Tuesday, November 18, 2008

UltraCentric 24 Hour - Race Report

Ed. Note: The full (and correct) results are finally posted here, please note that I completely missed Byron Lane as the US Champ in this original post. I apologize for the mistake...he must have slipped by me in the night!

Now that I've had a couple days to digest what happened in Texas over the weekend, I'm ready to post a report that doesn't involve an un-ending stream of expletives directed toward the Race Director. I've spent time reading the reactions of Scott Jurek (and crew), Tracy Thomas, Tony Mangan, etc. since the race - all of whom are world class athletes, and everyone is beyond upset about the lies told regarding the course. To quickly recap before moving on, the course was promised to be a great surface for running with only 9.5 feet of gain. I've already vented at how hilly the loop was, and to top it off, the surface was crowned, rutted, and occasionally pot-holed as well. This meant not only was the course not flat in the uphill/downhill sense, but it was also uneven from a side-to-side perspective. The reason I fell a couple times toward the end was a direct result of stepping on the edges of a pothole or steep rut in the pavement. So, to put an already beaten point to rest: the course was horrible, we were all lied to on the website, and I'm 100% sure that this race will cease to exist due to lack of participation if they attempt to hold it at the same site in coming years.

Now that all the ugly stuff is out of the way, let's talk about some positives!

I flew into Dallas on Thursday night, and my brother in-law Jeff and his 4 year-old son Spencer picked me up at the airport. It was great to see them both again, and we quickly made it back to Jeff's beautiful home just a few minutes from DFW. Later that evening my parents in-law Paul and Anne also flew in from DC, and with that my Ultra Centric crew was present and accounted for.

Friday morning Paul and I drove up to scope out the course and pick up my race packet. I was worried about the gusting winds being a huge problem, but once I saw how hilly the course was, the wind became the least of my worries. A few of the 48 hour runners were settling into their early grooves (quite literally) on the loop as we checked out the scene. I saw Ireland's Tony Mangan (he's run 250 miles in 48 hours on a treadmill!) and Tracy Thomas looking solid and focused as they made their way up and down the hills and weaved in and out of the pavement undulations. I thought a bit about how I would have to do the same the next day, and how the reality of the course and weather pretty much meant I wouldn't be running 135 miles at this event.

On the ride back to Jeff's house I did my best to stay positive about the situation, and I decided that I would stick to my original pace plan in order to try and salvage a remote chance at making the National Team. We relaxed the rest of the day at Jeff's place, had dinner at a nice restaurant, and I was back home in bed by 10pm or so. I tossed and turned a bit, but definitely got enough sleep since we didn't need to leave the house until 7am. For all the bad things about this race, having a 9am start time was definitely preferred over the 4am and 5am guns of other races.

Jeff drove me up onto the course (and yes, people were literally allowed to drive ON the course, just a few feet from the runners), and we dropped my supplies and the crew chairs at a spot near the top of the biggest hill. Jeff then headed back to regroup with the rest of the crew and come back shortly after the race started. Since it was in the 30s and quite windy (gusts of 25mph or so), I wrapped myself up like a mummy in the crew blankets and waited for 9am to come. As my body twitched and shivered in the cold, I knew I'd warm up once I started running, but I worried a bit about the night when it was supposed to be even colder. "Just keep running" I told myself, "generate your own heat." Seemed simple enough, right?

Finally they called all the 24 hour runners to the start, and we were off soon enough. I just happened to be at the front when the race director said, rather quietly, "Ok, go", so I took off in front before the rest of the runners realized we had started. About 100 yards down the road I heard heavy footsteps and figured it was Scott Jurek. I assumed he'd pull up and a lead pack would join along with me since I was running pretty quickly (about 7-flats in the first stretch as I burned off some adrenaline), but he blew by me like I was standing still. We hardly had time to wish each other good luck before he was gone. That dude can move!

A few minutes later a nice guy from Utah pulled up along side me and asked if he should try and keep pace with "the guy up front". Since he didn't know who Jurek was, I tried my best to give him the best advice I could with the little info I gleaned from him. He said he was a 2:17 marathoner (he had just won the Ogden Marathon), but he had never run longer than 45 miles or so. I told him Jurek was trying to break the American Record, and I was 'just' going for 135, so he would be best served to try and stay in between the two of us rather than burn out early by trying to keep up with Jurek. With that I wished him luck and off he went ahead of me.

A few seconds later, the "other two" fast runners passed me. Neither spoke English, or maybe they just didn't want to respond to my greetings, but over the course of the race I learned that one of them was named Attila, and he had about 7 coaches (all dressed in Hungarian team uniforms) there crewing for him. The other runner, named Elijah, might have been from Ghana or Kenya (I heard both from different people), but I heard him speaking Hungarian (or similar-sounding language) to Attila later on in the race...so maybe they knew each other? Either way, these two mystery men were clearly faster than anyone I've ever run with. They stuck with Jurek for the first 50 miles in the lead pack (the guy from Utah dropped out long before that).

Not worrying myself about those crazy-fast guys, I settled into my comfortable pace and started clicking off the miles. Since the loop was 1.158 miles long, and it's been about 1.158 million years since I've been in a math class, I gave up on trying to figure out my distance covered after about 3 laps. With only the main time clock at the starting line ticking it's way toward 48 hours (it served both the 24 and 48 hour races), there was no official way to track how far you had gone during the race. I had heard in years past there was a big board with names and distances at the start/finish area, but no dice on that this year. Lucky for me, my crew was there after just a few laps to help me any way I needed. As the day moved on, they ran up to the timing area and got an exact mileage total to report back to me on the next lap. That was a big help when the miles all became a blur later on.

Speaking of my crew, I can't say enough about how amazing they all were. When I didn't want to stop to grab something I needed, I'd just tell them what I wanted when passing by, and they'd have it ready when I came by on the next loop. For fuel transfers, Jeff and Paul would run along side me and give me full bottles and gels for my fuel belt so I didn't need to break stride at all. This allowed me to run for 4 and 5 hour stretches without stopping at all, definitely helping me save at least 30 minutes in the first 100 miles. In addition to their on-the-spot supply service, they were a great cheering crew too. Little Spencer would get so excited every time I passed yelling "Go Uncle Dan! Go Uncle Dan!". If I wasn't in the middle of climbing a big hill every time, I would have been able to smile more...but regardless of the strained look on my face, it made me feel great inside for sure. Even though it was cold and windy all day, Spencer was out there for about 9 hours cheering me on - not too bad for a 4 year-old, right?!

I'm sure the whole crew was bored (and freezing) as the hours went on, but they were always enthusiastic and encouraging when I went by...even when I was too tired to do much more than a fist pump to acknowledge them. There was one moment when I did have the opportunity to entertain them a bit though: The race folks blasted music from the start/finish area the whole day, and as I rounded the corner to start the big climb up to my crew on one lap in particular, I heard the unmistakable sound of the Village People's "YMCA" being played. I shifted my pace just a bit so that I would pass my crew just in time to do the YMCA dance with my arms as I ran by. I kept a straight and focused look on my face right up until the moment the chorus started and I put my arms up to "spell" out the letters - it got a big cheer out of everyone. It's always nice to remember it's supposed to be fun out there in these long races.

Right around the 50 mile mark I noticed Jurek in a hooded sweatshirt on the side of the track near his crew. On the next lap I saw he was still there and realized he had dropped. Between the weather and the course, I'm assuming he realized he couldn't stick to his pace and called it a day before the real pain set in. Whatever the reason, I knew there were only two people in front of me at that point, and assuming their lack of English-speaking ability meant they weren't from the US, I was now in the lead for the National Championship. Pretty cool feeling for a nobody like me, even if it was at such a messed-up event.

As the sun went down, Anne and Spencer headed back home for the night, but rising way above and beyond, Paul and Jeff stayed out there to crew for the duration. As the hours got small, they relayed messages from my wife and friends (including my best bud Chris who called in from half-way around the world at a movie shoot in Bali!), so it was great to know folks were sending some long-distance support my way. I'm so thankful Jeff and Paul were on site to report back home and keep everyone in the loop. In tune with the low-rent theme of this race, the promise of a Live Webcast was never delivered - Not even a single update was ever posted. In fact, it's now 3 days after the race and the results still aren't posted.

On top of relaying the updates, Jeff and Paul did so much more throughout the night. They literally did EVERYTHING I asked of them as I ran by...and let me tell you, as the night wore on and the temps dipped into the 20s, my requests got a little odd sometimes. Example: Sometime around 3am I realized I needed to get some tights on my legs (I was still in shorts), but I didn't want to have to waste the time to sit down and take off my shoes to get them on....so as I ran by, I yelled this random request to Jeff who I'm pretty sure was near hypothermic at that point:

"Jeff! In the clothing bag I have a pair of black tights. Take them up to the medical tent and find some scissors. Cut off the elastic part around the ankles and give them to me on the next lap."

Mind you I was yelling this to him in a slurred frozen-jaw speech, and he most likely had more than a little slush in his own head at that point...but instead of a confused "What?" he simply said "Roger!" and jumped into action. To be that on-point at that stage of the night was just amazing.

During the coldest 4 or 5 hours of the night, there were VERY few runners still out on the track. Some ducked into tents set up next to the track, and many simply called it a night and went home - it was positively brutal out there...yet Paul and Jeff remained. Wrapped up in blankets and layers of clothing, watching vigilantly over my ever-slowing progress. At one point I had run out of layers to put on my upper body (I had 4 on already), and Paul literally took the hooded sweatshirt off his back and gave it to me. I wore that for at least 4 hours to keep from freezing. Simply put, these guys were the Best Crew Ever.

...if only I could have performed well enough to match their effort. As it was, I moved pretty well through the first 100 miles, never having to walk a step. I set my PR for that distance with a solid 16:51. Shortly after that, however, the beating my quads took on the steep downhill portion of the loop had taken its toll, and I lost the ability to run completely. There were 7 hours left in the race, so at first I figured I'd walk a couple laps and get back into a shuffle...but the 20-something reading on the thermometer pretty much sealed my frozen-legged fate. I tried no fewer than 50 times to start running again over the last 7 hours (about 2 or 3 times per lap), but each time the pain was too much to take. As soon as I started tripping and falling on the uneven pavement and potholes, I knew my chances of running again were done. Not many people get to experience it, but it is indeed a sad and humbling experience to fall down on the frozen ground at 4am after having covered 110 miles and need a good 5 minutes (and about 10 attempts) to simply stand back up again. When you want to dig deep and keep fighting but you can't even stand up, it's a pretty crappy feeling.

Every tent I passed as the hours wore on looked so warm and inviting...and every time I had to dip down into the "low" part of the course where the temps were 5-10 degrees colder, I had to make a promise to myself that I would do my best to focus on the pavement and not fall down in that area. Even though there were about 10 other people still out there in the wee hours, my half-frozen mind was sure that if I fell I wouldn't be able to get back up and I'd be left alone to freeze to death. Sure, much of that was delirium from fatigue and the elements, but reality is what you convince yourself it is, and at that point I would have believed just about any crazy thought that popped into my head...

Case in point: At some point in the night I looked ahead and saw what appeared to be a cardboard container for a Big Mac and a soda sitting in the middle of the road. I thought "Did someone just dump their trash right here on the course?"....as I got a little closer I focused in more and thought "Oh, it's not McDonald's trash, it's just a couple leaves...how silly of me!"....and then the really sad part came when I got even closer and realized it wasn't a couple leaves either: There was actually NOTHING there at all, just the empty road.

With about 4 hours to go Jeff updated me on the "race" for the National Championship, and even though I was somehow still in the lead, I knew I didn't have a chance to hold off John Geesler. He was still shuffling, and I was hardly walking at that point. I was sad that I couldn't make it more exciting for Paul and Jeff who worked so hard all night crewing, but I just could move my legs faster than a very slow walk. It was exciting for me to see a lady seemingly appear out of nowhere (I don't recall seeing her at all during the day) blow by me on loop after loop toward the end of the night and into the daylight hours. She was super-nice with a kind word or two for me every time she flew past, but I never caught her name (it was Jen van Allen). I might not have caught her name, but what SHE caught was both John and myself on in the overall race. I'm pretty sure she ended up as the top American. I never did see the final results, but I think she covered 124 miles or so. Congrats to her for a fantastic performance!

As for the two super-human guys, Attila and Elijah, I'm not sure how to explain how fast they both ran throughout the night. It wasn't until the final hour that I even noticed a slight hitch in their gaits. Again, I never saw the final results (the race people didn't even start rolling out the wheel to calculate final distances until about 45 mins after the race finished, and I needed to go home and warm up/sleep), but I'm guessing those guys ran somewhere in the 140-145 range. Which, on this course in these conditions was completely beyond my comprehension. Kudos to them and/or the scientists who created them in a secret lab somewhere in the Hungarian countryside. Well done, boys!

In the end I assume I finished 5th overall. My highly unofficial results have the two cyborgs coming in at the top, then Jen van Allen, and then Geesler, then me as the 2nd American male. My crew had me down at 120.25 miles covered.....again, all of this is just based on the info we had at the end. Without an actual posting of results on the race website, who knows if 34 other people/robots passed me in the final hour.

Aside from being bummed out about not being able to run 135 miles, I came out of the race in pretty good shape. Sure, my legs were completely shot, but that's to be expected. A funny realization I had after I finished and sat down for the first time in 24 hours was that I didn't think about my feet AT ALL during the entire race. Of course a huge reason for this was the Drymax - Maximum Protection socks I wore. I swear the friction-free fibers on the bottoms of those things are even more of an amazing scientific creation than Attila and Elijah. Not only did I have no blisters or hot spots, I seriously didn't think about my feet for one second during the race - That's 24 hours without sitting down! My feet have hurt more after walking around a shopping mall for an hour. If you want to eliminate all worries about your feet in an ultra, you just have to grab yourself a pair of these Maximum Protection socks. End of story.

So now that the big disappointment is over, I'm shutting things down for 2008. I'll post some sort of 'Year in Review', because it has been an amazing ride in my first full year as an ultra runner, but right now it's time to rest up and put the running shoes on the shelf. Sure, the year ended on a down note at this race, but with all the positives of the past 11 months, I can't be too upset. I've got too much to be thankful for, much of which was a direct result of the running I did this year.

I'm not sure when or where just yet, but I will be back...and if you ask nicely, I might even do the YMCA dance upon request as I run by...


Agent Em said...

Amazing story of an amazing race. Great work on hanging in there through what sounds like a really hellish night. Plus, you ran 100 miles WITHOUT BREAKING STRIDE?? OMFG.

Hey, here's a question--don't you ever have to pee?

BenB said...

The course totally destroyed my achilles tendons! Flying out from Idaho was a waste of money. It took me 32:30 to get to 100, and then magically a lap was deleted while I was taking a rest. But way to hang out there. Hope to see you at the races again. Next year's championship will be better.

Adrian said...

It was good to see you on the course, Dan. I was part of the 48 hours group... Like you I had my goals, and again like you, I didn't meet them! We were all lied about pretty much everything regarding this race and course... Where truth ended, Unltracentric begun. :)
Best of luck in your future races!

Dan Rose said...

My hats go off to both of you guys for fighting it out in those elements on that course (Adrian, you 48 hour guys are crazy to deal with all that wind and cold for so long!).

Ben, you're certainly not alone in the wrecked-ankle department after running so long on that cambered course. If the RD wanted to really make some $$ (and we know that's what he was trying to do), he should have sold ice packs at the finish!

...and Agent Em, there's one inherent advantage that guys have over ladies in these long races, and that's being able to do "certain things" on the run!