Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2011/12 Freedom Park New Year's Eve Ultra

I signed up for this race in part because a good friend, David Lee, was organizing it and in part out of curiosity as to whether I could keep going for twenty-four hours straight. I had run laps around the nearly one-mile track at Freedom Park before and realized that monotony might be a bigger hurdle to overcome than fatigue, dehydration, etc... There are pros and cons to such a small loop with the biggest pro being that you really don't need to carry anything and it's pretty easy to self-support, though David does have a well stocked "oasis" at the start/finish area.

It was a cool, dry morning as the runners began to arrive. I had come fairly early to lend David a couple extra hands--unloading his trailer, etc... I knew going in that there were some extremely capable runners coming this year: Sabrina Moran, Annette Bednosky, Anne Riddle Lundblad, and on the guys' side, Jonathan Savage. Turned out there was another ultrastud, David Luljak, though I did not know him before the race. The main attraction was to be the three ladies gunning to make the Women's US 24-hour Championship Team. I was just along for the ride and hoping to draft my way to making it through the entire event.

I had a tarp laid out just past the start/finish area with a change of clothes, shoes, and some gels, etc... I was probably one of the least organized people out there as others had tents, sleeping bags, helpers, and a game plan. I really had only one basic plan--don't stop and don't sit down. If there is any way to make a run like this easier, it's to just accept that you're running for an entire day and just keep going. Don't get caught up in the miles, just go until you see the sun rise again and hear the horn.

I had arranged for several friends to join me during different parts of the day--totally allowed--but would be starting alone. Since I'm writing this almost two years since the race, I can't remember the exact times people showed up, but they were fairly scattered throughout the day. I would start the run alone, however.

Going in, I knew that I would push a little too hard early on to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. I don't know if it was a good strategy, but kept to it, despite David suggesting I turn it down a notch each time I came around the loop. Some of this was anxious energy, but I thought I was just hitting a pace I felt comfortable with and felt I could maintain. Then I started noticing the clock and the fact that I was knocking off roughly eight minute miles when the "plan" was around ten minutes. I felt fine, though, and figured I would stick with something comfortable because sometimes running too slow is harder on me than speeding up a little.

For the first couple hours, I ran pretty much the entire lap. That was intended and I would later add short walks on the small hills as the miles accumulated. I reached mile 40 right around six hours, as a friend prepared to join me. I had planned to walk an entire lap about this time and eat something more substantial--pizza in this case. I do not have an iron stomach and was concerned going in about how I'd do with food intake. The pizza sat fine, though. It was now 2:00 p.m., the warmest part of the day, and I was running with Ray. My splits show that I was now hovering around the ten minute mile pace I had originally expected. Mile 40 was the last time I'd know what mile I was on until the finish. I had asked David not to tell me if/when I reached one hundred miles because I didn't want any pressure. I just wanted to keep going. He said before we started that he was predicting 110. I wished he hadn't said that because that set a bar that I would subconsciously try to clear. That number stayed in my mind, but I would not know until 8:00 a.m. the next day whether I'd reach it or not. 40 miles in six hours sounds like I was in prime position as it meant I had 18 hours for the next 70, but so much can happen and I was already slower than when I started.

I spoke on and off to Jonathan, Anne, and Annette. I didn't at the time know any of them well enough to go into lengthy conversations, so I spared them of any awkward rambling I might do when searching for topics of common interest. The vast majority of the run was spent basically alone--no headphones, just me trying to zone out and take it one loop at a time, one hour at a time. Anne's husband, Mark, was there and since I knew him fairly well, I would follow her progress through him. It's really hard to know where your competitors are in a race like this because you don't necessarily see them pass you if you're hitting the restroom or changing your shoes. I knew that the three ladies were all ahead of me and that Jonathan Savage almost certainly was. Sabrina Moran was well out in front by the twelve hour mark (8:00 p.m.) when she was around mile 80 (meaning she kept my 40-mile pace for 80 miles. For comparison, at twelve hours, Anne was around mile 78, Annette was on mile 74 (she had something go wrong and was about to pull out,) Jonathan was on mile 69 and did drop out after his next lap. I was on mile 73 (remember I didn't know this at the time) and thought with Jonathan Savage gone, I might be the first place male. Fortunately, I didn't realize that David Luljak was also on mile 73 at the midpoint...So, at halftime, I was in fourth place, but about to be in third when Annette pulled out about forty minutes later.

But, now it was dark, and the real race began. I had already run farther than ever before and longer in terms of time (both prior records were 62.5 miles at Relay for Life at a "leisurely" eleven hour pace) and it was approaching an hour when I'd usually be asleep. The temperatures were dropping, and the warm bodies on the track was noticeably fewer, despite the 12-hour and 6-hour events starting at 8:00 p.m. Somewhere in the night, I walked a stretch with David Luljak (still didn't know him) and told him this was my first race of this type. He said I was doing well and maybe "this is your thing." I laughed and told him my wife would kill me if this became "my thing" and started jogging again. David Lee later told me how good a runner David Luljak was and that I wasn't ahead of him until somewhere in the mid-70s. But, when I saw him later that night in his tent (and then even later in David's heated-to-85-degrees timing tent, I knew he had dropped out.

At midnight, my friend Paul came out, as planned, for four hours. Of course, by this point, I wasn't moving as quickly, with laps now in the 11-12 minute range (including some walking and some pauses at the aid station.) I was at mile 95 when he joined me, so we were both unaware when just a few miles later, I'd cross the 100 mile point. I brought him up to speed on who had dropped and who was leading. Sabrina was now on mile 103, but about to pull out--though I never learned why. Anne was on mile 99. So, after midnight, Anne was winning the race and I was about four miles behind. I had no aspirations of catching Anne and knew I was slowing down more than her--based on the fact that she would pass me but I would not pass her...I knew from Mark that she was hoping to get to 140 miles, so I continued to get updates every now and then and encourage her on as she occasionally came by me. Paul was trying to keep up a discussion about a book he read on Abraham Lincoln. I remembered very little of it, but if nothing else, the company was helpful. As I said before, there were very few people left on the track and when you spread them out over a one mile stretch, you can go for a bit without seeing anyone since no one is moving really fast.

When Paul left at 4:00 a.m., I would be on mile 113, past David Lee's prediction, but fading fast. Anne, by comparison, was on mile 121 and still seemed strong. She had doubled her lead on me in that four hour stretch. For the next two hours, I ran alone at a pace that fluctuated between high-12s and low 16-minute miles (again, with walking and stopping at the aid station factored in.) Then, at 6:00 a.m., an unexpected blessing came in the form of Mary Dunn. She had just come to check in on the race (she's an early riser) but I coaxed her into pacing me around the track for the last two hours, warning her that I was now down to just walking as fast as I could. Mary, not too long ago, was an incredible runner, with faster PRs than me at every distance up to the marathon. She's still a strong runner, but a knee injury slowed her down. But aside from running, she's a great and loyal person and friend. So, we continued around the loop, sometimes taking twenty minutes for a mile, because I was stopping to warm back up in the timing tent each lap. Remember my tarp with all my clothes, etc...? Well, I learned the hard way that dew/moisture collects on things left uncovered on the ground. So, everything I had was wet. I was chilled and had on way more clothing than I normally would. But, I was making myself keep going. I remembered my DNF on top of Mount Mitchell year's ago when I had gotten too wet and tried to stop for a bit. I knew that stopping too long would be the end, so I would force myself back out into the cold for another lap. One at a time.

As the sun rose, I was actually pulling off quicker loops, though it was no warmer. I was able to stop going to the tent each time around and got my pace back down to a brisk-walk pace of just over 15-minute miles for the last three miles. When the horn sounded, Mary and I were on the far side of the track, about halfway around and we stopped to wait for David to come mark our location to record the exact distance. I was cold and tired, but glad it was done and that I hadn't stopped. I had a sense of accomplishment, but it was dulled some by the fatigue and chill. When David had my distance figured, we headed back to the tent. As I warmed up inside, I didn't realize it, but Mary had gathered all my stuff from my tarp and put it beside my vehicle (I wisely brought my mom's van, knowing I could lie in the back if necessary.)

David worked his magic on the computer and announced the winners, going through the 6 and 12 hour races first. Then we reached the 24-hour results. My distance? 125.76 miles. Significantly above what I had hoped for and better than the 112 number that danced in my head off and on throughout the run. I knew Anne was well beyond me, but was still impressed when he announced her distance of 140.26. She was 14.5 miles ahead of me and almost doubled her lead again from hours 20 - 24. Her later laps were 10-11 minutes while mine were bumping the high teens many times, so it was easy to see how she grew that four-mile lead from hour sixteen so quickly. It was also one of the top five female distances in US history.

I was very happy with my results and the large pottery award. Only three of us ran the entire 24 hours, though I think one or two others took a rest and hopped back on the track at the end. For me, the hardest part isn't the run itself, but recovering from the missed night of sleep. That can really take its toll, and I thing it was a good six to eight months before I felt like myself again. I won't rule out doing it again, but have to wonder if another try would show any improvement, when I correct the mistakes I made this time.

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