My next race is a 48-hour race, so it’s a good time for a look back at my first ultra, which was also a fixed-time race.
In the 1990s, I belonged to a club called Minnesota Distance Running Association (MDRA). MDRA published a race calendar every year. It included every race of any distance in the state of Minnesota. Every year, one race caught my eye. It was called the FANS 24-Hour Run. I had heard of 24-hour races, but it still seemed impossible. Every year, I saw this race on the calendar, and I said, “That’s just nuts. Nobody can run for 24 hours.”
I had actually read something about races like this. I read that the best runners could actually run 100 miles. Reading it is one thing. Actually believing it is something else. This was something I had to see with my own eyes.
At that time, FANS was held at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis on the last weekend in June. I went out to Lake Harriet to watch part of the race. I saw people running around the race. I saw the leader board showing how many laps each of the top runners had completed and how many miles that totaled. I talked to other people who were there as spectators, volunteers or to support their friends. Although I was only there for an hour or two, I saw enough that it became real to me. I finally believed that there were runners who could run for 24 hours. I also realized that I had to try this. The danger of watching a race like this is that it’s too tempting to resist.
I previously tried to train for a 100K race, but got injured. It occurred to me that a 24-hour race might be a great way to run 100K, without the pressure of having to finish within 12 or 14 hours. I could run 100K and then stop. If I still felt good enough, I could keep walking until I reached 70 miles. Maybe I could keep walking for the rest of the race. Who knows? Maybe I could even finish 80 miles.
One thing I was sure of was that the legendary goal of 100 miles was impossible. I thought about how my pace always deteriorates in the late miles of a long training run. When I extrapolated that to 24 hours, even my most optimistic projections had me finishing with 80 or 90 miles – and that was assuming I could go all night without sleep.
Although I had made the decision to run FANS in 1998, that was still a year away. In the short term, my focus was on running the Twin Cities Marathon. I was encouraged by a recent good result at Grandma’s Marathon.
John, my sister Betty’s husband, was also going to run the Twin Cities Marathon. We each trained through the summer, and we were each optimistic that we were ready to have a good race.
Twin Cities Marathon is held on the first weekend of October. Usually the weather is in the ideal temperature range for running, but Minnesota weather is highly variable. It could be much warmer or much cooler. The first time I saw a long-range forecast for the day of the race, it looked like the weather would be comfortable for running. The next day, I noticed the forecast for race day had been revised upward by two degrees. Although this was still a reasonable temperature, I had noticed a disturbing trend in the weather forecasts in our daily newspaper.
It seemed like whenever they started revising the forecast, the forecast kept moving in the same direction. That’s exactly what happened this time. Every day, the forecast temperature for race day was two degrees warmer than the previous forecast. If this trend continued, this would be the warmest Twin Cities Marathon ever.
In fact, that trend did continue. By race weekend, John and I were before concerned that it would be too warm to race well. I did well on a warm day in Duluth, but this was going to be as warm at the start as that race was at the finish. Not only was the forecast revised upward two degrees each day, but the actual temperature on Sunday morning was two degrees warmer than the most recent forecast.
When the weather is comfortable for running, you can expect to be cold while you’re waiting for the race to start. I was perfectly comfortable standing around in shorts before the race. I expected it to get warmer by the time I finished. I adjusted my goals. This would be a race where I would be happy just to finish.
Midway through the race, I was feeling the effects of the heat. Although I wasn’t trying to run as fast as I did at Grandma’s Marathon, the heat was still wearing on me, and I was getting tired.
For as long as I had been running marathons, the aid stations provided both water and some type of energy drink. A recent trend was to also offer gel packets at one or two of the aid stations. They were a way to get about 100 calories of sugar in a form that you could eat quickly. Up until now, I had seen them at races, but I stuck to my familiar routine of just drinking the energy drink. At this race, they had gel packets at 17 miles. Since this wasn’t going to be a very fast race anyway, I decided to try one. One doesn’t normally experiment during a race, but I was starting to view this race more like a training run.
My first experience with gel was a bad one. I tore open the packet and squeezed the gel into my mouth. Then I looked for the water tables. I was already past them. The gel table came after all the water and energy drink tables. I tried to swallow the gel, but it’s thicker than syrup. I had this sticky pasty feeling in my mouth and there wasn’t much I could do about it until I reached the next aid station at 19 miles. The sticky feeling in my mouth only got worse as I ran two more miles on a hot day.
When I finally got to the next aid station, I had to drink three cups of water before I felt like I had completely rinsed down the gel. Then I felt bloated from all the water, so I needed to walk it off before starting to run again. I walked for several minutes before I started running again. Then something amazing happened – I felt completely refreshed.
In the past, I always equated walking during a running event with failure. I didn’t walk until I was so tired that I was essentially giving up. On those occasions, I never felt any better when I started running again. I had never taken a planned walking break during a race before. The walking break gave me a much needed rest and also gave me a chance to recover from the heat. When I started running again, I felt much more comfortable.
I went on to finish in 3:35:15. That wasn’t a fast time, but it was very reasonable on such a hot day. More importantly, I had an epiphany about walking breaks that would influence my approach to running for 24 hours.
In November, I started building my mileage in anticipation of the FANS 24-Hour Run. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I ran in the Metrodome. Those were my best opportunities to run longer distances. Other days, I had to endure the cold and snow. While I was training in the Metrodome, I discovered two of the runners who ran there regularly had done FANS before. Both of them had run 100 miles. One of them was Paul, whom I first met when I was training for Boston. Paul gave me lots of great advice. I think almost everything I know about running ultramarathons I learned from Paul.
One thing they both told me is that I would need to run a consistent pace throughout the race. To run 100 miles in 24 hours, you need to run an average pace of 14:24. That’s much slower than I’ve ever run. Paul’s advice was to alternate several minutes of running with several minutes of walking. The goal was to blend running and walking in such a way that my average pace would be 14:24. That way, instead of running at a pace that felt unnatural, I could run with a natural stride and then use the walking breaks to slow my average pace to something sustainable.
After having a good experience with a long walking break during a marathon, I was receptive to this advice. I looked at the whole race differently now. When I originally estimated how far I could run in 24 hours, I assumed I would run until I had to walk, and then I would walk for the rest of the race. That’s why 100 miles seemed impossible. Now when I estimated how far I could run in 24 hours, 100 miles not only seemed possible, I was confident I could do it.
Paul gave me lots of other advice. He told I would need to take electrolyte capsules and where I could buy them. He also counseled me on hydration and how to take in enough calories. In addition to training my legs to and cardiovascular system, I also needed to train my digestive system. Paul suggested doing a few six hour training runs. The purpose of these runs was to pace myself exactly as I would during the race, drink the same beverages and eat the same foods. This way, I could experiment to find out what works and what doesn’t before race day. That was the single best piece of advice he gave me, and it’s the same advice I give to other runners who are training for their first ultra.
In January, Deb and I finished paying off our mortgage. Without a mortgage payment, I could afford to cut back to working part-time, at least temporarily. For the next several months, I worked six hour days on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. I took every Wednesday off, which gave me time for errands or appointments without having to miss a workout. In exchange for the reduced work schedule, I had to take a 40 percent pay cut. For the next six months, I viewed my training as a second job that paid me non-financial benefits instead of a salary. Deb was initially skeptical about living on a part-time income, but almost immediately, she commented that I wasn’t as stressed.
I read a book John recommended called “Lore of Running” by Dr. Timothy Noakes. As soon as I saw how the book was organized, I knew I would like it. When I started running, running was dominated by athletes whose background was track and field. Running had always been divided into three broad categories: sprints, mid-distance run and long runs. “Mid-distance” referred to 800 or 1500 meters. Long runs were anything from 5K to the marathon. Most books on running had training plans for 5K, 10K or marathons, but didn’t even acknowledge the existence of ultramarathons.
Noakes also divided running into three categories, but his categories were marathon and shorter, short ultramarathons and long ultramarathons. A “long ultramarathon” was anything over 90K. Since I was embarking on training for a long ultramarathon, I found this point of view refreshing.
Lore of Running had chapters on various aspects of exercise physiology. It was a bit overwhelming. I learned more than I wanted to know about what happens in your muscle cells when a muscle contract. For the first time, I read about nutrition, hydration and how to train for an ultramarathon.
I started training seven days a week. Every Sunday I ran at least 21 miles. Most other days, I did two workouts. Five days a week, I ran, but I also did a variety of cross-training workouts including weight training, stationary cycling, core workouts, and race-walking. The race-walking was important because during the race I would spend almost as much time walking as I did running. If I walked at a faster pace, I could cover more ground during a walking break, which in turn meant I didn’t have to run as far.
During my training, I had to overcome a few bumps in the road. In February, I came down with a cold. Unlike past years, I didn’t take any days off. I kept running with the cold. I had to moderate my pace, but I was able to do it. My philosophy about training through illnesses would never be the same again. Gone were the days when I would use a cold as an excuse not to run.
Although I was trying to build my mileage as gradually as possible, in March, I experienced the early stages of shin splits. I had learned that my bones had to rebuild themselves to adapt to the increased training load, much as muscles do. I had also learned that this process takes about four weeks, and during this time my bones would temporarily be weaker. I adapted my training accordingly. I temporarily switched from running on pavement to running on grass. I also temporarily cut back a little on my mileage.
In April, I felt the early signs of Achilles tendonitis. This was probably brought on by running on the grass, since it was an irregular surface that subjected my ankles to more sideways motion. My shins were fine now, so I resumed running on pavement. I also diligently stretched my Achilles tendons before and after every run. I was able to start increasing my mileage again, even as I healed.
In May, I did my first six hour training run. For the rest of my training, my weekly long runs alternated between six hour run-walk workouts and 21 mile runs. I used my six hour runs as an opportunity to practice drinking as much liquid as I could stand. The FANS 24-Hour Race was on the last weekend in June. I knew it would be hot and humid, so I would be hard-pressed to take in as much liquid as I was losing through my sweat. Every hour I took a Succeed S-Cap to replace the electrolytes in my sweat.
One of the things I read in Lore or Running was that the rate my body would absorb water depended on how quickly the liquids I was drinking empties from my stomach. I also learned that the rate my stomach would empty was directly proportional to how full it was. That meant if I wanted to absorb water as rapidly as possible, I needed to run with a full stomach. In anticipation of a very hot race, I used my six hour runs as an opportunity to get used to running on a full stomach. Ugh!
I did a lot of things right, but I also made a few mistakes. Paul said he got a lot of his calories from GU. I don’t know if I forgot this or if I tuned it out because of my bad experience with a gel packet during the Twin Cities Marathon, but I tried to get all my calories from energy drink. I bought the same drink mix I usually used, but I mixed it at four times its normal concentration. I had made some estimates of how many calories I would burn per hour and how much fluid I would be drinking, and this seemed like the easiest way to take in that many calories.
My first six hour run went OK. Drinking so much fluid was nauseating. The extra strong energy drink I was mixing was also nauseating, but I assumed I would get used to it.
My second six hour run didn’t go as well. I no sooner finished than I had to race to the bathroom. I had an awful case of diarrhea. The whole point of the six hour runs was to figure out what worked and what didn’t and make adjustments. Something wasn’t working, but I didn’t know what the problem was.
For my last long training run, I raised the bar. I ran the same pace for slightly more than 40 miles, which took well over seven hours. I again had diarrhea. This time I had to make a long bathroom break before my run was over. I still finished the run, but I knew I had a problem.
While I was training, John got in touch with an experienced ultrarunner named Gordon. By coincidence, Gordon was on the race committee for FANS. He was the chief timekeeper. Throughout my training, John was getting advice from Gordon. One thing Gordon told him was that it was important for every runner to have a handler who knew him well and could help make decisions during the race. Often when runners are fatigued and sleep-deprived, they can’t make good decisions for themselves.
John and I both agreed that he knew me better than anyone. John agreed to be my handler. I would rely on John to help me discern the difference between normal soreness and pain that could indicate an injury. I would also rely on John to be my coach, telling me when I needed to back off or when I needed to push myself harder.
After my last long training run, I started to wonder if I was having diarrhea because my body wasn’t reacting well to the electrolyte capsules. I considered not taking them. When I told this to John, he convinced me I needed them. Thankfully, I listened. Otherwise I would have made two big nutritional mistakes. Instead, I only made one.
Although FANS had previously been held at Lake Harriet, this year the race was moved to Lake Nokomis. It was a 2.4 mile loop around the lake, with two aid stations. I did a few short training runs there to familiarize myself with the course.
I’m a big believer in setting multiple goals before a race. If you start out with only one goal, and it turns out to be unrealistic, you should be able to drop down to another goal that’s still achievable. Otherwise, you’ll give up completely. Likewise, if you’re easily hitting your original goal, you should switch to a more aggressive goal, so you don’t miss a rare opportunity to do something special.
My primary goal for this race was 100 miles. I felt that was very realistic, but if I couldn’t, anything over 50 miles would still be a significant accomplishment. My shoot-for-the-moon goal was placing in the top five. When I told that to John he thought I was having delusions of grandeur. It wouldn’t be the first time. I went into my first marathon with unrealistic expectations. John commented that there would be lots of seasoned ultrarunners in this race. Then he asked, “What do you have that they don’t have?” After thinking for a few seconds, I replied, “I’m hungrier than they are.” I knew that desire was important in a marathon, and it would be even more important in an ultramarathon. I would have to fight through pain and fatigue for hours. I would never be hungrier than I was going into this race.
A few weeks before the race, we had a violent thunderstorm with 90 mph winds. It’s not unusual for a tornado to produce wind speeds in excess of 100 mph, but this wasn’t a tornado. These were straight line winds. It was a rare type of storm that you only see about once in a generation. There were dozens of mature oak trees around Lake Nokomis. This storm knocked down about a third of them.
I went to Lake Nokomis to survey the damage. There were branches scattered everywhere. There were whole trees covering the sidewalks where we were supposed to run. It was hard to imagine that the Minneapolis parks department could get them all removed before the race, but I had to have faith that somehow it would get done. I continued to prepare and trusted others to somehow get the course ready.
I’m a planner. To be a successful ultrarunner you don’t just need to run. You need to think about weather, nutrition, hydration, pacing, and all the things that could potentially go wrong. I think planning is an important skill for longer races. I made plans, and I made contingency plans. I also made lists. I had a packing list, a pre-race checklist and a list of instructions for John. I outlined my pacing strategy, my goals, how much I would drink each lap, when I would take electrolyte pills, and anything else I could think of.
Packing for the race was like packing for a camping trip. We were allowed to pitch tents Saturday morning and leave them up until Sunday morning when the race ended. My tent would be filled with any supplies I might need during the race. One reason fixed-time races like this one are easier than point-to-point races is that you can keep all your gear in one spot, and you’re never very far away from it. I had three pairs of shoes and three pairs of brand new double-layer socks. I had a suitcase filled with running clothes. I packed clothes for every imaginable kind of weather, and I could imagine a lot. It was supposed to be hot and humid during the day. It might be cold at night. There was a 50-50 chance of a thunderstorm. I still didn’t know why I had diarrhea during my long training runs. In anticipation that this might be a persistent problem, I packed an extra pair of shorts. Then I threw in another. There was still room in the suitcase, so I packed every pair of running shorts I owned.
Although the aid stations would have food and energy drink, I filled a cooler with bottles of my extra-strong energy drink. Then I packed them in ice so they would stay cold all day long.
Betty and Deb were both race volunteers. The four of us all went to the pre-race dinner at the Nokomis Community Center, where I also picked up my race packet. It included a list of all the runners, how many ultras they had each done, their goals for the race, and their previous accomplishments. For my best accomplishment, I listed running 19 marathons with a personal best of 2:58. Compared to many of the runners, that seemed almost insignificant. One runner had done the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning one year and the Hardrock 100 another year. Perennial women’s winner Sue Olsen had run 216 miles in a 48-hour run. Several other runners had achievements I could barely imagine. Not to worry. I was hungrier than they were. I was also a bit intimidated. I had to get over it.
The race started at 8 A.M. I got up before 5:00, so I could eat breakfast three hours before the race started. I had a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of orange juice. That was something else I planned at least a week in advance. I put a surprising amount of thought into it.
The night before the race, we had a violent thunderstorm with 90 mph winds. These were straight line winds. It was a rare type of storm that you only see about once in a generation. There were dozens of mature oak trees around Lake Nokomis. This storm knocked down about a third of them. Again! Are you kidding me? I’ve lived in this area my whole life. To the best of my knowledge, we’ve only experienced this variety of storm system twice in my life. They were just a few weeks apart and the most severe damage was in the same place.
There were branches everywhere. There were whole trees down – right where we needed to run. It’s nothing short of amazing that the race committee somehow held this event. Before the race, Gordon went around and the lake and marked detours around the larger branches using orange traffic cones. In one place there was a tree trunk blocking the path, but there was no way to get around it. We had to climb over it. Twig and leaves were scattered all over the course. We would have to watch our step. John asked Gordon if he had to re-measure the course. Gordon said the course wouldn’t need to be re-measured because every detour was longer than the measured course. I don’t know how much extra distance to we actually ran in each lap, but we were going to run more mileage than we were getting credit for. I was now very intimidated. I had to get over it.
I pitched my tent; unpacked my gear; put on sunblock, bug spray and Vaseline; weighed in; and did all the other things on my pre-race checklist. Then I realized I forgot to brush my teeth after breakfast. In future years, I added brushing my teeth to my pre-race checklist.
Most people who alternate running with walking use a fixed ratio. For example, they might do 10 minutes of running followed by 5 minutes of walking. I had a different strategy. I wanted my walking breaks to always start in the same places. I always started walking right after an aid station. That way, I wouldn’t have to start running immediately after eating or drinking. I used the variable length walking breaks I discussed in a recent post.
Our tent was just past the main aid station. Instead of stopping at the aid station to eat or drink, I stopped at our tent to drink from one of the bottles in my cooler. Every other lap, John handed me an electrolyte capsule.
I started with a target time of 28 minutes per lap. That was an average pace of 11:33 per mile. If I kept up that pace for the entire race, I would run just over 124 miles. I didn’t really expect to sustain that pace, but I knew I would slow down during the night. This was a pace I could run for several hours and still feel fresh.
After a few laps, I noticed another runner who was also alternating running with walking. He would pass me when I was walking, and I would pass him when he was walking. After we passed each other a few times, he joked that I would never win the race by walking. The irony is that he was doing the same thing and he went on to win the race. His name was Jeff Hagen.
In the early laps, we had to jump or climb over a tree trunk every lap. Eventually, one of the volunteers brought his chainsaw and removed the section that was blocking the path. After about seven laps, I didn’t have to climb over it any more. Sue Olsen had to climb over it one more time than I did. I told John. “That’s what she gets for lapping me.”
By noon, it was starting to get hot. John noticed that other runners were putting ice cubes in their hats to keep cool. When he suggested that idea to me, I tried it. At first, it was so cold it was painful. After that, the sudden rush of blood made me briefly get short of breath. That sensation was disconcerting, but it quickly passed. As the ice cubes melted, water would drip from my hat. It was sloppy, but very effective. I did this every few laps.
In the afternoon, it got cloudy and started raining. I temporarily donned a thin plastic rain poncho. When it stopped raining and got sunny again, I removed the poncho so I wouldn’t get hot. I also changed into a dry pair of shoes. While I was at it, I also put on a new pair of socks.
In the late afternoon, it was hot, but the walking breaks were very effective at keeping me from overheating. I never ran long enough to get too hot or too tired. I always walked long enough that I felt fresh when I started running again. I felt like I could do this all day, which is good, because that’s what I needed to do.
In the evening, it started to rain again. Once again, I put on my rain gear. This time, instead of a passing shower, it was a thunderstorm. At the end of one of my laps, John was waiting for me. He told me the race was suspended and everyone had to take shelter in the Nokomis Community Center. The canopies at the aid stations had metal frames. For the safety of the volunteers, they had to evacuate. Everyone was allowed to finish the lap they were on, but no one was allowed to start a new lap.
While we were in the building, I did some stretching. I didn’t know how long we had to wait, and I didn’t want to get stiff. I had to be ready to start running again after the storm passed. Deb’s volunteer shift ended earlier in the day, and she was now safe at home. John was with me, and he helped me stay focused. It would have been easy to get freaked out, but I kept my head in the game.
After a delay of about 45 minutes, the storm moved past us. It was still raining, but there was no longer lightning in the area. They lined us all up at the starting line to resume the race. The time we spent waiting for the storm to pass was time we all lost. The clock was always running. The race would still end at 8 A.M.
Just before we started running again, I had an attack of diarrhea. I asked John to grab a pair of running shorts from my suitcase and meet me at the bathrooms. When everyone started running, I headed straight for the nearest bathroom. I emptied out as much as I could and then cleaned up and changed shorts. We had a pail with clean water, soap, a washcloth and a towel, so I was able to wash up pretty good.
By the time I was ready to resume running, I had lost another 30 minutes. While I was running my next lap, John started talked to some of the volunteers, who were also experienced runners. He found out what my problem was.
Most energy drinks, including the one I was using, are high in fructose. There’s a limit to how quickly your body can digest fructose. It has to be converted to glucose first, and that can only be done by your liver. If you drink more fructose than your body can digest, it builds up in your intestines. Eventually, it gets digested by bacteria, resulting in waste byproducts that cause diarrhea. By mixing my drink so strong, I was accelerating this process. It’s amazing I made it halfway through the race before having a problem.
When I finished my next lap, John started walking with me and explained about the fructose. I stopped drinking my concentrated energy drink. For the next few laps, I only drank water. Eventually I started drinking the energy drink at the aid stations, but I didn’t want to drink too much. Because I wasn’t consuming as many calories, I worried about running out of energy. Because I wasn’t drinking as much, I worried about dehydration. I moderated my pace. Twice during the race, they had pizza delivered, so I got some solid food. I think that help stabilize my digestive system.
Eventually it stopped raining, so I changed shoes and socks again. John gave me some surprising news. Despite the time I lost, I was moving up in the standings. My name was now on the leader board, which lists the top 10 men and women. For the rest of the night, John kept me informed about where I was in relationship to the runners ahead of me. Each time I moved up, it gave me the motivation I needed. During the night, everyone struggles. If you’re moving, you’re competitive. I was doing more walking, but I was still running, so I was doing better than some of my competitors.
This race was my first experience running through the night, there were street lamps in places, and I wore a head lamp, but it was still a challenge to see the course with all the detours. I also had to watch out for all the small branches.
It was a long night, but I eventually moved into fifth place among the men. Then John told me that one of the top runners stopped when he got to 100 miles. All I had to do was get past 100 miles, and I would move into fourth place. I still needed to do three more laps to get there.
Betty and two friends, Bill and Martin, each did laps with me. I was walking more than I was running, but I kept grinding away. I got to 100 miles and kept going. I was in fourth place.
After the sun came up, it got easier. Other runners who took naps during the night emerged from their tents and started running or walking again. John and I both realized I was on pace to get to 110 miles.
In the last hour of the race, everyone has the option of switching from laps around the lake to an out-and-back course marked with orange cones. Each out-and-back is a quarter mile. One direction was uphill, so I walked; the other direction was downhill, so I ran. This is the best part of the race, because you get to see everyone. Families come out to see their runners finish. Everybody is tired, but the excitement builds.
One runner had been doing handstands every time he finished a lap. At the end of the race, he walked on his hands for several feet before crossing the finish line for the last time.
My parents were both there to see me finish. Deb, Betty, John, Bill and Martin were all there too. I ran 111.2 miles. I was the fourth place male.
After we packed up the tent and loaded the car, we all drove to Old Chicago for a post-race breakfast and awards ceremony. Old Chicago was a major sponsor of the race. My friends and family all came to the breakfast. Because of the storm, the restaurant didn’t have any electricity. Somehow, they managed to prepare an amazing breakfast anyway. Did I mention that I was hungry? I developed a whole new appreciation for bacon.
Note: All of these photos were taken by Betty Greene. Deb helped me scan them.