Hubris, All Is Hubris
My 144-Hour Moment of Zen
My Icarus Florida Ultrafest Race Report
Symbolizing high flying ambition, the myth of Icarus warns us against complacency and hubris, and similarly, ultrarunning symbolizes the human drive for empowerment and warns us against heeding our own limitations, self doubt, and fears. To those in the sport, ultrarunning is not only a way to be better, but also to know thyself, and know what better means. To those on the outside of the sport, ultrarunning is the myth that truly heroic things are not achieved by mere mortals, but only by heroes. Icarus Florida UltraFest was organized with the idea that truly heroic things can be achieved by all of us -- if we are willing to put in the time, energy and effort demanded by the task. 1
What is hubris? It's thinking I have any business attempting a six-day ultra event It's thinking I might have a shot finishing in one of the top three positions. It's dreaming I might set a US age-group record for 144 hours. It's thinking I can remember enough to write about the experience of running around and around a one-kilometer course over 600 times...
I fear I will end up as the name sake of this race, letting the dreams that sound so doable from the comfort of my recliner take me a little too close to the heat and light of the reality awaiting me in Fort Lauderdale. However, after watching live video from ATY last Dec and finding myself wishing I was there; watching more live video from Hungary in May, and then again this August from Six Days in the Dome in Alaska - as soon as I hear about Icarus, I know I don't want to be sitting at home, watching once again from afar, wishing I could be there too.
Still, as badly as I want to run this, I wait and wait and wait to sign up. Part of that is that the financial outlay doesn't come easy, but I think there is a lot of fear and apprehension. Funny though, as soon as I sign up, I sense a sigh of relief and my training, such as it is, goes a lot better.
It is raining Sunday afternoon when I arrive at the park to set up my tent. It has been raining most of the day, so instead of setting up my tent between the pavilion and the lake, I set up along the park road on higher ground. Most of the other runners will follow suit.
There will only be ten of us at the start, five coming from outside the US to run this event. Serbia, Italy, Denmark, Sweeden, and Canada are represented.
There is a light rain as we set off on our adventure. This brings out earthworms, which I notice are more gray than red. I look down at my shoes and notice the "N" just ahead of the laces, and I'm trying to remember when Asics started putting this letter in this location on their Nimbus model. Due to my propensity for stomach issues, I follow advice I learned at this year's Vol State and walk the first twenty minutes, just to help my stomach ease into the day's activity. Though the course is mostly flat, there are a couple of short uphill sections, and once I so start running, I walk these.
|Wet and walking on Day 1|
With only ten of us scattered around the course, I find I am quickly alone, stuck with the noises and voices in my head. One hour goes by quickly, but I am already thinking "I have 143 hours more to go!" This is not a good way to start six days of anything, especially an ultra-run.
I know better than to try consuming any food, but I do try some Ensure sport drink and Poweraid, just small sips here and there, hoping that these calories will keep me from bonking too early. They go down well. The water is another story. It has a very strong chemical smell and taste, common throughout Florida, and I can't get myself to drink more than an occasional sip, so even though it is relatively cool and damp out, I am losing out on the hydration battle.
By six hours, the rain has stopped and I decide it's a good time to change socks, and since my shoes are also wet, I decide to change them also. This is when I realize that I have not been wearing the new pair of Asics Nimbus 15s I purchased for this race, but a pair of New Balance 1080v3s, which I had packed at the last minute for no particular reason. This sets me back, emotionally and mentally, as I realize just how far off my mindset is. At least I know now why that letter "N" was on my shoe.
Training and other race preparation had not been what I desired, to say the least, so I am very short of confidence from the get-go. I devised what strategy I could by reading reading several race reports, finding Joe Fejes' the most helpful in setting my own daily goals. I decided to go for big days and little days, setting myself a 90-mile goal for the first 24 hours, followed by 55 miles for Day 2, then back to another big day (80 miles) followed by a lighter day (50 miles) and so on, with a final tally of 425 miles. This was about all I had in the way of a plan, a plan drawn up from the comfort of my living-room recliner: all hubris, as I would quickly learn.
After a brief sit and change of shoes, this time definitely into that new pair of Asics, I set off, walk a few steps, and bend over to puke. Up comes whatever nourishment I have taken during the morning stint. Only 138 more hours of this nonsense...good grief! Maybe once I can get through the first 24 hours my stomach will calm down and allow me to refuel with some realfood from the aid station.
My bladder is clamoring for attention all too often and for not very productive reasons. I have taken a S-cap or two, but I need more fluids. The Race Directors have headed to the store and purchased several gallons of drinking water. Though there is still a horrible smell and taste in my water bottle, but the new water goes down well. I cannot say enough about how Andrei and Claire rose to every unexpected challenge and strove to meet the needs of all of us out on the course.
I walk all day, and attempt to rest at the 7pm turn-around. This is not productive. Snyder Park is next to the Ft. Lauderdale airport and it seems to get busy just as the sun goes down. Then there's "that little train engine that can" blowing its whistle about seven times in less than 3 minutes. Sleep is a joke. I get up and resume walking, logging around 70 miles in the first 24 hours, only 20 miles short of my goal.
|One of my favorite scenes from out on the course, the majestic palm trees in the early morning light. (Teddy Allen)|
Bill Heldebrand recently became a hero of mine: 68 years old and racking up impressive mileage in multi-day events around the globe. I am excited about meeting him, but other than an exchange of names and a handshake, I have not had the opportunity to pick his brain. He passes me numerous times as I walk, and on one occasion tells me he would be doing that if he could, a compliment to my walking pace. He tells me of a gal in Alaska who walked the entire six days and accummlated over 400 miles! I appreciate the encouragement, but I really wish I was running, at least some. It's all in my head, I know, but the mind is a powerful actor in these kinds of races, and I can't find the switch to put it into running mode.
I learn that Bill has set an impressive target for himself, and that he is too far behind to realize it. I start Day 2 with the shock of learning that Bill has turned in his timing chip and has exited the race. Our first "Icarus." If it has happened to Bill, what hope have I got to finish this thing, let alone accomplish what I came here to accomplish?
I am thankful that I have reserved a motel room for after the race is over. I know I can cancel reservations, but my mind doesn't take me there, so having a room waiting for me gives me a reason to stay at the park for the duration, regardless of how well my race is going. My mind keeps coming back to that phrase in Scripture: "I go to prepare a place for you..." even though in this case it's nothing more than a room in the Motel 6.
Carey has manned the aid station nearly all night long. She has answered every call for more ice and water in my bottle, and now and then tries to tempt me with solid food. Near morning, she suggests that maybe my stomach can handle runny oatmeal, and that actually sounds good. Next lap by, I have a cup in my hands, brown sugar and maple flavor, and it goes down easy, and feels like it's going to stay down. I have survived the 24-hour drought. Perhaps now I can begin enjoying some solid food and get my energy and enthusiasm back.
|Carey not only ran the aid station, she fixed blisters, watching the timing station when needed, ran a runner to the hospital (not me), and managed to run some miles of her own. "Amazing" doesn't do her justice...|
I also notice I have a small blister on a toe of my right foot. Carey fixes that with some moleskin, but Dusty, who is pacing and crewing Jim Schroeder, has a concern that the fix will cause a blister on the neighboring toe. She will prove to be right, but for the moment, my feet feel pretty good. I have also changed into a pair of Nimbus 14s, the pair I wore at 3DATF the previous May, and they seem to be suiting me better.
I quit "chasing numbers," my way of referring to my original goals for the race, and instead start doing my own form of "new math," which consists largely of dividing by two over and over and over until I get down to how many miles I need every hour to meet my primary goal, that of setting a new age-group record for 144 hours. The number comes out to approximately 3.5 mph, which seems doable, though I will have to bank some miles for those hours of sleep I hope to be getting.
I march and march, getting more comments on my walking pace, continuing to consume mostly water with ice, and the day gets warmer and warmer. My hydration, judging by those times when I empty my bladder, appears to be back on track, and I am feeling pretty good. The only female, Charlotte, a member of Canada's ultra-running team for several years, has developed back problems, and though she doesn't drop, she spends a lot of time resting and getting help from Michael Gillan, who has come from Australia to help runners with their various muscle ails during the race. He works wonders, as does a chiropractor who volunteers on at least three separate days of the event. She will eventually be back out on the course logging some impressive mileage.
|Michael, Wendy, and Carey.|
I enjoy my encounters with K-G and Tim on the course. Both are here for the experience itself and I often think that they are the ones who are doing this thing right. I envy their attitudes, easy-going personalities, and sense of humor. Jim is also enjoying his first multi-day event, keeping up with friends on Facebook. All I attempt to do is text my family every 12 hours. I lost my reading glasses someplace in South Carolina, so I can't read anything anyone is posting very well anyway.
One day morphs into another, and I'm still walking. I'm managing 30-35 miles every twelve hours, more or less. I make no real effort to keep track historically, but keep looking forward, doing and redoing the "math" every time I reach a six or twelve hour milestone. Even on Day 3 there is a sense that the race is going to last forever, that I might not have what it takes to make it to Sunday morning, but at the end of 72-hours, the half-way point, everything changes.
It helps that I have made it to 200 miles. It doesn't help that I have another blister forming. I ask Dusty to check it out and she agrees. I sit in a chair opposite her as she cuts into a huge blister that has formed on the inside of one of my toes. She does a great repair job, then we look at a small blister that has formed on a toe on my left foot. For some reason, I start feeling queasy, not nauseus, but light-headed. I stand up, then sit back down, trying to shake it, but the discombobulation persists.
Next thing I know, Dusty is asking me if I've heard a word she's said, and then she's telling me to lie down on the ground on my left side. There's already a blanket there, and a pillow. I realize she's on her phone, repeating questions and orders to me. I then realize she has called 9-1-1 and that an EMS is on its way. I'm immediately afraid of two things: that my race is over and that there will be a huge bill I have to explain to Laura when I get home. Being horizontal is allowing the blood to get back to my head and I'm feeling better already. Carey has come running up to help, and confirms my fears of a possible trip to ER.
I can't really blame Dusty for making the call: a guy is staring at you with a blank look on his face, twitching on occasion, and is totally unresponsive for several minutes. What else seems prudent? But, once again, I have to praise the RD, Andrei. He is a voice of calm and reason. He is the first to realize that I simply needed to get blood to my head, that it wasn't a siezure. The EMS guys hook me up to get my vitals, take three readings, and ask me questions like "who is my President," "what day of the week is it?" (this was actually a difficult question, as I was no longer in the real world, but in the 'world of Icarus,' where it was Day 4, and any other measurement the outside world used was totally irrelevant. I use my fingers to figure out the answer, and I must have been right.)
|Race Director Andrei Nana (Teddy Allen)|
I learn that I am allowed to refuse transport to ER, and do so, signing off on the forms as quickly as they are presented. The medics are convinced that I have not had a seizure, but simply feinted from lack of blood flow to my head, something that happens to folks with low blood pressure, but they ask me to promise them that if it happens again that day, I will go with them to get thoroughly checked out. I agree. I then learn that there is no charge for the "house call," and that is an even greater relief!
I wave to fellow runners as they go by to assure them I'm fine, and after a few more minutes of attempting to lay down, I return my sleeping bag to my tent and head back on the course. The whole thing took less than an hour, and I occupy my mind with redoing the math I need to make my next 12-hour mark. Amazingly, the day goes very well. Those brief minutes of unconsciousness must have been the ultimate power-nap, as I feel more energized than I have felt the entire event!
Wendy, who I believe is crewing for Jesper, yells at me to get a hat on. I rumage through my stuff, but I didn't bring a hat. I do find something I can put around my head, and though I feel it makes me look even more ridiculous, I wear it anyway. It also brings a song to mind, David Crowder's "Undignified," which goes through my head often during the remainder of the race.
|Wendy, crew extraordinaire, and Jesper. (Teddy Allen)|
I enjoy talking with Scott Maxwell, who is running a 24-hour race. I know Scott through Vol State, but even more through the Little 100 this past June. He catches me up on how some mutual friends are doing, and he puts in an impressive performance through the day.
The food is good, but today is exceptional. I eat and eat and then eat some more, foods I've never eaten during an ultra before: olives, humus wraps, different kinds of smoothies, some with caffeine, all of them awesome. The volunteers keep offering refills, and I keep taking them. By the end of the day, I feel pretty bloated, and I'm hoping that my bowels begin to catch up with my stomach.
Right before turning in for a few moments of rest, Mike Melton, timing and scoring guru, tells me that I have moved into 4th place. I respond that it's way too early to be thinking about position, but it's too late. Moving up to 3rd will become a huge distraction in the hours ahead, and threaten to take me out of my race plan and to certain failure.
|Mike Melton, early in the race.|
|Sometime during Day 5 (I think)|
The bowels finally begin to work, and what a relief! One less thing to worry about sabotaging my race. I need to run. The Nimbus are playing havoc with both my toes (the walking is to blame for this, not the shoe) as well as the top of my foot where it joins the ankle. I try switching from the 14s back to the 15s, but that doesn't help. I also realize that the chip on my ankle is causing some pain, so I move it to the opposite leg. I should have done this a day sooner, but it never crossed my mind.
Jovica, from Serbia, Michele, from Italy, and Charlotte are running at such a relaxed pace, conversing as they go, taking short strides, almost effortlessly making miles. Half-way through the day my mind finally allows my body to give it a try, and the relief is instantaneous! No more pain on my toes, but the pain on my upper foot remains. As a last-gasp gesture, I switch back to the New Balance 1080v3s, and the lacing is such that there is immediate relief to the upper foot!
|L-R: Michele, Charlotte, and Jovica|
My lap pace drops from 12-13 minutes to 9-10, and I realize that if I can keep this up, I will gain about one lap every hour, maybe more, giving me more to sleep and still realize my goal of 400 miles. I am counting -1...2...1,2,3,4 - over and over, sometimes putting the rhythm to songs like "Undignified," "If I Needed You," and the Louvin Brothers "If I Could Only Win Your Love." I have no idea why these particular songs come to mind, especially the country ones, but they are with me for days, and I never get tired of them. The counting helps keep my pace in check, and takes my mind off of the running. I pay more attention to the lap time then I do the overall distance, knowing that keeping the lap times down will take care of all the other concerns.
|Jovica and me, once I learned how to shuffle. (Teddy Allen)|
At 92 hours, only 4 laps separate Michele, Rimus and me. Rimus and I have been trading places for hours. He runs, then rests, and when he rests, I catch up, and then he runs some more. I learn from Mike that Rimus is from Lithuania and holds several European records. It doesn't do my confidence much good to realize that I'm up against a man of this calibre, and mentally I'm wrestling with conceding the position without putting up a further fight. Michele is young and strong, and my only hope of catching him is for him to give up, something I don't see much hope for.
Jesper and Javica are way out from. Jesper has a gazelle-like stride, while Javica is a picture of precision, almost like a metronome. Jesper, like Rimus, runs and then rests, and repeats. Javica goes more slowly, but seems to stay on the course longer. Both are amazing to watch, and both make conversation at times when they pass me.
|Rimus, his lovely wife, who also crewed him throughout the six days, and race winner, Jesper.|
I realize during the day that I have 12 more hours of night, then 12 more hours of daylight, and yet 12 more hours of night to go. In other words, the end of the race is nowhere imminent.
At dark, I go to my tent and hope for sleep. I set my iPone alarm, and try to sleep. My legs and butt feel bruised. I lay on one side, and the side opposite hurts like crazy. I can't find a comfortable position. It doesn't help that it is very humid, so I can't decide whether or not being in my sleeping bag is a good idea. Either sweat or be chilled, so it seems.
I dream a crazy dream. My phone is blowing up with email, text and Facebook alerts from all over, people making puns on the various words I have supposedly used (et al was the one I remember). I am reading these puns, wondering why my friends are making fun of me, and wondering why they won't let me sleep. The last pun I remember was from Stu, and it seemed to contain a hidden message - to relax, enjoy the fun, and not take everything so seriously. I congratulation myself on solving the riddle and actually start to sleep.
I wake up suddenly, my sleeping bag a twisted mess around me, realizing that I have overslept. The alarm didn't go off, and now, I fear, a stupid mistake in setting my alarm has robbed me of my goal. I am momentarily despondent, tempted to lay back down and give it up, but something gets me to sit up, but my shoes back on, and return to the race. I get back out on the course, ask Mike if I've completely blown it, and he assures me my goal is still within reach. He thinks my goal is merely 384 miles, enough to break the existing record, but I tell him I really want at least 400. He breaks the news to me that I will have to start running. It is about 11pm.
I was not the only one asleep. There were times where I would run 3, 4 even 5 laps, and no one else was out on the course. Rimus is trying to sleep off some stomach issues. Michele is confident that he has enough of a lead on Rimus that he can take an extended rest. I redo the math yet again and I once again come up with the magic 3.5 mph. The day of learning how to shuffle has not only saved my feet, it has saved my hopes of reaching my goal.
There are a lot of new runners who have come out the last day for 3, 6, 12 and 24 hours efforts. I'm not sure how I feel about all the new faces and bodies, but they turn out to be a huge blessing. Not only are there more runners, the park itself is overtaken by the Broward County JROTC, who have come out for training. They run in groups and we encourage each other with "good job" and pumped fists. I get high-fived numerous times, especially when the kids come to realize how long we've out running our laps. Many are genuinely impressed.
Again, the food is awesome. I eat well, but I don't overdue it. Even with all the other runners, there's a place near the aid station where I can place my cup of whatever and return to it as desired. It is hot out, and humid, and I find my pace slowing, and brief periods of walking come more frequently, and last longer.
I want this to be over. As night approaches, I am getting close to my goal, but as I close in on my goal, I find it harder to keep going. I know I'm tired, but this seems more psychological than physical. I want to walk with Charlotte and ask her if she ever has this problem, and if so, how she gets through it. Charlotte has won races and has a champion's heart, which is why I want to tap her brain. How does someone who knows how to win and block out negative voices deal with moments like this? Unfortunately, I don't catch up with her and my questions go unanswered.
Sometime around midnight I break the existing record. I have seven hours to go. I need to sleep, but my legs won't let me get comfortable, so I keep making laps. I missed the goulash at supper, which I'm sure would have been awesome, but there is an instant mac-n-cheese I can add hot water too, and that helps, both the calories and the salt. The night goes on forever, so it seems, but eventually I reach 400 miles. After that, there really is nothing to do but keep doing laps, and by the end, I will muster 406.554 miles. I'm glad I kept moving until the final few moments.
There are so many people to thank: Foremost, Andrei and Claire, for putting on a first class event that put the runners first in every way imaginable. To the volunteers, especially Clare, Una, James, Jodi, Jason and numerous others, who kept me going day after day, night after night. Dusty, Mike Melton, Michal, Alex (Jovica's handler) and Wendy, whose early morning, blood-curdling screams at the raccoons never failed to bring a chuckle. And most of all, the other runners, those who taught me how to shuffle, those who encouraged me with their smiles and positive attitudes, and those who befriended me during the heat of competition and helped me keep moving forward.
|Una, Jim, Dusty, and Alek|
Anyway, thus ends my 144-hour Moment of Zen. I meet the goal that is most important to me, that of setting an USATF age-group record, so perhaps, not all is hubris after all.
|No, I haven't just been baptized, but rather I have just received my finishers medal from Race Director Claire. (Teddy Allen)|
Appendix A: Official Results
Appendix B: Footnotes and Links
- "If I Needed You:" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHoAg-LlVVM
- "If I Could Only Win Your Love:" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLQu5Vidl6o
- "Undignified:" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hp7B5V-qpTQ
I want to thank Andrei, Claire, Alec, and Teddy Allen for many of the pics in this race report.
The course is beautiful, even after more than 600 laps. There is a lot of shade, but a few moments of full sun, which shifted during the day. There was usually a nice breeze, except in the interior of the wooded area. I saw a lot of raccoon, day and night, a large iguana, a smaller lizard on the road, and a fox-like creature. Here is a tour of the course, going clockwise, at about 9am.
|The parking area to the left was shaded most of the day, a relief on more than one occasion.|
|Looking back over my shoulder at some Australian pines, according to Tim. There were businesses just out of view with obnoxious night lights which cast some strange shadows on the course.|
|Into the woods, where at night one could hear some blood-curdling screams, perhaps of an animal meeting its demise. Live oaks are such beautiful trees!|
|A quick jog and we leave the woods. Here is where the JROTC held their awards program Sat. afternoon.|
|Across from the pavilion, next to the handicap restrooms, which were far preferable to any of the others on the course, was this horrible joke. There was no chocolate milk in this machine, only pop and flavored water.|
|Leaving the pavilion area and moving uphill. The entrance to the park was on the left, and we spent six days dodging people and their dogs. Overall, traffic, both vehicular and foot, was very light.|
|The dog pond. Dogs of all breeds, off leash, retrieving objects thrown in the water by their masters, getting along and enjoying the chance to cool off, and entertaining this tired runner 12 hours a day for six days!|
|This became my marker to start running again, after walking up the hill from the pavilion. Sometimes I did...|
|Approaching the aid station|
|Another lap, and an opportunity to check timing and scoring to see how long it took, how many miles I have come, and how far behind the competition I am :)|
|Yours truly, with a medal, a shirt, and memories I'll cherish for a long time to come. (Teddy Allen)|