It really is amazing how the idea of a moment yet to pass can consume you in small but impactful ways. I had a very busy semester, so I didn’t have the luxury of letting my brain compulsively obsess over the thought of running for 24 straight hours. However, it certainly crept into my sub-conscious a fair amount, and I spent far more time planning and training for this event than any previous event. However, when the gun went off and I began making relentless forward progress, it still took a few laps for the enormity of what lay ahead of me to sink in.
I very quickly began chatting with other runners. Runners in general, and ultra-runners especially, are a very eager bunch when it comes to conversing during races. I’m guessing it has something to do with the knowledge that you are free to talk about all things running to your heart’s content, and those around you won’t start rolling their eyes after a few minutes. We geeked out over recent ultra-running world records, shared race stories, and discussed life. When you have nothing else to do except circle a one-mile loop for 24 hours, you are free to discuss a whole host of topics. The result of this instant discussion was a pace that was perhaps a bit ambitious for such a long trial. I’m sure you are all completely surprised by this, eh?
Luckily, the beautiful epicurean, being the amazing support team that she is, was quick to remind me to “slow the f*** down!” I let the words ring in my ears on repeated occasions, and finally settled into a reasonable pace after about 5 miles. I was able to find runner after runner eager to chat, and meeting so many committed people who understood what this event meant was a welcome and uplifting experience. Not the least of which, I found myself in the presence of true greatness as Yiannis Kouros had traveled to Arizona to attempt to break the 6-day world record. To say that this man is a living legend is a bit of an understatement. He holds pretty much every ultra-distance world record from 12 hours (which just fell) to 1000 miles. The opportunity to share the course with him was an amazing reminder of just how small and connected the ultra-running community truly is, and how much I enjoy it. Everyone supports everyone else, and simply wants to see each other succeed in whatever endeavor they are after.
The miles continued to tick by as I rounded each corner and continued to cross the timing mat. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect (low 70s, cloudy) and I was feeling really good. I continually found inspiration in the stories of others, as well as the inspirational running quotes the epicurean had printed on signs she would randomly hold up as I passed by. Those signs were a big hit with many of the runners! I tackled the first 25 miles, stopping along the way for water and snacks, and my legs were still feeling fresh as could be. I was happy to know that my little trek of Camelback Mountain a few days prior had not been too much of a strain.
Right before the race began, I heard a woman, very clearly a veteran of such events, talking with a few other 24- hour runners. She encouraged them to aim for reaching the first 50 miles in 10 hours, which would mean 14 hours to run the next 50 miles. I hadn’t given much thought to mileage goals at that point, but after quickly doing the pacing math in my head, it seems like pretty solid advice so I figured I’d see if it worked for me. Although it is a timed race, meaning you simply run as far as you can or want in the allotted time, most 24-hour runners I met were hoping to hit 100 miles. Up to this point, my longest run at been 53 miles, and although I had conservatively aimed to hit at least 100K, I was not so secretly gunning for my first 100-miler as well. I was cautiously optimistic but still made a point of asking the race staff if it would be possible to keep running past 24 hours if I ended up close to 100 miles. They, of course, were most gracious and indicated that there would be no problem in doing so, and I wasn’t the first person to ask! All that being said, I hit the 50-mile mark in about 9 hours 30 minutes, and I was feeling confident in my chances of reaching 100.
Running all day, although long and relatively tiring, still seemed normal. I logged a majority of my training miles between dawn and dust. I knew that the true challenge, physically and mentally, would come when the sun went down. It may have been beautiful in Arizona, but Phoenix tilts on the same axis as Ames, which meant the sun set relatively early, as it had done over the same desert landscape for thousands of years. The aid station was full-service, and they offered meals at various times, so I managed to take a walk-break over the dinner hour. It felt nice to eat real food, as opposed to snacks and other nutrition supplements. The temperature dropped slowly but consistently, and by the time I hit the 12-hour mark, darkness had taken hold and the cold was creeping in. However, my Minnesota blood kept me warm, and the knowledge that every mile I ran from there on out was the longest I had ever run kept me energized and motivated.
The epicurean departed with the setting sun, but our rest “site” remained. The lounge chair we brought became a more and more tempting symbol of relief as the miles passed, but I resisted. I had no intention of stopping to rest or nap throughout the 24-hours, as I knew I was capable of staying awake. My overnight training run ended up being an even better predictor of my body’s fatigue than I imagined, and I was met with no surprises throughout the night. If anything, I felt less tired during the race than I had on my overnight training run!
As the hours dragged on, now slowly counting down from 12, I was able to embrace the darkness. In all reality, the course was very well-lit, both by the permanent lighting of Camelback Ranch, and the temporary lighting set up by Aravaipa Running, who organized the race. It was a welcome relief not to need a headlamp during the night, although I would have been ready with my Petzl if it was needed. We switched directions on the course every 4 hours to prevent repetition injuries, and it was amazing how detailed my memory of every aspect of the course became. I broke up the night was mini-goals for myself, whether it was looking ahead to my next stop at the aid station, or simply getting to a particular segment of the course before taking a walk break. I had memorized the course so well that I knew exactly how far I had to go and how long it was going to take me. At various points, I was even able to get a bit of shut-eye while running. I knew exactly when to open my eyes before approaching a turn.
As previously mentioned, I was looking forward to testing the endurance of my Garmin 910xt as well. Once I hit 75 miles, I began to keep a closer eye on my watch as the battery continued to drain. I received the “low battery” indicator around mile 80, and it finally died around mile 89. I had gotten almost 20 hours out of it, and would have probably been able to squeeze a few more miles out of it with some tweaks. I had initially planned on a 25 minute run/ 5 minute walk routine, and had set the watch up to give me those alerts. I ended up following more of a 1 mile run/ 1 minute walk routine, which worked much better for me, but I didn’t turn off the alert until at least half-way into the race. I fired up Strava on my iPhone 5 to track the remainder of the race, and I continued on my way.
Once I hit mile 90, I allowed myself to breathe a small sigh of relief and I gained some much-needed confidence that I could indeed reach 100 miles. The final 10 miles were the purest test of endurance I’ve ever experienced, as I continually pushed and motivated myself via different mind tricks and mini-goals, a quarter-mile at a time. I had pulled out my iPod and listened to a few Sherlock Holmes stories earlier in the evening to help pass the time, but by the time I reached the final 10 miles, this seemed like an unnecessary distraction. I received amazing amounts of encouragement from fellow-runners at various points in their own quests. After mile 95, I found myself rather giddy I was slowly pushed onward. My legs were tired, nothing tasted all that good, and the pings of sleep deprivation had crept in, but I was close!
I remember parts of the final lap, but more so the excitement and relief that came with crossing the timing mat and knowing I had reached 100 miles. I crossed with a fellow Maniac I had met on the course, and he echoed my joy and excitement at having reached such a milestone. He would reach his own 100-mile milestone in a few short laps. I hit the 100-mile mark at 22 hours 16 minutes, and kept going for a few more laps, mainly because I could.
In total, I finished with 103.93 miles per the timing system, and 105.2 miles per my Garmin stats. After turning in my timing chip, I picked up my finisher’s glass pint mug and 100-mile belt buckle, and hobbled back to our site to pack things up. There was no ceremony, no crowd, and no fanfare attached to the completion. I like it that way. There is a humbleness and down-to-earth attitude about ultra-running that sets it apart from other sports. Everyone is out there doing what they love, and the reward comes with the sense of accomplishment and experience of pushing yourself further than you thought possible. I did that, and I felt accomplished. My legs may have been sore to a degree I hadn’t felt in quite some time, but I had a huge grin on my face!
Many runners were still out on the course, including they intrepid 6-day runners. I still can’t wrap my head around running for 6-days, but I fear it’s not as far off in the distance I once thought it to be. Honestly, I never thought 100 miles was a distance I would reach, but I suppose I can say the same thing about my previous milestones as well. It was an experience I will never forget, and like a drug, it was a feeling I will continue to crave in the future. I’m in the process of finalizing my 2014 schedule now, so that “fix” isn’t far off. The “trial of miles” continues.
Note #1: Yiannis Kouros battled Joe Fejes for the 6-day title. They were within miles of each other for the entire race, which was amazing in itself. Ultimately, Fejes bested Kouros, tallying a bit over 555 miles for a new American record. Kouros was only 5 miles behind. INCREDIBLE!
Note #2: You didn’t think I’d leave without showing you my first belt buckle, did you?