd, with Chikara finishing with 125 laps, I had no idea we were so close! Ed was third with 120 laps, he is an amazing competitor at these long events (100-miles and beyond). Karl took 4th for his first 24-hour. On the women side, Sarah Lavender won with 109 laps. 22 of us covered more than 100 miles including my teammates Pierre-Yves Couteau, Jeremy Johnson and Charles Blakeney. Jim Magill, Keith Lubliner and Stephen Strauss gave it all too, one lap after another, one step after another...
With that, let me thank a few people. More than most of ultra races, organizing a 24-hour is an herculean task as race directors have to stay up not only for 24 hours but also hours before and after to setup and tear down all the installations. A HUGE thank to our teammate John Brooks, and his partner in crime, Maureen Brooks, for putting up such a perfectly organized and friendly event, and keeping smiling the whole way! And for the team of joyful and helpful volunteers they assemble for that very long day. Using Vespa, I didn't use too much from the aid station but chips, bananas and Coke were always welcome, and even more so the hot chocolate served at 5 am which seems to have put me back on track! Thank to my crew Alex and Greg for driving Pierre-Yves and I safely to the start and back home. Big thanks to Greg and Loren for spending part of the night to assist us. And to all the other runners and your crews for your encouragements on the course!
I was going to add a few lessons to be learned from this new experience but it is already way too long of a post, so I'll defer to another post, make sure to check it out. Back to the title, there is so much you can plan for such an event, sometimes you need to improvise, short of improv...ing...
Now, do you know what is harder than running a 24-hour? Running a 24-hour THEN having to get on an 11-hour flight 6 hours later with an unexpected 2-hour delay. I've flown a lot after or before races but this one was particularly painful. First, 36 hours without sleeping. I was hoping to sleep like a baby the entire flight but, between noisy passengers in coach, my tensed muscles and a presentation I had to work on for work, I slept for about 5 hours and was completely destroyed for the next 3 days of customer meetings. Not to mention that my face and lips were hurting quite bad after being sun burned, ouch! It was my 116th ultra race, you'd think I'd know better...
One week has passed and I resumed my running on Thursday with 54 miles over 4 days, I'm pleased to say that I'm back from the dead! ;-) Hope you are having a good come back too, and I wish a special and well-deserved recovery to all those who ran Western States 100 this weekend!
And a few pictures... (more to come from other runners, when I get a better connection)
Bill Dodson (80, running an easy marathon on the 6 hours) and teammate Jim Magill: