Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Me and Loops

"What is it with your husband and loops??"

My wife was asked the question by a coworker right before I ran the Mt. Tammany 10 - ten circuits of a four-mile loop course up and down Mt. Tammany in western New Jersey (I only made nine). Of course the reason for the question involved more than that. It was not the first time Karen had informed coworkers that she would be taking time off to watch and assist while I ran around in circles. Four miles was actually a bigger circle than usual.

My love affair with loops began three years earlier, the second year I ran ultramarathons. Like most new runners dabbling in ultras, I came into it thinking it was all about the trails. All of the biggest races were on trails! Well, except for Badwater... and the biggest ultra in the world (Comrades)... and the longest ultra in the world (the Sri Chinmoy Self Transcendence 3100-mile)... and Spartathlon, and... lots of races. I got hooked into the community of ultrarunners through the Ultra List - an old-fashioned email Listserv populated by a lot of old-school ultrarunners whose experience long predates the trail running boom of the 1990s. I was on it, soaking up the wisdom and history, for two years before I ever ran an ultra. I soon learned that the record times for all race distances were set on roads or tracks - and that in fact nothing other than course records can be set on trails, because of the impossibility of certifying trail courses. In the same way that list denizens 'spoke' in oblique references about a little-known trail race in Tennessee called "Barkley" they whispered of another epic Tennessee race, on roads, called "Vol State."

The weirdest-sounding things they talked about - which I had no prior inkling even existed - were these 'timed events' or more properly (since all races are timed) "fixed-time events." I started hearing of 12-hour races and 24-hour races, 48-hour and 72-hour races, and the grandaddy of them all (gulp) 6-day races. In 2010 I followed the annual (now biennial) 24-hour world championship - at which trail running legend Scott Jurek set an American Record in Brive-la-Gaillarde, France, on a 1.4-kilometer road loop. I was awake more than I was asleep at home that night, glued to my computer clicking 'send/receive' in my email client, keeping up with the analysis and commentary on the unfolding race by people who had been watching and racing events like it for upwards of thirty years. It was mesmerizing.

Dipping in a Toe

Two years later, a list acquaintance (and now a good friend), Dan Baglione, challenged me with this: "Expand your experience. Run (and walk) on a short loop (400 meters, 1 mile) for hours or days. Even I don't get lost in such events." I already knew Dan as a lover of the "Across the Years" fixed-time race in Arizona, and his passion for that ("I hope to still be doing ATY 72 when I'm 90") had strongly influenced me. I was already registered for my first 12-hour.

It was a little local race called "Mind the Ducks" in May, 2012, and the course was a half-mile paved walking path around a duck pond in a small city park. I only had a couple of trail 50Ks under my belt by then, but was registered for a big, tough trail 50M later that year. I thought the 12-hour in the spring might be a good way to feel out going farther and, if things went well, maybe even to get that first 50M early. The race gave me both. I reached the 50M mark with just time enough to add one more loop before collapsing into a heap on the side of the path, and I learned a lot.

Surprisingly, it had been the most fun I'd had yet at an ultra. Not an overly social guy by nature, I had loved the camaraderie of suffering on that little loop. I had loved being able to watch the better runners work, to see the lesser runners' determination, to spend time chatting with, encouraging, and receiving encouragement from so many of my competitors. I loved convincing myself to go around just one more time - over and over again - until time ran out. It was, indeed, an expanding experience. Skeptical going in, I had found so many unexpected reasons to like it.

From the Kiddie Pool to the Open Ocean

The next year there was no Mind the Ducks (the race had to be canceled) so it would be two years before I returned to the format. That year though (2014) it wasn't Mind the Ducks. The hushed talk of Vol State had hooked me, and I was registered to run it that July. It would be three hundred and fourteen miles across the state of Tennessee with a ten-day time limit - and I still had never run farther than that fifty-plus miles at Mind the Ducks, or for longer than the almost sixteen hours it had taken me to finish the trail 50M later that year. I thought getting some prior experience running for longer than a day just might be a good idea, and several veteran "Vol Staters" had spoken of a race in New Jersey where they had done such preparation. It was called "3 Days at the Fair" and it offered a variety of races, all on a certified one-mile loop at the Suffolk County Fairgrounds.

I ran the 72-hour race - and my experience expanded by another order of magnitude. It was Mind the Ducks amplified. Everything I liked about Mind the Ducks was there at 3 Days at the Fair, but more and bigger. There was running from morning until night - but then running through the night and seeing the sun rise again (three times). There was the ebb and flow of people coming and going from the course through countless cycles of work and rest. There was learning to manage my own life for so long within the strange, alternative universe of a multiday. The camaraderie of shared suffering that lasts for days is far deeper and more lasting than what I had experienced before. Everything was bigger.

I made it to 148 miles that year, and I went back again in 2015 and managed 183. Later that fall I did another fixed-time, multi-day event on another one-mile loop. In that one ("A Race for the Ages") I had 54 hours and I managed 122 miles. It was the following spring when I ran Mt. Tammany, sparking that perplexed query to my wife, and since then I've run another 12-hour (54 miles for an age group win) and a 55-hour race (151 miles) - both on short loops.

Four days from now (as I write this) I will be returning to 3 Days at the Fair to run in their inaugural 6-day race. I will get to spend twice as long as ever before on that one-mile loop that I have already circled 331 times - and I can hardly wait for it to begin.

So what is it with me and loops?

I've thought about the question a lot and while there are many aspects of the format that I find appealing I've decided that the core of it for me can be summed up in the word "simplicity." Life is complicated, with many things grasping for our time and attention. Normal vacations are great, but they can be complicated too - where to go, how to get there, what to see, where to eat, and so on. Once the race begins on Monday, and until it ends the following Sunday, there will only be one concern in my life: going around another time. The real world with all of its complications will no longer exist for me. Only the loop will exist. Oh there will be things to think about and things to manage, but they will all be in service of that single imperative: go around again - and everything I may need to help me do that will be within easy reach, every mile. No other race format reduces distance running so much to its bare essence: just how far can you go?

I will watch the sun travel the sky. The light will wax and wane. People will come and go. Other events will take place at the fairgrounds, and the people involved in them will rise that morning in anticipation, come and enjoy themselves, perhaps have a nice dinner somewhere on the way home, and will retire with the memories of a good day replaying in their minds. I will have been there since long before they woke and will still be there long after they've gone to sleep again. Other groups than theirs will come and go on other days and I will be there, going around the loop.

It is simple. It is selfish and it is decadent - taking this much time to disconnect so completely from everything else - and I love it. I love the pain and I love the challenge. I love learning things about myself and figuring out how to get better at this, how to do more. I love it that people think I am crazy for doing it. Most of all though, I love that it is so very, very simple. That is what it is with Karen's husband and loops - just in case you wanted to know.

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