Monday, November 19, 2007

Ultra Centric Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 2; 32nd Edition
587.59 miles raced in 2007
Race: Ultra Centric
Place: Grapevine, TX
Miles from home: 1348 miles
Course Difficulty: 5.5 out of 10
Course Enjoyability: 3.5 out of 10
Weather: 70-80s, bright sunshine
Finisher's Medal: N/A

"A fitting end to a difficult year in racing" is how I would sum up my 24-Hour run on Saturday in nine words.

My pre-race goals were lofty yet attainable. To begin, I wished to run a minimum of 130 miles and contend for one of the top three positions for the Men’s US 24-Hour National team. I found it funny that when I would mention this as one of my goals, one of the frequent questions I was asked was “So what does that get you?” I know this question was probably just one based on curiosity given the men’s team is just in its 4th year of existence. Heck, to some extent, when I first heard of the team (after I signed up for the race, mind you) I too thought the same thing. However, I guess even when you have reached what could be the pinnacle of your little niche of athleticism, there is always the question: “Yeah, so? Now what?”

Nevertheless, to even be considered for the team I had to run a minimum of 130 miles. Everything else would depend on where I placed against the competition on this day. But I was pretty sure I would need 135 miles at least, in order to contend.

As races approach, I usually keep an eye on the weather report for the race day but I was watching this particular forecast like a hawk. Unlike a hot day in a 10k or a marathon, which you may pay the price for running hard but can probably power through, I knew this race would be different. Running for an entire day, the weather was very important. As the race neared, the promise of a partly cloudy day and some light rain sprinkles still existed. Then, a once predicted high of 80 degrees dropped to 75. If everything kept going this way, it may not be so bad after all, I thought. Unfortunately, as the race drew near, the weather continued to get warmer and hopes of good race weather vanished.

The day before the race I saw a list of who was coming. There had been no posting on the website of the race participants prior to this. When I inquired about whom may be running, I never received an answer from the usually attentive race staff, which I found quite odd. A few other ultra runners had mentioned that they would not be attending because of this lack of information. As always when I have a complaint about a race or how it is run, I really and truly want to know only “why”. I try my best to figure out why someone has done something and if I cannot figure it out, I only hope I can get an answer. There usually is one, even if I tend not to agree with it.

Unfortunately hopes that perhaps some of the top tier gentlemen might stay away, making my attempt at getting on the US team slightly easier, were eliminated when I saw the list. Not only were the top three runners from last year here again but also some runners who seemed poised to put on a fight were signed up as well. Oh well, I just needed to run my own race. Everything else would fall into place where it would.

Originally planning on running this race unassisted, my friend Christine had made a last minute trip down to Dallas in order to assist not only me, but my friend Nattu as we ran the one day event. Another runner I was meeting for the first time, Ed, would be competing in the 12-hour race and would also benefit from her helpful hand. Nattu is a two-time veteran of Badwater, amongst many other races and Ed was trying his second Ultracentric 12-hour race.

When I checked out the course the night before the race, I saw that the original 2.4 mile loop had been replaced with a simple 2 mile version. This was welcome by just about everyone as having an even number made the math so much easier. As we watched the participants in the 48 Hour race go by (here in their 9th hour of racing) we noticed one thing: the wind. Gusting like crazy I could only hope that it would die down for the next day. With long stretches of this loop being either on the shores of Grapevine Lake or adjacent to wide open fields, there was little to stop the fierce winds from blowing.

I recognized a few people immediately. One was Bob Oberkehr who I had run 20 plus miles of the Old Dominion 100 with earlier this year. Bob was moving along at a great clip and I ran a few yards with him just to say hello (you weren’t allowed to run with anyone or pace them and I did not want to get Bob DQd). The other was Dave Goggins, a tall, lean, and muscular chap who was hard to miss. Relatively knew to the ultra scene, Dave is already running ridiculous distances in ridiculous times (he would eventually run 203 miles for the 48 Hour event).

Back at the hotel, I ordered a pizza from a local place to be delivered for dinner. So much for everything being bigger in Texas. The pizza, supposedly enough to feed two, could have easily been devoured by only me. I then settled into bed for a long night of sleep and hoped to dream of better times. I say this because, just a few hours earlier, my father had been admitted to the hospital. While his very high fever had stabilized, he was experiencing plenty of side effects. As such, my sleep was punctuated with fitful dreams.

When morning came, not a leaf was moving on the trees and it actually seemed a little chilly. I was elated. However, there was not a single cloud in the sky. I hoped this would not be a problem.

I received a ride from my hotel from a friend I had spoken to many times online but was meeting for the first time, Tim Lawson. Tim was here with his cousin Don who was running his first ultra. In fact, Don had never run longer than 9 miles before and was here to participate in the 6-hour race (he would eventually whip out 33 miles.) Tim, who was suffering from a stress fracture in his shin, was here to see what he could do. I pled with him to stop if he felt he was going to do any damage. At the tender age of 22, I tried to impart upon him how many more years of running he would have if stopped if needed. I have said many times to many people: Sometimes the best run we do is the one we don’t do.

At the starting line I noticed a few other well-known ultra runners including John Geesler, Roy Pirrung and Akos Konya. John is a fixture on the circuit routinely churning out stupendous upper-echelon times. Roy is a machine who was in the top three last year. Akos is relatively new to the scene as well but has already been the runner-up twice at Badwater’s 135-mile race. I also saw a few women runners who I was pretty sure I recognized but could not immediately put a name to a face. I assumed throughout the day I would.

The Race:

My plan was to average 11-minute miles, which equals exactly 130 miles for the day. If I had more in me, great; if not, at least I would have that minimum standard. From the get-go, I knew I was running fast but really felt like I was keeping myself in-check. I knew I should run slightly faster in the opening hours as that would be when I was most fresh and feeling great. The trick was to not go out too fast (as it is in any race) but the problem with trying to run 11-minute miles is that it is nearly double the pace I ran for my most recent marathon. Therefore, an 8-or 9-minute mile pace feels as if I am indeed going slow when I am not.

Within an hour I knew I had to slow down. I really began to pull back or at least I thought I was. What made it difficult was that there were two or three guys who were absolutely booking. I have no idea whatsoever what race they thought they were running as the lead runner ran the first two miles in barely over a 7 minute pace. What added to the challenge of the day was shortly after the 9 AM start, the cool temperature I was so enjoying in the morning evaporated and the heat began to build. And build.

No clouds appeared. Not a hint of rain could be counted on. The asphalt circle we were running on began to heat up and cook. After every lap Christine told me to slow down and drink. Every lap I did my best to do so. When I noticed Akos was still behind me at 18 miles, I decided to simply pull over, drink as much as I could and let him pass. An accomplished runner like this should not have been behind me, which told me I was doing something wrong. To be honest, at 18 miles in, with 3.5 hours of running, I was already done for the day. I would never admit it to myself then but now I can see the truth.

One of my biggest problems with racing is my sweating. I sweat so much in a race such as this that in order to keep fluids in me I am almost constantly drinking. By doing so, my belly often fills and I cannot stomach to take in food. Without food, I get no calories and with no calories there is no energy inside me. As Christine tried to force me to eat food (which I needed) I knew I was in trouble. I would take a few bites of something, begin to run and then would almost immediately feel the sloshing in my stomach.

30 miles

After I passed her at 30 miles and told her my split, Christine grabbed me and told me I was over an hour ahead of my suggested pace at that point. When I then passed the 50k mark in ~4:30 I had set a 50k PR by 40 minutes. This was a testament to both how awful the conditions were in the only other 50ks I had run and how fast I was going today (which was way too fast). So I decided I would utilize the hour of time by sitting for 5 minutes every lap and try to take in fluids and food and rest. Then I would run the 2-mile loop and repeat.

After 6 of these breaks (and using only 30 minutes of that cushion), I decided to try a different tactic. I noticed it was getting a little harder to get up and moving after my breaks. So, noting that the course (whose hills seemed to progressively get longer and steeper as the day went on) had a series of two major uphills, I decided to pay heed to the advice to a friend who is an ultramathoner herself and a coach to many: Lisa Smith-Batchen.

I began a series of runs where I would run for approximately 9 minutes and alternate that with a 2-minute race walk. It so happened that the intervals more or less put me walking on the uphills of this course, which was perfect. I then tried to grab food from Christine on one of these uphills and munch on it while I walked.

I was able to do this for the next hour or so soon, but then the dry heaves began. I could no longer take in food or liquid without immediately vomiting it up, when I commenced running. By now, it was nearing 5 o’clock, and the sun had finally started to cool some. But the damage had been done a long time ago.

As I passed the timing mat for 48 miles, I did not even stop for food or liquid. I knew I could set a 50 miler PR, if I just kept running for another 2 miles. Obviously, trying to set personal bests for shorter distance in races of much longer distances should not be done. But I was fried. I honestly was unsure if I would be going on any more and I figured I could at least set two new PRs in one day.

So, I pressed on, crossed the 50-mile mark in 8:23:44 and crashed into a chair.

Big Break:

By this point, another online running friend, Dre, who had made her way over to the race with her girlfriend, was offering tons of support and consolation. Having run to a nearby store to fetch me some Gatorade (I couldn’t take in any more of my Accelerade and Propel mix), I was bolstered by her return. Nevertheless, I knew I needed to rest. And eat.

For the next 45 minutes, all I did was take in calories. I did not know what I was going to do race-wise. I knew that there was so much more of the race to be run but I needed to have energy to race it. I was hoping my break and calorie intake would allow me to get back in the game.

Throughout the day I had been making calls to the hospital on my cell while I ran. My father’s condition first got better and then worsened. When you are running a 2-mile loop in the hot blazing sun, your mind has plenty of time to think about various things. Unfortunately, mine had been on my dad.

As I sat there munching on spaghetti, I knew I was still only half an hour ahead of my goal pace. Once the eating was done, I was now 15 minutes in the hole and not feeling any better. I finally decided to simply lie down and sleep. Hopefully the leaders were feeling the same and my rest would help me. Vascillating from 9th to 15th place overall throughout the day, I knew many of us were clustered within 2-4 miles of each other. All it took was a falter here or there and I would be back in the running.

So, I climbed in a sleeping bag and tried to relax. Before long, Christine was rousing me. I still had not decided if I was going to try for any more miles. I said to give me another half an hour. But as I lay there, I felt rejuvenated. About 10 minutes later I sprung up (that might be a bit of an exaggeration). The crew next to us who were working for a really nice guy very similar to myself named Chuck (same general appearance, former swimmer) applauded at my standing upright. I told Christine I was ready to go again. I did not know what I was going to do but I was going to try.

Mile 68:

It took me a quarter of a mile to get my legs working again. Plus I was now wearing my regular shirt, a long sleeve shirt and a windbreaker. It was hard to get warm. But once my legs were under me I felt great. I started to walk. I started doing math in my head and wondered if I simply walked 20-minute miles where I would end up. It came to me I would be around 92 miles. I did not see the point in that very much so I abandoned the idea. When I walked through the first mile after I left my slumber in 15.5 minutes, I recalculated. Hmmm. If I kept this up I would finish in 104 miles. So much math to do.

I continued on this pace of fast walking for the next mile or so. Then, I decided to jog the downhills, fast walk the flats and powerwalk the ups. Next thing I knew, I was doing sub 14-minute miles. This is pretty good for this stage, I thought. But then I had to make the last call of the night to my Dad.

Grabbing my cellphone and trying to walk, I realized by doing the simple act of holding my phone, I was getting cramps in my shoulders. In addition, a stage had been set up so that bands could play to keep the runners occupied. Unfortunately, the stage was set up literally feet from where the runners would be racing. I have not one iota of a clue who thought this was a good idea. Even half-mile away the sound, in the open air of this park, was deafening. Whenever you passed the stage you hoped it was not the moment the local myspace band didn’t hit their Pete Townsend arm waving strike on the guitar and blow your ear drums out. I mention this, not only to talk about the ludicrous nature of having such a loud disturbance so close to the runners but also to note that I could not talk on the phone for very long because anytime I got close to the stage, I would have to hang up.

Unfortunately, the news remained the same with my father. I will not say the somber news hindered my already weakened performance but it most assuredly did not help.

Soon thereafter, I could not just powerwalk a 15-minute mile. If I ran the downhills at a good clip and walked the rest, I could still get that 15-minute mile. But it was beginning to take a great deal more effort. I hit mile 68 and planned to take a 5-minute rest to recoup. This turned into 10 minutes. I then told Christine I might be done. For real. I had no energy left. I tried as much as I could to take in food but what would seem like a feast was just a few spoonfuls of chicken broth or potatoes. I decided I was going to lie down for 20 minutes.

Second Break:

At 20 minutes, Christine woke me. I told her I wanted 10 more. What seemed like 10 seconds went by before I felt her shaking me. Forget it I said, I am going to use the rest of my cushion (the cushion of time which would allow me to finish with 100 total miles). Let me sleep for 30 more. I am going to have to have my energy or it won’t matter.

Thirty minutes later I got up for good. My legs had stiffened greatly but mostly they were bereft of energy. I decided I was going to just get moving and see what happened.

70 miles:

Walking along, I made a call to my mother. I needed to know what the situation was with my Dad. She did not know much more than I did. We talked about what may need to be done and what I could do from where I was. While my dad had been dealing with some coherency problems because of his fever, the one thing he seemed perfectly clear about was that I was in Dallas running for 24 Hours. “Still being stupid?” was how he would answer the phone and I would laugh my ass off and tell him “Who do you think I get it from?”

The decision to stop finally came to me in this last loop. I had 8 plus hours to go. I know I could hit 90 plus miles even if I zombie-walked it. But I did not see the point. I read in a recent magazine about a person who did the Pik’s Peak Marathon. If you do not know about this race, it goes straight up the mountain for 13.1 miles and then straight back down. Well, the person did great for the first half and on the way back, fell several times. One time, it appears they may have struck their head. When they finally crossed the finishline, scuffed knees, bloody brow and sheer exhaustion racking their body, the author of the article said, “That is what I call determination.” Well, maybe. I also call it not too bright.

I mean, there is something to be said for finishing what you started. Earlier this year, I had a rather grueling race in Dalian, China. But quitting the race, in the middle of the run, when the EMTs that were giving my water did not speak English, was just as scary as continuing on in the state I was in. As the guest of a Chinese shoe manufacturer, there was not much I could do but get to the finish and find them. Otherwise I would be in a world of confusion, far worse than walking along to my second worst marathon finish ever (only faster than the climb through the mountains of Leadville, CO).

But here, finishing my 35th loop of this 2-mile course, I was reduced to a shuffle. All my goals were gone. I came across the one-time leader of the race, Caroyln Smith and we exchanged some words. She was calling it a day at the next lap as well. She held the same philosophy. The day is hot, I could tack some more miles onto my total so my training log looks really cute or I can cut my losses and keep myself from doing irreparable damage to my body.

Earlier in the day, yet another online running friend, Bill Allen, had come to the same conclusion. After pacing along greatly, a stop to change clothes had his IT band tighten up greatly. So, he said forget it. Sometimes that is far, far harder than continuing to shuffle on.

What was amazing, as I pulled into the clock at the final lap, was how the leaderboard had changed throughout the day. So many of the fast starters (especially the fools who went out at a 10k pace) had been leapfrogged by those who ran much slower but consistent pace. Ultrarunning legend Pam Reed (who I introduced myself to in the middle of the race and told her that her feats are incredible) had been slowly but surely picking runner after runner off as the fell to the wayside. Connie Gardner, who somehow handled the heat spectacularly (and inexplicably so, being from the Rust Belt of Ohio) not only took second place overall but just missed breaking the American Women’s record by .05 of a mile.

But with me, I hit the timing mat at 70 miles and removed my chip. No more rest breaks, no more eating while running and no more vomiting. Nattu, who had been affected by the heat as well, had dropped at 50 miles for the same reason I did: there was no reason to go on. But Ed put us all to shame by doing over 58 miles in the 12 hours and taken 3rd place. Tim, battling his stress fracture but in the end battling his ego and wisely pulling out, still managed 84 miles. So, while my goals were lost, I was buoyed by the great achievements of my friends.

Furthermore, after a long night’s sleep, I got to speak to my Dad again. Fever down, now back home, he was doing much better. I told him, even though my family doesn’t often express emotions openly, that this race was definitely for him. Miles 1-50 I did on my talent, training and heart. From there on, I was doing it for him. And then I stopped running because I stopped being stupid.

But I told him to not count on that lasting very long.


Yellow Scuba said...

Sometimes the hardest choice is the best choice, and I know you made a hard decision on Sunday morning. It was hard to see you struggling with that choice, but I knew you were at peace with it in the end. Congratulations on great accomplishments during the 70 miles you ran, Dane. I am really proud of you, but not just for the running.

Big kudos to all of our pals, new and old! Ed rocked the race, Tim and Don were so enthusiastic, it was contagious, and Nattu is always inspiring when he just gets into the zone and keeps moving forward. I hope the next time I get to crew for you guys, everyone will have the day they have dreamed of. Watching your friends struggle is hard, but always worthwhile.

Your Dad is proud of you whether you run 26.2, 70 or 170 miles, I'm sure. Way to go, D.

klottey4 said...

I'm so happy to hear that your dad is doing better. My thoughts are with him to continue that trend.

Lisa Smith-Batchen said...

Great effort. As I always say:
MTRC. Made the right choice.
I hope your father is feeling better. Happy Thanksgiving.

Ed said...

Nice to meet you, Dane. Thanks for being positive and supportive of my race all day when you were having issues; I appreciated that. As for the challenges with your own race -- been there, done that. It happens. There will be other, better days.

Peace and healing to your dad.

1L said...

Sorry to hear that the race wasn't exactly what you wanted, but congratulations on running 70 miles. That is 50 more than I would ever attempt, and 70 more than most people ever dream of. Great perseverance.

I am glad that your Dad is doing better as I am sure that did not help the situation during the day.

Now you know why I moved out of Ohio - Connie Gardner (who is a super nice woman and an absolutely awesome runner). I placed 2nd to her at a 15K in 2004, and she beat me by 15 min (I ran 1:10 on a hilly course). Her accomplishments are phenomenal.

klottey4 said...

I'm just cruious, why is the "location" Arlington and DC? I thought you were in TX?

Dane said...

Kathy, Because i messed up.

Lainey said...

Hey Man,

I want you to know that you and your dad are in my thoughts and prayers. He raised a wonderfully stubborn boy. I'm glad you know your limits!!! :) I hope you enjoy Thanksgiving in T-ville with them.

CharlieM said...

What is great (or not so great) about this sport can be summed up in looking at your P.R.'s for 12 hours (84 miles) and 24 hours (70 miles). I say "great" because it shows how "different" each race can be, and how mind, body and external circumstances all have to gel together on a given day to produce an awesome (or at least not excruciatingly painful)experience. Thank you for writing such a detailed blog on this race (and every race), because you add so much to the ongoing human experiment known as ultrarunning. Never stop being "stupid", keep on keepin' on.

dre said...

dane, i am honoured to have been able to watch you run. and i am pleased to hear that your father is doing better. =) said...

I couldn't work out my logistics (with daughter's activities) to be there, but I thought about you during the course of the day (especially as I was beating the hills in east Texas while running a half).

Way to go! Always good keeping up with a Penn Stater doing great things!

aharmer said...

Hey Dane,

I'm wondering what method you used to come up with the 130M goal? I'm considering a 24hr in the future on a very similar course and don't really know where to start with goal setting. Thanks!

Dane said...


The only method was that 130 miles in the minimum mileage allowed to make it onto the US 24 Hour National team.

cymrusteve said...

Another great report Dane! Congrats....

How would someone, who's never tackled anything longer than a 50k, attempt a 24 hour run? I can't even fathom coming up with a strategy for an event like this, but I would love to try it one day.

Happy Miles,


Dane said...


Thanks! I had done a 12 hour run before, way back in 2003.