Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Lhotse 24-Hour Endurance Challenge: My First Track Meet!

Saturday, March 18 may have been the first time I have set foot on an actual running track. It had numbers and lanes just like in the Olympics!

Why would anyone want to do a 24-hour track race? Because it’s fun? Because most people in the world haven’t done one? Sometimes I catch myself feeling smug about being part of some small group, just because most people aren’t in it (FaceBook abstainers, for example). It’s elitism, and it’s silly, but it’s hard to turn off. Of all the people who run races for fitness or fun, only a small slice of that group has ever run a 24-hour race. Even fewer have run a 24-hour race on a quarter-mile track. Those who have run a 24-hour track race in Owasso, Oklahoma? Even fewer…there may be only 10 of us in the whole world!

Most people who run races choose the fixed-distance variety (everyone covers the same distance, fastest time wins). I’ve done these, but now I am hooked on fixed-time races (everyone runs the same number of hours; longest distance wins). I wonder, are there fixed-time sprint races? To see who can run the furthest in 20 seconds or so? If so, I have zero interest in those. But the 24-hour race concept (or longer) appeals to me. Getting myself fit enough to run slowly for a really long time seems pretty doable, compared to running faster for a shorter time. I don’t much like pain and I don’t have the mental fortitude for speed, but I can plod. Plus, I have been nocturnal for most of my life, and I seem to have an above-average ability to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning.

I’d like to say I thought all this through in advance, reasoned out that 24-hour races represented my best opportunity to achieve modest success at some physical activity for the first time ever, selected a 24-hour race, and then trained for it. But nope, that’s not what happened. I signed up for the Lhotse 24-Hour Endurance Challenge because my brother Dave signed up for it. At first I cringed at the thought of a track race. I would have much preferred a nicely manicured jogging path in a park, maybe a mile-long loop. But the more I thought about it, considering all the alternative races Dave might have picked, the quarter-mile track sounded better and better. Sure, going round and round in circles for 24 hours might be mentally draining, but there are plenty of pluses. No steep drop-offs, no danger of getting lost, no mud, no need for drop bags. All my creature comforts near at hand, along with an escape hatch in the form of my car.

(After a traumatic run-in with a large bug on the trails at a local park, I swore off trail running for over a year. Most of my running is on suburban sidewalks and bike paths.)

I won’t say I “trained” for this, but at least I got in a couple of consecutive 50-mile workouts back on New Year’s Eve weekend. That should help, right?

Dave and I met up the night before the race, at the pre-race pizza meal in the Owasso High School Field House. (Please remind me, next time I sign up for a 24-hour race, to NOT stuff myself with pizza the night before, okay? It’s just not a good idea.) I was super-excited to finally get to run an ultra with Dave. He was supposed to do the Snowdrop 55 (my first-ever ultra) with me, but he flaked out. (Darn cancer!).

Later on, at the home of a college friend who graciously invited us to stay, Dave mentioned the 16-hour time limit for the 50-mile race. You should have seen the look on my face. Total shock. There was a time limit?

I consulted the website: “Time limits for the distance races are 24-hours for the 100-mile race and 16-hours for the 50-mile race.”

That seems pretty clear. Why didn’t I notice it before? Well, maybe I noticed it, but I didn’t put the pieces together. Dave and I both did the dual registration, which registered us simultaneously for the 50-mile race and the 24-hour race. I guess I had it in my head as a 24-hour race, so I glossed over the 50-mile race info.

I processed the new (well, newly comprehended) information. It made perfect sense. The 24-hour dual registration earns you the privilege of staying out there 24 hours, which ought to be long enough for even me to do 50 miles. But the dual registration doesn’t nullify the 16-hour time limit for the 50. If I got to 50 after the cutoff time, I would have a DNF (did not finish) in the 50-mile race. (The 50 miles would still count toward my official 24-hour distance.)

I worked it out. At Snowdrop, I walked 50 miles in about 22.5 hours, slept 7 hours or so, then walked another 50 miles in 23.5 hours. So I would have to improve my 50-mile PR by over 6 hours! That seemed a pretty tall order. Dang, I had really been looking forward to that belt buckle!

Was it even possible? I would need to do 19-minute miles for 16 hours. My actual pace would need to be under 18 minutes/mile, considering breaks, plus I would be on the outside of the track so as not to impede the speedsters on the rail. So, not totally out of the question, but a big reach for me. Anyway, even though I was much less optimistic about the belt buckle, I was very glad Dave told about the time limit the night before, instead of 30 miles into the race.

I looked pretty crestfallen when Dave told me about that time limit. But the more I thought about it, the more I was glad. It would be good to have a goal to shoot for. The prospect of missing out on my belt buckle should motivate me, right? I already knew (from Snowdrop) that I could walk 50 miles in 24 hours, so there didn’t seem much point in doing that again. It was time to raise the bar.

Race day was beautiful, not a cloud in the sky. It was unseasonably warm for Oklahoma, which was just fine with me. At the high school, the first person I met was Mark, who parked next to me. He insisted on loading my big cooler and chairs into his truck, and taking them to the other end of the track where everyone was setting up.

The second person I met was Carolyn. We bumped into each other in the now-deserted field house. She was wondering where we got our timing chips. I remembered the organizers said they would be at the start line, so we headed that way. When Carolyn introduced herself, she came across as a perfectly normal human being out for a fun run…petite, pleasant and cheerful. There was no indication that she was a freak of nature, or that she could run for almost 24 hours straight without a walk break, or that she was the most awe-inspiring athlete I have ever had the privilege of meeting. She didn’t mention that she had flown all the way from Canada for this race, or that she was trying to qualify for the Canadian national 24-hour team.

I walked the first mile (1 mile = 4 laps), so that I would know my walking pace (18:59). Dave ran the first mile, to see if he could do it (he could!). After that, I ran half of each lap and walked the other half. I had no idea how long I could keep that up, but I knew it was my only chance for the belt buckle.

Pretty early on, I figured out I was not properly equipped for a 24-hour race. I knew better than to depend on my Garmin for 24 hours, so I had brought my Timex Marathon sports watch. Nope, that’s the wrong watch for this race. The Marathon is cheap for a reason—it doesn’t have the Timex Ironman’s 50-lap memory. Dave had the Ironman, so he always knew exactly how many laps he had done, and how long each lap took. I lost track of my laps at about lap 7. My watch could only record one lap; then I had to clear it and start over. I finally figured out a decent system. I hit the lap button every 4 laps, to see my mile pace. If most of my miles were under 18:00, with no long breaks, I should get the belt buckle. This system required me to count to 4 reliably, which was surprisingly difficult. If I didn’t take breaks, I could usually look at my watch’s lap time and figure out if I was on Lap 1, 2, 3, or 4 for the mile. If I took a break, I would lose track.

I was super-impressed with the race timing company, Tatur Racing, and its head honcho Race Timer Dude. I love seeing people who are continually optimizing what they do. The initial system was for a printout of the laps for the top 10 people in each race to be taped to a stand near the start line. This happened every few miles, so the printouts quickly became obsolete. With only ten 24-hour race participants, I made the cut, but still—this is a bad system. Slow people care about knowing their current lap too! I think Race Timer Dude knew this, because he supplemented the printouts by occasionally going to the start line and telling us all what mile we were on. He even checked with me once to see if he had missed a lap—he noticed a 15-minute lap, when all the others had been about 4 minutes. (I had stopped to change my shoes.) I guess RTD figured out that shouting out all our laps wasn’t feasible for 24 hours, so he set up a computer monitor right next to the track. Perfect! Now we could always see what lap we were on, and work out the miles. But no, that wasn’t good enough for Race Timer Dude. About 12 hours in, he made it even better. We no longer had to divide the laps by 4 to get the miles…the miles were on the computer monitor. Yep, right about when my brain was losing its ability to do simple arithmetic, RTD did it for me. (I eventually learned his name was Brian, but he’ll always be Race Timer Dude to me.)

My strategy of running half of every lap felt pretty easy for the first 11 hours or so. That’s remarkable, actually. The longest run/walk I’d ever done in training was about 5.5 hours. I got pretty tired of it after 35 miles, but nothing hurt and I didn’t yet dread the running portions. We changed directions every 4 hours, and with every direction change, I gave myself a treat: New shoes, new socks, and the baby powder treatment for my tired feet! Boy, did I look forward to those turnarounds. I think my shoe-switching strategy worked pretty well. I ended up with one very large blister, but I was blissfully unaware of it throughout the race, my shower, and my first sleep session after the race. I didn’t even notice it until I was back in Texas, so it couldn’t have been too bad.

After running the first mile, Dave settled into a run-walking pattern also. Pretty early on, he had to let go of his A goal, hitting 50 miles in 16 hours for the belt buckle. But he cranked out 5-minute laps for quite a while, and was pleased with his pace. Then around 20 miles or so, his cells rebelled. “Hey, we’ve been fighting like crazy against this cancer…do you know how much energy that takes? And now you expect us to carry you 50 miles round and round a track? No way! We’re going on strike!” They got him to slow down so much you could barely tell he was moving. He kept taking 10 minute breaks to negotiate with those cells, but it wasn’t working very well. He’d get back up and get slowly moving again, but before he made much progress, they insisted on another break. The battle was quite painful to watch; I can’t imagine how it felt for him! At mile 33, about 13 hours into the race, he sat down for a really long time. I thought he might be done. But after about 45 minutes of sitting, his cells got back to work. Turns out he and his cells had worked out an agreement, where they would keep carrying him, in exchange for an occasional long vacation. Part of the deal was that they could no longer work at tortoise pace; they had to carry him at a decent walk. And sure enough, Dave started walking 5-6 minute laps again. He was celebrating, “look, I’m ambulatory!” and he was going fast enough to walk and talk with people. By this time in the race, pretty much everyone knew each other (yet another awesome feature of lap races), and everyone was really glad to see Dave back on the track.

I didn’t have time to walk with Dave. I had to keep running half a lap and walking briskly the other half, or I wasn’t going to make the 16-hour cutoff. After I hit 40 miles, about 12 hours in, it started to really suck. Walking was tolerable, but gosh it was hard to make my body start running. It is hard to describe how it felt. I want to say my whole body hurt, but I remembered analyzing all my body parts and observing that no part was experiencing actual pain. Certainly not the “stop!” sort of pain that warns you of impending damage. My feet ached, that’s for sure. But they ached when I was walking too, so why did they not want to run? All I know is that I felt miserable and I really wanted to take a few laps off from running. Could I? I worked out the splits in my head. At one point, I calculated that I should easily make the cutoff, even if I walked it all. Then I realized I had divided 24 by 4 and obtained 8. Not good. I remembered Dave kept a little calculator in his water belt. Didn’t sound so silly now. I reworked the calculation and came up with less than a mile of wiggle room. According to my watch, nearly all my miles were still in the 17:00’s. I needed to stay close to that if I was going to make it. So, no walking laps for me. Every lap, I had to remind my body that nothing was broken or torn, and there was no physical reason it couldn’t run. Press the ON button and go.

One of the volunteers, Beth, befriended me. She had run some marathons and wondered it she was ready to tackle a longer race, maybe a 12-hour race. She ran/walked several laps with me, at my pace. I alternated between whining about how much it sucked to keep running but I had to do it anyway, and trying to convince her she was plenty fit for a 24-hour race, and she should even consider coming to Houston for next year’s 55-hour Snowdrop. Because these long races were so much fun. Yea. Those laps with Beth were a highlight of the race for me…she really helped me get through a tough stretch. She walked with Dave some too, and with any other runners who looked like they could use some encouragement.

Beth was great, but it was Dave who told me what I needed to hear. An hour or two before the 16-hour cutoff, I walked a few steps with Dave, and was about to cry because I had to run again. Nope, he didn’t try to encourage me. He told me he would be really pissed if I didn’t get that belt buckle. Dang, why’d he have to say that?

(Later on, chatting with a volunteer, I mentioned that Dave said he would be ticked off if I didn’t get the belt buckle. Dave emphatically corrected me: “I didn’t say I’d be ticked off, I said I’d be pissed.” Hmm…he’s right, there’s a difference. And now he’s pissed that I misquoted him. I don’t rightly know what the difference is, but I know that Dave being “mad” or “ticked off” about the lost belt buckle wouldn’t have been as effective. So much for my family-friendly blog language!)

So, after that zinger from Dave, I didn’t have much choice except to keep running. Half of each lap, more if possible. It really, really, sucked but I did it. I remembered a snippet of conversation I’d heard by the aid station. Someone said that ultras were mostly a mental game; nearly everyone could physically complete an ultra, but most people gave in to a wrong mindset, and quit while their bodies were still capable of continuing. I sure as heck didn’t want to be one of those people. I kept it up, even as each lap felt harder than the one before. The miles went by oh so slowly, but I made it to 48 miles at about 15:02. Whew, I was going to make it! I could even stop running….all I had to do was walk two 29:00-minute miles, and the belt buckle was mine. But I didn’t. It would be infinitely more satisfying if I could run half of every lap for 50 miles. Nope, no regrets for me. I fired up my running legs eight more times.

When I was finishing the second-to-last lap, Race Timer Dude hollered at me and confirmed my mileage. I told him how glad I was, and how I’d been pushing myself so hard and so miserably, because I knew I had to break 16 hours to get the belt buckle (and, more importantly, avoid the DNF). He said, “don’t worry, I don’t think they’re enforcing that!” W..h..a..a…t..t??? What did you say? They’re not enforcing the time limit? I was utterly deflated. I had been pushing myself this hard for no reason? All those laps fighting back tears and worrying about Dave being pissed, and it turns out I could have just walked and got the belt buckle? Really? It was like Lucy pulling away the football when Charlie Brown was about to kick it….no, that’s not quite right. It was like someone moved the goalposts….toward me. No, that metaphor doesn’t quite work either. What the heck, I may be a little annoyed, but I am going to run that last half-lap anyway, just to prove I can.

I got my 50 miles in about 15:39 and change. Yea! That felt good. Even if they decided not to enforce the time limit, I was really glad I pushed myself to make it. My annoyance gave way to acceptance. Hey, now maybe Dave can get his belt buckle after all! That would be cool. As a matter of policy, I think it’s probably not a great idea to announce a time limit and then not enforce it—some runners may look at the time limit and opt out of the race because they’re not fast enough. Still, these race organizers put on an awesome race, and I’m okay with their decision. If they thought the website was not sufficiently clear, due to the dual registration option, waiving the time limit was the right thing to do. I’m glad they didn’t tell me in advance, because there’s no way I would have pushed myself that hard without a time limit. And now I have seen that I am capable of more than I thought possible. If I ever decide to train properly, imagine how my 50-mile PR will drop!

I think Dave stayed on the track until the 16:00 mark (midnight) just to make sure I earned that belt buckle. He knew if he stopped, I’d be distracted and worried about him, instead of focused on finishing my 50. A lap or so after that, he sat down for a good long while, a couple hours I think. He obviously felt awful. I was now 100% walking, and no longer in a hurry, so I sat down a few minutes too. I told him what RTD said about the time limit for the buckle; that seemed to perk him up a little. But his cells weren’t budging.

I started walking again, slowly. After a lap or two, I got cold and rather sleepy. Fortunately, I had my Snowdrop sweatpants, which were so big I could pull them on over my shoes and pants. Perfect! One of the food-cooking volunteers, Jason I think, made me a custom quesadilla. An hour or two later, seeing me walking in slow motion with a zoned-out look on my face, he suggested coffee. It took me two laps to process the suggestion and decide whether I wanted some. When I finally decided, I couldn’t find Jason, and I was despondent. But he turned up a couple laps later, and made me the most delicious coffee I have tasted in my life. I don’t know what he put in it, I think some vanilla creamer, maybe something else, but wow it was good. He refilled my cup three or four laps in a row; I just couldn’t get enough of that coffee.

The coffee was just the ticket. I sure as heck wasn’t running, but I was walking decently and feeling much more alive. My feet felt revived too. At the 16-hour turnaround, a lap or two past 50 mile, I changed into my Altra One 2.5’s. These are closest-to-minimalist shoes I own. I picked them up for $50 at the Houston Marathon Expo after Snowdrop, in hopes that walking in less-cushioned shoes would toughen my tender feet. I love them for walking, but haven’t run much in them yet. Watching Carolyn run, one of the first things I noticed was that she was wearing my shoes! Yep, she ran 24 hours in Altra Ones, just like mine except for the color. So when she ran by, I showed them to her, and hollered, “guess what, I changed into my Carolyn shoes! They’re magic shoes, and I’ll soon be flying around the track with you!”

Carolyn was truly amazing. She had a beautiful floating stride, which didn’t seem to change the whole race. She took hardly any breaks and wasted no time. I once saw her crewmate follow her to the portapotty with his clipboard and papers. He talked to her through the vents, about splits and strategy I’m sure, and then she ran back out to the track and kept on going. During the latter part of the race, she would occasionally switch to a super-fast walk. She held her arms high, and pumped them like she was swimming, still super-smooth and efficient. Dave tried it. When she went by he said, “Hey, I’m doing the Carolyn Arm Pump…this is great! I’ve been on this earth 46 years and just now learned to walk properly!” She flew by and laughed, ”yes, it really works, doesn’t it?” As focused as she was, and as hard as she must have been pushing herself, she was always ready to smile or laugh or say something encouraging. If one of us slowpokes cheered her on as she ran by, she’d always respond with a “thanks, you look amazing yourself, keep it up!” or some such.

After I got revived by the coffee, I stopped to check on Dave. He had been sitting there a couple hours I think. He showed me a giant blister that he needed to drain. I didn’t stay around for that. Next lap, I saw him talking on his phone, and wondered if he was done. Next thing I knew, he was out on the track again. He said he’d just posted a video of his blister-draining technique, and now he was ready to try for his E goal, 50 miles. (He’d let go of his A, B, C, and D goals long before.) And sure enough, he stayed out there the rest of the race, with no more extended breaks. He wasn’t walking fast, but by golly he was moving.

After I made the 50 miles, my next goal was to get to 100K. According to RTD, that would be 62.25 miles. From 50 miles to 62.25 was just a long boring slog. No pressure, nothing hurt, just really tired. I was already super-pleased with my race; any extra miles were icing on the cake. One of the volunteers fetched me a giant vanilla cappuccino from the convenience store. Awesome. I can’t say enough about the wonderful volunteers. They kept looking out for us, however tired they must have been themselves.

Dave made his 50 miles at about 23:10. Totally amazing that he was able to do that, with all his body is going through. Dave is tough as nails. I got my 100K about 20 minutes later. RTD asked if I wanted to turn in my timing chip. Nope, I paid for 24 hours, and I’m going to get my money’s worth. I kept walking, with a tired silly grin plastered on my face. The sun was dawning, and it was a beautiful morning. And, yet another reason to smile…at the very end of the race, after Carolyn met her mileage goals, she put her hair up, relaxed, and walked out the clock chatting with the few of us still out there. (Just a nice slowpoke walk this time, no more Carolyn Arm Pump.) Turns out Carolyn got over 116 miles. Mind-boggling.

RTD counted down the last five minutes on his bullhorn. Hmm...should I? Sure, might as well give it a go. I waved goodbye to Carolyn and the others, and took off running. I ran almost two laps before time ran out. I ended up with 255 laps, 63.38 miles. (Dave’s family record of 66.2 miles in 24 hours is still safe, at least until next year.)

After the Snowdrop 55-hour and now my first 24-hour race, I think I have found my running niche. I have been slow at pretty much any activity I have tried in my life…running, writing, solving math problems, whatever. The only activities I have ever gotten fast at are throwing newspapers and reading. I’ve generally made up for my slowness by staying up late and plugging away for a really long time. After years of staying up late, my body is awake and asleep at all the wrong times. Now, finally, my night-owl tendencies can become an asset rather than a detriment. I should be able to become decent at 24-hour races just by not going to sleep. Sure hope they do this race again, and keep it on the high school track. That gives me and my Carolyn shoes almost a year to train. We’ll be ready!

Dave and I with our well-earned belt buckles. I was too tired to even unwrap mine. 

Candy Cane the Writing Hamster kept watch on the Gatorade. 

My shoe rotation:
Hours 1-4: Altra Torin 2.5
Hours 5-8: Skechers Houston Marathon Special
Hours 9-12: Altra Paradigm
Hours 13-16: Hoka One One Bondi
Hours 17-20: Altra Ones (my Carolyn shoes!)
Hours 21-24: Skechers Houston Marathon Special, again 

My Altra Ones! Super-comfortable for walking, not for driving. After driving 4 hours in them, my Achilles was sore. That’s okay, I’ll save them for running, so I can be like Carolyn. From now on, my Ones will always be my Carolyn Shoes!

Me and Carolyn after the race. Too bad I wasn’t wearing the Carolyn shoes!