After years of considering, pondering, daydreaming and fantasizing, last year I finally decided to go big and run 100 miles. The reasons compelling me to do this are varied and worthy of being written down (at least they seem so to me) and they’ll get their due attention in another blog post. This is the story of the race itself.
For some reason, many who run great distances desire to make it as difficult as possible. They intentionally seek out altitude, heat, massive elevation changes and the threat of lions eating them along the way. I am not such a person. At my core I’m lazy – that is to say, if I’m going to run 100 miles, I’m going to do it in the easiest way possible.
Enter the Virginia 24 Hour Run for Cancer. Rather than a meandering single track trail through the the most mountainous parts of hell (in August), the idea here is to circle a wide, flat 4 mile loop as many times as you can over the course of 24 hours. A typical “good” result for this type of race is to complete 100 miles in 24 hours. I’d say that for the ultrarunner, this is about the equivalent of running a 4 hour marathon – amazing for some, somewhat mundane for those who can run 150 miles in that same period. A typical 24 hour race is significantly easier than a traditional trail ultra as they are flat and, importantly, well serviced. Rather than hiding drop bags all over a mountain, Awesome Wife Kelly was looking beautiful, shouting encouragement and serving a veritable buffet of delicious food and drink every four miles. Nice.
Alas, they say something about the best laid schemes of mice and men. Injuries derailed training and I was forced to sit out the last month of peak training (literally, even walking was a challenge), only getting back on my feet two weeks before the race – just in time for the taper. So my PT, Awesome Wife Kelly and I had a long conversation about how to run 100 miles without training. Reluctantly I agreed with AWK that it wasn’t a good idea. 50 miles on the other hand – great idea. The PT disagreed and I haven’t spoken with him since. AWK also disagreed, but I live with her and needed her to crew the race so we remained on speaking terms. So instead of 100 in 24, we set out for 50 in 12 with no expectations and little at risk. Really, the best way to do these things. The experience proved so memorably awesomely fantastic that I figure it deserves a retrospective race recap.
Before we get started, a quick tangent. While the race (as you’re about to see) was a wonderful experience that I couldn’t recommend highly enough, the name (The Virginia 24 Hour Run for Cancer) is pretty bad. Presumably the run is for a cure to cancer rather than For Cancer. I mean I met George, the race director, and he seems like a really nice guy. I can’t imagine he’s raising all that cash FOR cancer. Right? A modest proposal:
- Virginia 24 Hour Run Against Cancer
- Virginia 24 Hour Run For a Cure
- Virginia 24 Hour Run For a Cure For Cancer
- Virginia 24 Hour Run to Beat The Hell out of Cancer
George, if you’re reading this, please feel free to use any of the above next year – no need to even credit me.
Author’s note: None of the prior is meant in any way to lessen how terrible cancer is. Cancer is terrible.
Okay, we’re back. Newport News, where the race is located, is just not an awesome town. Locals would probably point out a bunch of awesome things about NN that I never saw. I’m sure they’re right. For the tourist it’s just pretty unmemorable. We stayed at some sort of motor lodge and Awesome Wife Kelly made pasta for dinner in our dingy kitchen. Pretty boring and really hardly worth noting down even in a running blog. That’s saying something.
(Another) Quick aside: Poor AWK. We take a romantic long weekend vacation to, um, Newport News Virginia. She has to cook dinner in a pretty terrible hotel room. She has to sit around for 12 hours while I run in endless circles. Then she has to put up with my whining and bitching for the next several days. Then I get all the credit. Poor Awesome Wife Kelly.
We wake up at some ungodly hour the morning of the race and drive the 5 miles to the race location. It’s based in an urban park right by the freeway. As I understand it, there used to be a factory on the location and when they closed up shop, they turned the whole site into a really lovely wooded park, right alongside the freeway. Beautiful and conveniently located right near an off-ramp!
As a marathon runner who’s used to running big races, I was pretty surprised by what I found on race morning. I mean, the Paris Marathon has 30,000 runners from across the world, most of whom don’t speak English and many of whom think you’re a monster for not speaking French. You get to the starting line and you’re an anonymous figure surrounded by what might as well be fellow commuters on the subway.
Coming from that background it’s hard to describe how different and how wonderful it was to toe the line with 300 similarly dedicated ultra runners. I’d never met any of them before and I’m generally a bit of an introvert around new people, but the enthusiasm and laughter was contagious. As we stood waiting for the start I chatted with people I didn’t know and who I will never meet again as if they were old friends. There is camaraderie amongst strangers in the ultrarunning community that you don’t find in many other places.
Now maybe all ultrarunners are just really nice people. Or maybe they’re bored from running so many solitary hours and consequently are just more talkative when actually surrounded by people. Maybe they’re sizing up the competition. Let me propose an alternative theory: the thought of running crazy distances over 12 or 24 hours is pretty damn scary (at least to the novices). No matter how hard you’ve trained, 1,000 things can go wrong. Blisters, dehydration, cramps, hallucinations. The stories about even the world’s best ultrarunners bonking or puking or getting lost are amazing and hilarious and terrifying. And that’s why I think ultrarunners are so outgoing and damned nice: it’s easier not to be scared to death about what lies ahead if you’re chatting amiably about your hometown and dog.
Another revelation about ultrarunning is that for the great majority of people it’s not about time. Unless you’re one of the very few people who can run these things fast, it’s just about finishing, a fact that really removes the pressure. So instead of monitoring my pace every minute to make sure I’m on track and instead of the difference between 3:18 and 3:20 being the difference between a great race and a total failure, I started on my way at a leisurely trot, focused more on the beautiful weather than on the minutiae of the race. In the first 10 minutes of a 720 minute race you can afford to be thinking about other things.
And what a wonderful 720 minutes it was. I started out with a run, then a run walk, then a walk run, then a walk and then something that wasn’t quite a crawl, but certainly wasn’t what you’d call a walk. It was excruciating but fun and I made it through not too much worse for the wear. The trail is pretty and peaceful (especially for a New Yorker who sees about 0 trees on an average run), the folks were friendly and the race was easy – Kelly helped refuel and came along for two really fun laps. The most boring part of writing about running is writing about running, so I’ll leave it at that.
About 10 hours in, Awesome Wife Kelly and I were slowly making our way when we noticed a commotion up ahead and some runners booking it around the loop. We kept on our way until we came upon a runner on the ground surrounded by park rangers and other helpful looking people. The runner was out cold and a ranger was performing CPR. After a few moments of this he’d convulse, the first responders would back off, then continue back up with the CPR as soon as his body calmed. AWK and I didn’t know what to do. It felt terrible to stand by watching and not helping. At the same time it didn’t feel right to run by when another runner was in such distress. After about 10 minutes of standing at a distance we quietly passed by with another group of runners. We didn’t say anything for several minutes, and after that we had a hard time conveying how saddened we were and how lucky we felt. It changed the mood and tenor of the race, reminding us of the real risks that accompany this type of activity. I cannot tell you how relieved and excited we were when we found out later that the runner survived and was expected to make a full recovery. Rarely have I ever been so ecstatic to hear about a stranger’s good fortune. AWK and I practically glided through the rest of the lap.
The rest of the day was uneventful. Blisters and cramps and lots of Gu, Nuun, Heed and peanut butter sandwiches. I’d never had pizza or donuts on a run before, but I happily consumed them about ¾ of the way through. I finished 52.5 miles in 11.5 hours and felt good enough that I started doing some mental math. Okay, if I run just 2 miles per hour – only 30 minute miles! – I could get to 75 miles in another 12 hours. Awesome Wife Kelly looked at me as I told her this, let me finish, then calmly but firmly told me to get my ass into the car. I clocked out, took my plaque and headed home.
Many thanks to everybody who helped put on a great Virginia 24 Hour Run for Cancer 2014!