Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Saturday, May 31, 2014

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

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

Day 3

We set up my stuff at a new location - the covered pavilion of a Rotary or Kiwanis club building right on the corner of the final turn. It was a nice spot, again with picnic tables to spread my things out on - and situated just before timing.

I spent the first hour or more getting ready to get back on course - most of that time carefully taping my feet. I chose to go with the kinesio tape. I taped the balls of both feet. That was the finicky part of the job because I had to trim the tape carefully to cover the foot pad without getting up into the creases of my toes where it might rub and cause a problem. I also taped one big toe, and applied several strips of tape across the bottom of each foot wherever the skin felt really tender.

I think I worked on another iced coffee eye-opener while I did this.

After taping was done I very carefully put on clean, dry socks, and then stepped into the flip-flops. Finally I was ready to give this a try and I walked stiffly and gingerly away, taking the long way around the aid station building as Rick had instructed the previous night, to re-enter the course just behind the timing gate and begin mile 98.

I made it up the hill and past the restrooms before I realized that the flip-flops just weren't going to work. I've not been a flip-flop guy in my adulthood and I had completely lost the skill of keeping them on my feet while walking in them. There's a certain way you have to curl your toes just a little as you step forward so that you hold them onto the bottom of your foot instead of stepping right out of them. It turns out that two days into a three-day race is just not the time to retrain your lower leg muscles in this skill.

I turned off-course and headed around the buildings on the other side of timing from where I had re-entered - back to my new spot - for some real shoes. Karen was surprised to see me flip-flopping into the pavilion from the back side.

I decided to go with my pair of Saucony Cortanas. They were the lightest and best-ventilated of the four pairs of shoes I had brought, and they were totally dry as I had not worn them at all yet. I tied them on just a little loosely, then retraced my route to re-enter the course again at the point I'd left it. Finally, I was really moving forward to try another mile!

The rain was really, really gone! The morning was bright and sunny, cool - but warming quickly. It was one more factor helping to build my optimistic spirit. My feet hurt, but the walk remained no more painful than it had during the morning's shopping. I didn't push it at all - just walked at a very easy pace, one foot in front of the other. The sunshine was fantastic, I was moving forward again, slowly but surely making my way around the course, and I was really starting to believe I would do it.

Before I knew it I was back around to my spot. The paranoia about my feet was extreme, and I think I stopped at that point, took off my shoes and socks, and carefully inspected both feet to see if anything was coming loose (tape or skin). All well, the shoes went back on and just like that mile 98 was in the bank! All I had to do was repeat two more times and I would reach 100 miles in a race for the first time.

I was already starting to think of 110.

100 miles.
I'm trying to make 1-0-0 with my hands and totally failing.
Coming up the rise toward timing at the end of lap 100, I knew I had to at least run through the gate for a milestone like that. Truthfully the moment was bitter-sweet. I was happy, of course, but it was close to 50 hours into the race. To say it was a 'soft' PR was the height of understatement. Coming into the race, I had been almost certain I would reach this point on the second day - speculating whether I would beat 30 hours or 40. Instead I'd collapsed at 97 miles and spent nine hours off-course recovering. It couldn't help but feel just a little hollow as victories go.

The PR bell and - really - a happy Patterick!
Still, I had made it - earning the first milestone award for lifetime miles in the NJ Trail Series races and the right to ring the 'PR bell.' I rang that bell and posed for more pictures. Commemoration done though, there was nothing left to do but mile 101. Like a lot of things, running is a 'what have you done for me lately?' activity.

A Real New Day

I think it was just after this - on my way out of timing - that I bumped into Gary Ferguson again and everything changed.

My Facebook post from the morning had been seen by those who were staying connected, and it seemed some word of my trouble had gotten around among the people who knew me. Gary saw me gingerly walking by his campsite and asked, "Have you been running on those feet?"

I wasn't quite sure how to take the question - which direction he was going with it. Did he think that I had been - and that I was foolish for doing so? "No," I answered tentatively.

"You should try running on them. If you run on trashed feet they'll feel better."

I had to spend another walking lap mulling that advice over. It was obvious when I had met him that Gary was a bit of a kidder - but equally obvious that he was a guy to pay attention to because he knew this race like a guy who had run it many times and done well (because that's exactly what he'd done). By the time I got around to Karen again I had decided: I would try running a little the next lap and see how it went. What the heck? It hurt to walk anyway, and if I crashed and burned I'd already done what I'd come back this day to do.

It had been three miles since I'd last checked my feet so, in what would become a cautious, repeated pattern, I stopped, aired out and inspected my feet, and put on dry socks. For a while there were minor taping adjustments to be made too until I had that dialed in. Back out on the course once again, when I got to the first downhill, I ran.

And it worked!

My legs felt 'good' (for the third day of a race, that is) and the change in gait was definitely somehow better on my feet. It kind of makes sense. Since I had mostly trashed them while walking, the different foot plant and push off when running might not be stressing the same parts of the foot as much as continuing to walk did. I don't know - it just worked!

I fell right back into my run/walk pattern of running about half the course and - almost before I knew it - three more miles had clicked by. Even with stops every three miles to care for the feet, soon I had actually reached 110! The feet remained painful at a low and ignore-able level, and remained damage-free at every inspection. The air was dry today, so I just switched back and forth between two pairs of socks every three miles or so.

I soon switched out of the Cortanas - which have limited cushioning - and got back into a rotation between my old Hoka Bondi-B's and the Stinson Tarmacs. We had taken all of my shoes back to the hotel overnight and let them dry as well as possible, and they weren't too bad at this point.


At 112 miles I remembered my 'secret weapon.'

Mark Dorion, a veteran ultrarunner and major fan of the Self-Transcendence races in NYC, writes often on the ultra list about the many extremely-talented international multi-day runners who come to America to run in the longest ultra in the world - the Self-Transcendence 3100-mile. Earlier this year in a discussion about world-class runners who carry things in their hands (batons for example) claiming that it helps their running, he happened to mention that Czech runner Coach Atmavir Petr Spacil often carries and bounces a rubber handball while running, claiming that it, "makes the run more fun, makes the kilometers pass faster."

As it happens, I once went through a 'phase' where I carried a little superball around in my pocket and would often bounce it as I walked along going from place to place, so this idea resonated with me and I thought that it very well might be a great tool to help with what could be very difficult miles on the third day. I made sure to pack some balls with my gear. Mine were tennis balls (only because the sporting goods store that I happened to stop at didn't have handballs). I'd almost forgotten that I had them, but suddenly remembered - and now was the time.

At first I felt a little sheepish about it because surely most everyone else would see it as odd - but then ultrarunners are, almost to a person, odd, so I didn't really worry about it too much. I had to sort of relearn the technique for bouncing it - especially on the run. You have to miss your own feet, aim for a spot that will have the ball bounce back up to where it will be handy to grab, avoid hitting rocks or large cracks in the pavement that might send it off in an unexpected direction, and give it just the right amount of force so that it will bounce high enough, but not too high. You can probably tell from that description that it really could be a good distraction.

It worked far, far better than I ever imagined it might! I'm a rhythm guy and I fell right into a pattern of one bounce per every four strides. With each bounce and catch several yards of the course went by almost completely without my actually noticing them. While I was focusing on the ball I wasn't focusing as much on my pain - nor was I looking up the course ahead of me thinking about how far it was to the next turn. I was just catching the stupid ball!

Wilson and me.
Many of the runners who commented (and many did) said they were sure they would be unable to catch the ball - or unable to stoop down to retrieve it if they ever lost it. I had little problem with either. I did lose control of the ball quite a few times. Usually it would just bounce down the course ahead of me and I would almost unconsciously 'sprint' to catch up to it and catch it on a second or third bounce. Sometimes I did have to chase it off-course and pick it up again, but the side-wise motion and occasional squatting felt good - a change of pace and muscle usage from the incessant one-dimensional motion of running. Once I even had to squat down and crawl under the semi trailer parked in front of the chicken building to retrieve it!

It wasn't long before I was totally endeared to my tennis ball and it needed a name. What else but Wilson? It was actually a "Pro Penn" but that certainly wouldn't do. I made a lot of new friends once I had Wilson with me, because lots of people were curious about what was up with the ball. I have no doubt that I ran more the third day than I ever would have without him. Running just became somehow magically more fun while bouncing that ball. I soon was running even more than half the course - and miles just continued to click by.


Between the ball, the beautiful day, the good sleep I'd had, the regular breaks to dry my feet and refuel, and the thrill of not having my race become the total disaster I'd had on my hands the night before - I just rolled right through the day.

I was quite visible at the last turn whenever I was down - sitting in my chair - and I figured some people probably thought I was resting far too much. Maybe I was (ok, probably I was) but those breaks ensured that when I moved I moved well - and they maintained my peace of mind about what I was doing to my feet. I think they actually continued to heal and recover through the day.

120 miles seemed a given (though I relied on nothing at this point, having seen how the distance from 97 to 100 could become insurmountable with no warning at all) and I secretly started picking out new goals. If I could reach 120, I should be able to reach 130. 137 would get me the 40-mile split I had originally planned for the third day - but then I hadn't made the 44 I'd expected to on Day 2. If I could reach 137, why not 141?

I would just bounce my ball, keep on running, keep on taking care of my feet, and see what happened.

120 came and went. The miles beyond that seemed to take longer though. As I approached 130, it was once again getting late into the evening and time for Karen to head back to the hotel. She had been such a help throughout the day! She'd organized my stuff, rigged up a 'drying rack' for my on-deck socks, and never once complained when I pulled in, kicked her out of our one good chair so I could sit in it, then ordered her around to get me things or do things for me while I sat there. It really felt like we had 'gelled' as runner and crew in a way we hadn't yet in all my previous ultras and, though I knew I could manage without her, I knew it would be harder and I was loath to see her go. She needed a really good night's sleep though to be in good shape for the 'one job' that I'd needed her to come with me for - the drive home the next day.

I thank God for my wonderful wife!

I was wrong - there was at least one other picture of Karen.
That's her and me walking together far background late Saturday evening.
The foreground runner is Josh Irvan, I believe.
(Photo credit - Glen Teitell, Freeze Frame Studios)
Here I am coming through a few seconds later.
(Photo credit - Glen Teitell, Freeze Frame Studios)

The Final Night and Morning

After Karen left I resolved to work my way up to 130 and then go down for some sleep again. Once again, it would be just about midnight when I finally reached my goal, struggling against sleep to keep moving, and then crawling into my tent to give in to it.

For the first time, my time in the tent wasn't phonetically punctuated by the patter of raindrops on canvas. Instead, this night was much colder than previous nights had been - dropping toward a low that was supposed to be in the low forties - and I had trouble getting warm enough without sweating, and never really got it entirely right. It was far from the best sleep, but still my pattern held and I was suddenly awake again in what seemed like far too short a time.

I knew as always that I was done sleeping, but I was far more reluctant than previously to force myself out of the tent into the cold to get moving. I was firmly in race mentality again though, and the clock was not waiting for me. As I rummaged through my bag digging out my warmer running clothes and getting them pulled on in the confines of the small tent, I was doing the math on three MPH pace and how close to twenty more miles I might be able to get given varying amounts of time remaining (again, I had no way to know what time it was until I passed through timing once I got moving again).

When I got to the gate, I saw that I had indeed only been down for about two hours, and it was 2-something AM. I had close to seven hours to work with. I'd brought an Orgain with me, maybe picked at a little at food at the aid station - my stomach not really feeling like working too hard anymore - then I hit the bathroom and headed on down the course. As usual, it was pretty quiet out there in these wee hours.

Any time - day or night, there were friendly people eager to help you at the AS.
(Photo credit - Glen Teitell, Freeze Frame Studios)
I still had Wilson, and I still bounced him methodically. The course was well-lit, and there were only a few places where tricky shadows made it hard to reliably catch him. I did lose him more during the night, but he remained, on balance, a positive. Besides, he had simply become a fixture in my life and I would not be without him!

I bounced, and ran, and walked, and talked with people as I had opportunity. I rested and ate when I felt like it. My feet stayed good. I adjusted clothing as needed - even going with thin glove liners for a while. I longed for the dawn. I rejoiced when I heard the awakening of the birds, signaling that it was coming - long before any hint of light appeared on the horizon (how do the birds know?). When the light finally came I rejoiced again! The world, the other runners and I were slowly coming back to life in the dawn of another beautiful day - and the end was in sight.

Wilson and me, still together
at the dawn of the final morning.
(Photo credit - Tom Bushey)
Karen returned and I was so glad to see her!

I was approaching 140 at that point. I was pretty sure 150 was out of my reach (it almost certainly was not) and I was transitioning emotionally into a very satisfied mode. I had done so much more than I'd thought possible in that dark time the second night. I was ready to just keep moving steadily and take what it gave me, as gravy. Steve Tursi tried in vain to convince me to push for 150.

The miles steadily mounted up through the 140's as I easily surpassed the odd 141 that I had thought of the previous evening. It looked like I would finish around 147 (50 miles for Day 3 - nice) or maybe even 148.

People started talking about a tradition known as 'Gentry miles.' Race regular Bill Gentry was famous for cranking out several very fast miles to close out the race, and it had become tradition for others to suck it up and join him - pushing through as long as there was any hope of completing one more mile before time ran out.

But I would not be persuaded out of my comfortable pace. I logged mile 147 with something just over 30 minutes left on the race clock. Even then, an 'insane' dash at 10:00 pace could have gotten me to 150 miles. Certainly two more miles was easily within reach. I wussed out! No excuses, I just left it on the table. I ran/walked the next lap - even pulling up a little when I knew I could run further, consciously making sure I chewed up enough of that 30 minutes that I wouldn't be tempted to go out again. I mean, I'm really embarrassed to admit that now, but it's the truth and I'm just putting it out there!

Bringing home the last mile.
There were about twelve minutes left in the race when I reached 148. Mike Dobies (who was there crewing for Joe Fejes in the 48-hour, and who had made a point to meet me since I'm running the Vol State) was there trying to convince me I had enough time for one more (and I surely did - twelve wouldn't even have been a really hard pace to 'crank out' just one more mile) - but what was 149? I said, "Sorry, Mike, I think I'm going to leave that one on the course." (I believe that's actually what I'm saying in the picture above.)

As I joined the crowd standing in a semi-circle, cheering in the final runners - Gene Bruckert reaching 101, Cliff Lange the same, Fred Murolo ripping through his final mile of 205, Tracy Zagata flying in with little time remaining, and a few others - I was extremely satisfied, but with just a touch of bitter-sweet again, because I wasn't among them.

I had accomplished more than I had any idea was possible for me - even without the costly mistake of Friday night - and I was happy and proud. In the award ceremony, when they handed out 100-mile coins and my name was called, I jogged out from where I was sitting, bouncing Wilson to generate some smiles and laughter.

In a way, I even like the bitter-sweetness of the ending. My mind was already moving to lessons learned, things to do better next time. Next time? Yeah, I think, next time. There are many things that keep me coming back to ultramarathons in spite of the hard work of training for them and the pain of running them. Oddly enough, among them are the small regrets that seem to be an inevitable part of what you take away from each one.

"I could have done better here. I should have done better there." There is no perfect race - and there is only one way to prove that you could indeed do better.

I'm already registered for the 2015 3 Days at the Fair 72-hour.

Day 3: 51 miles. Three-day total: 148.
25th place out of 50 men and 32nd in the total field of 68.

If you are not already far beyond your interest level in this thing, I have one more post with afterthoughts, aftermath, and lessons learned. :)

Continued in Part 4...

(Photo credit - Tom Bushey)

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