Running In Circles

» Posted by on Dec 30, 2010 in Blog | 18 comments

  "

While life in a modern industrial nation such as ours is increasingly characterized by complexity and multiplicity, we inwardly long for simplicity and singleness. Give me one instead of many. Give me just this moment instead of a host of worrisome hours to fret about." Lin Jensen, Deep Down Things

1 – Setting
I've traded the high peaks of Colorado and the joys of a mountain adventure for a flat 500m dirt track in the Arizona desert. Well, for a day at least. Deanne and I take a short stroll around the Nardini Manor, where the race is to start in just a few minutes. It's the shortest and most peculiar course recce I've ever done. We're both struck by how strangely the surrounding landscape resembles the fields of Dehradun, India, where we had spent some time on a farm a few years back. Tall trees line about a third of the track, creating a sort of enchanted arch way. Perhaps it's the particular nature of the event but everything appears to be a little strange in this moment. The large gazebo, on the plush manicured lawn, for the picture perfect wedding. The manor itself, with two lion statues protecting the entrance. Another statue of a samurai type figure guarding the half way point. Angel fountains, an English maze and a forklift. I'm sure this will all make more sense after 24hrs of running in circles.

2 – Goals
Part of the reason for running this race was to try to get a spot on the US national team for the 24 hour World Championships next year. The minimum standard to be considered is 135 miles. There are 6 spots available on the men's side, 3 of which were already taken by the top 3 men at the US Championships in Cleveland this year, leaving 3 more spots based on qualifying 24 hour performances. This basically meant that I had to run more than a 154 miles to make the team. So I wrote down three sets of splits, for 135 miles, 155 miles and for the American record. On paper, I'll admit to thinking that all of these seemed possible, that the actual pace isn't that fast and if I could hold it together mentally, I would be capable of achieving at least the minimum standard.

3 – Crew
In a last minute, spur of the moment decision, my wife Deanne decided to come down and offer her support for the day. Initially, I felt it unnecessary and somewhat excessive to have a crew person there, putting her or others through a long, arduous 24 hours of handing me water bottles, gels and the like when there was such a good, already established, aid-station set-up by the race directors. I felt spoiled having my own "caretaker" but found tremendous psychological benefit in seeing her every lap or so. Puking my guts out 6 hours into the race, she rubbed and patted my back, voicing words of encouragement and kept me focused. Some 18 hours in, I was feeling like death, stumbling and mumbling around the track, with growing pain in my right knee and hips, she told me I was looking good and I believed her. In moments of acute suffering and doubt, having someone there to tell you you're OK, to say the right thing, to give you confidence in your ability to move forward and give you perspective on your preconceived limitations, makes the difference between trying just a little bit harder or giving up.


Dog – Fed, hydrated and counting laps.

4 – Pace
I never follow splits when I run. I like the freedom of moving by effort, of listening to my body, of feeling what pace is right. It lifts me from the worries of going out too fast or too slow since I run within myself, neither too hard, nor too easy, letting things come to me. I find the clock to be an obstruction to the finer acuity that arises from simply following my internal rhythm. For this reason, I hardly ever run with a watch. I did however prepare splits for this race for reference sake, and seeing my pace pop up on a screen every single lap became somewhat of an unexpected distraction. Is this too fast so early on? On paper it is, yet it doesn't feel that way. I continually convince myself that listening to my body is what's right, not succumbing to the slavery imposed by the time shackle locked on my ankle. Then, as the body deteriorates, comes the distress of seconds, minutes, slipping out of my grasp. I'm staring at the hourglass trying to make the sand trickle through slower. My effort is strained, maximal. Give me time to claw round one more lap.

5 – Competition 
Three hours to go. My knee locks up completely. I can't run. I'm death marching round and round like I'm at gun point. "Jamil? How many laps do I have on Tatsunori?" I wait a lap. "18 or 19. If you keep up your current pace and he does too, he'll lap you 9 times. You got it." Three more hours though. Why won't he stop? He must be tired. He's been running the same pace since the beginning. The same pace! I've barely seen him stop, or walk. I'll try keeping this up for an hour, see how many times he laps me and take it from there. One. That took a while though, maybe he'll only pass me once more. Coming up on two. Fuck it, run. I can't take the pressure. Feels easier to run than let him pass me. If only I can hold him off for another hour, I'll be good, far enough ahead to just stumble around the last hour without being caught. 


With Tatsanori – no longer competitors but companions 

6 – Weather
Weather seems to have played a rather large part in my life this year (well with regards to running at least). On the move from Portland last May, to escape the wet, gray, dreary winters, I stopped off in Idaho for the Pocatello 50 miler. Thirty miles in, the race was cancelled due to execrable conditions on the high passes, with high winds and deep snow. Three months later, across the pond in Chamonix, France, this time only 30kms in to UTMB, the race was cancelled due to mud slides, torrential rain and heavy fog. Late December in Arizona, strikes me as a time and place where conditions should be near perfect for a foot race. Dry, sunny and probably not too hot. This turned out to be almost the case, save a few light showers the day before, making for a tad softer and less responsive surface on a couple sections of the track. Then, there was the heat. Not apparent at first as a light breeze and some cloud cover kept me from sweating much but it gradually wore on me as the day went on. I diligently drank, ate and took in salt but within 6 hours I just felt off and everything came out. Once. Twice. Three times. I then started the process of rehydrating and eating again, only to puke once more an hour and a half later….and then again..and again. 8 times in total, finally stopping when the sun went down, with the welcome cool evening air.

7 – Patience
"Lord, give me patience, but hurry!" The  24 hour race is a waiting game. The more patient you are the more successful you will be. The more I project myself ahead, 16 hours to go, half-way, 8 hours to go, 4, 3…the harder it becomes to wrap my head around the whole thing. In a particularly tough moment, Deanne calls out to me "only 6 hours to go!". 6 hours? That's a fairly long run in anybody's book but it doesn't really matter. I forget about the goal, the end and move in the present. Doing one lap doesn't require patience, it's quickly over. Then why not do another, and then another. I continuously dissociate with the idea of duration. How long have I been running? How long do I still need to run? Neither of these questions are important. I just need to run and wait and at some point I'll be asked or forced to stop. Thinking in this manner takes away the anxiety of anticipation. There is no need to know what is next or to dwell on what just past. I'll just be, I'll just wait.

8 – Body
200 laps. My hips are on fire. I hadn't anticipated how hard the tight turns on the track would hammer them. I did get a month of flat running in before the race but I never once went to the track. Conditioning my body to these repetitions would have been of great help. I did what I could with the time I had but was now paying for the lack of specific training. Here, unlike in the mountains with terrain variations, when something starts to nag, you are reminded of it every single step you take. My stomach issues early on cause me to feel prematurely weak and inadequate. In this state, other rising pains are intensified. Instead of them coming and going as they usually do, my condition worsens. As the laps go on, pains accumulate and I simply come to accept the shortcomings of my body. Gradually, the area just behind my right knee starts to tighten. More and more and more. Deanne helps me in trying to stretch it, to no avail. With 3 hours to go, it's locked up completely, with a continuous knife stabbing sensation while running, walking or standing. I have a vision of a dying flower, petals wilting, falling off, the stalk, dry, brittle, ready to snap in the wind.


Fat but happy feet, thanks to good socks 

9 – Food
Quesadillas, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, pancakes…every 500m whiffs of some delicious food being prepared at the aid-station fill my nostrils. While everything sounds quite appealing, I've opted for my customary race diet of gels, water and salt. With such a short loop, the usual issue of how much food I need to carry before the next aid is non-existent. Still, I've resisted the temptation of exploring too many other options for fueling, as the gel/water/salt routine has worked well for me in the past and provides for easy monitoring of my calorie and fluid intact. As mentioned previously, when talking about the weather, 6 hours in, my stomach stopped cooperating. This obviously put a bit of a kink in my nutrition plan and got me wondering lap after lap how I was going to get things back on track. The "stick with it and things will pass" strategy didn't work so well, as every hour and half after that, everything came back out again. I felt like I was in ancient Rome, eating, vomiting, eating some more, vomiting some more, minus the wine and the boar. By night fall, I'd started eating a gel accompanied by a handful of chips with the little bit of fattiness helping considerably. I'd add ramen, potato soup and even pumpkin pie every so often. All this got me feeling OK through the night but I never realized until after that the heat is really what hurt me the most.

10 – Preparation
Plagued by an ankle injury a little over a month back, I was forced to withdraw from the NF50 race in San Francisco. After 12 full days off and getting exceedingly grumpy, restless and irritable, I needed to run. The only running that didn't hurt my ankle was on the flat, dirt Coal Creek path behind my house. At first, I was frustrated that every outing lead me in the direction of the Flatirons, with the majestic Indian Peaks towering behind. I wanted to be over there, not here, but as with most things in life it was all a matter of perspective. I gradually shifted my gaze away from the distant peaks and started to observe, to feel, the flora and fauna around me. The sound of water flowing in the creek, the rustling leaves, a daily encounter with a coyote. I'd run watching my dog explore, sniffing, searching, understanding the ins and outs of the path. More importantly, I was starting to find the mindset necessary to run on such a small perimeter for some many hours, developing a sense of wonder, of contentment in the movement, letting go of monotony and boredom.  Mentally, I was beginning to feel stronger than ever.


Not feeling so hot after the first episode of vomiting

11 – Focus
When the race was over, I sat chatting with Jamil, Nick and a few other runners about the great Yiannis Kouros, the ultimate master of races 24 hours and beyond. The Coury's where fortunate to host the man in 2005, when on the very same course, he came to set the 72 hour world record. They talked about him being a nice, normal guy when he was at their house but as soon as he stepped on to the track, he was transformed. He ran with relentless abandon, hardly ever stopping, with his most remarkable trait being his absolute, unwaivering focus. Nick admitted to feeling intimidated even a little scared such was his presence. The first day of the 3 day race, Yiannis ran 150 miles and he didn't slow down much after that.  I pictured him numerous time during the day when I needed my mind to settle.

12 – Time
In my mind, the only way to sanely approach a 24 hour race is to break it down into manageable chunks. For any other race I've done, I've had aid-stations or hills and summits to break up the course, all providing for small achievable goals along the way. When feeling good, I can power through a section and get to my destination much faster. Here I cannot. An hour is an hour, regardless of how fast I run. 24 hours is really only 24 times one hour. I can run for an hour. Broken down further, I eat and drink a little every 20mins. How can running 20mins be hard or boring or not possible to tackle? So now instead of running 24 hours, I'm simply getting through 20 minute segments. As the night progressed though, the felt perception of that duration of time changed. I whittled it down even more to 10 minute segments and, finally down to just one lap. Sitting here writing this report, time passes without me barely noticing. If I were to put my hand on a hot stove, seconds, minutes, suddenly become unbearable. For that reason, a certain abstraction to the notion of time becomes necessary to deal even with the shortest segment. The mind can no longer focus on duration and needs another focal point, such as pain, joy or at a more surface level music or surroundings.

13 – Sleep
The two things I pondered before the race with regards to sleep were: sleepiness and the effects of sleep deprivation. The first, basically nodding off or falling asleep while running, didn't concern me much. Caffeinated gels, coffee, tea have in the past, always provided ample jolt to my eye lids when they start to rebel. I had plenty of such foods to help me and if things really got bad there was no risk of rolling my ankle on technical terrain, running off a cliff or going off course. I was definitely more concerned about the other potential effects of sleep deprivation such as irritability, anxiety, hallucinations (especially after seeing the setting) or loss of sanity. Nothing really remarkable happened, partly because one night is relatively short and the body has enough resources to compensate. My math skills and ability to count laps and analyse splits got fairly jumbled, but given my normal abilities in this area, I doubt it had anything to do with lack of sleep. I did find a surprising amount of comfort in watching Deanne every time I went by sleeping for a few hours in the tent. Something about her resting was both peaceful and soothing.


Tempting…

14 – Music
One of the last items on my list of things to bring to the race was music. This may sound strange as this would be an obvious setting were zoning out to music would be of great benefit. I love music but never listen to it while running. I find it distracting and hard to focus on what I'm doing. I find running to be whole in itself and to not necessitate any "add-ons" to enhance the experience. I also wanted the run to be as pure as possible, to feel every part of it. That being said, I still deemed it wise to pack an i-pod just in case I really needed to escape or perhaps if things were going really well for higher inspiration. At the half-way point, the need for a small manageable goal to get over the hump became apparent, so I decided to allow myself to listen to music at 10pm, a little over 2 hours away. This provided for a nice objective to focus on for a while until the time came for my reward. I started with Nneka's Heartbeat, followed by the full album Up From Below by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. As it finished, Dust in the Wind was playing on the loud speaker. I was hoping to listen to music for a full six hours leaving only 4 hours to the finish but that was it. On the next lap, I left the i-pod on the table and didn't use it again.

15 – Mind
Scottie told me before the race that his 24hr American record in Brive last spring was the hardest thing he'd ever done, well mentally at least. I didn't take his statement lightly and knew that the biggest challenge with running in circles for 24hrs would be my mind. Or so I thought. Perhaps it was because I had focused so intently on preparing my mind, which is a full time endeavor compared to the limited number of hours spend in physical training each day, that I felt relatively at ease in my head through out the duration of the event. However, physically I was a complete wreck. I would try over and over to will myself forward at a faster pace but the body simply did not have it. "I suppose this is the human condition: we’ve developed the cognitive abilities to conceive perfection but our physical abilities to achieve it lag far behind." from 327 words – Dashap. I did reap deep satisfaction from knowing that mentally I persevered and that when I return to challenge myself once more against the clock, physically I'll be ready to follow.

16 – Doubt 
With a race this long with no other direct apparent purpose other than just running (and in  circles for that matter), it is inevitable at some point or another to question why you are doing this. My first doubts came along at around the 50 mile mark, where having just been through an episode of vomiting and feeling pretty low physically, I knew it would take somewhat of a miracle for me to run this twice over. It was hard to admit to myself this early on, that most likely my two first mileage goals were already out of reach. Projections, in a state of weakness, can rapidly become a debilitating process. The only way to wish away the doubts is to keep running. Running is what I came for, so running is what I'll do. I'd like to think that I had unwaivering mental resolve to continue moving as best I could for the duration of the event and that not finishing was not option baring major catastrophe. Every now and then though, I would attempt to analyze the remaining running time, and the thought of running 15, 10, 4, 2 more hours would become unbearable. That's just a lot of running, a lot patience, a lot gels…a lot more of this and this ain't feeling great. 

17 – Sharing 
One of the most pleasant aspects of a 24 hour race is getting to share your joys and struggles with fellow runners throughout the entire race. At first, especially being a novice to the event, I wasn't sure how this was going to play out with all the varying paces and strategies, I knew I wouldn't be able to help wondering what others were doing, how they were managing physically, mentally. Do you acknowledge runners EVERY time you pass them on the track? What if your in a zone, would it be rude to say nothing? Would saying "good job", "good work" just become redundant after a while? Due to the intimacy of the event, you naturally become connected to all the other runners present. As the day goes on and the hardship of the task  at hand settles in, it didn't matter any more how many miles we'd run as it was far surpassed by the fact that we were all in this together. If someone was looking good and moving well, I felt uplifted. If someone was visibly hurting and struggling, I felt for them. Never have I experienced this kind raw, direct connection to other runners in a race. This reason alone, makes the 24 hour event worth trying.


From left to right – Frozen Ed, Eric Weber, Tatsunori Suzuki, me, Charlotte Vasarhelyi, Ed Ettinghausen, Ric Munoz

18 – Waves
The day before the race, I was visiting my grandfather and he asked me what the equivalent of the "the wall" in the marathon was in an event like this. I told him that I never really felt like I hit the wall in an ultra but rather was subjected to a series of waves, of extreme highs and extreme lows, that come and go as the race unfolds. The key to success then in my mind, is managing to neither go too high, nor too low but rather finding a good balance between the two and staying there. When the balance, especially later in the race, becomes harder and harder to maintain and tends to tip towards the lows, it is important to remember that no matter how bad you are feeling it will always come back. It may take a while, sometimes a very long while, but good mental management in that state is critical to not giving up. I was happy to report to him after the race that I succeeded in keeping my mind in balance but unfortunately my body would have nothing of it.

19 –Experience


Frozen Ed – age 62. 95.4miles


Eugene Bruckert – age 75. Coming up just shy of 40 miles

20 – Pain
When I am giving it my all going into any race,  of any distance, I expect at some point to hurt. Whether its a short bout of lung busting effort on a steep climb, incessant searing quads after hours of prolonged forced forward motion or the acute throbbing of a real injury, physical pain is inevitable. I used to think that the best way to deal with pain was to avoid it. While this was useful in preparing my body, delaying the onset of its own limitations, it did little to prepare my mind for the impending experience. Now, I see pain as an opportunity, a chance to find out something about myself. After all, I take part in ultra races voluntarily, so while I'm not purposefully looking to hurt myself, it's simply a part of the game. Anticipation of pain plays a key role in the process of dealing with it well. As pain overcomes me, I am ready for it, welcome it and have prepared myself to live with it. This helps me relax, feel comfortable with it and engage with the struggle rather than feel overwhelmed. The 24 hour race was particularly powerful in this respect as I felt like an observer of my own physical distress yet did not let it get to me mentally.
 

21 – Flow 
Engaged. Focused. Absorbed. Fully concentrating yet not forced in the slightest. Thinking yet not. Mechanical but fluid. Detached yet fully present. Be like water. 


22 – Walking
There are two reasons to walk in an ultra: for strategy or because you have to. Walking becomes a useful race strategy either when going through an aid station to avoid stopping but to still get a mini break or when the terrain gets very steep and running simply becomes less efficient than power hiking. Given the flat course and the number of times I'd go past the aid station, I hadn't planned on doing any walking during the race. Rather, reason two, decided for me. Vomiting forced me to walk a lap or two. Throbbing hips, another lap or two. A failing right knee, a lot more laps or two. In retrospect and when I try this again, I think voluntarily incorporating small walking breaks into my race strategy would be of great benefit.

23 – Meaning

"Why do you do this?" is probably the most frequently asked question I get when I tell people I'm a long distance runner. My answer typically involves something about discovering wild places on foot and engaging with the natural world in a raw, elemental state. While I'm not convinced people always understand exactly what I'm getting at, my response satisfies the idea that there is some sort of purpose to what I do that makes sense to them and that, on some level, they can relate to. However, running in circle for 24hrs on a 500m track does not garner the same kind of reactions which fall more along the lines of "That just sounds stupid!" or "I get the whole mountain thing but a track? for 24hrs?WTF?". I've been intrigued by these types of races ever since I got into ultras for two main reasons. The first is the history surrounding time races, dating back to the early pedestrians. I find it interesting to test myself against an event that has been around for so long. Second, is the idea that running has intrinsic value, beyond it's utilitarian purpose of getting an individual from point A to point B, increasing ones fitness or just being fun. The 24 hour race takes away almost all of the usual distractions and reduces the learning experience to the simple act of running. Therefore, the movement itself becomes the primary vehicle for mental explorations.

24 – Attitude Being successful in a 24 hour race (or anything else for that matter) comes down to attitude. Going in to the race, I was in a good head space, ready for the challenge and not overly worried about the difficulties I may encounter. I joked that if I could not run in the mountains, I would bring them with me. I say "joked" because I didn't want to sound too cliche, but deep down I truly believed in that statement. Mountains inspire strength within me and I found this image worth carrying forth into the race. Once things are in motion, the only control I have is how I choose to respond to the experience. I cannot control the weather or other runners and have limited power over injuries or how well my food goes down. The race then becomes an experiment in perception. How long or how short is a minute, an hour? Is this pace too fast, too slow, just right? Am I really hurting or just being soft? How far can I go? What are my limits? Am I physically limited or mentally limiting myself? The way I perceive these challenges and obstacles ultimately determines my success and a good attitude is the driving force behind the whole endeavor.

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18 Comments

  1. Fantastic.

  2. Brilliant recap and very original the way you approached the writing of it. I did my first 24hr in Oct and it was brutal hard, sickness, fatigue, the whole 9 yards. But the comraderie as you mention is like an unspoken synergy between competitors, when I hit the wall the guy who was in the lead stopped and spent 5 minutes getting me going again (even with the 2nd place guy only a handful of km's behind him). Chapeau Joe and continued success on your trails through life.

    Salut.

  3. Nice write up Joe, I imagine you have to get one of these things under your belt, I imagine.

    133 miles is a long freakin way!

    hk

  4. Thank you, Joe, for the top-notch recap of your experience. It was an especial treat to get the perspective of an elite runner (as well as the champ of the event). It was great sharing the track with you and I wish you only bigger and greater victories in the years ahead!

  5. Thanks guys! I look forward to seeing you all out there on the trails

  6. Wow.

  7. That's an insightful report that makes me want to try a 24 hour run one of these days. What a great experience to take along w/ you and add to your repertoire! Nice work man 🙂 Here's to another year full of adventures…Happy New Year!

  8. Cool report Joe. It was nice meeting you this morning and chatting while running some laps after the 5K. That 133 miles in a day around in circles just looks and sounds intense. I can totally understand why you would be in pain for so much of that. See you around!

  9. Joe – great meeting you today. Hope we can share some miles soon and that the knee is on the mend.

  10. Good meeting you too, Aaron and George. I look forward to running with you guys sometime soon.

  11. Joe,
    It was great running with you at the PP 50k (well, for 15 miles anyways). I really enjoyed finding and reading your blog.
    I hope that you post some of your video from the weekend as mine turned out pretty horrible.
    Hopefully we can do it again sometime.

  12. Great post. I love the book "Running Within", it reminds me a lot of your post!

  13. Tom – Great running with you too. The camera's pretty tiny and the footage I've looked at so far looks a little jumpy but we'll see if I can get anything from it…

    Cheri – Thanks for the kind words. Glad you liked the post. I'll be in touch soon.

  14. Joe, wow. What an awesome write up. Makes me want to run a 24 hour race… wait a sec I take that back. Seriously this is one of the best rr's I've read. Good work.

  15. Great writing and great running.  You're pretty amazing.  

  16. very interesting post! Bern Switzerland

  17. 4yrs ..behind ..JG. ? . Joe ,awesome write up !.
    Just came across this article by accident , surfing info about running circles.
    Long story ,made longer ,ha .. Im heading to Melbourne nxt month To attempt a 24hr T event, Meanwhile ..have just been out a month with an injured ankle ,and whilst going nuts sitting arnd signed up for and got into the TDG. 2015 edition . All sounds similar give or take a few yrs.
    So in response to the big Why ?? .I Could state .. to feel Jg’s pain ..
    Or after thinking about it a little more ,not quite satisfied with just that alone ..So just like being told how to ride a bike ,it’s not quite the same has the experience of actually riding it ,Of course failing or crashing comes into the equation but ther in lies the challenge for us all .
    Thanks for the honesty in your writing and Inspiration ,
    Keep on keeping on along with your Bro T K.. ALOHAS Paul Hopi ….

  18. I am having a weird drawback I cannot seem to be in a position to link for your rss feed. i’m working with google reader Fyi.

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