Among my running goals for 2007 was to do a 24-hour race, and attempt to set a lifetime PR therein.
When setting that goal I had no idea that my life would soon be uprooted, that after nearly thirty years of living in Phoenix I would find myself at year end moving to another state far away and to another life. Such disruptions tend to put a dent in endeavors of lesser importance such as running. And so it came to be. But I'm not unhappy.
We arrived in San Francisco after a thirteen-hour drive, the last ninety minutes of which was the ten miles across the Bay Bridge, and from there to our motel in the last block of Lombard before Presidio, within walking distance of Crissy Field. We had just enough time to get delicious dinner at the Curbstone restaurant up the street, get my gear laid out, and get to bed. The hotel was cheap, but admirably clean and comfortable, with a great bed.
I slept exceptionally well for nine hours, probably because I was not stressed about the race, ready to accept whatever happened.
Getting up and out went as smoothly as possible. I settled for the coffee, orange juice, muffins, and fruit from the motel office for a pre-race meal, and we arrived at Crissy Field at 8:00 AM sharp.
For this race I made changes to my usual footwear arrangement. I taped the balls of my feet as always, but not my toes, and overlaid women's half height nylons, but with the toe end cut open. Then I added Injinji socks, worn for the first time in a race (I'd done a long run in them), gaiters, and my shoes (Asics 2120s), but without the prescription orthotics I've worn since 1996. This combination worked for me, as I had absolutely no trouble with blisters or any other sort of foot problem the whole race — a good thing, since I'm still missing two toenails, and the skin on the balls of my feet is still new and tender from my last race.
The park does not allow tents (I wouldn't have brought one for just a 24-hour) or personal tables, so setup amounted to joining a string of camp chairs heaped with bags. This worked just fine. I didn't plan on sitting down the whole race, though I wound up doing so anyhow.
I'd looked closely at the course using Google Maps, but it became clear only when I finally got a chance to look at it first hand. Being right on the ocean front, practically at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, with the path surrounding a beautiful lagoon, the setting couldn't have been more beautiful, particularly with the cool and cloudless weather we enjoyed. The temperature ranged between 60 in the afternoon and 52 at night.
Part of the course is on asphalt (Mason Street), the rest on well-packed dirt. At a distance of 1.0174 miles, a loop matches closely the distance at Olander Park in Sylvania, Ohio, another 24-hour course around a lake, and the one used in the Sri Chinmoy 6- and 10-day races in Queens, New York, both courses that many runners think are ideal in both length and ambience, even if dirt would have been easier on the legs than the asphalt.
It's always fun before a race to renew old acquaintances and connect a few new faces to names. Having spent now a total of 24 full 24-hour days of my life circling around various tracks, I've gotten to know quite a few of the people who participate in this mode of the sport. There were plenty of old friends to see. I also had the pleasure of being visited by subscribers to the Ultra List who were not running. In the evening I joined Karen Guenther for a few laps, mistakenly thinking she had come by to visit, but she was in the race. Karen showed up at 7:00 PM, ran 50 miles, then went home to shower work before heading off to a full day of work on Sunday morning.
My goals were as follows:
- Plan A: PR (83.28-plus miles, set at Olander in 2001)
- Plan B: 90 miles (89 laps would have done it)
- Plan C: 90++ miles (meaning 91 or more)
In the end I came up short on all of them. C'est la vie.
I ran consistently for the first few hours, walking some every loop, according to my usual custom, with lap times in the 13 - 14 minute range. The day was beautiful, I felt good, and had no desire to hurry.
Soon we were not alone, as thousands of people assembled at the west end of Crissy Field to do a charity walk for juvenile diabetes research. They took off walking east on Mason Street, apparently having been told to leave the coned inside lane free because there was another race going on, but with thousands of people including kids and dogs, before long it got a bit crowded. Most people could see the runners wearing numbers heading toward them, and had the courtesy to keep out of our way. But some people took to congregating in the two tight turns at the west end, in the three feet or so between the cone and the edge of the course. In most cases they were just oblivious to the fact that something else was going on.
During the afternoon the dirt straight on the north side between the lagoon and the bay front was occupied by large numbers of people, including many runners, some of them blazingly fast. A few going our direction (clockwise) did get in the way a bit, strolling at museum pace inside the cones, but it wasn't inconvenient. Besides, we all live on the same planet and we have to share it.
It was amusing to be asked by three different walkers what charity our race was supporting. It's hard to say anything more than, "None!" when you're in motion, going the opposite direction, but I paused for about twenty seconds to chat with one puzzled couple, who couldn't imagine why anyone would do such a thing without some sort of ulterior mission to accomplish.
Charity runs and walks are, of course, a completely different genre of activity from what ultrarunners engage in — which observation is not meant in any way to denigrate the efforts of those who present and participate in health and fitness events. (I do have a bit more of a problem with those who try to mix them by bringing large teams of slow people who run in groups and gum up a marathon that is being run for the sake of the running.)
People who run 24-hour events are not typically the sort who sign up for a fun run with teams from their workplaces, but trained athletes, albeit sometimes old, slow, fat ones, with experience running long distances, some with national and world records under their belts or in view. In other words, ultramarathons are real races. We run them because we like to run and to explore the outer limits of our physical endurance. Just because we're running 24 hours straight without some cause to provoke us doesn't mean that we're self-absorbed lunatics.
By shortly after noon most of the charity walkers had left, and the crowding problem diminished dramatically, as we had only the local citizenry out for a Saturday afternoon in the park to dodge.
Nighttime came. It was dark on the north side; I could have run without my flashlight, but didn't. (A few runners did.)
Before long the ranks thinned out as some people retreated to their chairs. As I discussed with a couple of people both during and after the race: this was supposed to be a 24-hour race, right? So WHERE DID EVERYONE GO? From midnight until almost sunrise it looked like there was never more than a half dozen people out there at any time grinding out laps. I was one of them, slow as could be, averaging about a 20-minute pace by this time, the tortoise gradually catching up with but never quite catching most of the snoozing hares.
At some very late hour someone passed me and asked: "Have you been watching the meteor shower?" Ummm. No, I wasn't aware that there was one. "Oh yeah, I've lots of them." I tried running for ten seconds with my head cocked to watch the sky. That doesn't work for me any better than trying to run landing on my toes, so I never saw a meteor. I could probably run in a rain shower and not notice the drops.
I've gotten better at going through the night in recent races. No such luck this race. Other than a quick potty break around mile 23, and twice for about three minutes each to empty some pebbles out of my shoes after the gaiters came loose, the first time I sat down was after 58 miles, dozing lightly for around 20 minutes. Then I took a second 20-minute break at 63 miles, which held me until dawn, when I sat down for less than ten minutes.
Before long we were invaded again. The Nike Women's Marathon and Half Marathon started nearby, and all 40,000 ladies (by one estimation) came streaming west on Mason Street like a column of ants. I've never seen so many women in one place, at least not without men chasing them.
Before the race started they set up a small cheering squad on Mason Street that I called the hooters, a sort of Wellesley West as it were, whose incessant whooping and hollering at the top of their lungs could be heard a half mile away for two hours straight.
Our little San Francsisco 24-Hour race could not compete with this, but Wendell and Sarah had it covered. Shortly before the Nike race started they rerouted us so that from then until the end of the race we did out and backs along the dirt path only. I would have liked to run alongside all the ladies myself, but I guess it would have been hopelessly crowded.
Modern marathons sure do alter one's perception of what a "race" is. What exactly is a race these days, when so many people start and some walking competitors stop by the side of the road to take photos of all their friends? Isn't that more like a shopping expedition?
Even ultralister Deb Clem, who was in the women's race, took time to run a third of a mile over to where our race was going on and say Hi, and pass around hugs to all the people she knows before returning. Presumably this had some impact on her race time.
At exactly 23:00:00 I crossed the lap start, leaving one hour to get three more miles without having to suffer too badly to get them. Four was out of the question by then. I wasn't hurting at all, felt just fine, and could have gone for hours longer. I did start running just a little bit in order to be sure I didn't shave it too close. My splits show 18:33, 16:33, and 17:19 for my last three laps, with nearly seven minutes left to stand and watch the final finishers come in.
When it was all over I had accumulated 75 laps, for a total of 76.3 miles. Even though this was a personal worst for me at 24 hours, and about seven miles short of my Plan C goal, it still placed me 27th out of fifty runners who logged laps (the 54th percentile), the first time I did not finish at least in the top half in a fixed-time race, but at least still a mid-pack placement.
So what happened? I was never hurting. I ate and drank plenty, some of both almost every lap, and I kept my electrolytes balanced. But by the time I got to around 40 miles I lost the urge to battle. I was perfectly content to be out there walking, and could have gone for hours longer. Instead, except for the last three laps, I walked most of the second half of the race.
Do I care? Not at all. Recently, with a move barely three weeks away, it's seemed like I've been carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. I've been running, and I'm in good health, but running has not been a top priority focus lately.
It's going to be interesting seeing how I manage to work in training for Across the Years, which is now 66 days away.