46 at 42

This is from 2003. I still haven’t run the 24 Hour, though I have done a few other things…

View of WinthropOn Friday, June 20th, Tom Derderian and the Greater Boston Track Club hosted the 3rd annual Midsummer Lights Relay, a celebration of Deer Island and the summer solstice. Teams of up to ten runners race over a 3.05 mile course that winds around the island. The race goes from dusk until dawn, and the team that completes the most laps wins. People from my running club, the Somerville Road Runners, decided to participate in the event for the first time and put some teams together. Sitting at my computer, reading the messages on the club email list as the teams were organized, on the spur of the moment (more or less), I decided to run the race by myself.

SRR puts on a 24 hour relay/ultra in August every year, on a 5K loop course around Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield, MA. I’ve volunteered at the race in the past, and have often wondered about competing in the ultra, just to see how far I could go.

The Midsummer Lights Relay seemed like a good way to ease into ultrarunning (if such a thing is possible) before making a decision about the 24 Hour. June 20th also happened to be my 42nd birthday. I got in touch with Tom the Monday before the race. He kindly agreed to reduce my entry fee since my relay team would consist of only one person, and Team Ibuprofen was born.

Since I hadn’t given the race a lot of advance thought, my training for it consisted of the base I’d developed while doing five marathons since May 2001 (PR 3:13:28). This included a good number of 20-28 mile runs while preparing for the marathons, a month of hardly any running after the 2003 Boston Marathon with a heel injury, and a 30 mile run (the farthest I’d ever gone) wandering along the Boston Harbor with my new Timex GPS two weeks before the ultra.

The lack of advance planning kept me from being too wound up before the race. I did spend the rest of the week making lists and buying supplies. I ended up packing along a bag of food, a bag of medical supplies, a bag of extra clothing, a bag of “other stuff” (a MP3 player and other distractions), a couple extra pairs of shoes, a tent, and a cooler full of drinks and ice. Thursday, I went out for my traditional pre-race short haircut. The finishing touch was the headlamp my wife gave me for my birthday before I headed out.

Friday arrived. I left work at about 1 PM, had a big lunch, and went home to pack and take a short nap. At about 6:45, I got in the car to drive to Deer Island.

Deer Island sits in Boston Harbor, connected to Winthrop by a thin stretch of land created during a 1938 hurricane. Formerly the site of a jail, its 210 acres now host a modern sewage treatment plant and a small park. GBTC puts on a weekly Saturday morning 5K on the island. The same course was used for the Midsummer Lights race. It starts at the peak of the highest hill on the island, located in the park area on the northern end. From there, the course winds gradually down the hill to the road back to the mainland, around the island, and back up to the start. There’s only one other hill on the course, a comparatively small one, though a sharp turn at the bottom on the downhill side makes that hill more difficult than necessary.

At the startI parked my car on the course at the bottom of the hill, then walked up and met Tom at registration, which was at the start/finish line on top of the hill. There he showed me an article he’d written about my ultra attempt for the Winthrop paper. That was a bit odd – I’d never been used to advertise a race before.

The race was pretty informal. There were about 10 teams. Each team was given a multi-colored light wand to act as a baton. The wands were great, except that they turned off automatically every 10 minutes. All night long, as we ran along, we had to keep turning the wands back on.

Runners who were part of a team were going to have varying amounts of downtime during the night, waiting for their turn to run, so they pitched tents around the park and settled in. I decided to go without a tent because the weather was just about ideal for a June race. It was clear (unusual in New England this spring), in the 60’s, and there was hardly any wind.

At about 8:25, as the sun set, Tom played “Taps” on a harmonica. We all stood there waiting until he said “That’s it – you can get started now”, and we took off.

I ran the first lap with the relay runners so I could learn the course. The course was mostly concrete sidewalk, with some asphalt as it made its way through the park section. There was some dirt alongside the concrete, but I decided not to risk twisting an ankle (it’ll be a long time until I’m ready for a trail ultra!). At the end of the first mile, there was a flat, grassy space near the entrance to the sewage plant, where the SRR relay teams set up camp. Mile two went through some fenced in paths, down and around the southern tip of the island. Mile three ran alongside the breakwater on the eastern shore before turning up the hill back to the start.

View of sewage plantThere was quite a contrast in the view depending on which way you turned your head. As you ran counter-clockwise around the island, to your right was Boston Harbor, with beautiful views of the Boston skyline, ships, the ocean, and Winthrop. To the left was the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant. That was interesting to look at in its own, industrial-technical-institutional way, with 170 foot high egg-shaped digesters adding an other-worldly touch. Contrary to what you might think (“Yuck!”), the sewage plant didn’t add any special odor to the event.

After the first lap, I began running 5 minutes, then walking 1 minute, to make it easier to run for an extended period. I also walked the 89 yards between the 3 mile marker and the finish line, which was the steepest part of the hill. My main goal, the one I told to my friends, was to still be running at dawn, so I went out at a comfortable pace, and planned on slowing down as needed to keep a constant level of effort. I had dreams of completing 50 miles (actually 52, since only complete laps count towards your score). However, that required averaging 30 minutes per lap, and I wasn’t going to risk doing a crash-and-burn to meet that goal in my first ultra.

Once I began walking, I lost contact with the rest of the runners. As it got dark, a booze-cruise appeared offshore. The lights on the ship added to the festivities, but not quite as much as the loud karaoke detracted. Luckily, they shut it down around midnight. After that I was mostly on my own for the rest of the night. 10 runners scattered over more than 3 miles didn’t make for much company. I’d pass the SRR encampment and get cheers and offers of a beer, and I’d climb the hill to the start and get more attaboys and get to coast downhill for a bit. SRR member Eric Forgy was out for a long run (he ended up doing 7 laps), so he ran with me for awhile. The rest of the time, I was alone except for relay runners going by, and some fishermen along the eastern shore. The fishermen were out there for a surprisingly long time, well into the morning. Still, I expect they were much more surprised at the runners continually passing through their normally quiet spot.

The running went pretty well. I didn’t dress any differently than I would for a normal long run. As usual, I had Bodyglide on my thighs, which I freshened once during the night, and a Compeed on the hotspot on the ball of my right foot. This worked out well. I ended up with no blisters, and with only minor chafing on my thighs.

Most of the course was lit well enough. There were dark patches at the southern end (with an eerie beep to warn off boats) and along the eastern breakwater, just before you turn up to the finish. Throughout the night, as I looked over the rocks along the shore of the latter section, I could see the reflection of my headlamp coming back from the eyes of the animals climbing around out there. I never figured out what animals they were.

I stopped at the car every two laps to freshen my water bottle. I was drinking Accelerade, which makes my stomach less acid than Gatorade, and has the 4/1 carbohydrate/protein ratio that’s the in thing these days. Hydration wasn’t a problem the whole night, as various visits to the Port-a Bush showed.

After 18 miles, I started taking GU, and I had a few almonds on most of the later pit stops, mostly for salt, but partly because I’d read the Vitamin E was good during a long race. Other than that, I didn’t have much to eat. The bagels, Power Bars, and beef jerky stayed in the bag. Even during the later stages of a marathon, my stomach gets unsettled. I wasn’t extra nauseous during the longer race, but still, the idea of food wasn’t too appealing. Towards the end, even the Accelerade became distasteful, so I drank water at the fueling stops (though I still kept Accelerade in the bottle) and that was easier to get down.

I had a couple of ibuprofen before the start, then two more at about 3 and 6 hours into the race. I also had a few electrolyte pills as the night wore on.

I kept to the sub-30 pace for the first 20 miles or so, but knew that wouldn’t last the whole way. The 7th and 8th laps were a transition period, then after that, I settled down to the pace I felt I’d be able to keep as long as I could keep running, about a 10 minute/mile pace for the running portions.

Staying alert was less of a problem than I had feared. The pain from the pounding got to a certain point, and didn’t seem to get worse, as long as I kept my form. I sometimes have a problem with sitting back on my heels, but my right ITB would remind me whenever I slipped into that mode. My achilles tendons were a bit more sore than usual, but nothing unmanageable.

What got to be a problem as the night went on was staying motivated. I knew I could keep running, but sometimes I had trouble remembering why. I see why ultrarunners try to have pacers for the latter stages of a race. I began walking up the shorter hill, and letting the walking breaks stretch on past the beeping of my watch, though not for more than 15-20 seconds.

Along about 2:30, I passed the finish and Tom asked me if I needed anything. “Dawn” was my reply, then I headed on down the hill yet again. Every once in awhile there was a small, cold, patch of fog, which was a pleasant change after hours of running.

After I passed 13 laps (about 40 miles), it was late enough in the race to begin planning for the end. I knew I could get in two more laps, but the third lap would be tough. If that last lap was going to get me over 50 miles, I might have gone for it, but given the situation, I decided to leave well enough alone, and just make sure I finished two more.

Along the backstretch of the second-to last lap, as the sky lightened in the east, Bob Ross pulled up alongside during a walking break, and chatted with me during the next running section (thanks, Bob!). The last lap, as I passed the SRR camp, I asked Joe O’Leary to meet me at the finish to take a picture, since I was sure he could get there faster than I (thanks, Joe!). I picked it up a bit, but was very careful to go slow enough to keep one more lap out of the question.

Finished!Finally, after 46 (well, 45.758) miles and 8 hours, 7 minutes, and 10 seconds, I was through! I had just about enough time to begin to enjoy the feeling before a swarm of mosquitoes attacked, but once again Bob Ross came through, donating his long-sleeved shirt for the trip down to the cars (thanks, Bob!). I dropped by the SRR camp, where everyone was packing up for the night, then went back up to the finish for the dawn.

Team 11 had won. I had no idea where they were from, or how many laps they finished. I just basked in the feeling of accomplishment, and enjoyed the view from the hill as the morning sun reflected off the ocean and the Boston skyline.

The mix of an ultra and a relay causes two sides of the sport to coexist more closely than usual. Running is basically a solitary experience. No one can help you with the physical requirements of running – you have to do the work yourself. Relay races are as close as running comes to being a true team sport, since you have to coordinate with others, and your results depend on the contributions of all the team members. This can be very rewarding, especially as a break from the usual competitive atmosphere that naturally springs up among people that race together often.

Ultrarunning is the opposite extreme. You’re out there by yourself for even longer than usual, testing the limits of what you can do as an individual. But even then, the contributions of others, whether supporting your effort by working as crew, by offering encouragement as you go by, or by establishing a standard against which to measure yourself, add immensely to the enjoyment of the event. Otherwise, why bother to go to a race? Just get on the treadmill, put your head down, and run until you drop.

Afterwards, there was a bit more than the usual post-marathon soreness, but nothing disastrous seems to have happened. I rested for a few days then, Tuesday morning, I went out for an easy 3 mile run, which seemed to go by in no time at all!

All in all, this was a good experience, especially since the weather cooperated. Most of the stuff I carried along remained untouched in my car throughout the race. The one thing I’d want to pass on to other beginning ultrarunners is to start with a race run on a loop course. Running the distance is difficult enough without having to worry about whether you’ll have food, drinks, dry socks, etc… easily available throughout the whole race.

I still haven’t decided whether I should run the 24 Hour….

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One thought on “46 at 42

  • Matt Hanson

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Matt Hanson