Sunday, August 29, 2021

Race Report: 2021 FANS 12-Hour Race

On August 28, I did the FANS 12-Hour Race.  You can register as either a runner or a walker.  I registered as a walker.

FANS has 6-hour, 12-hour, and 24-hour races.  Over the years, I’ve done FANS 13 times.  I’ve done the 24-hour run, the 24-hour walk, the 12-hour run, and the 6-hour run.  This was my first time doing the 12-hour walk.

When I did the FANS 24-hour run in 2019, it was my 49th lifetime ultramarathon.  I hadn’t done another ultramarathon since then, so I was long overdue to finally do my 50th ultra.  Since this was my 50th ultra, it seemed appropriate to set a goal of 50 miles.

FANS has become popular among race-walkers who have a goal of walking 100 miles in 24 hours.  In any given year, there are anywhere from three to five experienced walkers pursuing this goal.  I did this in 2018, but I didn’t feel I had done enough training to do that this year.  To walk 50 miles in 12 hours, I needed to go at the same pace, but I only had to sustain that pace for half as long.  In particular, I didn’t have to keep going during the difficult nighttime hours.

The race was held at Fort Snelling State Park, which is right across the highway from the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport.  Our course was a 2.28 mile loop around Snelling Lake, starting and finishing near the beach.

About half of the loop is paved.  The rest is a dirt trail.  From the start/finish area, we followed an asphalt path that leads from the beach area to a fishing dock.

Next, we followed a trail around the west side of the lake.  It’s mostly packed dirt, but parts of it were covered with rocks to minimize erosion.  It’s not a bad surface for running, but I’ve found it to be somewhat uncomfortable for race-walking, since my feet barely clear the ground.

The west side of the lake is so close to the airport that we went right by the towers that hold some of the runway lights.  Planes flew right over us all day.

On the southeast side of the lake, we followed a park road.  The road is narrow, so they marked off a corridor with cones.

The organizers made some small changes to the course this year.  There used to be a steep drop where we left a paved road to turn onto a paved path.  It wasn’t very long, but it was awkward, especially for walking.  The revised course kept us on the road through the park a little longer, eliminating the need to go down that hill.

Staying on the road a little bit longer gave us good views of the Minnesota River to our right.

We finished each lap by crossing a parking lot and going up this hill to get back to the beach area.

Another change was the “short lap” that we can switch to in the last hour of the race.  It used to be a short out-and-back along the same path used for the “long laps.”  With two-way traffic, it got to be rather congested.  The new short lap was a loop around a parking lot that was marked with traffic cones.

Last Sunday, I went to Snelling Lake and walked a few laps to get a feel for the revised course.  The trail was in good condition.  Since then, we’ve had rain almost every day, including a few thunderstorms.

This race is normally held in early June, but it was rescheduled for late August because of COVID-19.  June tends to be a rainy month.  On any given day, there’s about a 50% chance of a thunderstorm.  August, by contrast is usually dry.

This year, we didn’t have typical weather.  June was unusually dry.  Until a week ago, we were also having dry weather in August.  Since then, we’ve been having the kind of weather I normally expect in June.  I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.

On Friday, I went to the pre-race dinner, which was at Snelling Lake, near where the race starts and finishes.  Before leaving, I made a point of inspecting the trail.  It was in good condition a week ago, but I didn’t know if it would be muddy after all the recent rain.  The trail was wet, but it didn’t seem to be muddy.  My biggest concern was puddles in low spots along the paved trail.  Unlike the dirt trail, these didn’t seem to drain well.

There was an area where we could set up tents.  I shared a campsite with my brother-in-law, John, who was doing the 24-hour walk.  I had hoped we wouldn’t need a tent this year, but the forecast included a strong chance of a thunderstorm in the evening.  The race started at 8:00 AM, but John and I both arrived a couple hours before the race, so we could set up a tent to keep our gear dry.

When we were setting up, it was only about 70 degrees, but the humidity was high.  Just carrying the tent and my other gear from the car had me sweating from head to toe.  That’s not how you want to feel before you even start racing.

After setting up our campsite, John and I each checked in for the race, which included weighing in.  During the race, we would need to weigh in every four hours.

The primary method of lap counting was chip timing using a chip we wore on an ankle strap.  Manual lap counting by volunteers was the back-up method.  If I lost track of how many laps I walked, the quickest way to find out was to ask the lap counters.

With the emergence of the COVID-19 delta variant, health officials are now advising people to wear masks, even for outdoor gatherings.  This was reflected in the COVID-19 protocols for the race.  The volunteers all wore masks.  Runners and walkers were expected to wear face coverings while interacting with people at the aid stations, but we could take them off when we were going around the course.  While we were setting up, I wore a surgical mask.  I took off my mask after the race started, but I wore a buff around my neck, so I could easily cover my face each time I had stop in the start/finish area and interact with one of the volunteers.

It’s often hard to set goals for longer races, because you just don’t know what pace you can sustain for that many miles.  I usually set multiple goals.  For this race, I had three goals.

My first goal was to walk 50 miles.  To do that, I needed to walk at an average pace of 14:24 per mile.  Nearly all of my training has been at a faster pace than that.  In the last month and a half, I’ve walked seven marathons at paces ranging from 12:03 to 13:04.  I knew I could do that pace comfortably for the first six hours.  I didn’t know how much I might need to slow down to sustain my pace for 12 hours, but I was pretty confident I could easily get to 50 miles.

My next goal was to be the first-place walker.  I don’t think anyone has ever walked 50 miles without taking first.  Typically, the best walkers are doing the 24-hour race.

My stretch goal was to set a new course record.  The course record for the 12-hour walk was 55.7 miles.  To walk that far, I would need an average pace of 12:56 per mile.  This seemed plausible, but ambitious.  I didn’t know if it was a realistic goal, but I decided to start the race at that pace and re-evaluate after a few hours.

The 6-hour, 12-hour, and 24-hour races all started together.  Before doing our first full lap around the lake, we did a 1.78 mile out-and-back.  The purpose of the out-and-back was to make the 100-mile mark align with the end of a lap.  100 miles is a common goal for people doing the 24-hour race.

I wore a GPS watch, because it was the easiest way to know how fast I was walking.  I’ve used this watch for several marathons, but I’ve never used it for anything as long as 12 hours.  The advertised battery life is 11 hours.  For that reason, I also wore a regular stopwatch as a back-up for when the battery died on my GPS watch.

Early in the race, I wanted to keep my pace between 12:30 and 13:00 per mile.  Ideally, my pace should be closer to 13 minutes, but I knew I would occasionally lose a minute or two for a bathroom stop or for one of the mandatory weigh-ins.  Having a few miles as fast as 12:30 would help compensate for these stops.  If I had a mile that was faster than 12:30, I’d throttle back my effort in the next mile.  If I had one that was slower than 13 minutes, I’d speed up a little in the next mile.

That was the plan, but it didn’t work out that way.  I walked my first mile in 11:55.  I knew that was too fast, so I told myself to ease up a little.  My second mile was even faster.  It was 11:42.

After that, I began to settle down.  My third mile was still fast, but it wasn’t nearly as fast as the first two.  It wasn’t until my fourth mile that my pace was within my target range.

For the next several miles, I averaged about 12:30.  Most of those miles were within my target range, but a few were too fast.  None were too slow.

There were two aid stations along the course.  Aid station 1 was in the start/finish area.  Aid station 2 was at the opposite end of the lake, in a spot that was easily accessible by road.  Both aid stations had water and Gatorade.  They also had various snack foods.

In marathons, I don’t typically eat much solid food.  I can get enough calories from sports drinks.  In a 12-hour race, it’s more important to replace the calories you’re burning, so you don’t bonk.  In addition to drinking a small cup of Gatorade at each aid station, I sometimes ate cookies or other snacks that digest easily.  I rarely stopped for more than a few seconds.  When I ate solid food, I ate it while walking.  That slowed me down a little, so I tried to eat quickly.

After a few laps, they stopped setting out cups of Gatorade at aid station 1.  The Gatorade was attracting bees.  I could grab a cup and fill it manually, but that took time.  Instead, I drank a cup of water and ate some cookies or an energy bar.  At aid station 2, they were still setting out cups filled with Gatorade, so I always drank Gatorade there.

After about 10 miles, I started to notice a blister on my right heel.  I used to get painful blisters on my heels whenever I race-walked.  I eventually learned I was overstriding.  I developed these blisters, because I was making contact with the back of my heel.

This year, I’ve made a conscious effort to improve my stride.  Instead of reaching for a longer stride, I try to speed up by increasing my cadence.  I still have room for improvement, but I haven’t been getting heel blisters … until now.

That blister told me I was overstriding.  I tried to be careful not to plant my feet too far in front of me, but the blister gradually got worse.  I just had to do my best to tune out the pain.

At this point in the race, my sights were set on walking 56 miles.  To do that, I needed to walk 14 miles every three hours.  When I finished my 14th mile, I checked my watch.  I not only got there in three hours, but I was more than six minutes ahead of schedule.  I anticipated making a few bathroom stops, and I would also need to stop for weigh-ins.  Having six minutes in the bank meant I could afford the downtime from those stops.

I told myself before the race that I would start on pace for 56 miles, but evaluate how it felt after three hours.  At this point, the pace felt manageable.  I had the sense that I was working a little harder than I should, but I also realized I was going faster than I needed to.  My average pace was 20 to 30 seconds faster than what I needed to get to 56 miles.  If I slowed down by 20 to 30 seconds, the pace should be sustainable.  Unfortunately, I didn’t do that.  I kept going at the same pace as before.

By now it was getting hotter.  It was a sunny morning, and the sun was getting higher in the sky.  Most of the course is shady, but there were places where I could feel the heat of the sun.

After seven full laps, it was about 20 minutes before noon.  We were due for our first weigh-in at noon.  I didn’t want to wait until everyone was weighing in, because I might have to wait in line.  They only have one scale.  As I went by the medical tent, I asked if it was too early to weigh in.  The medical volunteer didn’t have her log sheets out yet, so she told me to wait until my next lap.

When I finished my 19th mile, it was still about four minutes before noon.  If I could do 19 miles every four hours, I’d finish 57 miles.  I once again asked myself if the pace felt manageable.  I felt about the same as I did an hour earlier.  I once again reasoned that I was probably working too hard, but if I slowed down by 20-30 seconds per mile, I’d still be on pace, and the pace would probably be sustainable.  Once again, I found it difficult to slow down.

I think I could’ve done a better job of managing my pace if the entire course was paved.  I found myself working a little harder to make sure I wouldn’t slow down too much on the trail side of the course.  More often than not, I overcompensated.  I also felt like I slowed way down while drinking at aid station 2.  Then I would speed up to compensate, as I turned onto the road.

Usually when people go too fast, it’s motivated by greed.  In my case, it’s usually motivated by fear.  When I speed up, it’s because I’m afraid of slowing down.

As I neared the end of that lap, I saw about five people standing near the medical tent.  I was worried that I’d have to wait in a long line to get weighed.  As it turns out, three of the people I saw were volunteers who just happened to be standing near the medical tent.  There were currently only two runners in line to weigh in.  By the time I got there, there was only one runner ahead of me.  It only took me 30 seconds to weigh in.

My weight was one pound lower than it was before the race.  That was reasonable.  The next four hours, however, were going to be hotter, as the temperature climbed into the 80s.  If I didn’t increase my fluid intake, I’d probably lose a few more pounds.

I started drinking two cups of Gatorade at aid station 2.  At aid station 1, I continued to drink a cup of water and eat a snack.  I was trying to balance my need to take in more fluids with my need to take in enough calories.

After my first weigh-in, I pushed the pace in the next mile.  I walked that mile in 12:57.  That was my slowest mile so far, but only because I lost 30 seconds at the medical tent.  If not for that 30 second delay, I would’ve walked that mile in 12:27.  Once again, I went too fast out of fear of slowing down.

For more than an hour, I had been anticipating the need for a bathroom stop.  I waited until after my first weigh in.  I didn’t want to lose time in two consecutive miles, so I waited one more lap before finally stopping.  My bathroom stop took almost a minute.  This time I didn’t try to make up the lost time.  I walked that mile in 13:48.  I was a bit distressed when I realized that even without the bathroom stop, that mile would’ve been one of my slowest.  I didn’t feel like I slowed down.

In my next mile, I got back on pace.  Actually, I was well under my target pace.  I walked that one in 12:23.  Are you noticing a trend?  I kept speeding up, mostly because I was afraid of slowing down.

Eventually, aid station 2 also started having problems with bees.  They stopped setting out cups of Gatorade, so I changed my routine.  I grabbed a cup of water, quickly drank it, and filled it with Gatorade from the dispenser.  I worried that I wasn’t taking in as many calories, so sometimes I also ate about a dozen jelly beans.

By now, I noticed a blister on left heel.  That wasn’t surprising.  Whatever problems I had with my stride, it was bound to effect both of my feet eventually.

On one of my laps, I noticed they had small cups of pickle juice at aid station 1.  I was sweating profusely, but I wasn’t doing anything to replace the electrolytes.  For the next several laps, I drank a small cup of pickle juice and followed it with a cup of water.

All around the course, there were signs for common mileage goals, such as marathon, 50K, 50 miles, and 100 miles.  The signs indicated how many laps you needed to complete.  In my 11th lap (at 10.7 laps to be precise), I reached the marathon mark.  I got there in 5:27:55.  I’ve walked seven marathons in the last two months.  Only two of them were faster than that.

That should’ve been a warning sign that I was going too fast.  Up until now, the pace wasn’t difficult, but I knew it would get much more difficult in the second half.  I was almost half done, and I felt like I could fight for it, if necessary, in the second half.

My 27th mile took 13:23.  Excluding the mile with the bathroom stop, this was the first time I took more than 13 minutes for any mile.  I should’ve seen the handwriting on the wall, but I fought hard to pick up my pace.  I was able to do it.  I walked the next mile in 12:34.  It took much more effort, however.  I should’ve realized this effort wasn’t going to be sustainable, especially now that it was getting so much hotter.  If there’s a point in the race where I should’ve abandoned my goal of setting a course record, this was it.  At this point, I could’ve backed off and paced myself to get to 50 miles.  I didn’t.

At the end of six hours, I had completed 28.7 miles.  To equal the course record, I needed to walk 27 miles in the second half.  I wanted to recompute what pace I needed the rest of the way.  At first, I was too mentally fatigued.  Then I realized that it was an easy calculation.  I needed to average 13:20 per mile over the next six hours.

I started getting cloudy.  It was still hot and humid, but it was a relief to no longer feel the sun.  It also started getting windier.  The wind helped me cope with the heat, but it made life difficult for the volunteers.  Cups started blowing off the tables at the aid stations.  Then trash bins started blowing over.  One particularly strong gust of wind toppled one of the canopies.

During my 13th lap, I passed the sign for 50K.  I thought it was odd that I didn’t remember getting my split for 31 miles.  50K is about 31.1 miles.  I looked at my watch, and it was still at 30.99 miles.

It’s not unusual for a GPS watch to be off, but it’s more common for them to overmeasure.  I’ve seen a GPS watch undermeasure before, but it’s usually in a wooded area on a trail with lots of turns.  If the watch isn’t in constant communication with the satellites, it can “miss” a turn and assume your route was straighter than it was.  Earlier in the race, I had a split that seemed surprisingly slow.  This was my first clue that I didn’t really slow down in that mile.  It just seemed like I slowed down, because my watch didn’t measure the distance accurately.

On one of my laps, some people supporting another participant offered me a freezer pop.  I appreciated the offer, but I had just finished a cup of water and some cookies, so I declined.

Bruce Leasure is the race-walking judge.  He continually walks the course in the opposite direction, so he can observe the form of all the walkers.  He’s mainly concerned with walkers who are attempting to earn a centurion badge, but he pays attention to anyone who’s walking.  Late in the race, Bruce commented that I was leaning to my right.  I’ve seen other runners or walkers do that, but I don’t think I’ve ever had this problem before.  I didn’t know why I had this problem, but it was a cause for concern.

As I continued to get fatigued, I absent-mindedly walked right past aid station 1 without stopping to drink.  Then I remembered the people with the freezer pops.  I asked if I could have one.  They cut one open for me, and that went a long way toward making up for not drinking anything at the aid station.

I finished my 17th lap just after 3:30.  We were due for our next weigh-in at 4:00.  I asked if I could weigh in early, but I was told to wait until my next lap.  I had two reasons for wanting to weigh in early.  First, it was the best way to avoid a line.  Also, I wanted to know if I was getting dehydrated, and the weigh-ins were my only source of hard data.

During my next lap, I heard thunder.  Knowing that a severe thunderstorm was in the forecast, I pondered whether rain would be good news or bad news.  It would help cool me down, but it would also cause problems.  I didn’t feel any drops, and I only heard the thunder once.

I finished my 38th mile before 4:00.  That meant I was still on pace to finish 57 miles.  I would be happy to get to 56, but I was getting skeptical about maintaining my pace for that many more miles.  It would’ve been tempting to tell myself I just needed 12 miles to get to 50.  It also would’ve been smart, but that would’ve meant giving up on a course record.  I wasn’t ready to do that, even though I was starting to struggle.

After that lap, I weighed in.  My weight was the same as it was four hours earlier.  That was a pleasant surprise.  I didn’t know if I was taking in enough calories, but I appeared to be taking in enough fluid.

Weighing in took about 30 seconds, but I didn’t try to make up the lost time.  That mile was slow, but I was still on pace for the course record.  It’s possible I would need another bathroom stop, but it’s also possible I wouldn’t have any more downtime.

I heard thunder again.  A short time later, I felt a few drops.  Nothing more came of it.

For 39 miles, I not only stayed on pace for the course record, but I was often going faster than necessary.  In my 40th mile, I felt like I was slowing down.  I wondered if I would have to finally abandon that goal and lower my sights to just getting to 50.  My split for that mile was 13:28.  At this point, that was probably still fast enough.  After doing several miles that were too fast, I probably only needed to average 13:30 the rest of the way.

I expected that mile to be slower.  I felt like I was slowing down.  Seeing that I was still on pace, I did my best to keep it up.  I didn’t really believe I could sustain that pace, but I tried.  Within a few minutes, I felt like I was slowing down dramatically.  I wasn’t sure how much I slowed down.  My pace might have been as slow as 15 or 16.

For the first time in the race, I knew I wouldn’t get the course record.  I only needed 10 more miles to get to 50, and I still had three and a half hours.  Even at a casual three miles per hour pace, I would have plenty of time.  I still tried to do the best pace I could manage, but my goal was now 50 miles.

At this point, I was almost done with a lap.  I turned into the parking lot.  In the distance, I could see the start/finish line and the lap counting tent.  Then I came apart at the seams.  It was suddenly difficult to keep walking at any pace.  By the time I made it up the hill, I was staggering.  I knew I couldn’t do 10 more miles.  Just getting to the end of this lap got increasingly difficult.

When I finally got there, I told my lap counter I was done.  He told me I finished with 40.61 miles.  Interestingly enough, my watch recorded only 40.54.  Another volunteer, asked me to turn in my timing chip.  If he didn’t say something, I probably would not have remembered.

After the race, I downloaded the data from my watch, and Garmin Connect drew this map of my route.  In one of my laps, it shows my route cutting right across the lake.  I assure you, I never left the course and went for a swim.  Most likely, my watch wasn’t getting a signal for several minutes, and it assumed my route was a straight line.  This probably happened before 50K.  My best guess is that it was my 23rd mile.  My time for that mile was surprisingly slow, and it was around that corner of the lake.

I staggered back to my tent.  I stopped briefly at the aid station to eat some food.  It wasn’t far to my tent, but I didn’t know if I could make it without taking a rest break.  I looked for place to sit down, but I didn’t see one.

When I got to my tent, I sat down for a few minutes.  I was careful not to sit for too long, because I knew I would get stiff.

When I could, I walked back to my car and drove home.  It rained lightly while I was driving home, but it wasn’t the thunderstorm I expected.  That came later in the evening.

It wasn’t until after I got home that I realized I had broken one of my rules.  No matter how bad you feel, you never quit when you’re winning a race.  I was so focused on mileage goals, that I forgot that one of my goals was to win the 12-hour walk.  When I stopped, I had a huge lead.  Walkers still on the course were still adding to their totals.  It seemed unlikely that 40.61 miles would be enough to win the race.  I wouldn’t find out until the next morning.

I ate a light dinner, took a bath, and stretched.  My legs were stiff and sore.  I went to bed early, in hope of getting a few hours of sleep and then going back to the park to support John.

I was sleepy, but I couldn’t get to sleep.  About once an hour, I had to get up to pee.  I made four trips to the bathroom.  Where was all this liquid coming from?  I was still awake at midnight.  Then I started hearing thunder.  I eventually fell asleep and slept for about two hours.

When I woke up, I weighed myself.  I was down four pounds compared to my weight the previous morning.  During the race, I appeared to be maintaining my weight, but that was an illusion.  I probably had food and fluids in my stomach that weren’t getting absorbed.  My tissues were getting dehydrated.  After the race, I peed out most of those fluids.

I took a quick bath, ate a light breakfast, and got ready to go back to the lake.  My race was done, but the 24-hour race was still going on.  I got there around 3:30.  John looked OK, but he was no longer on pace to reach his mileage goal.  I learned that the race had to be suspended twice during the night because of thunderstorms.  When that happens, nobody is allowed to start another lap.  Everyone takes shelter until it’s safe to resume running.  The clock keeps running, and the race still finishes at the same time.  The 12-hour race wasn’t affected by either delay, but people doing the 24-hour race lost about four hours.

I did what I could to support John for the next few hours.  Then, at 6:30, I started my volunteer shift as a lap counter for the short laps.

After the race, we packed up as quickly as we could, and then we attended the post-race breakfast and awards presentation.  Because I stopped walking when I did, another walker eventually passed me to win the walking division of the 12-hour race.  I took second place.

John wasn’t expecting to be competitive in the 24-hour walk, but he kept moving long after several other walkers quit.  As a result, John won the walking division in the 24-hour race.

I’m still trying to figure out what went wrong with my race.  Some things are obvious.  Some things aren’t.  Let’s start with the obvious.  I pursued a goal that was too ambitious, even when it should’ve been obvious that the pace was no longer sustainable.  I kept up that pace until it broke me, and as a result, I was no longer able to continue.  That caused me to fail to reach two other goals that should’ve been attainable.

Now for the stuff that isn’t as obvious.  I’m puzzled as to why I collapsed so quickly and so completely.  I’ve had plenty of races where I started too fast and crashed.  In every case, I deteriorated gradually.  This is the first time I’ve gone straight from “still on pace” to “unable to move at any pace.”

Heat and/or dehydration was probably a contributing factor, but I didn’t experience any of the usual symptoms.  I didn’t have any shortness of breath or disorientation.  I didn’t have any muscle cramps.  Certainly, the heat must’ve made me tire faster, but it didn’t seem like I had any symptoms consistent with such a sudden collapse.  Even when I’ve had symptoms of heat stress, I was still able to move at a slower pace.

I also don’t know why I started leaning to my right.  Bruce wasn’t the only person to notice that.  A few other people commented after the race.  Apparently, it started after about six hours and gradually got worse.  I was never aware of it before Bruce said something.  Even then, I couldn’t tell.  I need to do some research to find out what causes this symptom.

Race Statistics
Distance:  40.61 miles
Official Time:  12 hours
Actual Time:  8:33:12
Average Pace:  12:38
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  440
Minnesota Marathons/Ultras:  83
Marathons/Ultras Walking:  22

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