Swan Song Is As Swan Song Does

NorthCoast 24-Hour Endurance Run 2013

Picture by Jenn Goelnitz

Motivated by the principle that no news gets old faster than sports news, I figured I’d better bang out this race report for the NorthCoast 24-Hour Endurance Run that I ran in two days ago, before even I don’t care to think about it any longer.

One law of racing I’ve known for a long time became glaringly confirmed this weekend:

One’s performance rarely surpasses one’s training by very much.

The thrill of an event, adrenaline, and concentration can be the catalysts that move one to PRs, but by only a small margin of effort beyond what a person has been training for.

Furthermore, ultrarunning is a sport in which there is no faking it. It’s easy to show up at a starting line with a pair of shoes and shorts and figure you’ll gut your way through it. But if you don’t do the training, starting with a baseline of constant and consistent distance training over a period of at least a couple of years, building on that, then you will likely suffer and fail spectacularly, possibly even fatally. The long-term training is one thing I can claim to have done, and I have the records to prove it.

I’ve run every NorthCoast fall edition race. Last year I opted to do the 12-hour race for personal and practical reasons, but did the 24-hour race all other years.

Saturday morning, September 21, 2013, it was raining hard when I got up at four o’clock in Columbus. The rain continued throughout my two-and-a-half-hour drive, and into the first two or three hours of the race. It wasn’t raining so hard that it was impossible to function, meaning to drive and to set up my aid station. It got worse not long after we started running, but fortunately, the temperature was mild enough that nobody seemed to mind. In fact, it was mostly fun, but would have been a drag if it had gone on much longer.

Gradually, the rain stopped and the skies cleared off, except for one brief recurrence of the rain later on, and then another sprinkle that lasted only a minute or two in the middle of the night. But despite reasonable temperatures, the strong winds — which continued most of the night, bringing in whitecaps off Lake Erie that crashed dramatically onto the rocks — had an effect that caused some runners to wear more gear than you might suppose a reading in the fifties would demand. Depending on where you were on the course that you ran into it, the wind certainly also had at least some impact on progress. The blast coming around the southwest corner near the start was sometimes almost enough to stop me in my tracks.

At this writing, the final results have not been posted, but I know my distance was about 57.4 miles, plus or minus a tenth or two (and probably plus). This performance is not up to my usual standard, but neither was my preparation.

Until recently, for a dozen years or more I was able to average between 2000 and 2400 miles of running per year, much of that peaking during the summer months. A high percentage of that distance has been in long runs, and many of those long runs have been on short lap courses, delimited by the number of hours I was out rather than by some distance, thereby modeling the experience of fixed-time running. I’ve long believed that if you want to do well in fixed-time running, then that’s the sort of training you have to do.

This year, despite the best of intentions and motivation, the overall mileage in my training has dropped. Instead of summer months between 200–220 miles, my monthly mileage between April and August this year ranged (in round numbers) from 81 in August to 160 in June, an average of 128 miles per month. That’s not enough to support a good performance at a 24-hour race, not for me, and not for most other people either.

When I lived in Arizona, I stumbled into a good thing: a unique and life-changing sort of training routine that allowed me — a spectacularly ungifted runner — to develop the ability to participate in ultramarathons, and even to do well in a few of them.

But when I moved to Ohio, I abandoned a whole life that I had in Arizona, one that encompassed a great deal more than just running. It included a routine of working out and running that I’ve never been able to replace. That’s not to say that I’m not doing it at all or that I’ve given up. I’m out on the road almost every day, and in the gym about three times a week. But what I’m doing is just not enough nor of the right kind to enable me to keep doing ultramarathons.

This year extra complications have made matters more difficult. In addition to my working a bit more again than I had been for a while, Suzy had her second foot surgery in a year and a half in late May, and is still in a wheelchair today, meaning that I have to do a great many of the little things that need doing in a family myself that she would normally take on, and this has taken time away.

And as some Facebook friends and others are aware, we recently completed a massive kitchen remodeling job — not a mere makeover, but an outright gutting of the old, removing walls and building that part of the house from scratch, a job that touched five rooms and two hallways, and took eighty-two days of construction, plus the time getting it ready for demolition and the week it took to move things back in again. It’s done now, but that, too, took time away from other matters, including training.

And all through the year I kept hoping I might be able to shed a few more pounds than I did, which certainly would have helped my running. I did drop about five pounds, from roughly 202 to 197, but not enough to have a great impact on my running. And the older one gets, the more permanent one’s ugly, unhealthy fat becomes.

Not long after last year’s 12-hour race, which for me became a 6-hour race because I bailed out when the hurricane-with-hail arrived, I decided that because I would turn 70 years old in 2013, I wanted to run one more 24-hour race in my new age group. (More multiday races are definitely out of the question now.) So I registered for this year’s NorthCoast race way last November, when they offered a Black Friday discount that was too good to resist. Therefore I’ve had hanging over me all this time the knowledge that I’d committed myself to run the race.

Technically an ultramarathon is any distance over a marathon. But for me, and for the purposes of my goal at NC24, it meant anything over fifty miles, my low end goal for the race. And I felt I could do quite a bit better than that. In addition, I was hoping that depending on who else showed up, I could win my age group. That didn’t happen even though there was only one other guy in the 70–74 age group. And there was only one guy (and no women) older than us, the indomitable Leo Lightner, who is in the 80-plus age group, and probably ran farther than both of us. Leo is a force of nature.

My prospects for success hinged not so much on physical endurance as on how well I could handle the night. I used to do fairly well at this part of it, due primarily to my experience with multiday runs, which comprises mostly eight 72-hour races, plus a ninth (my last) where I had to drop out after about eight hours due to impending illness aggravated by the worst weather I ever experienced in all the years I lived in Arizona, so I don’t count that race among my 72-hour race experiences. I’ve also run one 48-hour race. That plus my history of now eight 24-hour races gives me a total of 34 24-hour days that I’ve spent circling various short-loop courses. And I’ve also run about a half dozen 12-hour races, four or five of them all-nighters rather than daytime races.

My history of eight 24-hour races can be grouped as three plus three plus one plus one. In the first three, my total distances ranged between 81.52 and 83.71 miles (my PR). I think of those three races, run between 1999 and 2004, as a group.

The fourth one was the San Francisco One-Day, which I ran in late October 2007, just a couple of weeks before I moved to Ohio. My distance in that race was only 76.10 miles, but I had run 96 miles of a 100-mile trail race just a couple of months before, in late August, before quitting because I was literally falling into the bushes on both sides of the road and could no longer even stand up much less go on. Even though it was a DNF, it was still a very good run for me, representing approximately an 82-mile 24-hour split, and then running on another four hours before diving.

I didn’t run another 24-hour until the first edition of NorthCoast in October 2009. Of those, in the first three my distance ranged between 60.98 and 65.48 miles.

In the first group of three I managed to get through each whole race without sleeping or hardly even stopping for much of anything.

By the time I got to the first NorthCoast race, my ability to cope with the night had become a huge problem. In all three, I managed to get to twelve hours almost effortlessly, and then crashed dramatically, the first two times in my chair, where I immediately suffered dry heaves and discomfort and tried to sleep in an uncomfortable camp chair. The third NC24 I had the smarts to retire to my car to get at least a semblance of real sleep.

This year the scenario was both similar and different. These days my running has been reduced almost entirely to walking. When I’m fresh I can do the ultra shuffle for perhaps 100 yards, preferably on a downward slope, then walk until I recover. I used to be able to keep that up for hours and hours. In fact, I used to be able to run without walking a single step for any reason, even to grab water, for up to five hours at a time. (I worked out a system where I kept water bottles on a stack of gym steps high enough for me to be able to grab it on the run, and I learned to drink while running.) I just can’t do that any more.

However, I do have a modicum of raw endurance left, which means that I can continue to walk without interruption seemingly forever.

On Saturday I ran-walked for about two and a half hours, then sporadically for a little longer, until I realized I was run out. Thereafter I just kept walking, and stopped for absolutely nothing other than to gulp water at my minimalist aid table (I could have survived with but nothing but something to set the water bottle on), and twice to pee, right on through the 12-hour mark, at which time my mileage was somewhere around 38.7 miles. I’d felt just fine up until that point, but exactly then I started to feel woozy, with an approaching sense of nausea. I did two more laps to get me to 40.5 miles, and realized trying to fight it would be futile. I went to the car, where this time I’d come prepared with a pillow and blanket, and just laid back the seat and got some honest sleep for a while, knowing I would wake up automatically. (I never use an alarm clock and normally get up between four and five.)

Because the temperature was not too low, I had a surprisingly easy time getting back to full speed walking. But my tenure on the track was short, just a few more laps, before I decided I needed more time off, so I headed to the car again. Finally I woke enough to sense that I’d be able to push through to the end. Historically, I’m always okay from first light until the end.

All the time I was doing numbers in my head. I knew that if I could have gone steadily the second half, my total distance could have been as high as the mid seventies, which I would have considered a form of vindication.

But I guess the truth of the matter is I’m not 64 any more, and this geezer now needs a bit more sleep at night than before, even though I get by pretty well normally on a nightly average of about six hours.

So as they say, it was what it was. I guess I should be grateful that I can do it at all, and that I ran over 57 miles and feel pretty good today, although I was a zombie last night. The night before the race I finished reading a long biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who looked like a corpse just before he died, after carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders for twelve years. And he was only 63 years old at the time. Yet here I am at age 70, hoping to be able to keep running and walking and working out at the gym for a lot of years to come.

Whether that activity will include any racing remains to be seen. It’s entirely possible that NC24 2013 was my swan song to racing. That’s what I’ve been telling myself and others who ask. I have no plans for any more races at this time. But I’ve also learned never to say never.

About Lynn

o Writer and Editor o Computer Technologist o Composer o Ultrarunner
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