I’ve been called a lot of things since I ran 136 miles in 24 hours last weekend, mostly “amazing” and similarly superlative adjectives that could really go to a girl’s head (except I hear it too much from my grandma). Now while there’s no question that running that far in that amount of time is an amazing feat, I myself am a very ordinary person, all of the of weaknesses and flaws, as well as some better qualities, that that entails. Several people have asked me to write a bit about my running experiences prior to this past weekend, but it’s not until now that I’ve started to feel that it’s really kind of important to share more details of what I’ve done and how I’ve gone about it, rather than feeling shy about writing so much about myself. I’ll do my best to give you everything I’ve learned on this journey, as many others have done for me.
First, a little about my background, on which I might have more to say another day. Long story short, I only started running about 10 years ago, at the age of 30, soon after I started working long hours at a law firm in Hong Kong, even though I’d wanted to be a “runner” for as long as I can remember. From 2005 to early 2013, I ran maybe one marathon a year, with some halfs and shorter distances here and there, and the occasional ultra that was really more about walking and hiking. My marathon times ranged from 3:45 (my first and best for many many years) to 4:40-ish. Last year, I moved back to New York City, and everything about my running changed when I started running with a team, made friends who encouraged and supported my love of running, and signed on with coach Michele Yates. Well, almost everything. The one thing that hasn’t changed is simply that running makes me happy. And more running makes me more happy. I’ve struggled with much unhappiness in my life, so this last part is very important to me.
So, back to One Day, or NJ Trail Series One Day as the race is officially known. I first got the 24-hour race on my radar last year from hearing others talking about them on various occasions, and then I got to see some in action when I volunteered overnight and watched my friend Tiger Ellen win at the Ted Corbitt 24-Hour, an event that is put on once every so many years by the Broadway Ultra Society (BUS). By this point I had done a couple of 6-Hour races organized by BUS, and 24 hours was just something I felt I’d do someday, kind of like running back-to-back marathons. Running in little loops for so long would require some mental adjustment. But then, I originally didn’t like the idea of running in small loops for even 6 hours. However, when I saw how the courses could meander and turn, with rises and dips, so that it wasn’t like going in circles around a giant track all the time, I found that I wasn’t bothered by the repetitiveness.
In early June, I ran my first 12-hour race as part of my buildup to the TGNY 100 miler a few weeks later, went out too fast, and swore to myself over and over that 24 hours would stay off the calendar for 2014. Yup. Then I spent too much of the summer traveling and running and hiking in mountains so that my original plans to race some PR marathons in the fall kind of fell apart. But after taking nearly 45 hours to finish the UTMB in late August, I had a totally different perspective on handling 24 hours. If I could run those last five miles of UTMB after 44 hours and 100 miles of mountains, surely I could figure out how to keep a road shuffle going for 24. I knew I would want to hit at least 120 miles, the qualifying standard for consideration to the USATF 24-hour national team. Beyond that, it would be nice to actually make cut for the team, which is drawn from the top six qualifiers and would realistically require at least 131 miles, based on current standings.
Still, I was on the fence for a long time. I considered taking more time to train and going for one of the 24 hour races at the end of the year (Across the Years in Arizona or the New Year’s One Day in SF) but that would involve travel, expense, and unfamiliarity, and it didn’t seem that many people were signed up for either. (And I know, there was Desert Solstice too, with many speedsters going there, but I’m not ready for a timed event on a track yet.) With the New Jersey One Day, there would be the advantages of being close to home, knowing the course, which I had seen in May when I visited friends who ran 3 Days at the Fair, and having some decent competition and many friends around. The only questionable factors were the weather, with the chances of freezing temperatures and rain at that time of year, the very long night, and my legs. The legs were the easy part: I sought treatment for them, but the cold and dark scared me more than anything. If it was going to rain, I was going to sit it out, because I doubted my chances of a good performance in those conditions, same for freezing weather. I only started running while living in Hong Kong, and last winter was my first brutal winter of running, during which I ran no ultras and focused solely on training for the Boston Marathon, with regular forays onto the treadmill, so I still have a long way to go in that department. UTMB had involved 2 nights with lots of rain on the first, but there I had the luxury of regular breaks at indoor aid stations to get warm and dry off before heading out again. I knew that if I wanted to do well at 24 hours, I would have to stay out all night and hope that my gear and motivation would be enough.
Maybe a week to 10 days out, once the forecast dispelled my concerns of rain or freezing temperatures, I started getting the feeling that this was really going to happen. My training had been very brief but as efficient as I could make it. Since I got back to New York in early October, I had paced a half marathon and a full, and run another marathon and a 6-hour race at a decent but not all-out PR effort. I did one slow and long-ish training run of about 18 miles, and raced a 5K. The rest of my runs in between were all pretty easy and moderate in length, 5-12 miles. Kind of boring but comforting.
The 5K race and full marathon pacing were only the weekend before One Day, which was maybe not ideal, so I made sure to get extra rest during the final week. I ran once for 5 easy miles on Wednesday, and swam for half an hour once. Russ Stram (aka Runner Clinic NYC) got all the tightness out of my hamstrings with an acupuncture session on Thursday, and Tiger Ellen LMT worked my legs a bit more on Friday. I got plenty of sleep during the week and packed and re-packed enough clothing, food and gear for a 240-hour race. I tried not to feel too nervous because I know the nerves are just an illusion that dissipates as soon as I start running. And anyways, I get about as equally nervous before a 5K as before 100 miles, it’s all the same feeling. I’m getting over it. Instead of nerves or stress I felt “bouncy” in the final days. Legs, spirit, mind, all excited and hopping for the challenge.
Friday evening I ate my favorite pre-race meal of Pad Thai with some sticky rice and white rice, went to bed early and had a good night’s sleep with the help of some Benadryl. I was still sleepy but raring to go in the morning and really excited to drink my first cup of coffee since Monday. I try to practice caffeine deprivation in the week leading up to every very important race. Not every race, since I hate the headaches, crankiness and other withdrawal symptoms that ensue when I’m separated from my beloved morning coffee, but a couple of times a year I can manage it. I ate some dry cereal and an oatmeal raisin Clif Bar for the last minute carbs.
I layered up before leaving home, but it didn’t feel as cold as the weather reports said, like low 40s instead of mid-30s. Perfect. And the sun was out. I tried to stay calm as I worried about getting to the race venue in time to secure a good spot for my aid station and setting everything up. Well really it’s not that complicated and there was plenty of space for everyone but I had to worry about something. Getting my bib took about 2 minutes and setting up my aid took about 5. Thanks to Tommy’s help, everything looked great. I said hi to people, fixed my outfit, sucked down a gel, and lined up for race instructions.
About 2 seconds after 9am, we were off. There were also marathon and 50K races that had started at the same time from a different point on the course, so I paid no mind to what paces others were running as I chatted with Shannon on the first lap. Usually in an ultra I like to go out fast and establish an early lead, assuming that there will be some slowing and suffering later but that I’ll be able to gut it out and hang on to the finish. While that might work for a 6 or even 12-hour race, I knew that I couldn’t go around “hanging on” for 12 or 16 hours or more. So there should be no going out fast. I had told Tommy not to let me run faster than 8:30s on the one-mile laps, which was still relatively fast though.
After we ran the first lap in just under 9 minutes, Shannon said she wanted to slow a little more and I continued at my pace. 8:30s all around and around, through the marathon mark around 3:45. I was lapping Maggie, who I knew had some big goals for this race (I just didn’t know exactly how BIG- go read all about it here! ) and felt bad. I didn’t know if she was struggling or injured or what, but I told her at one point “I shouldn’t be lapping you,” and she just kind of looked at me like “exactly.” There were several Canadian ladies running, including Marylou, who I had seen set a Canadian record for 72 hours at 3 Days at the Fair, but it seemed that I was lapping them too.
I can’t say I had any sort of master plan. The day was lovely, I was enjoying the run, nothing was hurting, and Tommy was taking good care of me every lap, making sure I got a gel on the hour and some UCAN and water and whatever else I might ask for in between. I didn’t feel like I was “racing” though, since the pace felt easy and there were no ladies ahead of me, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to go after any guys at this stage.
Just before 6 hours I had hit 41 miles, which I felt was too much, since my 6-hour PR is just over 42 miles. I was a little worried about my speediness but I also knew that that the night would be so long and cold that it could break me a little. I was sure that I would keep going but I didn’t know at what pace, so I wanted to take advantage of the wonderful daytime feelings while I could. “Enjoy what you can, and endure what you must,” is one of my favorite mottos for running.
A little after 6 hours, or 42 miles, I took my first “mini-break,” just a couple of minutes to drink some coke and chat with Tommy and Dwight, who was crewing Phil. I was doing the math and figured if I had run 41 miles in 6 hours, and wanted to get to 131, that meant 90 more miles in 18 hours, or an average pace of just 5 miles an hour! Half-run, half-walk would do the trick. If I ran for a solid hour, then later on I could walk a full hour if I needed to. I was sure I could hit the goal with a conservative effort from this point onwards, though I still had a long way ahead of me.
The next time I lapped Maggie, I ran alongside her for a bit and told her about my brilliant realization- I just had 90 miles to go with 18 hours! “What are you aiming for?” she asked. “Low to mid-130s” I replied, “How about you?” “Same,” she said. Great, I thought, we could really do this, though I also wondered whether she wouldn’t have to slow down or stop later on. Still, she was only a few miles behind, and 5 miles an hour or so for both of us sounded reasonable to me. I said cool and went off again.
Now, did I want to win? Of course, people! But I underestimated my competition, assumed she would fade later on and that I would take the title easily. And more importantly, I wanted to have a good experience for my first 24-hour race. I needed to reach my goals and not hate the event and the process so much that I would swear off ever doing it again. To ensure that, I have to admit I was a little lazy in my running, especially in the second half and more so in the final hours.
Meanwhile, I carried on smashing PRs that I had no business breaking in the middle of a 24-hour race: 50 miles in 7:25, 100K in 9:29, 76 miles in 12 hours, 100 miles in 16:24. My pace slowed into the 9:30s or low 10s at times. I changed my shoes after 8 hours, and all of my top layers, from bra to hat to gloves, some time later when I started to get really cold. One side of the course had wind, so I kept having to adjust my layers to zip up and bundle up on the one side, then unzip and loosen as I came around the other way. I stuck to gels and UCAN until my stomach growled and then I ate boiled potatoes three times as I walked for a minute or so. My crew Tommy and Tiger had me completely spoiled with a pro-VIP-elite level of care, and even others- Dwight, Otto, Christine- who were there to crew the competition were always willing to jump in to lend a hand.
As night wore on, and the excitement of my last big PR at 100 miles faded, the larger part of suffering came in. It was not unexpected. The cold had tightened my muscles and joints, my back was stiff, and my face was freezing. My stomach went funny, I was puking up dark little mouthfuls that looked like sticky Coke, and everything tasted horrible. The broth was too salty, the crackers too dry, and don’t even show me that black bean soup. I was sick of the UCAN taste but Tommy insisted I keep taking sips and sucking down gels on the hour. I was thirsty but kept having to pee. At one point I peed twice in two laps. Really. I stopped drinking, kept moving, and tried not to think about the fact that the prize for doing this well would simply be the chance to do it again, and harder.
From miles 86-119 I was in the lead. Of the whole race. I don’t think I was fully aware of that or I might have pushed to stay there, since one of my long term racing goals is to win a race overall. I’d been told that the top guy had dropped but I thought there was another guy somewhere, or that the top guy was coming back. Oh well, I don’t think it would have mattered too much because by then the Maggatron had come bursting out.
As I slowed my pace and started to incorporate walking breaks after the 100-mile mark, my stomach seemed to appreciate the reduced effort. But meanwhile, Maggie had been gaining on me, and was fast closing the gap between us. She started blowing by me and I could only watch, stunned at the pace she was keeping and maintaining– even when she was well past me. I didn’t believe that she could keep it up but she did, the whole rest of the race, non-stop. I didn’t think it was possible not to fade somewhat late into a 24-hour race. But if anything Maggie got faster, running perfectly even splits in each 12-hour half for 142 miles total at the end. Mind-blowing stuff.
The final hours before dawn stretched on and other runners were few and far between. Perhaps some people were resting while I was out there desperate for some company. At one point I caught up to Yoshiko, who had just smashed a 100-mile PR, to see if we might get on pace together, but she said she was feeling mentally not so strong, and I went ahead on my own. At 20 hours, I requested permission from Tommy to walk one full lap and it was granted. I put on my puffy down jacket and felt heavenly. I was cooing and moaning over how soft and warm it felt. When the jacket got too warm for running, I swapped if for a downy vest, and went from walking only the inclines to more half-running, half-walking even on the flat portions. One minute run, one minute walk, repeat. Walk to that pole, run to the next one. I waited long and hard for the sun to come up, and when it did it was glorious.
Around 7am I grew tired of fussing with the low batteries on my watches and asked Tommy to make sure my laps didn’t slow below a 15-minute mile pace. If I could keep that up, I would have 134 or 135 miles. When I told the Canadian ladies that I would get 135, they told me to go for 136 and I thought that sounded ridiculous. 135 was as far as my limited expectations could take me, and anything beyond that was simply incomprehensible. 131 miles was already 5 consecutive marathons and too much! A short while later Phil asked what I would end up with, and he also told me to go for 136 instead of 135. Really? I did the math and realized that yes, 136 was entirely possible. So, with something like 22 minutes left on the clock, I did the lazy thing and grabbed a can of Coke and set off to walk my final victory lap. Yes, I had enough time that I could have pushed and pushed and made two laps of it, but instead I sipped my drink and enjoyed the sunshine, went with the flow and savored every last step of this “run.”
Unlike the other road loop races that I’ve done, the One Day course did not have any fraction markers that would allow runners to keep running until the final second, so it felt strange to be done and have time to watch others come in, rather than striving for that very last fraction of a mile. I stopped, sat on a bench by the start/finish and watched the last runners come in. Maggie, looking great still, overall winner.
We had hugs, photos, and #ottolamming, a pose of utter exhaustion named after our good friend. Tiger insisted on stretching me which I knew was for the best but hurt like hell. I felt great for a little while and then bad. Really bad. I puked, got dizzy, changed my clothes, and pooped and puked some more. I sneezed a lot and hacked up some of the phlegm that had been building all night. I couldn’t eat the breakfast or drink any beer, and even the few sips of warm water I took came up again, though I must say I felt very fortunate that this was happening now and not many hours ago. We got our awards- “ONE DAY” license plates with our total mileage noted on them- and then I sat in a corner and puked some more. I wish I had felt better to say more proper farewells and thank yous to everyone who made this experience so special and relatively pain-free. I got so much good cheer from the organizers, volunteers, fellow runners and crew people who kept the smiles and kind words coming all day and all night.
As for what’s next? I’ll detail my recovery week in a future post soon, but fingers crossed that I’ll make the cut for Team USA and have a chance to represent my country at the 24-Hour World Championships in Torino, Italy on April 11-12, 2015. In the meantime I’ll keep writing about my training, races and other little adventures. Thanks for reading.