Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Race Report: North Coast 24 Hour Run

Annette Racaniello and Frank Pellegrino, fellow New Yorkers in Cleveland

Serge Arbona (1M), Anne Riddle-Lundblad (2F), Anna Piskorska (3F), Me (2M)

Tent City, in the direction of traffic (Photo courtesy of Michael Henze)

Connie Gardner, women's winner, 2nd overall (photo courtesy of Lisa Bliss and Tim Englund)

Serge Arbona, with me behind, early in the race (Photo courtesy of Michael Henze)

The North Coast 24 Hour Race held its second running on September 18, 2010, and for the second year in a row, it served as the 24 hour national championship, this year under the supervision of USA Track and Field. Race Director Dan Horvath once again put on a phenomenal event. The course was a .90075-mile loop in Edgewater Park in Cleveland, on the shore of Lake Erie, with an excellent running surface and very little vertical undulation.

With three automatic qualifying spots for next year's US team on the line, a lot of runners were hoping for top performances, and the competition looked fierce. The men's side featured returning world championship team members Serge Arbona, John Geesler, Matt Chaffin, the ageless Roy Pirrung, and myself, along with recent record holder Mark Godale, 100-mile wonder Dave James, fellow New Yorker Mike Arnstein, and co-RD of Across the Years, Nick Coury. The women's competition looked especially tough, with names that need no introduction: Jill Perry (defending champ), Connie Gardner, Amy Palmiero-Winters, Anna Piskorska, Deb Horn, Anne Riddle Lundbald, Lisa Bliss, Bonnie Busch, as well as up-and-comers like Jen Aradi, Kim Martin and Angela Radosevich.

My own goals were to defend my championship from last year and to get a personal record, which is still 154.48 miles. It wouldn't be easy of course, but all of my preparations seemed to go well and I was ready for good things.

On Friday I took the short flight to Cleveland, made my way to the Travelodge in Lakewood, where a number of the runners would be staying. There I also met up with New York ultra friends Frank Pellegrino and Annette Racaniello, who would be my companions (and chauffeurs) for the rest of the trip. That evening we went to dinner with a number of other runners, friends and spouses, which totaled about 20. So it was great to catch up with some old friends and make some new ones there.

Saturday morning at the park before the race I set up my things, sharing some table/tent space with John Geesler and Roy Pirrung. Tent City was coming together again, with many of the runners and crews setting up along the course after the start area. Besides the regular pre-race nervousness, I was doubly nervous because I was about to sing the national anthem. About a week before, Dan had put out an email to entrants asking for a volunteer, and I guess I was the only sucker. In any case, about 15 minutes before the start, as I came back from the bathroom I saw people gathered at the start and I walked over there just in time to get up and sing. It was my first time singing the national anthem solo for an event, but it went well enough, I didn't embarrass myself at least. And some people had some nice comments for me during the race, so part one done. Now all I had to do was run for 24 hours.
The race itself was quite a roller coaster for me. The first six hours and the last six hours went very well. In between, it was another story. Early in the race, Dave James moved out in front, and at a pace slower than last year, so I was thinking he'd be out there the whole 24 this time. Mark Godale also ran at a slower pace than last year, and we were pretty much neck-and-neck for quite a while for second place. Serge Arbona also took a slower pace than last year and allowed me to lap him. I was a little surprised by the slower starts, although they seemed very smart. I tried to keep on about the same pace as last year.
The afternoon sun came out, and the humidity and temperatures went up, although it didn't feel like it ever got terribly warm. This race for me was a lesson in negative thoughts. It's certainly common to get them and to wonder why you're out there, and to want to just quit, especially in a 24 hour. The mind can really take you to desperate places. So after about 9:15 race time, 70 laps - 63 miles (I hit my watch lap counter every five laps), when I started getting shallow breath that made me take the first of my rest breaks, I can't say that it was entirely a physical break that I needed. But I laid on the grass for a few minutes, walked a full lap and then some, and had the medical team do some checks and manipulation to get me good to go. And even though it was still early in the evening, I had gotten chills and resorted to my long-sleeved shirt, which stayed on for the duration. This all took quite a bit of time and was my first meltdown that almost drove me to quit.
Meanwhile, in the women's race, it was hard for me to keep track of who was where, but Connie, Anna, Amy, Anne, Jill , Deb and Jennifer all looked good and strong, and Angela Radosevich also was in the top three at one point I think. It was very interesting to watch all of the runners, and particularly the walkers. There were a couple of heavier men walking (not together) who never seemed to take a break, and there was a man and woman (very much together) who I took to be husband and wife who walked side by side, and also never seemed to take a break. The man with the tall back brace with the American flag and signs supporting out troops was back again this year, amazing to be carrying all that weight - in support of our soldiers.
Anyway I did get up and running again, at a decent pace. Seeing that I'd been passed by a few more runners, I tried to reevaluate my goals, and to reevaluate my motivation. But a couple hours later, after 90 laps, about 13 hours, the shallow breathing hit me again. I again had to take an extended walking break, and sat in a chair for a few minutes again. It was then that I happened to see Amy's handler Erik pull her from the race with kidney problems. She had barely urinated the entire race, she told me, and by this time she was becoming dizzy and disoriented. I hated to see that happen, of course for her own well-being, but also because she was running so well.
Anyway, my desire to quit now was just a little less than before, and I got up again and got running again, at a decent pace again, although by now I was just waiting for the next meldown. Safe to say, I was not in a good place mentally. But I was closing in on 100 miles (111 laps is just short of 100 miles) and wanted to push it at least to that point. I was calculating how long it would take me to get there, comparing it to past races, and trying to figure out what kind of mileage I might still be able to end up with. I was in 6th place by this time I think, behind Serge, who was really moving fast, Dave, who I was told was struggling, a surprising Chris Peverada, a young cross country star and fast marathoner I was told, who was running in his first ultra (!), Mark Godale and Nick Coury. Figuring that if Dave was struggling I might be able to get past him, that if Mark were struggling I might be able to get past him, and that my experience might help me outlast the young Chris and Nick, I saw that I could still possibly finish up second behind Serge. Still, part of me just didn't want to run. But I got another chance to rest in meltdown #3 at about 15 hours, when I had my vomit break. I'd been eating very little, and the fluids and gels weren't getting along in my stomach, so I had to step off into the grass. Vomiting is not uncommon either, although I usually manage to avoid it during most races, but this one sent me to the grass with dizzyness. Usually I feel better afterwards, but I didn't this time. I got up and walking, feeling just a little weak. I tried to eat more as well as drink more.
As I was walking, I came in contact with the amazingness of Bonnie Busch. We were walking and chatting, and I had almost resigned myself to walking or lightly jogging the rest of the race. She had been giving me encouragement the entire race, but here she said just the right things for me to kick myself in the ass and get running again. I also came into contact with the coolness of Jimmy Dean Freeman, who I'd met for the first time at Badwater this year. He wasn't running, but showed up in the night in a really cool suit, which looked very out-of -place in Tent City, and was giving me lots of encouragement. Actually, I didn't recognize him at first, until after a couple of laps I saw his Badwater buckle, which just goes to show that a Badwater belt buckle goes with anything. In fact, Jimmy Dean and Dave James (who by that time had called it quits) told me that Mark had also quit, and Chris was struggling, so I could still get a top finish.
I hit 99.8 miles in about 17:30, quite a bit slower than I have done in the past, but still good enough for a good showing if I kept running the last 6 1/2 hours. I hadn't seen Nick in quite a while, but when I did see him he was running strong, so I didn't know if I'd be able to catch him or not. And there was another runner, Matthew Shaheen, who I didn't know, close behind me. I was also trying to do the math to see if I'd be able to get to 135 miles, necessary (along with a top 3 placement) for automatic qualification to the US team, and generally a milestone to aim for. But I would have to push for that 35 miles. So this was a critical moment in motivation vs. negative thoughts. Negative: there was still a part of me that just didn't want to run, although at least the desire to quit had left the building. Motivation for a top-three, 135-mile finish: 1. Automatic qualification to the team. (Although my 151 miles from last year's race would more than likely get me on the team, my pride wanted me to re-qualify with a different race this year.) 2. Prize money - not an insignificant issue, but not always at the top of the list when you're actually running. 3. A lot of people were very encouraging to me throughout the race, and I felt like I didn't want to let them down, not to mention my New York ultrarunning friends, my family, and all those who are so supportive.
So doing the math, 39 more laps, 150 total, would be needed for 135 miles, that's an average of 10 minutes per lap for the last 6 1/2 hours. It would be close, but now, finally, I was determined. My legs still felt good. The mental letdowns were in the past. In addition, I was only a couple of laps behind Nick, and I might still be able to take second. The last six hours went by fast. Weather-wise, there were a few drops of rain, the wind picked up from the east, but I still felt good and comfortable. I did eventually pass Nick in the last two hours, and he was very sportsmanlike in encouraging me. Rather than counting down the time, I had been counting down the laps to 150, converting that to miles, and relating that to my training courses. (Five more miles, that's my run out-and-back on the Harlem River Speedway.) I was actually a little disappointed that I was moving faster than I'd expected, because that meant I'd have to run more miles! Strange, how the mind acts up.
But I did finish with 139 miles, second place, which I was very pleased with, a spot on the team, some good prize money, and despite some mental letdowns I can hold my head high. Serge blew us all away with 156 miles. Nick was third with 136, and got his spot on the team! For the women, Connie had 141 miles in one of the best American women's performances ever. Anne was second and Anna was very happy with third. Deb got fourth with another solid performance, but it didn't get her an automatic spot on the team. I'll take this moment to mention what a great runner Deb is, an extremely solid and consistent runner who has never had a bad race that I've seen, a good friend, irreplaceable asset to the team - she has scored for the women's team every year since 2007. I look forward to running the 48-hour race with her at Across the Years. But we've had just the absolute best women running 24 hours here in the US lately. Getting on the team is now extremely competitive, and I know they'll do great things in Switzerland next year. We men will too, of course, but the women are just especially strong right now.
So like I said, this race was for me a lesson in negative thoughts. They brought me to the brink a few times, but I did learn from the experience, and hopefully I can keep them in the background, and keep the motivating factors in the foreground. But I owe a big thanks to so many people - too many to name here (I feel like an Oscar winner), but very special thanks to Frank Pellegrino and Annette Racaniello, Bonnie Busch, Jimmy Dean Freeman, Mike Henze, and Doctor Andy, Tyler, and the medical team. And of course to Dan Horvath and all the volunteers for the race for doing an incredible job again!

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