I ran in a very unique race, the 4mph Challenge. The race runs along the shoreline of Whiskeytown Lake in northern California. For this race you must maintain at least a 4 m.p.h. (15-minute mile) for each six-mile segment. If you don’t finish the six miles in 90 minutes, you are out. Once you finish the segment you wait for the clock until 90 minutes and off you go again for the next segment. The winner is the person who goes the furthest without timing out or quitting.
Years ago, I read the intriguing, but gruesome 1979 novel by Stephen King entitled “The Longest Walk.” The story is similar to Hunger Games. Teenage boys participate in an annual walking contest and must keep their pace above 4 m.p.h. You are given only three warnings if you slow, and then bam, shot dead. The winner is the last one standing and they get nice awards. As I read it, I realized Stephen King doesn’t run. 4 m.p.h is fast. He should have chosen 2 m.p.h. to make it more realistic. I was interested to see what I could do with 4 m.p.h.
I was somewhat naïve, thinking I could really pile up the miles and exceed the course record of 114 miles. After all, I have run 150 miles before, faster than 4 m.p.h. But I learned along the way how difficult this really is with this format.
The course is west of Redding, California. It runs near the inlet shoreline of Whiskeytown Lake and is relatively flat except for a 200-foot climb up and over a hill. There is a six-mile segment going west, and another on the return. The race (really cheap entrace fee) provides fluids and a little aid, but otherwise you need to bring your own food and supplies for both ends of the course. Mark Swanson is the race director. He provides multiple race divisions, 12-miles, 36-miles, and Unlimited. I’ve known Mark for years, running with him in various ultras. I thought it would be fun to fly out and try his race.
The area had been hit my massive rain leading up to the race. Nearly 19 inches of rain had been dumped on the course in the days leading up to the race. Thankfully the sun came out for a few days and dried up most of the trail. But the course needed to be modified for a safer creek crossing and the course was shortened, probably to about 5.85 miles for each segment.
I arrived at Redding the day before and went shopping for my food and two chairs, one for each side. I planned for the possibility of running for 48 hours, so stocked up well. The next morning, I arrived at the park, set up my personal aid station by my chair, and was off and running with the group of 22 unlimited divison runners at 7:30 a.m.
We first ran for 0.2 miles on pavement and then turned off on a single-track trail to descend down toward the lake. The trail was smooth and fast. It was pretty flat but had a few steeper rises and falls along the way that would get more difficult as time went on. The views of the lake were pleasant to see. At mile 2.9 to 3.4 we ran on a paved road which would be a nice change later as the legs became tired. At mile 3.7 we began the 200-foot climb on some nice switchbacks to mile 4.3. Next up was a fast flat winding single-track trail with great views of the valley below. At mile 5.1 the detoured route took us down steeply to the crossing of Mill Creek.
We were told that it might be possible to get across the creek with dry feet using some logs, but it was a little dangerous. I decided to just get my feet wet and go across fast. The remaining run of the segment was nice forest, going past some interesting mine ruins, and then across open fields to the turnaround at a bridge across Clear Creek in the Tower district near Camden House.
I finished the first segment in 1:04, giving me 26 minutes to rest, eat well, and wait for the restart to return back. There were a couple runners who would really run the segments fast. I didn’t understand why. With this format, there really is no reason to run the segments super fast because then you just sit and wait.
Pace was really important. For me, having a GPS watch is really required to watch my pace closely. I did get familiar with all the mile points along the way and mileage signs would have been a nice idea. I would always very carefully watch my pace for each mile. I wanted to go fast enough to minimize my steps, give me time at each end to eat, and make any adjustments such as fixing my feet.
The return trip went well except that I took a wrong turn near the end, figured things out, and arrived back in 1:03. I was bothered that my feet were still very wet. I sat at my car, took off my shoes and tried to dry things out. I decided that I would take my sandals with me on the next segment to use for the creek crossing, keeping my shoes and socks dry. This idea seemed good, but used up about four minutes. To save time, I just ran in the sandals for the last 0.6 mile of the segment arriving in 1:13. But my feet were wet and the tape to prevent blisters was coming off. This creek crossing was going to be a real challenge and delay. On the return, I crossed the creek, dried off the feet with a towel I brought, and put on my dry shoes and socks. The return trip took 1:10. I was now at mile 24 and doing fine.
For the next segment, I concluded that I just couldn’t keep doing the sandal method because I was slowing. It would use up too much time. I tried to get over the creek on the logs, but so many people had used them and they were now out of place and loose. I slipped off, into the deep water and scraped up a leg pretty bad. I finished that segment in 1:15. Fifteen minutes of rest seemed to be the right amount of time to make sure I ate well, refilled my single water bottle, and to use the bathroom.
For the return trip, I just waded across the steam and would continue that for the rest of the race. As it turned out, wet feet lubricate things well. Even though the tape fell off my feet, I never developed any blisters. For the return segment, I decided to run it fast because I finally felt warmed up and feeling good. For a change I was the leader. I finished in 1:08, giving me some time to visit my car again. There was a female runner in blue who now was always the leader on the segments. I finished ahead of her on this one. I was now at 36 miles.
All the 36-mile runners finished, other unlimited runners quit, so now there were only 14 unlimited runners left on the course. We would start all segments together but quickly spread out into groups. I usually liked to just run alone so I could vary my pace as it pleased me. The weather was nice all day, mostly cloudy and got up into the 60s. It felt warm and was also more humid than I’m used to, but the temperature didn’t bother me much. I stayed well hydrated.
We started our 7th segment at 4:30 p.m. and I knew this would be the last trip without a flashlight. I finished those segments in 1:13 and 1:06. That was a very fast return trip at that point of the race but it gave me 24 minutes to get things ready for the night.
The race gave me a lot of time to think about pace. Typically during a 100-miler I will go out pretty fast and “bank” a lot of early miles. There was no “banking” in this race. It would give me an eerie feeling that the cutoff for being taken out of the race was always just minutes behind me. During my first year of ultrarunning I was constantly worrying about cutoffs and the stress can be bad. Since that time I’ve had no problem getting well ahead of them. I tried hard to not keep thinking about cutoffs and eventually the stress went away. I would instead try to reach the half-way (3 miles) point in about 35 minutes, ten minutes ahead of the cutoff. As I was successful, I knew finishing the segment in time would be no problem.
At 7:30 p.m., we had been running for 12 hours and were at the 48-mile mark. Typically I’m at about the 60-mile mark or beyond during a flatter race, so it was a bit frustrating that I wasn’t further. I had already spent an amazing 2:48 resting between segments, and only 9:12 running at a comfortable pace. Rain was now the big worry. The forecast had looked bad and I brought plenty of raingear. I asked Mark for an update and he said the rain would hold off until 11:00 p.m. and then only a passing shower during the night. That report made me happy. There were now just ten of us still in the race.
The first segments in the dark were nice. It was a little bit cooler but not by much. I would never need to wear gloves or put on more layers. I did detect that my pace automatically slowed a bit in the dark, even with my bright green light. I had to concentrate more in keeping my pace going. My next segments were 1:16 and 1:18. Fifteen minutes between segments seemed to be about right to take care of things and visit my car if needed. Earlier in the day a few runners missed cutoffs and we would see them coming in right after we started again. The remaining women runners dropped out at mile 54 and three men dropped out at mile 60. Some were doing very well, so it puzzled me. Perhaps they didn’t enjoy running in dark. Now out of about 22 starters there were only four of us remaining.
All continued to go well. I enjoyed the evening and at times sang out loud to keep my mind off pain and keep my pace up. One guy actually said I had a “beautiful voice” and they were playing “Name That Tune.” That was funny. I told him at mile 80 it sounds really bad. Running by the lake in the dark reminded me of running by the lake at Leadville, with the various reflections. A small power plant was all lit up across the lake. Someone stepped on a frog and all night we constantly ran by the dead frog in the middle of the trail.
At mile 72, things started to fall apart. I probably wasn’t eating as well as I should or not taking in enough salt. My stomach started to rebel and made me slow to a walk. But that was a poor option because the best walking pace I could muster was about 18-minute pace or slower. I started to record average miles of 15 minutes bringing a paniced feeling. Thankfully because the course is a bit short, I would get a bonus time of about two minutes each segment. I threw up a couple times and then would feel better, but I could tell my energy level was depleting. My segment to mile 78 took 1:25, only giving me five minutes for a quick aid station stop.
By mile 78, there were only three of us left: Myself, David Petersen, and Jeremy Johnson, both more than 20 years younger than me. It was the old man with the youngsters. David and Jeremy were running strong and each segment arrived about ten minutes before me. The segment between miles 84 and 90 was the worst. I could no longer find the speed at all because of low calories in my system. The climb over the hill slowed things to a 20-minute pace and it was a struggle to make up time on top. I decided that I would quit at mile 90. I was suffering too much and it was starting to rain. But during the final downhill half mile to the turnaround I felt much better and like a light switch turning back on, I decided to continue. I arrived at 1:26, with just a four-minute stop. The quick stops were more typical of aid stations and were good because I wouldn’t get chilled with a long stop. I never needed to put on a jacket or use a blanket there. But it didn’t give me the time needed to solve me stomach issues.
I thought a lot about how difficult this race is. This isn’t really a 4 m.p.h. race. That pace gives you no time to stop. You really have to run this at least at 13:30-mile pace to give you at least ten minutes between segments. If you don’t have those ten minutes, you don’t have time to work on your feet and take care of business. A 13:30 pace is not walking. Therefore, to reach 100 miles, you must run nearly the entire way. Few can run that pace later in a 100-miler. I was impressed that David and Jeremy could do it.
Miles 90-96 were poor again. I kept a close eye on my watch. I reached the half-way point only two minutes ahead of the cutoff pace. My new plan was to quit after this segment at mile 96 and continue on my own for four more miles to reach 100. The rain came down hard a couple times and puddles started to appear. I was getting drowsy and wished that dawn would arrive fast. It was 5:30 a.m.
I finished that segment in 1:24, reaching 96 miles. Mark was there and commented to the other runners that I needed to finish one more segment to get my 77th 100-mile finish. He was right. I needed to do this officially. He mentioned that David was planning to quit at 102. Jeremy was determined to continue and I encouraged him to pile up the miles. I no longer cared about winning this race. My focus was reaching 100 miles.
I was very anxious to get that last segment done. I took off like a shot when we were started again at 7:30 a.m. I felt much better in the light of the day and pushed the pace hard. Jeremy and David didn’t catch up until the 2nd mile and David finally passed me for good at mile 3.2. I reached the half-way point eleven minutes ahead of the cutoff. I had this in the bag now, so I eased up and enjoyed the morning. I reached the 100-mile mark of the course at 24:50, and finished the segment in 1:20, reaching 102 miles. My total down time between segments was 3:18, much longer than my typical 100-mile race.
While I now felt better, I was ready to quit. The thought of running more through the rain just didn’t appeal to me but I was wimping out. David stopped too, so we tied for 102 but I took the 3rd place trophy because he beat me to the 102-mile mark. Jeremy went on to run six more miles to take 1st with 108.
One silly problem with this format is that in the end, everyone quits or gets timed out leaving you with a feeling of incompleteness. You don’t complete the race by reaching a distance or reaching a certain time. You quit. I know I could have run further, but at some point, you just have to quit. Quitting is hard to accept in this sport. But I did reach 100 miles, my 77th career 100-mile finish and third already for 2016.
I really enjoyed the race but was very naïve about how hard it is. I had visions of being able to run segments hard on day 2 and then taking quick naps in my car. But I was finishing segments with only 5-10 minutes to spare. There would have been no napping if I continued on and constant stress about missing the cutoff. Wow, what an experience! I enjoyed the difficult challenge. Mark Swanson put on a very quality race with nice kind volunteers. It had a family feel and is a nice social event during the early miles. The latter miles turn into a stressful endurance event. I’ll likely be back. I know better now what to expect. Doing it over, I would probably avoid any fast laps and try to keep constant 1:15 segments. The low altitude at 1,200 feet is very nice for this older runner. Come out and try the 4mph challenge next year.