On May 12th, I did the Darkside 8 Hour Race in Moreland, GA. I’ve been a member of the Darkside Running Club since 2009, and this is the third time I’ve done their annual 8 hour race. Each time, I’ve used it as part of my training for a longer ultramarathon. In 2009, I did it as my final long training run before the FANS 24 Hour Race. In 2014, it was my last long training run before the Comrades Marathon. This year, I again used it as training for FANS.
I’m going to be race-walking the FANS 24 hour Race, so I also walked this race. I’ve walked several marathons, but until this race, I had never walked farther than 26.2 miles. I needed to get used to being on my feet for a long time. I also needed to learn what I would feel like after eight hours of walking. Would I have painful blisters? Would my walking form degrade? Would a pace that feels easy at first feel tiring after eight hours? Doing longer workouts (or races) before your main event can help you anticipate the types of problems you’ll have in your “A” race.
The course was a 1.02 mile paved loop at Bear Creek Farm. This was the same venue that was used for this event when I ran it in 2014.
I flew to Georgia on Friday, drove as far as Newnan, and spent the night there. Saturday morning, I had to drive about 15 miles to get to the race.
I’ve been sleep well lately, but I have a long history of insomnia when I travel. I had trouble getting to sleep Friday night. I eventually got to sleep, but woke up after about an hour. Then I never got to sleep again. It’s not the first time that’s happened. If I was sleeping well during the week, I can usually shake off one bad night. Fortunately, I was.
When I got up, noticed some soreness in my left gluteus maximus. That surprised me, since I only did half my usual mileage on Friday, and none of it was at a particularly fast pace. I assume it must have been delayed-onset muscle soreness from a run I did on Thursday. I’ve been deliberately holding back on most of my runs, but on Thursday I ran more freely.
When I entered this race, I wasn’t sure how fast I would try to walk. Usually in a fixed-time race, you try to find a pace that’s just barely sustainable for the number of hours you’ll be running or walking. A more conservative approach would be to pace myself as if this was the first eight hours of a 24 hour race. Then I could see how I felt after eight hours and ask myself if that pace would be sustainable for 16 more hours.
When I saw the weather forecast, I told myself I should take the more conservative approach. It called for a high of 91 with sunny skies. When I looked at the hourly forecast, it said that the “feels like” temperature at 3:00 (when the race ended) would be 100 degrees. That’s much warmer than anything I’ve trained in at home, so I had to be careful not to go out too fast and risk blowing up. It’s not typically that hot at FANS, but last year it was unusually hot. I told myself to treat this as a dry run of how I would pace myself if we saw similar hot weather at FANS.
That’s what I told myself. Apparently, I’m not a good listener.
The race started at 7:00, but we were supposed to get there by 6:15 for packet pickup. I had bib number 3. I’m not sure, but I think that’s the lowest number I’ve ever had for a race. It was a good omen.
There was a pavilion next to the course that was used as an aid station. The race organizers provided water, Gatorade, Tailwind, and a few snacks, such as boiled potatoes and pickles. Many of the runners also brought snacks. I brought some bite-size date almond snacks that I found at Wal-Mart.
The temperature at the start was 66 degrees. The relative humidity was 97 percent, but it didn’t feel at all sticky. It felt cool and crisp. I made an impromptu decision to start at a brisk pace, but slow down as it warmed up. In the first lap, I felt at times like I was working too hard. That lap was 11:40. That was clearly too fast. Over the next several laps, I gradually eased into a slower pace – first 12:00, then 12:10.
Our laps were counted manually by volunteers. Over the course of the race, I had three different lap counters. With manual lap counting, each race participant needs to make sure they get counted each time they finish a lap. I’ve done enough of these races to realize that it’s always possible for a lap counter to get distracted as you’re going by. That happened more than once, but I was paying attention and always made sure they saw me.
The first third of each loop had a downhill trend and a few shady spots. The middle section had an uphill trend and was fully exposed to the sun. The last third was relatively flat, but had enough small bends that I had to pay attention to walking the tangents.
Fairly early in the race, I noticed that sore left glute whenever I was going uphill. I think I was working too hard to maintain my pace on the hills. I eventually backed off to a pace that didn’t cause any discomfort.
By the end of the first hour, the sun was shining over the trees. I could feel the difference. Once it got higher in the sky, it was going to be hot.
When I first started running ultras, they were always on hot humid days. Early on, I trained myself to drink aggressively, so I could replace all the fluids I was losing. When I started doing ultras with more moderate weather, I had trouble breaking that habit. On a nice day, I would overhydrate. Eventually, I stopped trying to anticipate my fluid needs. I drank according to my thirst. That worked well, until this race. This one was too hot for that.
At first, I was only stopping to drink every other lap. I knew I would eventually switch to every lap, but I didn’t want to drink so much that I would need an early bathroom stop.
Every hour or so, I ate some type of snack. I probably could have got by with just Gatorade or Tailwind, but I know I’ll need solid food at FANS. This race was an opportunity to get used to eating. Sometimes I ate the date almond snacks that I brought. Other times I ate boiled potatoes. There were lots of other snacks, but I didn’t want to take too much time looking around to see what was available. I like to get in and out of aid stations quickly.
In the second hour, I started to notice that the temperature was climbing. By the end of my 12th lap, my throat was getting dry. That’s when I switched to drinking every lap. I shouldn’t have waited that long. After that, I was always trying to catch up.
I took a little longer at the aid station after that lap. Besides eating a snack, I needed to refill my bottle. As I started the next lap, I started to notice a blister on my right heel. It was on a downhill section at the beginning of the lap. I wondered if my long stop at the aid station was somehow a contributing factor.
In the third hour of the race, I settled into a pace that was around 12:30 per lap. By now, I was no longer paying close attention to my lap times. I just noticed the average over several laps.
It occurred to me that I was no longer noticing any soreness in my left glute. I think 12:30 was a slow enough pace that I was no longer working it too hard. It’s worth noting that 12:30 is only slow in comparison to my first few laps. It was still an aggressive pace for an eight hour race on such a hot day. It was much faster than I plan to walk at FANS.
After 15 laps, I realized I would easily finish four more laps before the halfway mark. My goal at this point was fairly nebulous. I wanted to get into the upper 30s. Doing 19 in the first half would put me well on my way to doing that.
After another longer stop to eat a snack, I felt hot as I resumed walking. The early part of the loop was the shadiest part, and it was downhill. It’s the last place I should be feeling the heat. Then I noticed that it was always after stopping to eat that I felt hotter. Muscle cells are like tiny metabolic engines. They’re constantly converting sugars to energy, so the muscle fibers can contract. When you take a break, the metabolic furnace keeps running, but the energy has to go somewhere else. It turns into excess heat. Once I noticed the pattern, it didn’t bother me as much.
I needed to make a bathroom stop soon, but wanted to wait until I was sure it wouldn’t prevent me from finishing 19 laps in the first four hours. After my 18th lap, I realized I had plenty of time.
Inside the port-o-potty, it was hot. I wanted to get out of there quickly, but I took my time to make sure I emptied my bladder as much as I could. I was hoping to get through the rest of the race without another bathroom stop.
As I left the port-o-potty, I was hot and sweaty. Fortunately, a light breeze helped cool me down as I began my next lap. Then I realized it was the first time I had felt any breeze at all. The sun was now high in the sky, the temperature was climbing into the 80s, there were no clouds, and there was rarely any wind. I was already feeling hot, and the hottest temperatures were still ahead of me.
Up until now, we were going clockwise. After four hours, we switched directions. I was already into my 20th loop, so I needed to finish that one before turning around.
Earlier in the race, the fastest runners each lapped me several times. Now I wasn’t seeing them much. All the runners were slowing dramatically. I was also slowing, but not as much.
In the first half of the race, I was establishing a brisk pace. I the second half, I had to be careful to avoid blowing up in the heat. After turning around to begin my 21st loop, I slowed down a bit. Now my lap times were just under 13 minutes.
The loop felt different going counter-clockwise. We started with the relatively flat section. The middle was downhill, but not as much as I was hoping. The last section was uphill. There seemed to be much more climbing than I expected. Did we really descend that much on this section when we were going the other way?
For the next two hours, I continued to keep all my lap times under 13 minutes. It was getting hotter, and I was drinking more, but I wasn’t slowing down. I finished my 24th lap right around the five hour mark. I realized by then that even if I slowed down, I would easily finish 36 laps. I also knew by now that I wouldn’t have time to finish 38 laps. I barely finished 19 in the first half, and I was going slower now. It was still unclear whether I had time to finish 37 laps. I liked my chances, but I could still blow up in the heat and slow down substantially.
After another lap, I realized I could finish 37 laps if I averaged 13:50 or faster on my remaining laps. I had yet to walk anything slower than 13 minutes. I finally had a goal that was more specific than upper 30s. I was focused on finishing 37 laps.
After two more 13 minute laps, I had 140 minutes to walk 10 laps. Now I just needed to keep my average lap time under 14 minutes. At FANS, I need to average 14:24 per mile to reach my goal of 100 miles. I was already determined to keep all my lap times under that pace. Keeping them under 14 wasn’t that much harder.
Now that I knew how many more laps I was going to do, I effectively changed a fixed time race into a fixed distance race. I knew I had time for 10 more laps. Fractional laps don’t count, so I would be done as soon as I finished my 37th lap. Now I could count them down.
In the late miles of a fixed distance race, I usually find that the late miles seem to take forever. They seem longer. Oddly enough, I found that I not only was counting down the remaining laps, but they seemed shorter. I was clicking them off quickly. I think it helped that the first two third of each lap were either flat or downhill. I just had to summon up a big effort to get up the hills at the end of each lap.
The sun was close to its highest angle. The pavement was heating up. At times, I could feel the heat rising from the pavement. I felt like I was getting cooked in three different ways. I was getting baked by the air, fried by the pavement, and broiled by the sun. Still, I didn’t slow down. I just drank more after each lap. A few laps were slower than 13, but only because I was taking longer to drink at the aid station.
The volunteers were great. They were filling cups will ice cubes and always asked me if I wanted some ice in my bottle. In the past, I’ve coped with heat by putting ice cubes in my hat. I didn’t do that in this race. I knew as the ice melted, the water would run down my back and legs and into my shoes. I didn’t want to have to cope with the problems that would cause for my feet, so I had to endure the heat without any ice.
It occurred to me at this point that I never noticed that blister again. I also wasn’t noticing my sore left glute. I was hot and tired, but those were my only concerns.
On one of my laps, I noticed the scent of manure. We were on a hobby farm with dozens of horses. Why didn’t I notice the smell before? Oh yeah. There was absolutely no breeze before. I wasn’t fond of the smell, but it meant we were starting to get some wind. On balance, that was good news.
They had a leader board that listed the top three men and women. They updated it once per hour. After six hours, I was trailing the third place male by three laps. I was surprised I was that close to the leaders.
Over the next few laps, I realized the wind wasn’t such good news after all. As it blew across the pavement, it picked up heat. The wind was making me hotter. Now I felt like I was in a convection oven.
With four laps to go, I wondered if I could endure the heat that long. In the final hour, it really took a toll on me. I told myself I that I just needed to finish three laps and then start the fourth one. That was a psychological trick. I knew if I started the last lap I would finish it.
The aid station was getting crowed. Were the others lingering longer at the aid station? Were they taking longer breaks? No. Either they reached their goals and stopped, or they couldn’t take any more of the heat. Fewer and fewer runners were still on the course.
After my next lap, I found myself getting short of breath as I stopped to drink at the aid station. Drinking was difficult. Actually, just standing there was difficult. As I started my 35th lap, I felt sluggish. Within 100 feet, I forced myself back into a brisk pace. Then I felt better.
The next time I reached the aid station, I leaned against the table with one arm while drinking with the other. I didn’t get as short of breath that way. It was again difficult to start the next lap, but once I got into my rhythm I was able to continue.
One lap to go. I drank as quickly as I could, so I could launch myself into that lap before getting too short of breath. Standing still bothered me much more than walking did.
I had 21 minutes to complete my last lap. I did it in about 13. When I got to the last short climb to get back to the aid station, I struggled to get up the hill. I don’t think I would have been able to do another lap. I was completely spent.
I crossed the line and stopped my watch. It took me 7:52:12 to finished 37 laps. That’s 37.74 miles. I found a chair and immediately sat down. One of the volunteers handed me my bottle. She had refilled it with Tailwind and ice cubes.
One of the other runners brought watermelon balls as a snack. There were quite a few left over, so he asked me if I wanted some. I ate five or six. They were ice cold. That really hit the spot.
They updated the leader board for the last time. The same three men had been in the top spots for the last few hours. They updated their lap counts. Then they added another name. My 37th lap lifted me into a tie for third place. My bib number foretold how high I would place. As a walker, I never expected to compete with the runners.
After the race, everyone got Darkside insulated mugs.
When I was able to get out of my chair, I visited with a few of the other runners. A few asked me how long I’ve been race-walking. I told them about my back surgery and how I couldn’t run for 12 weeks but still needed to finish marathons within the time limits. Not being able to run was no excuse. That’s the motto of this club: “No excuses.”
When I was ready, I made my way back to my car. I still wasn’t noticing any blister pain.
When I got back to the hotel, the woman at the front desk asked me how my race was. I said, “Hot!” She asked me if I wanted a bottle of water. That was nice. I was dehydrated. I was also covered from head to toe with salt crystals.
I had another bottle of water in my room. I put the new bottle in the refrigerator and immediately drank the one that was already cold. Then I took off my shoes and socks. In contrast to my last race, there wasn’t any blood. I had blisters on the heels of both feet, but they weren’t blood blisters and they weren’t unusually painful.
Now I needed to pee. That was a good sign. My kidneys were working, and my urine wasn’t dark. I pushed myself right to my limit in this race, but I was going to be fine. I just had to work on gradually rehydrating. I also needed to replace electrolytes.
I had a good effort under tough conditions. I established a PR for an eight hour walk. It was also a PR for the farthest I’ve walked. I answered a few questions about FANS, but not all of them. After eight hours, my blisters weren’t bad, and my form was still efficient. Could I have walked for another 16 hours? Not at this pace. Can I get through the hot afternoon hours, recover, and keep on through the night? Not at this pace. In that race, I need to start at an easier pace.
Distance: 37.74 miles
Official Time: 8:00:00
Actual Time on Course: 7:52:12
Average Pace: 12:31
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 353
Darkside Races: 8