Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Saturday, May 31, 2014

2014 3 Days at the Fair 72-hours - Day 1

This is Part 1 of a three-part report. Here are Part 2 and Part 3.

At the start of 3 Days at the Fair.
Oh how fresh and confident looking!
Bing! My eyes popped open and suddenly I was fully awake. I was sweaty and I smelled bad, but my legs didn't hurt as much as they did when I laid down two hours earlier.

I was in a little two-person tent pitched on the grass just off a road on the Sussex County Fairgrounds in Augusta, NJ - site of the New Jersey State Fair but, on this weekend, the venue for a running race called "3 Days at the Fair." The 'bing' marked the end of a pattern I would repeat several times during the next two days or so. I would retire to the tent, dead on my feet, barely able to move - spend twenty minutes or so shifting around trying to find a position that didn't hurt too much to go to sleep and then (once I'd found it) zonk! Out like a light, spending about an hour in a deep haze of unresolvable dreams, occasionally mingled with the voices of other runners passing by outside. After an hour, the sleep of the dead would give way to that lighter phase where you pass back and forth between half-wakefulness and full sleep, always fighting the wakeful part until... bing!

I yawned and drew my legs up, stretching them and then checking my feet for tender spots. Everything felt surprisingly good given that I had already run and walked 50 miles in the preceding 17 hours. It was still dark outside, so I had at least four hours to add to my mileage total for the first 24 hours. The race clock never stops! It was time to get going again - and I really needed to use the bathroom anyway.

Wait - how did I get here?

As usual I'm getting ahead of myself telling the story. Let me warn you now: this will be a long one.

First - yes, "3 Days at the Fair" means that people 'run' for three days straight ('run' in quotes because very few people, if any, can actually run for that length of time - the rest mix running and walking to varying degrees, and you do have to sleep at least a little). The winner of the race is the one who completes the most laps of the certified one-mile loop course in the 72 hours that, this year, started at 9:00 AM Thursday, May 15th and ended at 9:00 AM Sunday, May 18th. The rules are simple - go as you please, only full laps count. I knew I wouldn't be 'the one' come Sunday morning, but I was determined to find out how much I could actually do.

Why? The first-order answers to that question only lead to second-order 'whys.' I chose to do this race because I am registered for a 10-day race ("The Last Annual Vol State Road Race") this coming July and I thought it would be wise to get some experience at a multi-day event prior to that. Why am I registered for a 10-day race? Why do anything like this at all? Why run? I guess because there's something wrong with me. Let's just leave it at that and move on.

Karen and I left work early on Wednesday afternoon and made the four-hour drive from Syracuse to Augusta. Once again I have to say how blessed I am to have Karen! The main thing I knew I would need her help with would be the drive home on Sunday. She would spend the bulk of the three days in between watching me run in circles and reading books on her Kindle (her favorite leisure-time activity at least), but she would also do so much more.

We got to the fairgrounds at around 5:00 PM. The first priority then was to select a site and set up my camp. As mentioned, I had a small tent that I would use when I needed sleep. It was purposely 'un-plush' - just a tent with a couple of thin, foam sleeping pads, a sleeping bag, and a fleece blanket. The idea was for the arrangement to be comfortable enough, but not so comfortable that I'd spend too much time in it. I had two main criteria in choosing a site:

  1. Pre-timing rather than post-timing. I wanted to take as few backward steps on the course as possible, so having aid/restroom immediately available down-course when I got up from rest seemed like a good idea (one that I got from my online friend, Fred Murolo - "Fred in Ct." on the ultra list).
  2. High ground! The weather forecast was for rain starting Thursday night and lasting all day Friday - as much as 2" of it! While that would obviously prove to be some kind of factor in the race I didn't want it to be because it washed out my campsite.
After a little confusion about just where we were when we pulled into the fairgrounds we found the right side of the course and eventually chose a location on a small, sloped strip of grass just off-course to the right before the final turn toward the timing gate.

The course. Start/finish/timing at the blue 'X'. Yellow arrow indicates
my campsite. Runners traverse the course counter-clockwise.
We would end up sheltering the rest of my stuff
(and Karen) under the overhang in the background.
Pulling in, we met Steve Tursi almost immediately. He was set up in the first of the long, horizontal animal pavilions that can be seen diagonally across the street from my site in the course map, above. A lot of people set up in there, for the shelter provided by the roof. Most had cots or air mattresses though to get them off the concrete floor. With my more spartan setup I wanted to be on softer ground.

Setup finished, Karen and I headed out to get some dinner at a hamburger place called Chatterbox that Steve had recommended, then we went to Karen's hotel - where I would spend my last civilized night before the race.


Never having gone longer than 50 miles before, with sixteen hours on my feet the longest any previous race had taken me, I had no idea what a reasonable target mileage would be for me in a 72-hour race.

The Vol State is a fixed-distance: 314 miles - implying that to complete the race within the 10-day time limit you need to cover 31.4 miles per day. My minimum goal for "3 Days at the Fair" then would be to execute three 'minimum Vol State days' of 31.4 miles - or a total of 94.2 miles. So round that up to 100 - just because. Obviously it would be big stuff for me to complete my first 100, even if it took me three days to do it.

Then I started thinking about stretch goals. Forty miles per day seemed pretty ambitious. How about 120 miles then? I was basically thinking of things I've actually done, imagining stretching them out over 24 hours instead of whatever time I'd compressed them into before, and hoping at the slower pace and with some rest along the way I could repeat them for multiple days - but again, who knew?

Then I asked my friend, Fred, who actually does know some things, and he thought 150 wasn't unreasonable for me. As he explained later, when I saw him at Waramaug, he had seen some relatively untrained people come to the 72-hour and put up that kind of mileage just by walking and staying on-course. Good numbers were mostly about keeping moving, he said, and it should be easier for someone like me who had been training for shorter ultras. 150 had been my secret fantasy goal, so that clinched it: I would aim to run 150 miles and take what I could get - as long as it was at least 100 - but I would even still stay open-mined on the upside, if things went better than I hoped for.

I also had some notion of how per-day splits should look for a given total mileage based on an analysis I had done on lap splits from the previous year, looking at what percentage of total mileage three-day runners had gotten each day. It gave me target splits of 64-44-41 for a 150-mile total (with an extra mile lost somewhere in there due to rounding that I'd have to make up along the way).

It wasn't much, but I called it a plan!

Day 1

A 9:00 AM start made for a leisurely morning by comparison to other races I have done. Up early normally, I had plenty of time to get a shower, a good breakfast at the hotel's complimentary breakfast bar, and get back to the fairgrounds in plenty of time to get the rest of my stuff (which we'd left in the car overnight) situated at my site. It was at this point we decided to commandeer the overhang/patio at the Boy Scouts' building near  my tent. I could spread my stuff out on the picnic tables for easy access, and it (and Karen) would be well sheltered from all but the most driven rain.

That done, it was time to head over to the start/finish area to pick up my bib and meet some people before the start. Saw Steve again right away and I think he introduced me to Cliff Lange, a real nice guy who would prove to be one of my favorite characters in the race. John Sands spotted me and introduced himself. He and I had been trading some notes on Vol State preparation and 3 Days at the Fair. We were both jumping into multi-days cold and hoping for the best. Pretty sure I said hello to Rick McNulty too - and of course to Fred.

Just watching peeps get ready and thinking deep thoughts.
Karen thought the flowers on the drink tables epitomized the overall quality of the race organization.
Can't quite remember who else I met pre-race - might have said hello to Brad Compton, and that may have been it. I'm always a little keyed-up and stand-offish before a race starts - just trying to deal with my own head a little. I would soon meet some others on the course though.

Here's the start. That's me, center-rear, in the visor.
Background is the stoopid-awesome aid station - with a commercial flat-top,
stovetops, ovens, and a walk-in cooler. It would serve up amazing grub to
hungry runners 24/7 for the next three days.
I spent the first couple of laps just getting familiar with the course. You left timing, climbing a little hill and turning right past the bathroom building on the way over to the out-and-back section, which was mostly flat. After the turnaround there things started to trend downhill to the right turn heading into what I've seen someone else describe as the "Darth Vader helmet" part of the course. It was downgrade again on the first long, straight side of the helmet, mostly flat around the two curves, then slightly upgrade on the other straight side up to the left turn onto a dirt/gravel road that took us to the last turn before my campsite. A minor upgrade on the straight stretch past the campsite, then the final turn onto a little hill back up to the flat area around the timing gate, and you had completed one certified mile.

One lap done. This is easy!
I fell into a pattern of running the flat through timing, on the out-and-back section and the downhill to the turn, and on the first side of the helmet and around both curves to the three-quarter mile flags just after the second curve. Then I'd run again on the gravel road and the last straightaway. Everything else I used for walk breaks. I kept my running pace very easy, but this had me running maybe three-quarters of every loop.

I had thoughts coming in that I would take the race in ten-mile chunks, and initially aim for a 'relaxed' pace of around 2:30 per ten miles (i.e. twenty miles at around five hours even). Checking the race clock as I passed through timing, I saw I was doing roughly 15:00 miles using my run/walk pattern, so I was exactly on pace.

Early on I met Gary Ferguson and his friend Bob Lantz. I think they may have been walking with Steve and/or Fred when introductions were made. Gary is a veteran of this race, and logged 212 miles here in 2013. He's also loves to talk (and kid around) and it took no time at all to learn that he walked the entire first twelve hours of the race in 2013, en-route to that 212 finish.

Gary's experience and advice would prove crucial to my race, and I am so very grateful that I met him and that he took enough of an interest to help me out! Early on here he was going to some lengths to try to talk me down a little - reminding me of his 12-hour walk several times, for example. More than once as we were walking together he'd show me his watch and say something like, "We're only four hours into this thing. That means we have 68 hours left to go. Think about that!" At one point we walked through timing together, doing something like 20-minute pace, and he said, "You know, on the third day, if we're moving this well we'll be passing everybody! It's going to get ugly out here!"

Slowly it all sank in and changed my attitude toward pacing - gave me a new mindset about the true scope of the effort and the kind of patience that would be needed. It didn't keep me from pushing to that five-hour twenty miles (which took a hard push for the last three miles and I still missed it by a few seconds) but it made it easier for me to let myself off the hook after that, and settle into a much easier and more sustainable energy expenditure rate.

I had passed Gary a lot during those first five hours and in the end he would beat me by over 50 miles! 'Course maybe that's just the result he was looking for in talking me down! I have the sense that you may never really know with Gary. :)

I'd like to say I had a really great plan for the rest of the day as far as pacing, breaks, refueling - all of the things about managing a race. Truth is after a while I couldn't even remember to look at the race clock when I came through timing - I just developed  some sort of mental block about it! I'd tell myself to remember to check it and then, invariably, when I came through and someone yelled my lap count at me I'd just say 'thanks' and move on - usually remembering somewhere around the bathroom that I'd forgotten the clock once again.

I soon had to just accept that I was going to run this race completely by feel. That had sort of been my intention anyway (I hadn't even brought a watch after all) so after that 20-mile point I just ran when I felt like running, walked when I felt like walking, talked when I felt like talking, kept to myself when I felt like solitude, ate whatever appealed to me when I was hungry - and let the results worry about themselves. It was a very free feeling that undoubtedly cost me some miles, but it just felt like the right way for me to approach something so far beyond any previous experience. Had I placed a lot of pressure on myself I might have folded early. If this went well there would be other opportunities for pushing the limits hard - once I had some idea what the limits actually were.

The day soon heated up Thursday. It wasn't unseasonably warm but the humidity was high and, given the cold spring to this point, difficult to deal with. I never felt like eating anything solid through the day, so I started experimenting with taking a little of the Heed sports drink offered by the race - sometimes mixing it half-and-half with water. When I felt like I needed something with more 'substance' I used one of my Orgains (an organic meal replacement shake that has about 250 calories). I also nibbled just a bit at the aid station - a few salty snacks like chips and pretzels when those appealed.

I made it through the marathon point quite comfortably and on to the 50K. It was by far the easiest 50K I've ever done and the best I've felt covering that distance. I'd decided I would take a break and celebrate with a '50K milkshake' that I asked Karen to get for me from Chatterbox.

50K milkshake (vanilla).
Drying and elevating the feet would become a periodic ritual.
I thought a little about Vol State at this point. If I could feel this good after a 'minimum Vol State day' and then spend significant time resting and recovering before repeating, then maybe it's actually do-able. Maybe.

From this point on the race became a never-ending series of fives and tens - with three somehow also feeling like the atomic unit of progress (by the time you've gone three you're more than halfway to the next five or ten point). I would stop for a short break and chat with Karen at the fives (or sometimes threes if I wanted something from my stuff) and do another shoes-off-dry-feet longer rest at ten.

I think I took maybe two S-Caps during the heat of the day on Thursday. The rest of the race I got my salt from the food that I ate. I think I had one cheeseburger for 'dinner' with the rest of my calories that first day being a random mix of Heed, Orgain, and just a few non-sugary snacks picked at from the aid station (and that milkshake).

A few showers started to hit us late-afternoon or early-evening, but they were short and mostly just pleasant and cooling. By that time the running portion of the course had shrunk to just the truly downgrade sections - from the out-and-back turnaround to the corner, and from the beginning of the 'helmet' to the first hint of upgrade between the two curves. After 40 miles it had shrunk to nothing. I was a walker. It was about 8:00 or 8:30 and Karen headed back to the hotel at that point. My intention was to press on and make 50 miles before going down for a little sleep myself. I made the 50 by midnight - fifteen hours into the race, and pretty much dead on my feet - then crawled into the tent in the clothes I had on, and worked on trying to get comfortable.

Over the Rainbow, and Down the Rabbit Hole

Bing! My eyes popped open - and I've caught us up to where I started this story.

As Gary would say, think about that. I had just come through a day-long adventure on the order of magnitude of my longest ultra effort to date - and I wasn't even done with the first day of this race yet. It was clear by this point that I had gone over the rainbow or down the rabbit hole or something - or taken the red pill. I had become some sort of strange creature with just one purpose: keep moving.

I shuffled around in the tent getting myself put together for the 'new day.' Time had already ceased to have any sort of conventional meaning like that. I had slept and now I was awake and it was time to get moving again and that was 'new day' enough for me. Things were cramped in my little tent and my stiff and sore legs didn't make moving around to get what I needed easy. It was tempting to just lay back down again, but I knew I wouldn't sleep more and would just be wasting time.

I dug a clean shirt and clean socks out of my bag and put them on. I opted not to do anything with my shorts - partly out of sheer laziness (contorting myself to get out of the cruddy shorts and underwear I was wearing and into something fresh sounded awful, and transferring my bib tedious) and partly out of a philosophy of 'leave well-enough alone.' I wouldn't have changes of shorts and underwear at Vol State after all.

After far too much time getting myself together I crawled out of the tent and went over to the rest of my stuff on the patio. I decided now was the time to break out one of the Cafe Kubal bottled iced coffees from my cooler to see how caffeine would work to get me going again in the wee hours.

It wasn't actively raining at this point - though it had been, because I'd heard the patter of it on my tent off and on as I'd slept. The forecasts were predicting scattered showers through the night with the heavy, steady rain starting sometime mid-morning.

After I sucked down the coffee I headed down-course to timing, the aid station and bathroom. Things were pretty quiet around race headquarters at this time of night. The time-of-day clock at the timing gate said it was just past 2:00 AM (this was when I first learned how long I'd actually been down). It was chilly, and Rick huddled under a blanket looking like he might have been mixing a little dozing in with keeping track of the progress of the few runners who were still on-course.

Looking back through timing at night.
(Photo credit - Glenn Teitell, Freeze Frame Studios)
The veterans had predicted that, BTW, telling me the course would be largely deserted at night and that those who would push through and keep moving would gain many miles on some of the people who had been moving faster during the day. I'd actually felt a little guilty and embarrassed going down when I did because of that. Realizing now that I'd kept the sleep short, that I still had almost seven hours to work the first day - and already feeling the benefits of the rest in terms of alertness and a little renewed 'freshness' in my legs - I felt I had made a good call.

Passing through the gate, I triggered the ever-encouraging 'beep-beep, beep-beep' and logged mile 51 - my 'locked-and-loaded-mile' for this rest break. This was a discipline I'd started forcing on myself during the first day: when I had a target mileage in mind at which I was going to take a break, I made myself go past my site and through timing to actually log that target mile number - and then go all the way around, almost a full extra mile, to get back to my site again before stopping. I called that the 'locked-and-loaded mile' and it was a real encouragement when I got going again to just go a hundred yards or so and find myself already one mile on my way to my next target.

Memory is hazy on the precise details at this point. I think I headed straight through to the bathrooms and then walked a full loop before stopping to check into food options. This was where one of my biggest questions pre-race would be answered. "What would it feel like to try to get moving with purpose again the day after already doing an ultra?" It was surprisingly easy. Just a little easy walking and much of the stiffness worked loose. Sleep had taken the edge off of pain and my feet were in good shape, so I was soon walking what felt like a good, solid three miles-per-hour or better pace.

Hunger soon asserted itself and I stopped at the aid station to see if they could make me some scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. No problem! Just give them your bib number, tell them how long you expected your next loop to take you, and when you got back around your order would be hot, fresh, and ready. That's how I'd gotten the cheeseburger for dinner the previous evening, and it worked perfectly for breakfast now. Can't say enough good things about the runner support at this race!

I sat on a picnic table bench and enjoyed my breakfast, then got to serious work logging miles. I still didn't run. I think I tried a short jog on the downhill after the out-and-back once, but it felt bad (go figure) so I went back to walking and stuck with that. This was perhaps my biggest mistake in the race, as I would spend the rest of that whole day on Friday just walking.

Still, I kept a decent walking pace through the night. The renewed vigor in my legs from the sleep lasted far longer than I would have expected, and by the time movement was really starting to seem hard again I had 100K firmly in sight - and not much beyond that my Day 1 mileage target of 64 miles. I had that accomplished by 7:00 AM and 'celebrated' by taking another hour or so of downtime, resting on one of the picnic table benches under the overhang at my site, dozing a little. I had the 'extra mile' (the one lost to round-off error in my split calculations) locked and loaded, and thought I might just rest until Karen arrived again.

Fred Davis stopped by and talked with me a bit. Karen and I had met him when we were setting up the previous day. Fred's a well-known name among ultrarunners - especially Vol Staters. I learned this race what a talker he is - and what a very pleasant and friendly guy. He was there to crew another runner who was arriving late, so he had spent a good bit of time chit-chatting with Karen as I'd gone round-and-round the first day. I didn't mind him interrupting my dozing at all.

Karen soon did arrive and I got myself fully roused again, greeted her, got the latest insight into the coming weather and got ready to move again. Once more the longer break had done me some good.

A silky smooth Cafe Kubal iced Ethiopian - my caffeine source of choice for 3DATF
At some point during the wee hours I had broken out my Vol State umbrella. It was intended for use as a sun shield in Tennessee but I would use it here in the rain and get some practice with it (it's light and a little tricky to handle in wind). I broke out another iced coffee 'eye-opener' took it with me and headed out onto the course into the light rain. In short order I had logged miles 65, 66 and - just after the race clock ticked past 24 hours - mile 67.

'Just like that,' Day 1 was done - and I was already a mile into Day 2!

Day 1: 66 miles.

Continued in Part 2...

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