This, my longest race report ever, is the story of my last race—Across the Years 2008. Whether the title means “last ever” or simply “most recent” you will have to read to find out.
Were I to list the ten most rewarding things I have done in my life, involvement with Across the Years would be among them. It started when I first discovered the race in progress and met Paul Bonnett on December 31, 1998; then trained for and ran the 24-hour race in 1999, even writing a 300-page book “Running Through the Millennium” about my experience. In the years that followed I increased distance and improved performances, peaking in 2004, when I reached my all-time PR of 188.12 miles, and concurrently became deeply involved—at my own invitation—in the presentation of the event as webmaster, records keeper, historian, advocate, and enthusiastic spokesman.
This race was my tenth consecutive time at ATY, the last eight all 72-hour efforts, as I couldn’t dream of not being there to run it on a day when the race was going on. Being a part of the race organizing committee has been my way of assuring that the race continues to get better, and that I had a place in it.
It gives me an overwhelming sense of pride to have been a part of creating something of genuine quality. If, when talking about ATY to others, I tend toward hyperbole, it is because I believe that of its type ATY is the best in the world, and will continue to get better with each edition.
Because I now live in Ohio—and so does my wife, which was not true at this time last year, as she remained in Phoenix until August, selling our house—I had to deal with getting to this run as most people do, no longer able to bring a carload of stuff the day before, sleep in my own bed the night before, and have my wife come out to haul my aching butt home on New Year’s day. I almost decided last spring not to run this year. At the same time I was also battling depression over making adjustments to living in this new place, worrying over how long it would take before Suzy would be able to join me, and whether my decision to move to Columbus had been all wrong from the start.
In the end, it was Suzy who convinced me that I should go, confident that the technicalities would work out just fine. Once I made a firm decision to continue, I never wavered from it.
Training for the race was another matter. I’ve since learned that I can run and walk comfortably for hours with temperatures in the lower twenties, as long as it’s not also wet or icy. But until June I had no viable indoor alternative either for long runs or midweek training, as I had during the hot weather in Phoenix, where a stop at Bally’s for an hour or so after work was as much a part of my day as brushing my teeth.
In June I joined Athletic Club of Columbus, which I’ve dubbed Fancy Dan’s Sweat Emporium. While the club itself is lovely, with many amenities, and a seven minute walk from work, for all its great expense (a perk from work that I don’t pay for myself), it’s really more like a country club in the heart of downtown. As a workout facility per se, it’s a pretty poor excuse for a gym. Frankly, bargain basement Bally’s was an order of magnitude better, and I miss it.
In addition, my job presently inflicts chaos on the rest of my life such that I have been unable to form a routine where I can exercise regularly. I get out most Saturday afternoons for a longish run, at least ten miles, usually longer, nine times in 2008 further than a marathon, including one exuberant late November walk of forty miles, and a 50K race three weeks later, just two weeks before ATY. In 2008 my total mileage for the year added up to 1063.93 miles, slightly less than half of my average of 2130.87 for each of the preceding ten years (1998-2007). When I consider that both the current president and president elect of the United States both insist on making time to work out daily, it makes me wonder what I’m doing wrong.
Run? Did I say run? Hah! Well, that’s another problem. Between age, rapidly becoming a GBF (Great Big Fatso—I’ve gained about fifteen pounds since arriving in Ohio in November, 2007), and a loss of enthusiasm for breathing heavily, my running has gradually become mostly walking. Two months ago I finally made a big decision: Beginning January 1, 2009, I would officially dub myself an Urban Walker, having learned to enjoy cruising through the neighborhoods of Columbus last spring and summer, becoming familiar with my new place of residence, and looking for locations I might like to live.
Even so, I will sometimes refer to myself as a runner, or at least a mostly-walker, as I never want to shut the door on the possibility of running if the urge strikes, me, as it still does once in a while.
Go West, Old Man
Having lived in Phoenix for almost thirty years, we have many dear friends there, none closer than our non-running friends Nathan and Sheryl, who have been like family to us. I made arrangements with them to be picked up at the airport on Sunday, be hauled out to Nardini Manor while I set up my gear, stay with them that night, be dropped off before 8:00am on race day, be picked up at the end of the race, and to be taken to the airport at 4:30am on January 2nd. Major problem solved there.
We left my tent and related camping gear in Phoenix with Paul Bonnett, who delivered it to Rodger Wrublik, who in turn stored it for me at Nardini Manor, and left it in my favorite spot, ready for me to set up.
After erecting the tent and organizing the gear, my first order of business was to inspect the improved digs, while greeting all my old friends who were pouring in. As I explained to my friend who brought me there, when you’re an ultrarunner you get to hug a lot of women.
Rodger has widened the track, cleared out the oleanders on the south side, opened up the dogleg, created a climate controlled timing booth, and a second computer area for displaying the leaderboard, handling the webcam, and gathering and printing messages for runners, so as to leave the computers in the timing booth dedicated to that activity.
All the changes brought operational improvements. My personal favorite, one I thought at first I would not like, was moving the timing area close to the entrance of the tent, which now makes it possible for runners who go into the tent not to have to worry which way they were running when they left the track.
The only problem with the changes I noted was that the leaderboard seemed to be crashed much of the time, although I believe it was working fine across the Internet, as long as we didn’t drop our net connection, and that the leaderboard was a bit hard to read, being projected on a screen fairly far to the left of the track, and partially obscured by the computer area tent and a tree. Because the page necessarily displays a lot of data, it has to be shown in a smallish type face. Despite wearing glasses, I have decent vision at distance, and was able to read it adequately, but had to stop and stare at it for a few seconds if I wanted to study it or find someone in particular. I’m sure anyone with vision problems must have found it difficult to read at all. But the overwhelming advantage is that we now have a real, dynamically updated leaderboard that displays also on the Internet. Hooray for that, and for Dave Combs, who wrote that particular piece of software.
Another change of note is in connection with sanitary conditions at the race. Last year a nasty form of flu spread among runners and others in attendance, and many got quite sick. It’s impossible to know exactly what happened, but when you have 110 runners and volunteers running around for days being grungy and stinky, and using portapotties and not taking showers, you have a scenario for disaster.
This year runners were reminded always to use the hand sanitizers provided in the portapotties. Food service volunteers served everything wearing latex gloves, and rather than having community banquet bowls that people dipped their hands into, all food was served in little cups and individually measured portions. It made for more paper and doubtless greater expense, but improved the conditions greatly. It’s wonderful to see that even in this area Across the Years takes steps to do things the best way possible.
I was in bed by 7:15pm Sunday night. With my body still on Ohio time, this was not too early, and remarkably, I slept like a rock for ten and a half hours, probably thanks in part to indulging in a glass of fine shiraz with my dinner of talapia with mixed brown and white rice, a luxury I have only once before allowed myself before any race. In addition, I slept eight hours the night before, and nine and a half the night before that, so was well rested at the start.
It was chillier than predicted on race morning, though at no time was it as bad as last year.
Due, I suppose, to temporary pre-race nerves, I briefly lost my mind twice in a row.
The first was when I could not locate my Bag Balm. Upon giving up, I asked ATY nurse Chris O’Loughlin whether he thought I could get along without it. I’ve become lackadaisical about following sensible workout practices recently. But Chris warned me not to do anything to upset my usual routine or it would bite me in the end. My feet were already pre-taped, and I had on brand new Injinji socks (the kind like gloves, with little sleeves for each toe), so I took them off, applied Andy Lovy’s special blister formula that Chris gave me to both feet, and laboriously replaced my socks—a job made especially difficult for me because of recent back problems.
At the end of the race, I had not changed either my socks or my shoes even once, and had no sign of a blister anywhere. I’m sure I’ve never gotten to the end of such a long race with my feet in such good shape.
When I returned to my tent, which I searched through twice for the Bag Balm, there it was, sitting in exactly the place it was supposed to be. Why I did not see it I will never know.
At 8:30am Paul Bonnett called the prerace meeting to order, and as he started naming people who have had something to do with presenting the race, I heard my name called, and some minor cheering (aw, shucks), but was not present to acknowledge it, as I was once again in my tent, turning it upside down again, this time looking for my transponder, starting to get desperate. I finally found it the third time through, sitting face down in the bottom of a workout bag. I had been looking for the yellow flash of chip cover. By this time it was 8:50am, and I had nothing more to do but stand around, making nervous jokes with everyone else, waiting for the race to start.
I took the first lap so easy that I stopped to take pictures. This silver anniversary event needed to be recorded for posterity.
My plan was to allow myself to run if I felt like it, but to walk almost the entire time. In this I followed the example of numerous other regular walkers: Eric Poulsen, Bill Dickey, and especially Ulli “the Walker” Kamm, who has been walking 100-mile races for forty years, and to whom I talked at length during the race. Ulli finished the race at age 61, with over 204 miles, his fourth 200-mile-plus finish in four tries. He wryly claims never to have run a step in his life except once when he tripped. So I figured if I just followed him I’d be fine. This proved to be a bit more difficult than it might seem at first.
My first day was quite good, the day I made my greatest progress. I didn’t stop for anything, sitting down for the first time (except for one potty break in the afternoon), at 10:30pm. I had entertained ideas of continuing without a break all the way through the night. I always think that, and have come very close to doing exactly that in other races, such as at FANS 24-hour in 2005 when I rested only 12 minutes at 4:00am, but did not sleep. At Leanhorse 100 in 2007, the only sitting or “resting” I did was at the turnaround, and that was only to change my socks. When I finally fell apart at 96 miles, it was 28 hours into the race, and sleepiness had never been an issue.
But this race, passing by the entrance to the tent every five or six minutes, I had to sleep, so I went in and took a nap. My split times indicate that the lap time was an hour and forty-one minutes, which includes time for the lap itself, and also fussing around in the tent with clothing and gear. Often I sleep sitting in a chair with a sweatshirt between my head and shoulder for a pillow, in order to avoid having to lose time getting undressed and dressed again, which is exactly what I did on this occasion. Believe me, it’s not hard to do, and it also makes waking up and getting moving again much easier.
Sometime after 2:30am, I took a second nap about the same length. The splits data is missing for that period of time for reasons I have not as yet heard. This time I laid down on top of the sleeping bag and under a blanket, with my shoes off. That rest sufficed to get me through most of the remaining part of the first 24-hour period, though my splits indicate I had a 48-minute lap starting at 6:18am.
Initially, I hoped to get 78 miles for the first day, which was unrealistic, but later I was certain that over 70 was in the bag. If I had not stopped to sleep, I doubtless would have made that. Instead, I adjusted my goal down to 60 miles, and technically made it. At 8:58:31am I completed a lap with 59.962 miles, with about a minute and a half left to go another four hundreths of a mile, which is only a couple hundred feet. I’m certain that I covered at least double that before the second day started.
The temperature dropped to near freezing the first night, colder than predicted, but somehow it seemed not nearly as bad as last year, when it caused some people to pack up and leave early.
Second days are always hardest. My strategy for running 72-hour races has been to run a 24-hour race the first day, followed by a recovery run, followed by another 24-hour race, where I give everything I have left. The splits for most 72-hour runners I’ve looked at indicate this is the pattern almost everyone follows, whether intentional or otherwise.
The entire second 24-hour period I was plagued by an unceasing desire to sleep. It pretty much ruined any possibility of a good performance I might have yet entertained. It would be difficult to tell from the split data exactly when I went down, but I’m certain that I fell asleep and woke up again no less than eight times this day, and perhaps as many as ten. While the sleep itself is pleasant, it’s the waking up and starting to move again that is difficult, often exacerbated by having to warm up again upon stepping outside. Nothing I tried could shake it—including drugs (caffeine), or even actual sleep, as my splits show a parade of sluggish laps followed by breaks of anywhere from twenty minutes to 2:23. Even that long rest was followed not long afterward with one more short nap before I finally broke the cycle. At least the night hours were considerably milder than the first night, with a low above forty degrees.
I had wanted to get 50 miles on the second day, but convinced myself to be satisfied if I could finish it over 100 miles. This much I did accomplish, with a 48-hour split of 101.594, a second day total of 41.632 miles.
When the third day dawned I somehow felt much better, and was optimistic that 150 miles was still within my power if I could just keep at it.
The third day at Across the Years is a study in contrasts as some of the faster 24-hour runners with aspirations to win their race show up, and find the track to be an obstacle course littered with the carcasses of nearly catatonic 72-hour runners who can’t remember the last time they had a shower or the names of their children, or which planet they come from.
There was only one reason I didn’t get to 150 miles: I didn’t want to badly enough. As I thought through the history of my own performances on this course, looking also to the future, I realized that my best years are behind me, that although I’m no elite runner, I’ve done well, have learned and shared a lot with others, and have nothing at all to be embarrassed about regarding my own record, and nothing more to prove to myself or others.
So on I plodded, doing nothing spectacular, and nothing foolish, enjoying the show unfolding around me, chatting with friends both old and new.
The onset of nighttime at ATY, particularly on the third day, as the new year approaches, evokes a gradually increasing sense of celebration. Darkness settles in, and suddenly balloons and decorations appear in preparation for the mini-party at midnight. Perhaps if all New Year’s Eve parties were as short and restrained as ours, the number of road fatalities that occur each year on this night would drop dramatically.
The ambiance at ATY must be experienced in person to be appreciated. I’ve never found words adequate to describe the visual impression left upon me by the corridor from the driveway past the curve to the aid station, with its special lighting at night. There are lights along the path. The gazebo is lit decoratively. There are lights coming from the big tent, and some from tents in the yard. The big displays that show crossings and the leaderboard are like drive-in movie screens, and there are lights coming from the aid station, timing booth and computer tent. Each object pops out against an otherwise black background, provoking a surrealistic sensation that one has stepped into another world. I described it to someone as like being inside a jukebox or a pinball machine, who in turn said: “It’s almost like reality!”
When midnight arrives, among those who are inclined, hats go on, a big hurrah goes up, the champagne (or sparkling cider) goes down, the horns go toot, everyone goes around the track for a single lap in unity, and fireworks go off, as volunteers in the open fields surrounding the Manor attempt to light them without blowing themselves up.
The next time they pass through the timing gate is when the real race begins, the last nine hours of do or die.
At least that’s when it begins for some people. Not for me on this year, because that’s when I decided that rather than pushing for 150 miles I would just go to sleep. Lap 410, begun at 12:08:44am, was over five hours and twenty-two minutes long. I awoke from a too warm sleeping bag to find that the temperature in the big tent, which this year fluctuated from too warm to marginally warm enough, had dropped, and found myself shivering violently in the cold, as I fumbled around desperately for first my headlamp, then my clothing.
But that rest set me up for the hours before dawn, although I did take another short break of twenty-eight minutes at about 6:30am. After that it was time to kick to the finish.
It gets light in Arizona a little after 7:00am this time of year. We don’t see the sun for a while at the Manor because of the mountains to the east. Mike Melton suggested maybe next year Rodger ought to work on blowing a hole through those mountains so we can get another fifteen minutes of sunshine. I told him I’d pass on the suggestion. Hey, Rodger has me convinced he can do anything, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him find a way to do it.
The end of any fixed time race is always the most fun, as exhausted runners come in, find they don’t have enough in them to squeeze in another lap, so take a place near the finish to cheer in those who remain, while others, spurred on by the cheering and the advancing clock, reach deep inside to pull out just one more, ending performances that have already been extraordinary in a sprint, amid enthusiastic cheering.
I finished my own last lap with 3:55 to go. A sub-4:00 lap is far from impossible for me when I’m fresh, but the last two hours of the race, pain in my back left me slumped forward and almost unable to stand at all, just as it had done at Leanhorse a year and a half ago. Despite this, my last three or four laps were among my fastest in the race, as I exerted myself to kick my mileage up to the next whole number. And so I called it quits at 438 laps: 219.0 kilometers, 136.080 miles—a personal “worst” by 6.21 miles.
Despite my aching back, I finished the race with no physical problems at all. Not only did I have nary a sign of a blister, I avoided the chafing that often comes on other unmentionable body parts. Maybe that just means that I didn’t work hard enough. I wore the same pair of socks the whole race, and old shoes that must have had 800 miles on them at the start of the race. I no longer track shoe mileage, and just wear what I’ve got until they’re ready to fall off my feet. Over the years I’ve become less of a gear freak and more like some of the old timers who used to do it the hard way—and they liked it that way. I haven’t quite become like Bill Dickey, who walks in what looks like a pair of Bermuda shorts, a white shirt, and a golf visor, but I also know that wearing cool shirts that say Patagonia and Montrail across the front, along with expensive shades, vests, and double water bottles, in imitation of some of the more idolized trail runners does not make one a fast runner.
Anyhow, almost every piece of casual clothing I own now has “Across the Years” written on it somewhere, and I need to wear that stuff out before getting more.
In 2008, 119 people logged laps at Across the Years. As usual, ATY 2008 was less about races and records than about the individual stories of those who ran. I’ve told my tale here, and a few others will contribute their own on the lists or on their blogs, if they are inclined.
Some people who stood out in my own mind were these:
- John Geesler, who ran well for a while, then suffered a heel spur and was able only to limp the last couple of days, but never gave up. Also, John was universally admired for doing several laps with seven-year-old Gavin Wrublik, encouraging him, but never pushing him. (The truth is, in John’s state at the time, Gavin could have run rings around him in a flat out sprint.)
- Christopher O’Loughlin, the ATY nurse, who customarily takes a lot of time dealing with other people’s comfort issues, had to push very hard at the end, but on his last lap, completed enough mileage to earn a 1000-mile jacket, with seconds to spare.
- The young runners: Aaron Doman, age 13, who got 100 miles in three days, Gavin Wrublik, age 7, who got an amazing 50.642 miles in three days; Gavin’s five-year-old nephew Cayden, who got 17.088 miles in three days (and I think did not start until the second day); and Ethan Pence, age 11, who got 40.078 in 24 hours. To those I should add Catherine Cuda, age 16, already a national USATF junior record holder for 100k, and who has run every year except one since she was ten, completed 50 miles in 11:14:03, then went on to add to that, for a total of 69.283 miles for the race before succumbing to blisters and sitting out the end.
- Ulli Kamm preached to me about the virtues of distance walking, and has made a born again believer out of me. He said that as long as he can walk 100 miles, he doesn’t care if some ignoramus regards him as a wimp for walking. He also talked about putting one’s accomplishments in perspective. He said: “One might think, ‘Oh, I got only 130 miles, I’m not very good.’ But how many people do you know who can walk 130 miles?” Thanks, Ulli, I needed that.
- Heike Pawzik from Germany, a one-time (and maybe current) world record holder has an ebullient sense of humor, and received one of the two special Zombierunner awards. She doesn’t speak much English, but has fun trying. I speak enough enough German to hold a conversation with someone who knows at least a little English. I told her: “Mein Deutsch ist ganz schlect!” (My German is very bad.) She responded with the delightful amalgam: “Ach! Mein Englisch ist even schlecter!” The afternoon of the first day she ran up from behind and said to me: “I am seeing—so many beautiful young woman—they talk—to you” Well, I do get around. (Maybe they know something? Where were they all when I was a young and single musician?)
- Christian Griffith from the Ultra List was excited about ATY for months, but sent his beautiful family off to Flagstaff for some skiing while he ran. When they returned the third day, he left to go hang out with his wife, but then felt guilty leaving the race before it was done, with the best part yet to come, as he was yet to experience, so turned around and came back. I’m looking forward to reading his summary.
- Jamie Huneycutt, whom I knew only from her ATY biography, ran the 48-hour race, passed me about a million times, and every single time told me I was looking good. What? Was I wearing a mirror on my behind? Jamie won the women’s 48-hour race with an outstanding 160.003 miles.
- Matthew Watts reminds me of a locomotive when he runs. He must be about six feet four (and his wife Ann over six feet herself), and being primarily a mountain runner, runs with an unusually aggressive arm swing and a huge stride, at least two times the length of most typical ultrarunners who look like Peter Rabbit hippety-hopping down the bunny trail in teeny little steps. It’s an awesome thing to behold when he’s headed straight toward you, as on turnaround laps. Matt finished the first day with 117.128 miles, meaning that Wendell Doman had to push hard until twenty-two hours and forty minutes into the race before finally overtaking him for the win.
- I am continually impressed with the abilities of 21-year-old Nick Coury, a speedy runner who finished fifth at Hardrock last summer. I admired his maturity for pulling out and switching to volunteer mode with his mother when, even though he had the lead in the 24-hour on the first day, sensed something might not be just right, so stopped at 55.613 miles only 11:16 into the race rather than ruin himself for training ahead.
There are many other tales to be told, some of them even better, and in singling out these, I don’t mean to exclude anyone.
Last June I made a decision that the 2008 race would be my last time at Across the Years, both as a runner and as a volunteer organizer. My reasoning behind this decision falls far outside the scope of this report. As much as it pains me to do so, I’ve concluded it’s time for me to move on to other things. My biggest regret will be leaving behind the many people I have come to regard as friends, and may not be seeing again, particularly co-core committee members Paul and Rodger and Frank and Dave.
My career at Across the Years ends with a total of 1491.413 miles. If I had realized I was that close to 1500 miles, I surely would have sacrificed a bit of sleep the last night to get it. Of that total, 3090 laps, 1545 kilometers, 960.02 miles has been run on the track at Nardini Manor. I remain the only person to have run every day of every running event ever held at Nardini Manor, which includes at least three all-night 12-hour runs. That streak will finally be broken the next time there is a run.
I was, I believe, the fourth person to cross the 1000-mile lifetime mileage threshold, or possibly the third, within an hour or so one way or the other of Martina Hausman in the 2005 race.
As I reckon it, my ATY mileage leaves me in fourth position on the lifetime mileage list: behind the unreachable Harold Sieglaff (2426.22 miles); and the unstoppable Martina (the Terminator) Hausmann (now at 1847.031, still 579.19 miles behind Harold, and likely needing three more races to catch him); and now 18.31 miles behind John Geesler, who skipped (or in this case limped) ahead of me despite his bad foot; but about six miles ahead of David Upah, who barely needed only to show up and run an hour or so to stay ahead of me, but he didn’t come this year, so I remain locked in at fourth for this year.
Whether ATY 2008 becomes my last ultramarathon race ever remains to be seen, but at this writing I have no plans to do another. It is remotely possible that I may take one more crack at Leanhorse 100, if I can swing the training and the logistics. I loved everything about that race, except for the part where I collapsed by the side of the road four miles from the finish, leaving me with unfinished business in Hot Springs, South Dakota, and motivation to return. Zombierunner Don Lundell confirmed that I have a standing invitation to call upon him to accompany me once again in that effort, an offer that is difficult to pass up.
Also, there have been rumblings here in Ohio recently of starting a new 24-hour race. I myself found an ideal location, and know of two others that would be good, so pitched the idea to some local runners last September. Meanwhile, there is also a group near Cleveland that has been talking about having one up that direction, and although plans are still in the larval stage, there is some interest. I could be persuaded to do a 24-hour race if it was not too far away and if it was at a time of year when I wouldn’t freeze my keister off at night.
But the 2008 race will almost certainly be my last Across the Years, as I feel I have done all I can do there, and it’s time to move on. It was not an easy decision to make, but is a carefully reasoned one. No one does the same thing his whole life. Even Shakespeare did more than just write plays and Beethoven more than write music. For me it is time to take up new pursuits that have begged for my attention. To quote one of my favorite twentieth century artists who was also known for making a change in his career path:
“I just had to let it go.”—John Lennon, 1980