Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Team America Application

(PC: Tuan Nguyen)

What Would Joyce Do? …

That was a precept offered up to the friends and family of my wife's Aunt Joyce less than 24 hours before I was to start my ridiculous day-long journey on a track around an indoor ice rink. Joyce was a singular character, full of life and love and happiness and acceptance. I can't say that I knew her well, primarily due to the fact that at family get-togethers I have an almost perpetual need to melt into the background so as to not be overwhelmed by the inevitable cacophony of livelihood and fun (yes, I hate fun, I am a curmudgeon). But in the multitude of get-togethers and holiday parties over the years, she always made me feel welcome. Aunt Joyce's sudden, unexpected loss, days before my race, sent shockwaves of sorrow through my wife's family. The memories of her hugs, her smile, and her laugh will be cherished by all who knew her.

In the days before my race I had the opportunity to run with my wife's uncle (who often cruises the magical trails of northern California), my brother-in-law (a former D2 stud), and Aunt Joyce's grandson (a local high school runner). Though the circumstances were far from ideal, I felt a strong sense of honor and belonging to share time on the roads and trails with them. I rarely run with others, maybe only a handful of times a year. Yet here I was, twice in one week, being brought together with family, to share in something that I love to do, because of Aunt Joyce.

So … What Would Joyce do? I mean, she sure as hell wouldn't go running around an indoor track for 24 hours straight … she wasn't an idiot! But I am pretty sure she'd follow her own path, put her best foot forward, and find joy along the way. So that's what I sought out to do.

… But first, there was the family fellowship, a glass or two of wine, and then a 6 hour drive from St. Louis to Milwaukee, to crash in a hotel bed after midnight, mere hours before my attempt to knock out a bunch of miles around a boring indoor track. Why do this? Well, in the hopes of being added to the USATF 24 Hour Team so that I could don the Red, White, and Blue and represent my country at the World Championships in Taiwan in December. And yeah, there is an official USA Track and Field 24 Hour Team … yes, it's a thing … and yes, it is very weird and very random … but whatever.

In 2018 I was in really good shape and I tried qualifying for the team. Twice. The first time, it was 40 degrees and raining and I probably had a bit of hypothermia before tapping out. The second time, it was 80 degrees and sunny on a black track, so, yeah, you can guess how that turned out. If I was gonna finally do this, I needed to mitigate the biggest uncertainty: weather. And that's what brought me to a 443.4552 meter indoor ice rink in Milwaukee in the middle of June.

Team USA Qualifying List

After a good bit of research and a conversation with Mike Dobies (timed ultrarunning data extraordinaire), I crafted a plan for 154 miles. Team USA consists of 6 members, and 153+ would put me firmly in 3rd place right as the qualifying window drew to a close. Technically, 148 miles would be enough to get on the list for this go-around, but I wanted to have a cushion, especially since I only planned for a couple hours of light crewing by my wife and kids (they have better things to do than watch me circle a track for a day straight, like explore Milwaukee, or go to urgent care for an emergency prescription of erythromycin). Also, despite my lack of structured training in the past 6 months (or 16 months for that matter), I felt mid 150s was in my wheelhouse if there were no major hiccups.

Race Plan

The "race" began much as expected. I settled into a smart pace of ~8:40/mile as I watched others feverishly lap me again and again and again. Despite some random stomach discomfort -- too many dark chocolate oreos? -- I hit the 12 Hour mark spot-on my plan: 80.75 miles, 3.75 miles "banked" ahead of a 154 mile finish.

My simple Aid Station setup

At 100 miles, things got … weird. Not long before, I'd started sweating profusely. Which was odd because I was doing relaxed 9:00-9:30 miles in 50 degree temps. I don't know if it was adrenaline or what, but the lap after I cleared 100 miles, I stopped to go to the bathroom in one of the on-track porta potties and then nearly passed out inside. For a minute or more, I leaned my head against the plastic wall, trying to make sense of what the heck was going on with my body. Once I stumbled out, I walked for a couple laps and sucked down a few fruit cups and cold water to try and right my body. About an hour later, my stomach went haywire and I had to go to the real bathrooms (in the building's lobby) twice in 1 mile. Instead of gently slowing down, as planned, I'd suddenly ceded over 2 miles of my banked mileage.

Action shot (PC: Tuan Nguyen)

I was able to compose myself and carry on for a couple more hours. As with latter stages of my Backyard races, I temporarily reduced my liquid intake and focused on dry solid foods (cheese-its, nilla wafers, bread, etc.) … along with a helping of imodium and tums … to shore up my randomly failing gut. Sadly, it did not work, and I found myself drifting into The Shit Spiral stage of my race. I stopped 3 times in 5 laps to visit The Porcelain Throne. I travelled less than 1.5 miles in nearly 40 minutes. Each time that I stumbled into the bathroom I'd sit there, do my business, then keep sitting there … completely exhausted, drained of energy, and 110% regretting my poor life choices. If I fall asleep in here, that'd be an awesome excuse for my inevitable failure! All the while, my banked mileage completely disappeared and I found myself 6 miles off pace and in extreme jeopardy of not hitting a qualifying distance.

For the next hour or so I pretty much resigned to failure and accepted that I might not even clear 145 miles. I stumble-walked some stretches. I stopped at my table when I didn't need to. I was making progress, but with no haste, and without any determination. But my stomach stabilized and I felt comfortable enough to suck down my Hyle Hydration and nosh on solid foods again. It was time to find some joy. It was time to secure that qualifying spot!

Random pre-race photo, failing at taking a cool SNB shot.

So with a little more than 3 hours to go, I started playing around with "intervals". I did the math and wasn't confident I could maintain the stable, focused pace required to break 150 miles … it just seemed way too daunting. I would need to run around 23 miles in 3.5 hours, despite my race plan only calling for about 20 in that same time frame. But I thought, well, hoped, that periodic pickups might help me claw back some mileage and still give me time to rest/recover. So I'd run a mile-ish at or faster than my beginning-of-race pace, then cool it back down and recover. These little intervals of hard efforts and recovery time helped me mentally break down the remainder of the race into manageable chunks. 4 laps, each 40 seconds faster than planned pace, that's a quarter mile I just reclaimed! With each successive hour, I was clawing back at least 1 mile on my race plan. And before I knew it, the end was in sight and I was all but assured a 150+ day.

As the time wound down, folks all around the track offered their support, my wife was there to ensure I had whatever I needed to accomplish what I set out to achieve, and even my kids were cheering me on (well, they were playing Minecraft or something, but close enough). As I rounded the track for the final time, I shouted words of encouragement to the next day's cohort of runners, "Good luck! But you better not beat my distance!", then stopped a few seconds early to watch the clock tick over with my wife by my side.

Before we get to the end of the story, enjoy this disgusting photo. Friends don't let friends become ultrarunners

I ended up with 150.48 miles and rose to 5th on the qualifying list with 2 weeks to go for the qualifying window. There's always the chance that a couple stout runners could come along in the last minute and bump me, but right now I'm feeling pretty confident I'll have the opportunity to represent the USofA at the World Championships. Despite fashioning myself more of a trail and mountain runner, and despite the fact that I never really had an elevated heart rate, I can honestly say that this 24 hour effort is the hardest thing I have ever done. Flat running is not my thing, mentally or physically. I dreamed of endless climbs that I could hike, and long descents that I could cruise down. Instead, I was on the clock for a day straight, plodding one foot in front of the other in the exact same motion, lap after lap after lap, being greeted with my lap split over 500 friggin times. The mental stress of it all was absolutely overwhelming.

But here I am! I didn't pass out in the porta potty. I managed to escape The Shit Spiral. And I finally achieved something I'd been dreaming of for the past 6 years … putting in a running effort worthy of a super sweet Team USA race kit! It was hard. It sucked. I'm exhausted. My achilles is jell-o suspended in pounds of inflamed tissue. My calves and quads are completely wrecked. But, I put my best foot forward, I forged my own path, and, somewhere along the way, I was able to find a bit of joy.

"Dobies Curves", showing planned race vs actual, with a 150 mile baseline

As always, I could not have done this without my wife, Kristin, by my side. She elected to go on this stupid "vacation". She drove there for 6+ hours after spending a day mourning with family. She had to occupy our kids' time while I ran (which included a random kiddo pink eye flare up). She had to sit alone in the hotel room at 3am and worry about me, seeing my splits deteriorate, having no idea what was going on with my Shit Spiral. She had to help me remove and patch up multiple blistered toenail beds post-race. And she had to spend the next 2 days of "vacation" watching me hobble around, wholly incapable of providing any meaningful parenting contribution. What a saint!

A huge shout-out to my Hyle Hydration concoctions which, as always, get the job done.

And thanks to SNB for always keeping me properly lubed!

Thanks to Mike Melton and Bill Schultz for the wonderful race atmosphere. Thanks to all the folks who followed along. And thanks to those of you who gave me words of encouragement and support while I was crafting this idea to qualify for Team USA.

Post-race at the Brewers game. #PoorLifeChoices

Random Stuff:

  1. A few weeks before the race, my Morton's Neuroma flared up. Nothing builds pre-race confidence quite like being unable to walk without hot, stabbing pains in your foot! Luckily a cortisone shot did the trick, along with wearing a ball-of-foot pad for the whole race.
  2. My legs got sore and stiffy after 2-3hours, likely due to my lack of real training. But over the course of the day they got better and better. I'd like to think it's due to the slow drip of amino acids from my Hyle Hydration Endurance Fuel and the occasional protein bombs of my Recovery Formula. (News Alert: Product Designer Claims Product Is Miraculous!)
  3. I always dream of a poop-free hundo. A couple of times I've come close. If I didn't have so much random stomach issues at this race, there's a chance I could've cleared 156 miles. On a good gut day, after a few months of real training, I don't see why I couldn't clear 160.
  4. My left hip is total crap. My wife says I should stretch and do yoga and stuff. Whatever. Well, after only 2 hours of going counterclockwise at the start of the race, my TFL was a dense ball of pain. The moment we switched to clockwise at the 6 hour mark, the pain immediately went away.
  5. I noticed that I instinctively curl/grip my toes slightly during the toe-off phase. I think it's from uphill trail running. Totally unnecessary during a flat race around a track. After 6-8 hours I could tell I was building up toe blisters from all of that unnecessary movement. I ended up with 2 "toenail blisters" -- where the entire nailbed becomes a blister and the whole toenail is just sitting there, wiggling around like a ring of pineapple on the top of a 1970's jell-o mold.
  6. I had planned on 12-13oz of liquid per hour, given the 50 degree temps. But I ended up closer to 10oz.
  7. Factoring in time periods where I was trying to avoid food to right my stomach, I only took in around 4500 calories instead of a planned 6500. That put me at a roughly 12,000 calorie deficit for the race.
  8. We went to a Brewers game afterwards. The race ended at 9am. The first pitch was at 3:10pm. The parking lot was 15 miles long. I bought upper deck seats 5 rows from the top. I am an idiot.  But. In my defense: cheese curds and a brat at a ballgame is a hell of a way to celebrate a race.
  9. My Topo Specters worked like a charm. They're a newer high-cushioned trainer. They have the fancy foam but no carbon plate -- I'm of the opinion that pebax foam provides 80% of the benefit in the new-fangled race shoes and that carbon plates are pointless at slower speeds (and can even cause gait issues). These shoes will definitely be my go-to for any future backyards or the World Championships.
  10. If I go to Worlds, Hellgate is exactly 1 week later. I'll have to find a way to get fit enough to run well in international competition, then fly halfway around the world, recover in under 7 days, and miraculously drag my ass to an 8th straight Top 10 at Hellgate. My #1 Running Goal is 10 straight Top 10s, but I honestly think I'm totally screwed. I'll never hear the end of it from John Andersen...