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.