It struck me odd to hear myself saying “I’m JUST running the 24 hour race”. At what point in my life did running for 24 hours become a “Just”??? 2019 is the year I turn 50 and I am committed to making this the best year yet. As a result of this commitment Michelle and I decided to follow my running buddy Dennene down to Phoenix where she would be competing in the Across The Years 72 hour race.
Insert record scratch sound effect here. Yes you heard that right. She would be moving for 72 hours.
In fact there would be some that would be doing the same for a total of 6 days. According to their website: “Across The Years is the original fixed-time multiday running event celebrating the New Year! Runners have 24, 48, 72 hours or 6 days to cover as much distance as possible. Each runner is free to walk, stop, eat, and sleep whenever they wish, but the clock is always running!”
I had heard of these timed events before but never really had been attracted to explore the possibility of running one. Oh yeah. Did I mention that the run is held on an approximate 1 mile loop?? This idea had never really appealed to me. I did however think it would be fun for Michelle and I to hop on a plane and head down to sunny Phoenix to ring in the new year together. I also still needed to get some training miles in for my big race in Costa Rica taking place on my actual 50th birthday February 10.
The only truly appealing thing about Across the Years timed event was the fact that the finish line keeps getting closer whether you are moving or not. We booked our flights and AirBnb knowing that at minimum we’d have a nice getaway and be able to cheer Dennene on. I had until 11:59pm December 24 to decide if I wanted to register for the race.
If you know me you will not be surprised to learn that my registration was submitted on December 24, 2018 at 11:14pm. Last minute for certain but I was in. Running the 24 hour race starting at 9am December 31, 2018 and ending 9am January 1, 2019. Hence the name Across the Years.
I typically overpack by a ridiculous amount and while I always have everything I could possibly need I rarely use more than a quarter of what I take.
As luck would have it I have been exploring a little bit of a minimalist approach to life these days and decided to pack in that fashion. A quick look at the weather app suggested daytime highs of around 20 degrees
When we got off the plane in Phoenix it became clear that this packing strategy was a big mistake. It was 11am and only 3 degrees celsius. Another look at the local forecast confirmed what I was afraid of. High’s in the single digits drifting towards the low teens, rain on race day and freezing temperatures overnight. Good thing I had 5 pairs of shorts to run in. Eek.
This was frustrating for sure. I could picture exactly in my bedroom where I left my toque, my buff and my ridiculously expensive, high end running rain jacket. Fortunately for me I have a fairly large network of social media friends. A few of whom live in the Phoenix area. One reached out hoping to connect and when I explained my predicament he quickly offered up some of his cool weather hiking gear. Thanks to his generosity and a $12 raincoat from Target I was now feeling much better prepared for my race.
The days leading up to the race we spent a little bit of time at the track getting a feel for the landscape and cheering on
Given that I would be running for 24 hours a good night sleep the night before seemed like the prudent thing to do. Sadly the 2 dogs who lived at our AirBnb did not have the same sentiment. The old deaf and blind pair of dogs barked at shadows keeping Michelle and I awake far longer than I would have liked.
We woke at 7am and meandered to the kitchen for my traditional pre race meal of oatmeal. I typically eat a banana at the same time but had forgotten to grab some the night before. I wasn’t too worried though as I knew the looped course format and fully supported race would provide ample opportunity to eat if needed. We finished breakfast and headed out the door.
The morning air was crisp and hovering around 2 degrees celsius. As we left the house I had to pause. The glow of the sun starting to crest the horizon creating silhouettes of the palm trees overhead. The ambient glow of the Christmas lights on the house across the street against the looming sunrise was enough to stop me in my tracks. This was certainly a moment to stop and smell the roses (or in this case lemon tree).
We arrived at on course at about 8am after stopping for a Starbucks enroute. I had sweat pants over my shorts and a toque and several top layers to stay warm. We went to the registration tent to pickup my race package and timing chip and made our way to Dennene’s tent and crew to settle in.
Alright, let’s talk about the course itself. This is one of the pieces I found most intriguing about the 24 hour format. Not only do you run for 24 hours, you do so on a single mile loop. Well, 1.0498 miles to be exact. According the race website the loop consists of 85% dirt paths and 15% asphalt/concrete. The track averages 10-20 feet in width, with a minimum width of 8 feet.
A lake/water feature broke up the monotony about half way through the course. The course is relatively flat. In fact if you were to go for a quick run with friends you would say that the course was dead flat. However, in a 24 hour race something funny happens. At about 8 hours in you start to notice that someone has added a few ‘substantial’ hills to your previously flat course. At about the 12 hour mark you start to notice that somehow they have also snuck in some ‘minor’ hills to the course. After about 16 hours I noticed that even those portions that you would have sworn were flat as a pancake also actually had had some incline introduced to them.
The Race Experience
So much to share here but I’ll try to be succinct. The race started at 9am and was oddly anticlimactic. Most races I have done there is this build up to the start, everyone like Greyhounds waiting to be released from the chute. Not here. We would soon be joining a host of other runners on this looped track. Some had already been running for 3 days. It was an eery sight to see people of all shapes, sizes and ages making their way around the track. In these long distance timed events it is all about pacing and strategy. The format is a great equalizer and it is not always the strongest/fastest runners who win. Body management here is key.
We counted down from ten and a flock of a couple hundred runners doing the 24 hour new year race took off down the track. What added to the oddity of the experience was that they changed directions every four hours and our start time, 9am, was one of those occasions. This meant that as we started out we were running into runners coming the other direction. All of whom had been out for at least 24 hours so far and most were quick with the high fives to the fresh meat entering the arena.
I really had no expectations going into this one and since I was only 5 weeks out from my ‘A’ race, the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica, I did not want to risk injury by pushing too hard. It was a nice position to be in. There are no DNF’s in a timed event. You simply run as far as you can (or as you like) in the allotted time. Aid was never more than a mile away which made for a really nice, comfortable environment.
I ran the first lap with my GoPro to get some shots for the VLOG and as usual went out a little fast. After the first lap I ditched the GoPro and my toque with Michelle and set off to see who I could meet on lap 2. I ended up running with David from Albuquerque, a consultant who had recently finished the Big Foot 200 mile race. We settled into a great conversation about running and life. In the back of my mind I knew I was running faster than I should be given the distance I would be covering. David and I ran together for some time and eventually I peeled off to grab a drink with Michelle knowing I needed to settle into my own pace and not someone else’s.
I decided to shoot a quick Facebook Live video in an effort to slow down a little and give my friends at home a quick look into the window of a 24 hour race. A few laps later I also engaged on Facebook and posted
“Time to slow it down. You know the adage it’s a marathon not a sprint? Well I need to remind myself it’s a 24 hour race not a marathon. Thanks for all the love so far. ❤️”
Which I thought would be a good way of updating friends but also keeping myself accountable to slow it down. The best part was the text that I received shortly after this post from a friend of mine.
“Hey buddy, just saw your FB post. Everything OK?”
About five minutes later Mother Nature decided she was done teasing us and the sky opened up as I was on the far side of the track. Great, half a mile til I could get back to the extra clothing. No problem. I got back to the tent, found the warm clothes and quickly noted that the one item I needed, the rain coat, did not appear to be there. I guessed the obvious, that Michelle had forgotten she was wearing it when she left. I texted her “Rain coat?” to which I received no reply.
This made me smile as I love a good story and this would add to our repertoire of ‘crew stories’. Ask me about some of the others some time ;0) Eventually she came back with coffee in hand and rain coat at the ready for me. I was thoroughly enjoying our shared experience on this race even just a quarter of the way in or so.
Did you sleep or rest at all?
Sleep no, rest yes.
At some point I decided I would take a 5 minute break at the 6 hour mark. I knew that I had to take some rest and find some way to break up the monotony of a 24 hour run. The break felt amazing and I left ‘camp’ feeling refreshed and re-energized. Each lap I slowed to grab a drink and walk a few hundred feet to consume some fluids and calories as needed. I thought I would try and go another 6 hours before taking my next ‘substantial’ break.
I didn’t make it that long. 9pm would mark the halfway point and I was eager to reach that knowing that it would be similar to running an out and back. The second half you are on your way home and psychologically it feels so much better than running the ‘Out’ portion. At this point I did not let Michelle tell me how much distance I had covered and simply started asking about lap times. I ran til just before 8pm then decided to take a break. I knew I must be getting close to 50 miles (halfway to my goal that I didn’t really have). I debated asking Michelle to tell me when I hit that milestone but forgot to.
I had just bested my previous 50 mile time by a long shot.
They had a brass bell that hung waiting to be rung anytime someone sets a new personal best. It was pretty cool to hear the bell from time to time. We’d cheer someones new 100km, 100 mile, 200 mile or even 300 mile personal best. At my 8pm break Michelle slid in a “I meant to ask you. What is your 50 mile PB?” I had a hunch I knew why she was asking. The next lap around, as I came in, Michelle smiles at me and says “Ring the bell!”
At this point I started playing the math game. I suspect most long distance runners play some variation of this game. I started calculating how fast I would need to run each lap to make 100 miles in the 24 hour time frame. Each lap was a little over a mile and would therefore require 96 full laps to hit the 100 mile mark.
24 hours times 60 minutes = 1440 minutes to complete.
1440 minutes / 96 laps = 15 minute lap average.
Since I had completed 55 miles so far I knew I just needed to average 15 minutes per lap on the last 12 hours and I would still have some wiggle room. In fact every hour after 12 that I met that
I told Michelle we were going to play a game. I was going to run four laps every hour on the hour. This meant that if I ran four laps in 56 minutes I had 4 minutes I could rest. If I ran faster then I had a longer rest.
The beauty of this was that I only ever had to run four laps. Easy. It also helped on that fourth lap, which was sometimes quite difficult, to know that the faster I finished it the more rest I got.
This worked fabulously until after several hours I miscounted and peeled off for my rest after only 3 laps. I sat down in the chair and accepted whatever food or liquid Michelle brought me. I looked over at the clock and realized there was no way I had gained that much time. I confirmed with Michelle that I had come in early. She nodded. I looked at the clock and decided to take my rest now making sure I left enough time to finish lap 4 within the allotted hour.
I wasn’t sure how well, or how smart it would be to string together five laps in a row but decided I could figure it out later. Fortunately when I finished lap 4 of this set I still had a minute in the bank. When I came in Michelle asked me if I wanted to take that minute and rest. I initially said no then quickly back pedalled. Heck yes. The minute was just what I needed and I felt fresh going back out for my next set of four.
I think it was at this point when I asked Michelle how far in I was. I was hoping I was at 80 miles which would leave me 5 sets of 4 to go. Not the case. I was around 76.8. The way the math worked I would have 5 sets and then 3 laps. A much more palatable way of thinking then 23 laps. It was at this point we started doing estimations. “If you keep up this pace you can hit 100 miles by 8am” Michelle said. What I heard that she did not say was “and we can be in the fucking car by 8:05”.
I have to take a minute and talk about how amazing Michelle was during this race. It’s not every woman’s version a romantic getaway but it was definitely ours. Come to Phoenix they said. It’ll be warm they said. Definitely not the case. I ran in shorts and a tee shirt the entire time, quickly being identified as Canadian, it was neither warm nor sunny.
From a crew perspective the difference with a looped course is that you see your runner on average every 14 minutes. This meant that Michelle had to be ‘on’, catering to my needs every 12 minutes or so. This is not conducive to rest periods. Despite the amount of aid available this type of race has to be one of the most difficult to crew.
Michelle put up with my highs and lows for the full race always putting her comfort aside to ensure I had what I needed. Babe, if you are reading this let me tell you, you are one amazing woman and I am forever grateful for all your support in everything we do together.
The Home Stretch
Alright, enough with the mushy stuff. At this point, 80 miles in I knew that barring some catastrophe that 100 mile belt buckle would be ours. We were starting to really count down, although I don’t think either of us really verbalized it for fear of jinxing something. I got down to the point were I had two full sets of four laps then one set of three to go. Less than 11 miles to go to that milestone and plenty of time to do it.
It was just past 90 miles (my fourth lap of the set) where I started feeling my right knee give out. The pain came out of nowhere and was a solid 7 or 8 out of 10. Are you fucking kidding me? I am not going to do this again. I am not having to hobble my last 10 miles only to fall short. I was scared, I was annoyed and I was frustrated. I came in off my 4th lap ready for a break and hoped that the rest would work magic. I told Michelle that it was hurting, not wanting to verbalize it into being any more than it already was. I took my rest and headed back out on the track.
The rest had done what I needed it to. I came in off that first lap feeling about a 3/10 for pain. I could finish this. I hope.
I think it was around this lap that I said to Michelle “You know when I hit that 100 miles we’re done right?” She replied with a “Fucking rights we are. I’ve already got the car packed.”
I could hear my Sunday run buddy Steve Baker in my head “Are you fucking kidding me? Finish the fucking 24 hours.” I smiled and dismissed the thought. I wanted that buckle but beyond that I had nothing to prove and did not want to risk injury in “meaningless laps”.
I told Michelle to make sure she had the camera ready for the last lap because I wanted footage of me ringing that bell. I came in on my 2nd last lap and saw her already with the camera. I smiled and mugged for the camera holding up my pointer finger “1 more to go!”. I would find out later that she thought that was my last lap.
So off I set on my final mile loop. I was like a horse to the stable. I did not want to slow down, I wanted to finish this thing. I reflected on the time that had passed and marvelled at how far I have come as a runner. More importantly how far I have come as a human being.
If you know me you know it is never about the run. For me it is about the people. It is about the lessons. It is about the discipline to train and the grit to push through what you used to think impossible. It is about relationships. It is about strengthening existing ones and creating new ones. I run for me and for no one else.
So whether you are JUST running a 24 hour race, or JUST running a 5 km or JUST walking a block, do it for you and for no one else. I think you will be amazed at what can happen when you JUST show up!