To close out my 2010 racing schedule, I decided to give a fixed-time 48-hour event a try. I entered Across the Years (ATY) 48-hour footrace held at Nardini Manor, in Buckeye, Arizona, west of Phoenix. For a fixed-time race, you try to cover as many miles as you can in that period of time. The clock is always ticking. Each year ATY attracts many of the elite in sport from around the world. Two years ago I ran the 24-hour version of the race and did pretty well, so this year I wanted to see how I could do in the 48-hour version.
I’ve been asked, “Isn’t that boring running in circles.” I have to honestly say that I wasn’t bored for even one minute. So those of you who always dis these events, first give it a try. Your mind is so occupied with your pace, race strategy, all the people around you, the things to see, the severe weather, and more. No, this isn’t trail running, but it is an amazing test to pit yourself against.
I trained very hard during the past three months for this race. I can’t remember being more focused on an event. My Pony Express Trail 100 was a great flat-land preparation and then I continued the training on the flats, putting in nine runs of more than 30 miles during a nine week period.
I set my goal to achieve 150 miles during the race and believed that would be very possible. But I had never run past 109 miles in one stretch so all this was unknown territory for me. As a dream goal for a near perfect race, I hope to reach 180. In my wildest dreams, 200 miles was out there. I looked at the history of this 48-hour race and noticed that usually those who went over 180 miles won the race. I looked at the competition and realized that my best hope was a third-place finish. In the field were two members of the US National 24-hour race team, Debra Horn and Philip McCarthy. Philip is world-class talent. I had no hope to beat them. I thought it was possible for me to compete with the rest of the field, so a top-3 finish was what I was hoping for. Looking at past results, I also learned that in order to do 180 miles, you just couldn’t take any very long stops to sleep or rest.
At ATY, there are actually three races being held at the same time, on the same track around Nardini Manor. The races are 72-hours, 48-hours, and 24-hours. On all three days a group of 24-hour runners start, on day one and day two, groups of 48-hour runners start. All the 72-hour runners start on day one. I chose to start on day one, Dec 29th. I knew that by starting on day one that the track wouldn’t be as much clogged up with slower moving runners on day one when I wanted to run the most miles. But, by not being in the second group, I wouldn’t have the advantage of knowing what I needed to shoot for to place high in the field.
I brought with me to Arizona my son Kevin who was a great help the entire time. We arrived two days before and set up our personal aid station on the 28th. I had everything that I needed and Kevin would spend hours and hours there supporting me as I ran by. The race also has a superb aid station with everything needed. At times I would also use that service.
There was also a huge circus tent in which I set up a tent for Kevin to sleep in and for me to use if needed along the way to change in or lie down in for a rest. They also had two heated rooms in the huge tent that could be used to warm up in during the event. I would visit it several times.
The weather forecast looked pretty terrible. A cold front was coming in and my day one was forecast with lots of rain. After that, would be bitter cold (for Arizona) during the nights. My attitude was positive. In past races with bad weather I usually do fantastic against the competition because I do so much training during the nights when it is cold. I focused on being prepared for the weather but to mostly ignore it during the race and run through it. I brought many shirts, realizing that I would get very wet and would need to change often. I also brought lots of warm running cloths for day two. I was well-prepared.
The race is held at Nardini Manor on a custom track built around the property by an ultrarunner. It is a great surface to run on and they take care of it well. Several races are held on that track each year, but this is the premier race there for the year. It is so popular that they have to hold a lottery to allow runners to get in. I was lucky enough this year to return.
After a good night’s sleep, Kevin and I arrived at the manor in time to do our final set-up. We also set up a tent outside, anticipating a lot of rain. We would use that to keep things dry near the track.
At 9 a.m. we were away. For the first half day I ran in my coonskin hat. I quickly took the lead. My strategy is simple, go out fast and run hard while I was feeling very well to bank miles. I know others think that is very unwise, but it works for me. If I start slow, I just slow down even more later and lose out on a high finish. So, I ran hard from the start. I wanted to keep my lap times (1/2 kilometer) under 3 minutes for the first 15 miles, and then keep my lap times under 4 minutes for at least 75 miles. Then I should keep the pace under 5 minutes until around mile 130. After that, I should never have a lap over 6 minutes unless I needed to stop (bathroom, rest, etc.) If I could do that, I knew that I could really pile up a lot of miles.
At about ten miles, world-class runners, John Geesler and Jamie Donaldson caught up with me. John and I ran many fast laps together when I was a lap ahead of him. John was running in the 72-hour race and Jamie in the 24-hour race. Jamie would go ahead of us both.
The race track has big screens set up so you can see your time and position for every lap. Early in the race they didn’t have that working, so I used my Garmin watch to help me keep my pace where I wanted it to be. Once they got that working I discovered my competition in the race would indeed be Debra Horn, a member of the US National 24-hour team. I would build up a lead, at most to 24 laps, but she would fight back and bring that down to a ten-lap lead over and over again.
At about 11 a.m. the rain was coming down and it continued for the next 16 hours. At first the race crew tried to keep that track in good condition by carving out small drainage ditches to flow the water off, but after awhile, they just had to give up. It would rain so hard that nothing would work. On the west side of the property, the track got especially muddy. We quickly learned the best sections of the wide track to run on. My challenge was that I was passing people constantly because my pace was faster than most, so I had to run in the mud to pass them. I just didn’t let that bother me.
I did notice something about the mud. It was much easier to run on it than walk. Most everyone was walking through it and it became very slippery in spots. If you instead ran, you didn’t slip much, but he had to have good balance to avoid a messy face-plant. I never did fall.
Me running on the west side of the loop near the hedge maze.
I was wearing my Hokas and they held up just fine and generally kept the rain and mud out. Those are fast shoes and were perfect for this race.
Kevin was a champ out in the rain for me. We brought a huge beach umbrella that he sat underneath to stay dry. At times he would just hand me food without asking, and that worked great. He also had fun talking to a bunch of the crews.
Even with the rain and mud, I was having a fantastic time. It was very cool to see my name so high in the standings. Because I was running so hard, I wasn’t able to talk to other runners much that first day. They would call out my name as I passed and I would smile, wave, and call out greetings. Every two hours they changed directions of the flow of traffic and we were able to see other’s faces. Most everyone had big smiles, even with the rain. When they changed directions, I would joke to others that this new direction was better because it was downhill.
My race was going super. I reached the marathon-mark at about 3:45. At the 50K mark, I set a personal record for that distance, at around 4:15. As the sun went down, I also set a PR for the 50-mile distance at around 8:15. Kevin left at 5 p.m. to go to the Phoenix Suns game. I bought him a ticket so he would have a treat during the long event.
The rain continued to fall. In the early hours, I just ran in a wet shirt but finally I put on a garbage bag. As night fell, I stopped to change into a dry shirt and rain coat. That helped me feel much better. At the 100K mark (62 miles), I again set a PR for that distance, at about 10:50. I was more than an hour ahead of my 2008 race pace.
Kevin returned and eventually called it a night and went inside to sleep in our tent. I told him I would be fine. After he left I used the aid station more and discovered all the wonderful food and help there. I ate a little solid food, but I fueled mostly with liquids, soda, Heed, Ensure, and gels.
With the online tracking, friends from home and across the country were able to track my progress and also send me short messages that were printed off. I read every one of them, but on day one was so focused on my race that I couldn’t stop to read them. I had Kevin read them. My brother Bob would call by cell and encourage Kevin and cheer me on. At one point I walked one lap while talking to Bob. I walked very, very few laps. In fact during the entire first 24 hours, I probably only walked a total of one kilometer.
At about 1 a.m., the wind really kicked up and lightning could be seen nearby. Then the clouds opened and it really started to pour. The track on the east side turned into one huge mud puddle. It was almost impossible to run through. I quickly took shelter with others in the heated tent. We looked like a bunch of soaked rats. The wind was ferocious. Only about three runners stayed out on the track during that terrible portion of the storm. They have my deep repect, very tough cookies. I think Jamie was one of them. After twenty minutes, I finally ventured out again after changing into dry warm clothes.
With all the rain, my shorts were constantly soaked and chafing became a major problem. I would just manage the pain and use bag balm.
I was somewhat discouraged. Before that deluge, I had hopes of breaking 19 hours for the 100-mile mark. But before 4 a.m., I did reach the 100-mile mark at about 19:45, over an hour faster than any time before. I finally had broken 20 hours for a 100-mile run. That has been one of my bucket goals. I was pleased about that. The rain was finally stopped. Thankfully the temperature during most of the night was above 40 degrees so cold wasn’t really an issue if I kept running. But at about 4 a.m., the temperature dropped about ten degrees as the cold front finally arrived. It started to sap the energy.
During the night, I took over second place in the overall mile lead for all three races as John Geesler started to have some issues that would not allow him to run any more. He now only walked. Jamie Donaldson, running the 24-hour race, stretched a lead over me by about four miles.
On the track, it looked like there were now only three runners who were running, not walking, Jamie, me, and Debra Horn. Our lead over the others started to stretch out. During the wee hours in the morning only about half of the runners were out there. Many of the 72-hour runners went in to get some sleep. But as dawn approached the track again filled up. More people started to run again, finding renewed energy. Kevin got up and again started to help crew me. Our track-side station was full of water. We had put a tarp over a lot of it to keep it dry.
At 9 a.m. Jamie finished her 24-hour run with and amazing 123 miles. But I was only a few miles behind her, at 116, the most I had ever run in one stretch and in 24 hours. If I would have been in the 24-hour race, I would have been the male champion, but my race was not over, I had another full day and night to run. The second group of 48-hour runners started and also another small group of 24-hour runners. While they were running fast, I left the track for about a half hour to rest, and change into dry clothes for the day. I also put on different shoes because the Hokas had caused my Achilles tendons to swell in pain.
Back on the track, I continued to run. Now there were a bunch of runners passing me over and over again with a faster pace. I kept up with Philip for a lap to get to know him. He said he was very impressed with the 116 miles I threw out there for the first 24 hours. It was fun to see new faces out there and to get to know them. I still ran, not walked, but my laps times were more consistently over 4 minutes. At about 10:30 a.m., I stretched the legs by running a fast 2:42 lap. I hit the 200K (124 miles) at the 26:18 mark. At that point I now had more miles than anyone out on the track. I joked with others that I should now be wearing the yellow jersey. It was fun to see my name at the very top of the miles list. Debra Horn was 17 laps behind me in my race. I wasn’t very concerned about losing that lead.
Everything was working pretty well. My legs felt great and if I wanted, I could still dig deep and run very fast. The limiting thing was my stomach. At times it would be in knots. I threw up in the afternoon and again later that second night.
The track finally dried up. Some race crew guys worked on it for hours, raking and spreading dirt. By the afternoon it was dry and fast. This was a big advantage to the day two group. They didn’t have to deal with a very slow track.
Kevin left to go get pizza and while he was gone, I took a long break to finally solve my painful chafing problem. Clean shorts and a bunch a tape finally worked things out.
In the late afternoon, I linked up with Ed Ettinghausen who wore funny hats. Ed had finished second to me at Pony Express Trail 100. We had a great time talking. Ed was doing a fast power walk, doing laps at about 4:50, so I followed his lead and did the same, doing about 17 laps with him. After that I felt very rested and found renewed speed, so I bid Ed goodbye and ran laps in under 4 minutes for several miles, stretching my lead over Debra to 20 laps.
The evening became very cold. I put on more layers and it was a challenge to find the right amount without sweating like crazy. Debra took a half hour stop at 7 p.m. and my lead increased to 22 laps. I also started to take some short breaks to go inside and get warm. I would even lie in a cot for a few minutes, trying to get over drowsiness and bring my heart rate down. The cold weather was really starting to affect me.
One of the Coury brothers would periodically go out on the track and run some very fast laps. At around 8 p.m. I decided to try to keep up with him for about 3/4ths a lap. I was successful and ran a 2:42 lap. He complemented me. I discovered that my legs felt better running very fast. So, what I did for awhile was run three sub-3 minute laps, then run a couple slow ones, and repeat. I even ran a 2:12 lap. Several people would watch me in my fun and the runners on the track thought I was crazy. Finally I felt a sharp pain in my upper ankle. I had torn something. That was stupid showing off like that. I slowed back down and the pain decreased.
At 10:47 p.m., at mile 160, I had had enough. I was pretty miserable. I went into our tent where Kevin was sleeping and decided that my race was done. Debra was 20 laps (10K) behind me (at least 1.5 hours). But that wasn’t my concern. I needed to get warm. I got into my sleeping bag and tried hard to recover. But things got worse and eventually I bonked very hard, low in electrolytes. I was suffering terribly when I woke Kevin up, asking for him to go outside and get some things from our aid station to help. After taking some S-caps, Advil, and drinking an Ensure, I felt much better in about ten minutes. I then tried to find sleep. I took cat naps, not finding deep sleep. I didn’t know what time it was and just hoped to wake up at dawn in time to go out and watch runners finish their second day at dawn.I had run 160 miles and that exceeded my goal and was a great achievement that I was proud of.
But then at about 2 a.m., a couple guys, the Polens, started talking loudly next to our tent, something about 5-hour energies only working for 20 minutes. They wouldn’t be quiet and finally I thought about things. I now felt great. I could hear the beeps out on the track from runner chips marking off another lap. Why wasn’t I out there? I had no idea what time it was, I just hoped the night was not over yet (it was nearly 3 a.m.) I dressed warmly, too warmly, and without waking up Kevin, went back out on the track. I have the Polens to thank for doing the right thing, to annoy me, and get me back out where I belonged.
I discovered three things. 1. I had been resting for 4 hours! 2. Debra Horn now had the 48-hour lead and the most miles on the track, 10 laps ahead of me and going at a pace of well over 5 minutes per lap. 3. I was very rested and could easily run 3:30 laps. I was not pleased to see that my name was no longer at the top of the leader board. I ran one lap, but I had too many clothes on to run that fast, so I stripped down to only a shirt which would force me to run fast in order to stay warm in the near freezing temperature.
At the leader board was a guy who liked to follow the race standings. He recognized me and had a big grin on his face. I’m sure he knew that I had lost my lead and had been gone for four hours. I looked at him and only said, “The chase is on!” He really grinned now. I was ready to put on a show for him.
I ran some numbers in my head and predicted that it would take about two hours to catch up with Debra. I knew that she would probably try to pick up her pace. So I started to fly. My lap times were: 3:02, 3:17, 3:24, 3:46, 3:26, 3:54, 3:56. More people started to watch the leader board. I counted how many times I was passing Debra. I knew I needed to lap her at least ten times. I would pass her about every 2-3 laps. The guy watching the board told me she had picked up her pace, that I needed to run faster. I did, 3:25, 3:26, 3:34, 4:03, 3:32, 3:27 and on. Finally at about 4:45 a.m. I passed Debra in distance and was in the lead at the top of the board. She knew it too, and just said “good job” as I passed her. I was now at mile 170 and feeling fantastic. I knew I could reach my dream goal of 180.
To reward myself, I just walked a slow lap ahead of Debra with Ed and others. They had seen my running all those fast laps for the last two hours and wondered what was going on. It was fun to tell them the story about my 4-hour stop and my chase for the lead. The guys at the leader board also cheered me.
I now had a major problem. The tear in my ankle from earlier in the night now was really sore and slowing me down. I tried hard to not limp when Debra or her crew was around.
I stretched my lead out to a few laps, just for safety, but at about 5:30 a.m., something happened. Debra started to run laps as fast as 4 minutes. She really surprised me and I had to start working again. She never unlapped herself for very long. I could always find that sub-3 minute lap pace, but she was putting fear into my lead. I pushed hard again, doing laps of 3:22, 3:47, 3:42. It took me much longer to lap her. I ignored that bad pain in my ankle. I noticed that her crew was really pushing her and watching me very closely. I believe they would relay my lap times to her, pace her, and be prepared to crew her each lap. Each time I ran by them, they didn’t look very happy. I admit that I would pore on the speed a little when I got near them.
I kept pushing very hard. I wasn’t going to give up this lead. I was running scared. At 7 a.m. I had a six-lap lead but didn’t feel confident.. Debra’s pace was steady. At times I could see her last lap time on the board, at around 5 minutes, but other times I just didn’t know and kept looking behind me. I knew that she was a very talented and experienced runner. If my race fell apart, she could pounce and claim the overall lead. Finally, I figured out a better strategy. When I was about to lap her again, I didn’t. For about seven laps, I just followed her from behind. I could keep up with her by only doing a very fast power walk and occasional bursts of running speed. This race strategy was by far less stressful. There was no way that she could chase me by surprise.
Finally, feeling more rested, feeling confident that I would beat Debra, I thought about Philip who was nearing the 110-mile mark for his first day. He was now my most serious competition for the overall win. I had heard that he was struggling, and I knew that he had observed my crazy fast laps. But I also knew that in another 48-hour race that he ran more than 230 miles. So I needed to pile up as many miles as I could for the last 90 minutes.
I sped past Debra and started to clock fast laps again, 3:05, 3:15, 3:01, 3:08, and 2:55. I was flying. With an hour to go, I was at mile 183 and now nine laps ahead of Debra. I could see that she was done and now walking slowly.
The last hour was a blast. For a few laps, I just walked slowly and finally talked with everyone on the track. They gave me kind words or congratulation and I had fun getting to know them. I even had a slow lap of 7:50. I stopped at the aid station for a minute just to stand around and chat with Matt and Anne Watts. Kevin was up again after a good night’s sleep. He walked a lap with me and I told him the story of my night of chasing.
Finally, Tammy Massie came flying by and yelled that we could still get in four more laps. She was having a wild time letting out screams to everyone. So I ran fast too, finishing up with laps of 3:18, 3:08, 2:49, and 2:37.
I was delighted to see that I reached 187 miles. I didn’t really dream that this would be possible. I was a sweaty mess at the finish from those fast laps. With one minute to go until the day three runners started, I was able to greet many of them and they kindly congratulated me on my 187 miles. Debra did great too, finishing 13 laps back at almost 183 miles, but she and her crew quickly left so I couldn’t find her.
I received my belt buckle, quickly showered, and rested in the warm tent talking to other runners as Kevin kindly loaded up the car with all our stuff. Within a half hour we were on the road, driving toward home. I finally was able to read the rest of the kind messages people sent me. So many of them had a blast following me along and they sent very kind notes. Some were even up during the night and realized that I had a “come from behind victory.”
On the ten-hour ride home, I watched the standings from Kevin’s smart phone. I realized that Philip had to quit his race after 24 hours. Could anyone else catch me? Yes, it was possible that either Randy Ellis or Ben Blessing could. Ben had told me that he wouldn’t be trying, but still, there was enough time to even power walk quickly to catch me. But by the time I arrived back home in Utah in the evening, I was fairly confident that the race was won. Randy finally stopped for a very long break and so did Ben.
I woke up in bad pain around 2 a.m. and watched on the web cam as Ben reached 150 miles and then packed it in. I really enjoyed watching the progress, wishing I was still there. I went to sleep knowing that I would be the overall champion.
In the morning, I woke up and watched online the last two hours of the race, cheering on my friends from far away. At 10:00 a.m., I watched and listened to the awards ceremony. Some kind words were said about me as I was announced as the 48-hour men’s champion and overall winner.
I am still amazed that I won, given the very competitive field. But I worked hard, and think I had a good strategy and somehow it worked. I’ll be glowing for days because of this great experience.
How about the injuries? I had zero blisters and no hot spots. My feet came out great. I credit good shoes and proper use of tape on potential hot spot area. Changing shoes after 24-hours was the right move. I also put on clean socks after that 4-hour rest. But I had other problems. My bad knee (scoped six years ago) came away aching badly. It will take a good week to calm down. The tear in my ankle swelled up badly but by morning went down and now has a bad bruise. I think it will heal in a week. My other foot has Achilles tendonitis. It creaks. That will also take a week. All my leg muscles are sore. Those 187 miles took a toll on me. But after 30 hours of rest, I now feel human again and think I’ll be fine in a few days. I went into the race with about five pounds extra holiday weight. Well, that is all gone now. I lost about seven pounds along the way.
Am I disappointed that I didn’t reach 200 miles? A little, I didn’t know it was even in the realm of possibility for me. However, looking at the 27-year history of this race, only a handful of people have gone over 185 miles in the 48-hour race, and I was only the second person above age 50 to do so.
How much did that 4-hour rest help or hurt. Before the break I doing a 10K distance in nearly two hours including stops. The cold was draining me and I was running a fever. After the rest, I was doing 10Ks in 1:10-1:40, covering 40K about two hours faster than if I didn’t stop and rest. So it definitely helped, but I probably could have gone over 190 miles if I would have jumped out of my tent an hour earlier.
Next year ATY may no longer be held at Nardini Manor. I hope it will or that they will find a nice interesting loop somewhere in the Phoenix area. Will I try the 72-hour race? I kind of doubt it. It seems like just a punishing endurance walk without sleep. The 48-hour race seems to be much harder. To win it, you have to run most of the way and go without sleep. I would probably try to defend the 48-hour championship.