Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Walk like a Duck, Run like a Duck

Mind the Ducks 12-hour

(All photos credit Tom Perry unless otherwise noted)

Beautiful view from the southern end of Trout Lake

I think the picture above tells you everything you need to know about the beautiful day and setting we had for Mind the Ducks 12-hour on Saturday, May 12, 2012 at Seneca Park in Rochester, NY. The half-mile (actually a certified .4902 mile) walking path around this scenic pond is, IMHO, a perfect place for a timed race.

The day dawned, blue skies and sunshine, morning temperature in the 50's (F.) and expected to warm into the 70's later in the day (which would prove to be a problem - more on that later).

My major goal for my development as an ultrarunner this year was to complete a 50-miler. I signed up for Mind the Ducks 12-hour as a first chance to step out beyond 50k and see what might lie out there waiting for me. Would I discover a weak stomach? Trouble with my feet? Would I just not be able to handle the pain and keep going? The 12-hour, short-loop format seemed like the perfect way to test these things with plenty of aid never more than a quarter-mile away.

Not that I didn't see MTD as a great goal in itself, and dream about possibly even claiming that 50-mile finish right there. I just didn't know what I might be capable of and assumed I might need the rest of the summer to really get ready to tackle the distance at Virgil Crest in the fall. I signed up for MTD (on the day registration opened back in January) thinking that anything over 40 miles would make me very happy, and 50 miles was the 'A' goal.


Nothing left then but to train!

I had never really stopped training after Mendon Ponds last November. I just kept slowly ramping up base mileage right through December, January, February, and March - logging over 200 miles in March, the first time I had ever done so in any month.

At the peak of this cycle (which turned out to be in mid-March) I became convinced that I could hit 50k at MTD in 6 hours with gas left in the tank. Then the wheels fell off the car! My lower legs just fell apart on me (sad story here). There was essentially no training in April at all!

I finally was able to log a half-respectable 24-mile week the first week of May without firing up the stress reaction in my right shin again. Then I could only do a couple more workouts the week of the race just to keep things loose and (hopefully) continue bringing back a little of the aerobic fitness I'd lost.

Bottom line: I now had no idea how things would go on Saturday. Worst case, I would come up lame early in the day and have to quit. But I honestly felt pretty good the week before the race, and started to feel a little optimistic about it. I would toe the line, give it my best shot, and see what the day held for me.

Race Day:

Before the Start
Timing tent (foreground) with the main AS behind
(this was the view coming into the AS as each lap was completed)
Karen and I traveled to Rochester from Syracuse Friday night before the race. I slept surprisingly well for me in the hotel, getting seven hours of good sleep. I woke early and worked through my standard morning routine as closely as possible to try to avoid starting with any travel-related GI issues. This worked perfectly.

We arrived at the park as planned, at about 6:30, and checked me in. I was quite encouraged when I drew bib number 42. How can you possibly fail when you have the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything pinned to your shorts?

We got Karen settled in with our (decidedly minimalistic) crew setup. She would spend the majority of the day sitting in a chair in the shade under a willow tree, periodically handing me things and spraying me down with cool water. I am truly blessed (although hanging out under a willow in a park with a Kindle full of books on a sunny Saturday sounds pretty close to Karen's idea of a perfect day, I think).

There was time to say hello to a few people. Everyone was pretty busy of course, but I was fortunate enough to meet Carrie Neveldine, a 'neighbor' from Fayetteville who would be a familiar, friendly face on the course all day - each of the fourteen times she passed me!

In short order it was time to line up. A highlight in RD Shelly Viggiano's final pre-race instructions was when she told us all, "Be nice to each other!" And then - Bang! - we were off.

On left is Egils Robs, who would take 2nd place overall and win  the MM division.
Center (in purple) is Rebecca Shaefer, a friend from the U-list who would place
second woman overall and win the open women's division.
(Expect to hear more about this young woman if her performances at MTD are any indication.)
Here I am at the back of the pack starting at a walk as planned.
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)

What to say about the race? We went around the lake... a lot.

I've done three ultras now. One (Oil Creek) was a single 50k loop, one (Mendon Ponds) was five 10k loops, and this was as many .4902 mile loops as you could or would do in twelve hours. I have to admit I was quite dubious about the format going in, but I really, really, liked it.

Breaking a large tedious task into very small bites and taking them one at a time is a very natural, comfortable problem-solving approach for me. The loop is small enough that it's almost impossible to convince yourself that you can't do 'just one more lap' but at the same time long and varied enough that there is some interest to it - and you get regular positive reinforcement as you pass through the timing gate and see your lap count go up.

Early laps:

My strategy was to walk the first lap, run the next five, and repeat that 'cycle' for as long as I could hold the pattern. I would either choose food from the aid station or have Karen get one of my standard training foods ready for me for when each walking lap came, and I would eat while I walked. I'd been training this pattern to average out to a 5 mph pace, but as expected I was slower after the month-long layoff.

I held the six-lap pattern for a long time, but my average pace at the end of each cycle (which ideally should have been exactly 12:00) fell off consistently as I was trying to keep my heart rate below my base training target of about 140:

Cycle 1: 11:55 (good!)
Cycle 2: 12:14
Cycle 3: 12:31
Cycle 4: 13:02
Cycle 5: 13:12
Cycle 6: 14:08
Cycle 7: 14:16
Cycle 8: 14:37
Cycle 9: 15:34
Cycle 10: 16:05

Mentally I parsed everything out into laps and cycles of six laps. Getting to ten cycles without breaking the pattern became a motivating goal for me. I knew well that it would take exactly 17 cycles to reach 102 laps and 50 miles. Ten cycles just seemed like a significant milestone because it was 'double-digits' and because the seven cycles remaining amounted to a typical long training run - meaning I could wrap my mind around all of what was left, as potentially demoralizing as it might be to think of starting a long run with almost 30 miles already on my legs!

The performance decline in the first ten cycles was primarily due to increased time spent recovering from the running laps (it took longer each time to get my heart rate back down) and time getting aid.

Aid Station / Volunteers:

Speaking of aid, every race report has to have a section on the food and the volunteers - and why not? Ultras are, per endurance nutritionist Sunny Blende, "eating and drinking contests with a little exercise and scenery thrown in." And volunteers provide the food!

Did someone say food?

The crew for Mind the Ducks was just great. Everyone was smiling and quick to get you just what you were looking for - or suggest something if you were just standing there looking like an idiot (not that I ever did that... more than once).

One really neat feature of the aid setup was the water bottle station. A table was set out right on the edge of the course where runners could place a handheld marked with their bib number. A dedicated volunteer worked that table for most of the race, cheerfully taking orders to fill bottles with water, sports drink, ice, or any combination of the three. You could take your bottle when you wanted it and drop it off when you didn't - with just a quick word about what you'd like it filled with next, and almost without having to step off the course. It worked beautifully.

I learned after the race that the dedicated water bottle volunteer was a lady named Deb Wood. Thanks, Deb!

The menu for the day included pretty much all of the ultra standards. One unique touch was a huge supply of homemade oatmeal creme sandwich cookies baked by the RD herself!

I hit a bunch of things from the aid station throughout the day: Shelley's cookies, PBJ, Pringles, salt potatoes, grilled cheese, pizza - and a few heaven-sent popsicles during the heat of the afternoon.

And I don't think there was a single lap where I ran past the aid station without hearing someone in there clapping and calling out encouragement!

50k and the Heat of the Day:

The effect of shooting into the sun - a bad metaphor for running under it?
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)
By the time I finished my tenth cycle several new factors came into play affecting my performance. First, after 60 laps, 50k was clearly in my sights just a few laps away (somewhere on lap 64). Just beyond that, at 68 laps, lay the two-thirds point toward my goal. Then at 72 laps I would have completed twelve cycles - leaving only five cycles (just 30 laps) to go! Can you tell I'm a numbers guy? Sorry, but that's what I think about when I run instead of listening to music. Anyway, these numerical milestones motivated a small 'surge' in the next couple of cycles, taking me to 72 laps:

Cycle 11: 14:46 (passing 50k during lap 64 probably around 7:11 or 7:12 on the race clock)
Cycle 12: 15:00

Having already knocked down more than two 30-lap 'chunks' and still moving pretty well, 30 laps to go sounded doable.


Also by 60 laps it was well past 1:00 P.M. and the heat of the day was firmly asserting itself and laying many runners low.

According the the National Weather Service the high in Rochester on May 12th reached 76 degrees Fahrenheit at 3:04 P.M. That doesn't sound like a lot - especially to any southern runners - but we'd had a cool spring to that point in central and western New York, and few of the largely local group of runners were well acclimated to heat yet.

The popsicles became very popular through the afternoon, and many runners visibly started to struggle, some complaining of stomach problems.

Somehow I fared better than many. I slowed, to be sure. I lost any desire for solid food. My walking laps became slower and I walked more - but I kept moving. Many runners sat down during the worst of this time, and others who kept going slowed much more than me. I actually started gaining laps on a few of the leaders.

I might attribute this relative heat immunity to any of several things:

  • While I tend to think that heat kills my running, in the rest of my life I consider myself pretty temperature tolerant. Perhaps it affects my running less so than it does others.
  • Karen and I had made a lucky decision preparing for the race. I'm a fan of chocolate milk as a recovery drink and we had a cooler with us at the race with three bottles of it intended for later. Aside from popsicles, that chocolate milk proved to be the only nutrition that was palatable to me during the latter part of the afternoon. Because of that I may have been able to get more calories in than some other runners during this time.
  • We had also brought a Badwater-inspired spray bottle so that Karen could wet me down during my stops for aid. Running in a reflective white shirt with sleeves, wetted with ice-water helped keep me cool.
My relative surge may have contributed to, 'the infamous hour 7 incident.'

There was a leader board at the start/finish that the race staff updated at the completion of each hour of the race. Somehow out of nowhere I showed up on the board in third place after hour 7 with 85 laps. I happened to notice my name when I went by, but not the lap count or I would have known it was just an error - I was only at 70 laps at the end of hour 7.

The only thing I could figure was that maybe the board was actually showing people in order of how many laps completed each hour. I knew I was surging a little compared to some of the stronger runners and maybe that explained it. I overheard a couple of other runners behind me talking and one of them asked, "Hey, did you see that Patrick Henry guy?"

It may have been based on a false premise, but I took additional encouragement from my apparent 'success' and kept pushing through the rough patch.

Cycle 13: 16:13
Cycle 14: 17:17 (84 laps complete)

The Final Push:

That 'far away' look in my eyes is me looking at the race clock
and trying to do math in my head after 40 miles.

By lap 80 I had begun to be very concerned about the time. I finished lap 79 with 9:14:09 showing on the race clock - leaving just under 2:46 to go, with 23 laps (a little over 11 miles) yet to cover for 50 miles. I really didn't have any idea what kind of pace I was maintaining at that point, but I knew I'd been moving slowly.

I made the mental effort to try to remember consecutive lap times for a couple of laps, calculate my pace, and  divide it into the time remaining. I have no idea how close to right I got this, but the results were not encouraging. I would have to push myself if I really wanted 50 miles, and it would probably still be down to the wire.

With the benefit of lap splits now, I can see how right I was. Twenty-three laps is an odd split to look at, but it had taken me 3:02:53 to run the 23 laps prior to lap 80, and 2:49:29 to run the 23 laps prior to that. Neither of those times would be good enough now to get me to my goal.

It was time for a gut check. My legs just hurt! It hurt to run, and it hurt to walk. But all I could think about was the fact that if I didn't make it I would probably only miss by a lap or two - it was that close! I imagined how it would feel getting to lap 100 or 101 and forever knowing that I could have gotten 102 if I'd only pushed a little harder.

Finally I said to myself, "Patrick, this is going to hurt tomorrow whether you get 50 miles or not. Might as well get 50 miles."

I covered those 23 laps in 2:33:40, reaching 50 miles at 11:47:49 on the race clock!

50 miles!
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)
Race volunteers had been counting down the laps I had to go each time I came through the timing gate for about the last 4 laps, and celebrated with me the same way they had for other 50 mile finishers - with cheers, applause, and ringing cowbells. Pretty awesome moment, everyone! Thanks!

I got caught up in the accomplishment a little too much and started thinking I was done though, until one of the volunteers yelled at me, "Why are you stopping now? You've got time for another lap!"

Oh yeah - this was a timed race, wasn't it? One more quick mental negotiation took place. Truthfully, I'd run some sub-6:00 laps in my final push and there was a chance I could actually squeeze in two more laps with 12:11 to go, but with the A-goal in the bag I just didn't have that kind of 'push' left in me. I headed back out and walked one more lap, to finish with 103 laps at 11:56:05 officially.

Note: the time seen here was unofficial.
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)

Official Results, Lessons Learned:

That last lap I was 'browbeaten into' moved me ahead of a small pack of seven runners who either ran out of time for one more, or simply decided that 102 laps was enough. I finished 20th in the field of 62 finishers, 13th of 33 men, and 5th among 10 masters division men. That's a pretty good day, and a first-50 I can be proud of!

The race results bear out the difficulty of the day - the challenge of that hot afternoon. This year's winner, Michael Welden, 'only' logged 142 laps (69.6084 miles) - a truly outstanding performance, and six laps ahead of second place. Congratulations, Michael.

Not to take anything away from Michael's effort, but four runners logged higher totals at MTD in 2010 (1st place: ~87 miles), and three runners did so in 2011 (1st place ~77 miles). I think this really speaks to the challenge the entire field faced this year achieving their own personal goals. Well done, everyone!

In case there are any other numbers-obsessed people reading this, here is a chart of all my lap splits:

I only sat down a few times for maybe five minutes at most through the entire race - and that was probably more than I should have.

Overall I am really pleased with the level of effort I was able to sustain. At no point did I hit a wall or any really serious mental low point. Not once did I consider stopping before I reached my goal. Honestly, this probably means that I had more in me if I had pushed a little harder. Always hard to know, and it sure felt like I gave it my all at the time.

So what are my take-aways from Mind the Ducks 12-hour?

  • Whatever happens in training, get as healthy as you can and show up on race day. You never know what the day may bring.
  • My stomach is as strong as I'd hoped it would be (knock on wood). In normal life I can eat anything. At MTD I ate whatever sounded good throughout the day and had no major issues.
  • My feet are pretty immune to blister issues too (knock on wood again). I'd brought three different pairs of shoes and an array of socks to change into and never did anything but run in the pair of Drymax socks and Saucony Peregrines that I put on at the hotel in the morning. Never taped anything and never needed anything out of my foot repair kit.
  • 50 miles is a really long way! While I'm thrilled to have already achieved that goal, whoa! When I think about taking the distance I just ran, putting it on trail instead - and throwing in 10,000 feet of elevation gain (and 10,000 feet back down) - well, I have a much better feel for the magnitude of the challenge I have ahead of me at Virgil Crest this fall. I've got a lot of work to do.
  • I now truly understand the ultrarunning maxim, 'if it hurts to run and it hurts to walk, then you'd might as well run.'
  • Whatever you do, just keep moving! Miles truly are covered one step at a time, and every step counts.
  • Chocolate milk - it's not just for recovery anymore!
  • Timed races are da Bomb!

The Great Things about Timed Races:

I really felt this deserved its own section. I signed up for MTD in part out of curiosity about the timed short-loop ultra format. I got into ultrarunning because I found a love for trail running, but so many people I know and love from the ultra list speak so highly of some timed races that I just had to try one.

So what's so great about them?

Well, as mentioned before, the race inherently breaks down into nice, small, manageable mental chunks. You've really got to be hurting to be able to convince yourself that you can't at least walk another half-mile!

Aid is always nearby.

You get to see the race. Michael Welden passed me thirty-nine times. I counted (ok, not). I wasn't paying that much attention - being a little too wrapped up in my own goal - but even so, I had a good feel throughout the day for who the leaders were, who was surging, who was struggling. I could talk with some of them from time to time.

Your family can really share your race experience with you. Karen could expect to see me about every six or eight minutes throughout the day. She could really wait on me and help out. Many other runners had family or friends there hanging out and enjoying the day - some set up with quite elaborate and comfortable shelters, chairs, and other comforts.

The race itself has a family atmosphere, and new friendships can develop quite quickly and easily out on the course. There's a sort of 'bonding' with the other runners and the race staff that's unlike other races I've done so far. So much encouragement is offered by many; we encourage each other out there. I'm going to find it really hard not to return to MTD next year and experience that again!

And with that, I want to introduce you to a few people I shared maybe just a special moment or two with out there on Saturday - but moments I'll remember fondly, and people I now think of as friends:

Carrie Neveldine
117 laps (57.3534 miles) 11:53:33, 9th place
Carrie was the first runner I met that day. We chatted before the race and I shared my concern about my leg problem. More than once during the day she asked how I was doing and how the leg was holding up. As a runner, she was serious and relentless, finishing 4th out of 29 women. And she was lucky enough to have her father there taking care of her.

Jeremy Murphy
102 laps (50.0004 miles) 10:32:06, 22nd place
Jeremy was already a friend from the ultra list and Daily Mile, but now we've shared a course together and I really look forward to seeing him again at Highland Forest and Virgil Crest. Jeremy threw lots of encouragement my way throughout the day - especially when I was fighting the clock near the end. Jeremy ran strong and got his 50 miles early.

Tom Butler
110 laps (53.922 miles) 11:58:15, 13th place
Tom (known to my family as 'Naked Tom' from going through the whole slideshow of the race pictures) pretty much always had that smile on his face and a "lookin' good" for everyone he passed (and though I wouldn't know, I assume for everyone that passed him as well). I can't imagine anyone not liking Tom!

Rebecca Shaefer
126 laps (61.7652 miles) 11:59:06, 6th place
Rebecca is another friend from the u-list who I was fortunate to be able to run with at MTD. She is a fiercely focused runner and was the last to complete a lap before time ran out. I caught up with her during a very rough patch she had during the heat of the day - our first chance to say 'hello' - and I got her name wrong! Doh! I hoped she would pull through and told her she would, and did she ever! She was a machine in the latter hours of the race in a fierce battle with Deb Patterson for first woman. Rebecca fell short by one lap, taking second place among women for the second year in a row. I expect she will be back again next year even more determined.

Gerrit Van Loon
128 laps (62.7456 miles) 11:59:02, 4th place
Dr. Gerrit is a chiropractor from Ithaca. I first met him at last year's Highland Forest 1-2-3 when I was an injured wanna-be ultrarunner still hoping to complete my first 50k later in the year. After running 30 miles that day he took time to assess me, diagnose me with tight hip flexors, and perform ART on them right there on a picnic table bench! At MTD he was, again, very gracious and encouraging to me during that afternoon time when he was struggling with the heat and I was still moving pretty well (for me). Gerrit obviously bounced back too and finished very strong.

Kelly Nash
124 laps (60.7848 miles) 11:57:23, 8th place
Another very talented runner that is impossible not to like. Looking through the race pics I noticed that, like Tom, you can't find a picture of Kelly without that smile on her face! She and I shared a moment during the afternoon on 'the hill' (a little joke of a rise that became increasingly un-funny as the day wore on) and now we're new Daily Mile friends! Kelly was very much in the hunt during that epic battle among the women in the late hours of the race, finishing third behind Rebecca.

Mary Dasilva
105 laps (51.471 miles) 11:48:21, 19th place
American 65-69 AG Record
No report on MTD would be complete without mentioning Mary! We all knew she was there to accomplish this record performance and I think we all took opportunities to encourage her along the way. One tough, determined lady, she struggled through a bout of nausea and just kept going until she got it done! I was fortunate to be there having just passed through the gate ahead of her when she finished her record-setting lap. Then she went on to beat me by two laps on top of that!

The risk in doing what I've done above is in the people that I leave out. It was a great group of runners to share a course with. I'm glad all of you were there. I hope you achieved your goals and that you will tell your story of the day too.

If you haven't completely had your fill of this race, and want to spend another four minutes and seventeen seconds on it, check out the inspiring video made by RD Shelley Viggiano below or on YouTube (it's better on YouTube).

And if you're thinking about trying a 12-hour timed ultramarathon I can't recommend Mind the Ducks strongly enough! I think I'll be back (and Karen is already thinking about putting together a really plush crew setup for next year).

(Photo credit - Patrick McHenry)


  1. CONGRATULATIONS on your amazing accomplishment!! It really was a magical day, and such a well organized, perfect race. I'm still on Cloud Nine. Have you run again? I've been out for some short, slow miles this week, and now my quads are REALLY not speaking to me.

    1. LOL! You're doing better than me! No running yet - just a little two-mile walk on Monday night that just about wiped me out. Definitely feeling up to it now though and will be out for a short one tomorrow if not before. Thanks - and congratulations yourself!

  2. I was one of the volunteers for the event. If the volunteer that told you you had time for one more lap was big and ugly, it was me. I think I enjoyed volunteering more than I would have enjoyed running in the heat. You really looked great at the end, especially for such a long, hot day. Congratulations.