Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Family Affair

As a runner who is deeply involved in the organization and presentation of Across the Years, yet who also manages to run the 72-hour race each year, mostly undistracted by official responsibilities other than to answer an occasional question, I enjoy a unique insider's perspective on the race.

It has been my pleasure to to participate in this most wonderful of multiday races each year since 1999 — the first year (the year of the six-day millennium run) as a 24-hour runner, the next as a 48-hour runner, and for the last six years as a 72-hour runner. The race has become the core of my running program, the event around which all other running that I do is built.

Especially since moving to Nardini Manor, the race has increased in quality by an order of magnitude each of the past four years to the point that it's hard to imagine how we could make it much better. But raising the bar is what ATY does, so I'm sure next time will be even better.

The most essential factor making the race a high-quality operation is its volunteers, with its team of key operatives, some of them specialists on a professional level in what they help out with, each of whom recognizes that ATY is far from just another race, but something quite special. So everyone works extra hard to make the experience memorable for all persons who attend — runners, spectators, and the volunteers themselves.

Outstanding among them are host Rodger Wrublik, a hard-working man of unparalleled generosity, who has allowed the race to invade his personal space for the past four years, and race director Paul Bonnett, a people person who understands ultrarunners and responds to their needs well.

Then there is Nardini Manor itself, with its setting in the quiet countryside outside Phoenix, its comfortable custom made track, the attractiveness of the premises, documented by the nearly 4,000 pictures now on our web site, and the convenient big tent that is heated at night, giving runners and crew a welcome refuge from the sometimes bone chilling cold of desert winter nights.

We also have the benefit of the best in chip-based timing equipment, operated for the past two years primarily by omnipresent ultrarace volunteer Dave Combs, a computer professional who is able to handle technical problems deftly, and who tested and made many useful suggestions and contributions to the web projects I implemented during the year.

My own small part in the preparations has been to provide the web site, including the registration system, biographies, webcast features visible on race day such as the current results program (Dave Combs wrote the part that uploads the latest to the web site every few seconds); the popular greetings package that people think is email but isn't; database design and maintenance; statistical reports; a suite of administrative programs to use during the race by the folks behind the computers, including one by means of which to upload, register, and caption pictures during the race; the Runners Manual; and the FAQ. In addition I've served as part-time publicist, advocate, de facto historian, and unwanted opinion renderer.

The truth is no one ever asked me to do any of this, nor was a request made for a volunteer to do any of it. I just invited myself to the party several years ago, and started doing things that I thought might prove to be useful, and never quit. So I still feel like a bit of an outsider.

When race day comes, I step aside from all that, whereupon my role changes to that of runner, while the others continue the really hard work of making things go smoothly during the race itself.

We were more pressed for time than usual completing preparations this year. Some plans had to be deferred to another time, but in the end the essentials came together.

The biggest technical problem was with Rodger's new razzle dazzle webcam, which due to failure to make a proper satellite connection, never did get working, leaving a hole in the middle of the web site's front page for part of the race. Finally, on the afternoon of the second day, they hooked up the old webcam we used last year, with pictures allegedly not as good as the new one, but at least it filled the need for the remainder of the race.

The 2006 edition will be known as the year of the ATY Family. The race has numerous participants who return faithfully year after year. These include runners who are far from being in the elite category. Elite and big name runners are as welcome as anyone else to sign up for the race, but it is current official ATY protocol not to cater to or attempt to attract them, certainly not in preference to the roster of loyal supporters that return annually. Forty runners have run the race between five and fourteen times. Race founder Harold Sieglaff has done it 23 times. Needless to say, there will always be a place for Harold as long as he wishes to continue running.

After last year's race the organizers realized we had a megahit on our hands. If the race was to have open enrollment as in the past, it would sell out in minutes, with many of our old friends being left behind. Not good.

Therefore, at a committee meeting some parameters were set by means of which we defined a list of runners we called the ATY Family. We extended advance private invitations to them in May to register for the race. The response was overwhelming and immediate. By the time general registration opened, there were only five race spots still available. Within ten minutes of opening we detected fifteen people hitting the web site attempting to get those spots. Prudently, we also arranged for a waiting list, and before long we had to stop taking additions to that as well.

As race day approached cancellations enabled a few more new ones to participate. A quick visual check indicates about 20 new ones of 105 total runners, with at least four of those being relatives of veteran runners.

The next race we intend to switch to a lottery system to choose runners. No matter what happens, some people will be left out because there are stringent limits to the number of people that available resources will support.

Enough of the overview. This is where this report becomes highly Lynn-centric.

As I have done the past three years, I set a goal of 325 kilometers, nearly 202 miles, mainly because I want the 200-mile buckle offered the last three years. My PR from 2004 is 188.275 miles, so 200 has seemed to be in reach. But I arrived at race day this year fat as a horse, with my running having fallen off dramatically since November, even though I was in the best shape I've been in for years from mid-September to mid-October.

Yes, I have been running; but I experimented with some new training advice involving reduced mileage that simply hasn't worked for me. By race day I was certainly rested, but to the degree that I'd gained a significant amount of weight in a short span — over fifteen pounds since late September! — and I'd lost some fitness.

A week before the race I hammered out a detailed race plan, with daily goals, divided into into six-hour segments of 30%, 27%, 23%, and 20% of the projected day's total, calculating the average pace per segment. One must, of course, run faster than the average for each segment in order to account for breaks, including sleeping, which are hard to predict the need for, but inevitable. In a 72-hour race, only the hardiest can rightly consider doing it without sleep. I've gotten as little as three or four hours, but can by no means go sleepless the whole race.

The day before ATY is to me like Christmas Eve is to some people. For me the fun starts on December 28th. It's an occasion to get to the race site early, set up my stuff, and especially to greet people as they arrive, while getting into the spirit of things.

If there is one thing that ATY does well, it is to communicate with its runners — before, during, and even after the race. As webmaster I answer myself countless questions people send in during the year. I also compose and send most of the pre-race bulk mail, and of course I know most repeating runners to some degree already. By the time race day arrives, I know almost everyone on a first name basis, even those I have not yet met, so naturally I get around to lots of people at least to say hello in the few hours I'm there.

Dave Combs had everything under control in the timing tent, so there were no web-related problems for me to check out from there. Most of what I needed to do yet that day would better be accomplished from home, so I left by 2:30pm.

Late Thursday afternoon I zeroed out critical database tables, made the first official entry in the online news blog, uploaded my own pictures I'd taken that afternoon, and finally enabled the race day front page of the web site with all the critical new webcast features enabled. By then it was time for dinner and to bed promptly at 8:15pm.

I slept well most of the night, and got up at 5:30am. It's difficult for me to stay in bed that long on any occasion, but somehow I managed.

The only change I made to my usual race morning routine was to eat a big bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, stoking my energy reserves early. It proved to be a good move.

That hour or so between arriving and the start of the race is always a nervous time. There is much to do. When I arrived the tent was not yet warmed up. It was a bit uncomfortable until Rodger arrived and fired up the propane heaters.

I had become just another runner going about my preparations. I checked in at the registration desk, picking up my goodie bag with the shirts I hadn't seen myself yet. Very nice! This year we lost Patagonia as a sponsor, but picked up The North Face, which supplied us with stuff that is every bit as good as the gear from Patagonia we gave out the previous two years. Besides, I like The North Face's groovy red logo better than Patagonia's. Personally, I'm happy about the switch, and hope we are able to continue with them.

Next it was back to my tent, followed by the impatient fumbling around with things, making sure everything was put in exactly the right place so I could find it later, dragging the right stuff outside to be at my personal aid station just across from the tent entrance, greeting more people, making jokes and small talk, and waiting for Paul to call the prerace briefing to order.

This year's prerace formalities included a moment of silence in honor of Mark Witkes, who ran the 72-hour race in 2001, and who died near the end of Tucson Marathon on December 8th. The 2006 race was dedicated to his memory. His experience serves as a sobering reminder that engaging in our sport is not without risk or consequences, and that we should by all means enjoy ourselves, but also be careful to show due respect for the life God has given to each of us.

We were off at precisely 9:00am.

My objective was to start out uncomfortably slowly, moreso than I had ever done, with an initial goal of 77 laps (38.5K) in the first six hours. I completed the 77th lap in 5:59:01, as close to on schedule as I could hope to be, but in retrospect I believe it was still too fast. If so, it also means that 325 kilometers was out of range for me this year, but that's the speed I needed to go to make it.

The beginning of the race each year there is much chatter on the track, as the banter bounces back and forth. It seems to follow a sort of curve. Initially there's small talk, jokes and introductions between people who have not yet met but will be spending from one to three days in close proximity. Newly acquainted runners usually start by comparing notes on the races they have run. "Oh yeah, I did the Death and Transfiguration 10,000-mile last year. Great race. I'm thinking of doing a double next year." It's not considered inappropriate strategy to impress or terrify your fellow competitors, as long as you tell the truth.

The first hours of each day's race are for me another occasion to meet people. At ATY we wear bibs with our names in big letters. These are not needed for official reasons, because the chip timing system keeps track of our progress. At ATY the bibs serve a social purpose — they are signs that call out: "This is who I am. Please say hello!" In other races wearing one's bib on the back is an instant sign of a newbie, but at ATY it's generally understood that we wear our bibs on our butts so people coming up behind us or that we pass can see who we are. This year Paul made no announcement suggesting we do so, but the practice was almost universally followed. I guess it's become a part of the culture.

Most satisfying to me was the large number of people who took the initiative to say hello to me, many of whom expressed generous gratitude for features of the web site. It was gratifying to have our work so lavishly and warmly commended, and a thrill to know that ATY participants genuinely love the race. By afternoon of each day I recognized, knew the name of, and had personally said at least a few words to all but a very few participants.

Within two hours things become quiet as the magnitude of the job ahead sets in, and people start to separate. By late at night one hears the sort of hushed and intimate talk reserved for people dying of cancer. As the sun rises and race end approaches, the sounds revert to jubilation and impending success.

The degree to which I am able cope with sleeplessness varies on a race by race basis. Sometimes I get away with almost none. At other times I'm obliged to stop and sleep. If I had been in the 24-hour race, I probably could and would have fought it off, but with three days of labor ahead of me, the wise thing to do was to accept it and get some sleep when my path began to lead me into bushes and fences.

My splits indicate that on the first day, I had a 26-minute lap at 6:00pm. I'm sure I didn't sleep then. Thereafter, I was off for 56 minutes at midnight, again for 42 minutes at 1:45am, and again for 54 minutes at 3:00am, so about 2.5 hours of actual sleeping for the day, including time to settle down, adjust clothing and whatever, potty stop, and of course time around the track for each of those laps.

By mid-morning on the second day I knew I was significantly behind in my race plan, which meant first of all that I was already sure I would not make my 325 kilometer goal, and that from that time on there wasn't much point in trying to keep up with the race plan, but that I should just continue to do the best I could. I was not feeling bad at all, just a little frustrated over having arrived at race day less than optimally ready.

Local super-runner Dan Brenden, who is among the kindest of men, and who usually runs ATY as a training run between Grand Slam races and runs across the African desert, saw me the second morning, and apparently sensed that I may have been suffering some distress, so offered to walk a lap with me. We talked about comparing our expectations with our actual performances at any given race. The discussion continued by email after the race. I've taken the liberty of quoting and paraphrasing part of what he said here, which contains a valuable lesson for all ultrarunners:
Prior to a run runners set their expectations. During the run if they find that they will not be able to satisfy those expectations we engage in negative thinking about ourselves. We do not deserve this negative thinking and should be praising ourselves not belittling our performance.

The source of the problem is not in our performance but rather in our expectations. Our expectation setting process is faulty leading to error riddled expectations. I believe expectations are a combination of a variety of factors including past performance times, anticipation of our training outcomes, how we feel the day we set the expectations and other factors that are individual and some of which we are not aware.... We blame ourselves when our performance does not meet our expectations. Wherein often it is the case, because we have accomplished something, we then store it in our mind as average when we should continue to look upon it as astounding.

Running is so much more than an experiment of matching some extraneous time value with a superfluous distance measurement. If running was only a matching game we would all stay home and do the Sunday crossword puzzle.... The greatest runners are not those who finish the fastest or go the furthest but those who give the run their whole body and soul and teach the rest of us not only what it means to be an ultra runner but more importantly how to live our lives.
Nice stuff, eh?

Dan may have thought I was suffering more emotional trauma than I actually was, but fortified by the kind encouragement, I continued to reflect periodically on what he said. While I did not make my goal, neither did I start the race thinking I had a realistic chance to do so. To have gone over 200 miles would have put me in the range of champions and record holders. Sometimes I can do fairly well, but I'm not that kind of runner and know it.

Sometime during the first day I told Paul Bonnett that one thing is absolutely assured: In a 72-hour-race there will be some period of time for every every runner when he (or she) will feel like garbage, when he begins to question his sanity, wondering whether it is reasonable to continue. But these periods are part of the challenge, and they pass. At ATY 2006, I never felt bitterly discouraged or remotely like giving up. I believed that I would surely do better than last year, when my performance was greatly diminished by physical problems I began to experience by about 100 miles. And prevail I did. This year my 100-mile split was six hours behind last year's, but I beat my total distance by 17 miles. In total mileage my race ranked fifth among my six tries.

This race I confronted the problem of better nutrition. The year of my PR I ate like a Conehead, and enjoyed the food immensely. It was my determination to avoid the Bad Stuff entirely — that grab and gulp section of the aid station table with heaps of cookies, chips, candy and other sugary treats that normally I would be unable to resist, but during the race did not interest me in the least. M&M's are normally a great downfall for me, but to my credit I never consumed a single M! Sometime during mid-race I did treat myself to about a half dozen cookies with a white frosted covering, and one single Oreo.

For hydration I brought my own concoction — two gallons of water with maltodextrin and Crystal Light mixed in. When I did not drink that, I stuck entirely to plain water at the aid station, except for one cup of Coke. I maintained my hydration and electrolytes admirably, and never sensed any problem with an imbalance.

I didn't eat much of the little food I'd brought for myself. Instead I stuck mainly to hot cooked foods from the aid station whenever I could get them: pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, cups of soup, the catered meals that were sent in: chicken cordon bleu, lasagna, pizza, and burritos; also oatmeal, scrambled eggs, and whatever stick-to-the-ribs delights I could get my hands on. That way I felt like I was actually eating something nutritious rather than just snacking.

Sometime during the first day someone commented he might like to take a shower before the next day. I reminded him that the the shower stalls at ATY are outdoor and sort of communal, though it's certainly possible for a person to maintain adequate privacy. The guy I was with commented, "The last thing I think about wanting to see when I'm here is a naked woman." I replied: "That is, of course, until you happen to actually see one!" — which semi-happened the morning of the third day as two of us guys ran by a lady runner who shall remain discreetly anonymous, and who quipped, "Well boys, I guess you get to see a show today!" as she pulled her top off to change into something more comfortable.

A tool new to me at ATY this year was my 80 gigabyte iPod, which I acquired last September. I've been running for many years without a music player, but a year ago I bought my wife a 40 gigabyte player for her to walk with, on the supposition that I would try it myself, and if I liked it I'd want one for myself. So I tried it and liked it, and when the new 80GB players came out for not much more than the 40GB machines, I bought one. As a one-time musician I have about 650 music CDs (and as many vinyl records), almost all of which are now on my iPod, with 18 gigabytes left over.

I saved the iPod for late night use, which performed perfectly, so I was able to tool around the track while listening to Handel, Mozart, Keith Jarrett, Elliott Carter, the Beatles, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Randy Newman, Stockhausen, Verdi, Kronos String Quartet, Bach, Rameau, a couple of Bible books, and Stravinsky. An edifying way to pass the time while freezing one's butt off at night.

On the second night I was passed by a runner I didn't recognize at first, running in a white heat, then again and again. Suddenly I realized it was Rodger Wrublik. At first I figured he was out to do a few laps for fun, though he has said repeatedly that he does not like running on his own track. Since I had put him and Paul Bonnett and Dave Combs in the race database for administrative reasons, he reasoned that he might as well slap on a chip and get in a long run. He wound up running 65 miles in 11 hours that night, while at the same time handling chores like picking up and stomping down trash. The third night he ran again, and by 4:45am he had acquired 100 miles. That accumulation was in roughly 22:45 of actual running time. Meanwhile, in other hours he managed to handle problems as the race host.

Rodger will be running the HURT 100 in Hawaii next weekend. How nice that he could get a sub-23:00 100-miler in a couple of weeks before as a tune-up. The man continues to amaze me with his vast stores of energy and abilities.

The weather was unseasonably cold at ATY this year, with temperatures dipping to near freezing. The nights were brutal, enough to drive a greater number than usual runners into the tent at night. A few dropped out early, apparently victims of the cold. As a winter race with 13 hours of darkness, the nights are never easy at ATY. Personally, I always hope for unseasonably warm temperatures during the day, just so the nights don't get too cold. This year I was well prepared for it, and though I could sense it, it didn't impact me negatively this year. In 2002, when we were still camping out on the soccer fields of a high school track in Queen Creek, the cold almost caused me to quit outright.

My favorite sight at Across the Years is one that I experience repeatedly at night, in former years while traveling in the counterclockwise direction, but this year while running clockwise.

Runners pass slightly uphill in front of the house and over the driveway, then through a portal of bushes that leads into the main treed area, which Rodger calls the forest, with the timing tent on the left (moved from previous years, with vastly superior effectiveness), the gazebo, yard, and main corridor lined with runners' personal aid stations. Late at night, with reduced light and sensory perceptions altered by hours of running, the sight acquires an indescribable visual appearance. This year there was a bit of white light leakage from the projector used to display laps that did not directly hit the screen. Some hit bushes and trees, framing an arch overhead. The sight running down that lit corridor toward the aid station is surreal, as I get the impression of being lost in space and time, losing all context of where I am, what I'm doing, and why. For those few moments each lap, I'm just there, as my whole world seems to be focused on just that moment, and there is nothing else that matters. It's my favorite visual impression the race, and is one I am quite sure is incapable of being captured by a camera.

The sensation is increased in the hours leading up to midnight on New Year's Eve, as party decorations begin to appear around the track, tables with sparkling cider are set up, the music and bonfire are stoked up to higher levels, and visitors appear, sometimes dressed in holiday party attire or formal wear, as they mingle around the bonfire, enjoying conversation, sipping wine or cider, and watching runners go by. This is something you simply will not see at any other race.

As it happens, this year and last I missed seeing everything that happens around midnight, as I was sound asleep in my tent, in the middle of my longest break of the race, a lap of six hours and twelve minutes. I was briefly awakened by the sounds of celebration and fireworks, but was not inclined to get up to witness it.

Traditionally, I experience a third day surge of energy, usually in the wee hours of the morning, but this time and one other year, in the afternoon hours of December 31st. On Sunday, for about an hour and a half in the early afternoon, I began running once again. It felt exhilarating to do so. My philosophy of strategy is that there are enough periods during this race when I don't feel good at all, that I should go ahead and get my miles when I feel like running, rather than follow some arbitrary race plan. But 1:00pm was too early for the surge to start, as I still had nearly 20 hours of race left, and I wound up paying for it.

The ailment that took me out of the race last year was "ultrarunner's lean", tentatively diagnosed by Andy Lovy as an exhausted left iliopsoas completely lacking in potassium and therefore unable to fire so as to hold me up straight, causing me to lean to the right, ultimately resulting in great back pain because of consequent inability to run or walk in that position.

All through 2006 I did exercises to strengthen those muscles on both sides. It might have done some good, but not enough. Fortunately, the problem attacked much later in my race than last year, and with less devastating consequences. It was when I began feeling uncomfortable from the leaning that I headed off to my tent for my longest break of the race, hoping that some outright rest might help.

It didn't. For two solid hours in the early morning hours of January 1st I virtually channeled my walking, concentrating on nothing else but trying to maintain good form so as to make good progress and minimize the pain. Finally I told Andy Lovy about it. He had sent me an electronic truckload of material on the problem early in the year, much of which I put on the web site. What I had overlooked in his analysis was that there is also a possible solution: potassium glutamate, which is available in health food stores without prescription, and which they had in the medical area.

Say what? How come I didn't know about that? I rushed to the tent to get some, took a capsule that I was told would last ten to twelve hours, and in ten minutes I was walking upright again. Whether I was experiencing the effects of faith healing, believing that this would solve my problem, I do not know. The benefits lasted barely two hours. I asked if taking more would be harmful or beneficial, and was told it might be neither, so I did, and it may have helped a little, but was far from the solution I was looking for.

I was not alone in suffering from ultrarunner's lean. Tracy Thomas, who was on her way to setting the women's course record, began to manifest signs of it as well, though she was leaning in the opposite direction. Mistakenly thinking I had become the big expert, I trotted up beside her and told her confidently that there was a solution to the problem. "What?" she inquired with notable skepticism. I told her with great authority what I had learned about potassium glutamate, as though I had known it all my life, and demonstrated by holding my arms out and walking ahead of her a couple of steps.

Tracy's pointed response was: "You only think you're standing up straight." Ha! The Emperor had no clothes and was now revealed. This realization, while humbling, made me laugh out loud, as I replied: "I think that's how it works!"

That episode signaled the end of my ideas of salvaging my race with potassium glutamate. From then until the end, I tendered no further hope that any miracle substance would improve the situation, and all that was left was to grit it out. Fortunately, by then I had only a few hours to go.

For the record, as far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out on the question of what causes runner's lean and what can be done about it. I have no idea, and am back to square one.

When I crossed the mat at 8:52:20 on January 1st, I had run 512 laps, 256 kilometers, a good 8-bit hacker's number. My last lap brought me to 159.071 miles. I could have run one more lap in the time remaining, two with great effort if I had been able to run (which I could not do), but at 0.31 miles per lap it would have taken three more laps to squeak over 160 miles, which I greatly wanted, but it was not to be.

Instead I rushed to my tent to pick up my camera and return to take finishing pictures for the web site.

And so the race was over, with John Geesler and Tracy Thomas winning the 72-hour race, Hans Bauer and Julie Aistars the 48-hour race, and Wendell Doman and Terri Handy the 24-hour race. Complete results are on the web site at

My humble 159.071 miles was good for 16th out of 35, so still into the top half, but with the caveat that the rankings in these races are skewed by runners who do not run the race seriously, but run for some arbitrary sub-goal and then stop. I have personal mixed feelings about these performances, but that's a topic for another discussion, and in any case, they are allowed under present race rules.

The food at the postrace luncheon, which my wife arranged for, but not until late the first day of the race, included enchiladas, burritos, chili, salad, and other items of taste and substance — not what most people in the world would be eating at 10:00am on New Year's morning. I suppose a lot were consuming Alka Seltzer. But multiday runners are not most people.

Paul Bonnett conducted the awards presentation with his usual aplomb. Several primary contributors to the race were warmly acknowledged with sustained standing ovations by the tired runners and others present.

We sat at a table with Tony Mangan from Ireland, who finished the 72-hour barely 4.5 miles in back of John. Hans Bauer, winner of the 48-hour was also there. It was interesting to hear the conversation between Tony and John, who came over to compare war stories.

John blamed himself for not making 300 miles, which was his goal, and thought he could have made it if he'd just tried a little harder. He said that he never slept during the race. He laid down once, but couldn't fall asleep, so got up and kept running. Someone said: "I hope you're not driving anywhere from here!" Without missing a beat, John replied: "I'm flying the plane! All those people will be waiting for me." Right.

Because I'd had some sleep during the night I was not as sleepy on the ride home as usual (my wife always drives me home), and was able to take care of a few tasks at home before showering and getting a few hours sleep. It was Wednesday before I got all my stuff pulled in from the car and put away.

As of several days after the race I have thus far have avoided any negative consequences from my ravaged endocrine system. My feet survived quite well, with only one blister that I didn't even know about until I got home. It was of no consequence during the race. But for three days I almost couldn't get my feet in my shoes for the swelling.

But the news was not all good: on Sunday, five days after the race, my lower left leg swelled up so enormously and painfully that I feared I might have sustained a stress fracture. A Monday visit to the DO and x-ray suggests that it is not broken, and merely a case of leg edema. Tomorrow I will take sonogram test to search for blood clots.

Across the Years 2006 is now in the books. No plans whatever have been made as yet regarding future ATY races, but if there is one, which is likely, I will be there.

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