Not What I Expected

I expected to hate it.

To most runners it sounds like complete and total Hell; and non-runners? Well, these kind of events just confirm their beliefs that we are completely insane and have some serious issues.

I mean, really, could it sound any worse?

Running Laps Around a High School Track for 24 Hours

I’ve never really been a fan of the fixed-time event format in ultrarunning.

Trail running has always been far more appealing to me. I prefer to start my race at a trailhead, in some beautiful area of the World, running through varying, exotic terrain, before finally (hopefully) finishing some 32, 40, 50, 62, or 100 miles away at yet another gorgeous trailhead – in other words, I like running mountain trails, through nature, from one point to another, best.

These fixed-time events consist of runners, circling some kind of track, at a fixed distance, for a fixed time, in an effort to accumulate as many miles as possible in that fixed amount of time. It’s a great way to chase distance records.

But, where trail running seems to be a rapidly growing format in the sport of ultramarathoning, fixed-time events, once the most popular form of the sport, have been seemingly fading with the new school.

On the surface, and from a layman view, there are a million-and-one reasons to see why this is true.

But, as a competitor on Saturday, I learned it goes much deeper than “the surface”.

This report… My Experience… is about going much deeper.

Which of These is Not Like the Other

Runners in the South Carolina 24 Hour race in Florence, SC

Can you pick out the athlete who clearly does not look like the other athletes? And I’m not talking about the candy-ass pose, long hair and flower tattoos, either.

Looking around, I knew I was outta place. Hell, I knew I was outta place the night before when I picked up 28-year-old, 130lb, World Record holder, Zach Bitter, at the airport, and learned of his amazing accomplishments. Or, when I met “whippet” Harvey Lewis and his girlfriend Kelly at the hotel, both looking like they were ripped from the pages of Runner’s World magazine.

Harvey, would go on to run just shy of 155 miles and qualify for the USA National Team.

But, I had some goals, too. I had never run 100 miles in under 24 hours, and I wanted to do it. Had I trained for this? Well, no, but I train very hard and fast at short distances, and have been clipping off some new, post-paralysis personal records at the 5K, 10K and half-marathon distances. Plus, I’m a pretty fit dude, with lots of confidence, so I thought that perhaps if I just went for it, I might just be able to do it.

While I may have gone into the event with a flippant, perhaps borderline disrespectful view of this style of running, I came out of the experience educated, humbled, and dare I say it – a fan?

Round and Round and Round We Go

I’m pretty sure their ultra racing careers now feel complete, as both super elites, Zach and Harvey, got to experience a ride in the Blue Beast Ultra-wagon as we made our way to the start. My 2003 Ford Excursion is becoming an iconic vehicle in the sport. Many a’stinky runner has spent some time inside her walls.

At the track, there was the usual buzz with a camera crew interviewing people who matter, Ray K running around snapping pictures, shaking hands, and being nutty. Runners were nervously pacing around while crews were setting up their runner’s aid stations and going over individual “game plans.”

I didn’t have a crew. Nor a game plan. But I knew American Record holder, Joe Fejes, would be there, so I didn’t worry. I knew he’d take care of me even if he wasn’t officially my crew.

At 10:00 a.m., we met our individual time keepers, all students of Ray’s, shook hands, took a group pic, and then, well, …started running.

The Crying Game

I’m just going to get right to the most interesting part of the race, at least to me. Then, I am going to share some of the elements that made this kind of running so unique and compelling to me.

First, one of the things I found so incredibly interesting was the amount of crying I witnessed during the race. Very early into the event, more than one of the females began experiencing issues, mostly due to nutrition, hydration, or my personal belief, the heat. These are fierce, capable female competitors and as a newbie, I was a little surprised.

Because you are looping a 400m track, you see pretty much everything. I saw girls crying, hunched-over dry-heaving and/or actually throwing up. A coupe of ‘em couldn’t eat, nor keep food down, and it was causing them much distress, so naturally, they’d cry.

Now you might think I’m being derogatory, but I’m not. I was fascinated. Why? Because every single one of these females bounced back in one capacity or another. While they most likely never recovered to the point they wanted to be, nor did they end up with the race they may have expected, most continued to log miles, stayed on the track the entire 24 hours, …and well, not that it’s any great feat, but they beat the crap outta me.

The lesson for me – maybe, as dudes, a good cry is exactly what we need to blow off debilitating race drama, and get on with things.

+1 for the females.

A Game of Risk and Reward

Now certainly, different strategies exist for different athletes, but generally, run too fast, too early, and you can be sure to pay for it. Begin slowly, taking very short, frequent walk breaks, and you can stay out on the track much longer, feeling much better.

While I don’t necessarily believe I went out too terribly fast, I did run the first half-marathon or so without any walk breaks whatsoever. This ended up being a mistake, and by the time it got really hot, with a driving, unrelenting sun overhead, and only about 3-4 hours into the race, I was already doing that sludge run with my head hanging heavily, and my pace crawling down the track.

“Keep doing what your doing,” Joe would yell out each lap. “We’ll worry about quality miles later.”

“F U, Joe.”

I started to get really concerned, so of course, instead of reviewing my own shortcomings and mistakes, I tried to blame the event.

“I hate this sh*t!” I’d yell at Joe. But secretly, I was enjoying the “event,”  just not my uber-evident lack of fixed-time experience and race management.

Harvey to the Rescue

Harvey Lewis, you know, the dude that ripped off 155 miles? Well, he’s the proverbial Gandhi of running, I’m convinced. Everything he said to me on the track proved to be true. He clearly has a wealth of knowledge and experience, and while he could have just thought to himself, “screw this fat guy constantly in my way,” he instead took time out to instruct me.

The dude would run up on me and tell me to walk more as it was evident I was fading fast. He suggested that I walk half of the turns and run all of the straights. If I still didn’t recover, walk the complete turns, and run the straights.

It worked.

Like magic.

I was ripping off laps and miles at much faster splits.

Even Joe noticed, and kept saying, “whatever you are doing, you are looking much, much stronger.”

I smiled all proud and stuff because Joe is not only my friend, he’s a bit of a hero, …even if he is a bald and deaf bastard.

This strategy held me together tightly, for a really, really long time, and by the time I hit 100K (62 miles), I was still running pretty damn strong, with no issues beyond the expected level of fatigue and muscle soreness.

The Dam Breaks Loose

How many of you are sick of hearing about my paralyzed diaphragm? Wave hands wildly, it’s ok. I get it. But it is a very real circumstance for me, and because of it, I have some unique challenges when it comes to running – some of which I have yet to discover …as I did on Saturday.

I had just completed 320 laps I think, about 78 miles, or so, and started to notice that I could not recover from the walk breaks anymore. I’d try to run and my chest would just tighten like crazy, and I’d start coughing like a asthmatic. People’s natural reaction is to offer me inhalers, thinking its my lungs, which I guess it is in the end, but it’s my breathing-muscle fatigue that prohibits me from clearing my lungs.

Anyway, with my inability to take in adequate oxygen, the all-too-familiar chain events began:

It’s always very scary, and VERY frustrating. As a dude who grew up as a kind of golden child, with perfect health, these circumstances always make me feel like the handicap that I am, and I get really, really down on myself.

And like that, at ~80 miles, my race was done.

Joe later told me it was like a light switch – from running really well and consistent, to ghost-white and clueless. I even had to crawl out of my truck, where I was resting, to ask Joe for help as the coughing became uncontrollable. My body was trying to shut down, I think.

But, true to the top-notch quality of this race, Ray K ushered over a doctor and another guy, and they wrapped me in about 5 sleeping bags, and talked to me to help calm me down. I think I was sorta delirious as I remember going on and on about how proud I was of my grandfather. Sorry guys, if I was weird – I was oxygen-depleted.

And You Say You Are Now a Fan?

I am.

First, I love things I suck at because its gives me a huge number of goals to shoot for and benchmarks to break. I will get my 100 miles in under 24 hours. You can count on that, and I will not be stopped because of this limitation. I will train harder, race smarter, and learn from those around me. I must encourage others with limitations that you can still have goals. Still chase dreams. Still beat the odds.

It’s my therapy.

Second, I really liked the concept of being able to race, and view the race, the entire time I was on the track. It’s a constant education inside a community of like-minded friends.

Third, I enjoyed running with some of the most incredible male and female athletes in our sport, and witnessing some amazing records go down. Even if some of the expecteds didn’t break records, watching them run, recover, and race manage was a virtual ultramarathon clinic for me.

And lastly, this is ultrarunning, and one of the greatest things about it is how the mutual suffering brings people together. Once again, I made new friends, turned some virtual relationships into real friendships, and dug myself deeper into this culture we call ultramarathon running.

So, yup, I’m doing another one.

Just have to decide which one.