Ted Williams had been saying he would quit baseball every year for four years. By September 28, 1960, it was finally time, and Ted wanted more than anything to do something memorable at the end. In his last major league at bat, he hit the ball out of the park, which was his favorite thing to do. He had hit many home runs before, but this one especially pleased him.
To compare myself to Ted Williams in any other way would be a case of ultra hyperbole. But I’ve been saying for the last three years that each ultramarathon I’ve run would be my last. On September 20, 2014, the time arrived for me to run what I’m certain really will be my last, the NorthCoast 24-Hour Endurance Run (NC24) at Edgewater Park in Cleveland, Ohio, this year once again the USA Track and Field National Championship for that format.
I arrived at the race undertrained and overweight but up for it, and wanted to do something to make it special.
When it was all over, I’d accomplished every one of my goals plus one I hadn’t expected. In short, it was the best race of my life — not in mileage accumulated, but from the standpoint of all the ways that matter most, at least to me.
To jump to the conclusions first:
- I did the entire race without a single rest break. My only stops were for the potty (1 sitting, 3 standing), at the aid station table (average about ten seconds), and at my own table (average about six to eight seconds to guzzle water). And once I had to duck under the nearest canopy to throw on my rain poncho. I’ve gotten through 24 hours in both fixed-time and 100-mile races without sleep, but never without at least one or two brief rests. Somehow, I didn’t get even a little bit sleepy, but just kept grinding away from the start until I heard the siren 24 hours later. That achievement by itself was for me the most satisfying part of the experience given the state of my conditioning.
- My total distance for the race was 67.555 miles. That’s 2.04 miles better than what I did at NC24 in 2010. And I’m four years older, which means something at my end of the scale. It also meant I finished comfortably in the top half for the first time in a few years, in the fifty-fifth percentile.
- As a bonus, I got a medal for third in my age group (70-74), which I didn’t expect. I’ve reached the age where I can pick up medals by attrition, as the other old guys quit or (ahem) die. It means an extra medal for my bling box. As race director Dan Horvath said in announcing the results, “This is a competitive division. I know these guys.” I thought the others in my division are all way better than me. Actually, they are. But what I accomplished was to prove the old tortoise and hare principle. While others were resting, including in flooding rain at 4 a.m., I was out there burning up the course and beat out at least one guy. (I think there were only four of us, but I’ll take it. I worked very hard for it.) Sometimes I also like to amuse myself by thinking that I also beat the however many hundred thousand men in my age division who didn’t show up, most of whom couldn’t possibly participate in such an event. My competition was with only with men of experience, those who both can and do. Vanity, I know.
Some reasons that I know this will be my last ultramarathon are these:
- I really don’t want to run another ultra, and had to convince myself to do this one. I enjoy the training, which I do for health, but the preparation is not the fun it once was. By that I mean the prerace logistics, making a race plan, packing, traveling, fretting the day before, and worst of all: race morning. I detest the part from when the alarm goes off until I get in the car, with all the pre-dawn slathering on of Bag Balm and Vaseline in unmentionable places, preparation of feet, and obsessing over getting just the right gear all lined up. Then again at the park: setting up the aid station, making sure I can find stuff I’ll likely never need, when I’d rather be visiting with running friends old and new as they arrive.
- The unpredictability of the weather in some places, particularly in Cleveland, on the shore of Lake Erie, as fall rolls in, also makes me nervous. I don’t like to suffer in bad weather. I’ve done as well as I can expect in ultrarunning, and have nothing more to prove to myself or anyone else.
- I can no longer run. That’s stating it as plainly as I know how.
- It’s been several years since I raced with any regularity. For me running and walking have always been about the physical training, and also the assuasive solitude of the road, not the competition.
- There are other things I both want and need to devote time to.
But I still do continue to work out nearly every day, have nearly limitless leg endurance, and saw a way I could capitalize on that for a last hurrah.
There isn’t much to tell. The race started, I began to hustle around the 0.90076-mile loop, and 24 hours later I stopped. I wore no watch, and my phone was off. I drank nothing but water supplemented with S-Caps, and I ate only aid station food, mostly peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and M&Ms. I was utterly unconcerned about my number of laps or pace, because I was doing the best I could. I haven’t seen any splits, but I’d be surprised if there is more than a couple of minutes difference between the slowest and fastest.
As dawn approached, my back began to give out, and I became aware that I was leaning forward. With my center of gravity pushed forward, I had to walk faster than was comfortable just to keep from falling over. It became more and more painful to continue. Back pain is what finally did me in at mile 96 of my last 100-mile attempt in August 2007, when I started stumbling and falling into the bushes at the side of the road. Both then and Sunday morning I’d tried locking one arm across my back, hooked into the crook of my other arm, to use as a combination lever and brace to prop myself up, but it took a lot of strength, and was good for only at most a dozen steps at a time.
At the end, I had given absolutely everything I had to give. There wasn’t one minute I wasn’t doing my best. Though I thought about it, I never seriously considered resting or giving up, and the farther I went, the more determined I became to finish what I set out to do. But I don’t believe I could have gone another two tenths of a mile without falling down. The last couple of minutes I just looked for the nearest bench to collapse on as soon as I could. When I stopped, I was as done as I’ve ever been.
I’ve run all six of the fall edition of the NorthCoast race. (In 2012, the year of the near hurricane, I did the 12-hour.) At each 24-hour race I had difficulty handling the nighttime hours. After between 12 and 14 hours of hustle, I’d melt down, collapse in my chair, suffer dry heaves, and sleep uncomfortably on and off, interspersed with death march laps, until dawn. After every one of these races I believed that if I could have endured the night better, I would have gotten a lot more mileage.
This year, following a ten-hour night of sleep, I arrived with the idea of hoping to fight sleepiness. In order to do that I would have to keep going no matter what, not taking any breaks. Restarting is just impossible for me. And I must confess that I didn’t think I could do it, but believed at least maybe I could do better.
My lifetime PR for a 24-hour race is 83.716 miles, set at the Olander race in Sylvania, Ohio, on September 15-16, 2001, four days after 9/11. That was thirteen years ago, and I was 58 then. Between then and 2008, I ran eight 72-hour races, and a ninth in 2010 I had to drop out of after 25 miles because of impending illness, and also a couple of other 24-hour races. I did well enough in my good years, even finishing second in a 72-hour once, but inevitably slowed down. I can’t do that any more.
At the first NorthCoast race in 2009, I got only 60.98 miles, disappointing but expected in the wake of traumatic life changes that happened when I moved from Phoenix, Arizona, to Columbus, Ohio. The next year I got 65.51 miles, better, and until this year, my best at this race. At all these races I would run as much as I could, then walk when I couldn’t, then turn into a rotting pumpkin.
It’s a certainty that I can’t get anywhere close to my lifetime 24-hour PR any more, nor even the 76 miles I did in San Francisco just a couple of weeks before moving to Ohio (which itself was barely two months after the 96 miles of my last failed 100-miler). But I thought I could better my previous NC24 best.
When we started, I didn’t feel my best. My right hip and my back were immediately stiff, but I couldn’t let it worry me. I took some ibuprofen, which helped.
On the fourth lap, Harvey Lewis, of recent Badwater fame, whizzed by and asked if my side was hurting me, cautioning that I seemed to be leaning to the right. Oh no! Was I suffering from the dreaded condition ultrarunners call runner’s lean, which plagued me for two or three years a decade ago? This happens when your iliopsoas muscles (the ones that enable you stand up straight) completely give out on you and stop firing. And I was just getting warmed up. I concentrated on my form, and guess I managed to overcome it, because I never did have a problem with it the rest of the race. Maybe Harvey just caught me at a bad moment.
As I’ve read other reports that have come in, I’ve been surprised to hear from some of the best runners that they thought the weather conditions were tough. Normally I’m the weather whiner, but I thought this weekend was the best I’d ever experienced for this race. It’s true that it hit about 81 degrees in the afternoon and was humid, and at night there was first a bit of a drizzle around 9 p.m., followed by a cloudburst at 4 a.m., but it didn’t last long. The heat didn’t bother me at all, but I was walking, not running.
Normally, as darkness sets in along the lake this time of year, it requires putting on more clothing, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it was comfortably cool, ideal for being out. I wore only a running shirt on my upper body, plus compression sleeves, and also had compression sleeves on my legs. I did change my hat when I got caught in the rain, but other than that, I was wearing exactly the same clothing at the end as I started with, even the same sweatbands on my wrists.
The arrival of the rain was well-timed for me. A drizzle began and grew steadily as I was on the back stretch approaching the curved hill before the lap start-stop. I decided I’d better grab my rain gear. I was no more than 50 feet from my table when a cloud moved overhead, and less than five seconds later I was in a furious downpour. I got wet, and so did the uncovered stuff at my table, but I grabbed my rain poncho and ducked under the nearest canopy for shelter to put it on and hit the road again. I didn’t let the weather intimidate me any. When the rain stopped a while later, I took off the poncho, and that was all there was. There was water on the bike path in some places, including some where runners had to wade through over the tops of their shoes. Runners whose ambition was to keep their feet dry may have had trouble with that, but I considered the whole thing both entertaining and refreshing and splashed through them like a duck.
One mistake I made was laxness in preparing my feet. Normally I use some combination of Bag Balm, taping, women’s half-height nylons inside my running socks, and even Injinji socks. This time I skipped the taping and used ordinary running socks. I’d gotten lazy about tending to those preparations when I went for long training runs, but I should have been more careful before the race because my feet have lost the toughness they once had.
As a result, by about eight hours into the race I was experiencing blisters from hell, a problem I haven’t had since my first 48-hour race in 2000. After that race I wised up, did some reading, and started experimenting. After that I stopped having incapacitating problems. But on Saturday it wasn’t long before both my feet were hamburger.
I could stop, lose time, get them treated, become stiff in the meantime, and then limp onward, but then I wouldn’t make my goals. And besides, I didn’t want anyone messing with my feet. Long ago I learned that it hurts a lot more to get off them (which does nothing to fix them) and then start walking again than it does to just keep walking. You kind of get used to it. So I did about 16 hours of this race with raw flesh for support. Today, two days after the race, my feet are still in pain, with blisters on several toes and on the balls of both feet. I’ll lose at least two toenails, maybe three, and the calloused pad on at least my left forefoot. But I refused to stop.
Fighting sleep was my single biggest worry. I’ve tried caffeine tabs, which have only given me the dry heaves about twenty minutes later. A few days before the race I asked a number of runners if they had tried 5-Hour Energy, which has been heavily advertised on TV and seems to be omnipresent in stores. Replies came in saying that the stuff can be effective if you can handle the disgusting taste. I figured it can’t be much worse than Red Bull, which tastes like bile and also doesn’t work for me.
There’s a rule of thumb all runners who race learn that one should never try something in a race that hasn’t been tried in training. Good advice, but nothing I’d done before was working, so what did I have to lose?
My plan was to try one 5-Hour Energy at 10 p.m., 13 hours into the race, and if it worked, to take another at 3 a.m. It does indeed taste horrible, but I chased it with water. End of suffering.
The impact was almost instantaneous, which is not surprising. People who drink coffee or tea are aware of how quickly caffeine gets into the system. A few sips and you’re up.
At the same time I took the 5-Hour Energy, I also cranked up my iPod, which I haven’t used in a while. (I usually use my phone in daily training outings.) It was set to select tunes at random, which was fine. Five minutes later I was not just strolling along, but smacked with an outburst of ebullition, as I danced and jived and conducted orchestras and sang while being treated first to some of the most beautiful pop music ever made (“Let It Be” by the Beatles) followed by some of the most energetic music ever made (by the jazz trio The Bad Plus, one of my current favorites). In previous NC24 races I would be out cold in my chair or my car at this hour, but this time I was completely cranked and pushing without letup.
When I took a follow-up at 3 a.m., it had little further effect.
Ultrarunners like to say there’s always another race. But there is not always a next time.
And so I’m nailing a lid on my ultrarunning career. Between 1999 and 2014 I ran 39 ultramarathons — not a lot by some runners’ standards. But I’ve kept track of the numbers, and it comes out to 2964.21 total race miles, an average of exactly 76.00 miles per race. If you divide the miles by the distance of a marathon, it comes out to 113.06 marathons — for whatever value that statistic is worth. Probably none. But I like to think about it when non-runners ask me how many marathons I’ve run. (Twelve.) I’ve spent 35 24-hour days running around looped courses, several of them in three-day chunks, not to mention a half-dozen or more 12-hour races. My ultrarunning career ran from ages 56 to 71, so I was a late starter, which helps explain my five 100-mile DNFs. I’ve always done much better in fixed-time than point-to-point races.
In quitting, I realize that I’ll also effectively be leaving the community of ultrarunners. That part is hard. Ultrarunners as a lot tend to be healthy, focused, disciplined, dedicated, generous, friendly, intelligent, and a pleasure to know. But I do intend to keep following the various social media resources dedicated to the sport.
The title of this report, Schwanengesang, means swan song, and is the title of a posthumous song cycle by Franz Schubert. The term has come mean a farewell appearance or final act or pronouncement, especially of some kind of a performer.
Within that song cycle is a song called Abschied, which means farewell. The song’s lyrics bid a cheery but determined farewell to a town where the singer has been happy but which he must now leave. Its unusual key of B major is viewed by many musicians as being the most optimistic of keys.
So as a conclusion to this report I offer you this lovely version of Abschied sung by the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It seemed an appropriate gift to leave you with.
Schubert Abschied from Schwannengesang, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone