Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Saturday, May 31, 2014

2014 3 Days at the Fair 72-hours - Day 2

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

Karen and I headed from my site to race HQ.
As usual, this is the only picture of Karen from the race. :(
(Photo credit - Tom Butler)

Day 2

Many people say that the worst day of a six-day race is the third day. I've sometimes speculated this was the reason that records are not kept for 72-hour races. Why would elite multi-day runners want to go through the worst day and not go on? Then I started talking to three-day runners and they, almost to a person, say that Day 2 is in fact the hardest day of a 72-hour race - and they are right.

Day 2 is when you are first really pushing past sleep deprivation. Most people have gone through one 24-hour period with minimal sleep. Not so many have done it while pushing their bodies to ultra endurance distance. Even fewer have tried to push that into a second day. It seems that there is a 'wall' of sorts to sleep deprivation that has to be pushed through, and this wall comes on Day 2.

This particular Day 2 also brought the rains.

A very slow-moving front began working its way into the area overnight Thursday and we were in the thick of it by mid-morning Friday. Waves of rain were just flowing northward through the area along the face of the front for hours and hours - sometimes with short breaks that began to give you a little hope that it might be ending sooner than forecast, but then always returning with another hard rainfall and gusts of wind. This would go on until sometime past midnight on Friday. The only positive thing to say about it was at least there was no lightning, so we never had to consider safety. It was just very, very wet!

Fortunately for the most part the course drained well. There were only a couple of spots that got puddled and muddy and they were all avoidable. Still, it was impossible to keep feet completely dry (though waterproof shoes might actually have worked well in these conditions). I continued the discipline of stopping periodically to dry out my feet and change socks and, eventually, shoes. I very quickly began to worry that I had brought nowhere near enough socks!

For the most part, I was pretty comfortable and happy under the Vol State umbrella. Quite a few people commented on it, thinking it a little on the unusual side - and I suppose it was, since I was the only one using one for a while until at least one other runner (friend Tom Butler from the Rochester area) brought one out onto the course. It might have helped a little with keeping feet dry, but not all that much really. It just made me more comfortable and happy with no rain in my face and keeping a somewhat dry upper body.

The downside was that it was tough to handle in the wind! The umbrella I've got is a GoLite 'chrome dome' hiking model - very light, with a light plastic frame (and a reflective upper surface). The disadvantage to it's light construction is that it collapses easily, turning inside out if a strong wind gets under it. It can be used in some pretty strong wind, but you have to get pretty adept at always tipping it slightly into the wind so the air flows over the top and pushes down on it.

The other downside was that an umbrella in the rain just puts you in a strolling frame of mind! I was already not much inclined to run this second day. I had been walking almost exclusively since mile 40 and I would spend almost this entire day on top of that just walking in the rain working on keeping my umbrella tipped into the wind. There was one really annoying spot near the top of 'the helmet' where some semi trailers were parked just off-course and the wind just seemed to swirl there. I pretty much always had to fight with the umbrella going past them.

Day 2.
I never really lost a cheerful attitude though. Everyone remained friendly and a little chatty on the course. Ultrarunners have to have a sense of humor about things like thirteen hours of non-stop rain or they wouldn't be ultrarunners! So it was kind of a nice, social day. I bumped into Tom frequently (he had started the 48-hour that morning), spent a good deal of time walking with others (it's so hard to remember every shared lap and conversation, but I did appreciate them all). Somewhere along the way I finally met Tim Loudermilk. He and I had corresponded about the race a little ahead of time, and I'd noticed a bottle labeled with his name on the water table and meant to keep an eye on who grabbed it. I finally sat down at a picnic table with him without realizing it while I ate some food, we got talking and I figured out who he was. He'd been having a rough time the first day, but would soon bounce back.

Just walking, resting, and eating, the miles nevertheless continued to add up. The energy expenditure rate wasn't too taxing and the last bit of dozing I had done in the early morning light held me for a surprisingly long time. Mile 70 passed quickly, then with several more hours of zoned-out slogging, mile 80.

On this day it seemed thirteen miles or so was about how far I could go before I felt an overpowering need to sleep again! I say 'overpowering' but looking back I'd also have to say I didn't try all that hard to fight it. I suppose this was consistent with my plan going in of just letting my body dictate sleep need and going with it. In any case, sometime shortly after 3:00 in the afternoon Karen headed out for a cheeseburger and to do some shopping (I also tasked her with buying me some Desitin to treat a little butt chafing) and I retired to my tent for a nap. I wouldn't log another mile until sometime after 5:00.

Once I got going again, I felt better, but was still slow. The rain was really starting to suck and I was far from the only one out there whose attitude about it was 'a bit less cheery' than it once had been. There's something about the 80's that seem to make them take forever. It 'only' took me somewhere near five hours to cover the miles from 70 to 80, reaching there at about 30 hours race time. I did not reach mile 90 until sometime between 36 and 37 hours. Counting the nap in there my moving time couldn't have been much worse, but somehow it seemed so. By mile 90 I was dead on my feet again - zombie walking - and just looking for the rain to finally stop.

The End?

At that point things went bad in a real hurry. I have always heard that in 100-milers small mistakes can quickly become big problems - and that unexpected issues can pop up to derail your race. I was about to have just this sort of thing happen to me.

Hour 37 race time was 10:00 PM Friday evening. I was ten miles away from completing my first 100 mile distance - but ten miles had been taking many, many hours throughout the day. I had made only twenty-three miles since 9:00 AM Friday morning!

Karen (who on Thursday evening had gone back to the hotel at around 8:30, and whose normal bedtime is around 10:00) was still  hanging out under 'our' overhang - wanting to be there to see me reach that major milestone. Doing the math though (to the extent I could still do math) at the rate I was moving I didn't see it happening until about 2:00 AM or 3:00 AM at best.

I really needed to sleep again, but with Karen waiting I tried to push on. Miles 91 and 92 were just slow, weaving trudges, and I was starting to fall asleep on my feet. If I stopped I knew I would sleep for about two more hours, then I would get up and work my way to (and beyond) 100 through the night - and Karen would miss it. Something had to be done though. I couldn't go on as I was for another eight miles.

Then I thought back to my experience pacing my friend Tiffany through the wee hours of her first hundred. She had been really struggling to stay awake as a group of us walked together during those 2:00 to 3:00 AM hours, but then she took to pushing herself to run on the theory it would wake her up - and it had worked. I said to myself, "You know, you haven't run in hours and hours. Why don't you try running again? If it works you can push it to 100 more quickly and then go down for some sleep."

The rain had been getting sporadic and we'd been getting conflicting reports of just when it was really going to stop. Regardless, I ditched the umbrella with my stuff, told Karen I was going to try running - and then hit it. I was frankly amazed at how well it worked! I found legs! I pushed it as hard as I could. I was running through timing (wondering if Rick wondered what had gotten into me) running all of the downhills and most of the flats again just like I had been at the beginning of the race! The rain mostly held off and the miles started clicking by again at more like 15-minute intervals: 93... 94... 95... 96... then... "Uh-oh."

Remember when I talked about stopping regularly to dry out my feet and put on dry socks? Well I had been due for that again at mile 90. With the time pressure I'd put on myself I'd let it slide, and I was running in thoroughly wet shoes and socks, and on waterlogged feet. I was running the downhill toward the corner before the helmet when I realized I had a problem. Suddenly the bottoms of both feet felt stingy and loose.

"Oh, no," I thought, "I've may have just flushed my race down the toilet!"

I pulled up immediately and started walking as carefully and gingerly as I could. I had a sense that there might be no real damage yet and that I needed to just carefully work my way the rest of the way back around to my camp to get my shoes off and see what I was up against.

On my way under the overhang I told Karen, "I may have just cost myself my race."

When I pulled off my shoes and socks and looked at the bottoms of my feet I was both appalled and relieved. The entire bottoms of both feet - toes to heels - were that pasty gray waterlogged color - but they weren't pruny-looking and I could find no actual loose skin anywhere. That was the good news.

I laid down on the picnic table bench, elevated my feet and held them up into the air and, as the skin dried, normal coloration returned and still I could find no actual loose spots or blisters. They remained very 'angry' with me though - hot and stinging, and it felt like the skin would let loose easily. Still, I was only a hundred yards or so from mile 97 - just three miles away from that first 100! Surely I could put on some dry socks and shoes and gingerly walk another three miles?

So I tried it. I went about ten steps from the overhang then turned around and went back, telling Karen, "No, this isn't happening." It just felt like my feet might fall apart if I tried to push them just then. I was envisioning leaving New Jersey with both feet turned into hamburger just eight weeks before Vol State. The one thing I really wanted to do here above all - if at all possible - was get through it intact. Stopping right then seemed like an obvious good decision. Still, the only word for my mental state at this point is 'despondent.'

Karen didn't know what to do for me. It was late - past midnight - and we both badly needed sleep. It was still raining (it wouldn't finally stop for another hour or two, I think) and to complicate matters, we had promised to move my stuff out of the Boy Scout's patio by morning because they were coming in to do a breakfast. Finally, Karen asked, "Do you want to come back to the hotel with me? We can just throw everything in the car and leave it there for the night."

At that point the thought of a hot shower and a real bed was irresistible. I hobbled over to timing, logged mile 97 at hour 40 (1:00 AM) and told Rick what my problem was and that I was leaving the fairgrounds, while Karen hauled my stuff to the car. Rick explained how to be careful re-entering the race if I came back, so as not to log an extra mile, and then I left with Karen.

I have rarely been so depressed. Hobbling into the hotel and up to our second-floor room was extremely painful, but it's hard to say whether my feet hurt worse or my pride. I had been so stupid! And now I was skulking in here with my tail between my legs, utterly deflated and defeated.

At least the shower was as glorious as I had imagined - and the sheets! The real sheets! I was in bed by 1:30. My lone hope was that some good sleep might allow a little healing in my feet. I tossed and turned for a short while getting comfortable and then - lights out.

A New Day

It was 5:30 when I opened my eyes. I was hungry and - just like in the tent - I knew I was done sleeping. My feet, not too surprisingly, still hurt. They still felt warm and stingy.

I moved around as quietly as I could, trying not to wake Karen, resolved to go downstairs and get some breakfast. The walking wasn't great - but it was a little better than when I went down. It no longer felt as though the skin on my feet was about to split open and peel back like the skin of a plumped-up hot dog over an open fire.

It felt so strange being in the environment of a nice hotel. It gave me this jarring, unsettling, 'out-of-phase' feeling. In two days I had become such a creature of the course, the tent, and the rain, that I imagined anyone who saw me might look at me, puzzled, and ask, "What are you doing here? You don't belong here."

It was especially strange because, as the Holiday Inn Express was an official hotel for the race, fresh runners coming in for the final 24-hour race were filtering down for breakfast too. Here I was, a casualty from two days on the course, among fresh people filled with that sense of excitement and anticipation that comes with race day morning! I envied them a little - maybe a lot.

Still, I was really fortunate to recognize Brian Teason from his Facebook profile when he came in. I introduced myself and he joined me at my table. It was great to spend some time with another ultrarunner who was in a totally optimistic frame of mind! I had just started to think in terms of finding a way to get back and at least get those three miles I needed for 100, and Brian offered a lot of encouragement - pointing at my sandaled feet at one point and suggesting, "Maybe you could even run in those."

It really helped nurture the nascent positive direction in my thinking. In the light of a new day, with a clearer head after four good hours of sleep, and in spite of my still quite painful feet, something that can only be called 'ultrarunner rationality' was returning (because surely conventional rationality would listen to the voice in my head saying, "Dude, your feet are trashed. What you do is you quit.").

I got back to the room and Karen was still sleeping. I wanted that to continue for as long as possible - I'd already asked so much of her. My thoughts began to churn though!

Surely there was some way I could get myself back into the race! There was a Home Depot across the street (duct tape!) and a Walgreen's just down a little further (maybe some kinesio tape?). There was a Kohl's up the other way (maybe I could buy a pair of Crocs there). I quietly booted Karen's laptop and started reading up on foot taping on John Vonhof's "Fixing Your Feet" website. I posted to the race's page on FB - vowing to come back!

New day - new attitude.
Hope is a wonderful feeling.
Try as I might to be quiet, it wasn't long before Karen figured out I was antsy to get back. She rolled out and started working on getting a shower while I started explaining my shopping plan. She, of course, would have to do all of the driving. When I really stop and think about it, I have no idea why this wonderful woman will do so much for me. I am just really, really grateful!

We hit the Walmart - got the duct tape. Then we pulled into Walgreens and, looking across the parking lot I saw Dunkin Donuts and thought, "Oooooh... donuts!" It was no more than an hour after I'd filled up at the hotel breakfast bar, nevertheless three stops became four and I had two donuts (which would then hold me until I could get back to the aid station - I was a little hungry). Got the kinesio tape! Finally we stopped at Kohl's. We couldn't find any Crocs, but they had some Adidas flip-flops that felt really good on my feet, and I wore them out of the store (paying for them on the way of course).

All of the walking around doing this felt ok - not great, but ok. As we headed back to the race I felt armed and optimistic. Surely I could walk three miles. I would reach 100 miles - no matter what!

We made it back to the fairgrounds just after the 9:00 start for the last group of 24-hour runners. It was Day 3. How very, very bizarre to have mentally given up on a race, left the venue, showered, slept, eaten breakfast (twice), done a bunch of shopping - and then come back and still have 24 hours of race left to do something with!

Multi-days are very strange beasts.

Day 2: 31 miles. Two-day total: 97.

Continued in Part 3...

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