This past December 28 thru Jan 3, Paula and I ran the six day race at Across the Years, in Glendale Arizona.
What follows is my attempt to get down a bunch of thoughts about that experience.
My training leading up to the race did not go well. I had horrible trouble getting myself to hit workouts, and especially a lot of trouble hitting long runs. My strategy to hit my daily and weekly mileage goals was to do shorter runs, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Far too many of those miles got done on the treadmill just because the weather was rotten. The result was that I headed into the race feeling undertrained despite hitting what, for me, were fairly high weekly volumes. (my high mileage weeks were on the order 70-80 miles in a week.)
Paula had set herself what I felt was an aggressive goal of 300 miles across the six days. I didn’t feel even vaguely capable of hitting that distance, and I set my sights on tagging 200 miles and getting a 200 mile buckle.
My plan for hitting the 200 mile goal was to run even daily mileage - aiming for 35-40 miles per day. That would position me so that I would never feel like I needed extra miles to ‘catch up’ and I would also not run the risk of doing more miles than I needed and then have that effort spoil the next day by provoking some injury or other problem.
35-40 miles a day, figuring I could hit an overall pace (including aid station stops, toilet breaks, &c), boils down to 10-11.3 hours of moving time. I figured I could do the vast majority of those miles at a fast walk, with occasional strategic brief periods of very easy running. Even being forced down to a 20 minute pace, 35-40 miles works out to 11.7-13.4 hours, still a manageable portion of each day. Plenty of time for sleeping, actually eating a meal, and daily tasks like changing clothes, the occasional shower, and so on.
This sounds like a very vague plan, but I really had not a lot of info about how a running a multiday race goes, and it didn’t seem worth working out detail when I would end up just showing a lot of adaptability anyway.
Just prior to flying to Glendale I stubbed a toe on my left foot, which ended up bruised and technicolor. I was super worried the discomfort was a flareup of the neuroma that has been giving me fits on and off, but it was just sore from being abused, and in the end wasn’t a problem at all.
Paula and I both never check bags when flying, so we were both up against the volume of our carry-on luggage in getting all the running attire and other gear into the bags. Some compromises were made. I took three pairs of shoes:
Beyond the shoes there were a lot of shorts, long sleeve and short sleeve shirts, tights, and underwear.
We’d rented a tent with two cots and two sleeping bags. Although some people run during the day and evening and then go to a hotel at night to shower and get a solid night’s sleep in a decent bed, we planned on roughing it in the tent.
Once we arrived in Glendale we did a trip to Walmart, where we bought a few extra items:
Day one of the race, I bagged 25 laps/ 35.2 miles. At the end I was tired but confident I’d be able to carry on the next day.
It was very cold in the tent that night, and neither Paula nor I got a comfortable night’s sleep
By the end of day two, the wheels were still attached but I was hitting some tough sledding. Paula and I did a few late laps together, and at the end of those laps my entire right hand side posterior chain was fairly pissed off, and my right ankle hurt.
After another poor night’s sleep I was not in a happy place in the first half of the day.
By noon my right ankle was clearly in trouble, and I stopped to try to address that, as it was clearly the most pressing physical issue. I iced the ankle, did some massage, wished I had compression socks, and then decided to just wrap the ankle in lightly stretched KT tape to get some compression on the now swollen ankle. I also took some ibuprofen, which I don’t like to do but did anyway.
This reduced the swelling and discomfort almost immediately and I carried on, taking a break every 7 miles or so to lie down, get my feet up above my heart, and take a short (5-7 minute) micronap. The resting with my feet up definitely improved the state of both my ankles and my legs overall. The micronaps did a fantastic job of turning my mood around.
My right hand glute started complaining in the early evening and at just short of 71 laps/100 miles, I stopped to sleep, planning on rising early and passing 100 miles before 9am, which would mean I was still on track for 200 miles.
It was somewhat warmer and I’d figured out better ways to keep warm (hand warmers were central to this effort) so I got a somewhat better night’s sleep before…
Feeling more rested when I woke up, I just got moving as soon as I was awake, rather than trying to get just a little more sleep in the hopes of more full recovery. Just after 4:30am I passed one hundred miles, which was significant because it meant I was ahead of pace to hit 200 miles, and also because I’d decided that bagging less than 100 miles in six days would be pretty humiliating, and now I’d passed that hurdle.
At this point my spirits started to improve. By the end of the ‘official’ third day at 9am, I was well into setting a new one week distance PR (previously at less than 110 miles) and although my right ankle (and to a lesser extent my left ankle) were requiring more or less constant attention I had a pattern that was sustainable albeit slow. I’d fast walk 4-5 laps, coddling the ankles by slowing down as required on each lap. At the end of that, I’d grab hot food from the aid station, a cup of Coke, and go sit down and eat in the warming tent. I’d save the Coke for last, drink it quickly, and then lie down on a cot in the warming area, put my feet up on the back of a chair, set the timer for 5-10 minutes, start the timer, and immediately close my eyes and go to sleep. When the timer went off, I’d get up and start more laps.
I was moving slowly, with almost no running but instead just gobs of fast walking, and having no trouble staying on pace to hit 200 miles by the end of day six.
Rising and starting morning laps I discovered that the air quality was quite bad. For a time I tried wearing a buff as a mask, but it didn’t help with the smoke and was annoying, so I gave that up. The crappy air was not doing my lungs any favors but I was still managing a decent, slow but steady pace, and a lot of the glute/hamstring discomfort was now miraculously gone.
I just carried on, executing on the simple plan of crank out a handful of laps, take a short micronap with feet elevated, repeat. My ankles were a constant concern but I was managing that problem. When my spirits would sag, I found the best way to cheer myself up was to focus on encouraging all the other runners, especially those who were on the struggle bus also.
By the end of day five it was clear that unless something blew up very badly, I was gong to make it to 200 miles, and I started pondering how far I could go beyond that.
Two runners we know from Hamster (Van Pham and Mikey Sklar) were also running the six day race but were leaving early. When they left, they had gone just past 200 miles, and I started to realize that I might be able to pass them and place higher than they did - a once in a lifetime chance to do that.
My goal for day six was to pass 200 miles, preferably well before needing to go to sleep, and then rise on the final morning of the race and perhaps bag another couple of laps.
By 3:45pm I’d passed 200 miles, gotten my buckles, and was sitting down enjoying a leisurely meal.
By 10pm I’d passed both Mikey and Van and retired to the tent to sleep, planning on getting up and seeing if I could pass one more runner before 9am.
Paula carried on for a few more hours, bagging enough laps to put her in 2nd place female.
When I woke up, I got some coffee and breakfast, went to the showers to use a real toilet, and by the time I returned and told Paula I was going to do one final lap, Paula was waiting to see what the woman she’d passed in the night would do. I headed out on my lap, spotted that woman, and texted Paula to get out and do more laps.
When I finished that lap, I stopped and watched runners doing their last few laps.
My final result: 212.7 miles, more than double my highest volume week ever prior to the race.
Both Paula and I were underprepared for the cold temps we encountered when it got dark, both for running/walking more laps, and for sleeping in the tent. Warmer sleeping arrangements would be good, a tent heater would be better. It’s tough to head out to run when you’re very cold.
I found my periodic micronap strategy to be really effective, both in terms of managing the ankle problem but also in terms of sleepiness, mental alertness, and overall fatigue. I was amazed at how refreshed I would feel after 5 minutes with my eyes closed and my feet up above my heart. How applicable micronaps would be in a race that is much shorter duration (e.g. 32 hours at Hamster) is a puzzle but in a pinch I wouldn’t hesitate to try to resuscitate myself that way. If it’s a choice between giving up, or taking a five minute nap and then decide whether or not to quit, take the nap every single time - five minutes lost is nothing in the face of a DNF or a missed goal.
I thought I would find 34 miles a day, sustained for six days, to be an aggressive goal. It wasn’t nearly as aggressive as I thought.
Every ultramarathon you run that’s longer than perhaps 50km, you’re going to get mood swings. There will be low points, there will be high points, and everything in between. One of the advantages of the loop format as done at ATY (change direction every four hours, course consisted of two loopy sections with a lollipop stick section between them) is that you see pretty much every runner at least once every four hours, and generally more often than that. And my discovery was this: when you are in a low spot, the best way to dig yourself out is to encourage other runners. Encourage the runners who are struggling, applaud the runners who are crushing it, and greet every runner in between. Ultrarunning is a solo sport but that doesn’t mean it’s done alone. Every bit of encouragement you give other runners is reflected back to you, amplified.
One of the challenges of a multiday race is that your mind becomes a shit-show if you let yourself dwell on just how long you’re going to be out there, moving. Even more than shorter races some strict mental hygiene is needed. If you find yourself thinking “This is just day two, what will day six be like” you need to shut that down instantly. Paula had a great aphorism that I used constantly to redirect that sort of thinking: “Don’t try to buy a problem before it’s for sale.”
One particular low spot for me was when I was really feeling fatigued, my right ankle was swollen and giving me real grief, my entire right posterior chain was hurting, and I was struggling to keep my head in the game. One of the other runners gave me some useful advice:
If you’re very lucky you can recover quickly. Paula seemed ready to go after just 4-5 hours of sleep. I needed more sleep than that - 6-7 hours felt good especially once I threw in micronaps. I spent 5-10 minutes at bedtime massaging muscles with big complaints, working on my ankles, and rolling my feet on a spiky ball to avoid neuroma issues from flaring up. If I were to run a multiday event again, I would arrange to have Normatec recovery boots available for use at bedtime.
I used 3” wide KT tape on the soles of my feet. Once again I had no blister issues beyond one big toe that developed a hotspot. I taped that toe with a strip of KT tape and had no further issues with that hotspot. When my ankles started to swell, I compression wrapped them using KT tape. Compression socks or sleeves would have been better but KT tape is what I had, so I used it.
In retrospect, I should probably have taken the tape off at night to let the tissues around my ankle normalize a bit.
Next time, compression socks and sleeves for sure.
I used 2Toms Sportshield roll on lube, and had no chafing issues at all.
Stupidly, I did not bring Hammer Endurolyte Fizz tablets, and I hit some dehydration problems until I worked out how to get some electrolytes in - mostly eating lots of salty stuff (pringles were a favorite) and filling my bottle with plain water some of the time.
Here I run into some semantic sticky territory, because when I talk about grace, a lot of people are going to come to that term with ideas of what it means, and as I’m not particularly clued up about what they might mean, it’s entirely possible I’m using it in some different way.
When I use the word ‘grace’ what I’m talking about is positive things in your life that a) are not earned, and cannot really be earned, and b) are perhaps not deserved or merited but which you receive nevertheless. Maybe those things come from God, maybe they come from other people, maybe they’re just happenstance. Folks coming from some religious traditions might find that askew from what they think the term means but I can’t really find any other term which seems to fit, so that’s the term I’ll use.
There’s an moment in long ultramarathons where you reach a point where you take stock of your situation and conclude that at that time (or in the near future) you have reached a point where it’s not physically possible for you to continue.
Given what an ultramarathon is about, that moment doesn’t come as a surprise. What does come as a surprise, every single ultra I run, is that you can reach that point and then… just not stop. Your body is done. Your mind is done. Nevertheless, you can continue. Perhaps you won’t be fast. It will probably hurt, perhaps quite a lot. As you continue, you’ll end up in what I think of as the Tunnel of Torment, which I think is what other runners call the pain cave.
So you continue for a while like this, in a state that I’ll call chosen suffering. If you continue, you are going to suffer - pain, fatigue, mental confusion and blurriness, lack of sleep. If you stop, all that suffering will stop, perhaps not instantly but very quickly. But… and this is the big but… you choose to suffer because that’s what you need to do to continue.
And one of the things about this state of chosen suffering is that while you are there, you become acutely aware of the operation of grace in your life - not just the grace that appears as support from volunteers or other runners or changing conditions but also the operation of grace in your non-running life.
It’s grace that you can run at all, let alone run preposterous distances. It’s grace that you are here, as opposed to simply not being anywhere at all. It’s grace that you can feel the cold morning, grace that you can feel the warm sunlight when the sun rises, grace that you can hear the birds waking up and singing. It’s grace that there are people you love who are part of your life, and it’s grace that there are people in your life who love you. It’s grace that, when you struggle with getting the cap off your water bottle, the helpful volunteer reaches out and gently does it for you, and then fills it for you, puts the cap back on, and hands the bottle to you with an encouraging smile. You are surrounded by a beautiful dance of people and things in your life, all the time but often we just don’t see the presence of these things. And when your legs feel like you can’t take another step, you are hungry but your stomach is upset, you’re cold and everything hurts including your eyelashes, somehow you get into this state where the operation of grace in your life becomes not just visible but so obvious it’s impossible to ignore.
I don’t understand this link between chosen suffering and this acute awareness of grace. There’s no obvious reason why we should be put together this way. And yet, during the race, I became aware that I was not the only runner who was having that experience, and that for the experienced runners it was an accepted part of the deal.
You run. You suffer. And you start to see the grace in the patterns that make up your life.
In the past, during races that last perhaps 30-ish hours, this acute awareness of the operation of grace might last an hour or two. It might not happen to me at all.
At Across the Years, my awareness lasted days. Astonishingly, a month after the end of the race, I still have some of this awareness at various times, most days. If I were asked to point to what I thought was the best reason for running a multi-day event, it would be this.
One thing that astonished me was that I would end each day and lay in my sleeping bag and think “Surely tomorrow, I’ll wake up completely wrecked and unable to continue.” I thought that primarily because when I do high volume back to back to back sequences of runs in training, by the third day I’m feeling pretty shattered.
But at Across the Years something was different and each morning I’d wake up, feel stiff, resolutely set out to do more laps, and discover that after a lap or so I was actually moving pretty well. And by ‘moving well’ I’m not talking about the usual ultrarunning meaning of ‘moving well’, which is perhaps best explained by pointing out that when a runner goes past late in a race, and someone comments “Well, he’s moving well” what that actually means is “Well, he’s still making forward progress, nothing is broken, and nothing seems to have fallen off”. I was waking up, doing a lap, and discovering that I was basically just fine.
So now I wonder: how many days in a row could I actually do this? Ten? 100? I have no idea.
I was not so much recovering as I was discovering that I was simply far more resilient than I had thought. And as a result I was able to go more than twice as many miles in six days as I had ever done before.