Friday, May 23, 2014

Three Days At the Fair - May 15-17, 2014

I want some good Vol State training, yet I still wait until a few weeks before the event to sign up.  Something inside keeps prodding me, I have to do this.  It has been a long winter; opportunities for high-mileage weeks nearly non-existent, this could be ugly.  Still, I sign up, trying to remember that this isn't the goal race, but a means to a better experience in July.

There are reasons to be here even if Vol State wasn't looming.  So many have written about how special this event is, and I'm having a hard time picturing what could make this so different from any other timed ultra, so I'm looking forward to finding out, even though I'm arriving with the spirit of a doubting Thomas.

I arrive after an eleven-hour drive and the first order of business is finding the bathrooms.  I drive around the fairgrounds and see Rick with two of his children out placing little red flags near what would be the end of the loop.  He directs me back the way I had just come from.  The bathrooms aren't all that hard to find, unless one attempts to use the big yellow sign with black letters for guidance.  It won't be until sometime during Day 3 that I realize that sign had been moved and has been completely irrelevant!

I park in front of the restrooms, find relief, and return to move my car when I meet Gary Ferguson who offers to show me the course.  I leave my car, windows down, doors unlocked, in front of the restrooms and let Gary give me the guided tour.  Some of the facts and ideas he shared with me would prove very useful during the race and I'm glad I took him up on his offer.  His enthusiasm for this event matches all the excitement I had picked up from others, and I'm starting to get a little more excited myself.

Gary, on right, exiting Darth Vader's helmet.  (I'm not sure who to give credit for this picture to.  I "borrowed" it from his Facebook page without permission.)

The Course:  We start at the X, make the right, left, right unto the straight, down to the turnaround (where they put the sign pointing to the restrooms - lol) and then the downhill to Darth Vader's helmet.
I'm worried about the rain and strong storms that are in the forecast, so I take advantage of the opportunity to set up my tent inside an animal shelter, just off the course.  Afterwards, I wander around, enjoying the music from an excellent jazz band that has set up to play for a crayfish party and begin meeting people.  I meet Steve Tursi, run into John Fegys, and come across a white Vibe with IL plates I would recognize anywhere.  I first met Gene Brukert following a race in Inverness, FL in January.  We both ended up camping in a state forest for a few days and had opportunities to talk.  I had not expected to see him here.  He offers me something to drink and we talk until it begins to get dark.

Gene, who had just celebrated his 79th birthday and came to run his age!  He ended up doing that an more, topping out at just over 100 miles!!
I sleep well in my tent and wake up with plenty of time to make final race preparations.  For whatever reason, I cannot focus my thoughts enough to come up with a definitive race strategy.  I have several ideas that have been circulating between my ears for the last few weeks, but nothing is emerging as "the plan."  I loiter about, as Bev isn't giving us our race bibs until shortly before the start, just to keep us from setting off the timing unit and putting laps on the computer that they would have to erase later.  Smart move...

Day One:

I start slow.  With the information I learn from Gary, I pick my walking points and running points and stick to them throughout the day.  I do a decent job of letting the field go and not worrying about position, being lapped early, or any of those other competitive foibles I'm prone to.  It is going to be a humid day, but not terribly warm.  I talk with Tim Loudermilk about the humidity we encountered one another on the course; we both plan on taking it easy.  

I try to drink some cranberry juice during a stop at my tent, but it is too much.  On the other hand, I brought a bunch of Powerade with me, and that goes down well in small amounts.  I don't handle food well in any ultra, so I think I should try consuming gels, about one every two hours.  I do that twice and abandon the strategy, though it actually seems to be working.  Ultra-brain is already kicking in.  I also decide to take a S-Cap about every three hours, but again, I don't prove terribly consistent at this either.  Once upon a time, I could eat snack puddings, so I try one of these about eight hours into the race, and it stays down for about two laps.  It is my one and only upchuck of the weekend.  I assure Jim (from Syracuse) that this is a normal thing for me and that I'm going to be fine.  

Another problem I have during long events is the tendency to want to curl up and go to sleep, whether in my tent, on a picnic table out on the course, or even in the grass under a tree.  I decide to use caffeine early and often to forestall this impulse.  I had fasted from all caffeine for six weeks, hoping I would respond better during the race, and I think this is working.  

I'm counting miles like I'm at Vol State.  I've got most of the major towns and their mileages memorized, so I tell myself "now I'm in Union City," "I just passed through Martin, don't drink too much pop at the McDonald's," and so on.  By twelve hours, I've run 51 miles and I'm someplace between Gleason and McKenzie.  I decide it's a good time to lie down and rest my legs, maybe even sleep a little, but the lights in the barn are on and other runners are coming and going, making calls home to loved ones, not realizing someone is trying to sleep.  Rather than grumbling, I decide that maybe my time would be better spent out on the course.  That rest was not a total waste; my legs do feel fresh and I'm able to run again for awhile.

I'm starting to wonder when the storms will blow in, thinking that might be a good time to take another break.  The deluge hits shortly after midnight, I believe; I'm not sure because I'm already horizontal in my tent.  I sleep this time, at least a little, and after the main storm I head back out into the rain.  I'm in and out of the barn numerous times, wasting time, trying to decide whether or not I need my Dollar General poncho or not, a hat or not, and other attire issues.  I change shoes for one lap, but quickly revert back to my new pair of Nimbus 14s that I started the race with.  By morning, I've only been able to accumulate another 36 miles, putting me between Parker's Crossroad and Lexington.

Day Two:

More rain!  I've already been reduced to a walk for several hours, averaging only three miles an hour on a good hour.  My mind is in a dark place.  I'm thinking I have no business running races longer than marathons; that I should find a new hobby; that I should shave my beard, etc...  I think about firing up my iPod as a distraction, but can't bring myself to climbing the hill into the animal shelter where my tent is parked.  I remember walking a lot with Jim (from Syracuse) during the day, talking about the Damn Wakely Dam, which we both ran.  Conversations like this are better than music.  The 48-Hour runners are on the course, and I'm watching the three studs go at it, loop after loop, with this feeling of awe and utter "why am I out here?" discouragement.  The horse riding events go on throughout the day, which makes taking a nap problematic since the announcer is being broadcast into the animal shelter where my tent is.  Again, instead of getting frustrated, I take it as a sign that I need to get back on the course.  

Jim introduces me to Joe Reynolds, who I knew of through a mutual friend.  I see Mike Dobies, who I haven't seen since 2007, and I enjoy catching up a little.  Every lap, as I cross the line, Rick or one of his volunteers tells me what lap I'm on, and by the time I've walked past the bathrooms towards the main straightaway, I'm struggling to remember.  One volunteer, a young man named Randy, shows amazing perseverance and fortitude (as well as maturity) throughout the event, telling me my lap count, or asking me what I needed to eat, or just checking to see if I was capable of any cognitive function.  He was diligent and I really appreciated his attention to my needs and those of the other runners as we cross the line.  

I remember so very little of this day: just walking, listening to the progress of the horse riding event, and starting to test my stomach with a little solid food.  The kitchen staff scrambles me some eggs, and those go down easily, and more importantly, stay down.  I start pouring myself a little Coke or ginger-ale and letting it set for a lap or two to eliminate some of the carbonation, and the caffeine and sugar began to work wonders also.  

There are periods of heavy rain through the day, and I try to ride those out in my tent, but they come up suddenly and I am caught out on one occasion, getting pretty well soaked through.  I lay down in my sleeping bag without changing clothes first and can't tell if I am too hot and sweaty or too damp and chilled.  I finally find the gumption to change and things improve quickly.  

The rain quits sometime soon after dark.  The course stays amazingly puddle and mud free, so my feet really never suffer from the rain.  Had I stayed out during the strong storms, that might have gone differently.  By 36-hours, half-way, I had accumulated 117 miles.  Not bad, but not great.  I remember thinking that 200 was still a possibility, but becoming more remote the longer I dilly-dally around.  By the 48-hour mark, I am up to 150 miles.  

Day Three:

The rain quits during the night; the humidity drops; and a nice breeze moves in.  I have received several compliments on my walking pace through the previous day, but I can tell that my walk is slowing and that my legs are hurting.  If I can't run and I can't walk, I'm pretty much toast.  A running mentor (Don Lindley) once told me that "walking rests the running muscles, and running rests the walking muscles."  I have to run again, but how?  The idea comes to me to pick a line in the pavement and start running and see how many strides I can go.  The first attempt yields less than 50 yards.  I try again a few hundred yards later, and keep trying.  Within a couple of laps I find I'm able to run the downhill straight, walk the right/left at the bottom, and run the first part of Darth Vader's helmet.  It's better than nothing, and it even feels better than walking.  More amazing yet, I'm able to do this for the entire day and into the evening.  Again, there are people who comment, and those words of encouragement spur me on. 

Me running!!!!

I eat more eggs, drink more Coke, and keep moving.  By 60 hours, I'm up to 195 miles: it has been a 45-mile 12-hour stretch.  I wish I had done some of this during Day 2.  

Evening comes.  The previous evening I had asked Rick if I could see the standings.  At that time I was 7th or 8th, but there were a gaggle of runners all circulating within a few miles of each other.  I don't check at all through the day, but as night falls, I think of it again.  Rick begins printing out the standings each hour.  I am up to 4th.  One of my pre-race dream goals was to share the "podium" with Darren and John Fegys, and I am amazed to find that the goal is actually a possibility, though remote, and I'm going to have to really, really work for it.  There is one runner who has a 7-8 mile lead on me; do I have enough time, or energy, to make it happen?  I'm not comfortable with the thoughts that enter my mind once I get a competitive drive.  I spend too much mental energy worrying about things I can't control, like how is the other guy doing?  I resign myself to keep doing what I'm doing for as long as I can keep doing it, using the competition as my reason to not go back to my tent and take a break.  

Gradually, the gap closes.  Jim has told me that he wants to reach 200 miles before he takes a break.  I'm four or five miles behind him at this point.  Can I close the gap while he rests?  Will I be able to hold him off should I get past him before he comes back to the course with fresh legs?  

I keep downing soda pop for energy and caffeine.  I keep running the downhills as often as I can.  I keep checking the printouts each hour.  

Sometime during the night I catch Jim, pass him and then begin worrying that I will lose my lead.  For the last six hours I'm a bit of a basket-case, worrying that every runner still on the course is catching up to me, especially Otto, who is running so much faster and smoothly than I can muster the energy to run.  Finally, as day breaks, I lighten up.  I want so badly to sleep, but I don't have enough of a gap to allow myself that luxury.  I spend a lot of time in the food court area, sampling whatever the volunteers in the kitchen set out on the counter.  It feels so good to have solid food, even bacon!!  My mind drifts toward taking a shower and packing up my tent and then putting my cot out in the sun for a nap before I start driving home.  

Otto Lam finishing another lap.  
There are still two hours of this race to go, and I'm in idiot-mode shutting things down!  Stoopid, stoopid, stoopid!!!

There is one scene I have in my head:  It is dawn, there is a light fog in the air, and there are runners rising up to do a few more laps before the end.  Most of them are walking.  I am on the back side of Darth Vader's helmet and ahead of me I see them, side-by-side, some holding hands.  I cannot hear them; all I can hear are the birds bringing in the new day.  This is a powerful moment.  As the fog dissipates and the morning grows brighter, more runners emerge from their tents.  I enjoy a lap or two with John Fegys.  It looks like I will get to be on that podium, but I won't believe it until it's over.  I have surpassed my public goal of +200 miles, and surpassed a stretch goal of +210.  I end up with 231 miles.  There could have been several more.  

One of my regrets is shutting down, even changing into street clothes, before the 72-hours is over.  I'm out there on the course walking in my blue jeans and wearing my race bib, but it's not the same.  As badly as my feet hurt, I should have been out there until the end, just because.  It's not really about podiums, or miles run, but it's about being there in body and spirit for the duration.  It was awesome hearing people cheer as runners finished their final laps with minutes to spare.  I should have been there finishing laps with them.  

I get one of the little mugs.  Guess I'll just have to fill it up more often :)
I met so many from the UL: Fred Murelo, Bill Schultz (I didn't know you wrote a book!!), Bill Gentry, and others I've already mentioned.  I also met some runners who have Vol State on their calendars for this summer: Patrick McHenry and John Sands.  I'm looking forward to seeing you guys in July.  

This race met and exceeded my hopes and expectations.  I highly recommend it for anyone considering a multi-day event, no matter what your level of training or experience.

Rick handing me my award.  I wanted Randy in on the photo too.

I need to do some research to find out how to prevent this kind of blistering during Vol State.

A most excellent jazz band that played during the crayfish party on Wednesday night.

One of the RD's: along with Bev.  Rick McNulty


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