Thursday, April 16, 2015

2015 24 Hour World Championships Race Report

This was an amazingly positive experience! I write that a scant 11 hours after the finish of the race, and I can barely walk... but I'll get to that.

To get to the 3600 person community of the USA 24 Hour Team Facebook page go to: https://www.facebook.com/US24HR  It has dozens of pictures and all sorts of statements about how the race went.

As many of you know, in late February I came down with leg pains so bad I went to see an actual doctor. All of the doctors basically agreed it was probably a stress fracture. Great.

A stress fracture is a big hit to mileage, and this was no different. Here is the graph of my mileage starting from a week after the 2014 North Coast 24 to April 11th. I had a little calf injury in November so that I scrapped running the CIM marathon in December and then did not have the greatest build up due to the fibula issue, and because of the winter weather I spent a lot of time on cross country skis, and I have been working like crazy launching a new product at work. In short, you can see part of a typical build up in October last year followed by a little break and a weak start to training followed by my fibula getting really bad. Of course, mileage isn't everything, but for a person like myself it is a good indication of how things are going.
Weekly mileage for week after North Coast 24 to 2015 24 Hour World Championships
Even days before the race, at the Chicago Airport, my fibula was hurting, I thought it might be because I had bicycled too hard on the Friday eight days before race day. Needless to say, I wasn't terribly confident going into this race I would even make it an hour before dropping out with severe leg pain. As I wrote from my hotel in Turin, Italy, I didn't know what to expect in the race.

The morning started with my 7 AM alarm followed by a relaxed breakfast in jeans and a t-shirt. For the first time I was nervous about my performance. You see, when there is an injury to blame, especially with the doctor's signature it is an actual injury, the actual end result of the competition becomes less important. Instead, getting to the starting line just to compete is the new goal. We athletes can sometimes be so driven that in the moment of competition we don't worry about the injury, and we barely feel the pain, but if just being allowed to even compete is in jeopardy... it's terrifying. Now I knew, I would run, and suddenly that meant I cared about how well I did, and of course I wanted to do well.

I dressed, wrote a quick blog post, and headed down to the lobby. It's a little surreal with all of us athletes standing around in our uniforms, most of us for our first race with USA on our chest. Is this really happening? I'm wearing the same uniform that Meb has worn?

The trip to the stadium was quick, we unloaded and I headed over to the tents to tape my big toe on my right foot. Sometimes it hurts when I run, and a few wraps of tape keep it from flexing too high to hurt. I checked out the aid tent and realized that my crew (my mom and my sister) had never crewed one of these things, they had my headlamp out sitting on the table already.

I headed over to the stadium entrance at 9:20 AM and was one of the first, if not the first, to check in and have my front and back bib numbers checked. I've learned that it's best to check in as soon as you can because the number of track races I have had where checking in presents a problem is probably 10+%.  That went smoothly, so I basically just walked around, tried to drink a little more, and go to the bathroom, until ten minutes before the start.

Ten minutes until the start I did my leg swings, like I do before every race and 90% of all my runs. I took my sweats off and gave them to my mom and then said a prayer and headed to the start. We lined up maybe 20 feet behind the start line. We didn't want to get lulled into being in the lead after one lap. As we were standing there the whole Japanese men's team lined up immediately behind us with stoic faces of competition. I laughed. Well, I guess they talked about us in their strategy meeting. People moved around a little and the USA women actually started closer to the front than us, maybe 10 feet.

Suddenly a noise was made and we were off! I had tears in my eyes because I was here running at the world championships. It's emotional. I'm wearing USA across my chest! How many of my ancestors have suffered and worked hard so that I might end up living this awesome life I live? I am so fortunate! The pre-race plan was to aim for 8:45-55 pace, the four of us, Harvey, Olivier (pronounced Oh-liv-e-eh given my pronunciation skills), John and myself since our qualifying marks were all pretty similar. Rich was going to do his own thing, and Greg wanted to start out even slower than us.

USA! USA! Courtesy of Greta Varesio
After one lap I was pretty excited because no matter what happened later in the race, I had a distance, I was officially on the board! My leg might as well fall off. I felt quite good, better than expected. Early in the third lap for about a minute I felt some sensitivity in my left fibula, which had been the one hurting most, but it went away, and as I am happy to say, my fibulas were never an issue! I will say one of the medial students, Leah, who had worked on me Thursday and Friday told me Sunday afternoon she did something which is supposed to help heal bones, but she didn't expect it to work that quickly. Who knows, perhaps the 11 days of no running before the race, and six weeks of averaging about 12 miles a week were what I needed to fully heal my fibulas? I really thought they would pose a problem and I would have to stop in the beginning of the race, unable to even walk.

Everything went really well for quite a while, like four hours, the four of us were all within maybe 800 meters of each other. Rich had run ahead and Greg was close behind. I ran the first couple hours with Harvey and Olivier and then picked up the pace slightly because I was feeling good for a couple laps until I caught up with John and ran with him for well over an hour. At one point early in the day I ran with Roy Pirrung, the man, the myth, the legend, for about half a lap. My parents seriously live five miles away from him in Wisconsin, but I had to go to a race in Italy to meet him.

It was pretty strange, the first few hours there were national team members from other countries which were lapping us, and we're sitting there saying to each other, "we're on 162 mile pace, on a technical and mildly slow course going into the heat of the day, what are people expecting to run, 190 miles?" As time passed of course they all faded.

About four and a half hours into the race I stopped to have my legs looked at for the first time on the medial table. My quads had already taken a beating after about 34 miles. The next couple laps went really well, but then my legs started to get more stiff and I experienced my first crash. It was not so bad, but I think at the time I said it was as bad as I felt at 140 miles during the North Coast 24 last fall.

During this time I was learning how poor I was at communicating with my crew (once again, my mom and my sister, who I have known my whole life). For example, once I said, "ice my hat." On the next lap they had put a dozen small pieces of ice in my hat and as I grabbed it and threw it on my head and the ice all spilled out, I thought, 'touche, they did indeed ice my hat'. So I told them the next time around to "dunk my hat in ice water". Lesson learned. Quantities of liquids and foods were interesting too. I would ask for something and the volume that I received would generally be a surprise. Usually a good small quantity, but when I self-crewed at North Coast I always took the volume that I wanted. So several times, many times actually, I would finish the drink, and not get enough, or get something and throw part of it away because I wasn't hungry. Lesson for next time: actually write out, and follow, a nutrition schedule. Sky had a complete three page document for splits and nutrition her crew chief, her boyfriend Tommy, kept. It was impressive to look at before the race, I felt like such a newbie.

At six hours I took the watch off because I had settled into a rhythm of sort, and after 40 miles I could tell that my body wasn't doing great and there was no need to look at my splits when they won't be inspiring. While I had slowed down, my pace wasn't bad and I figured it was because I had not been eating and drinking enough so I tried to take in more calories. It seemed to be working through hours seven and eight...

Hour 9: The Second Crash

Around hour nine my body quit cooperating. Around hour eight I was breathing really hard to run 9 or 10 minute pace. The equivalent breathing of running 6 minute pace when I am fresh. I noticed this in other runners later in the race, and it must be going from running on glycogen to fat, that's my best guess.

The medical staff said I was out of glycogen. So I began eating more, but I knew, I was out of the race. Even if I could recover from this crash I wasn't going to put down the mileage to be in our top three and contribute to the team score. At the time I was actually pretty pumped I had made it nine hours still with a shot of contributing to the team. I'm still really excited actually that I ran that well for that long. I basically faked a 50 miler. If you had told me before the race I would run nine hours before the wheels slowed down significantly, I would be surprised. I was thankful to God that I had made it that far, and resolved to keep eating and drinking and running when I could because you never know when three other guys on the team are going to break their ankles or something.

For the next three hours I was trying to eat because the medical staff was monitoring my glycogen and said I was not full. I still want to know, how you can grab someone's shoulders and know what their glycogen stores are?

My rough 12 hour split was 101 km, which is about 63 miles, or 20 miles less than I split at North Coast. However, I was just coming around about this time and I started running more! I was on the upswing and expecting that 200 km was within reach. It was getting cool so I told them I would change into my tights. When I came around again they had my tights ready, but apparently had no idea (because again I didn't tell them) I wear running shorts under my tights (a lesson learned after many cold runs wearing only tights) and they were expecting me to change like in public under a towel, yeah right!

For the next hour and a half I ran great! I hope that I can get splits, but I doubt it. I was running most of the time, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because even though I was full, people were telling me I needed to eat, and I thought they might know better than me. Early in the face I had fought a little with my crew about not needing an ice pack on my neck or sunscreen or eating gels, and after my crash I decided I would just do whatever the USA crew team told me.

Then I threw up. I've never thrown up because of running. I've run gut wrenching 400s, marathons, and all the standard very competitive runner stuff,  for 14 years! Yet peanut butter and jelly sandwiches put me over the edge. For the next lap or two I ran just fine, then I crashed harder than I have ever crashed. I don't think there is a lower low.

Hour 14: The third Crash

Around hour 14 I was reduced to a walk, and a limping walk at that because my left achilles/calf was really tight. It was so slow! I think I had a lap of like 50 or 55 minutes, for a measly 2 kilometers. Surely quite a few laps were over 40 minutes. I cried because it hurt so bad. I actually thought about crawling. That was a strange conversation in my head. Ultimately I decided I would tear up my knees and hands and the toes of my shoes if I tried to crawl so I might as well keep limping along.

At one point I was laying on the medical table crying, and saying "I'm so weak!" I felt like I should be able to push harder through this pain and perform better, I felt like I was a failure, I felt like I was giving up. Of course, after saying that, people cheered me on and Tommy was in my face yelling "You are not weak! You are awesome!" So I got up and left the medical area. This race, this crash after throwing up, was the most physically painful experience of my life. It hurt so bad!

Why didn't I quit? Several reasons, at the 2009 World Championship Marathon the runner who's blog I followed at the time Nate Jenkins ran a painful 2:32, but he finished because the other two Americans dropped out with injuries and three finishers are necessary for the team marathon medal, or even a listed team finish. I respected him more after that because he could have stopped and limited the damage, but he didn't, because if he quit the team was out. I was also thinking of my grandpa, who fought in the second world war and had two people die right beside him, and I assume that neither of those men ever had a family or kids, and that seems to make my life all that more valuable, so I can never give up. I thought of having to tell this story to 40 different people when I returned and I knew the mental pain I would experience telling them I stopped was far greater than the physical pain I would endure until the end of the race. Plus, I was checked by the medical staff numerous times and they said I was okay. I had told them before the race I might want to continue even at risk of serious damage to myself, so they would have to bench me if it came to that.

Sometime in the night at the suggestion of an older Italian woman in the open race she suggested taking magnesium, which when I told other people and two people said that magnesium had helped their cramps in races. Although, that being said, I didn't really feel like my legs were cramped as rather tight. More of a long term tightness. Those symptoms actually seem consistent with magnesium deficiency, which prevents muscles from relaxing. I think that I probably wasn't getting a great amount of magnesium in my diet leading up to the race, because I wasn't eating enough vegetables like spinach, and then I did not drink my mango protein smoothie, or any other foods with magnesium like bananas, as early in the race as I did at North Coast. Lesson learned, be sure to get enough magnesium. I've been taking a magnesium supplement from Tuesday through today, Thursday, and I feel like I am recovering quicker than I did from North Coast, despite having a far more painful race.

As I continued to limp around the course I began to have a bit of a following. I could talk and cheer for people just fine and I did. It was great to see all of the Americans like Rich, whooping and hollering, Harvey, who I would yell various quotes at, Greg, John, Olivier, Katalin, Traci, Maggie, and Connie. I made some friends too like Robbie Britton. At one point, hours after I had been reduced to a walk I yelled at Robbie, "I'm coming after you!" At which point him and three other people around us laughed. I tried to talk to and encourage number 105 from Japan, the second fastest Japanese on paper coming in, when I walked past him when he was doing even worse than I, but me not speaking any Japanese and him no English it was a short conversation, and he eventually lapped me again walking faster. I talked to a guy from Uruguay and another from Mexico in Spanish a little. I talked to a young lady from New Zealand who was wearing a space blanket (and still walking faster than me). These 24 hour events are bizarre, people in marathons don't wrap space blankets around themselves and keep going to the finish. In a marathon, when you visit the medical tent, that's it, you're done. In a 24 hour run, when you visit the medical tent they try to get you back out there running.

The nights are so rough in these things. There was even a fire and a power outage in the stadium that night. At one point early in the night Maggie had been throwing up and we walked and jogged together a bit, well she was passing me and I tried to keep up for 100 meters, but then she recovered and was so strong toward the end. Katalin was so smooth through the whole race. When it was cold before dawn she put on this knit white stocking hat and it reminded me of Bill Rodgers, that sort of old school it's-not-about-the-technology-I'll-beat-you-wearing-cotton simplicity. By the way, she wrote a blog post about the race, you should read it, she is a huge talent in this sport of ultra running.

Eventually the sun came out and with it many people who had been sleeping or resting and the quiet course grew crowded again.

No one ever told me where we stood or where any individual runners mileages were. My best information was when I came around the timing mat I would know how many painful hours I had left and how few laps I had completed. With maybe two hours to go we learned we were in fourth and had a shot at the Germans, so I began to watch for the Germans and try to motivate our top three guys Rich, Harvey and Greg, to go after them and get us a medal. They did great! Harvey and Rich were just positively flying the last couple hours. Greg may not have been flying, but I was walking slowly, Olivier was mostly walking, John was throwing up, a lot, and Greg was still moving faster than the three of us. The women on the other hand were actually flying. Seriously, Runner's World or Competitor, or Running Times should do a profile on the "24 Hour Women of Team USA" because they just blew the competition out of the water. I think they set a record for most distance covered by three women from the same country at one 24 hour race.

The gun was shot signaling the end of the race and I hugged my sister and cried. Then I found my way to the ground and laid there. My mom and Karen came over and the three of them helped me back to our team tent. Oh it felt so good to be done! They laid me down on the pole vault mat next to Rich and Greg, and I have to say, having a pole vault mat right next to our team tent was amazing! I drank some more protein smoothie and the medical team eventually came over to tell me I was fine and I needed to man up and walk 7 km back to the hotel. Okay that's not quite what they said.

At this point we didn't know how we did as a team. We knew, because you basically always know after a 24 hour race, that everyone gave it everything and that was all we had. I will save the post race aftermath for another blog post, it was also educational.

In summary, lessons learned:

  • I need magnesium in my diet, if not in foods than at least in a supplement.
  • Next time I am going to write a schedule for nutrition and hydration, based on what I like, and a warmer afternoon and cooler night, and then I am going to follow it, none of this having a crew without a plan for the crew.
I would like to thank my mom first of all. She was so concerned about me before and after my first 24 hour race when she heard I was trying this again, she knew she had to come. I'm not always the most pleasant person to be around and unfortunately my family often gets the brunt of my frustration as I try to maintain positivity to the rest of the world. My parents have always been there and supported whatever I do, whether it's climbing a mountain for two months in Pakistan, going to an expensive east coast school, or running for 24 hours, and I'm really thankful that I have the best parents in the world. I'm thankful to my sister, who had no idea what she was getting into when she wanted to come help crew me. Seriously I don't think it is a game to put my sister in over her head despite the number of times I have done it. Howard and his wife Karen did so much to help organize and plan this, I really did not have to worry about anything except the actual race, which was fantastic, thank you! Dr. Andy Lovy, Dr Greg, Leah and Katie our medical team was amazing! You guys put us back together multiple times, and I am sure the USA did as well as we did because of your help. Mike and Rich thanks for waiting and waiting and waiting and driving us around always getting us where we needed to go. (JFK 50 miler you say...) All of my team USA teammates Harvey, Rich, Greg, John, Olivier, Katalin, Traci, Maggie, Sky, Aly, and Connie, you are all so inspiring! Keep it up, I hope we meet again on the trails or the next 24 hour world championships. Let me know if you would like some help crewing, I'd like to give it a go sometime. Thank you to all of the families, significant others, and friends that came across the pond or from another country to support us! We had such a big group it was motivational and I know how much you all have to sacrifice to help us, that's why I usually do self-supported things, I don't want to be selfish and ask for help from awesome people like you. You didn't have to be there, you could have been somewhere else, and I thank you for being there. Finally, thank you to the Turin sports club for hosting this event, and making so many arrangements in the last like two weeks when the original race director left. That's not easy, but you pulled it off!

One last request, I'm in the market for pictures of myself, running, walking, limping, puking, on the medical table, whatever, so if you could tag me on Facebook or email them to me that would be nice, thank you for reading!

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