Last week I ran the 72 hour race called Across The Years in Arizona. With a timed race like this, you just get in as many miles as you can in the allotted time. My goals were 1) to get to 200 miles in 72 hours, and 2) not hallucinate any conversations with Smurfs. To get there, I'd need to run smart and everything would need to go almost perfectly.
To prepare I consulted with some of the top ultrarunners in the country who have experience running hundreds of miles at a time, including Mark Hellenthal and Mike Miller who have both run 200+ miles in 72 hours, Yolanda Holder who completed 400 miles at a 6-day race in Alaska earlier in the year, Ed Ettinghausen who ran 476 miles in the 6-day race at Across The Years last year, and Joe Fejes who won the 6-day race last year running a stunning 555 miles!
They gave me some great tips on race strategy, nutrition, and sleep. (Below I'll share some of what worked for me.) And with that I showed up in Arizona full of anxiousness, excitement, and nerdy smiles.
Across The Years is on a 1 mile loop around the spring training facilities for the White Sox and Dodgers. There was not much elevation gain or descent and the course was dirt and crushed rock. There was a pond that we passed with each loop. I was so scared that after sleep deprivation set in I would imagine a killer whale in there and then I would jump in to Free Willy.
The weather on day 1 was perfect. I didn't listen to any music for the first 70ish miles. (I've learned that music can be a big boost if you save it for later in a race.) When you're on the same one mile loop hour after hour you become intimately familiar with every detail of your surroundings. And our surroundings included Vanessa and Shacky's RV next to the trail:
One of the highlights of my run was spending so many miles with my running hero Ed "The Jester" Ettinghausen. I have spent many miles with him at various races this year and have come to admire and respect his compassion and kindness. Okay, let's be honest. I have a man crush on Ed. (So does everyone else who knows him.)
At this race Ed set the World Record for the most 100+ mile races ever completed in one year - 40 races! He has been my role model this year in breaking down barriers about what each of us is capable of. (He completed 414 miles in the 6-day race this year.)
One goal I had for the race was to take a jumping picture at each day of the race. I made it to mile 44 and was still feeling moderately decent so that seemed like a good time for the Day 1 Jumping Picture.
For race nutrition I went with primarily liquid calories: Tailwind and Coke. Then I would eat solid stuff as I felt hungry. Thankfully this plan worked PERFECTLY and I had no stomach issues for the entire race. The aid station was the best I've ever seen. I ate enough M&Ms to feed a small country, lots of Ramen noodles, sub sandwiches, tamales, soup, lasagna, and pizza.
I've waited until now to mention my secret weapon: my son Jackson. He was so excited to come to the race and crew for me. He joined me on laps every once in a while, helped prepare bottles of Tailwind to drink, got supplies and clothes as needed, and helped keep me moving forward.
My plan for the first night was to not sleep at all. After doing 100 milers I've learned what I need to do to get through a night without sleep so I figured I'd get through it okay. I got a bit sleepy at times but eventually got through the night to see the first sunrise of the race.
At 24 hours I had completed 90 miles. When I reached 100 miles on day two I broke down and cried. It wasn't the kind of crying where a few tears leak out. It was the kind of crying that takes your breath away and your nose starts producing snot bubbles. I was feeling tired and worn out. Physically and mentally. I cried because I couldn't fathom how it would be possible to go another 100 miles. It simply did not seem possible.
I gave myself a pep talk. I reminded myself that I didn't need to go 100 more miles. I needed to just put one step in front of the other. Looking into the future or doing math about your pace can be incredibly demoralizing and discouraging during an ultra. It's critical to stay focused on just running the mile you're in. After a few miles I was out of my funk and felt better. Time for a jumping picture. This was mile 111.
I have some debilitating nerve issues (maybe neuropathy?) in my feet during every 100 miler. It usually starts around mile 60 and each step feels like I'm walking on hot coals. Like walking on needles. Thankfully at this race I made it 120 miles before it kicked in. We got to the second sunset of the race and I caught this picture which ended up being one of my favorites.
I was feeling tired and knew that I'd have to sleep soon but decided that I wouldn't lay down until I started sleep walking.
It was BITTER, bitter cold on the second night. I took my first break of the race a little after midnight on the second night. I wanted to experiment with sleep and see if I could get by on only two hours. I laid down in our tent but then immediately sat up to yell at Jackson. I was mad that he was tightly squeezing my toes. Then I realized Jackson wasn't in the tent. I was feeling my heart beat in my toes! It was honestly the strangest thing I've ever experienced. It continued to happen every time I laid down.
So I set my alarm for two hours....but I actually woke up on my own after 1 hour 35 minutes! I got up and got back to the trail again. My legs felt like cinder blocks for a few miles but I was surprised that they eventually loosened up again.
I started sleep walking again early in the morning. I felt like a sloth that got in a car accident then took a bottle of Ambien. I decided I'd try a short 30 minute power nap but I woke up after only 16 minutes. It was like my body just needed enough time to flip off and on the light switch. This really surprised me. I wasn't expecting that at all.
After 48 hours I was at 155 miles and finally started believing that 200 miles was possible. Jackson came out with me for some laps on the third morning. He was such a great support and seemed to genuinely be having fun. (The sock monkey hat was complements of my daughter Kylee.)
I can't begin to describe how difficult the third day and night were. Every muscle in my legs was wound up in knots that I just couldn't unkink. I have run a 100 miler each month for the past year and I never experienced anything like how I was feeling. Bob Glover said "You'll be wistful for 'the wall' of the marathon when you hit the 'death grip' of the ultra." I know ultras. And I know death grips. This was far beyond the death grip.
The third night was ridiculously colder than the ridiculously cold second night. I brought the same clothes that have gotten me through winter 100 milers. And I was still freezing to death. Thankfully I had lots of layers to add. Even with all those layers I felt like a frozen Otter Pop.
I wore Altra Paradigm shoes for the first 100 miles then Altra One2 shoes after that. The shoes worked perfectly. They had just the right amount of cushion and support. I also used Injinji socks which have worked well for me all year. I read good reviews about a different brand of socks so I figured I'd try them on the third night. Try something new when you're attempting to run 200 miles for the first time??? That was by far the dumbest thing I've done in a long time. After only two miles the socks were causing problems and it felt like someone jabbed an ice pick into the top of my foot. This led to a 30 minute hobble to the medical tent where I saw that I had given birth to a 6th toe. This blister needed a birth certificate. And my toes resembled sausages.
The guys in the medical tent were STELLAR. As horrible as my foot felt before this, after he taped it up I felt absolutely nothing for the rest of the race. (And I changed back to the Injinji socks.)
I'm a bit disappointed that I didn't see any Care Bears during my run. The closest I got to a hallucination was on the third night. I was listening to an ESPN podcast and I knew the words they were saying but I just didn't understand the meaning of all the words strung together. Regular conversations seemed like they were talking SO fast and my brain couldn't keep up. I ended up turning it off since I couldn't understand what they were saying.
After 68 hours and 34 minutes something happened that I would have never imagined in my wildest dreams a year ago - I finished 200 miles. I was so thankful to have Jackson do that lap with me. (He did exactly 20 miles with me in those three days!) Guess who was there to see our finish.....nobody! No spectators, no runners, no crew.....nobody. Even the timing guys were asleep. I truly love this about ultras. There are no cheering crowds. No external rewards. Just internal satisfaction.
Jackson said "Dad, you're in second place! You're going to get an award!" I told him to not even talk about it. I wasn't trying to get an award. I didn't want to feel like I was competing with anyone but myself. I decided I'd sleep for an hour and then get in a few more miles. I was so tired that I kept falling asleep and would stumble myself awake 50 yards down the trail and not know how I got there. I went into the heating tent to warm up. I was truly frozen to the core.
Let me tell you about this heating tent. This is where you see intense exhaustion. It is less of a heating tent and more of a suffer tent. What I continually found remarkable was seeing people sitting in the tent beyond exhaustion, frozen, weary, broken.....and then somehow mustering the determination and perseverance to get back out on the trail. My fellow runners were an enormous inspiration.
It was very difficult getting my body moving again after the hour break. I kept pushing and finished the 72 hours with a total of 205 miles. It took a few minutes to work up enough courage to try a finish line jump.
We went to the award ceremony afterward and something happened that is even less likely than Justin Bieber making good music:
For me the greatest part of finishing the race was the fact that it also completed my goal to finish a 100 mile run each month for a year straight. If at the beginning of 2014 I had scripted the perfect year it would have looked just like 2014 turned out. I feel so blessed and thankful for the experiences I've had and the amazing people I have met.
Bonus Post Race Update
Those 20 minute power naps worked great and I probably slept a total of five hour during the three day race. I wish I could have slept better the night after the race but my legs were too sore so sleep was restless. When we made it back to the hotel I took off my shoes and socks. My toe didn't tickle.
A tragic thing happened a few hours later. I needed some Band-Aids and Neosporin for that blister. We went to Target but but my legs were functioning at 0%. And I crossed a line in my life that I can never cross back. I rode a Jazzy scooter through the store. On an Embarrassing Scale of 1-10, I'd rate this moment 42. (Although it was a pretty smooth ride.)
It's now a few days after the race. My legs and feet are sore and I have had a ravenous appetite. I have eaten so many cupcakes and cookies that my bloodstream is now 60% frosting. I can't stop thinking about what an amazing experience this was.
During that 205 mile journey I had this light bulb moment where I realized that we can't know how much we're capable of unless we really push our limits and challenge the beliefs we have about ourselves. Here is the reality: We are capable of so much more than we know! An ultramarathon is an opportunity to share the trail with people who are willing to push past the limits and do something amazing. An ultramarathon strips down your defenses and lets you see a part of yourself that you've never known before. I will never be the same.