Most ultrarunners prefer to finish every race, setting new PRs, making goals and cutoffs, avoiding injury, finishing strong, and above all having fun. Yet, for persons whose objective in participating in the sport of ultrarunning is to challenge their limits, it can arguably be said that sometimes more can be learned from failures—from DNFs, injuries, and missed goals—than from their counterpart successes.
For the past two years I have cherished the inestimable privilege of working with the superb group of volunteers who have helped to plan and present Across the Years, mainly as the webmaster. From 9:00am on December 29, 2004 until 9:00am January 1, 2005, my role transformed from helper-outer to just another one of the 79 runners who gathered at Nardini Manor in Litchfield Park, Arizona for the 22nd running of Across the Years, a 72/48/24-hour race around the certified 500-meter dirt track. It was my fourth outing at the 72-hour event, before which I ran the 48-hour once and the 24-hour once.
When it was over I had completed 606 circuits, a total of 303.0 kilometers, 188.275 miles, a PR over last year by a margin of 8.075 miles. Despite a few difficulties, it was the best race of my life.
My goal at the start, decided upon the week after last year's race, and publicized confidently to all who asked, was to run, walk, and crawl 200 miles. It seemed that surely I should be able to make that, particularly with the added incentive of buckles being offered to each finisher who reached 100, 200, and—yes—300 miles. We had only one 300-mile buckle made because we had only one runner coming who stood the remotest chance of earning it, but Rodger Wrublik (Lord of Nardini Manor) was quite anxious to award it.
Despite not reaching my 200-mile goal, in retrospect I believe I missed it by less than the 11.725-mile differential would suggest, and in the process may have learned more about myself than if I had breezed on to 200 miles and beyond.
Recently some somber distractions have diverted my attention from running. The last part of 2004 and until now I've had to struggle once again with unemployment. Although I'm now working part time at Runner's Den, the main running specialty store in Phoenix, retail work does not pay a living wage, so economic worries are never far from my mind these days.
Added to that pressure was the distress of seeing my 92-year-old mother die just a few days before the race. She was a great and hard-working woman, loved by everyone who knew her, especially her four sons. Our daughter Cyra-Lea, who, as a registered nurse, was to assist Chris O'Laughlin in giving first aid support throughout the race, missed the first two days, as she headed up to Minnesota to help resolve family matters.
Finally, there is the background of what is going on in the rest of the world. In 2001 I ran in the USAT&F national championship 24-hour race at Olander Park in Ohio just four days after the September 11 attack. This week we are hearing that our planet hiccuped in the Indian Ocean, leaving 150,000 people dead and millions displaced. In the light of such goings-on, the activities of a bunch of men and women running around and around a track seem incongruous, of comparatively superfluous importance.
As an organizer I have known about most of the improvements that would be coming this year over last year, although there were some surprises even for me, as Rodger continues to surpass himself in his hard work and generosity in making his home and place of business an ideal site to run such an event.
The ChampionChip timing system has been replaced by a superior AMB i.t. system. This manufacturer supplies equipment to time some NASCAR and Olympics events. Rodger bought the system, so it is permanently available to the race as long as it remains at Nardini Manor.
The timing booth and aid stations were isolated tents with heat, set up such that persons who were not supposed to be in those areas would have to go out of their way to get into them. The window of the timing booth reminded me of a White Castle restaurant. I thought several times of saying: "I'll take two with ketchup, mustard, and onions" as I passed by, but I never did.
About 20 yards down the path from the timing booth, in both directions, were covered video monitors that displayed the totals for each runner as that person came across the line, color coded by event, seen in the order they crossed the sensor. There were two monitors because we alternated directions every two hours. The idea was that upon finishing a lap, a few steps later a runner could check his progress. It was certainly possible to get too caught up in watching that, but it was assuring to know that an absolutely correct reading was available to any runner at any time, without having to bother timers Scott and Laura Nagy and Steve Finkelstein.
The elevated gazebo had a superb sound system that played tasteful music from classical to rock genres continuously throughout the race. The original plan was to have a band playing on New Year's Eve, but the group that agreed to come broke up, and it wasn't possible to find a replacement.
Runner access to the 100x60 heated tent was vastly improved, as it was relocated on the north side of the tent, just a few steps off the track.
This year we added buckles and progressive achievement awards. Any runner in any race who reached 100, 200, or 300 miles would get a 100-, 200-, or 300-mile buckle respectively. In the end, 9 24-hour runners, 13 48-hour runners, and 18 72-hour runners were awarded 100-mile buckles, 3 72-hour runners got 200-mile buckles, and the great elite runner and 48-hour national record holder John Geesler forged ahead to 300.122 miles, breaking the event record by an astonishing 38.90 miles. John's last lap was completed at 5:45am on the last day, so he could have run another three hours and fifteen minutes if he had wanted to.
There are longer races for which national and world records are kept, but the 72-hour race at Across the Years is a one of a kind race, like the Dipsea race in California. The key to making it competitive is to make the event itself great so good runners will show up wanting to set the event record as something they can be proud of. We saw the start of that this year with John's superlative 300-mile run.
Because race founder Harold Sieglaff has been careful to keep printed copies of complete race data from all Across the Years races since the beginning in 1983, this year we were able to assemble all the information into a database, from which we are able to make a wide variety of queries and analyses. One item of interest is that we are now able to determine the lifetime total miles of all runners who have ever participated in the race. In this Harold himself holds the lead by a wide margin, with an accumulated total before this year's race of 2223.966 miles. Second to him is the total of 1264.790 miles run up by David Upah. At the pre-race meeting on the first day, Harold was presented with a 2000-mile jacket and David with a 1000-mile jacket. It is our intent to award more such jackets to other runners as they pass those totals.
This year each runner received both a hooded sweatshirt and a beautiful Patagonia long sleeve capilene running shirt. Women received a different model shirt than the men, one designed for the shape of a woman. A number of female participants have expressed appreciation for this special consideration. The one my wife Suzy got looks great on her. (Suzy was an early start walker in the 24-hour race and also helped at the aid station during meals.)
For social reasons, instead of the usual boring race bibs, this year we provided color coded bibs with each entrant's name in large print, also gender (for those who can't tell) and age, and the bib number in smaller type. 72-hour runners bore yellow bibs, 48-hour runners got green, and the rest were white, so people could tell who their competitors were.
We supplied the bibs pre-attached to race number belts, to make it much easier to transfer them when changing clothes, which happens frequently in this type of event. We also suggested that people wear them with the numbers to the back, because runners always see other runners from behind. The bibs are not for the benefit of timers and officials. That's why we wear the timing chips. These bibs are so everyone can get to know each other. It worked superbly, and was favorably commented on by many.
Rodger lined the route in front of the house and along the gazebo area with tall flagpoles and flags from every state represented, and also the seven foreign countries from which international runners arrived: Germany, Switzerland, England (two runners), Brazil, Spain, Japan, and Scotland—a total of 29 flags in all.
Later in the race someone showed up to give massages. I never did find out who that was. We had looked for someone to perform that service, but last I had heard no one was available.
Not exactly a planned provision of the race, but a huge benefit nonetheless, was the presence of Dr. Andy Lovy, who is well-known in the world of multi-day running as both a psychiatrist and one of the best sports physicians in the world. When Andy does a race, it is his habit to show up, run when he can, and to be available to provide medical assistance of all sorts to ailing runners, including osteopathic adjustments. The man is much beloved by ultrarunners for his generosity, vast wisdom, and good humor. His participation is a real treasure for any race fortunate enough to have him show up.
The food at this year's race may be the best offered at any ultra. In addition to the usual grab-and-eat cookies, candy, snacks, and drinks, we had abundant real food. Dad's Catering provided catered evening meals. Included on the menu was turkey, chicken, egg, cheese, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, breakfast burritos with eggs, ham, cheese, tomato, and onions, green and red chili burritos, lasagna, chicken cordon bleu, gallons of potato soup, lentil soup, waffles (optionally with M&Ms), bagels with cream chese, boiled potatoes, cheese crisps, fruit and fruit juices, oatmeal, pancakes, pizza, vegetable noodle soup, yogurt, Hammer Gel (donated), and ... believe it or not ... sushi! (I passed on that, but ate most of the rest.) And that's just what I can remember.
After the race there was an awards banquet with chili, subway sandwiches, and drinks, including beer, while race director Paul Bonnett, showing the excellent presence of the fine teacher that he is, entertained everyone while efficiently handing out awards to everyone who participated.
Each runner was provided with a newly written Runner's Manual, which includes the usual race information, also a history of the race, and a compilation of various interesting race statistics. To keep costs down we emailed these in PDF format to runners with email addresses, but we also printed a few and mailed them to others who were not able to print them for themselves. They were also available from the Web site.
On the third day Rodger built a bonfire area in the the yard next to the gazebo. On New Year's Eve, as runners continued to circle, a crowd of twenty or so friends and relatives of the Wrubliks assembled for the New Year's Eve party in the middle. Their presence added a special measure of class to the occasion that you had to be there to appreciate.
The decorations and other accouterments of the New Year's Eve celebration surpassed those of any previous year. This year Rodger even got a permit for fireworks. While I do not personally participate in that feature of the race, I have to admit that it all adds a special touch that is unique among ultra races.
As part of the pre-race meeting an announcement was made regarding a bench with an engraved plaque to be permanently installed by the track in memory of ultrarunner Mark Heinemann, who died in his hotel room the day after running over 200 miles in last year's 48-hour race. A moment of silence was observed in his honor.
Last but not least, on the third day Elvis himself showed up in his finest red suit to entertain the runners for a while.
As a local runner I enjoy what may rightly be described as a home field advantage in that I am able to arrive the day before the race, pick a choice spot to set up, and sleep in my own bed the night before the race. My car is a Mercury Marquis with a trunk big enough to stuff a couple of corpses in. I suppose I ought to sell it and get something more suited to my present economic circumstances—like maybe a Volkswagen bus—one of those with flowers painted on it. But with the Mercury I'm able to bring all the gear I might possibly want to the race. Some stuff I did not drag to my tent, but left on hangers in my car, which I was able to park a few steps off the track. By the end of the race I had retrieved and used all of it.
The last week or so before the race I had trouble focusing on the upcoming race because of the difficulties I've described. I deliberately tried a longer and deeper taper than I'd ever previously done. On Thanksgiving I ran 30 miles and then nine days later, on December 4th, I ran a strong 40-miler. After that I did one easy 10-miler, but nothing else more than a few miles, with five of the last six days complete rest days. It started to feel more like letting myself go than tapering. But I felt reasonably good heading into race day.
Weather predictions during the race looked ominous. Heavy rain was forecast for the first day. It's one thing for a hardy soul to head out for a couple of hours in inclement weather and then come home to a hot shower, comfortable clothes, and hot toddy by the fireplace. It's another to be out there in bad weather for three days. We didn't know what to expect. Naturally, I brought my rain gear, which consists of a lightweight hooded yellow raincoat.
It was not raining at the beginning of the race, but it didn't take long for it to get started. The worst of it was in the morning. For a while it came down in torrents. After a while it let up, but rained more or less continually for the rest of the day until at least 10:00pm, after which it began to clear up.
Shortly before the race Rodger threw down 25 tons of granite, and rolled out and compressed the surface so the track was in fabulous shape—for about a dozen laps, until the rain started to come down heavily. Before long, puddles began to form. Despite the abount of water falling from the sky, the track was never really bad, but Rodger was worried about it, and for most of the day he and whoever else was available to help were out there hauling and shoveling and raking wheelbarrows of fresh granite in all the low areas.
Through it all, I never heard one single word of complaint or misery from any runner. It became a part of the fun and the challenge, although even with rain gear we all got soaked to the skin. If we had wanted to spend the three days indulging in slothful luxury we could have gone to Disneyland instead.
After the first day far more filthy, soggy clothing than I had planned on accumulated in and around my tent. Fortunately, because Suzy had to leave the site to go pick up Cyra-Lea from the airport, stopping home first, she was able to do a laundry run for me. Otherwise I wouldn't have had enough dry clothing to get through the race.
By the end of the first 24 hours, I had accumulated 77.67 miles, about eight miles further than I've ever run on a first day. This was less than I was hoping for. I really wanted to get at least 85 miles, which would have constituted a 24-hour PR by a little over a mile. But I thought I was capable of it, and more importantly, that I needed at least that much to maintain my hope of getting a 200-mile buckle. Certainly the rain was a factor in slowing me down, but I think I may have also held back a little bit.
I slept less this year than any previous year. Last year I made a big mistake in virtually going to bed the first couple of times I needed rest. I went into my tent, took off my dirty clothes, and curled up in my warm sleeping bag. It all takes lots of time, and is a recipe for sleeping too long and too deeply.
Although I had my cot and sleeping bag with me, this year I limited my sleeping to sitting in a camp chair outside my tent, with a pillow tucked between my shoulder and head. That way I had little to do before heading back out to the track after waking up from short naps. The technique proved to be highly effective, as I was always plenty tired and never had the least bit of trouble sleeping or being comfortable. Next year I will probably put the chair inside the tent, though.
On the first day I slept a total of one hour: 15 minutes the first nap, and 45 minutes the second. On the second day I had one 15-minute nap followed by a one-hour nap, and finally another of about 20 minutes.
The third day I survived until after midnight on only 30 minutes before my wheels fell just about off, by which time I was staggering on the track, bumping into walls.
The second day of the race the weather was considerably more pleasant. We had no more rain after the first day, but only an occasional glimpse of sunshine. The clouds kept the temperature from going too low at night. It was never colder than the mid-forties, which was quite tolerable. Cold is frequently a debilitating force at Across the Years, causing some runners to hole up and even to quit, but I saw little of that this year.
The addition of the 48-hour runners on the second day was a delight, as there were some excellent runners in that group. Aki Inoue from Japan, who has won the 48-hour before, went on to rack up a fraction of a mile more distance in two days than I did in three.
The third day the atmosphere became festive as the 25 or so last-day runners joined us. By the time it was over, William Sichel from Scotland had accumulated an outstanding 136.391 miles, and Carolyn Smith from Wisconsin had run 128.002 miles. I'll admit that when I saw Carolyn go out as fast as she did I predicted she would bonk soon. I should have remembered her as the determined runner who was the third finisher at the inaugural Javelina Jundred in 2003.
After four times I've come to view a 72-hour run strategically as a 24-hour race followed by a 24-hour recovery run followed by another 24-hour race. I now expect to have a slow second day, and to revive on the third day, so plan accordingly. I haven't compared notes with others who have run, but I believe that's what most of us have experienced.
My second day I accumulated only 53.47 miles, which seems impossibly slow given that the weather was much better, that I slept little, and that I was in motion most of the time. But I've learned that's just how these things work, and I shouldn't panic. Still, I wanted more.
By the start of the third day I figured I needed about 69 miles—which I now realize is more miles than I've ever gotten on a third day—but was not worried about it. My confidence knew no bounds. In fact, I figured I might be able to push it to 80 miles and get to 210 miles.
Perhaps lack of sleep caused me to view matters unrealistically. By 1:00am on the third night, it dawned on me: I still had a bunch of miles to go and 8 hours to do it in. I've done as much before, and way faster—but not after 64 hours of sustained trekking. More importantly, the sleep deprivation had caught up with me, and I was starting to walk into the fence on one side of the track and the bushes on the other. I could hold out no longer. The inexorable need for sleep forced me to stop a while.
At that point I sat in my chair near the entrance to the big tent and mulled it over. About that time Rodger passed by, and I felt the need to talk over my situation with someone whose brain was not quite as wiped out as mine. He agreed there was little chance I would make the 200, but encouraged me to go for the PR, which was by then quite in range, rather than just giving up. Rodger had seen me go down a bit too easily under similar circumstances at Javelina in November.
So I accepted the facts and changed my goal. But first I needed sleep. There was plenty of time if a PR was my objective. One short nap wasn't enough to energize me, so I went down again for a while, and then a third time, a total of maybe 90 minutes for all three together. That did the trick for me, and I began to revive and enjoy myself again.
I passed my PR easily at 6:25am and continued on without pausing to celebrate. Soon thereafter I noticed on the race monitor that 300K was in sight. It had gotten light out, which re-energized me and motivated me to begin running hard once again.
The last few minutes of a fixed-time race are always the most fun, as runners pick up the pace to try and squeeze in one or two more laps, while those who finish their final laps gather around the finish to cheer for those coming in behind them.
When I finished my next-to-last lap I thought I was done, and went to the monitor to see my final total. Each 500-meter lap is about 0.31 miles. It takes about three laps and sometimes four to get the miles integer to increment by one. I had 187.96 miles. Gary Cross was standing by the monitor and urged me to go for another. I thought there was not enough time. He insisted there was over four minutes left. I didn't think I could do another one in four minutes at that point. He pointed at the monitor and showed me my previous lap had been run in 3:33.8. Like a startled rabbit I exploded into motion, huffing, puffing, and gasping my way around the track. I finished that last lap in 3:31.3, which includes the time it took me to stop and discuss whether I should do it with Gary, and there was still a minute and 43 seconds left in the race—not enough to do one more, but I had managed to chink my mileage integer up one more notch. Thank you, Gary!
When I was done I felt just great, but couldn't see the last persons come in because too many people were grouped around the finish.
So I didn't get my longed-for 200-mile buckle, but I did get a 100-mile buckle (which looks almost the same), and got a PR by a margin of 8.077 miles, finishing 6th out of 23 runners, all of which I'm pretty pleased with.
Here are some people-oriented recollections from the race.
ATY 2004 was the best race I've ever run. It was not necessary for me to reach some arbitrary goal for it to be that, although it certainly would have been an added bonus to have made 200 miles.
Readers who are new to multi-day running should not confuse these personal achievement buckles awarded with finisher's awards given in other races, where most people are expected to get one. The buckle standards were high. Most people did not get one, only three got 200-mile buckles, and only one got a 300-mile buckle. Six of the fifteen 72-hour races in the history of ATY have been won outright with far less than 200 miles. In the history of the race only 21 out of 139 72-hour competitors (15%) have surpassed 200 miles.
For most ultrarunners running big races is not primarily about buckles or awards or winning or numbers. The reason most of us subject ourselves to the rigors of training and racing is to see for ourselves how much we can accomplish physically, even if it means that sometimes we find out that what we can do is a little less than what we had hoped and planned on.
Also involved is our sense of judgment and ability to adjust—to re-evaluate and go on when things don't work out quite like we expected rather than giving up in exasperation, much as we must do in real life. That was the challenge I faced and successfully overcame late on the third night of this race. In real life we don't always get what we want, but life goes on despite it. The ways we adjust are manifestations of our wisdom and maturity. And when we fail, we can learn from that, too, and do better next time.
Another runner might be inclined to wax on about deeper meanings to it all, but not me. As pleasurable and healthful and beneficial an activity as it is, in the end it's just running. But when it's good, it's one of the best experiences life has to offer.