“There’s Dad, going in circles again.” It was easy to picture my four children—one at each turn of the track at the Louis Madrid Sports Complex—yelling that familiar refrain as I made my way round and round and round and round during the 24 hour Run Josh Run event on April 28-29.
Before we moved west, my wife and I owned a house at the intersection of Long Corner Road and Frederick Road in Mount Airy, Maryland. What I will probably remember most about the house is that it was near the highest point in Howard County and all runs finished up hill. My kids’ top memory might be of me circling the driveway. The property had access from each of the two roads and I would rarely … occasionally … okay, okay … often head out one driveway, belatedly remember something important, and pull back in the other driveway. I did this driving; I did this biking; I did this running. The neighbors probably thought I was the most scatterbrained guy in the county. And my kids loved to tease me about it, even when I was sometimes remembering an item that they had left behind. One vacation trip I think we circled three times before hitting the road for good. It got so I heard “There’s Dad, going in circles again” anytime I turned around for any reason, anywhere.
To me, running 100 miles around a track doesn’t seem a completely irrational proposition. And so, from Saturday 10 a.m. to Sunday 8 a.m., I did 404 circuits of a 400 meter track. 100.413 miles. My previous post—Hoping for Heaven, Preparing for Hell—talked about my preparations for the event. This is my post-race assessment of the overall experience and a breakdown of what went right, and what went wrong during my second 100 mile ultra.
Will it fly high?
The simple answer … no.
The more complete answer … yes … a little … eventually.
With the Leadville 100 mile Race Across the Sky as my only experience at this distance, I went in expecting some of the same highs, lows, and obstacles I encountered in that life-altering race, but it was hard to approach Run Josh Run with the same sense of awe and challenge that the majestic terrain of the Rockies presented in Leadville. Now I know that running ultra distances on a track is a different beast; perhaps slightly less intimidating, but still with teeth.
The first major, obvious difference is that there is no change in elevation. No hills might seem a positive at first, but I discovered it isn’t. You can’t coast down a long, gradual downhill; you don’t get that variation in stride going uphill that relieves some muscles while taxing others; the distraction of a changing landscape is absent. What you see is the same, lap after lap.
I didn’t plan my re-fueling as carefully as I did for Leadville. After all, the “aid-station” is available every freaking lap! If I got hungry, I could eat, if I got thirsty, I could drink … right? That theory sort of worked out as far as hydration, but it failed completely in terms of getting enough fuel in the tank. Without a dedicated crew to ride herd on me, I found that I wasn’t interested in thinking about my carb intake. When I thought about it and felt like it, I ate; otherwise, I let it slide. It slid way too much.
In a race like Leadville, you have distinct, fixed points that work as magnets, drawing you forward. As you reach one aid station, you revel in that accomplishment and start thinking about what lies ahead. Your crew makes you do what you need to do. There were many highs for me in my first 100 mile race, and almost as many lows. My emotions were not as strongly engaged for this 24-hour run.
I’m gonna let the music move me around
We arrived at the track a little before 9 a.m. It was windy and it took longer to get the tarp set up, using the car as part of our “tent.” What I hadn’t thought about was that the exhaust pipe would be inside the tent and that made running the engine problematic. That put a crimp on my plans to use the car as a power source for my computer and post updates during the race.
It turned out I don’t think I would have committed the time to post even if the computer had been available. When the race director surprised everyone by yelling “go” without a pre-race meeting, or any warning, I rushed to get my Garmin started and headed around for the first lap. Once I settled into what I thought was an easy pace, I had trouble thinking about anything except continuing. Although it was very windy, it seemed as though I was only running into it for a very short section on one turn. The stands provided a wind-break on one side and I still got pushed along on the other. This went on for several hours and it wasn’t long before I was way ahead of my planned splits.
A vivid memory of the run will be the huge American flag about a mile away at the Holiday Inn on Grand Avenue. Its stars and stripes were visible through a tree-framed gap as I came into the first turn and the wind was stiff enough to keep Old Glory flying straight all through the day and into the night. One of the reasons I didn’t mind the wind was that, without it, the flag would have hung unseen.
My wife, Kathleen, was also taking part in the event, with a goal of 50 miles. She was running strong, on a pace that would give 50 miles before the halfway point. Her longest training run had been 10 miles and she ran 12 before she began taking walking breaks and helping me by getting protein shakes, water bottles, and other items ready.
As the wind weakened, it shifted direction and began to give as much resistance as it did aid. By then, I felt committed to maintaining the pace and I let the music playing on the PA system move me around the track. Any time I my energy was flagging, the right song blasted out and kept me moving. A song I hadn’t heard before really pumped me up. As it finished, I circled my finger in the air to get them to play it again. The song, I discovered, was “Comeback Kid (That’s My Dog)” and it provided numerous boosts well into the evening. Even after I was alternating walking and running, that song was enough to make me pick up the pace. Caity, another of the volunteers who was very friendly and helpful during the race, would try to give me a little energy by dancing on the track as I ran past the staging tent. I finally told the race director, “If they keep playing that song, I’ll run myself to death!”
My friend and off-the-deep-end runner, Alec Muthig, came by a couple times on Saturday and ran with me. He told about some adventure runs he did in Utah’s Canyonlands which took me away from the monotony of the track for a while. The conversation made maintaining a decent pace almost effortless.
I brought six extra pairs of socks and planned to change every four hours. I made the first sock change at 3.5 hours and more often after that, running out of socks and re-using through the first few pairs. Although it didn’t prevent me from getting blisters, the cool powder and fresh cushioning did make my feet feel better for a while after each change. I switched shoes for a couple of hours in the middle of the race and used a pair of Adidas Response for a couple of hours. They bothered the top of my foot some, so I switched back to the Inov8 Roclites for the rest of the way.
For the first ten hours, the laps ticked by with a steady, monotonous rhythm. My Garmin provided a constant, and often irritating reminder of exactly where I was in relation to my goals. The habitual glance at my watch every few minutes was impossible to break; at times it brought a sense of accomplishment, often it made me push just a little harder.
During that time, I had three Gu Roctane gels, a slice of pizza, a couple of protein shakes, a few M&M’s, most of a banana-butterscotch muffin, a cup of delicious chicken noodle soup, and some Combos. Along with the calories from 32 ounces of Powerade, I was still short of what would be considered a minimum for maintaining a good energy supply. But the mild temperatures, steady early pace, music, and conversation had given me a 50-mile PR (8:40) and had me on pace to break the 24-hour world record for my age group. I knew that wouldn’t last, but I do like playing the “What if?” game.
I spent many laps bemoaning the fact that I’d put in so little training for this event. My longest run of 24 miles had come the previous Sunday and I’d only topped 60 miles in a week once. I pulled out of Boston on April 16, in part because I was concerned about my training. Instead I decide to do a 24-hour run, 12 days later. Sometimes I wonder what is going on inside my head. But you know what? I’m already thinking that, if I can get the right training in … maybe I can get the record next year.
One rational thought I had around this time was that I wouldn’t push too hard and hurt myself. I’d let myself play mental games and keep calculating pace and miles, but I would not risk injury for what was mostly just an add-on race. While that meant that I would, in the end, “settle” for 100 miles, I think it was one of the smarter thoughts I had during the run.
I came close to disaster twice during the race, both within hours of each other early Sunday morning. The first came as I was trying to grab a water bottle and, at the same time, tell my wife where to find the flashlight. I tripped on the leg of the barrier where my water bottle was setting and almost face-planted in the grass beside the track. Arresting the fall made my hamstring twinge and it brought back bad memories of an almost identical near-fall at Leadville. I dodged a bullet there, for sure.
Disaster #2 was slow in developing. The temperature continued dropping as the 12-hour mark approached. It headed into the mid-20s and at first felt refreshing. They were dishing out a delicious, hot chicken noodle soup with fat noodles, big chunks of meat, and lots of vegetables; I had several cups as the midnight hour slipped by. Then the soup ran out and they switched to Ramen noodles—not nearly as appetizing. The cold stopped feeling refreshing after a couple of hours and I realized that it had seeped deep inside. Each lap seemed to get harder. Two o’clock saw a change in shifts and the new crew was untested, and largely uninstructed. Later, and without much enthusiasm, I called for another cup of Ramen noodles; the new crew didn’t know what I was talking about. There was no hot water and they didn’t even know how to get it going. After struggling around another lap, I went into the staging tent and sat in front of the heater, shivering uncontrollably. Waves of heat hit me, but wouldn’t penetrate or stop the shaking. The new guys realized how vital it was that they get their act together and made a credible effort of learning on the job.
In the end, I got my noodles, got my internal temp up, but lost 40 minutes and a lot of physical and emotional energy. When I stepped around the table and back on the track, all thoughts of goals and mileage were gone. Surviving the night became my only focus. During this time, one of the engineering students named Sam was running laps. He was wearing a white sweatshirt, and every time he came by me, I would start running and hang with him for a straightaway, maybe even half-a-lap.
Sometime around this period, I remember pushing hard for part of a lap and feeling a sudden tightness in my chest. I didn’t pay much attention to it then, but, from that point, I could only run for short periods before getting pretty winded. Later, I would look back and realize my lungs were paying a tiny toll every time I breathed that cold air. The cumulative effect would only show itself once I stopped.
As dawn broke, I was pleased that I had soldiered on without another prolonged stop. Corey, one of the volunteers, ran/walked with me for a time and made the time pass by quickly. I had managed to maintain a pace that made getting 100 miles a foregone conclusion and started to think about whether I could make 106, or maybe 110. My legs ached and the bottom of my feet felt like open wounds, but I was moving forward without any thought of stopping.
Although I forced myself to eat a little, the only thing that went down easy was a protein shake. I think I had six or seven of them during the race. I would have had more in those wee hours, but I kept falling into a daze where I didn’t think about much besides moving around the track.
With the sun up and the end in sight, I felt more alert and aware than I had during the later stages of Leadville. Physically, it seemed as though blisters and general soreness would be the only price I’d pay. Then, with 99 miles down, I felt the first serious pain that seemed more injury than soreness. That pain, in the muscles on the outside of my left shin (which I’m certain must have been hurting for a while) flared and it took a lot of concentration to maintain a relatively smooth stride.
The race director had joined me for the last mile or so, and then all the volunteers and most of the other runners accompanied on the lap that brought me to 100 miles. That gave me even more energy, so even though it hurt, I managed a meager kick over the last 200 meters.
I was happy and relieved to finish, but it was surprising how muted my emotions were compared to Leadville. This just didn’t feel like that big of an accomplishment. Although I had intended to continue walking easy laps for the last two hours, after I reached 100 miles, my body had other ideas. This was my condition after 100 miles:
- Overall, bone-deep fatigue from no sleep and constant movement.
- Blisters on the bottoms of my feet.
- Breathing getting harder.
- Left leg was throbbing with every step.
- Left eye blurry—I couldn’t see the lap lines if I closed my right eye.
- Both ankles aching.
Four laps after my official 100-mile finish, I stopped, made my apologies and headed home. After a painful, unsteady shower, I tried to lie down and prop my legs up. When my body was horizontal, my lungs felt like they were filled with concrete. It was bad enough that my wife took me into the ER, even though sleep is what we desperately wanted. We dosed off and on in the waiting room for two hours before they gave me a room, drew blood, stuck an IV in my arm, put me on a breathing treatment, took chest x-rays, gave me an antibiotic, and eventually sent me home with a diagnosis of acute bronchitis. I could tell that everyone in the ER thought I was a lunatic for running 100 miles.
As I write this three days after the event, I feel almost fully recovered, except for the left shin issue and some lingering chest tightness and congestion. Looking back, I’m amazed that I was able to pull this off. At Leadville, a soul-shattering effort and an incredible crew were required to reach the finish. This 100 miles was completed with only a fraction of that effort and commitment. My training certainly doesn’t explain how I was able to keep such a pace for so long. I believe Run Josh Run has provided additional evidence that I have a screw loose. That loose screw allows my brain to slip into a gear that forces my body beyond the normal parameters. I’d like to find out what I could achieve if I can ever get my body in the kind of shape that would allow my mind to keep pushing.