Pre-race preparation had gone as well as I could have hoped for. A good lump of steak was consumed in for my pre-race dinner the night before the race. It didn’t take long to organise race gear in the hotel room, and without any pre-race nerves I got a great night’s sleep. I didn’t attack the breakfast buffet with too much gusto… I’m learning not to overdo it these days!
Yet again the effects of the cold nighttime temperatures meant we had to get ice off the car windows before the short drive down the road to the race venue at Camelback Ranch in Glendale. All my race clothes and food was moved from the car boot to the large tent which would be home for the duration of the race. I arranged it all in a somewhat logical order, and set out the sleeping back so that I could wander straight in and crash, should (when!) the need arise.
No need to be worrying about warming up for a 72hour race, so the minutes before the race were spent just quietly having a look around the race facilities (first aid marquee, food marquee, heated rest marquee), and listening to the race briefing. I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t see any sign of John Geesler, an American ultrarunning legend, and an old friend from international 24 hour racing. He was also due to race the 72 hour race (which he has won on several occasions, and which he was only one of two people to run over 300 miles in the race, the other being the world’s greatest ultrarunner Yiannis Kouros). I hadn’t met anyone else here before this race.
There would be 3 different races on the course today. There was the 72 hour race, the first of 2 48 hour starts, and the first of 3 24 hour starts. Competitors in the shorter races (you’re not likely to hear a 48 hour race described that way too often!) were free to choose whichever start day they liked, but results would be aggregated from the separated starts to assemble the final results. No such ambiguity with the 72hour race… we had a nice straightforward race where we would be directly racing our fellow competitors head to head.
The briefing ended with a countdown to the race start itself. The field calmly assembled into a loose collection behind the startline/timing mat, and then we were off. As with most ultra races the start was nice and relaxed, with nobody tearing off like a lunatic. I was being particularly calm. This was a major new experience for me. I had never raced beyond 24hours in a fixed time race before, so my intention was to be conservative and never to leave my comfort zone for the entire first day. My rough target was to run somewhere between 110 and 120 miles. But having no experience of running multi-day ultras I would have to adapt my pacing and tactics as the race evolved. This learning and adapting is one of the things I was most looking forward to.
It’s a very unusual thing for me to have any targets or measures in miles. I’m very much a metric person. However, this was an American race, and all the historic figures for the race are expressed in miles, so I decided to mentally switch over for this race. The fact that the lap was just a little over a mile also lended itself to mile based rough calculations.
The obvious target to aim at for this race was to get to 300 miles. I presume that everyone who thinks of themselves as a competitive ultrarunner must look at this race and think “300 miles… yeah, I should be able to do that”, and I was no exception! But knowing that only two people, both ultrarunning legends, had ever managed to hit that target in the past meant that it was obviously way more difficult to achieve. So I was going to keep it as a potential target, but being a realist I would assume that I would be unlikely to manage to hit it on my first go at the event.
Apart from distances the other obvious target for the race is to get the best possible finishing position. It looked pretty obvious that Joe Fejes would be the man to beat. He had clocked up 280 miles last year to make him the 3rd best runner in the history of the race (and win with an extremely comfortable margin). His stunning 150+miles in a 24 hour race 3 weeks earlier meant he appeared to be in the form of his life. So target number 2 was simply to try to give Joe a race and see if it would be possible to win this thing!
I had 2 other targets in the back of my mind. Tony Mangan is the reason I was here. He had regaled me with many stories of his 2 times racing here in the past. Tony is an Irish Ultrarunning legend. He is also one of the very few people in the world to really inspire me. It’s always an honour and an inspiration to be following in his footsteps. He had managed to come second to John Geesler in his first attempt, and go one better and win the race on his second attempt. He has left high standards for his countrymen to follow! In doing so he also set the Irish record for 48 hours on road, and of course also set the Irish record for 72hours. These were two more potential aims. In the past I had managed over several attempts to take Tony’s 24 hour Irish records from him (And I couldn’t have achieved my 24 hour PB, taking his road record, without his enormously enthusiastic and generous help on the day), but this was different. The longer the event, the better Tony is, so these were likely to be tougher targets than his 24 hour marks.
As I trotted around the first lap (heading clockwise) I wondered which one of these runners was Joe Fejes. Within a lap or two I figured out that he was one of a pair of runners who were having a conversation not far behind me, so I dropped back a little and joined in. I introduced myself to Joe and congratulated him on his recent 24 hour race. He seemed like a nice guy (unsurprisingly… most ultrarunners are!). After 5 minutes or so Joe eventually excused himself from the conversation so he could put on his earphones and set off at his own pace. He cruised away at an impressive speed. You can’t win an ultra race in the first few miles, but you can certainly lose one! I had no problem letting him start to put some time into me, and was sticking to my plan to stay within my own comfort (cruising speed) zone.
After about an hour or so the temperature had picked up enough that I was able to change out of my long-sleeved omni-heat base layer, which had kept me nice and comfortable in the cold start, into an omni-freeze T-shirt. Running in some desert heat and sun was one aspect of this race I had definitely been looking forward to!
The race was tracking the runners electronically. We all wore timing chips on our ankles which were detected when we ran over the timing mat at the start/finish line. We also had race numbers which came pre-attached to their own adjustable belt which had our names on them, a flag for our state or country, and were colour coded for the event we were doing (yellow for 72 hours). All very handy for starting conversations on the course!
There were TV monitors either side of the timing mat (one for each direction) which would update with your most recent statistics after crossing the mat (Most recent runner popping up at the top, colour coded by event). They provided a healthy range of information… laps run, position in the race, lap time, overall mileage, overall kilometers, elapsed time. Each stat had its use, and all were good for keeping the mind occupied. The ones I referenced most constantly were lap time and overall mileage.
At first I was running laps in or around 10 minutes, which worked out to be a bit over 6 miles an hour. That would be 24hour PB speed! I settled down after a while to cruise around in under 12 minute laps. Even that would give over 5 miles an hour, which would take me beyond my initial 24 hour target. But I was comfortable and happy to keep the pace up.
The direction of running changes every 4 hours, which helps to break the race into blocks (I was calling them rotations in my head). Changing the direction for the first time is like restarting the race on a new course, so it helps with keeping the mind occupied. I quickly decided that the clockwise direction seemed easier as there was less of a notable “bump” in the course. These little bumps of a meter or two can turn into mountains eventually!
Not long after the first direction time I had exceeded the marathon distance. So a little over 4 hours for a marathon. Not bad for cruising around with no effort. At this point in the event I was deliberately avoiding thinking too much about anything except not running too hard. The longer I could go without thinking too much about times and distances, and especially the amount left to be done, the better.
I was keeping nutrition nice and simple too. As the temperatures were now nice and warm I was picking up cups of electrolyte drink or Coke every second lap or so. I was also grabbing the occasional banana slice to help ward off potential cramp or stomach issue. Helen had prepared one of my “for goodness shakes” protein milkshakes and I picked that up every now and again as liquid fuel. Some early gastro issues were pretty much instantly sorted out by taking an Imodium.
I had a few other interesting conversations in these early hours. A particular favorite was a conversation with Jennifer Bradley, one of the few other non-Americans in the race. She had spent her summer running across America, mostly on trail. It sounded fantastic.
By about 10 hours in I was starting to breathe a little heavier, whilst still running well within my comfort zone. I decided to start paying attention to what was happening in the race, so started reading my position on the monitors. I was back in about 6th or so. This wasn’t too much of a surprise. There’s always a few people who head out too hard too soon in ultras.
I kept an eye on position as well as lap times for the next while. I was projecting and predicting 24 hour mileage for myself based on the lap speeds (still way ahead of target, projecting around 130+ miles). Slowly but surely I crept up the positions. I had no idea who I was overtaking, but I was pretty sure who was out in the lead! Eventually I made it up to 2nd, and guessed that I was likely to stay in that position for the forseeable future. Joe was several miles in front at this early stage. It was way too early to worry about that or start racing.
After 5pm it started to get dark. The temperature rapidly followed the sun down! I changed into my best base layer, a bit of gear I was testing for Columbia. It’s a zip-topped full sleeved omni-heat base layer, and had proved very effective training in the cold winter nights back in Ireland before the race. Eventually the temperature dropped enough that I put on a power-stretch fleece over that, and put track suite bottoms on as well.
I was being extremely careful not to get too cold. Experience has taught me that if you get too cold at night a long way into an ultrarun like this you can very rapidly have a massive energy crash which at best will require an hour or two recovering and re-energising.
The track got noticeably quieter with time as the night stretched on. It was always likely that only the most motivated and competitive runners would have enough motivation to try to stay running through the mental and physical lows of zenith of the body’s daily cycle during the darkest hours of the night.
At this stage it was clear from the scoreboards that someone had emerged as comfortably holding 3rd place. It took me a while to associate the name on the board with the runner on the ground, as his number was a temporary hack-job. But his popularity meant that he was being name-checked all the time out on the course. I’d never miss him again… as well as being well over 6 feet tall Ed Ettinghausen was running with a Jester’s hat and jingling bells!
Early in the night the lads in the food tent started dishing out the first of the interesting hot meals of the race… lasagna! It tasted great, and was perfect race food. By this stage I had stopped drinking the electrolyte drink. In fact I wouldn’t touch it again for the rest of the race. Coke and Mountain Dew were the main drinks I was picking up from the aid station. I was also continuing to pick up my own protein drink, as well as the occasional sip of fruit juice or smoothie from my own supplies.
As the night wore all 3 of us at the head of the race seemed to be pumping out fast steady laps. Ed looked like he was going at about the pace I had planned to, whilst Joe was still flying around at an impressive pace and looked like he was heading for a total in excess of 140 miles for day 1. I was pretty much on track for a total of 130 miles.
At about 7 in the morning the light started to return. That tends to give a bit of a psychological boost, and it becomes easier to ignore any nagging sleep deprivation and keep up a good pace. Not long afterwards the track started to refill again, as those that had gone for their overnight sleep started to emerge back out onto the track. The 1st day’s 24 hour runners were also winding up to complete their races.
The 2nd day’s 24 hour racers and the 2nd and final batch of 48 hour runners were also now starting to arrive at the venue and beginning to get their own support areas organised for their races. I was delighted to spot that one of the new arrivals was John Geesler, and shouted out at him as I ran by the first time. I guessed he would now be racing in the 48 hour category.
I was still running steadily at around 12 minute laps, and pretty much bang on target to hit 130 miles, but was beginning to feel a bit more tired overall as well as sleep deprived. If this was a 24 hour race there would be no question but that I would easily carry on, but a few minutes of evaluation led me to think that it wouldn’t make a huge difference what my day one total was, or when I took my first break, as it was likely the time of the course would be the same whether it was before or after the 24 hour mark. So after a little over 128 miles, or over 206km, and with about half an hour left in the first day I hauled myself ashore and went into the Tent.
128 was still way beyond my original day 1 mileage targets, so I was happy with that total. I knew it compared quite well with historical day 1 totals from previous race winners. The fact that Joe was heading for about 140 miles, and looked perfectly comfortable doing so, was extremely impressive. It was one hell of a lead he was building, but it was still early days!