Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Friday, January 3, 2014

2013/14 Freedom Park New Year's Eve 24-Hour Ultra

You can't spell "inspiration" without a "J." Well, two of them, actually. Nine hours into the Freedom Park New Year's Eve Ultra, I was at mile 55. Jerry Johncock had just reached the 50K point (mile 31.2.) Jerry Johncock is 85 years old (young?) He had just set the U.S. 85+ 50K record after breaking the 30K record earlier in the day. Seven runners would crack 100 miles in this year's 24-hour event, but this 31.2 mile effort was the story of the day. Locals know of Mr. Johncock, at least anecdotally, as the father of Bill Johncock, a beloved member of the Unifour running community and, as a podiatrist, the first person most of us contact when we are having foot issues. Bill and his brother, Mark, were there with their father, seeing him to his goal. Everyone running that day was keeping tabs on Mr. Johncock, eager to see if he'd make it to 50K. I had the good fortune of seeing him reach the mark. Race Director, David Lee, certified the distance and his time (as he had with the 30K mark) and will submit it to the USATF to make it official. Congratulations, Mr. Johncock.


For a while, we had to wonder if David would even hold the race as registration didn't open until very late in the year. When it did open, registrations came in slowly. I joked that I was going to enter my wife because for the longest time, there were no female entries. "You're guaranteed to win! You only have to do one lap!" I had told her.  Fortunately, I never made good on my "threat" to sign her up as the entries began to come in, including many women capable of much, much more than one lap--as the results will bear out.

After directing Table Rock Ultras on an absolutely miserable weather day, I was understandably monitoring the forecasts leading up to the New Year's Eve Ultra. 0% chance of precipitation and a high of just over fifty degrees was promising. What none of us had really counted on, though, was a constant wind (not breeze) throughout the daylight hours, sometimes gusting enough to push a tired-legged runner off the track.

I ran this event in 2011/12 (Blog Post) and while I made some mistakes, I did much better than I had expected with 125.76 miles. I came into this year's event a little pessimistic as recent race results have fallen short of what I would have liked. I was still "hung over" from Table Rock and missing that night of sleep and I had just gotten over a one week battle with the flu. Come race morning, I felt ok physically, but I kept my expectations dialed back. I knew several of my friends who were running, but none of them had the same "run all 24-hours" goal as me. Lee would be going for 100K and Paul was going for 100 miles. Bill was running the first 50K with his dad, and then planned to run with his brother up to 70 or 75 miles. Out of curiousity, I had watched the registrations to see who was going to be the favorites to win (based on performances in other races) but couldn't really figure out whom to watch for on race day. The only certainty was last year's second place female was back and she was likely to do well.

Learning from the mistake I made last time, Paul and I had our clothing boxed up and a table set up, about 50 yards beyond the start/finish area. No trying to change into frost-coated clothes this year. We had leftover TRU Gatorade, water, gels, Stinger waffles, and other foods we felt comfortable with. We also had Advil, S-caps, Vaseline, etc...just in case. There was plenty to choose from at the "oasis" at the start/finish line, but we wanted to have things we were comfortable on hand as well.

After brief announcements, 32 runners lined up adjacent to the timing mats and headed off on our 24-hour adventure. It didn't take long for the pack to thin out and I found myself in the lead grouping of four. We were right at the pace I liked to start at (too fast, I knew, but a pace that helps me shake off the nerves and loosen up.) I hung with them for several laps and then went on ahead. I knew I was leading, but it wasn't because I wanted to. I was just at my comfort pace and was feeling ok. Leading an hour or two into a 24-hour race means absolutely nothing. I've seen some very strong runners pull out of this event over the years as something went wrong in the later hours of the race. I really just wanted to stay within myself and push through for the duration--let the miles fall where they may.

David Lee (the race director) prints out the standings every 15-30 minutes and posts them on a table at the start/finish area. I never check the sheet because I don't really want the pressure of knowing where I stand but they are there if you are curious. With runners ducking into restrooms and their tents, it's easy to quickly lose track of where you are in relation to other runners. Even with a relatively small one-mile loop, you're only aware of the 1/4 mile (at most) ahead of you. So, I know I surely was not leading for long and when the six hour point came, I knew I might be in trouble (and the splits bear this out as I had slowed and given up the lead around this point.) I was getting really sore in my knees and attributed it to lack of training in recent months. I backed off the pace and ran with Paul for a while--thinking it might possibly continue for the rest of the day. Fortunately an Advil kicked in and I felt 100% better and went back to a pace closer to what I had been doing before the soreness set in.

When compared with 2011/12, I felt like I was doing a better job of consistently eating and drinking--rarely passing our table without taking at least a quick swig of water. I got Mountain Dew, potato chips, and PB&J every so often from the aid station, but mostly went with what I brought. Whatever the flavor of purple (grape?) Gatorade we brought from TRU, it was awesome and I did not get tired of it throughout the event--unlike in most races where Gatorade seems sickly sweet after a few hours.

The wind was affecting everyone, even flipping over some tents. For a time, there was a tailwind during the longest straightaway on the track, but that quickly changed and it seemed as if most of our running was into headwinds and against sidewinds. I never removed the lightweight jacket I had gotten from the 2011/12 FPNYU, despite it being 50 degrees. There were warm spots and cool spots on the track. I would get hot enough in the warm spots to want to remove the jacket, but the cool spots were cold enough to want to keep it on. So, instead of taking it off, I just pushed the sleeves up and down and zipped and unzipped it as needed.

At 10:00 a.m., the marathon and half-marathon events started, bringing fresh faces to the track and a little bit of an up-tempo atmosphere. Since the park was not closed for the race, we'd occasionally see some walkers on the track, bemused by our lunacy.

Round and round we went as the world outside the park continued on as if nothing unusual were happening. It's incredibly easy to lose track of what lap/mile you are on if you aren't making an effort to keep count (or wearing a GPS.) Occasionally, David would break my "don't tell me" rule and let slip what lap I was on (though I thought he was telling me the mile--a mistake that would haunt me later in the day.) I still didn't really know where the other runners were in relation to me, so I just kept plugging along, cautiously optimistic about my ability to finish.

As the sun went down, the winds began to die, but the temperature also dropped off quickly. I stopped to change into dry clothes, meaning my Reebok cold-weather shirt and a lightweight Mountain Hardware jacket. I don't know why I wore the jacket as it is not made for running and doesn't really breathe. It is warm, however, and would block any wind that might still be out there. I also put on some long, loose-fitting running pants, surprised to find that my legs were sticky with sweat. It made the pants uncomfortable, but still a necessity if I were to slow down as the evening progressed.

I have neglected to mention a great group of (I think) high schoolers who were stationed at a bench just past the start/finish area. They cheered for everyone each time we came around and eventually learned our names--at least those of us who interacted with them. They were a cross country team coached by one of the runners. I would join their coach, Greg, off and on during the night and learned that he had gotten 138+ miles at a 24-hour event earlier in the year and was hoping for 140, to qualify for the US National Team (as a side note, Meghan, last year's second place female finisher was also trying to qualify for the national team.) I continued to run pretty well but once I realized I was out of the competition to win, I felt a sense of relief (mixed with a tiny bit of "dang, I thought I might have a shot.") But, Greg was a nice guy, so I found myself pulling for him, and Meghan, to reach their goals.

We did not run without support. A friend of ours, Ray, had come with his daughter to run with us some in the late afternoon and he returned around 8:00 or 9:00 to check in, joining me for another hour or so. Throughout the day, my wife, Leslie, brought me things she thought I would want to eat, like a Bojangles biscuit, but I had to disappoint her and say that as good as that might be under normal circumstances, I just can't handle it during a run. Still, I was glad she stopped by.

As the hours wore on, temperatures continued to fall to a low of about 27 degrees--and being next to the Catawba River, it was a damp 27. The aid station volunteers were making bean and potato soup, which might also be good during a cold day, but with running, I was afraid to put beans into my system. They would later mention that they were also making rice and that actually sounded pretty good. Aside from being a little heavy on the butter (for me trying to run) it was really good, and warm. I had never thought about rice during a race and may add it to TRU for next year.

Around 11:30 p.m., a mutual friend of ours, Robert, came back out to see Paul through to the finish. Paul had fallen off pace and was down to walking. He actually still had a shot at his 100 mile goal if he could manage 3mph, but would ultimately fall just short of that. I still have to say that Robert's friendship shone strong in his willingness to forgo sleep on a frigid night to walk around that track with Paul for hours on end.

To pass the time and the monotony of laps, I challenged one of the cross-country runners to think of something (we settled on food) that started with the letter "A" and then, each lap, we'd go up a letter and I'd try to guess what she was thinking. It was a fun distraction from my fatigue and soreness and eventually I began to guess correctly what she was thinking. But eventually, she gave in to sleep, just as we had reached the letter "R" and, ironically, just as I had stopped for another cup of rice.

I fell into a routine of running my own pace until I'd catch back up with Robert and Paul again and I'd walk with them for a short stretch before returning to my pace. The number of runners on the track had picked up slightly when the 12-hour runners joined us at 8:00 p.m., but they were in their own world. The 24-hour runners had formed a bit of a bond, getting to know one another, keeping track on how each other was doing, and offering words of encouragement as we passed. The 12 (and 6) hour runners interacted very little with us, the walking zombies.

Speaking of zombies, it really feels like a dead zone between midnight and 4:00 a.m. I don't remember much of that period beyond the clock seeming to move extremely slowly. At the 20-hour point, 4:00 a.m., I planned to walk an entire loop and did so. It was more of a reward than a necessity as I was feeling fairly good. My good friend, Mary, who had joined me at the end of my previous FPNYU effort had returned to the park and walked with me. Upon completing the lap, I found my legs had stiffened up considerably and my knees were very sore. I had just taken an Advil two hours earlier and hesitated to take another. I tried to run but it was pretty painful and difficult. I then realized my running was probably done for the day. If it had been muscle stiffness, I might have pushed myself into a run, but hearing about so many people with knee issues, I decided I'd best not risk a serious problem by pressing. I threw a hoodie over my jacket, dropped a handwarmer under my shirt, and we walked as briskly as I could manage. Time sped up a little, perhaps simply because more time elapsed between laps with my slower pace. Mary did a great job of keeping up the conversation. Since we hadn't seen each other in a while, it was centered around catching up on what has happened in our lives. Eventually, I had to slide into David's heated timing tent to warm up. David told me I was at 114. Based on the time, I figured I'd have to push pretty hard just to match my 2011/12 effort. I decided to go for 120 and call it a day, whatever amount of time was left after that.

We walked a few more laps and rechecked my progress. It was then I realized that David had given me my total in laps and not miles. Since the track is slightly shorter than a mile, I needed two more laps than I realized (for a total of four) to reach 120 miles. It was about 6:00 a.m., so I knew I had time. But mentally, I was ready for this to be done. Mary had a daughter heading back to Pennsylvania at 7:00 a.m. but she saw me through the first two of my final four laps. For the final two laps, I pressed on alone. As I prepared for my final lap, I saw Paul and Robert at the start/finish area. Paul had chosen to go ahead and pull out, realizing his pace was not enough to reach 100 and the difference between 91 and 93 miles not really being worth pushing on for the last hour. They headed on home and I took off for my last lap. The pre-dawn chill had lifted and it felt slightly warmer than it had when I started the lap. I briefly flirted with the idea of sticking it out for the full twenty-four hours, but I knew I'd still fall short of my goal and my knees were really bothering me. There was no fanfare (and few people) as I crossed the mat for the last time. I removed my chip and gave it to David, just as Meghan came in from what would be her last lap. She too was hanging it up a little early, realizing that she wouldn't reach her goal of 120 miles. Greg came through and I told him I was pulling out. I think I was too far behind him to have caught him even if he had stopped and I had not, but I wanted him to know that he had the win secured. He continued on, though, intent on seeing it through.

I didn't linger long. After thanking David and the high schoolers who were so supportive, I went and packed away my stuff and sat in the vehicle with the heat blasting, thawing my fingertips with residual heat from the handwarmers and the everything the dashboard vents could put out. I was neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with the outcome. It would ultimately be my second second place overall finish in a 24-hour event which feels quite like overachievement to me. I really do wish I had been able to run longer into the night. Heck, Dennis and I ran the last five miles of Bighorn! But maybe it was ultimately just too flat or the asphalt wore on me. Who knows. I don't regret dipping my toe back into the 24-hour waters, but now am convinced that I have no interest in doing this again. Fortunately, with this being the last year for this event, the temptation of a close-to-home 24-hour event with a good friend directing it will be gone.

Note: Despite how I felt like I was running so well late into the evening, the last lap where I was ahead of 2011/12 pace was lap 32. After that point, I slowly drifted farther behind my previous pace.

Note: After finishing the lap where he set the 50K mark, Jerry Johncock would rest and return to the track to set the 12-hour record and later the 24-hour record for his age group.

2013/14 FPNYU Overall Results
2013/14 FPNYU Splits

1 comment:

  1. Mark, I enjoyed your narration so much! as always, you have an incredible way of focusing on others when situations get critical - no whining, that Is what makes this extraordinary I hope we can all read more of your run stories, they are a huge incentive. I feel humbled. Nick.