Thursday, June 30, 2016

Throwback Thursday: 2005 Patriots' Run

On September 11, 2005, I did a race called the Patriot’s Run.  This race is an annual event in Olathe, KS.  It’s always held on September 11, regardless of what day of the week it falls on.  It’s a fixed time race with a time limit of nine hours and eleven minutes.  It starts at noon and ends at 9:11 PM.  Some runners go solo, and others are on relay teams.  They collect pledges based on their total mileage to raise money for the families of first responders who have died in the line of duty.

At the time, I was working on running marathons or ultras in all 50 states.  I made an impulsive decision to do this as my Kansas race, even though the race was only a few weeks away.  I was training for a fall marathon, but hadn’t done any ultramarathon training in two years.

From 1998 to 2003, I ran at least one 12 or 24-hour run each year.  My training for those races always includes three runs of six hours or longer, during which I paced myself like I would during the race.  When I entered this race, I only had two weekends remaining before the race.  I had recently done a 19 mile training run and decided to add one training run of five or six hours as a dry run before the race.  It didn’t go well.

I set out to do my long training run on a 1.1 mile loop.  My plan was do use variable-length walking breaks to keep my pace at 13 minutes per lap.  That’s roughly 12 minutes per mile.  I used to train at a slightly faster pace when I was preparing for a 24-hour run.  This year, I had a much lower mileage base than in previous years.  I was coming off a subpar year that included a bout of Achilles tendonitis, and I was only running every other day.  I didn’t spend as much time training in summer heat as I usually do.  It was an 80 degree day with sunny skies, and the heat wore me down.  I stopped after running 24.2 miles in roughly four hours.  That was discouraging.

With only two weeks before the race, I didn’t have time for another long training run.  I wanted to take it easy on the last weekend before the race.  Realizing I couldn’t run as fast as I was accustomed to running in 24-hour races, I adjusted my goals.

As race day approached, I realized it was going to be hotter than it was for my long training run.  On race day, it was 90 degrees and sunny.  Since the race started at noon, I was going to be running through the hottest hours of the day.  I didn’t feel prepared, but I counted on experience to get me through it.

Deb and I drove to Kansas the day before the race.  I brought a number of supplies from home including a large cooler.  I mixed my own sport drink from powder, using a brand that didn’t include any fructose.  On our way to the race, we stopped to fill the cooler with ice.  Aside from taking regular walking breaks, my plan for coping with the heat included filling my hat periodically with ice from my cooler.  Deb was coming down with a cold, so after the race started, she went back to the hotel to take a nap.

The course was a 0.72 mile paved loop around a city park.  There wasn’t much shade.  My plan was to use variable-length walking breaks to keep myself on a consistent pace.  Mindful of how my training run went, I started the race at a slower pace.

In the early laps, there were several runners who were going faster.  I think some lapped me two or three times in the first half of the race.  I didn’t worry about competing with anyone.  My goal was to run enough laps for 50K and then finish as many miles as I could without blowing up in the heat.  In 24-hour races, I was accustomed to placing in the top five, but I wasn’t as prepared for this race.

As soon as I started feeling hot, I started putting ice cubes in my hat.  I had learned from other races that this was an effective way to cope with the heat.  The first time I did it, it was disconcerting.  The sudden rush of blood made me feel slightly short of breath.  If I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was suffering from heat stress.  By the time I finished my walking break for that lap, the feeling had subsided.

Early in the race, I varied the distance I walked to keep my lap times consistent.  As I began to tire, I noticed I wasn’t walking as far.  To stay on pace, I needed to switch back to running earlier in the lap.  At some point, I realized that wasn’t sustainable.  I remember the furthest point I had reached on a walking break and decided to walk to that same spot in all subsequent laps.  My pace slowed, but I was keeping a more reasonable ratio of walking to running.

To complete a marathon I needed to run 37 laps.  By the time I finished my 37th lap, I was getting pretty ragged.  I was suffering in the heat.  I wasn’t having fun.  I just wanted the race to be over with.  I had met the minimum requirement to count this as my Kansas marathon, but I still wanted to do at least 50K.  That’s the shortest common ultramarathon distance.  Since this was an ultra, I felt I should at least run that far, if I could.

I did the mental arithmetic.  To get past the 50K mark, I needed 44 laps.  That meant I still needed seven more laps.  Deb wasn’t back from here nap yet, so I needed to wait for her regardless.  That gave me a little more incentive to keep running.

Those seven laps seemed to take forever.  As I counted them down, I kept telling myself I could stop after my 44th lap.  I kept looking for our car in the parking lot.  Deb wasn’t back yet.

When I finally finished my 44h lap, I asked the lap counter how many laps the leader had.  I wasn’t planning to compete.  I was just curious.  She flipped through her sheets.  Then she said, “Number 138 has 44 laps.”  I looked down at my race bib.  That’s the number I was wearing.  I was shocked to realize I was in the lead.  Apparently the runners who were way ahead of me earlier had all taken breaks because of the heat.  I wasn’t moving very fast, but I was always moving.

As much as I had been looking forward to stopping, I didn’t want to quit if I had a chance to win.  I started another lap, so I could think about it.  Deb wasn’t back yet, so I couldn’t go back to the hotel yet anyway.

As I plodded slowly through another lap, I made some decisions.  First, I wasn’t going to stop running as long as I was in the lead.  You can’t quit when you’re winning!  Second, I would fight to maintain my current pace.  If someone was going to pass me, they would have to earn it.  I wasn’t giving the race away.  Finally, if anyone did pass me, I would stop.  I didn’t have enough fight left in me to keep going if I lost the lead.

When I finished that lap, I saw Deb standing near the finish line.  She was excited.  She knew I was winning.  That was good for both of us.  She still wasn’t feeling well, so it helped that she had a reason to be excited.  I was struggling, so it helped to have her cheering for me.

After my next lap, I stopped briefly to ask the lap counter how many laps the second place runner had.  I now had 46 laps, and he had 44.  As I started my next lap, it occurred to me that my 46th lap had just been counted.  I don’t know how long ago he finished his 44th lap.  My lead could be anywhere between one and two laps.  That didn’t seem like a safe lead.

There was still a lot of time left in the race.  About this time, I started experiencing cramps in my calf muscles.  They were sudden involuntary contractions that felt like electric shocks.  They made me jump.  It was painful, and it took effort to even out my stride, but I fought through the pain.

I immediately suspected that I had an electrolyte deficiency.  I had been taking Succeed S-Caps once per hour.  I started taking them every half hour.  The cramps never went away completely, but they gradually got less severe.

There was a single aid station at the pavilion where we started and finished each lap.  They had a variety of food and beverages, but I just kept drinking the fluids I brought.  I never had any food or beverage from the aid station.  I was completely self-sufficient.  Everyone else took breaks.  Aside from bathroom stops, I always kept moving.  If you’re moving – even slowly – you’re competitive.

During one of my laps, I was talking to one of the local runners.  He was currently in third place, and he knew the runner in second place.  I got the impression I had a lead of two or three laps, but I didn’t slow down.

As it got closer to the end of the race, I was mindful of how much time I had left.  I paid attention to my lap times.  After each lap, I estimated how many more laps I could do.  It always seemed like I would easily finish 66 laps, but I wouldn’t have time for a 67th lap.  During my 65th lap, I made a decision.  After that 66th lap, I wouldn’t take a walking break.  I could squeeze in an extra lap, but only if I ran the whole thing.  I thought I had a safe lead, but if I was going to win, I wanted to have as good a total as I could.

As I finished my 65th lap, Deb asked me if I had time for another lap.  I said, “I think I have time for two.”  I heard another runner say, “Oh, come on!”  He must have thought that was over the top.

I did indeed have time to finish a 67th lap.  That brought my total for the day to 48.06 miles.  Then I stood by the finish line to watch the last few runners come in.  Only completed laps counted, so they had to beat the clock.

There was a volunteer giving massages during the race.  I asked if I could still get a massage or if I was too late.  I was able to get a massage while results were being tabulated.  As he started, he said, “This is going to feel like I’m exfoliating your legs.”  He wasn’t kidding.  As my sweat evaporated, it left a thick layer of salt crystals on my legs.

The top prizes were announced in reverse order.  First I heard the name of the third place runner.  As they announced the second place runner, I was surprised to hear his mileage.  He was only one lap behind me.  That extra lap meant the difference between clear first and a tie for first.

I received two awards.  One was for first place male.  The other was for first place overall.  The awards were made from model cars mounted on small blacks of wood.  One was a police car, and the other was a fire truck.  That was a nod to the purpose of the race.

I didn’t come into this race well-conditioned.  At least, I wasn’t as conditioned as I was in prior years, when I did 24-hour races.  Experience carried me through.  I think I was the only runner who was using ice to keep cool.  I was also the only runner to keep moving for the entire nine plus hours.  Everyone else had to stop and take breaks because of the heat.

By the time we left, it was already dark.  I had some food before leaving the park, but that was the only dinner I ate.  After getting back to the hotel, I showered and immediately got ready for bed.  I didn’t realize it yet, but I was in for a scary night.

I climbed into bed, but couldn’t get comfortable.  I turned onto my back.  With my feet pointing into the blankets, they started to cramp.  It was painful, but I couldn’t get the cramping to stop until I got out of bed.

I had to lie down on the floor next to the bed.  The room was air conditioned, and I was in my underwear, yet I started to sweat from head to toe.  I felt slightly nauseous.  I was badly dehydrated, but I didn’t think I could make it to the bathroom to get a glass of water.  I also didn’t know if I could keep any fluids down.  When I realized I was probably still hyponatremic, I regretted leaving my bottle of S-caps in the car.  There’s no way I could make the trip to the car myself, and Deb was already asleep.

Lying there on the floor feeling sick, I wondered if I needed to go to the hospital.  I tried to wake Deb.  She had taken a medication that made her drowsy.  She mumbled that I was on my own and fell back to sleep.  She was out like a light.

I could have called 911, but I didn’t know where they would take me.  When Deb woke up, she wouldn’t know where I was.  I decided to wait until morning.  I spent the whole night lying awake on the floor.

When Deb eventually woke up, she went to the vending machine to get me something to eat.  They had white cheddar Cheez-Its.  That might be the saltiest snack food ever invented.  I ate a few at a time.  Then I was able to drink some water.  Some Cheez-Its, some water, some Cheez-Its, some water.  I gradually rehydrated.  When I felt like I was stable, we checked out.

We went to a Sonic drive-in for breakfast.  I wanted something salty, so I ordered a bacon cheeseburger toaster sandwich.  I also had a large Coke.  The breakfast helped.  Deb did most of the driving on the way home.  I rested and recovered.  By the time we got home, I was OK.

This race was memorable for several reasons, but what I remember most was the rule I established that day.  You can’t quit when you’re winning.  This was the first time I ever won a race, and I won only because I wouldn’t let myself quit.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Race Report: Run Down the Aisle

This morning, I attended the wedding of Heather and Patrick.  Then I joined them for an eight hour ultramarathon.  Heather and Patrick are both runners.  When they got engaged, they decided to get married at a race.  After searching for an existing race that met their needs, they decided to organize their own race.  I’ve run other races where Heather was the race director, so I knew she already knew what she was doing.

The race was called Run Down the Aisle.  The course was a 0.55 mile loop through George Pierce Park in Suwanee, GA.  Everyone had eight hours to run or walk as far as they could.  This was a good format for a social occasion.  Friends who weren’t avid runners could participate by running or walking one lap.  Those wanting to run a marathon had a generous time limit.  Finally, since we were all running on the same short loop, we kept seeing each other all day.  Fixed time races give you lots of opportunities to visit with other runners.

I flew to Atlanta the day before the wedding.  I stayed at a hotel in Duluth, which is northeast of Atlanta, along I-85.  From there, I had to drive about seven miles to get to the park.  Packet pickup started at 6 AM.  The ceremony started at 6:30.  The race bibs had a custom design for the wedding.

In addition to our race bibs, we each received a goodie bag.

The ceremony started at 6:30.  It was a simple ceremony in front of a pond near the pavilion where the race started.  Heather and Patrick’s daughters were flower girls.

The race started at 7:00.  I haven’t really trained for an ultramarathon, so my goals were modest.  At a minimum, I wanted to run at least 26.2 miles.  Ideally, I wanted to run 50K.  Eight hours is normally plenty of time to run that far, but I didn’t know how much the heat would affect me.  Did I mention the race was in Georgia?  When the race started, it was 79 degrees with a heat index of 86.  The temperature was forecast to climb to 97 during the race, with a heat index of 106.

I had two rules for pacing myself.  First, I never ran more than one full lap without taking a walking break.  Second, I never walked more than one full lap before resuming running.  The point of the first rule was to keep me from going too fast and blowing up in the heat.  The point of the second rule was to keep me from giving up when it got uncomfortable.

Heather and Patrick led us on the first lap.  It was a casual pace, which probably helped me to pace myself well in subsequent laps.  Starting with my second lap, I took a one minute walking break at the start of each lap.  There was a footbridge over a culvert, and I noticed my walking breaks always took me to the bridge.  After that, I just walked to the bridge, so I didn’t have to keep looking at my watch.

The course didn’t have any big hills, but most of it was undulating.  On one section, we ran alongside a parking lot.  That section was slightly uphill, and it was also exposed to the sun.  I worried about overheating here if I tried to run it too fast.

That hill was followed immediately by a long downhill section with good shade.  This was my favorite part of the course.

I brought an insulated bag filled with ice cubes, so I could put ice in my hat.  As the ice cubes melted, the cold water filtered through the flap on the back of my hat and into my singlet.  I started doing this about one hour into the race.  After that, I refilled my hat when the ice cubes finished melting.  I was drinking after even-numbered laps, so I tried to fill my hat with ice on odd-numbered laps.

I also brought a supply of electrolyte capsules.  There are several adaptations that take place when you train to run in the heat.  Your sweat because less salty, so you don’t get depleted of electrolytes as quickly.  I’ve read that runners who are well-adapted shouldn’t need to ingest salt during a race.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t currently apply to me.  I’ve done a little training in summer heat this year, but not enough for significant adaptation.  When I finished a hot marathon two weeks ago, my skin was caked with salt.  Today, in addition to paying attention to my fluid intake, I also took electrolyte capsules every hour.

I finished 10 laps in the first hour and 10 more in the second hour.  I was averaging 5.5 miles per hour.  I didn’t expect to sustain that pace, but I felt surprisingly good.  The walking breaks were effective for dissipating excess heat.  The ice in my hat was also helping.  I stuck to the same pacing strategy for the first half of the race.

We were in a public park, so there were other people using the park too.  I kept expecting someone to ask what kind of event this was.  I really wanted to say, “It’s a wedding reception.”  Nobody asked.

I finished my 40th lap just before the four hour mark.  The next time I came around, I saw we were switching directions.  The sections that were uphill were now downhill.  That was the good news.  Unfortunately, the sections that were downhill before were now uphill.  On balance, I thought the course was more difficult after switching directions.  Of course, it was also getting hotter.

There was now a long gradual hill at the beginning of each lap.  I adjusted my walking strategy to walk to the top of this hill before running.  I was probably walking twice as far now, but that was overdue.  I already had 22 miles under my belt, and it was getting hotter.

I finished my 48th lap in roughly 4:50.  That lap put me over the marathon mark.  It’s worth noting that 4:50 is better than three of the four marathons I’ve run this year.  I was surprised by my pace, but I was holding up OK.

Most of the time, I just drank Gatorade at the aid station, but it was time to treat myself to some solid food.  This was the first time I’ve run a race where the aid station food included wedding cake.

After finishing a marathon, I switched my focus to reaching 50K.  I needed to complete nine more laps.  I was noticing the heat more now, but I stuck to the same run/walk pattern.  I planned to do much more walking later, but I wanted to get to 50K first.  Another runner asked me if I was going to stop at 50K.  I said, “Nope.”  Then I added, “Hell, no!” (with a side order of extra Hell).  I knew I could finish 50K, and I was now determined to run whatever I could after that.

I finished my 57th lap in roughly 5:52.  Last year, I ran three 50K races while nursing injuries.  They all took at least seven hours.

I had a little over two hours to go.  By now, it was 97 degrees.  I was feeling it.  I had to do more walking.  For the rest of the race, I only ran the downhill sections.  Where it was flat or uphill, I walked.  Despite the reduced pace, I had to drink more frequently.  After a lap, I was already thirsty again.

The end of each lap was exposed to the sun.  The pavement was heating up.  On this section, I felt heat radiating from the pavement (as if it wasn’t already hot enough).

I slowly piled up additional laps.  There were only a few runners who continued past the 50K mark.  I couldn’t run as fast as before, but I was now competing for the win.

Pizza was delivered at noon, but I was too busy running to stop and eat any.  With 17 minutes left in the race, I finished my 70th lap.  I knew I didn’t quite have time to run two more laps.  I had more than enough for one, so I stopped to get a small slice of pizza.  I probably should have eaten it at the aid station.  I had enough time.  Instead, I ate it while walking.  That was a mistake.  Eating while walking took too much extra effort.

When I finished my 71st and final lap, my watch read 7:52:48.  That really doesn’t matter much.  My official time is eight hours.  What matters in a fixed time race is how far you run.  My 71 laps gave me a total of 39.05 miles.  That’s my longest run of the year by almost 13 miles, and I did it in oppressive conditions.

39.05 miles was good for first place overall.  I won my first ultra of the year.  The cool part of winning a one-time event is setting a course record that will never be broken.

All finishers received a finisher medal, a key ring, and a champagne flute with the name of the race.  For winning, I also got a ring.  The inside was engraved with the name of the race.  The outside was engraved to read, “Overall Winner.”

I told Heather this was the coolest wedding reception even.  It was also the hottest.  I’m still stunned that I held up so well in the heat.  Two weeks ago, I struggled badly in a marathon that wasn’t nearly as hot.

Clearly, my endurance is coming back faster than my speed.  This will probably be my only ultramarathon this year.  My focus for the rest of the year will be improving my marathon times and qualifying for the Boston Marathon.  Still, this gives me hope that I can make the transition back to ultras next year.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fear of Missing Out

There aren’t enough weekends for all the good races.

I say that a lot.  This weekend, I was reminded how true that is.  I was experiencing some serious FOMO as I saw the photos posted by various running friends.  There were all doing races that I’ve done before.  I wished I was there.

Let’s start with Grandma’s Marathon.  I’ve done this race five times.  I first ran it when there were only three marathons in Minnesota, and this one ranked among the top 10 in North America.  In addition to the marathon, Grandma’s weekend includes a half marathon and a 5K race.  In the past, there also used to be 8K or 5 mile races on Park Point.  Including these races, I’ve traveled to Duluth to race nine times.

I used to think of Grandma’s like it was a holiday weekend.  In the 1990s, my four favorite holidays were Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, and Grandma’s Marathon.

I ran Grandma’s Marathon, the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, or one of the Park Point races every year from 1989 to 1994.  In 1995, I was out of shape, not having run any marathons the previous year.  I still went to Duluth to watch the marathon, but I didn’t race that year.  As I watched the race, I felt like I should be out there running.  That motivated me to get back in shape.  I’ve done at least one marathon every year since then.

I last ran Grandma’s Marathon in 1997.  The following year, I started doing the FANS 24-Hour Run.  That race was held the following weekend, and I didn’t feel like I could do both.  Later, FANS was moved to the first weekend in June, but it was still only two weeks before Grandma’s.  I couldn’t recover from a 24-hour run in just two weeks.

FANS replaced Grandma’s as the race I attended almost every year.  Since 1998, I’ve done it 10 times.  I’ve also been there several times to crew or volunteer.  I missed it once, so I could run the Casper Marathon, which is on the same weekend.  Did I mention there aren’t enough weekends for all the good races?

Grandma’s wasn’t the only race this weekend that I would have loved to run.  A few of my friends were in Wyoming for the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Runs.

Photo credit: Shawn Severson

Photo credit: Shawn Severson

I was there for the 100 mile race the last two years.  It’s the most difficult race I’ve ever done.  In 2014, I was doing well, but my race ended after I fell into a stream during the night.

I returned in 2015, but I was still healing from a groin injury, so I wasn’t 100 percent.  To make matters worse, I didn’t get to train much in May.  That was supposed to be my peak month of training.  I gave it my best shot, but realized after 30 miles that I needed to drop.

I’m not currently in shape to do anything that long or that rugged.  This year, I’m focused on regaining my marathon form.  I’d love to try the Bighorn Mountain 100 again, but only if I’m ready.  It’s unclear whether I can be ready by next year.

Those weren’t the only races going on yesterday.  It was also the day of The Great Run on Great Cranberry Island in Maine.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Trask

Photo credit: David Goodrich

Photo credit: David Goodrich

This race has replaced the Great Cranberry Island 50K, which I ran in 2012.  Several of my friends were there this year, and I was jealous.  I was tempted to say, “I need to run that next year.”  Of course, I’d also like to do the Bighorn Mountain 100.  I’d also like to do FANS again.  Do I even need to say it?  There aren’t enough weekends for all the good races.

There are many more marathon than there used to be.  There are hundreds, perhaps thousands.  Still, I could probably do all my favorites if they were spread evenly throughout the year.  Some months are thin.  Others are congested.  There aren’t that many races in the summer or winter months, but there are tons of good races in late May and early June.

I’ve never done the Hatfield & McCoy Marathon.  All my friends rave about this race.  I’d love to do it, but when can I fit it in?  It’s in early June.  I also hear good things about the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon.  I love the Mickelson Trail.  This race, unfortunately, is the same weekend as FANS.

My bucket list of international races includes Stockholm, Copenhagen, Luxembourg and the Great Wall of China.  You guessed it.  They’re all in late May or early June.

Late September and October are also busy.  I can’t do the Ely Marathon this year, because I’m doing Berlin that weekend.  I can’t do the Blue Ox Marathon because it’s the same weekend as Chicago.  I’d love to do the Budapest Marathon, but that’s also the same day as Chicago.  The Amsterdam Marathon conflicts with Des Moines.

Can we move some of these races to July or August?