The North Coast 24-Hour Endurance Run (NC24) in Cleveland, Ohio made a spectacular debut in its first edition on October 3–4, 2009. As host to the USA Track and Field/American Ultrarunning Association national championship, it drew a total of 107 runners: 82 men and 24 women. That the venue provides a fast course for racing is evident in that the race attracted many of the best runners in the US, and that 41 of those runners ended their day on the road with more than 100 miles, a figure that I personally regard as outstanding.
The race is so named because Edgewater Park, in which it was run, is on the edge of Lake Erie, with virtually the entire US Great Lakes system lying to the north, west, and east. The park features a looped walking path, USA Track and Field certified to be 0.90075 miles long, with an asphalt surface in perfect condition, and only one moderately tight turn, a concern to faster runners at times they are running at top speed, which in a 24-hour race is not often.
A primary concern in selecting a venue is to find one that lacks hills. It should be as flat as possible—ideally, as flat as a standard high school track. But this is rarely possible, except on actual tracks, which are sometimes available, but which presents other problems. Therefore, close is considered good enough.
The path at Edgewater Park is about as flat as any runner in an event of this type could hope for. All such courses tend to have a “better” direction for running, even though on a loop the cumulative rises and falls cancel each other out. NC24 was run in the clockwise direction. The start is by the ramada on the west end, next to a large parking lot, just off a sandy beach. There is s slight rise on the northwest corner, a slighter but longer one across the north segment, followed mostly by gradual descents, with one shorter but steeper drop in the southwest corner just before returning to the start.
Having had the privilege of participating in discussions with the race organizers for this race since the beginning, I’m aware of the great care that went into selecting the location. The day before the race, we arrived at Edgewater Park to take a look, when I also took a few photographs of the course, and also compared the lower park immediately to the west, which the organizers also considered using. While the lower course is prettier in some ways, with a much nicer ramada, the path has some difficult turns, snakes around too much, and even has one place where runners would have had to cross over a segment of grass. It was immediately apparent to me that the organizers made the right choice to use the other one.
How It All Came About
At the end of 2008, for various personal reasons, I nearly withdrew from ultrarunning entirely. I still walk long distances faithfully, and was able to average around fifty miles a week in training most of the summer, despite fighting off a problem with plantar fasciitis. The condition required aggressive treatment with two cortisone shots and a careful but quick return to longer distances, but without any running. It was when I started to add running back into the mix last June that the problem began. My goal in training was simply to get to the starting line feeling healthy and ready to go 24 hours continuously.
Despite my intent to focus on other pursuits, including my job, I became involved in discussions about presenting a 24-hour race way back in September, 2008. While out walking on my favorite training paths, exploring an area near where I live, but previously unknown to me, I discovered a little area that I thought would be nearly ideal for a 24-hour race. Though I still knew very few runners in Columbus, I did know a couple, and through a fortuitous and timely contact with Dan Fox, who lived then in Cleveland, I connected with some local runners and pitched the idea of creating a 24-hour race here. Though there was some interest, and a couple of other possible sites were suggested, there was not enough critical mass available to get the project rolling, particularly inasmuch as I was not willing to be the one to do all the work myself.
Word got back to Dan Fox through his friend, Columbus ultrarunner Rita Barnes, who attended my local discussion. It turned out that similar efforts were being proposed by some runners in Cleveland, including Dan Horvath, Joe Jurczyk, Connie Gardner, Debra Horn, and some others. Discussions were still in the larval stage. These are people who regret the loss of the 24-hour race at Olander Park in Sylvania, Ohio, near Toledo, about 125 miles west of Cleveland, which many US runners remember as being one of the best races of its kind, but which folded when the race director would no longer work on it.
One factor that influenced the effort to put on the race was the experience of Cleveland ultrarunning legend Connie Gardner, who came within forty meters of setting a new American 24-hour record last year at the Ultracentric race in Texas. As the story came to me, she quit from exhaustion after being told she had the record. Later, upon re-measuring the course, they found it to be short, denying her the record. That had to be a crushing disappointment to Connie, and I have no doubt it has haunted her ever since.
Before long, the informal chat that went on among the Cleveland runners became more focused. I was invited—may have invited myself—to continue participating in the discussions. I made it clear that I was unable to accept any responsibility as an organizer, but based on my years of working with Across the Years, might have some stories, observations, and suggestions gleaned from my experience that might be useful. And so it was that I came to be a peripheral participant in the planning for the race, never really doing anything myself other than shooting off my mouth, remaining appropriately neutral as an outsider about decisions made, but keeping myself informed about the progress.
Originally, I did not intend or expect to run the race myself, but as things developed, I saw that because it was within reasonably short driving distance (about two and a half hours), it might be practical to consider. At the time I was working at a highly stressful job, which had detracted significantly from almost all the other things I wanted and needed to do at the time, particularly from giving attention to matters of personal health and fitness. In fact, the situation was spiraling out of control. However, I no longer have that job (at this writing I’m unemployed), so at least I have had freedom to train more. The main questions were whether I could get back in shape adequate so as not to embarrass myself at a race, and whether we could budget it. Both of those factors worked out favorably, so I locked the event in my schedule and began to plan—just like the old days.
In the end, other than my performance at the race, everything went as smoothly as I could ever have hoped for, and we had a rewarding and refreshing three days of vacation away from the turmoil that constitutes our current life situation.
Preparations and Gear
Making preparations to leave seemed simpler than usual for this race. One possible reason is that now that I have spent 31 24-hour days looping around a track, I’ve learned to be self-sustaining during the race itself. I don’t need and for the most part prefer not to have a crew, except I do appreciate it when Suzy is on site and will do me the occasional favor of refilling my water bottle or digging something out of my bag for me. But I would rather see her helping out the race as a volunteer than devoting exclusive effort just to me, because once I’m rolling, I don’t need it.
Therefore, for this race I took a minimalistic approach. Some runners show up to these races with elaborate tents, crews, and shelves of equipment and special foods. From experience I know that I have no need of a tent for only 24 hours. So I determined that I would make do with a gym bag containing plenty of warm clothes in case it got wet or cold, a Craftsman hard plastic toolbox I use in which to put stuff like bottles of electrolyte, ginger, caffeine, lubricants, tape, scissors, and so forth, and a collapsible camping table and chair. This is, in fact, added up to far more than I had available at the FANS race in 2004, where all the gear I did have sitting in a gym bag on a chair got thoroughly soaked by a thunderstorm, and was not useful to me.
I’ve see some runners burn far too much time fussing around with shoe changes, re-taping, changing clothes, napping, and just about everything they can think of other than actually moving forward. I’ve made all those mistakes myself. At Across the Years last year, which was my last race, I went 72 hours without changing any clothing except outer layers of sweatshirts and coats, depending on the temperature. I tend to wear more than most runners because I get cold easily, but at that race I never even took off my shoes except to get in my sleeping bag. Yes, I stunk badly enough to be a candidate for burial at the end, but I’d saved a lot of trouble and time.
Therefore, even though I brought extra clothing to NC24, I dressed in the morning in what I intended to wear for the duration of the race, and that’s exactly what I was still wearing at the end.
Suzy lined up a couple of errands she wanted to run to stores in the Cleveland area the day before the race, so we left home at 7:15 a.m. on Friday morning (October 2). We had been watching the weather forecast all week. It poured rain all day long, with a couple of brief respites late in the afternoon and evening.
Our first stop was at Edgewater Park, where I was able first to locate and padlock the two portapotties at Dan Horvath’s request, and then walk the path slowly, taking photographs, including several that were off the course, from the nearby pier.
My first impressions were: the ramadas are funky; the whole park looks less than inviting on a soaking wet day; there are a few pretty views; the degree of rise and fall on the course would not be a problem for me, therefore even less so for any of the runners seeking to deliver superior performances; and the closeness to the lake is a pleasure to the eyes. I grew up four blocks from a beautiful beach on Lake Michigan, and also lived in Maine for a while, just a few yards from the Atlantic ocean, and love to see waterfront. We were also entertained by the presence of geese and gulls in abundance.
We headed next to where we would be staying, and returned in time for a pre-race meal at Porcelli’s Bistro in downtown Cleveland. Far more runners showed up than were expected—I estimate about forty—requiring the restaurant personnel to hustle hard to take care of us, and taking a little longer than normal to get everything ordered and served. The staff did an outstanding job, and the food was delicious. They probably didn’t make much money from alcohol from this group, but I’m sure they were happy to have the spike in business.
I had hoped to be in bed around 8:30. Even with the delay I was able to pull the covers up around my nose at exactly 9:35, had the alarm set for 5:35 a.m., and slept like a baby until 4:15, but continued to rest quietly until the alarm went off.
My morning preparations, which I now have down to a science, went quickly. We arrived at the park by 7:25, in time to find a choice location to set up my aid station, though in truth there is so much available space that there is room for every person participating to stake out a large and comfortable personal estate, with no limitations on size.
One of the greatest pleasures of any of these races, because the number of runners is small, so that in time you get to know a lot of them, is to meet new people—in this case, I especially enjoyed pre-race socialization with Stuart Kern from Maryland, and Columbus runners Kathy Wolf and Mike Keller, with whom I’d exchanged several rounds of email, but had never met in person. Also, I was at least able to touch palms with ultrarunning’s current rock star Scott Jurek on his way in. We had exchanged email a few times in 2007 when he signed up to come to Across the Years, but he was unable to make the race, so we never met.
The Race Progresses
Following a brief pre-race informational meeting, the race began precisely at 9:00 a.m. as 107 runners set out on their journeys. The skies were gray and threatening most of the day, and it even sprinkled just a few drops barely a minute or two before the start—possibly our Creator’s way of warning us that if we really want to do this, we’re on our own. It never did rain during the race, and temperatures remained in the range of roughly 60 during the day to 50 at night. By about 8:30 p.m. the clouds even broke, and we were treated to the sight of this season’s Harvest Moon, accompanied by an extraordinary shimmering glow. Whenever the moon was out, the light was bright enough to cast shadows. While a very few runners wore headlamps for night running, I can’t imagine what they thought they needed them for, as between the moon and surrounding lights there was plenty of light to run by all night long.
The conversation between runners at every long distance race I have been a part of goes through a series of distinct phases:
Here We Go: Silly quips, mostly about how long the race is. “Are we almost done?” “Only 23:55 to go!” This lasts between one and five minutes, long enough for people to have to start breathing hard, and realize what they have gotten themselves into, when they would rather save their breath for something more intelligent.
Races We’ve Done: “So, I did Leanhorse two years ago.” “Well I did Comrades this year.” “That’s great. I ran Hardrock.” “I ran the Hardrock course in 1926.” “And I ran Hardrock in 1925 while carrying a piano on my back.” A little intimidating oneupmanship can sometimes be leveraged to a strategic advantage, even at this stage of the race.
The Strategy and Gear Phase: “How often do you plan to walk?” “Are you going to go straight through or sleep some?” “What are you drinking?” “Do you tape your feet?” “I think I may have forgotten to screw my head on right.”
The Serious Phase: “Grunt.” “Shut up and leave me alone.” “Maybe if I just put my finger down my throat I’ll feel better.” (Been there, done that.)
The Reduced Expectations and Rationalizations Phase: “Well, I was really hoping to break Kouros’ record, but short of that, I’ll be happy just to stay out here a while and avoid getting injured.”
The Late Night Phase: “Where’s my Mommy???!!!”
The Race Phase: Except for the leaders, most people really have no idea where they are in the standings until sometime near the end, when they might take a look to see if there is someone nearby they can overtake, or someone just behind who is a threat. The last part of a fixed-time race, from about thirty minutes out, increasing in intensity until the very last second, is when the runners still on the course put forth their hardest effort, when little conversation takes place, because too much heavy breathing precludes it.
Lynn did not race. I lost count of my laps after four, and never had the slightest clue how far I’d gone or where I was in the standings, other than being certain it was way far down the list, until I got back to a computer after the race.
I’ve been working on a method of walking that looks a lot like slow running, the sort real old guys do, or runners who are completely depleted, except I do it when I’m fresh, and on purpose. It requires leaning forward, letting my arm swing determine the cadence, and just relaxing. Once in a while I start to slump over, like someone who is utterly exhausted, but if I remind myself: This is not running! This is walking!—I can take immediate steps to straighten up, relax, and concentrate only on my turnover and avoiding dragging my right foot, something I’ve always done, but can do less if I concentrate. Unfortunately, I don’t have this technique down to where I can continue this motion hour after hour, but when I do it, I can sustain about a 14:00 walking pace, as contrasted with about a 17:00 pace if I just walk along normally. (And a lot slower later in the race.)
I’ve never had any kind of speed, but at times have been able to demonstrate fair endurance. My goal at the start of the race was to maintain forward motion, and not to take any breaks other than at the portapotty and whatever brief moments are necessary to stop at the aid station to pick something up, or at my table to grab my water bottle, take a couple of big gulps, and put it down again. In the past I have almost gotten through an entire 24-hour race without any sort of breaks—but not quite—and at three 100-mile trail races I got beyond 24 hours, once to 28 hours before having to drop, without needing to stop and sit except for rapid maintenance, and without extreme problems of sleepiness.
But at NC24 it was not to be. I felt perfectly fine for a long time, but by about twelve hours, I started to drag, and decided to take a caffeine tablet. When I use these in training (infrequently), they prove either to be a miracle drug, or they will have only marginal effect, and may irritate my stomach. At least I know that I was faithful about drinking, taking electrolyte, and eating, as I would grab something to eat almost every lap, making sure to get variety in my choices—fruit, pretzels, M&Ms, soup, sandwiches, pizza, macaroni and cheese, and cookies all come to mind as being on the menu for the day.
And so it was that at NC24 I went 14:30 without a single rest stop, but by the last lap before breaking, I was sure that if I tried to go another without a rest I would have taken a dive in the grass somewhere along the way.
I don’t know what my problem was other than I’ve just lost too much of the fitness I once possessed, which wasn’t exactly world class to begin with.
Reluctantly, I plopped myself in my chair, shut my eyes, and slept uncomfortably for a while. I brought no blanket or tent, so all I had to keep me warm was a large bath towel.
When I awoke, I promptly rolled to my left and experienced about five minutes of dry heaves. Fortunately, nothing came up. Strangely, this is sometimes the best thing that can happen to a person with an upset stomach. I felt much better after that, and got up to start walking again, but was still sleepy.
Two slow laps later I went down a second time, then walked two more laps and went down a third time, that time for quite a while.
After that I was all right once again, and continued on without further breaks until the end of the race. But this period of distress lasted the entire graveyard segment of the race, from 11:30 p.m. until 5:00 a.m.
From then until the end was just a matter of getting it done. I enjoyed watching other runners, particularly the leaders, who were running with such focus that I didn’t dare to utter more than a word or two as they flew by. Sometimes I think I’d like to punch out the lights of the next person who says “Good job!” or “Looking good!” or the one I really hate: “Hang in there!” I got that last one less than two hours into the race. Did I already look like I was on my last legs and just needed to keep clinging for another twenty-two hours? I certainly didn’t think so.
We were able to get credit for a final partial lap. White lines painted on the path were pre-certified as lying exactly in 100-yard increments from the start. At the end of the race a signal sounded, everyone still on the course stopped where they were, and threw down a stick they had been given about a half hour before the end with their number on it. Afterwards, a volunteer came by, picked up and recorded the sticks and gave credit up to the last 100-yard segment completed, tacking that total on to the number of laps run times 0.90075 miles.
I had misunderstood the segments to be a tenth of a mile. I ran rather than walking the last two or three minutes of the race. When I passed one marker with 30 seconds to go, thinking I could not get another tenth of a mile in 30 seconds, I pulled up and walked a bit more, but when the horn sounded I was not very far from the next mark, and realized that if I’d run it I could have made it past one more mark. That’s when I realized they were not a tenth of a mile apart.
My total official mileage was 60.98045 miles, which I can comfortably round up to 61 miles for the purposes of conversation. If I had logged the extra 100 yards, most of which I did in fact actually run, it would have brought me to 61.03727 miles, which I would rather be able to round down so as not to be guilty of exaggerating my already meager accomplishment.
This figure constitutes a personal worst for me at 24 hours by a margin of 15.33 miles. Here is a list of my distances for all the 24-hour races I have run.
|Across the Years||12/31/99||81.52|
|San Francisco 24-Hour||10/20/07||76.31|
|North Coast 24-Hour||10/03/09||60.98|
Although not everything went as expected during the race (“That’s why they play the game,” as Chris Behrman likes to say), there were some outstanding performances. Following are a few comments and anecdotes about various runners that I know, listed in finish order.
At the pre-race dinner we sat at the same table with Phil McCarthy from New York and five or six other people. Phil and the others talked about running; he sounded completely prepared. Should we call this listening session the McCarthy Hearings? Phil ran steadily the whole race, always alone, because no one else could run that fast, winning it and the national championship with 151.52 miles, along with a cash prize of $900.
John Geesler, from Johnsville, NY, is the Across the Years poster boy. We particularly like one shot from last year, when John stayed on the course despite being injured, and spent some time doing laps with Gavin Wrublik.
John has had some great days, and a couple of bad ones. His race at NC24 was superb, where he ran hard at the very end to come from behind and take second place by a tenth of a mile in the last lap, with a total of 139.41 miles.
Dan Rose, from Washington, DC, is the one John beat. Dan finished third with 139.28 miles.
For me the highlight of the race was watching Jill Perry from Manilus, NY run the best looking race I’ve personally witnessed, winning the women’s race, championship, and prize money, with an outstanding 136.33 miles. Her running was smooth as glass the whole way. She told me after the race she had to take a break to tend to some physical problems, and also threw up once. Jill is a beautiful and shapely lady. Imagine my surprise when I learned she is also the mother of five children! Now I’m really impressed. A little research turned up that Jill has some sort of sponsorship deal with DryMax socks.
Cleveland area runner Debra Horn, who was on the 2009 U.S. Women’s 24-Hour Run National Team, which won the silver medal at the World Championships, turned in a remarkable third place finish of 128.93 miles, behind Anna Piskorska of Blandon, PA, whom I did not get to meet.
John Geesler’s friend David Putney, who did well at Across the Years in 2007, finished NC24 with 124.68 miles.
One of the great performances of the day was by Dave James. His 100-mile split was an almost unbelievable 13:06:52, but then he backed off and finished the race with 119.80 miles. His pace for 100 miles was 7:52.12. That’s thirty seconds per mile faster for 100 consecutive miles than I have ever run any single mile in my whole life.
At times we could hear Dave coming up behind and requesting the inside lane, which I’m sure most runners were willing to yield. On one occasion, going around the sharp turn, where there is sand to the right and also a drop, he tried to squeeze by on my right, but since I don’t wear my hearing aids when I run, I didn’t hear him coming on that occasion. I’m not deaf—I just didn’t realize he was nearly on top of me, and he almost wound up doing a head-first into the sand.
I guess the lessons we can learn from that experience is that the only proper way to pass, as on a highway, is on the outside, unless a runner is already well over to the left; and just because someone requests the left lane does not guarantee he will get it.
I mentioned Connie Gardner earlier, who also did a lot to help with creating the race. There was no opportunity for me to say hello to her beforehand. Once it started, Connie showed fierce concentration, and I didn’t want to interrupt her focus, but after a few hours I happened to be just behind her when she was walking a few steps and regrouping, so I used that opportunity just to introduce myself. She looked at me with a look that said: “So what?” Bad timing. I said I knew she was obsessed at the moment and asked her how it was going. She said it was going all right, but I had seen that although she was running well by most people’s standards, she seemed to me to be struggling. By the end of the race she had 116.20 miles—certainly not the record she had hoped for, but I admire Connie above all for not quitting just because she wasn’t going to set a record.
In general, I tend to respect runners who show by their action that they recognize that in a fixed-time race there is no such thing as a DNF, and for better or worse, once you have logged one lap, you’re in it until the end, and whatever your total is, that’s how it will be shown in history. I imagine that for some runners that’s harder to manage psychologically than a DNF.
I recognized Frederick Davis from Cleveland, because he ran the 72-hour race at Across the Years in 2002. When I said hello, his first words to me were, “You’ve put on some weight!” Busted. Frederick is about six feet and 140 pounds himself. He wanted to know if I’d been injured or just quit. It was helpful that he offered a menu of options. Right then wasn’t a good time to expound on my life history and present circumstances, so I gave some weak excuse.
Ray Krolewicz from South Carolina may have run the most ultramarathons of anyone in the last thirty years, and he used to win an awful lot of them, too. He finished this one with 105.39 miles.
Dan Fox recently moved his photography business to Seattle. As one of the people who sparked the creation of this race, I’m glad he was able to return to run it. He ran most of the way with Rita Barnes, getting 101.79 miles, and Rita got 100.88 miles.
In fact, five runners got 100.88 miles indicating that all probably decided to go for 100 and quit. Good for them, but it seems to me if any had taken the trouble to run even a partial extra lap at the end, he would have bumped up his place in the standings by that many people. It is supposed to be a race, after all.
Don Winkley, who has run Across the Years numerous times, is one of the great runners of very long distances, including several finishes across the US and France, and a finish at the 205-mile Volunteer State trek across Tennessee last summer. Don is now 71, and finished NC24 less than half a mile under 100 miles. I saw him hauling butt at the end, too, so know he was going for it.
Leo Lightner, age 81, and from the Cleveland area, had an as yet unratified national age group record at 82.72 miles. Someone else set an age group record as well, but I didn’t catch who it was.
Scott Jurek is ultrarunning’s current rock star, and a legendary Nice Guy. He had an un-Jureklike day, quitting at 65.75 miles. As we were leaving I ran into him and encouraged him not to give up on doing a 24-hour race, since this is the third time that I know of where he has been entered but has not been able to perform up to his enviable potential. He laughed and said he wouldn’t give up, but needed to do one when he wasn’t tired. He ran another race not long ago (I forgot which one he said), and is still recovering from it.
Mark Godale, the current US record holder for 24 hours, came out of the chute like he was possessed. I learned later that he came not to run a full 24-hour race, but was shooting for a particular time at 100K in order to qualify for the National Team. I don’t know what his goal was, but by 57.65 miles he realized he was not going to get it, so stopped for the day.
Technically, therefore, I beat Mark Godale in a 24-hour race! And with a little more effort that was probably within my power to produce, I might have been able to beat Scott Jurek as well, because that’s how the game is played. In the end it’s not about how fast you ran at the beginning before blowing up and melting down, but about how many miles you log in 24 hours. So I beat. Sorry. 🙂 (But they know that.)
This report would not be complete without mentioning that US National Team doctor Andy Lovy showed up with six of his medical students, leaving him freer to run himself than he usually is at Across the Years, where he is a fixture, and along with John Geesler (and me), is a 1000-mile jacket owner. Andy, who is now 74, got 38.73 miles.
And So …
In January I thought my ultrarunning days were over. And maybe they are, but at least I managed to pull one more race experience out of the hat. When it was over I was a little stiff the rest of Sunday, but slept well and was able to spend seven hours on my feet visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Monday before driving back to Columbus. My plantar fasciitis did not flare up, and my blisters and other foot problems were so minor as to be insignificant.
There is something powerfully attractive about ultrarunning that draws me to it. With each race it remains to be seen whether I will ever do another, but I remain interested in the sport, so I suppose that as long as there are opportunities for me in it I will continue to return.