The answer is: I don’t know. I did just participate in a race of that distance, the 24 Hour Ultra Around The Lake, which consists of a 3.173-mile loop around Lake Quannapowitt (plus a .85-mile add-on to start), in Wakefield, MA, 20 miles north of Boston. But I stopped moving about 90 minutes before the 24 hours ended, and I had stopped running more than an hour earlier than that, because that was when I learned I needed just one more lap to almost certainly win the race. As such, I walked one more lap, leisurely, with my wife and friends, who had crewed brilliantly, and finished with 111.89 miles in 22:31:37.4, which turned out to be good enough for first place.
So I don’t know what it feels like to run for 24 hours. But that’s the sort of trick question that doesn’t really tell us anything meaningful about ultrarunning. No one, not even the fastest ultrarunner in the world, spends every second of an ultramarathon running. Although, athletically, this makes obvious sense — for instance, a football player who plays every snap of a game could end up nearly dying, which in fact happened to a friend who did that in high school — I would not fault anyone for snubbing, consciously or not, runners that spend a chunk of a running race not running. I was once of this disparaging mindset myself; ten years years ago, while participating in my first trail marathon, outside Bloomington, IN, I decided that to not run every step was to cheat the sport. I remember one incredibly steep hill, in the middle of the race. It was a dirt road, and everyone walked it, except me. I passed everyone, but, on the ensuing downhill cruise back into the forest, everyone passed me. Secretly, I thought this was unfair and didn’t yet understand why I was wrong.
Like all sports, ultrarunning can never be fully conquered — Yiannis Kouros’s absurd 180.335 24-hour road record (7:59 per mile) has stood since 1998 but will not stand forever — but it can be optimized. In pursuit of optimization, pre-race strategies and race-day tactics matter as much as physical training. All of these factors reserve the right to be mutated. Approaching this 24-hour race, which was my first of its kind (as well as my first time-based race), I had mileage goals and placement aspirations. Who doesn’t? What I discovered in the midst of the race was that the task of running 24 hours was, mentally, so difficult, so taxing, and so overwhelming that as I pushed through the teens of hours, I was looking for any way to make the time speed up. This wasn’t a physical thing. My legs could have trudged me along at an 11:50 minute-per-mile slog (including eating/drinking/bathroom/ice breaks) for as long as necessary. But when, finally, I didn’t need them to — when I reached the point, utterly exhausted, where I could stop running and still say I’d won — I snatched this gift and ripped open the wrapping paper faster than I have at any birthday party. Is this antithetical to the ideal of amateur competition, let alone competition that prides itself on informal camaraderie and limit-pushing? Or is it the body and mind’s natural response to a self-imposed torture that has lasted many hours too long?
This all began about nine months ago, when I decided that a 24-hour race this summer would punctuate the fourth stage of my ultrarunning career. (“Career”!) The first stage lasted from the day after my twenty-fourth birthday, when I ran my first ultra, Central Park’s mid-November Knickerbocker 60K, until the following July, when I ran my first trail ultra, the 33-mile Jay Mountain Marathon, and had an epiphany about the misery/elation ultrarunning binary. That was my trial period. Stage Two covered the next 18 months of my life, including four ultras in 2009, culminating with the North Face Wisconsin 50-miler, during which I bonked like three times yet managed an 8:36, and, a month later, the Knickerbocker in 8-minute-miles. Stage Three was the next 18 months: a trail marathon finish, a 100K DNF, and serious questions about whether or not I cared for ultrarunning. Stage Four was the next 3.5 years: working up to the 100-mile distance, to 100-mile training weeks, to age-group finishes, to wins at smaller local races on the right day, and, ultimately, to the 24-hour race, which would prove I could go much farther than 100 miles. After that, I’d transition to the fifth stage (whatever might come to define it) by revamping my training so that I could become more efficient — a superior runner without a superior time commitment.
But, before the transition, I needed to capitalize on this “A” race. I eyed it cautiously. I had planned, for instance, to run a 100 miler in April as a tuneup, but I made illogical pre-race decisions and then got greedy during the race. My ignorance backfired with a mid-race DNF, which I salvaged as a 48-mile speed workout (averaging about 9:00 pace on a flat dirt path) but lamented as a lost chance to accrue mileage and experience. Unless I capriciously entered a race or did an extremely long workout, I would begin the 24-hour race having not run longer than 50 miles in one clip in two years.
I did not try to make up the mileage or experience. Instead, I took a month off, replaced all my crusty old shoes, and returned to training with a glorious five hours exploring the mountains north of Tucson. I built a base of slow miles, which peaked with an overnight run around my in-laws’ neighborhood on Long Island. That night, fueled by Clif Citrus gels, a two-liter of Mountain Dew, fruit, and just-add-water chicken noodle soup, I ran my favorite two-mile loop from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.: 53 miles total, less than I’d hoped for but, if you excluded the half-hour lightning break before midnight, a pace — 10:45 — that was on par with my hopes for the 24-hour race: 134 miles.
134 miles would, I knew, be a major reach, and not just because of the flawed projected pace methodology. I was about to take off the next three weeks to have my wedding (my wife and I had been “officially” married at City Hall months earlier) and to honeymoon to Italy. In Italy, my wife and I went on fabulous hikes, did some trail running, and walked a lot, but my only true training run was two hours (which included 30 minutes of hiking). And I ate as if in college. The first few nights, my wife and I were downing appetizers and two courses each and splitting a bottle of Prosecco. She got sick, and I switched to the pizza-and-a-half dinner diet: mine, and half of hers. Then I got sick. Walking around Florence, ten minutes couldn’t pass without my stomach, saturated with cheese, knotting and spasming. A weekend in Rome remained. That food! I returned to New York five pounds heavier. Runs were plagued by lethargy and minor injuries. Two weeks before the race, on a gorgeous Saturday, I did an easy 21-miler using new shoes, the Brooks Defyance 7, which I needed for the padding (my feet had taken a beating during 53 miles of pavement in the Brooks Pure Flow 2), and then rested.
During my taper — stretching, icing, foam rolling, salt bathing; resuscitating my core/strength routine; slipping back into my healthy diet — I reevaluated my goals. Delusion had ruined my last race; this time I was cognizant of my mediocre shape. To be sure, I was in decent enough base shape: legs conditioned with junk miles. But I did not feel light, did not feel the hop in my step that comes from speed workouts. I hadn’t done one in months, unless you included 10 miles through the city, with the middle eight a 1 min off/2 min on fartlek, for an overall average pace of 7:04, which isn’t really a speed workout at all.
In this state, I identified three goals:
- 120, the lowest mileage I should hit. This stemmed from the fact that I’d run the hilly-ish Vermont 100 in 19:06, two years ago, when I was not as good a runner, at a pace (11:27) that equated to roughly 125 miles in 24 hours.
- 124, my goal. During my overnight training run, I spent a couple of hours thinking about potential race splits. (This is the sort of thing I always seem to stumble into to pass time — focusing intensely and redundantly on a single word or number combination. Years ago, I spent hours of a race repeating the name of a person I’d recently met because I found the cadence of the syllables addictive: Scott Arogeti.) I conceptualized the race as back-to-back 100Ks. Once I got there, ideally in 22-23 hours, I would see what I had left. But this goal also came from something else — seeing Rich Riopel, with whom I’d run the last two West Virginia Trilogies, post 127.97 miles in his first 24-hour race (at Hinson Lake). Obviously, this is an inane way of setting personal benchmarks, but I think ultrarunners can be powerless to it, even though we know that we can reach our goals and succeed in races only if we run “our race,” i.e. create and stick to a plan that maximizes our strengths and minimizes our weaknesses, i.e. a plan that has nothing to do with another person’s abilities, even if that person runs similar times to us.
- 130, my reach. If everything went perfectly, it could happen.
With the race’s nighttime start — Friday, 9 p.m. — the challenged increased slightly. At least I thought so. Unable to sleep beforehand, I’d be fatigued from the beginning. To hedge against that, my wife and I drove up to Boston Thursday evening, so that Friday I could wake up in the city and lounge around all day, hopefully taking a nap or two (something I rarely do otherwise). We were staying in the cozy apartment of our close friends Greg and Jackie (also somewhat recently married); that they live just twenty minutes from the race was a significant reason I decided to do this one in particular. They are both runners, and Greg, one of my oldest friends, is actually the person who first got me into distance running. Between them and my wife, I knew I would have desired running company.
A few days before the race, I started eating excessive amounts of carbohydrates. Jackie made a huge pasta dinner Thursday, and Friday I ate even more excessively and prepared water bottles, for my sturdy Rubbermaid cooler, with my necessary drinks: 3 bottles of orange Gatorade Endurance mixed with CarboPro, 2 Nalgenes filled with iced green tea (brewed myself with my Czar Nicholas II tea bags) and four spoonfuls of sugar in each, 5 gel flasks with 1.5 ounces of vanilla EFS liquid shot mixed with 3.5 ounces of water, 2 20-ounce Mountain Dews, 2 Siggs filled with some organic berry juice mixed with seltzer water (the drink tasted good, but I wound up wanting none of it), 1 bottle of water with lemon, 1 bottle of water with cucumber (didn’t really drink these two either). These details provide absolutely zero insight into what ultrarunning is really like, because ultrarunning is psychological far before it is mechanical, but people always end up asking what do you eat, what do you drink, and so on and so forth.
Other insignificant details: I slept seven hours Thursday night, took an hour nap around dinnertime Friday then showered, shaved, headed to the race, the four of us did, which was just off the dreadful Interstate 95. Yet despite the race being across the highway from a massive furniture store/IMAX theater (whose towering phosphorescent lights were a fantastic reference point until about midnight) and literally right next to one of those soul-crushing generic corporate office complexes (with the logo of Comverse, which I offhandedly guessed to be some sort of refrigeration technology but which turned out to be a telecom company with $5.1 million net income, supplying Greg and me with a recurring Office Spaceian gag), the start/finish area, bustling with dozens of runners milling about and stretching at the check-in table and aid station and wide timing chute and dozens of tents and chairs set up along a grassy stretch, was pleasant and homey and reassuring in the way these races often are. I set up the cooler, chair, and stand, sprayed bug repellent, coated vulnerable skin areas in Vaseline, and put on the rest of my clothes (I feel very not normal calling running clothes “gear”): sparkling white Defyance exactly 35 miles old, white CEP compression socks (after years of using these for recovery but running in the calf sleeves, I’ve made the switch for good), tight black Sugoi Jack shorts (the latest iteration has some other official name; regardless, these are my go-to), gray Steelers Reebok SpeedWick T-shirt (still unquestionably the greatest technical shirt I’ve ever worn).
“Are you nervous?” Jackie asked.
“Obviously not,” I said cheerily. All of us were just chatting and joking about normal things.
The race began. Starting with the marathoners and 24-hour relay teams, I was passed by many people. Over two laps, I settled into a slow groove, establishing a pattern, on this virtually flat course, of running lanes: pavement here, a dirt path to the left here, a grassy strip to the right there. The ratio was about 60 pavement/40 not. Greg joined for laps three and four; we had normal conversation that distracted me from the race; they all went home. I continued my groove and started nibbling on oranges and bananas and pretzels and taking an Endurolyte every lap and a gel every other lap. Foot traffic thinned as the marathoners finished within a couple hours; sounds evaporated as the restaurant closed and motorcycle gang left the doughnut shop. The weather was optimally cool and reasonably dry in the dead of the night. Into the light from the church, onto the darkness alongside the cemetery. Few cars passed, but when they did they honked or, if packed with kids, screamed. Houselights stayed on until they didn’t.
Vaguely romantic, no? But this type of nostalgia — the lone ultrarunner plugging away when all else have retired — is the seduction of the ultramarathon, for it belies the utter terribleness that can strike you at any second. It makes you forget how awful running these things can be. In this first attempt at a long timed race, I found that these strikes, when they struck, struck harder than ever before. In a distance race, you can envision yourself clicking off the miles until the end. You can get to the finish faster if you run faster. But in a timed race, no matter how much you increase your speed, the finish line does not change. The only way around that truth is deceit: you have to elevate yourself to a higher purpose or focus solely on the road in front of you. At least one of those works most of the time, but sometimes you blank on both. This is when an ultramarathon becomes excruciating tortuous.
Through the night, I ran almost entirely alone, unaware of my exact pace (no watch) and concentrating on my next nutrition grab. I lost count of my laps around eight or nine. I was clueless about place, too. I wanted to believe I was on pace for 130 miles. I needed incentive to keep pushing, to not think about how I’d been running for more than five hours yet had completed less than one-fourth of the race. Could it be that nineteen hours remained? In what context is it normal to do the exact same thing for nineteen hours in a row? The number “19” began to seem far more significant than any other, even ones lower than it, kind of like how turning 17 years old seemed to me somehow more significant than turning 16 or 18 simply because it wasn’t some consensus benchmark, it was just a random, forgotten age. I told myself that the sky would soon lighten and I would switch my shirt, add more headgear (“gear”), and begin anew. But that was three hours away. And so I brushed up against the ultimate oppression of the 24-hour race. It’s not about physical pain. It’s about the fact that you can find yourself thinking things as absurd as, “If I run for three more hours” — a legitimately long time to be running — “I’ll be one-third done.” You think nineteen hours seems interminable, but then you run three more hours and you still have sixteen hours left.
Three hours passed — who knew how — and it was light. The rising sun on the verge of eclipsing low, bored clouds, I changed into a white shirt, prepared an ice bandana every lap, and took a power-walking break to eat a cup of Ramen, which I’d “ordered” from the kind aid station volunteers the previous lap. (No human has ever been kinder than an aid station volunteer at an ultramarathon.) These sucked time and energy, as did my increasingly frequent Porta Potty breaks, and I worried about my pace. Out on the course, the day was grinding into action: cars parking, joggers jogging, walkers walking. This was five a.m. As we made the right turn, a half-mile past the start/finish, from corporate parking lot access road to path along a main street, the doughnut shop was again open for business and cinnamon and coffee were wafting toward us. Just past mile 2, a farmer’s market, whose “Saturday 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.” sign I’d passed a dozen times, would soon be setting up in the dirty grass and pebble lot between our course and the lake. Upon the completion of each lap, I hoped to see my wife and friends, but they kept not being there. I assumed they wouldn’t come at eight, or even nine, but I predicted they’d surprise me at ten. I needed a familiar face.
I was soon shirtless and wearing my Native sunglasses and Zoot hat with its ear and neck flap. These cooled me, which kept my weak gut in check. But my teeth were coated with grime, and I didn’t want to eat. The aid stations had cycled through a few rounds of volunteers, and I felt badly asking one to wipe my sweaty back with my rag and lather me with sunscreen. But she ripped off her plastic gloves and gladly did it.
Another lap: very uncomfortable. No stomach bug or dead legs or low energy. Just overall depletion. Somehow, I was chugging along at that same glacial pace.
At the next lap, I slumped into a folding chair and closed my eyes, only to be overcome with the sensation that valuable minutes were slipping.
Furious to be running, sagging with disgust, I got back on the course and began to understand that this was absolutely the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. Athletically, of course. I have had far greater difficulty trying to comprehend the highest levels of high school chemistry, or molding a Rachmaninoff prelude into performance form, or motivating undergraduate engineering majors uninterested in reading and writing to learn essay structures. Writing a sprawling two-family psychosocial novel is exceedingly more difficult than running for a day. All this pales in comparison to the challenge of continually being a good son, friend, husband anyway. But what relativist junk. This was a kinesthetic struggle bundled into a single interval.
“This is absolutely the hardest and most awful thing I’ve ever done, and I wish to everything that I had never started it.”
That is what I kept repeating to myself.
From the final turn-off by the car dealership, the access road to the start/finish lasted about one-third of a mile. As I approached it, I saw Greg jogging toward my setup with a bag of ice and another 20-ounce Mountain Dew. I muttered something about doing one more lap alone.
I grabbed some food, forced down some water and salt tablets, and went out. I began to lose it. I don’t mean I stopped running or broke down. I just began to feel the pain of having run nearly fourteen hours not being good enough. Not even close. I realized, acutely, that I was suffering. Everything felt awful. As I wound around the lake, inching toward that first mile marker, wedged in the road’s guardrail, I tried to distract myself with thoughts of real suffering of real people all around the world, people who had been born into war or poverty or some terribly unfortunate circumstance. But that didn’t do anything. I tried to think of how I was the great-grandson of, on one side, a penniless Czech immigrant who ended up in Pittsburgh after evading military duty and, on the other, a penniless Polish immigrant who, when he was a young kid, left his entire family and started a push-cart business in Manhattan. That they suffered so I didn’t have to seemed something that should contextualize my self-inflicted suffering. But those perspectives and rationalizations are messier than that.
It was in these moments of intense mental anguish and dwindling physical capacity that I felt guilty for having appropriated this mundane race around a mundane lake as a surrogate for my very manufactured and self-conscious suffering, followed, immediately, by the extreme shame of needing the guilt. Mine was the suffering of privilege, and it was atrocious. Yet I was helpless to it. For how badly I was hurting, I began to whimper and then to cry, not in any sort of rush, because I didn’t have the faculties for that, but a muffled cry, a stupid cry, a selfish and pathetic one. No surprise I had to almost force it out. But it did come out, because it had to. And it performed its cathartic duties. This was its worst and best part. Instantly — having sneaked a peek at the leaderboard sheet last aid station — my thoughts shifted to tactics: I was creeping toward the leader. I was executing flawlessly — I was running “my” race — and all I needed to do was maintain. That would happen: I had been saving my legs, particularly my hamstrings, which felt no strain. Everyone else would soon start suffering physically — most people who run ultras start way too fast, even though, presumably, they know they shouldn’t — and from there would proceed their own version of mental suffering. Whereas I had already outlasted mine. I had done so in my own sick, shameless way, but I had a result: vigor. Suddenly I understood the race in a way I never had, and I knew I would do whatever it took — but nothing more — to win.
“Should I make a move?” I wondered in a swell of emotion. “No, no, it’s still way too early!”
I made no move, and my vigor did not yet manifest. I was beat, I could barely talk, I needed more calories, I got them at the aid station, I picked up Greg for the next lap. Things had changed, slightly. During the middle of the lap, I muttered that I hated this, but to speak it aloud was to acknowledge its lie. He stayed with me for another couple laps, and then Jackie took over for a lap or two, and then my wife. They knew not to talk to me, to just run beside me, to refill my head and neck gear (in the high sun and eighty-five degrees, “gear” now seemed appropriate) with ice, to heed my whispered food and drink instructions as we rounded the corner to the homestretch. I garnered enough hope to mutter to my wife, “I hate this . . . but I love you.” I didn’t run a lap alone the rest of the way.
A few laps later, I was initiating hushed talk of tactics (hushed because I could not summon the energy for anything louder), of making a move at four hours, no, at three hours, no, of stealing a lap at the end of the race with a valiant 9:00 pace. But I was also trying to stave off the super-sore muscle in my upper right quad. (IcyHot spray = magic.) I fueled: two Endurolytes per aid station, EFS and sugary tea and Gatorade Endurance, Ramen, bananas and pretzels, watermelon. Eventually, as I assumed first place and built a three-lap lead, I entered into that state all ultrarunners know, where every muscle hovers just below the cramping threshold and you are chugging along, slowly but efficiently, for all the reasons why you shouldn’t be running, running nonetheless. At one point, I told my companions that I could run like this forever.
But I had no interest in that, not once Greg and I determined, as the hours remaining wound down from ten to eight to six to four — seemingly interminable amounts of time themselves — that if, after my 31st lap, which involved a short sitting break, we ran three more and walked another, I would be basically guaranteed to win. So we did that. On the last running lap, the four of us went out in my preferred mode: silence. Bent forward at the waist, I attacked the most imperceptible rises in pavement, which now felt like serious inclines, by looking at the ground no farther than a single footstep ahead. I grunted through the pain of every step sending a shock through my depleted quads. I now knew every inch of the course, and so when I reached the highest point, just past the farmer’s market, at about mile 2.25, where, for a second, between the road and the trees, ahead you could see a blinking green stoplight and, another quarter mile ahead, another traffic light, the one by the car dealership at which we turned onto the homestretch — in that moment, knowing I would soon stop running, I didn’t care that the four of us would walk a final lap, that I would leave 9.5 miles (three laps) on the table and fall that amount short of my “minimum mileage” goal. On this day, such a goal meant so little it was as if I’d never considered it.
111.89 miles in 22:31:37 will not win most 24-hour races. And? The first goal of any long race is to finish. Like Kilian Jornet said before he casually demolished the course record at the Hardrock 100, you can be in great shape, but you still have to run. In a timed race, where you’re doing loops, to be out running there all day, not knowing what the hours will bring, but taking them on as they come, is impressive enough.
I was incredibly sore after the race, though not any sorer than after any other long race. The temperature dropped significantly with the sun, and I became cold and hungry. Greg and Jackie went to get me a chicken parm hero, and my wife found me one of those plastic blankets on the trainers’ table. I sat — I cannot explain how wonderful it was to sit, even as my hips stung with pain — and cheered on other runners as they finished their loops. I closed my eyes and fell asleep, instantly, for ten seconds, then a minute, then five minutes, before waking and wondering if all that had happened had been a dream.