This post is about another tradition, one that hearkens back to 2008, and the first Back on My Feet "20in24" 24-hour race in Philadelphia. As a total unknown, having run ultras for only about a year, I showed up at the race with Collin. While Collin had a bad day and dropped out early, I braved 95+ degree weather and no shade to run 111+ miles, and finish second overall, to Serge Arbona (who, at the time, was a relative unknown to me). At the time, the thrill of battling it out for 24 hours under brutal conditions, and the resulting muscle pain, sunburn, and $75 prize check were the height of "epic" when it came to ultrarunning.
Then Badwater happened, not once, but four times, and each time was incredible and memorable in its own way. It was a difficult decision not to run Badwater this year, but with the course change, and all of the background that went along with it, in the end, it just didn't FEEL right. And, let's face it - a lot of things about ultrarunning, if not life in general, aren't entirely logical.
Fortunately, the Back on my Feet "in24" provided an exciting opportunity to do something different this year. I had always wanted to go back and run it again, but since it always conflicted with Badwater, it was never an option. Finally, this year, it was. And not only was it a chance to run a race that I had always wanted to go back to, but it was also an opportunity to re-unite the Badwater 2013 crew - Chris, Shannon, and Meredith. And, better yet, Chris, our perennial crew-member but complete non-runner, was going to race, courtesy of a few of us pitching in to cover his entry fee. Back on my Feet also gave me a free entry to the Midnight Madness race to give away, and my friend Traviss won my contest for the entry, so he would be out there at midnight, too. All in all, it was shaping up to be an exciting race.
There was one major downside, though - training.
After the Boston Marathon in April, I was sick for almost a full month. Then I attempted 3 Days at the Fair in mid-May, and crashed and burned (unsurprisingly) in my attempt at a good 24-hour race there. At that point, I now had 8 weeks before "in24," and between significant new job responsibilities at work, at church, and managing a newly long-distance relationship (after a couple of years of being as close as those type of relationships get), the time and energy to train the way that I had wanted to just weren't there. I averaged 50 miles per week for the 8 weeks leading up to the race. That's not terrible, but it's certainly not the kind of volume that's ideal coming into a 24-hour race. (Although it's still better than Chris's 5 miles of walking a day, in preparation for his first 5K, 5-mile, 10K, 10-mile, marathon, 50K, 50-mile race . . .)
In spite of my lackluster physical preparation, for a number of reasons, I was mentally in the right place coming into this race. The idea that, in contrast to 3 Days at the Fair, I would have my friends there supporting me, made a huge difference. Even though there were not a lot of logical reasons to believe that this race would go well, I had a good feeling about it. For eight weeks, on every training run, I thought about the race. I thought about the focus that I would need to have, the pain that I would need to endure, and the feeling of reaching my goal, which was mostly to compete the best that I could for first place. Considering the physical shape that I was in, a PR in the event, although possible, seemed unlikely. That left competing with the course, the conditions, and the other competitors . . . the same way that the event was in 2008.
Pre-race dinner with Chris, Meredith, and friends, was as light-hearted as the pre-race Badwater dinners, albeit in the suburban jungle of Chipoltle and make-your-own-froyo, as opposed to a remote desert oasis. Having not slept too well all week leading up to the race, I finally slept soundly the night before, knowing that when I woke up in the morning, the only thing that I would be worried about for the next 24(ish) hours would be forward progress, the best that I could.
After saying goodbye to Meredith's husband and daughter (the latter of which would have me laughing about her "on stairs" joke, that I'm not going to bother explaining here, since I am the only one in the world that thinks that it's funny), we headed off to Fairmount Park, found parking, checked in, and set up our tent (strategically next to Serge Arbona's tent, and just a couple of steps off of the course, for convenient access). We had a good laugh at Chris's outrageously high blood pressure and resting heart rate (somewhere in the neighborhood of 145 over 91, and 78, respectively), which the paramedic taking the readings just shrugged at as he handed Chris the check-in form. Chris, of course, being cheerful Chris, was undeterred.
The weather was much cooler than expected, thanks to the "polar vortex," rearing its head once again in the middle of the summer. This would make the race interesting, since with reasonable temperatures, anybody who was truly in shape for the event (not me) and raced smart could potentially log huge mileage. Off we went, and I settled into what felt like a reasonable, comfortable pace for the first four hours or so, ticking off the 8.4 mile lap in somewhere between 1:15 and 1:30 per lap, employing strategic walking breaks to make the task more mentally manageable. Serge had gone ahead, and there was nobody in particular who was running at my pace, but that was okay. I was enjoying the freedom of finally running the event that I had planned on running months ago. My stomach was bothering me a bit as I started settling in, but amusingly enough, when I passed Chris, he had Gas-X to give me, proving that he can crew even when he's running a race.
Nearing the end of four laps, the cloud cover was lifting, the sun was coming out, and the temperature was climbing. This was the insidious sort of temperature increase, that you don't realize is a problem until your stomach turns and you start throwing up. I could feel my control on the race slipping away, but then the first of a series of well-timed things happened.
About ten minutes away from the end of my fourth lap, Shannon showed up, right on time to begin pacing (pacing was allowed after four laps). He was fresh, and throwing down a tough pace, but it was exactly the sort of challenge that I needed at that moment to push through the mental low point that I was reaching. Shannon paced me for another two laps, and had me talking and laughing enough that I forgot about the increasing pain everywhere.
I could tell that Shannon was fatiguing, though, and at this point, not quite 9 hours into the race, there was still a ton of time left. And then the second of a series of well-timed things happened. Jackie and Jeff showed up just as I was finishing my sixth lap. Although they weren't exactly "fresh," having "run" (read: scrambled over boulders) quite a bit on the Appalachian Trail earlier in the day, they were still less fatigued than I was, at just over 50 miles in. Having their company and distracting banter for the next lap once again helped me push past what could have been a low point. They left for a lap, which was just enough time alone with my thoughts, before Jackie jumped in for one more lap, again, just the right amount of help.
At that point, it was getting late (after 10 pm), and Jackie and Jeff needed to leave, but then the third in a series of well-timed events happened. Traviss, who was my Midnight Madness contest winner, was standing around near the start/finish waiting for his race to start, and, as he overheard our conversation, he offered to pace me for a lap or two after he finished his race. Left to my own devices for a lap, the Midnight Madness runners proved, again, to be the perfect distraction, as they ran towards me with their glowsticks and words of encouragement. I smiled a lot during that lap. Here I was, out there running for 14 hours, still 10 more hours to go, with these runners just starting out, and I was actually able to smile. So, I may as well smile.
Near the end of the lap, I picked up Maggie as an impromptu pacer, and she pushed me through the next few miles, matching (and in some cases exceeding) my pace. Once again, a well-timed event that carried me through to the end of the lap, where, as luck would have it, Traviss was finishing just as I was getting ready to head out again. I set out for another lap with Traviss and Maggie in tow, and once Maggie reached Lisa, who she had promised to pace, it was just Traviss and me for the remainder of the lap. Once more, the perfect support and distraction, especially at nearly two in the morning.
Unfortunately, Traviss needed to leave after a lap, since this was an unplanned pacing gig anyway, but he did bring me some particularly delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice before he left, which, stomach-churning effects aside (nothing that some Tums and Coke can't fix), was probably the best thing that I had tasted the entire race. Now I would be on my own for a while, and my thoughts turned to the competition. I had been at the start/finish a couple of laps ago when Serge lapped me, so, short of a blow-up on his part, or a miracle on his part, I was unlikely to beat him. But Mark mentioned to me, a couple of laps ago, that the mysterious second-place runner (who I had heard was old, young, from Haverford, and probably a dozen other things) was only about 20 minutes ahead of me.
I had no idea who I was looking for. Maybe I had already passed him. But without the aid of pacers, I needed the motivation of trying to catch somebody who was ahead of me to prevent me from lapsing mentally. After a little bit of iPhone-aided research, I discovered that his bib number was 61, and I would spend the next several hours looking at every person that I passed for that magical number.
Finally, heading into my 14th lap, coincidentally enough, very close to where I had stopped in 2008 when I ran 111+ miles, I jogged up behind a group of three people in their mid-20s, surrounding another person in his mid-20s. This fit one of the vague descriptions of this "Cohen" fellow that I was chasing down. I passed him, said a friendly hello, looked at his chest, and sure enough, partially obscured by the mandatory reflective gear that he hadn't yet taken off (I hadn't taken mine off, either) was that magical "61". He asked how I was, and I said "just taking it one step at a time." And with that, I knew that I had to make my move, and I took off running.
I pushed through the next lap in around 1:25, the fastest lap that I'd completed in quite some time. I wanted to make sure that when he came around at the end of the lap, and asked how far behind he was, I would have put the maximum distance between us that I could, and that that might break him.
As I later found out, after the race, when he came over to me and shook my hand and congratulated me, he confirmed that my strategy had worked exactly as intended. He had thought that he was further ahead of me, but was already a bit demoralized to learn that he had just a 12-minute lead. When I passed him with authority, and got far enough ahead of him, he actually stopped after 14 laps. Not knowing this, I had to "suffer" through an entire 15th lap, to arrive at the start/finish with 45 minutes left, to confirm that I didn't need to go any further, and that, with 126+ miles, I had secured second place, with no chance for first.
Meanwhile, amidst all of this competition, the final of the very well-timed things happened. As I reached the last half-mile of my 14th lap, Shannon and Chris were off to the side of the course, getting ready for one last push to the finish. Chris was going to make his 50 miles! I slowed down to walk with them, and we walked in together. I didn't realize it at the time, but, as we crossed the finish line, both Chris and I were victorious (him with his 50 miles, me with securing second place) at exactly the same time.
What I did realize at the time is that both Chris and I were in horrific pain, Chris moreso than I was. But my time would come. I could feel myself mentally breaking down at the end of my 15th lap, having left Shannon behind, who himself was tiring as a pacer for Chris, and Meredith, and me, putting in over 50 miles himself between pacing the three of us. As I let my guard down, and the adrenaline started to wear off, the pain starting to overwhelm me. The thought of Chris dragging himself through the finish, and how he must have felt, was in the back of my mind. Slow or fast, in these races, we all have our moments of doubt and suffering. Soon enough, though, I would be sitting in a chair near the finish, spent, glad to be finished, and delighted with the DJ's sense of humor, as he played "Nothing Else Matters" by Metallica, and then "Money" by Pink Floyd, in succession.
After a massage and perhaps lingering too long on the Lloyd Hall upstairs patio with a banana and a bottle of water, I went downstairs for the awards ceremony, to greet Serge with a fist bump, and it looked something like this:
|Serge and me, 1st and 2nd place, post-race, all smiles.|
(Thanks, Meredith, for capturing this moment!)
The in24 in Philadelphia certainly isn't Badwater. Only Badwater is Badwater (and this year, even that is unclear). But the in24 was the right midsummer race for me this year. At the end of the day, I got exactly what I had wanted out of the race - great competition, and quality time with great friends, all of whom I cannot thank enough. I've definitely started races in better shape, and I've definitely had better performances by the hard numbers. But I can't think of a single race that I've run where I've had more timely and valuable support from my friends leading up to, and throughout the event.
So now this is going to sound like the end of a Badwater race report, as I offer my most sincere thank-yous to Chris, Shannon, Meredith, Jackie, Jeff, Maggie, Traviss, Meg, Tina, the mysterious "Cohen/61," Serge, Mark, Christian, the rest of Serge's crew, all of the folks at Back on my Feet and Pretzel City Sports and Stroehmann Bakeries (that make lots of gluten-filled foods that I personally can't eat, but are great for everybody else), all of the participants in the Philadelphia in24 races, the amazing, enthusiastic volunteers on the course, all of the other sponsors that made this race possible, and probably a bunch more people that I'm forgetting. At the end of the day, this, like Badwater, was a race that was about bringing a team and resources together, and competing the best that you are able to. And, thanks to the great friends that I have, that all came together to help me through this, the 2014 Back on my Feet "in24" 24-hour race was exactly as amazing as I had hoped it would be, and, this year, exactly the right race for me.