Wednesday 2 January 2013

Across The Years 72/48/24hr

Motivational signs - always useful. Translation from American to British English:  If you are literate then you're a jolly spiffing chap.

After the Desert Solstice 100 mile/24hr race was cut short at 70 miles by my inability to accept that Phoenix, AZ, can be stormy, windy and cold, I was looking forward to down time at the end of the season. However, the Coury brothers also have a second 24hr-style event called Across The Years so I decided on Christmas Eve that I didn't want my training to go to waste and I entered it.

It's an interesting concept - 72/48/24hr races that straddled 2012 and 2013, hence the name. And instead of a 400m track like at Desert Solstice, it uses a flat 1.05-mile loop near Phoenix on a gravelly path with some paved sections. That sounded more interesting, plus it has a lot more people than the 20 runners round the track.

In fact, at least five of the runners returned after varying degrees of success at Desert Solstice - Joe Fejes won the 24hr race 2 weeks ago and smashed Yiannis Kouros' old 72hr course record this time with 329 miles (six more than Yiannis); Charlotte Vasarhelyi won the 24hr race before then broke the Canadian 72hr record with almost 251 miles and I returned with Mike Arnstein (12:57 in the 100 with a ridiculously fast final three hours followed by 100 miles this time in the 24), Dave James (about 23 miles at Desert Solstice then 50 miles on day one and 50 more on day three of ATY). Full preliminary results are here.

I turned up a day early to spectate and crew for Bret Sarnquist as he did the 24 over the middle day of the event since there were three separate 24hr races with the winner being whoever ran the most out of all three days. Compared to a trail race there were a lot more marathon T-shirts, especially from Boston. But as with any ultra everyone was as friendly as can be and it was good to make new friends. Plus my old running club in London had a representative in the 72hr event in my friend, Jen Bradley. She jumped in at the deep end of ultras this year by running her first 100 (I think) then running across the US over the summer. Then she had a really solid race at ATY with over 200 miles and third woman. I can't fathom doing that loop for three straight days...

Jen Bradley and Anastasia Supergirl Rolek in the 72hr race

Running 70 miles at a pace that was on track to go under the American Record for 100 miles two weeks ago left me more tired than I realized so within an hour or so my legs were sore, even at 30 secs/mile slower than the pace in that previous effort. Not a good sign, but this time I was in for the full 24hrs so it looked like being a long day with a 3:18 marathon split feeling more like a 2:40 effort. Mike Arnstein found the same and Dave James wasn't feeling it either, so we all hit 50 miles between about 7:20 and 7:40, way off the pace I'd hoped for. Dave stopped, but Mike and I grumbled along, epitomized by us both frequently mentioning we couldn't see the point of running/walking a relatively poor distance. We also definitely questioned why the hell we do this sport when the tough days can be so unnecessarily nasty.

It was a beautiful, warm and sunny day and the aid station had a full kitchen where they took orders for meals and had a wide variety available. It's certainly a great set-up, but the gravel paths were tougher on the feet than expected. Most runners were in road shoes or racing flats, but those who switched to trail shoes seemed to avoid some of the (unexpected) foot bruising that 24-72hrs of running on that surface caused.

Things weren't going to plan but we'd made the effort to fly out, me from Oregon, Mike from New York. Dave had only driven up the road from the same metropolis as the race was held in, so he probably had less incentive to keep going. However, once I told Mike that there's a buckle for breaking 100 miles, he put his head down and we set about checking off slow miles, with me doing little else but walk after the first five hours. However, there was a bright spot when I decided to reinvigorate my legs by trying a fast lap and aiming to go under Sean Meissner's best lap time from the previous day of 6:09 (5:51/mile pace). I squeezed out a painful 5:41 (5:24/mile) then went back to walking as it didn't do anything other than brighten up my outlook for half an hour. 

Sean Meissner leading the way on the 24hr race on the middle day.

Tents - where people hid in the middle of the night to reduce the number of people out there from about 170 to more like 20. Bastards!

The one thing I'm happy about is that I chose to grind out a full 24hrs even though there was no hope of getting anywhere near my goal of the 24hr British record of 170 miles. Given I've got the Grand Slam (four 100s over the summer) in 2013, I thought it was worth sucking it up and proving to myself that I can force out a semi-respectable result even when things go bad. But this was the most miserable and painful race of my life, as well as the longest in terms of time and distance. I've never had to dig really deep in an ultra before about half way so this was an emotional experience with a lot of time walking through the sub-freezing night to contemplate about many things and to work out how to avoid this happening to me again.

In the end Mike stopped at 100 miles after about 17hrs while I went through 100 in just over 20hrs after hitting 70 at 12hrs and managed 109 in total (a mere 39 from the second 12hrs), with around 65 of that as a power-walk. Not fun, but satisfying to have not given up, despite the final 19hrs (longer than I've ever run) being a painful, slow and difficult death march. 

Without a doubt it was a fun idea to bring in the New Year while doing something that I love, but I was in a world of misery at that point and was struggling to get my head around the idea of there still being nine hours left, even as we toasted with champagne at the aid station. But there are much worse ways to celebrate the New Year, although I'd have struggled to name them at the time.

The other positive to take away (apart from proving to myself I can dig in even on a bad day) was that I somehow won since nobody else did more than 106 miles and many who could have gone farther stopped at 100. I don't blame them. But that's overshadowed by the fact that several of the 72hr runners did more miles on day one (and maybe day two) than me - Joe ran around 140 miles on his first day!

So, lessons have been learnt. Firstly, fixed time races are mentally tougher than fixed distance trail races and very boring once things go wrong. Secondly, 70 miles at a reasonably hard effort tires me out more than I can tell from one test run. Thirdly, I should end my season when I originally plan to and not add on extra races, especially very tough ones. And finally, the Coury brothers put on excellent races via Aravaipa Running and I should probably turn up to one giving it more respect than just assuming it's relatively easy because it's flat.

Time for the off season, trips to Bend's brew-pubs plus a lot of sleep. Happy New Year everyone!

Additional write-up:

I wrote the above while on the plane out of Phoenix. However, I then got stuck at Portland airport overnight after no sleep for two days. It wasn't just a delayed flight but a flight that started at PDX, flew for 25 mins to Bend, circled for 40 mins then decided the freezing fog was too dangerous and we went back to PDX to arrive after 11pm. Since it was a weather delay Alaska Airlines wouldn't pay for anything and I ended up 'sleeping' in the airport. I got home by 2pm on Jan 2nd and am now looking forward to a year that can only improve and with a lot of fun stuff lined up.


  1. I'm sure this will help you find strength when encountering race lows in the future. Enjoy the brews and look forward to following your racing this year!

  2. Well done Ian for 'toughing it out'. I know how that must have felt even though compared to you I am a 'jogger'. I have done 24 hours 15 times.
    How do you fancy another tip to the U.K. in August for the British Ultrafest for an attempt to break Dave Dowdle's 170 mile track record? I reckon if anyone can do it, you can and I want to see it go in my lifetime!

  3. Ian,

    Looks like you are putting in the time on the faster 100 courses for Indiana with the big prize in mind. Cool stuff.
    Am I seeing this right- goodbye North Face? Hello SCOTT! Looks like McCoubrey hooked another superstar. Welcome to the team. See you at Western.

  4. Ian,

    You are a beast. Great job of toughing it out at ATY. All the best on the Grand Slam next year. I hope some of the other studs considering it also jump in. Epic potential.

    I respect how much you love to race and compete, anywhere, anytime. As you know, those efforts, even the sub-ultra races, come with a cost. How many times a year can we go to the edge without it taking something out of us? After the Grand Slam next year, any thoughts of racing infrequently and focusing on plus 170 for 24 hours; sub-12 for 100 miles; and say top-5 at Comrades?

  5. Top 5 at Comrades would be career-defining (for me, even if nobody else cared). It'd take more training than anything else and I can only hope to do that one day - am very happy to see Bruce Fordyce running WS100 as he's such an inspiring legend, and that's an over-used term. But I can't see a day that I don't race too much for a 100% optimum performance given how fun it is to turn up to so many events every year. And I think it's healthier to do that than really go all out for a given race since it doesn't pay the bills, unless you can run a Comrades podium.