Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tallahassee Ultra Distance Classic - 50 Miles

I am uncomfortable publishing this on a single pass, but I wanted to post it while it was still a fresh accomplishment. I'm sure it will not meet my two goals of making it interesting to the non-runner or helpful to the runner who is trying to learn something. It will, however, provide a starting point. It will provide me with a lasting aftertaste to a fine thing to be savored and improved upon.

The drama actually began a few months before the race itself. I had methodically increased my weekly distances to over 50 miles a week. I began to think that I could sustain more speed much longer than I had been and, at the same time, I began to increase the weekly miles more quickly than was recommended.

As I ran one morning, the nasty feeling of something in my knee moving in an unnatural direction followed by slowly building pain in my knee tendons was not a welcome development. I reduced my running to under 2 miles a day and then, sensing that I wasn't improving, I gave up altogether.

I didn't begin again until the first week in November. Two miles a day for a week. 20 total miles the next week. OK. I'll be OK. I entered the race still determined to get the 50 mile run under my belt. At her request, I signed my wife up for the 50k. She trains consistently in a gym but hadn't been running.

After beginning again, all of my runs had consisted of 9 minute runs followed by a 1 minute walk regardless of total distance. I was able to keep a 10 minute pace and decided this would be my strategy in the race. My wife and I took a run together on the Saturday before the race. I ran 11 miles comfortably. 9 minute run. 1 minute walk.

My wife ran about 8 miles. She was unaffected the next day and I knew that she'd be fine.

I ran 9 miles the next morning and 6 more on Monday. I forgot my water bottle and spent Monday and Tuesday recovering from dehydration. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday involved 2 mile runs. Friday, with our 11 year old daughter, we drove to Tallahassee and celebrated an early Christmas.

My father-in-law was kind enough to drive my daughter and me to the race location so I wouldn't have to worry about finding it in the morning. We got a little lost but found an easy route that made for an uneventful drive the following morning.

We were out of bed the next morning before the alarm clock. It was 4:30 AM. Both of us had slept soundly. I hadn't expected that.

We left our daughter to sleep and to spend the morning (and afternoon) with her grandparents and headed out. The thermometer in the dashboard of the car said 33 degrees. The night sky was clear and the full moon was bright.

"The moon will be as close to the earth as it ever gets, tonight," my father-in-law had informed us the night before. That would seem important to share with Gary Griffen, the race director, as we briefly ran near each other at the beginning of the race.

At the start/finish area, the runners who had made their way up from further down Florida's peninsula were quite conscious of the temperature. Everyone was upbeat and anxious to begin.

Gordy Hawkins, a race veteran with 24 starts, introduced himself to us. He would encourage my wife by name throughout the race.

After a few words about logistics and an inspirational verse from Isaiah (I would reflect later that I must not have waited very well. While I didn't faint after walking, I did grow quite weary and did not sprout wings.) the 50 milers followed Gary to their separate start line.

Gary and, I presume, his wife, Peg, used cell phones to coordinate the simultaneous start and we were off.

On the drive to Florida the day before, I had decided that I would go ahead and run for a couple of hours before starting my run walk routine. If my knee started feeling funny I could start walking earlier. It seemed that running when I was stronger made sense so that I could give up time on the walks when I wasn't moving as fast.

"Run the tangents on the curves," I heard Gary telling a runner he knew. "On a race this long you can run a lot less."

After about 3 laps around the 2.06 mile course I realized I'd need to stop to use the bathroom. "Too much coffee," I thought.

I had worked out the way I expected to run the race with respect to hydration. Three gulps of water mixed with gel would yield 16 oz. and 220 calories an hour.

My pace was under 9 min/mile.

Three more laps and I would have to stop for the bathroom again. Now I was beginning to think it wasn't just the coffee.

My stop edged me up over 9 minute pace. I still felt strong and hadn't even thought about walking.

Three more laps. Now I was irritated. I was carrying a 32 oz. bottle, one of 5 I had filled up for the run. It didn't seem heavy but I thought it would be nice to quit carrying it. I would try 4 gulps each time I came around. I had been taking three gulps every 10 minutes as I had planned. I grabbed a bagel from my own stash of goodies to help make up the calorie difference. I had no idea how many calories a bagel would give me but I suppose it wouldn't be enough.

As I ran, my wife and I kept crossing paths. She would give me a thumbs up. It didn't seem long before I was able to tell her she was half way.


We were headed in opposite directions and we were about a half mile apart when I realized that it was I who had done half of the 50k distance and she was a half lap behind me. Oops. Close enough.

I was now getting lapped and, less frequently, lapping others. The protocol of brief encounters had by now been determined. There were the serious, unresponsive front runners of the 50k, the meek, private runners and the extroverts attempting smiles or a fine atta boy.

I came up on a 50 miler who I had spoken with briefly before we started.

"How's it going?" I asked in the fashion instinctively engineered to balance between sympathy and encouragement.

"I'm just trying to make the 50k. Then we'll see."

"Hang in there."

At 25 miles I came across Gordy speed walking the 50k.

"I've never run this far before in my life!" I think I was bragging but may have sounded like I was complaining.

"Just stay in the now. Don't look ahead. Just stay in the now."

I was creeping up over 9 and a half minute pace. Somewhere in the mid 30 miles my watch told me I had tipped over the 9:40. Something clicked on and I attained a brief euphoric high. I looked back at my watch a few minutes later. 9:39.

Then, back to 9:40. Oh, well. I was hooked.


At the 40 mile mark my loss of training kicked in. Every half mile I'd loose another second or 2 on pace. I kept my smile and thought, "From here you could crawl to the finish."

The 50kers were pretty much done now and the looks of sympathy and encouragement that were exchanged when we crossed each others paths took on more meaning. We were asking the front runners how many laps they had to go. When runners got within a lap or two from the finish they began to volunteer it. "Two to go after this one." "One to go after this one." "I'm on my last lap."

As one runner passed in the opposite direction he pointed his finger in the form of a gun at his head and pulled the trigger. He used his other hand to represent the effect of the bullet coming out of the other side of his head.

On another occassion he would shout to me, "I just ate a roast beef sandwich! How stupid was that!" It sounded good but probably was affecting him differently than he intended.

Every report was received as an encouragement. He's going to do it! I'm going to do it, too!


Throughout the second half of the run it had been occurring to me that my daughter would be able to pace me if she wanted to. I had thought of how I would coax her onto the course when I saw her. With still more than 10 miles left I saw the car she would have come in. At 5 laps I asked my wife who had already finished if she had seen them.



Just as I was beginning the 4th to the last lap, I heard a cheer. There they were. Where was my daughter? There she is.

"Come run with me!"

"Go run with Dad!"

She was on the other side of a low hedge that she briefly contemplated jumping. She found her way around it and ran up along side me. She spent the next two laps running ahead of me and then waiting. At the end of the second lap she ran ahead and got my water bottle.

On the first lap with her I crossed the 10 minute pace mark going irretrievably in the wrong direction.

"But you're going to finish, Dad!"

I ran the second to last lap alone. I was barely moving.

My daughter rejoined me for the last lap. I picked up the pace and when rounding the corner for the final mile I realized that I might be able to finish just under 9 hours. I left my daughter behind for a desperate attempt a spontaneous goal.

I crossed the line at 9:00:03.

My wife and I were fortunate to have her father to drive us back to his home after the race. While on the ride I asked a question that had occurred to me throughout the race.

"What were those people protesting today?"

"What people?"

"The people wearing the signs with the word 'Ultra' covered by a circle with a line through it."

"Those weren't protester. They were running the race even though they didn't get registered. They were wearing those signs so that the lap counters wouldn't get them confused with the registered runners."