Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

ARFTA - A Race for the Ages 2

"Mama says, 'Stupid is as stupid does.'" - Forrest Gump

Grinding it out again under the Tennessee sun.
(Photo credit - John Price)
I was pleased when Laz chose to sit down with me as I was finishing up my breakfast coffee on Sunday morning at ARFTA. He's a popular guy and everyone wants to be able to spend some personal time with him. We chatted a little about this and that. It doesn't matter how much more tired he may be than you are, he's always got a gleam in his eye and something witty and interesting to say.

I'd been in a low spot for, oh, a couple of hours. The last decent lap had been number seventy-five, and it had taken me almost two and a half hours to go just five more. Even the solid nap I had taken had been no help at all. No running was going on now; just slogging around the Dead Man Mile like it was named for me, trying to get a few more miles done before packing it in for a big chunk of time to go hide from the coming afternoon heat (and also to sleep - and I mean really sleep - a lot). I was betting on a little food and caffeine to just get me through until I could say I had done enough. In short, I was miserable.

There was that gleaming eye sitting across the table though, looking at me a little bit expectantly, it seemed to me. "He's hoping I'll come up with something witty to say too," I thought, resigning myself to spending the energy to try. I had to give him something, and all I had to offer up right then was my misery.

"I don't know what it is about this race in particular," I said, "but more than any other race I do this one puts me in a mindset where I say to myself, 'You know, I don't really even like ultramarathons. Maybe I should just never run another one.'"

The joyous cackle told me I had hit pay dirt. Laz loves hearing stuff like that from his runners (as long as it's real - and believe me, that was). It tells him he's accomplished his goal. He's given someone the opportunity to truly overcome, to go beyond perceived limitations. As much as the admission that I was suffering amused him, what he'd really be looking for afterward was the way I'd respond to it. Would I wilt, fold, give in to weakness - or would I rise to the challenge? I think Laz deeply enjoys watching people go through the process of making up their minds which it will be. 

He might even deserve the title 'sadist' that some have, with varying degrees of seriousness, applied to him - but for this one redeeming fact: he's always rooting for you to rise.

The Stupidest Ultramarathon

Ultramarathons are stupid. Anyone who has never run one just knows that intuitively. Anyone who has run one knows it experientially. Smart people learn from experience; ultramarathoners do not. Hence, by at least two different lines of reasoning, ultramarathoners are provably stupid. Few ultramarathons though are as stupid as "A Race for the Ages" (ARFTA) - or have stupider people running them.

With respect to the people, a very high percentage of runners in this race have been running ultramarathons for thirty years or more. I'm going to go ahead and rest my case for the stupidity of ARFTA runners right there on that point alone. As for the race? Well... here is a map of the course:

ARFTA Course Map
Now you're going to have to blow that up to see the things I want to point out, but here's what to look for:
  • See the slightly winding path near the top, just to the 'southeast' of the text? That's where the only shade on the course is.
  • That winding path is entirely made of concrete.
  • See all those places where the arrows denoting the course go through an area labeled, "Parking?" That's right: for most of the course you are running through paved parking lots and along the paved roads interconnecting them - all of it exposed to the sun.
  • Speaking of the sun, this course is located in Tennessee - and Labor Day weekend is still summer. Temperatures on those parking lots in the afternoon are going to be, um... warm (and you don't get heat without humidity in Tennessee).
  • Finally, the whole course is only one mile long. Not an ultramarathon distance, you say? Well no, it isn't - but if you go around enough times...
Now let's consider those people again. Why do you think there are so many old people who have been running for so many years at this particular race? It's because each runner gets one hour for every year of their age in which to go around this course and try to do as many miles as possible! What we're really talking about here then is a bunch of stupid old people running around in circles in a sun-baked parking lot for as much as three-and-a-half days (along with at least a few stupid younger people who, if they don't do this race too many times, might one day grow up to be stupid old people too).

I think no one with even a smidgen of rationality would argue at this point that I have failed to make my case that this is (by far) the stupidest ultramarathon.

The Stupidest Ultramarathoner?

That's me before the race, looking like I think I might not be stupid.
Karen knows better.
(Photo credit - John Price)
Perhaps you gleaned from the account of my conversation with Laz that this was not my first time at ARFTA. This was the second year of the race and I have been there both times. I'm far from alone in that though, so I guess I can't claim to have been the absolute stupidest one there. Reason would dictate that would be the oldest runner who had been there twice. I won't name names on this point, but he knows who he is. It's only a small matter of degree anyway. Anybody who's been there twice is certifiable.

Anyway, I had gone ahead and signed up when registration for the race had opened. Once more Karen and I would fly from Syracuse to Nashville, rent a car, and drive the hour it takes to get from there to Manchester. The travel was only slightly eventful. Hurricane Hermine was approaching Florida, and thunderstorms delayed our arrival in Atlanta, pushing back our connection to Nashville - where we arrived with barely enough time to pick up our car before the rental place closed for the night. We were mere seconds away from having to spend Thursday night in the airport terminal.

As it was we got to Manchester at about 2:00 AM Friday - starving - so after making sure we did have our hotel room we went to the Waffle House, got some food to go, and headed over to Fred Deadman park to say hello.

That's right! At three o'clock in the morning on Friday the race was already on (had been for about four hours, actually) and there were people to see. 85-year-old Dan Baglione already had eleven miles by then, and we got to see 81-year-old Bill Dodson start. Bill, it turned out, would lead the race for a very long time, setting an age-group record for 48 hours along the way to completing 125 miles.

Getting Situated

L-R: Me, Karen, Lynnor Matheney, Sherry Meador, Sergio Bianchini,
not sure (maybe Steve Durbin?) and Laz.
(Photo credit - Deborah Scharpff-Sexton)
The late arrival wouldn't have me starting in too deep a hole, thankfully, because we'd allowed an extra day in our schedule. At my tender age of 55 I would not start until 5:00 AM on Saturday. All we had to do on Friday was set up my camp and procure some supplies. The rest of the day would be about hanging out, meeting people, and watching the old guys run.

I packed along a camping setup this year - including a tent, sleeping pad, my U.S. Army issue 'woobie' (a quilted poncho liner that infantrymen use as wrap, blanket, pillow, padding - who knows what else, but a really handy, versatile piece of kit) and not just one but two packable camp chairs - all of which fit into one of our large, wheeled duffel bags (along with still more stuff, like extra running clothes, shoes, and equipment). With this I would not be reliant on being able to claim one of the designated resting spots on the floor inside the Ada Wright Center (race headquarters for the duration) which were available on an age priority basis.

We pitched my tent in a little spot underneath the big tree right next to Ada Wright, near Don Smith (a friend we'd met last year), Newton Baker, John Izzo, and a few others - a very nice neighborhood, and my stuff was only a few steps further off-course than it had been last year. That done, we hung out a while, then went and had lunch at the Coffee Cafe (which always slightly confuses me by NOT being a coffee shop - it's named for Coffee County, where we were) and from there to the Sonic for some milkshakes, including a peanut butter one for Dan Baglione.

A few hours later we left again to go to the local Walmart for our perishable supplies and some throw-away coolers in which to keep them. For me we picked up some Milo's sweet tea (okay, a gallon - I love the stuff), some Gatorade, and a few Starbucks Frappuccinos. I'd had a case of Orgain nutritional shakes drop-shipped to the hotel. We also picked up a few food items for Karen (who needs to eat gluten-free and finds it helpful to have some handy snacks she can eat in situations where food sources and timing can be a little unpredictable). They didn't have any of the cheap Styrofoam coolers left, so we had to spend an extra $20 on a little Igloo wheelie cooler we would use for the weekend and then give away to somebody.

We took the stuff back to the hotel to put most of it in the fridge there until morning, then we had an early dinner at the Crack (Cracker Barrel - where I tried not to overeat) and we were back at the hotel and asleep before 9:00 PM, which would give me a pretty good night's sleep before my start, along with a pretty decent recovery from the short night the night before.

Breakfast Meat

5 AM doesn't net you a very good start photo. :)
Up a few minutes before my 3:30 AM alarm, it was no trouble getting ready and arriving at the park in plenty of time to get chipped and ready to go. Without too much fanfare, our little group of five fifty-five-year-olds entered the course just upstream of timing - fresh meat for the grinder.

One of the unique, fun aspects of this race is that everyone gets at least an hour to be among the youngest and fastest runners on the course (well youngest, at least). You get to go whizzing by all of the plodders out there like you're some kind of amazing athlete - and then when you run out of gas you get to transition right away into being one of the older, wiser runners looking disdainfully at the new meat whizzing past you.

"Hah!" you can say to yourself, "They'll lose that lively bounce soon enough." Then you can get back to figuring out just how you're going to keep going for another couple of days...

My Strategy

Me and Bill Schultz - managing some day.
(Photo credit - John Price)
I meant to take full advantage of whatever cool hours the first morning afforded me. Whether each runner knows it coming in or not, one question looms large before them in this race, and requires an answer: "What are you going to do about the heat?"

I'd heard it said that last year's temperatures had been unusually hot, so I had held out hope for months, as I'd considered my approach to the race, that this year would be different - and it was. It was hotter. Forecast afternoon highs for Saturday, Sunday and Monday were for the upper 80s - minimum. In reality they would top out in the mid-90s. Since the race ended at noon on Monday we wouldn't have the worst of it that day to deal with, but it would be plenty 'warm' out there on all that exposed pavement by 10:00 AM each day.

I meant to go out 'hard' at my 5 AM start and try to get near 50K before the heat of the first afternoon. Usually I run/walk in these races from the beginning, but knowing I'm a stronger runner this year I resolved to go out in my common training pattern of run two-and-a-half miles, walk half-a-mile - except here I modified that to run two miles, walk the uphills in the third mile.

In reality I couldn't count and some of those twos turned out to be threes. I ran quite a few 10-something minute miles, which is historically fast for me in a multiday. I hit twenty miles at 3:49 and twenty-five at 4:58 - at which point I took my first break off my feet. By then it was past 10:30 AM and it was already very hot, so I just ran/walked everything after that, netting about sixteen-minute mile pace, until I logged mile 32 at just past noon. 50K-plus in 7:04:10 - boom!

By then this piece of wisdom from the veterans was being repeated often enough on the course that I'd already heard it more than once: "Manage the day; own the night." If there is a one-strategy-fits-all approach to ARFTA this is it. I heard it straight from Bill Schultz toward the end of the morning, and when I asked him what would be a good strategy for 'managing the day' he made it clear his plan was to sleep through it - going inside at noon where there was air conditioning, eating a good meal and hitting his cot.

Manage the (First) Day

You're not likely to get better advice on running a multiday than any that you can get from Bill Schultz, so when I finished up mile 32 at 12:04 I went inside to eat, took my time about it (meals are one of the best times to meet and talk with some of the other runners) and then headed to my tent for a 'siesta.'

I think I told Karen I would try to sleep until 3:30 PM and then get back out on the course to walk until it really cooled down. Reality was it had only been nine or ten hours since I got out of bed that morning and even with 50K on my body I couldn't sleep that long. I did get about a one-hour nap, but then it seemed more time in the tent would just be wasted, so I got myself up and ready, grabbed my sun umbrella, and got moving again at about 2:30.

You'd think the extra time would be productive. It was incredibly hot out there though, and I was poorly heat-acclimated. The summer had been hot in New York State this year too, but by the time that started up there I'd already run three races in less than four months - including my big goal race for the year - and I'd been tilting the scales toward rest and recovery through much of July and August (except for running a 12-hour night race at the end of July). I'd only barely run 100 miles in August - and I'd avoided the really hot days! I called it a 'rest peak' for ARFTA. It had not prepared me to run in the heat though.

Me and fellow Vol Stater Garry Price.
(Photo credit - Ray Krolewicz)
I only managed about ten more miles by 6:00 PM when the heat of the day really began to dissipate. It still may have been the best use of that time given that I couldn't sleep more, but I'm not entirely sure.

Own the (First) Night

(Photo credit - John Price)
After some slow miles interspersed with rest breaks toward the end of the hot afternoon, I came alive again in the cooler temperature after 6:00 PM. It was really pretty remarkable to me how I perked up even with over forty miles on my legs. I 'banged out' six quick miles at 13:00-14:00 pace, then settled into some cycles of two or three 'fast' miles (as quick as 11:00 pace) interspersed with walked miles at 17:00-18:00 pace and an occasional longer sit-down-and-rest lap. This carried me through 100K at about midnight, at which point I took a short nap, and then resumed the pattern and kept it going until mile 75 at around 4:00 AM.

Somewhere along through here I zipped past Bill at the turnaround and had a little fun with it: "Own the night, Bill! Own it!" I said. Wish I could remember what he replied. It was fun.

I'd been hoping to get to 80 miles by my 24-hour mark but it was clear by then that wasn't happening. Just as suddenly as it had arrived, the energy disappeared. Sleepiness settled over me like a wet, heavy blanket and there seemed to be nothing I could do about it. A little caffeine from the Starbucks Frappuccinos had helped some to that point, but nothing seemed to work now. I took a little sit-down break in mile 76, but got no help from it. I was still just sore and shuffling like a zombie - so I decided that I would hit the tent and try a fifteen-minute nap.

Usually it takes me a little while to get comfortable enough to fall asleep, but this time I set an alarm on my phone, propped my legs up on my duffle bag, laid back and "beep-beep! beep-beep!" The alarm was going off! I'd never had zero sense of time passing before in my life - even while asleep (well, except one time I was knocked unconscious and a couple of times under anesthesia).

I rolled out, put on dry socks and shoes, and hit the course yet again, but it was like I had done nothing at all. I was still dead on my feet and falling asleep. Four more laps got me to 80 by about 6:25 AM and I decided to head in for some breakfast and a cup of coffee.

So that's how I ended up with Laz sitting down with me. After my admission that I was not in a very good place right then he wanted to know what my plan was for the rest of the race. I figured I would go back out right then and push my mileage up as much as I could - maybe somewhere near 90 - before the heat of the new day set in, then have Karen take me to the hotel for a shower and some real rest through the afternoon. I would come back and get back on the course at around 6:00 PM with eighteen hours left - and I figured I should be able to get another fifty to sixty miles in that time. Laz being Laz, he figured I ought to be good for more like eighty or ninety.

Manage the (Second) Day
or Crew Sucks (Bless their Hearts)

Karen, my best friend and second brain.
(Photo credit - John Price)
After about an hour off course for that breakfast, I went out and managed a couple of reasonable miles - but that was it. I went right back to dead and walking after that.

Karen showed up at some point soon and I started in to whining and moaning about how miserable I was, how hot it was getting, and how I just wanted to go back to the hotel and sleep. I made it to 86 by about 10:00 AM and figured that would do but Karen was hearing none of that! 10:00 was too early to pack it in as far as she was concerned. If I quit then there was no way I'd sleep all the way until 6:00 PM when it really cooled off and I'd be back out there in some of the worst heat of the afternoon.

She was right, but I didn't want to hear it. Each time I came around she kept browbeating me to go back out for one more, enlisting Mike Melton, Mike Dobies (in the timing tent) and Val Aistars for support. "Time to put your big boy pants on," Melton hollered at me. "Hey, Pat, you want a little cheese with that whine?"

At one point Karen shoved an Orgain into my hand and said, "Here, drink this." I didn't want anything, but she insisted. It perked me up enough to transform me from walking dead into contrary curmudgeon. The next time around I swore to her: "I'm going to get blisters on both feet just so you'll feel really bad about all this!" It says a lot about how much Karen has learned about this sport that she was able to analyze the situation and make the right call - and confident enough about it to stick to her guns in the face of such resistance from me.

The last four laps were like 20:00-plus, but finally (mercifully) I was at 90 miles, it was 11:30, and everyone agreed I could quit. Karen drove me to the hotel, I took a shower (OMG was that good!) and I crawled into bed. It took quite a while to fall asleep, but eventually I did and slept pretty well - in two or three solid chunks interspersed with eating stuff - until around 4:30 or 5:00.

I decided I was done resting and called Karen to let her know. Turned out she was downstairs in the hotel lobby reading, so it took little time for her to arrive to pick me up. A little tape, a little lube, some fresh clothes (which seems strangely optional to me ever since Vol State) and I was ready to go.

Karen reported that it had reached about 95 degrees Fahrenheit out there. She had returned to the park and spent a little time in the timing tents, but even under the shade had nearly slipped over the line into heat exhaustion (Karen seems to have poor temperature regulation). There had never been a better-timed need for rest in my brief history of running multidays! Now it was time to find out how much good it had done me.

I logged mile 91 at about 6:10 PM, so I was right on track with the plan I'd explained to Laz. It was still quite warm, but the edge was off. I had a little less than eighteen hours left in which to work and I had 150 as my goal - essentially an eighteen-hour 100K at the tail end of a 55-hour effort.

Six o'clock was the time another feed from Patch Manor (the race's caterer) arrived at the Ada Wright Center, but I chose not to go right in. I'd eaten quite a bit at the hotel room, so I thought I'd let the rush happen without me, take advantage of the sparsely-populated course to log a few more miles, and then maybe stop in to find something to pick at later.

Going in with the crowed right when the meals show up is a great way to socialize, but it's also a great way to spend extra time that could be used for running. I made a quick pass through later, grabbed a plate of something, and ate it on the walk during the next lap. I would not sit down in Ada Wright again until the race ended.

I spent the first hour doing some easy run-walk laps in the residual heat, easing my body back into the work again. By that point the sun was fully set and the temperature had really cooled. I had placed a big bet on the long afternoon of rest and it was time to really go to work and find out if it would pay off.

Own the (Second) Night

Laz monitors the race
(Photo credit - Ray Krolewicz)
I'd always heard there were times when things just come together in an ultra - when it's just your day and it's not clear why and you don't ask questions. You go with it. I had one of those times that second night at ARFTA. Once it really cooled off I decided to try the pattern I'd been using at the beginning of the race and I spent the next roughly eleven hours clicking off another forty miles in clusters of two or three run/walked at around 14:00 pace and one walked at 17:00-18:00 pace.

At times I wondered if I really needed those walks, but I said to myself, "Don't change anything. This is going too good to mess with it."

Karen stayed late into the night feeding me my drinks when I needed them. She knew it was going well too, and was reluctant to leave me without support. I have this memory of coming through timing one time in the dark, in the wee hours, and Laz was out there along with Karen. He spent a lot of time during the race monitoring the live updates on one of the computers set up inside, and had noticed me working my way up through the field. "There's a bunch of people just ahead of you you can catch if you keep pushing," he offered.

One thing Karen didn't have down as crew was tracking my position in the field and feeding me competitive intelligence - not that I really worried too much about that. I'm still a bit newly-minted as an ultrarunner and not that used to the idea that competition can be between anyone but me and my own limitations. "I'm just out here trying to get as many miles as I can," I said - and headed right out for another. All I knew how to do was do the best that I could and let the competition fall out however it would.

Eventually Karen had to leave. If she didn't get some reasonable sleep that night she'd be in no shape to drive us back to Nashville the next day. Self-supporting wasn't too hard though. I'd just hit my cooler on one of my walk laps (we'd repositioned it out close to the course), down a few calories, and still get the lap done well under 20:00.

The wheels had to come off eventually though (I guess) and they did on mile 136. My left calf had been occasionally threatening to tighten up on me and it finally did. About halfway through the lap it brought me up walking and was right on the brink of seriously cramping on me. I hated to do it, but I took the opportunity to bail on the lap where the course passed the back side of Ada Wright and hobble over to my tent to sit down to rest, hydrate and try taking an S-Cap. I did some gentle massage, and maybe dozed a few minutes.

It was about 7:00 A.M. on Monday. The race would end at noon, and of course I still had 150 in mind as a goal. There would only be a few hours until the sun was once again baking the pavement on the course and the final miles would be a slow, painful slog whatever the total. I needed to see if I could baby the calf, keep moving reasonably well, and get as many miles done as possible before that happened.

I got up and headed back out to pick up the course where I'd left it with the idea that I would just gently jog anything flat or downhill and walk anything even slightly uphill. Between that, the rest, and maybe the electrolytes, the calf stayed happy enough and I finished 136 and managed six more miles at around 16:00 pace before the oncoming heat, the long night's work, and the accumulated mileage finally brought me down to a walk.

The math looked good. An uncomfortable stroll, hiding from the sun under my umbrella, was still netting me around 20:00 as an average pace. I had a little over 3:20 left until the race ended at noon and only eight miles to go. For anyone math-challenged, that meant I had about a forty minute margin at 150 miles. All I had to do was keep moving.

It sucked. There is just no better way to describe it. Each lap seemed to take forever (in reality the longest took only about twenty-two minutes) and each decision to go out for one more seemed more monumental than the last. Each step was pain, the sun bore down on me relentlessly, and fluids didn't set well even though I needed them.

One thing kept me going: 150. It crept closer each time I came down off "Mount Deadman" to the timing gate, and I'd seen so many even tens go by just by staying on my feet moving forward that I knew this one would too despite the suck.

Then there are the people. Shared suck. It's what bonds us as ultrarunners. Most everyone else was out there gutting it out to the very end too. In spite of the misery a cheery sense of optimism tends to set in at this point in a multiday. The end is in sight, and getting there seems certain. For most, goals are either all but in the bag or out of reach. People tend to relax and begin the post-race socializing early. Case Cantrell came out and joined me for my last few miles and I really enjoyed his company.

Case (l) and me, bringing it in.
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)
148-became-149- became-150. Done! - except there was still more than half an hour on the race clock and Mike Melton immediately started in to nagging me about doing an 'insurance lap' because things happen with timing and the results wouldn't be official until he reviewed everything and wouldn't it be terrible if there was some error and I actually came up short and... yada-yada. Okay! I'll go around one more time! Case went with me again, bless his heart.

I left 10:27 on the clock at mile 151 and have never regretted it (much).


This is what happiness looks like after you've been running for two-and-a-half days.
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)
The post-race feed and award hand-out was a good opportunity to talk with and congratulate a few people and begin the process of unwinding. Most of the people attending are crippled and exhausted but they've all come to party, having already shared an intense experience for several days, so there is no 'ice' to be broken. It is a good time.

The noon finish (along with a next-day return flight schedule) made for a very pleasant and gradual return to normalcy. Dan Baglione didn't have a car and Karen and I had committed to give him a ride back to Nashville on Tuesday morning, so we left the park together, dropped him at his hotel and made plans to get together later for dinner at the Crack. Dan is so great. I have no idea how much pain he was in. I think he had some pretty bad blistering going on in one foot, but his top concern seemed to be not being any inconvenience to us.

After a shower and a welcome afternoon nap, we collected Dan again and had a very enjoyable dinner together, where we bumped into John Izzo and Newton Baker right afterward. We were all very happy to see Newton, who had been the one this year taken away from the race by ambulance after suffering some vertigo and a fall. Apart from a few lumps and scrapes on his face he seemed good.

The drive back to the Nashville airport next morning went very quickly with Dan's company and conversation, and we stayed together through check-in and security. Dan spotted Bill Dickey, a friend from California, along the way so we got to meet him as we strolled together at post-ultra walking pace to the point where we finally had to separate down various concourses to our departure gates.

Travel home was entirely uneventful, and another great ultra experience began to settle into memory alongside the many others.

Dan and Bill.
How many people passing by would guess they had just run 102 and 114 miles, respectively?

ARFTA Effects

As I write this, it has now been over six months since ARFTA 2. The reasons it has taken me this long to finish seem obvious to me, but non-rational. I was fine within a week, and had most of this written, but in that week two things happened that have made it difficult to finish and publish my usual routine story of a race.

The race ended at noon on Monday, September 5, 2016 and in the very early morning hours of Wednesday the 7th Laz posted to the ultra list to let everyone know that Stu Gleman had died. He had been battling some type of cancer for as long as I'd known of him.

By Laz's account, Stu knew that the end was approaching. His doctor had cautioned him against participating in an earlier race, fearing that effort could kill him. Surviving that, he had come to ARFTA. In his post, Laz shared Stu's now heart-breakingly poignant words to him from before the race, saying:

"what i remember most were his words a few days before the race.
ARFTA did not fit easily in his schedule, but 'it is important that i come.
i have friends who will be there,
and i need to tell them that i love them.'"

If any but Stu knew just how close he was to the end I am not aware of it. He came and he raced and he suffered and he laughed and he shared stories and he encouraged other runners and he cheered them on. I had not often seen him in person before, but he seemed Stu.

Dan and Stu
(Photo credit - Ray Krolewicz)
In a monumental and inspiring effort for a man of his age and in his state of health, he logged one hundred and ten miles in his seventy-one hours of allotted time - then he went home, checked himself into an emergency room and less than forty-eight hours after the race had ended he was gone. Stu chose to spend the last of himself doing what he loved with people that he loved.

If you are on Facebook, the full text of Laz's post "Savor the Moment" may be read there while he sees fit to leave it. It is well worth the small time investment.

Stu's passing was not the only blow to fall within the week following the race though. There is more. Thursday morning I woke in bed as usual and, after I had moved around enough to convince Karen I was awake I heard, "Patterick? I think there's a tick on my leg."

She had felt the lump high on her thigh in a place she could not see well and had lain quietly in near-panic for fifteen minutes until I had stirred. She was certain she would become ill. Clearly the tick had been there for several days at least (she had to have picked it up sometime during the race). I exuded my usual calm confidence that everything would be fine while I located my 'tick key' (a  removal tool), popped it right off her, and put it in a zip-lock bag. That would be that, I was sure.

Little did either of us know. She began to feel sick that day and, in short, she is still sick today.

We wasted weeks dealing with our general practitioner and an infectious disease specialist she referred us to, neither of whom were remotely prepared to deal with a tick-borne illness. At one point I pushed Karen out of the ID guy's office in a wheelchair because she was barely able to walk and had barely made it all the way in from the parking lot on her own power - while he figuratively threw up his hands and passed us off for a hematology consult in case she was developing some form of leukemia (from a tick bite, I guess).

Here is the most important piece of advice I can give anyone who spends time outdoors: if you are bitten by a tick and begin getting sick, get yourself to a Lyme-literate physician (LLMD - you can Google it) as soon as you possibly can. Karen is now the third individual I personally know whose life has been put completely on hold by an infection contracted from a tick bite. The diseases are nasty if not treated early and aggressively, and regular doctors follow CDC guidelines that are INADEQUATE FOR DEALING WITH THEM. I know, I know: if you are a rational, scientifically-minded person your BS detector begins blinking anytime someone starts talking about how 'mainstream medicine is misdiagnosing/mistreating blah, blah, blah...' Believe this one. Please.

Since we've been seeing an LLMD (at a practice three hours from our home) we have finally gotten Karen on an excruciatingly slow upward trend. We bought her a Fitbit to wear so she can make sure she doesn't do too many steps each day (in 2015 she walked a 50K in less than 48 hours). Last month she started doing a two-minute workout every few days with two-pound weights (she used to be able to do a hundred swings with a 44-pound kettlebell) and she's now moved up to five pounds. She's now able to do a few things without wiping herself out (and I no longer have to do absolutely everything).

Things have finally started looking pretty good, and she is about to begin transitioning off the cocktail of antibiotics she's been taking. Again, it's been over six months since she became ill, and it's not too hard to believe it will be many more before she's completely better - and she may never again be one hundred percent what she was. The highest number her doctor has ever been willing to mention as a possibility is ninety. We're getting close to that now.

All this - Stu, Karen, the whole thing - has made me think a lot about the relative unimportance of this nutty hobby I've spent so much time and energy on in the past soon-to-be eight years. I'd already started this report with the 'stupid' theme - and then all this. Stu died. My life-mate and very best friend became seriously ill - supporting me at what I want to do. My racing has been self-centered, my accounts of it focused too much on me, on what I did, on how I felt.

How many times did I pass by Stu on the course without saying anything, intent on my effort or thinking him intent on his? Who else's struggles did I miss, did I race by, oblivious?

Ah, it's just life! Life is struggle, life is unpredictable, and even death is part of life. We are meant to live life while we can. I'm pretty sure Stu understood that way better than I do. But there's something else Stu knew (and Karen knows) that I am still ever so slowly learning. Life is about the people you live it with. Stu needed to spend his last good time with people he loved. Karen supports me in this thing she never imagined us doing - because I am her main 'people' and it doesn't so much matter to her what we're doing as it does that she's doing it with me.

...and I am the thick-headed dunce who thinks it's about running really long distances.

Well it is... and it isn't... and I'll probably never get it completely sorted out in my mind. I know this though: I'm going to keep on living while I can - and I also know that what that means is that I will do things with Karen, and I will continue to try more to appreciate all of the other people that Karen and I do things with - whatever those things turn out to be in the days and (maybe) the years to come.

Stupid can always choose to do something different.


  1. Hi Patrick, I enjoyed doing some miles with you and am so sorry that your wife has been ill with tick bite. Your blog was entertaining and educational regards Lyme disease, see ya sometime !!John Izzo

  2. Thanks, John! I enjoyed your company on the Dead Man Mile too. See ya out there on the ultra circuit somewhere!

  3. I loved reading your ARFTA report! You did great, Pat!

  4. I am so glad that Karen is making progress. Writing this report must have been a painful reliving of those early weeks. Thank you for sharing your experience both on the UL and here, Pat. It can't be easy to talk about it.