Today, I ran the Flatlanders 6 Hour Run in Fenton, MO. This is a race where I’ve had some good results. In 2012, I was the overall winner. A year later, I won the Senior (over 50) division. I would have returned last year, but the race filled quickly. When I checked on registration, it was already full. This year, I entered as soon as I could. That, of course, was before my injuries.
In fixed time races, you run as far as you can in the allotted period of time. You don’t have to run for the whole six hours, and there’s no such thing as not finishing. You get credit for whatever distance you can finish. This race has three types of finisher medals. Anyone running at least 50K gets a gold medal. If you run less than 50K, but at least 26.2 miles, you get a silver medal. If you run less than 26.2 miles, you get a bronze medal.
My goal, at minimum, was to run at least 26.2 miles, so I could count it as a marathon. Ideally, I wanted to run 50K and get another gold medal. That would depend on how my legs felt. I wasn’t inclined to push it if I was experiencing discomfort.
The course is a 1.4 mile loop on paved paths around Fenton City Park. Toward the end of the race, you can switch to short out-and-back course that’s marked with cones. When you start the short course, they give you a small flag to mark your position when the gun goes off. Then everyone’s exact distance is wheel-measured.
I flew to St. Louis on Saturday. It’s a relatively short non-stop flight from Minneapolis, and the airfare always seems to be inexpensive, even on Labor Day weekend. I stayed at the Hampton Inn in Valley Park, which is only a few miles from Fenton City Park. In the afternoon, I went over to the park to pick up my race packet. Then I had dinner at Faraci’s Pizza with two friends who live in the St. Louis area.
The race started at 7:30 AM, and I had until 1:30 PM to run as far as I could. There was also a 12-hour race that continued until 7:30 PM. After a light breakfast at Hampton Inn, I got to the park at 6:30. That gave me plenty of time to get organized and meet my lap counter before it got too hectic.
I had an insulated bag filled with ice and a duffle bag with assorted gear that I might need during the race. My friend Denis, you lives in the area, brought ice, watermelon, his own gear, and chairs. We set up our stuff right next to each other.
For the second straight week, I wore KT tape on both legs. It seemed to help last week. My right leg is no worse, and my left leg is starting to feel a little bit better. I didn’t know how it would hold up in such hot conditions, but it stayed on through a thunderstorm last week.
The weather this year was just like two years ago. The high was in the mid-90s, with sunny skies and high humidity. To cope with the heat, I wore a desert-style hat, which covers the back of my neck. Throughout the race, I put ice in my hat and let it melt on the top of my head. As the ice melted, cold water filtered through my hat and ran down my back. I was still hot, but this really helped.
As is so often the case in small races, nobody wanted to line up in front. Eventually, a few us decided to move closer. As we were all moving closer to the starting line, the gun went off. We basically got a running start.
I started at a slow steady pace. I finished my first lap in just under 14 minutes. That’s about 10 minutes per mile. After finishing each lap, I stopped at the aid station to drink and filled my hat with a scoop of ice from my bag. Including stops, I settled into an average pace of 15 minutes per lap.
I didn’t overthink my hydration strategy. Each lap, I had a drink. If I was feeling thirsty, I drank an extra cup. I also took Endurolyte capsules once per hour.
This was my second race with the KT tape. It’s already making a noticeable difference for my left leg. Before, any turn to the left caused pain. We ran our laps in the clockwise direction, so most of the turns were right turns, but there were also a few left turns. The first time I made a sharp left, there was no pain. In my right leg, I’ve felt sore for the past few days. Warming up before the race, I noticed some soreness, even with the tape. As I started running it never got worse. Either it got better or I tuned it out, but I didn’t feel any soreness during the race.
I started feeling the heat right away. While it would still be hours before the temperature climbed into the 90s, the humidity was oppressive. When I arrived at the park, there was fog over the soccer fields. The relative humidity would eventually drop, but only because the temperature was rising.
When I filled my hat with ice, it usually went into the back of my hat. As it melted, it filtered through my hat and the back of my singlet. As the insides of my shoes started to feel squishy, I knew the water was running down my legs and into my shoes.
On one of my laps, I accidently put the ice in the front of my hat. That was intensely uncomfortable and caused me to slow down temporarily until I got used to it. After that,
I was more careful.
To finish a marathon, I needed to complete 18 laps, plus an extra mile. After six laps, I told myself that I was one third done with the 18 laps. As I transitioned from the early laps to the middle laps, I needed to focus on intermediate goals.
There was a digital clock at the start/finish line that counted down the time remaining in the six hour race. After our race was over, they reset it to count down the time remaining for the 12 hour race. When I finished my eighth lap, I still had just over four hours to go. That put me on pace for 24 laps, which is 33.6 miles. I knew I would slow down as it got hotter, but it was nice to know that I was on a good pace for reaching 50K.
The water in my shoes eventually caused both of my insoles to slip forward. I noticed it in the right shoe first. It wasn’t as painful as last week, so I ignored it. Eventually, I also noticed something similar in my left shoe. That was more uncomfortable, but I was able to endure it.
The next intermediate milestone was nine laps. At that point I could tell myself that I was half done with the 18 full laps I would need for a marathon. After another lap, I was past the half marathon mark, even including the extra mile I would need beyond 18 laps.
To get to 50K, I needed just over 22 laps. After my 11th lap, I was almost halfway there. I noticed after that lap that my pace had deteriorated. After consistently clocking 15 minute laps, I had one that was between 17 and 18 minutes. The heat was getting to me. Suddenly it took as much effort to run an 18 minute lap as it previously did to run a 15 minute lap.
When I finished my 12th lap, the clock read 2:55 to go. I was half done. Unfortunately, I had another 18 minute lap, and I felt like I was going to slow down even more. I realized that 50K wasn’t going to happen.
It still seemed like I would easily get past a marathon, even at a slower pace. I just needed to keep on running. That was easier said than done. It was getting hotter, and the sun was getting higher in the sky. About half of the course is shaded. Where there was no shade, we could really feel the ambient heat of the sun.
There was one particularly hot stretch near the end of each lap. The ice in my hat was usually melted by the time I got there, so I found this stretch to be particularly uncomfortable.
The psychology of a fixed time race is different than a fixed distance race. In a fixed distance race, it can be demoralizing if your pace slows in the late miles. You still have just as many miles to go, but they’re taking longer. In the second half of a fixed time race, you start counting down the remaining time. Once I accepted that I couldn’t get to 50K, it didn’t bother me that my laps were taking longer. Longer laps meant bigger chunks of time deducted from the time remaining.
I was now fighting a war of attrition. Each lap took something out of me. I was counting down the time remaining each time I finished a lap. I was also counting down the number of laps I needed to complete a marathon. I had more than enough time to finish a marathon, but I would feel better when I knew I had clinched it. That wouldn’t happen until I had enough time to walk the rest of the way.
After 13 laps, it occurred to me that I still needed to run five laps, plus an extra mile, to complete a marathon. That adds up to eight miles. If I started walking, assuming a casual walking pace of three miles per hour, I would need two hours and 40 minutes. I looked at the clock. I had 2:36 and change. I couldn’t start walking yet, but I was getting close.
I forced myself to run another lap. I picked up my effort to combat a feeling of sluggishness. I got through that lap in 18 minutes. At three miles per hour, a walking lap would take 28 minutes. I gained 10 minutes, in comparison to walking. Now I could afford to walk, but I forced myself to run another lap.
You play a lot of mental games to get through a race like this. Two years ago, I won my age group with 37.21 miles. I wouldn’t come anywhere close to that total today, but I still clung to hope that I could win my age group with a strong enough finish. Who’s to say that I needed 37 miles? I don’t know who was second or how far he ran. Maybe 28 or 29 would have been enough. It was doubtful, but I had no way of knowing for sure. The heat was affecting everyone, so who knows? False hope was better than no hope.
During my 15th lap, I was really struggling with the heat. I asked myself, “If you knew for certain that you would win your age group by continuing this pace, could you do it?” I concluded that even if I knew I could keep up the pace, and even if I knew I would win my age group, it still wouldn’t be worth it. I was suffering, and I wanted to walk. I knew then, that I’d eventually start walking, but I coaxed myself to run for at least one more lap.
As I finished my 15th lap, I had just under two hours to go. To complete a marathon, I now needed three more laps, plus a mile. I overheard another runner talking with his wife. He said, “The plan is to run five more laps. That’ll give me 20. I might run six more laps, but the plan is five.” We each had 15 laps done, but his plan sounded too ambitious for me. As I went by, I asked him how old he was. We were in different age groups. I didn’t have to compete with him. As I left the start area, it occurred to me that if I ran for the rest of the race, I’d have time to finish five more laps at my current pace. Six, however, was out of reach.
The heat wore on me even more in the next lap. I started bargaining with myself. I tried to convince myself to run for the rest of that lap. Then I tried to convince myself to run until I got to the section with no shade. Then I tried to convince myself to run the first half of the lap. I didn’t make it that far. I started walking with about a mile left in the lap. I finally realized that I was risking heat stress if I ran any longer.
The transition to walking was uncomfortable. Then walking started to feel more comfortable. I tried to at least walk at a brisk pace. At first, I was too hot, and I tired easily, even walking. In time, I was able to pick up my effort. After 10 or 15 minutes of walking, I wasn’t feeling as hot.
That lap was a mixture of walking and running, so I couldn’t tell how fast I was walking. My 17th lap was all walking. It took me 23 minutes. My last lap that was all running took about 20 minutes. I wasn’t giving up that much time by walking, and I no longer felt as hot.
I had initially assumed that I could finish 19 laps, and then I would switch to the “short course.” Now I saw that at the pace I was going, I could finish three more “big” laps. That was both encouraging and disheartening. To do that, I had to keep up my current brisk pace. My hamstrings were tight, and I could feel them as I kept pushing the pace.
Walking the last few laps gave me more opportunities to talk to other runners. Some, like me, were walking the rest of the race. Others, including some 12-hour runners, were talking walking breaks, but were still running. I’m kind of impressed with the runners who still had six hours to go. They would have even hotter temperatures in the second half of their race, but seemed undeterred. There were some serious ultrarunners in this race.
After 18 laps, I had 49 minutes to go. That was too close for comfort. With 20 minutes to go, we could switch to the “short course,” but I would have more than 20 minutes left when I finished my next lap. That meant I had to keep up the pace for two more laps. If I let up, I would be cutting it close on my last lap. On the “big” laps, only completed laps count.
When I finished my19th lap, I told my lap counter I’d be doing one more “big” lap, but I’d finish it with only a few minutes left in the race. Then I had a drink and put ice in my hat for the last time. As I resumed walking, I had 26 minutes to go.
I lit a fire under myself to walk as briskly as I could. I couldn’t lengthen my stride at all, but I used a vigorous arm swing to try to pick up my cadence. People who were still running passed me like I was standing still. Then I was passed by a runner who had already lapped me at least three times. Now she was walking, but she still blew by me like I was standing still. I made a comment, and she said she’s had some race-walking experience. That piqued my curiosity. I picked up my pace to stay with her, so we could talk about race-walking. We talked for the rest of the lap. She had no idea where she was in the standings. I wondered if she was winning the race and didn’t know it.
That was my 20th lap. Looking back to the conversation I overheard after 15 laps, I found it ironic that I had time for five more laps, even though I switched to walking.
I started the short course with only six minutes on the clock. I wasn’t inclined to push the pace any more. After each eighth mile, I had to make a 180 degree turn. I took them slowly, but they made my left leg hurt. I finished a quarter mile, plus a little extra. Then the gun went off.
There’s a covered picnic area near the start/finish area. Thirty minutes after each race, they have a barbeque and awards ceremony there. After sitting down and talking to friends for about 15 minutes, I made my way over there. I joked that I might need 15 minutes to get there.
The food was ready, and I had lunch while the results were being tabulated. Awards are given by mileage, in ascending order. They started with the bronze medals for runners who ran any distance shorter than a marathon. There were quite a few. This was a tough day to finish a marathon, even in six hours. Quite a few runners came up short. Next they did the silver medals for runners who did between 26.2 miles and 50K. A couple of them won age group awards, and received their plaques at the same time.
My final tally was 28.29 miles, earning me a silver medal. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t get another gold medal, but very few runners made it to 50K.
The runner who won my age group ran 30.52 miles. Even if I had been able to keep running, I wouldn’t have been able to match his total. I had no regrets about switching to walking. I was correct, though, to think it might take something less than 50K.
When they announced the overall male winner, I realized that the woman I was walking with at the end hadn’t received her medal yet. That’s when I knew for sure that she took first place. She was surprised. I wasn’t. Having been competitive in this race in the past, I tend to notice who’s lapping me and how often. Nobody flew by me as often as she did.
This was my last ultra of the year. I still have an ambitious race schedule, but all of my remaining races are standard marathons.